Between grey and green

“Yes, Romania is very personal, in a way”, I acknowledged. “People get very personal for one thing, I’ve noticed. And this can be touching.”

“Or obnoxious”, Mona the interpreter cut in. Monica tilted her head left and right in a thoughtful manner, looking up to the ceiling, as if she was weighing the physical flesh of ideas.

“Yes, sometimes it’s obnoxious, other times it’s touching. But I guess on the long term it leaves a very lasting mark on one. An outsider landing here will find it so striking, that they will feel it’s only then that they have experienced reality, you know, that up until then they’d been living in some sort of cartoon world, and now, here, people are real, places are real. Kinda strange, in a way!” she smiled.

“Yeah”, I smiled back and sipped at my coffee. “So what do you do here? What’s this organisation all about? And what’s your role?”

Monica put her smile and the thoughtful expression away and she seemed to straighten up her body in a sort of ‘let’s get down to business’ attitude. Her face and eyes were serious and focused.

“We’re a non-governmental – as you can see around yourself”, she inserted allusively, with a brief smile here, “organisation for green issues. We run projects in all the main areas of environmental policies – resources, pollution, recycling and all. We cooperate locally with schools, town halls, or other NGO’s and of course we keep pushing for cooperation with national governmental bodies. Right now we’re quite busy on the natural resources campaign, as there are several business deals that the Romanian government has clinched in the past with foreign investors, which should now go through parliamentary debate and finally get the legal green light, but some dark spots in these contracts have now become public. So we and other organisations like us are struggling to raise people’s awareness of the consequences, both legal and environmental, of these contracts.”

“How dark are these spots?”, I asked.

She raised her eyebrows for a second smiling, blew out the cigarette smoke and answered,

“Pretty gloomy. The investors not only get full rights over the resources, but also over land and property in the area, and this for an unlimited time. They also get full rights over whatever other resources might be discovered later on at the site. The Romanian state does get some money, but it’ll be just a tiny bone compared to what we get from the EU, for example.”

“But jobs, maybe? And regional development?” I suggested.

“With the modern technology they won’t be generating more than one or two hundred jobs. And regional development is not provided for in the law, in the way of conditioning or of constraints on the exploiting corporation; we all know very well that laws are not earnestly respected to their letter, so whatever doesn’t make it into the law has no chances of becoming reality whatsoever. The Romanian state, on the other hand, has brilliantly proved that it’s not capable of absorbing even the European funds, which are far more generous, and whatever funds are absorbed they are absorbed by companies of the political clientele in their own interests. So going to bed with a peaceful mind about the benefits of the revenues from such exploitation is not really possible. Besides, there are expert studies proving that exploitation of natural resources in itself has never generated sustainable development, only cash. Some of the places richest in natural resources on this planet are socially and economically the poorest – think of Nigeria, Congo, or even Russia.”

I nodded thoughtfully.

“And I haven’t said a word yet about the environmental consequences, which would be dire. In one of these cases we’re talking about gold and they would be using cyanides, which means that a whole village would be erased and turned into a poisonous red-water pond. Because of the extraction several mountains would simply be levelled off and turned into a huge quarry. All this in a region of ancient archaeological vestiges. In a region of very special natural beauty, which could easily and more sustainably produce cash by means of local tourism. There are dozens of kilometres of underground galleries dating back to Roman times, mining has always been a local trade there, which could be opened for sightseeing, while above the ground the mountains offer numberless wandering tracks.”

“Yeah, cyanides are hell – but then, it’s the method for gold extraction these days, isn’t it.”

“Yes and no. It’s forbidden in some countries in Europe, like Germany or the Czech Republic. A majority in the European Parliament has voted for a ban on cyanide technology in the EU countries.”

She went on giving figures, citing feasibility studies and economic expert opinions. She was obviously versed in producing meaningful summaries of such studies, supplying the figures packed in their interpretation, so that the listener might grasp right away what the implications were. She did all this keeping a very professional look, calm, balanced and rational. No big words, no pathos. But expert gravity, conviction, a queer sort of maturity contrasted to her child’s face.

Her exposition was interrupted by the mobile. She stopped short, said “sorry, this won’t take a minute” and she took the call in a somewhat muffled voice.

“My tutee” she smiled after hanging up. “Cancelling our English lesson.”

“O really? You teach English too?”

“Well, yes, it’s a long story, I mean a story that goes a long time back. I started lessons with this kid as soon as I became a university student, I was looking for lessons so I could make a bit more money. And because there was love at first sight – it’s a ten-year-old boy – we carried on through the years”, she explained amused.

“You did study English, I understand, right?”

