This article was translated by Iulia Marusca and published in the Hotnews blog “Contributors”.
I’m reading a book that has helped me crack a mystery that has troubled me for 20 years: why do I live and work in Romania? People have been asking me this question since 1990 and my answers – “the people…the warmth…the challenges…” – always sound a bit unconvincing. I am strangely unable to explain what it is that keeps me here.
Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential, which is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, gave me the answer even though he doesn’t mention Romania once in the book. He describes the madness of investing in the restaurant business in New York City:
“To want to own a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction. What causes such an urge in so many otherwise sensible people?… You must be fluent in not only Spanish but the Kabbala-like intricacies of health codes, tax law, fire department regulations, environmental protection laws, building code, occupational safety and health regs, fair hiring practices, zoning, insurance, the vagaries and back scratching of liquor licences, the netherworld of trash removal, linen, grease disposal. And with every dime you’ve got tied up in your new place, suddenly the drains in your prep kitchen are backing up with raw sewage, pushing hundreds of tons of impacted crap into your dining room; your coke addled chef just called that Asian waitress whose working her way through law school a chink, which ensures your presence in court for the next six months; your bartender is giving away the bar to underage girls from Wantagh, any one of whom could crash Daddy’s Buick into a busload of divinity students, putting your liquor licence in peril, to say the least; there’s the ongoing struggle with rodents and cockroaches, any one of which could crawl across the Tina Brown four-top in the middle of a dessert course; the dishwasher just walked out after arguing with the busboy, and they need glasses now on table seven; immigration is at the door for a surprise inspection of your kitchen’s green cards; the produce guy wants a certified check or he’s taking back the delivery; you didn’t order enough napkins for the weekend—and is that the New York Times reviewer waiting for your hostess for stop flirting and notice her?”
A similar description could be made about Romania: why would anyone want to run a business in a country where government agencies send armies of inspectors to healthy businesses, like swarms of locusts, seeking out bribes, free meals, free produce and – if neither are forthcoming in the quantities expected – immediate payment of draconian fines for laws that were probably dreamt up the week before by a government that can issue hundreds of “emergency laws” in a late night session, laws that don’t need parliamentary approval and that can go into immediate effect; with a judiciary that is so ineffective that it has never managed to convict even one of the tycoons that gained control (allegedly by illegal means) of swathes of the economy and the media (and some would say the government); where the health, educational and social services are in such a state of bankrupcy that if you end up in hospital for an operation you have to buy your own drugs and heavily bribe the doctors, surgeons, nurses – even the cleaners – if you want to emerge in one piece; a country that has only managed to build 100km of motorway (at huge expense) over 20 years, whereas China (which also had no motorway in 1990) has managed to build almost 50,000 km.
Within the Romanian context of legislative unpredictability, low wages, high costs, bankrupt public services, and hordes of rapacious inspectors roaming the streets, you can understand why Romanians despair about their homeland and would welcome the opportunity to go west. And within their mindset of cynicism, resignation and despair it is logical to ask a foreigner like me “what the hell are you doing in a place like this?”
I first came to Romania in 1986 and it was a horrible experience. Never have I seen such a sad and desperate looking people. Nobody would look at me or even speak to me and I thought I had discovered the worst country on earth. I hated it. But when I came back in early 1990 I discovered that the Romanian people are really open, warm and communicative – despite the superficial appearance of hostility they use in shops and restaurants. I was hooked. For the last 20 years I’ve felt more at home here than I do in UK or in the other parts of SE Europe that I lived in during the 1990s.
Reading that book by Bourdain made me realise that Romania, rather like the restaurant business, is a hostile place to do business in. But then again many countries have terrible bureaucracies, even places like Germany. And while most people should perhaps be warned off, there are some people like me who thrive on it. Working in Romania is one challenge after another: I have worked on some really big issues like the development of child rights and Roma policies and recently I published an article in Time about a mass grave of Jews from 1941 (in Iasi).
