In reply to our critics

Feedback to the intelligent and critical comments on our site.

We have been getting some high quality feedback on our blog recently and I feel inspired to write about some of these comments. Considering the garbage that gets posted under most online articles or videos (have you seen the trash written under youtube clips?) I think we’re lucky to get such intelligent and coherent feedback. We must have a superior quality of web visitor and I would be interested to know how they come across us.

One angry young man asked why I am so critical of Romania and what have we actually done for Bucharest anyway? It was a good question, albeit an irritating one, and I had a series of answers.

My first answer was “nothing; if I am being completely honest I have done nothing for this city”. Then I got defensive and said “who has actually done anything for this city?” I thought about the elected officials, the mayors who promised so much but delivered so little. I remember when Traian Basescu was standing for mayor of Bucharest, many years ago, and he promised to arrange the recycling of rubbish. We’re still waiting for that one to happen. It’s hard to think of a politician who has actually done something positive for this city, and easy to think of how they have profited (just think of kerbstones) and how they are despoiling it continually.

And then I realised that we have actually done something for this city, although it could be seen as a pretty macabre contribution that is perhaps in fitting with the critical nature of our blog. We made a film about earthquake preparation, as part of a World Bank project that was managed by Mercury Promotions. The film is called Quake and it can be seen on this site, in the “Completed Films” section, and it is supposed to educate people about earthquakes so they can prepare for the next big one (which is apparently due any day now). The films are based on interviews with experts and survivors of the devastating 1977 quake and there are a lot of useful life saving tips there. We’re currently making another film about earthquakes with Japenese and Romanian construction experts, but I haven’t seen it yet.

My angry young blogger had another charge that I would like to address here: why am I so critical and so negative in my writings? On the one hand it should be obvious — the burning issues are the problems of Romanian society, and I am perhaps vain in thinking I have a different perspective on them — but on the other hand it is rather ironic that I am so critical when in reality I am a positive person, considered a hopeless enthusiast and unrealistic dreamer by some. The truth is that I feel very positively about this country, and especially the people, but like a frustrated parent I have this instinct that I must be cruel to be kind; to help my beloved but hopeless charge change its teenage ways and start acting with a bit more maturity.

This talk of teenage behaviour is not entirely facetious. If you consider that the revolution only took place 18 years ago, and that before 1990 the Romanians were living in a system in which the rules of survival were rather primitive and unpredictable, the society is indeed just a teenager. Romania was one of the most repressive and backward economies in central and eastern Europe, even by Soviet standards, and it has come on leaps and bounds in the last 10 years and it has overtaken Serbia — a country that used to look down on Romania for being so backward.
EU and NATO membership are just the symbols of this tremendous progress (and the NATO Summit was Romania’s coming-of-age party). But the real changes have been taking place in people’s heads, as without attitude changes nothing can change. All those millions who work abroad, and all those at home who keep up with what’s going on in the world, contribute in their own way to the advancement of Romanian society. In response to my critic, I would say that we have all contributed to the development of Bucharest in our own little ways.

If you compare Romania to those former Communist countries that are now lagging behind — such as Bosnia and Serbia to the south and much of the former Soviet Union — you can see that Romania is charging ahead in most respects (and the NATO summit is a symbol of Romania’s arrival on the international stage).

Bosnia Herzegovina is a particularly interesting example because here was a brand new country that was basically designed from scratch at Dayton Air Force Base in Ohio in 1995. They had the opportunity to build a modern new society, make the most of their savvy and cosmopolitan people, and plug into the international economy. They could have done better than Romania, but What did they do? They built a new country with the same bureaucratic systems and methods that had made the old Yugoslavia such an economic disaster (that happened to also look good on the surface). As a result, Bosnia’s economy has been stagnant for years and they never managed (did they ever really try?) to overcome the internecine wafare between the Serb, Muslim and Croat enclaves. If Bosnia wasn’t being propped up by the west it would be called a failed state.

