Sunday, December 2, 2007

Life in Romania - Telegraph Mentor

Debbie Stowe says Bucharest is a dynamic and exciting city, and many expats’ initial short-term tenures turn into years.

Like many other expats in Bucharest, my initial one-year tenure here seems to have become indefinite, and I am now in my third year.

The influx of western businesses into Romania has put a high premium on native English speakers, and a combination of teaching, journalism and copy-editing gives me the freedom to work on that book that we all believe is in us but lack the time to actually write.

This year I intend to take an MA at the University of Bucharest and involve myself in some local charities. I am also tenuously considering a foray into the Romanian property market.

Introduction to Bucharest: Given that most expats’ preconceptions of Bucharest will be largely negative – stray dogs, gypsies, corrupt officials and the like – settling in can be reasonably pain free if a few rules are borne in mind.

The first is to forget all notions that you have of customer service. Otherwise, after 90 per cent of your dealings with waiters, shopkeepers and members of the public you will be left wondering what you had done to offend the person to make them so curt and rude to you.

Of course you have done nothing wrong: the ostensible hostile way Romanians behave with each other – and most foreigners – is just normal conduct in this country.

Despite their initial demeanour, local people go out of their way to welcome and assist foreigners, anxious to leave you with a good impression and counter some of the pejorative outside perceptions of which they are acutely aware.

Secondly, you must get used to a new traffic system. Drivers have assumed right of way on both road and pavement and routinely park right across the latter, forcing pedestrians into the street where they will then be hooted at by passing cars.

All surfaces have bumps and potholes, an ad hoc style also evident in the town planning, where bland communist blocks have been thrown up next to pretty inter-war villas. Some areas did escape the communist bulldozers, and there are charming pockets to be discovered.

The expat can also escape the general greyness in the city’s clubs and many excellent restaurants, a bargain for any western budget.

The interim seasons are more pleasant than in Britain, warmer and with fewer rainy days. Most locals agree that spring and autumn are shortening, and the switch from bitter cold to summer heat can come particularly suddenly. When bad weather does come, it comes with a vengeance – storms flood the streets and tear down anything from adverts and market stalls to huge trees.

Getting around: Bucharest suffers from a surfeit of cars in a city designed for few. Parking is practically non-existent and drivers stop almost anywhere they spot a space, regardless of pedestrian access.

Driving is characterised by relentless hooting, aggression, gesticulating and hazardous moves. Some junctions are complete chaos. Accidents are frequent.

To drive in Bucharest, the expat must be brave. City police are poorly paid and corrupt and constantly stop motorists for so-called preventative checks, during which they will happen upon a minor infringement and threaten the driver with an extortionate fine in an attempt to elicit a bribe. There is no way to avoid this, so the best idea is to try and bear it with good nature.

The law permits a driver only one alcoholic drink, but neither the police nor the breathalyser can be relied upon, so it’s safer to abstain altogether. For driving between cities, motorists have developed a system of flashing their lights at each other to warn oncoming drivers of police with speed radars parked by the road.

The result is that for much of the way cars bomb along at around 120km/h, before dropping to a surreally slow 50km/h at urban spots where the police are waiting.

Only two highways currently have a central reservation – the number is set to increase – and driving a few metres away from onrushing lorries can be nerve-wracking.

Cheap and usually easy to find, taxis can be booked by phone or hailed in the street, but there are some sharks out there ready to charge a hapless foreigner as much as ten times the real fare, so if picking a car up use only one with a name you know and insist the driver use the metre; most will automatically.

Even drivers from reputable companies may take you the scenic route, so it’s useful to know a smattering of Romanian and show no sign of British hesitancy.

Public transport is extremely cheap. The subway system is fairly civilised but slow and not comprehensive. Buses and trams are more frequent and serve most areas, but in peak hours can become so full they resemble a cattle truck, or, worse, the central line at 7pm.

Pickpocketing is rife, and you are advised to vigilantly guard any bags and pockets. It’s worth taking public transport a few times, if only to remind yourself how lucky you are to be able to afford a car or taxi. The system runs from around 5am to 11.30pm.

Expat accommodation: Thanks to Ceausescu’s town-planning ideas, the majority of Bucharest residents, rich and poor, live in apartment blocks. Most expats head for the upmarket north of the city, where many of the ambassadorial residences are situated.

A replica of the Arc de Triomphe, wide boulevards and pleasant green spaces make the area feel more like Western Europe, as does the glut of cafes and restaurants. Those wanting to engage more in the local life – particularly young, single foreigners – often choose to live in more central areas.

Taxis are cheap and plentiful, and the city relatively small, so your location shouldn’t matter too much. However, there are no suburbs in the sense of quieter, greener neighbourhoods on the edge of town – the outer areas are poor and drab – so it makes sense not to venture too far away from the central axis of squares.

