Romania: Hermeneutics (or was that Hermetics?)

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15 May 2002

OK, if this wasn't already self-referential enough, my website just got noticed by the Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei ("The Events of the Day"). One of my co-workers says its circulation is probably about a million. I suspect that is high, but it is one of Romania's leading newspapers.

The easiest way to find the article on line (in Romanian, of course) is was to go to the website of Evenimentul Zilei and type "Mabel" into the search ("cautare") box. [2019 note: not any more. They don't archive old stuff. 2021 note: so I've removed the link to] Since I don't know how they are for archiving, the article is reproduced below, first in Romanian, then in English translation (translated by me with a little help from a colleague -- there were a few expressions I didn't initally understand -- and with some running commentary. My, it feels weird to translate an article about myself, especially one that repeats my full name so many times).


Mihai Roman
Marţi, 14 Mai 2002
Bucureştiul, vazut de straini

Informaticianul american Joe Mabel lucreaza in Bucureşti de aproape un an. În tot acest timp, observaţiile sale despre tara noastra si locuitorii ei au condimentat scrisorile trimise acasa, in Seattle. Ştim ce crede Joe Mabel despre români, deoarece si-a publicat scrisorile pe pagina de web proprie. Observaţiile lui sîint in masura sa ne faca sa ne schimbam unele pareri despre noi insine.

Joe Mabel eşte un calator care a vazut multe colturi ale lumii. Dar, pentru ca se afla in interes de serviciu la Bucuresti, s-a vazut obligat sa işi petreaca mai mult tîmp in acest mic oraş, in care o banala petrecere dintr-un bar reprezinta un eveniment demn de a fi televizat. A avut vreme sa vada aproape toate punctele de atracţie ale Capitalei. Scrisorile sale sîint, in primul rînd, un ghid pentru uzul strainului care vrea sa viziteze Romania.

Pe acesta, Joe Mabel il indeamna sa ignore privirile incruntate ale trecatorilor si mizeria de pe strazi. Joe Mabel este indreptatit sa ne judece, dar nu o face. El noteaza atit lucrurile rele, cît şi cele bune.

Pe noi ne-au interesat in special cele rele. Probabil ca cea mai mare deosebire dintre un occidental si un român o reprezinţa lipsa de implicare civica a acestuia din urma - afirma Joe Mabel. Spre exemplu, daca la un spectacol de Opera se nîmeresc in sala spectatori galagiosi, trec minute bune pîna cînd ceilalţi hotarasc sa ia atitudine.

Joe Mabel nu indulceste relatarile pentru a atrage de partea sa simpatia şefilor. Desi lucreaza pentru o firma straina, recunoaste deschis ca orice relatţe de munca ce implica firme straine si angajati romîni conţine un element de exploatare.

Cu tîmpul, americanul nostru a ajuns sa indrageasca locul "exilului" său voluntar. El se intoarce in America la sfîrsitul acestei saptamini. Pentru a vedea care sîint lucrurile de care se desparte cu parere de rău, vizitaţi-i paginile personale, la adresa [2015: That's no longer the path here, I've adjusted the actual link.] E reconfortant cînd strainii iţi reamintesc lucrurile placute care se gasesc in preajma ta.

[SNIP: the article goes on to unrelated content.]


Mihai Roman
Tuesday, 14 Mai 2002
Bucharest, as seen by a foreigner

American computer professional Joe Mabel has been working in Bucharest for about a year. [JM: Nope, only half a year, but newspapers never get a story entirely right, do they?] Throughout that time, his observations about our country and places in it have spiced his letters sent home to Seattle. I know what Joe Mabel thinks about Romanians, because he's published these letters on his own web page. His observations might make us change some opinions about ourselves.

Joe Mabel is a traveller who has seen a lot of corners of the world. However, because work has given him reason to stay in Bucharest, he's been obligated to pass quite a bit of time in this little city, in which a banal revel in a bar constitutes an event worthy of being televised. He's had time to see nearly all the capital's places of attraction. His letters are, above all, a guide to be used by foreigners who want to visit Romania.

