Sunday, November 22, 2015

Romania: Mythbusting

They say that the first impression is always the strongest.  It is upon first glance that we notice the immediate differences between what we're used to and what is new before us. As time progresses, we become accustomed to whatever was new and soon it feels normal and we no longer perceive the peculiarities. Finally, we can't remember which was the old vs. the new normal.   

We've just passed the three-month mark living in Bucharest, Romania and so I'd like to take this time to report the pleasant, surprising and curious differences we've observed. Differences between US and Romanian culture and between life in Latin America and life in a former Soviet-controlled country.  

Let me start with what we were expecting before we even arrived.  These expectations were drawn from the usual suspect sources: movies, history, friends who'd been here, reports from our language teachers, stereotypes and rumor.  We were expecting a primarily rural country full of castles tucked into sides of mountains, small towns full of men in hats driving horse carts and women in scarves and colorful skirts. We expected Bucharest to be a gray, depressing Soviet-style city dotted with decrepit buildings of European architecture giving us a bittersweet glimpse of "how it used to be but is no longer."  We expected packs of stray dogs menacing us on the street and swarms of gypsies begging on the streets and trying to pick our pockets. We knew there was a Metro of sorts and buses, but pictured them being scary, gray and held together with rusted bolts while belching clouds of smoke. Stories of atrocious Romanian roads and grid-locked traffic kept our expectations of day trips to the countryside at a minimum and the stereotyped lawless, aggressive Romanian driver put a palpable fear in my of sitting behind the wheel. 

With all these expectations packed into our mental suitcases, we arrived in Bucharest in mid-August and were taken directly to our "bloc" in the heart of the city.  It is here that the myth-busting begins. 

Let's start with our apartment:

The building is rather plain on the outside, which was no surprise thanks to the Google Street View we memorized before arriving, but inside is modern, well-constructed, spacious and very comfortable.  We have balconies that give us a place to get outside and enjoy the urban cityscape and which let us fill our colorful Mexican pottery with plants.  

But isn't Bucharest a gray, industrial city?

Not at all.

Just half a block away from our apartment is Herastrau Park, a massive park crisscrossed with wide and meandering walking and biking paths through the dense canopy of deciduous trees all alongside a long lake.  The park is filled with tiny restaurants, bike rental stands, snack shacks, rose gardens, statues, an open-air folk museum and even a boat service that ferries people from one side of the lake to the other. In our time here we've watched the park morph from a lush green to vivid oranges to stripped-bare and ready for winter.

Autumn strolling.

Snack kiosk in the park.

Free Press Building across the lake in Park Herestrau. 

What about the Soviet architecture?
Yes, that does still exist for sure.  It can be seen in the super-wide, scale-is-no-object avenues lined with "blocs" that intersect in expansive "piaČ›a"s (plazas or traffic circles) generally with impressive statues in the center, including our own Arcul de Triumf, a replica of its Parisian namesake. 

Blocks of "blocs" line the avenues. 

Palace of the People - Second largest building in the world behind the Pentagon. 
Piata Victorei - this is ONE intersection!
But Bucharest is also nick-named the "Little Paris" with good reason, and that reason is the incredible architecture from the Belle Epoque:

"New Romanian" architecture. 

And the Metro system? 
I like it better than DC's, and it's far less smelly than NY's subway, for sure. No, it doesn't reach everywhere we need to go (the Embassy, for example), but it's cleaner (and they have vending machines on the platforms for snacks and drinks), has nicer trains where one can easily walk from one car to the next without having to dash onto the platform at stations to change cars, has had accurate "Next Train Coming in X Minutes" digital signs longer than DC's system has, and alerts riders to what bus connections are available at each station. It doesn't take an engineering degree to figure out how to add money on your Metro card like in DC, AND all this costs just $.50 per ride regardless of how far you go. Yes, really. Bucharest's Metro takes the prize for me. 

