Finding Romania

Elle wrote this article about Romania after visiting for the first time in december 2004. It originally appeared here.

Romania is a filthy, foul-smelling, burnt-out pit, with beggars and thieves lurking in its every piss-soaked alley and behind its every news camera, state bureau and cash register. Anyone who would even think of visiting, much less living there, belongs in the country’s communist-era mental hospitals. There! Are you happy now, you crazy Romanians?

I am still recovering from the jet lag of my month-long visit to my boyfriend’s homeland for the winter holidays. We ate a lot and drank a lot (“mancam!” and “bem!” were some of my very first Romanian words) and of course, met a lot of people. By “a lot” I mean family reunion meets college reunion meets job search networking.

My dear friends, many of you seem to think you’re unique. You’re not. Nearly every person I met, whether we were in a bar or at a dinner table, and whether in English or my boyfriend’s translations, immediately said, “So, how do you like Romania?”

At first I answered this question freely, offering my big first impressions and little observations of cultural differences, but I learned quickly to be more careful with my words. No Romanian wants to hear how beautiful his country is.

“But aren’t you shocked by the terrible poverty?” erupted from the lips of a guy who had been speaking through my boyfriend for the past hour and a half. (At that moment I was more shocked that you put corn on pizza, but that’s another story.) Hmmm, I thought. How to answer this one in an easily translatable sound bite?

“Not really,” I said. “There’s poverty in America, too, you know.” This was met with a smirk I have come to know well, distinctly Eastern European look of disdain, and from what I could make out the conversation then moved on to cell phones. Or cars. Or something.

Sitting there in my uni-linqual prison, I decided to change all future responses to “The Question” to something vaguer, mellower, shorter. “I like it” seemed like it might pass, allow me to weasel out of blame for exploitative Westerners or post-communism malaise. I tried it out.

“How could you possibly like it here?!?!” At first this recurring exchange was interesting; the many possible cultural implications gave me something to think about as the conversation inevitably drifted into rapid Romanian from which I could only pick out the occasional curse word. But eventually it became annoying, really annoying, and I joked that I should have worn a fat suit and carried a wad of $100 bills in my front pocket to blow my nose with. Sigh, maybe next time.

“You just haven’t seen the really poor people yet.” Well, I did see a guy walking down the street on stumps where his knees should have been. But that was on my way past Escada, Lacoste, Sephora, Adidas and a few crowded jewelry stores advertising Gucci and friends. I guess the thousands of people rushing past him didn’t really see the poor people either.

Aahhh, the lubricating effects of capitalism. It makes it so much easier to walk past the guy with the stumps.

So here is that crushing indictment of Romania you’ve all been waiting for: the most disappointing thing about your country is that it’s so much like America. (There, I said it! Ha!) It’s pretty easy to walk past the guys with stumps in my hometown, too.

What’s that? You didn’t see One-Armed Steve on MTV? Well, he was quite popular in the freshman dorms of my university in Atlanta. Steve made his cash after dark buying under-aged students beer at the gas station, as long as they tipped him enough to buy a couple packs of cigarettes. His day job involved standing between the traffic lanes at a busy stop light carrying a “VIETNAM VETERAN” sign and pointing to a cup with the nub that was once his right arm. Sound familiar?

To hear Romanians talk, you’d think they invented the art of amputee begging. That and a thousand other annoyances associated with life among modern humans: crowded buses, rude sales people, smelly garbage, silicon-enhanced news, stupid cops, corruption, public urination.

Allow me to set the record straight — assholes are everywhere! Your only real choice in the matter is what language you prefer to be offended, solicited, or assaulted in. Or, what language you want to be told to get a job, take a bath, or hurry up and die in.

Other than that, Romania is gorgeous, just like my country, and I suppose, just like the Sudan.

6 Responses to “Finding Romania”

  1. I love this post 🙂 We need a slap like this every once in a while 🙂

    I do believe, however, that we need to work on our customer service skills…

  2. *stands up to begin the thunderous ovation of the crowds*

  3. Good to hear from Elle, even if from an archive. The kind of archive that won’t be archived too soon.

  4. now let’s not be that upset. it really depends on the place(s) you visited in romania. you are right about one thing, america is pretty much the same. but there are still differences. it is just as disgusting, dirty, smelly etc. pretty much, every highway you take or state route, you’ll smell the cows, california, especially, is a big garbage dump.customer service…i’m not even gonna go there…the thing is that romanians learn about america from what they see on tv (totally irrelevant) and from what they hear from romanian friends that are in america (totally irrelevant too, considering they do very little traveling and they get to express an opinion on the little corner they settled in). and all this while romanian’s negative sides are widely mediatezied and not too much about america or other western countries(and they do have their negative sides). another big difference i would underline is the fact thah romanians complain about their country’s general situation (though they don’t do much about it)while (and that puzzles me a lot, making me to consider a certain level of intelligence among americans)i don’t hear the americans complaining (unless the gas price goes up). as much as romanias think so little about their country, do americans really think that their country is so great??
    p.s. rereading your article again, though i would need a whole day to answer completly, but i do need to ad : probably all of the things you listed that romanian may think they invented, are probably invented by americans..

  5. Hey, love the smell of honesty (even though it takes a boyfriend to afford it). Thing is that every Romanian would agree with you (probably even those soaked with communism, the ones who forged it).
    However, I would have expected a little more from your sketched Romanian experience. Ridiculous Western capitalism imitations, smelly cities and (maybe not so many, true) thieves are common in all “developing” nations. But I believe this is irrelevant – the bottle had been spilled, half Europe got tainted.

    What I would have loved to read is some thoughts of yours about Romanian human social relationships, as observer; one month of family reunion meets college (and me 😉 ) reunion a.s.o. must have offered you some chances of differences notes.
    I can tell you that 50 years of Russian boot floating over can even divide a nation and not administratively (even a solid one, like ‘zee’ German one). Unlike wealth gaining – it will take some years but eventually streets will be cleaned, services polished, air less polluted (for sure less than in the States ;P ) – a society rebuilding will last longer (one, two generations?). I can’t wait to get rid of “how do you like Romania” questions. But this “starts small”, from each constituting ‘piece’.
    Thinks like how do you see individuals interacting, average aggressiveness level (domestic, between friends, brothers), young people early life plans/intentions relevance, (probably mostly) young couples social ‘look’, people’s expectations from their friends group and family etc. would have been (still are, though probably time receded these delicate memories) much more interesting for me.
    A scratch, not a Freudian analysis (well, if you have the time and proper hats…).

    So long – I’m leaving for my daily cursing, pissing on the street and garbage throwing out the window ration.

    PS. Are Romanians out of ordinary bread eaters? – thesis of one of my conationals I part some remote part of the World with (and plan to take the rest over).

  6. calirogirl Says:

    wow you really hate romania my advice is never go back because romanians dont like you either!ha! ok so i was born in the us i go to romania every summer its not terrible in fact its magnificant. im going to college there and moving there yay! bassically living in the US which sucks for the most part i am happy to leave. Bogdan by the way Romania is not a developing nation! we are a 1st world like the US country we are CAPAlTALISTIC! I love it in romania..Elle if you wanna know why since you said in your article “how can you possibly like it here” i will give you many reasons gladly! 🙂 CIAO

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