Monday, December 17, 2007

It's Snowing Like Christmas Cards



It's less than two more shopping weeks till Craciun.

Little children are on their best behavior. An unwashed gypsy boy no more than ten stands in the middle of Strada Glinka at rush hour cradling a tiny lamb in his arms for city dwellers and small children in cars to stop and pet for a few RON (bani) (money) donation, of course.

The nearly biggest Christmas tree in all of Europe - well they missed it by a few meters according to one of the "investigative" newspapers - is aglow right in the middle of the biggest shopping center.

Everyone in all the offices is biding time and imitating working as they secretly scheme to leave at three to get to any mall in Bucharest traffic and home on the same day.

I know that this year I will be without family and hearth. No chestnuts roasting by any familial open fire. Yes, friends, of course, but here, like there, this is the holiday for family trees. Still, with all the red and green, all the cushy-warm Christmas commercials to rub your hands together in front of, even the family umpah band playing Oh Come All Ye Faithful and Away In A Manger yesterday outside the eventide bloc, it's hard to ignore the ho-ho-holiday spirit.

Almost perfect.

But there's just been one thing missing. Until now.

I looked up from my screen out of the window that faces the parc between the back of the blocs, and it was snowing like Christmas cards.

The big fluffy flakes that 1st graders draw in their coloring books, no two alike, like fingerprints, if you could only get them to hold still long enough to get the ink rollered on without melting their identity all over the Ident cards.

From this post-socialist country that never tore down all the churches, may the old guy in the red suit (Mosul Craciun) find your balcon and fill it with your heart's desires.

Fericit Craciun, to all and one. And to all o noapte buna. (a good night.)

Snowing Like Christmas Cards


The Politie (police) delivered my driver's license to the US Embassy. And it is in my hot little hands, er, wallet even as I type.

My plot to call American Citizens Services at the embassy every two days or so, asking if the license had arrived yet, obviously paid off. First, they found it. Secondly, they didn't send it to Arkansas where I won't be for a long, long, long, did I mention loooong, time. Or probably ever again.

And, third, when I stepped up to the window at the embassy to say I was there to retrieve my license, the sweet man there, who obviously recognized my voice, (which was my evil plan all along) said, "Oh, did it finally come in?" It did. Yay!

Am I driving differently now that I know how long it takes to get your license back? Yup!

Am I now carrying a photo copy of my license instead of the real thing? You betcha!

SES provided by distance learning technology group.

Friday, December 7, 2007

I Love A Parade

Bucharest 1 Decembrie 2007

Ok, I admit it. I’m a parade junkie. I’ve stood sidewalk New York vigil under the dirty patched inflatable gigantathon rubber and helium cartoon characters and floating super heroes du jour on the all-American over-eating day, at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Believe me, the balloons look better on tv!

I’ve shivered in near 51 degree (Farenheit) January’s Southern California frost in Pasadena, awe-ing and ah-ing at the most amazing things they can do with flora and fauna at the Rose Parade.

I’ve seen the ball drop on New Year’s Eve (Revelion) in Times Square, and been terrified when the crowd decided to move, and you moved with it, or risked a trample.

Once of each was enough outdoor exposure to give me bragging rights for attendance at the USA’s biggies.

But I’ve also spent many a spring, summer and autumn criss-crossing the states, and when I’m on the road at any random holiday, the draw of small town America celebrating pulls me in like a 5 pound bass on 25 pound test line.

I love an American parade. I’ve paused in Iowa and Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Kansas, Virginia and Nebraska, among others, to take in the line of tractor, hay wagon, dignitaries wearing convertibles and imitating the Queen of England’s wave. I’ve seen Founders’ Days and Independence Days, little shapeless five-year-old adora-belles in pink leotards and net tutus tapping or twirling their way to hometown recognition from the local jazz-tap-ballet studios, and cub scouts, boy scouts, eagle scouts with badges and sashes on parade to celebrate ground hogs, and Halloweens, state fairs and new mayors, veterans in proud, rusty medals, and local high school drama clubs/girl scout troops, YW&MCA’s adorned and bedecked in occasion-matching outfits. Pilgrims and witches, though not necessarily in the same parade. And the fire truck, if it’s a really small town. Or the fire trucks if the county is involved. And wonderful and awful high school bands oompahing marches something near Sousa, or definitely Sousa-like. And dogs in big collars, and sometimes, in the western states, horses draped with more silver than a Tiffany display case.

It’s always a treat. It’s always a proud occasion.

So when I was invited along to spend a Saturday morning on the 1st of December seeing the Romanian National Day Celebration Parade march down Bul. Kisseleff to the exact duplicate of the Arc de Triomphe (Arcul – The Arch) that Bucharestians revere, you betcha I accepted. Yet another chance to compare country attitudes, actions and traditions, spend a sunny, winter day in the brisk air, cheer some passing populations, go to the after-carnival and eat delicious things that taste better the worse they are for you. Sure, who wouldn’t have accepted eagerly?

Nooooot exactly.

First of all, it’s a military parade.

Any decent Ex-communist country would surely know how to throw a line of cannon in to a row. And I had already seen this self-same martial art practicing on the street I traverse daily to biroul (the office) two days before. I just didn’t know that this would be the only contingent.

As we approached, my companion began to comment on the crowds. Startled by so many. This was not a mandatory meet. It was not a communist compulsion. This was a voluntary event and the streets were lined 3-5 deep with on-lookers. Obedient children were everywhere. Waving their curiosity like the small blue (albastru) yellow (galban) and red (si rosu) government giveaway flags that sprouted everywhere.

A previous parade under the dictator was a very different spectacle. “People had to be here then?” I innocently asked, trying to penetrate the atmosphere and match it to anything I knew from life as an oblivious American. “More than that.” I was told. “There were sign-in sheets for everyone. They would take attendance. And they would check, sometimes as much as six times during the event, just to make sure you didn’t leave. What’s a spectacle without adoring crowds?”

But today was different. It was a quiet orderly assembly of people finally experiencing that the honor was theirs. Not imposed. Not required. This was the first year that Romania was a member of the European Union. And the back of the free flags sported the blue field with the now-familiar golden ring of stars. And Romanians belonged. Now they brought their children. Because it was a nice day. Because it was a good activity. But something bigger. The pride was palpable.

After September 11th in the US, parades like this would have brought on cheers. Loud applause would ring over the streets, raining down appreciation on the heads of all the uniformed participants for their service to town and country. On this initial December National Day, there was no applause. It felt to me like it felt to them that it would be rude. And this was not a day to dishonor.

“Why is it” I posited “that when the boys plan the parades, they always bring out their war toys?” The response was a logical surprise. “Oh, no, you really don’t understand. It was the military that stood with us and supported the Revolution. Without them, we would not have been successful.”

The President spoke, of course, though we were far too far down, finding a tiny slice of view to hear him. And the tanks, and rocket launchers, some dressed for forests, some for deserts, the jeeps and vans and cycle patrols rolled past to a crowd that drank in the representation and protection that this tiny 21 million strong, ever-conquered country now counted on to keep history from repeating itself.

But at the end, there was no carnival. No hot dogs, or locally made popcorn balls in colored cellophane. No rides or ping pong ball tosses for prizes of goldfish you would name “Richard” or “Amanda” and who, three days later would be floating belly-up in their bowls. No recruiting booths for the local volunteer fire-fighters, or the armed services. Just an orderly egress. People still waving their paper emblems, a little, or wearing like shawls the full size flags they’d brought from home.

