From The Outside, Looking In: Part 2 (Times New Romanian)

Not to be confused with Times New Roman, the font, nor the satirical Romanian version of The Onion, Times New Romanian is as much a travel diary as it is a cultural exploration of a country through foreign eyes.

The thirty-eight interviews that Nigel Shakespear presents form a mosaic of experience across the length and breadth of Romania. We have the stories of Brits, Americans, Indians, Italians, Dutchmen (and women), and others who, for a variety of reasons, now call Romania home. Few say they would go back to the place they were born and many can't imagine a life outside of Romania. You would think it's a story of the perfect melting pot, but if these voices prove anything it's that personal perspective and social integration can be mutually exclusive. One can love Romania and be critical of it at the same time. Many Romanians, I think, aren't able to do this. At least, not in the same way that foreigners do. It's a zero sum game with Romanians, while foreigners have the luxury of detachment from the country's chaotic history and generally cynical world outlook.

Certain themes are repeated throughout the book, and I especially couldn't help picking up on those that resonated with my own observations. Rupert Wolfe-Murray, a Scottish journalist and writer, talks about the general lack of accountability: "Blaming other people for things; that's another major issue here. I've seen it from the kindergarten level up to the top of government, the tendency to blame other people for everything, not to take responsibility." And the complaining. I think every single interview mentions either the complaining or the eschewing of responsibility. In my opinion, this isn't the type of trait we want on our national business card, but it shows pretty much every time somebody says "not my job", or "it wasn't my fault", or "asta este" (that's the way it is).

The interviewees talk about business and politics. About the corruption they've witnessed first-hand, the incompetence and numbing bureaucracy. It's interesting that they complain about pretty much the same things that Romanians do. Ask any one of these expats and any average Romanian where the problems lie with Romania and they'll basically tell you the same thing. Isn't that interesting? The difference is what you do about it, that's where the Romanian and foreign mentalities diverge.

A German hotelier, Jonas Schafer, explains: "It's frustrating and very alarming to see the political developments and the lack of understanding of political basics here. We are resigned to make the little place where we live a bit better but it doesn't mean we are not appalled, and to a very large extent frightened shitless by what's happening in this country on a larger scale. The really difficult thing is to see that many people are choosing the easy way out, meaning they leave the country, and are not staying on to fight to make this a better place." (Italics mine). A Dutchman, Johan Bauman echoes this point of view, "What [the Romanians] need is a large dose of optimism, a can-do mentality and just by being here, and saying that Romania is a great country, I hope to contribute to that in some small way."

If I were to re-write Mr. Schafer's sentence without the italicized bit, I could easily attribute it to a Romanian, but that's the divergence; Foreigners can see that there is a lot of potential and hope left in this country, while most Romanians have already given up. In large part, being Romanian has something to do with it. I wrote about the reasons Romanians don't like Romanians and a Bucharest expat, Craig Turp, has picked up on it, too: "I had some problems with the electricity company, I went there speaking Romanian and nothing was getting done. On the fourth or fifth day I went there as a foreigner, pretended I couldn't speak a word of Romanian, and got it done." What else is there to say?

On the flip-side, the interviewees also attest to the changes they've seen in themselves. Rob Rosinga says, "I resigned from this very rigid way of being that is quite usual in Western societies. I accept we change our programme or that things are not always like they should be...you can adapt, you can improvise...here it's very vivid. All the time funny thing happen, and people respond. When something is happening, people are interacting - in the bus, on the street." Rupert Wolfe-Murray essentially paraphrases this view when asked what he'd miss most if he left Romania. "The easy familiarity and sense of community, and relaxed open way you can communicate with people here. Even dealing with grumpy people at the post office is quite fun sometimes. Usually the human being will come out." And that, dear readers, is a lot more than can be said for the wooden social interactions now imposed by modern Western society.

