Małgorzata Rejmer: Romania is not easy to adjust to, but it is a country you can love
After reading “București, praf și sânge” (Bucharest, Dust and Blood), by Polish reporter Małgorzata Rejmer, I was dying to meet her. What was supposed to be an interview I took her turned into a mutual interview, as Małgorzata had so many unanswered questions. We met at the International Festival of Literature and Translations, in Iaşi, after a delightful conference, with her and reporter Mariusz Szczygieł as guests, and we spent two intense hours together. We managed to shed some light on why the author chose to write this book and on how the Romanian mentality has changed over the years.
M.R.: Somehow, I think about Bucharest as Romania for beginners. I wanted to write this book because when I first came to Romania, there were so many things I couldn’t understand and so many questions nobody would answer for me. Even the space of Bucharest was surprising! For example, Romană Square, Unirii Square and Universității Square are three fundamentally different places, from the architectural viewpoint, with different buildings, with different vibes.
S.B.: As you head for Victoriei, it begins to look more and more European.
M.R.: From the very beginning, I had the impression that the very diverse and complicated history of Romania has a strong impact on the architecture, which could tell me a story. The chaotic architecture tells a story about the people, that the people have a lot of stories to tell.
S.B.: Bucharest is definitely different from other major cities in the country. As you go westward, towards Transylvania, you can see the influences from the West. The architecture is more unitary, it makes more sense conceptually. The East part of the country is a different kind of story. There is a lack of coherence; Moldavia displays its poverty on the buildings, in the infrastructure. On the other hand, Moldavia has a new and interest story to tell. For the past 10-15 years, there has been a wave of Moldavian emigrants who chose European countries such as Italy and Spain, to work and make a living for themselves. They returned home and built large houses, with architectural influences brought from their host-countries. These houses are currently quasi-empty, because their inhabitants continue to work abroad. Usually, in these houses, you find one grandparent or aunt, raising the children left back home, by their parents.
M.R.: I noticed this phenomenon in the Maramureș area, as well. For example, there are villages and even towns, whose inhabitants are actually in France. I also noticed that the new houses have a completely different architecture, as compared to the old houses. The new houses tend to be inspired by the architecture of public buildings abroad, opposite to the normal Romanian architectural tendencies.
When you look at the old houses, the details, the big gates and columns (in Maramureș), you can sense the tradition in the power of details.
S.B.: Tradition has not disappeared, though. It is still there, it is festive, but it has been replaced in day-to-day life, as being less practical. After the revolution, things have changed radically. Before 1989, tradition was the only thing people could cling to, with churches being demolished, religion being frowned upon, plus the systematic urbanization process. After 1989, things took a different turn and survival became more important. Factories were closed down for no apparent reason; small businesses i.e. black market trade and imports flourished. People were too busy to survive transition, post-revolution life was a blur, from the legislation and administrative viewpoints. Corruption was everywhere. I come from a village, in the heart of Moldavia, a place where over 70% of the inhabitants depended on the local sugar-processing factory (the oldest in the country, actually). Soon after the revolution, the factory was torn down and sold it as scrap metal. Imagine an entire community which fell apart because there were no job and nothing to hold on to. Bucharest is different. Many people, such as I, fled from the rest of the country towards Bucharest, for a better life. What they brought with them were the old habits, the regional stereotypes (you’ve probably heard the jokes and stories about the people from Oltenia, Moldavia and Transylvania) [she nods and smiles. She has.]
M.R. Stereotypes are the easy way to understand the world, a proper shortcut to categorizing and comprehending.
S.B. Exactly, Transylvanians are known to be richer and calmer, with a lifestyle influenced by the West. Moldavians are known to be poor and to be drinkers (poverty, alcoholism and abuse go hand in hand, it is true, therefore it is easy to generate a stereotype). Talking about poverty, there is this story about the Moldavians coming to Bucharest, riding literally on the train, during the Hunger. They had to duck to protect their heads from the wires above the train, so the one in front would shout ”Wire”, for the others to have time to duck. We got to the point in which the story itself is blurry, but the line remained. You probably noticed that we tend to joke about almost anything, but we are not fans of discussing openly serious issues. We were talking today (editor’s note: at the above-mentioned conference) about the mothers and the abortions, before 1989.
M.R.: I asked all these women, during my stay in Romania, if they felt there was a sense in talking about their situations, if they needed to talk about it. They replied that they wanted to tell me their stories. They were talking to me but I know that they would not say the same stories to their daughters.
