A Split Decision


Well I’ve spent a good deal of time here in this past week talking to foreigners, including people from France, Britain, Portugal and Sweden. As always, they are having a really good experience visiting or living here and can’t stop raving about how much they love this country. And of course during this exact same week the majority of Romanians I know spent their time bitching and whining.

You know, when I first wrote my book I was very unsure how it would be received. Since then of course I’ve heard from dozens of people and found to my complete surprise just how much there was a need for it. But what’s always been weird is the conversation I continue to have with Romanians whom I meet and don’t know my entire personal history, which goes a little something like this:

Me: Yep, I wrote a book about Romania.
Romanian: Good lord, why would you do such a thing like that?
Me: Well I like this country, the culture, the food, blah, blah, blah (for 10 more minutes)
Romanian: Sorry, I wasn’t listening. Do you even sell any of these books? Seems like a waste of time.
Me: Yeah I do. In fact, they pretty much pay the rent.
Romanian: Oh well if you make money then it’s fine.

Really, that’s it. If I weren’t making money then every Romanian I know would think I was wasting my time because there’s no intrinsic value to things. You already saw the alcoholics anonymous party the other week. Now where would such a mentality come from? It comes from a feeling that there’s nothing of intrinsic value. That’s exactly where it comes from. I promise you (although I didn’t go) that the attitude of the people at that party was “hey, such an ironic theme so therefore it’s funny!”.

All week (despite a lot of unfortunate cold and rain) the city has done a magnificent job during their “Cluj Days” festival. I think for something like 5 or 6 nights in a row there were concerts in the main square with everything from folkloric to classical (philharmonic) music to big name acts like Voltaj and Directia 5. Remember, all of this is free to anyone in attendance. And yet I heard several Romanians bitching about various things. Foreigners I met this week were ecstatic and loved it. Romanians bitching. And the big TIFF film festival kicks off later today (Friday) with a movie being shown in the same big square. And yes, I’m sure there will be some bitching about that as well.

Of course I’ve written about this dichotomy many times before. But Romanians always “explain” it away by noting that foreigners don’t have to deal with the same problems and are treated better by Romanians (both true) but there’s a lot more to it than that. The real difference between foreigners and Romanians that I see is that the foreigners are equally passionate about positive things as negative things.

There are plenty of things foreigners don’t like here in Romania, including and especially the taxi drivers in Bucharest, to give a single example. When you get ripped off, it sucks and it makes you angry. So yeah I’ve heard foreigners complain plenty and be negative and dislike things here in Romania when it is warranted. But as “strongly” as they get angry about a scheming taxi driver, they just as “strongly” praise Romania for what is good and right here. If it helps, think of emotions as a kind of “meter” from 1 to 10. And so if a foreigner gets up to 9 on the scale when they’re angry about being tricked they also get up to 9 when they tell me how much they love the free concerts!

Romanians on the other hand get up to 9 sometimes on the negative side of the mark but when in the hell do they ever get up to 9 on the positive side? How many people here in Cluj are on my Facebook feed? A few hundred? And yet literally the only positive comments I heard about the Cluj Days festival were from foreigners.

Is there some law that you can’t be positive about something that cost you zero money??? I mean how can anyone even begin to understand it? The city just renovated the main park at the cost of several million euros, a lot of the expense being picked up by the European Union, meaning the residents of this city just got a super duper nice fucking park at no cost to anyone! Not your taxes, not out of your pocket, everything paid for by some people living in a far off land whom you’ll never even have to thank. And does anyone here spend five minutes to say one positive word about this park?

Of course not. That’s breaking the “rules” here. Being a cynical, jaded bastard who laughs at alcoholics, people whose lives are being destroyed by alcohol, and using it as a theme for your party and brazenly advertising that you’re giving away alcoholic drinks, yes that’s fine. That’s fucking permitted. That’s considered the height of wit around these parts. But saying something spontaneously positive about free music, free entertainment and free park facilities, well no now you’re asking for TOO MUCH, sir.

Many, many years ago when I first moved here I used to play what I called the “coffee game”. In those days it seems like I was always drinking coffee in people with the various people I knew or was meeting. The game is really simple and you can play it yourself, if you like. Without prompting the Romanian or asking leading questions, you drink a coffee with them and wait to see if they will comment on the coffee. Doesn’t matter whether it’s coffee at your house or at a cafe or a restaurant or what. Just wait and see if the Romanian (or Romanians) at your table have anything whatsoever to say about the coffee, spontaneously on their own.

