Romania: Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class

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15 Nov 2001

A spare half hour or so, so I am writing again sooner than expected.

So I now find out I've been spelling the boss's name wrong (not my boss, RDC's boss). It's "Ionescu", not "Enescu". In Romanian, these are pronounced very similarly, because an initial "e" is a "ye", rather like in Russian but with a less clean vowel, almost a schwa, rather close the an inital "io".

Besides this business, Domnul (that's like "Mister", a title of respect, [and is usually abbreviated to "D-ul"]) Ionescu is the President of the European aikido association, a 6-dan black belt. Last night he gave an exhibition, which I attended. He is on the level where he seems to be strolling casual and relaxed around the mat while people attack him freestyle, including armed or from behind and with little apparent effort on his part, suddenly they are flying through the air. Impressive to watch. Several of the people who work here are among his current or former aikido students; two (one male, one female) are black belts who participated last night. Paul spent a lot of time in the air and on the mat.

Someone was asking me about interesting local intoxicants. I'm not sure about any that are specific to Wallachia, but Transylvania has a doubly distilled plum beverage called "palinca" that is popular here as well. It burns on the way down, but it's rather tasty. I gather that it is generally homemade, since it always seems to come out of a vodka bottle, not a bottle with the name of the beverage itself.

Bulandra Studio Theatre

Another question was about classical music here. Let me expand that to cover the high arts generally, and shade off into the economy. The infrastructure for performances is already in place. Certainly no one is building new theaters in Bucharest (although they are refurbishing a few) but there is also no real estate pressure to get rid of the old ones. Wages are low all around and ticket prices are calibrated accordingly. Neither theater staff, audience, nor performers make much money, but since that is the same all around the economics are OK. A ticket that works out to about US$1 might be an hour's income -- or even several hours income -- for an audience member, but reciprocally it is several hours income for a performer, usher, etc. Not sure who owns the theater/concert hall buildings (at least some are still owned by the government).

Ah, yes, ownership of property. After the '89 revolution, everyone here was given the chance to own their residence, sold to them for 20 years rent. They could pay over time. Because inflation has been so severe, within the last few years any remaining balances are little more than pocket change, even by Romanian standards. If you hadn't yet bothered paying off your balance to get clear title, you could probably do so now for about US$10. Hence, this is a nation of (poor) homeowners. The many apartment buildings in the center of the city here are effectively condominums with very tiny maintenance funds. Hence most have no exterior paint over their concrete walls, but I'm told that a lot of them are pretty OK on the inside. [Later confirmed.] Any repairs that are mainly labor are proportionately cheap, but materials not of local manufacture can be prohibitive. Like in Cuba, people are very good at patching.

All of this has to be taken into account when you hear that the annual per capita GNP is only in the range of US$1-2000. People are poor, but they are not in the desperation a similar number would mean in the West. Most pay no rent; those who do rent might be paying US$100/month for an apartment. (Hotel rooms, on the other hand, are scarce, and prices are comparable to northern Italy.) Food is also remarkably cheap: Even here in the middle of town, a good restaurant meal could be had for US$2, and there would be no trouble getting a day's groceries for US$1. You wouldn't be eating bananas; you'd be eating whatever is local and in season. For example, right now an outdoor market near my office is very full of apples; various varieties of apple probably constitute half the available produce right now.

To take it from another angle: the number of street beggars here is about the same as an American city. The number of street hustlers and prostitutes is a lot higher. The number of street drug dealers is a lot lower.

Pe curind.

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Originally written: November 15, 2001

Last modified: 23 February 2021

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