Wednesday, 1 May 2013

May Day in Bucharest

May Day, in Romania a public holiday, and Bucharest feels empty. I 'should be' at the seaside at Vama Veche, I suppose. Instead, I am posting this wonderful picture.

Bathers - Pablo Picasso, 1918
feel guilty about not being in Vama Veche, but Vama Veche has matured in the last thirteen years and so have I and we have gone in different directions.

How I hate progress, which I suddenly realise is why I love Romania.

May Day is the start of the barbecue season. Barbecues, along with seduction, are Romania's national sport. I spent a happy afternoon at a barbecue at a friend's house, in one of the new villas in a gated estate in Baneasa. 

An American friend of mine who has lived here, on and off, for sixteen years, but is not in love with Romania and who came back on May Day from Bulgaria, wrote this to me. I do not agree with him about Romanians, but he is a good writer and his points about the differences between Romania and Bulgaria are thought provoking:

Gabrovo’s a lovely, undiscovered town. And the nearby attractions rarely see foreigners. And I realized today (while talking with a carpet sales-girl in Veliko Tarnovo, on our way back to Romania) that the Bulgarians were influenced far more by Turkish occupation than the Romanians – probably accounting for their excellent attitude toward strangers. (Turks are famous for their hospitality, as you may or may not have realized.) We saw the contrast immediately as we crossed the border, back to Romania – rude people; garbage everywhere; horribly ugly villas cluttering every vista. The Danube does everything – separating the Bulgarians and Turks from the Romanians, Ukrainians, and Russians. 
I saw an episode of “World’s Best Motorcycle Rides” recently that was set in Russia. The Brit presenter – a veteran biker – rode a BMW motorcycle from St. Petersburg to Moscow, taking a roundabout route. He was chatting with an interpreter/tour-guide at the very beginning of the trip, who told him “don’t be surprised if you see that nobody in Russia is smiling. [The show cuts to two or three clips of people on the streets of St. Pete, frowning and glaring.] Russians are not friendly toward strangers. But when they get to know you, they become very warm.” That’s how I describe a typical Romanian: he would rather see a stranger fall off a 1,000-foot cliff than extend a hand to help him steady his balance; but if he knows your name, he will greet you with hugs and kisses every time he sees you. I have another way of describing this sort of person – an asshole.

I suppose one cannot extrapolate too much from one polite girl in a carpet shop, but I am a huge fan of generalisations and the psychology of nations. But for all the virtues of Bulgarians, they have a lot of antisocial behaviour, violent crime and a very powerful mafia with links to the Russian mafia. They are very close in every way to Russians, unlike the Romanians. Romanians are a much gentler, milder people. But he is right about the hideous way in which the Romanian countryside is ruined by ugly development. I wonder if he is right about the positive nature of Turkish rule. Romania, except for the Dobrudgea, was never directly ruled by Turkey. 

My friend wrote to me again today, saying,

I witnessed yet another example of this Romanian tendency, just this morning:  A gypsy man was dragging a (stolen) shopping cart across a street, loaded down with some buckets and bags.  He was incompetent and a little wobbly, and when a wheel got caught in the tram tracks, the cart fell over, and the (stolen) contents spilled out.  Three people walked past him as he tried to pick up the cart.  I was closer to the ATM (my destination) than to him, so I proceeded to make my withdrawal. When I finished, I saw that he was still trying to get the cart righted – stupidly holding an empty bucket in one hand while trying to upright the cart with the other.  (I see this sort of thing all the time – somebody tries to do a complex action with one hand, while holding something that could easily be put down in the other.)  Now he was blocking a tram, which sat patiently, while still more pedestrians passed him.  I jogged over, said “hai, hai”, put the cart back on its wheels, and pulled it to the sidewalk, so Bucharest’s impatient population could get on with its business. 
In hindsight, I should have stood there and counted how many people passed him without lending a hand. Sure, the guy didn’t really deserve to be helped, because he was stupid and a little drunk. But decency and expediency should always trump stupidity and poor breeding. In Romania, nobody ever does this calculation.

Getting back to the subject of May Day for a moment, the Act of Union 1707 became law on 1 May 1707, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Before that England (including Wales) and Scotland were separate countries, though with the same monarch. Union Day is a better name than May Day, though May Day has medieval associations that go back long before socialism. How extraordinary that we British did not celebrate, in any way at all as far as I  know, our country's tercentenary on May 1 2007.

Researching the Lord Chancellorship of Scotland for half a day was the only work I ever enjoyed in my civil service career. As a Unionist I rejoice in the Union but part of me, as a conservative, understands the sadness of the end of the Kingdom of Scotland. I remember that the last Lord Chancellor of Scotland, the Earl of Seafield, said when the Scottish act was passed
It's the end of an old song.

Those words cross my mind often, in different contexts. I am an incurable nostalgic.


  1. I enjoyed your post very much and found your comments very interesting! Although I don't agree with your friend's opinions, it is always a good idea to listen to what people think about your country and try to fix things.

  2. "[...] this sort of person – an asshole." With all due lack of respect rooted in the second-hand nationality of your friend, I believe he has mistaken the letter to you with his CV.
    Concerning his visible preference of Bulgaria over Romania, I couldn't blame him. I've visited our southern neighbours' country one too many times not to regard them as generally well-intentioned, but overall pretty stupid. They're probably on the same intellectual wavelength.
    Anyway, I take my hat off to his civic sense. He's certainly made it easier for a drunken gipsy to go home with a cart full of stolen items. Someone should probably enlighten him on the fact that the usual Romanian attitude towards things we disapprove of, but have no power over, is to ignore them. We have a saying that goes something like "don't mess with the stupid or the crazy" - the aforementioned situation definitely qualifies as such.
    Enjoy your stay, wherever you are; I'm sure you will find reasons to :).

  3. His well-known saying ("And there’s the end of an auld sang!") drew from Sir Walter Scott the angry comment that it was "an insult for which he deserved to have been destroyed by his indignant countrymen". Alluding to the pecuniary benefits which the Chancellor was supposed to have received for his support of the Union, Sir Walter Scott reminded the reply made by his brother Patrick, when Seafield objected to his dealing in cattle, as being derogatory to the family dignity, "Take your own tale hame, my Lord and brither - I only sell nowt, but you sell naations."

  4. Only my opinion.. I don't like the painting. I think it's freaky and rather ugly. I like Picasso before he was Picasso. I think he became Picasso fighting demons.

  5. I think it's very beautiful.