24.2.15

Why I'm Not Ashamed About "The Romanians Are Coming"


This week's big story in Romania is the first episode of a Channel 4 Documentary entitled "The Romanians Are Coming." There's a lot to be said when a controversy-stirring documentary comes out of one of the world's most politically correct nanny states. For one, somebody at the British Censors Bureau realized that as long as Muslims wouldn't be offended, it was safe to air. But seriously, I'm glad it has come out because it says a number of things:

1. "The Romanians are coming!" (Though it's a sorry invasion, if ever there was one)
2. "The Romanians are working the jobs no Brit would do"
3. "The Romanians are claiming sensible benefits in light of their living situation"
4. "The Romanians are leaving"

The documentary as it stands on its own doesn't really say much more than that. I mean sure, there's the whole bit about "America's trying to send people to Mars, Romanian Gypsies ride horses," right at the beginning, and then the images of Craica, the Baia Mare ghetto (though maybe Pata Rat in Cluj would've been a better example of gypsy squalor). 

And of course, there's the title.

I suppose it says enough to stir up UKIP's immigration paranoia and to further perpetuate the stereotypes about the kind of Romanian who goes to Britain, but this is where my thesis comes in.  

I really don't care about what the Brits think when they watch a show like The Romanians Are Coming.  I used to care because it was annoying to see and hear reports about what 'Romanians' in London were up to. The thieves make for better news than the tech entrepreneurs and scholarship students (no mention there, but Alina Serban has been featured in the Romanian press on her experiences as a scholarship student at RADA in London). But I no longer give a damn that they can't tell the difference between Gypsies and Romanians because it just doesn't matter.

What I saw were a few 'amărâţi' (a Romanian word that basically sums up the expression 'poor wretch') whose lives in Romania, as the show rightfully asserts, won't get any better. It doesn't matter whether they're Gypsies or not because without solid education and strong family support, anyone in Romania can fall by the wayside. In fact, many are borderline, but, as with petty thieves, the gypsy stories tend to make for much more interesting television. Think about it, what would be the point of filming a Romanian family living on a combined income of $500/month where the parents both work minimum wage jobs (that might include being a teacher or a doctor) and the two kids go to school? Although the parents are overworked and it's a struggle to pay the bills, at least there is food on the table, the house is clean, and you don't have a random rabbit hopping around the room. Isn't it much more enthralling to watch school-age kids go round picking up scrap metal in junkyards and their illiterate parents squeezing into a studio apartment with another six kids and their pets? Squalor and chaos make for great television. Poverty alone doesn't. 

At the end of the day, this show discusses only one of the realities of Romania. One that's much more narrow than the overall reality, but nonetheless a reality that makes the council-estate-dwelling, benefit-collecting, UKIP-voting Brits feel better about themselves. I'm not ashamed. Those people don't have the power to shame me -or any Romanian for that matter. I could point to Alex and Stefan in the show and say "at least they're hustling for those benefits, what are you doing?"  But again, if any Brits think that all Romanians live like Sandu, work jobs like Alex, and that all of Romania is like Craica, why should I care about anything else they might 'think'? 

This doesn't excuse Romanians though. Of them, I am ashamed. Or rather, for them.   

Almost every top comment on YouTube goes on a hateful rant about the difference between Romanians and Gypsies, how the Brits don't get it and, as a result, how Gypsies are denigrating Romania's good name and ruining this country. It's bullshit. Obviously.

The people ruining Romania's reputation more than anyone else are ordinary Romanians. Ordinary Romanians who don't give a crap about anyone else around them and park their cars, smoke, and litter wherever they feel like. Those Romanians who are afraid of using the words excuse me, please, or thank you when addressing strangers. Romanians who can't tell you who represents them in parliament or whose life philosophy revolves around two phrases: "don't worry, it's fine like that, too" or, (shrugging) "that's Romania." 

That's why I'm ashamed. Because whether a foreigner can tell who's a gypsy and who's Romanian is irrelevant when the first thing he notices about most Romanians is that they don't put any effort into trying to make their country better. Every foreigner will tell you, and I'll put my foreigner hat on, too, when I say this: All we see is a whole lot of bitching and disrespect towards your own country. You disrespect your country when you litter, when you provide shitty service, when you don't keep your end of the deal, when you keep voting for the same idiots, when you don't stand up to corruption, when you cut corners instead of doing a good job, when you fly dirty and tattered flags, when you don't clean the snow and ice in front of your house, and on, and on, and on.  

