Reason I Love Living in Romania #8 - Lovage

We all know the ranking is arbitrary, but this one definitely is up there. As with the other "Reason I Love Living in Romania" posts, this is also food related. And why shouldn't it be?

Leustean (EN: 'Lovage') is pretty much the most savoury plant on earth. It lacks the pungency of basil, but it is no less aromatic. It's not as sharp on the nose as mint is, nor as fragrant as thyme, nor as earthy as oregano or parsley. While the comparison to celery is not completely out of order, it's still like comparing rucola to leaf lettuce. 

An added bonus is the plant's versatility; you'll find that it works in pretty much any hearty comfort food. I've recently used it in a peperonata and it was a clear upgrade from the usual parsley. Like Sriracha, you could basically put it on a piece of cardboard and it'll be tasty. Finally, it stores beautifully. Roll it in shrink wrap and freeze it as long as you want. It's just as good when you take it out. 

Like many other great things about Romania (or living in Romania), the plant is underrated and/or under-appreciated. But any Romanian tanti worth her salt has an endless supply on hand and wouldn't dream of serving a hearty soup without a healthy sprinkling of leustean. What I don't understand though, is why this is far less common in the restaurants here. It's as if they're afraid that any dish using it will taste too much like dinner at grandma's. Ironic when you consider the typical appeal to tradition that Romanian restaurants 

If you're hoping to hit Flavour Town, Romania, the lovage flavour train will get you there, just head to the local piata and hop on. 


All You Need Is Word

This isn't that important, probably not that interesting either, but it's been bothering me for a while. A major deficiency of mine is that I tend to get hung up on irrelevant minutiae even when I shouldn't. Couple that with some mild OCD and you'll find me wasting time on a fruitless endeavour, "just because". This weekend I spent several minutes designing the Steaua Bucharest logo in Microsoft Word. 

Steaua Bucharest, by the way, is now known as FCSB. Romania's biggest football (soccer) club has been reduced to an acronym as a result of legal wrangling over trademarks and dues.

You see, Steaua Bucharest, like pretty much every other team in Europe, isn't just a football club. They are a sporting association under whose umbrella you'll find basketball, water polo or weightlifting teams. The club was originally established as the sporting branch of the military, much like the Russians and Bulgarians have their CSKA teams, or the Serbs with FK Partizan.  Communist football history notwithstanding, the symbol and crest fold into the club's palmares, that is, their achievements over time. The hardcore fans take it all very seriously, particularly Romanians (or dare I say, Europeans) who don't mess around with tradition. In Steaua's case, this includes the 1987 European Champions Cup and numerous league trophies.

More recently, however, somebody at Steaua realized that when owner, former sheep herder, marketing exec, director of football and jailbird extraordinaire, Gigi Becali, purchased the football club, he didn't pay the Steaua sporting association any dues for their crest. Fifteen years on, he's even less willing to pay. "No problem," he said, "I'll design my own crest!" And he fired up the laptop in his Jilava jail cell/design studio, started up Word, and five minutes later, Romania's biggest football club had a new logo*.

But that wasn't enough. The team also needed a new name. "Easy!" Gigi bawled into the phone from his cell to the PR team via conference call, "Do I have to pay anyone if we use FCSB? No? FCSB it is. Băăă, bagă FCSB că aşa am zis eu!"

                                         (Actual screenshot of Gigi Becali's design on Microsoft Word**)

The outcome was more or less what you'd expect. The die-hard fans abandoned the football team in favour of the Steaua basketball club, while Romanian designers gouged their eyes out upon gazing at Gigi's masterpiece. Steaua Bucharest football club was no more. Along with it was gone any shred of dignity that Romanian designers had worked hard to cultivate.

Here is what the design looks like:

- The logo of a Hermetic cult
- An air force roundell for a fictional Second World War nation
- A medieval shield

- A Microsoft Word design

Indeed, it turns out it's entirely possible to design it all on Word. It makes you wonder, just a bit, when the country's biggest sporting club and European ambassador on the pitch, puts this much effort into their logo design; What can you really expect from people who do marketing, branding, and design in this Romania? Maybe it's harsh to judge the country on this one particular travesty, but there are discerning eyes out there that will. As I mentioned in the Romanians are Coming post, there are plenty of reasons to be embarrassed by what Romanians do to their own country, and now here is another (mostly if you're a Steaua/FCSB supporter).

PS: Here is what the logo actually looks like ( I refuse to embed the image in here as I don't want to be held responsible for yet more retina damage).

