Travelling through Kitsch

botosani smecheriIn Romania, as in every country, there are stereotypes about which places are worth visiting. If I tell people I am from Scotland many say they would love to visit Edinburgh but it is rare you hear people saying they want to see Glasgow, which is a more interesting city in many ways. When I travelled round India (20 years ago) everyone said I should avoid Calcutta (now Kalkota) as it is just a vast sprawling slum full of insolent Bengalis. But I found it to be the most compelling place in India.

In Romania they say you should visit Brasov and the fancy cities of Transylvania but avoid Moldova and the eastern part of Romania as it is poor and therefore of no interest to anyone. I was able to test this generality recently by travelling from Brasov to Botosani, from Transylvania to Moldova.

Although the centre of Brasov is nicely preserved and retains much of its Saxon charm, most of the town is just endless concrete blocks and the road out of town is crowded with huge advertising banners and retail sheds in garish colours. Romanians accuse gypsies of having no taste and painting their houses in kitsch colours; but they do it to their retail parks and new villas. Isn’t this a case of “the kettle calling the pot black”?

The road to Moldova takes you through some nice mountains and forest but the view is ruined by all the new villas that have popped up in unspoilt rural locations. These villas are owned by local businessmen who feel the need to flaunt their wealth by building grotesque constructions (which local architects call “original”) in garish colours, with stainless steel balconies, gold tinted windows, blue rooves, and all sorts of irregular angles. Romania had beautiful and subtle village architecture, using local materials, styles and colours but those Romanians who have money to burn seem to despise anything that is old or rural. I blame the architects (who blame the clients) but that is another story.

We cross over the Carpathians and get to the Moldovan city of Bacau. What a dump. If there was a league table of ugly cities Bacau would win every time. Brasov is like Vienna by comparison. Even the shop fronts seem to be done in the bad taste. Street after street of soulless concrete blocks, a sprawling industrial area (recently gutted by the slump) and if you pass through the city by train you are greeted by a apocalyptic rubbish dump.

Next stop was the small town of Roman, another historic Romanian city that has had its heart ripped out and replaced with concrete. But the local council have attempted to improve their image by painting the blocks facing the main road, a tactic that was first done in Bacau, and their choice of garish reds and yellows is all wrong. Like a drunk who has applied lipstick and make up, the results are absurd and laughable.

By now I was feeling depressed. What have they done to this beautiful country that has so many unique buildings in the villages? Why do they use such garish and loud colours and new building materials that remove the character of the building? And what was really getting me down was that even the villages had been ruined by this invasion of white PVC windows and tasteless colours.

Then we left the main road to visit a village on the other side of a forest. Soon the asphalt ran out and we passed through big fields where and dust was swirling around us. We were passing into the other Romania, the poor rural heartland. The village we reached was poor but beautiful, with original and interesting houses, each with its own garden and wooden fence. The streets were full of children, old men and animals and above them towered ancient trees. It was like stepping into a fairy tale. The families we visited had their own woodpiles and food supplies, but is is clear that their lives are very hard and the only real distraction is alcohol.

As we drove north to Botosani, I realised that one has to find the remote locations if you want beauty and tranquility in Romania. It seems that the further the village is from the asphalt the more unspoilt and attractive it is. The aesthetic problem with Romania is connected to money and roads. As the economy expands and people start making good money, often for the first time in their lives, they feel the need to show this wealth in the form of loud, garish houses. I assume this is something to do with the fact that most Romanians have never had money, and when they get it they spend it in ways that seem irrational to us privileged Westerners.

The other critical factor for Romania’s nouveau riche villagers is to build on the main road. Houses off the main road are worth a lot less. The result is what they call “ribbon development” — villages spread out over miles and miles of main road. Although this suits people who want to show their new found wealth to the world it means that these “main road villages” have no centre, no heart, and it makes no sense to provide utilities to such a scattered population.

There are some attractive cities in Moldova — such as Iasi and Suceava — but they weren’t on our route. I had never put Botosani on my list of attractive Moldovan cities but now I realise that there is something magical about this place. But this doesn’t make sense as Botosani is the ultimate provincial one horse town; small, parochial, industrialised and ugly. Even the people living there don’t seem to like it; I went to the bank to excha`nge money and there was a long queue of depressed looking people (you don’t see queues like this in Bucharest anymore).

But there is a lot more to Botosani than their empty factories and queues. This was a Jewish market town before the second world war, an important commercial centre, and it is the birthplace of Romania’s greatest cultural icons (Eminescu, Enescu, Iorga). Many Romanian cities have a small old centre which is surrounded by hectares of ghastly concrete blocks. What “makes” a Romanian city is what they do with the old centre. In Sibiu and Brasov they have restored them well, but there are plenty of Transylvanian cities that have failed to do this.

Botosani’s old centre really isn’t much to write home about, and it is occupied by Roma people which is of course unpopular with the majority population. The old centre is a building site, with a big EU subsidy sign but no sign of any work going on. But they have a couple of boulevard’s which are lined with old trees, and a smattering of old buildings, and this area gives off enough of an atmosphere to make the place rather attractive.

There is something about the centre of Botosani that is charming and exotic. It is hard to explain this feeling, which is very personal, but the trees, fresh air and people of Botosani makes me feel positive and energetic. I had a couple of meetings in town and everyone I met was so helpful. And its small size is an advantage when you’re trying to get things done as everything is close to each other and you can walk across the central area in about 10 minutes.