S.B.: One cannot talk about such matters to one’s daughter. This is not my point of view, but it is the general mentality. One cannot talk to one’s daughter about the abortions, because one risks being judged and misunderstood. As a woman, if you decide to disclose such intimate story, you have to tell the entire story, i.e. the story of your husband, the story of your family and the story of an oppressive system, because they are always related. Communist families lived under the pressure of not being able to get a divorce. There were cases of women who could not divorce their abusive husbands because, if they tried to do so, they were called before a committee, they were asked to provide explanations and they were publicly humiliated for not being able to keep the home together. The abortion is only a part of the issue.
M.R.: The abortion reveals a complex situation, i.e. the situation of a family, position of the father, of the siblings. It is the case of the wanted/unwanted sibling that I mentioned in the book. Even if the matter of the “accident” child was not mentioned openly, it could be sensed that there was something wrong with the family.
S.B.: Let me ask you a question: how open are the Polish people, when it comes to family matters? When something of great importance and gravity happens, do the members of the family talk it through, until it is solved?
M.R.: In my family, yes, but I not sure whether this is a rule. I will tell you about the Polish nation though. This is a very interesting phenomenon and it started less than 10 years ago. We started to speak not only about communism but also about the WW2. We were always associated with the victim stereotype: the Polish victims of the WW2, helping the Jew community, dying in concentration camps etc. After 2000, something changed. The narration started to be much more complex. There was an intense debate in all the public media, about the Polish killing Jews during the war, about the massacre in Jedwabne, where the Polish inhabitants locked the Jews in the church and burnt down the building. There was a huge debate, which lasted for years, with an increasingly greater impact on the public opinion, more and more books and movies.
S.B.: There must be an external factor that triggered such change. What was it?
M.R.: Usually, there is one book, written by a brave intellectual, who changes the perspective on the matter. For example, there is a group of people with the intuition of the fact that there is a problem. It takes one person who draws attention on the respective problem and everyone starts to see the matter in a new light. In your case, I think that such person is historian Lucian Boia. The change did not happen immediately, of course, there was a process of allowing yourselves to listen to his opinion and then admitting that he may be right.
S.B.: We always admit that someone or someone else might be right. That is not the problem. The problem is that many intellectuals in Romania, after the 1989 revolution, were suspected of having collaborated with the State Security Department (”Securitatea”).
M.R.: What about Ana Blandiana?
S.B.: I have no information about such collaboration in her case and I personally believe she had no connection with the Securitate.
M.R.: Of course she did not have! She is the one who founded the Sighetul Marmației Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance. And she stayed away from politics, one way or the other.
S.B. True. On the other hand, there were cases, such as the case of Mircea Diaconu, of people with a clean image, who subsequently proved to have been collaborators. And when I say proved, I mean that there were documents naming names. Thus, the mistrust is generalized, everyone might have ratted someone out, at a certain point. Have you read Dan Lungu’s novel “Sunt o babă comunistă”?
M.R.: I have actually.
S.B.: Do you remember that the foreman at the factory where the main character worked, the one who told all the anti-communist jokes, was actually the rat? This sums up this issue. This is what happened many times. Therefore, when someone like Lucian Boia says “There are things we should not forget and this is how things happened” there may be people who seriously question the source of such information. The general mistrust is a serious problem. You told me about the young people with whom you came into contact and who warned you about the kind of texts (SMS) you sent. That is a bit extreme and, I have to admit, it scared me a little. It never happened to me or the people I know, but the fact that such phenomenon still exists, 24 years later is rather frightening.
R.M.: The Romanians seem to be more willing to believe in various conspiracy theories than, let’s say, the people in Germany. They are more willing to think that things happen beyond their control.
S.B.: It is easier to believe in things happening behind their backs than to admit that one is not prepared enough, brave enough or ready enough to take control, at a certain point.
R.M.: I also had the impression that Romanian politics is out of control, that it is dominated by some sort of chaos and common people feel that they have nothing to do with politics, that they do not have any influence on politics, maintaining the “my vote doesn’t count” mentality. They are convinced that it is not possible to control the people they have elected.
S.B.: It is true. The problem is that politics continues to be based on nepotism and that change has not happened since today’s politicians (some of them) are the children of former communist activists, thus perpetuating the same chain of weaknesses. Promotion is based on nepotism, not on meritocracy. Not to mention the ideological volatility, i.e. the change in party and ideology. One may be a leftist today and a rightist tomorrow. This is another reason for the general mistrust: the lack of consistency. The visible result is the apathy of the people.
R.M.: What about the young people? Do they feel the need to get things clear? I followed the Roșia Montană movement. I was here last year, I participated in the movement and I perceived it as a sign that things are changing somehow.
