Princess Eleonore of Schaumburg-Lippe, who is a delightful ornament to Bucharest life, has written a lovely story about the frustrations Westerners feel living in Romania.
She is the best kind of foreigner, the kind that goes across country by bus, is as happy eating in a cheap dive as in a fancy place and mixes with everyone. She even wrote very charmingly about how she tried to integrate in Romania here.
The worst kind of foreigner works in a big international company, mixes only with other foreigners, except for his colleagues and girlfriends, and lives in a gated compound. Another objectionable kind is the kind that has gone native in a bad way and mixes with Romanians all the time but the ones who have a lot of money and very murky business methods.
Eleonore says all expats feel frustrated and have to leave to recharge, but I, who am here for 15 years, don't, despite the satanic malls which have sprouted all over the place like a horrible contagion. In fact I find going back to Western Europe rather depressing. An Englishman who has been in the construction business in Romania since the mid-1990s, whom I had not thitherto suspected of being a poet, told me
I don't know how it is with you, Paul, but whenever I go to England I go by TAROM to continue the Romanian experience for another three hours but, as I walk down the steps of the plane at Heathrow, I become depressed and I don't feel happy again till I walk up the steps to get on the plane back.Back in those days, ten years ago, I completely agreed with him. Romania changed and modernised enormously since then, though, while now, when I go home, after half a generation away, I feel like a Martian.
I remember Marc Cannizzo, here since 1993, when asked what he liked about Romania replied,
'Everything'.I agreed with that. Another foreigner said he liked everything about Romania except the accounting system. I agreed with that too. The grotesque accounting system, by the way, is not a Communist relic or a product of Romanian labyrinthine ingenuity, as you might think, but something copied from France after the revolution. After the Romanian revolution, not the French one.
Every day every foreigner here is asked by several Romanians whether he likes it here, answers yes, very much, and is told he is crazy. And then, after two seconds, always,
'Ah, yes, of course, the girls.'Unless, that is, as in Eleonore's case, the foreigner is a woman.
This, you immediately understand as soon as you arrive, is a country with an incredibly low self-esteem. And this is why you get a certain amount of arrogant nationalism, because arrogance is a by-product of low self-esteem. I admit, though, that my theory does not explain why Hungarians really do consider themselves superior to their all their neighbours.
Actually, you notice far less prickly national sensitivity here than in other Eastern European countries and when you do you are quite often talking to someone with personal problems about himself and his own life.
I do not say that age cannot wither nor custom stale Romania's infinite variety, because Romania isn't especially various, as countries go, - and certainly much less so than pluralistic, multicultural England. And passing years and the economic growth they bring are certainly withering many of the things I most like about Romania. I hate the shopping centres and cling to the alimentar, the local grocery shop, where in defiance of economics things are actually cheaper than at the supermarket. I don't like the way Bucharest markets, where everyone shopped when I came here in the 1990s, have dwindled, as people shun them for the hypermarkets. In any case, when, for some reason (so that some people could make money, I imagine) they were covered over the life went out of them, from my always aesthetic point of view. I miss the wonderful ecological fruit and vegetables that are being replaced by flavourless, brightly coloured imports, as the countryside dies. I don't like the clever boys in sports cars who think it cool to jump the lights and I certainly don't warm to the politicians. No, I do not warm to them at all. Still, I do love so much about this country, though now with the kind of love one feels for a wife rather than a girlfriend. It's a different love altogether, of course, from the love one feels for ones motherland.
I used to think that in Romania you either got to like constant problems or you went mad. But now I find there are not so many problems. Partly this is because life is much easier these days than it used to be and perhaps because I have now come ashore on the broad complacent shoals of middle age. For many many years I found it a constant delight being in Romania, but now I am used to it, it seems normal and, alas, the country has become much more normal. A bit boring in fact - for what is normal but another word for boring? - but then something happens to remind you of how special this place is.
In no other country in the world do people have such distrust and lack of respect for their countrymen, but I love Romanians, starting with the people who suffered under communism, the intellectuals, the people who try to preserve the good things about the past, the people who go on pilgrimages and love their country's medieval history (but that last item encompasses almost everyone here who can read and write, thanks to Communist history teaching).
I am not undiscriminating. In fact, I love to discriminate. For example, I much prefer the people who holiday in Vama Veche or Doi Mai to those who like Mamaia. I like the people who hike in the mountains or go to the delta or to look at monasteries best of all. I was told when I first came here in 1998 that all nice Romanians are monarchists and I have found it to be true, with a very few exceptions.
Romania's great quality is how human she is - which is another way of saying how old fashioned she is, because modernity is, of course, an essentially dehumanising process. What is human can never be boring or predictable.
People find in other people the things they are able to find, the things they have in themselves. They recreate other people in their own image. The same applies to countries too. When one goes abroad, whether to travel or to live, one is looking for a country in which one finds oneself, that reflects ones soul.
I am very lucky in having found in Romania almost exactly what I want.