I wish words were better at catching the intensity of the feeling of that crowd. There was a rock solid comraderie, a human union, a silent, appreciative coming together to celebrate that now there was an independent Romania. And that it was at last advanced enough to join the club of independents that is becoming the European adhesive.

I guess you have to have lived through being a captive to really know what it is like to be free. That’s a long way back for an American. A part of our essential essence, but more like a sense memory than a reality.

At this parade, I was very proud to have been a witness. And maybe I understood one more tiny bite of this ripe Romanian apple I have chosen to dine on.

Romanian National Day

Monday, November 12, 2007

Acum Pot


If you’ve read much of me at all, then you’ve probably observed that what I’ve mostly written has been for my American friends, about what is so different about Romania from our US experience, a kind of tourist cum expat sightseer journal of impressions from this stranger in a less-and-less strange land.

For his blog I want to reverse the polarities, and write for my Romanian friends. The ones who ask me repeatedly, “What the hell are you doing back? In Romania? What were you thinking?"

Well, here’s what I’m doing back in a country so many so fervently want to get out of because they believe that the land of opportunity is anywhere else but here.

Let’s enter the Way-Back machine. The year is 2003. I’m a lost puppy sent as an advertising guru to a country whose language is supposed to make sense to me because I parla Italiana, but doesn’t. I’m stuck with a driver who charges me double for everything I need because he knows I can’t fend for myself. He won’t show up to take me home past 1900 hours (7pm) when I work daily till 2100 (9pm) fiecare zi (every day) unless I bribe him adequately, which I don’t think to do, because, well, because I am an American, and we don’t think to do such things.

He works three jobs. His mother, who used to be employed by the state in a factory that doesn’t exist any more, and hasn’t yet been sold to foreign investors, would work if anyone would make her an offer, but they don’t. She’s almost fifty, and there aren’t many opportunities. His brother drives a taxi, works construction, and sells cigarettes on the side to foreigners who will pay outrageous prices for Winstons that tongue-burn on ignition from being so far beyond their expiration date. He never speaks of his father, and I don’t inquire.

They all tend vegetables in window boxes in every window of their bloc apartment (to eat themselves or sell) which houses three generations in the space solitary American grad students complain about. And they make do. Waiting for better. He would like me, when I go back home, to send him boxes of American sneakers which he could black market for a profit. I decline. His best hope is to one day own a Volkswagen Passat. It is, for him, a very big dream. They are a too typical urban Romanian family caught in transition. And the crossfire. I don’t know this at first. But I learn. Optimism is a very expensive and painful luxury in this land of promising disenchantment.

And the energy of the country is like quicksand.

It is a strange, stalled, static charge, rank with the bouquet of disappointment and frustration. Romania has one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the brake, restlessly waiting for the light to turn green. Romania is a finally-liberated country desperately waiting for someone to tell it what to do. While I am here, no one does.

Fast Forward:

“You won’t recognize this place when you get here.” Andreea e-informs me as I pack for my short-project trip, the one that will ultimately culminate in signing on for long-term plans to ride the Romanian tidal wave.

“Everything’s changed.”

Was she ever right.

Now the energy is organized. There is an in-spite-of-everything optimism as the undertone. There is a flourishing and energetic world-class force that is emerging. Romania is rising. While America is still sinking under government stupidity and an aberrant, non-leadership, sock-puppet president, Romania has one of the few economies that is growing.

Multi-nationals have found a new exploitation target, which is really good for its victims. Personal income taxes have been lowered from 50% to 16% uniformly. Several corrupt politicians have gone to jail for being corrupt politicians. Banks issue debit cards now, and credit cards aren’t far behind. With real, professional jobs comes money. With money comes credit. With credit comes houses, and cars, and consumer economies, and every weekend can be Crăciun (Christmas) with an embossed plastic rectangle in your pocket, and malls opening everywhere you’d want to plunk them down. Yee haw, it’s capitalism. At last!

Right now Romania is drunk on money and choices.

Streams of Nissans, and Fords, Peugeots and BMWs, HumVees, and Mercedes necklace the better blocs and neighborhoods and flood every road. Versace wafts through Dorobanti and St. John’s and Armani walk hand in hand down the better boulevards. This is the show-off phase that comes after such a long and empty drought. Because they can.

The multi-nationals bring jobs, and with them the possibility of careers again. Lives again. Anything is possible. In Romania now, everything, after waiting through two thousand years of occupation, is finally possible.

FlashBack #2: Same time. Same station:
(Being prescient is not always an evil gift.)

I may not have known it at the time, but maybe I did when I wrote some lyric prose to Romanians for my then client, Connex, the country’s biggest telecom company at the time. It never got out of the agency, because the Romanians making the decision about what would go to client and what would go waste bin, didn’t have quite the confidence that what I saw was possible. It is called Acum Pot. (Now I can.)

I Am Romanian
I have survived two thousand years of others who believed that they knew what was best for me. And again and again, I told them that I know what was best for me.
I have survived hardships to work hard for myself. And for my freedom.
Now I can build businesses from mere ideas. Build my family’s life the way we wish it to be.
I am no longer a shepherd who is willing any more simply to lie down and accept my fate. I see fate as clay. I will mold myself new fate.
I look around and see my history in every street, but I also find there new possibilities and opportunities for change.
I am descended from brave-hearted Dacian kings and Roman emperors. I am Romanian. And I can do anything.
I invite tomorrow and I swallow opportunity in one bite.
Where others doubt, I believe. And what I believe, I can do.
I believe that doubt is defeat, and inaction is every opportunity missed.
And I don’t want to miss anything now. Because I believe that next thing I do is the first thing that brings me closer to whatever I can dream.
I move and change and dream in my own best interest now.
And now. I can do anything. Acum pot.
Sunt roman.

Present Time:
It is now nearly 2008. Four years nearly to the zi.

Bucureşti is exciting in the way that the Wild West frontier was. The way 1960’s New York was. The way Amelia Erhart and Henry ford were. It’s the discovery excitement of Columbus, and Thomas Edison and Carl Sagen, to go American on you for a moment. It’s the innocent optimism America has lost, temporarily, I hope. It’s why I came back to Romania. Though the natives cannot always see it for themselves. Sometimes it takes someone who hasn’t seen it every day (fiecare zi) to see what’s going on.

And everywhere I turn, here, now, I see Acum Pot. It’s why I came back.

And why I think I'm going to stick around for a while.

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Writer's Bloc by
Shelly Roberts is licensed under a
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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Here's Lookin' At YOU, Kid!


If you should happen to find yourself drinking at a dinner party full of Internationals and Romanians who have already shouted "Noroc!" (Nor-oak) and "Success!" (Sook-chess) with every progressing decanter, not to mention "Skol!," "Salud y amor y pasetas" and "l' chaim" do not, I repeat, Do Not hoist your own chalice and loudly proclaim "Prost!" to the assembly.

In Romanian, it means idiot.
(Not to mention "stupid," "fool", "simpleton" and "ninny.")


Now THAT is how you really learn to speak Romanian. And <blush> also how not to.


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Writer's Bloc by
Shelly Roberts is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Bucuresti (Bu-cah-resh-t-(ee) (slightly breathe the last i so no one but other Romanians can actually hear it.))

Just in case you thought that learning to speak Romanian was a lark, merely a matter of turning the French poisson, the Italian pesce, the Spanish pescado into the Romanian peşte (pesh-tay) (fish), or "crayon" (meaning pencil, not the burnt sienna of your yellow and green crayola pre-schooling days) into the Romanian creion, THINK AGAIN! In Romanian, the plural of crayon is creioane, a neuter noun. (Nothing personal. I like creioanes.)

