An American in Paris, a Romanian in Bucharest – Background

A Little Bit of Background

After over two months, I have finally returned home, suitcases full of books, photocopies, and digital records collected during my time abroad. During my ten days in France and six weeks in Romania, my research led me through two old European capitals – Paris and Bucharest – and to their crown jewels of national libraries, but it also led me to the banlieue of Carrieres-sur-Seine, marked by La Defense on the horizon. It led me to the towns of Brasov, Varatec, Busteni, and Sinaia nestled in the Romanian Carpathians. It led me through small streets and book shops, to both academic journals as well as popular press books intended to bring the issue of the EU’s future to the very citizens who would be living it out.

This project was first inspired by two factors – my Romanian heritage and my love of France. My parents came to the United States in 1992 with two suitcases and $200 total in their pocket. They came to get an education in an American graduate program after finishing the Polytechnic Institute of Bucharest with engineering certifications, a university that they went into believing that once they finished, the communist regime would automatically decide for them where they would work, how much they would be paid, and where they would live. The process was known as repartitie (“repartition: in English). My visit also, quite unintentionally, lined up with a major milestone year . 2018 marks the centennial celebration of Romanian unity; on December 1, 1918, the three kingdoms of Wallachia, Moldova, and Transylvania unified into the country that is now Romania.

In the interwar period, Bucharest was known as the “Little Paris” not only due to the similarities in architecture, but also in Bucharest’s legacy as a hub of art and literature for Eastern Europe and in Romania’s long-standing connections to France. Centuries of Romanian nobility studied in Paris and brought its ideas back home (indeed, even Romania’s most famous playwright, Ion Luca Caragiale, who lived in the satirized those Romanians so obsessed with Paris that they pretended to be French – though they didn’t have a clue what they were talking about). I spoke Romanian as my first language at home before I learned English at school, and so when I chose to begin French in 8th grade, I was unintentionally following a natural progression of my education, given my heritage.

The Romania of Today and its Post-Communist Legacy

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(top left – old city Bucharest, Romania; top right – Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania, the largest government building in the world and one of the largest [and most expensive] buildings ever built; bottom left – Franco-Romanian relation house, Busteni, Romania; bottom right – historic monument marker, written in Romanian, English, and French, a sign of Romania’s long-standing connection with France and its participation in the Organization of Francophonie ) 

The era of “little Paris” came to an end after the Second World War. Romania remains marked by its communist legacy, nearly three decades since its violent revolution. Louis XV-style furniture fills the inside of giant Stalinist apartment blocks while beautifully ornate art deco buildings wither in the streets with graffiti tapestries, bullet holes from the revolution, and signs that read “Danger: Falling Plaster.”

The scars are not only physical – they are mental, and they are economic. The mass privatization of property following the  revolution meant that many historic buildings, formerly upkept by the state, now belonged to individuals who had never before had control of their own money and who were- and still are – mostly too poor to afford renovation. Since 1989, few major restorations have been attempted.


(top left – chickens being raised at the train station, Comarnic, Romania; top right – building outside Cismigiu Park, Bucharest, Romania; bottom left – view of Bulevardul Unirii [Unity Boulevard] from the Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania; bottom right – Old Town Bucharest, Romania)

Some older Romanians whom I interviewed voiced to me their desire to return to the communist days; how good it was, they claimed, when there was no unemployment, when all education was free, all healthcare was free, and when the foreign debt was completely paid off. Only those my parents age mentioned how anybody caught not working would be arrested, how food shortages in the late 80s were so bad that you would wait for hours in line for the chance to buy bread, how bread cost about 2 RON a loaf to produce and yet how it was being sold for around 0.20 RON as an export in order to pay off that national debt, or how a three-person family’s daily ration of butter was 2 grams – about 1/5th of a pat of butter.

Today, food in Romania is some of the cheapest in Europe, owing to Romania’s large agricultural output. Romania is just beginning to emerge on the world stage in the automobile (the Dacia car brand is widely popular in Europe and is partnered with the French company Renault to manufacture both Renault and Dacia parts), computer, and information technology sectors.

And yet, despite these advances, the economic impact from communism and communist infrastructure also remains. Public funds, for example, are used to run the Palace of Parliament, a building intended to be a grandiose testament to the power of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, with a total area of 365,000 square meters and costing €3 – €5 billion initial construction costs and which now requires around €6 million annually in operating costs. (In fact, the high maintenance costs are evidenced by the surprising scarcity of working lighting at any given room in the Palace during the tours of the building, as seen below). Even in the time that I was there, nightly news stories discussed Romania’s lack of public infrastructure – in particular, a country-wide highway – and the destructive effects that difficulty in moving both people and supplies, from construction equipment to food and goods for sale, was having on the economy.

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(Interior of the Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania: top left – Senate Hall; top right – main entrance hall, Elena Ceausescu’s staircase; bottom left – the Main Hallway, first section; bottom right – the Grand Hall )

Romania, France, and the European Union

Although it became an EU member state in 2007, Romania continues to use its old currency, the leu (plural lei, symbol RON ) instead of the Euro. In 2005, in preparation to join the EU and in response to massive inflation,  the country cut four decimal places from its money, such that 10,000 old lei was the equivalent of 1 new leu. Since then, the value of the leu has been fairly steady, with 1 RON ≈ €0.22 or $0.25 [USD] as of this post. Many Romanians with whom I spoke in fact credited not using the Euro as being one of the major factors why Romania is not as affected by economic downturns that hit the rest of the EU.

The history of France over the same time period, from the end of the Second World War to today, followed a markedly different path. France was one of the six founding members of the EU in 1957, and it adopted the Euro in 2002. With the exception of the transition from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic in 1958, and the very brief socialist experiment under Francois Mitterrand, both France’s government and its economic system remained stable, even thriving.  From its permanent place on the UN Security Council to its booming tourism and luxury industries, among others, France maintains a position on the world stage as one of Europe’s wealthiest countries, as well as one of its most influential.

The cultural similarities between France and Romania that I experienced while there only made the differences I observed that much more shocking. After seeing Paris, I again found myself asking just how much effort (read: money) were Romania’s politicians actually putting in to taking advantage of its raw resources and its high capacity for growth when it came to interacting with the EU? There were plenty of signs marking buildings or train stations or parks that were using European funding for growth and renovation. So just how was Romania justifying that funding, and what role were other EU countries – especially France – playing in helping Romania’s economic development? What was Romania doing in return? And, as the EU reels from Brexit, an increasing Russian threat, and growing uncertainty of its future relations with the US, what predictions can be made about how Western and Eastern, old capitalist and post-communist members will support one another in the decades to come?

My next post will discuss my experiences gathering my sources.