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Money and Madness

6 May 2006

Some things go well, some go weirdly. Let's start with weirdly.

The CEC building (not the branch by my apartment)

Most of the weirdness has involved money. You will remember from my previous note (or you won't remember, which is why I'm rehashing) that my first attempt at withdrawing cash (at CEC) didn't work, but I went over to BCR (Commercial Bank of Romania) and did fine. Now BCR doesn't like my bankcard either. Fortunately, I have some US cash with me and was able to change $100. Unfortunately, given that few places in Bucharest take credit cards (my credit card is separate from my bankcard; no idea yet if it will also involve a hassle), I don't have nearly the cash (dollars, euros) for two weeks, especially not if I'd like to eat in restaurants, go to theater and museums, and (beyond that) buy some art, all of which was part of the plan. No chance I'm sorting this out this weekend, though. We'll see what happens when I try the credit card somewhere.

OK, so that's weird and potentially bad. On the just plain weird front, but still money-related, the people who are renting me the apartment seem remarkably unconcerned about receiving payment. They've told me in a vague sort of way that we can handle it "by credit card or bank transfer or something" before I leave. Given that they haven't even seen ID from me, that's a remarkable level of trust. Of course, they don't know the problems I'm having with my bankcard.

Despite all that, in a sort of act of faith in the money gods, I followed through with my plan of taking pictures at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, one of Bucharest's best museums and possibly the best of its type anywhere. Entry is only about US$2, but a pass to take photos is just short of US$25, an amount that could keep me in bread, bottled water, fruit, and vegetables for the better part of a week. Oh, and vegetable pates, which are excellent here and cheap. And maybe some cheese?

Oh, yeah, back to the museum, this isn't a letter to my banker or my grocer. In addition to the many exhibits I saw four years ago (an old windmill, a beautiful collection of textiles and garments, more pottery than anyone could really take in, around 100 icons, though, sadly, my favorite from last time is no longer on display, wooden crosses, not to mention metal crosses and cloth-covered crosses, dozens of wooden chairs, the remnant of an old wooden church whose contents include a depiction of Moses - with horns, etc., etc., all beautifully displayed), there is now a new (or, more properly, restored) exhibit, "The House in the House", a three-room (plus attic and porch) house that once belonged to a peasant name Antonie Mogoş.

Apparently, in the second quarter of the 20th century, Casa Mogoş had become a famous (and famously unconventional) museum exhibit, a house displayed with much of its content (but with that content not necessarily naturalistically placed), and with outbuildings suggested by appropriately position fragments rather than fully represented. In the Communist era it was moved to the Village Museum in Herestrău Park, where it was display more conventionally, a house among other houses. Only in 2002 was it returned to something like its former, more dialectical mode of exhibition.

The present display of the house has partly opened one end of the attic, and provides a staircase to a platform where you can look in at an odd assortmenr of objects, suggesting rather than representing (which have I heard that phrase before?) the contents of an attic.

Afterwards, I went to the museum store, with the intent of buying some painted eggs as souvenirs. In one of the many signs of a stronger national economy, these now sell for about US$2.25-5.00 each, instead of less than US$1 in 2002. I hope the artisans who paint them see a fair share of that. Until my money crunch, I had been planning to buy around 50 of these; I settled for a dozen, hoping that I will have a chance to get back there after I sort things out.

Work goes well. Cristina and Bogdan (one of four Bogdans who works here, three of them on this team. "Mind if we call you Bruce?") and I seem to be on the same wavelength about the biggest near-term deliverable I came over here to work on. I see smooth sailing on that front. Always nice to work with engineers who have good questions, concrete suggestions, and the confidence to "negotiate" the spec. Just the work we've already done so far pretty nearly justifies the trip.

Sasha, Unidec's director, with whom I spent a lot of time in 2001-2002, and who went through a bout of cancer shortly after that, is looking great, every inch a man of the New Europe, hip but by no means a Dieter, and is now (possibly even as I write) driving around Bucharest in his new red Alfa Romeo.

Speaking of driving around Bucharest: I want to know what they use for a driving test here. Grand Theft Auto? (Well, D-ul Băsescu, your homicidal tendencies seem rather moderate, so we can only give you a provisional permit, but if you haven't had an accident in six months we may have to revoke it. And don't even think about driving a taxi until you get a few kills under your belt.)

Really, though, it's only about one driver in ten who appears homicidally insane. The rest show only one sign of insanity: they are trying to operate an automobile in Bucharest.

Eugen, who picked me up at the airport and gave me a lift to the office the first day, tells me that it is worse in Cairo. I am fully ready to believe that there is a place on earth where the drivers are crazier than here. Heck, I'm sure there are three or four such places. It's a big planet.

