Hey, Hey We’re the Romanians

Oh mercy. Oh no. This is something I’ve been putting off a long time but enough is enough. I’ve already talked about the dogs, the foreigners, the missionaries, the Aromanians, the gypsies, the Lipoveni, the Hungarians and the Germans.

Now it’s time to talk about the Romanians.

Since they compose roughly 90% of the population and number some 24 million worldwide, it’s time to talk about them and who they are.

Clearly anything I could say can and probably does have an exception to it. I’m also under tremendous pressure because I have an inherent pro-Romania bias and I’m putting my name on this while living here, hardly a recipe to encourage strong criticism.

The good news is that while I do have an inherent pro-Romania bias (after all, I do choose to live here) it is not exactly the same as having a pro-Romanian bias, as in sometimes I like Romania a lot more than I like the people living in it.

I think the only way to explain this is that there is a tremendous cognitive dissonance going on here. What you, as the visitor see, is completely different than what the (average) Romanian sees. The very essence of this is that Romanians are unbelievably pessimistic and resistant to new ideas on any subject. It’s a lethal cocktail.

The only metaphor I can think of is a guy I once knew years ago, ethnically “white” but he felt he was some kind of “re-born” Native American Indian so he made everyone call him “Two Moons”. He ended up becoming a bonafide alcoholic, losing his job and his wife and everything else until he became borderline suicidal.

Convinced that his life was entering an inescapable downward spiral, he began to give everything away in his house, including large and valuable appliances like a washing machine as well as some good quality furniture.

I’m telling you this story because Romanians are quite similar to Two Moons. They’re often convinced life is locked in an inescapable downward spiral and therefore they give away and heavily discount the truly valuable things they have.

The good news is, as far as I know, that Two Moons never took that final step. What happened to him after that, I don’t know. Likewise, Romanians for the most part still cling tenaciously to life, even if they’re convinced there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

Quite simply put, as a nation, Romanians have an extremely battered psyche. As a people they had their asses kicked for nearly 2000 years straight, spending the centuries mostly as serfs, peasants and sometimes literal slaves to Poles, Russians, Turks, Greeks and Hungarians.

Only 150 years ago did (some!) Romanians even break away from the Slavic alphabet and begin to gain a sense of “nationalism” and that a sense of political unity was even first accomplished (of any duration) based on “being Romanian”.

Nor did that ascendancy into power come easily. Romanians still celebrate December 1 but the truth is that a third of what was Romania in 1918 is split up into four (and a half) separate countries now. And a number of Romanians (thankfully not too many) still worry about Transylvania going back to Hungary even today.

Not to mention both world wars opened up a can of whoop ass on Romania, especially WW2. If you can get any elderly person to open up to you and tell you stories from those days, it’ll knock your socks off.

I was quite blessed to know an elderly man (now deceased) and the stories he told me about the Battle of Stalingrad still gives me goose flesh to think about it. Most documentaries and history books focus on how bad the Russians and the Germans had it but the Romanians had it even worse.

Since parts of Transylvania were briefly wrested away from Romania during WW2, the unbroken continuity of Romanians exercising governance over what is today’s Romania is barely 70 years old.

And the first 50 of those years was under Communism, starting off with massive reparation payments to the Soviets and then the utter lunacy that was the Ceausescu regime.

Therefore let’s list the group of peoples who have at one time conquered and ruled the people who became today’s Romanians:

(Other) Goths
Bulgars (later Bulgarians)
Fascist Romanians
Communist Romanians

And then finally, only now, in the last 20 years has Romania awakened full of Romanians in control of all political and social power. Wow!

Like my friend Two Moons, Romania has had a difficult childhood. There are many grandmothers (and fewer grandfathers) who were raised and spent their entire lives under the heel of someone else’s boot.

And those grandmothers had daughters, who likewise spent all but the last 20 years bearing the yoke of someone else’s control. And it was they who raised today’s young adults – who grew up with one foot in the modern, commercialized MTV world and one still in the land of the “old days and old ways”.

Therefore it’s only the very youngest Romanian children and some ex-patriates who have spent a significant amount of time abroad who have had full exposure to new ways of thinking.

Communism favored the color red, which definitely is appropriate in its context of meaning “stop”, as social progress in those days was definitely not encouraged.

Perhaps the traffic signal appropriate for today’s Romania would be yellow, as in caution, slow down and approach carefully. There is a general sense of extreme inflexibility in Romania and it is only cautiously and slowly that it begins to bend.

The other important aspect to understand about Romanians is that they are a country or rural/agricultural people through and through.

Although of course Romanians came to live in cities, accelerated somewhat under Communism, for centuries they were generally the peasants out in the field while the noble (of a different nationality) on a horse rode off to the town and the castle.

Even under Ceausescu the pace of “urbanization” was actually fairly slow. Only in Bucharest did a tremendous amount of real estate get re-arranged for the glamour of the ideology and the state. Tens of thousands of villages still existed and life went on, in some cases, nearly unchanged as it had for centuries.

But just about everybody has a cousin, a granny, an uncle or an aunt living out in the countryside. Very young children from urban areas often spend the first few years of their life with a relative in the country and frequent visits throughout the rest of their life are common as well.

