Flameout


Well folks, as much as I hate to say it, I’m getting desperately close to a flameout. Lately I’ve been making mistakes at my (paid) work and I’ve got a stack of things to do that just aren’t getting done. I’ve got half a dozen articles plotted for the blog plus at least 4 more episodes for the “Romanians on American TV” cued up, more documentary editing to do and a whole host of other things far too numerous to mention. Long story short is that they’re all going to have to wait a couple of days as I simply need a break (from everything).

But there’s a cold rain falling and it reminds me of a story that I haven’t told to any of you before. It’s not really a happy story but it is a true story and it’s just one more reason why I moved here to this country. Perhaps if you are Romanian it will seem almost unbelievable but please remember this really happened in my life.

A long, long time ago in a culture far, far away, I was working in a very large hospital. I was doing “office work” and nothing medical. I had been to Romania once or twice for vacation but I had no intention of moving there or really even returning for another holiday. I’d seen the country and had my fun and was back to my “real life” in the United States.

I was working what we call “grave yards” or the third shift, overnight from about 10:00 pm to 6:00 am. Our schedules overlapped with the “day shift” crew so over time I got to know a lot of the people who came in before I left. One of these was an elderly lady, whose name I’ve sadly forgotten. When I say elderly, that’s not an aspersion. She was in her 60’s and she had been working at the hospital since before anyone could even remember.

I wish I could say she was a nice lady but she wasn’t. She wasn’t a monster but she was a tired, crabby woman who was not a manager of any kind but just another office peon like I was. One day when we were both working she asked me to move a heavy stack of papers and I refused. I told her that it was her job to deal with it and she told me she was too elderly and too sick to do it. I realize that sounds heartless but there is something I haven’t told you yet.

The truth is that she was old enough that she could receive both Social Security as well as retirement money from the hospital itself. If you’re Romanian, just think of it as her “pensie” and it was quite more than enough. I did end up helping her shift the papers but I sat down and I had a long talk with her. Why was she working when she could be retired? The money was sufficient. She owned a house and a car and everything else. She didn’t even really like her job that much, so why did she stay?

A few days later, while driving home from work, she passed out (fainted) and of course got taken to the same hospital where we all worked so we went to visit her. Turns out she had a number of chronic (lasting a long time) illnesses, giving her even more of a reason to retire and quit working. Why in the hell would you want to keep stapling papers and doing mundane office crap when you’re sick and could be at home collecting the same money? It made no sense.

But a week later, despite protests from our boss, she was back to work. And she told me that she came back because she literally had nothing else to do. Her husband was dead and her children had moved to other cities and were married and had their own children. If she retired, all she would do all day would be stay at home and watch television. As bad as it was, coming into work was all she had in her life. She told all of us that she would work until the hospital administration forced her to retire.

Well they didn’t have to force her to retire because two weeks later she fell over at her desk, was rushed downstairs (to the medical part of the hospital) and died a short while later. Before my very eyes, she had worked herself literally to death. And, just like every other patient at the hospital, we had to process her paperwork. And as I sat at my desk at 3:00 in the morning looking over her files, I realized what a terribly sad and awful thing all of this was.

Was that was ahead of me in my future? To work and work and push papers until I fell over dead and then became more paperwork for someone else? Would I work until I was so old and sick that I’d be barely able to drive myself or walk down the hall? Would I work for 40 years only to sit in a house so empty that I’d prefer to be back at the job because that’s the only purpose left in my life?

If you’re Romanian, it probably makes no sense to you why this woman worked herself to death. But she wasn’t a freak or an aberration, just perhaps a little extreme. I’ve known dozens of people who had to be forced to retire because they too feared a life without the job. I’ve known men and women who didn’t take a vacation in more than 10 years, preferring to “save” those paid days for… something that never came along. I once knew a man who was collecting his salary for more than three years after he “retired” just based solely on his (previously unpaid) sick leave alone. He had come into work sick for years and years and it wasn’t until he wanted to retire that he finally used it all up.

Quite frankly, Romanians are far more talented at “taking it easy” and “relaxing” and going on “vacation” or taking “holidays” or “missing work when they’re ill” (where I come from you either better be in the hospital or at work) or only working one “job” (at a paltry 40 hours a week! Jesus, the old joke at the office was “it isn’t the first 40 hours that’s hard, it’s the last 40 hours” which is only funny because it’s horribly true). It’s one of the reasons I came here, to learn how to do this, to not work three jobs (as I used to do), to not work the 100+ hours per week, to not be stressed all the time and suffer from insomnia and other much worse things. I mean let’s face it, Romanians are quite often lazy as hell but sometimes that’s a good thing.

