Lately I’ve felt like a priest, going to visit the sick to sit with them a while and offer them comfort. An old friend of mine and her husband caught a nasty virus while working in England and now they’re back home to rest and recuperate. Was the money there good? Yes, but both of them are still glad to be home, their illnesses notwithstanding.
As I left their house, I saw a protest in front of a hospital, the employees demanding better wages. Across the street in a rusty Dacia jacked halfway onto the sidewalk sat two cops, one idly reading through a sports newspaper. Further down the street, construction was underway at one of the university’s biggest buildings but when I glanced up I saw six workers standing idle, only one man working, slowly emptying a bucket of rubble into the back of a truck.
I think what I love the most about Romania is the human pace here. There are always people sipping on their drinks at a cafe, always a child playing in the park, always an elderly woman calmly digging in her garden on a warm day. Nothing ever seems to get done, no one scurrying down the sidewalk to catch a bus, no one cracking the whip – and yet somehow this country meanders on, having nearly completely re-invented itself before my eyes in the short time I’ve lived here.
People work here, but never too hard. Doctors protest about the low pay but always find time for a cigarette. It’s only when they go abroad in search of money do they find out just how inhuman the pace of progress can be. “But isn’t the NHS medical system in England better?” I ask my friend. “I saw three doctors,” she tells me, “and each one was in a hurry. They nodded and then gave me a prescription for antibiotics, which did nothing for me.” Here in Romania she’s about to start a treatment that will last four weeks. “Maybe even longer than that,” she says, confident that such a lengthy and strict regime will definitely cure her.
My landlord is a sweet lady who breaks into an enormous smile when her kid speaks a few words in English to me. Mom’s busy working on a nursing degree and so sometimes she forgets to collect the rent for a few weeks. Sometimes I have to call her and tell her to come get it so I don’t get tempted to spend it. But they always have time to coo over one of my cats, the little girl grinning when I too chime back in Hungarian, “Igen, szep macska” (yes, she’s a beautiful cat).
The neighbor down the street, eternally renovating his house, calls out to me when he sees a piece of paper slip out of my bag. “Thanks!” I shout. “N-ai de ce,” he says, the same familiar refrain I’ve heard from hundreds of people over the years. “Nothing to thank me for” is what they always say when I acknowledge their kindness and generosity.
I remember years ago visiting a friend’s house. We were hungry and so we began to hunt through her kitchen, looking for ingredients. We had everything necessary to make a lovely old Italian pasta dish but were missing one ingredient. “No problem,” I said as I made my way through the labyrinthine footpaths to the corner shop.
On my way back I got lost, confused by the forest of identical grey blocuri. I looked up and saw an old lady leaning over the rail of her balcony. Without saying a word she pointed. All along she’d been tracking me. “Thanks!” I called out, getting only the slightest nod of acknowledgement in return.
“Watch out,” the handwritten sign warns me, “plaster falling from above.” And it’s true, the facade of the faded yellow building slowly being worn away by the wind and the rain. On no street in Romania will you ever find two houses that are alike. Even the ugly gray blocuri are weathered, their angles softened, their lines sagging and curving. If there are engineers in this country, they are human too, with nary a straight line to be found anywhere.
Nothing here is ever precise, built to inhumanly perfect standards. On paper, everyone here works 40 hours a week even though some days are filled with gossip and smoke breaks and other days last long into the evening. If you arrive late in the morning, the boss will know, but there’s always time for a cup of coffee before you have to knuckle down and actually get some work done.
The woman at the corner shop flings water from an old cola bottle onto the sidewalk, wetting down her patch of the sidewalk so that she can clean it. And yet it looks the same as any other meter of the pavement, lumpy and bumpy, cracked and gray.
Her shop is a capitalist enterprise and yet there’s no name above the door. It just says “magazin alimentar”, just like her neighbor’s “fructe si legume”. Only when I squint at the crookedly hung certificate on the wall do I realize that her business actually has a name. For me and everyone in the neighborhood, it’s just the corner shop, where you can always get a full helping of gossip and news along with your bread and milk.
Outsiders tend to focus on the corruption in this country without realizing where it comes from. Things are “black and white” on paper but in Romania everything is a human transaction. Sometimes the rules are a little too stiff. Sometimes the regulations are too stifling. There’s always a way around, a possibility of a detour, a way to catch a break. Sometimes money changes hands but sometimes it’s just a question of human understanding, the person in front of you sympathizing with your situation.
Last week on a sunny and windless day the electricity in my bloc cut out. My neighbor, an immigrant university student from francophone Africa, knocked on my door, wanting to know if the electricity was out in my apartment too. “But why did it stop working?” she asks me, the anxiety clearly visible on her face. “No one can say,” I tell her. “This is Romania. Sometimes there is no reason.”
“But when will it come back?” she asks me. “When God wills it,” I tell her with a smile.