Friday, October 21, 2016

Small town Romania

I never write here any more, I guess I've run out of things to say, but from time to time I guess events still have the power to rouse me from my apathy...

So, here's the story...

I am involved in an interesting and useful EU funded project which has the aim of training young people to develop community based social enterprises with a focus on sport. It's been very interesting and it has brought together organisations in the UK, Italy, Turkey, and here in Romania.  This week groups of young people from the 4 countries are here in the town having training sessions, meeting, connecting and working together.  Each group is of between 10 and 12 university age people.  All the ones from the UK (from London specifically) are from ethnic minorities (and most are Muslim). The Turkish group are, obviously, Turkish, and then there is an Italian group and a local group.  They're all enthusiastic, getting involved, enjoying their trip here (though slightly nonplussed by the cold).

On Wednesday, after the morning training and lunch, the plan was to take them to a gym where there was organised a floorball championship for them to all participate in (floorball is sort of like ice hockey except without the ice, the skates and the puck. So not that similar to ice hockey at all really. But anyway, I digress).  They're all (the non-local ones) staying in the same place, a fairly modern building on a high school site where there are dorm rooms for this purpose and the training rooms too, and waiting for the bus to take them to the gym they were milling around outside the building, when suddenly up screeched a large police van which drove up and parked at an angle across the access road.

Out steps a policeman and starts asking them questions. Of course he doesn't speak any English, and as it happens at that moment there are no local participants nor local organisers present, so nobody has any idea what is going on. The questioning seems quite aggressive, and he asks for their passports (this much is understood). This sort of standoff (not really a standoff as there was just confusion and bewilderment and a little fear on the part of the participants), goes on for sometime, until through someone calling one of the local organisers, someone comes to translate and calm things down.  Eventually the policeman is placated and after he has confirmed that there is a reason for these people to be here and has been given various documents to pass on to his boss, he leaves, allowing the traffic to flow again.

Basically nothing happened, but what lies beneath is most of the stuff that I loathe about this place - there are also things I like about it here, obviously, but there are one or two things that I can't stand. 1.Small-mindedness; 2. racism; institutionalised ingrained sense that Romania is still a police state (a sense that is shared by both the populace and the police themselves);  and 4 corruption .  OK, that's four,  not "one or two".  And what this incident contained was vivid reminders of 3 of those 4.

Piecing together what happened, it seems likely that one of the Turkish participants went to a local shop to try and get a SIM card. He didn't speak any Romanian or Hungarian, and the shopkeeper didn't speak any other languages.  The interaction was challenging for both, and I think ended unsuccessfully.  After he left, we think, that the shopkeeper (who had possibly encountered a few such interactions in the day or so that they had been here), took it upon himself to call the police to report the presence of suspicious possibly Muslim foreigners in the area.  That of course is all speculation, but obviously at some point somebody called the police for some reason, and as there were no specific complaints that the policeman brought to the whole argument, it can only be that he had been called to address the issue of suspicious people being around.

Now rather than calling the manager of the building that they were obviously staying in and at that time directly outside, and finding out who they were and why they were in town (not that even that level of interference should have been necessary), he chose to get in a van ( a van designed for multiple arrests) make a fairly big scene on entrance and demand answers. But of course without a common language to actually obtain those answers.

One thing that really annoys me (among the many things that really annoy me about this incident) is that I actually wondered before the course began whether we should let the police know that these people were coming -and so, I discovered, did the local organiser, but both of us concluded that we didn't need to, and indeed shouldn't, because after all this is not 1987, and Ceaucescu is very much dead, and there is no longer a Securitate, and having to inform the police that there will be some strangers in town is NO LONGER A BLOODY THING. Or, at least, we'd like to imagine so.  But the fact remains that I'm not immune to this and I am infected by this idea that while we're not living in a police state, that we should maybe act as if we are.

I think, the whole pre-revolutionary feel to this aside, that the thing it reminds me of is the anti-Muslim racism that is just so utterly pervasive here.  Thanks to people like Orban Viktor and a hostile and racist media, I feel like I hear ignorant and ludicrously prehistoric views on a regular basis.  And it drives me crazy, and makes me furious.

I even have doubts about posting this, I've been told enough times that it's better not to stand up and say anything here, because, well because 30 years ago to do so would mean very bad things for you and your family. And I confess that I have pondered for a long time whether to say anything to complain about this, to rail at the petty mindedness and racism and insular attitudes and heavy handed policing.  But, I feel the need to, not because I think my views will make a difference, but because to not say anything means I too am stuck in this mindset.


elizabeth_anne said...

Thank you so much for writing this - as you say it's so much easier just not to bother. I am reminded of Steve Biko "the greatest arms in the hands of a dictator is the mind of the oppressed"
Until I was 40, I thought I had made myself the way I am, then with age come (a little bit of) wisdom, and I was really quite shocked when I finally saw in myself the part of culture which underlies my way of being.
Those of us who have migrated, changed cultures, (or just travelled and visited other cultures) can see better the different ways of being which are inherent to different societies.
Then, as the eternal "outsider" comes the question "should I say something ... do I have the right to say something?"
This is a brilliant piece - thanks again.
And on a lighter note ... I can't imagine living in a "Depression" is there no lighter translation ?
A village near us, when it became a ski resort, changed its name after a few years from "La Morte" to "l'Alpe du Grand Serre" and the new name caught on really quickly :-)
P.S. I am writing from a country in which the police are having somewhat furtive (and definitely illegal) demonstrations in the middle of the night at the moment LOL... only in France!

Unknown said...

I perfectly agree with you, Andy! That is why I left Hargita and later the country... I still can't understand how people can be so silly and not able to understand or accept anything else than the good old ways. I have friends who work here for a wonderful gay couple and they don't have the courage to tell their family at home that their employers are "different". It took me a very long time to make my family (even though they are wonderful with everybody) accept foreigners (black, Asian or white) as "normal" just as anybody else. I have friends at home whose daughter married a black person and "can you imagine it, she ruined her life!?" It is very very sad how people can be so narrow minded...all they know is whatever the TV tells them. I've always sad that nothing will really change in that country before those who were raised and were living during the communism are no longer.
But then again it's not only Romania. It happened to me here in GB that the cab driver was sincerely surprised that I am not British as "all strangers have darker skin" and surely I'm cleaning houses and hotels as I am from Eastern Europe.
Anyway :) Hope you and your lovely family are well.
Keep up adding these little posts here or FB. It's always lovely reading them. Even if you're complaining about something again

Unknown said...

In my whole year in Romania, I never had any run-in with the police.

But I absolutely agree with your observation that sadly, most people in Romania have never meet a non-European in their life and thus equate anyone of foreign complexion with terrorism. The things I heard from Romanian friends who had never been to the Middle East about Middle Easterners were ridiculous. Even more sad, I as someone who has spent considerable time in the Middle East and knows many Muslims, could not dissuade them from their narrow-minded worldview.

And this is not only from ordinary people. One example is the mayor of Targu Mures who made racist remarks although the university in his town is home to many foreign students:

Andy said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. (I do complain a lot don't I Laura :-))

Thanks for the blog post Andreas, I didn't see it at the time (I made the mistake of reading the comments though, which didn't help my mood :-) The number of people I meet here who know beyond a shadow of a doubt that large swathes of Western Europe are living under Sharia Law amazes (depresses) me. People are always telling me that various English towns I'm familiar with live under such a system and the fact that i refute this based on stuff like facts and evidence never seems to convince them because they read it on some right wing website.