A blog in general about Romania and my feelings at the moment, with a focus on design, branding, art and anything else that inspires me.

Friday, April 01, 2005

OUT: Spain, IN: London-Paris-Bucharest axis

The recent treatment of Romanians by the Spanish authorities is downright disgusting. It's in the news now that Spanish border police forced Romanian tourists to write false statements in order to say that they borrowed money from the bus driver, hence giving the Spanish a reason to send the Romanians back. This is pretty shocking news, but while others have tried to blame Romania, this is one time when Romania is not to blame. It is Spain that we should be blaming. They're the ones being unreasonable, they're the ones breaking the law. Spain shouldn't even the right to set up border checkpoints with France - it is a Schengen country, if it wants to administer its own border system for internal EU borders, then let it leave Schengen. What Spain is doing now is not EU behaviour? May I remind the border police that when they were 30 years younger, Spain was still a poor country begging to join the then-EC yet branded as a relatively undeveloped nation that would bring an influx of migrants to the existing members. I'm not saying it should live with that image, because clearly Spain has moved past that, but all we expect is a bit of empathy.

For me personally, for this behaviour to come from Spain has been quite surprising. I could have expected it from other countries, but not from Spain, a country I always saw as close to Romania culturally, and also a very liberal, progressive country. I've visited Spain multiple times, and I loved it. Honestly, it's one of my favourite places in the world. And they're the only ones that always vote for us at Eurovision :) Basically, a warm, friendly, decent nation of Latin people just like us. I'm not saying that doesn't apply anymore, as that would be superficial. I just think that this incident with the border scandal has given Spain a bad image in Romania. Spain is no longer, I feel, Romania's friend in the EU, and hence Romania should look at other countries.

This leads me to the main point of this post - What other countries? With what other countries should Romania ally with most once it becomes an EU member. We all know that even inside the integrated EU, countries form "allegiance blocs" with each other. The Nordic countries support each other, Hungary has a good friend in Austria, the UK is less sceptic of enlargement than Germany, etc.

Until now, Romania identified with Spain and Italy most, that's how I see it. France and Germany also, to a lesser extent. That's changing. We're seeing more alliance with the UK, and mixed signals with France. What do I think about all of this? I think partnership with the UK is a great thing. The UK is a great country, they can help Romania a lot and I believe they're much more open-minded that other EU countries. Surprising, yes, for a country that Romanians still see as "conservative", which, if you think about it, it really isn't.

Then there's France. France has basically been ignored by the Romanians recently, no-one talks about it anymore, it is no longer Romania's big friend in the EU. That's sad, because France should be one of our main partners, as they also have a lot to offer. Similar culture, historical allegiances and more. I think the whole world should devote a bit more energy to re-understand France.

What other friends would Romania have? Spain... NO! Italy... I wouldn't say so, honestly. Germany... no, they're not particularly warm about Romania, despite all the Băsescu visits and the foreign investment. How about Hungary? Well, 'twould be great to have a good friendship with Hungary, but I still think recent history would make a true partnership impossible.

So, I still maintain that the UK and France are the best bets for Romania in the future. Instead of Washington-London-Bucharest axis, how about a London-Paris-Bucharest axis?

Friday, March 25, 2005

The most e-ready cities in Romania

I told you that I would look over the sites of Romanian city halls and judge them on their "e-readiness". Well, I've looked at the site of every county capital, as well as Bucharest, in Romania, and have judged each site on: design, usability and content. Design was basically based on aesthetics and coding, usability was based on structure and organisation, while content was based on how comprehensive the site was, the depth of services it provided (e-taxes, etc) as well as whether there was an English language version or not.

After going through each site, I cut down the shortlist to nine cities out of 41:

Basically, all of the above sites are fairly good. I'm not saying they're excellent or anything, but they have reasonable sites which give you quite a lot of information in a relatively organised fashion.