So far, so good - what about the countryside?
Here is where the preconceptions have proven accurate (so far). Yes, there are Alpine-like mountains with castles, lush greenery, plains more like Indiana than I'd expected and people living as they have for generations.  We've stopped along roadside fairs and farmers' markets to see what the folks have to say and sell. We've walked and driven through little towns whose streets are lined with benches where the elderly sit and watch the world go by while selling baskets of whatever is in season.

Castelul Peles, Sinaia


Castelul Bran - outside Brasov

Baskets o' berries for sale!

Carpathian Mountains - just two hours from Bucharest

At a roadside farmers fair 

Boy with bunny for sale

Mums for sale from the back of her bicycle

Watching the day pass in Comana

We bought cheese from them and it was delicious

This is not an exaggeration - see below

View of the Black Sea from Constanta promenade

Black Sea former casino

Folkloric fair ladies

What about the people? 
While they will be very quick to point out that Romanians are Latins (the language is meant to be the closest modern language to spoken Latin), they are not the same as other Latins we've experienced.  Perhaps due to decades under communism, or who knows exactly why, Romanians are far more reserved, non-confrontational and private than the Latin culture we knew in Mexico and Colombia.  Walking down the street there is no eye-contact or greeting that is common in Mexico. The default expression is not the smile. In fact, on more than one occasion, when I've offered a "buna ziua" (good day/hello) to someone standing next to me in line or in a store, I've had them ask me if I knew them from somewhere, as in - why the heck else would you greet someone like that you daft woman?! It's not rude to simply walk by someone on the street, even when you and they are the ONLY ones around, without a nod, smile or greeting of acknowledgment of any sort.  It still feels terribly rude to me, but I'm learning to adapt so as not to be the culturally-insensitive person who "does it wrong" and makes others confused or uncomfortable.  

Once that crust is broken, however, and the setting is established for a conversation, you'll get an earful.  In fact, in casual conversations with taxi drivers (my favorite source of local information) or vendors in farmer's markets or fairs - it is with Kevin Bacon-like regularity that any conversation seems to end up mentioning Ceausescu and the bad ole' days - and not by me, for sure.  Our experience has been that everyone in Bucharest we've spoken to (coworkers, teachers, neighbors, people on the street) has distinctly negative recollections of that time and what happened to their country's trajectory with this terrible detour. They regularly speak of their frustrations with corruption robbing them and their country of its potential and possible prosperity and ruining its international reputation (more on that later).

But we have also heard (twice so far) from people who spent the communist years in the countryside tell us that it either wasn't so bad or was actually better.  The first source was our housekeeper who grew up in a very large family way out on the farm.  Her take on that time was that they were subsistence farmers before, during and afterwards and weren't witnesses to what was going on politically in the cities. Her family's friends weren't jailed for being intellectuals or church leaders - life just went on as usual with the seasons.  The second source was an older woman selling fruit alongside the highway on the slopes of the Carpathians. She expressed a general dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and stated that "It was better then - more organized." 

And what about the gypsies? 
Roma certainly exist in Romania, as in other Balkan nations, and sadly have been largely responsible for giving Romanians in general a bad name in Europe.  Their reputation as thieves, beggars and nomads paints one group with a very large and dirty brush and while it may be based on some truth, no doubt it's not a complete truth. To be honest, I have had only a few experiences with this culture and it was with the Roma "travelers" in Ireland (and I'm not even 100% sure we're talking about the same people).  The people originate from Northern India and ethnically-speaking are not the same people as Romanians.  During our language training at FSI, many of us asked, "But how will we know who are Roma?" and the only answer we were offered, repeatedly, was "Well, they're dark."  Given that oh-so-helpful description, I'm not sure I know who is and who isn't Roma. But sometimes it's clear and it's not been skin color, but rather setting, clothing and jewelry, that tipped me off.  

She sells every type of gadget and remote from the comfort of her pink fuzzy robe

I'm pretty sure my gypsy Halloween costume in junior high with its scarf, flowery skirt and hoop earrings was more accurate than not. In real life, just add more bling: Heavy gold chain necklaces, hoop earrings and large rings in particular.  This woman above also had a great smile of gold teeth which she unfortunately hid from the camera. 

