Draft: Romania’s Silent Killer

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Foreigners visiting Romania often worry about health hazards implicit in visiting what was until fairly recently a Communist dictatorship. I tell them not to worry about it, since in the cities the water and food are all perfectly clean by European and American standards. However, there is a serious health hazard that stalks Romania, one which foreigners rarely think of. If the reports are true, then this epidemic is responsible for numerous illnesses, hospitalizations, and even deaths. It is little publicized in official sources, but nearly any Romanian on the street will be able to tell you all about it.

I’m talking about curent.

Curent in this context means "draft", as in a drafty door, or opening a window to let in a draft. People from outside Romania may believe that a draft is a nuisance (if you’re cold) or a welcome relief (if you’re too warm), but the Romanians will set you straight. If you catch a draft, you are in mortal peril.

The early symptoms of catching a draft include a headache, toothache, soreness of the neck, stiff joints, stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, or sneezing. If untreated, the draft will continue to worm its way into your system and metastasize into pneumonia, arthritis, polio, and dementia. People have died from catching drafts. Especially vulnerable are the elderly and small children, which is why members of both demographics are traditionally dressed in the warmest clothes that they can find all through the summer—the best defense against the draft is a set of wool stockings and a scarf, even if it’s 40 C outside.

I had been in Romania for a while and heard about curent a few times, but the true seriousness of curent only struck me when the summer began. At the school where I was teaching I wandered into the kitchen, where a group of six women were preparing a meal for some guests. It was hot outside, and several pots of boiling water were on the burners around the kitchen, turning the crowded little kitchen into a sweltering sauna. After a few minutes I went over and opened the window, only to be immediately shouted down by the women. I was letting in a draft.

But weren’t they hot? Indeed they were, and I could see the sweat and discomfort on several of their faces. But the health dangers of cool moving air were far too great to risk for mere comfort.

I observed similar things on several other occasions. On crowded public buses during the summer heat, any attempt to open a window would be countered by immediate protestations about the draft. Friends and neighbors would close the windows of my room for me if they noticed them open, to protect me from the draft’s depredations. I heard a young woman complaining of a persistent headache and nausea which was blamed on sleeping with her head too close to her computer’s exhaust fan. It was a small draft, but it was enough.

Curiously, a draft’s lethality seems to be greatly reduced outside of Romania, to the point where many foreigners don’t concern themselves with it at all, and even claim to enjoy having a window open on a warm day. That doesn’t mean that it’s not real, however. Indeed, it’s as real as Korean Fan Death, another silent killer whose victims lie largely in a single country.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What you’ll find in Romania

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So my last article about Romania was perhaps overly negative, being as it was all Racism! Poverty! Thieves! Swindlers! I ended with a note that Romania is still a great place to visit, but my wife pointed out that this was somewhat underwhelming following the cascade of negativity in the rest of the article.

So here’s a list of things that I think you’ll enjoy in Romanian culture, things which should persuade you, the American or British traveler, to come and visit. I’m not going to list things that you’ll find in any tourist’s guide, so don’t expect me to go on about the gorgeous monasteries, or the wildness of the Carpathian mountains, or the medieval charm of Brașov. Rather, here’s a few things about Romanian culture that may surprise and delight you.

When you go to Romania, try to make some Romanian friends. Get invited to their house. Then be amazed at how kind and generous they are. When you are a guest in Romania, they will always offer you coffee, and tea, and possibly also wine, beer, and țuica. It would be unthinkable to do otherwise. Furthermore, I’ve never found Romanian hospitality to be begrudging or forced. Romanians seem to truly enjoy having guests, and they are happiest when their visitors are well-fed and slightly drunk.

Romanian mici

Mici, in their natural habitat accompanied by homemade potato fries and cabbage

While you’re at your Romanian friends’ house, they will very likely serve you excellent Romanian food. If you are very lucky, they’ll break out the grill and make some mici (pronounced “meech”), which are traditional grilled sausages made from a mixture of beef and lamb infused with garlic and other spices. Let me say this without exaggeration: Mici are some of the best grilled meat you will ever have. I’ve never had any kind of American sausage that approaches a good plate of mici for succulence, flavor, and aroma. You will go home and tell your friends about the awesome mici that you had in Romania, and they will all be jealous.

