As someone who writes about Romania in (almost entirely) English, there’s always a risk that I will be badly misunderstood.
Over the last 24 hours, I’ve actually had people read my post (on The Economist) and think I was the one saying Romania was racist. If you can’t understand I was saying the complete opposite, perhaps there are other things you’re not understanding as well. Hey, it happens.
I was in a store the other day (pimping my book) and saw the actual physical edition of The Economist, which sells for the equivalent of 5 USD here in Romania (25 lei). Therefore one slim edition of their magazine is half the cost of my book. Weird to think about it that way but hey that’s what came in my mind.
I understand it’s really easy to be swayed by a lot of facts and figures, which they (and every other mainstream news source like them) like to do a lot. Saying inflation went up X percent and this went down X percent sounds really official and factual and therefore quite believable.
I’m not saying the numbers are wrong. I’m saying they’re kind of irrelevant. The fact that I own 8 pairs of shoes is also a true statement but it isn’t relevant either.
I also don’t blame anyone for focusing on some of these things because if that’s all you know then that’s what comes into your mind.
Conversely, I am not saying there aren’t many problems in Romania. I have spent almost the entire past week physically meeting with people, literally all but one of them Romanian, and talking about the book and Romania in general. I’ve had my ear chewed off about the corruption and the economy.
What I am saying is that it is the “algorithm” or the perspective that is wrong. In other words, we’re all looking at the facts the wrong way.
A few examples:
I know a great number of young adults here in Cluj, which makes sense as it’s a large city with tens of thousands of university students. I also know many young adults in the work force here.
What I hear from them can be summarized as: my best hope (in Romania) is to get a relatively high-paying job in the private sector and that’s most likely to happen if I can work for an international corporation.
“International” meaning their main office is not in Romania, whether it’s Germany (most likely), Britain, France, USA, Japan or wherever else.
And the corruption is bad. Super bad. Approaching Albanian cartoon status bad. I had my ear burned up quite a bit this week hearing about that as well. And part of the thinking is that “if things were fair here, more foreigners could invest and therefore bring more jobs”.
I didn’t hear it with my own ears this week but clearly some Romanians are also with The Economist on the subject of “damn I wish we had super awesome roads so we could drive all over this country quickly and easily”.
In case you’ve never driven in Romania, the vast majority of the “good” roads (and I’m not even counting the thousands of km of unpaved roads) are twisty, narrow and full of holes, not to mention a billion and one obstacles in your path from wandering cows and horses to literally two old villagers standing directly in the middle of the road apparently oblivious to the fact that they’re on a main highway.
Is it fast, smooth and easy “sailing” on these roads? Heck no. It’s like a flesh and blood version of Frogger sometimes. That’s why most people are somewhat terrified to drive in Romania while a small percentage of adrenaline junkies are addicted to Romanian roads. I mean there’s a guy in my neighborhood who must drive 100km an hour down my (extremely residential) street, obviously jacked up on the thrill of it.
So the roads suck, corruption is out of control and the best thing we can hope for in terms of jobs is rich foreigners coming here and treating us well.
Have I said anything The Economist didn’t? Or that Romanians don’t tell me themselves on a daily basis?
So what am I saying that’s any different? Well to answer that, first I’ve got to tell you a story from 1999.
It’s easy for Americans and “Westerners” to forget about it now but back in those days there was a great deal of panic about “Y2K”. Even the calmest person was still aware that he or she was surrounded by thousands of people who were very on edge, perhaps stocking vast quantities of rations and/or guns and ammunition.
It was a very tense time. And what was the cause of all of this? Worries about whether the computers would fail. The simple fact is that if the computers had failed in some spectacular way, the stability and continuity of every day life was in serious jeopardy.
Yet I remember my Romanian friend being slightly astonished at all the concern. Back in Romania it was an interesting news item but about as worrisome as a mosquito bite. Yeah it might be serious for a few people but for most Romanians, even if the computers vaporized life would continue on unaffected.
Now imagine that, just for a second. In the case of a sophisticated, high-technology disaster, Romania would’ve been far less affected than the United States.
Fast-forwarding to now, what do you think all these financial crises are? And bailouts? And all those bizarro home mortgage frauds? And Quantitative Easing? They’re all sophisticated, high-technology disasters.
As much as some Romanians and The Economist and others would like Romania to become a miniature copy of these western financial models, it’s clearly a suicidal maneuver. If I can’t convince you of this fact alone, please check out this site.
If Romania were a Scandinavian country, the political leaders would all get together and actually write a few common sense laws. People in Bucharest would be bicycling around and the national goal would be complete energy self-sufficiency.
But Romania isn’t in Scandinavia and that’s fine. What I’m saying is that the solutions to Romania’s problems are not to become a mini-America or a mini-Germany or even a mini-Denmark.
I’m going to throw out a challenge to all of you here in Romania. If you go almost anywhere in Transylvania, there are literally trees up one side of the valley right across to the other. This country is bursting with trees. And yet I have never once found toothpicks (Rom: scobitori) made in Romania.
The challenge is to find toothpicks made in Romania. Most of the ones I see are made in China actually but I’ve found a few made in other countries, just never Romania. Clearly this model for an economy is not a good one. And building faster roads and bigger back offices in gleaming towers is not what this country needs either.
But what about the corruption? As soon as I say “hey maybe Romanians could make toothpicks” someone will always say, “Well maybe but not with the corruption”.
Fair enough. Except that, to me, I look at the endemic corruption (and I speak here on the large scale) and almost laugh, because I recognize it for what it is.