Then, when you see people who are much more limited than you - more limited in just about every capacity - you blame them for Romania's problems. Like I said in the video comment that's likely already buried in there, the whining disgusts me. Instead of insulting people who aren't doing anything that you wouldn't do given their situation, get off your ass and do something, or at least stop doing the stupid shit you're doing.

You're embarrassing me.





Original image source: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert


2.2.15

Launching: The Non-Smoking Romania Story




It started over a year ago. I wrote  about it in February 2014, after buying the domain and getting people on board to do the coding. In my mind I was thinking, 'a couple of months of easy coding and we're live, no problem.' But it's rarely ever like that when you start anything -especially with software.

The designs were done sometime later that month. But only the first version. It was easy to get lost in the details and to over-design. My initial search-driven vision was replaced by a geo-location based, map-driven design on the advice of somebody who knows a thing or two about User Experience (UX) design. I liked it and we went with it. A friend helped with a logo and social media designs, another took on the coding responsibilities, and little things stated to happen.

Except that they didn't, really. 

Sometime towards the end of April or May, the cause had lost its momentum. There was a lot to do at work and I didn't have my 'eye on the prize' any longer. Getting together after work was complicated and, to make matters worse, I don't code. Looking at it now, it's really easy to rationalize why we didn't get on it with. Truth is, we were avoiding the work. The thought of slogging through the mud, once you're over the euphoria of a new project, is extremely unappealing. Summer was on its way, birds were chirping up a choir, patios were getting set up on the streets and Non-Smoking Romania was a non-issue. 

But some cool things were happening. Two new, exclusively non-smoking restaurants opened in Cluj. Both share the same philosophy; fresh, local food, a bistro atmosphere, friendly service, and clean air. Thanks to the continuing success of Off The Wall and Mint Bistro, it's now very tempting to also correlate the non-smoking concept with an improvement in  customer service -not only in the dining experience. (By the way, this reminds me that I badly need to update my Cluj Guide to Dining Out). I do believe that good deeds breed good karma so I hope that they get new customers because of Non-Smoking Romania.

We enjoyed the summer and pretended it was still summer throughout the Fall. We also decided to scrap the user-authentication concept and work on a much leaner MVP -but still did nothing concrete. 

Then, as Autumn was drawing to an end and the threat of spending weekends in smoke-filled locales drew nearer, Mihai and I, decided to give it another go. We built up a database, worked on UI, spent hours deciding on colours, icons, and element locations. There was a lot of mud. But every indicator told us we were heading in the right direction. So we kept at it.
A few weeks ago, we came across farafum.com. We weren't going to make any 'First!' claims anymore, but given the growing anti smoking-in-public-places sentiment, it was bound to happen. This product needed to happen. And anyway, we had an expat-centric product in English, aimed at the foreigners who come here and prefer it when their food isn't smoked at their table in a sort of Balkan teppaniaki. We now link to each other's pages, as any good social movements should do.

So we trudged onward through the CSS challenges, image searches, database management issues, design concepts, bug fixing, and late nights. Then, on a cold January night/morning the MVP was done and we pushed the launch button on Non-Smoking Romania.com.



When I was younger, my mother brought home a book from school called Something From Nothing. It's a Jewish folktale about a boy whose tailor grandfather gifts him a blanket and then transforms it into various things as the items wear down over time. The blanket becomes a jacket, then a vest, and eventually a handkerchief, and then there's nothing left. "How can I make something from nothing?" the grandfather asks the boy at the end. It's a beautiful story, and ironically, it illustrates precisely why software is so incredible. As commonplace as it is these days, few people in the world can see software as the ever-present reminder that we can in fact, build something from nothing. 

What's more impressive is that Non-Smoking Romania is just one example of the way in which people can use software to empower social action and fight government inefficiency. It's a matter of envisioning the community -or the country - you want to live in, and then rolling up your sleeves to fix the problem. In many cases software won't suffice, but in fewer cases than one might think, which is why it's still an underrated tool of social action. 

