Three years has given me plenty of time to think. Here is a little analysis.....perhaps my final analysis given that I wish to move on. It's a collection of thoughts, not a judgement. Those who read to the end will see that. I lived amongst normal people in Romania. However that country brought certain traits to the fore, the better for me to see them. I'm not in a better place now, just one blander and more restrained. Human nature is universal after all.
I left Romania hating the place. I fled afraid that someone would try to stop me. Back in the West I kept out of sight though America is big and far away. I knew that mendacious individuals had filed false accusations in their feeble attempts to extort money, imagining that I would return to Romania and fall into the trap. But I did not return, and perhaps I will never be able to return. In the back of my mind lingered a fear that someone would try to reach out to finger me for whatever false accusation seemed most likely to stick.
For a time all conversation about that country referred to the omnipresent corruption, frequent theft, rivers choked with refuse, over-priced services and the whole gamut of ills that I had faced. I painted a bleak picture of a land with which I had been involved for nearly two decades. I denigrated the place where willingly I had entered exile eight years previously. It was an unhealthy condition, a black cloud hovering above me excluding the light. As time passed the unsustainability of my position became clear. Did I want to live my life harbouring a grudge that could not be fulfilled by punishing Romania? A crack appeared in the wall when I began again to attend an Orthodox congregation. A few Romanians, students at a university theological institute, were members. Here was a possibility to meet open-minded educated Romanians representing another face of the country. They were a reminder that I had indeed known such people during my exile. However few such intellectuals resided near my mountain village and at that distance I socialised little in the towns and cities. It was time to reappraise my relationship with Romanians, treating the people as individuals rather than avatars for the ills of their homeland. In an open discussion the priest counselled patience noting that I was making progress. I reached the point of no longer feeling hostility well up on hearing the Romanian language spoken. Indeed I began to review in my mind those parts of the country that I missed. The high mountains remain in my soul. I remember certain people with fondness: indeed these outnumber the individuals whose conduct repelled me. I miss the churches and monasteries where I was welcomed. I began to hope that the country would resolve its ills rather than hoping that the ground would swallow it up.
The realisation came that just as I left Britain having failed to prosper out of a sense of not belonging, thus also Romania was not thriving in Europe in part through having been thrust into an unnatural environment. The country would better belong within a hypothetical ‘Levantine Union’ encompassing the Balkans, Turkey and perhaps Greece and the more moderate Middle Eastern nations too. The European Union with all of its rules and expectations for ‘civilised’ behaviour is alien territory for a country much of whose history lay under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire or within its shadow. Is what we Westerners call corruption any more than a key element of a survival mechanism which has ensured the continuity of the Romanian people (or, for that matter, Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians or Albanians) for many centuries? What is this mechanism? Chiefly the ability to acquiesce with more powerful neighbours based on the realistic assumption that a weaker people cannot change the status quo. However acquiescence can become an active process when the overlord has time to concentrate on the underling. Gifts of gold and livestock were welcomed. The underling’s leader, dependent on support from above, owed his survival to a stream of bribes transmitted and to ‘making himself useful’. Likewise underlings earned success through the ability to generate a satisfactory stream of gold, goods and favours at the expense of those below. Being ‘useful’ includes doing the dirty work of those more powerful. The needs of others lose importance alongside the imperative of one’s own survival.
The mechanism worked in full through Ottoman domination between the sixteenth century and the late nineteenth and has done so in part ever since then. Indeed it has been highly effective when compared, say, to the destructive impact of the Mongol Horde. The old Romanian Regat survived vassaldom to the Ottomans intact and on surprisingly good terms with its former oppressor. It ensured that Romanians fared far better than Poles during the Nazi era. Adoption of a harder line even than Moscow for years kept Soviet troops out of Romania. From a narrow ethnic viewpoint this survival strategy might be judged a qualified success. Of course inequality within the population is a problem: the poorest of the rich are far better off materially than the richest of the poor. That’s no surprise: bribery removes money that might be invested in means of production. It secures the positions of those who possess more power than entrepreneurial talent. Besides, a poorly rewarded mass does not make an efficient workforce. There are more problems. People are denied healthcare because they cannot afford to bribe a doctor. Monsters have been created: Antonescu, Ceasusescu and even the playboy King Carol II stand out. But the Romanians are still there as a people, so are the Greeks, Bulgarians and Albanians: unlike Cumans, Pechenegs or Saxon Transylvanians who fell by the wayside over the centuries. Unlike the Jews who, above all others, stand out as the victim of Romanian collective psychosis: their greatest example of doing an oppressor’s dirty work for him. Unlike, too, that swathe of the population possessed of land, education or faith persecuted to death or brutal submission through the early years of state socialism. Those two skeletons continue to inhabit the Romanian cupboard of shadows: two groups alien to the lowest common denominator of the masses destroyed for the pleasure of oppressors. But truly there are not two skeletons: there stand a pair of huge ossuaries each containing the bones of a several hundred thousand victims. Then the Romanians bulldozed their historic towns to construct monstrosities in their place at the behest of a megalomaniac cobbler. They blame him, but they operated the machines. It’s always the fault of someone else: that is another part of the survival mechanism, indeed the trait that enables the mechanism itself to perpetuate. Otherwise self-loathing would cause the mechanism to be rejected. Then they deny personal involvement. ‘Someone else’ did it. That was the excuse when I caught employees with items stolen from my tack room. But if they were there during fascism or communism what would they have done? The same deeds would have been perpetrated. A people has broken the mirror in which it might review itself, blamed someone use for the damage then used the situation to avoid cleaning itself up. Full exposure would beg the Romanians to examine what their nation stands for. That would rob them of their historic survival mechanism. The question is: could a modern reinvented Romania gain new strengths that would ensure its development into a better nation? I hope so. Now after much reflection I wish the Romanians well.
