WHEN wandering through Europe I am always astounded to learn what my fellow citizens in an ever more united continent know about Romania. First, Count Dracula (thank you, Hollywood!). Second, Hagi – the footballer. And third, our ambassadors: gypsies and emigrants. A few better-informed foreigners might not try to maintain that Budapest is our capital.
Such clichés are unhealthy – when they are not actually wrong. At first one is tempted to spend an hour or more in explanation at the beginning of every new possible relationship. I turned these coins around and back again till they got dizzy. As did my listeners. I did it not out of a noble impulse of Romanian patriotism, but because I believed I owed that much to the people in whose country I was a guest. In the end, however, human nature (or mine at least) gets bored with repetition, so I ended up saying on several occasions that I was from New Zealand or Sweden – countries where no Dracula has ever set foot. ‘The story of the revolution’ in Romania – with all its subsequent dilemmas – was simply not succulent enough.
Romanians, on the other hand, are regularly presented with new translations of their reality from Western authors anxious to teach both the tough love of capitalism and survival techniques for the transition to it. Transition-fears; transition-problems and their solutions; how to save money; how to invest it… all are addressed in black and white. An aunt of mine bought such a book. By the time she finished reading it her fears, her problems, and their solutions, had already changed – ‘transitory’ by their very nature. She regretted the time and money wasted on such a useless lesson. Be reconciled then to a line of Eminescu (poet, NOT footballer): ‘What is a wave, passes like a wave’.
The truth is that to survive transition we all improvise, each in our own fashion. The older generations – educated in the spirit of one loaf a day (never more but at least never less) – can sometimes be caught shedding a nostalgic tear, preferring the brainwashing of the previous regime to an empty stomach under capitalism. And who can blame them?
The relatively young are tempted more and more to give up the struggle and look for fortune in the wider world of possibilities that the Western countries strangely enough represent for them. The very young – and this is a very striking phenomenon – find their consolation in a brand new mode of alienation comparable perhaps to that of drugs in America: the computer game. Enter an internet café in any corner of Romania and behind its blacked-out windows you will find children between the ages of 6 and 25 engaging each other in cyber firefights. Hour after hour, day in, day out. If you really want to believe in vampirism then this is one of its most energy-sapping forms – headquarters not in Transylvania, but in Silicon Valley.
There is also that category of young people who escape the horror movie of having to make a living in Romania for a few years by dedicating themselves to study. How do they improvise? Take some students from the Faculty of Letters in Bucharest. In 2000, around 20 of them set up the Poetry Library Project. They deposited their poetry books in the attic of the faculty building and so could read new books without having to go hungry. Everybody was welcome to participate on condition they bring new books. Feet on desks, smoking encouraged, the Dean displeased: but at least real reading and discussions were taking place.
Another way students in Bucharest survive ‘transition times’ is by finding consolation in the large theatre hall. It is just across the street from the building where they sometimes, inexplicably, torture you with a generative grammars course – generating a strong tendency to skip across the street to escape.
The very young find their consolation in a brand new mode of alienation comparable perhaps to that of drugs in America
Needless to say, few students can afford to buy a theatre ticket. Just to give some idea: a monthly scholarship gets you in four times, and if you spend it all on that… well, you will definitely lose some weight. So here are some methods widely practised by the poor but intelligent Romanian students who want to introduce themselves to the mystery of drama.
• Falsify your student card by replacing the name of the faculty you attend with the letters ‘ATF’ (Academy of Theatre and Film). Students from this faculty benefit from free entrance. So have I, for a couple of years.
• Too honest for that? Then leave your student card as it is but approach ushers with beseeching expression, explaining in low voice: ‘I am a student, you know.’ That translates automatically as ‘Penniless’. If the usher is nice enough, you are in. But do please note – the strict dress-code: never wear anything but dirty blue jeans, shabby shoes and a worn-out coat. The new pair of shoes you got for Christmas will damage your case.
• There is always the actors’ entrance at the back of the building. Open it five minutes after the play starts in a terrific hurry explaining that you have a walk-on part, while you disappear along the corridors. It works surprisingly well even when the play in question has no walk-on parts. And on this occasion you may look as glamorous as you can afford. Your aim is to reach the hall and take a free seat. Do be careful what doors you open: you can end up directly on stage. It happened to me once!
• Make as many ‘buddies’ as you can from amongst bankers and TV personalities. When you want to see that new play, give them a call. They always have invitations as their companies are show sponsors or potential sponsors. Feel free to wear your Christmas shoes and your best attire.
Speaking of which, it’s secondhand clothes we proudly wear. Not only are they cheaper, but when you recycle them you can feel superior to that hysterical army of buyers stampeding through the doors of Christmas sales in the West. And why help the business of some Italian or German who has a clothes factory somewhere in a remote Romanian village, hiring people without working licences, underpaying them and almost certainly paying no tax? Last but not least, if you want to look stylish under methods 3 or 4, do some searching in your grandmother’s wardrobe. Every couple of generations the fashions repeat themselves.
Another wider category of young Romanians aspires to leave the country in search of a better life. As we come around from the long sleep of communism, we discover that there’s a lot to wake up for. So we’re jumping on to buses, trains, aeroplanes, bikes, boats and horses in our joint assault on the West. We are in search of a miracle only to find that capitalism has hidden the miracle – in a supermarket. And by then we’re smitten: it is too late to want to believe in anything any longer.
We are only too aware of what the French newspapers and British news broadcasts have to say about Romanian immigrants. I know, I know: some Romanians do steal, some beg, some work without licences. The Metro in Rome is swarming with us. These are badbad Romanians. Others repair broken roads, build houses, clean hotel rooms. They baby-sit your children, they look after your old people. And these are also bad Romanians. Then, there are Romanians who come to study in Western universities, having won a scholarship (there is no other way). They too are equally bad. Tourists? Oh they are bad wherever they come from! No Romanian is good outside Romania unless she or he goes to Mozambique or is Eugene Ionesco and so ceases to be a Romanian. Otherwise they spread their disease of poverty among the healthy-wealthy people of the West.
It really doesn’t matter that most of us bother to learn the language of the country we go to, that we spend time in art galleries, and that we generally know more about the culture of our host country than anyone will ever trouble to learn about Romania. And it really makes no difference that the vast majority of us, whether consciously or not, have come because we want to know. Fifteen years. We aren’t supposed to be blaming communism any more. But it seems to me that the current debate about Eastern Europe adopts a very narrow paradigm: you have to discuss this relentless ‘transition’ and a presumed future of snug integration into the European Union. I would only ask – how surprising is it that four decades of forced abstinence (from thought, from freedom, from knowledge and from oranges) – have left us with quite an appetite? Is it translatable: the way we talk to the hungers that we are feeling?
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