“Well yes, but actually I did some private lessons even before that. My mom used to be an English teacher in a secondary school, now she’s retired, and she always had a group of kids around at home for English, but not as you’d expect. It started in fact with her teaching me and my brother, when we were still in kindergarten. She would cook for instance and she would talk to us at the same time, showing us things, or explaining, or asking us to get her this or that, in English. We would also play games in English; I remember one day we were playing a sort of Simon-says game when a neighbour rang at the door to borrow something; back in those times you could borrow things like sugar, or coffee, or eggs, from a neighbour when you were out of the stuff and needed it shortly. Well, and the neighbour heard us laughing and talking in English, my mom must have opened the door red in the face and with a broad smile on her face, obviously having great fun with the kids in the middle of the day, so the neighbour started asking questions. And she ended up sending her own two kids over for such English sessions. Soon mom would have real kindergarten groups of kids swarming through our flat, trampling from the kitchen into the bathroom and back into the living. Baking cookies was the best thing. Though I pity my mom thinking of how she must have been scrubbing everything in the kitchen afterwards.”

“And did you, or your friends really learn English in the process?” asked Mona laughing.

“Of course we did. Our teachers, later in primary school, would be astonished as we gave out things like get me this or that, will ya, or oh come on, cut it out, or we knew strange words like oven, tidy up, turn up the heat, fold a piece of paper and many others. It really worked you know, we were having the fun of our lives, finally a mom who wouldn’t mind us turning a place upside down, actually she was having us do it on purpose, as part of the game, like when we were playing charades and so there were things like lifting, dropping, shoving, pulling, twisting, which were being acted out and we would be so excited to shout out the right word and guess what was being shown as quick as possible. It never dawned on us that we were learning something.”

“So that’s why you’re so keen on teaching kids, I always wondered where you get your patience from”, Mona said laughing.
Monica replied,

“But it’s not about patience in the first place. I have no patience. I just enjoy it. I get ideas quite spontaneously of what we can do together, and because we get along so well, very often it’s them asking me to do this and that, so I often don’t have to think up some game myself, it’s them that sort of make our lessons, you know, I just go ahead and keep everything in English, or what’s possible in English.”

“And have you considered becoming a teacher then?” I asked.

“Well, yes, I have, but… honestly I’m afraid of turning something I enjoy playfully into a job. Maybe in a few years of doing it professionally I’d lose it and then it’d become a pain. So better to keep things apart. Besides, doing this work here is so stimulating. Teaching the kids is fun, but my work, my mission here seems to be something ‘serious’, you know.”

“Except for the times when we get back from a demonstration where there was barely a crowd of twenty people,” Mona remarked.
Monica acknowledged this with a sisterly and thoughtful smile.

“Yes, maybe.” She added shrugging, “but then, if everyone was aware of these issues, if no controversial laws or decisions were made, it wouldn’t make much sense for us to do this work in the first place!… so getting back from demonstrations where there were only twenty stray people is part of what we are struggling to achieve. Otherwise we’d have to be doing something else.”

Mona turned to me and explained, “Monica’s always so rational and calm, it sometimes make me wonder how she does it.”

Monica gave a short laugh.

“I’m not rational and calm, just…”

“Of course you are!” Mona cut in.

Monica sighed amused and resumed, “I don’t think I’m rational or calm, I just … I don’t know, I just don’t want to lose faith, it’s much too important to me to carry on. If I started despairing I’d soon have to wonder why I do all this at all, and then the next question would be OK, what else should I do then? And I don’t want to get there, to that kind of dilemma. I just feel I’m simply not out of resources yet, and I’m too keen on trying to get somewhere, you know… Right now it’s very important to me.”

She sounded so incredibly balanced that I wondered for a second if she wasn’t acting. It was almost like listening to my seven-year-old son telling me with a grave face how kids are supposed to behave in school. He can almost fool you.

“You say you’re not rational, but you’re rationalising this pretty much,” I said smiling. “What’s the biggest challenge to what you all do here? Is it the politicians?”

I wished it wouldn’t sound like an interview but it still did. Professional tone, question-and-answer, “deep” questions and all.
Monica smiled back and replied almost condescendingly. She might have been still thinking of her ten-year-old tutee for all I could guess.

“Well, if it was politicians the biggest problem, it would be easy. I mean” and she almost choked here on her cigarette, as she’d suddenly given a short laugh, “excuse me – what I mean is… politicians are the reason why one gets into an NGO in the first place, we sort of owe our existence to the politicians, you see? Why should one set up an NGO or get involved in one, if politics was OK? No, the biggest challenge is I guess not being able to reckon on support from the people out there. Maybe it’s still early days for Romanians to be sensitive to environmental issues, many still say let’s first make sure we can make decent livings and then worry about your grand environmental plans.”

“Yeah, I guess it’s the same everywhere, isn’t it,” I replied.
Monica tilted her head again left and right like a pendulum, in doubt.

