Romania: Middle Class Dilemma

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26 April 2002

Now it can be told: because of non-disclosure, many of you merely have known who I was working for and where, but not at what. Since we have a product coming out, and since our competitors now know most of what we are doing here, no need for so much secrecy. The central facts of this engagement can now be found in my newly updated resume.

Warning: political/social comment ahead. If all you want from me is descriptions of the theater and funny incidents of living abroad, you can skip.

Before I launch into this, a disclaimer: I am not an expert on Romanian politics and society. I am a semi-knowledgeable visitor who has been in Bucharest for five months as of the time of this writing. I have traveled only a little around the rest of the country and I frankly find (among other things) the maze of Romanian political parties to be impenetrable (there are at least thirty of some significance). If anyone, either on my mailing list or reading this on the web, would like to disagree with any of what I am saying, or simply provide links to other web pages with other points of view, I will make sure that those are added to this web page, although I reserve the right to respond.

I'm getting to where I understand Romanian pretty well (although I still speak like a brain-damaged 6-year-old) and I was just reading an article in Dilema, which is best imagined by Americans as an equal mix of New York Review of Books, Harpers', and Spy in its heyday, though that's still not quite right. For a UK equivalent maybe mix the literary and arts sections of the Guardian with Private Eye and maybe New Statesman. Do not add in the Times Literary Supplement, because it's just too stodgy, or at least was when last I checked (recently, for an issue whose focal topic was beauty Dilema ran a photo on its front cover that I can't imagine TLS even considering.). Either way, imagine this on newsprint with a tiny budget (I guess that could also be a decription of Private Eye, come to think of it, that's a shoestring operation itself), a good sense of visual layout, and coming out weekly.

Anyway, Dilema calls itself a "weekly of the transition", meaning the transition from post-Stalinist dictatorship and pseudo-socialism to post-Thatcherite capitalism and pseudo-democracy (my cynicism, not theirs, although some of their writers have quite enough of their own). This article I was reading talked about the shifts in the Romanian labor force in the first post-Communist decade. They reported that a poll had shown that in the period 1990-2000, 31% of the economically active population of Romania had changed occupation and [presumably an additional] 34% had changed place of work (7% and 10%, respectively, multiple times) "...which could be interpreted as a major change in quantitative terms (in the volume of mobility)." They go on to point out that these statistics are a little hard to interpret, because it isn't clear how many changed their role within a single workplace; they also go on to elaborate on the groups that were not economically active for this whole period: retirees, young new workers, the 11% or so of the population now unemployed, etc.

Nonetheless, what struck me is that these numbers—doubtless dramatic for a country long used to slow lifetime careers heading inevitably toward a small pension—are certainly lower than for the US any time in the last generation. If these numbers sustain, the average worker would expect to change jobs or workplaces approximately every 14 years. I hardly know an American with a career that stable. Just out of curiosity, I looked at the list of people who receive my emails home, and of the Americans, the few who might appear to have that kind of stability are typically the successfully self-employed, who are efectively doing the equivalent of a continuous job search (and often a continuous redefinition of career) as part of keeping their business going. Even those with successful academic or government careers have all, as far as I can think, changed your direction in some significant way in the last 14 years (e.g. affiliated with a different institution, shifted from full-time on-campus faculty to another role, etc.). Anyone I know well who is an exception? I'd love to hear from you. (Just in the last 10 years, I personally have had 3 totally unrelated employers, two of them both in contract and "permanent" capacities, and this has been easily the most stable decade of my life career-wise: at least all of my significant employment was in one field, although my transition from a mainly hands-on to a mainly managerial role would probably count as a change of occupation in Romanian terms.)