And that’s not to forget the millions of Romanians who still live in rural areas, just slightly under half of the current population. They’re still there, still making soup the old way and still having a very strong influence even on the people in the urban areas.

While this culture of rural traditions, including dress, songs, handicrafts, music and foods is revered partially or in whole by most Romanians, it does leave a tremendous gap in cultural identity. Most Romanians know quite well their traditional side but what is their modern side?

Aside from perhaps gymnasts/gymnastics and maybe hacking/computer use, there’s not much. There is of course a great fascination with technologies and cars and all of that but very little of it is domestic. It’s not made in Romania and it’s not designed by Romanians. It is simply consumed by them.

So what are you if all you do is drive the same cars, drink the same drinks, wear the same clothes, watch the same movies, listen to the same music and eat the same (fast/junk) foods as everyone else around the planet?

It’s a tremendous vacuum to fill and therefore it becomes terrifying. Likewise, all urban things as well as all the hustle and bustle of modernity frightens the pants off most Romanians. Some will deny it but most will openly admit it. When you’ve got roots that deep, it’s very difficult to transplant them very quickly.

I cannot even begin to count the number of Romanians I know who have a) left Romania to get a job somewhere else to make money b) worked like a devil and scrimped and saved every penny c) came back to Romania and wasted all the cash extremely quickly and essentially all their work came to nothing.

Or, in some cases, they build their “dream house” and spend all their money on that and then spend the rest of their time sighing happily.

Some people in Romania rant and rail in protest about such behavior but it is completely natural. Only very, very few Romanians can spend a lot of time away from Romania and actually be okay with it. Most are usually terribly homesick and filled with longing to be home.

The “losing all your money” part is because Romanians are not, to put it lightly, very astute business people, as a rule. It’s just not their priority. Working industriously to make money and/or keep money is simply not number one on a Romanian’s personal priority list.

This can sometimes lead to “baffling” situations for visitors when say a restaurant owner would rather not make money than serve them some food/drink or provide some other service. This often even comes across as rude for some capitalist visitors, therefore please see my post on rudeness.

But even when Romanians think they’re all about the money, they’re not. Bills go unpaid here. Salaries go unpaid. Government projects or payments (like retirement money) go unpaid sometimes. Invoices and contracts go unpaid. A lot of very “unprofessional” and money-losing acts go on here, simply put, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

This ties perfectly into the other result of this “money isn’t first” mentality, which is what is generally called “corruption”. Is there plenty of it in this country? Darn right there is. Sometimes it’s “little corruption” like in the form of bribes. Other times it’s blatant and bald-faced cheeky as hell.

So what is your average Romanian’s priority if it isn’t money? Actually it’s two things: material objects and power over others.

The reason why Mr. I Picked Cherries for 7 Years in Spain blew all his money is because he converted all of that cash into material objects he could show off in Romania, whether a house, a motorcycle, a car or just a new leather jacket.

Rule #1: Wear/display your wealth at all times.

When you first see the dismal architecture in Romania (the endless gray concrete blocuri) it’s always a shock to see such clean, well-dressed and frankly often glamorous people exit out of those buildings.

The kind of clothes you wear and their quality is an extremely important visual cue for Romanians to determine your social status. If you dress as a high status person, you will get good service and respect. Dressing like a “bum”, even if it is “comfortable” is not my recommendation for any visitor.

Of course if you can afford to, make everything else that’s yours look good as well, from your car to your house/apartment to your garden to whatever else. It is better to have 100 nice things in the house and no money in the bank than money in the bank and nothing nice in the house.

Rule #2: Power Over Others

The number one obsession in Romania, played by contestants of all ages.

One odd contrast you will often see in this country is a low-wage employee take their job extremely seriously, even if they aren’t exactly a “hard working” employee. Everyone who has the authority to tell someone else what to do can and will do it.

Which parlays right into the Scolding of Righteousness, used specifically in cultural contexts, whereupon one person enforces societal uniformity on another.

Besides the scolding, there’s also a lot of snitching and tattling going on in this country. Sometimes my friends and I like to sit around comparing all the malicious gossip and tattling going on, especially with our neighbors living in the same bloc.

Whew, it seems like I’ve gotten into a lot of the perhaps “negative” things about Romanians, so let’s talk about a few of the nicer ones, shall we?

To begin with, they’re poor liars. They tend to go for the “I’ll tell you a bald-faced lie and you pretend to believe it” route (esti un mare mincinos dar mereu ma minti frumos) rather than the truly sneaky, duplicitous route, so that’s actually kind of refreshing.

Also, in general they’re not too physically large or violent, which for me personally is a very refreshing change.

They’re often quite trusting and naive, which while sometimes tempting to abuse is actually quite nice. I cannot even begin to number the times I’ve met Romanians and two seconds later trusted them in return (see here for one).

In general, when they say things, they mean them. This is partly due to the language, which is in itself direct and beautifully concise, but also because there’s less inclination for “pretty, polite” talk here. It takes two Americans about 90 seconds (or more) to say goodbye on the telephone and Romanians about 1 second.

