Guest writer Paul Wood reveals 25 reasons why the loves to live in Romania. In no particular order. Photos by Davin Ellicson.
Romanians. Clearly the people are the main reason for liking any country, though the countryside, the churches and the crumbling inner city of Bucharest come close behind.
Everything about Romanians seems to be paradoxical. Romanians are very human and see everything in human, not in abstract terms, but when they write about ideas they always start from abstract and sometime cloudy first principles. They are the very warm, the most generous and kind of people, but very cruel. Someone told me when I came here that ‘Romanians have no gratitude and no mercy’ and that is certainly true of many, though by no means all. They are very mystical yet have their feet on the ground and are often very materialistic.
They are very romantic but very unromantic. They try very hard to be cynical. They are very suspicious and live in an atmosphere of fear. They have a wonderful sense of humor, rather similar to the English sense of humor: very ironic, very black. Romanians are very much friendlier than the English but much more formal. Respect is terribly important – because power is terribly important. This is the Middle East dreaming that it is France.
Romanians love visiting their countryside – all but a few pretentious ones – love eating Romanian food in restaurants – same caveat – and love hiking and camping, all of which was how it was in England in the 1950s. They tend to be conventional and conformist but my friends are not. You can be eccentric in Romania and bohemian but it takes more courage than in England, where eccentrics are not tolerated but admired.
In Romania under Communism television only broadcast for two hours a day meant until the Revolution the Romanians were spared a huge amount of idiocy and had time instead for reading, conversation, drinking wine, and the national sport, seducing one another. I suppose that was how it was in Victorian England too, except with less wine. Romanians who were twenty or so in 1989 are usually much better read than the English. Those who are not well read nevertheless have a surprisingly large amount of information about their medieval history and take pride in it. Only a minority of people in England, I was shocked to discover recently, know who were Hengist and Horsa, the first Englishmen recorded by history and our Burebistas. Even a highly intelligent history graduate from Cambridge did not. In any case, the English have been taught to think that history is simply the chronicle of oppression. The Romanians who were continuously oppressed by their rulers and foreigners take pride in their kings.
Romania has so far escaped the worldwide cultural revolution – not Mao’s one, but the one that happened in the capitalist world starting in the 1960s and which is showing no signs of abating. One of the great charms of Romania is that the 1960s did not happen in here. The EU will change that, but not quite yet. There was never what in the 1960s was called the Generation Gap. Adulthood as perpetual adolescence, as in Anglo-Saxon countries, is not an idea which has reached here. People become adults when they start work, just like in England until the 1960s.
Romania is not at all cool, is utterly uncool, thank God, and yet in its own un-self-conscious way the broken streets and beautiful women of Bucharest are as cool as it gets. Even if Bucharest is not cool but it is very glamorous in a Latin American way. I do not like nightclubs (you must never use that word with Romanians because they think it means something improper) but the fashionable nightclubs have a chic of their own.
Romanians are genteel. People tut-tut about scandals and although they expect the worst of people they still contrive to be shocked. A notorious womaniser used to say in the late 1990s that dating Romanian women was like dating gorgeous 24 year old versions of your mother’s friends. Romanian women and men are still like that.
Romanians expect the worst but always contrive to be shocked that things are even worse than they imagined.
Romania felt about 1952 here when I arrived. Now it feels about 1964.
Romanians esteem brains and learning – in England it is more admirable to be good at games or was before the Palaeolithic Age when I lived there. Here class is about grammar and educational qualifications, rather than about accent or clothes (Romanian rich men dress appallingly, though their wives are learning) or money. They also know that physical good looks are very very important and discuss other people’s appearances with penetration and complete absence of charity. They are more profound than the English, who think it is superficial to talk about other people’s looks.
Romanian taxi drivers. They form a chorus in the Greek drama(it’s a comedy not a tragedy) of my life here. Like in every country the people who really know how to run things are too busy driving cabs or cutting hair. Taxi drivers become very dull when they talk about the political class in general (thieves, bandits) but they have much to say that is very interesting about God, how things were in the old days, love and death. Taxi drivers and barbers know everything. So do illiterates, but that is another story.
The parties. Romanians GIVE GREAT ONES.
The lack of diversity, although things become more pluralistic. Despite the terrible damage that Communism did to this country, which it maimed, there is still a tremendous sense of cohesion and common values. Most people tend to take the existence of God for granted and people are assumed to be Orthodox, unless proven otherwise. Catholics are considered odd but are regarded as slightly grand – but Adventists, Baptists and adherents to other sects are not considered true Romanians at all. I like this very much. I only wish this cohesiveness went with a sense of public spirit, but this seems to be absent in all the Orthodox as well as all the post communist ones.
I believe the wine is wonderful, but I usually drink plonk. I do however love the only grape which is unique to this part of the world, Feteasca Neagra.
Bucharest, which is still probably the most interesting capital city in many ways in Europe. Living in Bucharest is like living in a film noir full of gangsters, corrupt officials, femmes fatales, old men in hats. The town has so very much energy. It is a twenty-one year old – London and Paris are in their fifties. Most of all the broken run-down streets of Bucharest. Until about seven years ago the slummy Old Town in Bucharest, where I live, which is now a sea of wine-bars and restaurants. But let us enjoy the new rather than regret the past: the old town makes people happy and there are two or three good restaurants there (Sindbad, St George and Lacrimi si Sfinti, since you ask). The new old town annoys me but it has a buzz and is a lot of fun. If only it had not descended from the sky almost overnight but I rejoice that it came, like many things in Romania, much later than you would have expected and that it provides a lot of fun. A lot more fun than the sanitised old towns of other capital cities. It certainly beats Covent Garden.
In Romania, everything is difficult but after a while you get used to it or you go mad. Every day is completely different from the one before. These two points are less true than they were ten years ago, however.
The folk religion, the belief in magic, the fortune tellers, the sense that the other world is close to hand.
The second hand booksellers
The wartime egalitarianism – people who sleep rough sit watching open air film shows without exciting the disdain that their counterparts would do in Western Europe
Manele – a kind of gypsy- Balkan music which everyone claims to hate but which sells very well.
The old-fashioned terraces where one can get a bottle of wine and a Bulgarian salad for a song. These are being replaced by pretentious, more expensive places unfortunately.
Not the food particularly, although it is all right. This is the one area where Romania’s neighbors the Bulgarians and the Hungarians beat them. But ‘tocanita with mamaliga’ is a very fine dish and, even though I do not much love fish, salau tastes very good.
The churches and monasteries, especially the painted monasteries in Bucovina and the fortified churches of Transylvania.
Lack of violent crime, but this is not nearly so true as it was. Crime rates are very low in Romania except for white collar crimes, where the rates are very high.
I’ve told everyone to come to Romania but I am very glad that nobody follows my advice. I remember in my first week living in Romania in 1998, an Englishman living here said to me: You know what’s the best thing about living in Romania?’ ‘No’. ‘It’s thinking about your friends back in England that are feeling sorry for you.’ And that was so true then, but now instead of inspiring horror when you mention the place in England it inspires indifference. It’s just an East European country that competes in the Eurovision Song Contest. A few people say it sounds fascinating. Most people simply say it sounds obscure.
By Paul Wood, Guest Writer
Paul Wood is the owner of Apple Search, the executive search company, and is writing a book about Bucharest where he has lived since 1998. His personal blog is here.
(photo source: Davin Ellicson, www.davinellicson.com)