What Is A Platform?

A country is a platform.

This was obvious to my friend when he called me last week and asked what I was doing.

"I was just talking to the missus about how a country is a platform."
"Yeah, it is" he said, like it's old news. He's a startup guy, he knows the deal.

But the missus had just been saying how it was easy for me to say because I work in the world of tech and only techies will get the analogy. I said to her, "I got news for you, we all live in the world of tech."

You don't have to work for a tech company to post or to view YouTube videos. You don't need to know anything about tech to get a ride with Uber, or to book an apartment on AirBnB. Amazon has over 200 million customers most of whom don't work in tech. Wikipedia is read by students, teachers, and any shape of curious person there is. Don't get me started on Twitter, Facebook, Google, or, while I'm at it, the internet as a whole. Few tech products are just for people in tech, let alone platforms.

Here's the point: We all use online platforms, we all know how they work. 

Platforms bring people (users) together. If we dissect this further, we see two user types; producers and consumers. They come to the same place even though they have different roles. Imagine a one man YouTube channel with a million subscribers (he's the producer, the subscribers consumers). If we zoom out again we see an ecosystem of goods, services, conversations, rules, and transactions that culminate at a user's interaction with the play button.  The content (videos) produced on YouTube, the comments and other interaction events (video likes, subscriptions, reporting videos), and the advertisers who pay Google for the ads on videos are central to a functioning ecosystem.

Uber, AirBnB, Freelancer, Wikipedia, Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook all work in similar ways to a large extent. As websites, they are not valuable in and of themselves. They need users to participate in order to be successful. But the platform is responsible for providing users with tools and with defining rules  that govern user interactions and define the overall experience. Choudary's Platformed blog goes into depth about all of this stuff and it's a brilliant resource for anybody in  tech, but his TRIE concept does help make an excellent analogy. 

A country works pretty much the same way. More complex, but still very much like an online platform. The institutions (tools) and the laws (rules) set the tone for the way in which people go about their daily lives (interactions) and on their quality of life (experience). The government is the developer while payments on the platform, of course, are akin to our unavoidable taxes.

Just like it's ignorant to say that the value of an online platform is solely down to its features and the efforts of the development team, it's ignorant to surmise that a government (read, parliament, prime minister, president, or judiciary) is solely responsible for the experience of a country's citizens.

Think about it.

There are anti-corruption laws in Romania, but citizens still give bribes. There are traffic laws in Romania, but fatal accidents are all too common on our roads. We have a consumer protection agency, but does everyone who gets swindled in a transaction lodge complaints? Granted, 'the developers' in our government are terrible at prioritizing, rolling out new features, providing support, or improving the sluggish, outdated system.

But here's the beauty of not actually being an online platform.

Every few years, we have the opportunity to change the development team. If they do a bad job with the tools and rules they set out for us, we get to hold them responsible and kick them out with our votes. If we don't do that, we can't blame anybody but ourselves, civil-society.

Everybody has a role in a country, just like  everybody has a role on a platform. Moreover, these  roles are interchangeable. The prime-minister and president are also citizens subject to the same laws and institutions. If they don't do a good job with the health-care system, for example, they need to fly out to Turkey for their knee surgery. That's embarrassing. It's like the CEO of Uber using Lyft, or vice-versa. This poor experience, as citizens, should stir their conscience as leaders to improve the situation. But, this isn't a should/could/would type of post, I just wanted to clarify with a Ponta example.

But let's talk about Ponta a bit. He's gone. That's great. But what's next?

How do we avoid another Ponta?

As long as democracy is the system of government that creates the rules and interactions in our lives, we're going to deal with elected governments that create laws and set the tone for our institutions. If we're smart, we're only going to elect people (other citizens/ platform users) who propose the best laws and who are adept at managing the our taxes to improve the institutions (the tools at our disposal). But here's the hardest part in all this: Not all of those who stand for election are qualified or able to do a good job. Worst of all, many have no intention of doing the job for which they were elected to begin with. But what about you, virtuous citizen, are you willing to stand in their stead?

Which brings me to this: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

By the way, a country is a platform. So know your role and do your part. If you don't like it, change it.