Out of those sites, the only ones I found to be of a European-class standard are the following, which I felt were really good in comparison to everything else:

  • Oradea - not because it's my home city or anything, but Oradea has a really nice site that's comprehensive and gives a nice snapshot of the city as well as plenty of city hall services. The only problem I had with it was that it could be a bit better-organised, and the English and French language content is minimal.
  • Botoşani - a suprising site for a city that doesn't get much publicity. The site looks good and is one of the best structured sites for a city hall. It also has comprehensive information, but no version in English. That's the only problem I had with it.
  • Sibiu - really well structured, because it targets information to different groups of users, from tourists, to locals, to investors. There is also a lot of information here, especially in the field of tourism. And, best of all, there are comprehensive versions in English and German. Great for foreign investors and tourists. The only problem I have is with the design. Don't get me wrong, I like parts of the design, it's just that it doesn't have those finishing touches that distinguish a nice site.
  • Baia Mare - I included this in here because of the clean design and structure. Other than that, it's not a remarkable site, I just see nothing much wrong with it and I think that it serves its purpose really well. It would be good to see a version in English though, and a bit more flair.
Any surprises? Well, the fact that Bucharest's public administration has a terrible internet appearance I mentioned earlier. That's really disappointing, because to see small cities like Botoşani beating Bucharest is surprising. The other comment I have to make it that many of the large regional centres, like Iaşi, Cluj-Napoca and Braşov had fairly poor sites.

The other thing I must say is that though I've commended Oradea, Botoşani, Sibiu and Baia Mare, none of them are all that great sites. Which is pretty alarming. I mean, come on, not one major city in Romania has a site that meets all three criteria: a decent, clean design, good structure and comprehensive content, as well as an English language version. So, I looked around on other city sites, and I must say that the standard overall is pretty low. Not just in Romania, but even in countries like Finland, France, Spain, etc.The site I liked a lot though was that of Tartu, an Estonian city. There's a city that can really market itself to the world, even though most people haven't even heard of it.

The frustration with Romanian language diacritics

Woke up early this morning for some reason... Anyway, I have to say that I'm really, really frustrated with how few people use Romanian diacritic characters properly on the Internet. I mean, I don't get what's so hard with using them... especially since most other languages seem to use them without any problems. I'm talking here about the characters ă â î ş ţ, five characters which act as separate letters in the Romanian alphabet, similar to how German uses ä, ö and other umlaut characters.

The diacritic characters are necessary in Romanian, or otherwise the language becomes ambiguous. I am frustrated though by the blatant ignorance that so many people have for these characters which are such an integral part of our language. This is even prevalent on large corporate sites or in the online mass media! Remember, if we don't use them now, they'll disappear sooner or later, and then Romanian will no longer be a phonetic, precise language.

The problem is that besides from people not using them at all, other people use them incorrectly, in a non-standard manner, which then further discourages their use on the Internet.

Basically, I tend to group problems with diacritic symbols into three:

  • Those who don't use them at all. Basically, people who write lamaie instead of lămâie or Bucuresti instead of Bucureşti. Yes, of course, people can understand the words without the diacritics, but the Romanian language has diacritics, just like German, Czech, Estonian, French, Spanish, etc. It's disappointing to see sites like Connex, Gardianul, Evenimentul Zilei, etc, not using diacritics at all.
  • Those who use the wrong encoding. When typing with Romanian diacritics, remember to encode in Unicode. Some people encode in the Latin-1 character set and then wonder why the ş and ţ characters don't come up well. Others encode in Central European, which is a non-standard encoding that shouldn't be used and causes problems with some people. Use Unicode and you'll be fine. It's the universal encoding, it can be used for every language and it works excellently for Romanian diacritics.
  • Those who use special fonts. The reason I'm writing this whole entry is because yesterday someone sent me a document, which contained diacritics, but used an ambiguous font called Garamond Gw (different from the mainstream Garamond), which is specifically designed for Romanian characters. As I don't have the font, all the diacritics were replaced by brackets and apostrophes, making the text totally unreadable. The point I'm trying to make here - don't use need special fonts to write Romanian diacritics because they'll cause problems and scare people away from diacritics. Romanian diacritics are supported by all major fonts such as Times New Roman, Georgia, Arial, Verdana, Trebuchet MS, etc. Don't use obscure fonts that no-one has!
So, remember this. Romanian diacritics are easy to use. Just because Internet use is going up in Romania doesn't mean that we can abanon diacritics. They're an integral and necessary part of our language, and should I say it again, they're easy to use! Just use a major font - any major font - not obscure ones, and type in Unicode and use a Romanian keyboard layout. As long as you use this, anybody will be able to view your text properly with diacritics, unless they don't have basic fonts like Times New Roman or Arial! Or they have totally outdated software which doesn't support Unicode, in which case they should upgrade.

