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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. 


  1. Daniel StPaulMay 12, 2015

    Matt, here's a piece of unbeatable wisdom:"In Romania se intimpla lucruri foarte interesante... (pentru ca nu se intimpla niciodata ceea ce trebuie)" . It probably dawned on you, by now

    1. For better or worse, I'm afraid that's part of the reason I like it :)

  2. Dear Matt I follow all your blogs.. we will live in timisoara... i want to contact with u.. how can i do this??? Thanks.. seli ....

  3. ‪#‎FreeRomania‬
    History of Romania part 16 - present / Istoria Romaniei partea 16 - prezent


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