* This is a dramatization, events may not have occurred exactly as depicted in this blog post.
** Not an actual screenshot of Gigi Becali's design


The Un(Re)Told Festival

This time next year - in late July to be precise -  Cluj will be gearing up for the second installment of the mythical festival trilogy started with this year's Untold Festival. The 2016 "Told Festival" will host new names alongside most of this year's headliners. David Guetta, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, and the messiah of trance, Armin Van Buren, will bless Cluj Arena once again with Drop after Drop after Drop. It will be magical! My eardrums are quivering in anticipation, my joints already ache for the four days days of walking, standing, jumping, and hopping. As the modern adage goes: Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat.

Repetition is indeed the name of the game here. From loops to samples to drops, it doesn't matter if we hear some songs/loops/samples more than once, because it will fit right in with the theme - an offshoot of this year's mythical fairy tales, we'll be going back in time to revisit the "Memories!" from this year's event.  Thematic booths will provide festival goers with a myriad of reminders. Yes, the lineup will be similar, but even the booths, the sponsors, the food, the venues, the stages will bear resemblance and pay homage to the greatest festival in the history of Transylvania. It will serve one purpose; "Tell all festival goers about Untold". Hence, the Told Festival. It's going to be Legendary! (Again) Or wait, that was Electric Castle. It doesn't matter. It will be EPIC!!

But there's more! Because this is a Triology after all.  The first and only festival trilogy, ever. The "ReTold" Festival of 2017 will top them all. If you missed the 2016 version it's not a problem, you'll get an opportunity to experience it again by attending the 2017 carbon copy version.
- Same exact lineup!
- Same exact layout!
- Same  people! (If you buy a 2016 Told ticket, you're automatically eligible for the 2017 ReTold festival)
- Same food stands!
- Same exact theme! (ie. Remembering Untold, as during Told)

 But, most of all....most of all...


Just like this year.

I can't wait. See you there!

Note: This feeble attempt at tongue in cheek humour came to me in the middle of the crowd at Untold. My friends and I all laughed about it, then I said I'd write about it and I have. It's not my intention to belittle the festival's success or entertainment value, it delivered on both counts....I'll be there for the Told and ReTold festivals. Guaranteed!


Extended Vacation

This is not so much about going anywhere, just about the absence I've taken from blog writing. There is no good excuse as to why the posts have thinned to a trickle, but they have and I'm going to need to cut the vacation short someday soon. Stay tuned.


From The Outside, Looking In: Part 1 (Never Mind The Balkans, Here's Romania)

I’ve been toying with the idea of starting up a book review blog ever since January when I decided that in 2015 I’d read a book a week. I’m now four books behind schedule. It turns out that no matter how fast you read, getting through 52 books also takes dedication.  But the universe has a way of helping you along when you set a clear course and (try to) maintain your heading. Several weeks ago, I was contacted by a couple of readers (both unaware of my reading goal, hence ‘the universe’ explanation) who introduced me to a couple of books that I quickly added to my reading list and, very recently, to my tally. So you can see where this is going...

Mike Ormsby’s NeverMind the Balkans, Here’s Romania (also translated into Romanian) and Nigel Shakespear’s Times New Romanian (TNR) are each worth their own review, but they complement each other so well that, having read both, I’d feel odd writing about either without bringing up the other. The foreigners who live here are pretty congruent in their observations and opinions on Romania(ns), which is also why I’m going for the complementary angle.  But that’s not to say that once you’ve heard an expat’s Romania experience you’ve heard them all. What’s especially striking is that no matter how similar events may appear to be, no two experiences are alike in Romania, especially not when you expect them to be.

In Never Mind the Balkans, we find a couple dozen vignettes based on Ormsby’s experiences in Romania. After nearly 25 years in country, he’s got plenty of stories. As a Brit (and a Scouser of the crimson variety) he’s well attuned to the darkly humorous undercurrent that runs through most casual interactions in Romania. He had me grinning from the first page and even laughing out loud a few times. The book doesn’t offer many mirthful laughs mind you, but instead the kind that are accompanied by a shake of the head, a shrug of the shoulders, and a resigned acceptance of man’s utter fallibility in the face of absurdity.

There’s the story about the stray cat that gets hit by a car. Although the narrator pays for its treatment, he’s also asked to pay for the cremation when it doesn’t survive the night. It’s the dialogue in this one that’ll get you. Then there’s the argument with a bar manager at a fancy hotel where arbitrary decisions are made on reservations. There’s the [apartment] bloc association meetings and the characters who run them. There are stories of neighbours, of friends and their families, of run-ins with money changers in Bucharest, of starting a band, of hiking in the Carpathians, of talking business. It’s normal, everyday stuff really, it’s just that it all takes place in Romania where, as TNR will put it, “anything is possible, everything is impossible, and nothing is ever as it seems."

I think this is why a friend of mine was very unhappy with the book.