A Brief History of Romanian Protests

Don't let anybody ever tell you that street protests don't change anything. Over the past three years, massive protests have yielded dramatic results in Romania.

February 2012: The protests were ignited by the proposal of a government bill to privatize certain aspects of the healthcare system. The bill was vocally opposed by then undersecretary of state, Raed Arafat, who was then urged to resign by the president, Traian Basescu. The protests, in support of Arafat- and against Basescu -  grew into the eventual anti-government, anti-austerity protests.
Outcome: Prime Minister, Emil Boc, resigns. The proposed healthcare bill is also dropped.

September 2013: The "Romanian Autumn" protests and the Rosia Montana issue. I even wrote about it here. I won't go into the details again, but looking back, I would say that even more than the 2012 protests, this is where Romanian civil society was born. For the first time since the fall of Ceausescu the politicians at the top realized they went too far. As Chinua Achebe would put it, 'they stole enough for the owner to notice.' The implication being that everyone can tolerate a bit of dishonesty, until it's so blatantly crass that it can't be ignored . Week after week, on Sundays, tens of thousands took to the streets to protest a new mining law that was clearly proposed and paid for by a private corporation. 

Outcome: The law doesn't pass, Rosia Montana is safe.

November 2014: Romanian presidential election. Preliminary polls show Ponta is well ahead and likely to win the presidency based on the communist PSDs entrenched constituents and the divided (and apathetic) liberal electorate. In late October he says that he will resign as PM if he loses the election. During the first round of voting, notoriously anti PSD diaspora voters are forced to wait hours to cast their ballots, or they don't get to vote at all. This spurs Romanians to take to the street again, demanding Ponta's resignation. The election is no longer about any other candidates, it's a vote of no-confidence for Ponta.

Outcome: Dramatic voter turnout for the second round of the elections. Iohannis wins, Ponta leaves Romania to drown his sorrows in Dubai nightclubs. He doesn't resign.

November 2015: The spontaneous #Colectiv protests following the club fire that killed over 30 people in Bucharest. Clearly a result of lax fire code regulations and the willingness of public officials to look the other way during inspections, the tragedy is largely met with silence from government officials, then with excuses and with documents trying to lay the blame elsewhere. A crowd of 25,000 gathers in Bucharest to demand the mayor's resignation, then Ponta's and the Minister of Interior, Gabriel Oprea's. 

Outcome: The mayor, Piedone, Ponta,and his entire cabinet resign. Protests continue demanding that Parliament resign and for an interim government to call early elections. The situation is still unfolding. 

Unless you look back at these events and analyze their outcome, it's easy to say "nothing changes if I protest." But this is how entrenched mentality is challenged - and changed. This is what true democracy is about; participating in the life of the village, even if all you have to give is your time and presence. In fact, any grassroots driven initiatives are much more important to democracy than votes. Votes are for politicians. Active, civic-minded communities, form the basis of a healthy society.

So, what now? When do the protests stop? How does systemic change come about?

For that, we have to understand how a country works, and how it needs to be run.

Image: https://gabrielaionita.wordpress.com


Fire Hazard

When I first moved to Cluj, I was taken in by the party scene. No last call, good vibes, cheap drinks. The perfect party cocktail. It's a potent mix, it usually delivers, and everybody goes home happy at the end of the night. But every time I descended into smoke-filled party dungeons like Janis, Diesel, Stuf, and others, there was always this niggling thought at the back of my mind: "Fire Hazard."

When I first started working security during my university days there was this very zealous guy training me. He wore black leather gloves, a duty belt with mace and cuffs, a utility knife, a bulletproof vest (which, he said, required a permit), and he wielded a hefty Mag Lite. Pretty much the stereotypical security guard, cop wannabe. This getup might be normal for security guards in the US, but not in Canada. Anyway, this one lesson really stuck. 

As as we patrolled the hallways of a large condo we had to check all the common area access doors. We get to the first door and he says to me, "Alright go ahead, check if everything's in order." I grab the handle, twist, open it, stick my head in and, "BAM, you're dead! You made a fatal mistake my friend. If there'd been a fire blazing in there that was it for you." As I recovered from the shock of being dead, he explained the that the correct procedure was to carefully grab the door handle and check if it's hot, and then to push open the door while keeping your body to off to the side. Whether there's a fire or criminal on the other side this leaves you less exposed. Good point. But like I said, zealous.

