Hotel Romania

I guess I must have been gaping looking up to him. Things ran too quickly that I could hold up with, Andreas bent over the table, over my head quasi, to shake hands with Mona, and it felt good, I could almost detect the body warmth arching over me, between myself and that hypnotic apple tree, bringing back reality, so reassuringly.

Andreas deftly pulled a chair from another table and sat down between me and Mona. The triangle felt like a cosy shelter – the boxes and the swinging horse the stool the cushions that I used to place on the floor with me inside enjoying it, having it gemütlich, just me with myself for myself, the comfort of insiderness.

Mona was chattering some introductions away, journalist, Schild, London, Berlin, television, Parliament. Then she gazed into my eyes, just like Andreas had just done, as if putting concentration into digging me out, holding my eyes in her gaze, articulating words with precision as one does with toddlers just starting to speak.

“Peter – this is Andreas, he’s the deputy general manager with Corporation Romania”, and here she actually mentioned which corporation, a big name I can tell you.

A firm, reassuring hand shake in spite of the crammed space. Great English came flowing out.
“Nice to meet you. Andrew told me about your mission here these days.”
“My mission”, I amazingly had resources to laugh. “Yeah.” Kept smiling at a loss for words. “I wonder what that is, ha ha! Give Romania to the West?”

A warm smile shone through.

“We would actually need Romania to be given back to Romanians, but I guess we still need to wait for that!” he replied in a low, soothing voice.
“Give Romania back to Romanians – great headline indeed!” I raised my eyebrows in surprise and appreciation.
“But before Peter gives Romania either to the West or back to Romanians, we must first give him something, some stuff to chew”, Mona put in.
“Yeah, that’s right –“ I replied musingly. “You’ve been giving me quite a lot actually”, I added in an attempt to sound jokey.
“What have you been giving Peter?”, Andreas turned to Mona with brotherly kindness.
“Weeeell”, she drawled, “he had profound conversation over half a dozen beers each last night with a friend who’s been all over the world, this morning he’s done quite an original interview with the Grandpa – I mean, the dear mister Head of Parliament, almost got lost in the House of People – “
“I never almost got lost in the House of People, actually it was me who got us out of there!” I broke in teasingly.
“ – OK, let’s say then we wandered down the shafts of the House of People, and now we’re sitting here cosily under this apple tree, with these nostalgic Berlin pics floating around – by the way, Peter, did Dorin tell you that when he emigrated it was Germany he first went to?”
I nodded.
“He did. Quite a lot of it actually. I mean, he told me quite a lot about it. Over our half a dozen beers each, as you say.”
“So we could almost claim we’re giving Germany back to Peter so he can give Romania back to us, ha ha!”

For a few seconds my lungs sort of forgot to fetch themselves air, then I started breathing again hearing Andreas’ soothing voice.

“And now you’re pretty much ‘saved by Andreas’, after all these trips, aren’t you!” he smiled his sunny smile.
“What would I do without you, I wonder!” I mumbled faking cheerfulness.

Andreas had deep dark eyes, gazing at you hard and deep, most of the times with humane warmth, but as our conversation rolled on into the afternoon I recognized, that they could also bore burning holes into you. I mean I identified. I could see. Damned interference!

Andreas had worked for his corporation a few years in Dublin, so I wasn’t sure he was the typical Romanian. Still. It felt good at that stage to be talking to someone less prone to take me on an adventure ride into the depth of that foreign world. Come to think of it, I’d never before felt foreign, whether in Romania or anywhere indeed, in the dozens of places I’d travelled to. Though foreign’s not exactly it. That kind of getting strangely mixed sensations of being both pulled out of one’s depth and shoved deep the shafts towards one’s long forgotten memory nooks. That kind of experience that is at once paralysing and speaking to you. Ansprechend – that is talking to you. That is stirring something in you. But I liked that – ansprechend as in ‘talking to you’ – lol – in my world, ‘talking to me’ is what happens all the time, all the people I’ve been with, all the places I’ve been to. Being talked to is my job!

