A foreign visitor in Bucharest would be forgiven for assuming he had landed in the Middle East rather than a capital city of the European Union. Bucharest has more in common with Cairo than it does with Brussels, Rome or London.
The first thing the visitor will notice is the traffic jam from the airport, as well as the overwhelming outdoor advertising banners in Otopeni – a form of advertising which is very strictly controlled (and not very visible) in most European cities. If he enquires about train or metro links from the airport he will hear some cynical, rude and perhaps amusing replies.
Our visitor may be impressed by the fact that his taxi driver speaks foreign languages – many do – but if he asks about Bucharest’s infrastructure he will soon realise that there are no real plans, just ad-hoc projects like the Baneasa bridges, which cost fortunes but don’t resolve anything.
If our friend has been to Cairo he will realise that the traffic situation in that country is similar to Bucharest’s. He might also assume that Romania’s politicians are unable to lay aside personal and clan interests and that they fail to understand the basic concepts of “the public interest” (a very European concept).
Further conversation will reveal Romanians’ somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards their leaders. On the one hand they distrust and despise them, as is common in the west, but there is a more oriental practise at work in Romania where the leader’s word is law, they are considered untouchable, above the law, as if appointed by God. This practise is sustained by Romanian’s fatalism, cynicism and complacency.
Our visitor may check into one of the cities fine five star hotels. He may choose to spend all his time in the hotel as the climate is controlled, the staff are polite, the service is good, the atmosphere is calm – in other words, the exact opposite of what he will find outside.
One of the first things he will notice if he steps outside is that the city’s generous public spaces have been occupied – primarily by cars and kiosks – and that there is no sense that public spaces should be reserved for citizens. If he is staying at the Hilton he might notice that the huge public space in front of the hotel is taken up by grotesque adverts (cars on stands) and a carpark, and going for a walk is dangerous because the pavements are full of cars and he must walk on the road.
If he wanders down to Piata Romana he may be surprised to find that the pavements are occupied by small traders and that space for pedestrians is greatly reduced, resulting in oriental style crowding. He may wonder why Romanians feel the need for a constant press of bodies.
If he is staying at the Intercontinental he may go into the Universitate Metro Station. He will not fail to notice the overpowering stink of bad cooking oil and he might see that McDonalds have occupied almost all of the public space in what should be Bucharest’s showpiece Metro station.
Most visitors are advised to pay a visit to Herestrau Park, and if our visitor goes there let’s hope it’s not when the park has been transformed into a commercial park or pop concert location. Several times a year the park becomes a venue for car shows, displays of engineering and gardening equipment, and every weekend scores of illegal traders can be seen taking advantage of the crowds.
Our visitor might be tempted to blame McDonalds, or the hapless kiosk owners, for this abuse of public space, but this would be wrong. These commercial enterprises are doing what business does everywhere – pushing out the limits. It is the responsibility of local councils to define and defend their public spaces – and for citizens to hold them accountable for this.
This article was translated into Romanian by Maria Farcas and published in Dilemma Veche. It was also published in Vivid magazine in Bucharest.