Top Gear Romanian Special
JEREMY CLARKSON, RICHARD HAMMOND AND JAMES MAY IN ROMANIA:
It was with great interest that I watched the Romanian special on Top Gear last year. I was last there in 1992 and had visited the country 5 times before that. It was always a fascinating place, full of wonderful people and stunning landscapes. I adored it.
The upheaval everyone was going through immediately after the overthrow of Ceaucescu and the fall of communism meant Bucureşti was an intriguing place to spend time. Decisions were being made about the structure of the new government and the role the immense people’s palace would play (at the time there was serious talk of razing it to the ground). Bullet holes and blood stains were still everywhere and through it all was a sense of optimism you could truly taste. The excitement amongst the left wing students and politicians though was living side by side with the fear they had (quite rightly it would seem) that the old guard would remain in power under a different guise. And added to this was the fact that not everyone wanted change. Many many people feared the future and wanted a return to the old ways, especially now Ceaucescu was disposed of.
And yet, venture into the countryside and you were immediately transported back half a century to an atmosphere and way of life that is so rare to find. It was idyllic – horse drawn carriages everywhere, haystacks, ducks and geese, traditional farming methods, colourful houses and a friendliness and openness we can only dream of in Western Europe. Scratch the surface however and you could found plenty to make you very uneasy. The country was steeped in racial prejudice (as is most of Eastern Europe and indeed the rest of Europe) towards the Romany people. There was real tension and whatever the root of the problem it was a vicious circle of two way suspicion, anger and hatred. The idyllic, almost medieval lifestyle was fantastic to witness as a tourist, but it was there because of years of neglect and immense poverty. There was also a real sense of apathy in many people that was so prevalent in many of the Eastern Bloc countries after years of extreme communism and fear.
The Top Gear film obviously only skimmed the surface of the country. They were, after all, not there to provide an insight into the country. It was entertainment pure and simple, and Romania just happened to be the backdrop. It did, however show me that very little seems to have changed in the last 15 years or so. Bucureşti still seemed to be buzzing and people seem to have embraced the western way of living they longed for so much when I was there. You could see people’s friendliness and eagerness to help and show off the country they are all so immensely proud of. Westernization seemed to have taken hold and there was a real sense that there was a hell of a lot of money floating around in some places. It did seem though to be in the hands of very few people. I will not speculate where this has come from or the damage it could be doing.
And I had mixed feelings because very little seems to have changed in Transylvania and the beautiful countryside they visited. Relief that it all still looked so idyllic, but concern that this was because the poverty and neglect was still there. I was also left wondering if the outskirts of the towns were still surrounded by half built grey concrete tower blocks and communities living in extreme poverty. Because it is all very well having a minority of the population succeed, become rich and live the ‘American Dream’ they all longed for, but had the country and government managed or even remembered to take the rest of the population and infrastructure with it? Including the Romany?
Back in 1990 we spent many hours over glasses of wine and palinka trying to convince the wide eyed teenagers we spoke to that there was more to life than blue jeans and heavy metal rock and the American way of life. I can only hope that Romania has found its own way and not blindly followed the West and America into the same traps we have all fallen into. Including the shocking scenes of neglect seen in another one of Top Gear’s films as the three of them arrived in New Orleans a year after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Scenes of neglect by the rest of America and poverty that could, ironically be so easily echoed in parts of Romania.
Perhaps the only way of finding out is to visit again. I would truly love that. Romania is a beautiful country.