So Andreas was reassuring. Like touching ground again. Mother base. Though again, here I go again correcting myself, touching ground not like chit-chatting casually. He had two degrees and could literally lecture you on economic theory or on political affairs. He’d also seen a great deal of the world, so he wouldn’t produce any of the clichés like “this crap can only happen in Romania”. His English was of course so nuanced and he put so much content in whatever he was saying, but then again, intelligence, excellent English and rich content was not exactly what I’d been deprived of in Romania. There was something else about him. I guess he had no depressing story to tell about himself, like all those poor devils, those misfits like Dorin and his pal Andrew in the suburbs with his toddler kid sitting on his potty alone in the mouldy flat. Nor was he so keen to make any point, like busy-body, high-strung Mona. It was only Monica of the NGO that had been just as cool as Andreas was now, pulling some take-it-easy, get-a-life stuff over the whole thing, and it felt good.

Looking back over the past paragraph I realise how many Andrews (including my own Andrew, my Master of Ceremonies who was our local contact for every Romanian mission) and Monas I met in Romania. OK, Dorin stood out, but then he claimed himself not to be Romanian, so no wonder! He had to be different from the crowd. But otherwise, this haunting name-parade! Thank God my name’s Peter, I mean, my name’s different, not some closer or remoter variant of Andreas, or Andrew in translation. Of course, speaking of translations, the guys I call here Andrew were actually “Andrei” in Romania. No idea why I just called the manager “Andreas”, by the way – which is the German thing for Andrew. Well never mind, it’s getting too complicated.

Back to Andreas – I’ll call him Andreas instead of Andrew for a change. He was married with three kids, which rang a familiar bell with me, though mine there are six of them, but that picture of a large family sleeping in the same house you know, crowded round the breakfast table. And his little ones were in one place anyway, and I’ve got three of them in one place too, the others elsewhere with their own mother I mean, right now in my house there are three kids, so that’s what I mean, it rang a familiar bell. I’ve been married three times. Well, so Andreas was living “decently” as he said, which was closest to normality in Romania, according to him, even if normality was nearest when one was living off the hub; they’d got a mortgage for a house some twenty kilometres from Bucharest, by a lake and shrubs, in a newly developed area for the newly rich – he called that something in French, nouvau rish or something – anyway the area was posh despite its painful infrastructure, with roads barely paved to say nothing of asphalt. But it was common in Romania, he said, that areas are quite posh because they are say in the north of Bucharest, and that counts as intrinsically posh, or outside Bucharest to its north again, which is double posh first by being to the north and second for being off the hustle of the dirty Bucharest, just like Westerners comfortably choose to stay away from the degrading crowds of the cities. So in plain words that poshness was simply humbug. Self-delusional, Andreas said. Most of those posh residential areas had the infrastructure of the original, shepherds’ villages, basements got quickly flooded and the tap water came usually in a brownish colour. Streets were bumpy but there were security checks and barriers to prevent intruders from driving up into the “private areas”, uniformed grunting double-bicepsed security guys acting like fierce watchdogs. Almost as if you were in Beverly Hills, not supposed to disturb the millionaires.

But it was also closest to a normal life, strangely enough, Andreas explained. The size of the rooms, the modern heating, proper insulation, no traffic before your windows, and most of all you got a feeling, on coming from work in the evening, that you were leaving everything behind, that “everything” that made people crazy. The intrusiveness. The aggressiveness. There was nothing to deal with there in the middle of the shrubs. No one bumping into you without saying sorry, no hooting for driving too slowly, not even billboards blaring out their push slogans in the informal du – Romanian has just like German a direct you and a polite one – “You need us”, or “You get this”, wherever you turned there was a task to be done, either buy something, or hoot back, or swear back, or just deal with things trying hard to keep your ground. Keeping your ground was essential, Andreas said, in this twenty-four-seven negotiation that any person in this country was called on to perform. Whatever happens, just don’t lose ground, don’t lose face, don’t give the impression you’re a fool and, say, wait for the green light when you could just as well start jogging across the street now and save the ten seconds waiting, or don’t be a fool and keep quiet while someone’s showing off his knowledge of prices or insider information, whether it’s a corporation, a political party or the neighbours next door, just join in, show off your own knowledge, whether it’s third-hand hearsay, quotes from facebook posts or things “they said on TV”. Having the daily chance to leave all this debris behind was one gateway to a sane life, Andreas concluded.