S.B.: Something IS changing.
M.R.: Somebody told me that it is all about the people who spend some time abroad, they get to see how democracy works, how civil society works and they want to return home and put this information to use.
S.B.: There is this category, indeed, but it is not the only category which made a difference. Young educated people made the effort to be informed, to learn more and not to stick to the first bit of info they got their hands on. There are a handful of people who make noise, trying to draw attention on the fact that some things need to be changed. It worked last year. I cannot tell for sure why last year’s recipe worked so well. Maybe it was because the corruption of the project was ostentatious, maybe that was the trigger. On the other hand, maybe something changed in terms of mentality and the new generation got rid of the “don’t bother, nothing changes” mentality of their parents. We’ll see in November if such change in mentality has occurred.
M.R.: My book treats the question of Romanian passivity, this Miorița spirit. I wanted to write another chapter about Roșia Montană, as a good example of change….
S.B.:… and it is a good example because the law has not passed.
M.R: Exactly! It was amazing; Romanians with hope are something amazing. The event and my book being published were too close to each other and I felt I was not detached enough to have the proper perspective on the event. It was too hot, at that moment. However, during my literary events, in Poland, I always showed the pictures taken on the streets, during the protests, exclaiming that the people are changing. It is amazing that 30 thousand people gathered on the streets.
I noticed though that, when talking to media people or politicians about the matter, they tended to call the protesters “hipsters”…
S.B.: … corporate hipsters. The ones who spend 8 hours a day at work, who live in the city, have never set foot in Roșia Montană, therefore who are not entitled to an opinion about the matter.
M.R.: The protesters tend to be undervalued, to be treated as if they are not serious, but having a bit of fun. Somebody told me that this movement could not be treated seriously by the politicians, because it was deliberately against politics.
S.B.: Not it was not. On the contrary. The protesters resented any association with politics, during and after the events. They had a problem with a corporation that was trying to take people for fools. Of course, the authorities were envisaged from the legal viewpoint, not from the political viewpoint.
M.R.: Of course, those protests were a new form of social expression, in Romania. This is the whole idea: the Romanian authorities could not give any credit to such new form of protest.
S.B.: And things took a new turn when the protest had an international echo. There was nothing violent or subversive about the protests. Remember the people rattling the plastic bottles on the street, dancing and singing, the mothers and children? It was highly improbable that those were political protests. Nobody cared about politics. In your documenting process, do you remember the protests that took place the year before? Have you seen Vlad Petri’s “Bucharest, where are you”?
M.R.: I have seen it.
S.B.: And have you noticed the enormous difference between the two protests, one year apart from each other? The authorities could not possibly state that the Roșia Montană protest had anything to do with the political parties. We were called “Sunday protesters” although we spent each weeknight on the street, until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, for a fortnight.
M.R.: It was easier and better for them to underestimate the movement, instead of acknowledging it as a serious one, because each time someone leaves their apartment and takes to the street to protest, it becomes a matter of politics.
S.B.: It does, but not in the striving for power sense, but in the sense in which the people are trying to take something back, to take a stand for their wellbeing.
M.R.: How can politics treat someone who actually fights for an idea?
S.B.: This is an interesting question and we will see how things evolve this autumn, during the elections in November. There is a woman running independently for president. There is a leftist running for president, one who nobody seems to like (rightfully, if you ask me). Since access to information is better than ever before, I do hope that these elections prove to be wiser than the previous ones. In this overall context, of political instability, public blunders (you should have seen the horrendous display of megalomania, reminding of Ceaușescu’s public events, when one of the candidates announced he was running for President), social movements and a definite shift in mentality among the young, your book was an interesting surprise.
M.R.: Please try to criticize my book because it is easier for me to understand whether my image of Romanians is a rather pessimistic one.
S.B.: The first instinct was to reject it, because it seemed intrusive. A book about Bucharest and Romania, written by someone coming from a country with a better life and a more Western vibe, a country with more united people. From here, the Polish seem better adjusted and more evolved by comparison. Obviously, I found it a bit hard to comprehend how someone from outside our environment seemed to grasp the situation so well. Then I kept reading and, at the point with the analogy between Casa Poporului (The People’s House) and the legend of Meșterul Manole, when I was annoyed that I had not thought about it myself, I realized that sometimes it is better to have someone from the outside looking in. We get so used with our own problems and with the mess that we fail to notice certain details. Our senses tend to dumb down. On the other hand, we officially declared that we are tired of communism and we no longer want to hear of it, we hate books and movies about communism and the tendency is to believe that they are so well received abroad (in the West), because they are exotic for a certain type of viewer. I was reading Sahar Delijani’s book and her whole story (the prison, the torture) seemed exotic to me and then I realized that this is how your book might have been received in Poland and abroad, westward. When you published it in Poland, were your readers shocked? How did communism look in Poland, as compared to ours?