At some point last year, I got an email from him asking if I’d read Balkans. He told me that I shouldn’t bother. That it portrays Romanians in a bad light and that it focuses on every negative stereotype about Romania. Until I got part of the way through it, I’d completely forgotten the discussion.  When I remembered it, I also found myself strongly disagreeing with him.  For one, like it or not, this is not a work of fiction. That means that either Mike Orsmby is lying when he writes about the anti-Semitic dentist, the teenagers who steal beer and then litter in a national park, and the drivers with a death-wish. Or he’s telling the truth. Granted, the truth is not always pretty, and the sometimes sardonic humour is often more akin to a caricature than a portrait. But such is life. And I still loved Romania a little bit more with every page.

One could also argue that it’s written as a sort of picaresque romp through Romania, rife with characters who basically serve as the punch-line to the author’s cynical jokes. Yes, one could argue that, and I believe that’s how my friend read it. But in no way, does it do the book justice. 

In one of the stories, Mike is talking to a friend who explains why her sister, a new mom, almost let her baby die of starvation by insisting, as the baby books did, on feeding it breast milk exclusively: “Juliette read every baby book under the sun. But she learns by rote, like a parrot. She doesn’t compare, analyze, or think for herself. Dragos is the same. Educated but dim, both of them.” This isn’t a story about feeding babies though; this is the story of the Romanian education system and its impact on those who go through it. This also isn’t every Romanian, of course, but it’s enough Romanians that it explains a lot about the mentality one will encounter here.  I’d be in denial to suggest otherwise.

Nevermind The Balkans isn’t lacking in self-deprecating humour either. When Ormsby is given a seat right by the kitchen grill, after the argument with the hotel manager, he reflects on his predicament “I have not eaten meat for 25 years. I’ll probably throw up if I stay here much longer. I sit staring at my shoes. They’re leather.  What a hypocrite. It’s a sign. I didn’t win at all, I lost.”
This is what Romania does to you. Those ‘foreigner glasses’ might highlight the faults in Romanian society; the problems caused by the communist mentality, the limited outlook on business, the grating social interactions. But Romania is also a place that forces you to be human, to look inward and to really appreciate all those privileges you take for granted. The double standards you’ve never noticed in England or in America are unmissable in Romania where sharp contrasts and very direct social interactions are par for the course. 

When I received Times New Romanian, I skipped straight to Mike Ormsby’s interview. I’d just finished his book and there were still some withdrawal symptoms. Also, after the anecdotes in Balkans, I wanted to get a more straight-forward, journalistic overview on what I'd just read. There, Orsmby goes into some detail about his arrival to Romanian with the BBC in 1994 and the reasons it's now home. There are two quotes that stick out in the interview. One, in response to his critics, Ormsby says, "if you can't feel the love in the book, you need to read closer." Secondly,  it's the philosophy behind it: "I feel as a foreigner, and especially as a writer, that I have a responsibility to observe, to record, to hold up a mirror and ask, 'Is this the best it can be?' Nowhere is perfect, but Transylvania is close!"


To be continued with a review of Times New Romanian...

Disclaimer: I was introduced to both books by their publishers and I received complimentary copies of each, however, I was not asked to write positive reviews in either case. I chose to write about these books because I genuinely enjoyed reading them, and because I think that they are necessary cultural studies of contemporary Romania, for foreigners and Romanians alike. 


Why Romanians Don't Like Romanians

To my knowledge, this national self-loathing is a uniquely Romanian experience. Maybe we share it with some of our neighbours, but I doubt it. I've never seen a people dislike their own as much as the Romanians.
This is going to be highly generalized, but as with most things I write here it's rooted in personal experience and observations. Don't hate the player, hate the game.

1. Romanians like the exotic, to be Romanian is the antithesis of what it means to be exotic.

2. Romanians are often prejudiced. The thought process goes something like this: If you're Romanian you're probably bereft of interesting experiences and financially limited. You're from 'the-worst-country-on-earth', after all. If  you're well off, then you're just a rich asshole (probably a thief, too). Either way, your Romanian-ness ensures you're seen as a person with limited horizons who likely can't offer anything new or different.

If you're Western European or North American you're the opposite of the above. Your life experience has given you a status that many Romanians aspire to; a solid education, an open mind, a passport to the civilized world (ie. America), and the ability to spend money. This places foreigners on a pedestal.  Except if you're African, Asian, Arab, Indian, or South American. Then you're somewhat 50/50. On the one hand you still have the benefit of being exotic, but on the other you come from a similarly poor and  'uncivilized' place. Depending on your pigmentation, there's also the risk you'll be mistaken for a gypsy and that never helps in Romania.