“Yes, I see,”, I acknowledged his point, “but in a certain way it’s good to be living in such a lively place, you know – I mean, where people are so present, where there are so many people, real people – “
“Too many of them!” Mona broke in.
“Maybe, yes, too many, but at least you can see people so your chances to find someone like yourself among them is much greater, isn’t it, than in a place where people hide somewhere out, behind their curtains, behind their lawns, god knows!”
“I don’t need to meet anyone else like myself, I already got enough friends, so please if you could just keep a bit more behind your curtains, in your back yards, I’d be very grateful really – a little bit more restraint would be greatly appreciated, you know”, Mona retorted.

Andreas was smiling with brotherly amusement.

“I can see what you mean”, he said to me, and then briskly nodded at Mona, “and what you mean as well. That’s probably where – it’s the worlds we come from, us two and you, Peter. I guess you could say in the West people are harder to ‘find’, real individuals, real persons with their real faces, but the big structure is everywhere. The state has pretty clear roles and its actions have clear effects – the streets are clean, buses come and go at specific times, fines are being issued promptly, taxes are collected systematically, you see, the way things work is very transparent to everyone, I mean not necessarily the behind-the-scene games, there are such games everywhere, but I mean OK, not transparent, maybe the word is ‘visible’ – things work visibly. Predictably. While the real people may look more like ghosts. Romania’s the other way round. You can ‘find’ so many people here, just walk down the street and the next busker will have a face you’ll never forget. Maybe you will start talking to him and he’ll have a life story to tell immediately, a story that again will be so compelling you will keep remembering and mentioning him for years after. How many times you said you’ve been here, three, four times? I bet it’s people and their stories that you remember, not so much the state officials you’ve interviewed, not a particular strategy or policy you’ve been told, not some visible development for the whole Romanian society.”

I realised I was nodding repeatedly, like an old man suffering from Parkinson. That was because what Andreas was saying was sort of formulating a conclusion to my whole previous experience of Romania. And to my present experience of it too.

“It’s the state that’s a ghost here – and a nasty one! The big picture, that’s what everyone’s missing here. The politicians first of all. The big picture of a policy, of national interests, they keep haranguing about a country project, a few years ago they called it a country brand, but they have no idea whatsoever what a project really involves, and a country one even less. What they can see is their own back, which they want to secure. Their family. The guys they know and owe something, or they want to keep happy, as one hand washes the other you know. That’s what they can see. And the rest of us, we too keep struggling with this and that, we have to continually deal with that twenty-four-seven negotiation of who gains what and what we stand to lose and god forbid that we should lose and come over as fools, we keep dealing with our friends and families, and party together, share intimacies together, talk talk talk, that’s one of the best things we can do. And even the best among us, writers, journalists, activists, brilliant students, we all just see each other and nothing above our heads, we never come together in something visible in the big picture. In a way, it’s like reading a text word for word but never getting the meaning of the paragraph, to say nothing of the whole text. Never getting it, or never finding it, as there might be none in the first place.”
“Which is quite a common problem these days here”, Mona put in sarcastically. “Subject Romanian is the stuffiest in school, no wonder people write and talk without a proper subject and predicate, without a proper point they are trying to make. Words stand out though on their own: country project, country brand, us Romanians, unitary state, proud to be Romanian, Romanians are born poets, stuff like that. The latest fad is dirty words in the public domain about public figures – slut, asshole, boozer, ass-kisser, assfucker, sissy, carpetbagger, twat, prick, and a whole longer list that I can’t really think of translating.”

“So let me see if I get it straight”, I said, “what you mean is that the state isn’t working? Cos if you say it’s not visible how it works, it nearly amounts to saying it’s not visible that it is working at all! But Romania doesn’t really look like it’s coming apart, or that it’s breaking down. In fact, come to think of it, that is precisely what baffles me here, you know. This mysterious way things appear not to be working while they are working nonetheless. Somehow, some unfathomable way, to take your examples, the buses do run, taxes do get collected, the streets are reasonably clean, of course you can always object that things don’t happen systematically, as you said, or that they don’t work impeccably, but they do work. It seems to be a matter of degree, not of yes-no, you know what I mean? So then your claim that Romania is different from the West doesn’t hold water, does it?”

