With all due apologies to Longfellow, hardly a person is now alive who remembers that day in 1977 before the movie “Star Wars” was first shown in theaters.
Quite simply put, the studio bosses and everyone else expected it to be a moderately successful picture for children, at least enough to recoup the cost overruns that had crept in when the narcissistic director had insisted on filming in Tunisia. As we all know, it turned out to be the must lucrative franchise in film history and long lines to get into the theaters to see it cemented the word blockbuster in the English language.
Humans have a unique fascination with justifying after the fact, which in the case of Star Wars meant that a hell of a lot of brainpower was dedicated to explaining just why this one movie (and later its sequels) were so incredibly popular. The narrative that later unfolded was that George Lucas (the director) had been an apt pupil of Joseph Campbell and his (Campbell’s) works on mythology. Therefore, the story goes that Lucas, aware of Campbell’s masterful understanding of mythology, used classic elements of same as the framework of his story. This appeals to people on an unconscious level and thus the Star Wars franchise became universally appealing.
I’ve heard this explanation myself and read Campbell’s books, as well as the Golden Bough (written almost 100 years earlier) and other related material. What I can tell you is that the word mythology is a little difficult to understand, because it is often confused with myths, particularly myths from the Ancient World, such as Zeus and Apollo (Greece) or Thor and Loki (Scandinavia).
But nobody today finds much relevance in Thor or Zeus because societies today use a different mythology, which is a fancy way to say “stories that explain what’s meaningful to a culture”. As you might remember from my post The Ballad of Pangur Ban, the Greeks thought music and education about music were paramount. Clearly that’s not the case today.
It is far easier to dissect the mythology of an alien culture and far harder to understand the mythology of the culture you’re currently living in, sort of like the old joke about fish having trouble understanding what water is. But there is a shorthand way to graph it, one that’s fascinated me for years.
There’s a Greek word (in case you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s impossible to discuss anything of subtlety for long without encountering words of Greek origin) called a trope in English. In the classical meaning, it meant studying exactly what is meant by certain words or phrases. The more modern meaning is “a commonly recurring motif” or sometimes even a cliche. I however take a slightly different interpretation, which is that tropes are narrative conventions which inform the mythology of the prevailing culture.
I know people tell me constantly that I write posts that are far too long so let’s see if we can sum up what’s been going on so far so that we can move straight into discussing tropes. Any culture, including the one we all belong to, have certain beliefs about the way things are. Some of them are rather upfront and obvious (there are fundamental biological difference between men and women) and others are far more subtle and nuanced (skirts are clothing for women only, never men) and harder to perceive when you’re living in that culture. One way to enumerate and observe them is by studying tropes, which are narrative conventions.
The image here is not one common in Romania, for the obvious reason that few people with red hair exist here. But in countries where red-haired people exist, there is a long-running perception that they are of less value. The animated show Southpark did an entire show about this particular trope and lots of cliches in speech reference it as well.
Even a rudimentary understanding of genetics will tell you that red hair/being a ginger is a recessive trait and is quite distinctive visually. If you are a brunette (as are most “white” people), it’s common for many children to be blond or have variations of brown hair so a person with red hair is immediately identifiable as being genetically different. A red-haired child living in a brunette/blond family is therefore demonstrably not related genetically and thus may be subject to abuse or ostracism.
Again, some of these tropes are obvious even to an insider (Men are like X, Women are like Y is a standard material for comedy routines) but others, such as why a skirt is only for women, are not. In Scotland, for instance, the trope is that skirts (called “kilts”) are the epitome of manliness and any women who would’ve worn them would be guilty of cross-dressing. Whereas in Fiji the skirt (called a “sulu”) is an ordinary article of clothing for both men and women and part of the uniform worn by soldiers (even today).
What’s extremely important to understand about tropes is that while they exist and are used every day because “everyone knows them”, it doesn’t mean that they are true in some objective way. A man in Fiji wearing a skirt is considered a brave warrior while the same man walking down the street in Bucharest would be considered effeminate at best and dangerously homosexual at worst. Likewise a woman wearing shorts in Bucharest can be a demure, chaste woman while the same woman in Saudi Arabia would be considered a degenerate prostitute.
Now what in the hell does all of this have to do with Romania? Well the other day I did yet another interview in Romanian (it should appear on December 1, with links to be published here when/if that happens) and once again the questions put to me were eminently predictable because the tropes in this culture are so universally entrenched in people’s minds. I’m still happy to do these interviews though because I’m rather sick and tired of these tropes and love nothing more than going against the popular belief that all of these things are somehow inherently or “obviously” true.
In fact, they rarely are true at all! Some may be generally true but not one of them is irrevocably and eternally true. Values change, people change, societies change. And the first step to making them change is understanding that they can change.
