To be certain, Bucharest is still a city on the mend, but its inhabitants, the proud and determined Romanians, seemed destined to succeed in restoring the city to its original standing.
After almost half a century under communist dictatorship, Romania emerged once again as a free nation following a country-wide revolution in December 1989. In the years since, the country has undergone profound, and often difficult, political and economic change in its evolution to a democratic, free-market entity. Progress, while painstakingly slow and unmanageable at times, has, nonetheless, been steady.
Bucharest, the country’s capital, is also its principal cultural and commercial city, and a major center for industry. It lies on the Dambovita River, a tributary of the Danube, in the south of Romania, and is home to more than 2 million people.
The city suffered immensely at the hands of Ceausecu regime. Ceausecu’s policy of mass urbanization brought about the widespread destruction of many of the city’s cathedrals, churches, hospitals and homes.
Bucharest today ranks high on the hardship scale. Housing, when available, is expensive and the quality poor by Western standards. Power outages are common and may be prolonged during winter months. Everyday items are in rare supply, and when available, they are costly. Although many items can be ordered from an international supply house, they can be quite expensive. Supplies in local stores are unreliable, and there’s little choice in brands. In addition, locally grown food can be of poor quality. Expats will want to bring with them ample supplies of such items as vitamins, cosmetics, shampoo, toothpaste, toilet tissue, and bed linens. Other hard-to-come-by items include paperback books, and children’s books, toys and games.
Clothing in Romania is also below Western standards, so expats will want to arrive prepared. Warm clothing is needed during winter months, and light-weight clothing for summer. Dry-cleaning facilities are available, but are of poor quality, so the more washable wear expats bring, the better.
According to the US Department of State, medical care in the country is also limited and basic medical supplies are in severe shortage. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for services. Supplementary insurance with specific overseas coverage — including provision for medical evacuation by air — is recommended.
Credit and charge cards are not widely used in Romania, although they are accepted at some hotels and restaurants, and at airline offices in the country. Most hotels and travel services offer a Eurocheque cash advance service, but expats should be prepared to settle their accounts in cash. There are no restrictions on the amount of foreign currency expats can bring into or exchange in Romania, but Romanian currency can’t be taken out of the country. Typically, employers will split an expatriate’s salary, sending part of the salary to a US account to cover home expenses, and giving the rest to the expat as salary.
At work and home
Romanian, a Romance language resembling Italian, is spoken throughout the country. German and Hungarian are also spoken in some areas, particularly in Transylvania. Although Romanian is still widely used in business, the use of English is growing. Even so, a knowledge of Romanian is greatly appreciated by the locals.
Like all the Romance peoples, Romanians are courteous and amiable. Because of their years under communist rule they may be less forthcoming at first than people in other regions in the area. However, once one gets to know them, they are generally friendly and have a keen sense of humor.
Romanians take a formal approach to business. Appointments are required and punctuality is key — even if the hosts are occasionally late. Professional titles are also important, and expats should use these when addressing their Romanian business partners. Expats will also want to bring along an ample supply of business cards that reflect their own professional standing.
Business dress, on the other hand, is more relaxed. Men typically wear a jacket and tie, while women don dresses or skirts.
Outside of work, Romanian life is more informal. Casual dress is acceptable, but as is true in most foreign locations, conservative dress is best.
Getting around town
Expatriates are not allowed to purchase a car in Romania. They can, however, import one. Although they will be required to pay a temporary duty for this privilege — usually equivalent to the value of the car — this will be refunded to them when they depart the country.
Romania’s main roads are in fairly good condition, but its secondary roads can be rough in places. Traffic drives on the right.
Expats should be aware of and adhere to posted speed limits while driving as police can enforce on-the-spot fines for speeding offenses. They should also refrain from driving after drinking any amount of alcohol — a very serious offense in Romania. It is also illegal to allow children under 12 to ride in the front seat, or to sound a car horn in large towns.
Public bus transport is available in Romania’s main towns. Tickets are inexpensive, but must be purchased before boarding. While buses run frequently, most are extremely crowded.
Bucharest also maintains an underground railway system with three lines covering various parts of the city. The system operates from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Coins rather than tickets are used to board, and fares are inexpensive by Western standards.
Staying in touch
Post offices in the country are open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on Sunday. Expats can purchase stamps at the post office as well as in bookshops, hotels and tobacco shops. Air mail from Bucharest to European destinations typically takes three days or more, and can take as long as 10 days from locations outside the city. Surface mail takes as long as 3-4 weeks to reach its destination. Air mail to the States usually arrives within 5 or more days. When writing addresses in Romania, expats should remember that the number comes after the street name.
International telephone communications are fairly good, although sometimes subject to delays due to power outages. International Direct Dialing is available going into Romania, but outgoing calls require an operator. Domestic phone service is currently being updated, but is still relatively poor in quality.
Keeping an eye on crime
The US Department of State (DOS) reports that crimes against tourists — mugging, pickpocketing, and confidence scams by black-market money changes — are a growing problem in Romania. Organized groups of thieves and pickpockets operate in the train stations, and on trains and buses in major cities. A number of thefts have occurred on overnight trains, including thefts from passengers in closed compartments. Street crime is rising in Bucharest, although physical assaults of any kind are still rare. Money exchange scams have grown rather sophisticated, and may involve individuals posing as plainclothes police who approach the potential victim, flash a badge, and ask for his or her wallet or passport.
Leisure time activities
Although Bucharest ranks on the higher end of the hardship scale, expats will find there are a number of leisure-time activities in the city and surrounding areas. These include skiing and hiking in the mountains, and sunning on the beaches of the Black Sea. Romania also boasts fine architecture, numerous museums and galleries, folk festivals, a national philharmonic orchestra, ballet, opera, and theater. Clubs for expatriates are also available, with swimming, tennis, squash and gymnasiums.