Letters from Romania - Joe Mabel

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Bucharest, Romania 2001-2002, 2006

For those of you who want practical information on visiting Bucharest, I did my best to oblige back in 2002, but the city has changed enormously since then, and except for things like museums and perhaps theaters, this is mostly of historical interest. Oh, and Cristaxi is still very, very reliable.

Beyond that, here's a series of short pieces, basically letters home written while working in Bucharest, Romania in 2001-2002. In publishing them here on my web site, I've tried to leave them largely intact, but I have inevitably made some editorial changes. Emails are simply not suitable for publication without a bit of editing.

Any significant after-the-fact additions are indicated by square brackets, but I have made no effort to indicate where I made any other sorts of edits.

[November 2003: The Romanian language contains some unusual letters. At the time I wrote these letters and first created this site, I was largely unaware of how to reproduce these on the web. I have now discovered how to do this, but some browsers and operating systems may have trouble with these characters. Consequently, many Romanian words on this site will be written with both a correct spelling and, parenthetically, a spelling that should render on all browsers but substitutes "s" for "ş", "t" for "ţ", "i" for "î", and "a" for both "â" and "ă", e.g. "Bucureşti (Bucuresti)." or "înca (inca)."]


Settling in at RDC
Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class
Of Palaces and Whores
This One's for Larry
The Best and Worst of Bucharest
Dinner Chez Dracula, Blood Afterwards
Jewish Geography and Stark Sculpture
Breughels on the Hoof
Best and Worst, Redux
Winter, Luggage, Q&A
Exile in Delfinului
Atheneul, Alcohol, Newsies
Bright Lights Big City
Second Hand American Dreams
It's a Jungle Out There
Darkest Obor
Chickens Nest and So Do I
Seeing in the Spring With Zdob & Zdub
With a Song in My Heart and a Hole in My Pants
Culture, Some Cyber-, Some Jewish
A Polish Siegfried in Saragossa and a Bare Ballerina in Bucharest
Maia Maia: Lola Lola
Music for Marble Palaces, Dark Churches, and Open Manholes
An Ab Fab Don Giovanni
A Funny Thing Happened...
Am I a Famous Expat Yet?
Jess's Journey
Power Pop Time Warp
Middle Class Dilemma
French Invasion
Easter Everywhere
A Rootless Cosmopolitan visits Transylvania
Hermeneutics (or was that Hermetics?)
(Fail to) Earn Money Reading Email
A slight return
Money and Madness
Drumul Tabarei through the back door
The Singer of his own Mishegas
"Vertiginous, absolute, and merciless"? Not really.
A slighter return

Some drawings of Bucharest friends and acquaintances

Settling in at RDC

14 Nov 01

For any who don't know my [November 2001] situation, I am [was] employed on contract by Active Voice LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of NEC 🔗, to work for a few months at NEC affiliate RDC (Romanian development Center, technically part of Unidec) in Bucharest, Romania. [As of 2019, Active Voice LLC, Unidec, & RDC are long gone. NEC lives on, and I still have connections to AVLLC & Unidec/RDC "alumni".]

Hotel Capitol, 2006

I am currently staying at the Hotel Capitol external link, a little over 100 years old and certainly has seen better days. Shabby, but functional and basically clean, quite in line with most of Bucharest that way. [Also quite in line with much of the rest of Bucharest, a few months after I wrote this a renovation got under way.] They [RDC management] want to move me to somewhere "nicer". I'm not sure I want to move, because in my experience "nice" hotels often aren't the more functional: a good bed is a lot more important to me than whether the wallpaper is peeling.

As it is, I have a firm (if narrow) bed, a TV (no cable, so it's mostly snow, but I get the Romanian government network plus an English-language cartoon channel, plus an occasional other signal (typically in Italian) [later I found out how to get a lot more signals], a functional shower (unlike the last 2 months in London, where I was on a baths-only regime), a refrigerator, something like a view from the window (overlooking a closed-for-the-season cafe/terazza in front of the Cercul Militar).

I have about a 12-minute walk to the office. So far the weather is mild (one day actually got up to about 15 Centigrade, unseasonably warm), so this seems short.

The office is probably one of the most modern places in Bucharest. We share a building with the National Union of Filmmakers. The office of Unidec/RDC founder Dan Ionescu was the office of one of Romania's recent Prime Ministers; the staff are in open space facilities that would be par for the course in New York, although the very underpowered Internet connect would be a joke by US standards: I have more bandwidth in my home, and I don't have DSL.

