"There was a time before the Second World War that Bucharest was called 'Little Paris,' " says taxi driver Marian Toma as he winds through the smog-filled streets of the Romanian capital. "Now we call it 'Little Moon' - with all the holes and dust."
It's true: Paris never comes to mind while traveling through Bucharest today. Dust covers everything, potholes turn the streets to mazes, and trash collects on corners and empty lots along every block. Dogs roam the streets in wild packs, their barks and howls echoing in concrete courtyards through the night.
As the 10th anniversary of Ceausescu's execution approaches, many ordinary Romanians like Toma are struggling to make peace with their circumstances. He longs to see his dreams become reality and chastises the Communists for stifling Romanian ambition. "Ceausescu wanted us to hold our dreams inside," Toma says. "But it's not possible."
Economic progress is slow in Romania. Inflation could reach 50 percent this year, and the past six weeks have seen tens of thousands of workers protesting against the government and low wages.
Cement-block buildings, which took over the residential streets under the rule of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, are crumbling after only 25 years of use. Desperate economic times leave many apartments without working plumbing, and yet satellite dishes poke out from many balconies. Wireless phones are everywhere, but many of the public telephones are out of order.
Bucharest is a city of stark contrasts. The streets are clogged with traffic: Romanian-made Dacia cars and shiny imports weave around an occasional horse-drawn cart on an errand from the countryside. "I don't like driving near horses; they're too unpredictable," says Mr. Toma matter-of-factly.
Nostalgia for the old days
Yet in the decade since the revolt, Toma's dreams have been on hold. He can't help but long for the old days when housing was provided for everyone and things seemed so much simpler. If only "Ceausescu was a little smarter and gave us a little more liberty to travel, like [Yugoslav leader Josip Broz] Tito," Toma says.
Today, Toma, his wife, and seven-year-old son live with his mother in their three-room apartment. During the Communist years, he worked as an electrician in a factory. Now, he drives a taxi and works a government job in hopes of being granted a "social apartment." After five years in the same job, Toma will be eligible for an apartment and the right to pay 30 percent of his pay for rent. Eventually, he can buy the apartment, but he must pay cash. "To finance is not possible," he says, "with interest rates at 86 percent. If I want to build a house now it costs me ... my salary for 300 months."
But despite the economic hardships, Romanian nationalism is strong. "We Romanians said no matter how bad it is, our bread is good enough," Toma says. And that loyalty extends even to the memory of Ceausescu. Last August, when the government dusted off the Communist dictator's possessions and put them up for auction, many Romanians did not approve. "The government leaders were smart to do it, but I really didn't like it," says Nicole Draghici, a Romanian clerk at the United States Embassy in Bucharest.
Profit from Ceausescu's past
The auction raised much-needed cash for the country by selling gifts and other Ceausescu collections from his 24-year rule. Cars reputed to have come from Richard Nixon and the shah of Iran, 30 fur coats, a chess set given by Fidel Castro, and hundreds of other items earned more than 5 billion lei ($280,000) for the current Romanian government. But since the execution of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day 1989, various commissions have failed to trace $400 million the couple allegedly deposited in foreign bank accounts.
In the center of Bucharest, the massive, unfinished Palace of the People displays the opulence and arrogance of Ceausescu. This monument to excess was built while the Romanian people suffered without enough food and heat.
On a trip to Toma's in-laws in the village of Adunatii-Copaceni, he points to the collective housing built by Ceausescu. When land was collectivized, they were forced to move into buildings without running water. The goal was "to keep the man in the four walls of an apartment to just come home, and eat, and sleep, and then work again the next day," Toma says.
His in-laws are proud to be working their own land again. And Toma seizes every opportunity to contribute to the enterprise. He takes calls on his mobile phone while working in the garden and attaches a trailer to his taxi to ferry corn from field to market. Just beyond the modest house is a greenhouse filled with cucumber vines, spinach, and peppers. Every inch of the sloping land is in use.
Toma drives to the small plot of land in the village that was once part of the collective farm but has been given back to his family now. Over the years, the villagers have been taking the buildings apart and using the materials to rebuild their own property, Toma explains. "At the end of the collectives, the saying goes, the leaders steal with trucks, the workers with bags," he says.
In spite of the bitterness, Toma's dreams are still very much alive. He talks about his plans to add a terrace to his in-laws' home and boasts about his corn harvest.
"I have beautiful dreams, you know," Toma says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society