Society-building aside. This was a great lesson in software development. It makes me think of all the times I've heard -or said (mea culpa) - "it's a small, little website/tool/feature". No it isn't. It's (almost) never small, it's always work, and it's always going to take longer than expected. Of course, we could have done it in a couple of weeks of dedicated work, but only in hindsight. The reality is that Non-Smoking Romania was finally born because the only antidote to sitting around and wishing it into existence was to plow ahead and put in the time. 

So what's next? Lots of improvements to be sure. The initial vision was a lot more complex than what we have now, but that's irrelevant to the Big Picture. All of us,  -not only Non-Smoking Romania, but all those friends of ours (hoping somebody gets the reference someday) - have to start making waves to convince lawmakers that a ban on indoor smoking in all public places can only have a beneficial effect on the country. But, if we don't do the work, I'm sure we won't go very far. Let me know if you want to sign up, there is a lot of work to be done.


15.1.15

Here Is Why I Choose To Live in Romania

Yesterday I glossed over some of the more mundane facts of life in Romania. I want to follow-up with a deeper analysis this time around, though.

When people ask, "what is it like to live in Romania?" I always say the same thing.

"It's great!"

Okay, let me step back and qualify that a bit.

Living in Romania is great for me. Just like living the US, Germany, or China is great for others even though I don't want to live in any of those countries. Your life history, your personality, and your priorities also have a lot to do with it. Who's to say I 'm not going to hate living in Romania ten years from now, and that France or Malta won't start to sound really good at some point? I don't know. (But probably not).

Before talking about why I think it's great, I'm also going to talk a bit about why it isn't -or more like, who it isn't -  great for.

Romania is not that great for Romanians living in rural areas. Less so for any who are over 60 years old. It's not great for anybody relying on a government pension. It's not that great for any young person who doesn't have a university education or rich parents. Not all that great for young people with an education either. It's not great for doctors and teachers. I'd say it's not that great for the average public service employee because they have poor salaries, but, given the level of service they generally provide, they're overpaid (and useless). It's not great for gypsies. It's also not that great for small-business owners, small business employees, big business employees, or the unemployed in general. Apologies to anyone who hates living in Romania and who I may have missed.

To some extent it's 'not that great' for almost anyone living in Romania because of the low purchasing power of the average Romanian. But here is who it's great for: Optimists.

I guess I just pegged myself an optimist. It's fine, I've been called worse things by better people.

The reason Romania is great for me is because it's the land of unending hope. I hope they build a cross-country highway someday. I hope I get to eat some good Mexican food someday, I hope Victor Ponta won't be in government someday, and so on. The amazing thing about living in Romania is that most of the things that optimists hope for tend to materialize at some point or another. When I moved back, over three years ago, I was hoping to one day dine in a non-smoking environment. A number of exclusively non-smoking places have since opened up. Furthermore, it'll eventually be passed into law - so that's double the happiness off of one single hope. I was also hoping to see Romanians become more civically engaged and politically educated. The Rosia Montana protests and recent presidential elections proved that this, too, is possible in a country where most positive changes are deemed 'impossible'. I've seen small improvements all around, not only in the places I was hoping to see them, and that only serves to give me more hope for the future. But this is just part of why I think living in Romania is great.

If I didn't live in Romania, where would you find me today? Probably not somewhere in Asia, South America, or Africa. That means I'd likely have remained in Canada. "Better the devil you know", as the saying goes. And, while I can't speak for every other western country, I think it's safe to say that there won't be any wholesale changes of the kind I'd like to see in Canada anytime soon. Okay, so new buildings look great, the roads are largely in good shape, people are polite, and everything is organized, trim, and clean. But is there any hope that the ever more repressive laws drawn up in the name of public safety will ever be repealed? Is there any hope for true freedom of opinion? Will the tyranny of the majority ever get better in America? Will big business cease formulating government decisions and will the government ever represent their own citizens' interests? And let's not forget the militarization of police that breeds an 'us versus them mentality' which perpetuates an ongoing cycle of violence. Yes, I'm mixing the countries up a bit and some of this is more visible in the US, but Canada isn't far behind and will surely catch up at some point.

Not available in Romania

There is nothing at all great about living in a society where the citizens have given up fundamental freedoms for nominal safety. No hope in a place where ever-encroaching social norms aim to create a uniform and homogeneous society with  no real identity. There is no hope there because in order for a sick society to get better it has to get a lot worse first. But don't take my word for it, take Ron Paul's, who knows a little bit more than I do about life in America.