The people here seem very talented and very nice. The only one who doesn't have good English [or at least chooses not to speak English; I think he understands fine] is Domnul Ionescu himself; insofar as he and I need to talk, we have been using a mix of French (his is excellent, mine is poor) and English (vice versa). Otherwise, mostly English, although I'm doing my damnedest to learn some Romanian. It's a Romance language, so my Spanish gives me a leg up. I've probably got only a few hundred specifically Romanian words, but I've learned enough about the consonant shifts to identify most core Latin vocabulary when I hear it and to make a fair guess what a Romanian word might be when my English isn't understood.

The city is very poor, and I'm told that the rest of the country is far poorer. A lot of buildings (even in the center of town) are basically Communist-era concrete bunkers, although there are some very fine older buildings -- and a few new ones -- scattered among them. Many stray dogs (surprisingly well behaved and well fed). A lot of street hustlers, a lot of prostitution, though I am told very few drugs and very little violence. Active Voice CEO Victor Foia (who is originally from Transylvania and who is over here along with me) was successfully ripped off by some con artists posing as plainclothes police. Either the same con men or others had tried to same bit on me a day earlier, but I apparently handled them better: when they asked for to see my wallet, I suggested that we go over to the Hilton (which was quite nearby) or to police HQ and I would be glad to show it to them there. They split.

2006, rebuilt for the Uniunea Arhitectilor din România The burned out Direcția V Securitate HQ

On my first day here, as Sasha (the RDC Director) showed me around the city, he seemed roughly equally proud of the beautifully restored Ateneul Roman symphony hall and the utterly burned out bombed out former Securitate headquarters. Failure to restore the latter after the Revolution seems a major point of pride. [Addendum April 2009: Apparently it is strictly an urban legend that this builing was the overall Securitate HQ; it was just HQ for Direcția V. Some of the Securitate were undoubtedly holed up there during the fighting, and the crowd certainly believed them to be in there. In any case, in 2001 it was a bombed out building right in the heart of the city that functioned as a reminder that not so long ago a battle was fought there. Today, it has been radically reworked into the HQ of the Union of Architects.]

RDC's workforce is overwhelmingly male: only 4 female developers out of about 30 [Addendum April 2002: they've been hiring more women and have been aggressively placing them in lead roles. They seem to be trying to do what they can about the imbalance], plus one female secretary/receptionist. Median age is probably just under 30, comparable to Saltmine in Seattle when I first joined them in 1997.

Five of the developers here also work as faculty at the nearby and reputedly excellent Polytechnic University 🔗. NEC and Unidec encourage this: very good for all concerned. The University doesn't suffer a brain drain to private industry; Unidec/RDC gets access to the cream of new graduates; the employees don't have to give up the potential of an academic career. (A sixth employee/professor recently left for a tenure-track appointment in Finland.)

There is inevitably some element of exploitation in any relationship where a multinational is employing people in what is essentially a third-world economy. However, it seems to be far better than one might expect. Obviously, the salaries here do not rival those of their peers in the US or Japan; conversely, my read is that these people, mostly in their twenties are making incomes that in this economy allow lifestyles comparable to what I had when I was in my twenties, certainly better off than I was before going into computers.

Also, an NEC exec who should probably remain nameless is among the contingent here this week [Nov 14], and there was a frank and open discussion about product strategy, in which the entire Unidec/RDC team were present, and in which several participated actively. Wish I could say more, but non-disclosure prevents me. Suffice it to say, I was generally impressed, and was most impressed by the intelligence and ambition displayed by some of the Romanian contingent.

As I remarked, Bucharest is a poor city, but it's very much a cosmoplitan European capital. Even in a grocery store well out of the center, there was a clerk with fluent English. The classical arts here are certainly on a scale well beyond that of Seattle, and the access to world cinema is only a notch below Seattle, probably better than any but a dozen US cities.

Restaurant food is probably beyond the budget of 90% of the locals, but many of the restaurants that exist seem to be genuinely good and range from Chinese (both serious and fast-food) to Tex Mex (no joke, haven't tried it but the menu looked duly ambitious) to Italian (pizza is pervasive) to generic fast food (McDonalds, Pizza Hut) to Greek and Turkish and both upmarket and downmarket Romanian. I had been told I'd have a problem here as a quasi-vegetarian. A vegan might have some difficulty [Addendum April 2002: but not once they know their way around. Ask for "produse de post"], but there is a lot of cheese-centered food available, fish is relatively easy to find [although rarely brilliantly prepared], and you can always do the basic Middle Eastern cold appetizers.

In answer to the few questions I've already been asked:

La revedere,

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All materials copyright © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2006 Joseph L. Mabel
All rights reserved.

"Copyleft": With appropriate notification and appropriate credit, non-commercial reproduction is welcome: contact me if you have any desire to reproduce these materials in whole or in part.

Originally written: November 14, 2001

Last modified: 23 February 2021

My e-mail address is jmabel@joemabel.com. Normally, I check this at least every 48 hours, more often during the working week.