Of course, the other thing going on here is that there has been little or no advancement of the general state of the economy to balance out the instability. The numbers suggest it may well have shrunk rather than grown, although gray and black markets make it hard to tell. A lot of the movement is downward mobility, often due to de-industrialization, especially when you get outside of Bucharest and the Transylvanian cities. Although the particular people I deal with are mostly doing OK (a computer programmer may be the economically best thing to be in Romania other than independently wealthy, especially if you are good at it and have a bit of hustle), the average Romanian is probably worse off economically than under Communism, certainly having no economic gain commensurate with their decreased economic security. Many—probably (barely) most—consider this a more-or-less acceptable tradeoff for increased freedom in other areas of life, and for the upside potential. Romania is not an economic basket case like some of the ex-Soviet republics, but it's easy to see why many, especially those without college educations, would like a return to the economic security of the "good old days", even if it meant a loss of the "bourgeois liberties". Hence, authoritarian nationalist Vadim Tudor has even more support here than Le Pen has just shown himself to have in France.

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this is the almost universal denial that Romania has a middle class. This denial is particularly striking because it often comes from those who, to my American sensibility, are quintessentially middle-class: educated, multilingual professionals, gainfully (although in some cases barely so) employed in the field that corresponds to their formal education, either owning an apartment or (if they are young) living with their parents and well on the way to owning an apartment of their own, taking trips out of the city a few times a year (in some cases monthly or more), almost all of them (depending on their tastes) being someone who at least a couple of times a month goes out dancing, or sees a movie at a cinema, or goes to the opera or ballet. Hell, some of them even own cars, which in this city is less of an expense, but no more of an essential, than in New York or London. Unsurprisingly, being a middle-class professional myself, this is the main class of people I am meeting, and while we have some differences in values (for example, I am more and more struck by Romania's ubiquitous homophobia), we are coming from essentially compatible world views.

What is undeniably true is that most (though not all) of this intellectual middle class (which I suppose is an entirely separate issue from a merchant middle class) is relatively impoverished, compared to their peers in a successful capitalist economy. This is probably least true in computers, but is especially true for those in the government sectors— doctors, nurses, professors—who are in more-or-less the same ecomonic position here as physical laborers, maybe just a tad better off, but the differences all come down to whether you can pick up a little something on the side in some informal sector, which is just as likely for a plumber as for a doctor. I would guess that right now a bright 25-year-old Romanian with a good command of English and a degree in medicine, and who wished to stay here, would have every economic reason in the world to accept an offer of a job waiting tables in the restaurant of a four-star hotel. And not just for short-term prospects. That is more like Cuba or Thailand than it is like Germany, the UK, or the US. (In Spain it might be economically 50-50, but the non-economic class issues would be enormous and no one in that situation would take the job as a waiter.) And almost no one now is studying to be a mechanical engineer, the leading path upward in the Ceaucescu era.

Again, Romanians in the learned professions (and I use that term broadly) are mostly relatively impoverished, but to my eye at least they are identifiably a middle class, in the same sense that an American who might choose to live in a van for four years to be able to afford to go to college could still remain deeply a middle-class person, in the same sense that a middle-class American who is serving a sentence for murder still remains a middle-class person in prison, in the same sense that an American with a union job on an assembly line and thereby earning a basically middle-class income typically will not become at all deeply middle-class, but his/her kids probably will.

Comments welcome. Email me. Do tell me whether or not I can post them on this web site and, if so, whether or not you want your name used.

[16 May 2002: One colleague from Active Voice has written me to remind me that she has, indeed, been there for over a decade, and spent 12 years in Technical Support before recently taking a position as a Product Manager.]

Hanul lui Manuc courtyard

In a perfect example of values I would not call middle class, I had a really bizarre little interaction with the Hanul lui Manuc (Bucharest's oldest hotel, the place where I saw Zdob si Zdub at the beginning of March). A former colleague of mine from London (hi, I'm leaving your name out of this, figure you'd prefer that) wrote me about a month ago that some relatives of his are going to be in Bucharest just after I go home. They had faxed the Hanul lui Manuc for reservations, hadn't heard back, could I check on it? I went by in the evening after work, asked the clerk first if he spoke English (he said no, so I struggled in Romanian), tried to help make/confirm the reservation and was basically told this was too far in advance to make a reservation, come back in a month or so (not unimaginable for Romania, I've been up against that kind of thing before; for example, you can only buy opera tickets about 6 weeks ahead).