M.R.: We had our difficulties, as well, not as severe as yours. During the eighties, food was rationed, it was cold in the apartments etc. In the 90s, the Polish economic was bankrupt. The GDP figures show that, at the beginning of 90s, Romania and Poland were in similar situations.
S.B.: Then, what happened to you that changed your course?
M.R.: Solidarity happened. The Polish people pulled together. After the Second World War, when Communism took hold of Poland, we were an agricultural country. We had a lot to recover, after years of setbacks.
S.B.: You spent 2 years in Romania…
M.R.: One year and a half…
S.B.: Your Romanian sounds pretty well, for one year and a half.
It could sound better. (editor’s note: she smiles)
S.B.: And now you are learning Albanian. Why? (editor’s note: after a few minutes of debating over how hard it was for her to learn Romanian and what kind of difficulties I am confronted with, while learning Polish).
M.R.: I am staying in Tirana and I think that my next book will be about Albania and Albanian communism. It is an interesting comparison to make since Albanian communism was worse than Romanian communism.
S.B.: That is a book I would like to read. Of course, one might thing that I go by the Romanian saying ”să moară și capra vecinului” (editor’s note: literal translation: if my goat dies, so should my neighbour’s.)with my keen interest in the Albanians’ communism. Speaking of the said goat, at first I thought that the apathy and the “neighbour’s goat” thing is specific to the Eastern European countries, then I reconsidered the matter, thinking that such mentality is specific to countries that had undergone intense periods and tragic episodes, such as communism, then I was confused. I can no longer label and categorize, because there are exceptions from the rule, such as Poland.
M.R.: Remember one thing: Poland paid its price. Such change does not happen without effort. At this point, people are very aggressive, tired and overworked. There was no crisis in Poland because all my friends have 2 jobs, working from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., as they do in the American model. The past 5 years have shown economic growth because an entire generation is like this.
S.B.: My generation looks the same, working for corporations in Romania means 9-10 hours of work per day. We are well prepared and cheap enough for Western corporations to outsource services in Romania and we work our asses off. Still, there seems to be something different in Poland. So I am going to play dumb and ask: how does corruption look in Poland?
M.R.: Polish corruption wears white gloves. It is more discreet. In Romania, corruption is somehow more obvious. I was travelling to Brașov, by train, once. The ticket lady asked me where I was from, I replied that I was from Poland so she gave me this half smile and she said “We’ll manage.”
S.B.: I was surprised not to see any mentioning in your book, but I am convinced that you had to deal with the taxi drivers from the Gara de Nord station or from the airport.
M.R.: My Romanian becomes fluent when I am angry (editor’s note: she laughs) so whenever someone tries to con me, I become very argumentative in Romanian. Back to the Polish adjustment story, you asked me about our solidarity. Before, we were united by the Polish sense of martyrdom. During the 19th century, Poland did not appear on the map so there was a fear of losing the nation. The 20th century brought the tremendous bloodshed of WW2; then, there was communism. Now, we discovered freedom. We have an obsession with Russia.
S.B.: Everyone should have an obsession with Russia, we should be terrified with Russia.
M.R.: When you speak to Polish intelligentsia and to people who seem rational, they are willing to go and fight like they did 70 years ago, when thousand of very young people died, for the pure sense of patriotism. We have always had this ability to die beautifully. You can say that Polish have an essentially beautiful perspective on how death should look like, for the sake of nation.
S.B.: That is a poetic perspective, almost as poetic as “Miorița”.
M.R.: Sometimes, we are too proud, when we compare ourselves to the Czech, for example, who were more pragmatic during the history.
S.B.: Back to your request for me to disagree with your book, with the proper arguments…
M.R.: It’s been a year since I published the book and I was hoping that someone in Romania would criticize this book, revealing its good parts and its bad parts.
S.B.: You did something interesting in this book. It’s title is “Bucharest, dust and blood”. There are chapters referring to anything but Bucharest. At one point I was wondering why you chose such title, since the book is not (solely) about Bucharest. It might just as well be called “Miorița, the Romanian Spirit”.
M.R.: Still, it’s not a book about Romania.
S.B.: Ok, what is it about from your point of view? Then I’ll say what it is about from my point of view.
