Romania has been the straggler of Eastern Europe ever since the bloody overthrow of its communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.
But recently, it has earned praise from the European Commission for its efforts to crack down on corrupt officials as part of its bid to join the European Union in 2007.
Foreign firms are competing to help Romania's face-lift
BBC Brussels correspondent Oana Lungescu reports on her native country's progress.
The slow train from the Romanian capital Bucharest to the central region of Transylvania shows little sign that the country is preparing to join the wealthiest club in the world.
The coach roof is leaking and the decrepit seats are falling off. My travelling companions, a couple of retired librarians, are convinced Romania is not ready for the EU.
"Very few people understand what it means, but I think politicians won't be able to steal as much as now because there will be more controls from the EU," one lady says.
"We don't want to become servants to the EU either," her friend adds. "We'll no longer be able to make our Romanian polenta or mamaliga, because we'll have to eat sliced bread wrapped in plastic with a food safety stamp on it!"
An economics student joins the conversation.
"I'm optimistic," she says. "Joining the EU hasn't prevented the Italians from making their polenta, and as for bread, we need some quality controls. For us, EU membership will be like the coming of spring."
We pass the poor villages of southern Romania, where horse-drawn carts outnumber tractors and many houses are made of mud and straw, heading to the rolling hills of Transylvania. We pass orchards in bloom and richer settlements with new Orthodox churches with gleaming tin roofs.
My destination is Sibiu, designated a European capital of culture next year along with Luxembourg. Also known as Hermannstadt, the city has been shaped for 800 years by hard-working German settlers.
I'm off to a rehearsal of "Harmony", a group of high-school students preparing for the annual jazz festival. Each speaks several languages and sees the EU as an opportunity to make new friends and travel.
"I love Romania, but if I had a chance to go abroad, I would definitely do it," said Ioana Muntean, one of the soloists.
Sibiu is the more attractive face of Romania - no stray dogs, Gypsy beggars or desperate orphans in sight. But right now, it is a building site. Seven new hotels are being built and the historic centre is being spruced up. The EU is spending about 60m euros (£41m) on water and road projects.
"Every single euro is well spent here," says the mayor, Klaus Johannis. So with so many concerned about corruption in Romania, is Sibiu the only clean city in the country?
"It is a clean city and I think others are pretty clean too. We have over 100 foreign investors who came to Sibiu in the last three to four years and they're very happy."
But not all foreign investors are happy.
A British civil engineering company, Scanmoor, wanted to be involved in the renovation of Sibiu's Station Square, desperately in need of a face-lift. Scanmoor bid 12.2m euros, but they lost to a German company which bid 15.7m euros.
"Surprisingly, the highest bidder won the tender, which is very unusual even for Romania," project manager Cornel Danila complains. "All of this looked like it happened behind closed doors, and we're considering going to the courts."
But Scanmoor has won four other contracts, so it is not giving up on Romania, despite its doubts.
Foreign investors are also watching closely an unprecedented crackdown on high-level corruption. The man in charge is 39-year- old Daniel Morar, Romania's new chief anti-corruption prosecutor.
I took the train back to Bucharest - this time it was a brand new German model - to meet him. Speaking in his office in a former military headquarters, Mr Morar rolled off the list of recent convictions.
"We've indicted an MP, a senior judge, and we're investigating seven or eight other MPs, two state secretaries and a government minister. I'm expecting our prosecutors to indict two more MPs before the European Commission reports."
Whipped into shape
Under constant EU pressure, Romania has gone much further in tackling corruption at the top than Bulgaria. But some doubt it will keep up the good work once it is in the club.
Sibiu's mayor says every euro that comes in is being spent
Foreign Minister Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu rejects that suggestion.
"Membership of the Council of Europe, then Nato and now of the EU have had the same effect," he says, "as a whip on the back of someone who's been historically lazy.
"But I think we are in a position now to resume our development from within the EU.
"I don't think that leaving Romania aside would make Romania prosperous or safe. After working so hard and doing our best to prove how determined we are, I think we deserve a good hug and a welcome."
Romania expects to receive a hug in the European Commission report in mid-May, which has to be endorsed by EU leaders in June. But the welcome will be less warm than for the other former communist countries.
Even if they join next January, Romania and Bulgaria will remain under close scrutiny in the first three years and some of their membership rights may be curtailed, unless both countries keep up the momentum for change.