Comment: Romania, 26 years ago

Guest writer Nicholas Hammond remembers the first time he came to Romania just after the fall of communism in the early 90s.

It has been drawn to my attention that 26 years ago on the 12th January 1990, it was the first time I came to Romania.

I came with a party of ten, including another partner from my law firm in London. He had never been to Romania either. The Tarom plane had left London Heathrow two hours late (what is new). They served a roll and salami sandwich and tea from an enamel urn. They also handed out an apple per passenger as a treat. When the plane landed at Otopeni the overhead baggage compartment collapsed on the front seat, so much for a BAC 1-11. Fortunately, the plane was not very full (15 people in all) so no-one was hurt.

After we had disembarked it then took an hour and a half to get a visa and find our luggage.

Then the adventure began. I remember it was a cold and foggy night. The bus had no door there were shadows everywhere and armed guards everywhere. After a 90- minute drive through the fog and the driver having got lost, we arrived at the Hotel Bucharest (now Radisson Blu) and the great adventure begun.

We went down to breakfast the next morning. Having located the room we found that the restaurant for breakfast was in the front of the building overlooking a very grey empty street. We went in and our first impression was the smoke from cigarettes and burning fat as the breakfast was cooked on the hobs which were open to the room. A real barbecue bar for breakfast with the smoke about five feet of the ground. If you kept your head low you were in a clear air zone.

Our first impressions of Bucharest though were what an exciting place it is. It certainly felt like a place where west met east.

We had been allocated a lawyer by the British Embassy who took us everywhere. I remember though that he disappeared the first afternoon at three o’clock. When asked the next day what had happened he happily told me that he had gone to queue for bread.

In the offices which we visited and where we had meetings we were greeted usually by a committee of five or six people. One was in charge and led the discussion. The others listened and made notes usually in last year’s diary. I do remember in some of the meetings there being some very young civil servants who were full of enthusiasm for the future, although when pushed they did not seem to know what to do or how government was run. They were very optimistic. I should add on subsequent visits they had all been replaced by the previous civil servants, so that did not bode well for the future as things turned out.

I was surprised by the weather; rather I had not really thought about it. I think I expected it to be like England – that was a mistake. Fortunately the weather was quite mild. There had been some snow but overall the temperature was not low. I remember seeing women going down the side of the road and putting the snow on the verge. As there was little or no private traffic this seemed a somewhat futile occupation but at least the roads were clean.

I cannot recall much about restaurants. There were some very strange ones which we did not try. On advice we ate in the hotel although we did venture to the Inter were it was possible to have fish. There were no other restaurants recommended and I remember being told that there was one or two, which I did discover on subsequent visits. The restaurant scene was not as bleak as I had been led to believe.

I sometimes wonder what we were really thinking when we came so early. The British Embassy seemed to have some idea of what was happening but they were unclear as to its effect. They had no clear idea of who was in power and what would happen. The commercial attach complained his room was full of condoms which had been sent as a charitable gift because of the worries about HIV. He did not know how to distribute them or where to go with them.

There were no detailed discussions at that time about the orphanages or hospitals perhaps it was all too new. There were already though foreign nurses and doctors working to try and alleviate some of the issues.

My overall impression was one of amazement to be in Bucharest at that time. You felt that you were in the middle of history being made and perhaps were in part making history. I did eventually open the first law firm in Bucharest after the revolution. Even now I am still in contact with one or two of the people I met who have turned out to be loyal firm friends.

There must have been something that drew me back and caused me to eventually stay in Romania. My children whenever they come to Romania even now still find it a fascinating country full of life and vigour. So after 26 years there have been some developments for the good. Who knows what the next 26 years will hold?

By Nicholas Hammond, guest writer

(photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

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