Any time anything persists for a long time, you have to step back and ask yourself what purpose it is serving. Anything this resilient and difficult to get rid of has to be useful on some kind of level to something or someone or else it wouldn’t be so tough and resilient.
Obviously there’s a group of cronies, most of them hideously ugly old men left over from the Communist era, who profit enormously from this. But it’s more than just them because let’s be honest, it’s actually useful to a lot of people.
But it also serves a similar function to a fever in a person. You’re lying in bed, feeling nauseous, burning up in temperature and yet this is actually a good thing because your body is fighting off an infection. Corruption in Romania is not a “problem”. It is actually the natural result of an infection and while it is awful, it’s actually protecting us from a greater harm.
Let’s talk about roads, since there’s (the beginning of) a super modern advanced highway right outside of Cluj. If Romania had no corruption, by now there’d be a multi-lane super fast highway connecting Budapest to Cluj all the way to Brasov. And The Economist and everyone else would be singing Romania’s praise. Right?
Yet what actually happened was that every kind of smecherie happened and the few kilometers that did get built barely go anywhere and yet cost billions and billions of lei. So a few people pocketed that money and “the people” got a few kilometers of mostly useless but very shiny roadway.
Am I the only person who has ever been in a country that has almost nothing but high speed interstate roadways? Who in their right mind would want endless boring miles of perfectly marked roadway between patches of international megafirms gas/petrol stations and fast food joints?
No way. Every time I hear about a setback in the major roads, I cheer. It sucks that some fat-faced asshole is lining his pockets but the last thing this country needs is more roads.
Folks, even if you think hyper-modernizing the economy is the solution, roads are the worst solution. Driving a truck that is burning petroleum is about the least efficient mode of transportation there is. In some cases trains carrying freight are literally 1,000 times more efficient than a diesel burning truck (lorry).
Gasoline (petrol) is also a horrible pollutant and anyone who lives here ought to remember just how recently leaded gasoline was being sold here and wonder why we need more of that kind of pollution in this country.
No. Romania would’ve been fine in 1999 if the computers went berserk because it was far more self-reliant. And the only viable solution to the future is to become more self-reliant in a modern way. Just not the Scandinavian way or the Austrian way but in a way that works well for Romanians.
So what are some Romanian solutions? I know of several but honestly sometimes I get tired of giving it away all the time for free. First things first though, so I’ll tell you one.
Problem: Food waste/lack of food/food expense
To begin with, a lot of food is wasted, even in Romania. Some of it is from restaurants and catering services (especially left over from weddings). Some of it is right in your home. Technically speaking, even a single piece of potato skin that you throw into the trash is wasted food.
If you added up all the food that is thrown away, it’s a lot. It’s metric tons in a large city like Cluj. So what could be done with it?
Some of the food, especially from restaurants and catering companies, is still edible and could be given away to those who are in need. The local government already has both a venue (Rom: cantina) to feed people as well as a system to distribute food assistance to the needy.
The only adaptation would be just an increase of food needing to be collected and then transported and sometimes refrigerated.
But what about those potato skins and egg shells and meat scraps and all the other stuff people can’t or wouldn’t eat?
Well, just about all of that can be eaten by pigs. And Romanians eat one tremendous amount of pig meat. In fact, this is the time of year where Romanians go to the villages sa tai porcul, literally “to cut the pig” but meaning slaughter the pig in conventional English.
In cities, if all of those food scraps were collected on a daily basis and fed to pigs in a city-run facility, there’d be one heck of a lot of fat pigs to be slaughtered come December every year. Then every resident would get his/her “cut” of the pork or the cash equivalent, all for “free”.
But how would all this food be collected? Clearly in large amounts (like from a restaurant) the city would have to use a car or van or truck. But from apartment to apartment in the bloc, how would you ever collect food scraps from people?
Hmm. Clearly there’s a mobile workforce who cover literally every single street in every Romanian city on a daily basis. And they’re called the gypsies. Some of them are already employed in this capacity, sweeping the streets and picking up trash. Paying them to collect food scraps would be a cinch (Rom: floare la ureche).
Every bloc would have a barrel (Rom: butoi) with a lid on it. The residents throw their food scraps in there. The gypsies collect it and deliver it to the city for a small fee. If the gypsies want to pick out any “goodies” first, that’s their business. Then the city feeds the scraps to the pigs. The pigs get slaughtered in December and everyone either gets X kilos of meat or cash.
This is recycling in a way that could easily work in Romania. Perhaps not Denmark or Shanghai but here it’d be fine. A great deal of waste would disappear (and less “regular trash” to deal with) and people in the city would be contributing to their own self-sufficiency.
Obviously throwing food into the barrel would not be mandatory. If you really want to put your food scraps in a plastic bag and then bury it in the tomberon, help yourself :P
But what about the waste from the pigs? It can be used to fertilize a city garden, which can grow food both to distribute to the needy as well as be sold in the market. This would also increase the amount of food that people in the city are eating that is grown and produced right here.
We’ll get to the toothpicks one day but first we got to get a few ideas working that are potrivit for Romania as it is right now.
I firmly believe the above is a win-win solution for everyone in Romania, from the gypsies to the poor pensionari to the corrupt officials in government, and therefore has a realistic chance of actually working, not just sounding nice for the television news.
But what do I know? Right now the “Woe is Romania” club seems to have the upper hand, with the minor exception of me and the new Tourism Minister ;)