M.R.: It is my subjective choice. I came here, I had a lot of questions with no answers. This book is my book of answers. It was the result of a process, it was finished in that interval, but I could have written it for many more years. It is a melange of points of view, those of the people I talked to and mine. How did you see it?
S.B.: I think that your book was about the things that shocked you the most, exclusively from the viewpoint of adjustment, when you came into contact with the Romanian society. Most of your chapters refer to that part. People’s survival required adjustment. The post-communist period meant forgetting and somehow reinventing, which is also a form of adjustment. Bucharest is the label of adjustment. New buildings, old buildings, the story of Casa Poporului. This is how I perceived it. Bucharest was a part of it and it gave it a very catchy title. Such book poses the question whether the literary reportage has the power to change the minds of people: the information is accurate, the approach is fresh and interpretations may vary. Is the literary reportage underrated? Does it have the power to change minds?
M.R.: It’s like Szczygieł said. It’s not that it changes a lot of people; it’s the fact that it somehow changes a part of the reader. For example, this book was not a success here, but in Poland, after reading it, a lot of people decided to visit Romania. Somehow, although this book is not an easy reading, I received many mails and letters and, during my numerous literary evenings, the people came to me and told me that they had decided to visit Romania, after reading my book, they had already returned home and they thought it had been awesome.
S.B.: Awesome how?
M.R.: It was awesome because they loved the book and they loved the country. Romania is not easy to adjust to, but it is a country you can love.
S.B.: Did your friends from Romania read the book? I suppose they did. What did they think about it?
M.R.: They told me that they liked it, but nobody made any positive or negative comment, as if they had not understood it, somehow. Their opinions were rather superficial, like “It’s a very nice book. I liked reading it”, something like that.
S.B.: This means that you expected to have a debate with them…
M.R.: …. or some reflections.
S.B.: Maybe they did not feel the need to relive or re-discuss matters of such sensitivity. “Bucharest, dust and blood” is not easy to read, emotionally. Of course, this is just a theory, I am merely speculating, for the sake of conversation. On the other hand, your book got me thinking that exchanging experiences is a good idea and might bring out new perspectives. There should be a large programme for journalists: Romanians visiting Warsaw and writing pieces, Polish visiting Bucharest and so on and so forth, generating a huge journalistic wave of experiences.
M.R.: There are such projects on a smaller scale. For example, half a year ago, I spent 3 weeks in Belgium, writing about two Belgian cities. I discovered an interesting phenomenon there: Flanders recorded the highest suicide rate among young men, in Europe. Of course, there are many explanations, which I received talking to the people. I love this subject. I had the impression that the organizers of the event had not realized the gravity of the issue until we began to really discuss it. Sometimes, it is necessary to have someone from outside to reveal a problem which was there the whole time.
S.B.: The literary reportage is not a very popular genre. It is growing, but it takes some adjusting on the readers’ part. We have to get accustomed to this kind of journalism.
M.R.: You have “Casa Jurnalistului” and Vlad Ursulean, whom I like and I loved his documentary about earthquakes. I mentioned this documentary in the book, because he is so precise and he tackles the problem directly, at the heart of it. He is very inspiring to me and there should me more and more journalists like him.
S.B.: You might be surprised to discover that next year your book is more popular, because this type of text is gaining more and more ground among the readers. This is the reason why I really wanted to meet you and to have this conversation, because I really believe in this type of journalism, which you represent.
M.R.: Well, I have to say this: I started living here because I felt a connection to Bucharest, when I first came here. The space was so inspiring, like some kind of Byzantium!
S.B.: An European melting pot, like an European version of New York (editor’s note: yours truly bursting into laughter)
M.R.: It was amazing. Now I am working in Albania and I like it there, the place is very interesting, but it is not Bucharest and Romania. Bucharest was a person for me, a traumatized person who needs to move further and forget about some things, but a person who attracts me.
S.B.: Maybe it is because it has a particular sense of humour, like an old man who used to be handsome, who is smart and rather blasé, who doesn’t really want to change, just keeps mending a fence here, fixing something there, without making any serious change, but whose sense of humour and stories are amazing.
M.R.: … and a bit sardonic, too… (editor’s note: she laughs)
S.B.: Still, we are changing and evolving, becoming better. Actually, I could promise to send you an email, whenever something awesome happens in Bucharest, from any memorable and positive social movement, to any other event proving that our old man is making a few serious changes.
P.S. After publishing this piece, I sent Małgorzata an e-mail, happy to announce her about the massive presence of the Romanians, at the elections in November, as well as about the solidarity of the Romanian communities abroad. And about the fact that the change we discussed is happening slowly but steadily. Yours truly,
Photo source, here.