Realistically, Romania is not all that insulated from the social ills that are plaguing America and Western Europe. And there's nothing to say that Romania -or its government, to be more succinct - won't fall into the same bad habits, but I do hope that it won't. I see in Romanians a people who are very skeptical when it comes to the information they receive. They are mostly skeptical about the media and about government claims. In fact, there is just as little trust in the media as there is in the government. In this world, that's the healthiest approach to mass-produced news.While Romanians sometimes lack common sense in business (sometimes also due to this engrained skepti-cynicism) they make up for it in just about any other respect. It's hard to bullshit a Romanian and that, too, gives me hope.

So what is living in Romania actually like? 

I'll start with the first question every foreigner who can barely point the country out on a map will ask: Is it safe? Yes, but it depends. For example, the average Romanian is much safer from random acts of violence than Americans are. No drive-bys or gang shootings, no school shootings, no murderous muggings. Petty theft is less common than people would have you believe. While everyone is worried about contents of their car and pickpockets, I've never heard of anyone getting pick-pocketed in Cluj and I sometimes leave my car doors unlocked (unintentionally) with no consequence. Bar/club fights are basically non-existent, as opposed to the violent, heavily policed mess that is downtown Toronto every Friday and Saturday night. Road-rage is more like 'road-frustration' and it's not just directed at other drivers, but at stupidly placed roadsigns, traffic slowdowns, and damaged roads. Which, in turn, leads to Europe's worst track record for traffic-related deaths. So it's safe, unless you're planning on spending a lot of time driving across the country. 

Not good (but pretty)

To be fair, the notoriously bad roads are not as bad as they're made out. Almost all of the E(uropean) roads are very well maintained and perfectly fine to drive on, only problem is traffic and the stress associated with overtaking it. It's doubly frustrating when, as you're stuck for three kilometers behind a tractor trailer going 70-80km/h, you realize how much easier this would be if you were on a four lane highway like in every civilized country on earth. Once you get into the (DN)ational roads or the county (DJ) roads, you're starting to hit some ugly potholes. On the other hand many of these roads are very picturesque, so you get to enjoy the scenery.

Better
                                                         
And what stunning scenery at that. Whether you're driving, walking, or biking, there's something special about being so close to nature in the way we often see it romanticized. Gurgling brooks, bounding wildlife, the buzzing of cicadas, mountain plains and wildflowers are never very far away in the summer. Winter has plenty of picturesque, wintry charm, too, and it's a lot more manageable for three instead of six months. I wrote a little bit about Romanian beauty before but it's much better in real life.



Life is lived in Romania. I like to laugh at First World Problems memes, but they serve to remind me that for others, life is often something else entirely. The angst over a dead pixel, the disconnected Netflix stream, and a friend's extra concert tickets are just symptoms of an entitled society largely disconnected from the reality of life. The reality is that life is not that pretty for most of the world. For some it's a battle for survival and for dignity. We easily forget that. Either that or we're so complacent and bored that we need drugs to have fun, skydiving to 'feel' an adrenaline rush, and charities to donate to in order to be fulfilled. Outside of the larger cities in Romania, most people wouldn't know what a pixel does or what Neflix is, and they definitely won't know the name of any band. What I mean when I say, 'life is lived'  I mean that people just go on with life through the best and the worst of it. There is an ingrained realism and pragmatism about the nature of things, and nobody has the artificial expectation that life should only be about fun, happy stuff. People live through it all, develop a dark sense of humor, and they don't mind sharing with others.

#ToughLife
It's said that Romania's greatest pastime is complaining. I think the reality is more in line with the following statement: "Romanians love to talk about life." It so happens that, Life, being harsh and unfair tends to make a lot of these discussions sound like complaints. When you ask somebody how they're doing, you should be prepared to hear the worst. Because family members get ill, the job sometimes sucks, and because sometimes the wife leaves the husband (or vice versa). It's just not normal to expect that everyone is 'fine' all the time. So you'd better be ready to talk about what ails you, if you want to build rapport with Romanians. But it's not all doom and gloom; when all that is said and done, Romanians always remember to enjoy the good things, too.

During my 20s I allocated considerable time to partying. While partying in America usually means 'let's get wasted before we get kicked out at 3am', in Romania there's less pressure on getting drunk and more on just having a good time. Everyone knows they can come or leave as late as they want, Drinks are not prohibitively expensive and people only come out to have a good time. This is extremely important. In Toronto you rarely party in places where the guys don't have giant chips on their shoulders and the girls don't have attitude problems. One of my friends who visited Cluj said that "Romanians dance too much." I guess it could be worse.



