Never Mind the Balkans, Here's Romania

03d August 29, 2015 -- (reading)

On the subject of the way in which Romanians are -- as a matter of fact, we are talking about the people living in the Carpatho-Danubiano-Pontic space for the last millenium or so, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity; however, for the sake of brevity we shall call them Romanians -- it is worth mentioning that there is a general lack of literature to describe this, and furthermore there is a lack of people that are both able and willing to put this on paper1.

The fundamental reason behind this is simple. The Romanian language was almost exclusively a spoken language and very little used in writing until the 19th century, so most of the documentation on Romanian customs and behaviours is coming either from the Orthodox Church, mostly in Slavonic, or from Hungarian, Polish or possibly Austrian and Ottoman sources. Given that most of the Romanian population was still illiterate until the second half of the 20th century2, only a handful of writers emerged, and to my knowledge at the time there weren't any notable Romanian writers to tell stories about the Romanian people from the communist era due to the regime, and there aren't any Romanian writers to discuss the Romanian people of the post-communist era up to the present day.

Thus we're left in a rather peculiar situation, where a British guy, Mike Ormsby, comes to Romania and spends some time here, and then decides to publish his stories, most of them from the post-2007 Romania3, and only a few of them from the first decade and a half after the (still) confusing turning point known as December 1989.

Ormsby's book, pompously titled "Never Mind the Balkans, Here's Romania", tells a bunch of stories about Romania, yet no so much about the country as about the people living in it and their sorry, happy, tired or lively state. Off the top of my head, there are very few aspects not covered by the stories, as most of them can just be found lying in the lines or between them: the agitated Bucharest; the old and the new city dwellers; the communist block administrator; the draught and the flu; turbo-folk; pălincă; food, and so on and so forth. All these details emerge into what most Westerners see as the template for the very peculiar individual, not quite educated yet not quite entirely stupid either. The historical reasons behind this are not given, nor they are even touched upon in the text4, yet the substance is there, as a testament to the fact that a so-called "foreigner" can sometimes understand a people better than they can understand themselves.

The book's storytelling has a humorous aspect to it. There is an aspect of comedy even in the bleakest of the stories, which has led Romanian critics to label Ormsby a "British Ion Luca Caragiale". However, there's no doubt about the fact that the humour there -- in the English version of the book, at least -- is typically British in nature, and some of the sarcasm may be lost on the average Romanian reader, although my impression was that the book was written to be read by foreigners rather than Romanians.

All in all "Never Mind the Balkans, Here's Romania" is a surprisingly interesting book, one that you may want to hand over to your children to help them understand the average Romanian person. It gives a pretty good description of the country and its people, minus the useless dumb nationalism:

In the wide dusty courtyard below, tough-looking young guys in polyester tracksuits lounge around an old Dacia. [...] The vehicle's doors are wide open and a powerful sound system is pumping turbo-folk music at a volume likely to induce nosebleeds in small children and angina attacks in the elderly. The singer on the CD sounds like he jammed his fingers in a door. [...] One lad paws at a doe-eyed girl in a tight top and short skirt. It looks like a sultry play by Tennessee Williams, with no interval.

  1. Notable exceptions are Caragiale, Creangă, Slavici and maybe Rebreanu. Eminescu can only at most be considered a gatherer of so-called "Romanian folklore", his main problem being that he lived the 1800s, when being a national something-or-the-other became fashionable.

  2. When the communist rule came and attempted to introduce literacy by force. The results were interesting, to say the least: although they've succeeded, Romania's authentic cultural heritage is still mostly rural and orally communicated. The working hypothesis is that some of the typical Romanian customs and behaviours are simply impossible to transcribe, much to ethnologists' disappointment. There are notable exceptions of course, such as the Merry Cemetery from Săpânța.

  3. The year when Romania became a member state of the European Union.

  4. Sociologists are doing a pretty bad job of this anyway.