Knowing is half the battle

They say that sometimes when a thief is caught, a whole series of crimes gets solved at once (and it happens in real life more than you might think). Last night I was lying in bed reading when I suddenly came across a reference to Herodotus discussing Transoxiana and I let out a tremendous shout and threw down my book, which badly startled my quite illiterate cats.

I know it sounds somewhat hyperbolic that I have so many “Eureka!” moments but that’s kind of how my brain works – nothing happens for a long, long time and then suddenly the pieces all crystallize in an instant and blind me with a small revelation. That discussion about ancient history in my book suddenly make me realize that while I live in Romania, which is considered to be in Europe, inhabited by people who look “white” or “Caucasian” or “European”, actually I live smack dab in the middle of a city in Asia.

It makes perfect sense, of course, once you stop to think about it. And when I say Asia, obviously I don’t mean the Chinese or Japanese part of Asia but rather what’s known in modern times as “Central Asia”, the enormous land of steppes still occupied to this day by horse riding nomadic peoples. And about a thousand years ago, two tribes of badass nomadic horse riders got pushed westward out of Central Asia by even more badass horse riding tribes and made their way into what today we call Europe. And even though they’ve been here ever since, neither one of those tribes ever forgot where they came from.

Of course! I should’ve realized this years ago. It’s obvious in about five fucking minutes that this country might be named after Rome but there’s nothing Roman about it whatsoever beyond the language. Are you kidding me? The ancient Romans were obsessed with roads, building roads, maintaining roads and good, quality roads while everyone here knows the roads in this country are crap. And so on and so forth, the more you know about Ancient Rome, the easier is to see that Romanians have nothing in common with them and I have a very strong suspicion that this is why classical literature (Christ! No Virgil? No Ovid? No Marcus Aurelius?) is ever taught in school here.

If Romanians want to believe they are descended from a handful of Roman conquerers, that’s fine with me. But it’s pretty damn obvious that during the incredibly long interval (275 AD to 1918 AD) of foreign rule that this entire region was dominated by Asian people – the Turks and the Hungarians. Even the Russians, who played a significant role in this country’s history (esp. in Moldova) were long ruled by Asians themselves. So while modern Romanians may continually look westward for cultural influences today, the roots of this country are all Asian from three separate sources.

And that’s quite important. I’ve been pondering for months and months exactly why Romanians are so fatalistic (as I’ve written about several times). Why are people in Spain and Italy and Greece always in the street protesting and marching and causing a ruckus and nobody in Romania ever bothers to get off the sofa? Why do Romanians never seem to care about the destruction of their lands, of their society, of their economy? Why do they keep electing buffoons to political office and never hold them to account? I’ve been wracking my brain all year because I could never understand it.

Even the Romanian national anthem, Desteapta-te, romane means “Wake the hell up, my fellow Romanian!” It was sung during the 1989 Revolution to try to wake up Romanians from their “sleep of death”. But it wasn’t written in 1989. It was actually written and first sung in 1848! That just goes to show you that for 150 years Romanians have been trying to get their fellow Romanians to quit being so apathetic and wake the hell up and do something. Clearly it’s not a new thing. And it turns out that huge swathes of the “Balkans” suffers from a similar kind of fatalism, where bad things constantly happen and people complain but they never quite ever seem bothered enough to do anything.

But once you realize that all these fatalistic people are living in societies with a cultural base coming from Asia, everything makes sense. Years ago I found both volumes (enormously thick books written in tiny print) of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” on sale for 50 cents apiece and I just could not understand it. Millions and millions and millions of Russians were forcibly enslaved under absolutely abysmal conditions, tortured or shot. The horror continues page after page after page until a kind of numbness sets in as you’re unable to process in your mind just how terrible it really was. And yet nobody really ever cared in Russia itself. Nobody cared after Stalin died. Nobody cared in the “glasnost” period under Gorbachev. And nobody cares even today. Solzhenitsyn’s books aren’t banned anymore and the gulag isn’t secret but just nobody cares, at least in Russia (of course misery pimps in America love to cry about it though).

And so this Asian fatalism (which I don’t have time to “prove” exists but multiple examples abound) explains a lot about Romania, especially two important cultural perspectives that I’ve encountered numerous times over the years.