If you happen to attend a wedding, or any other major life celebration such as funerals, baptisms, or a parastas (about which more below), you’ll also be feted with sarmale. Sarmale are cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meat, onions, carrots, and spices, then boiled in a pressure cooker for several hours. There are also vegetarian variants made with almonds or mushrooms, which are equally delicious—unlike mici, this is one Romanian dish which can be vegetarian-friendly. Sarmale are savory and slightly greasy, and are best eaten dollopped with sour cream, which transports them from the realm of the merely tasty to the heavens of deliciousness.

Sarmale with mămăligă (boiled corn flour)

(A separate word needs to be put in here for smântâna or “sour cream”, which is nothing like the sour cream you’re probably familiar with. It is runnier, richer, and has a flavor which makes American dairy products hang their heads in shame. But beware! Western-style grocery stores have begun to infest Romania, and they often sell sub-standard Western-style “sour cream” erroneously labeled as smântâna. Skip the grocery stores and go to the local outdoor market to find the good stuff.)

Now that you’re nice and full, go outside for a walk with your friends. You may notice that the young women in your company are holding hands, and that the young men put their arms around each other, and talk with their faces close together. Despite what you think, none of these people are gay, and their behavior does not carry any romantic signals. Romanians are comfortable with a much higher level of casual, friendly touch between people of the same sex than Americans are. You may initially find this off-putting or uncomfortable, but try to give it a shot. After a while you may find that you appreciate the fact that your friends have a lower wall of personal space around them, and may think of American friendships as relatively cold and sterile in comparison.

Conversely, touching between members of the opposite sex is more strictly regulated than in America, and gestures which would be purely friendly over here may be interpreted as romantic come-ons over there. Beware of the signals you are sending.

If you attempt to learn Romanian and are of a non-confrontational disposition (like myself), you may be initally surprised by the fact that Romanians seem to always be yelling at each other. Sometimes they seem perpetually angry. This is a mistaken impression. The fact is that Romanians just like to speak in strong voices, and their typical, normal intonation is one which may seem harsh or rude to an American. You’ll get used to this. After a while you’ll think that it’s fun, and you’ll be amused when your English-speaking parents think that you’re fighting with your wife after you’ve had a perfectly civil Romanian discussion about what to eat for dinner.

Finally, you’ll find that Romanians are on average far more spiritual and pious than Americans. This varies from person to person, of course, but it’s hard not to notice that Romanian spirituality is both more public and less demonstrative than American religion. There are churches everywhere, and people cross themselves consistently when they pass by one. The churches are open from dawn to dusk, and no matter when you go in you’re likely to find one or two people quietly praying or lighting candles. Priests in long black cassocks are a common sight on the streets. The countryside is thick with monasteries. When you take a train trip, you may see a priest or hieromonk going from car to car offering to bless people for their journey, and accepting small donations in return. Yet within this context of greater religiosity, you’ll also find that Romanians are less strident and fractious about their faith than Americans. The culture war overtones that attend to your choice of church (or your decision not to attend church) in America is largely absent. Romanians are content to attend to their spiritual lives without being so noisy about it.

I clearly remember an event from one of my first trips to Romania that illustrates all of these points beautifully. I had wandered into the back of a church on a Saturday afternoon, not expecting to find much of anything there, but to my surprise some kind of family service was getting underway. I tried to quietly duck out, but to my consternation a Romanian grandmother grabbed me by the hands and physically dragged me to the front of the church, insisting loudly that I stay as their guest. I had never seen these people before, but they were determined that I join them.

A parastas similar to the one I unwittingly attended

The woman parked me near the front of the church, in a crowd of older Romanian men standing around sombrely. A big table covered with food and candles lay in front of the iconostaz, and soon after the family (and me) had settled, a pair of priests began a long, chanted prayer. My Romanian wasn’t nearly good enough at that time to follow the archaic, liturgical language, especially not when it was being chanted in a droning, echoey church. I remember that they seemed to say Doamne miluiește an awful lot. This went on for probably thirty fascinating, fidgety minutes. Then all of the men moved forward, pushing me with them, and we lifted up the food-laden table and waved it in the air. To this day, I have no idea what that particular aspect of the ritual meant, though I later found out that the service I was at is called a parastas, a service of remembrance that’s held at certain anniversaries of a person’s death.