The “game” is you get 10 points if the Romanian says anything positive about the coffee like “yum it tastes good” or the like. You lose 1 point if the Romanian says anything negative about the coffee.

Can you guess why I don’t play that game anymore? Obviously it’s because I never once, never ONCE heard a spontaneous positive comment about the coffee, no matter how delicious it was. Sometimes I would ask just because I had to know and if I asked, yes they’d say something positive. But spontaneously without me prompting? NEVER. As in NEVER, EVER, NEVER NEVER. Whereas a foreigner, if you play that game with them, they’ll tell you the same whether they like the coffee or they don’t.

I obviously continue to spend time with foreigners and I’m always open to hearing their perspectives. But I live here in Romania and that means I am surrounded by Romanians and they are a part of my life. Some parts of that culture I really like and have openly embraced. But this excessive stinginess (Rom: zgarcie) with expressing gratitude, appreciation and thanks for the genuinely good things in your life while being generous with the cynical, bitter hipster jaded crap is bankrupting Romanians morally.

The answer then, as to why foreigners love Romania so much is because they have the capability to love it openly and honestly, whereas Romanians are too constipated emotionally to even say that they’re enjoying a fucking cup of coffee. With a complete failure of leadership in the government, the (deliberately) shattered economy, the legality of selling land to foreigners and the falling birth rate, it won’t be long until Romanians return to being marginalized serfs in their own country.

So yeah, enjoy the party while it lasts and good luck with that “let’s bitch and moan about everything” strategy because it’s really working for you, eh?

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19 Comments Add yours

  1. “meaning the residents of this city just got a super duper nice fucking park at no cost to anyone”

    in fact, the same money were taken from the residents of Cluj (part of the huge VAT, most of the import duties and other), and only some were given back to them, the rest being consumed by the European bureaucracy … even part of the huge price of the park was spent on bureaucratic crap

    so I can understand they are not very positive about stuff like that

    about being positive in general: it’s just in the nuances … maybe you don’t get them yet ?

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  2. Gary says:

    I never really noticed Romanians complaining even as much as Americans. The coffee thing reminded me of my stepmother and she complains to all. It seems she has this eternal quest to never find a proper glass of sweet ice tea. Only one restaurant serves a decent glass of sweet ice tea and all others are shit! Honestly, I have tatsed some that are not as good as others, but to hold a 10 minute bitch-a -thon each time we went out is….quite frankly mind numbing! She is a gold medalist complainer!:P

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  3. Atena says:

    You are spot on. As you have pointed out this Romanian trait is indeed tragic and self-defeating, and yet so hard to let go of. When one is socialized in this environment, it is difficult to see it as it is until an outsider has the “cojones” to point it out or when a Romanian has to navigate him/herself in another more “positive” culture (that is if they don’t want to appear completely anti-social). Once aware though, it’s a life-long battle trying to consciously let go of the alluring pull of negativity, (well, for me it sure is). Be patient…it’s too deeply ingrained to go away any time soon.

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  4. Radu says:

    Ha, ha, ha! Pana acum nimeni nu a postat nici macar un comentariu in limba romana la insemnarea asta. Eu cred ca ti-ar placea sa primesti mai multe comentarii in romana. Macar si pentru micul stimul intelectual generat de efortul de a le citi.

    Dar revenind la tema insemnarii …

    Romanii incearca instinctual sa-i impresioneze pe cei din jurul lor si cu atat mai mult pe cei pe care ii percep ca fiind straini.

    Asta se intampla pentru ca romanii au o atitudine de copii alintati care doresc sa epateze cu orice pret si mai important care cauta atentia cu orice pret.
    Cine a avut de a face vreodata cu un copil alintat stie ca acestuia ii “pute” totul si nimic din ce are el acasa nu este mai bun decat ce au ailalti in casele lor.
    Cine nu poate epata dpdv material, o face dpdv emotional (ex: prin ospitalitate, prin comentarii in engleza etc.).