Because of that, Joe Mabel chooses not to focus on the scowling looks of passers-by and the poverty of the streets. Joe Mabel would be right in judging us ill for this, but he does not do so. [JM: Hey, I'm originally from New York, who am I to judge scowling looks of passers-by and poverty in the streets? Seattle has plenty of both, too, and although it's historically been a gentler city than Bucharest or New York, the 'Nineties in Seattle were pretty rough on the poor. 2021 note: and it's only gotten worse since.] He notes bad things, but also good things.

As for us, we were most interested in the negatives. Probably the biggest difference between a Westerner and a Romanian is a lack of sense of following through certain civic responsibility—says Joe Mabel. For example, if people are making noise at an opera performance, it takes a few minutes before others make up their minds to do anything about it. [JM: Hmm. I don't see that one as Romania vs. the West. Italians are way past Romanians in this respect. This is more of a "South" versus "North" thing than an "East" versus "West" thing. Too bad he didn't interview me for his article. I'd have said as much.]

Joe Mabel doesn't sweeten his stories to make his boss like him. He works for a foreign firm, and recognizes openly that every work relation that involves foreign firms and Romanian employees contains an element of exploitation.

Over time, our American has come to love his place of (voluntary) exile. He goes back to America the end of this week. To see what he gives his views about, visit his personal page at the address [2015: That's no longer the path here, I've adjusted the actual link.] It's invigorating when strangers remind you of pleasant things that can be found in your own neighborhood.

As a consequence of the article, I've gotten a lot of email, mostly from Romanians abroad. (I've also been a topic of discussion on some Romanian mailing lists and some of that has been forwarded to me by a colleague.) It's been almost all very positive although occasionally I think something I've said has been misconstrued a bit (comparably to my remarks I interspersed into the translation above). I've reproduced some of these emails farther down the page.

As for my "voluntary exile", it's been fun. I've certainly had a far better time Bucharest than Ovid did in Tomis 🔗.

Tonight (15 May 2002) is my going-away party and here I am up at dawn working on this. Oh, well. Guess this is the manic phase.

I'm not publishing every letter I got on this, since some of them were clearly not intended for publication. Unless I've been told explicitly that a letter is for publication, I've followed my usual practice of sticking to first names or initials. Also I've taken such customary editorial liberties as correcting spelling and making certain omissions (always indicated by ellipses in square brackets). I'm leaving any bad English grammar and some slightly odd punctuation intact because I think that is part of the flavor of the letters.

Celine Dion (Un-)explained

14 May 2002

I would like to try and answer your question "can anyone explain to me the appeal of Celine Dion?" The answer is: "Romanians like Celine Dion for the same reason Americans build her a colloseum at Las Vegas" :-)

I don't like Celine Dion at all, probably there are other people (Romanians or Americans), who feel the same way about her and also other people who feel differently.

My name is Adrian and I just discovered your letters about Romania. I was very curious to read them since I am in the opposite position. I am a Romanian, working in the software industry in Bellevue/WA. I didn't have time to read all of your letters entirely. I read the first ones completely and then I read here and there at the end. My first impression is that you were a neutral observer, which is good. You have saw the good and the bad parts of the story. In a couple of places I think you were wrong due to the fact that some of your impressions were formed by the people surround you. My second impression is that you have experienced only Bucharest, altough you have visited Sibiu. The rest of the country can be a lot different when compared to Bucharest (better but not from an economical perspective). I would recommend visiting Timisoara, Cluj-Napoca and Iasi. Getting to know people from other parts of the country would be interesting though it's more difficult to accomplish.

I think you are wrong comparing the People's House (Casa Poporului) with the Redmond Town Center. [JM: Actually, it wasn't so much the Casa Poporului I compared to Redmond Town Center, it was the Centru Civic as a whole.] It's like you are comparing the Pentagon with Redmond Town Center. They are not similar as size nor style. Other than that I congratulate you on your talent and will to describe all these things that you experienced in Romania. I would love to have the same talent and describe the Puget Sound area and the American spirit with all the good and not so good things (or at least not as I thought).



