Saturday, January 28, 2012

A king, a king, my horsedom for a king

Romania, on my first visit in 2000, was quaintly backward in one sense, but moving swiftly into the 21st century in another. Surprisingly the main roads had, by and large, quite smooth surfaces, until reaching the outskirts of Bucharest, where they deteriorated dramatically, with potholes popping down everywhere. En route the quaintness was emphasised by vehicles we very rarely see in England, like horse-drawn carts and steam-cars, which chugged along at a steady pace. For rural communities these were practical vehicles, having a circular saw mounted to the rear. When the vehicle was stationary the saw could be engaged for cutting wood into manageable sizes.

Travelling by bike there were few vehicles in my 7000 kilometre journey that I ever got to overtake apart from the mammalian and mechanical chuggers, and a few locals on their village rattle-bikes. Eleven years on and the roads, even in Bucharest, get better, as does the infrastructure in general. Supermarkets are springing up in all the towns while small businesses are closing down unable to compete.

Towards the end of October 2011, on my latest visit, national television was inundated with birthday celebrations for the 90 year-old, formerly-deposed exile, King Michael I, who was forced to abdicate in 1947. The February issue of The Oldie contains a Nick Thorpe interview with the ageing former monarch, whose country fought on the side of the Nazis until it became imprudent to do so any longer. Then came Communism.

The second communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed together with his wife, following a kangaroo trial, on Christmas Day, 1989. At the time it was the only country in Europe without a national debt. There is something of a dichotomy in the way the Communist Party of Romania allowed King Michael I to freely leave his kingdom, with all the possessions he wished to take with him, and the way that capitalist, and Christian, Romania siezed the opportunity to swiftly execute Ceausescu without a proper trial. Conspiracy theorists might think it wreaks of western involvement. In fact, the overthrow was orchestrated, from a western city, Timișoara, by a priest of Hungarian extraction, László Tőkés. During Ceausescu's 22 years at the helm times were hard for a predominantly peasant country, so hard, that on one of my visits when I was preparing a meal using lentils I was accused of eating 'peasant food' of the former communist country from the days when few could afford meat.

While towns are becoming more westernised, and prosperous, Romania's national debt is now matching that of other western economies, and people in the villages are suffering, much as they did under Ceausescu. Many prefer the Ceausescu years when everybody had jobs. While celebrations for the birthday of King Michael were given prime-time coverage these were clearly organised by those with an interest to see that communism never returns. As long as western countries can keep adding to their debts there seems little likelihood of a return to communism. The horses are going. The steam-cars are all but gone. There will be no return to monarchy. But one day the reaper will be looking for his harvest.


  1. It speaks for itself that the priest, László Tőkés, after his wife divorced him for adultery, was rewarded with a vice presidency of the European Parliament.