The service, for one, is worse. It's not so much that patrons don't get enough help, but that those who do the helping behave as though they are 'the help', not there to help. A big distinction. I recently spoke to a couple of local restaurateurs and when the subject came up we discussed how "technique can be learned but personality can't". Few Romanians have the proactive, upbeat, can-do personality required to succeed in customer facing roles. Or maybe many do but they don't work in service. Or maybe they do and they just become bitter over time. I don't know, I don't want to make excuses, clearly it's a problem that needs fixing. But I'm very hopeful that this, too, will get better.

I'm also hopeful in a better education system. While it's definitely adequate in educating Romania's youth, it sorely lacks a framework for the holistic education required in the 21st century. In five to ten years from now, we're going to see 14 year old CEOs with million-dollar startups. They will be school kids who succeed in 'the real world' because their ideas are encouraged and their technical skills directed to practical applications. This can happen in Romania too, but the textbook-heavy, memorization-driven curriculum will need some changes first.

As will the political representation of Romanians. But this can't happen without an informed and educated electorate. Will civics classes become part of a school curriculum? Will a web platform encourage Romanians to be more community minded and involved in the democratic process? Very possibly. So even if a bunch of bandits are sitting in government today, I'm very hopeful they won't be there forever.

It's hope that keeps me in Romania and it's why I choose to stay. I know it's far from perfect, but that's exactly why it's going to get better. It's not just a land of hope, it's one of the few countries in the world where the possibilities are still endless. Maybe that's not always a great thing, but I'm willing to hang around and find out.

14.1.15

24 Quick Facts About (living) Life in Romania


1. People still live in the infamous commie blocks, though many are cheerfully painted now and the  apartments within are renovated. Houses often stay in the same family for many generations. Cookie cutter subdivisions are not very common, nor popular (for now).
2. Rural life is still part of the equation. Many Romanians have an ancestral home somewhere in a small town or village. Often grandparents still cultivate vegetable gardens and raise chickens and other farm animals (for food, not as pets). This comes in especially handy at Christmas and Easter.
3.  British lawns aren't a thing here. Why manicure a lawn when one can plant beautiful flowers, a vegetable garden, or fruit-bearing trees?
4. Romanians place a lot of emphasis on family and personal relationships. Going home for family dinner is a lot more common than after-work drinks.
5. Speaking of dinner, Romania is a very meat and potatoes country. As long as you're not a vegetarian, you'll love the food.
6. Malls are nearly always full because Romanians took to consumerism like ducks to water. An unfortunate side-effect of capitalism.
7. Most cars on the road are European, mostly German,but also many Dacias, Renaults, Fiats, and a spattering of American cars (no Cadillac tough).
8. People don't have guns, don't walk around with, or own, AKs, and they don't look to rip-off foreigners at every opportunity (watch out for Bucharest cabbies though).
9. Most people under 40 speak at least a little bit of English. If they say they don't they probably just don't want to speak to you or you're in a village.
10. You can eat almost any type of food you want but it's harder to find very exotic foods or ingredients.
11. Stray dogs may bite, especially at night if they're in a pack. More of an issue in certain areas of Bucharest.
12. Stray dogs do not get killed on the street by evil Romanians. The only dead dogs I've seen were roadkill. As a Canadian friend said, 'they're the raccoons of Romania'.
13. There is no real mafia of any sort. There are some loan-sharks, there are people involved with illegal rackets, certainly some crime groups do exist, but they are not in any way organized or brutal enough to warrant comparison to the international organized crime groups. The real 'mafia' is in the government
14. Romanians are religious. By that I mean that even among the younger age groups, many profess a belief in God. Some, especially older Romanians, attend church regularly and take their faith pretty seriously.
15. Romanians love their traditions.  If they're from Maramures, Bucovina, or Moldova, even more so. There is a lot of respect for local history and customs.
16. Regions play a large part in local culture. Romanians have only been united for a hundred years, there were previously three separate 'countries' in the territory that forms present-day Romania.
17. Romanians are very direct. "How are you" is a real question. If they don't like you, they don't bother faking it. If they do, you'll know it. Authentic human relationships still exist here, along with all the drama.
18. If you ever have to deal with the bureaucracy, you'll start to hate Romania. At least for that day. I'm convinced that the bureaucracy plays a bigger role in Romanians' decision to leave Romania than anyone is willing to acknowledge.
19. You can get pretty much anything you want, but when you buy it here, you're paying a lot in sales tax. This is why electronics are always more expensive than in America.
20. You can have a great dinner for two for less than $40
21. I don't know if it sounds like Russian (in Moldova it kind of does, actually) but the Romanian language is really nothing like Russian.
22. It's not bombed out and the regional conflicts haven't affected Romania. It's a stable and peaceful country that hasn't had an international conflict since 1945. That's 70 years longer than the US.
23. The Internet is really fast (and cheap).
24. You'll find the world's tastiest tomatoes in Romania. If you've only ever eaten tomatoes in America, you may not be able to imagine what that means.