Though rising quickly, property prices are still low by our standards, and some long-term expats choose to brave the bureaucracy and buy a place as an investment. The law still currently prevents foreigners from owning land, but there are ways around this. Most people rent at first, although it is advisable to get a local friend to help you. Once the landlord realises a foreigner is involved, the sums involved suddenly leap upwards.

Climate: Like many things in Romania, the temperature is unpredictable: April, for example, could see snow or feel almost tropical. Winter and summer are often extreme. From December to February, lows of –20°C and severe snow are possible, even in the capital.

Summers, which can start in May or June and continue to September, often see 40°C and melting pavements – although this is partly due to the poor quality of the tarmac.

Personal safety: Obvious foreigners are in some danger of being the target of a low-level crime – pickpocketing or a scam by which a fake policeman tries to extract a ‘fine’. Most would-be criminals are pretty hapless, and can generally be thwarted with vigilance, scepticism and common sense.

Bucharest doesn’t have Britain’s binge drinking culture, and it is rare to see drunken yobs on the streets. There are glue sniffers, but they are unlikely to harass strangers. Some beggars can be insistent, but they too are usually harmless.

Possibly the greatest hazard, aside from cars, is the stray dogs which the city’s mayor wanted to cull until Brigitte Bardot stepped in. Their aggression is usually limited to barking, but some do bite.

Women, especially young ones, will be the subject of staring and comments. On the whole, though, the city feels much safer and less violent than London, and the expat will rarely feel threatened, even at night.

Bureaucracy: When the country experienced a 6.0 Richter scale earthquake in November, one radio commentator remarked that at least something in Romania was moving.

Bureaucracy can be a huge headache throughout the country, which is still trying to emerge from the communist mentality. Simple, everyday tasks that would not take more than five minutes in Britain, such as getting a receipt or a guarantee for an appliance, require reams of forms and queuing.

Getting a work permit is especially laborious, with low-level officials seemingly taking a perverse pleasure in finding one of your photocopies or translations missing and sending you away to return on multiple occasions.

Sometimes they want a bribe, sometimes it is inefficiency, sometimes pure stubbornness. Unfortunately bureaucracy is an ingrained part of life here, so looking upon it as a cultural experience is probably the best way to keep stress levels down.

While most useful information for foreigners tends to be on the negative side, Bucharest is a dynamic and exciting city, and many expats’ initial short-term tenures turn into years.

After the vibrancy and unpredictability of life here, returning to the comfortable UK holds little immediate appeal. Having experienced some of the country’s ups and downs, I am happy to answer the questions of anyone else thinking of giving Bucharest or Romania a try.

Education: There are two British schools with a UK-based curriculum for children up to the age of 16, as well as an American school. Fees vary according to the age of the pupil, but can reach £7,000 per year and above.

Health: Bucharest has several private clinics with standards ostensibly as high as anything at home. Professionals used by the locals are highly spoken of, but the facilities may seem a bit primitive.

It is possible to follow a very healthy diet in Bucharest, with shops and markets full of fresh fruit and vegetables, tastier and less treated than the oddly perfect looking produce available in Britain.

One omnipresent health hazard is second-hand smoke: Romanians are heavy smokers and there are few venues with non-smoking areas.

Entertainment: Life in Bucharest can be austere and dull, and working hours long, so people like to make the most of their leisure time. The city has many first-class restaurants, covering most international cuisine.

Prices are far lower than in Britain. Service can suffer from post-communism apathy, but places are increasingly catering to foreigners, and realising that some courtesy and efficiency are good for business.

Bars and clubs are numerous and open late. They range from cheap and cheerful to pretentious, upmarket places where you’ll pay the same as in London.

The Romanian Opera is another bargain with ticket prices starting from less than a pound. Its interior is a touch shabby, but the standard of performances is high. The other notable cultural building is the Atheneum, which, when not undergoing renovation, hosts classical concerts.

Theatres are also plentiful but performances in English are rare. The National Theatre, built at the most central point of the city, also hosts exhibitions.

Cinemas broadcast films in their original language with sub-titles. While most stick to Hollywood drivel, some honourable exceptions show an impressive range of classic, challenging and foreign films, some dating from the early twentieth century. There are frequent film festivals.

There is little pleasure to be had from walking in the big cities, owing to a combination of the terrible pavement surfaces dotted with parked cars, stray dogs and the pollution from an excess of old bangers. The countryside, though, is scenic and walkers will find plenty of mountains, lakes and pretty villages.

Romania’s ski resorts are upgrading their facilities to try and attract some of the package holiday business away from other competitive Eastern European destinations such as Bulgaria.

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