Anyone who has ever learned (or attempted to learn) another language knows that there are always some words and phrases that can never be translated properly. The Portuguese word saudade is a classic example, having much more depth of meaning and sadness than English words like “longing” or “melancholy” can adequately portray.
Today’s word, loitering isn’t a very deep or nuanced word, but it’s really hard for Romanians (and indeed the world) to understand the mindset behind it.
Simply put, loitering means to stand/sit somewhere for no good reason. What’s more, this is often a crime in English-speaking countries, something that’s simply unfathomable in Romania where public parks and benches exist everywhere precisely so that people can sit there “for no reason.”
Out of curiosity, I went over to Google Translate to see how they would translate “loitering” into Romanian, and the closest they could get was vagabondaj, which means “being homeless.” But in English-speaking countries, you don’t have to be (or look) homeless to get arrested for loitering.
In Romania, “loitering” is a pleasure and a perfectly normal thing to do. In English-speaking countries, it’s a crime. Why?
One of the strangest things about living, as I do, in the former Soviet Union, is just how strong an influence the Victorian Era of London had on this place. To understand that twisted path, it’s time to revisit a little bit of history.
The Industrial Revolution, always written with initial capital letters, transformed Britain. Throughout most of its history, 90% of Britain’s “industry” was growing, shearing, and exporting sheep products (including wool). The climate is simply too cold and too wet to do much else.
But once it was discovered that coal could be transformed into steam power to do work, everything changed. Britain, a few million years ago, had been a tropical paradise and thus had (and still has) enormous deposits of coal. Once the switch had been flipped to transform million-year-old compressed plants (coal) into actionable energy (steam power), factories began to spring up everywhere.
The net result of this was that a few cities (London, Manchester, Glasgow, et al) sucked up much of the rural British population and crammed them into truly horrific urban conditions. The cities also drew in tens of thousands of foreigners (who had neither passport nor visa) escaping revolution, pogroms, and poverty elsewhere until they were nightmarish monstrosities where death and illness were rampant.
Unless you were one of the lucky few to be rich, urban life was a living hell in Victorian Era cities. Children were maimed and killed, forced to work 60-100 hours a week in horrific jobs ranging from prostitution to coal mining. Families were squashed together in unsafe and dangerous tenement buildings, sharing one filthy squat toilet. There was no mercy for the old, the infirm, or the weak. You were lucky to live to age 40, and most people buried half their children before they were age 5.
Friedrich Engels, who later collaborated with Karl Marx to write Das Kapital, the founding document of the Communist movement that later led to the creation of the Soviet Union, first wrote a book called The Condition of the Working Class in England which you can read online for free. The book was based on his own eyewitness observations of life in Manchester in 1842-1844, and it’s a very grim read.
The first anti-loitering law in Britain was passed in 1824, and it was designed to give the police greater powers to repress poor urban people who greatly disgusted and frightened the upper class. Stealing and robbing were already crimes, but the anti-loitering laws were designed to arrest and get rid of people who just looked like they might be about to commit a crime.
One of the long-forgotten parts of urban life in Victorian Era Britian was the costermonger, poor urban people trying to make a little money by selling things via mobile carts. This offended the upper class who were used to making profits on exorbitant rents for shops, and so a long-running battle between the authorities and costermongers began.
Anti-loitering laws were perfect for cracking down on costermongers as they were in the streets for “no good reason”. The anti-loitering laws were later expanded to prevent everything from vagrancy (the “crime” of being homeless), soliciting prostitution, and even gang activity. Thus, slowly but surely, a philosophy sprang up in Britain (and later other English-speaking countries) that honest citizens had no reason to ever sit or stand anywhere without a “legitimate” purpose.
Simply put, in English-speaking cities around the world today, this means that being “idle” or sitting on a park bench for hours is considered suspicious at best, and criminal at worst.
This is in sharp contrast to the (non-British) European mentality that it’s perfectly normal and human to enjoy the weather, sit on a bench and daydream a bit, or stand around and just do nothing for a while.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!