From a Romanian in Paris

14 May 2002
Hi Joe,

My name is Radu [...] and I am a Romanian away from home since a couple of years. I spent some time in the US and now I am staying in Paris. I found out about your website and your comments about Romania from a distribution list on IT (TIC Lobby). So I checked it out and I was realy impressed. Your insight into the Romanian society is great and for an American (no offense!!!) you really "got them right" so to speak. I am reading your notes right now and I sent the link to my wife also (she is in Strasbourg for the moment). Since we might get back to Romania, an "independent" view on what happens there from someone with a profile close to ours is extremely useful. And your sketches are nice also!

Here are some notes on your text, even though you might have clarified these points already:

Thanks for the great website and for the free publicity for Romania. Maybe we would meet sometime in France, Romania or the US :-)

Best regards,


Romanian translation to come?

14 May 2002

Thank you. I'm a Romanian, established in USA for about 16 years now. I was very impressed by the accuracy and your savory depiction of Romania today. Since I research the web and read the Romanian press (major newspapers) almost on a daily basis I found your web site published in Evenimentul Zilei ( The Daily Event).

I think, Romanians, with their interest in culture and arts, might be interested in a translation in Romanian of your impressions of their surroundings, seen by an American. I'm able and willing to do that and I think will be of great value to be published, for their educational value. I think you write beautiful, and Romanians may become more aware of democracy and civilization through your letters.



[JM: Cristina, thank you for your kind offer of translation. I need to think this over a little, because I am not yet sure exactly what I may be doing with this material beyond just posting it to my website.]

The loop draws tighter (and I draw Dan)

14 May 2002

10x for my picture (in fact urs:)) in ur site. i red it and it's very interesting.

dan iancu

[JM 21 May 2002: The question is, does urs in the preceding mean the English "yours" or is it to be read as the Romanian for "bear"?]

An afternoon's read

14 May 2002

[...]Just wanted you to know: very nice site about Romania. I read it all in one afternoon. Inspiring. Very good.[...]


14 May 2002

I'm Romanian, from Bucharest. I'm also a software programmer, just like you. I just want to tell you that I enjoyed a lot your writings about Bucharest and Romania (on your web page). I spent a whole day reading all the articles. In fact, I learned useful stuff about the city ... and not only the city. I just want to thank you for a beautiful afternoon, while I was reading your letters. [...] Good luck for the future!


14 May 2002

In today's on-line edition, Evenimentul Zilei wrote an interesting review of your Letters home from Romania. [...] So, allocating initially 5 minutes from my time, I decided to take a look at it. I ended up by reading all the material. More specific, I inhaled it.

My thoughts? Bravo Mr. Mabel! Nobody so far was able to draw such an accurate image of Bucharest. You managed to send me back to Bucharest for a couple of hours. More important, you managed to make me see Romania with different eyes. I realised that, beyond all the disappointments and frustrations I had for almost three decades, Bucharest is still a unique place in the world. You know? I never remembered Cismigiu so beautiful until the moment you compared it with Bruegel's paintings. Never seen it this way until now. I thank you for that!

I thank you for "forcing" me to remember that we have traditions and culture[, ...] too!

I'll check your "letters" every day from now on and I'll recommend the URL to everybody who wants to find out about Romania.

Once again, Bravo!

Best regards,


If this keeps up, my ears will turn red

14 May 2002

Hi... I am a 23-years Romanian living in Bucharest. I've read today the online version of Evenimentul Zilei. There was a short article about you published, and, following the link, I reached your website.

I found absolutely fascinating your guide and your letters -- and I've spent all evening reading them. They are very objective and well documented. If published, I think they'd made a very good guide to Bucharest, but, better, would help us -- Romanians -- to see how we are really seen from outside -- I mean West. None of my foreigner friends -- Americans, French -- have seen and told me all the good and bad things you discovered and write about in your letters.

I want to thank you for your work and to suggest to try to publish this work, maybe even translated in Romanian.


I don't know how good are you as a programmer, but as a writer, I think you would make an excellent job. And become famous too, no more NDA's to worry about. :))


Oh, VM, about those stray dogs and beggars...

14 May 2002

Hi there,

I really like what you wrote about Bucharest. I live here and I am Romanian. It is very nice to hear someone talking so sincere about this city.

I want to thank you on behalf of all the people who are tired to hear foreigners saying that Romania means stray dogs and kid-beggars.

Good Luck


Meanwhile, on another channel...

This next batch of letters are from a Romanian mailing list (TIC-Lobby, normally an IT-related list). Translations in process.

