Nastase comes clean with some elbow grease

BUCHAREST DAYS; 'Everyone complains that the city doesn't do a thing, but you have to do a bit yourself'
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The Independent Online
I do not usually go drinking with people who openly admit they have not had a bath for over two weeks, but in Bucharest I bend the rules.

The city has an acute problem with water supplies and heating and for many, going without baths or showers has long since become a way of life.

"I haven't seen any hot water since January," moaned Razvan, one of my companions seeking solace in the newly opened Piano Bar. "But I consider myself lucky. Some of my friends don't even get cold water."

Six years after the bloody revolution that swept Nicolae Ceausescu from power, the people of Bucharest still seem to be suffering from the deprivations that made their country a byword for hardship even among its former Warsaw Pact colleagues.

The old Communist-era joke - "Don't open the window or passers-by will catch a cold" - still seems to hold true. But for the city's 2 million inhabitants, it has worn thin.

"After the revolution we thought that everything would somehow come right," said Razvan. "Now, at last, we thought we'd get constant hot water, a public transport system that worked and, above all, a clean city. Instead it's the same old mess as before."

Winter is certainly not the best time to visit Bucharest. The grime and fumes that hang in the air in warmer months are supplemented by treacherous icy patches on streets that are never properly cleaned or cleared, and evil-looking pools of sludge that never seem to find drains.

Traces of the "Paris of the East", as the city was known before the Second World War, are few and far between. True, there are still some magnificent mansions and even a replica Arc de Triomphe. But most of the grandeur has long gone, giving way to the ugly tower blocks thrown up under Communism and the grotesque palaces and giant-sized buildings through which Ceausescu stamped his indelible imprint.

Although most of the city's ills stem from the Communist era, much of the blame for its present miserable state is laid at the door of Crin Halaicu, the city's Mayor who when elected four years ago promised to initiate sweeping change.

Given the problems he was inheriting and an acute lack of funds - the city's annual budget totals just $200m (pounds 130m) - Mr Halaicu's promises were never realistic. But while there has been little visible sign of improvement (only three McDonald's to date), he personally appears to have been enjoying the perks of office, holding lavish functions and growing fatter and fatter by the day - allegedly putting on some 40lb in weight.

To the cynical of Bucharest, it is yet another example of a politician getting his nose into the trough. As Razvan angrily put it: "They are all the same here. They start off slim and hungry like me . . . and they end up looking like Pavarotti."

If ever a city needed a knight in shining armour, it must surely be Bucharest. And, lo and behold, one of its most famous sons has stepped forward to offer his services. Ilie Nastase, the 49-year-old former tennis champion, has let it be known that he will be running for mayor in elections this May and that, if elected, he will try to use his international connections to help turn the city round.

Nastase's sudden decision to enter the race apparently came about as a result of too many bumpy rides over the city's pot-holed roads and his own desire to see Bucharest regain at least some of its long-lost charm.

Instead of resigning themselves to the squalid state of their capital city, Mayor Nastase would have Romanians picking up brooms and brushes and starting the work of transformation by cleaning up around their own shops and houses.

"Everyone complains that the city doesn't do a thing, but you have to do a bit yourself," says Nastase, who has been known to roll up his sleeves and clear the snow in front of his own rather smart villa.

It is a novel idea for Romanians, and, given the state of Bucharest, it would be nice if it could work. But judging from the response in the Piano Bar, where respect for Nastase was high, I'm not sure it is going to catch on.

"People aren't really going to change, and I don't think Nastase, with his lack of experience, will be able to change them," said Razvan.

Later, stepping out into the cold night air, he thought of the long trek home and the freezing one-roomed flat that awaited him. "On the other hand, maybe Nastase wouldn't be such a bad idea. He couldn't exactly make things any worse."