PS: Since this is my first post of the year, a resolution is in order: I will write more than last year.

22.12.14

The Romanian Revolution Didn't End 25 Years Ago

When you can say "it's been a quarter-century" about something, it's not surprising that it feels like a lifetime ago. But during the most violent uprising of 1989, I can only remember peace. On the 22nd of December in Blaj, not a soul stirred. I remember looking out the window and all I could see was a ghost town. It seemed as thought even the stray dogs knew that it wasn't a good time to be out in the open. I think we all expected the army to come in. We heard about the uprising and deaths in Timisoara, we knew that Bucharest was in full revolt, and there was little information beyond that. I don't know why I don't remember anything on TV that day - maybe the antenna was broken and we had no signal.

I was secretely excited by the thought of seeing a real-live tank rumble past. And anyway, in my mind, the soldiers were the good guys. We also kept waiting to hear the gunfire that would signal that the revolution had arrived to Blaj, but there too, I was disappointed. Except at one point in the afternoon. We heard a shot from the direction of the train station and we all thought, "this is it, the Revolution!" But that really was it, the one solitary shot in Blaj. We later found out it was a negligent discharge by a reservist tasked with guarding the train station. Nobody was hurt. But his friends probably never let him live that one down.

And then there was peace. It's hard to believe that a child could understand what it means to escape the yoke of a totalitarian regime, but I knew. My younger siblings all knew. I think that every living thing in Romania knew that the bogeyman whose portrait hung in every classroom, office, and public space in the country was a bogeyman no more.

The next few days were a whirlwind. We'd moved to our grandma's house temporarily and the TV there worked well enough. We saw the crowds that stormed the palace. We heard about dog food for the first time (Ceausescu fed his dogs with dog food, not scraps and bones the way other people fed their dogs). Images of dead, naked, people plastered the screen.  We now know most of those were just random dead bodies from the morgue. They all had autopsy stitches from their navel to their chest and the people watching just didn't know any better. But it served the Iliescu faction very well to keep the confusion going with talks of 'terrorists' killing civilians. I guess the USA had to learn it from somewhere...

And then, the tyrant was caught and his reign was officially over. The trial was televised into every home in the country, the OJ trial had nothing on it. I remember my surprise at how aged and grandfatherly Ceausescu looked. All of his portraits showed him a good twenty years younger, wrinkle-free, bright-eyed, watching benevolently over 'his people.' The bastard.

Thinking back to it now it's obvious the entire thing was a sham. Old and delusional though he was, killing him kept him from fingering all the underlings who bore just as much responsibility for the state of Romania. A Ceausecu testimony might've been the one good thing he'd ever done for his country. It's often said his IMF debt repayment policy of the '80s was a great accomplishment as Romania was the only debt-free country entering the '90s. But at what cost? Was it worth being the only country in Europe more akin to a third-world country? Was it worth starving and terrorizing a population of 20 million people? I'm really asking here, because if you're capable of praising him for repaying the national debt, you should also be able to justify his methods.

The execution was so sudden that even then, in some sense, it was somewhat anti-climactic. A quarter-century of dictatorship snuffed out in a volley of AK-47 bullets. And it's still the best Christmas I ever had.