Widespread Apathy

Obviously I’ve written about this dozens of times (as well as spoken about it on Romanian TV) and it still boggles my mind. Of course I don’t come from a fatalistic culture (one of the reasons so few Americans are Buddhists I think). No. In America we have the mentality that if someone tries to kill you, you try to kill them right back! Whereas here in Romania it’s more akin to “if someone tries to kill you, oh well, what can you do? Just lay down and take it”.

Think I’m exaggerating? Earlier this year my friend went to the Republic of Moldova and brought me back a banknote as a souvenir. On the face of this bill is a quote from a poem called Miorita. Unlike Ovid and Virgil and Herodotus, this poem actually is a mandatory subjects for Romanian students (and presumably Moldova Republic ones as well). I didn’t go to school here and so I was shocked to find out (Wikipedia in English on this here) exactly what this poem is about:

The setting is a simple one: three shepherds (a Moldavian, a Transylvanian and a Vrâncean) meet while attending to their flocks. An apparently enchanted ewe belonging to the Moldavian tells its master that the other two are plotting his murder and the plundering of his assets.

The shepherd replies that, were this to happen, the ewe is to ask his killers to bury his body by the sheep’s pen.

Do you get it now? A sheep (ewe = female sheep) tells the shepherd that these two other bastards are going to kill him so what does he do? Oh please bury me in this certain location. Not fight back! Not go kill these two other assholes first! No, please, please, if it doesn’t offend you too much, please bury me in a certain location. And this poem is so famous that it’s on the money in the Moldovan Republic and a required subject in Romanian schools.

This is the very definition of apathy. And whether I’m right and it’s Asian in origin or else it’s something in the water of the rivers that flow through the Balkans (which it’s not), now I understand for the first time exactly why people here keep getting screwed and yet never do anything about it.

No wonder people have been shouting at Romanians to wake up for 150 years!

The opposite of perseverance

I just spent about 10 minutes trying to find a proper antonym (a word that means the opposite) of perseverance or doggedness or stick-to-itiveness in English but I can’t find a suitable word beyond “irresolution” which is unsatisfactory to me.

Nonetheless, I’ve noticed that any time Romanians encounter an obstacle or a difficulty, they immediately give up and quit. If there’s a problem and it blocks their forward path, they just sit down and complain instead of persistently trying to succeed and find another way around. It’s almost like they expect to fail and so when they do fail they just go “yep, just like I thought, it failed” and so they quit without even trying.

Just as a tiny example, I know a Romanian who bought a bar, one that was already set up and running (and making money). And in just a few weeks he started having problems with some of the staff and then not as many customers were coming in. What did he do? Did he get inspired to make changes? Did he get motivated to work his staff to get better results? Nope. He sulked in the corner and got drunk and then disappeared for a couple of weeks and then a couple of months later he sold the bar to someone else. He quit as soon as he encountered the first problem instead of being persistent.

So there you have it, a small footnote about the ancient region of Transoxania reminded me of a time years ago when a friend of mine from Turkey ran into another friend of mine from Kyrgyzstan and they discovered that they could understand each other fairly well when each of them spoke their native language. At the time I was mystified. Bishkek is 3,700 kilometers away from Istanbul, so how in the world could these two languages be mutually intelligible?

And of course my Turkish friend explained it to me, as it is a source of their (mostly bullshit) nationalistic pride, and then later I moved to Romania and met all sorts of Hungarians (visiting here from Magyorszag) who laid all of their patriotic and nationalistic stuff on me (mostly bullshit as well) involving mystical reindeer (et al) but until last night I never put the two together.

I just can’t believe I never saw it before. Romania’s own brand of nationalistic bullshit tends to cloud your vision, especially as they’re always talking about and dreaming about and flying to countries in the west and learning western European languages and it’s the only thing on the newscasts and in general they act like Bucharest is somewhere between Milan and Nice but in reality we’re deep in the lands of former Asian nomads, who brought a lot of their culture with them, including a deeply ingrained sense of fatalism and widespread apathy.

So yeah, it looks like it’s me and Viviane Reding and Andrei Muresanu and a whole lot of resident foreigners (from “western” lands) on one hand, who believe in this country and really like it here and want only the best for everyone and on the other hand a few million helpless victims who read poems about their upcoming murder and their sole response is to ask to be buried in a decent spot. So now I’m starting to see this is going to be quite an uphill struggle to galvanize anyone around here to finally do something.

