Page last updated at 13:10 GMT, Saturday, 13 September 2008 14:10 UK

Romania's reinvention in EU image

Free from the shackles of the communist past, East European countries are reinventing themselves and, as Tom Fort found in Romania, they are blossoming as part of the European Union.

The fertiliser plant in Tagu-Mures
Romanian industry is struggling to meet EU standards on pollution.

The road into Targu-Mures from the south-west is long, straight and unpromising.

From a great distance, the skyline is filled by the chimneys and towers of a vast fertiliser plant.

When you get closer to it, you can see that the towers and chimneys are joined by blocks of brick and concrete, filthy and eaten by pollution, festooned with rusted metal piping.

When I first came this way, 18 years ago, a plume of virulent mustard yellow smoke poured night and day from the tallest of the chimneys, filling the air over the town with a sharp, sour tang.

The road was lined with other factories, smaller but just as grubby, just as noxious.


The first thing I noticed when I returned this summer was that they were gone. The leather factory had been replaced by a supermarket, the textiles factory by car showrooms, the cement factory by a housing development.


Only the fertiliser plant survived, like a monument to a departed age. And even there, a European Union edict meant the smoke was now a benign and odourless white.

The transformation of the town centre was even more startling. The position of the buildings - the two churches at one end, the art nouveau Palace of Culture and Old Town Hall at the other, the anything-but-Grand Hotel - was the same. But everything was different.

The dark, poky shops selling nothing anyone wanted to buy were no more. There were nine banks, almost as many mobile phone outlets, ice cream parlours, bars, cafes, restaurants, even a casino.

The once soot-smeared frontages glowed in their pastel shades, and Colonel Sanders' avuncular features looked down from the glass and steel heights of the Mures Mall.


My friend Grigore was looking similarly restored. When I first met him, he was living in one of the stark apartment blocks that came after the factories, working himself half to death trying to keep a bloated Communist-era glass and furniture company from going to the wall.

Now he had a smart new house near the Castle, and a small, flourishing business where his son did most of the hard graft, leaving Grigore time, at last, for his passion in life, which was fishing.

He had lived through a lot. Persecution by the authorities, the imprisonment of relatives, his brother and mother going into exile in Germany, the death of his wife.

Now he was looking forward to a trip to the Danube delta, taking his motorboat, then a month fly-fishing in Lapland with his brother.

Old animosities buried

Targu-Mures is in Transylvania, which was Hungarian for a lot longer than it has been Romanian. To the Hungarians it has always been, and will always be, Marosvasarhely.

Three months before I arrived in 1990, tensions between the communities erupted into vicious violence, leaving bodies on the steps of the Orthodox cathedral.

Then, that was one of two subjects dominating every discussion: Romanian against Hungarian. The other, of course, was the trauma of the Ceausescu years.

The ethnic issue has subsided. As the Hungarian director of the splendid Teleki Library in Targu-Mures put it to me, rather sadly, the young are not interested in the old history any more. Just money. And not any money. Euros.
As for the Ceausescu nightmare, that too has receded.

One day, going fishing, I was introduced to Calin, a law student, a thoughtful and delightful young man of 20. I asked him whether they learned about the regime at school and at university.

Not really, he said. He had seen the documentaries on TV, listened to the old people talking about it. But it was all so long ago.

With an effort, I realised that Calin was not even two years old when Ceausescu and his wife were shot.

All modern conveniences

The countryside stretching away to the east from the town is utterly lovely. A green valley giving way to wooded hills, then mountains blue with pine forest.

Romantic Romania
The horse and cart is fast disappearing from rural life

Eighteen years ago, there were as many horses and carts on the roads as cars. The grass in the meadows was cut by scythe. In the villages, every family squeezed every scrap of food they could from their patch of land. They toiled unceasingly, through all the hours of daylight.

Now, the grass is cut by machine, the horses and carts are disappearing fast, the vegetable gardens are shrinking. The hard peasant life has softened.

One day I expressed regret to Grigore about the loss of peace and the picturesque. He, who like most Romanians had been through experiences quite unimaginable to me in the bad times, was politely dismissive.

"You are a romantic," he said. "Why should anyone want to work all day to grow food when they can buy it in the supermarket?"

I realised I had no answer.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 13 September, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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