All of a sudden, people who'd stayed away from my dissident parents were our best friends. My father was 'elected' mayor. People who (we later found out) informed on my parents were now ardent anti-communists. As it turns out, everyone actually hated Ceausescu and they'd finally found the courage to speak out against the injustice of the past twenty-plus years. Yeah, I guess it's easy to be bitter even now. I'm proud of my parents for their willingness to sign Doinea Cornea's letters, for their inflexibility in the face of the Communist Party, and for their brave stand against the tyranny of the cowardly and apathetic masses, but mostly, for instilling into all of us (without meaning to, I'm sure) the greatest value of all: 'the duty to perpetual revolution'.

"I believe in life and in people, I feel obliged to advocate their highest ideals as long as I believe them to be true, since shrinking from that would be a cowardly evasion of duty. I also see myself compelled to revolt against ideals I believe to be false, since recoiling from this rebellion would be a form of treason. This is the meaning of perpetual revolution." - From Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz

And now, as every year on this date, I can't help thinking of the people who died on the streets in 1989. The official narrative honours them as victims of anti-communist struggle. But in truth, they were the first victims of the new regime. One that was to terrorize the country for another twenty-five years. This is why we have to remember them. They didn't die to appease an already dying monster, they died because they believed Romania could be better. Had to be better. It's up to each of us to live up to those expectations regardless of the bogeymen who lead us. The revolution didn't end twenty-five years ago. As long as we believe in life and in people and we continue to revolt against the ideals we know to be false, the revolution is now.


10.12.14

Who Really Won The Romanian Elections?

If I translate my English posts into Romanian, it's only fair to return the favour. Although I'm going to cover the central theme of the previous post (written in Romanian), I'd rather let my writing take its course and let the text speak naturally, without relying on a source text.

The Presidential elections in Romania marked the end of the Basescu era. During his ten year mandate, he oversaw Romania's integration into NATO and ascension to the EU as well as Romania's most significant level of economic growth since 1989. He also presided over the ongoing theft of national and natural resources, supported corrupt colleagues and businesses, and was the star of numerous scandals including two referendums aimed at his removal.

During Basescu's mandate, I'd wager that Romanian morale reached an all-time low. The '90s, wild as they were, carried a certain optimism. Over time, however, the incompetence of Romanian leaders and their flagrant disrespect for this country's citizens, demonstrated by their inability to provide anything of value, any vision, or even a single cross-country highway, resulted in a demoralized and politically apathetic social class very far removed from the democratic processes that make other countries appear utopian by comparison. Nonetheless, he's proven to be a wily politician and I've a feeling that history will be kind to him.

These elections announced the end of an era and the beginning of another. For Romanians it was a choice between Ponta's Romania of amnesty for politicians convicted of corruption or that of Iohannis who endorsed honest and hard-working Transylvanian-Saxon ethics as the head of an alliance that includes Basescu's Liberal Democratic party. At least with Ponta, there was no reason to worry about yet another facade, it was pretty clear what he was up to. Ponta, who, upon visiting China, lauded the "Great Communist Party and all of its accomplishments" made it easy for his PSD cronies to be labelled 'communist remnants'. It would be difficult to argue that they are not. Their ideological and spiritual leader is none other than Ion Illiescu, the man who took over after 1989 and under whose 'leadership' Romania's political class was schooled in graft, incompetence, and petty squabbles.

I don't want to get into the politics much more than this, suffice to say that, at the beginning of the year, 90% of Romanians would've told you that Ponta would be their future president. What's incredible is that, even then, very few relished the prospect. His tenure as prime minister cemented his reputation as a liar and a cheat. However, given the PSD grip on the voting masses (pensioners, public servants, those living on social assistance), there was little doubt that the outcome might be any different.

Everybody knew that in order to defeat Ponta Romanians needed a good alternative candidate. Moreover, there was a tacit understanding that *if* anything were to change, the apathetic and traditionally uninterested part of the electorate would have to participate en masse.

When I first moved here and I started meeting new people and talking to them, there was something that just didn't click. I couldn't understand why a country with such smart people (most of those I was meeting and speaking with) still put up with the mess the politicians were making. How did these bandits get into power, why were they voted in time and again? It was mind-boggling. And that's when I found out that the "smart Romanian's" solution was to just ignore the problem. "Oh, I don't get mixed up in all that, it's just dirt." "I'll do my thing, they'll do their thing, you can't win with those people." And on and on with this defeatist and fatalistic view of the political situation here. That was when I struggled to write the longest thing I'd ever written in Romanian -up to that point (Here it is if you're interested in running it through freetranslation.com).

