I will warn you ahead of time – this is going to be a long one.
Yes, for an entire week I was indeed “dead” – not in the corporeal sense but in the “virtual” sense. I was cut off from the internet for an entire week. My electricity was cut and without it, almost every trace of my modern life disappeared in an instant. I cannot blame Electrica Transilvania Nord as I was entirely at fault. I had gotten behind on the bill and thought I had a couple more weeks to pay it.
What followed was a cascade of system failures – without electricity, I couldn’t power the cable modem I use to log onto the internet. Without electricity, I couldn’t even download the files I use to write to my laptop. And without electricity, I couldn’t recharge my laptop’s batteries in order to log onto a cafe’s wi-fi internet in order to juggle bank accounts and transfer funds and all the rest in order to resolve the problem.
Thereby I briefly became a kind of digital nomad, wandering around this city in search of cafes and restaurants which had an accessible outlet (Rom: priza) to charge my laptop and provide wi-fi access, spending money on coffees I didn’t need in order to sit there long enough to squeeze a few electrons into my very fragile batteries.
On top of that, due to Romania’s reputation as cybercrime central, American financial institutions (upon which I still regrettably depend) consider almost every log-in attempt to be proof of fraud, which necessitates yet another Skype call (requiring more internet connectivity) to resolve.
It is winter here in Cluj, with lots of snow falling over the past days, and so I became quite adept at standing at strategic points outside the windows of certain cafes and restaurants, briefly and surreptitiously operating my equipment, including my fabulous Sony Mylo 1, which is probably the best “stealth” Skype device ever invented, as it looks exactly like a mobile phone.
This was definitely an interesting experience but it was a deeply personal one – the only person it affected was me. And yet, with a brief flip of the switch (cutting off the electricity), I was forcibly thrown back to a pre-modern time, reading books by candlelight and singing to myself to fill up the enormous silences in my apartment.
My time in the gloaming was not lost however, as it gave me ample time to think. And I realized that Romania (and indeed the rest of the world) is rapidly heading towards a similar situation. Actually I will rephrase that – Romania is potentially rapidly heading towards a similar situation, partly in thanks to the grinning thug above and his small circle of co-conspirators.
It’s rather easy to pull a Henny Penny and declare the world is about to end so I want to distance myself from hyperbole and wild exaggerations. I’m quite sure the good folks at Electrica Nord have the situation under control for the foreseeable future. And all those shiny Mercedes and X6‘s will continue to prowl the streets of Cluj for a while yet to come. And I also expect that the bright sparkling machines in Starbucks will continue to dispense coffee at the Iulius Mall.
That being said, there is a lot to worry about. Prior to my disconnect, I began a cautious exploration down the rabbit hole of who exactly is sailing the ship of state in Romania and what it is they expect to achieve. The resume of Jeffrey Franks is quite troubling and smacks of a “Company” man, one of the many euphemisms used to describe those who sit in observed back rooms, signing the papers which no ordinary Romanian has ever seen, borrowing billions of euros to accomplish goals which no ordinary Romanian can enumerate, much less understand.
In simpler words, it is impossible to find the actual text of the IMF agreement with Romania (although there is this in PDF format). All I seem to be able to find is a) news reports outlining the basics b) statements from a handful of men who “interpret” what this means and c) a general “overview” of the agreements.
I’ll say it another way. I’ve flown on hundreds, if not thousands, of airplanes in my life. Yet I’m not a pilot and know absolutely nothing about how to fly an airplane. I trust my life to the people who are flying the plane. And yet, if I so choose, I could find all of the technical requirements for plane safety, operation and maintenance. I could find out exactly what is required to get a license to fly that plane. I could find out the pilot’s name and speak to him or her. If, by some chance, there was a problem, I could read the reports on the investigation and know exactly what went wrong and who is responsible. Or perhaps I could talk to a friend of mine who is a pilot and get their opinion and analysis.
Or if I felt like I didn’t have enough information to trust the company or the pilot, I could simply choose not to board the plane.
Yet none of that applies to what’s going on in Romania. An exceedingly small group of men have signed papers that I cannot read, making plans for how this nation of 20 million people will live, breathe and work, and there’s no way “off the plane” without physically leaving the country.