And then it was done, and the feasting began. Right outside the church the family broke out bottles of țuica, fresh-baked bread, and big trays of sarmale, sharing them copiously with me and all of the rest of their guests. Bewildered and flabbergasted, I ate my fill, all the time thanking my hosts for their generosity. After about fifteen more minutes the party broke up, and I wandered happily back to my apartment, unsure of what I had seen but delirious with the experience.

Hopefully your trip to Romania will be just as memorable.

A visitor’s guide to Romanian racism

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The most popular article I’ve ever written was Romani, Racism, and Romania, which continually ranks among the most-viewed pages here on this blog. And I see that a Google search for “romanian racism” currently has my article as hit #3. So obviously I hit a nerve on something with that discussion. In particular, I seem to get a lot of Americans who have gone or are going to Romania, and want some context for what seems like a lot of racist behavior on the part of the Romanians.

I’m here to fill that need.

I write from the perspective of a white, middle-class North American. And I’m writing this for the benefit of anyone visiting Romania from America or Western Europe, though I don’t necessarily assume that you’re white. (We’ll cover that below.) My view of Romania is an outsider’s view. However, I speak Romanian fluently, I lived in Romania for a year before getting married, I’m now married to a Romanian, and we continue to visit the country frequently.

Romanians and Anglophone whites

If you go to Romania as an American or British person, you probably won’t experience anything that you’d call racism. However, if you actually attempt to engage in conversation with the locals, you’ll find a lot of stereotypes and assumptions that Romanians make about you. This may occasionally provoke some discomfort.

Rich guy

A typical American

The first and most obvious thing: everyone will assume that you’re rich. And truth be told, you are pretty rich, compared to most of the people that you meet. This can lead to some uncomfortable situations. Some people may ask you for money, and they may become upset if you won’t give it to them. People may not understand the difference between “can afford to go out for dinner every night while on vacation” and “can afford to give someone a $600 laptop on a whim”, since buying a laptop and going out to dinner frequently are equally signals of wealth and influence to typical working-class Romanians. In general Romanians are very generous with each other; conversely, if you start to make Romanian friends, they will expect and assume that you are going to be generous with them. Many people find this presumption of wealth and generosity to be off-putting–I certainly did when I first started building Romanian friendships.

A related point is that you may discover people speaking to you with a certain amount of resentment. Romanians often feel like they’ve been unjustly maligned by history, and that foreigners don’t appreciate their considerable cultural and historical acheivements. As a result they may display a nasty inferiority complex that manifests as the need to constantly put down Westerners, or try to impress them by playing it cool.

Many Romanians are credulous of conspiracy theories and fringe scientific ideas that Americans find ridiculous. An example: I once had the truly surreal experience of talking to a Romanian who insisted that the Jews controlled the banks and the governments. However, he said they were doing as good a job as anyone, so he was content to let them continue.

Romanians who have never been abroad get most of their ideas about America from movies and television. Think about that for a moment. A lot of Romanians assume that America is basically Southern California + New York. And not the actual California and New York, but the Hollywood versions.

Romanians and English-speaking people of color

(I hate the term “people of color”, but I don’t know of anything else that can be used in this situation.)

If you’re a black, Asian, Indian, Native American, or other non-white American, you may be in for a somewhat rougher time in Romania. You’ll find that most of the stereotypes discussed above also apply to you, but with an additional wrinkle: many Romanians will never have meet or spoken to a non-white, non-gypsy person before you. This creates additional opportunities for discomfort.

A lot of people will simply be curious. Try not to take this personally. Americans have been conditioned to avoid directly mentioning or commenting on someone’s race, while Romanians have not. You’ll find that Romanians gleefully trample over the conversational niceties that Americans observe when discussing race. This may come across as rudeness, but it really shouldn’t be interpreted as racism. In fact, you may find that Romanians hold fewer racial stereotypes about blacks and Asians than Americans do, simply because there are almost no people of those races living in Romania and there are no cultural narratives defining what PoC are “supposed” to be like.