Still though, as G.I. Joe taught me, now I know. And knowing is half the battle :)

16 thoughts on “Knowing is half the battle

  1. Thanks for the post. Reminds me that the reasons gymnasts from certain countries seem to give up so easily instead of fighting tooth and nail to stay on the balance beam like others. Romanians are very good at the apparatus but like the Russians, it seems that when they get just a little off they jump off as if the beam were on fire.


      1. Sorry but by the tone of your post I assume you think Romanian gymnasts are better than Americans? That’s fine, because historically you are correct, but considering only the last year we have the team champions, the all around champion and a floor champion versus Romanians getting first at nothing, I say Americans win (not by this alone, but without going into details). Now besides that I am a huge fan of Romanian gymnasts (which has brought me to this blog…). Now without turning this into a gymnastics fight, try to look at what I am saying. This post does a very good job at highlighting differences culturally between nations, and I simply drew a similarity between sport and culture. I’m sorry if you found this offensive, but just saying something such as “this is funny” doesn’t prove anything. Just to be clear I am a huge fan of Romanian gymnasts, but I try to be objective when it comes to country. I have favorites all over. Anyway thanks again Sam it was a good post (gymnastics or not).


  2. You know, I was always intrigued that Mioriţa doesn’t actually tell us what really happens in the end with the three shepherds. All we know is that two of them plotted the third one’s murder and the potential victim, after getting to learn this piece of information, has practically started to draw his will in respect to his mother, his burial place, etc. which he entrusted to his faithful sheep. Well, how do we know that things really happened the way it looked like they’ll happen? How do we know the two murderers didn’t encounter on their way to the killing spot a bear or a pack of wolves? How do we know the Moldavian shepherd didn’t find the inner strength to fight back and even overcome his aggressors just in the right moment? We don’t. All we have in Mioriţa is only a description of a possibility not an actual occurence. We don’t know whether the Moldavian shepherd meekly surrendered to his fate. Let’s leave it like that for the moment. There is another anonymous poem, also mandatory to be taught in schools (at least, it was in my schooldays). It’s called „Toma Alimoş˝. In this case, the main hero’s death is actually described in gruesome detail. But how does he die? Pursuing his enemy until he kills him, in despite of being himself grievously wounded. The poem even ends on a hopeful note as the hero’s horse goes to find his fellow fighters and resume the fight against the oppressors.

    On one hand, Mioriţa isn’t the only poem that Romanians have. So many of them speak about fighting against injustice, about our national outlaws, about freedom and hope. Therefore, I don’t think it’s fair that we should take Mioriţa as being the perfect mirror of the Romanian psyche. Take, for instance, “La chanson de Roland”. What should I think reading this poem about the French’s ancestors? That they were so ashamed that the Frankish rearguard was ambushed in the mountains by the basques on their way back from Spain that they had to make up a whole heroic fiction, involving saracens, traitors and heroically fighting to death rather than calling for backup?

    On the other hand…I personally see no shame in the Moldavian’s shepherd’s attitude. Why? Because I see no shame in the behavior of those early Christians brought to face lions for the Romans’ entertainment, either. Whatever he did and for whatever reasons, there’s no apathy (otherwise why the heck would he plan his burial in so many details? Who cares what kind of flowers or flutes will adorn his grave?) and no cowardice whatsoever (What could have been easier for the shepherd than to hit the road as soon as he heard about the plot?). So, my dear countrymen, have some faith. Mioriţa speaks about calmly and wisely accepting death when there’s no other choice but Toma Alimoş, Iovan Iorgovan and so many others speak about fighting when there is a chance.

    And speaking about Asian roots…you know, when the Turks and Hungarians came into these lands and established their ruling here, I like to believe that they didn’t find a completely empty space. We (our ancestors, more to the point) were already here. So, our roots, may they be Thrakian or Latin, are NOT Asian. We may have got grafted some Asian branches on our national tree throughout the centuries but our roots aren’t Asian. I was told by a well known historian I met by chance that, judging by my appearance and surname, I may very well have Hungarian ancestry, although all my family hails from Muntenia. So what? I’m Romanian and I’m not particularly interested to find out whether I have Romans, Hungarians, Turks, Greeks or Patagonians among my ancestors. And I’m not particularly interested to look westwards for cultural influences, either.

    And talking about perseverance…My favorite historical character’s motto was “It’s not necessary to hope in order to undertake nor to succeed in order to persevere.” The result? A disaster so great that it changed forever the history and the map of the Western Europe. So, it looks like apathy may be translated sometimes with wisdom and perseverance with recklessness.

