Just two weeks ago, the building that used to house the Scala Cafe on Bucharest's elegant main street was a heap of debris left behind by the March 4 earthquake. Soldiers and daredevil stuntmen, assisted by sniffer dogs, were combing through the wreckage looking for survivors, and a stench of chlorine and building rubble hung in the air.
Today, the same site has been flattened, ploughed up, and is being turned into a garden.
The progress made in removing the rubble, rescuing victims, and providing food and shelter for the homeless is an impressive demonstration of what a command economy such as Romania's can achieve in an emergency - given firm orders from the top and the will to carry them out from below. Even cynical Western diplomats have remarked favorably on the way the whole country has been mobilized to tackle the disaster.
What is not so clear, however, is whether this same economy - now battered by the earthquake - will be able to meet the expectations of the already hard-pressed Romanian consumers.
Earlier predictions by Romanian officials that the earthquake would create a setback of 5 to 10 years are now thought to have been exaggerated. In the absence of any reliable figures for either the numbers of casualties or the material damage, it is difficult to be precise about the overall effect on the economy. But there appear to be three main areas of disruption:
Loss of productive capacity, particularly in vital oil and power. The earthquake did most damage in southern Romania, where heavy industry is concentrated. Some 200 factories, including the big Bucharest West power station, have had to close down entirely. Others, for example the Teleajan oil refinery and the Valea Calugareasea chemical fertilizer plant in the industrial city of Ploesti, have had to cut back production by more than a half. Lesser damage has been caused to many other plants.
Loss of thousands of apartments resources into the building industry that the country can ill afford. Because of the earthquake, money and materials will have to be found to build an extra 10,000 apartments this year, mainly in Bucharest and the southern town of Zimnicea, which was virtually flattened.
Loss of officers and files that will cause considerable administration disruption. The headquarters of Romania's mineral-import and metal-import companies were virtually destroyed, as was the Ministry of Transport's computer center. Harassed bureaucrats have been seen searching among the runs for precious papers without which foreign contracts will be held up.
While President Nicolae Ceausescu may make a show of his independence from the Soviet Union, at home he insists on undiluted socialism based on big investments in heavy industry with few concessions to either the consumer or the peasant. This policy has given Romania a spectacular growth rate of well over 10 per cent a year but it still has one of the lowest standards of living in Eastern Europe.
The President's goal is an independent and industrialized Romania - and he has made it plain that he is not going to be deflected by the earthquake.
At a press conference a few days after the quake, Ceausescu went out of his way to scotch speculation that he might be forced back into a closer relationship with the Soviet Union. He said he did not think Romania would be able to recover from the disaster unless its independence was securred.
Since then, the Soviet Union has offered a huge amount of emergency aid, including the promise of a factory capable of producing between 50,000 and 80,000 concrete slabs a day. While the Soviets do not usually give away something for nothing, it is generally agreed here that the Romanians are determined to give away nothing for something.
"We're not going to sell our souls for 200 trucks and 80,000 bathtubs," was how one Romanian official put it.
It would have looked strange had the Soviet Union not aided Romania, which is a member of both the Warsaw Pack and the East European trading community, Camecon. Such a refusal might have pushed the romanians toward the West by making them rely for help on the United States and the World Bank. As it is, Romania is in the position of being wooed by everybody.
But foreign aid will not be nearly sufficient to cover the full cost of reconstruction. It has now become clear that once again it is the Romanian consumer who will be hardest hit. Plans to cut the work week from six days to five have been postponed for at least a year. Workers are being encouraged to volunteer for extra duties on Sundays, and a fund has been opened to receive contributions for victims of the disaster.
Romanians have become used to making sacrifices at times of national emergency. Before the earthquake, there was the threat of Soviet invasion in 1963, followed by a string of bad harvests and the serious floods of two years ago.
"We're always being told by the government that next year there will be paradise. But something always happens to postpone it," complains the writer Paul Goma, who leads a tiny band of Romania civil rights activists.
Goma, whose novels have not been published here declared in an interview at his tiny apartment:
"At his press conference, Ceausescu said the present five-year plan would be fulfilled at any price - and that means it will be us who have to pay in longer hours, harder work, and fewer material rewards. I think industry should exist for man and not man of industry."
Such open criticism of the government is unusual in Romania which, as Goma himself admits, is a very conformist society. There is no tradition of working-class or middle-class dissent here as in other Eastern European countries, notably Poland and Czechoslovakia. It has thus been easier for the Romanian leaders to exact sacrifices from their people.
To appease the consumer, a modern five-floor department store called Unirea was opened in the center of Bucharest last year. By Western standards, the goods on display are incredibly shoddy and there is little variety, but for Romanians it is a revelation.
Once again, Unirea is packed with Romanian workers and housewives inspecting television sets, gas stoves, washing machines, and other products of the consumer society. Over the store's loudspeaker system comes a bizarre mixture of patriotic songs and canned music of the sort that lulls shoppers in the supermarkets of the West.