Honestly, it's not that hard. If the contributors on the Romanian Wikipedia can do it, so can you. So, come on, for those of you who don't use diacritics in e-mail, or even worse, in documents and websites, try to make an effort to write proper Romanian. We need it.

Yesterday it was Shame, today it's Fame

Yesterday, an anonymous poster said in response to my Hall of Shame of Romanian Web Design that:

Yelling is all we can do...
He's probably right about that :) Seems to be a Romanian trait... Anyway, that's not the purpose of this blog, which seeks to promote Romania but at the same time analyse and overanalyse it. So, I decided we also need a Hall of Fame for Romanian Web Design, a listing of websites of companies that have lifted Romanian design into world-class status and that could safely compete with companies in other European countries.

I've picked three "winners", and they are:

  • Connex. A company I really admire, due both to its world-class mobile services as well as due to its social projects such as Tu Faci Viitorul. Personally, I don't like the new design so much, but it's professional nonetheless, and the fact that it's coded with XHTML/CSS is an added bonus.
  • Ministerul Comunicaţiilor şi Tehnologiei Informaţiei - it's great to see a government department having such a nice website. Yes, I know they're meant to, because they deal with IT, but nonetheless, it's a nice, world-class site that's easy to use and has comprehesive content.
  • BeYou Trend - one of the best Romanian sites I've seen, this Iaşi-based fashion company uses XHTML/CSS to create a really professional, outstanding site in this industry.
Other sites I should nominate are: RDSLink and TVR. The TVR site is fairly disappointing because it uses many old-school techniques, but their actual marketing campaign offline is very good. I like Imaginea timpului tău, and I also like their TV presentation that they show in between programs. And they have a webcast! Great stuff.

I should also commend the e-government efforts of the government - their sites e-licitaţie and e-guvernare have been appreciated worldwide.

And maybe you know some other good Romanian showcase sites that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Transylvanians in Bucharest

I was reading the comments about Cristian's Bucharest entry and it occured to be that even on the blogosphere there are many Transylvanians living in Bucharest. Cosmin asked "Is here a pattern for moving to bucharest from Transylvanya?" I believe there is. It's not a unique pattern, because inflow of people into the capital city happens in most countries, but I wonder if this is particularly prevalent in the case of Transylvania. It's strange in a way, because Transylvania is the region that is most different to the rest of Romania, yet there are so many Transylvanians in Bucharest.

The reason we leave? Well, because Bucharest is a city of 2.3 million people with many more opportunities and in many ways can lead to better life, more income, etc. That's not to say there's anything wrong with Transylvania - it is the most developed region of the country after Bucharest, and foreign investment is starting to pour in. However, it remains part of the provincie. That is, it still has a regional atmosphere.

I should tell you more about my experience of leaving Transylvania. You see, I was born and raised in Oradea and I still love it to this date - it's a great city and I still come home very often. It's also big enough to be able to live in decently, however, I decided to head off to Bucharest to see how it was like.

Even as a Romanian, I took a long time to get used to Bucharest. I'm originally from Oradea - for those who don't know Romania, it's a city in western Transylvania near the Hungarian border. Transylvanian cities tend to be fairly clean and organised, and not particularly crowded - basically, the opposite of Bucharest.

I remember when I moved in a few years ago I took the night train from Oradea to Bucharest, and when I arrived in Bucharest, in early morning, everything was grey around me, and I got to Gara de Nord, and it was a really austere experience. Before coming to Bucharest, I had visited so many other European cities, which I didn't find so provoking, even though Bucharest was Romanian! I really felt like I was somewhere in a foreign land, not as in a foreign country, but a foreign dimension, a foreign world. Bucharest does that to you at first. In fact, I only felt that way in a few other cities around the world - in Budapest, which is really similar to Bucharest actually, and in Beijing, which I visited last year.