    Sorry for the long post. But the news that Viviane Reding loves so much Romania have just hit me upside the head and got me dizzy. Wow. While I’m still expecting her to come and arrest me for actively supporting by means of vote a gang of people who engineered a “parliamentary coup d’etat”, an illegal action as defined in every textbook, I’d like to tell her stories about an EU member state that was almost put by OECD on their list of tax havens (when they had one) where loads and loads of EU money, including from Romania, are getting siphoned every day. Guess which country (or Great Duchy)?

    P.S. By the way, I don’t know about today but in my schooldays a lot of classical literature was taught, for instance Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Antigone, Plautius’ dramas, Ovid’s “Ponticele” not to mention “Gilgamesh” or “Sakuntala”.


    1. 100% de acord cu ce ai spus si cred ca e foarte binevenit lungul tau comentariu; nu pt Sam (sincer, nu prea imi pasa ce crede el) ci pt compatriotii nostri care se pot lasa influentati de “revelatiile” lui.
      Se mai pot aduce diverse argumente, dar exista unul simplu, evident si care rezulta dintr-o logica elementara: nici una din natiunile existente in Europa nu este apatica si submisiva in structura ei pt simplul motiv ca daca ar fi fost asa n-ar mai fi aici. Toti au trebuit sa lupte crancen pt a exista.


      1. Multumesc pentru aprecieri! Ai perfecta dreptate; Evul Mediu timpuriu, mai ales, a functionat dupa principiul “Pestele cel mare il inghite pe cel mic” iar formarea statelor si a natiunilor a implicat o absorbtie puternica de teritorii si populatii. Noi am rezistat, nu la 200 de ani de istorie ci la 2000.


    2. As usual, Sitara, quite a coherent and and analytical post.
      Your analyses usually come out to complement or clarify Sam’s posts quite nicely. Always insightful to read :)
      Just had to mention it.


  3. Sam, ma bucura sa vad ca ai descoperit adevarata origine a romanilor. Oare logica ta nu poate fi extinsa pana intr-acolo incat si spiritului nostru caracterizat de “fatalism” ii poate fi descoperita originea? Intreb, nu afirm. Oare atunci cand popoarele “badass” din Asia au navalit pe meleagurile ocupate de stramosii nostri, crezi ca nu s-au gasit oameni sa lupte impotriva ucigasilor lor? Oare cei “badass” nu erau mai bine pregatiti pentru ucis decat romanii? Daca da, atunci cei care au supravietuit au fost cei slabi de inger, lasi, supusi, etc., nu? Stramosii nostri, nu?

    Comparativ, cine sunt americanii? Urmasii vest-europenilor plecati de buna voie sau de conjunctura, unde? Intr-o zona unde localnicii erau prea lenesi ca sa exploateze bogatiile si sa se apere impotriva ucigasilor veniti de peste ocean? Sa fie coincidenta, toti cotropitorii vin din Est?

    Atunci te intrebi, oare romanii nu sunt cumva urmasii celor cotropiti dar care au supravietuit pana in ziua de azi, pe cand americanii sunt urmasii cotropitorilor care nu au mai lasat nici urma de cei cotropiti? Intreb, nu afirm!

    Acum, te intreb, oare toti romanii sunt asa cum zici tu? Nu esti chiar tu putin fatalist sugerand ca toti romanii sunt fatalisti, “adormiti”, etc.? Cine a preluat barul acela? Daca barul inca mai exista si e condus de un roman caruia cu siguranta i-au iesit probleme in cale dar care a mers mai departe, nu e acela contra-exemplul teoriei tale?


    1. Pe mine ma (semi)amuza sa vad ideea asta recurenta a lui Sam conform careia autorii clasici nu sunt predati la scolile din Romania, in conditiile in care o treime din locuitorii SUA nu sunt in stare sa-si indice pe harta propria tara. Ba chiar unul din candidatii la postul de vicepresedinte al SUA credea ca Africa e o tara! :-D
      Despre restul ce sa zic… concluziile lui Sam se datoreaza tocmai faptului ca propriile lui cunostinte istorice sunt extrem de sumare. Ca majoritatea americanilor crede ca lumea a inceput o data cu SUA si din cand in cand mai afla cate o “noutate” gen gaura de la covrig care li se pare ca lamureste definitiv problema. Asta pana la urmatorul covrig.


