Turks, Germans, Americans... And Other Nationalities

An event that happened several years ago and has turned, in time, into an urban legend, goes like this: the employees of a German-owned media trust had become lazy and unruly, would come to work when, and if, they felt like it, and would actually work only between two coffee breaks. Consequently, the trust management decided to send a reliable person "on the field", to set the Romanians right. During the first two months, the German guy demonstrated to the fullest the proverbial qualities of his nation and, calmly and seriously, he set about "putting things in order", creating panic among the employees who were reconsidering their behaviour. Two more months later, though, one could easily notice that the "boss" was the last one in coming into the office, around noon, with a hangover resulting from the previous night's carousal, had obviously put on weight as he had developed a liking for the forcemeat sausages and the tripe soup, giving up the lacto-vegetarian diet he had observed all his life, and the loose tongues had it that he frequented high-class prostitutes, despite his having a family back home in Germany. Moreover, one of the employees, a former hippie in his youth, was ready to swear, crossing his heart, that in the evenings a faint whiff of marihuana crept out of the guy's office. Leaving aside the anecdotal side of the story, we discover other tiny examples along the same line: Vietnamese men at the market place, fiercely bargaining over the price of the gherkins their wives are going to pickle, Arab children eating sunflower seeds in front of the entrance to the apartment building, Africans swinging to the rhythm of fake gypsy music in the Colentina district, Latin-Americans grabbing girls' behinds on the bus. Could Romanians be a nation with such a strong identity that they are able to alter fundamentally the life style of foreigners who, for one reason or another, have chosen to live here? Or could it be that the Romanian sloth, the indolence, the dolce far niente make up an environment easy to indulge in? FarukHe is a Turk from Istanbul, a handsome Turk, it's true, who would probably have caused a stir acting in a soap opera: "raven black" hair, as the ballad goes, black eyes, a few "virile" drops of sweat at the temples. Starched white shirt. "Grandfather, barber, father, barber, me, barber!" comes his simple explanation for his choice of profession, and then he instructs his employees, two plump, but probably attractive (it's a matter of taste) Romanian girls, to fetch tea. We sit down on chairs with fake leather upholstery, the tea arrives, crimson-coloured, served in small glasses, and he offers us cigarettes. On TV, on a Turkish channel, an ethno show, traditional dancing on the shores of the Bosporus. You forget for a moment that you are in the Rahova district, that ten metres away passes the can-tram packed with pickpockets, that from the outside the barber shop looks like a "dive", the paint on the walls is flaking off, the signboard is barely visible, but the true "connoisseurs" know the place. "Shall we play something?" He fetches his instrument, a bahlama, plugs it on to the loudspeakers. He starts playing, with his eyes closed, something sad, "heartfelt". The employees stop from cutting the clients' hair, stand still and listen somewhat admiringly, even the two children of the Turk came in from across the street, from the kebab stall. It's a show in its own right. "Me learned play when I was little... how you call it? Amateur. For me play, for the customers play!" We like it, he "gives" us another one, then explains what's the deal with the customers: "In the morning when they comes to the barber shop, really angry! Fight with wife, politics, football and we sees he is so angry! Me says: sit down, drink some tea, some coffee, we tells stories, we sings something... and only after that he gets his haircut! After, he looks in the mirror, pretty he is and then he laughs and we happy!" His "philosophy" looks simple and easy enough to apply; it couldn't hurt if shop attendants who sell sausages and cheese, or public servants tried it too, on a smaller scale, naturally. What is interesting is that prices are not fixed at Faruk's barber shop, but differ according to the customer. To Faruk, all money is, to a certain extent, "baksheesh". If he "likes your face", you are receptive to music and he is touched by your morning "annoyance", he cuts your hair almost for free. If your "final" happiness is too obvious, he probably asks more. In fact, almost all of Faruk's customers are part of the "community" and the barber shop is a place for meeting and socializing, the way his father's once was in Istanbul. Why did he come to Romania? "Because life here is... what was that? Sweet. If you go to Germany, France, the EU... there much work, much stress... there people doesn't stay to talk, to play, no time! Here time enough, like in Turkey... laziness! We plays one more?" George"Won't you help poor old Negro with no friends to move? Beer on me, something..." Why not? He hasn't paid his rent on the apartment on Dorobantzi street for three months, the landlord is threatening to chase him out, so he's leaving "on the QT". He's moving into a cheaper apartment in Colentina. It is the sixth address he's changed and each time he cheated the landlord out of the last months' rent and the phone bill. Only long distance calls. To Nigeria, where his parents and his three younger siblings stayed behind, to France and to the States, where his three elder brothers are living. "Me ended up worst: in Romania! But it's all right here!" laughs George. He is around 35, he is a dentist, but has never practiced. While he is loading his stuff into the van, yelling to the driver "Mind the computer! Me dead without computer!" he casts reproachful glances to his tiny, white and pale Romanian girlfriend, bent double under the weight of a desk. "Why didn't you go to mamma's? You said go to mamma's. You're getting in my way!" The girlfriend begins to weep, hurls the desk into the van and turns away. George is relieved: "On my case... day and night on my case!" He inspects the new apartment, arms