Christmas and Toilets in Eastern Europe

January 5, 2008

posted by Claudia

What my holiday trip to Romania and Bulgaria made me think about the countries’ entry to the EU and their toilets, as well as the undeniable connection between the two.


Romania and Bulgaria celebrated one year of EU membership this New Year’s Eve. Blue flags with yellow stars were hanging from all the main buildings in the two countries, Christmas lights everywhere in the same colors, blue and yellow, blue and yellow, blue and yellow. We have made it into the club, we are back to the Europe we always belonged to, etc. etc.

In Romania, the malls were so crowded these winter holidays that the authorities announced proudly there’s enough demand to sustain the building of more than 30 new such commercial centers over the next year. I asked my Bulgarian friends where we can go to the cinema in Sofia and they told me there are fewer and fewer cinemas outside of malls and some of them have been repeating the same Kusturica movies for some time now, a sign they will soon close down.

My friends in these two countries belong to two categories, the “reluctantly adapted” and the “disenchanted”. The “reluctantly adapted” work for one of the big audit firms, for one of the big chocolate factories, or for one of the big banks. They don’t make so much money yet, but they surely will in a couple of years. They wear nice clothes and take me to nice restaurants, they are overworked, they crack good jokes about corporate life and they have an air that this is the only way. The “disenchanted” will just try to go back to school because there’s no coherence around, or it’s too aggressive. They insist “2008 will be no better than 2007”.

Sofia looked beautiful on New Year’s, all covered in snow, with the blue and yellow lights just popping up from behind. No dirt in sight.

Heavy snow in Bulgaria and Romania means all the trains in the two countries will be delayed by at least 4 hours, with no announcement about the delay, means people harassing the information desk clerk and she replying with irritation that the delay is “indeterminate”. The delay is indeterminate, it’s been like this for an indeterminate number of years, only the number of malls to be built next year has already been precisely determined.

It’s fine to hang around for four extra hours in the train stations in Brasov or Sofia because you get to understand much more than you otherwise would. In Brasov, because of the cold, the station is full of “children of the street” (“copii ai strazii”), as we call them. They hang around, annoying the “normal”, “clean” people. They sniff from their bags. They are many, many, 50 or more, some wear no shoes, they just laugh around. People tell you there didn’t use to be so many “children of the streets” before (“before” always means “before 1989” in Eastern Europe). Because many of them were just shut down, kept out of sight in orphanages and mental institutions. But also, simply, because there were fewer poor and orphan children before. Because, before, life was more settled and temptations fewer. And the contrast would be smaller too. Now it’s kids with the latest mobiles and skiing gear next to these kids. Now, there’s the mall next to the train station to contrast shop windows with most expensive clothes with the dirty windows of the train station from which the kids sniffing from bags stare out.

It’s also fine to spend more hours than necessary in a train from Sofia to Bucharest. You get to meet Western tourists fishing for women from Eastern Europe, which they have heard are easy and desperate to go to the West, still. It took me by surprise, I thought it was a legend, but they are around, and they insistently try to communicate with every woman they meet, using the same phrases, asking all of them to their warm, beautiful country. Not deterred by the delay, not tired by the extra hours, they go on and on, not having a clue.

And it’s fine to spend more hours than necessary in the train from Bucharest to Sofia to wonder why such a train (which actually links Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, all EU members now) has toilets with no running water for trips that last more than a day, no running water, and where the seat is just a rotten carcass of what used to be a real object sometime. There’s probably nothing that says more about the people than the toilets they use, I insist.

So, what to make of all this? Just that, while few move forward, many are left staring outside the window, sniffing from their bags of trash spiced up with detergent and glue. And all of us, the shameful and the shameless, silently use the same dirty toilets.

P.S. here’s a wiser man who also thinks toilets are relevant for understanding peoples (and ideology). zizek. he speaks about toilets in the west 🙂



  1. guess there shoud be a toilet culture movement around here…through an NGO maybe…something like the World Toilet Association 🙂

  2. yes – in the West toilets are very business-like to quote Zizek again…you flush, it disappears and you go on to your rushed lifestyle. Here it’s different – we haven’t found a way to come to terms with our pass: the Turks, the Greeks, the Fascist, the Communists, the Gulags, Sekuritate, Durjavna Sigurnost, you name it… and the past is stuck in the drain and all over the once-there-was-a-seat-here.

    Of course we are just using metaphors – malls have nice toilets, they smell nice and are clean, they flush lavishly…

  3. Romania caught short in loo row

    Ceausescu’s palace – miles of corridors, but short on toilets
    Preparations for next month’s Nato summit in Romania are being overshadowed by a row – over toilets.
    Parliamentary official Mihai Unghianu says Nato has complained that there are not enough lavatories at the venue.

    Nato is said to have asked the government to install 1,000 temporary toilets – one for every five delegates, each costing $9,500 (£4,700) a week.

    Nato has not publicly commented on the issue. Key talks on its Afghanistan mission are expected at the summit.

    It will take place at the vast parliamentary palace in Bucharest, built for the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, but now the site for both houses of parliament.

    The palace is among the largest buildings in the world, and although it has more than 1,000 halls and rooms, and 4,500 chandeliers, it appears to be short on some of the bare essentials.

    The dispute emerged after minutes from a parliamentary committee meeting were leaked.

    ‘Architectural jewel’

    According to these, in the meeting Mr Unghianu reported that after Nato officials had asked him for the plans of the building, they said they were displeased with both the number and quality of the toilet facilities.

    Nato suggested the installation of temporary toilets, but Bucharest objected that they did not have the money to fit them, and that they might upset the aesthetic appeal of what some consider to be an architectural jewel of a building.

    The palace’s architect, Anca Petrescu, has called the request for extra temporary facilities humiliating.

    She told Romania’s Adevarul newspaper that all the toilets would be working during the summit, and suggested that someone with portable toilets for hire was trying to make money at the taxpayers’ expense.

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