My conclusion is that the more remote and forgotten a town or village is the better it is. This is true from the aesthetic point of view — these places succeed at keeping out the kitsch — and also from the human angle; the more remote and unpopular a place is the more friendly the people tend to be. Ever since seeing the Romanian villages in 1990 I have wanted to live in one, but the problem is that what would I do? How could I make a living? We can enjoy these places from a superficial point of view but never really work out how to live there.

7 Responses to Travelling through Kitsch

  1. Anamaria says:

    Hi Rupert! I have just come back from a nice and remote village, not far away from Bacau. I am a lucky one as I still have grandparents in such a place. I have seen some villages from Russia, Hungary and Turkey but I am still more attracted to romanian ones even if the people were very nice everywhere. Anyway I am quite sad to go back to my office in Bucharest… I was always wondering why retired people from big cities would not move to the countryside? Well, is their choice and I don’t blame them for that but they just miss the chance to be happier and live longer. Every time I am asked where do I see myself in 5-10 years I say that I see myself very far away from Bucharest. Till then I am happy to know people who love and enjoy travelling to such places.

  2. Stefan says:

    Hi Rupert!There is indeed a real problem with the way cities look in Romania. You can notice this as soon as you get out of Bucharest. The main problem is that the decisions regarding the way the cities should be decorated are usually taken by people with no aesthetic sense; they are especially made to stand out. In the case of cities they pick loud colours so that the city council could say ´look! We´ve done something¨for the city´. In the other case it´s because, as you said, Romanians like to reveal and emphasize their social status, often through disgustingly big houses or as you can mainly see in Bucharest, through ridiculously expensive cars (often in white so they could stand out even more).
    The only way to evade this urban chaos is to find these isolated locations. The problem with these places is that they seem to be from different time sequences. Every time I go into one of the rural areas of Romania I feel like I walk back in time for at least 150 years. Even though people are much more friendly and much less stressed around there, it would be hard for a modern person to imagine living there without the day-to-day apparently essential comodities, such as running water or gas. In a way it´s nice to know that there are still some places where you can evade from the day to day urban chaos, but since none of us would really imagine himself living there it shows that Romania still remains an undeveloped country, even though it holds an enourmous potential in this areas, from every point of view.

  3. Laurentiu says:

    Your article is fantastic, not because it’s well written but because it portrays a true picture in beautiful words.
    To write about Moldova, and in particular northern Moldova, takes more than just an expensive pen.
    It’s true that in the 25 years that I lived there I saw beauty mixed with ugliness and love with hate and the only thing that ever calmed me down was the amazing landscape of Bucovina and the generosity of the Moldovian people (Suceava, Botosani, Piatra, Neamt etc).
    You describe Bacau as ugly but its monstrosity was for me somehow hidden because of the nice people that I met there, and now as I daily walk past the ugliness of the council estates of London,
    somehow I forgive Bacau and it’s obtuse architects for what they created …. but London’s architects… I don’t.  
    Coming back to your route (articale) I find it very sad that most of Romania has been invaded by cheap advertising and kitsch.
    Perhaps every generation had its kitsch even before the Germans and Yiddish found a name for it, but somehow it was “beautiful kitsch”.  Ceausescu’s only merit was to
    keep it well hidden.
    Nowhere that I’ve travelled to for the past 20 years have I came across such a beautiful country as Romania, and especially northern Romania, but then I could easily be accused of being biased as I’m Romanian after all. I hope they still make fishing rods from a freshly clean branch of ” alun” and a float made out of a well dried piece of ( strujean de porumb), and that grandparents still wait for their grandchildren with a freshly made “mamaliga”, a few eggs, a slice of “cas” and ice cold water from the well  …”Don’t drink so fast”… my grandmother used to shout!!
    I still remember the day electricity arrived in my grandfather’s village, Popeni ( Botosani in 1977), and how 20 villagers gathered in disbelief to see the arrival of the Messiah – ” the Romanian light bulb”. But you are right that those days are almost gone. They call it the EU which for me stands for European Ugliness or European Uniformization – at all costs.
    When you travel next time to those villages please say “hi” from me to the villagers as we used to know each other. As for me in London, I don’t even know the name of my next door neighbours … they’ve been my neighbours for only 9 years. “To be or not to be EU” – and I know what Norway has said to that!!!

    laurentiu huianu

  4. alex says:

    This article should be entitled “Trandafir din Botosani,/Te-as iubi dar nu am bani”.
    “strujean de porumb” is a posh way of saying ‘ciocalau’.

  5. ailaic says:

    Painfully true, couldn’t have said it better myself and unfortunately I don’t see a solution for this either. We have a saying in Romania, I’m sure you’re aware of it: “Romania e o tara frumoasa. Pacat ca e locuita -de romani-” (Romania is a beautiful country. Too bad it’s inhabited by Romanians).

    Nevertheless, I do feel guilty complaining about it since I don’t do anything to make it a better place (or stopping others from making it a worse one). Are others’ faults my own if I don’t stop them from doing them? And can I? I really can’t find a solution.

    What would you do if you were me?


  6. ailaic says:

    Btw, we have a new (!?) slogan for tourists (stolen from Czech Republic, how else?): “Romania, the land of choice”.

    A more appropriate one would have been “Romania, the land of contrast”.

  7. Michael Bird says:

    Glasgow is much cooler than Edinburgh.

    It has also the city which has given birth to more great rock bands than any other, per square metre.

    Also check out Simon Geissbuhler’s new book, it may be of interest.

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