What you’re in for

Let me just say from the start that this is only a draft. I’ve just come from Romania where I was supposed to do a report on how things are going in their struggle towards European standards and the only thing I’m dead sure about is that there’s a hell of a lot going on there. So much so that I’m really worried what I wrote might sound like gibberish now and then. That’s, I guess, mainly why Gertrude, my chief editor, sent me packing when I handed her this draft.

“You must be nuts”, she said, “if you think I’m going to let you ruin the show with this! I’ve never read bigger bullshit in my whole life!”

Yes, I did try to make it clear that was just first thoughts, like brainstorming, just putting down all the impressions – and there was a lot of them! And I did try to reassure her that the real report would never be that chaotic as this draft seems to be at first sight. At first sight, mind you, I said to her. She laughed at this.

“You mean a normal person should read all this rave and then lie back and reflect and bingo here’s the subtle pattern beneath it? Get a life, Peter, for goodness’ sake, will you?” With this she slammed the door behind her.

Now I realise I do have a big problem, first of all because I’d have to cram everything in the thirty minutes I have for the report. A huge one, as a TV report, but then it’s Romania we’re talking about. Just name one single journalist or media company that was ever appreciated for providing solid info on this country. ‘Solid’ – what’s solid? You see?, I’ve got this problem right from the beginning, as soon as I make a statement I need to go into a sort of footnote and define, or explain, or something like that. No wonder my report is sprawling on several levels, main body, footnotes, different stories, links to the background and so on. But then again, I told Gertrude too, just consider how we all read nowadays in the digital world, texts are no simpler in fact: you read and read then you find a blue word that is a link that takes you to another text and so on and on and on! So my own report is just as realistic as can be, not only in terms of what I write but also how I write. (I have to admit, this is a bit far-fetched, but then I had to be able to say something in defense of all my research work).

Anyway, by solid I mean here something that does succeed in shedding light on that place, I mean real light, not the usual crap about homeless kids, stray dogs and petty criminals. And Romania’s notorious for its being a sort of Fata Morgana of Eastern Europe: gullible outsiders have often been lured to believe they are on track towards a theory on what Romania is, only to be proved fools on the next opportunity.

So there it is, my own attempt to shed some ‘real’ light on that place. And as I do in fact like clear things, I put it down right from the start: the regular story of my trip to Romania is flowing as you’d expect, and now and then there mingle the stories I was told about emmigrating Romanians in a sort of alternative text, you’ll notice right away as I typed it as footnotes. While I was there I had the feeling that this story of Romanian exiles would be too much for one report – and it may well be that I was right – but now I somehow can’t lose some sort of guilt that I’m not doing justice to it unless I include that too. So since I was trying all the time to stamp those accounts down, repressing them if you like, they show up in this draft as huge footnotes on the page. It now strikes me that that part of the text looks now as if some subversive, underground facts had squeezed themselves into my report.

Any invididual portray, or quick sketch of events meant to provide some background was integrated in the basic text, but just for your help I put up a blue heading, as links usually are. So there it is, you can read this first draft whichever way you prefer: you can stick to the black-and-white story and ignore the rest (though I warn you, this would be a very one-sided reading of the whole report), or read the black-and-white story to the end and then go back and read the footnotes, or the pieces under the blue headings, or both, or finally just read everything in the order they come up, as if you were reading it on the internet and you would click on all the links that are provided.

Of course the way the sections or the individual stories follow each other is not to be expected to relate to a specific causality in the reality of Romania. I’m so frustratingly far from the position of providing explanations. No, the structure of this report, although Gertrude would laugh sarcastically hearing the word ‘structure’ in connection with this draft, may only at most say something about how I took stock of things. That is, about my own exposure to, and attempt to grapple with, the facts, the people or the accounts I came across in Romania. Part of this was planned, and I have to give my thanks here to some most devoted assistants I had on field, Andrew our long-standing ‘master-of-logistics’ on the Romanian soil, but also Mona, my precious, quick-silver interpreter. Without the two of them, that country would have been not just unintelligible, but would simply not exist for me at all. If I do have any, faintest, conception of Romania, it is thanks to the gates they opened for me to the Romanian experience.

But I said ‘part of this was planned’; that’s because a great deal of what I went through was in fact the result of randomness, or fate, whatever you call it, you  know, that kind of elusive element of ‘things will run their own course’. What I mean is, there was a plan for everything, but once I landed in any of those schedule slots, things were evolving of their own accord it seemed, my inescapable feeling was that neither Andrew, nor Mona had any influence on what I was going through, they had just opened the gate, as I said above, but after that point I was on my own and reality burst out over me. I made a joke on the first day and asked Mona humming the cartoon song, ‘what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?’, as we were talking about the depressing grey of their capital city and the depressing state of affairs in the first place.  But on the plane back to London, while I was scribbling at this draft, it struck me that it was me that seemed to have got lost for a while in a rabbit-hole of a topsy-turvy world.

Well, this may again be unfair, in fact. Many journalists are going on and on about the corruption, ineffectiveness, ultimately about the abnormality of the Romanian state or society. I’m not so sure it’s a completely absurd world. Yes, at first – and second – sight  it does look like that. Romania is a country of astonishing contrasts and paradoxes, as my draft will try to outline, but the feeling of what’s a nice boy like me doing in a place like this was more connected to a world that was functioning in its own right, only it was so overwhelmingly weird, mysterious and somehow upsetting. And when I say upsetting (here I go again, from one explanation to the next, you see, this IS Romania, an endless attempt to capture it into words that is I’m afraid doomed to fail forever), I don’t necessarily mean anything bad, just upsetting in the sense of mind-boggling, or even deeper, challenging your assumptions, your perceptions, your compass. Tough. I could even say: don’t go there if you’re not prepared to keep the distance. But then if you keep the distance you will probably miss the point. You see, that’s already the first paradox. And my report hasn’t started yet.

I said above that  I realise I do have a problem, first of all because…This means there are more than one problem. The most worrying thing that crosses my mind as I write these introductory lines is that the whole pile might be about another Romania than the one on the map.