I spent a pleasant evening on Friday with (ex-colleague) Dorin, in the course of which we (well, he) drove around much of Bucharest. We went by his family's current, rather small apartment (think Manhattan, though with an un-Manhattanishly large kitchen) in Dristor (semi-near the Bucharest Mall, for those who have some Bucharest geography), where his mother conjured us a very tasty dinner and seemed utterly unphased by my lack of carnivorousness. Then we headed out to see the new house they are building northeast of town.

By the standards of the neighborhood where they are building, the house is relatively modest: no turrets or crenellations, only one bathroom per intended occupant, probably even possible to heat it without having the resources of a Persian Gulf emirate at your personal disposal. Not all of the houses in the neighborhood meet these criteria.

As Dorin pointed out, the contrast between public and private can be dramatic: the dream houses, mansions, and outright follies, each behind a solid, high fence, lie along dirt roads so rutted and ridged that they are barely passable, and apparently there is no legal mechanism by which the owners can join together to pay to improve the roads.

At the last Romanian presidential election, Dorin's preferred candidate mustered 1.9% of the vote. He was not pleased. However, he tells me that lately he's been at least moderately impressed with the government of Traian Băsescu, and this despite the fact that his own garage, which (unlike most of his neighbors') had all the right permits and papers, was knocked down because it infringed on public land. Still, for the first time since '89, potholes are being filled faster than they are forming, and he was downright amazed to see a children's playground appear in his Dristor neighborhood.

The word on the present government seems to be that they may not be cracking down too effectively on corruption, but at least (unlike every government in living memory) the corruption doesn't begin at the top. The prosecution of former prime minister Adrian Năstase (admittedly, not from the party now in power) for a shady real estate deal seems to smack less of partisan politics than of a message as to what is just not acceptable. I'm not convinced that everything here will be entirely lined up of the intendeded accession to the EU on January 1, 2007, but it looks a lot more likely than it did in 2002, and it's hard to imagine anything worse than a slight delay.

The growth in four years of a solid middle class (and an upper middle class) is palpable. There are far more nice cars on the (potholed) streets, far more people well dressed (and, especially, far more people casually well dressed); except for the still very visible Asian businessmen, you can no longer easily spot the foreigner (OK, you can spot me, because my fair hair is almost as un-Romanian as if I were Japanese, and I'm a bit overweight which is very uncommon here). The people here now look more "European" (in the EU sense) than four years ago: any differences of style are more like those typical among European countries: you can tell a crowd of Madrilenos from a crowd of Parisians, too. Oh, by the way, lip piercings that apparently now found their way into Romanian youth culture, but unlike Seattle, you won't see one on a banker or a government official.

And some things here are just wonderful. This evening, after a day of walking and museum-going, I went to the Sala Izvor of Teatrul Bulandra to see a much-praise production of Pirandello's "Henry IV". I had been told (incorrectly, so I won't say by whom) that it would not be sold out. When the ticket-booth woman saw that I was genuinely disappointed, she offered to sell me a standing-room ticket for the price of the cheapest seat, 8 New Lei, about US$3. (Yes, theater is still an amazing bargain here. The program, which I picked up at intermission, actually cost slightly more than the ticket. It's a beauty, on thick glossy paper with about a dozen full-page color photos.)

Then the coat check lady, after apologizing that she couldn't check my backpack, when she found out that all I had was a standing-room ticket said "just a moment", ducked behind the coat racks, reappeared, and handed over the counter a wooden chair, telling me that if I couldn't see anywhere to put it I should ask the usher. Where to put it was prety obvious: tow of the rows where a bit short, so I could stick it at the end of a row and only stick out about three inches into the aisle. (Of course, I was angled forward with the floor rake, but it beat hell out of standing. Or missing the show entirely.)

The performance was good, but I'm afraid I couldn't follow as much of

the dialogue as I hoped and expected, and it's probably over 25 years since I had read the play in English translation. The title role was played by Marcel Iures , which you can take as something like the Romanian equivalent of "the title role was played by Laurence Olivier," which is quite good for a character who is supposed to dominate every scene he is in; I'd be interested to see if (unlike Olivier) he can hold back when that's what the role demands.

Oh, that "New Lei" thing. Really confusing: right now, there are two currencies here, differing by a factor of 10,000 and, to make it more complicated, before the introduction of the New Lei or "RON" (that's singular, and unlike the old one the singular is useful) the informal custom was to use a unit of 1,000 (old) lei ("ROL"). So, someone is liable to quote a price as "120", meaning 120,000 ROL / 12 RON. And then some prices are quoted in Euros and others in dollars, as well. Add a somewhat unfamiliar language and it is really confusing, especially because pretty much everyone in Romania has a mix of ROL and RON in their wallet right now (and quite a few have dollars or euros as well, especially as denominations for their bank accounts). Oh, and just for giggles, the new banknotes look a lot like the old ones except that (following the euro) they are different sizes for different denominations, so a 1 RON note is a different size from the 10,000 ROL note it replaces. Don't try this at home.