So without much further ado, here are a few extremely common tropes you will find in Romania (see my post Das Gedankenexperiment about where some of these come from):
La Noi Ca La Nimeni
Summary: If something bad happens in Romania, it’s because it happened in Romania.
I’ve been writing about this one for a long time. If it rains and the sidewalks get wet, someone here is bound to say la noi ca la nimeni as though it doesn’t rain in other countries. If a politician lies, if it gets cold in the winter, if a train is running late, if a bird shits on your windshield, it’s always happening only because it’s happening in Romania because everyone knows that in other countries these problems never exist.
Summary: Romanian chicks are hot, yo!
The other week I was talking to a long-time foreign resident, a man in his mid 50’s, who had recently been interviewed by Romanian media about his multiple businesses here. And then out of nowhere, after the interview was over, the reporter suddenly asked him, “Do you think the women of Romania are beautiful?”
Yes. We get it. They’re super hot and beautiful and fit birds and stone cold hammers and sexy mammas and foxes and fly chicks and whatever other term is used to say “attractive”.
The Grapes of Wretchedness
Summary: Romania can’t be blamed for its problems today because in the past Romanians really suffered
Yes, the Great Depression never devastated the United States, Poland never had its capital razed to the ground by both the Nazis and the Russians, London and Coventry and other British cities never suffered the Blitz, France was never occupied, Germany was never firebombed, Japan never had two nuclear bombs dropped on it, Greece never had half of its population forcibly expelled, the Armenians never suffered a genocide and Spain never endured 40 years of a fascist dictatorship. Everyone knows only Romanians truly suffered in the past and their history is far, far more tragic and painful and horrific than everyone else’s.
Somehow though all of those other nations manage to buck up and get over it and succeed and do well in spite of a whole lot of shitty history.
Note: this is a special Romanian version of Godwin’s Law, where given enough time during a discussion, regardless of topic or scope, sooner or later a Romanian will inevitably blame all inabilities to solve current problems on Romania’s tragic past.
The Untouchable Golden Cup
Summary: Romanians are so fundamentally flawed that only a dictator can impose justice and equality
While the rest of the world thinks of Vlad “Dracula” Tepes as a demonic bogeyman, here in Romania he is considered as a righteous and just ruler, about whom many apocryphal tales are told. One involves Vlad leaving a valuable gold cup on the edge of a fountain in the main square in town, in effect daring someone to steal it. Nobody ever stole it because they knew that Vlad would find out and then punish them (drastically).
Mind you, this is a cheerful and wonderful story for Romanians because they all universally believe that they’re unable to govern themselves. Only a crazed dictator who impales people alive on sticks can force the population to be good and honest.
As I’ve written about before, the reason so many people hate Traian Basescu is because he refused to deploy the Untouchable Golden Cup during his first term as president. Right now very few people want Victor Ponta to do so but there are a few folks who still cling to the hope that some combination of Nastase and Iliescu will return to power and deploy it.
Everybody’s Got Nice Stuff But Me
Summary: Romania is a poor country and has no nice stuff, unlike the rest of the world
Categorically and utterly false, as Romania is far wealthier than 75% of the countries on the planet (using figures for GDP here) and is wealthier than 4 out of 5 of their neighboring countries. And yet all you will ever hear is “boo hoo, we’re so poor”.
This is because Romania only compares itself deliberately to the richest of the rich countries, such as Germany or Norway, and completely ignores any and all data about its own neighbors (Serbia), other countries with similar populations (Yemen – poor as fuck) or anything else that might be useful or relevant.
Instead, people in Baia Mare (population: 115,000) compare their income and earnings to people in London (13 million) or Berlin (6 million) when absolutely nobody who isn’t Romanian would even think to do so.
Note: This is related closely to La Noi Ca La Nimeni above when something is very good in Romania, perhaps even better than in wealthier, more “advanced” countries (like say, internet speeds) is dismissed and downplayed because it is forbidden to acknowledge that good things can exist in Romania.
Cele 9 Porunci
Summary: I don’t know what Moses did on Mount Sinai, but here in Romania there are only 9 Commandments
For those of you who are *ahem* a little rusty on the old Bible, the 10th Commandment everywhere else in Christendom is about not coveting (Rom: sa nu pofteste) that which your neighbor owns (ass, slave, woman, et al). Here in Romania that does not exist. You are not just permitted to covet what your neighbor has but encouraged to!
Furthermore, if you get a bit of money, it is your job to be as ostentatious as you can precisely so that other people can be coveting the shit out of you and what you have.
Note: When you go to a shopping mall or other upscale place, it is literally required that you dress up and display your most covetous clothing and accessories that you own so that fellow shoppers can properly covet you and wish they had what you had.
Summary: Gee whiz, automobile highways are swell!