Another myth busted: so far no packs of pick-pocketing gypsies, but if you need a remote control for just about anything - I can direct you to the right roadside swap meet. 

The Economy and Cost of Living
Every day I see dozens of young, well-employed IT sector employees coming in for their visa appointments to attend "kick-offs" or "knowledge transfers," or as we used to call them - meetings - with colleagues and clients in the US.  They work for Oracle, Microsoft, Adobe and Deloitte, just to name a very, very few.  There are a LOT of US companies coming to Romania for the skilled, multi-lingual and eager work force.  It's so impressive to see this growth in the country and to see job prospects for the Romanians.  What's disappointing, is that outside of this IT or multi-national company sector, the doctors, dentists, teachers and police are being paid a pittance.  Like less than $1500/month salaries in many cases and far less for the teachers.  Someone working in an office in a non-professional job is most likely earning $300-400/month.  

Correspondingly, the cost of living is also pretty low. Besides the $.50 Metro ride I mentioned earlier, you can take a bus for about $.20.  We've had lovely restaurant meals, with wine and dessert, and have paid about $13-15 a head.  The vet care I've experienced was about 5-10% the price of the same in the US.  We buy loaves of wheat bread in the supermarket for $.75 where a similar loaf in the US would easily be over $3.  The annual "vignette" subscription for our car (instead of toll booths where one is charged by distance, this is a fee for all who use the highways based on an amount of time) was $28.  This is European living at less-than-Mexico prices. 

My three months doing visa interviews has also taught me about the entrepreneurial spirit in Romania.  It seems that nearly everyone has "a firm."  This could mean anything from renting a chair in a beauty salon to an entire construction company with 100 employees on the payroll.  And many people have multiple "firms", for example an engineer who consults on pipe laying projects for the city, sells clothing from a rented storefront that his sister runs, and who grooms dogs on the weekends. 

The dark side of having a highly tech-savvy population, an entrepreneurial spirit and a weak job market is the undeniable existence of cyber-crime in Romania.  Vlad the Impaler aside, this is not a violent culture, unlike other countries where we've lived, but there's a reason why certain websites keep giving me pop-up warnings saying: "This IP address has been associated with suspicious activity" - i.e. we know you're in Romania! It's like sending an email from Nigeria. Last weekend, unbeknownst to us until after we returned, we took a day trip to a pleasant mountain town that is nicknamed "Hackerville," and ate lunch in a restaurant owned by a reported e-Bay scammer kingpin.  Oops. Good thing we paid in cash instead of plastic.

The Peculiarities 
Ah, yes. Here is the category that makes me laugh or scratch my head every day. These are the funny things about a culture that stand out when you first arrive and begin to settle in.  
Like the wiring system, which appears to just be one big work-around for getting cable and internet into old buildings:

Oh yeah, it's safe, don't worry

Hmmm.... let's just add another line... here

Or the fact that each loaf of sliced bread has a huge unsliced chunk at either end, as apparently it's impossible for the slicer to adapt to the size of the loaf.  (Perhaps I shouldn't make fun as the US still cannot manage to match the number of buns to the number of hot dogs in a pack.)  I guess that's what the extra $3 for the US loaf buys ya'?

And the perennial favorite: creative parking.
How many corners in the US are just wasted? 

Sidewalks are for sissies! (And so apparently are utility poles as this little tree affirms.)

Parallel parking on a corner is one thing, but you get extra points for perpendicular corner parking, especially if you can block the road at the same time!

The Little Things
The unforeseen niceties that will always be associated with that country long after we've left.  Like little courtyards in front of houses or alongside apartment blocs that are covered in grapevines to create a pleasant shady spot in summer to spend the afternoons and bear fruit to make your own wine in autumn:

Great bike lanes!

Painted churches, colorful windows and carved doors:

To sum it up: 
Romania is more than Dracula, gypsies and ATM skimmers. It is an incredible country packed with color and history and full of highly capable and hard-working folks -  and we've only just scratched the surface.