Saturday, December 27, 2008

EU entry helps Romanians and Bulgarians understand each other

Friday, December 26, 2008

RUSE, Bulgaria: Bulgarians had grandiose expectations about joining the European Union. The arrival of many Romanians was not among them.

Before both joined the EU on Jan. 1, 2007, Bulgarians and Romanians considered each other with almost total indifference, despite being formal allies in the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War and sharing a Danube River border 470 kilometers, or 290 miles, long.

Even for residents of Ruse, at the Bulgarian end of the only bridge connecting the two nations, the people on the opposite river bank might as well have been on another continent. When they thought of Romanians at all, it was usually to dismiss them as "mamaligari," roughly "polenta-makers," after the Romanians' national dish mamaliga.

Romanians, for their part, would put down Bulgarians as "castravetari" or "cucumber-growers," for their perennial vegetable-gardening.

But shortly after the border between them formally dissolved because of EU membership, a tidal wave of bargain-seeking Romanians crashed over northern Bulgaria.

That initial wave has receded, leaving a multitude of unexpected and enduring relationships in its wake.

Many residents of Ruse are now embarrassed that they were close-minded for so long.

"The new relations with Romania have opened a new world," said Ivelina Belcheva, 40, a television journalist born and raised in Ruse, whose motorcycle club, "Spirit of Freedom," has since started riding with new friends from Romania. "It has always been close by, but always very closed."

Before 2007, Ruse was known for its faded glory, depopulation and rusting behemoths of Soviet-era heavy industry. The birthplace of the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, it grew wealthy in the 19th century from trade along the Danube. Neo-Baroque and neo-Rococo architecture grace its center, an echo of Central European Habsburg glory far upstream in Vienna and Budapest. Until the early 20th century, when it was eclipsed by Sofia, this was the economic and cultural capital of Bulgaria.

In the past two years, this city of 175,000 has undergone a marked revitalization, fueled by a Romanian spending spree. Romania, which with 22 million people versus 7.5 million in Bulgaria has a far larger economy, boasts average salaries of €450 a month, compared with about €265 for Bulgaria - the lowest in the EU.

Seven separate new shopping malls are planned - five of them already under construction. The biggest, the €100 million Grand Plaza slated for completion in 2010, is to boast a 90,000-square-meter, or 970,000-square-foot, mall; a 5,000-seat arena for sports and cultural events; a 115-room luxury hotel; and 11,000 square meters of offices.

And while the global economic slowdown is starting to be felt here, it did not diminish extra-large holiday crowds from Romania, and so far has not affected construction of the malls.

Romanians come in large numbers on weekend shopping trips. They buy property and start businesses. Restaurants in the city center offer Romanian menus. And Romanian language courses have sprouted, with the tiny supply of translators unable to meet new and growing demand.

Sofia is more than 300 kilometers away, while Bucharest, the Romanian capital, is not 70 kilometers distant, and Ruse is sucked into its economic orbit. Since EU membership has eliminated long waits at the border, people from Ruse now regularly use Bucharest Airport. Traffic congestion in Bucharest means the drive from southern Bucharest to Ruse is often shorter than driving to the northern part of the Romanian capital.

"They say it's good to know Romanian because someday Ruse will be a neighborhood of Bucharest," said Anka Staneva, a long-time Romanian teacher and translator. The six students in her classroom work in the medical profession; many of their clinics participate in exchanges of staff members and patients with Giurgiu, the Romanian town across the bridge.

"Speaking Romanian will be helpful in the future, and I'm looking ahead,"

said Nona Ignatieva, 24, a kinesiotherapist at a private spa.

Several students recalled their shock in the first days of EU membership, when Ruse was so flooded with visitors that cars with Romanian license plates outnumbered Bulgarian ones. The municipalities of Ruse and Giurgiu organized three days of free city bus rides between the towns. Many lifelong residents of both communities crossed the bridge for the first time; up to 1,500 people waited for the buses.

"It made a big impression on me," said Daniela Nikolaeva, a travel agent. It was her first visit to Giurgiu, and she was surprised at how well groomed the town was after years of hearing horror stories. Streets were litter-free, and each tree in the center was fenced and neatly tended. "There isn't any of that kind of thing in Ruse," she said.

In general, traffic between the two countries is helping to dispel negative stereotypes on each side - a tendency shared by many neighbors in the Balkans, long separated by Communist borders and centuries of prejudice.

"I was expecting the worst: poverty, crime and filth," said Sorin Ropotan, 30, a Romanian who works in sales at a communications company.

"But then last year we saw that Ruse is actually very nice," he continued, finding the streets cleaner than Bucharest. "The old architecture is very beautiful. And the waiters are very professional and even speak Romanian."

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