    Izolarea din comunism are o foarte mare parte de vina. Practic noi am trait pe alta planeta cam de la sfarsitul celui de-al doilea razboi mondial pana la sfarsitul sec. XX. Asta inseamna ca avem o majora problema de integrare sociala. Pur si simplu nu stim cum sa ne comportam in societate.

    Nu poti sa duci un popor intreg la psihiatru iar asta inseamna ca vindecarea trebuie sa se realizeze “din mers” si se va face in timp. Eu spun ca premizele sunt bune pentru ca nu exista un alt popor cu o inteligenta a adaptabilitatii mai mare ca cea a romanilor.

    “Capra raioasa tine coada pe sus”. Foarte multi romani se duc sa munceasca in alte tari apoi se intorc si isi cheltuie toti banii castigati pentru a-si construi case cu cat mai multe camere in care nu o sa locuiasca niciodata nimeni ca apoi sa se planga (sa caute atentia celorlalti) ca gazul sau lemnele sunt prea scumpe.
    Isi cumpara masini mari pe care nu o sa le conduca niciodata asa cum si pe unde si-ar dori pentru ca le consuma prea multa benzina ca apoi sa se planga (sa caute atentia celorlalti) ca benzina e prea scumpa samd.

    De ce nu folosesc acei bani munciti ca sa produca ceva, sa-i investeasca in ceva productiv? Eu cred ca nu exista o rusine mai mare pentru o tara decat aceea data de faptul ca importa suruburi si piulite.

    Mie imi place in Romania si n-am de gand sa plec de aici. Imi ofera prea mult satisfactii intelectuale pe care nu cred ca le voi avea in alte parti ale lumii.

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    1. A.L. says:

      Foarte bune observațiuni! Mi-a plăcut foarte mult mai ales ultima parte: “Mie îmi place în România … îmi oferă prea multe satisfacții intelectuale…”. Nu doresc să mă autonumesc un guru al sociologiei și al ciriticii culturale, dar din puțina mea experiență de școlit în țară și de studiat la universitate pre alte meleaguri și interacționat cu o societatea diferită pot să subscriu celor zise de tine.

      În România am observat o mult mai mare stimulare intelectuală de la oamenii de rând față de oamenii de rând de aici (nu voi spune unde, dar în vest). Aici, dacă vrei să-ți prăjești creierii cu persoane educate și învățate trebuie să te învârți prin lumea academică. Altmintrelea slabe șanse, societatea mundană e dureros de incultă și ne-educată. Absolutamente dureros. Extrem de rar se întâmplă să pot ține o conversațiune fluentă și logică, darămite o desbatere, cu nea Gigel de la etajul 4. Pe când acasă mi-era mult mai ușor să isc asemene discuțiuni și să și am “adversari” pe măsură.

      Dar s-ar putea ca observațiunile mele să fie părtinite de modul de alegere a eșantionului de referință din cele două societăți. Așadară luați ce am zis cu un dram de sare.

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    2. jos_cenzura says:

      intr-adevar, si mie mi se par mai curiosi romanii decat majoritatea popoarelor (nu inseamna neaparat ca-s mai destepti); cei din occident sunt mai blazati, probabil ca au toate bucuriile materiale si nu-si mai bat capul sa afle lucruri despre locuri indepartate, iar cei din lumea a 3a in mare parte duc o existenta animalica (de aia au si ramas atat de subdezvoltati)

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  5. John Z says:

    Sam, Congradulations! Your post, and more importantly all the work you have put into this blog to date, has acomplished something I really looked forward to for a long time. ALL the above replies, a great conversation. Nuanced, clear, perceptive, and all valid perspectives on the subject and bigger picture even. I can’t wait to get back to RO, and have a drink or a coffee with any of you all.

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    1. Murat says:

      I’m from Romania and no, we’re not cannibals (yet).Two orsnbvatioes:1. Caroli makes horrible advertising here (you should see the TV ad in which they replaced the “Parole, Parole” chorus from an oldie piece of Italian (or was it French) song with “Caroli, Caroli” and that features the happy_family_around_the_table TM gorging on some Caroli salamis and whatnot)2. that’s not meat per se, it’s some sort of smoked meat product, filled with conservants and so on.3. that ad is most certainly a ghost – I have never seen it used, Romanians don’t hunt on horses and with dogs (and they never had). just some agency trying to grab one of those pesky awards. btw, who did it?

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