“But you just said that things work in some unfathomable way, despite what one might be made to believe, so you admit that there is some good reason to doubt it. Some chaos that makes you expect things not to be working. There must be something here that is going terribly wrong, or just terribly behind the scenes, the state of order is probably only just managing by luck, by chance, to bring about the necessary deliverables for a normal community. Try to set up a small one-person company here. Try to buy or sell a car. Try to have your driver licence changed. The dozens of queues will kill you. At the end of each queue you are told a different story, each civil servant thinks they can decide for themselves what papers to require, partly because the laws were made with the feet and the guys just seek every possible way to cover themselves against all risks, or simply because they are sitting comfortably on their chairs and want to get their kick out of it. The most absurd things. Ask three different border police officers at the Bucharest airport what the requirements are for citizens under age to leave the country – you’ll get three different answers. You might wonder: is it their ignorance of the law? Is it the law itself that’s too vague? Where is that law in the first place, where is that order that the law is supposed to enforce? In the end you may manage to get your under-age kid over the border, but with a great deal of luck and a hell of precautionary measures, like have your driver licence or your high-school diploma in the pile of papers too, just in case they ask – and all this doesn’t give you the guarantee you’ll make it next time as well.”

We carried on for an indefinite time about the ghostliness of the Romanian order of things. Andreas supplied the sometimes ridiculous samples of reality from his work as a top manager who was highly educated and could see the economic and political big picture; Mona unknowingly endorsed the ghostliness of this big picture by repeatedly dropping anecdotes about where the Romanian president had got drunk the night before, or about which state secretary had been whose best man. One senator’s papa’s boy had killed two people in a car crash while driving his brand-new Lamborghini and the victims’ families had been paid a few thousands of euros damages to keep their mouths shut. Thick files on tax evasion and EU funds embezzlement had mysteriously vanished from the Senior Prosecutor’s office, and press statements were given that “we’re still searching”. The key contract with the motorway building company was lost, the relevant minister kept shrugging and claiming he’d been rummaging his office a dozen times and now they’d got to the cellar – Romania’s only got about two hundred and fifty kilometres motorway, with a European road crossing it west-to-south, connecting the West to the Balkans and Turkey, so the motorway under construction was a helluva key national project! The contract was obviously containing the terms of some shameful deal, but the infantile defensive act they were putting on was stupefying.

Mona knew all the gossip.

“You bet I do”, she replied, “my parents have a TV in every room, including the kitchen. You can’t get away from the news, the talk shows, the reports. First morning coffee to goodnight lights off it’s a non-stop reel. I might say I specialise in gossip.”
“That’s why you knew about my beers last night with Dorin, didn’t you!” I laughed. Mona grinned.

The pictures on the walls had mercifully receded in the background. But a sort of restlessness was lingering on me. I was mostly thankful that the spooky show was over, while in another way I was getting a bit impatient with the continual blah-blah about a country I didn’t care about after all. I mean, about things I didn’t care about. It somehow dawned on me, in the midst of Andreas’s intelligent judgments and Mona’s funny in-between-cues, that it must be getting close to a bottleneck, a full-up notch, though I couldn’t tell of what. It might have been the sitting and the talking about things, the question-asking, something like that. And all those eerie pictures floating around. Berlin, my lost citadel. Wenn die-Soonne – hinter-den-Dächern-versiiinkt – bin-ich-mit-meiner-Sehn-sucht – allein. There were stories brimming over my laptop, in various shapes and formats – notes, texts, audio- and video-recordings, self-dictated audio notes, articles, documentaries, reports – all over the place, in my office on the desk and on the server, in the media archive, in my own memory archive, Romania of the 90s, Tanzania, Jamaica, Somalia, Hong Kong, always stories about something, about big things, about life and death, about how people live and die, about their dramas, their tears and their prides, you name it and I have it. Even this listing makes me sick. The typical string of what you can put in words to suggest people’s lives on the grandest level of generalisation. “Life and death, dramas” and all the bullshit, the clichés, even if behind these words there were real dramas, real life and death. I’d been a journalist too long maybe and such words were overflowing from my press-guy’s briefcase, such words, such a Weltanschauung as a perpetual story about things, about people. About. The about of my living. My living that might go under the name of House of People, after all. Somewhere in its bowels I was endlessly racing down the shafts and along the corridors, chasing someone or other to get them to talk to me.

“But who’s your head of the government anyway? That guy should be giving explanations if such an infrastructure project funded with EU money gets stuck”, I asked.

Andreas gave a quiet laugh, snuggling up like a jovial Cheshire cat.

“No use for you to bother about him. He doesn’t exist, that guy.”