The gist of it is that the politicians aren't the problem as much as an uninterested and passive electorate is the problem. The people in parliament are there because they were voted in by other people – it doesn't matter if those who vote are illiterate, or that they only care about getting their pensions, or because they got a sack of flour and a bottle of vegetable oil right before the election. They voted, period. Moreover, democracy is a two-way process that takes place in between, not just during, elections; another concept completely alien to 99% of Romanians.

Until now.

This past election wasn’t about Klaus Iohannis’s victory. That’s almost irrelevant. He’s yet to prove himself on the national stage and he’s still the leader of a political party with plenty of baggage. This was bigger. This was the first time, since 1989, that millions of Romanians actually witnessed democracy in action. This is huge. It’s reflected in the words of a friend at work, who voted for the first time, “After these elections I realized I need to be more politically informed,” he said. Others echoed this sentiment, and it’s not surprising to see why; the previously uninvolved voters were able to see firsthand that tangible changes are possible, even in Romania.  So, it's the average Romanian who won the elections, and it's time for all the incompetent Romanian politicians to start worrying about their jobs. 


25.11.14

Cine A Câștigat Alegerile De Fapt?

Sunt un idealist, știu. După ce-mi depășesc dubiile inițiale despre orice văd/aud/mi se propune, rămâne doar optimismul bazat pe faptul ca am încredere în intențiile bune ale omenirii -asta doar dacă sunt intrade-văr intenții bune. De obicei, îmi dau seama dacă-i cazul .

Acum mai bine de doi ani am scris primul meu articol în română. L-am întitulat Cum Să-i Dai Pe Toți Ticăloși Afara. L-am scris cu optimismul că (și) în Romania se poate. Știam asta pentru că, deși la vremea aceea eram venit de doar un an, încă nu întâlnisem oameni care nu erau bine intenționați. L-am scris in mare parte și din frustrare. O frustrare care încă o simțeam până la alegerile prezidențiale din 17 noiembrie. Deși Romania este o țară democratică, a căruia legii prevăd niște drepturi anume, cu un sistem de guvernare cât-de-cât transparent, puțini sunt oamenii care își asumă libertațiile democrației și care participă in procesul democratic pe de lung. Am vorbit despre acest process in articolul sus-menționat. E vorba de implicarea civica despre care e nevoie zi cu zi într-o democrație funcționala, nu doar la fiecare patru sau cinci ani in timpul alegerilor. Eu zic ca am avut -și încă am - dreptate.

Bine, ironia nu-mi scapă. Cea mai mare mișcare sociala ultimilor 25 de ani a fost de fapt, legată de alegeri. Dar sa nu uitam că protestele Rosia Montana au fost și ele un start, fiind cea mai mare mișcare socială până atunci. Ca urmare, oameni au început sa asculte și sa se interese un pic mai mult. A fost destul încât acuma, in ultimele luni, răscoala a început sa fie palpabilă, mai ales pe Facebook (unde nu am văzut o singura postare pro Ponta). Mizeriile PSD-ului nu se mai îngropau doar in Românisme gen, "asta-i Romania." Erau și discuții, era lume revoltata, deja îmi dădusem seama ca începeau sa se disipeze straturile de ceața intre 'noi' și 'ei'. Politica nu mai este doar 'a lor'.

E drept ca "Președintele Care Unește" ne-a unit împotriva lui, și ca nu a fost o mișcare democratica spre un scop anume, dar cred ca a fost altceva ce ne-a mobilizat: mica posibilitate ca poate se poate. Când mai este speranță, mai este și viață, și viața este o lupta cu adversitatea - o lupta de care nu se scapă. Asa deci, pe 17, s-a făcut dreptate in lupta noastră. Nu vorbesc de noi cei 'deștepți' sau 'răsăriți' sau 'anticomuniști'. Astea-s analogii facile și putin valabile din multe puncte de vedere. Vorbesc de noi cei care s-au implicat. Pur și simplu, e victoria oamenilor care le pasa de ce se întâmplă in țara lor.

Nu am vrut sa scriu postul acesta ca sa intru in discuții despre politicieni, pentru că ei vin și pleacă (N.B: din cauza noastră). Vroiam doar sa-i incurajez pe toți care au participat la o schimbare mare de mentalitate. Acum suntem doar la un început, și doar așa se începe. Pas cu pas.