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Time has certainly passed since I first arrived in Bucharest in August 1996 to serve as a legal advisor on a one-year contract with the American Bar Association’s Central and East European Legal initiative.
Little could I have imagined at that time that I would still be here in 2009, as the managing partner of the Bucharest office of the Austrian-based law firm Wolf Theiss.
Initially, I perceived Bucharest as an exciting city of strange and exotic sights and sounds - the image of gypsy carts and brand new Mercedes automobiles commingling in the busy traffic against a backdrop of the Casa Poporului.
It has remained the same fascinating place, although the city has witnessed tremendous changes, primarily due to its rapid development and economic growth, particularly following Romania’s admission to NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007.
In the meantime, investors have also discovered Romania. Many of the leading multinational companies now have a presence here and I am no longer one of a handful of ex pats living in the so-called Paris of the East.
Clearly the city has benefited from significant development with new office and residential buildings and shopping malls to rival those in the West. Many of the beautiful old villas have been refurbished, giving back to Bucharest a part of its lost charm.
Back in 1998, with rents for class A office space (to the extent it existed) greatly exceeding those being asked in Beverly Hills, one was forced to settle for something less salubrious, although an average elevator ride in Beverly Hills didn’t include being stuffed cheek to jowl against another person and three stray dogs. Our office space today is located in the heart of Bucharest and our elevators have no stray dogs (thankfully nowadays more a rarity than the rule).
In the past the number of restaurants serving even passable food could be counted on one hand. Today, so many new good restaurants are opening up that I doubt I will have the time to sample the food at even half of them.
As to other diversions? Back in the 1990s the best exercise seemed to be eluding stray dogs while leaping potholes. Now, I can enjoy the benefits of the World Class Downtown gym, which rivals or even surpasses similar facilities in the US or Western Europe.
But what really struck me when I first arrived in Bucharest was the night life. This has not changed, not even after 12 years. It still has the same allure - virtually any night of the week there is a party, a business mixer, a drink before home, a charity event, or just simply a crowd at the bar. For an emerging economy there seem to be a lot of Romanians emerging from pricey clubs at 6am on a Saturday to roar off in their new Mercedes, BMWs or Porsches.
One place very close to my heart is Coyote Café, where every now and then I am able to belt out a few tunes, enjoy a beer with friends and commiserate about our experiences past and present in Bucharest.
The feeling of adventure, of living on the edge, so present in my first years here, has now somehow been lost, replaced by a more “civilized” life, with less bureaucracy and more integration into greater Europe. Many things still have to change before Bucharest will really become a gleaming metropolis, but the city is on the right track.
I like to imagine that years from now Bucharest will develop into a flourishing cosmopolitan centre: I will stroll the well-manicured banks of the mighty Dambovita river, heading for dinner at the newest five-star restaurant featuring trendy Romanian cuisine, and find myself actually missing the chaos of the stray dogs, horse carts, Dacia cars and ill-mannered cab drivers. Will this image become a reality? Not likely, but who knows?
Bryan Jardine is managing partner of Wolf Theiss’s Bucharest office.