The Romanian dependence on Western pop culture without the rest of the Western cultural context can have some surprising and upsetting consequences. I had to explain to my sister-in-law that it’s not okay to call black people “nigger”, and that it’s in fact extremely offensive. She didn’t see what the big deal was: rappers and movie characters use the word all the time! The subtleties of in-group vs. out-group usage were lost on her, and she had no understanding of the history of the word. (Romanians know that black people used to be slaves in America, because for some reason Uncle Tom’s Cabin is quite popular in translation there, but they’re largely oblivious to the complex, bitter history of American race relations following the Civil War.) If you find yourself in a similar situation in Romania, it’s important to be forgiving and remember that your Romanian acquaintances are very likely oblivious to the racist significance of their language.

On the other hand, due to the inferiority complex mentioned above, some Romanians will fixate on any available reason to belittle a Western visitor, including their race. Some people will always be assholes. Hopefully you won’t have to deal with very many of these people.

Romanians and gypsies

Ah, here is where things get bad.

(I’m going to use the word gypsy throughout this section rather than the preferred Roma or Romani, simply to avoid any possible confusion between Romani and Romanian. The two words have nothing to do with each other, and the resemblance between them is completely coincidental.)

Before coming to Romania I thought of gypsies basically the same way I thought of pirates: something exotic and alluring that existed only in distant times and places. I was very excited to see real, live gypsies when I came to Romania. But discovering the actual situation of the gypsies in Romania was a rather rude shock.

Tiganca cu copil

A young Romanian gypsy woman and her child

The relationship between Romanians and gypsies is the only thing in Romania that’s remotely analogous to the relationship between American whites and blacks. Gypsies have never been enslaved en masse, but they’ve formed a permanent underclass for pretty much the entirety of their history in Romania. Most of them speak Romanian, but many of them also speak a dialect of Roma, their native Indic language. Traditionally gypsies were nomadic, traveling in caravans from place to place, but many of them were forcibly settled during the Communist era, creating miserable little gypsy villages and ghettoes across the country. Most gypsies live in tremendous poverty, they have a very high illiteracy rate, and they’re plagued by many of the same the social ills that attend to the inner cities in America.

If you’re visiting from America or Western Europe, you’re not a gypsy. Even if you’re dark skinned, even if you actually have gypsy ancestry, even if you think of yourself as gypsy, your Western wealth and status make you Not A Gypsy in Romanian eyes. However, you’re going to see plenty of gypsies in Romania, and you may be very disturbed by what you find there.

Romanians carry lots of stereotypes about gypsies. Here’s just a few:

  • Gypsies are swindlers. If you try to make a bargain with one, you’d better watch out, because he’s going to try to screw you over.
  • Gypsies are thieves. If you live near gypsies, you’d better lock everything up tight, because otherwise the gypsies will break in and steal it. Keep a tight grip on your wallet if you see gypsies in the market.
  • Gypsies practice witchcraft. You can often see gypsies acting as fortune-tellers in the markets. They can work hexes on you if you insult them.

There are basically two ways to react to this situation, and if you stay in Romania long enough you’re likely to experience both poles of this dichotomy. The options are:

Stuff White People Think: Obviously the gypsies are an oppressed people. The stereotypes about them are completely unfounded, and in fact the existence of all of these negative stereotypes is the reason that gypsies are so poor and underprivileged. If Romanians would just open their eyes and stop being so racist, they’d see that the gypsies are wonderful people with a beautiful culture of their own, and the gypsies and the Romanians would live in perfect harmony.

This viewpoint is likely to persist until the second or third time you get followed through the market with a gypsy woman on your tail begging loudly to read your palm, or until the gypsy boys down the street break into your ground-floor apartment. At that point you’re likely to Buy Into the Hype. Everything that Romanians say about gypsies is true. The gypsies are poor because they’re filthy and dishonest. You have every right to avoid them on the street and watch them distrustfully when you see them in the market. And naturally you’ll want to find another apartment further away from those people.

At this point, it would be nice to say that my experiences in Romania disproved the stereotypes and showed the baselessness of Romanian anti-gypsy prejudice, but that would be a lie. In reality, despite my initial favorable disposition to the gypsy people, I rather quickly learned to keep my wits and wallets about me when I saw gypsies approaching. This sort of thing falls into the realm of unfortunate necessity, a necessity that many people have discovered.

