I got a request to write something light and funny for the end of the year but that isn’t how it works. As Bill Hicks once said, the audience never respects the artist – they always treat you like a jukebox, where you put in a coin and order up what you want. That’s why there are four different “50 Shades Of…” books translated into Romanian getting dusty on the shelves at my local bookshop and men like Tom Clancy and John Grishman continue to prostitute their names to ghostwriters to make a few more bucks.
What’s actually on my mind as this strange and fantastical year comes to a close is a recent trip I infelicitously made to a local hypermarket called Auchan, pronounced one of five different ways depending on whom you ask, absolutely no one saying it correctly in the original French. There are plenty of hypermarket chains in Romania (if you’re American, think Wal-Mart) but Auchan is notably the messiest and most chaotic of them all – shelves stacked to the ceilings with cheap, Chinese crap and the entire store overlit with bright fluorescents.
It’s a miserable place and I try to avoid it but I was in the area and I needed one thing which I knew they would have on hand. So I braved my way through the hordes of post-Christmas shoppers, an endless stream of rosy-faced Romanians fingering and examining and pawing through the myriad of shiny baubles on display.
The store is enormous and wending one’s way through the overloaded shopping carts and screaming infants and shouting mothers takes a substantial amount of time. The floors are polished to a high sheen with some kind of reflective gloss that bounces the sterile fluorescent lights right into my eyes. The enormity of goods piled and stacked on every shelf all shout for attention, taking a huge chunk of my last remaining brain power just to sort and categorize, even though I have no need or desire for 27 kinds of ketchup. All of that combined with the near constant bing-bongs from the overhead PA announcements about clean ups in aisle 4 and special items on sale left me in a weakened and dazed state.
The eddies of the crowd currents pushed me up against a stack of boxes and I glanced down to see them – crates and crates of Bambino Party, the non-alcoholic “champagne” marketed for children. As the new year approaches, the store obviously hopes to sell several thousand bottles of this shit. And I sat there for a moment, buffeted by the competing crowd flows, and it came to me that this faux champagne with kid-appealing cartoon characters is really the epitome of what Romania has come to here in these last days of 2012.
You have to remember that I’ve been in this country for a bit more than 10 years, which isn’t all that long in the grand scheme of things but might as well be a century in terms of how much has changed in that time. Was it really 10 years ago when everyone was driving a Dacia 1310 and washing clothes by hand and no one had a credit card? Did all of this truly happen in such a short time? It seems impossible to believe and yet I witnessed it all with my own eyes.
“Bambino Party” is a combination of two words, the Party coming from English of course and Bambino from the Italian, meaning “child” (but not “children”). It’s manufactured by the Angelli corporation, which never hesitates to inform you that they make spumante (sparkling wines) and aperitive, all of which sounds Italian as hell.
Except there’s absolutely nothing Italian whatsoever about the Angelli corporation. They produce all of their drinks in an enormous factory outside of Bucharest. They are originally a Romanian company but now they’re owned by a German corporation (Henkell Sektellerei KG) which distributes this stuff all over Europe, up to and including parts of Italy itself. So it’s a German owned company which in Romania manufactures seemingly Italian products that, in this case, bear names in English.
I guess if I were a proud capitalist, this would be proof positive that the system is working, that a united economic zone of cooperation allows fake-o Italian drinks to be made in Romania and sold all over Europe for the greater glory and profit of a German firm. But to me it’s just proof that the entire thing is a colossal failure.
God knows how many thousands of children are going to covetously swig some Bambino Party this New Year’s Eve, feeling like they’re participating in an adult rite of passage, all without knowing that it’s a meaningless gesture, cheapened even further with a shit product made from artificial flavors and processed sugar.
And yet if I could poll those Romanian shoppers crammed into the aisles of Auchan next to me, they would tell me that Bambino Party was a good thing, tangible evidence that we’re headed in the right direction. After all, we’re all here shopping in a glorious, modern hypermarket! Look at all of the wonderful choices! And my goodness, can you believe the prices? So wonderful. So let’s crack open our wallets and spend another chunk of our pitiful salaries on this bauble of a bottle covered in bright cartoon animals so that our children can raise a glass to our shiny, wonderful life here in the corporate maelstrom of the majestic European Union in the year of our lord 2012!
Fuck that. And as much as I love Maramures and opinci and the old ways, those are the old ways. We’re not all going to move to the country and ride around on horse-driven carriages. And despite anything that Iliescu and CV Tudor and others say, nor are we going to return to the days of gigantic factories in cities, parades on May 1 celebrating the worker’s paradise and all the central planning of the Communist era. It’s fine to be nostalgic for the old days and to remember the good parts but the future is a bastard of a juggernaut.
But is Bambino Party really the best we can do? Is that really the best that Romanian society can produce? Is a kind of pseudo-adoption of the (perceived) best bits of neighboring cultures really the best we can do? If we drink “German” coffee and “Italian” champagne and eat “Swiss” chocolate and wear “French” perfume and blast endless streams of American Christmas songs and watch British films, then what? If we drive a German car and wear American shoes and have a gigantic Japanese television in our house, then what?
In other words, where exactly are we going? What’s the end game here? If the politicians quit lying and stealing and the IMF quits robbing the people and all of the salaries rise and malls full of expensive goods spring up in every city, then what? If all of those things happen and everyone has a wallet or purse stuffed full of cash, are we done? Have we arrived?
The problem with money and material success is that it is fairly good at minimizing suffering but it is horrendously ineffectively at making people happy. As I’ve said a billion times before, I’m quite aware that Romania the country and Romanians as individual people have suffered plenty in the past. I know many who suffer now. But an increase in prosperity that brings a reduction of suffering does not simultaneously produce an increase in happiness.
And that’s the dark secret that lies buried in every bottle of Bambino Party. You can ape the lifestyle and ways of those with money, or perhaps claw your way into a position to be a rich person yourself, but you can never manufacture happiness in a factory, in a brand-name shoe, in a shiny smartphone or in a luxury car. That has to come from somewhere else.
What is precious in life that cannot be bought? What about green places to experience nature? What about fundamental rights of the citizenry? What about free expression? What about privacy from the government? What about a fair and free vote? What about a fundamental right to influence a politician who claims to work on your behalf? What about a transparent judicial system? What about the freedom to organize and march and protest? What about help for those people who are old, or sickly, or are unable to take care of themselves?
Do these things matter? Or I guess I should ask, do these things matter more than a bottle of cheap pseudo-champagne for kids? Because we’ve got thousands of cases of crap drinks on sale and almost no free expression, almost no privacy, almost no fairness at the ballot box, almost no transparency in the courts of law and almost no support for the elderly and the needy.
I’ll feel a hell of a lot happier knowing that the hungry are fed, that the people are not scared of their government and that every voice can be freely heard than knowing that there’s yet another goddamn sale down at a foreign-owned hypermarket.
But hey, that’s just me. And while I’m a dreamer, I’m not a fool. I know I’m the odd one out in the mall, the lone freak who looks at all of that shiny shit and feels a great sadness in my soul. Everyone else is hurrying to push their overloaded cart past me down the ramp and crank up the car and fuck you, get out of my way and let the devil take the hindmost.
Paharul sus everyone and see you in the new year! :)