I remember that in the first week I totally hated the city. I was thinking to myself (in classical Transylvanian fashion, "How can this city be the capital of our country? Oradea would beat it any day" The buses were crowded, the streets were rundown, there were stray dogs in lots of places... I just wanted to leave. But then, I started to get accustomed to it and see its unique beauty. Now, four years later, I can say I'm really happy to live in Bucharest.

It seems other people have had the same experiences as me. Cristian said:

"I felt sick and terrified for a couple of months"
and the part I liked best,

"I actually felt quicker 'at home' when i moved to Singapore than when I moved to Bucharest."
I believe that though, because I felt the same. It was really as if Bucharest was somehow foreign, and for the first few days it does seem as if you've been plunged into an unknown journey and you keep thinking that it's not true, that this isn't really Romania's capital. Then you realise it is and start to enjoy it so much that you end up never wanting to leave!

If there's anyone with the same experience, don't hesistate to leave comments!

The Hall of Shame of Romanian web design

So, I thought I'd start off by talking about Romanian branding and it's status at the moment. I've seen that in the last two years especially, Romanian design has increased in standard by a great amount, and now matches that of Western Europe in many cases. There are some great Romanian companies out there who have established really good brands - hot design, successful marketing, etc. Basically, I'm talking about Connex, Orange, Astral, Grapefruit, TVR, BeYou Trend and several others.

There are some other ones who are really disappointing, though. I'm talking about high-profile companies, many of them state-owned, who have virtually-inexistent marketing strategies and ugly websites, and, more disappointly, they affect Romania's image abroad. For this, I have to name them! I have especially picked on sites which may be viewed by non-Romanians, because the aim here is to improve Romania's image abroad. So, here's the Romesperi 2005 Hall of Shame of Romanian Web Design:

  1. Bucharest City Hall - really disappoint to see that, unlike most other cities in Europe, Bucharest doesn't have its own easy-to-use, professional website. The site at pmb.ro is terribly confusing and doesn't actually give tourists, foreign investors or even Bucharest residents any particularly useful information. It's also terribly organised. Basically what I'd like to have is a central site for Bucharest (e.g. www.bucharest.ro, I know it's taken), where the City Hall would clearly put information about Bucharest, links to services, and whatever else needs to be included. It would also be great if the sites for the 6 sectors of Bucharest could be better integrated into this structure. Oh, and did I forget to mention - good, professional-looking, effective design! Come on, if Budapest and Tallinn can do it, then why not Bucharest?
  2. Căile Ferate Române - Train travel is a great experience, but too bad that CFR can't embody that. Yes, I know it's a public company. Yes, I know it's strapped of cash. But that still doesn't justify it's total lack of consideration for marketing and design. I'll start by looking at its site. That site, again, is extremely confusing, like pmb.ro. No other site I've seen for a European railway operator is that muddled up. I think the approach of dividing the site into five sections with a splash page is very wrong, and way outdated. I'm not expecting them to create an ultra-design site, just something that is easier to use and looks good enough. A site to admire in this industry is Slovenske železnice . Main point here - timetable is available on the front page! That's important because people mainly go to the site because of the timetable.
  3. Radiocomunicaţii - a total disregard for design, even though the structure isn't that bad as the two sites above. The design is just so inherently unprofessional that I had to list it here. For a company of its size, it should do a bit better. If Romtelecom managed to do it, so can they.
  4. Romanian Tourism - I should have listed this first. Well, what can I say... Romania seems to be the only country in the region without a proper tourism portal. There are like two "official" tourism sites (see also 1), some abandoned, others terribly cluttered and confusing. The Romania Tourism site doesn't have all that bad a design, but there is virtually no content and the repeating About Us button is an eyesore. If I were a tourist, what do I make of this site? Romania could do with much better branding in tourism - it actually needs an integrated brand for web and other media. Other countries have done it - I like Bulgaria's attempt, as well as the Estonian tourism site. The unofficial Romanian Tourism site and RoTravel are better, but still lacks in comparison to the aforementioned sites.
  5. Ministry of European Integration - poorly presented, not all that well structued and many of the techniques used are so old-school. I mean, splash pages! Frames! For something as important as European integration, they could do a better job. Maybe they could try something like InfoEuropa or the Romanian Mission to the EU.
Just an overall tip for all Romanian public sites - there are two things that can be worked on extensively. One is structure. Romanian sites are among some of the most awkwardly-structured and therefore unintuitive I have ever seen. That's changing, but laggards remain. The other is language. I appreciate that most sites are now in English as well as Romanian. But, the English is usually not up to scratch. I don't mean the actual grammar of it, but rather the words and language used. The sites don't actually use marketing/advertising language, and therefore they don't persuade successfully. For this reason, many visitors give up.

