To my knowledge, this national self-loathing is a uniquely Romanian experience. Maybe we share it with some of our neighbours, but I doubt it. I’ve never seen a people dislike their own as much as the Romanians.
This is going to be highly generalized, but as with most things I write here it’s rooted in personal experience and observations. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
1. Romanians like the exotic, to be Romanian is the antithesis of what it means to be exotic.
2. Romanians are often prejudiced. The thought process goes something like this: If you’re Romanian you’re probably bereft of interesting experiences and financially limited. You’re from ‘the-worst-country-on-earth’, after all. If you’re well off, then you’re just a rich asshole (probably a thief, too). Either way, your Romanian-ness ensures you’re seen as a person with limited horizons who likely can’t offer anything new or different.
If you’re Western European or North American you’re the opposite of the above. Your life experience has given you a status that many Romanians aspire to; a solid education, an open mind, a passport to the civilized world (ie. America), and the ability to spend money. This places foreigners on a pedestal. Except if you’re African, Asian, Arab, Indian, or South American. Then you’re somewhat 50/50. On the one hand you still have the benefit of being exotic, but on the other you come from a similarly poor and ‘uncivilized’ place. Depending on your pigmentation, there’s also the risk you’ll be mistaken for a gypsy and that never helps in Romania.
3. Few wealthy Romanians are seen as positive role-models. I mentioned the rich asshole stereotype above. They may own nice cars, but they drive and park like douchebags. They have money to spend but dress in tacky outfits and build tacky houses. Home design is stuck somewhere between ancient Greece or Rome, the 70s, and The Jetsons. My girlfriend couldn’t help overhearing a conversation between two pitipoance in a cosmetics shop. One of the girls was talking about how she had to pay the bouncer 50 RON for the privilege of parking the X5 in front of the ‘hottest club in Cluj’ and then drinking ‘Mumu’ champagne all night. I’m guessing she meant G.H. Mumm. Nothing you wouldn’t expect from any class of Nouveau Riche. This also explains why ‘average’ Romanians tend to disdain wealth when it is local. For more, see Gigi Becali.
Foreigners by comparison appear less ostentatious about their wealth and less petty about it all. In some cases it’s true, but in most, it’s a simple misconception that won’t be dispelled as long as local barons behave the way they do.
4. Most beautiful buildings in Romania were built by foreigners. As opposed to many of our Balkan neighbours, we’re not particularly nationalistic outside of the love for our unity. Rome’s (Trajan’s) conquest of Romania is considered a past glory and eulogized in the national anthem. The most beautiful buildings in Transylvania were build by the Habsburgs. Bucharest’s architecture is either reminiscent of the French Belle Epoque, or an ode to communism. Personally, I’m much more impressed by the tall, wooden churches of Maramures, but with the exception of the Brancovenesc style (itself multi-faceted), most architectural influence in Romania is not our own. There’s an unspoken expectation tied to foreigners in Romania, implying that they can better contribute to the improvement of Romania than Romanians can.
5. Romanians don’t keep their word the same way foreigners do. When a non-Romanian tells you something will be done tomorrow, it’s going to be done tomorrow. When a Romanian says it’s going to be done tomorrow, it means they might start on it tomorrow – the actual deadline is flexible. This is far more common when exchanging goods and services than in personal relationships where punctuality and the value of one’s ‘word’ are extremely important. From a purely human to human perspective, it actually makes sense, but if you’re doing business in the country it can be a real mess.
6. Romanians are rude and moody to each other. They mostly blame it on other Romanians. “Why should I smile if they’re not smiling at me?”, “why should I say please and thank you if they don’t even offer a greeting?”, “How can I be happy if politicians are stealing everything?” Foreigners are highly versed in common courtesy and more ‘pleasant’. As with the above, this is more obvious in professional relationships and at the point of purchase.
One of the typical comments you’ll hear from Romanians who come back from their travels with stories about people ‘outside’ goes something like this: “The [insert nationality here] are so much more relaxed [than Romanians]. Everyone is so nice [as opposed to Romanians].”
I’m torn on this particular point. I know how ‘nice’ Canadians can be. I know that behind the smiles you’ll often find daggers and that the tone of the ‘hello’, ‘please’, or ‘thank you’ says a lot more than the word itself. I think that the Romanian directness and casual interaction between strangers is charming in its own way. It’s the way families everywhere behave with one another. When a teenager sees his parents come home after work, they don’t say, “hiiiii” with a big, fake smile. A flat, “hey” is more like it. At home nobody’s offended by a curt, “pass the salt” or “give me the screwdriver.” It’s just more human to be direct and familiar with one another. I’ve gotten used to it and I don’t mind it. That being said, even if money’s tight in Romania, it doesn’t hurt to remember that smiles are free. And that they make you, and others, feel better.
7. Check out this joke:
Satan is carrying out an inspection of hell. His admin-devil is pointing out who’s roasting where and how his minions are keeping it all in check. “That’s where the politicians go” the admin says, pointing to a sulfur pit surrounded by devils with pitchforks. As soon as a head bobs up near the edge, one of the pitchfork-wielding minions pokes it back under. A large cauldron hosts the lawyers. On its rim, the demons are busy poking away as the lawyers try to escape. It’s hard work. And on goes Satan, surveying his kingdom of darkness until they come up to a lonely cauldron. “Why is nobody guarding that one?” he asks. “Oh, right, those are the Romanians, we don’t need any demonpower there.” Satan raises an inquisitive eyebrow. “It’s simple,” says the assistant, “when one tries to escape, the others pull him back in.”
Finally, there’s my very personal experience with moving back to Romania. Throughout the first several months it was almost useless for me to speak Romanian. Once, near the Parliament in Bucharest, I asked for directions in Romanian and the guy started explaining in English. I insisted on Romanian, he insisted on continuing in English. In other places in the world, they turn their back on you if you don’t speak the local language, go figure.
It’s not even so much about being friendly. What stands out in these cases is the willingness of Romanians to draw from otherwise invisible reserves of benevolence when it comes to accommodating foreigners. This is likely derived from Romania’s long tradition of hospitality. It’s a personal point of pride for most to be a welcoming host to one’s guests. The trouble is, other Romanians aren’t interesting guests, they’re the annoying family.