All of You!

Before I forget, I did want to amend one thing to my 2011 wrap-up post which I shamefully neglected to include. I met a metric ton of people in 2011 due to the book, the blog and as recursive iterations of the same (i.e. I met the ProTV people because I was in Gandul). I met “foreigners” and Romanians alike from all parts of the country and Europe and beyond and it was absolutely fabulous.

Without getting too bogged down into my back story, my life in Romania before 2011 was quite different. As you (probably) well know, I moved here without really knowing anyone. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the culture and I felt exactly like the survivor of a shipwreck (naufragiat). I was bruised, battered and alone but I was thankful to have miraculously made it through a very stormy passage (post September 11 America).

Gratitude aside, there was a heck of a lot of work to do at the beginning. I must’ve spent a month just trying to figure out how to modulate the heat in my apartment. I had the same system then as I do now – radiators (calorifere) which use water heated by an enormous boiler in the basement of the building. Sadly, neither system allows for the slightest bit of regulation. They are on when they are on and off when they are off and if you don’t like it, open the window.

I didn’t know how to ride a bus. I had no concept of buying individual portions of things (such as 1 egg or 1 aspirin). I had no clue whatsoever why the hall across the street would be blasting Multi ani traiasca every Saturday night. I was completely mystified by the flotant list that the “president” of my apartment building meticulously kept. I had no idea what tuica was and I thought that manele was the name of a band that included a synthesizer and a saxophone player. I lived all alone with just ProTV and a bilingual dictionary printed in 1945 to keep me company and I was as lost, bewildered and clueless as a person could possibly be.

Long story short – I knew nothing. I then spent years learning all the things I know now, including the history, the culture, the foods, the music, the geography and of course the language. And I did all that, one step at a time. I did it by walking up to people and saying hi. I did it by making painfully awkward and shy conversation with the lady at the food store. I did it by getting lost a billion times and asking for directions. I did it by enduring untold hours of listening to Romanians talk and hearing the rhythms and feeling the flow of how they interacted and spoke. I did it by inserting weird and unknown foods in my mouth. I did it by walking, taking a bus, taxis and trains all over this country. I did it by partying in Bucharest’s largest and most glamorous clubs to tiny one-speaker bars in mountain villages. I did it by getting drunk on army bases and making cheese with kerchief-wearing grandmas and driving a horse and cart and swimming in the Black Sea and hiking in the achingly beautiful forests of Tara Motilor.

I think you get the picture. But before late 2010, this was largely a cultural exchange that was one way. I was receiving and learning. I was receiving input on everything from bad Ion si Maria jokes to the history of Trenul Foamei to beautiful elegies on the poetry of Mihai Eminescu. I had a lot to learn (and still do!) and so I was performing the role of a sponge – absorbing, taking in and receiving. And to do that, I had to live, as closely as possible, as a Romanian.

Most high status foreigners, i.e. from “good” countries like Germany or England or America, take a completely different approach. I actually had a chance to meet the Chocolate Chip Professor and both he and his family were wonderful, kind people. But the professor earned his sobriquet precisely because he did what most foreigners do – he brought his culture here with him. He was American and so he brought his American foods with him and his American language and his American opinions and his American cultural viewpoints. I’m not picking on the guy – he is actually the normal one here and nearly all “foreigners” I meet are like him whether they are Dutch or Swedish or from whatever other high status country.

I knew I wanted to live here (not just be here on a long visit) and so I did my “sponge” routine and did everything as Romanian as I possibly could. And I knew the only way I’d ever learn the culture, the foods, the music, the dances and yes, the language, was to avoid all of those kind and generous but ultimately corrupting (for my purposes) foreigners, with their clubs and meetings and newspapers and ex-pat bars and all the rest. I knew if I didn’t throw myself on the mercy and kindness of Romanians and avoid the comforting embrace of my fellow foreigners, I’d never truly live here. I’d always be the “permanent resident foreigner” and never the “citizen”.

And so we arrive in early 2010. I had a handful of some very dear and good friends, all of them Romanians. I lived a modest and quiet life with a minimal but satisfying social life. I did ordinary work for my ordinary salary and I walked around town running ordinary errands and occasionally did some traveling in a low-key and ordinary way, now having mastered the basics. I could speak the language well enough to conduct my quotidian business of buying vegetables and newspapers and as far as most of my neighbors were concerned, I was just an ordinary person. In a sense, all of my original goals had been achieved. I was no longer the bewildered survivor of a shipwreck but a person so ordinary and unremarkable that nobody paid any attention to me.

And then my passport expired and I had to go to Bucharest to renew it. I ended up having a series of conversations with a guard outside the American Embassy and suddenly I was shocked into a new level of awareness. Somehow I had “graduated” and was no longer the clueless, isolated immigrant but an integrated member of Romania. Although it was not officially stamped on any paperwork, I had become a citizen of Romania but until that moment, I had not realized it.

I had a long train ride back to Cluj and I spent it thinking about what this all meant and where to go from here. If I had become Romanian enough to convince other Romanians that I was one of them, what’s the next step then? Convert to the Orthodox faith and have some babies and build a villa in the countryside and cook mamaliga? Perhaps. But I had another idea in mind.

This led to the creation of the blog you are reading right now, which led to The Complete Insider’s Guide to Romania, which led to my triumphant return to Bucharest in 2010, which led to an article about me in Romania Libera, which led to a radio interview, which led to TV appearances, which led to my documentary. It led to me attending lots and lots of meetings, clubs and other organizations run by foreigners and giving speeches for them. It led to me creating a Facebook page. It led to me buying both a still photograph camera and a video camera. It led to me meeting the mayor of this city and the tourism director. It led to me meeting fans and signing books. It led to me getting recognized (or half recognized hehe) all the time when I am out and about in town, doing all of the ordinary things I used to do in complete anonymity.

What it really led to was a reverse of the flow of information and cultural and social exchange. Whereas before I was the “sponge” and absorbing and taking in and receiving, now I switched to the one who is broadcasting, transmitting, sending out and teaching and opining and debating Ilie Nastase and instructing, informing and otherwise illuminating. When I arrived on these “shores”, I certainly was the least Romanian person in the country. Now, as the title of this blog proclaims, I am more Romanian than you.

Sometimes I really do miss my quiet, anonymous and partially clueless life here in Romania. It’s fun when things are fresh and even “ordinary” things like buying a ticket for the train is an amazing adventure. Of course I am still learning new things (and words) all the time but those days are over. I have indeed “graduated” and now it’s time for a new phase of being – to teach and disseminate and to discuss what I know and what I’ve learned and what I think.

That’s quite a remarkable transformation, to go from a guy who could barely figure out how to buy bread to being someone who gets recognized and drawn into conversations when he’s just trying to buy a Coke.

And most of this transformation happened in 2011, and back to my original point, it couldn’t have happened without meeting a lot of people. Some of you reading this are people who have indeed met me “in the flesh”. Certainly many of you have “met” me in the sense that you’ve seen or heard me in the various media interviews or on Twitter or Facebook. Some of you will meet me in the near future. I spent my formative years in Romania largely isolated and alone but I couldn’t have become who I am today without all of you.

In other words, I could’ve written this entire post in two words – Thank You!

Now let’s kick some ass in 2012 :)

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