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


Launching: The Non-Smoking Romania Story

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

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

Except that they didn't, really. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here Is Why I Choose To Live in Romania

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

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

"It's great!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not available in Romania

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

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

So what is living in Romania actually like? 

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

Not good (but pretty)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


24 Quick Facts About (living) Life in Romania

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

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