  4. You should think twice before embracing the so called science from the video in the comments. The Almighty Romanian Protochronism! Just saying…


  5. Ei bine mi se pare de necrezut ca nu stiai (ori ca ai aflat atat de tarziu) de Miorita si de fatalismul care ne marcheaza, exprimat prin ea. “Miorita” e considerata o valoare culturala si in Romania nu doar in Moldova. Cred ca si acum exista in cartile de romana si copiii invata despre ea.

    Nu stiu daca presupunerile tale ca Romania -ori teritoriul pe care se afla tara facea partea din Asia Centrala odata – sunt plauzibile, dar pot sa-ti spun ca la aceeasi concluzie (ca nu ne tragem din romani, cum ni s-a bagat in cap dupa 1848) a ajuns un grup de oameni de stiinta si cultura romani . Acestia si-au exprimat parerile intr-un documentar pe care il gasesti pe youtube in doua parti numit “Dacii – adevaruri tulburatoare”. Iata aici link-ul pt prima parte:

    E f interesant cum explica ei originile limbii romane si concluzia la care au ajuns – cum ca latina (sau o forma mai indepartata) se vorbea pe teritoriul tarii inainte de invazia romana. Hope you enjoy it.

    Si multumim pt toata zbaterea asta la care te supui ca sa ne intelegi cultura si atitudinea.

    Te intrebai de ce dupa toate atrocitatile comise pe teritoriul Rusiei, despre care ai citit in Arhipeleagul Gulag a lui Soljenitin, rusii nu au luat vreo atitudinea nici pana in ziua de azi. Tot asa ma intreb eu de ce aici in US se sarbatoreste Columbus Day dar nu exista nicio zi in care se se fie comemorati Native American Indians carora nu numai ca li s-au furat pamanturile dar au fost aproape exterminati dupa venirea albilor.


    1. Poate ca n-au aflat inca cu ce intentii a pornit Cristobal Colon spre America. Jaf, cu binecuvantarea si in profitul Majestatilor lor catolice. Dar, in fine, cum banuiesc ca victimele sus-zisului jaf au fost tot bietii oameni pe care i-ai mentionat tu, chiar nu prea vad de ce si-ar aduce aminte urmasii colonistilor de treaba asta. Ba inca bietele populatii native ar putea sa multumeasca lui Dumnezeu ca n-au avut rezerve de latex sau lemn pretios ca vecinii lor de mai la sud, altfel lucrurile ar fi iesit si mai urate. Cine-si mai aduce aminte acum de marile populatii amazoniene, de marile natiuni mura si boca negra? Ca sa-mi raspund singura la intrebare, cineva tot si-a adus aminte. Propaganda comunista. Ta-daaa! Culmea ironiei, nici macar n-au trebuit sa minta atunci cand au prezentat partea asta a “binefacerilor” occidentale. “tavalindu-se pe jos de ras” Ce-mi place sa-i vad incaierandu-se…


    2. Tot filmul ăsta e un bullshit făcut de oameni care n-au citit nici măcar a zecea parte din ce trebuie să citească un istoric înainte de a îndrăzni să scrie despre ceva ce s-a întâmplat în trecut. Entuziasmul nu suplinește știința. Singura chestie care mi s-a părut interesantă e analiza genetică a rămășițelor celor îngropați acum enșpe mii de ani, care n-a revelat decât ceea ce mulți istorici serioși deja bănuiau de mult (Constantin C. Giurescu, printre alții): că din punct de vedere genetic suntem mai degrabă urmașii dacilor decât ai romanilor. Asta nu face însă din limba română o limbă de origine dacică (asta e o afirmație atât de idioată, încât nu mă pot împiedica să râd când o aud). Limba română e o limbă romanică, dacii s-au romanizat. Limba dacă nu semăna deloc cu limba latină, orice lingvist cu știință de carte poate demonstra asta. Și o ultimă chestie: de când au devenit generalii, niște amatori cu lecturi sumare de istorie, atât de mari specialiști în subiectul ăsta? Să fie o moștenire de la Ilie Ceaușescu și gașca lui de istorici militari veseli, care spuneau că limba română era deja formată în momentul retragerii stăpânirii romane din Dacia? (Altă prostie imensă!)


  6. Great post Sam. The “Aha! effect” when true learning and understanding becomes wisdom! The enlightenment!

    Keep chipping away Sam, inch by inch is a cinch but yard by yard is very hard! If you can change but one Romanian, you have changed his and his children’s world forever.


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