Monday, July 19, 2010

Romania - Vacation - 2010

Well, well, well… What better way of catching up on updating my blog with the European vacation experience then being delayed in Schiphol (AMS) airport for 5(!) Hours…

Hectic yet fun-filled, the trip to Romania (and Turkey) had a lot of points worth putting down on paper (or screen, rather). The general impression, as sad as it may sound, is that Romania took a few serious steps backwards since last time I went back [4 years ago]. People seemed more hopeless, frustrated and fed up with how the affairs of the state are being (mis)managed by the inept powers that be. The global economic crisis has undoubtedly something to do with that; however, it’s a general feeling of panic and despair that casts a negative shadow over the social, politic and economic “feel” in the country.

The first glimpse of it came before I even stepped out of the plane. As we taxied to the gate, there was a plane on the tarmac without any commercial signage. It simply said ‘Republica Italiana’. As the ‘passengers’ were stepping off the plane, they were being loaded into a couple of Police vans. Yes, I was witnessing a sample of the select few that tarnish the Romanian name everywhere they go [obviously engaged in illegal activities in Italy they were being deported and handed over to the local authorities]. I’ve talked to several friends who openly admit that they prefer not to associate themselves with Romania once they go abroad. Can’t say that I blame them!

The first few days of vacation were great. Catching up with relatives and old friends, watching the World Cup with 10-15 people on the TV outside while washing down ‘mici’, ‘fleica’, ‘babic’ and ‘ceafa’ with every imaginable kind of cold beer was truly relaxing. And fun! [football and a sizzling grill has a way of making people forget about their troubles].

World Cup "la curte":

But among all that, the ‘social’ scene was marred by controversy surrounding the baccalaureate exams. There were plenty of schools where the passing percentage was in the single digits. There were more cases than I thought imaginable where students were caught cheating, professors allowed the cheating to happen, and even took bribes in order to arrange passing grades. A sad state of affairs for a school system that less than a couple of decades ago took pride in being one of the best in Europe. Everyone agrees that there’s nothing “serious” done in schools any longer. Not even in the flagship high schools that used to springboard winners of math and science “Olympics”.

The inner courtyard of my (and my mom's!) elementary school [back then, a serious thing]:

The end of the ‘bacal’ exams marked the unofficial opening of the beach season. A holiday season that seems to shrink (in duration and magnitude) from year to year. And every year, the Romanian tourism industry seems to lose more and more ground to our neighbors to the South (Bulgaria especially, but not only). As I drove from Constanta to Turkey (through the Bulgarian coastline) I was able to understand why: they have [much] nicer (and newer) resorts, impressive hotels (several with “all-inclusive” options) and prices [from what I heard] that are significantly less than what the ‘innkeepers’ in Mamaia charge. The service is much better also. So in that case, why would anyone want to spend their hard-earned money on the Romanian Black Sea coast? To quote the overly-frugal Clark Howard, they’re “talking with their feet”. Pretty soon, there will be no one spending their vacations on the Romanian beaches.

Mid-July, yet the beaches in Mamaia are empty:

The hotels, for the most part, got only a superficial paint job and new hotels are small and scarce. ‘Landscaping’ – the way we understand it – is non-existent. Nothing compared to the mega-resorts in Bulgaria. Even Rex was undergoing major construction (see below) in the middle of the season. Didn’t they have the whole winter/spring for that? Now, don’t get me wrong, outside of the nice resorts, Bulgaria is no different than Romania. A couple of the pictures below show a stark contrast between the nice resorts (German built and run for the most part) and the favela-like neighborhoods in the Varna suburbs. But at least they [the Bulgarians] grabbed the tourism market-share while back ‘home’ the idea seems to be “let’s rip off the tourists”.

Resorts in Bulgaria...

... and 'favelas' in Varna:

Part of me wants to understand the Romanians’ approach: the season is shorter, the rent for a patch of the beach horrendous, so they try to get an obvious return on investment given the limited time. But in the process, the customer is the one who suffers (and gets fed up to the point where they prefer to go spend the same money [or less] somewhere else). Case in point: a set of lounge chairs and umbrella is 40 RON [$12] per day if reserved first thing in the morning [significantly more in the weekends] but the price ‘stands’ if one goes to the beach at 4PM (for only an hour or two). Pleas for reasoning with them fall on deaf, indifferent ears. After all, they’re not in the business of providing a service; just making money regardless of the circumstances. And did I mention the chairs and umbrellas are EVERYWHERE?

... a 'happy' note in an attempt to attract people to the beach:

More on this topic: wave-runners. Omnipresent as well, and VERY expensive. Depending on the model, 30 minutes of fun on the water can set you back 200-250 RON [$60-75]. And for that, they are idle 95% of the time. Simple business logic tells me that if the price was lower, the usage would be higher and implicitly utilization and the profits bigger. But that’s not how these “entrepreneurs” think. Good common [business] sense does not exist on the Romanian Black Sea coast.

