Mercy… over all the years I’ve lived here I think the one consistant topic that I continually hear being discussed is poverty (saracie – sah-rah chee-eh). It’s something people who live here obsess over and it’s often one of the first thing visitors remark upon.
Heck, I know I did the exact same thing. Many moons ago when I first came to Romania, my plane glided in to Otopeni Airport and out the window the very first thing I saw was a rusted, burnt-out hulk of a plane parked right next to the tarmac. It was clear it had been sitting there for years.
As the plane taxied off the runway, it struck me that the only reason you’d leave an old rusty plane sitting next to the tarmac is if you were too poor to move it, chop it up for scrap, recycle it or anything else.
Is there poverty in Romania? Of course there is. But a lot of it is misunderstood, even by Romanians themselves.
I’ve seen so much change in this country over the (relatively) brief period that I’ve been here that it’s made my head spin. For example, the year that I saw that rusty hulk of a plane on the tarmac, almost nobody in this country had a washing machine or a microwave in their home. Now Otopeni is completely modern (and free of abandoned planes) and everyone I know has a new refrigerator, washing machine and microwave, plus tons of other electronic junk.
Yet I distinctly remember sitting in the kitchen of a Romanian woman in Baia Mare, listening to her tell me how “poor” she and her family are. My elbow was literally resting on the second brand-new washing machine in her house while I was asking if she’d been just 50km to the north (to Ukraine) and of course the answer was no. Romanians are determined to be fixated on the fact that they’re “poor” and there’s nothing you can do to convince them otherwise.
How does one even measure poverty? Cash in the bank? Yet we all know that in countries like the USA where credit cards and other loans are easy to get, most people are in debt up to their eyeballs. Who is richer, a Romainan peasant with no debt or a Londoner with a nice car and thousands of pounds of debt?
Certainly wages, in terms of absolute measurements of monetary value, are much lower in Romania. A school teacher’s salary in Romania would barely keep a bum in London going. There’s no question about this.
Yet again, I have to ask, what does poverty even mean? If we try another metric like “how many of your people are going hungry”, which country is poorer, the United States or Romania? I can tell you the answer is obvious when you learn that 36 million Americans, including 13 million children, have serious issues concerning lack of (proper) food.
What value must we place on having food to eat? Through a series of complicated reasons (involving The Woman) I actually have a bag of Romanian government provided malai (muh-lie), aka corn meal, the very stuff used to make mamaliga.
How many Romanians are hungry, as in truly hungry? Thankfully, far, far fewer than in many other countries, including Britain and Spain and all those other countries that Romanians imagine are some kind of paradise.
And what value do we place on the quality of food? I’ve written about this extensively (as it’s a subject near and dear to my heart) but really, we are what we eat. Is there such a thing as food poverty? As in those concoctions we call “food” are so impoverished in terms of taste and nutrition? Does such a thing exist?
Just about every visitor to Romania remarks on how attractive a lot of Romanians are. And it’s true. But does anyone ever stop to think that perhaps it’s because they’re eating wholesome, nutritious, homemade foods on a regular basis?
Let me ask this question. If your salary is too low to afford eating fast food every day (especially at McDonald’s or KFC) so you eat less of it and more home cooked meals, are you actually poorer than someone who scarfs down french fries and a Coke every day?
And if gasoline (petrol) being insanely cheap allows you drive everywhere by yourself is that actually making you “richer” than someone in Romania limiting their trips and car pooling or riding public transportation or even walking due to financial restrictions?
And all those peasants with their horses and wooden carts, at first glance they seem poor. Of course! They have neither cash in the bank nor all the wonderful toys that credit can buy. Yet they’re raising organic crops by hand, transporting them using completely Earth-friendly horses and homemade wooden wagons made of almost entirely recyclable components.
Is a smog-filled urban metropolis in some “richer” country really better than fresh air and the clip-clop of hooves?
Poverty is how you measure it and there are certainly people in Romania who live hard lives filled with struggle and strife. Yet I challenge anyone to name a place where this is not also true.
I know (and hear about) a lot of elderly people in Romania who are too old to work and yet receive a very low stipend from the government every month. Even with foods like malai, it’s really not enough to live on and so they are dependent on their children and family to take care of them.
That’s certainly a tough spot to be in, no doubt about it. But I have to ask two questions. How did they even manage to live long enough to be here today to be in this position? I meet a lot of “senior citizens” and they’re quite healthy, in general (especially compared to my own relatives).
Secondly, what value do we assign to having a family nearby to you? Most Romanians I know have a large, well-connected family with almost all members living fairly close by. Every Romanian you meet has a cousin, uncle and two cute little nieces also living in the same city. What’s that worth? And are you impoverished when your family is spread all over the place?
Romania is a different country, there is no doubt about it. Some things here are shocking to see simply because they don’t exist elsewhere. But not everything is what it seems to be at first glance and that includes poverty.
That Romanian lady you see on the side of the road with a toothy grin peeping out of her simple woolen clothes may not own a brand new digital SLR camera or an X-Box 360 but she’s heading home to make a home-made meal with fresh vegetables from her garden for her large, close-knit family.
Of course though you really shouldn’t listen to me on this subject because I clearly hold the minority opinion and nobody who lives here would ever agree with me :P