A creion and the crayons, well, we have a bit of a hermaphroditic concern here because neuter nouns take the masculine definite article in the singular and the feminine in the plural: (Make up your damn minds!)

I'm really good at English, and I certainly don't remember having to learn nomnitave, and accusitive cases, much less indicative, imperative, subjunctive, optative-conditional, and presumptive modes, and if I did, I've mercifully forgotten them. Haven't you? Anyway, back to the bi-genderal pencils.

Creionul in the singular. Creionele in the plural. I think. and if the creion happens to own something, then you could get to something like creionului. Or creionaeulelui. Or Creion-uh-loo-loo-looie-lor. Or maybe not. This is one tough lingo!

Once I've mastered THAT, I get to go on to conjugations, reflexives, subjunctives and those damnative cases:

So far I can, on my limited but well pronounced Romanian, get from my house to the office without getting arrested. Well, provided that I am in a taxi with a driver who got a C- or lower in English, or heaven forefend, took French in school. Taxi Romanian. Not bad for four months. Great if you're a Romanian four year old.

But this I must share. This is a page in, well, it looks like English, on conjugating Romanian verbs. It does not include exceptions. But be prepared. The following contains contamnative (I just made that up) phrases such as homonymous morphemes. (I didn't make that one up.) Continue at your own risk. Quit when your eyes get tired (I know I did.), Or, what the heck, just skim. (I know I did that too.):

4.1. Introduction to the verb
4.1.1. Basic information about verb and conjugation

Romanian verbs have different forms that show mood, tense, person, number, gender and voice:
- mood: five personal moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, optative-conditional, and presumptive) and four non-personal moods (infinitive, participle, gerund, supine). Most of these moods have two tenses (present and past); some have only one tense; one of them, the indicative, has eight tenses (one present tense, four past tenses and three future tenses) tense: present, past and future tenses. The tenses are of two basic kinds. There are simple tenses consisting of one word – the main verb stem plus different suffixes and endings. These include present indicative, imperfect indicative, simple perfect indicative, and pluperfect indicative. There are also compound tenses (consisting of different combinations of auxiliary elements and the infinitive or the past participle of the main verb) – compound perfect indicative, the futures of the indicative, past subjunctive, present and past optative-conditional, present and past presumptive, past infinitive

- person: 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the personal moods. There is also the possibility of combining the infinitive and the gerund (non-personal moods) with reflexive pronouns in different persons, which gives these non-personal moods a person-oriented usage

- number: singular and plural

- gender: masculine, feminine and neuter for the past participle in the passive voice, as well as for the gerund, when used as supplemental predicative element or attribute

- voice: active, passive and reflexive.

There is a large number of suffixes and endings, which form tenses and moods, persons and numbers, as well as a series of infixes (-ez-/-eaz-; -esc-/-eşt-; -ăsc-/-ăşt-) that appear in the 1st and 4th conjugations. There are homonymous morphemes in the system of the Romanian verb, which leads to the presence of relatively numerous grammatical homonyms and homographs within the verbal paradigm.

Some independent parts of speech become structural elements within certain verbal forms. The preposition a
functions as a particle that indicates the infinitive mood. The conjunction să is used as a morpheme to form the subjunctive, as well as the futures based on the subjunctive.

One of the distinctive features of the verbal conjugation is the presence of numerous auxiliary elements used to form compound tenses and moods: a avea to have (am cântat, am să cânt, aveam să cânt), a fi to be (a fi cântat, să fi cântat), a voi to want (voi cânta), other auxiliary elements (aş cânta, o să cânt, oi cânta). Some of the auxiliaries are used to build several verbal forms.

Within the conjugation numerous phonetic mutations (both vowel and consonant changes) occur. They are brought about by the new phonetic context created by inflective suffixes and endings in conjunction with the changing position of the stress.

Thank you, God, for letting me be born in the country most of the rest of the world had to do the above to learn how to speak their own language and I didn't. And, more importantly, than had to learn to speak MY language. Just so I could buy a pound of cheese or a cafea or grab a taxi here by myself.

And God bless, Alexandru, my teacher, who honestly believes, poor beleagured, and optimistic guy, that someday I'll actually be able to speak this Latinate, Dacian, Slavic, Hungarian, Turkish, Greek stew of a language. If I'm his best student, God, please especially bless all of his other students. And please grant us all the auto-insertion of a not-yet-invented Romanian microchip directly implanted into our confused, er, am confuselui brains. Or is that brainului confusi?

And by the way, all the people who tell you that if you know Italian, limba Romana (Row-muh-nuh) should be a piece of prajatura (cake) ARE WRONG! Italians pronounce all their vowels.

Words with three i's are entirely possible in Romaneste.

But why?

Or is that whiii?

And, by the way2, la in Romanian, like it sanely does in Spanish (la, le, il, etc in French and Italian) doesn't mean "the," It means to or at.

Noroc. (Good luck.)

Many wonderful people who live here speak this language like natives.

Oh, and just in case you want to learn this stuff for yourself, that reference is from here:

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Writer's Bloc by
Shelly Roberts is licensed under a
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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Romanian Word of the Week

Misto (Mish-toe)
Derivation: Roma or Gypsy
Meaning: Cool

Update: The embassy has promised that it will hold my drivers license when it is sent to them by the police, so I don't have to move to Arkansas again just to drive. I do have to find my courage though. My invisible plastic I-can-drive-anything shield was cracked in the accident along with the Skoda.
Stay tuned.

They Ain't From Around Here.

Last week I tried to call my US bank on the 800 number. They wouldn't accept calls from Romania.

And when I typed the word "Romania" along with another search word parameter into one of the internal search engines of a site I visit frequently, an odd thing happened. The first half dozen responses all said approximately the same thing. "What to do if my account has been stolen." Hmmm. Shouldn't have surprised me though. When I was on eBay, and my account WAS stolen, it was stolen by, yup, you guessed it, Romanians. Well, not exactly Romanians. By Gypsies.

As any Romanian will tell you, Gypsies are NOT Romanian.

Now the Romanians I am lucky enough to live among and work with, along with your usual assortment of jerks, and geeks, social in-epts and classy-smoothies, dumb-bunnies and smart alecks that you'll find in any random population drift, are, for the most part bright, well-groomed, ambitious, optimistic, hard-working, family oriented, supportive of friends, smart as Rhodes scholars, and all-around swell folks to have added into your buddy lists. (Not to mention how gorgeous most of the women are. I'm sure that there are homely Romanian women here, but they must keep them chained in the attics or the basements, because, honestly, so far I have never seen any on the streets of Bucharest.)

And then there are the gypsies.

Here is a group that writes its own stereotype.

Except for some enterprises involving fresh markets (piata) (pee-aht-saas), fruits, vegetables and flowers, gypsies occupations often include liberating your passport, your traveler's cheques, and your hotel keys, putting your bank account on a forced reduction diet, keeping to themselves in a way that would make David Koresh and the Branch Davidians seem like blabbermouths, and training five-year-olds to look like sex-kittens or Dickensian urchins enough for handouts, depending on the best advantage. (Not to mention crumbling, rusty Dacia truck driver gypsies aiming at poor, unsuspecting Ami ex-pat Skoda drivers for their probable insurance. Opps. Sorry. Didn't mean to get started on that again.)

Unfortunately, for most of the world, think Romanian, and think email fraud, think Ponzi scheme, think paying ten thousand Euros to win a fictitious million, think hi-jacked eBay account. Too bad. Because, more accurately, it should be think real estate fraud, think "Just click here to reconfirm your account password," think paying ten bucks for a genuine non-existent Sony Erikson or Patek Phillipe anything, think gypsy. And leave the poor Romanians in peace.

