A Tale of Two Cities


I have a very simple rule that I follow so that I am not tempted to write overly bombastic pieces here on the blog: I never say anything online that I wouldn’t have the courage to say to someone’s face. And therefore it is with all seriousness that I say this.

Mr. Sorin Apostu, current mayor of Cluj-Napoca, you, sir, are a fucking idiot.

Since January of this year, I have been trying to make some inroads with the mayor’s office here in Cluj. I went down to their “tourist information” office, spoke to several people, got their contact information and left them a free copy of my book.

I have personally been responsible for bringing a dozen people here to Cluj already so it seemed obvious to me that some kind of strategic partnership between the author of a best-selling guidebook and the government of the city wherein he resides would be a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, I am clearly the only one who thinks this. In the last two months, the entire sum of positive feedback I have received from the mayor’s office has been “your book is interesting”. Literally, that’s it.

But I haven’t yet spoken to the mayor himself so I thought perhaps I was just dealing with some particularly inefficient and apathetic underlings. Until I read this article:

Întrebat de ce durează atât de mult conturarea brandului Clujului, primarul Sorin Apostu a declarat că dezbaterile pentru brand, logo şi zilele oraşului au început deodată. „Între timp, a venit criza şi e mai greu să identifici fonduri pentru aşa ceva. Trebuie spus că cei care au participat la dezbateri au făcut acest lucru fără bani. Acum am ajuns la o nouă etapă, în care căutăm un sponsor pentru finanţarea unui concurs de idei“, a mai declarat Sorin Apostu.

Essentially the linked article began with a discussion about Turda’s new brand and tourist image. When asked to comment, the mayor of Cluj said, “We are looking for a sponsor to finance a competition of ideas to develop a brand”. Literally! And this is after years of Cluj not having any kind of “brand”.

See? This is clearly how he thinks as that’s a direct quote. Some local oligarch needs to put up money to finance a committee of people who will argue and debate and hopefully eventually design a freaking logo so that one day, perhaps far in the future, Cluj will have some kind of “brand” identity. Christ, give me 100 euros and I’ll get a gang of local artists together and we’ll whip the entire thing together in two weeks.

In other news, this past Saturday was the official “unveiling” of the refurbished statue of Matei Corvinus (Ro). This came as a shock to anyone with a pair of functional eyeballs in this city because clearly the statue has been shiny and on display for four months. Why the incredible delay? All the mayor’s office will say is “for various reasons”.

Did the mayor of Cluj-Napoca even attend the great “unveiling” last Saturday? Apparently he did but I find no record of him giving a speech or saying anything official. The former mayor of Cluj, Emil Boc, now the Prime Minister of Romania, and wide variety of other government big wigs all managed to attend as well.

And even though Sorin Apostu said nothing publicly (as far as I can tell), one of his fellow PDL members, Deputy Mircia Giurgiu (Ro) did give a number of racist anti-Hungarian statements on the record, bitching about the lack of a sufficient number of Romanian flags at the ceremony and calling Matei Corvinus a “Romanian” king.

For those of you unfamiliar with my book or else Romanian history, Corvinus was one of the greatest kings in Hungarian history. He is extremely important to Hungarians and his birthplace here in town is a tremendous draw for (Hungarian) tourists. After years of suffering from Cluj’s kleptomaniac, racist former mayor, the refurbishing of this statue was kind of a big deal to local Hungarians, including some politicians who play an important role in Romanian and Hungarian national politics.

And on and on and on, right down to the fact that the company currently performing wrecker (towing) services for the city is corrupt as hell. It’s literally a shell firm, with a fake board of ownership and several layers of legal duplicity in order to hide who the true owners are.

And my biggest personal grudge against the mayor’s office is that despite spending an ungodly amount of money to have a private company (ROSAL Grup) clean and maintain the streets, every single winter without fail the sidewalks in front of the public hospitals are snowy, icy and completely uncleared. Seeing old people totter on their canes on an icy sidewalk as they try to get to the public hospital just makes my blood boil.

Meanwhile 30km up the road in Turda it’s like another world. They managed to design a slick new logo and develop a cohesive brand. Their downtown is all cleaned up, painted and looks absolutely fantastic. Cluj’s downtown meanwhile is a hodgepodge of dirty, decaying, abandoned and empty buildings and unpainted former palaces.

Turda spent millions of euros to rehabilitate their greatest tourist attraction, a Roman-era salt mine, and now it’s completely modern and absolutely amazing. Everyone who has gone and seen it has just raved about how nice it is. Heck, Turda even has an amazing light display that shines on the City Hall building at night.