I think many people are aware of the animated series of this name but Matt Groenig borrowed the title of his show from an exhibit at the World’s Fair in 1939 in New York. “Futurama” was a huge display that showed how the “future” was going to be, and the future was all about just how fucking wonderful a vast network of highways was going to be, all of them chock-a-block full of cars:
Futurama is a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country – across mountains, over rivers and lakes, through cities and past towns – never deviating from a direct course and always adhering to the four basic principles of highway design: safety, comfort, speed and economy.
Isn’t it wonderful? I wrote about this in my seminal piece Dezvoltare, which you can read at the link. Futurama made sense in 1939, before any nation had millions of cars on the road, and a vast network of high speed roads sounded pretty awesome and delicious.
But in 2012, people in America loathe and hate this system and often feel quite trapped and angry about it. It also kills millions of people every year and is the leading cause of non-disease death in most “developed” countries.
Despite this, all Romanians love, love, love the idea of Futurama and will do anything in order to have their own beautiful land criss-crossed by concrete highways spewing out clouds of pollution. Yeehaw!
Brenda’s Probably Dead
Summary: If it wasn’t for bad luck, we’d have no luck at all
In 1987, an actress named Elisabeth Shue and several younger children starred in a movie called Adventures in Babysitting. Shue (the babysitter) has to go rescue her friend Brenda but before she can do that, she and the kids encounter a number of unexpected problems, getting shot at by criminals, getting robbed of all of their money and being chased by the Mafia, amongst other things.
At some point Shue and the kids accidentally stumble onto the stage of a blues club, leading to a memorable song when they are forced to sing about all of their problems:
I got this call from Brenda. I went to pick her up.
Tire had a blow out and my mom’s car got shot up.
And these guys started to chase us.
There’s nights that you swear you were born to lose
and you wish your feet were walking in someone else’s shoes.
Some guys are out to get us and Brenda’s probably dead.
By the end of the movie, everything gets resolved quite nicely. They get their car fixed, the kids get home safe and sound and no, Brenda wasn’t dead. Romanians however love to “sing” the blues, or enumerate their problems, financial, medical and otherwise, in loving detail.
If you let them get on this topic too long, they are impossible to stop and will happily go on for hours about how it’s basically a miracle they’re even still alive, what with all the problems and suffering they endure, adding in lots of potential problems (what COULD go wrong) if the current ones aren’t sufficiently drastic or painful.
Note: Years later Elisabeth Shue would land a movie role where she plays a prostitute who gets gang-raped and falls in love with an alcoholic who drinks himself to death. And Brenda probably died too!
The Diseases, My Friend, Are Blowing In The Wind
Summary: Everything from AIDS to cancer to dengue fever is transmitted by moving air
Lord knows I’ve written about this in great detail in my most popular article ever, Choo-Choo! Riding the rails ROMANIA style, based upon my true adventures on Romanian railways.
Likewise, on any kind of public transportation, including buses and trams, as well as in taxis and other cars, Romanians truly do enforce the rule that all windows must be closed (unless it’s in excess of 35 Celsius) to prevent the spread of diseases transmitted exclusively via curentul or the draft/draught. Even when you’re the fucking paying passenger in a taxi, sometimes you have to argue with the driver to let him allow you to open the window a bit!
Note: This is also why Romanians wear a lot of scarves in the winter.
Gin and Juice
Summary: You got to get yours but fool, I got to get mine!
Good old Snoop Dogg (now Snoop Mountain Lion OSX 10.8) released a song back in 1994 celebrating his love of drinking (gin + fruit juice cocktails), the importance of focusing on personal finance and how enjoyable it is to have sex with multiple partners.
It’s a paean to his hedonistic lifestyle and one that’s likely quite appealing to many Romanians today as well. One line in particular, always struck me as particularly apropos:
Now that I got me some Seagram’s gin
everybody got they cups but they ain’t chipped in
A bottle of brand-name liquor is obviously somewhat expensive and so often several people will “chip in” or contribute money so that they can collectively buy it. However here Snoop is complaining that people have their cups out or want some of the liquor but yet have not contributed any money towards purchasing it.
Here in Unicorn City as well as just about everywhere in Romania you will see many very nice things that lots of people use and enjoy and “consume” but yet have made no contribution, financially or otherwise, to making them happen. The European Union in particular, but also many foreign charities and organizations have installed playground equipment, paved streets, modernized parks, provided medical care and many other wonderful things without Romanians doing almost anything. And yet Romanians continually have their “cups out” and want more.
Note: In any election season (such as the one we’re infelicitously in at the moment), politicians of all political parties openly run on Gin and Juice platforms, promising constituents tons of free “gin” (good stuff) without anyone in Romania having to pay for it or build it or do anything to make it happen whatsofuckingever.