In the future I made this little drill part of the training for every guard who was lucky enough to learn from me. 

Another one of my responsibilities during patrols was to check the fire extinguishers in the hallways. For those who don't know, every floor of every building in Canada, whether residential or commercial, has fire extinguishers and, often, fire hoses that are hooked up the the building water mains. My task was to check that the pressure gauge on each extinguisher was in the green, and that the extinguisher inspection was not overdue. This was indicated by a signature and a date on paper tags affixed to each extinguisher. 

This is all without even mentioning the number of fire drills we had at school. From elementary through to university, these were regular occurrences. The procedure was drilled into us to the point I still remember it by heart: Don't panic, line up at the door, file out of the classroom, teacher leaves last, go to the allotted spot in the school yard, and take attendance all while the alarm is buzzing in the background. Thanks to the repetition, we all knew exactly what to do. My wife tells me she can't remember ever having a fire drill during her school days.

What I've described here probably falls into one of a hundred-plus reasons America is better than Romania - which is much too boring a list for me to ever write - but it goes to show that preventative measures can go a long way, even if tragedies like the one in Bucharest only happen once in a lifetime. It was one time too many for over 200 people at Club Colectiv. 

I have written about this before, plenty of times. The apathy of the average Romanian vis-a-vis community and politics has put Romania where it is today. I'm glad to see that this is changing. Civic responsibility is much more trendy than it was five years ago. But we still all to easily accept stupidity and shortsightedness, and resign ourselves to the old, "that's Romania" motto. The only way to change for the better is by fighting every single battle that needs fighting, even if we're the only one fighting it.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from this terrible event. Educating the country about the concept of a Fire Hazard is a good first step.


10 More Reasons Romania is Better Than America

I get it. The US is special. I hate to say it, especially as a Canadian, but it is.

But it's mostly special because of the America that it used to be. The idea of America is special.

There was, once, an American Dream within the reach of any hard working man. It was a country that offered unprecedented freedoms and opportunities unmatched by any other. The great melting pot was about inclusion towards one common goal, it was not divisive, individualistic and driven by a Bergeron-esque vision of 'equality'. Assets were not based on decades-long lines of credit, and salaries kept up with cost of living increases. I could go on about 'the way things used to be' but you can look it all up if you're interested. If you live there, you should be.

The reality in America is different now.

Sure, it's still the land of plenty. But the plenty is not all good. Plenty of debt, plenty of poverty, plenty of obesity, plenty of civil unrest coupled with plenty of heavy-handed policing, equals plenty of uncertainty and plenty of reasons why other countries might now be better than America. One can't help but feel that it's all hanging on by a few delicate threads in the hands of the same psychopathic bankers who helped crash the economy in 2008.  

The last 'Romania vs. USA' post, published back in 2012, is the second most read post on this blog (check the sidebar). Could be the title has something to do with it. Outrageous, isn't it? But while I kept it light the first time around, the comments section is anything but. There is a lot of emotion there.

Still, the points I made are valid even today. But with this post, I'd like to let some of the readers have their say.

Here are ten more reasons Romania is better than America,  as inspired by comments from the original post.

1. Kids can have a better childhood in Romania. They have the opportunity to entertain themselves with their own imagination. It's not about socially constructed play dates and parent driven, kid-friendly activities. For children, the magic of childhood is the self-discovery that occurs at that happy crossroads of minimal supervision and the freedom to explore. By and large, it's still safe enough for kids to discover life on their own in Romania. It's not for nothing that Romanian children were found to be the happiest in the world.

2. For the equivalent of $5 USD you can get 15lbs of fresh fruit and vegetables at the market. Check it out, I calculated for a kilogram each of tomatoes, peppers, onion, potatoes, carrots, apples, and plums. I'd also have enough left over for a loaf of bread. Needless to say the fruit/veg in question is usually organic, grass-fed, homegrown, etc..whatever word you prefer for 'natural'. You can't get that anywhere in the US. While many Romanians love to say that prices in grocery stores match western prices, it's simply not true. When it comes to buying the basics in Romania, these are always a fraction of the cost in countries that use dollars or euros.