If anyone has any more sites to add, please do so! Conversely, if you know any more well-designed Romanian corporate sites, go ahead and post them, because coming up will be the Hall of Fame. I'm also preparing a post on how different city hall sites fare.

A general overview of the Romanian blogsphere

So, I thought that as a starting point, it would be good to just go over the current status of the Romanian blogosphere (blogosfera românească) and just any issues that are going on at the moment in various Romanian blogs that I regularly read.

Firstly, there's Argumente, by Dragoş Novac, a blog about business in Romania, among other things. There's a lot of great links and interesting reflections about Romania, especially in a technical and business context. A daily read for me...

Secondly, there's the inimitable Kit.blog, which I've been reading more and more recently. Cristian is a guy that really inspires me, especially through his gorgeous artistic photography. His blog is a delightful, thought-provoking read. And he also works in design.

Then, there's Business Romania, a blog which provides a great deal of news about Romania, especialy its economy. Always an informative read.

Last but not least, there's Halfway down the Danube, a Bucharest-based blog of Claudia and Doug Muir, expats living here and providing a fascinating account on their perspective of life in Romania and their various experiences here. Again, an enjoyable read.

I know there are many others, and I don't want to discriminate, but the ones above are the ones that I read daily. Individualism.ro, by Gabriel Mihalache, was another one... unfortunately, it's gone.

It's a rather quite time for Romanian blogging at the moment - the arguments over politics have subsided, and have been replaced by a great deal of other types of discussion.

Highlights at the moment include: the Muirs' car breakdown, which occured "a little bit past Deva", the thoughts on Bucharest over at Kit.blog, and well... that's about it. I told you it's a quite time. But alas, it's time to start a new conversation. I'll try to think of something in my next posting...

Welcome!

Welcome to Romesperi. What can I say on this first post? The title "Romesperi" is made up of Rom + esperi, esperi meaning 'hope' in Esperanto. Therefore, this blog will be about Romania, including my interpretation of what's happening at the moment in Romania. I'm one of those people who holds a lot of hope about Romania, so if you're one of those people who is Romania-sceptic, there I'm afraid we won't share many common views. That doesn't mean that it will be full of good news, however. It's just a place for my thoughts about Romania, about the current situation in this wonderful country of mine. I'm also interested in design, art and Europe in general, especially Northern Europe. So there's be something about that as well.

Other than that, I hope you enjoy. Sorry if this first post is a bit dry, I'm just not all that inspired at this time of the day :)

Oh, and if you want to know about me, I'm Mihai, I live in Bucharest, the vibrant capital of Romania. I'm 26 years old, and I work in the design industry.

And if you're wondering why I started this blog, it was because of a discussion I had with Cristian 'Kit' Paul over at his great blog, about Bucharest and its character. That just inspired me to write about Romania, to share my thoughts and to talk to others about whatever issues interest all of us.

Finally, I'm really like to make use of the comment system in this blog. Yeah, I know I'm being a hypocrite here, since I seldom post comments on other blogs, but please, it would be great if you could share your thoughts on what I post. Then everything will be more powerful, as I like to call it. I wouldn't even mind a bit of Mihalachesque discussion, where every post attracted a lot of arguments and contradictions. Well, maybe not, actually. Let's just say I enjoy feedback a lot. And I also enjoy discussion and multiple perspectives. And suggestions. And anything else you may think of :)