“Maybe you’re right. What I still can’t help believing is typical of this place is that you can’t really get any mass, critical or not, of people determined to do something for a change. When I was still studying in my junior years I used to contribute to a gazette, just another of those intellectual, ‘anti’ publications, you know. I enjoyed writing and enjoyed putting together ideas that I thought were deep and providing good analysis and insight. Until one day when I realised that I was simply indulging in a sort of self-complacency, or self-righteousness, and that the other similar gazette writers were doing the same, like all the other so-called opinion leaders. We were all an extensive circle of smart people who kept writing clever things that we knew nobody gave a damn about but that would be read by the others in our circle, so it was like a ping-pong of smart ideas inside our own world, so… if you like, like a dozen of bees caught under a glass on a kitchen table. That much of an echo to the outer world. There’s this smart guy and that professional lady, you know, various individuals – but it’s a mystery to me what stops all of us from making a difference as a mass, as a group, in this country. We just don’t come together, if you know what I mean…”

“And are you so sure this is typical only of Romania?” I asked smiling. “I’d hate disappointing you, but that’s one of the problems all societies are facing, at least everywhere I’ve been to!”

There was a moment of silence. Monica’s eyebrows twitched as a sort of “Well, if you say so…” and looked down to the ashtray. And a second later, Mona heaved an abrupt sigh and gave out,

“Well in that case you’ve come to Romania only to see what you’ve always seen, a country like any other you’ve ever been to!” and she laughed a bit sarcastically.

I smiled back, for a second too disconcerted to give any reply.

“That’s not funny”, I finally muttered, as jokingly as I could.

Mona bent forward to me, as if confidentially warning me,

“I tell you, Peter, by the time you leave in a few days you’ll be wondering what place this has been. Laos? The Philippines? Peru?” and she gave a rolling peal of laughter.

“But then, what’s in a name”, Monica put in gently, picking up on Mona’s joke.

“That’s right”, Mona resumed, “what does it matter what this place is called, whether it be Romania or Tanzania – or Atlantis for all I know!”
I looked left and right to each of the girls, following their exchange as if it was some performance. I was finding it funny, but some sort of discomfort had sneaked in. What if Mona was right after all and my search for the deep Romania would end up with the flat “discovery” that Romania is not necessarily Romania, but just another place on the map! What if the outcomes of my quest were to point to a completely different meaning than what I was expected to report in a news show? Would I be telling about these nice young ladies and their fashion styles? Or would I be telling about my own queer impressions of these places? The following days were clearly going to be decisive. I’d now already taken a dive and had no idea really how I’d come out at the surface again, at the end of this week.
It was then that a young man drew up from the computer where he’d been sitting all along. He nodded to me in the way of a brief greeting and patted Mona on the shoulder with a smile. He bent to Monica and muttered something. Monica replied in a quick-paced chunk and then looked at me smiling and said:

“You might want to meet Dorin. Dorin, this is Peter Schild, come all the way from London to talk to us, imagine!”

The guy bent over the improvised table reaching his hand out to me. Strong handshake, steely, deep-drilling eyes.

“Dorin has spent quite a long time abroad, he’s one of those who saw the best – or the worst – of both worlds”, Monica added with a gentle irony.

“The worst, I’d rather say” the guy put in with a bit of sarcasm.

“O really!” I exclaimed, not knowing for a second what better thing to say. Then, at a loss, I just said tentatively, “Care to join us, maybe?”

He glanced towards Monica first, as a way of checking with her. Monica nodded in the way of making a silent request, then she said to me:

“Actually, if you don’t mind, we thought he could take you to one or two places in the town. We just thought you might get more out of it if you experience things directly, rather than sitting here snugly sipping at a coffee, you know.”

I must have looked surprised, indeed it did surprise me that they’d taken the trouble to consider my needs, because she added instantly,

“Of course, it’s up to you really. But Dorin’s our observer in Parliament sittings, so he could take you there, have you seen the Parliament building from inside?”

“Yes, sure,” I said, “that gigantic Guinness Book building.”

“That’s right; well, and have you also sat in on a meeting?”

“No, never. I might have had a slight problem understanding what was going on,” I added jokingly.

“Don’t worry, we have the same problem”, Dorin assured me.

“At least you speak the same language”, I replied.

“Oh do we?”, Mona giggled. “If using the same words as in the dictionary means speaking the same language – but don’t worry, Dorin will interpret everything for you. I mean, he will translate, the interpreting you’ll be left to do for yourself,” she winked at me.

“OK,” I consented. “Sounds exciting.” I realised that was a very smart arrangement, as Dorin was in this way changing the girls so they could take care of urgent business, while I was being smoothly passed on to the next guide, as it were.