Andrei finds it interesting

14 May 2002

Subject: TIC-Lobby: lectura interesanta

Citind Evenimentul Zilei pe internet ieri m-am impiedicat peste un link:

[2015: That's no longer the path here.]

Desi putin off topic pentru lista tot ce am citit acolo este extraordinar si e o lectura obligatorie pentru oricine vrea sa inteleaga cum ne vede un american.

In esenta este vorba despre un american din Seattle care a lucrat consultant la o firma IT din Romania si care isi descrie experienta mai mult din punct de vedere cultural decat tehnic. Desi continutul este sub 1% tehnic tot mi se pare o lectura potrivita pentru lista asta.

Ar fi interesant daca cineva de pe lista il cunoaste si poate comenta pe marginea a ceea ce scrie el acolo. Obiectivitatea si candoarea cu care isi descrie experienta sunt absolut remarcabile.

Nu am apucat sa citesc tot, dar m-a cuprins nostalgia citind. Citind am constatat ca din pacate in Romania facem prea putin ca sa ne putem in valoare potentialele pe care realmente le avem.


Andrei C.

English translation

14 May 2002

Subject: TIC-Lobby: interesting reading

Reading Evenimentul Zilei on the Internet yesterday I ran across a link:

[2015: That's no longer the path here.]

Although it's a little off-topic for the list, everything I read there was extraordinary, and it's compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand how an American sees us.

In essence, it's about an American from Seattle who is working as a consultant at an IT firm in Romania and who describes this experiences from a lot of points of view other than technical. Actually, although the content is under 1% technical, I still think it's appropriate reading for this list.

It would be interesting if someone on the list who knows him could comment beyond what is written there. The objectivity and candor with which he describs his experience is remarkable.

I didn't have time to read it all, but I was filled with nostalgia reading it. Reading it, I was reminded that unfortunately in Romania we don't put enough value on what we actually have.


Andrei C.

Consti plays Go with me

14 May 2002


L-am cunoscut, dar nu legat de informatica, ci de Go.

Ce pot sa spun e ca Joe era destul de stresat in Bucuresti, desi a stat destul de mult pe aici (cred ca mai mult de 1 an). A avut si ceva incidente ("agatari" pe strada de catre indivizi care se prezentau drept politisti si ii cereau actele. Joe raspundea invariabil: Va arat actele, dar numai in sediul Politiei).

Se pare ca pentru un strain este mai greu in Bucuresti, decat pentru un bucurestean :)

Constantin G.

English translation

14 May 2002


I've met him, not related to software, but to Go.

One could say that Joe's been pretty stressed in Bucharest, but he's stayed long enough here (I think more than a year). He's had some incidents of being accosted in the street by people impersonating police and demanding his documents. Joe always responds: I'll show you my papers, but only at the police station

I think it's harder in Bucharest than for a foreigner than for a Bucharestean.

Constantin G.

JM adds: Now that I've been here a while and can speak decent Romanian, the maradonistas are hardly a problem at all. I laugh at them. They tell me they're the police, I tell them, sure, and I'm King Mahai, or whatever else comes to mind at the time.

It's gotten to where I can usually spot a maradona coming before I'm even dealing with the fake cop part of it. By the time they arrive on the scene it's to hear me saying to their confederate, yeah, I know, it's a maradona, don't waste your time. Actually, often it doesn't even get that far. Someone starts by saying to me "hey, do you want to exchange some currency" (which is about like walking up to a stranger on the street in the US and saying, "hi, would you like to engage in the illegal purchase of some drugs") and I simply reply that I am indeed a foreigner, but I'm not stupid, and he goes away.

Maybe this means I'm becoming a naturalized Bucharestean.

Mircea thinks I'm just like all those other Yankees

14 May 2002


Interesant, intr-adevar, dar destul de previzibil: perceptia americanilor asupra Romaniei urmeaza cam acelasi tipar. Cel putin asa reiese din discutiile pe care le-am avut eu si din relatari asemanatoare cu cea a lui Joseph Mabel. Ma refer in special la americani, care mi s-au parut in general mai deschisi, mai ingaduitori si oarecum mai dornici sa intelega ceva dintr-o societate in care contrastele "tari" sunt caracteristice. Oricum, mai deschisi decit europenii vestici.