7 May 2006

Far less to narrate about Sunday (and even less for Monday). I spent several pleasant hours over coffee with a woman from here who had originally written to me three years ago through my website, and with whom I've had a long correspondence about politics and about life in general. A former journalist who now organizes and publicizes charity events sponsored by the Romanian post office, she said she will doubtless be happiest if I leave her nameless and provide no further details.

I then spent most of the afternoon and evening with Dorin, his girlfriend Ana, and an architect friend of his named Emilian. They decided to show me some aspects of Bucharest they figured I'd never seen, most of which turned out to be aspects of Bucharest I'd, indeed, never seen.

Since it was raining part of the afternoon, we went to shoot pool at IDM Regie, apparently Bucharest's leading leisure center. A converted communist-era warehouse, it is unprepossessing on the outside, but luxurious on the inside. We certainly have nothing like it in Seattle. Indeed, I've never seen anything quite like it. A roughly 20-lane bowling alley, 32 pool tables and (I think) 4 massive snooker tables, a few bars, a health club including a (members-only) swimming pool, and I'm not sure what else because we entered in the middle and only headed left.

Apparently, when it comes to playing pool, everyone here plays only 8-Ball ("Stripes and Solids") although I gather that Straight Pool is also known. I made my cultural contribution by teaching them 9-Ball.

In a starkly contrasting next activity, we headed at Emilian's suggestion to Belu Cemetery, where rich and famous Romanians go when they die. It reminded me of Pere Lechaise in Paris, although (on the one hand) a little more chaotic in its layout and (on the other) in better repair and with a somewhat broaded variety of gravestones and mausolea. As Dorin remarked, the most opulent, even excessive of these monuments tend to be for wealthy people who do not have the kind of fame that would ever lead someone outside their family to erect them a monument. One of the most excessive mausolea had, written over its entrance, "Sic transit gloria mundi." Obviously, whoever built it didn't quite believe it.

We wandered one of the older neighborhoods (which actually I had seen before, but where quite a few houses have been fixed up in the past four years; it is now an interesting mix, but obviously gentrifying). Emilian showed me around the Filaret bus station, which I had walked by in the past but never entered. It turns out that it is "secretly" Romania's oldest train station, mostly intact, repurposed. It stands outside the center on higher ground, south of the river valley where the heart of the city is located: apparently, in 1869 it would have been a major feat to get the trains down the steep slope into town.

Having had a pastry earlier in the day, I passed on ice cream at McDonalds (McD's remains insanely popular here) but joined Dorin and Emilian for dinner at an Italian restaurant, Il Calcio, where I had a quite creditable pasta al pesto and they each had tortellini al forno.

8 May 2006

Back at work, which continues to go well. One interesting glitch though: for some sort of supposedly security-based reason, I couldn't access the Seattle system in the middle of the night, which happens to be the middle of the workday here. We sorted that one out, I now have a "24-hour account".

Bank card problem solved! It took a 20-minute phone call to the US. The first person who "helped" me said I would have to go to my bank branch to solve this, but when I reminded her that was 8,000 miles away, I was able to get escalated to a supervisor, who, after I gave my social security number, home address, account number, last four digits of the card, approximate bank balance, source and approximate amount of my last major deposit, and the two full names I could remember from the staff of my branch, believed that I was clearly not just some guy who's stolen the card, which they had shut off after uselessly calling my (Seattle) home to tell my answering machine that there was a problem.

At lunchtime, with cash in hand, I got hold of some recent and semi-recent CDs by some bands I like here.

Now, if I can only work out how to get laundry done... well, I bit the bullet, and I'm going to pay an absurd US$6/kilo or so for a service that does have the added benefit that they will pick up and deliver from my office. [11 May 2006: And, as it turned out, the added detriment that they lost one item of laundry].

Oh, and then there is paying for the apartment. Apparently, they do not take credit cards (odd in the business they are in, even here) so it particularly amazes me how blithe they were about the matter. We are devising a plan, which will probably involve some sort of electronic bank transfer. (Joe, Joe, this is not a letter to your banker, enough about the dull practicalities of money.)

One more side remark on clothes: you still do see a few peasants in traditional dress who have come into town. One such couple was on my bus to work this morning, as was a woman begging in a style that would have seems quaint to Charles Dickens: she had a partly sung, partly declaimed lament about the troubles that had brought her to this pass, probably about five minutes long in all, entirely in rhymed couplets. I gave her money, as did quite a few other passengers.

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Originally written: 8 May 2006
Last modified: 1 June 2006

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