I know it is starting to sound repetitive but once again this was an amazing week in my life :P
I met all kinds of interesting people and had all kinds of interesting adventures and last night I was in a Hungarian bar here in Unicorn City, drinking with a bunch of Hungarians and laughing my ass off and having a wonderful time, which was especially fun because I don’t speak Hungarian and only one of them spoke Romanian so it was like a session of the United Nations after someone put LSD in the water, a mish-mash of communicating with hand gestures and languages I/we speak. Hilarious! :)
This week I also met a British man, who has an interesting story unto himself, but was talking with me for his upcoming book (in English), which will be a compilation of stories about foreigners who live here that have a deep connection with this country. He’s also interviewed several other interesting people, some of whom I’ve written about before and it sounds like it’s going to be a really awesome book. When it’s published and online (apparently it’s going to have its own website as well) I’ll definitely provide the link.
And this week I also met yet another Romanian who has been plecat putin p’afara, yet another person who spent 20 plus years in one of the “good” countries – in this case the United States – and has decided to move home and live here in Romania. At this point I cannot even count how many Romanians I know in this situation. There aren’t millions coming home so it isn’t going to reverse the population drain any time soon but it’s an interesting group of people. And it was and continues to be both a pleasure and an honor to be a kind of ambassador, welcoming them back to their homeland and assuring them that they’ve made the right choice.
And so once again, I had to ask myself, why is it that not just I but all these other people from various backgrounds, income levels, countries, family situations, religions, etc are all so positive about Romania and yet so few Romanians are? In other words, why we we in the minority and not the majority? It’s not just me living in some deluded fantasy world; I meet people every week who agree with me. So why are most Romanians so glum?
Well two unexpected things also happened this week that brought me some real insight into this question.
The first was that I went into a local shop, one of those ubiquitous little “food stores”, the kind where there is crap piled to the rafters on shelves and a woman (always a woman) behind the counter and you tell her what you want. Besides the clerk, the only other person in the store was an old Romanian woman, maybe about 60 years old, and she was loading up her shopping bag, ordering all kinds of stuff and fussing endlessly about how to slice the cured meat and what particular flavor of instant soup she wanted. I just went in there to buy a bottle of water and so I was standing there idly for a few minutes with nothing to do and so my lazy old brain had time to formulate a few thoughts.
I realized that if I were Romanian I’d probably be angry and aggravated that this old lady was taking her sweet blessed time and making me wait a long time just to buy a single bottle of water (which I had in my hand) and preventing me from continuing on my way. I also realized that another person might take offense to listening to this crabby old lady fuss and criticize and querulously order the clerk lady around. But I also realized that I wasn’t offended at all or put out at all even though I had somewhere I needed to be. So why would most people have been aggravated in that situation and I wasn’t?
The second thing that happened was that I watched a BBC documentary that had absolutely nothing to do with Romania. If you live in the UK, you can watch it “properly” here but if you’re like me and live outside of Britain you can watch a copy of it on YouTube. It’s a full hour but I definitely recommend watching it. The documentary tells the story of a British “bin man” (in USA English we’d call it a “garbage man”) who goes to Jakarta, Indonesia and for 10 days becomes a “bin man” over there in far more difficult circumstances.
Now what do those two things have in common? In the documentary, the British man goes to a very chaotic city full of desperately poor people and for 10 days lives just like they do. That’s the point of the series (the other “episodes” in the series are worth watching as well). But he manages to effect several positive changes simply because of his attitude. One of the changes is that he galvanizes his hosts to stand up to some local bullies who have bribed government officials to allow them to dump garbage (rubbish) right next to the tin shacks (literally) where the “bin men” all live.
And that’s the insight I received while I was standing in the corner shop and doing nothing for a few minutes. I already knew I had a different attitude and that it made my life in Romania largely positive but up until then I didn’t know why I had that attitude. For years people have been telling me that I’m positive because I’m foreign and I always thought they were wrong because there are lots and lots of times when nobody even knows I’m foreign.
People were wrong, in the sense that they couldn’t believe that people often mistake me for being Romanian, but they’re right in one very fundamental sense – I am positive because I am foreign. This is very important to understand. When I say “foreign” I don’t mean that my upbringing in America imbued me with some magical force of positivity. I mean that I can remain positive because I am foreign and therefore don’t take it personally.
Whether it’s sports or politics or other group activities, you often hear a lot of talk of “we” as in “we scored a goal” or “we started a war in country X” when in reality of course the people who are scoring goals or dropping bombs have literally nothing to do with you, the individual. You might all be citizens of the same country (or same city) but the people doing these things do not know you, have never met you and so are doing what they do with zero connection to you. But most people act as if there is that connection, that CFR Cluj is scoring a goal “for me” or that Barack Obama is dropping bombs “for me” or whatever the case may be.
And so if you think of yourself as Romanian and then some total stranger like an old lady in a shop is being a crabby old humbug and you think that she and you are a “we” and that what she does is affecting you personally then yes I can see why it’d upset you. The same as if you see someone spitting in the street or otherwise acting badly and this upsets you because somehow you feel they are doing this in your name, or in the name of Romania. If you consider yourself Romanian and then you see another citizen acting badly, it makes sense that you’d get upset because you feel like somehow they’re letting down the team that you’re on.