From the creative point of view Romania is a lot more interesting than the west and, as a writer and amateur photographer (and sometime filmmaker) it is an ideal location as there is so much interesting material here. It is also the ideal place for anthropologists, sociologists, historians, ornothologists, environmentalists – as things are more “unspoiled” (in terms of modern forces changing traditional structures). I recently compared my photos from Romania with those from Western Europe and the Romania shots are much more unusual. I have many interesting shots of shop fronts – some of which are hand painted – and unique old fashioned signs; in the west these would be mass manufactured, modern or retro – certainly not worth photographing.
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there is actually (or used to be) a clip of Bourdain visiting a Romanian restaurant on YouTube…
Another great article! Bravo Rupert and thank you. BUT dont look at Bourdain’s video of when he was in Roumania – I never saw such an offensive doc in my entire life…he was rude, vulgar and ignorant. I am glad Rupert found something good to say about him following that embarrassing report he made from Roumania… I think there were somewhere near to 600 outraged comments on his blog and I mean REALLY outraged; I never saw anything like it!!
Rupert, I am so thrilled that you love the country of my heart so very much. And I dont think it sounds trite – warmth, people, hospitality, the foaie verde… it is a misunderstood country and deserves all the help in positive publicity we can give it. I too feel more at home there than any other country in the world (besides my Mama’s sitting room which is a country all of its own!). There is so much to love and once you fall for it, you can overlook the rest however much it niggles. but in loving it, it also breaks our hearts and makes us die a little for the lost hopes and shattered dreams, the long crisis of antipathy and the ‘merge si asa’ is heart breaking…
Keep loving it, Rupert. It and its people need you.
Rupert, I’m in love!:)))
What are you describing here, in this article is the same “the people…the warmth…the challenges…” like you already know… maybe in reverse order:)
I’m reading between the lines: the CHALLANGES, the WARMTH: the PEOPLE:)
Very good reading.A tone of truth presides in it.
An objective view of Romania seems possible when we read ‘NHDR Romania, 2007 – Making EU Accession Work for All’.
It is by happenstance that i developed an interest in knowing about Romania.I have no any speciality except some communication with Ana Tomescu.
Feel good about your mission and wish you all the best..
An excellent and interesting article, Rupert.
My first visit to Romania was only for a week to meet a girl that I had met on the Internet. She was a 30 year old ‘girl’! I do not chase children! :-).
Unfortunately, she was a disappointment, because SHE had invited me, but only made herself available for an hour on the day I flew home!
However, she was the exception and I am still grateful to her. I discovered a beautiful city, full of kind, helpful, almost instantly trustworthy people. Most people under 40 can speak fluent English. Those who do not, use hand signals, penned pictures, what little English they know and whatever else they can, to help.
They are lovely people.
So, I knew I would return to Bucuresti.
Then I discovered Sighisoara.
I have never received any ‘hostility’ in restaurants or anywhere else. The day I arrived in Sighisoara, my camera chip was full of photos. I went to a shop, bought another one and was given a free wallet by the shopkeeper! Empty… but it was a lovely gift.
I would love to live in Bucuresti.
I am a good cook. Have you any jobs in your restaurant, Rupert? 🙂
Unfortunately, most ordinary Romanians cannot comprehend why a westerner would freely choose to live in this country, or, for that matter, why some Romanians with experience of life abroad would ever decide to take up residence back here (our case). They strongly suspect that we’re mad…But Rupert hits the nail right on the head: it’s much more challenging to live here than in relatively orderly societies. During the nineties it was “the wild East”, there was a crisis around every corner, we had to live with 145 percent interest rates at one point, there were mass campaigns against whole swaths of society (like that against small traders -“comerciantii !”), and so on. A westerner would have been entitled to an award just for surviving in such an environment, let alone for thriving in it. And yet life here arouses fond memories because… it is never ever boring, or routine. And the skills that stick to us while going about our business here actually make us stronger. Just like the analogy with the New York restaurant owner : “if you can make it there – you can make it anywhere”.