Well, I’m a spoiled American, who, deluded or not, loves to believe that I have no prejudices (except for the Dacia …. Sorry…never mind) at all. So I decided to do a bit of gypsy research to learn more than just the myth that gypsies won’t cross into churches because it’s hallowed ground, and something about lightening striking them dead, but the outside edges at the egress are perfect Sunday assault pickings for “orphans” costumed in shabby and rehearsed in impoverished to run after you with “alms?” outstretched.

And guess what? The Romanians are right. The gypsies are not Romanians. They’re not even Balkans. They really ain’t from around here. Blame the Pakistani. (see below). It’s just that no one seems to have been able to convince them in the last seven hundred years to go home.

But to be honest, no gypsy has ever invited me over for dinner to talk, so maybe I am being influenced by my non-gypsy friends, and, ok, I'll say it, just the teeeeeensiest bit, ulp, prejudiced.

Begin Gypsy History Lesson:

The Gypsy peoples originate from Sind region now in Pakistan. Their Rom language is close to the older forms of Indian languages. The three tribes of Rom, Sinti, and Kale probably left India after a succession of campaigns in Sind through the C11, initially spending time in Armenia and Persia, then moving into the Byzantine Empire after the Seljuk Turk attacks on Armenia.
Within the Byzantine Empire they dispersed into the Balkans reaching Wallachia (1385) and Moldavia (1370) ahead of this area falling to the Ottoman Turks. Other groups also moved through India to Gujarat and south of Delhi. Gypsy populations can still be found along all these migration routes.
When entering west Europe they initially had letters of protection from the King of Hungary. This privileged situation did not last long as amazement at their way of life commonly led to hostilities. The Gypsy way of life still leads to hostilities from the people of their host nations. Europeans regard "private property" as sacrosanct, whereas gypsies do not have a word for "possess", which gives rise to two incompatible ways of life and a continual problem of gypsies being regarded as "thieves" from the European's view.
In each host nation gypsies appear to take on the religion, names and language of their hosts, but within the Rom they maintain their Rom language, names, music, customs and Indian looks. This tight community has meant that after some six hundred years there is still a large population of gypsies not integrated or assimilated with Romanians.
From the time of their arrival in Romania Gypsies were the slaves of the landowners, only to be emancipated in 1851. While in Romania some of the Gypsies took to speaking a version of Romanian called Bayesh which can be heard in some of the songs of Gypsy groups recorded in Hungary. Nowadays about 40% of the Gypsies still speak Romany and many can still be seen travelling in lines of carts along the roads of Romania.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I Love The Smell Of Ciorba In The Morning.


First of all, Ciorba (chore-bah). What it means I’ll get to in a few paragraphs.

Before that, I’d like to introduce you to my long-gone grandmother. A perfect grandmother, who loved me unconditionally. Not the “unconditionally” that your parents promised which conveniently faded at the first spilled nail polish remover on the new parquet floors. Real unconditionally. Like from your grandmother. Or at least like from mine.

As to the rest, well, you now know the most important part, unconditional love. Also a lap to crawl into, and a strange language which she shared with my grandfather that was mysterious and fun to listen to but unknowable.

Here’s what little else I know: My grandmother arrived in the United States at the age of 18 from Georgia. No, y’all, not THAT Georgia in the US South, the other one that’s part of northwest Russia. I don’t know how she got to the US. By boat, I suspect. How else? I don’t know where the money came from for the passage. Or the inspiration. Alas, no one in the family ever talked about her journey, being so busy assimilating. And her English wasn’t all that good, nor would it occur to her to tell an eight year old whether she arrived at Ellis Island from steerage, or skipped, as the better people got to do, that part, and debarked directly in New York City. Those are only the first few things I don’t know about my perfect grandmother.

How she got to Chicago from New York? Unknown. How she met my grandfather, who’d come over when he was barely twelve? Clueless. How they hooked up or whatever it was called in numbers marking centuries and not just decades? A complete mystery. Why she never found the time to learn to read English in a country she would spend the better part of 60+ years in? There’s no one left to tell it.

But Grandma could cook. Dishes my friends found strange, that were everyday occurrences at family meetups. Ground whitefish balls with carrots and clear yellow jelly. Omigood. And as familiar to me as her traditional lutefisk was to my old Norwegian friend. And as odd to each of us as the other. Roasted chicken with herbs and spices I still can’t find in my hypermarket. Delishes that still flood my memory’s nostrils.

Then there was her soup. Which is now my soup.

Grandma and Grandpa never made it rich, though they did live their part of the American dream. What little family legend there is tells us Granddad started out with a pushcart on the streets of Chicago. He sold spools of sewing thread, and needles and notions for pennies a card I’m told. Hard work and true belief and more hard work and after enough pennies, they owned a dry goods store. This was long before I was ever ingesting oxygen. And they must have done okay because by the time I knew them, though the dry goods store was long shuttered, I never knew them, in their later years, to be in lack of life’s necessities. Maybe not luxuries, but we never had to take up a collection.

But back to the soup.

Even now, though an apartment or cash would have been nice too, I consider the recipe my only true ancestral inheritance. Not that I’m complaining. After all, I did get the soup.

It’s a sweet and sour cabbage soup that apparently Grandmother only knew how to make in quantities large enough to feed a large family, or maybe half a small village. I only know the recipe in that extravagant battalion size. So I make it in the winter when I have a hungry gang arriving. Or I’m wanting to eat the same soup for days on end. And, no matter what part of the world I set up house keeping into, I always somehow manage to transport my huge, heavy stockpot. For the soup.

It’s an easy recipe, made with patience and cabbages. Canned tomatoes, salt, pepper, sugar, crystallized citric acid, beef short ribs and time. It cooks best for at least three days. For the first two it tests the tolerance of the neighbors. Because for those critical first 24 -48 hours the house, the hallway, probably the neighborhood reeks like an Irish tenement. Cabbage is not subtle.

The soup never leaves the stove. The first day it boils for hours as the chopped cabbage shrinks, and the beef drinks the liquid. Then it simmers till you remember that it is still on the stove and you turn it off. Then it rests like a living thing. It is boiled hard before bedtime, and again at first light. If you’re staying at home that day, it simmers on and on for hours. If you’re not, then you’d best not be cooking the soup in the wrong month. Cold Octobers through Februarys are the best ways to avoid ptomaine. When the beef falls from the bone, the meat is pulled and shredded with two forks in a secret family method dating who knows how far back, returned to the pot, and kept at a constant under-simmer till, well, you’ll know.

If you’re lucky and the stars are all aligned the magic happens. It’s a phenomenon known most intimately to French cooks and confirmed foodies. The breathtaking instant when water and everything else merge, become something far beyond the sum of its ordinary parts. The moment when ingredients morph into manna. Into a slightly thicker mélange of beefiness and sharp savor leavened by the tiniest sampling of sugar. Grandmother’s soup is a one bowl feast that an on-hand dollop of sour cream adorns well. Rarely, if the magic fusion occurs earlier, will it ever get to the third day unsampled. Some nearby hungry, impatient someone almost always just has to dip a little ladle.

It has been one of my top three comfort foods since slightly after I attained consciousness. Grandma’s Sweet And Sour Soup. It always makes me feel dear. Unconditionally.

Then I came to Romania with a hunger to learn the language. I read on every restaurant menu a special offering called “Ciorba” and I confess I left it off my order. I just didn’t know what it was, and even I just wasn’t adventurous enough to try any, in case it contained shuddery foreign things like tripe. Or eyeballs. Or brains.