3. Few wealthy Romanians are seen as positive role-models. I mentioned the rich asshole stereotype above. They may own nice cars, but they drive and park like douchebags. They have money to spend but dress in tacky outfits and build tacky houses. Home design is stuck somewhere between ancient Greece or Rome, the 70s, and The Jetsons. My girlfriend couldn't help overhearing a conversation between two pitipoance  in a cosmetics shop. One of the girls was talking about how she had to pay the bouncer 50 RON for the privilege of parking the X5 in front of the 'hottest club in Cluj' and then drinking 'Mumu' champagne all night. I'm guessing she meant G.H. Mumm. Nothing you wouldn't expect from any class of  Nouveau Riche.  This also explains why 'average' Romanians tend to disdain wealth when it is local. For more, see Gigi Becali.

Foreigners by comparison appear less ostentatious about their wealth and less petty about it all. In some cases it's true, but in most, it's a simple misconception that won't be dispelled as long as local barons behave the way they do.

4. Most beautiful buildings in Romania were built by foreigners. As opposed to many of our Balkan neighbours, we're not particularly nationalistic outside of the love for our unity. Rome's (Trajan's) conquest of Romania is considered a past glory and eulogized in the national anthem. The most beautiful buildings in Transylvania were build by the Habsburgs. Bucharest's architecture is either reminiscent of the French Belle Epoque, or an ode to communism.  Personally, I'm much more impressed by the tall, wooden churches of Maramures, but with the exception of the Brancovenesc style (itself multi-faceted), most architectural influence in Romania is not our own. There's an unspoken expectation tied to foreigners in Romania, implying that they can better contribute to the  improvement of Romania than Romanians can.

5. Romanians don't keep their word the same way foreigners do. When a non-Romanian tells you something will be done tomorrow, it's going to be done tomorrow. When a Romanian says it's going to be done tomorrow, it means they might start on it tomorrow - the actual deadline is flexible. This is far more common when exchanging goods and services than in personal relationships where punctuality and the value of one's 'word' are extremely  important. From a purely human to human perspective, it actually makes sense, but if you're doing business in the country it can be a real mess.

6. Romanians are rude and moody to each other. They mostly blame it on other Romanians. "Why should I smile if they're not smiling at me?", "why should I say please and thank you if they don't even offer a greeting?", "How can I be happy if politicians are stealing everything?" Foreigners are highly versed in common courtesy and more 'pleasant'. As with the above, this is more obvious in professional relationships and at the point of purchase.

One of the typical comments you'll hear from Romanians who come back from their travels with stories about people 'outside' goes something like this: "The [insert nationality here] are so much more relaxed [than Romanians]. Everyone is so nice [as opposed to Romanians]."

I'm torn on this particular point. I know how 'nice' Canadians can be. I know that behind the smiles you'll often find daggers and that the tone of the 'hello', 'please', or 'thank you' says a lot more than the word itself. I think that the Romanian directness and casual interaction between strangers is charming in its own way. It's the way families everywhere behave with one another. When a teenager sees his parents come home after work, they don't say, "hiiiii" with a big, fake smile. A flat, "hey" is more like it. At home nobody's offended by a curt, "pass the salt" or "give me the screwdriver." It's just more human to be direct and familiar with one another. I've gotten used to it and I don't mind it. That being said, even if money's tight in Romania, it doesn't hurt to remember that smiles are free. And that they make you, and others, feel better.

7. Check out this joke:
Satan is carrying out an inspection of hell. His admin-devil is pointing out who's roasting where and how his minions are keeping it all in check. "That's where the politicians go" the admin says, pointing to a sulfur pit surrounded by devils with pitchforks. As soon as a head bobs up near the edge, one of the pitchfork-wielding minions pokes it back under. A large cauldron hosts the lawyers. On its rim, the demons are busy poking away as the lawyers try to escape. It's hard work. And on goes Satan, surveying his kingdom of darkness until they come up to a lonely cauldron. "Why is nobody guarding that one?" he asks. "Oh, right, those are the Romanians, we don't need any demonpower there." Satan raises an inquisitive eyebrow. "It's simple," says the assistant, "when one tries to escape, the others pull him back in."

Finally, there's my very personal experience with moving back to Romania. Throughout the first several months it was almost useless for me to speak Romanian. Once, near the Parliament in Bucharest, I asked for directions in Romanian and the guy started explaining in English. I insisted on Romanian, he insisted on continuing in English. In other places in the world, they turn their back on you if you don't speak the local language, go figure.

It's not even so much about being friendly. What stands out in these cases is the willingness of Romanians to draw from otherwise invisible reserves of benevolence when it comes to accommodating foreigners. This is likely derived from  Romania's long tradition of hospitality. It's a personal point of pride for most to be a welcoming host to one's guests. The trouble is, other Romanians aren't interesting guests, they're the annoying family.


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