I’ve only been in snow-covered Bucharest for 24 hours, yet have already managed to be late for several appointments – the brutal combination of horrendous traffic and slick roads only partly to blame. But our team has also been kept waiting for several other meetings.
In each case, reporting partner Petru Zoltan or my interpreter, journalist Lavinia Gliga, has reassured me with a smiling declaration: “This is Romania!”
History-rich Romania is one of the most colorful characters of all the ex-Communist Eastern Europeans. And this sentiment seems a charming mix of Romanian resignation and optimism: things will surely be fouled up, but it just may work out in the end. It also reflects serious self-deprecating humor.
A popular Romanian TV host became famous for his sign-off: “We live in Romania, and that takes up all of our time.” Later, Lavinia would further illustrate the dark humor when explaining a fascinating photo we saw: the Romanian photographer had superimposed a map of Europe over a human buttocks, with his homeland smack in the, um, rectum.
In fact, “This is Romania!” applies to much more than tardiness, says Lavinia’s boyfriend, fellow journalist Cristian Lupsa. (The two of them are a driving force behind a serious new Romanian magazine, Decat o Revista.) Over our mixed grill, beer and ţuică, Lupsu further clarified the etymology: “It helps explain why the streets aren’t cleared after snowstorms, why corruption is so bad, why television sucks, and everything else. This is Romania.”
(Author insert: The next day, as we drove through a blinding snowstorm along potholed country highways that still had unpaved ice from a previous storm, the conditions spurred a discussion about corruption within the Romanian roads administration. And more “This is Romania” exclamations.)
My favorite such moment occurred in early December 2006, when I reported from Romania and Bulgaria on the eve of their 2007 admission to the European Union. I hoped to interview some Bucharest official about the EU’s lingering concerns over Romanian corruption.
One office passed me to another, in search of whom they described as the only person authorized to speak about it. When I finally arrived outside that person’s office, just a few hours before I had to fly home, the flak explained that, well, the official was out of the country on business.
I bellowed over the phone about how “unprofessionally” they’d handled this. That was the last time I shouted as a reporter.
Had I known, I might also have muttered “This is Romania.”