Finally, my curiosity overcame my fearful palate and I asked. “Okay, Okay, what’s the ciorba?”

“Oh, it’s a delicious sweet and sour soup. Kind of an acquired taste though. Most foreigners don’t like it. Mostly, it comes from the villages.”, I was told.

“Comes from the villages" is a convenient Romanian euphemism for peasant. Ciorba is a mulligatawny peasant creation colored by whatever’s left in the pantry or the root cellar and what’s in the piata (pee-ah-tsah) (fresh markets). There are chicken ciorbas, and beef ciorbas and fish and sausage and ham ciorbas, depending on what season it is. Curious about how familiar it sounded, I gave in and ordered a bowl. Funny how sense memory works. Grandma’s connection reached out to me with a spoon over all those miles, and years.

In Bucharest, in the early morning, before the sunrise, when the dog is insistent that outside is a better choice for her than leaving me unwanted presents on the tile floor in the hallway by the front door, we walk the blocs to let her sniff out any recent messages from canine passersby. While she’s reading her pee-mail, what I smell is the start of the morning’s cookpots wafting through open windows. Here cabbage isn’t so much a mainstay - at least not now in mid-October - as tomatoes and local vegetables. But the smell of the ciorba is identifiable. And unmistakable.

Whether it is the first day or the third, my olfactories say it makes no difference. In that faint blue first light, the ghost of my grandmother taps me lightly on the shoulder in an Eastern European city I’m pretty sure she never set a single size 5 slipper in. Apparently there is a shared common peasant cooking heritage throughout the Balkans, the Ukraine, and the old pieces of Mother Russia. We called it “Grandma’s Sweet and Sour Soup.” Here, the Romanians call it “ciorba.”

As the sun rises in the foreign country I never expected to feel so quite at home in, I find myself feel inexplicably loved unconditionally, happy and comforted.

Is it any wonder that I love the smell of ciorba in the morning?


Sunday, October 7, 2007

Yesterday, When I Was In Istanbul


Not so long ago, when I was wondering where my life had gone, when money wasn't tight, it was evaporated, and the US was closed for business, at least as far as anyone over 32 without 40 years of Internet experience was concerned, I gave it all up and went to live with my kids.

Trust me, none of us loved that arrangement.

You see, they both had had parents like me. Not an easy thing to live with if you're them, or so they led me to believe. And I do. Believe them, I mean. They had had enough of spontaneous adventure and wanted life on still waters. Me, I just wanted to know where my life had gone.

They wanted me to give up on dreaming. Come down to earth, quit waiting for the next adventure and get a job at Home Depot, where they seemed to specialize in hiring the elderly and the misbegotten.

I tried to make them understand that I was neither. But that must be hard to imagine on the early side of the parent-children bridge. I was waiting for my life to start again. They were waiting for me to grow up.

"But, Mom, what's the matter with being ordinary?" Sean inquired, as though it were really a question with an answer. I knew what he meant, of course. For him. And I asked every friend I owned if they understood the question. Strangely, of course, none of us did.

Last night I went to a live, outdoor MUSE concert in the middle of Bucharest and let the fusion flurry and the boom-tumble of the 24 foot woofers wash through me, wash me clean of old despairs, clear every channel that stood in the way of laughing out loud, and finally understood my answer. I don't know how.

Three weeks ago I had to do a solo performance for a member of The Board, embedded in a meeting whose content wasn't mine. Nonetheless. The show must went on in a stunning solo study of competence, confidence and quiet don't-screw-with-me bravado that looked like granite expertise.

Two weeks ago the mother of my closest Romanian friend departed early, though there was a diagnosis that said there were several more months to fill up and say farewell before my friend had to join the universal adult orphanage that awaits us all. I learned customs I so much prefer to acquire as a distant tourist catching the sad parade from a bus window, and not as a sharer of the nutcakes and wine served beside the bier. Some time I'll share with you the exotic, well to me, of course, customs like only bringing an even number of flowers, and other things that will go in the guidebook to here. But now it's too personal and close, and tinting everything, so that's not for now, and the fortnight goes on.

A week ago the traffic I laugh about with you came startlingly too close. With mere inches to spare in the new emerging-country norm, at 4 feet away, crawling at too few kilometers/hour, my foot slipped off the brake pedal and hit the gas. One and a half seconds, I've since calculated, was the time I needed to recover from such a simple slip. Instead, well, this is Bucuresti. There is no second to spare. My wonderful Skoda, like my Schnauzer meeting a street dog for the first time, sniffed the tailpipe of the courier van innocently attempting to speed to a destination at about 5 mph. My first accident (ak-chi-dent) since 1974. A little soul shaking and a light tap on the bumper to remind me that in Bucharest you do not even dare to remove a loose thread from your sweater while operating heavy machinery.

Five days ago, off to my Romanian lesson in the middle of the day, in the miraculously as-yet undamaged Skoda, I took the turn I take every day of the week. A thrill-skill ride onto the highway from a near-dirt intersection at the end of the street on which the company lives. I do it daily. It's treacherous and tricky and requires skill and daring and keeps an Adrenalin junky fully supplied. I thought about turning right instead. Hie-ing the half mile to the ring road to get myself pointed where I was going. But look-left look-right look-left look-right look-left look-right told me I had the clearance.

The old guy in the old, old, old, crumbling piece-of-shit Dacia truck didn't see it that way. He saw an opportunity. A nice car with probable insurance. So he pushed his foot down hard, braced and raced, and slammed me to a standstill tearing the Skoda's front and side quarter-panel, and abruptly calling me to a hard, shaky halt. Where I come from, he had "the last clear chance to avoid an accident." Where he comes from, he had a new front end, a rebuilt engine and a new set of front tires. All for the mere price of about four hours in a, to me, foreign police station. Which by the way, was built by an insurance company, replete with ads and posters to the most prime targets, and came complete with an adjoining Internet cafe.

No, I'm fine. Shaken up a bit, of course, at first, thank you for asking. But now, of course, I'm mad as hell. And guilty of innocence. I'll also spend some time at the American Embassy, where the politia will send my confiscated drivers license, trying to convince them not to send it back to Arkansas where I don't live any more, and can't go to retrieve it. Hoping they'll have seen it all before, and know that this punishment doesn't fit this crime. Oh well. I've shaken off the early tremors, know that I'll have to get back on this horse and drive again soon, somehow, or be forever banished to learning the correct taxi Romanian expressions for "No, you idiot, don't take me to my house via Bulgaria! Do I look like I just fell off the cabbage truck, you moldy mutton of a hack!" which I can do because I lived for a decade in New York, and learned that lingo.

And yesterday when I was in Istanbul.

Two days ago, really, if you require this to be literal literature.

It was a perfect flight, and a perfect meeting, with rooms full of accomplished and accomplishing women who knew their stuff and brought it to the table. An evening wandering through the bizarre, which, now that Romania is getting, to me, to be a nearly commonplace, is not a sic misspelling. Buying turquoise and silver at the bargaining price because I carried the camera and was mistaken for a crazy American journalist. Hearing my sad friend/client explain that the millions of Euro at stake in the deal we were crafting certainly paid the tab for taking a few hours to watch the end of Ramadan break its fast by the old mosque's lawns at sunset, and worth the price. And hearing her laugh for the first time again in weeks. Crossing the bridge that took us in one short span to set a set of tires for five minutes into Asia because Istanbul uniquely stands with one foot there and the other in Europe. Talking with new friend-colleagues over a perfect Turkish lunch on a deck on the Bosporus. Sharing stories about places you only read about that we'd all been to. A story of Irish Catholic weddings in Italy conducted by an accented Indian priest. And another, after a lovely lamb chop dinner in Istanbul the previous night, how confusing it had been, if you don't speak the language, when you just want a receipt from the cab driver and he offers you instead a "fish" (fis with a cedilla so you say "sh") which is the word in Turk for "the company will reimburse me if you just give me a damn slip of paper with numbers on it." And, oh, yes, eating octopus. Lip-smacking just after the shuddering subsides.

