It seems like a lifetime ago now but I remember one rainy night more than 12 years ago. I was in a car riding through the pre-dawn morning in Bucharest with a guy I barely knew. He was taking me out for a few hours and then to the airport where I would board a 5am flight back to the United States.
Somewhere along the way, he stopped the car and ran inside a building to do something, leaving me to wait for him. On the radio I heard a song that I knew – I knew the music but I only knew the English version, which is a little different. Now I was listening to the Spanish version – Escapar by Enrique Iglesias.
Y si te vas, ya veras,
Que no es tan facil olvidar
Sale bien, sale mal, como sea
Pero es tan real
“And if you go, you will see that it is not so easy to forget. If it goes well, if it goes badly, it is what it is. But it is nonetheless real.”
I never forgot that song nor those words because when I got back to America I did not forget Romania. I came back again and again and again and now I live here. And not then, all those years ago, nor up until today, have I ever been able to escape. This is my home and this is where I live.
I used to consider myself a refugee. Thankfully not a refugee like those poor souls who must flee from war and famine, but a refugee nonetheless. I left a place that I felt was no longer a place where a person could live in freedom and decided to move here. You know the rest of the story, how I traveled from one side of Romania to the rest, meeting people, learning the language and drinking a few glasses of tuica along the way.
You also know what happened more than two years ago – when I had an unexpected and startling encounter in Bucharest and had a very long train ride back to Cluj to think it over. I started this website and then quit my job to write The Complete Insider’s Guide to Romania. And so the mission is over, right? I came here fleeing my homeland, I settled here, learned the language and then did my part to give back to others.
Now I have two cats, friends, a life, a comfortable apartment and no worries. With the leu tanking compared to the Euro and U.S. dollar, life is even cheaper here for me. I speak the language and I know where all the good bars are. What more could anyone ask for?
Alas, I cannot rest. As you know, I’ve had a policy since day 1 that I never mention anyone by name unless they are a public figure in a public setting. Sometimes I write about my experiences with people and sometimes I don’t but they are ongoing all the time. I regularly get stopped in the street – usually by people I know and sometimes by people I don’t know.
And life is not good for them. I have written much about politics and current affairs here in Romania but setting aside all the parties, setting aside all the players involved, setting aside things like droughts and currency exchange rates and 1.3 billion Euros in debt payments to the IMF this year and setting EVERYTHING aside, Romania has one major problem.
The problem is that the flame of hope is close to being extinguished forever here.
Back when I first visited Romania all those years ago, the problems were large, the future seemed daunting, but at least there was hope. When Romania joined NATO, there was hope. When Romania signed the accession papers to join the EU, there was hope. When Romania was accepted as a full member of the EU, there was hope. Even as recently as when I first wrote my book, there was still hope of joining the Schengen zone. There was hope that money and time and influence and visa-free traveling and work and Mechanisms of Cooperation and Verification would slowly, not easily but slowly and steadily, make things a little better.
But now that hope is beginning to disappear and I hear about it every day. I see it in the faces of those who write Neam saturat de voi (we the people are tired of you). I hear it in the voices of the small business owners I meet who are getting destroyed by price hikes, VAT (TVA) increases and a failing leu. I hear it in the voices of university students who see their studies become worthless in front of a group of unrepentant plagiarists. I see it every day when older people tell me that about how their pitiful pension buys less and less. I hear it from Romanians every day who are forced to leave their country and find work elsewhere even though their heart cries every day for their home.
That’s Romania’s problem, right? I’m not Romanian, not on paper. I’ve got my income in foreign currencies. My passport is still valid. If things get bad, I can always pack up my bags, say la revedere and so long and thanks for the fish, call me when you get it all worked out.
No! No, no and again no. I could do those things but I won’t. I pledged this year no more running and I mean it. I don’t care if it’s not “my” fight according to some people. I don’t care if people laugh or find it a spectacle. I don’t care if it upsets the comfort level of my life and brings a host of new problems. This is my home. And I cannot sit idly by. Not on my watch.
But of course, talk is cheap. As I learned way back in 1999 when I heard my very first song in Romanian, Banii Vorbesc. I sat here for three hours this afternoon thinking this over and whether I should wait another day (or week! or month!) before I say anything and my response in my heart is fuck that. We all have one life to live and this is time to live it.
In short, I am hereby telling you that I will now pledge 1000 Euros to making Romania a better place to live for everyone. It’s all my money, earned the legitimate and old-fashioned way, one penny at a time. I was saving it for something else but fuck it, this is too important. Is it a million dollars? No. But it’s what I’ve got and time to put it to good use.
So… what to do with that money? I’ve got some ideas and I definitely need to talk to people I know and see what’s possible. In a very short time (as in days, not weeks) I will let you all know here on this website.
But I am sick and tired of watching the hope die in the eyes of the people I know, my friends, my neighbors, the people I care about. I am sick of seeing stupid people ruin this country and good people left powerless to do anything about it. I am sick and tired of being dependent on some 350 people in Bucharest deciding everything for a population of 20+ million. And yes, this might be a wheel too heavy to move but by God I’m going to put my shoulder into it and give it my best shot.
Want to laugh? Go ahead. Want to sit there and whine and carp about how nothing will change? Go ahead. If that keeps you warm at night, go right on and keep doing nothing. But if that cocksucker Dogaru and his band of military thugs can armtwist a major political party into agreeing to dismantle the country, I figure it’s time to strike back from the other side. It’s time to get organized, time to DO something and time to show these motherfuckers who really counts – the millions of real people who get up and go to work and make Romania a better place and not these barons in Bucharest.
Just a few hundred meters from my house is a black stone plaque with the names of the men and women who were gunned down in 1989 in what was then known as “Piata Libertatii” (Liberty Square) in Cluj. They gave their life so that all of us could have a better one. And every single day, no matter rain or sun or snow or cold or heat, I touch that plaque on my way to work and say a silent prayer for those people.
I never met them. I do not know who they were. But one name on there, Marin Vergica, always touches me the most. Born in 1919 he was 70 years old on that cold and wintry day. He was born before the modern nation of Romania existed, lived through a king, a fascist dictator and then the long years of the Communist era.
Why was that old man out there in that square that day? Why was he protesting? Why did he risk facing those heavily armed troops? Why did he give the ultimate sacrifice, his life?
Only his family can answer those questions. But his courage inspires me. And while he did his part, now it’s time to do mine.
“Shoot them for they are not human beings!”
-Captain Carp Dando, Burtea division, ordering his troops to fire on unarmed demonstrators
21 December, 1989 at 3:45 in the afternoon