Friday, 10 Apr 98
The Street Urchins
There are a fair number of street kids who beg on the center city boulevards.
They target foreigners (who they know have money and lack sense) because
the locals have seen so much of them that their hearts have hardened as
their pockets have emptied.
There is one urchin in particular who haunts the blocks along Balchescue
that I usually take to work. He is a cute kid about eight or nine years
old and he has a winning smile. His modus operandi is the same as the
rest: he walks up to you from behind and puts his hand out and says, "Hey,
mister. Give me money for pizza? 500. Hey, mister." He dogs my heals,
the arm of his open hand touching my arm as I walk. He adjusts his pace
to mine perfectly and doesn't give up. "Please, mister, please."
Sometimes I would give him one or two 100 lei coins. Whatever, it would
never be enough. "Please, mister, for food. Must eat. Pizza 500.
You American?" All the time smiling with a hungry look in his eyes.
His face is dirty and you really want to help. He speaks just enough English
to engage you and your sympathies. That was then.
Today I was walking along Balchescue and the needful urchin appeared from
behind and said, "Please, Mr., Food." All I had was a single
100 lei coin so I gave it to him. "No good! Must have more!"
and he tosses the coin onto the sidewalk and continues to dog me as I
walked. "Give me 5,000! Give me 10,000! Give me." "NO!"
I said and repeated to his encore of "Give me!" His insistence
increased until I was sorry that I had ever given him anything at all.
I walked and walked, he dogged and dogged. Finally he said, "Mother
fucking bastard!!" and he fell back into the crowd.
Relieved, I walked to the theater that was showing "In and Out"
which I was planning to see with friends. The moving was at 7:30 which
was just right. As I left the theater, I noticed a woman walking with
a young boy beside her. She had a strange, eerie, rather scary look in
her face that was centered around her sunken eyes and sallow skin.
I let them pass and walked behind them. As I did so, she noticed me and
gave a nearly imperceptible nod to the boy. As I started walking down
the street, he came up to me from behind and said, "Food. Need food.
Give." My charitable instincts were a bit exhausted and I said, "No!".
He dogged my heals, saying "Give, give, give!" I chanted, "No,
no, no." Quite the antiphony we made. Suddenly he turned back and
shouted, "Big ass hole!"
I decided there were too many people on my side of the street so I crossed
Balchescue mid block. As I got to the other side and wove my way through
the parked cars, I could see a girl of about 12 weaving along parallel
to me trying to overtake me. "Give me money!" "NO!"
I said and must have sounded like I meant it for she broke off following
me and shouted, "Fuck off!"
Was this all brought to me by Easter? Does giving to street people just
create a begging economy where people only know how to beg and reject
other possible options? How much of an industry is this? More than just
a little? How much is adults manipulating children?
A month ago, a friend of mine (who had extensive experience in Russia)
wrote about my impressions the street kids and said:
"Writing about the street urchins after having
dealt with them for two months would be no good because you will learn
to hate the little bastards."
And I have only been here only six weeks.
Have a Happy [Catholic Easter, Protestant Easter, Jewish Passover, Orthodox
Easter, Other]! Circle the category of your choice.
Saturday, April 11, 1998
The Romanian people are very polite, Western oriented, and very friendly.
It is standard procedure for a man meeting a woman to kiss the back of
her hand and while doing so, to look deep into her eyes. Woman love it
and it doesn't seem to matter whether they are Romanian or American. When
men and women meet who know each other they kiss each other on both sides
of the face in a very friendly gesture.
One Romanian told me that Herodotus in reporting on the Trachi -- the
tribe that lived in this region about 400 BC -- said that they "were
disunited, valuing laziness and considered work humiliating." Herodotus
also reported that the inhabitants of what is now southern Romania (historically
called Wallachia) were "the bravest and most courageous". This
Romanian failed to be complete about Herodotus' comments. Another Romanian
told me that Herodotus had said of the Trachi that "they are honest
-- when they don't steal."
The politeness of Romanians goes beyond person to person relations; it
has a formal aspect as well: when they address each other they use the
formal titles of Mr Mayor, Mrs, Miss, Mr. Doctor, etc. I found this out
when our Romanian training coordinator asked me why we always insist that
Romanians in our training programs have their first name on their badges
when none of the participants referred to each other by their first names?