We flew back to Bucha into the perfect sunset as though it were somehow our birthright. And somehow it was.

Last night, letting the fusion music fuse-drive-pound-rock into me with the fireworks lightshow I could see even with my eyes closed, I finally knew the answer to Sean's question.

"What's the matter with being ordinary?"

Nothing. If you know how.

But you never get to say, "Yesterday, when I was in Istanbul."

Yesterday in Istanbul

Monday, September 17, 2007

Never Wear An Underwire Bra To A Lightning Storm


This blog title has absolutely nothing to do with this blog entry. It’s just something I learned from watching the Discovery Channel this weekend, and the headline just seemed to grow as the hours passed.

It’s probably a great idea. Especially if you are a woman.

Asa. (asha) (so)

What I wanted to share with you are my four favorite words in Romanian.

This also has nothing to do with either the headline of this entry, or the approximate or precise meaning of any of the words. So you don’t have to take any notes.

I’m both a word jockey and a word junkie. (Like you didn’t already know that.) I like to think of myself as wildly superior to mere average mortal American-English speakers with their paltry vocabularies in the tiny multiple thousands. I know more English words for snow, for example, than most Eskimo (no, the plural is "Eskimo" not "Eskimos," which would be pronounced “eski-moss” spelled that way. “Eskimo” is kind of like “moose.” Would you say “mooses”? I think not!) (Well, I hope not.) (These asides are beginning to sound like I’m channeling Ellen de Generis)

Now I have the perfect luxury, as I learn a new language that requires Olympic tongue calisthenics, of, at first, caring not a whit or tittle what the meaning may be. Later, I’ll add them to my flash cards. For here I’ll just add them to your “who gives a spit” collection of relatively useless information.

But they just feel fabulous to roll around your mouth, dandle on your tongue, and bounce into the oxy-nitrogeousphere. (See?)

Here they are:


(Knee-cho-dah-ta). Say it for yourself a million and a half times or eight. There. Isn’t that fun? Don’t forget to put the slightest hiccup of a pause between the kneecho and the data. And to lose your American accent that would pronounce it like the name of the StarTrek Next Generation android. It’s da, not day. Tuh. Kind of fizzes in your mouth before you get it past your lips. It’s the first Romanian word I found to luv (iubesc) (now there’s an awkward sounding word to work into a sonnet).

It means “never.”

No. 2 is fericit.

Ferry-cheat) (no breath beat between the ferry and the cheat.)

It sounds like pixies just before they burst from Gerber daisies. (Well it does to me if I start channeling Anne Geddes.) It’s just such a sing-song. What a delight. What a child’s-rhyme.

No waiting. It means “happy.”

My friend's Peugeot 407, when you’ve forgotten to buckle up for safety, plays a high-bells warning I swear is singing “Ferry-cheat. Ferry-cheat. Ferry-cheat.” “Happy. Happy. Happy." I can’t tell if the damn car wants me to be happy, or is just so French that it requires that by snapping on my safety harness it will get from me exactly what it wants. To be made foarte (very) fericit.

(You do remember that I told you that ci and ce are pronounced like the ch in “lunch,” ("chinos" and "cherries" )don’t you? Or did I remember to tell you? Well, so be it. And when the i is at the end, well we will get to that behind door Number Four.)

Next one you should guess for the obvious reasons if you do the math and remember that I came of age in the sixties while going to the University of California at Berkeley and then lived in San Francisco to wear some flowers in my hair.



Brings up visions of toking on a prime strand of vermicelli. Oooh. Wow. Like groovy.

And last but definitely not least:


(Ah- toonch) (Like "loonch.") (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) Who cares what it means! (It means “then.”) It just makes you want to find a reason to say it.

"It would make me very fericit, atunci, niciodata to have to do bad macaroane." she said, working all this frivolity into a single, relatively meaningless sentence. Sonnets will come later. Or never.

Fericit Romanian to you atunci. And don't forget to check the weather report before dressing for the day.

-End of lesson 7-

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Ride 'em, Cowboy!


So here’s the joke about Skodas: Why is the rear windshield of a Skoda heated? To keep your hands from freezing when you push it.

The Skoda used to be a Czech joke. Not as funny as the Romanian Dacia. But definitely in the POS (see previous post) category. Then VW bought into the company and finally, probably doubled over in laughter, took over the plant and introduced classes in quality control and assembly.

Now Romania is full of them. Romanians think of them as cheap Volkswagens, which may be redundant.

My company has a contract for Skodas. It’s a perk of employment in a society where, before, there were hardly any decent jobs. But with the onset of the tsunami of multi-national, and expanding national companies, the perks are the price of entry for luring workers with IQ’s above a ripe cantaloupe (pepene galban) (melon – yellow) (hmmm. Should have been pepene portocalo – melon orange) (You guessed it, watermelons are pepene rossu – melon-red) (or sometimes pepene verde (green))), phew, sorry, long aside and a new record for ending )'s, where was I? Oh, yes, perks are requirements to draw and keep decent workers. So the parking lot at work is full of Skodas.

In the US, I still have my Jeep Grand Cherokee Ltd with heated leather seats. Sitting somewhere in Virginia wondering where I’ve gone to. I’ll sell it when I return in 5 more months on my quick trip home. But for now I have a Skoda alb (white) to drive.

All I can say about driving in Bucuresti is that it is a very good thing that I grew up in Los Angeles where they don’t issue you real feet when you are born. They give you training feet. You use them to get to the car. (“Hey, mom, can I have the keys to the car? I need it to go to the bathroom”) And that I kept a car in New York City.

Living in the LA car culture, you learn everything you need to know about machinae (cars). Living in New York, you learn everything you need to know about getting out of the way of all the other machinae aimed at your machina. Not to mention several words used commonly by sailors. And, of course, living in San Francisco for some later formative years, you learn how to keep one foot on the clutch, one on the gas, one hand on the parking break, and, looking up at the sky on a 30 degree grade, how to keep from rolling backwards into the Bay, and, most importantly for here, how to dodge errant cable cars and cars rolling backwards into the bay.

Perfect for driving here. The number of cars, when I got here, in mid summer, was five times the number back in 2003, when it was only medium scary to drive here. Then September. Everything got serious, and the other thirty percent of machinas came back to Buca from their holidays at the Seaside. Oy.

Here’s the Romanian concept of Right-of-Way: “Hey, you see that piece of pavement in front of me? IT’S MINE! and “Hey, you see that piece of pavement in front of YOU. IT’S MINE!” and Hey, you see that piece of pavement I’m thinking of that you can’t see, but it will appear at sometime in the road ahead? MINE! MINE! MINE!"

Every morning the 8km (a kilometer is 6/10ths of a mile) to work is an adventure in cowboy driving. Drivers everywhere occupying every inch of asphalt and cobble. Yee haw! Add to that the all the pot holes, cobblestones that regularly pop out of their neatly symmetrical but incredibly bumpy beds, and every day, it’s “Head ‘em and ride ‘em out!”

Oh, yeah, and the parking. “IT’S MINE!” Parking is anywhere on a piece of open pavement, which could mean dead center of the street leaving one tiny car width open for other cars to pass through. Or up on the entire sidewalk, which also means climbing 5" curbstones while parallel parking backwards. I’ll bring the camera to work with me tomorrow to show you. It means I’ll have to drive no-handed. But around here, that will not surprise anyone. Every corner and every empty space, every curb and every sidewalk is taken.

