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.
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.
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.
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) national 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.
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.
1. Noemi Konta
2. Bogdan Balacescu
3. Denis Covaci
4. Matei Plesa
5. Andrei Bucium