Perhaps that’s an option available for me in the distant future but certainly not one for most people living here. The men making these decisions (“flying the plane”) are not elected. They have no accountability to the people of Romania and I dare say there isn’t even anyone outside their own exclusive club who has enough information and knowledge to adequately access their plans to even be able to assess it.
As much as I (retroactively) loathe King Carol’s complete censorship of the 1907 Revolt, at least he had the “legitimacy” of his “God-given” right to rule to justify his actions. We’ll never know exactly how that led to Ion Antonescu‘s rise to dictatorial power either but at least everything can be blamed on an undisguised tyranny – the king was the king and made no pretense at being anything but an absolute ruler.
In 2011 however, we’re supposed to be in a different situation. In my radio interview and in several articles here, I’ve stated that Romanian politics really is a kind of puppet theater. Constantin “The Genius from Dolj” Dascalu and the rest of the lawmakers down in Bucharest are engaged in stupid, time-wasting bills. Meanwhile Emil Boc and Basescu run around making nice speeches about how raising taxes and cutting salaries (and all the rest, such as currency manipulation) are “good for us”, earning the enmity of the population.
If you strip away the fat however, a very small group of people are calling the shots. Perhaps you might believe they are wise and sainted men, doing what they do for the everlasting glory and improvement of the Romanian people. Perhaps you believe they’re part of an evil cabal (Romanian) to destroy this country. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.
But what cannot be disputed is that the official Romanian monarchy is defunct, Antonescu and Ceausescu are in the cold, hard ground and yet decisions continue to be made in an autocratic fashion. It makes my spine shiver to read polls (Romanian) that show that the only person who maintains a shred of public confidence is the Puppet Master himself.
Where is this country going? That’s the question I ask myself every day. It’s not a popular question to ask as most people (including seemingly myself) are barely surviving today. The future looks bleak and fearsome, with little hope in sight. Cluj is filled with empty, vacant buildings where shops and stores once were, the “for rent” signs turning yellow from long exposure to the sun. The few surviving businesses all shout the word criza, a word I constantly hear on my neighbor’s lips.
It may sound a little presumptuous for a struggling writer who isn’t even a citizen of Romania to be worried about this country’s future but that’s just the kind of person I am. I like living here and despite all of my many setbacks, I remain intensely positive. I suppose I would be justified in shouting from the rooftops that the end is nigh, convert a few souls to my brand of Jesus and call it a day. I suppose I would also be justified in hoarding my pennies, buying a plot of land in the country, growing some vegetables and be indifferent to the fate of my millions of neighbors.
But that’s not who I am.
By sheer happenstance, one day last week I ran into an old friend of mine walking through the blowing snow. She’s Romanian but lives abroad, and had only come back home for a brief visit because of a dire medical situation. I had lost touch with her for a long time and so she had never heard of my book(s). When I gave her a copy of The Complete Insider’s Guide to Romania her eyes sparkled and her enthusiasm was contagious.
Despite her own quite severe problems, despite the fact that this town is a grimy, faded shell of what it was even a few short years ago, despite the fact that she lives in and travels between glamorous, much nicer cities, she was still enthusiastic about the book, about sharing it with her (non-Romanian) friends, about people coming here and discovering just how wonderful this country is.
My neighbors and friends regularly denounce me as a fool for my positivity, and rightly so. To them I’m something of a reverse Jeremiah, wandering the streets in my ragged shoes, talking about how good things are when everywhere in plain sight there is suffering, struggle and misery. And yet I wonder what we have left without hope. I wonder where we will be once the light of a desire for a good life for everyone has been extinguished. It may not be realistic to dream and plan for a good future for this country but it is the only path with heart and so it is the one I must follow.
Without hope, all we have left is to barricade ourselves in our small cocoons of family and friends, hoping the electricity will flow forever, that the internet and TV will continue to broadcast and that bananas and toothpicks and second-hand clothes from far off lands will continue to be dumped in our towns and cities.
That might be enough for some, but it isn’t enough for me. I might end up getting washed away in the coming storm like the tiny twig that I am but until that day comes, I will continue to make my stand.
When my bill was finally sorted, a man from Electrica Nord came and knocked on my door. “Am venit sa dau drumu’ la lumina,” he told me (I have come to turn on the light).
For better or for worse, so have I.
Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”
“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.
“Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.”