If I were a betting woman, I’d put my money into importing dent pullers, tires and replacement axles. Available credit for buying cars here is relatively new here. Only a few years. So are the cars. The surprise is that so few are dented or side scraped.

They’ve banned the wonderful old wooden wagons from the city because they slowed the traffic down too much – (Hah! My ten minute ride to the Bucharest Arch of Triumph, which normally takes 10 minutes, took an hour because of traffic, and not a horse-drawn in sight.) But I think that the Romanians can thank the horses that more cars aren’t banged and dented. Horses work hard at not running into each other. And I think that must have taught the drivers here some necessary, instinctive horse-sense.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Of Pui and Peste


Here’s a funny thing. I was determined to take you to the grocery store this week. I thought we’d get a good chuckle over all the foreign foods, the cans of exotic unknowns with names and legends in Polish, or Russian or Turkish, or, of course, Romanian.

What a nice alien adventure to bring you along on, I thought. I even brought the camera.

Well, guess what. It wasn’t so foreign after all. Maybe because I’ve been in this particular market a few times before. Or maybe my Romanian has picked up enough. Or maybe I just am becoming accustomed to my new surroundings and adapting.

It no longer seems strange to me that milk comes in a box.

Or that people lug eight-to-a-dozen 2 liter bottles of water up three flights of stairs once or twice a week.

Or that the produce is weighed in Kg’s instead of Lb’s.

People in funny hats don’t look strange to me any more. They just look like their ears were cold.

I took the pictures anyway.

Now don’t get me wrong. I LOOOVE foreign grocery stores. I see it as a way to see how the people in any given country really live. And what they call their chicken. And how they offer their daily bread. Here the chicken is called “Carne de Passere” Which means Meat of Bird, or “Pui” which means, well, “tastes just like chicken” I suppose.

And just to explain the title, “Peste” (Pesh-tay) is fish.

But the thing is, now I live here too. So going to the grocery store is also about buying a small frying pan to cook my morning eggs with until my ton of household goods arrives from its landing in Belgium and is trucked cross Europe. And figuring out which dog food is made with carne de passere and which is made from, well carne de caine (dog) or cal (horse). And not being shocked at what they sent over from Norway in the fish section. It’s about picking up toothpaste, and fruit juice and paper towels and toilet paper and salt. It’s not a junket any more, just another ordinary day at the grocery store now.

How disappointing. I suppose now I’ll have to go to Uzbekistan or Tasmania to get back the adrenalin rush. Or tackle something else as my weekly personal challenge. Like ordering a pizza.

Think I’ll just go make myself a CRAP sandwich, turn on the Hallmark Channel, and wonder what I ever thought was so foreign about living here. (Oh, yeah, CRAP is a spread of CARP (peste) roe, or caviar, made with white creamy cheese. Delish.)

Have a good Sunday. Mine’s nearly over, and the salt mines, er, interesting, well-paying, fabulously exciting, consulting job beckons in the morning.

La Revedere.


Friday, August 31, 2007



Every once in a while I come out of the bedroom in my very small apartment, where I've been enjoying a rerun of the West Wing where CJ just became Chief of Staff because Leo is in a coma, sit down at my computer to check my email, look out the window onto the back of a small block of pre-war flats, and realize:

Omigod, I'm in Romania! Bucharest! Eastern Europe! On purpose.


I used to do the same thing in Oklahoma City.

Only in OKC, I did not have subtitles in a mystifying language that everyone said was just like Italian, and everyone was lying.

In Oklahoma City, when this happened, I almost never added the word "cool."

Omigod. I'm in Bucharest! On purpose.

Ain't life amazing.

History Lesson Pt II

...Continued (see, just like I promised)

Part II: Now

June, 2007.

My plane had just landed at Otopeni, Bucharest’s International airport. I was back.

It was a simple transatlantic call from Andreea, who had been one of my clients when I was here four years ago. We became easy friends, and, somehow, I think, she must have babysat ex-pats before, because she was a damn-site better at it than the people who’d actually brought me over to Bucharest the first time four years ago.

“What’re you doing right now?”

“Nothing much. Why?”

“Cuz, I have to go to a meeting this afternoon in Constanta and I thought you might like to go for a ride out of the city.” (Constanta is on the Black Sea along Romania’s mere 60 or so miles of coastline, about 140 miles east of Bucharest, an Eastern European summer resort destination.)


Andreea is an excellent tour guide, and seemed to know the subjects I might be interested in learning about, how to teach without preach, and when to keep quiet, how to slow down when I wanted to take a photo, all the important things. She would drop me off in some photogenic place, and then we’d meet in some prearranged coffee shop or park when she was done with her meeting. I saw a lot of Romania with her. Plus she gave me the courage to venture out on my own with my camera on the weekends when I had the red Dacia.

She’s a globally traveled Romanian, and I bet her English is better than yours. When I left Romania, she still worked for the country’s biggest telecom company, so, employee perk, every now and again I’d pick up the phone and hear that wonderful, accented, perfect English, just checking in to see how I was doing.

ANDREEEEEEA! Ce faci? (Chey fatch?) ( How ya doin'?) Give me a project so I can come see you.”

She moved on from the telecom company a couple of times. So when her last call came in, and she said, “Do you want to do a project in Romania for me? I have one that’s perfect for you.”

What could I answer but “Let-me-think-about-it-YES.”

“Great. You won’t believe how much it’s changed.”

So that’s how I got to Otopeni Airport. And got my first glimpse of how quickly things had gone from Nu (no.)(pronounced New) to Nou. (new.)(pronounced No.) (Oh, goodie, my first Bilingual Romanian word play!)

There were approximately eight million four hundred thousand six hundred and eleven cars in front of us in the parking lot trying to pay and get out. A lot more cars than I remembered, And we weren’t even out of the parking lot yet.

And not one of them was a Dacia. Andreea had a new Peugeot 407. We were drowning in a sea of other Peugeots, BMW’s, Mercedes, Toyota's, V Dubs, Renaults, Skoda’s (more about these later because I’m driving one) Fords, and all of them nou. Wow.

“What’s up with all the cars?” I asked. I don’t remember getting too clear an answer because Andreea was, I think busy communicating some loving gesture with her hands and arms at the idiots in front of us who hadn’t figured out that they were supposed to pay at a kiosk inside, then get their cars, and then drive up to the exit gate to turn their tickets in and leave. Instead they would drive up to the gate, realize their error, leave the car blocking everyone behind, run into the station and wait in line behind all the other illiterati who also didn’t read the directions. Learning new ways is hard.

Once it took me an hour to get out of the airport.These guys can't read!” she groused while executing a perfect cowboy maneuver around and ahead of a car about to use the exit gate as a rest stop. “Brava, Andreea! You go, girl!” Yee haw!

“I want to show you around the city before I take you to your hotel. I don’t think you will recognize Bucharest from before.”

Quel understatement! Was she ever right.

Besides all those things I told you about from when I was here before (oops, sorry, that just slipped out.) I didn’t tell you that the city had been crumbling. And now it wasn’t. That simple.

After the revolution in 1989 the outside of the buildings were neglected. Once the state didn’t own the bloc, individuals were allowed to buy their apartments. But since Owners Associations seemed a lot like the old overseers, nobody owned, therefore took any responsibility for, the exteriors. So they crumbled. During my first residence, though, those with enough money were buying men on scaffoldings to fix the crumble. They were everywhere. And they seemed to me to be moving slowly. And my snapshot of them shows – oh wait – I actually have the digital snapshot – I’ll post it here – was of a disintegrating city slightly beyond the verge of total deterioration. Scaffolds were as common as pizza parlors. They were gone now.

