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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