At school we used to trade in jokes and most of these went under certain themes. The Irish were stupid (“what do you do if an Irishman throws a hand grenade at you? Pull out the pin and throw it back.”), the French were smelly, the Germans cruel and the Italians cowardly (“How many gears in an Italian tank? Five: One forward and four reverse”). It was many years before I realised that most of Europe told jokes about us Scots being tight fisted.
Then there were the light bulb jokes (“how many Californians does it take to change a lightbulb? Two: one to change the bulb and one to share the experience”), the chicken crossing the road jokes, the custard, fridge and elephant jokes (“how do you know if there’s an elephant in your fridge? You can’t get your bike in.”)
The worst jokes were the ones that started “when is a ___ not a ___?” and the only one I can remember is “when is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.” They weren’t funny but anything was better than the grinding boredom of school.
I was reminded of this last type of joke when I was in Breaza recently, a small town about 100km north of Bucharest. To me Breaza is a village as it’s nothing more than a collection of (rather ugly) houses and the centre has not much more than a grocer, a restaurant (“Havana”) a few hardware stores a couple of banks and a place selling fridges.
The biggest building in town is the Primaria, which roughly translates as “Mayor’s House” – and if you think about it this translation is ideal as the main purpose of this vast building (probably 1000 metres of floor space, three stories and a vast wall of reflective glass facing the bus stop) is to house the enormous ego of the mayor.
If we assume that the mayor has a big ego (and why else would he stand for office?) we can assume that he would feel a lot better if his village was classified as a city. How much more impressive it is to be the mayor of a city rather than the mayor of a village. And Breaza is a well known location in Romania as it is located in attractive hills and apparently has the best air in the country, due to the proximity of an underlying strata of uranium.
This is the only rational justification I can think for calling this place a city, apart from the more mundane motive of robbing the locals; a city can charge more local tax than a village can. As for the size of the “Primaria”, nothing can justify the millions they must have spent on that.
At the cottage where I stay in Breaza there is no internet and so my connection with the world consists of going to the Havana Restaurant and connecting to their free wireless service. I was also feeling a bit peckish so I ordered a delicious plate of “crap” (the Romanian word for “carp”) in brine sauce. The prices of food in provincial restaurants is always far lower than what we pay in Bucharest and the service is usually better. Less supercilious.
“Unfortunately the wireless service isn’t working” said the friendly waitress when she saw that the first thing I did was open up my laptop. It’s important to maintain relations with people in these places so I went ahead and ordered my plate of crap.
I asked the waitress if there is a library and internet facility in the vast “City Hall”. She laughed, as if to say “you must be dreaming. You think those jokers in the primaria actually provide anything useful?”
“What about the public library?” I asked, convinced that there would be. Romania is inspired by the Napoleonic Code which says that every locality must have a public library, school, museum and so on. She told me there had been a library but it was closed down with the promise of building a new one, “and of course it never happened.” But she said there is an internet cafe.
With a stomach full of crap I walked up the road towards the so-called Military Academy (a place that dresses up young boys in uniform) and asked an old lady where the internet cafe is. Without missing a beat, she pointed down a muddy sidestreet and said “second house on the left”.
But the second house on the left had no sign outside it, there was no activity, no trace of a summer terrace where the citizens could enjoy their cappucinos and there was none of the usual grumpy teenagers hanging around in their hoodies. It was an old abandoned house. I went up to the window thinking “there’s no way this place is an internet cafe.”
When I saw the creepy guy in pajamas looking out the window I had one of those horror-movie-moments and the only thing missing was the scary music. I started to back off, assuming I had come across some kind of annex to a psychiatric hospital – the place they put the really hard cases, but with the cuts the security staff had been withdrawn. I could hear the door opening and I half expected him to appear with an axe.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone looking so gloomy, but he wasn’t armed or dangerous or accompanied by rabid dogs. I told him I was looking for the internet cafe and he looked at me like as if I was the psychiatric case — and then said “yes, here it is.” Needless to say I was his only client and after charging me 2 lei for an hour (50 Euro cents) he left me to my business. There was no sign of a cafe, or a fridge or a vending machine but the thought of getting any refreshments was long gone.
When I left I asked if I could use the toilet and he said “we have an eco toilet round the back, but it’s rather full.” Maybe this guy is a bit more enlightened than I had given him credit for? Maybe he has a biogas system that turns the teenagers crap into useful cooking gas? Maybe he’s a closet ecologist, unappreciated and depressed in this sprawling village?
As soon as I saw the blue plastic box in the garden I knew I was wrong. A Romanian “eco toilet” is the least ecological thing in the country; it’s a portable toilet that is full of nasty chemicals that has to be carried off by a truck (God knows where they dump the toxic waste) and has nothing in common with real eco toilets which transform crap into useful gas and compost that can be used in the garden.