• Ilinca Stroe

What Is It that Makes the Romanians Special? 4 Propositions

What are the typical characteristics of the Romanians? The special qualities that set them apart from other peoples? The answer depends on whom you ask: the conservatives will tell you that what makes us unique is that we are God-fearing, family-centred and hospitable folks. The progressists will tell you that we really stand out by our many discriminatory phobias, by how we dodge individual responsibility and how passively we accept unfair situations (e.g. bribery) as “fate” or “custom”. And recent psychological research maintains that we are experiencing a shift of paradigms, transitioning away from our individualism (or lack of collaboration skills) and our unrealism (or lack of practical thinking).

It is hard to provide an ideology-free answer to the question of “what’s characteristic of us, Romanians”, and avoid stereotypes at the same time. Expats who have been living here for a few years are probably well positioned to produce, based on total cultural immersion and direct observation over time, an accurate perspective on our defining traits - but then again, they might also point out that no particular trait is really “exclusively Romanian”. With that caveat in mind, let us have a go at sketching the four if not “absolutely typical” then closest to “typical” characteristics of the Romanians.

1. A sense of the absurd. A country where bureaucracy has reached Kafkian levels of sophistication just had to have a marked sense of the absurd. Imagine waiting for hours on end in front of a closed office door where you just need to get in briefly to have a form stamped by a secretary, before you can submit it to another office one floor below. You’re seated on a shabby chair on a dusty corridor with the painting on the walls almost audibly peeling off. There’s also some mould on the ceiling. But, stuck to the closed office door in front of which you keep waiting like a lost soul, there’s a poster: a smiling clerk’s face and a slogan reading, “Where working with the public is an art!” That was just a generic example which many middle-aged Romanians will resonate with. A more specific one, collected recently in the Botanical Garden in Bucharest, is this: on an alley there’s a portable ecological toilet cabin. Its door is closed. Five feet away, perched on a bench, there’s what you normally need in the toilet: a roll of toilet paper. Its colour? Pink. No wonder the Dada movement was co-founded by a Jewish Romanian, Tristan Tzara…

2. Bășcău. That translates as fun making. Coarse fun making. In the area of sarcasm, but less intellectual than it. Admittedly, it is more prevalent among uneducated, lower-class Romanians, and it has a good explanation, historically and psychologically speaking. Having experienced times where invasions were “daily business”, with their pillaging, violations and killing, the Romanians toughened themselves up to the point of censoring and sarcastically cutting off any manifestation of emotional vulnerability. Thus, bășcău is often the response to openly expressed fear, concern, even pain or situations like falling in love. Indeed, bășcău seems the very opposite of empathy. One example which has become almost a common saying: someone cries out, “Oh my God, I’ve just cut my finger to the bone!” They get, in response, “Oh, wow, watch out, your entrails might come out through that wound!” Or if they are a boy or young man: “Surely it’ll heal by the time you get married!”

3. „Improvising”. Something breaks and you don’t have the money to have it fixed? Or you simply feel god-inspired to repair it yourself? It may be a punctured pipe that you wrap rags around tightly and season them generously with superglue, so they last. Or it might be a chair whose leg collapsed, and you can restore its balance by placing a pile of old corrugated files instead of the missing leg. Or if you can’t afford a sledge in winter, you can grab a plastic rubbish bag and wonderfully slide down the snowy hill seated on it. We make do. We patch things up. Quite ingeniously. Again, this trait comes from totalitarian times when there was a shortage of everything, and you had to make best use of whatever was at hand.

4. Haz de necaz. That is probably the most Romanian trait most Romanians will point out when asked what’s “typically Romanian”. It is to make fun in troublesome situations: to „make a laugh out of rough”. Just to cheer yourself (or someone else) up and tone down the trouble, inconvenience or displeasure. It is a problem management method, a way of making difficulty or hurdles less insurmountable, more approachable. Palatable. Here’s, for instance, one common joke from Ceaușescu’s time (i.e. food shortages): „What’s there in the fridge?” „There’s lots of cold!” In that age, if there was anything to buy from the butcher’s, it was (if you were lucky!) pork hooves – colloquially called “Adidas”. And if there was nothing except the hooks on which meat was supposed to hang, we wouldn’t call it the butcher’s anymore, but “cloakroom” – full of empty hangers…

So what is it that makes the Romanians special, at the end of the day? A bit of ingenuity, a bit of humour, a bit of (self-)repression… That, in a national context which has evolved significantly in the past three decades and keeps on changing. In the end, it’s perhaps our ability to go on no matter what, to keep going under ever-changing circumstances that makes us – maybe, just maybe - a bit special.

International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online and face-to-face Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s culture, language or history. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact romanian@ih.ro. You can also watch our video series “Your Romanian Class” and subscribe to our YouTube channel, or listen to our series of podcasts “Ascultă româneşte”.

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