So what does this practically mean for you, the intrepid traveler?

In the first place, I’ll repeat the advice that any tourist is likely to receive. Don’t give money to panhandlers (of any race). Don’t go to people offering to read palms, tarot cards, or any other kind of fortune-telling, no matter how fun or innocent it might seem. Keep an eye on your valuables, especially when in crowded public places like markets. Do all of these things double when gypsies are involved. You may feel uncomfortable about doing so—I certainly feel uncomfortable giving this advice—but you’re not actually helping the gypsies any by letting them steal from you.

On the other hand, don’t hesitate to buy from gypsy vendors who are selling handicrafts or homemade goods.

Don’t bother arguing with Romanians about gypsies and racism or anything of the sort. They’ll tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and they’ll be right.

If you actually want to help the welfare of gypsies in Romania, I recommend that you donate to a reputable Romanian charity, or one dedicated to helping gypsies across Europe. You, as a visitor to Romania, are not in much of a position to change Romanian culture or make any real difference in the lives of the gypsies that you meet. However, there are many charities that are doing real work to increase literacy, provide job training, etc., and they’re much better equipped to actually help people break out of the trap of poverty and crime.

One last thing

Have fun in Romania. I love the country, and I can’t wait until the next time my family and I get to go back.

Please read this before commenting: A more positive follow-up. I get a lot of people complaining in the comments that I was overly negative about Romania, so I want to make sure that people see the other side and realize that there are lots of great things about Romania, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from going there.

Dracula’s Ancestry

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I’m still reading Dracula, and I’ve gotten to the most recent post, in which Dracula discusses his ancestry. This is a very interesting section, but as I read it I’m pretty sure that ol’ Bram didn’t actually know his history very well. Either that or he’s repeating historical theories that have since been discredited. The relevant passage is this:

We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, aye, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the werewolves themselves had come. Here, too, when they came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of those old witches, who, expelled from Scythia had mated with the devils in the desert. Fools, fools! What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” He held up his arms. “Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race, that we were proud, that when the Magyar, the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar, or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers, we drove them back?

A couple of points:

  • Dracula calls himself a Szekely (Romanian secui), who are a Hungarian-speaking minority in Romania. Bram, of course, is free to make Dracula whatever he wants, but the historical “Dracula” Vlad Ţepeş was completely Romanian.
  • Dracula seems to state that the “Ugric race” came from Iceland. What?
  • He also claims to have been instrumental in protecting Hungary and Transylvania from invasion by various barbarians, especially the Turks. This part is true, both of the Szekely and, later, of the historical Vlad Dracula.

My feeling is that this passage contains a few other historical infelicities, but I’m not actually knowledgeable enough about the history of the region to say for sure.

Visiting Dracula

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I was recently given the link to Dracula, which is a presentation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in blog format. The original novel is an epistolary, with every section dated, and the novel is being posted section-by-section on the appropriate dates. It’s a delightful way to read.

The first post was on May 3, which I just read and experienced the distinct pleasure of being in or very near to the places that the author describes. The first paragraph that caught my mind was this one:

Having had some time at my disposal when in London, I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a nobleman of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. (emphasis mine)

The city of Suceava, where I’m typing this, is actually in Bucovina (to use the modern spelling), but it’s very near the old border of Moldavia. In fact, people from other parts of the country will usually tell you that Suceava is in Moldavia, though the Suceavans themselves try to associate with Bucovina since Moldavians are stereotyped as backward hicks. It’s complicated by the fact that there are not now any official political entities with those names, and the historical regions that they represent had very flexible borders.

I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place.

That would be Bistriţa, a city not far from here that I’ve also passed through. This gives me a strange sense of dislocation while reading, because the geography that Stoker presents is meant to seem remote and exotic–but for me Bistriţa is a fairly boring city a few hours away by train.

In the population of Transylvania there are four district nationalities: Saxons in the South, and mixed with them the Wallachs, who are descendants of the Dacians; Magyars in the West, and Szekelys in the East and North.