I thought about it and realized that he was probably right, that it would
make more sense to give them name badges that had on them what the participants
really called each other. But then, thinking more on it, thinking about
how Americans feel about titles of any kind, I realized that we probably
could not do that. If we did the sane thing and observed Romanian custom
(When in Rome . . .), some bozo in the States would accuse us (the training
team) of excessive formality.
I asked a Romanian who had spent several months in the States about this
and she told me that yes, Romanians were more formal with each other than
Americans were. She went on to say that "people can get too close
and I think it a good thing that certain boundaries are maintained. At
work, I expect to be referred to as Mrs., even by people I have known
for ten years."
I said to her, "So I have been violating your cultural norms since
the moment I was introduced to you?" She replied, "No, small
nations do not expect big nations to understand their norms." I asked,
"But what of other people I meet, they will think me rude."
She said, "No, we have seen so many of your movies that we know how
you refer to each other and what you mean by it." This reminded me
of Thailand where you can make mistakes and the Thai's think, "He
is a farong (foreigner) and cannot be expected to understand our ways."
In Japan, I am told that things are different: when a foreigner violates
one of the many (and, to a Westerner, obscure) customs, the Japanese think,
Joe Tries to Learn Romanian
I am studying Romania sign language. No, not the use of the hands to communicate
-- although I am told that signing in Romania is different from signing
in the states [I knew you wanted to know that] -- but the meaning of word
that appear on shop and street signs. See how practical I have become?
This can be embarrassing. In studying signs I have noticed a lot of signs
at construction sites that say "Aedificia Carpati" (pronounced
A-de-fichia Carpatz) which I brutalized into "Edifice Car Parking"
or, colloquially, Parking Garage (not to be confused with "garaj"
which means "driveway." But I was confused how an economically
distressed country could be constructing so many parking garages.
Then I managed to confuse the second word of the "Aedificia Carpati"
signs with the second word of the "nu parcarti" (pronounced
"new parkatz") signs that are all over Bucharest. When I learned
that "Carpati" means "Carpathians" (as in the mountains
by that name) I thought that Bucharest was covered with signs that said
"No Carpathians" which I thought odd even for this country.
I asked someone to explain this to me and he gave me that "you have
two heads" look that I am becoming accustomed to so I said I will
find a sign and show it to him. I did find and show and he pointed out
that the sign said "nu parcati" [no parking] not "nu carpati"
[no Carpathians]. I was puce with embarrassment.
A More Relaxed Way of Life
Romanians display a certain Latin indifference to time but a greater sensitivity
to feelings. They give flowers as gifts frequently. You can see people
-- women especially -- carrying flowers every day. There are special days
to give women flowers and flowers are a regular gift. They are relatively
inexpensive and, of course, beautiful.
Update on Superstitions
When you open a pack of cigarettes (80% of the people must smoke here),
you take one out and put it back in up-side-down. You smoke this cigarette
last and when you light it, if it lights on the side, your lover is unfaithful
to you and if it lights correctly, your lover has been faithful. There
are no records to indicate the number of relationships that have been
broken up because someone badly lit a last cigarette under the influence
Religion in Romania
The Orthodox faith is very strong and was never suppressed here. The government
contented itself with forcing the Uniate Catholic Church to merge with
the Orthodox. That has now been undone since the revolution.
I will be going to an Easter church service next week. I am told that
a regular service is four hours long and their are no seats. Everyone
stands and when they get tired, they leave. So the whole thing is filled
with coming and going. The service on Easter Sunday begins at 9 PM on
Saturday and ends around 6 AM on Sunday. I hope to take some of it in.
But not too much.
12 Apr 98
The more I learn about this country the more interesting it becomes. Life
here has been so difficult for the last 15 years that the population is
probably declining. I have seen figures that suggest a decline of 100,000
to 150,000 per year. This is not serious short term but could eventually
become significant if the economy is not turned around. Romanians are
a middle class people without money and they are reacting to privation
in a classic fashion.
You may have noticed on the news that President Constantinescu dismissed
his Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea. I certainly don't know the skinny on
this but it was apparent that the Parliament was unhappy with the efforts
at economic restructuring and they decided to take it out on the Prime
Minister who was also the Mayor of Bucharest. In fact, a special clause
to allow him to keep both jobs was inserted in a bill to allow local governments
to set up their own treasuries (instead of using the Ministry of Finance
county offices). The upshot was that the bill was rejected by one house
and is now floating in some limbo in Parliament.
