Taietura Porcului


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 ;)

23 thoughts on “Taietura Porcului

  1. I hope you won’t mind if I’ll let the cynic and me

    come forward and comment on this topic.

    Unfortunatelly the proposed recycling solution

    cannot work for several reasons.

    For starters let me state a fact of which you are

    probably aware. The notion of recirculating stuff

    in a household (and on larger scales) has been

    around for some thousands of years.
    It does indeed make perfect sense to have scraps

    fed to the pigs, hens and other beasts that one

    may have around their house. It’s also perfectly

    natural to have their feces used as a fertilizer

    which in turn will help grow vegetables, which

    will end on the table so on and so forth, thus

    closing the circle.

    The Scale Issue

    While this is perfectly replicable in individual

    rural area households the sheer number of people

    in the bigger Romanian cities makes it impossible

    to apply it at at an urban scale.
    The logistics and infrastructures needed would

    quickly ovewhelm a perfectly functioning society

    (let alone the Romanian one which is light years

    away from that stage).

    Logistically speaking you would need to name just

    a few: efficient collection and transportation,

    storage centers and last but not least a

    specialized stuff that will actually decide what

    is and what is not edible, re-usable etc. etc. On

    top of this add the necessity of a perfect

    administrative sistem.

    The human factor

    As you may have already noticed, Romanians are

    good at many things except working together and

    actually giving a shit (not as in fertilizer of

    course) about common well being.

    “…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”

    First. If you create a city garden what will

    become of those that actually make a living

    feeding the lazy bastards living in urban areas?

    All the peasants will be out of a job.

    There’s also the matter of the HyperMarkets. The

    market is heavily influenced if not completelly

    controlled by Hypermarkets. A good food and goods

    administration will be impossible to implement if

    a strong legislation is not in place.

    Also, collecting scraps with the aid of cheap

    workforce (Gipsies or otherwise) will not be

    possible either without pristine laws and

    administration. If these are nonexistent, then

    people it’s only a matter of time until something along these lines will happen: One “smart” guy will actually figure out that he can pay gipsies to take food thrown away by super markets at a very low price, repackage it and then sell it back as if it were new. This is an exegerated example but it CAN happen here.

    Coming back to the human factor. Romanians as I have said before lack the “community sense”. Our history and the maiming of our education (both in schools and at a familiy leve) by the communist regimes has all but completelly elminated any idea of cooperation, common well being and common goals. We have no idea of perspective of planning and while every parent in Romania will boast of how well they mean for their children’s future, most of them have never actually pulled together with someone else in the pursuit of a better future.

    This brings us to our first and foremost problem. The education. As long as family and school education ar not fixed, any idea, no matter how brilliant will fail miserably at a global (country level) scale.
    Then come the laws. If they’re not well thought out and enforced no matter how enthusiastic someone may be, or how many great ideas he or she may spill out, in the end someone will figure out a way to screw it up and make it work for their own purpose.

    Finally, a word on the roads issue. I as many other Romanians want to see Romania have a great infrastructure. Great roads, great highways etc. That’s because in this day and age, having a great infrastructure is paramount. Saying that we can make do without it is like saying that we could make do with a health system from 1912.
    We, are wether we like it or not a part of a community and unless we have the proper means to link and integrate with that community all our regional hoccus-poccus it’s not going to help too much.
    Neither do I agree with the ideea that roads will bring about pollution and all the hell’s angels. Nor will it ruing our way of living if we’re smart about it.

    OK, we are genereally NOT smart but hell, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, all these have great infrastructures, deal quite alright with pollution and they certainly clench their teeth around their tradition.

    Let’s take a more extreme example. To my knowledge New York is one of the least polluted cities in the US. I myself was astounded when I found this out. Bucharest on the other side, which is ten times as small and has three times less population suffers from pollution both chemical and auditory.

    Surely with a better infrastructure, with a better anything there are disadvantages to follow, but in the long run I believe that a modern state will help us better. Otherwise we will end like some screwed up version of an American Indian Reservation.

    Finally, there’s one point I’d like to make. I am not entirely sure about it as it is based on observations made on my own life and surroundings.

    I believe that reckless consumption is a direct result of a poorly balanced society. Stress, poor education, poverty or quasi poverty, all these summed up will generate recklesness in consumption and many other ways.

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    1. @Andrei

      1. Collection and transportation of food scraps for pigs needs to be efficient? Says who? Any scraps not picked up before they start to rot can be collected by the regular trash pickup, as before.
      2. “storage centers”? Um, what? Are you planning on them refrigerating excess pig scraps if there’s more food than pig mouths to feed? That’s just dumb.
      3. “a specialized [staff?] that will actually decide what is and what is not edible, re-usable etc. etc”. I’m pretty sure the pigs are plenty capable of deciding what they consider edible.
      4. “he can pay gipsies to take food thrown away by super markets at a very low price, repackage it and then sell it back as if it were new.” Is this food being sold back to the stores or directly to people? Either way, if the food ends up getting people sick no one will keep buying it from this oh-so-clever guy!

      Jeez.

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  2. “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.” ahhh…I so believe in this! I am actually tired of reading news of how Romanians hope to ‘copy’ in one more way the German highways, the american malls, the airports in London, etc, etc… And same goes for the gypsy problem.While most Romanians complain that western Europe is incapable of integrating its own minorities, which I agree with, they also don’t step up the game.
    So, come on Romania show the rest of the world that you too have your own standards, that you can come up with a viable solution to the integration of minorities, that you have your own ways of building highways, etc… and that u can do better than USA, Germany, France, etc…

    p.s. i love varza too!

