Monday, 7 June 2010

Shattered Stereotypes

Written 6th June

So, now we are safely out the otherside, I will publicly admit to having been more than a little bit apprehensive about Romania.

The only awareness I really had of the place was those shocking images the abandoned children rocking to and fro in the dismal orphanages, which were broadcast to the world in I guess the early 90's.  Images which are inexplicably and inextricably linked with images of Anneka Rice's lycra clad bottom running around in front of a jogging cameraman - did she do fund raising challenges for romanian orphanages or was that just tv news followed by saturday night telly??

Anyway, it seems everyone has an opinion of romania and its people, mostly centering around poverty and/or gypsies and bad roads. 

When they heard of our future plans, the first random Croats we met in Pazim said "be careful, they have a bad habit of taking things which aren't theirs", my cousin said "Romania, sounds like somewhere cold", the 2005 lp makes statements like "take some stickers or other inexpensive gifts to make friends with the crowds of children begging at train stations", whilst the 2009 lp talks about the nearly impassable dirt roads if you venture off the main highways, even the Bulgarian section says "watch for big bumps - but nothing like the bumps in Romania".  To Jeremy Clarkson and the TG audience, they are a nation of funny-hatted peasants.  And that's without even mentioning the Cheeky Girls...

So what with all of this and more, I was expecting a country full of crowds of barefoot people and children in the streets plucking and grabbing at everything within reach - a bit like Will's descrption of india.  Will, having been to india, was apparently expecting little old peasant ladies in hand knitted shawls who would creep up to the van, pick things up out of curiosity and simply fail to put them back.

Eitherway, I had visions of turning our backs on the van and turning back round to find it had been stripped of everything removable, like dipping a cartoon fish into a cartoon piranha tank....  We certainly expected to lose saddles or other bits off the bikes

Ok, so I know that after seven months on the road, I shouldn't have any stereotypes or pre-conceived ideas left: the former republic of Yugoslavia is not grey and drab or full of landmines, Spain is not all hot and sunny in winter (although -9 is fortunately a distant memory!), Greece is not just sugar cube churches on sandy beaches.  , Although do believe everything you hear about italian driving...

But, I wasn't expecting Romania to shatter those stereotypes so comprehensibly.

Although the physical distance isn't more than a few kms, there is a clear dividing line between those who live in very developed  towns and cities, similar to anywhere else in central europe, who drive modern cars, shop in Carrefour and big DIY stores (think B&Q but bigger, with more stuff and staff you can actually find...) and those who still live in the rural villages, work in the fields by hand and travel by horse and cart, but we didn't anywhere see the outright poverty we were kind of expecting.  All the people and horses seemed healthy and well fed (although some evidence of a past when this was not so was there in the number of older people who had clearly had polio in some villages), the children playing in the streets were all well clothed and shod and knew to make sure they were off the roads if they heard a car. The older children are clearly still required to help their parents and grandparents in the fields  but they do it in their sparkly tops and football shirts - primark-esque not peasant is the fashion here.  There were still lots of old cars on the roads, some as heavily laden as any pack horse!, but I suspect the only reasons we didn't see any carts parked in Carrefour carpark is because they have been banned from the surrounding roads, not because people don't go there. 

You get welcomed into each village with a friendly "Bine ati venit!" sign and wished well on leaving with a cheery "Drum bun!" (which we think is "good road" or some appropriate well wishing sentiment)

All the villages we drove through had landline phone connections and mains gas (you can tell, the pipes are all above ground and you see them branch off, through a meter and into the houses) and 80% of all the houses had satellite.  Now I know this isn't a sign of wealth or even education, (i mean people on benefits in sink estates in the UK have mains gas, primark and sky as a basic standard of living...) but it isn't what we expected.

We saw a total of four children begging, but they were doing it in two *really* touristy places, and were polite, engaging and friendly - so much so that I did wonder whether the lack of shoes and oversized clothes were an act.  Maybe, maybe not but they weren't annoying about it.  And if they know it is what tourists expect, then by the laws of supply and demand, they might be onto a nice little earner - capitalism from the grass roots up :)

And we saw absolutely no evidence of a high crime rate or lots of theft.  I mean Bucharest was no Ljubljana, where it seemed the norm to just leave your expensive bike propped up, unlocked, against a lamp post, secure in the knowledge that it would still be there when you came back, but where is?  You wouldn't leave stuff lying visibly in your car but then you would be stupid to do that in cambridge!

Neither were the roads that bad - although we do generally seem to seek out little back roads wherever we are so maybe we ar not the best judges.  And Jules has massive ground clearance.  There was one road, on our abortive trip to Snagov, which did have big craters in it but you could drive round them.  Although it was hard to see how deep they were until you were right on top of them, which meant the the car in front, or more disconcertinglythe car coming in the other directionwould suddenly lurch across the road at random intervals, but as I said before, we drove over far, far worse on some of the main tourist routes in western ireland.

I know we were only there a week, and we haven't been everywhere, and the places in the lonely planet will, de facto, see tourists and therefore might expect or have a higher income than places elsewhere.  And I know that it still isn't a rich country but it really didn't match up to the picture most people (including us) seem to have.  The place we stopped in for dinner last night in the border town could have been anywhere, particularly southern spain or small town america.  To "it could be anywhere" is usually an insult, but about somewhere like Romania which people believe to be so different, it might even be a compliment.

And we have, against all expectations really enjoyed Romania!  It is another green and pleasant land.  The towns are clean and pretty. The people are friendly.  Most spoke enough english to understand we wanted coffee or beer or whatever (and many spoke humblingly excellent english).  The food was gorgeous, cheap and came in big portions.    And most importantly, petrol was the just about the cheapest we have found so far in europe.  What's not to like!

I bet all of you will have friends who would happily go to india and come back with excited tales of incredible overwhelming poverty and nasty tummy upsets but who wouldn't dare go to Romania for fear of poverty and thieving gypsies and wouldn't want to anyway because its just some grey ex-communist country....  So you could go, have a very pleasure time, in a pretty country, with lovely food, and they would be incredibly impressed... ;)

Onwards and upwards.

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