Foreign impressions of Bucharest

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.

9 Responses to Foreign impressions of Bucharest

  1. Caroline says:

    Don’t forget sagging scaffolding, trash everywhere and dilapidated housing with huge banner advertising obscuring the windows while people are living in it.

    Bucharest really is a mess.

  2. Thanks for the comment Caroline. There is so much wrong with Bucharest that it is hard to know where to start in terms of criticism (let alone fixing it). Ciao, Rupert

  3. Caroline says:

    Appreciate your response. Have not been to Lipscani in awhile. How is the restoration going? Any progress? It didn’t look too promising on my last visit.

  4. Progress in Lipscani (Bucharest old town) has been surprisingly good; there are now several streets with nice stone paving and no cars. This is despite the deplorable way in which the city hall has handled this job. Despite what I write, there are a lot of good things happening here. They are just hard to find

  5. Ghes hu says:

    Despite all these horrors that will keep a visitor locked in a hotel room, some foreigners choose to actually live here. Isn’t that ironic?

    It looks like for some the opportunities outnumber the disadvantages. The pursuit of happiness and a fat paycheck on the expense of the fatalist, cynic and complacent Romanian tax payers keep the expats “blind” to the mess on the side.

    So, Caroline and Rupert, what have YOU actually done for this city and where do YOU park your car?

    Bucharest is a hideous mess but what makes me really sick is more people just complaining

  6. Caroline says:

    I take it you’re Romanian, Ghes hu. Your defensive and finger-pointing response is typical, as is your assumption that all foreigners are rich, bloodsucking opportunists. If you’re been to any major European city you will see that it leaves Bucharest in the dust.

    Foreigners in Romania actually do a great to help Romanians. Charity and child care are two significant areas. It’s the Romanians who seem to have the motivation problem.

  7. Luca says:

    I found the article quite interesting but maybe a little too critical. I am Italian and I spent 6 months working in Bucharest; in addition I have been visiting this city very frequently for more than a year so I can say that I know it a little… I remember my first time in Bucharest: we were in the middle of the summer so it was boiling and quite sultry. I took a little tour from Baneasa Airport and as far I approached the city centre I realised that Bucharest has the aspect of a modern European capital – an impression which was confirmed during my 6-month stay there. I must confess that I’m not a fan of big cities and from this point of view Bucharest is just like Napoli, Milano or Roma: crowded, polluted, dirty and chaotic. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed living in Bucureşti and despite having experienced the problems that the article points out, I observed a lot of positive things. The metro works very well in my opinion and it covers almost every area of the city; maybe the buses are not enough as they are always packed with commuters and students but, if you prefer, you can take one of the several taxis which are wherever you are and are incredibly cheap compared to other big cities. What’s more, Bucharest is really lively and no matter what I looked for, I never got disappointed. As for the people, it was very astonishing for me discovering that people from Bucharest are – from some points of view at least – quite alike Napoli’s citizens and this for better or for worse: very warm and friendly with foreigners and guests but incredibly impolite and foul-mouthed when they are driving their cars or worse they are stuck in a traffic jam (I became very soon familiar to some nice expressions that I can repeat in this occasion…). Another thing which really struck and still strikes me it is how much advertising you come across when you walk around the city centre: Piaţa Uniri, for example, can be really hypnotic and exhausting if you pay attention to all the enormous outdoors placed in every corner and on every building. It seems that your eyes have no hope if they would like to look at something else but ads! Well, just to conclude as I have been too long maybe, I reckon that Bucharest is a crazy and contradictory place; probably just because of that, it is a city full of charm and life.

  8. Yomyman says:

    Rupert Wolfe,

    You are to a great extent right, man – Bucharest is intensely balcanic and an Indian once told me, as we discussed and exchanged opinions, as students and beer partners in Bielefeld, Germany that he thinks Romania is more like India than Germany. You are quite right man, I said, if you were honest (I thought). I guess he was.
    Bucharest and not only is dusty, prone sometimes to extreme climate, marked by really stupid trafic (like the respective people – almost the same with Constantza, do not bark at me, Bucharestians), by many people crowding themselves like cows or stoned sheep, by virtually no, no, nooo parking lot (this being, after me, the least disturbing).
    Anyhow, do no worry, you won`t get into conflicts or quarrels or under-the-belt hits because we only attack each other, like hienas. Hmhm, joking :))
    If somebody thinks you ask silly questions and laughs, ask him: Why do you laugh? Have you seen yourself in the mirror? or Better than laugh, put your mouth in a better place.
    Outskirt markets are full of handicapped suburban peasants, do not give a shit about their inviting you to buy (their 50% bad stuff).
    Anyhow, Romania is a country with many places worth seeing, so is Bucharest and the city`s cultural life is really impressive, either if you like theatre, ballet, symphonic music, movies, art museums and galleries or jazz music (there are 3 or 4 jazz clubs in Bucharest, in the centre), rock music etc. Not to forget, as they are worth a visit, the many food fairs (made in the countryside), book fairs etc.
    Pay attention, please: there are no (legal) bitches in Romania, so we have no brothel. We have much human refuse, people selling themselves for 10 Euros (or dollars), demagogous etc., but no chick crib. Because we are tooo religious for this.
    Nice talking to you!

  9. Nomyman says:

    Well, my man, I see you erased my comment. I really bear no scorn and I consider it`s your own choice. A Balcanic shithead would have behaved other than me, 90% of cases. In case the truth in my words bothered you, because this is what i`ve seen I take no responsibility for this. Ands, even if you`ll also erase this comment, I`m sure you will kepp it in mind, volens-nolens.
    Have a nice day, hope you wish me the same.

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