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  3. On the issue of roads. We do need them and yes, roads are part of the solution for this country. Think of all the time and gas that are wasted because of the poor infrastructure. It takes about ten hours to drive from Bucharest to Arad, at highway speeds it would take half the time and probably half the gas. Romania needs new roads and railways . There might be such things as romanian solutions for romanian problems but not when it comes to infrastructure. You know the saying “Bun venit in Romania! Dati-va ceasurile cu 50 de ani inapoi.”? Building some roads would shrink that to about 40.
    The “let’s not waste food” part of the article made me laugh out loud. You need japanese levels of discipline for something like that to work. People here throw shit out the window while driving and you think they will bother to separate garbage items…

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  4. In a perfect world you’d be correct. Romania would actually invest in its rail infrastructure an all would be wonderful. But the (utterly incoherent and stupid) strategies regarding transportation are based on highways. Sorry mate, I love twisty roads and miss them a lot (Canada has a lot of fsking straight roads) but they’re necessary. Twisty roads are for when you want to have fun. The “interstate” is for when you need to get where you want to go quickly and safely.

    Last year I made some trips around Romania; it takes 7+ hours to get from Bucharest to Cj (I can get from Toronto to Montreal in that time AND make at least two coffee breaks) and it also takes 6+hours from Tulcea to Iasi.

    Buc-Cj is just plain dangerous on Valea Oltului because it’s narrow and full of trucks while Tl-Is is just full of villages where you have to go 50 for hours on end because there are 5 homes each a kilometre away from each other. It’s retarded and annoying.

    The 21st century was built on speed and I understand where you’re coming from. Yeah, it’s cool to drive around the twisty roads (heck I beg my friends to lend me their cars just to go from Brasov to Azuga and back) when you come from a place with nothing BUT highways. But we need them. Because it holds back our economy and the welfare of our country.

    And this is where corruption (and insane amounts of dumbass) enter stage left. Projects are over valued, there isn’t enough money to do it quickly so it drags on and on. Yay. Even when there’s no way getting out of a contract (like it’s the case with Bechtel, god bless Paul Dobre, the old PD minister of transport, who fucked it up royally) the gov’t makes no attempt at intelligence.

    Yes, Romanians are usually “woe is us” and do fuck all about it (or they get drawn by stupid shit and re-elect Basescu) but on this they’re right. Like I said in the post about the Economist, we’ve lost billions in FDIs because we lack proper highways and we will continue to do so until those fuckwads stop being morons and do something for the people that elected them (also a reason why I loathe Cj county – the birthplace of so many fuckups in the central gov’t).

    /rant. :))

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  5. 1) Lack of highways = bad.

    When romanians say they want highways they don’t say “I want more room for tiruri to pollute the environment”. They say “I want a road where there’s a far less chance of me being killed in my car”.

    2) Pig idea: somewhat good. But I wouldn’t trust the food that comes from blocuri. It’s far too easy for some cocalari to pull a prank and poison the pigs. Maybe the leftovers from food joints. But then again, a lot of that food could go to actual people who need it. I saw many weddings where plates weren’t even touched.

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  6. Sam you are right on most things and …
    You forget that many food leftovers can ferment generating various gases that can be used for various purposes including heating.
    Also many food leftovers can ferment and be distilled – resulting various alcohols. Those alcohols are fuels. There are cars that run on them. They are enviromental friendly and are a regenerable fuel.
    see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flexible-fuel_vehicle

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  7. > had people read my post (on The Economist) and think I was the one saying Romania was racist

    Anyone who understood that has a serious lack of reading comprehension.

    Like

  8. Cunosti expresia : mi-ai adus ceva din strainatate, macar o scobitoare straina?
    Cred ca asta explica lipsa scobitorilor straine…

    2. Romanians do not throw as much food as you think they throw, except for the potato skin. They remember very well ” cuisine in times of Ceausescu ” and it would be impopular to ask them to get back to those times.

    Back in those times, we were told to eat ” soja salami ” ( salam cu soia ). And ….what is it that we get in organic shops all over the country ? Salam cu soia, soj products, tofu, soy burgers etc.

    No sir, I do not want copies , I want the real McCoy! I want real greasy burgers done from the best parts of the cow ( whatever those parts would be, I am eating a burger once every 2 months, anyway … ) , full of cholesterol and suicidal substances, I want real women who look like Miss Platnum ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Platnum ) , I want real heat in the house..not ciocanele, adidasi, soup made from the pig’s paws…been thrugh this the first years of my youth, and hope this will never come back.

    As for the ” collect the food scraps ” solution, could work very good.

    Community gardens would also work very good in Romania, expecially Bucharest.

    Well…once you sell the book, start your business, get rich …perhaps we could suggest you run for mayor of Cluj ?

    My feeling is that an American-Romanian running the destinies of Cluj would be a great feature…and look, the actual prime-minister was the mayor of Cluj also!

    Like

  9. “…the actual physical edition of The Economist, which sells for the equivalent of 5 USD here in Romania (25 lei)”.

    Oh, no! Don’t tell me that the current exchange rate in Cluj-Napoca is 5 RON for 1 USD. I wonder how much is a Euro? And I’m even afraid to ask about the GBP…

    Like

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