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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 can adapt, you can 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.


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