Getting into a Romanian public institution is like accessing a medieval castle in a Monty Python film: you bang on the door, a beefy guard appears, blocks the entrance, asks angrily what you want, demands identification and sends you packing if you look too lowly or happen to be a Roma gypsy. Their job is to keep people out.
The comparison with western institutions is stark: in other EU member states (Romania joined in 2007) you are warmly greeted by friendly and well informed staff who do their best to handle your request, give you contact details and offer you leaflets and brochures. You leave feeling as if your visit was appreciated and they understand that a public institution actually needs some interaction with the public.
The thugs guarding Romania’s vast institutions – whose purposes are vague but costs are huge; they employ millions – make you feel that you have disturbed their boozy chat (or snooze) and that you have absolutely no right to enter the Ministry of…
One of the many bizarre facts about this poor Balkan country is that it has some of the most fabulous embassies on the planet: in London it has a Victorian town house opposite Prince Charles’ residence; in New York they own a whole block in downtown Manhattan and in Rome they have a couple of grand palaces. Most of these splendid residences serve no purpose beyond providing accommodation for retired Romanian diplomats and their extended families.
Some time ago I visited Romania’s Embassy in France, a small and exquisite palace in a smart district of Paris – a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower. There was a 1980s buzzer on the ancient door and I asked for the cultural attaché in my bad French.
“Poff teats?” (‘excuse me?’ in Romanian) shouted back an angry voice, presumably outraged that he’d been disturbed from his slumbers in a language he didn’t understand. I switched to the Romanian language and convinced the sceptical guard that I wasn’t a dirty peasant but a serious professional who had an appointment with the cultural attaché. After some time a door opened and a grumpy brute in a shabby suit reluctantly let me in, before shuffling back to his cubby hole.
The cultural attaché was as different from the glowering, monosyllabic guard as was possible to be. He was well educated, charming, multilingual and fascinating. He showed me round the palace and told me they couldn’t afford to maintain it (especially the small theatre that would cost €15m to repair) and that he would soon be sent off to Morocco as Romania’s new ambassador.
Romania’s diplomats, cabinet ministers and senior civil servants are often like this and they glide effortlessly between international postings, NATO missions, summit meetings, the European Parliament and the major capital cities of the world. They form part of Romania’s ruling class, alongside the gaudy new millionaire-politicians.
When these people enter public institutions in Romania the scene is very different: the aggressive, suspicious guards stand to attention as if the commander-in-chief is visiting and they wave them through, becoming servile and ignoring the rules of access that are so strictly applied to the rest of us.
Even though these guards can be intimidating they in turn can be easily intimidated, all it takes is a whiff of the arrogance and attitude of the ruling class. Well-dressed foreign visitors to Bucharest are treated with this fawning reverence and, as a foreigner, all you really need to get into a Romanian institution is a passport, a suit and an arrogant attitude.
The ruling class in Romania, and in many other former Communist countries, seem to regard the common people as an ignorant herd that need to be treated like cattle – and kept out of the public institutions – and public policy is made accordingly. Communicating with public institutions is incredibly complex and their websites are often incomprehensible. You can see evidence of this every day on the streets of Bucharest where cars are allowed to park all over the pavements, obliging young mothers and old people, and everyone else, to walk onto the main road in order to pass. In other words, cars have more rights than people. The worst thing about this is that everyone seems to think that treating cars as superior is normal and nothing can be done to change it.
All this reminds me of a scene in the Monty Python film “Time Bandits” where the medieval peasants all line up to meet Robin Hood, a Duke of Edinburgh type played by John Cleese. After Robin Hood says a few inane words a hulking henchman punches each hapless peasant in the head and he falls to the ground.
I have been based in Romania for some time and whenever I have to go to a public institution I imagine I have to blag my way into a medieval fortress. I have to switch roles between ordinary person and arrogant diplomat. It makes life a lot more interesting than it would be in London and is one of the reasons why I love living in Romania. The other saving grace about this country is that the people are incredibly friendly, despite their horrible government.
This article will also be published on my new travel blog, which provides advice for people who want to travel independently.