I should add here that Turda has about 60,000 residents while Cluj has over 300,00. Therefore we’re talking about a much tinier city running rings around its much larger sister.

Turda has completely modernized and upgraded their city buses. They’re bright, shiny, brand-new red vehicles that have digital displays that tell you the destination as well as the name of the next stop. Cluj on the other hand still operates an enormous fleet of ROCAR dinosaurs from the Communist era, what I’ve heard passengers call “the sardine cans” (cutii de conserve). Most of the other buses in Cluj’s fleet are rattling monstrosities that once saw service in Paris 20 years ago, still labeled to this day with instructions in French on how to use your electronic transit card. That makes me laugh (bitterly) because Cluj is about the last city in Romania to still use mechanical punch devices for tickets rather than some kind of electronic swipe/punch device.

Turda is also home to the local chapter of the Slow Food (Ro) movement (for more information in English, see here). Cluj? Doesn’t even have one. If you’re interested in their products and information about the movement, you literally have to talk to the Turda chapter’s people here in Cluj.

Turda is also home to Trei Frati Patati (Ro), an animal shelter that rescues stray animals. Almost all of the work done there is performed by volunteers. They do an incredible job of rescuing, rehabilitating and adopting out abused and neglected animals.

Cluj meanwhile does not have a single animal shelter. Not one! Last winter I contacted my veterinarians on behalf of someone who had found a dog that was close to death after spending many nights in the freezing cold. It was only due to their personal connections and knowing people who sometimes opened their homes to strays was the animal saved. There was literally no one to call in the city government, no “Animal Control”, no animal shelter, no nothing. Meanwhile Sorin Apostu was the head (Ro) of the city’s Health and Veterinary Department for three years before he became mayor!

This is the official picture of Sorin Apostu, sitting on his throne like a little king, taken directly from the city’s website.

Are those books behind him supposed to make him look smart? I bet you 100 bucks that’s exactly why they’re in the shot. And for some bizarre reason, he’s not even facing the camera, instead glancing off to the side with a glazed look on his face, making him look vaguely autistic.

Meanwhile here’s the official picture of Tudor Stefanie, the mayor of Turda, from the city’s website. Notice any difference? One of them looks like a human being while the other looks like a baby oligarch in training. Need I say more?

Last week I wrote the Cluj tourism office for information about tours of the city. Some foreigners whom I had recently met had asked me about guided tours. I got a surly email response giving me a link to the city’s official tourism website (and good luck finding it via Google). The government drone gave me this link for information about tours. Guess what? It didn’t even load last week, returning an error.

Whether because of my reply or because of something else, now the link “works”. It loads a completely blank page that says only “city tours”. Awesome job, people!

Cluj has a physical tourist information office. You know where it is? It’s in downtown on Bulevardul Eroilor. It’s very nice but do you know where there isn’t a tourist information office? At the airport. Oh don’t get me wrong, the airport is extremely nice and brand new and modern. But good luck finding some kind of tourist or general information there. I recently asked an American visitor to Cluj where she had found tourist information and she told me, “At the Shanghai Express Chinese restaurant”. Apparently it has a nice little display with brochures and other information about places to stay and things to do in town.

Yep, welcome to Cluj where you get more information about the city from a stand at a Chinese restaurant than you do from the local government.

The sad part is that Cluj-Napoca could really be an awesome city. It is by far the largest and wealthiest city in northwestern Romania and is located strategically almost exactly in the center of Transylvania . It has outstanding transportation links to just about anywhere in the region. It is home to tens of thousands of university students who provide a lively, youthful atmosphere and cultural life. It also could be a tremendous draw for Hungarian tourists (both from other parts of Romania and from Hungary) due to the rich history here. Some of the greatest chefs in Romania operate restaurants here and I’d challenge anyone to find a city with more live music and livelier nightspots (outside of Bucharest).

No. Cluj-Napoca has the potential to be a first-class city and yet it’s run by a third-rate political baron (Ro) whose sole concern seems to be his career, a man who doesn’t give a crap about old people or stray dogs or tourism or his Hungarian constituents or anything that doesn’t involve lining his own pockets.

I think this headline says it all:

Risipa si coruptia caracterizeaza mandatul lui Sorin Apostu la Primaria Cluj

Mr. Apostu, from the bottom of my heart, I hate what you’ve done to my beloved city. Sir.