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.
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 :)