In fact, that's really the underlying theme here; all the problems, the communist legacy, the way nothing seems to come out the way one expects, it's all worth it. Romania traps us all into a warm glow of nostalgia for authentic living and the human experience, warts and all.

I wish I could post every highlight I made in the book, but if I did, then that'd be about half the book on here. It's much too time consuming, and I'm not sure Nigel would appreciate it. But I did appreciate the time he put into meeting with all the people who shared their thoughts on the their adoptive country and then publishing this book. I highly recommend Times New Romanian because the varying viewpoints make up an objective examination of Romania from a foreign perspective, but also, as with Never Mind the Balkans, because it's an important piece of socio-cultural commentary on contemporary Romania.


On Refugees and Migrants

My parents entered Canada after their refugee claim was approved by the Canadian embassy in Paris -where they had also been granted political asylum following the events in Romania during December '89. When we (the kids) followed, a little over a year later, we got winter jackets and new bunk beds courtesy of the federal government. As a Romanian I'll always be grateful to Canada for the warm welcome. As a Canadian I'm proud to share in Canada's (arguably pre-2000) reputation of peacemaker and global good guy.

That preamble is to say that it's difficult for me to remain impartial to the current refugee crisis. It hits close to home both figuratively and literally. I've got to where I am today because a then-foreign government opened its borders to our family. As a result, I got an upbringing that allowed me the opportunity to fulfill my yet unknown potential (that's because the best is yet to come).

There's no missing the irony in the fact I've returned to Romania. But it's safe to say that the moving to Canada was better for all of us than remaining in a still-communist Romania.

So how could I, from my ivory tower, suggest that other people shouldn't be privy to the same kind of opportunity I had? Especially if they're refugees -but even if they're not.

Matei Visniec, a French-Romanian playwright and correspondent for RFI (the French BBC), has written a very good analysis on the subject (in Romanian). In, "Immigration: The issue that's rousing Europe's dozing conscience",Visniec presents the three prevalent views in the crisis so far. This is my paraphrased transcript:

The first approach to the issue, he says, is naive and even cheaply populist, summed up by those who say, "Europe is an inclusive space to all cultures, open wide the doors and let them all come in." Indeed, this rhetoric costs nothing and its proponents assume no risks, but instead they bask in the glow of their humanism and the plaudits that come their way.

The second point of view is espoused by politicians and intellectuals who agree that Europe must continue to provide shelter from persecution and to welcome refugees, but also to remain mindful that this 'European Ship' is itself fragile and subject to capsize under the weight of too much generosity.  Moreover, these "prudent humanists" warn that a well-defined European framework on the status of refugees is not a long-term solution, and we should instead think about solutions that will stabilize the countries from where the refugees originate. He points out that while French troops are already fighting Islamist factions in the Sahel, Germany is happy to simply receive refugees. Shouldn't there be collaboration on that front as well?

Finally, there's the anti-refugee stance. Embraced by nationalists, and embodied by the Hungarian PM, Viktor Orban, who claims that democracy in Europe is based on Christian values and that the number of Muslim refugees threaten Europe's Christian identity. Visniec quotes Jacques Attali's rebuttal in L'Express where he rightly points out that Hungarians themselves are descendants of invading Fino-Ungric tribes  from Asia, and that the rest of the world, especially Europe, opened their doors to the couple hundred thousand Hungarian refugees who fled their country during the Russian invasion of 1956.

Visniec's commentary is spot on. A radical approach, on either side cannot be a good solution. I like Slavoj Zizek's outlook though.

"Which solution is better? To paraphrase Stalin, they are both worse. Those who advocate open borders are the greater hypocrites: Secretly, they know very well this will never happen, since it would trigger an instant populist revolt in Europe. They play the Beautiful Soul which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it.

The anti-immigrant populist also know very well that, left to themselves, Africans will not succeed in changing their societies. Why not? Because we, North Americans and Western Europeans, are preventing them. It was the European intervention in Libya which threw the country in chaos. It was the U.S. attack on Iraq which created the conditions for the rise of ISIS. The ongoing civil war in the Central African Republic is not just an explosion of ethnic hatred; France and China are fighting for the control of oil resources through their proxies."