Romania has traveled a difficult road since 1989. The group that took
over after Ceausescu was executed were just a bunch of retread Communists
with no original ideas about economics and many of the old ideas about
the use of state force. Many Romanians feel that they have lost years
in failing to address their problems and are doomed to yet more years
of suffering as the economy is reformed seriously. It is indeed true that
the difficult decisions on industrial restructuring and privatization
of the economy are still up in the air. Fortunately the new cabinet is
basically the same as the old so it is reformist in character. But will
they be any more effective than the last government?
Of course, some of these questions arise from the difficulties of running
a government in a multi-party democracy where unstable coalition governments
are the rule and the necessity. Election here are by proportional representation
so every small group can get some seats in Parliament. Indeed, I read
of one election in which 18 parties banded together to become one of 12
or so parties running. It is a little hard for an American to understand.
Fortunately, I grew up in the People's Republic of Cambridge, so that
One of the destabilizing factors in recent years has been inflation. Things
have been under control since I arrived [coincidence or one of the broader
impacts of my visit?] but I found some data that says: "Following
the implementation of a price limitation program, the annual rate of inflation
averaged 142.6% in 1991-95; inflation increased to an annual average of
256.1% in 1993, but the rate slowed dramatically to 136.8% in 1994 and
to 32.3% in 1995. The rate of unemployment was estimated at 6.3% of the
labor force at the end of 1996." [I wonder if the unemployment figure
isn't a hint about the need for further restructuring?]
The day I arrived a dollar converted to 8,200 lei and currently converts
at 8,400 lei. In percents that is .98 percent per month or an annual rate
of 11.7%. So the exchange rate is under control here at least for the
moment. The story is not over yet, of course.
Inflation plays havoc with savings and investment patterns here. During
the period of high inflation the government made interest rates on savings
keep pace with inflation. Virtually all corporate and local government
borrowing is from banks rather than in the non-existent bond markets,
and with very short maturities and/or at variable rates. Most local government
borrowing (such as it has been) has been intergovernmental and nationally
There is another factor. The vast majority of people here are very poor.
There was an article in the paper that said that in Poland and the Czech
Republic people are saving to go on a vacation. In Romania they are saving
to buy new clothes. And you can bet that people who save to by clothing
are not putting money in banks very much.
One of the things USAID would like to see happen here is the creation
of a municipal bond market as well as other methods that would allow local
governments to address their infrastructure needs for both economic development
and pollution abatement.
Given what I have seen of the current status of things here, this will
take time and effort.
Above, a picture of Ceausescu
in a parade in Maramures, Romania.
15 Apr 98
Everything recent in Romania seems to come back to Ceausescu.
His impact is everywhere and seems to have impacted everything -- mostly
in a negative way. He had residences in every one of the 40 counties,
he had villas in every hunting or skiing area, he had resorts by the Black
Sea. He had it all and all of it wasn't enough.
Even creating a building larger than any pyramid was not enough. Even
giving it wildly unnecessary accouterments wasn't enough. The People's
Palace has a car elevator so that Ceausescu could arrive for a speech
by being borne out of the ground in a luxury limousine.
His propaganda machine ground out unbelievable pap about Ceausescu as
the father of the people, as the worker's best friend, blah, blah, blah.
There were signs everywhere extolling his achievements and portraits of
both him and his wife, Elena. It seems that no one but Ceausescu believed
any of this.
His mania grew and grew. It was as if he had begun to believe his press
releases -- a dangerous thing to do in a free society and a fatal error
in a dictatorship. As the economy collapsed in the '80s and scarcity became
want, as more and more people went day to day with hunger in their stomachs
only the full force of state terrorism kept the people's rage in check.
The security system was all pervasive. Under the
communists you had to register your typewriter every January with the
police. Donna Dima had to carry two of them to the police office and then
type a page of text so that the police had a record of the characters
should any samizdats turn up later. She spent hours doing this, tying
up office time and space as she pretended to be a bad typist.
You can almost guess that computers and faxes locked in room each night
and were closely supervised during the day.
This was just the surface stuff. If the Secret Police decided that you
were a trouble maker, they disappeared you -- just like the description
in "Catch 22." After your friends had not heard from you in
a while, they might go to your apartment and knock. A strange man answers
the door. "Where is so-and-so," your friends ask. "Who
is he?" the strange man says. "He used to live here." "That's
impossible, I have lived here for years." And you were never heard
No one knew who the informers were but they were believed to be everywhere.
