Two Steps Behind but So Much Closer
Romania, © 25.May.2002 gM
Photos of Romania
Introduction to Romania
Two Steps Behind but So Much Closer
Thieves & Scams: 0   kN/gM: 2
Although we only spent one week in one region of Romania, it was apparent throughout our stay that Romania always has been a part of Europe and that, after being deprived of the opportunity to participate for 50 years, will be a part of Europe again. These days, this means that Romania will be part of the European Union. Of course, it will take two generations, maybe just one, to repair the pothole-infested roads, to replace the old train carriages which seem to have been handed down from Western Europe to Hungary and then from Hungary to Romania, to upgrade the communications infrastructure, and to overhaul the education system for the needs of the 21st century. So far, Romania has been the country in which we could rely on English the least. It will also take time to modernize financial institutions, even though Western European banks are expanding quickly into Romania.

In the busy central pedestrian zone of Braşov, one of the ten biggest cities in Romania, there is one supermarket prominently displaying various credit card logos on its windows. Such rarity is quite telling considering the wide acceptance of credit cards in Turkey, and even in Egypt, credit cards can quite often be used. For us it is perfect timing, since it is our last day in Romania and we are running out of lei.

My question whether credit cards are accepted is met with unbelieving eyes, "No cash?". Only my insistence brings forward a reluctant "Yes". When I return with my purchases, the cashier gestures to wait, then moves several boxes of chewing gum until a dusty credit card machines appears at the bottom of the pile. Surprisingly, it is not one of the old manual ones but an automatic electronic one. By now, two other employees have brought a notebook from the back of the store, put it on the conveyer belt, and opened it to a page of handwritten notes - the instructions for the credit card machine. Everything runs according to plan until the cashier enters the wrong amount. The instructions do not cover this situation. While the employees stare helplessly at the credit card machine and read through the instructions yet another time in search for some missed clues, I take the credit card machine, hit the backspace key a couple of times, and key in the correct amount myself. Everyone is smiling now as the cashier presses the distinctive "send" button. Everyone, except maybe the people in the only other cashier's lineup, which keeps getting longer and longer. I am being told that I am the first customer ever to pay with credit card. When the credit card machine requests a PIN number from me, I begin to lose confidence in a successful transaction. As anticipated, the credit card machine never establishes a connection with the central server, and kN and I are once again looking for a shop where we can buy the few things we need without cash.

We find what we are searching for at a three-story department store. We, however, cannot pay for our purchases at the actual store but have to take them, accompanied by an employee, to the administrative part of the building, where the one and only credit card machine sits on a desk in one woman's office. All our purchases from different departments are processed in one transaction. The credit card machine again requests a PIN and does not complete the transaction, but the woman, not being surprised at all, just ignores the machine and phones the credit card company to get the authorization number.

Rainy view of Bergkirche
Rainy view of Bergkirche, Sighişoara / © gM
Piata Hermann Oberth in the rain
Piaţa Hermann Oberth in the rain, Sighişoara / © gM
Romania may be even behind Turkey or Egypt in terms of economy and infrastructure, but the cultural distance to Western Europe is so much less. Whether it is the medieval city of Sighişoara with its walls, gates, and cobblestone streets, or the accountant's sheets in 17th century German found in the ruins of Râşnov Castle, or typical food served in restaurants, Romania's European roots are undeniably evident. Wiener schnitzel, fried breaded cheese, cabbage rolls, sausages, great pastries and cakes, cream filled and deep fried dough dumplings from the gogoşerie, crunchy, salty, and poppy pretzels from the covrigerie, and even the Braşov specialty - a mix of speck, chicken, beef, and cubed fried potatoes in an oily, spicy sauce - are reminiscent of Austrian, German, or Hungarian cuisine. One detail, however, is truely unique: nowhere else have I ever seen weight indicated on a menu (cordon bleu ... 100/40/40/150 ... 80000 lei - which means 100g pork, 40g ham, 40g cheese, and 150g potatoes).

Sculpture in the garden
Sculpture in the garden
Sculptures (I, II) in the garden of Peleş Castle / © gM
Interacting with people in a mid-sized Romanian city, one may get the impression that Romania consists of two groups of people. The first reminds travelers constantly to be vigilant with their valuables and backpacks because of thieves, and the second is the thieves and scam artists themselves. It is not uncommon to be spat at by beggars, mostly women with small children, if some change is not handed over quickly. These consequences of a crippled economy will vanish once Romania's living standard improves. Then, some may say that Romania will have lost some of its charm and some may say that traveling in Romania will be much more enjoyable. In any case, Romania's treasures will be there to be admired. For example, the exquisite interior of Peleş Castle makes it one of the best castles in Europe to visit: teak furniture said to be carved by three generations of Indian craftsmen, huge mirrors brought to Sinaia from Venice by boat and ox, hundreds of little alabaster statues and carved wooden figures, chandeliers, fine silk carpets from Iran, stained glass windows from Switzerland, ebony furniture and marble tables with inlaid precious stones, a library with a secret door, and an impressively displayed weapons collection. King Carol I lived there, as did Ceauşescu, who re-privatized the castle which was made publicly accessible after the death of the last king. The days of monarchy and dictatorship, however, are gone now as Romania looks towards the 21st century and the European Union.

Introduction to Romania  /  Two Steps Behind but So Much Closer  /  Thieves & Scams: 0   kN/gM: 2