I guess you can tuck point a lot of buildings in 4 years.

I didn’t have to be in the city for an hour to feel the difference. The frustration and anger seemed evaporated. People were actually bustling. In Bucharest. I spotted some actual residents smiling. Eastern Europeans. Smiling. For no visible reason. Not at anything. Just smiling. OK, not all of them. There will always be scowlers till a few generations pass into history. But still, this was different. My cognitive dissonance antennae were twitching like crazy.

What’s the difference? Whatever it is, it’s HUGE!”

So here’s the deal, see: (I'll make this short because you've been reading too long, and even I'm getting bored with it.)

Remember that 50% income tax? It’s been cut to 16%.

More Money to take home in fatter envelopes, right?

Not necessarily.

Sure, more money. But no envelopes.

Because the banks finally decided to let people access their own money: First there were Debit Cards. No more dangerous-to-carry/would-take-an-ogre’s-mattress-to-store-it-all cash. You could put your money in the bank and take it out anytime you needed it. Or, hey, just wanted to see it. Bancomat. (ATM).

That’s not all. This cascade continues. The march of the multi-nationals finally figured out that the emerging countries were the only unexploited markets left. Romania was now an EU member. The European Union isn’t much of a big deal for you state-siders, but for previously disenfranchised Eastern and Central Europeans, being a member is like joining the same century as the rest of the world.


Multi-nationals bring jobs. EU brings start-your-own-business grants. Increasing real estate values bring - money- money-money-money.

Did I mention money?

Money to put (where else?), in the bank to get back out of a bancomat machine. Money in the bank to establish credit. Credit, by the way, was unheard of in 2003. Who would give credit to a Romanian with such a low paying (above the table) job?

So now there are debit cards, and credit cards. Now there is credit for people with high paying jobs from the multi-national companies, and the growing Romanian companies using the startup grants. And the two best things that credit buys best, precisely those things that Romanian’s have been most deprived of. (Now stop that! Not Air Jordans)

Those things you can’t ever save up enough cash for on low wages:


And cars.


And more cars.

It's a Romanian sign of the times. Cars. Cars. And more cars. If you'd been here before 2004, you wouldn't recognize the place. I wonder if my driver ever got the VW Passat he was lusting after? If so, that would be too bad. He should have dreamed bigger.

I hate history lessons. Next time I’m taking you to the bucanie (grocery store). Or we'll go for a cowboy drive on the crazy streets of Bucaresti (b-you-cuh-rest (breathe the i, don't actually pronounce it)).

To see Romania in 2003 through my eyes,
click here.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

History Lesson - Pt I

PART I: Then

So let me tell you a little about Bucharest.

I hate to keep harking back to “when I was here before” like your grandmother telling you how she had to walk ten miles to school every day in the snow. Uphill. Both ways. But the contrast and amount of, well, we’ll call it “progress” for now, stands in clear relief for me because I have some comparisons. And, lucky you, there’s no way you can stop me from sharing.

As I said a few Romanian lessons ago, Romania was an all-cash society. (I don’t have to tell you that it was Communist for 45 years, or sort of Communist, with a dictator who took the Russians for all he could get, not to mention the Romanians, and built the 2nd largest building in the world, (only the Pentagon’s bigger) with the proceeds, do I?)

Well, when I was here before (2003-2004), the locals had already caught, captured, and, shall we say, er, 45-caliber aerated the man who exported all the crops to pay for his silk suits, cement mixers and megalomania. The Romanians liberated themselves and waited for the Americans to show them the fruits of democracy. <America The Beautiful with cello, harp and low-toned flute, sighing softly in the background.>

Well, here’s which Americans arrived: Mr. Coca-cola. Mr. HBO. Col. Kentucky Fried Chicken. And (don’t bother to hold your breath for this one)…The whole McDonalds family.

There was a whole country holding its breath, trying to teach itself how to be capitalists. And, trust me, without help, they weren’t very good at it.

Not that they didn't have the model. They had American TV. In every village.

Lenin had insisted that every satellite country be electrified and have hookups. It was a technologically smart way to disseminate uniform propaganda for two hours a night. So during Nicolae Ceausescu (Chow-Chess-coo)’s reign, the people saw party programs. After his exit, they got real TV. American TV. So they knew what “real” American life looked like. And they wanted it. Boy, did they ever. Just one teeny-tiny problem. They hadn’t a clue how to go about getting it.

When I was here before (sorry) the whole country, now that it was free, seemed to be waiting, like good comrades, for someone else to tell them what to do. And getting frustrated and angry in the process. You could feel it in the air. And on the streets.

What they wanted was simple. They wanted to know how to make all that rich, Western money, have a nice pair of Air Jordans, and have nice cars that were NOT Dacia’s. (A Dacia (Dat-cha) is a Romanian piece-of-shit car brand. It is not, as I'm sure you probably previously believed, a small, luxurious villa in the mountains outside Moscow where only party elite slipped away to on weekends with their mistresses. Those are Dachas. These POS cars are Dacia’s)

If you had a car at all in Romania, not a wooden wagon drawn by a walking ribcage, a Dacia is what you had.

I had two. I got the green one after I fired my driver for charging me double for everything including getting the dog groomed, then also turning the receipts into the company for reimbursement. I drove it from my apartment to the office and back again. I learned Romanian swear words driving it. It lived up to it's POS reputation. Old by any standard, it had a choke I kept forgetting to use when I was stopped for traffic. (Hey, my Mustang back home never had no stinking choke! What did I know!) It would stall all the time, and some frustrated Bucharest driver behind me would have to exit his car, scream at me, recognize that I was a just poor, helpless Amerikanca
who could maybe hire his son, and then, more kindly, remind me to pull out the choke when I tried to restart the POS. I could see the road through the hole where the clutch came up into the passenger cabin.

There were some newer Dacias around, and after a pretty big fight with management, I got one of those to drive on the weekends. It was the go-to-clients car, shiny red, new, had an automatic transmission, and you couldn’t see the gravel under your feet through the floorboard. No choke.

The company owned it. Real people couldn’t afford them unless, of course, they had been family members of former Securitate officers. Maybe.

Oh yeah, and for this history lesson, don’t let me forget to mention that most able-bodied Romanians who weren’t Gypsies (Rroma) had two or three jobs, if they could get them. So did their mother. And brother, sister, cousin, and crazy Uncle Alexandru and Aunt Bogdana. Everything went into the family survival pot during this transition time. Because, suddenly the state didn’t assign you a job any more. No job, no money. No money, no shoes, no doctor’s visit, no electricity, no dinner. Social Security for the over 60-Somethings was a comfortable seat on a concrete park bench with your upturned hand out.

But, back then, you could feel the momentum. You could feel the push and frustration. Like keeping your foot on the brake at a stoplight, and pushing your foot down hard on the gas pedal waiting for the green light. At this point in Romanian history, the light wasn't changing very fast.

Oh, yeah, and one more thing. The income tax on the over-the-table jobs was 50%!

It was a huge tax on anything your earned on the books. So while you may have collected your cash in a No. 10 envelope, the government, if they actually ever knew how much you really made, got an equal portion. (Communist ideological holdover? Possibly) (Also, possibly standard, worldwide, bureaucratic greed.)

Needless to say, a lot of jobs went, er, shall we say, unreported.

FLASH FORWARD: (Yawn. Thank God. Finally.)

To be continued…

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