A comment piece published in Romanian on Contributors.ro
In the Icoanei garden in Bucharest’s 19th century centre, there is a fountain which gushes out water and tumbles into a stream that winds to the other end of the park to meet a large pond. Children play here. They jump over the stream. Sometimes they kick sand in the water. They throw sticks in the pond. Bottles and cigarette ends bob up and down in the water, but this is not a dump infested by lice and rats.
One day in late spring, spawn appeared in the water. Hundreds of jellied spheres emerged along the stream, in the pond and in the fountain. The children stopped splashing the water and asked their parents:
What are these? Can we touch them?
These are eggs, we explained to our kids. First they start with a white ball hosting a black dot. Next week we will see what happens.
The children returned the next week. The dots began to grow, their shape to transform, like an eye dilating.
Can we touch them? asked the kids, mesmerised.
Soon, we told them, wait for next week.
And the children returned. The black bodies had broken free from their eggs, and were swimming through the water. The children were thrilled. They watched the tadpoles as they wriggled in the swell, massing, colliding, rising to the surface and sipping the air.
They children used plastic bottles to scoop up the water, seeing how many tadpoles they could catch at once.
Mama, can I take them home?
No, wait dear, wait until next week – we will see what happens.
And the children came back. With bottles and nets. Rows of children, gathered along the edge of the pond, inspecting the stream, their fingers dangling into the fountain.
The tadpoles were sprouting tiny growths, which obstructed their swimming, slowed them down, causing some discomfort.
Incredible! said the children, first they seemed to be like bacteria, and then like fish, but now they have legs!
Wait, children, wait, until next week – when we will see what happens! You won’t believe it!
And the next week came.
The children rushed to the fountain and the stream and the pond. And the fountain was empty of water. And the stream was empty of water. And the pond was empty of water except for a muddy puddle, where a few tadpoles, pushing out their legs, preparing to mature, were struggling for life.
And the children kicked dust into the empty stream. And they threw sticks into the empty pond. And they bought some crisps and some cola and threw the packets into the empty fountain.
This is what Bucharest does. It builds up people’s expectations and then, just as they have a hope of being fulfilled, it kills them off.
This makes me think of the city’s “old centre”. This is the famous “old centre”. Tourists always stop me, asking where is the old centre?
Over there, I say, where everything opened last week. Where everything seems to change all the time. Where everything old shut down.
Bucharest had a chance to create a touristic centre. But the City is too greedy. The landlords asked for so much money, that only the rich could afford to hire space there, while the City Hall and Government hit the owners with so many taxes, that no one makes any money.
A tax on tips! A tax on the privilege of starting a business in Bucharest! A tax on chairs! I would understand if these chairs boasted a view on the Trevi Fountain, but when all one can see is a cut-price Charlie Chaplin impersonator, illegally parked cars and other people sitting down on chairs, it does not seem fair.
The only bars in the old centre seems to be those owned by beer companies – where you feel like you are going out in a supermarket aisle. Or they are owned by rich playboys who think having a bar means they can get laid to a different woman every night (fool! If you piss them off, they know where to find you!) – which means you feel like you are partying in the living room of someone you hate.
There are some exceptions – mass market, cheap kebab, beer and pizza outlets. There is the new bookshop Carturesti, which resembles a giant display case for luxury macaroons. But where is the vision? Where is the support? All owners I speak to are angry and downhearted. The jewel in Bucharest’s rusty old crown flashed brilliant for two years – but is now scratched and cracked. Harassed by the state and its private clients.
It is no surprise that the greatest entrepreneurial initiatives in Romania occur in the virtual space, in online shopping, Internet programming or software development, because these enterprises need little interaction with the local authorities. They can exist outside of a city hostile to their dynamism or parasitic to their success.
But this is the pattern. A great opportunity is undermined by the need to turn a short-term benefit. Cash or votes. In some parks, authorities feel it is better to cover the public space in concrete than to grow trees. Because trees take 20 years to generate a benefit, while a playground means votes for next year.
Local authorities should encourage wealth generation. They need to see business as a partner, not as an excuse to cash in. They should not tax, but subsidise enterprises that have dynamism, vision and social benefits. They can do it. I know they are doing it on a minor scale. But they must do it more. They must want to do it.
Because in Bucharest, as soon as someone makes money, it seems the authorities fleece every inch of them, until frozen, humiliated and exposed, they expire.