So under these dire circumstances, the “holiday season” is limited to long weekend stints when “the provincials” head down the “Highway of the Sun” [still unfinished, 20 years later] for a quick dip in the sea and “feasting” in overpriced and overrated restaurants. Then Monday comes and it all turns back into a ghost town [resort] until the following weekend. You see, Romanian people with money [and taste / or the misconception of ‘taste’] spend their holidays in the Greek Islands [one week all inclusive WITH air and lodging in Rhodes is as little as 450 EURO], Bulgaria, Turkey [everyone is raving about Antalya] or even more ‘exotic’ places, like Albania, Croatia, or Dubai! It makes no sense to them to spend the same amount of money [or more] and get ripped off, or have a disappointing vacation. Yes, sadly, the ‘well-to-do’ people pump money into these other countries’ economies, and the ones that don’t have the money, or got affected by the recent economic downturn, simply ‘skip’ vacations these days. A vicious circle that plunges the country further into misery…

And with all this, you would imagine that the service industry would bend head-over-hills to accommodate the fewer and fewer customers. Yet, quality of service (and products) is definitely not a concern of the Romanian business owner. I’m wondering what business school teaches that… They don’t seem to have any concern for repeat business or word-of-mouth reputational ‘advertising’. I’m generalizing, of course, there are exceptions, but taken as a whole, this is one of the categories where the aforementioned ‘steps backwards’ have occurred. The ‘healthy competition’ concept just does not exist yet.

Traffic is crazy. And the main rule is that people driving nice big expensive cars do not obey any of the traffic rules. The ‘less fortunate’ who don’t drive a Q7 or something in that realm are flashed at, honked at and more or less pushed off the road. Did I mention that I saw more expensive cars and SUVs in my two weeks there than I would have in Atlanta? They definitely fall in the category of ‘social status’, not transportation. And if you saw the quality of the roads, you would just have to wonder: WHY??? Personally, I drove a rented Ford Fiesta and it was more than enough for putzing around the city.

A city that lost the charm it once had. A dirty city, by comparison to other Romanian cities I’ve seen in pictures and home-made movies (Brasov and Sibiu for example). A city which – allegedly – Mr. Mayor [Mazare] and his cohorts have been ‘milking’ for years now.

I went down to the promenade, with its once outstanding Casino that used to be the shining jewel of the old city. The drive down (passing by Ovidiu’s statue) is depressing, with run-down and crumbled buildings and weeds up the wazoo. The Casino itself, an architecturally imposing feat, has not seen any fresh paint (or tenants for that matter) in a long time. Word on the street is that they [Mazare’s cohorts, aka ‘business associates’] want it (and other significant landmarks) to go into despair, so they can grab them at fire-sale prices. Italian mafia has nothing on these guys (or other similar figures in the Romanian power echelon).

And although the city is dirty, cars are parked willy-nilly ALL OVER the place, and small shops, ‘beauty parlors’ and dental cabinets are present on the first floor of every apartment building, Constanta now has another brand new “mall” (with another one being erected as we speak) where most of the shopping being done is the ‘window’ kind. Not surprising, since the prices are no different (if not higher) that what similar stores charge in Paris, London or Milan. But here again, another Romanian “sin” is that putting food on the table is not a necessity, as long as one’s wardrobe bears a brand name and the cell phone bill gets paid first.

I’m still to get to the bottom of some of the paradoxes I encountered during my stay: no one works [generalizing of course] but they complain there’s no money; stealing is more prevalent than in communist times (at least back then there was the fear of repercussions) and that’s how the ‘big money’ is made. The ‘leadership’ [in quotes for obvious reasons] is incapable and unwilling (or both) to handle the big issues (partly because they’re a significant beneficiary in this whole boondoggle). It’s all a classic case of “the dogs are barking yet the bear keeps walking” [old Romanian proverb very appropriate in this context]

But enough with the cruel and clearly negative reality; I could go on forever. We did stumble across a nice restaurant on the ONE occasion we decided to go out. ‘Marco Polo’ was a nice change of pace from the patched-up eye-sores that call themselves restaurants. The food, ambiance and service made me forget for a couple of hours that I was in Romania. Now why can’t others follow that example? [I understand there are plenty of these in Bucharest – it’s only natural – but this blog is limited in scope to my beloved Constanta]

Bureaucracy has improved a bit, although paying bills and running simple errands (that most of us do with a click of a mouse or a quick phone call) still require a physical trip to the respective offices, but more streamlining and centralization is needed. Another “shark” species has surfaced in the process: they call themselves Notary Public and charge the exorbitant sum of 60 RON [$18] for simply putting their stamp and signature on something as trivial as a Power of Attorney document (yet nothing concerning legal matters can be accomplished without them). To get a feel for what that means, (and put the prices I mentioned earlier in perspective) the average monthly salary in Romania these days is about $650. Did I utter the word ‘paradox’ earlier? I think I did!

Enough for now. Getting a bit tired and I hear another beer calling my name. I’m just upset that I had to cut my quick escape to Amsterdam (and the Heineken Experience museum visit) short earlier today. Had I known the flight was going to be delayed so much, I would have enjoyed the Venice of the North at a more leisurely pace…

PS – on another note about the effects of the global economic downturn: the famous Red Light District windows were overwhelmingly empty… Granted, some of the “talent” is now lining up the roads in Romania and Bulgaria selling their services to pathetic excuses for human beings.

On that sour note, more trip impressions to follow, including an unexpectedly nice side trip to Istanbul… Stay tuned!

PPS – the delay I mentioned earlier turned into a cancellation. KLM paid for hotel and dinner, but did not let us get the luggage. Wearing the same clothes tomorrow should be loads of fun!

Oh, the unforseen perils of travel…

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