Well it is summertime pe bune (for real) now, with long, hot sunny days and everyone from cats to people outdoors most of the day enjoying the weather. This also means that the tourists are out in force, both foreigners as well as Romanians from other parts of the country, and over the past few weeks I’ve met quite a lot of them.
One thing remains unequivocally clear – people really like Romania. I’ve written about this countless times (and filmed it, etc) and I don’t know what else to say except that 99.99% of all the people I’ve ever met or communicated with or read about really like this country. I know two American families who live right here in Unicorn City who are leaving soon and are both quite sad and will miss this place tremendously.
But none of this is “news” if you’ve been reading this blog for a while. What I’m here to talk about today is The Narrative, which for foreigners here in this country is almost universally “Romania is a great country”. It is not that Narrative which concerns me today but rather the Narrative that is often told by the people born and bred here.
The simple definition of a narrative is “the telling of connected events in the form of a story” and is a word often used when discussing books or literature or written accounts. But a narrative can equally be something spoken aloud. If I sat down with you at a cafe and asked you to tell me who you were in five minutes (like a job interview), that would be your Narrative. The cup of tea you drank last week wouldn’t be included but perhaps your parents’ divorce last year would be included. Your personal Narrative is simply a short story featuring the most important parts.
If you’ve known me and talked to me in person a lot, you will know that I often speak about Narratives and that’s because one of my major “hobbies” (I don’t know what else to call it) is calculating and understanding probability. A Narrative is not just a story but one that can be changed, depending on perspective – and it is this flexibility (or lack thereof) which is something that is of great interest to me.
A perfect example is the keyboard you are using with your computer (and/or mobile phone). Although there are some variations, it’s highly probable that your keyboard (like mine) starts with the letters Q-W-E in the upper left hand corner (with the numbers above them) and finishes with B-N-M in the lower right hand corner. This is known as the QWERTY layout for obvious reasons and was first invented in 1878. It’s the layout I first learned to type on with a mechanical typewriter years ago and it’s the layout the vast majority of keyboards use today whether you’re in America, Romania, South Africa or Singapore. When it comes to the subject at hand, you could say that QWERTY is “The Narrative” of keyboards.
But there is no specific reason that keyboards have to be laid out this way. In 1878 the system was devised to handle a problem with metal flanges sticking together and so was a rational response to a real issue. But that problem hasn’t existed in over 100 years and yet the same Narrative remains, repeated over and over simply because that is the way it was done before and what everyone knows. It was created for a reason but it has remained the same because nobody ever felt a compelling reason to change it.
What makes QWERTY so awful however is that the layout was specifically designed to slow down a person’s typing speed. It was deliberately crafted to make you (and I and everyone else) type more slowly. A different layout (or Narrative) for a keyboard would mean that millions of people could type essays, papers for school, emails, books and blog posts faster and more efficiently. Instead, we’re stuck with an old (and useless) Narrative that does no one any good and sometimes induces people to feel ashamed and frustrated.
This is the Narrative for the vast majority of keyboards and “Romania is a wonderful country” is the Narrative for the vast majority of foreigners who live or travel here. But what is the Narrative for the vast majority of Romanians who were born here?
Ahh… now I hope you’re beginning to see. I’ve written often about The Narrative that is told by Romanians, everything from how “shocking” it is that an American would live here to how Romanians feel that everyone is more or less their “enemy” and to blame for all the small problems, the perverse pride they have in their identity combined with overwhelming verbal attacks against their fellow Romanians, that Romania is an irrevocably “poor” country, etc, etc, ad infinitum. This is The Narrative that the Romanian people tell themselves and tell others.
But just like the QWERTY layout of our keyboards, much of the Narrative of the Romanian people is an outdated story that is no longer relevant in today’s reality AND is actually counterproductive. As I’ve written about before, the specific reason that visitors can enjoy a festival or a cup of coffee and Romanians (often) cannot is due to the difference in Narratives. A foreigner comes to Romania without a lot of preconceptions and Romanians come loaded down with the antiquated and largely useless baggage of a historical Narrative that no longer serves any purpose.
Did the Romanian people suffer under the long reign of the Turks and the Hungarians? Yes. Did the Romanian people suffer greatly during World War 2 under both the German Nazi and Russian occupation? Yes. Did a culture of corruption and petty theft flourish under the long decades of Communist dictatorship? Yes. Did the Romanian people suffer from shortages in material goods and sometimes food? Yes. Were Romanians historically a downtrodden people condemned to work in the fields by a rotating cadre of nobles and barons? Yes. Did the Romanian people essentially get “gifted” a revolution in 1989 in which few people participated and then had their government replaced by second-tier Communists under a thin veneer of democracy? Yes.
And so on and so forth. I am quite aware of where today’s Narrative came from. I have relatives in America who grew up during the Great Depression and hang onto the mentality (Narrative) of food scarcity even today, often overeating or binging on junk food simply because once upon a time they were hungry. I certainly understand where Romania’s Narrative came from. But just like the QWERTY layout, this Narrative is no longer based on rational needs and is actually hurting people as they feel pressure to conform to historical conditions that no longer exist.
If you think Romania is a wonderful country and mostly everything is just wonderful then don’t change your Narrative. But if you live in Romania and find yourself deeply unsatisfied with the way things are here, may I make a suggestion? Gandhi once said “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” and I say to you today “Tell the Narrative that you wish to be true in Romania”. When you open your mouth to speak (or move your fingers to type), tell the story you wish to see in Romania.
I am not encouraging you to lie. I am saying look at the positive things you already enjoy and appreciate and speak about them. When you see examples of kindness, of generosity, of good music in your language, of dress, style, art, culture or (real) humor, promote these with your words and your actions.
When Romanians do well, make that the topic of your conversation, not the petty complaints about minor actions. When a flower blooms in your garden or a cat frolics in the sun or an elderly woman cooks a delicious meal in the old (and delicious) style, celebrate that. When a Romanian has the opportunity to travel abroad for work or pleasure, make that a wonderful expression of freedom not as a reason to fret and worry that they are “so far away” from home. When a Romanian spends a lot of time on the internet, give thanks that they are developing the skills of the modern age and self-educating themselves on a number of topics rather than being chained to a life of toil in the fields or factories.
You see how it can be? I think you do. I (and other foreigners) are not shackled to the Narrative that Romania is some awful place to live or full of awful people that you have to live with. You too can be free of these chains if you wish because a Narrative is only the story you tell yourself. You can change it whenever you like. You can choose to describe yourself as being from the land of gypsies and manelisti and corrupt politicians or you can be from the land of Mircea Eliade, Constantin Brancusi and Mihai Eminescu. I know it can be difficult to change it but the story that you choose to tell is solely up to you.
I’ll leave you with the words of Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who knows a thing or two about growing up in a poor, backwards country that has struggled to modernize and join the rest of Europe:
It takes courage to enjoy it
Indeed it does.