Back to my story.
Andrew was as good as his word, as usual, about the interpreter, and the next morning, just after a quick breakfast, I had a nice young lady sitting a bit nervous in my room, with a cup of black tea in front of herself. Mona was her name. (I’m so grateful for Romanians picking names that are easily translatable into English, none of those really foreign things that one’s not sure if they’re names or stuff to eat, to say nothing of names that leave you in the dark as to whether it’s a he or a she).
So Mona was there right on time – actually, three or four minutes early, having already paced the reception lounge to kill time, as she confessed rather off-handedly from the first moment.
“I’m sorry, I really can’t help being early, it happens ALL the time. Sometimes I do wish I could go at least two minutes late, you know, for the sake of appearances, but no… in vain.”
She was in her early twenties, dressed very smartly, almost overdressed in fact, in a sort of power-lady business suit, as if she was trying to look older, or maturer. Because amazingly, I find, thinking of this generation nowadays, she still looked incredibly young, almost a kid. Of course, there was the outfit and the discreet make-up, the chic haircut and all, but her face bore that slim, streamlined, single-mindedness of youth. She wasn’t the pretty doll, but she gave out some irresistible charm all the same, a funny mixture of sex-appeal and teenage passion.
But right now she kept fidgeting on the chair, probably getting her bearings in the new place, in the new situation. Now in retrospect, knowing her, I’m smiling, thinking her fidgeting must have been a sort of ‘come on, let’s get going!’
Introductions and small talk were quickly dispensed with. Mona didn’t seem to be the prattling type, what she wanted was real content questions, which she couldn’t wait for to spurt out an avalanche of information.
“So let me first tell you a bit of what I’m doing here, so that you know what’s going to happen these days”, I started. “We’re interested in the soft part of Romania, you know, not the VIP interviews, not the political or economic analyses – we’ve long done that, and others have done it too. It’s roughly two decades now since such analyses and reports on Romania have been dripping in, but we still somehow can’t figure out Romania, you know what I mean? Of course there are theories of cultures and stuff like this, but then Romania is unfortunately a bit obscure, not so publicised or explained, that’s the word, EXPLAINED, in this talk about cultures there are always other countries or cultures that are picked for discussion. And yes, in theory Romania is different from the West, somehow, but people out there in the West either don’t have any picture of Romania in their minds, or it’s the cliche you know so well, like the petty criminals, the street children, the poverty, or the bad politics and policies. And I love Romania, really, I’ve been here many times and met a lot of people, occasionally, but somehow it still puzzles me…”
“It puzzles us all every day, if that’s of any comfort” she butted in jokingly.
“Right”, I laughed, “so to cut a long story short: I’m here to explore a bit of the less seen, or less publicised parts of Romania. Basically it will mean talking to people, just like you, your friends, your family, not about how you celebrate Christmas or any of that conventional stuff, but simply what it’s like to be living here. Real life.”
She raised an eyebrow smiling, in a way that seemed to convey doubt or an argumentative objection to my words, but didn’t say a word. Did she mind my word “real”, I wondered for a split second?
“I’m going to be here for about a week, so I’ve got plenty of time for the Romanian experience. Your role in all this, as you’ve probably been briefed, is to do the interpreting, but depending on your availability and willingness, you could also play a more active part, like … showing me things, taking me to places, getting me the kind of people I’m looking for. Of course, if you’ve got an idea, first we talk about it and schedule it; then we can do it, too. What do you think?”
She paused for a second looking down, then raised her eyes and said almost out of breath:
“That sounds great”.
She looked intent and ready to go, as it were. I gave a short laugh, then went on:
“Great. But tell me something about yourself first!” and I sat back.
Her eyebrows twitched in a momentary puzzled frown and with an embarrassed smile she spoke in the same quick manner, placing a lot of emphasis on certain words, pretty often:
“Well, what can I say… I study English at university, I enjoy reading a lot, but in the past year or so I’ve been quite active with an NGO for green issues, through a friend of mine who’s more or less a leader there, and she brought me over one day just to show me the posters and the offices and all, and after that I said I want to do that too, to be part of it, because that’s really what is missing here in this country – since you do want to know the country better: the problem is.. you know, OK, there are so many complete idiots in this country, but also so many bright people with an integrity and background knowledge that would impress anyone, but the problem is we’re not connected, we’re not generating anything. You know that famous quote from John Donne, like you are not alone, no one is an isolated island and all the rest…”
She paused a bit questioningly, as I was failing to react and to acknowledge. But honestly, I had no idea what quote she was talking about, and I hadn’t heard of any John Donne, whatever blogger that might have been! So she quickly realised my problem and moved on:
“Whatever, well that’s exactly the opposite here, we ARE isolated, we ARE islands, and if Donne says don’t wonder for whom the bell tolls, cos it tolls for YOU, in our case it’s been tolling for twenty years for most of us, but individually. And certainly not for the other class of people, who are in power….”
I managed to stop her to ask,
“What do you mean, it’s been tolling for you all, but only individually?”
“Well,” and she fetched a deep sigh, like a Sisyphus before attempting to budge a huge rock, “I mean… people have all had their private dramas, I’m talking about the dramas deriving from our politics and from this social disease, but each of us has been – and still is – alone in their drama. No common front has been created, nothing to make these individual dramas fit together in a big, joint, forum of ideas or of action, you know?… Like, we’ve all been depressed by the lies, by the corruption, by the mystifications, by the impostors, individual destinies have been changed and affected by the political evil here, and all this has remained like a national collection of bits and pieces that still won’t bind together in a completed, or at least partly completed, puzzle, in a structure. And you look around, there should be hope, I mean, as I said, there are some wonderful people around, and then you stop and wonder…hold on, why can’t all these great guys make any difference?”