Pe de alta parte, perceptia strainilor urmeaza o anumita curba. La inceput percep mai cu seama aspectele negative (oarecum normal: orice loc nou induce un anumit stress) iar pe masura ce sederea se prelungeste (sau se repeta) aspectele pozitive isi fac tot mai mult loc. Sunt sanse mari ca dupa o vizita de doua zile un occidental sa plece cu o impresie mizerabila, dar sunt si sanse ca o sedere mai lunga sa creeze o amintire mai degraba agreabila.

Pe de alta parte, Romania nu inseamna doar Bucuresti (Bucuresti este mai degraba exceptia decit "norma", asa cum este, de pilda, Istambul in Turcia). Recunosc ca eu sunt mai stresat de Bucuresti decit pare ca era Joseph dupa citeva luni, dar a caracteriza Bucurestiul ca "safe"... (Adevarul este ca, de fapt, nu prea am termeni de comparatie. In marile orase prin care-am fost nu m-am aventurat prin periferii.)


English translation

Interesting, honestly, but predictable enough: American perceptions about Romania follow along this path. At least this is what I've understood from my conversations with them and from similar stories to those of Joseph Mabel. I refer specifically to Americans, who seem to me generally more open, more tolerant, and somewhat more eager to understand something of a society in which sharp contrasts are characteristic. Anyway, more open than Western Europeans.

On the other hand, foreigners' perceptions follow a certain path. At the beginning, they more notice the negative aspects (which is normal: every new place induces some stress) but after their visit is prolonged (or repeated), positive aspects take on a larger role. It's likely that after a visit of two days a Westerner is left with a very bad impression [I originally mistranslated "impresie mizerabile" as "an impression of poverty"], but it's also likely that after a longer stay creates rather more agreeable memories.

On the other hand, "Romania" doesn't mean just Bucharest (Bucharest is rather more the exception than the rule, just as is, for example, Istanbul in Turkey.) I'm aware that I'm more stressed in Bucharest than it seems to me Joseph was after a few months, but he's characterized Bucharest as "safe" (The truth is that, in fact, I don't have too many terms of comparison. In the big cities where I've been, I haven't ventured into the outer parts of the cities.)


The view from Iasi

[JM: The following is extracted from 2 emails form Calin in Iasi, Romania. I've edited a bit for clarity. He's rather more cynical than I, but what's the point of running only letters that agree with me?]

27 May 2002

I'm a 38 yrs old engineer from the city of Iasi, in Eastern Romania. I have discovered your Romanian stories and really enjoyed them. Since 1990, lots of Western people are describing their Eastern experiences but few of them are impartial and fair, as you have been. You really saw the essential of Romanian way of life. I am going to use excerpts from your letters as arguments in my "fights" on forums against extremist Romanian folks which are excessively praising the Romanian nation and its qualities or, on the contrary, stupidly adulating Western nations.

[...] You are the first Westerner who talks about the fate of the "middle class" here in Romania and wish to make some comments about its poverty. You got things right. My wife and I are a classic example. I'm an engineer and she is a doctor (specialized in immunology). We both work in governmental institutions and we earn together under 250 USD per month! Besides this I also have to raise my 4 months old baby-boy! And this whilst senators, police officers, pimps and other are driving their brand-new Grand Cherokees.

If you are still interested by the destiny of my country, here are some facts and opinions from me, the ultra-skeptical middle-class Romanian:

Sir, these were some of my thoughts about my Nation and the thugs who are -- democratically -- screwing it.

As information, I have German roots, no parents (both died when I was 17) and in 1986 my aunt who was living in Freiburg asked me to join her in Germany (she wanted to adopt me). I said no just to see how is gonna be after Ceausescu ! Now I see, alright.

I'm here to stay and carry my cross in a beautiful country that I really love even if lots of Romanians are really stupid and childish in their behaviour in front of Western tourists or investors.

Anyway, despite my skepticism, I am persuaded that Romanians will get one day on the good track. After a REAL revolution, of course.

Calin [...], Iasi, Romania
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Originally written: May 15, 2002

Last modified: 25 February 2021

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