akimbo, and comes to the conclusion that he should have a recreation corner: sofa, coffee table, discrete lamps on brackets. The girlfriend calls, whimpering. "Sweetheart, me tired now! Tomorrow we meet, celebrate the new house!" He hangs up, then takes a chair out on the corridor and in about ten minutes he "steals" cable TV. We sit down on the sofa, in front of the TV. George calms down, takes a bottle of whisky out of a knapsack, fetches glasses. "Nice house," he mumbles, to himself seemingly. After half an hour, a lass who doesn't speak one word in Romanian or English rings the bell. She is Serbian, she's lost in Romania, we couldn't understand how and why, although she did try to explain through gestures. George gives her a smacking kiss and dispatches her to the supermarket. "If Alina sees, me dead Negro tomorrow!" he winks to us. Then he informs us that he is going to cook curry chicken, Nigerian style. It's already past midnight, George is a little lashed, he says we are his "buddies" and suggests a "business": "Don't you know girls, not good girls, not too pretty, who wants to go to Italy make lots of money? We make passports, dress girls nice, you fat commission, one thousand bucks a girl... what d'you say?" We can't tell whether George is rambling or he's talking "business," but the image of the Negro who's somewhat of a punk, but likeable, nonetheless fades away. We leave him with the Serbian girl and split. Juan CarlosHe is an architect by formation, but he is not working in the field, although he is able to talk for minutes, in a professional tone, about an interesting building. He loved the cinematography in the movie Gattaca. He has a catching laughter. He likes to go to the pub, to be a little fashionable, to drink "little beers" and bat his eyelashes whenever he doesn't understand the conversation at the table, although he speaks Romanian well enough and discovers phrases that are impossible to translate into his language, like "really?" or "no shit": "We say beastly, too, and means the same thing in this... street language". The best Romanian dish he has ever tasted was a "green walnut preserve". He turns his head after pretty girls, as far as the decorum of his Latin blood allows it, because he is married to a Romanian lady. His job is to organize all sorts of cultural events that involve Latin American countries. He is dissatisfied with the cultural life in Bucharest: "Back home, in Caracas, it's all much more alive, much more events, more concerts for the most diverse public... because we have a very young culture and are eager for everything that's new!" He does not think low of Latin American soap operas. "It's just that nothing but these no good soap operas made it to Romania. Back home we have very intelligent soap operas which illustrate social realities and show people from all walks of life." In his spare time he plays in a bongo band. He uses the wrong diminutive for everything he likes. For instance, this Saturday he is going to a "shindiggy", where there will be dancing to "Latinish" rhythms. You envy him for his style, so different from everything you meet in the street. You feel suddenly at ease around him, as if you'd just crossed the frontier into a foreign country. He speaks nonchalantly about South American writers, who "write well because they've got plenty of inspiration... back there everything changes all the time and it happens so fast!" A rendezvous with Juan Carlos could turn into a holiday destination for anybody. KateShe came to Romania on a cultural programme. More specifically, she cast herself into the middle of nowhere, because she knew next to nothing about the place she was going to visit, which she has stumbled across on the net. At first, I thought she was fleeing some political regime. In reality, she was fleeing a tyrannical husband and the unyielding rules of a religious sect in a small town in Tennessee. Typical middle age American: housewife, wanna-be writer, over-weight, uninhibited, naive. One shocking detail: she had nine children. Apparently, this voyage changed her life, she found the atmosphere here extremely friendly, since most Romanians are suspiciously kind towards Americans and, paradoxically, she felt safe. So much so that, on returning home, she decided to break free from the husband she had never loved, as their marriage had been arranged by the community when she was eighteen, to leave her children fend for themselves and move to Romania to engage in "charity work", supporting a humanitarian foundation. She suddenly felt like a new person: she no longer had to sing daily to Jesus, or to bake huge apple pies to feed ten mouths, to devote her life to the washing machine and the TV set, to obey her husband and put up with his violent temper and describe her anxieties, among sighs, in her diary. More than that, an American publisher, moved by the "true story" of her life, promised to publish a book meant to "open the eyes" of other women in America, thus helping them on their way towards independence. Backbiters have it the woman actually fell in love with the president of the Suceava based charitable foundation. This is where she came to live and it wasn't long before she was won over by the provincial desolation of the town. She noticed Romanians do little more than drink their days away at the pub, complaining about their "shitty life", get drunk and then turn more violent even than the religious husband. She also noticed that prices are always higher for her than for the locals, that everybody expects her to leave tips wherever she goes. Those "wonderful" people she met on her first visit have already grown used to her and barely pay her any notice any longer, while the president of the foundation seems more preoccupied with a glass of vodka than with a fairy tale romance. I have no idea to what end will come Kate's adventure in Romania. Worst case, she will turn alcoholic, marry a Moldavian guy with a bohemian disposition and raise another couple of children. Yet maybe she will be strong enough not to catch the local disease and finish her book first. We are all in need of "recipes for success". Dilema veche, August-September 2005

by Adina Popescu