Through a Glass, Darkly

For the last three days I have spent more time with foreigners than…. well ever, I believe. I ran into many people I’ve known for a while and met others who literally just got to Romania days ago. It’s been quite the mixed bag and all of it very, very interesting.

It’s been really fascinating for me to hear the stories, whether about getting ripped off by taxi drivers in Bucharest or stories of unbelievably good food and service. The weather has been absolutely gorgeous here in Romania and I heard lots of wonderful compliments about Cluj, my fabulous home town, which is now in the crown of her glory with all the plants and trees flowering. Hey, I’ll admit it. I poured a few glasses of unicorn dust myself :P Cluj is magical! Cluj is fantastic! Everyone should move here and live here forever and grow their own vegetables and make their own cheese and have hundreds of fat children and learn to speak fluent Romanian.

I also heard lots of talk about the Romanian language, which of course made me laugh (at myself, not them) because sometimes I forget just how tough it was to learn to speak it so you sound like a Transylvanian peasant :P

Yah, Romanian is a hard language to learn, no doubt about it. I’ve certainly been heartily encouraging all of these foreign people I met to learn it but I think we both know that only a few of them ever will. Some of them will “only” be here a couple of years and every single one of them can get by just fine with English. Maybe a handful of basic Romanian words (numbers, etc) are necessary in a pinch but English is the language of the world. I’m not quite sure how such a muddled, poorly-spelled language got to be the one which would dominate the planet, but so it is, even here in Romania.

But while I was laughing at my new acquaintances’ jokes and cringing at some of their missteps (including one guy who told a taxi driver to go “in your mouth” instead of “to the train station” hee hee), I was wincing on the inside a little bit. Not because of the people I met but because of all of the people here, the Romanians whom I’ve met in my eternal quest to promote tourism to this country.

To begin with, it’s a tragic shame just how apathetic some Romanians are on the subject of tourism. I’m not referring to the 80-year-old pensioner who lives in my bloc but people who actually work in the field of tourism, people who theoretically get paid precisely to encourage tourism. Some of them – *coughcoughClujcity* – are only concerned with cashing their paychecks. See, they have a job and it’s for a tourist association or organization and they get paid to push around a few papers but they literally do not care if more tourists come or not. Sad but true.

And then there’s a host of rather misguided people I know, who think that tourism is about more hotels and nicer hotels and maybe even something grandiose like an amusement park or some other immense development project. HRH Elena Udrea has been working on trying to force the owners of hotels and inns on the Black Sea coast to stay open for a few more weeks during the summer. I know! I know. When you hear that (as a foreigner) you almost wonder how Communist this country is when the government has to force private businesses to stay open longer so they can make more money.

Those are all nice and wonderful things (more or less) but the world is a far bigger place than many Romanians realize. Most of the foreigners I’ve been meeting have been almost everywhere, from all over Western Europe to America to ultra luxury places such as Dubai or Singapore to very “undeveloped” spots like India or Indonesia. How in the world can Romania compete with that?

Well Romania isn’t going to compete with Switzerland or Germany or something in terms of hyper-modern, all gleaming efficiency. Romania isn’t going to compete with Singapore or the UAE in terms of grandiose luxury and service. Romania isn’t going to compete with India or some Asian countries in terms of incredibly low prices. And as “nice” as the beaches are in Romania (and I’ve been there and had fun) they can’t compete very well with the ones in Turkey, Greece or Tunisia.

So really, while hotels and amusement parks and bridges to Snagov are nice, that’s never truly going to draw more tourists to Romania. No. Literally every single positive story I’ve heard from foreigners visiting or living here involves the people of Romania. Not the trains, not the buses, not the hotels, not the swimming pools, not the amenities, not the prices. The people.

Any business book ever written will tell you to make a good first impression. I will keep hammering on this topic until my keyboard falls apart: there needs to be a bureau in every major airport in Romania with people (not flyers, pamphlets or posters) to welcome you to this country. How difficult is this to understand? Walking off the plane after a long, uncomfortable flight and being met by warm, friendly, welcoming people would make a wonderful first impression. As it now stands, all you’re met with is creepy guys trying to hound you for a taxi and a few places selling overpriced coffee.

Traveling is a lonely business. Some people certainly travel in groups, whether as a couple on holiday or in larger numbers for business or to attend a conference or something. But many people travel by themselves. And there’s only so much interest you can muster for another museum or another castle or another medieval wall. Even in the most luxurious five-star hotel, ultimately all you get is a nice shower, a comfortable bed and a large television.

What’s missing are the people. It’s why people like to meet me. It’s not because I’m the most charming person of all time but because I’m a person who lives here and can sit and chat and explain a few things or recommend a good place to go for X, Y or Z. And the foreigners always like it when they meet a (friendly) Romanian as well, and I’ve heard many good stories about that.

But those encounters are always serendipitous – they happen by chance. And for every tourist who happily chances on a friendly local, there are probably 50 tourists who don’t, who come to Romania, see “the sights” and head off to somewhere else. And yet time and time again, when I meet a foreigner and s/he has gone to a village and been invited into someone’s home or met a university student in a cafe and learned about their life, that is when the “magic” happens.

It’s exactly what I wrote in the introduction to my book – if you don’t have an “in”, an invitation into the daily rhythms of life of the people here, Romania can be a stark and alienating place to visit. There are no technological marvels here to entertain you. If you don’t know anyone here, all you might experience is being hassled by gypsies, growled at by surly taxi drivers, chastised by grumpy museum curators and ripped off by malicious waiters.

No, no, and again I say no. Romania’s greatest resources are its natural beauty and the warmth of its people. That is what is going to draw people here and make them want to return again and again, to move here and yes, to do business here. A lot of Romanians have left their own country, mostly for economic reasons, and I understand that. But to bring them home, and to bring in more wonderful foreigners like the ones I’ve met, it’s time to make Romania a place people want to come to. It’s time to make connections. It’s time to open a channel wherein people can meet and sit and talk and enjoy all of those wonderful sidewalk cafes.

Around the world, the word escort is a code for prostitution but the origin of the word comes from agencies which would provide social companions to visitors. To avoid misunderstandings, I certainly don’t want to use the word “escort” but I really would like to set up an organization which connects visitors with local people, truly social companions and nothing to do with prostitution. Call it a “Meet a Local” organization or something. I think it would be wonderful, both for the Romanians who get a chance to meet interesting people from all corners of the globe, and for the foreigners, who get to learn about what life is like here, and where is the good place to get a pizza, and what’s playing at the opera house or how to milk a sheep.

Ahh….. well I’m a dreamer I guess but this certainly is my dream for Romania. I certainly will keep doing my part but I’d sure like to have some other people doing this as well! :)

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