Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > (Fail to) Earn Money Reading Email

(Fail to) Earn Money Reading Email

17 May 2002

Does anyone remember the old New Yorker fillers like, "Letters we didn't finish reading"? I got an email today that began:

Dear Friend,
You can earn a lot of money in the next 90 days sending e-mail. Seem impossible?

(Yes. Delete. Wait, that opening is so wonderfully stupid I have to share it. Undelete. Copy. Paste. You could make a lot of money in the next 90 days buying lottery tickets, or prospecting for platinum, but I think the odds are against it.)


The going-away party went, I think, very well, although I spent a little too much time being my own (slightly tipsy) kitchen servant rather than being a host. I guess this was not ideal for those guests who didn't know too many other people there (no one to properly make introductions), but was apparently appreciated by the many who ate heartily. I cooked ratatouille, which is actually quite close to a Romanian dish called ghiveci, and bucatini (an amazing thing to have found here) with a sauce of onions, garlic, hot peppers and some rather good Romanian vegetarian sausage. Apparently, no one knew it was vegetarian until I told them.

Soy sausage apparently has a bad reputation here because in the late Ceausescu years Romania was exporting nearly all the meat as part of the drive to pay off the foreign debt, and people were eating soy sausage because it was all you could get. I'm told people refer to those who managed to spend those years outside of Romania as the ones who didn't have to eat soy meat. (I even got a few of them to try the soy sausage raw with mustard. Everyone who tried it actually liked it, but most wouldn't try. I have to suspect that the recipes in '87 weren't as good.)

30+ people, no rain, much beer, some palinca (and an even stronger beverage called horinca), lots of sweet stuff fom the bakery of the Hotel Bucuresti and bread from Brutaria Deutschland up at Piata Doribantilor, green olives, peanuts, party food, party people, party music (among others, Spitalul de Urgenţa (Spitalul de Urgenta, Emergency Hospital), quite possibly the most Romanian rock band in the world, and Parliament/Funkadelic, perhaps the most emphatically un-Romanian rock band in the world). Over by 11 pm, my neighbors won't hate me, the place was left in pretty good shape, I did another 45 minutes of cleaning as part of sobering up a little, the cleaning woman got the rest in the morning (I left her some wine, some cookies, an apology, and a tip. She responded with thanks and that it was cool that I had met enough people here to throw a big party. Because she is normally there while I am at work, I actually have met her only twice. She seems like a very nice person. She actually has pretty good English, but I had already started leaving her any necessary notes in Romanian before I knew that).


In the comments about this site that have been flooding back since Evenimentul Zilei wrote about it, maybe the most interesting was one the came to me indirectly, a comment on the TIC-Lobby mailing list that was forwarded to me by a colleague. " [...A]mericani [...sunt...] 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..." ("Americans are, 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." I would say that is simply because we come from one ourselves.

Miserable poverty in Romania is not worse than miserable poverty in America (although there is somewhat more of it and it may be a bit more hopeless). Great wealth in Romania does not begin to rival great wealth in America: the closest thing to a Romanian Bill Gates is probably former tennis star Ion Ţiriac (Tiriac), whose name is on a bank, an airline, etc. while his former doubles partner Ilie Năstase (Nastase) has to settle for endorsing a prestigious but not (I'm told) a notably good Italian restaurant.

By Romanian standards, Ion Tiriac is very wealthy, but (to use a Seattle point of reference) he would probably not be one of the ten wealthiest individuals on Capitol Hill or Queen Anne; on the Lake Washington shore (especially the east shore), he'd have neighbors who could buy and sell him. In New York or London he'd be one more ex-athlete who'd handled his money right.

[18 May 2002: Helene tells me Tiriac is richer than I thought: "I'm not sure you're right about Tiriac's wealth, unless he made some very, very bad investments since he was Boris Becker's manager in the 80's. He was reported to be worth about 500 million at that time, and was involved in East/West business ventures all across Eastern Europe after Perestroika."

Oh, well, then, he would probably win on Cap Hill or Queen Anne. Hell, this just might put him in the top ten on the Lake. Barely. (Actually if he's made good investments, I guess it would put him there pretty securely. He could get the property next to Charles Simonyi's and build something Brancoveanesque just to annoy him.)

Confirmation: A Romanian named Mihai adds (June 2003): "The financial weekly Capital published a magazine with the 100 wealthiest Romanians. Ion Tiriac is the 2nd with $600-700 million."]

