Romania, Land of Surprises

Christmas Farewell
December 18, 2009
Speaking Romanian
June 1, 2010
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(Originally published in the May 2010 edition of Elle magazine, here.)

There are two inevitable events when you move to Romania. One, you get lost. “Excuse me, where is this street? No, I can’t pronounce it.” Two, you’re asked what you think about your new country. “You can’t be serious! You moved here from New York?! Hahaha! Why?”

It turns out, if you can avoid the former and quickly answer the latter, you have plenty of time left over to discover that nothing else about this place is inevitable. Or planned. Or logical. Or expected.

I tried to prepare. Before my first trip to Bucharest, I made the obligatory stop at the bookstore, buying a dictionary, a phrasebook, a history book and a cultural guidebook. You know the type: the one that promises to teach you about customs and etiquette in a country you know nothing about, except vampires, communists and Nadia Comenici. I wasn’t looking for the first two and I’d outgrown (barely) the fantasy of the last.

No, I was looking for help to know what to expect, like don’t expose the sole of your shoe; present your business card with two hands; always say yes even when you mean no. The book was very helpful. But I should have read it more carefully. All I remembered was that Romanians tend to stare at foreigners and if I spill salt on a table, put some on my forehead. That, and Romania is a very sexual country, something about the revolution. I was convinced.

What I failed to notice was, as it turns out, some of the more useful information. Here’s just one (badly written) example: “Although the corporate world is aligning itself with Western practices, however, this is still a country in transition and unpredictable things happen.” Yes, I should have read that part more carefully.

Unpredictable. Looking back, the first clue was on my taxi ride from the airport. Where are the mountains? This looks like Kansas. This wasn’t in the guidebook! The second clue, then, was that no one took euros. Look, I’m an American. What do you mean? This is Europe, right?

So now it’s been more than a year, and I’ve come to understand. Ceausescu took away all the mountains and Romania is more like Europe’s reserve player, sitting on the bench, waiting to get into the game. Yes, I’ve learned a lot while I’ve been here, yet that wonderful feeling of having just arrived lingers on. Because just when you think this place begins to make sense, it’s someone else’s turn to make sure it doesn’t.

At first when you move here, it’s the obvious things you notice. The dogs, in their gangs, patrolling the streets. The cars, parked on sidewalks, kissing the buildings. Pedestrian crosswalks that, unlike at home, mean cars will stop. Trashcans on lampposts every few feet. Signs that say “nonstop” but have nothing to do with airline flights. And beautiful women wherever you look.

Then try to go shopping and find something you need. Like shoelaces or shoe polish in a can with a brush. No, I don’t want a Rolex, Gucci shoes, or a Prada scarf. Just a little black comb to put in my pocket. No, you don’t have those? Nobody does? McDonald’s sells beer? Pizza Hut’s a real restaurant? And you can smoke anywhere and nobody cares? Look! They sell Viceroys! That brand, which I love, was eliminated back home.

Then you look around again at the way people live. The communist-era apartment blocks crumbling above beautiful mansions, they themselves crumbling between cherry trees and trellises of grapes. The fully restored grand houses, home to embassies and cafes. Dying, rusted Dacias parked between Mercedes and Audis. Old taxicab drivers who don’t speak English but listen to awful American music from 1974. Packed nightclubs open ‘til 8 a.m. with people who don’t mingle and don’t dance to music that is 30 years old. Sex shops that look like somebody’s closet. And restaurants where waiters apparently go home while you’re eating.

So you cast your sights bigger as a way to make sense. You watch TV, read newspapers, learn about politics, celebrities, business and scandals. (Hold it. They said “crisis”? What crisis? Like missiles in Cuba? Like the Russians in Prague in 1968? Sorry, it’s not that exciting. It’s not some tropical disease that threatens your life. It’s just a recession. A bad one, that’s true. Like a hangover, it hurts, but it comes after a party.)

And you discover expressions, (some we can’t print), that explain even more, until you realize that Romania’s motto, once the noble and lofty “Nihil sino deo,” is now unofficially but more accurately: “merge si asa.” That’s right. It’s not exactly a slogan you want printed on your money.

But you look at politics, the press, and business and you can’t help but notice that the motto is right. It’s not that politics is all that different here than other places. Sure, if you look at other countries, politicians look like statesmen. But, believe me, that’s a perception that only works if you don’t live in those other countries. What does exist, however, is the realization that the political game, the one on TV, is just that. A game. And behind the lying and cheating, there are indeed principles that hold.

And the press? Where is it? Sitting in studios, talking nonstop. Chained to the newsroom, talking PR. Confusing interviews with news. Stuffing all the columns with fact after fact. But is it any wonder that tabloids are the ones that sell? They give the readers something they like, gossip and stories to which they relate.

Then there’s business, a landscape of structures that has the depth and stability of an old movie set. It looks great from the front. Just don’t look inside. And so when a strong wind blows, people are shocked it falls over. And so what happens with recession? How do they cope? Fire people and cut the salaries of those who remain. It’s like an overweight boxer cutting off one arm to lose weight. Sure, it works right away and he can stay in the ring, but how long will he last? The real answer is simple: you go back and you train. Yes, layoffs have happened all over the world, but elsewhere there’s strategy and restructuring, too.

Finally, after a time, you begin to recognize what in hindsight seems obvious. In a rush to look like its neighbors in the west, people have gone too quickly from Mobra motorscooters to Maseratis, from Cico soda to Campari and orange, from Marasesti cigarettes to Parliament Reserve. The wall fell, the doors opened, and the money came in. But too few were ready. They copied what they saw, not what was there.

Yes, Romania is an orphan, growing up without parents. It has looked next door to see what to do, how to act, what to wear, even which color to paint its old house. And it’s still in adolescence. But that’s why it’s fun. Adolescence is great – not to live, but to watch. And it can work out well, as long as mentors arrive. Grown-ups and leaders who can settle things down and instruct a way forward and teach by example about how the world works. There are too few right now, but I trust someday they’ll come.

In the meantime, we watch, and enjoy the richness that immaturity brings. The creativity of discovery. The energy of confusion. The recklessness of hope. We see it in the theater, the music, the arts, the food, and the parking. We love it here. Not the dogs, but the passion when people tell stories. The way friends smile and call on the phone, not for any reason, just to say hello. And we watch and marvel as people sell vegetables from car trunks. And we buy covrigi and warm strudel from windows on the sidewalk. And we even rejoice at the terror of driving through the country, avoiding horse-drawn carts and psychotic F-1 drivers.

And we’re happy to be here. In the land of the unexpected, where the unpredictable still happens – except that is, for those two little things: “Yes, I said, I’m from New York and I’m lost. Now please stop laughing and help me find this street.”

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