He pulled his elbows closer together and leant forward to me.

“You will know that one of our very prominent former prime ministers is doing time for tax evasion. Just like Capone, they could only get him for that. His villa could have been an art gallery, you know, when they got in with the search warrant – ten Galle’s per square meter, five original paintings worth tens of thousands on every wall, hand-woven carpets, chandeliers in Murano crystal, whatever else you think you can find in an art museum – it was there by the dozen. Catch of the finest sort. Behind all this, of course, remember it’s all behind the scenes, right?, well behind all this a whole dark mesh of networks, power abuse, lobbying and influence peddling all resulting in that outrageous opulence. Well, the present prime minister is a thirty-odd-year-old former prosecutor who plagiarised his big-deal PhD – but here it comes, his big daddy was the art lover. The other big daddy is his daddy-in-law, who heads the largest media trust in Romania, with an American mother company. So you see, a lot of family around. He, as a person, is just a petty criminal dealing in lies and forgery, he’s a fraud in flesh and blood. He assures Brussels at nine o’clock that he’s going to amend the text of a non-constitutional article in a law, and at one pm the same day he holds a press conference in Bucharest saying that it’s the Parliament will have to decide on that article in the law, because Romania is governed in Bucharest, not in Brussels. In the Parliament meeting, as a senator, he votes against a gold exploitation project with huge environmental damage, and serenely declares that as a prime minister he has to be for it, to encourage foreign investment. Comic magazines couldn’t miss the opportunity to portray him as a split-personality patient afterwards.

“The guy didn’t get to be a prime minister thanks to some political leadership, which he might have proved by success either in the public or in the entrepreneurial arena. Managerially speaking, the guy has never existed. His political persona was shoved to the front as a state executive simply thanks to his political capital, hoarded through his backstage relations with his mentor the art lover, with his media mogul father-in-law, and all this with the blessing from old Iliescu, the former Soviet-oriented communist activist who was President for ten years after 1989. The little bootlicker was simply placed there to defend the Establishment against the recent offensive of the Justice – see the jailed art lover for example. He was just thought up, meant to be just a strategy, not a real political man. And that’s exactly why he’s not resigning and will not resign, although he’s been more or less proved as a plagiarist, and his dubious, shadowy involvement in various other scandals – when I say ‘proved’ it means proved by investigation journalists, not by a court of law, because the levers were unfailingly set in motion to prevent that. So again we’re dealing with a truth that’s only lurking under water like some dark fish. So the PM can’t resign, he’s a nobody, no, this PM will be removed by the quakes in the system itself, whenever that comes to happen.”
“So it’s just a bit of hot air, and nothing else? I mean, this prime-ministering?”
“Nothing indeed. If things in my company are getting stuck I must put in eighteen hours and move heaven and earth to get them running back again. What the hell do these guys’ job descriptions say, I wonder?”
“But you’re the manager. And you are a manager. They’re the managers of this country but they’re not managers, or they’re not acting as such.”
“So you see, what did I tell you? Romania? A place with no state. Whatever state there is, it’s in the backstage. Look at us – at me, at Mona, at others you’ve met here. Do we all come together as something in your head? I bet no. We’re like convicts in a jail, each with their own records, their own history, their own peculiar behaviour pattern, there’s hardly a ‘we’, come to think of it.”
“Hotel California”, I gave a short laugh.
“Yeeeah!”, Andreas consented emphatically.
“Welcome to Romania, my logistics assistant told me at the airport the other night”, I added. “But if you’re all convicts here in jail, are you thinking of leaving Romania too, like so many others are?”
“No”, came the categorical answer. “At least here I can choose the fellow convicts I want to do my time with”, Andreas added with a warm smile.
“I see. So it’s people, again.”
“Of course”, Andreas laughed with some satisfaction that I’d got the hint. “What else?”

It occurred to me for a second that I could try to spell out what that “else” might be that you would prefer to leave your world, but I knew better than that. The way I could quickly find to put it into words was too raw. Something like this:

It can be so choking to be living within your world. And it can be so liberating to be an outsider. Not having to care. Not understanding all the shades of meaning, and making the most of not understanding them. Not being expected to use the right words all the time. Just being able to live at the comfortable surface of the rented apartment in a globalized world. Going far and wide and doing this and that. Adding – belongings, contacts, pics, experiences, accounts, and much more.