3.  You don't have to live your life at the mall. One reader explains: "you can listen to classical music at the Philharmonic in most cities for $3 to $5 a ticket! Can't beat that - my son and I have been to 100 concerts in 5 years here. All superb." Don't forget UNESCO sites throughout the country.  It'll be another thousand years before anything in the US has the same cultural/historical significance. As for museums, concerts, and the cinema, you'll never pay more than $10 for an entrance to anything.

Which bring me to...

4. In the US everything costs money, and if it doesn't you're conditioned to believe it's not worth doing. Simple things like reading on a park bench, going on a hike, cooking dinner with family, or working on your vegetable garden are often seen as quaint eccentricities, throwbacks to life in the early twentieth century. In Romania, these are the most affordable and the most enjoyable of activities for the average person.

5. One recent comment on the original post makes some very hard-hitting points. It's written in Romanian and translating it all could be a post of its own. This is not so much a reason why Romania is better than America, as much as it's about debunking a common myth. I want to be very clear on this: you cannot live "a decent life" in America, on minimum wage, any more than you could in Romania on minimum wage. I know Romanians love salary comparisons, so once and for all, let's do the math:

A) The average minimum wage in the US is $7.95/hr.

B) At 40 hours a week (if you're lucky enough to get those kinds of hours as a part-timer), you're looking at about $1,200/month before tax.
BB) If you're a full-timer with an annual salary, the average entry-level salary is 15k-30k/year (once again, before tax) so on the high-end that's $1,800/month, net.

C) You will need to commute to work. The term 'walking distance to work' is basically fantasy if you live in the USA. Public transport is extremely unreliable and unfriendly compared to Europe. It's also not cheap but cheaper than owning a car. You're looking at spending at least $100/month. You'll also spend a lot of time on it, so if you subscribe to the "time is money" dictum, don't forget to calculate that opportunity cost.
CC) A car costs, on average, $9000 a year. That's $750 a month. So now, as a debt ridden university graduate (or, as a Romanian immigrant just starting out and looking for the American dream), you've got  $1,000 left out of which you need to pay rent, buy groceries, and live the American good life.
CCC) Okay, you've thought it over and you just can't afford the car. Have fun busing it or taking the subway, where, in addition to wasting a lot of time, you have a very high chance of being robbed or assaulted during your long commute to and from work. That's what you get for not having a high enough salary to buy the car. 

D) Average rent across the 50 states is $1,117/month

(Now that we've seen this figure, let's agree that the minimum wage earner, at about $1,000/month, cash in hand, is already out of the running for this comparison. My advice for anyone in that income bracket is to get acquainted with food banks, 46 Million people in America rely on them. Also, I highly recommend you don't move to America if that's the work you're looking for. From here on in, we're going to continue with the entry level earner who makes $1,800/month)

E) You didn't buy the the car (which, by the way, on your $30k salary is only affordable after scrounging for many months and after building up a credit history)  so you've got $1,700 left after paying for the bus pass. 

F) Rent: You decided that you can't afford the average $1,000/month rent cost, you need to go under. If you live in a big city that's at least $800/month though, including the roommate. You won't like the way your place looks, nor the area, maybe not the roommate either, but there is grocery shopping and a couple of other things to worry about, so for the $900 you have left over you're willing to overlook the more unpleasant parts of this American dream experience.

G) Groceries: Let's say that's about $300/month, so you've got another $600 to go.

H) Connectivity: You're going to want a phone and the internet. Bad news is that the internet is going to be a lot slower than what you're used to in Romania. Your bandwidth will also be capped, so no downloading torrents please (also you can get sued for doing that). Anyway, the phone, on average, will cost you $73month, and the internet is about the same. That leaves you with $450.

I) We know you're going to be spending money for lunch. For a bottle of water here, a pack of gum there. These incidentals will cost you at least $250/month. You'll think that it's much less and that you can afford it, until you find yourself a week before payday with $20 in the bank. 