I wrote my colleague back, said I'd be glad to try to help again, just let me know. Tuesday I got an email from him, they'd faxed again a week ago, no response, could I try going by? Sure. Same clerk. This time I addressed him in Romanian. He obviously didn't recognize me. He responded in perfectly good English, starting with, "Why don't you just address me in English?" spoken in the manner of a Paris shop clerk with whom one has omitted to begin with "bonjour" or "perdonnez-moi, messieur". He once again informs me that it is too early to make a reservation. I smell a rat. I manage to extract from him that the chef du hotel (OK, that's French, the Romanian is pronounced the same but spelled differently and I'm trying to make this easy on you) will be in "some time after nine" tomorrow. And I even got the phone number.

So Wednesday morning I call and guess what? Not only is it not too early to make a reservation: it's too late. They are fully booked for those dates. I have to email my friend and say his family are out of luck (although, and I hope the person in question doesn't mind my saying this, it is my personal opinion that they might be in luck not to be at a hotel where the staff have that sort of attitude. [They ended up making arrangements through Visali like I did. I hope they are equally happy. 2021 note: Visali no longer exists, probably lost out to AirBnB, Vrbo and all that.])

So what was up? My leading hypothesis is that the man was too darn lazy to go through the work of taking reservations and was hoping I'd just come back when it was someone else's shift. A related suspicion is that the only way I would have done well with him was to address him in fluent, probably native, Romanian (though my real guess is that then he would just have been fluently rude and unhelpful).

Obviously, a hotel that can be fully booked a month ahead can get away with having employees with a bad attitude. It is a lovely building. If you have a tolerance for this sort of behavior (and if you can work out how to book!), Hanul lui Manuc could even be worth staying at. Obviously, enough people think so, despite the fact that this is also a place with a reputation for overcharging in its restaurant, although the one time I ate a meal there no such problem (in fact, I cannot say I've been really overcharged at any restaurant here, despite dire warnings). One co-worker who went there for a wedding reception a while back says that the waiter kept ignoring the guests and going into the next room to watch TV.

[2001 note: the restaurant, under diferrent management now, gets pretty good reviews these days. I'm not sure whether the hotel is operating or not.]

One moment I want to say, "Spring is really here!" Then the next, I think better of it.

The weather warmed up right when Jess and Misha visited, and Tuesday was a glorious sunny spring day (as was much of the weekend). I didn't even have to wear a sweater on the way to the office Tuesday morning, just a sort of sweatshirt. Everything's in bloom (there are plants winding up the cracked plaster of the wall opposite my courtyard office window). This weekend, almost every bench in Cişmigiu was occupied dring the day: old people, families with kids, necking couples, probably five to ten thousand people in the park. Even when I came home at 2am on Saturday night after seeing Zob at the Laptarie Enache, there was a small crowd of young people hanging out in the park near my building. You could tell by conversation and body language that they hadn't arrived together, just people who'd run into each other hanging out in the park in the middle of the night. (Why, why, why can't my normal hometown, Seattle, work out how to keep one park well lit, reasonably well policed, and functioning through the night? Are Americans simply incapable of the good behavior it takes to make this work?)

Then again, one of the nights went down damn near to freezing and today, Friday, as I get ready to send this... Well, I had a lovely sunny outdoor lunch, but if my lunch had been 90 minutes later, eating outdoors would not have crossed my mind. Guess the sun is taking the weekend off. Or it might pop back if it gets bored.

We just had thunder. Save those files...

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Originally written: April 26, 2002

Last modified: 25 February 2021

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