After a ludicrously long day of work, I passed through Piata Unirii here in downtown Unicorn City tonight and chanced upon an anti-Basescu march of about 50 middle aged men. I had to stop as they passed by me and a young woman standing next to me (wearing some kind of comical rabbit hat) whipped out her phone and began recording it “for YouTube!” as she told the marchers. And it was right at that moment that an old song began playing in my head and all the events of the past few weeks suddenly coalesced into a new understanding.
Last night it was bitterly cold and yet some 13,000 people showed up in Piata Unirii for a free concert, paid for and produced as part of the big launch of a television channel. I didn’t see the concert myself but I certainly saw the footage and there were definitely thousands and thousands of people there.
And you’ve got to wonder, especially after this week when I learned that Click! is the most popular “newspaper” in Romania, when domestic television is devoid of all substance, politicians are shouting to the heavens about the apocalypse, when the top bloggers are all busy competing to see who can goof around the most and when neither heinous national treaties nor the pillaging and looting of the national government can barely draw a fraction of the people that a free concert can, what exactly is going on.
Kurt Cobain was at the forefront of a musical revolution in the early 1990’s that became known as “grunge”, a word that previously referred to dirty or ill-kept clothing (or appearance). Indeed its fans (and Cobain himself) often dressed in raggedy, worn out clothing, often purchased second-hand. It was a deliberate choice as it came on the heels of the the ultra-materialistic and “greed is good” 1980s in America.
The song “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which I’m sure all of you know, and which I’ve heard literally thousands of times in Romanian bars, however was not extolling the idea that all one had to do was show up and be entertained but was actually criticizing this mentality. After a decade or more of materialistic self-indulgence and the elevation of superficiality, grunge was instead an attempt to combine both the anger at that lifestyle and the empty angst that often went along with anyone who rejected it. Because if green isn’t good and materialist success isn’t everything then what’s left?
And yet here in Romania there is no “grunge”. There is only to each their own and let the devil take the hindmost, where barely 2,000 people can show up to protest an anti-democratic treaty but 50,000 people show up at the mall. Here there is only Click! and only Cronica Carcotasilor and only the posting of funny cat pictures or bullshit from 9gag. Here there is only Chuck Norris jokes and YouTube videos of people singing along to manele or falling and hurting themselves (if you want to entertain a Romanian, show them someone being injured and they’ll roar with laughter). Here even the protests themselves are entertainment, where the funniest and most entertaining slogans and signs are endlessly copied and reposted and shared and just about nobody even knows what the anger was about in the first place.
I’ve mentioned this before I guess, all this stuff, right down to the fact that I literally know only one person with a job who has more than pocket change left over at the end of the month. I see university students blow their money on beer and pizza. I see adult women blow their money on food and adult men blow their money on alcohol. I see a nation where literally everyone is falling over themselves to stuff their refrigerators, their closets and their computers with as many goodies as they can get their hands on and fuck working hard, fuck doing a job right and fuck anything else but partying on like there’s no tomorrow.
Meanwhile the country is ever more burdened with a crippling debt, the streets are maintained based on who’s got “the juice” with whom, degrees and placements in school are paid for with bribes, trains are getting derailed and delayed constantly, the bus systems are often barely functional, the population is shrinking and a third of the country is officially below the poverty line. Just about everyone with an ounce of ambition and drive has either left the country or moved to parts of Bucharest and hey, ho, raise the glass high because everyone right down to the mayor of a major city is busy lining their pockets while the going is good.
And the saddest part of all, the absolutely saddest part of all is that almost nobody in this country is happy, not the partiers, not the drinkers, not the ones pigging out on cured meats, not the city folks with their nice cars, not the girls with the designer jeans, not the university students with free schooling, not anyone. All you’ve got to do is glance around you at the faces on the street and all you’ll mostly see is misery, woe or hostile indifference, mouths pinched together in disgust and frustration. Turn on the radio or television and in between mocking their fellow Romanians all you’ll hear is how bad everything is, how terrible it is and how it’s always, always, always better somewhere else in some far off land and never, ever here. Literally every week of my life I have to explain to a Romanian why I actually like living here and they’re always, always, always surprised. It’s literally never occurred to a single Romanian I’ve ever spoken to that I might actually be right.
Well I remember the 1980’s quite well in America and for all of that horrific superficiality and celebration of greed, a lot of people did indeed enjoy themselves in those times. Some of the music was fantastic (Whitney Houston for one), some of the television was great (Simpsons anyone?), some of the movies were sublime and there truly were a lot of happy faces.
But poor old Romania, no matter how many parties she gets invited to, no matter that she’s in NATO and the EU, no matter that billions of funds have been spent upgrading and renovating and building and fixing and educating and teaching, no matter the donations and support and volunteers, no matter that free concerts and festivals and higher education and sports centers and parks are all there for free to every single citizen, no matter that millions of people receive totally free healthcare, no matter that this country is achingly, breathtakingly beautiful and home to some of the most beautiful mountains, beaches, canyons, gorges, marshes, wetlands, forests and rivers in the entire world, it’s never enough. It never brings a fraction of the joy you would think it would, a fraction of the joy it brings to foreigners every single day.
And if that’s not a tragedy, I don’t know what is.