An Irishman's Diary


THE GUESTS were not happy. They were not expecting too much in Sfantu Gheorghe, a provincial town in the Hungarian districts of central Romania, but the Hotel Bodoc had not come up to scratch, writes FRANK SHOULDICE.

They were unimpressed with the standard of service at the Bodoc, the spartan fare on offer in the dining-room, the non-appearance of cleaning staff in the bedrooms.

The receptionist listened intently, half-scowling. It was evident that the greatest novelty to strike this post-revolutionary rural backwater was the audacity of customers making a complaint.

Visiting Westerners had also experienced the hotel's laissez-faire approach to the hospitality trade, but what was most striking was that the unhappy patrons at the reception desk were all Romanian.

At the end of their tirade the receptionist pursed her lips and shrugged. She dealt with the complaint with a stoicism that had served her so well throughout the Communist era: it was not her problem.

For foreigners, the pallid design of the hotel and the Soviet drabness of the dining-room had been a curiosity, as fleeting as its stale white bread and phantom chambermaids. For the Bucharestis in the foyer, however, it was just not good enough. Too like the past, they felt. The hotel, an 11-storey concrete block, was neither Romanian nor Hungarian. Built with functionality in mind, it was Communist, Soviet, Ceaucescuesque, an architectural paean to a toppled regime. And as far as these Bucharestis were concerned, so was the mentality that went with it.

The drab inertia of the Bodoc summed up much of where Romania is now. Nicolai Ceaucescu was toppled in a violent demonstration of people power in 1989, but many of his former cohorts slipped, chameleon-like, into post-revolutionary control. The dictator is gone but the apparatchiks are not. To remain in power they simply changed hats.

For Romanians who took part in street rallies in Bucharest the residual feeling is one of being cheated. In daring to protest back then, they stood up to be counted at a critical, dangerous moment. They faced down the state army in scenes reminiscent of civilian uprisings in Prague, Budapest, Leipzig and Beijing. They watched friends being chased by tanks and shot at point-blank range by state troops. Although Nikolai Ceaucescu and his wife Elena met the same ignoble fate by firing squad, the question of what brought about those tumultuous events remains a live issue. Some 19 years later, many conclude that those mass protests served as a giant pawn for what was effectively a coup d'état.

They made a huge sacrifice, but what has changed?, they ask despondently. What has revolution brought us? They watch Hungary move ahead at triple speed and wonder why Romania, far richer in natural resources - including oil - is stuck in the slow lane. The immediate impact for this country of 22 million is a brain drain similar to Ireland's throughout the 1970s and 1980s. They look at stilted accession to the EU with the sober caution of thwarted idealists. At some point it will be good for Romania, but the country's endemic bureaucracy will not disappear without a paper fight. "We need two more generations before anything will happen," suggested a sound engineer in Bucharest. "Until then there will be no change in our way of thinking."

That sense of frustration is most palpable among the under-40s of this highly educated, multilingual country. They feel they have so much to offer but are being held back, not just by the EU, but by their own administration. Romanians want change, but the eagerness that brought them on to the streets has dissipated into weary depression.

Thousands too impatient for progress have already jumped ship, suspicious that the revolution was less a spectacular display of people power than a strategic manoeuvre by the political elite. Time is not running out for Romania, but for those who risked their lives in 1989 the 21st century is practically standing still.

Confronted by such political tensions the receptionist at the Hotel Bodoc remained gloriously unperturbed by the mystery of missing chambermaids. The guests said their piece and watched their concerns dissolve into silence. They retreated, having lit a candle hesitantly at the altar of customer service.

"I do not want to be angry with one single person but it is worth making a complaint," one guest explained to me. "I think if you say nothing, nothing will change. To do it like this they know we are not prepared to accept this any more. The word will reach where it matters. Eventually."

That was two years ago. It might please him to know that the Hotel Bodoc has since closed. Returning recently to Sfantu Gheorghe, I was surprised to discover the owners have decided it's time for change.

The front doors were locked and the courtyard turned into a construction site. A wheelbarrow rested in the foyer. The wind whistled through the car park, dispersing a mound of sand yet to be mixed for concrete.

The Bodoc faces a complete renovation, it seems. A small team of builders stood outside the foyer and lit cigarettes in hammer-less silence. For such a big job, why hurry?