Romanians are also remarkably low-key people. Most of the time everything they’re doing from ambling in the park to working on the job is kind of at a “steady as she goes” pace and is rarely frenetic. They kind of just float along through the day and that’s just how it goes.

Romanians are terrible workers (from the corporate overlord perspective) but they are champion partiers. Whether parties and outings for little kids (including June 1 – Ziua Copilor) to adult parties of all stripes, Romanians like to throw down. They greatly enjoy drinking, dancing, good music and above all else, good food.

There is no such thing as a festival, holiday, wedding, funeral, graduation, vacation or a good party without lots and lots of good food. I’ve already written volumes about it elsewhere but yes, the quality of food here (and drink) is exceptional.

And despite their scolding, most of the time you can actually do exactly what you want and nobody will bother you, hassle you, harass you or try to control you.

Sometimes, when it comes to wearing what kind of clothes you want to wear (and sometimes very little at all), it might be great to be this “free”. Or the fact that you can find a bar open at 6am to keep the party going.

Other times however, it leads to a much greater sense of responsibility. A perfect example of this is the unmarked or poorly marked hole or ditch or gap in the pavement or sidewalk where someone is doing some kind of repair or construction work.

I once fell smack into a ditch because it was completely unmarked. The Woman herself tragically stumbled and fell on uneven pavement in the park the other day (luckily she just skinned her knee and is okay). But what does all this teach you? When it’s up to you to be responsible, you start to look out for yourself.

It’s not just the fact that jagged pavement might tear you up, it’s that even in more “abstract” realms, Romanians are quite self-reliant people, being particularly driven to stay clustered together largely by family and geographical origin.

So Romanians are rather tough and resilient people. I’m quite fortunate to know many young adults and while they’re definitely filled with youthful energy and drive, in many ways they also seem more adult to me precisely because of this toughness and resiliency.

A year (or two?) ago, a friend of mine and I were down deep underground in an extremely slippery salt mine with only minimal handrails to keep an adult from plunging into the nearly limitless depths. A group of Romanian school children passed by us, perhaps about 9-10 years old, completely fearless, each kid’s head at only just about or less than the height of the handrails.

I turned to my friend (an American) and said, “Do you think a group of 10 year old Americans would ever be allowed into this mine?” Our consensus was a unanimous “hell no”.

Romanians are also extremely generous when they know you. Sometimes it’s an overwhelming generosity that far exceeds the bounds of one’s previous experiences.

And last but definitely, definitely not least, and despite the rudeness, the corruption, the snitching, the constant grumbling, complaining and whining, Romanians have absolutely gigantic hearts.

If they open those to you, wow. Just wow. Sometimes it’s hard to see it behind the brambles of an indifferent, frosty exterior but trust me, it’s there.

I don’t want to be misconstrued when I say Romanians have a lusty heart, but they do. The things that truly touch their soul are done with great gusto and passion and likewise with the people that they care about.

Once you are on the receiving end of that passion and heart and soul, whether through fellowship, family, friendship or romance, it’s impossible to let go.


19 thoughts on “Hey, Hey We’re the Romanians

  1. I live in Canada (recently moved here), and when I tell people here that Transilvania has been free just about 40 years for the past 2000 or so, they think I’m pulling their leg.

    “How does that work?” – I am often asked.

    Would I be able to explain this whole page to them. Would I be able to explain to them that I was born, and am the part of the first Romanian generation that is born *trully* free – the way you did?

    The chances are low. Chances are even lower to explain them why we don’t know what to do with our freedom, and a lot of other consequences.

    However thank you for writing these rânduri – it makes me think that if it possible for at least one person to comprehend, then there can be more. :)


  2. If you dress as a high status person, you will get good service and respect. Dressing like a “bum”, even if it is “comfortable” is not my recommendation for any visitor.

    Not necessarily high status person, but more like “trustworthy”. That’s not so much about what the clothes cost and it also involves being clean and polite. I truly believe that the “packaging” matters. And packaging includes everything – being clean, dressing in a way that denotes seriousness, being polite. I have heard a lot of people complaining about the way they’ve been treated on various occasions in various places (workplace, university, hospital, bank, railway station, supermarket…) – that almost never happens to me. And I got to the conclusion that a lot of people expect to be treated like kings (pun not intended) while doing nothing to deserve that. If people want to be respected, they should also respect others. And dressing and talking nicely, not being stinky are also ways of showing respect. And yes, I really mean just respect, not kissing asses. My former boss still gave me a raise after disagreeing with him. In class, I’ve always been the one that interrupts, asks questions, comes with weird ideas – the “what happens if ___?” My professors were still nice to me after stopping them with a “that cannot be correct” and sometimes even leaping out in front and taking the chalk from their hands to show just why I had got to a certain conclusion. Guess what? There were quite a few times when I was wrong! And they never reacted badly to that (though some of my colleagues did). But I am sure that they would have reacted badly to something like “Bah, esti un idiot!” without any further explanations. I have never been refused when simply walking into a restaurant and asking for permission to use their toilet even though I was not buying anything. I’m sure I would have been refused had I been stinky or even dressed like a “bum” as you say.


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