questions and answers

Buna ziua from Bucharest, Romania,

I’ve always argued – possibly as a minority of one – that retail assistants are entitled to a bad day once in a while. They’re allowed, so my thinking goes, to a bad mood as long as they don’t wittingly project their gripes onto their customers. What’s more human than that? There’s no harm done, surely. Here in Romania, there’s an arresting abruptness about retail assistants which sets them apart – and less warranted in being exempt by my argument.

Now this is a generalisation which, like all generalisations, harms the exceptions (of whom there are plenty) but the occurrence is so prevalent, and so many Romanians agree that it is common, it warrants some commentary. The routine responses to perfectly reasonable questions can be confrontingly terse.

My first interaction set me back on my heels.

Moi: “I’ll have a beer please.”

Barsteward: “What beer?” The response was not a continuation of a pleasantry but spat out with a venom not befitting the scene (a bar).

Next, I innocently asked if I could purchase Romanian currency with a credit card. The answer shot back, at a decibel rating well above the necessary : “No way! Never!”

Occasionally, a perfectly reasonable and unsurprising request draws nothing but inaudible grunts from the person behind the counter.

And at a petrol station, I was not permitted to use the loo on the grounds that I had not spent enough money at the shop there. (Picture a raised index finger moving from left to right in remonstration.)

In Romania, it doesn’t seem on occasional instance; more like the norm. And it’s not only in Transylvania, where a good proportion of the population are of Hungarian lineage and don’t recognise the Romanian state. It’s a national affliction. Why is it so?

Ioan is a lifelong native of Bucharest who offers an unsolicited theory on the question. He opines that, during the communist regime everyone had a job, full employment being government policy, but not everybody enjoyed their work since they weren’t as free to choose their vocation. He argues that Romanians simply learned to tolerate their job and never to actually enjoy the work. Chip says Romanians don’t know how to relax. Raluca says they are “pushed from several directions”. Robert believes Romanians have trouble “keeping their problems at home”. Dragoş says “with us there is no culture of the service we offer”. Marian believes that “employees take the lead from bosses”.

Readers will agree that these explanations are helpful but are a bit too superficial to do the job.

Are they afraid of foreigners? I would have thought xenophobia would be borne of an insecurity within. What are they worried about? Are we going to foul the footpaths? Are we going to spend too much money? Or are they embarrassed, thinking that their country somehow doesn’t match up to those of the incoming tourists?

Are they resentful of the apparent ease with which these foreign visitors can move around whilst they’re cooped up in a dead-end shop/café/bar in their own country?

Romanians have absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. This country has a lot going for it.

I concede, I’m asking more questions here than providing answers: perhaps that’s an admission that the conundrum might not have a definitive answer. It does appear that the younger the worker, the less likely they are to be gruff. That’s a positive sign for the future. The national affliction may disappear in time.

La revedere from Romania,


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