Here in Romania the days are becoming shorter and shorter, with the few hours of sunlight often deeply filtered by gray clouds and tempered by bitter cold. It’s not an easy time to be optimistic.
But I am feeling really good. A number of projects that I’ve been working on in the background are, amazingly, right at the cusp of coming to the forefront where I can publicize them here and openly talk about them. One project began two years ago, a story which I will be able to tell soon, and it’s almost impossible to believe that it’s finally coming to fruition.
Doing something entirely on my own is relatively easy because I am an ambitious person. I like challenges and find it thrilling to rise up to meet them. I felt the exact same way when I moved to Romania with a single suitcase, not knowing anybody and not speaking the language, all during a time when there was no attention from blogs, newspapers or television stations. But all of that, all of those struggles with grammar and pronunciation and learning the culture, all of that pales in comparison to my latest projects, which is to collaborate with Romanians.
Nothing I’ve ever done has been more difficult and I’ve taught 3-year-old children, herded pigs and spent long hours toiling under a hot summer sun. I’ve stood ankle deep in cow shit, worked 20 hour shifts, mopped up bits of human brain and blood, been electrocuted and once served heaping piles of seafood to customers for over an hour when I had a 2cm piece of glass embedded in my foot. And none of those things were more difficult than collaborating with Romanians.
I’ve written about this dozens of times but there’s something truly shocking to realize that you, the single, tiny, insignificant person that you are, you are the right person on the spot to do the right thing. Sometimes it comes upon you quickly and there’s no time to think, such as I described in my post No Pit, All Pendulum. But other times it unfolds more slowly and inexorably and you realize that your only choice is between hiding your face in a pillow forever or else standing up and be counted.
In April 2010 I was mistaken for a native Romanian while I was on a trip to Bucharest. Most of you have heard how I speak so I’m not claiming perfection. But what I am saying is that I am the only American I know who speaks Romanian good enough. But good enough for what? Well good enough to speak, to listen, to hear, to explore, to be invited, to get to go inside this culture and not have it filtered through translation. I’m not the first white man to go into the Brazilian jungle but I am (apparently) the first white man to speak the natives’ language, to use a very poor analogy.
And so all of that puts me in a unique position. Again, if we were voting like on one of those popular singing talent shows that everyone (apparently) loves, I really don’t think I’d be in the finals LOL. But here I am and this is what we’ve got. And on one hand we’ve got thousands of very bright, intelligent and quite often generous people who want to understand and assist Romania but are kept at arm’s length because they have to everything filtered and translated. And on the other hand I’ve got 19 million neighbors who generally are poor, oversaturated with extremely unhelpful cultural messages and are left to the mercies of the sly dogs who feast on the little bounty that remains.
So here’s me, in the middle. But what exactly, should be done? How can we get these two “sides” talking to one another and understanding each other? Where is the common ground to start with to build a bridge between them?
Well, the answer that I’ve come up with is one of these projects that’s grinding along in the background like a steam train. Last year I was pretty much a one-man band doing my thing (and no apologies or regrets for that – I learned a lot) but this year I think you know I’ve wanted to take it up to the next level.
If you saw my post yesterday, Liviu Alexa LUPTA PENTRU CLUJENI then you saw a tiny sliver of that. Consider it just a very small portion of an iceberg with much, much more still left unseen (at the moment). I was working on something else yesterday when we came across that political poster and filmed the short segment you saw and it was entirely unrehearsed or scripted. And yes we were just goofing around and having fun.
But what exactly was it? I had a hunch that Romanians would either ignore it or find it disgusting or unpleasant while some of the non-Romanians would like it and find it funny. Based on the feedback I got, that’s approximately the reaction I got. And while it’s just a simple 30-second video, it actually sits across a very important fault line.
I’ve got an entire category of posts on this blog called the Scolding of Righteousness. There’s also an entire chapter in my book about it. But the entire SoR is predicated upon the fact that there is one correct way to do things here in Romania. Certain things are allowed, which if you follow you are respected or at least accepted. And if you do other things, other things outside the scope of those rules, suddenly you’ve crossed a line and society will “reward” you with these infringements by shunning you.
An easy way to think of it is blowing your nose in public. If you shoot a wad of nose mucus into a prefabricated paper tissue then you’re a gentleman (or a lady) and society will accept you. If you shoot the same wad of nose mucus directly onto the sidewalk then you will be shunned and eventually outcast. Nobody’s going to murder you for blowing your nose onto the sidewalk but you’re not going to be accepted by polite society or respected by anyone.
These are the kinds of rules I’m talking about except that tissue versus direct expulsion is matter of taste and so not that important at the end of the day. The rules that I’m concerned about are ones that fucking matter, such as how to behave in a democracy. I mean what does that mean anyway, a democracy? Okay you go to vote when they say it’s voting time. But what else does it mean?
And this is where Project Iceberg gets involved, because it’s not good enough to just have democratic laws written down on paper somewhere. My mission, so to speak, is find the fault lines where “western” concepts of democracy meet the real Romanian “rubber” so to speak, the cold, hard facts on the ground. And one of those tiny but incredibly important points of contention is that in Romania you never flagrantly desecrate a public figure.
That little 30-second clip I shot may have been stupid and silly (and it was) but we would’ve been hauled off to prison and tortured or shot if we had done it when Ceausescu was around. But here we are in 2012 and it’s like that mentality has never changed.
I live in a city which is absolutely teeming with graffiti and street art of every kind and yet I have never seen a politician’s face disfigured or doodled on or “vandalized” on a poster. Ever. As in never, ever. And in times like right now when campaigning before the election is going ahead full steam and there are thousands of political posters everywhere, not a single one is defaced. Not one.
The clip I shot was spontaneous and unscripted but I sincerely doubt that I could find 1 Romanian in 100 who would be willing to do what we did even if I were paying them. Even if I said, “Okay it’s for a big Hollywood movie. Just say the lines and you’ll get paid,” I’d have a damn hard time finding anyone who would do it. It’s because we’re butting up against that barrier again, that cultural fucking headlock that says this is how things are done and what’s definitely not done is juvenile mocking of a pompous political poster.
So yeah, yesterday’s video was a little thing, a nothing, not the meat and potatoes of what I’ve been working on. But I’m like a blind man stumbling around in the dark, making a map in my head after bumping into things. The fact is here in Romania you can privately grumble as much as you want to about a politician but in public you can never, ever, denigrate them.
Even with this particular guy from the video, some blowhard blogger who hasn’t even been elected to anything in his life, just because he has the money to advertise and run for office means that we “have to” respect him. Well I say fuck that :)
Maybe Romanians are frightened into inaction because of their anxiety or maybe they don’t know what it means to have a government that is beholden to the people, not the other way around, but that’s the first half of my mission. I’ve got to show everyone what it’s all about and that doesn’t mean just high flown speeches from EU diplomats but the messy, greasy, human side of it down here on ground level.
If you’re skipping to the end of this article, here’s the summary: if you think that yesterday’s video was in “poor taste” then you haven’t seen anything yet LOL
And, just to make things even more fun, the other half of my mission is to present this country as it truly is to people who don’t speak the language and understand the culture. Is that a big task? Well that’s okay. I just so happen to be an ambitious son of a bitch :)