Income gaps divide Romania

Two friends encounter a new awkwardness, based on what one can afford and the other cannot

The packed, plodding trains that Daniela Alexandrescu rides smell of sweat, sausage, and cigarette smoke. But they're the best transport the Bucharest doctor can afford.

Her friend Ioanna Daia, who translates Spanish-language soap operas for Romanian television in Bucharest, opts for the clean, climate-controlled expresses. They're more expensive, but it's no strain. After all, Ms. Daia's soaps pay almost eight times as much as Ms. Alexandrescu's scrubs.

Such gaps are common in Romania's lopsided economy. As in several other Eastern European countries struggling to develop a capitalist economy, groups who would typically have middle-class status in the West - doctors like Alexandrescu, and teachers - find themselves increasingly losing ground as their state-paid salaries dwindle. The more equalized poverty of the communist period is being replaced by the income disparities of capitalism.

And Alexandrescu and Daia, who have been friends for close to a decade, find their lifestyles diverging and their friendship sometimes awkward, because of what one can afford and the other cannot.

"There are some things that I can't do with Dani that I can, for example, do with my sister, who also makes a good salary," says Daia.

After a decade of underperformance, Romania's economy is finally showing signs of life. The economy has grown by more than 4 percent a year since 2000; unemployment is dropping; the average salary has risen to $154 per month, and foreign investment has increased substantially each year since 2001, according to World Bank statistics.

Still, while salaries and job opportunities are rising for a few, the vast majority continue to earn subsistence salaries, and close to 30 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Alexandrescu saves money by living with her parents. Otherwise, rent in Bucharest could eat up 60 percent or more of her $120 monthly doctor's salary. Still, she says, it's hard to make ends meet. In months when she has to help her parents with utility costs, she runs short on paying the telephone bill or tuition and books for her master's studies in psychotherapy - never mind such niceties as going out with friends.

On a recent three-day trip north to Brasov, in the Carpathian Mountains, she was aware that her friends, including an engineer, a high-tech specialist, and Daia, who make $625, $750, and more than $800 per month, respectively - luxurious incomes by Romanian standards - were taking public buses, instead of the city's taxis, solely because of her. Instead of meals in restaurants, gatherings in homes became the order of the day.

"I know my friends think about our financial differences," says Alexandrescu, "and they don't choose places where I can't go."

While acknowledging that her friend's thinner resources are a factor, Daia says, "I don't think our income differences have gotten in the way of the friendship. Sometimes I think it is also good for me to be obliged to go 'on a lower level' let's say, and you discover that such a level is OK," adds the translator, who spent three weeks in Thailand this fall and a recent day skiing in Romania's premier resort.

An acquaintance of Daia's who often spends time with the same group of friends in Brasov wonders if the difference in pocketbooks will eventually become too uncomfortable.

English teacher Kinga Kolumban gives private lessons to supplement her classroom pay of under $50 a month. "I do see that a split is developing in our group of friends," she says. "I am trying not to be too touchy about it, and my friends are trying to be sensitive as well, but we all know it is there. They can afford things - and they can afford to do things - that I just can't."

As in the communist era, many Romanians are relying on relatives in the country who grow vegetables or raise livestock and can share food.

Alexandrescu's contribution to her friends' New Year's Eve dinner was meat and sausages from a freshly slaughtered pig her family had raised at her grandmother's village house - and sent to Brasov by the slow train.

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