Time for some ethnography! The Saxons are known on Romanian as saşi, and they still exist in Transylvania, though in much reduced numbers. The “Wallachs” are what we would consider the native Romanians, descended from the Romanized inhabitants of ancient Dacia after the Romans conquered the province. The Szekely are a Hungarian-speaking people known to Romanians as sacui, who still exist in considerable numbers in the western parts of Romania (which the author refers to as the east, coming as he does from further west).

Linguistic aside: the etymon *walah is a fascinating one, as it has been borrowed from one language to another all over Europe, its meaning changing several times along the way, but always with the meaning “those funny people over there who don’t speak proper”. In English it provides the root for Wales and Welsh, and also Walloon (a name for some dialects of Dutch). In Germany it referred to any Romance-speaking peoples, and I believe provides the word for “Italian” in some dialects. In Slavic languages it usually refers to Romanians, but to Romanians themselves it refers to the Romanian peoples living outside of Romania, the Aromanians, Meglo-Romanians, and Istro-Romanians. Which just goes to show that everyone needs a word for “those funny people over there who don’t speak proper”.

I had for breakfast more paprika, and sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was “mamaliga,” and eggplant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call “implelata.” (Mem., get recipe for this also.)

The maize porridge is properly mămăligă, staple dish throughout Romania. I had some last night, in fact. It’s very similar to polenta as served in the American south. I can’t figure out what Romanian word “implelata” is supposed to refer to, and no one else in the house does, either. It’s not a dish that I’m familiar with, but here’s a Romanian cooking site with a recipe matching the discription. If you want to follow the author’s suggestion and get a recipe, you can probably follow just based on the pictures, and there’s always Google Translate.

At every station there were groups of people, sometimes crowds, and in all sorts of attire. Some of them were just like the peasants at home or those I saw coming through France and Germany, with short jackets and round hats and homemade trousers; but others were very picturesque. The women looked pretty; except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them.

This is actually a pretty good description of traditional Romanian dress. But this being the internet, I can just show you a picture:

Traditional Romanian Dress

This isn’t exactly a common sight on the street these days, but it would be familiar to anyone who’s spent significant time in Romania.

The moral of the story is: if you set your story in a strange, exotic place, people who actually live in that place will not find it as strange and exotic. If you care.

The Old Country

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My wife and I arrived last night in Suceava, Romania, where we’ll be spending the next month (minus a week when we’ll be in Italy). We’re glad to be here, but getting here… is a little more difficult. Especially because my wife gets terribly nauseous on the plane. And that 16 hours of flying are followed by 8 hours of driving, all to reach my in-laws.

Some thoughts on travel:

  • Airplane food isn’t good, exactly, but it’s free, and it also breaks up the monotony of sitting in that chair. Therefore I find that I look for much more than its quality deserves.
  • Ciprian was a wonderful baby to fly with. He slept most of the time and happily played in his car-seat the rest of the time. And he flirted with the flight attendants to get whatever he wanted from them.
  • Romania has potato chips flavored with Baked Chicken, Paprika, and Wild Mushrooms and Sour Cream. The mushroom flavored chips are delicious.

Romani, Racism, and Romania

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Here’s a popular Romanian joke:

A gypsy and his neighbor set out to build their houses. They spared no expense, and they succeeded in building two identical houses, brick for brick. When they were done, they both stepped back to admire their work.

“What a great house!” the one said. “I’ll bet that I can sell it for a million dollars.”

“What a great house!” the gypsy said. “I’ll bet that I can sell mine for two million dollars.”

“What?” the neighbor said. “Our houses are identical. Why would yours sell for twice what mine sells for?”

“Easy,” the gyspy said. “I don’t live next to a gyspy.”

And here’s a true story that happened to me while I was living in Romania:

I lived outside of town and had to take a bus into work. I lived near a gypsy enclave, and my bus was often filled with people bringing their wares into town. One day the bus was very crowded (as usual), and I offered my seat to a youngish gypsy woman who looked tired and weary. She took it without a word. Then, about halfway through the trip, she started harassing me to give her money. I politely ignored her, but she became increasingly strident, offering to tell me my fortune in exchange for whatever money I was willing to give her. As she grew more insistent I grew more impatient, until the bus finally arrived downtown and I hurriedly disembarked to escape.