Compared to the Communist era, when no one but Ceausescu's immediate family was really allowed to own anything of real value, Romania is, of course "a society in which sharp contrasts are characteristic". I really don't think these contrasts are any sharper in Bucharest than in a typical American city. What is different is a less favorable ratio of rich, middle, and poor, and that the lines are drawn in different places. By American standards, I am, at best, knocking at the door of the upper middle class, and at worst could fall out of the middle class if I experienced a few bad years. By Romanian standards, I am rich, maybe even filthy rich. However, as I remarked some weeks ago, in Romania many even of the poor, especially the elderly poor, own their dwelling place outright, no mortgage, extremely uncommon for a poor American and not even all that common for a middle-class American.

As for sharp contrasts of wealth and poverty, or the presence of beggars in the streets, the reason many Americans don't freak out over this is that it looks like where we are from. I'm told that just a few years back it was visibly worse here than it is now, especially the number of child beggars and homeless children. Eight or nine years ago was especially bad here, possibly every bit as bad as the late Ceausescu years and with the suffering less equally distributed.

Pimps annoy me, but as for beggars, unless they persist past a simple "no" my feeling is pretty much my feeling toward anyone else who wants my money. I don't resent the shoestore because I walk past it when I don't need shoes. When I see a street beggar, my attitude is pretty much, "Do I need a beggar today?" That is, is my pocket weighed down by coins I don't even care about, or did I just make some really self-indulgent expenditure that deserves to be followed by something like a secular tithe, or am I just in the mood to be generous to a stranger? As for beggars who persist past a simple "no", I'm not too hot on shopkeepers who do that, either. (I guess pimps annoy me for exactly the same reason McDonald's or the Gap does: they're selling something I'm rather sure I'll never want to buy, while miserably exploiting the people who make the product.)

My general impression is that the Romanian economy has most likely actually turned the corner (although it will take at least another five years before we really know), and that it has done so at a time when the world economy is not exactly booming. I will not be surprised if they successfully catch the next big wave, though I also will not be astounded if they don't: the surf is pretty crowded and some of their neighbors -- certainly Hungary and the Czech Republic, possibly Slovakia and Slovenia, maybe even Poland -- seem to be ahead of them in line to ride it. Then again, from everything I understand, they look to me to be in a lot better position than, for example, the Ukraine or almost any ex-Soviet republic outside the Baltic States.

Several letters I received remarked that I have not written about the corruption here. One in particular wrote, "You talked some about politics but you didn't get the most important element in: generalised corruption. I'm puzzled. Didn't you ever had to deal with it in Romania? It begins at Prime Minister and President level and goes down to the policeman on the street." I haven't written about it because I really haven't encountered much of it. I'm told it's out there, but all I know is what I read in the papers. The same writer says, "The lady in the Storck Museum was expecting a tip, 'bacşiş', [baksheesh]. The workers in the cultural field are the worst paid in the country." Likely I didn't read this particular situation right: if she'd put her hand out, or suggested a particular "fee" for sketching, I'd have known, but instead she seemed to be ushering me out the door and trying to close up early; I was the sole patron.

I don't necessarily consider baksheesh to be corruption. I'm from a tipping culture, and baksheesh seems to me to be more like tipping than like bribery. If a government employee is paid only $100 a month, I think small tips from any unimpoverished person who uses their services make perfect sense. I think of it as a very direct user fee. A few times here, I've smoothed a slightly rough situation with a dollar or so. To me, that doesn't seem disproportionate. If it was a twenty, that would start to get to where I would think of it as corruption. And I'm sure that the one ex-Chicagoan I know is reading this is laughing her head off going "Twenty? No self-respecting building inspector/cop (etc.) would settle for twenty! That's just for getting the garbage hauled!"

I'm aware corruption is out there, but my only significant interaction with a government official was to get my visa renewed, and the woman I dealt with was honest, forthcoming with information, efficient, and even helpful. Probably I got lucky. So many people tell me that corruption is pervasive that they must be correct, but I've been immune throughout this visit. D-ul Ionescu says corruption sees me coming and it hides.

Actually, I've been far more struck with the unwillingness of many Romanians to accept money they don't feel they deserve. It seems often to be a point of pride. A couple of times early on here, I accidentally overpaid for something. Since then, I've done so a couple of more times, intentionally, as an experiment. In every case, the person gave me back the overpaid money; in one case they had to chase me down the street to give it back, after which I got a detailed lecture on which banknote is which and that I needed to be more careful.