But it’s hard, I admit it. I’m learning though, which is good. As difficult as it is for Romanians to believe, it’s actually hard for me to switch off the computer, to not get up at 5:00 in the morning, to not read 300 newspaper articles a day and all of the other things I do (which I am too ashamed to even mention) on a daily basis. Time to play with my cats a bit, watch the grass grow and quit earning money for a couple of days.

For those of you who tend to worry about me, please don’t. I’m quite okay, I just need a day or two off (no Easter for me, no 1 May, etc) and I’ll be fine. I mostly wrote this post to excuse my brief absence and also to give a little more understanding of where it is I exactly came from and just how different some cultures are from one another. Although to be quite honest with you, I don’t think anyone Romanian could ever understand any of that LOL

Be back before you know it!

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Dan says:

    like i said : it’s easy to live here like a foreigner,than being a native romanian, it’s probably the biggest paradox of all times! :)

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  2. Adya says:

    Sorry for the spelling mistakes.

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  3. Adya says:

    Dear Sam, I used to work at an important commercial real estate adviser in Bucharest. I got up at 6, left home at 7 and returned home at 10-11 pm, 5 days/week. I ate in front of my PC, I had 5 minutes bathroom brakes(the longest). Saturdays I used to lay in bed cause i was exhausted, sundays were for house duties. After 6 years in Bucharest I had to leave cause I was sleep deprived – in my last 2 months there I never slept more than 3 hours/night, I was not eating – I got to the point of drinking 17 cofee cups one day. I met my friends once a month. I gave up a really good paycheck – 900 euro/month in order to save my life, my health and my sanity. After I tried to move to Timisoara or Cluj (where I lifed as a student) but I didn’t find a job to pay my rent and buy food. My mum is a retired nurse, but she has to work cause she receives 780 lei and her heart pills cost 300 lei/month. I have friend who make as much as 5000 or 2000 euro/month, I also have friends that last years were teachers but this year they were let go. So i lived the american experience right here in my own country, and I left my job like you did to find my peace and tranquillity. But I am now without a job, I earn something like at most 400 lei/month with some paper work and other stuff. I have lived many experiences and I have encountered all kind of people here, in my own country. It is quite easy for you to measure everything from the higness of your royal chair, but life is difficult here and many people don not have the luxury of smelling the roses. So please, please, please do not tell us anymore how easy is for romanians to live here.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    ok… i am not quite agreeing with all you wrote there… i am dutch, my girlfriend is a romanian .
    i have a good life in my country, we work hard, but also get a fair pay for it.
    in romania, the salary is so low, you would work for that? in 2010 , pensioned people lost 25 %!! and they expect double work.. also government is as corrupt as can be!
    i dont believe my eyes when you state that romanian people could never understand what “you ‘ve been through in america”
    you ever met romanian bureaucracy? the unfair law? romanians make the best of an bad situation.
    they are not lazy, they are people using all their capabillities to have an as normal life as possible.
    you are the king of romania!!
    you were just lucky.. try to maintain your house , feed your kids, fight with romanian law when you would be a real romanian

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  5. Andreea says:

    I would say it’s actually an European thing, this culture of not dying of exhaustion at work. I’m Romanian but I’ve been living in the Netherlands for almost 2 years, and the Dutch (which are among the happiest nations in the world) invest a lot of time in family, sports, hobbies, traveling etc. I’ve also noticed that they (unlike Romanians) are not very greedy: they don’t have big houses, many of them don’t even have cars (cycling is the rule here), they are very relaxed when it comes to physical appearance so they probably don’t invest that much money in all sorts of useless bling bling. I don’t know whether this is a myth or not, but as far as I’ve seen in movies, Americans seem to be very big consumers (of big houses, lots of electronics, tons of food).

    Oh, and one more thing: Europeans (or at least Romanians) don’t usually make their kids work from when they are very young, and many of them live with their parents until they probably go to college. So if you are used to having time for yourself you will likely not accept spending all your day the office.

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  6. Bill from California says:

    Great piece Sam. I understand perfectly, that is why I am coming to visit Romania soon. I don’t want to be like the Lil Old Lady in your story. I don’t want written on my Grave Stone “Gee, I wished I had spent more time at work!” Enjoy your R&R Sam. Time to Reboot and clear the memory!

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