He's just as spot on as Visniec, and maybe more so, because he sees the big picture in this refugee crisis, calling it, "a price for the global economy" and a result of "the dynamic of global capitalism." These are points that are glossed over and mostly overlooked by others. I also like how he points to the sad irony in the fact that commodities circulate the globe freely but that people can't. Of course, this is not a comparison between people and commodities. But the reality remains that free trade agreements proliferate while national borders are as strict as ever. It's also utopian to dream that it's going to be any different any time soon -or even that blurring borders is actually good for humanity in its current state. But Zizek gets into that too, a little bit, and I recommend the entire article (except for the last two or three sentences, because I, too, remember Communism).

What does this mean for Romania?

I can't say for sure. Enforced refugee quotas or not, I don't see many choosing to settle here (and therefore disrupting our "Romanian way of life"). Romania is far from the dream that these people are chasing in Germany or Scandinavia. My parents mentioned that they had job offers on arrival to Canada provided they move to the Northwest Territories. "No thanks!" they said (and I thank them for it). It's not fair to compare Romania to NT, but same difference as far as these people are concerned.

Furthermore, the distinction between refugees and economic migrants is somewhat of a moot point. Perhaps not all economic migrants are refugees, but refugees who don't plan on an eventual return to their homeland are certainly economic migrants. Most of them fit the bill. And who can blame them? Peace in Syria tomorrow wouldn't get rid of the rubble, rebuild businesses, infrastructure, and homes. It's easy to say, "well, they should go back anyway" But look at all the Romanians who've left the country to enjoy the material benefits of the more developed Western economies. If Romanians don't stay, neither will they.

Finally, a few more points I wanted to add in addition to those made by Visniec and Zizek:

1. Yes, Europe ought to take in refugees, provided their identity and claims are verifiable. This will also serve as a fine introduction to European bureaucracy - part of the continent's traditional values. If it means waiting in a refugee camp for a year, so be it. This needs to be a strict prerequisite. And of course, access should be granted to refugees only. If refugees don't like the camps set up where they first enter the EU, they can stay home -or in a Turkish refugee camp.

2. There are Islamic radicals in the waves of refugees who've come ashore to Europe. Maybe some are Muslim/European ISIS fighters who got sick of killing civilians and getting bombed. Maybe there are tens of them, maybe there are thousands. Maybe they'll fall in love with Europe and turn into bearded hipsters, I don't know. But they certainly exist. It is delusional to think otherwise. Only the strictest measures can keep them out, and out they must remain.

3.  A long term refugee-oriented solution is absolutely the wrong approach. Whether it means more military intervention in the Middle East (only against ISIS, I'd stay out of the established government intervention racket), or major changes to exploitative Western policies that help create the volatile conditions in these areas, any viable long-term solution lies outside of Europe's borders.

4. Let's be realistic about "integration". Some people want it, and some people don't. Those who do are not necessarily all angels, and those who don't are not all terrorists. Romania's situation with gypsies is a good example. There needs to be serious effort from all sides otherwise parallel cultures/societies are created. These will inevitably clash. Whether this clash (of civilizations) occurs often or not is irrelevant. The potential for it is what creates the underlying tension that one feels in the very crowded, very multicultural, urban areas of the West where heavy-handed policing and extreme political correctness are the mechanisms that keep it from spilling over into overt animosity.

5. I don't think anybody loves moving. Let alone to a strange country with nothing but the clothes on their backs. All that people want is a better life. Sometimes they go West, sometimes North, and very rarely they move back home. It's nice to hope they'll fit in perfectly in the already existing social order, but this is also not always the case.

We have to be human, but let's be humans with brains, and with realistic expectations.

I also recommend reading this AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread on reddit, posted by a Syrian immigrant to Germany.


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 make on their menus.

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.