I was an apologist for Romanian history. In truth I did not know that history well for the whole carefully selected and well prepared nationalist meal had been fed to me. Deepening knowledge of the ‘true truth’ led me to despise the lies. However Romanian history embodies goodness and heroism as well as evil and ignominy. I moved from one pole of perspective to its opposite. Now I am finding the middle ground. I will neither apologise for wrongdoing nor denigrate that which is commendable.
There is more: for years I failed to see the country for what it is. Hence unwittingly I stoked the engine of greed. Our taking ‘aid’ after the so-called revolution of 1989 created dependency amongst the recipients. Or was it symbiosis? Some people rewarded us by demonstrations of religious conformity, gratifying our spirits until their need for us evaporated. Others lied so convincingly about their ‘needs’ that we gave far more than we should. We felt good giving to people in a poor yet scenically beautiful country. They felt good taking from us. When we questioned what they needed and why, indiscretions were blamed upon ‘communism’ and Ceausescu. In reality the apology should have been: ‘our forebears learned to live this way during four centuries of Ottoman domination and we’re not convinced that another way is better’.
Then finally I wonder whether jealousy has played a part in my attitude. I shied away from corruption. But corruption covers a multitude of sins. Overt bribery for favours lies at one extreme. But more acceptable are the ‘alliances’, the working in partnership with a ‘patron’ who smoothes out obstacles in return for a cut of the profits and favours such as laundering a bit of money here and there. My wife had contacts but lacked the courage to use recommend them. What might have happened if we had been brasher in forging connections? Would the moral cost have exceeded the financial gains? Not all well connected people stank of corruption: the genial mayor of our village did well by Romanian standards yet seemed to keep his hands clean. The country was more spiritual than my former home. A higher proportion of the population attended religious services. A voice inside me whispers that I failed to prosper thanks to a puritanical attitude abetted by a stubborn desire to work alone.
A more ruthless attitude would have removed unproductive horses hence reduced running costs. Alliance with the mayor or a forestry baron could have given me use of premises better suited to my needs. I would not have needed to construct a guesthouse at crippling cost. European Union grants would have become accessible. I’d have earned no less, and perhaps more, whilst spending far less. It’s an intriguing image. Would I have spiralled downward morally? Perhaps I would, but not any more than people whom one saw at church every Sunday. Might I have become mired in illegal activities tying me to a ‘patron’? Probably my financial affairs would have been murky. How long would I have survived? Most likely I’d have lasted for as long as I could control lower back pain through medication and physiotherapy. What would I have become? I can envisage a provincial hick obviously cut off from cultural enlightenment, avoiding torment from coscience by recourse to palinca, physically crippled from sheer distance on the trail and longing for true meaningful friendship. It’s not a pretty picture.
In the end the future of their nation is up to the Romanians. Their historical survival mechanism may not sit naturally within a European context. The country has handicapped itself. Romanians committed genocide amongst the Jews who had operated much of their commerce. Guided by imported ideology Romanians destroyed both aristocracy and intelligentsia leaving a vacuum now unsuitably filled by mafia, former secret policemen and ex-commissars. Communism and its aftermath caused the Saxons, who might have revitalised Romanian industry, to flee. That is for the Romanian nation to face up to. I shall do myself no good becoming an armchair critic of a problem that neither I own nor hold the key to solving.
A friend and I talked about Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, a novel recommended by an enthusiast. A lengthy but fascinating work, it has been compared to War and Peace and Anna Karenina rolled into one. I’d passed the now-ruined castles described by Banffy. I’d travelled the roads along which his hero and cast travelled in their horse-drawn coaches. Even the bare-crested hills where those characters rode and hunted I’d crossed on horseback entranced by the beauty of that spare landscape. But the whole class described, the aristocratic families in their rambling estates, had been exterminated. They had their faults, squabbling and gambling away the land of their heritage. But they too were victims of war and ideology. Conversation moved to my experiences: corruption and ignorance set against a startling beautiful backdrop. Then a vivid realisation illuminated my mind. Romania showed me the human condition in unusually stark terms. It was not a reservation where especial evil had been preserved. No, the place was simply like a curved mirror that magnified certain human faults. There were many flaws, of course, at such a meeting point between Europe and the Levant.
But in the West, in powerful America, in complacent Britain and elsewhere these ills exist too. Simply we have checks and balances that prevent certain evils from breaking out in epidemic. There is smaller scope for others in a more affluent society. Here blatant bribery is considered unacceptable by many though subtler corruption may be widespread. Most often the law is moderately effective in keeping a lid on theft. But materialism is rampant. In Britain alcohol abuse is endemic. We haven’t butchered our Jews or aristocrats however very effectively (and socially quite acceptably) we’ve marginalised an underclass comprising the work-shy and most of the unemployable. These are our gypsies, despised and kept at heel. Greed, hatred and stupidity thrive. People cheered as house prices rose without pausing to consider the economic impact. In the travel business I witnessed a new self-importance amongst travellers - especially the British. I saw how people satiated with the hedonism of multiple foreign holidays each year could no longer be fulfilled through the joy of exploration. Romania showed me a depth of the awfulness of the human condition - but that awfulness transcends nationality and geography. It is the evil of humanity and does not belong to any nation. I cannot change human nature. But I can learn to be happy despite it all for that emotion comes from within. That is the goal of personal development: to grow a core of confident happiness.