Just this weekend in Sibiu I had a taxi driver not be willing to accept as large a tip as I offered. He'd taken me from the center of town out to my hotel and charged me only 30,000 lei (a little under a dollar) instead of the 40,000 lei or so it usually cost. (His meter was broken.) I tried to hand him the 50,000 lei I would normally hand over for the 40,000 lei fare. (This was about a ten-minute taxi ride through reasonably difficult traffic. I simply felt it was underpriced.) He wouldn't accept such a large tip, told me it just wasn't customary. (I suspect he might have accepted it from a wealthy Romanian, but didn't want to be in that relation to a foreigner).


Speaking of letters flooding back, I just got another one. The writer gives me permission to use his full name, but because of what most interested me about this letter, I think it would be more polite not to:

"Hi, I spent two days reading about your experiences in Romania and yes, you brought me back in time. I live in Boston for the last 12 years and have to say that I felt as being there and feeling the mood of Romania through your writing. Thank you, I never read something like this from an American. Maybe you are very special, maybe I didn't meet the right people, but as far as I can tell there was nothing like this ever written about Romania. You didn't take sides, just said what you felt at that time, thank you again, and yes you are special. Danutz. You have my accord to publish this E:mail and use my name. Daniel M----. You might be gay, but you are straight in honesty."

And of course I'm thinking, two things. (1) One more nice letter and (2) how funny: he thinks I'm gay. (I'm not, although I've been called an honorary queer at least a few times.)

Why does he think I'm gay? Well, for anyone who might not have been reading all of these letters home, maybe eight times, maybe even more, I've commented on the status of gays in Romania. Coming from Seattle, the homophobia here is very striking, just as the white-on-black racism in Seattle (relatively mild by North American standards) would be to a Romanian. Beyond even that, a lot of my Seattle friends are gay or bi (I just did a quick run-through of the recipients of these emails and among the Seattleites it runs over 25%), so it affects my perspective: a lot of the time, I might be thinking along the lines of "N--- would really enjoy the Opera here", but then have to follow that up with, "but after a couple of weeks, N--- would find that closet a bit cramped."

(I don't want to exaggerate this. There is a well-organized information and counseling group called Accept, and apparently they will happily tell someone which dance clubs, etc., are gay-friendly, but apparently only one disco, called Casablanca, is actually willing to have "Bucharest in Your Pocket" list them with address and phone number as a place where gays are welcome.)

Having mentioned race, let me remark that in Romania, Blacks -- mostly African-born -- are few in number and considered a bit exotic, but there is no particular prejudice against them. They're just one more group of foreigners. It is a little odd when you see a Congolese selling vegetables in Amzei Market, but only because he is the one and only stall-holder who is obviously not from here. (This is not a hypothetical, he really exists, I talked with him a while back using some combination of my dubious French and then-still-very-dubious Romanian and his roughly comparable English. Nice guy. Talk about someone with a different perspective on Bucharest! To him, of course, Bucharest is peace and prosperity.)

To paraphrase the old Dick Gregory joke, they don't have any prejudice against Blacks here: they take it all out on the Gypsies. (For any who may not know, Dick Gregory is a Black American political activist -- also famous for being a fanatical vegetarian -- who started his career as a stand-up comedian. The original joke was along the lines of "I love going to Montana. Man, the white people there, they've got nothing against Black folks at all. They take it all out on the Indians."")


OK, I know this is all getting very self-referential (am I blogging? Please tell me I'm not blogging), but I just got an email from Mihai Roman, the author of the article about this site in Evenimentul Zilei. Most of the letter is clearly not for publication, but I was amused by the following:

"Your website is doing well in the search-engines (especially in Google). Actually, I found it searching for information on Aikido. One of the results linked to a letter where you mentioned your 'aikidoka' boss, and I just kept reading from there. The Internet is a wonderful place."

So, an aplogy to D-ul Ionesco that my writing preempted the Aikido article. I'm sure Mihai will still get around to it.

And, yes, my site has started doing very well in Google, much better than I would have expected. It's not hard to google-hack a query where I come up as the first hit (especially for places I've written about in Andalucia and Extremadura). I haven't been engineering for that deliberately, either. Just goes to show that content-rich websites are a very viable strategy.


It's the last day at work and a little slow (hence time to write some of this during work hours). I've done a couple of handoff meetings, had some discussions with the brass about future possibilities here, I've got some paperwork to fill out for back home. Sorry if this has gotten too self-referential this last few days (read Joe's comments about a letter about Joe's comments; watch Joe be self-referential about self-referentiality). Just consider that if it weren't for the Evenimentul Zilei thing, this entire letter would have consisted of "Wednesday, I had a going away party. Thursday, I spent the evening packing to go home. Friday, it's the last day at work and a little slow."


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Originally written: May 17, 2002
Last modified: November 9, 2003

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