J) It's not American dreaming if you're not American living. That means you're going to do after work drinks maybe a couple of times a month lest you're shunned as anti-social by your colleagues (who are going through the same struggles you are, mostly). If you're a guy and get a girlfriend, refer back to point #3 and don't get a girlfriend because you most likely can't afford a relationship.

This was all to say that, when you compare the financial struggles faced by somebody on an entry level salary in the US and Romania, there is no significant difference. In fact, you're actually worse off if you're an American in the above scenario. You don't have an entry-level job in America, even a poorly paid one, without a university degree. Attached to that degree is a student loan that you're going to be paying for many years to come. Speaking of loans, I didn't even bring up credit card loans. Which you will have, otherwise you don't have a credit score and therefore no credibility, and therefore you're going to have a very hard time buying a car or renting a place (neither of these is a problem in Romania). Oh, and God forbid something happens to you and you need a doctor....

6. Everyone is entitled to free health care in Romania. Indeed, the rural hospitals are terrible, and if you draw up a list there are probably more cons than pros about the Romanian healthcare system, but it's there and they will take care of you. And you won't be destitute after. This puts you a step up on any American who's had to visit a hospital without health insurance. By the way, any comprehensive health insurance plan starts at around $400/month in America. I should've added it to the cost of living calculations at #5, but then I couldn't have written points I and J, and what kind of life would that be?

b) This video is a great primer on the facts of American healthcare. If you don't watch it, at least consider this: "The average hip replacement in the USA costs $40,364. In Spain, it costs $7,371. That means I can literally fly to Spain ($827 return trip), live in Madrid for 2 years ($24,000), learn Spanish, run with the bulls, get trampled (all free), get my hip replaced again ($7,371), and fly home for less than the cost of a hip replacement in the US...It's crazy, but it's true"  

. Romanian internet is better than American internet. Basically wrote about this at #5h, above, but I want it to be loud and clear. In the 21st century, unlimited, high-speed internet is just as important as highways.

8. The fear of terrorism and gun crime hasn't made the entire country go crazy. People in the US are scared of each other, scared of anything that's not made official by law or by mainstream media acceptance, and nowadays, scared of any kind of contrarian thoughts and opinions. It's a fear based society, period (and this also goes for Canada, by the way).

9. Romania is better because its schools don't need to be labelled 'Gun Free/Drug Free Zones'.

Disturbia, USA
10. Romanians are better educated. Well, this may be a bit of a stretch, I'll admit, but let me qualify this. The comment in the original post said that, as opposed to Americans, Romanians have to "cram a lot of knowledge in their heads" because that's how they can escape poverty. I'm guessing that's what the poster, who is likely a twelve year old (based on the writing I hope it's a twelve year old) meant to say. What I am sure about is that, by and large, a Romanian with a high school diploma will have a better grasp of the basics of science, math, geography, and the humanities than your average American.

11Intellectual pursuits are still respected in Romania. Intelligence is appreciated and stupidity is laughed at, as it should be. Intelligent people are still celebrated and their opinions are valued. This article does a good job of explaining the reverse in the US, the Asimov quote stands out, in particular: "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." (Italics, mine)

What it comes down to, really, is this last point.

Everything wrong with America today follows from the ignorance that permeates all classes of American society. The poor are too ignorant to realize they're trapped in a cycle of poverty and that they're not getting out even if they get a second or third minimum-wage job, as they're encouraged to do. The opportunity to get that third job is made to look like a good deal. The middle class is too ignorant to see that the government doesn't ever have their interests at heart and that rampant consumerism and endless distractions will never get them out crippling debt. Instead of addressing these huge problems, they spend their political energy on non-issues like 'equality'. The rich, well, these issues don't concern the rich very much, do they? Best (worst) of all, many Americans think that they are still world leaders in democracy, economy, and cultural values.

They're wrong.

On a final note, I understand that the term 'better' is shallow. What I want to point out is that when people say "America is the best country in the world" or, inversely, that Romania is the worst, they likely haven't taken a single one of these points under consideration. They should.


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 things 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.