I was reminded of the choices that political leaders are sometimes faced with when I read about the Dalai Lama in Time magazine (he was on the cover of Time last month); a religous leader who fled from the invading Chinese in 1959 and helped set up a Government in exile in Dharmsala, in northwest India. It is not often that national leaders have the opportunity to start a government anew; most politicians inherit well established systems that they can only tinker with. The Bosnians had this opportunity and they blew it — primarily because the politicians who did the setting up were a bunch of old communists, religious reactionaries and nationalistic opportunists. They were in it for themselves and their clans and they lacked the morality, openness and common sense of the Dalai Lama; and I know from personal experience that the Bosnian leadership resent outside advice whereas the Tibetans welcome it.

The Dalai Lama actually cared for his people and he made sure that his government in exile set up educational and welfare policies that took care of children, was based on common sense, and prepared people for modern society. What is remarkable about this story is that the Dalai Lama came from perhaps the most traditional and isolated society on earth, where modern infrastructure was not even known about. His adaptability to modern society and ability to use what was useful, while still protecting their own culture, was truly remarkable. According to Time magazine the Tibetans in exile are an example to the 30 million other refugees who inhabit our planet, most of whom live without hope or opportunity.

The point is that change starts in the mind; real change can only come about when attitudes change; and positive change only comes about in the presence of morality. The Dalai Lama had the moral and intellectual background, as well as sufficient experience with western and communist systems, despite his youth, to construct a new system based on human rights and real democracy. The Bosnian leaders moral framework was developed (and corrupted) under Communism and they were educated in a scientific system that lacked simple morality. I think Romania is somewhere between these two systems; there is a distinct that of morality in politics and yet in terms of diplomatic and economic results the Romanians have done very well.

It may seem that I have completely wandered away from the main point of this article — the comments on our blog — but this point about attitude brings me back to another of our commentators, an American who spent some time in Bucharest, who asks why the Romanians are so damned unfriendly when serving in shops and that they seem to have no concept of customer service. This is an interesting question that I have spent much of the last 17 years trying to answer.

It is both sad and ironic that Romanians are a very friendly, welcoming and warm people and if you have the good fortune to be invited to their homes you will be treated like a king. But when they work in shops or restaurants they tend to be rude, unfriendly and cold. Why is this and what went wrong? As with most things in Romania, I think you can blame it on the communists. Under communism there were terrible food shortages and people had to stand in line for hours (sometimes days) to get everything from bread to meat, not to mention oranges or bananas which would only be available about once a year.

I think there were two main results of the food shortages: Romanians became corrupted as they had to enter into corrupt arrangements with people in authority in order to get food; and people working in shops and restaurants got used to wielding tremendous authority — as they were essentially the gatekeepers of urban food supplies. Their rude and aggressive behaviour could be understood on the one hand, as they had to control the crowds who would mob their shops whenever a delivery was made; but their indulgence in black marketeering out the back door was less forgivable.

What is mysterious is how this behaviour still survives almost 20 years later in shops and restaurants that are overwhelmingly owned by private businessmen who, one would assume, would be the first to benefit from friendly service. My assumption is that it is considered normal — by the public as well as the shopkeepers — for shop assistants to treat customers like dirt and to make no effort to be pleasant. And if one gets chatting to them it soon becomes clear that they have their grievances; they are usually underpaid, overworked and the bosses often treat them without respect. They probably feel they are at a dead end, many will have kids and home and husbands waiting to be fed, and that life is pretty damned miserable. Nobody seems to think it unusual for all this to be projected to the customer.

Our American commentator stayed near the Hilton and I assume he noticed something different within Bucharest’s top hostelry; staff that are friendly and helpful. The only real difference between the staff at the Hilton and those at the kebab shop down the road (and there is an excellent one behind the Royal Palace) is that the Hilton’s staff have been trained and someone has said to them “if you’re not friendly with customers you’re outta here.” And I am starting to notice that more and more shop assistants, particularly in the chain stores that are popping up everywhere, are starting to make an effort.

It is time to end this rather rambling attempt to address some of the points of our readers, and I do hope we get some more comments that are as interesting as those received so far.

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