I understand that, I really do. I used to be patriotic in America as well and everything the government did was something I took personally, whether I supported it or opposed it. And when a country does well (like say wins a gold medal in the Olympics, natch!) then this kind of national patriotism brings a warm, fuzzy feeling. But when you see idiotic politicians and corrupt businessmen and gangsters avoiding jail due to a bankrupt judicial system, and if you take that as an affront or blight on your patriotism, then yes now I understand why it would depress and demoralize you. And why I, who am a foreigner even when speaking perfect Romanian, do not get affected by it, because to me the Sorin Apostus (the gangster ex-mayor of Cluj) of the world are not connected to me personally. It angers me greatly to see how they destroy my city but I never think of myself and them as being in the same group.
It’s easy for a British person who lives here to maintain that objective distance. It’s also fairly easy for Hungarians who live here to maintain that difference between what these criminal shithead Romanians do and what their own group (which has a few douchebags of their own) does. Mind you, again we’re all affected by what the stupid and the corrupt people do, the same way as I was held up in the store by this irascible old lady, but we don’t take it personally because we never think of them as somehow representing us. They are who they are and we are who we are and what they do may suck and be awful but it’s not an affront to my personal sense of identity. Does that make sense? I hope so.
When the American government drops yet another bomb on some innocent person, it angers me and saddens me but I never once think of it as “we”, as though I have any connection to it or responsibility for it. I don’t support it and I didn’t vote for it and I sure as hell don’t condone it so why am I going to think of it as “we” did something? We didn’t do anything – they did it and I most certainly did not, the same way that a team of hale and healthy athletes scored the fucking goal and sure as heck didn’t have any help or advice from me, eh? The team captain never called me on the phone and asked me for advice so their success (or failure) has absolutely nothing to do with me. And the stupidity and corruption and petty greed that goes on in Romania also has absolutely nothing to do with me.
The advantage of being a foreigner (such as the British “bin man” in Indonesia) is that you don’t even start by thinking that the wrongdoers are in the same group as you. When the Indonesian assholes start illegally dumping garbage (UK: fly tipping) on the street, the British guy never thinks “oh what those Indonesians are doing reflects on me because we’re in the same group”. No! Instead he looks at the situation on a moral level only – what they are doing is wrong and so it must be opposed. And as soon as he does that, it wakes up something in the Indonesian “bin men”, who realize that trying to fix what is morally wrong is more important than worrying about the fact that they’re all members of the same group (Indonesians).
Likewise when I called out Sorin Apostu on this very blog for being a dick and an idiot (before his arrest!) and then jeered at him in the courtroom during his first “arraignment”, I did this easily because it was such an obvious case of immoral and unethical behavior on his part. Yes, I live here and Cluj is my home and so what he does (or did) affects me but I never once thought of Sorin Apostu and me as being in the same group. His actions and decisions as mayor affected me but his criminal gangsterism doesn’t demoralize me on a patriotic level.
That’s a really key difference. And so I realized that in my life here, whether Hungarians, foreigners or “100% Romanians”, I always choose to surround myself by people of quality. Over the years I’ve met a few foreigners who were assholes, a couple of Hungarians who were insanely nationalistic twats and of course lots of negative, splenetic and surly Romanians. But those are the people I avoid and stay away from and instead I choose to surround myself by people from all groups, regardless of language or ethnicity or anything else like that, who are good people.
In other words, “my people”, the ones I’m “patriotic” about, do not all speak the same languages or look the same but have in common a positive attitude. And I leave all the idiots, the corrupt mafioso types, the greedy embezzlers and the righteous assholes, regardless of city or country of origin, to be in their own group separate from me. What Obama or Sorin Apostu or anyone does that’s wrong and immoral is terrible but I never let it demoralize me or consider myself to be in the same group as them. Why would I?
And so once you free yourself of this kind of “patriotic depression”, wherein you get demoralized by the actions of people you don’t know and whom don’t know you but are somehow in the same group as you, once you mentally separate yourself from what they’re doing, amazing things happen. Suddenly you can clearly see moral issues and know that the right thing to do is live your life the right way, and to surround yourself by others who do the same, and soon alll of you will be working and living to make this place better for everyone.
And so yes, for me as an American, it’s easy for me to adopt this foreign mindset, that what stupid Romanians do has no connection to me. But anyone can do it if they wish. Just pretend like you’re a “foreigner” in your own mind and that the only people who are “your people” are the ones you want to be in your group, the ones who make you laugh, the ones who cheer you up when you’re having a bad day, the ones who know you and care about you and make your life better. Be patriotic about those people and don’t include the corrupt morons who are ruining this country in your own group. They haven’t earned the right to be in your group! They don’t deserve to be in your group! And as far I am concerned (and you too I hope) they can all go to hell. To the devil with those people!
Because believe me, there are lots of good people here, from all nationalities and ethnicities and speaking all languages because I know them and I meet more every single week. We’re only in the minority because someone played a cruel trick on Romania long ago and convinced most of the population to include useless fools as being part of what makes up “we” when in reality they are the minority and so they are not us, they do not speak for us, they do not represent us and in no way have they ever demonstrated that they deserve to be included in our group.
Sorin Apostu and his ilk might speak Romanian, might have been born in Romania, might carry a Romanian passport but he isn’t one of us. And that’s why I don’t just say it but know that I am more Romanian than he is, because we, the positive, good, honest, moral people, we are Romania and he and all the corrupt, evil assholes can go fuck off. We are the ones who make this country a good place to live and so it is ours, not his. I don’t care what his papers say – he hasn’t earned the right to call himself a Romanian.
And once we all realize this then nothing can stop us :)