No luck. She followed me, pulling on my sleeve and almost physically attempting to keep me from leaving. In exasperation I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out the first thing that I found: a 1000 lei coin (a tiny pittance, since a loaf of bread cost 10,000 lei at the time). I tried to push it into her hand, but it slipped out and fell into the muck and snow at the edge of the bus stop. She dashed after it, then looked at me in disgust when she realized that she had dirtied her hands for such a pathetic sum.

A cop was standing nearby, and he started laughing. He winked at me in camaraderie–he naturally assumed that I had done this on purpose to humiliate the woman. Horrified and embarrassed, I fled from the bus stop and towards downtown.

I say these two things to illustrate the following points:

  • Romani (gypsies) are subjected to immense, pervasive prejudice in Romania. One simply assumes that gypsies are dirty, irresponsible, rapacious, abusive, fortune-tellers, thieves, and swindlers. Anti-Romani racism is nearly universal and almost never questioned. In this sense Romania is quite different from the US, where racism is usually covert and subtle. Romanian bias is overt, obvious, and most of all considered normal.
  • At the same time, the prejudice is not really racial. It’s cultural. Romani who adopt mainstream dress, language, and lifestyle are pretty easily integrated. My wife descends from such a family: her paternal grandparents were gypsies who settled and entered Romanian mainstream, and this heritage has had close to zero impact on her and the rest of her family. She and all of her sisters are darker-skinned than the average Romanian, but no-one cares. I knew other people who were obviously Romani, but who had no trouble integrating into normal economic life once they took up Romanian dress, religion, etc. This also contrasts with historical attitudes in the US, where one-drop rules meant that people with mixed ancestry felt the full weight of segregation.
  • Partly for this reason, official attempts to redress this situation have been entirely ineffective, from what I can see. Officially, the Romani are not țigani but romi, and public-service advertisements against racism are visible in all major cities. The result? People now tell racist jokes using the word rom instead of țigan. Progress, eh? Additionally, there’s very little political consciousness among the gypsies themselves (that I know of). This dooms any attempts to address the problem through official channels, and makes the gestures that have been undertaken seem like condescension.
  • The story of what happened to me on the bus illustrates a problem with many of the accepted narratives about why racial stereotypes exist. In this feel-good just-so story, stereotypes are a means for the privileged to keep the underclass down, and closer interaction with the oppressed shows the stereotype to be false, and so racism disappears. My experience was just the opposite. Most interactions that most people have with gypsies in Romania serve to reinforce the stereotype. Indeed, the most horrific stories of spousal and child abuse I’ve ever heard have come from my sister-in-law and her husband, who do social work in an impoverished gypsy village. Their experience working closely with the Romani has not served to create the comfortable illusion that the gypsies are “just like us” beneath their skin, but rather has deepened the impression that there are terrible dysfunctions in Romani culture and mores.
  • Since the real divide between gypsies and Romanians in Romania is cultural, some people would counsel tolerance and mutual respect. Tolerance might be possible, but it will never lead to respect, because the differences between mainstream and Romani culture are imbued with moral significance. For example, it is not uncommon for Romani women to be married in their teens, and to have a few children by the time they reach their twenties. This is combined with widespread domestic abuse and general misogyny. Is this something that should be tolerated and respected? And this is just one example that I picked as congenial to Westerners–there are many other examples of cultural differences imbued with moral significance that separate the gypsy minority from the Romanian mainstream.
  • There is a conflict between the desire to preserve and respect Romani culture and the desire to eliminate prejudice against the Romani, because the culture is largely the cause of the prejudice. Okay, we say, we’ll keep the good (or neutral) aspects of the culture and get rid of the bad ones. Keep the bright dresses and lose the child marriage. Okay, but which cultural aspects are good and which are bad? And who gets to decide? The Romani themselves, or well-meaning liberal bureaucrats in Bucharest and Brussels? I have a hunch who’s actually going to set the policies that determine the future of Romani in Romania, and I’m suspicious that it’s just another form of racism, masquerading as multiculturalism.

And yet… I don’t think that we should be complacent about the treatment of gypsies in Romania (or anywhere else). I just think that we should be realistic about the content and the causes of prejudice.

If you like this, you may be interested in A visitor’s guide to Romanian racism.