Tuesday, February 17, 2009

conversations in Romania

I decided to share this experience with you on Do more because I enjoyed so much reflecting on history with these friends I met and how listening to their stories I saw forgiveness and hope.

Romania is a beautiful country embracing the topography of the sea shore, flat growing fields, and forest covered mountains yet scarred by communism and mostly taken advantage of by compromising entrepreneurs. The few capitalists I spoke with talked of bribes as a typical way of doing business. There are many millionaires in Romania though the middle class is quite small. Turned over to the communists at the conclusion of World War II, the leading nations unaware that Romania might stand on its own, the pearl of this country once called the ‘little Paris’, Bucharest started to crumble. Visiting for the first time I see both old Europe and the rural touches I spied in Mexico and Southeast Asia; beautiful grand buildings fallen into disrepair with unkempt grasses and wayward fences along with quick fixes long left permanent. It’s expensive to live in the city with the prices of homes and apartments similar to that of present day New York City. Food prices are also high, the weak dollar not withstanding. There is progress of course, though with such high prices, who is paying?

There is charm yet of a country as a small town where there are still hitchhikers; women going home from work, an officer off duty, a student done with classes. I also experienced the mountain regions where the people were as warm and welcoming as any small town I’ve ever visited.

I had the opportunity to ask specific questions about the lives of those who experienced life before and after the revolution. I have written their responses as closely to their spoken word as possible.

[ME] What did you see when you returned?

[Ana Maria left seven years after the revolution and has lived in Germany, Turkey, and Switzerland with her Scottish husband] I don’t always see good changes. It is now a democracy but it seems they took only the bad things and they don’t really understand how it should work. It’s also very expensive now but you don’t get the appropriate value for things. Take these hotels for instance. They are very expensive and they say they are ‘4’ or ‘5’ stars yet they are not. They are expensive, not so nice, yet still people pay and they and Romanian! I don’t know how they afford it.

I have traveled all over the world and have seen nice places yet when I return to Romania it’s not as nice but they charge high prices still if not higher.

[ME] How do your Romanian friends view the government and this change?

[Ana Maria] All they talk about is money: how much they have, how they spend it, and how they plan to get more. It is like they need to prove how much money they have and to brag and brag about all they can do and have done. So many are like this both men and women perhaps because before they did not have the opportunity nor could they risk showing off in communist days.

Most who have money don’t seem to work a lot yet they make a lot.. this is from the corruption. They say we are not communists anymore but the corruption is still here. In ten or twenty years more hopefully this will change.

We have a lot of intelligent people but the schools now mimic the west. It is bad.

[ME] How do you mean?

[Ana Maria] They don’t seem to pay attention and there are a lot of drugs available now. There doesn’t seem to be a focus on learning.

[ME] Would you ever move back to Romania?

[Ana Maria] You know, I am Romanian and I love my country.. but I could never live here again. I left initially to have a better life and I have lived in many places. Now I prefer to live elsewhere.

[ME] What do you like the most about Romania?

[Carmen was eighteen when the coup d’etat occurred] The people. I love the mentality of the people, their heart. I couldn’t think for a moment to live elsewhere. It would be like packing my heart, the heart of Romania into a suitcase.

[ME] What has changed from your youth because of the revolution?

[Carmen] Everything change. The people change a lot taking much from Western Europe. They are free. Couples can walk on the street and show affection by holding hands or maybe giving a little kiss. They didn’t do this before. They were more closed before.

[Dan came from a wealthy family who have survived much of their wealth after the revolution] I got my house back. The government seized our family house; the house my grandfather built. We were allowed to live in it though only a small part of it on the main level. They divided it up into apartments and others moved in. They all paid rent to the government.. Even us.

[Cecilia is my age though lives nine months out of the year in Minneapolis with her mathematics professor husband, Adriane who created the formulas used in the film A Beautiful Mind. I talk with she and her husband while we all share a bottle of wine on the beach within the lights of a beach bar blaring many American 80’s tunes where many others have also gathered many playing Frisbee in the sand] You can leave! (they both chide at once)

[Adriane] You couldn’t have a passport before. You couldn’t leave.

[Cecilia] There was no music before – not like this. You couldn’t gather and everything closed at ten. Everyone just went home and shuttered their windows. It was always cold inside I remember and the water was only cold. There was actually a schedule when you could get hot water; an hour in the morning and an hour at night. It was different for different houses. I remember my mother would get us up so early just so we could bath in hot water before school. (sighing and exasperation about school) There were so few buses to get us there and they were so crowded. The education system was really bad.

[Adriane] The teachers would beat you if you answered a simple question wrong. If you made a mistake on a test for one question, like a serious mistake yet you aced the rest of test, you would fail the entire class. Math and Science was a way out in a way. You could get a special job with the government and just work by yourself alone and away from the madness. You still couldn’t get a passport. You couldn’t go anywhere. Of course you could visit our partner countries (shrugging as if he had little value in this) I asked once to go to a math conference in Germany. I was denied because they said if I went there I wouldn’t come back.

[ME] What was your life like before the revolution?

[Omar was born in Iraq though his parents moved to Romania when he was very young. He was my official guide in the Bran region] There were bullets flying everywhere and you were afraid to go out.

[Andrea is his girlfriend who joined him in touring me for two days in the famous castles of Romania. She is Romanian and was only six years old in 1989. They live in Bucharest currently] You never knew what was going on. You were always scared to go out. There was no news, only that which you got from your neighbors and there were terrorists. In one firefight I remember my mother going to save the TV from bullets. It was near the window. It was a color TV; very hard to get and very expensive. She was five months pregnant with my brother at the time. He was born four months after the revolution.

[ME] Who were these terrorists?

[Andreea] They were minors who decided to rise up against the government. They were big strong men and they had these heavy tools from the mine, but they weren’t very smart. They didn’t know who to fight, so they fought everyone. No one was safe to go out. They were good though because they should the people that the government was not as strong as we thought. In this way the minors encouraged the revolution.

[Omar] ..and there were people every twenty houses reporting everything you did.

[Andreea] Yes, in every neighborhood there would be a man standing with a notebook. You couldn’t do anything without your neighbors reporting you. If you were cooking some steak, your neighbors would report you to the police. It was hard to cover the smell of cooking meat.

[ME] Why was that so bad?

[Andreea] Well, meat was very expensive and the police would investigate how you got it or how you got the money to get it.. because likely you did something illegal to simply afford a steak. You should hear the stories my grandparents tell.

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