“But maybe they do make a difference, it’s just probably too early to tell, or the difference is somewhere where you can’t see it, for instance you may not have contacts in a certain ministry, or organisation, or else you might find that they are doing a good job there thanks to the people you mentioned.”
“Could be, yes, but then, their good job there is still not visible in the big picture, I mean, in everything that living in Romania means, for the people, life is simply a suite of failures, either your own or those of every important institution. We still have the same motorway Ceausescu built in the seventies, and a “piece” of a motorway to the seaside, because of course the start-ups have to use their Lamborghinis somewhere and driving to the seaside is cool. Trains are mostly the same as twenty-five years ago, either you sweat your heart out with forty degrees air conditioning or you freeze like a miserable bum with no air conditioning at all in deep winter. Really, I mean it! I travelled once to Timisoara, six hundred kilometres in nine hours; in the first three or four wagons people were sitting almost in their underwear, there were thirty-two degrees, while our teeth were chattering at the back of the train. And the examples could go on, you know, what I meant was – nothing WORKS. Whatever is required for a normal living – forget it! So the one-off ‘good job’ you mentioned, yes, it might be, but it makes no difference to the whole!”
She’d got pretty heated up. I smiled, but tried hard not to make it look as if I was smiling paternally. Romanians can be touching, you know, with their naive pathos. Or at least Mona was nicely impersonating it.
“But why do you think people are so disconnected? What’s the reason for all this joint, yet individual suffering under a social disease?” I asked.
“I have no idea. I guess the clever people in this country who used to have a say in politics or in civic movements have failed to address a broad audience. There’s been a sort of narcissism, wow, we talk to each other, me and you, we understand each other so well, I’m crying on your shoulder about how corrupt or how idiotic the system is, you catch the hint to the clever quote I’m alluding to, we are in tune about this social system, but the social system out there goes on about its business undisturbed, not even knowing what a smart intertextual discourse we’re co-authoring here. You know what I mean?”
I was a bit confused under the torrent of statements that she was making, but she carried on, forgetting to wait for me to confirm whether I knew what she meant.
“So that might have been one objective, immediate cause. A sort of here we are, the likes of us, oh it’s so cosy in here come in and have a cup of coffee, I’ve just come across a new book! But I don’t think that is the fundamental cause. The FUNDAMENTAL cause, I think, has more to do with what, if anything, is still binding us together after half a century of darkness. I guess we used to be loners, sitting in our cold and dark flats, no electricity, no heating and no hot water, only books at hand, for those who wanted to fill their dark, cold loneliness with something else than drink, and we were shivering and quivering while hearing the news from Free Europe or Voice of America, captured despite persistent interference from the Securitate radio-emitters. While listening people would get outraged, or bitter, or terrified – but that too was essentially an individual experience. Society only existed, I guess, inasmuch as there were those with the Party and those who were not – or there were degrees of being with the Party and the Securitate, from the butcher round the corner to the head teacher or all the way up to the colonels, the state secretaries, the really big wigs. So… no wonder we are twenty million loners now. We’re just used to it, have raised it to the rank of national sport!” she concluded with a sarcastic grin.
“But no single government was seen as doing a good job here, I mean, there’s obviously always criticism involved, but what I mean is, you, your kind of people have always been in opposition, with one exception in the late nineties, but that didn’t last long either. So… obviously, with two decades of experience, how come people like you haven’t come together yet?”
“With our experience!” she echoed ironically. “Yes, some experience. Don’t know, I guess you could find more than one reason, above all that kind of everyone minds their own business, finding their own ways out of the maze: some have gone abroad, some have built themselves a nice little house with a nice little garden, some have gone into cooking, kids and fun-parks, some have sunk into books and academic conferences – there are many ways, you know, to shut off the reality beyond your garden fence. That’s what the politicians do, too, after all; they take to building themselves a comfy life while they have the power, and in the process they shut off whatever else there might be beyond the boundaries of their clan. You surely know about one of our most prominent prime ministers. An arrogant – excuse my language – asshole, after he became a prime minister he started breeding chicken on one of his private fiefdoms and of course at some point the question was raised as to the size of his business and in a Parliament sitting he simply declared ironically ‘those who are interested are welcome to come and count my eggs’. And still he went as competent and all the hype, there was his mafia everywhere, but some claimed, at least it was a competent mafia. I say, it was an image-competent mafia, they sure knew better how to keep to a political agenda and etiquette than others. And what do you think followed after this guy and his party lost the power? He was investigated for corruption, and of course it was only marginal charges that they managed to press against him; they found in his villa more art than in an art gallery, from paintings to china and carpets. What did it matter that the street where his villa was hadn’t been repaired for decades, with holes in the asphalt and degraded old patrimony houses…It certainly didn’t matter to HIM, HIS house was OK! My home is my castle, so to speak, inside the thousand and one nights, outside let god have mercy on them!”
I nodded and she suddenly stopped, as if aware she’d been the only one talking in the last ten minutes or so. I was about to get back to my original question about herself, but I realised instantly that she’d been talking about herself too, quite clearly. Her cheeks had coloured and the lips were slightly pouting and twitching with vexation. What she was telling me was nothing new, but somehow I still found watching and listening to her quite thought provoking and realised that the Romanian people-story had already begun.