You only dared to tell what you really thought to your spouse and then
only in the kitchen with the water running. Even then, you could not know
That was the negative side. There was a "positive" side to cooperation.
The Communists controlled everything. If you wanted anything you had to
get it from them and the price was cooperation. If you needed to move
to a city to take a job there, you had to get an apartment. If you lived
within 40 Km of the city, it was illegal to rent an apartment and only
legal to buy one if the Party would look the other way. And apartments
So perhaps your papers to buy were approved but they could always be questioned
later -- if you were not cooperative. You might cooperate by passing some
unqualified students (relatives of important party members). Of course,
you could be accused of failing your responsibilities later.
So day by day, month by month, year by year, you would gradually sell
out your soul and cooperate. Imagine how this corrodes the spirit.
If you decided to sell your soul to the Devil and become a communist,
things were better in a material way -- as befitted a materialist society.
You went to the head of the line, at least ahead of any non-communist.
The University in Potesti made Donna Dima an offer to teach English but
the Chief of the Secret Police in the region changed. His wife was an
English teacher so she got the job, not Donna.
So how could such a system fail? How could such a government collapse?
The factors were both external and internal. Ultimately, the communist
dictatorships of Eastern Europe were imposed by the Russians and they
continued to exist because of Russia's willingness to use the Red Army
to maintain them. Remember the rebellions in East Germany and Hungary
in 1956, the Prague Spring of '69(?), and martial law in Poland in '78(?)?
In each case the communist governments survived only by Red Army intervention
or threat of same. With Gorbachov, all this changed but Ceausescu couldn't/wouldn't
In 1989 the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were collapsing like top
heavy dominoes. In Romania, Ceausescu was determined to maintain control
at all costs but his imperious ways and fickle decision making had isolated
him from the communist bureaucrats as well as the people.
Here the story becomes very unclear. It is widely believed here that a
group of key bureaucrats had decided that if they got rid of Ceausescu
they could rule in his place. But how do you get rid of a man surrounded
by security forces that rise or fall with him? In November 1989, wages
were reduced and hours increased at a tractor factory in Brashov. Desperate
beyond hope, a mass riot occurred and the communist party headquarters
in the city were sacked and burned. It took troops firing into the people
to suppress the riot. Nothing was said in the Romanian media but word
got to the West and the BBC and Radio Free Europe reported the disturbance
so it became widely known in the country.
In mid December in Timisoara, a popular priest who had given anti-government
sermons was to be moved to a distant parish. Large crowds gathered at
the church to prevent the move but it went on anyway. Larger crowds gathered
and demanded Ceausescu's resignation. The army again fired into the crowd
and cleared the streets for a while. The factories surrounding Timisoara
went on strike and crowds as large as 100,000 chanted anti-Ceausescu slogans.
At this point either the soldiers refused to fire
Ceausescu called for a big demonstration of support of his policies and
the usual 100,000 workers were bused to the communist party headquarters
for the usual display of loyalty. Ceausescu started to give the usual
speech but was interrupted by chants of "Timisoara! Timisoara!"
This was unheard of. Ceausescu was dumbstruck and the TV cameras recorded
nearly a minute of his dazed, confused and fearful expression for the
entire nation to see. Everyone knew the end had come.
Security forces tried to clear the crowd by firing into it but the real
fire power was with the Army. The General who was the Minister of Defense
ordered the troops not to fire. Ceausescu had him executed. One version
is that the general died for his country. Another version is that he was
loyal to Ceausescu and had to be eliminated so that a new general loyal
to new people could assist in eliminating Ceausescu.
Did people in the crowd really have the nerve to chant "Timisoara!"?
Maybe. Were these people planted by bureaucrats who wanted to bring Ceausescu
down so they could take power? Maybe. it is widely believed that an internal
coup had been prepared, probably before the events in Timisoara.
Ceausescu fled Bucharest in a helicopter and was arrested two days later
about 150 miles away. During the several days this took, units of the
Securitate were still killing students and citizens in Bucharest, sometimes
simply gunning down students who were praying at the site where another
student had been shot. The Ceausescus were given a summary trial and executed
on Christmas Day. It was shown on TV and no one missed it.
At that point a Front for National Salvation appeared and took control.
Within months it was apparent that the Front, now the power that be, was
very closely associated with the power that was.
Had there been any real progress? Had a revolution been hijacked by a
conniving bureaucracy? Would life ever improve?
More in a future edition of the Bucharest Bugle.