Monday, February 02, 2009

Why I Left Romania, You Ask …

Note: if this offends my long gone, distant and passed Gypsy relatives, that I have never met, I deeply apologize. That was never my intention.

State schooling is virtually free in Romania. All the way up to high school, at least. State college is free, as well, if you can make the grades and stay enrolled. That’s one of the “perks” in that country. One of the “rewards” coming from “The Man” (aka: State) to the regular folk. One of the very few.

I had a friend in college who was the son of a single mother who could not afford rugs in the home, they were so poor. He went to college with all of us, though, because he was smart, and kept his grades up. He was from out of town, and he slept in a dorm, and occasionally came to dinner at my house, since he could not afford to pay for the cafeteria, most times. I was lucky enough to live in a college town, so I stayed with mom and dad almost through college.

When he would come to my house, and had dinner, he would pause, and think right before he took a bite. He was always thinking, he told me, at his mother, at that very moment, and at how the food he was about to eat felt like “liquid mercury going down his throat”, because he felt guilty. He felt guilty that he had access to that free, homemade food, while there was no telling whether his mother had any kind of meals that day!

That memory haunts me to this day. I feel the same kind of guilt, and the same kind of remorse, every time I feel like I have a “better life” than my parents. And this happens almost daily here. I could never, as long as they live, feel fully happy with what I have, because my bounty is embittered by their lack of basic needs. By their lack of freedom, and of access to hope, and by their lack of common daily necessities.

That guilt became painful this week, once again. My parents live in a relatively safe part of a quiet, university town, in North-East Romania. But no matter what part of that city they moved to, over the years, they are always bothered by their neighbors, “The Gypsies”. No, Gypsies (or the “Rroma people”) are not just “Artistes” that live a Bohemian life. They are a minority, specific to Eastern Europe, mostly, now, but for the most part spread all over Europe and the World. They refuse to be integrated. They speak their own language, and have their own faith, they refuse schooling, or any kind of “formality”. Some of them are still vagabond, and they travel in covered horse-drawn carriages. They defy everything that’s organized, and anything that belongs to “the norm”. They destroy and mock things, as a sign of disapproval.

During communism, The Government tried to force them to integrate. They outlawed their travelling caravans, and forced them to live in blocks of flats, where they crammed a family of 10-12-14 people into a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment. To this day, they rebel. But not against the Government, like you might think, but against their neighbors, the Romanians.

I am sorry if I sound racist, or nationalistic. I am not! I am sure there are perfectly decent Gypsies out there. I personally have not met them, however. Anyway, this is the topic of another book, much less another post, so I will just skim over this. Ask me details about them, and we shall talk for a while.

This week, one of the Gypsy kids in my parents’ neighborhood got mad at my dad, because he had parked his car in front of a gate that made his entrance to their house awkward – that was his excuse. Not impossible. But awkward. But instead of knocking on my dad’s door, and asking him kindly to park his car elsewhere (the car was on a public road, free for all), he picked up the biggest stone he could find in the street, and smashed my dad’s windshield. My dad has a French car. So, anything “import” is an arm and a leg in Romania. The windshield repair will cost him 2100 lei, or the equivalent of $700! My parents combined make about $1000 a month. Their gas bill alone came in at $400 last month. You do the math!

They do have car insurance, but it covers only collision. No “acts of violence” like these. In fact, there is no insurance that’s affordable enough for the regular folk that will cover that, unless you’re a police officer: and then you’re forced to get that kind of insurance, because you’re more vulnerable.

The law doesn’t stand behind you, the citizen, either: although my parents had the whole neighborhood as witnesses for what the Gypsy kid did, the cops told them that since the kid who did this is a minor, he’s not expected to pay for the damage. His parents are, but since they’re jobless Gypsies, with several mouths to feed, they (The Police) are not going to press any charges against the family, as they know they’re not going to pay for anything, so it’s a waste of their time.

The police also said they have had several eviction requests from neighbors on this particular block of Gypsy families, but they need the City Hall to approve the evictions, and they have not done it yet. Of course, the City Hall is waiting for bribes, but bribery is so rampant in Romania, and bribes are so high, no amount will be enough to pay off ALL the City Hall and City Council members to take action.

And so, “The Man” gets to screw the citizen, the tax paying, legal citizen once more. And that’s the de facto law of living in Romania. Nothing ever makes sense, but you obey, because you have no recourse, no loop holes to pull you through to give you … justice.

When my dad built his house, he had to buy at least three rounds of brick, doors and appliances, because they kept getting stolen every night. He got no money back for the stolen materials. The police took the complaints and did nothing with them.

Romania has cell phones, and web cams, and fast internet, and for the most part a quiet, and non-rebellious (thank God!) political system and society. A lot of Americans ask me weekly, why in the world did I leave Romania?! I could have had “all the conveniences of modern life, AND peace, AND my family close by”- right?!

But it’s hard to explain to them that THIS is why I left! The every day fight for survival, and the lack of ever feeling like you’re treated with fairness and justice, the squandering of every penny you make on the Gypsies’ shenanigans, and the authorities’ bribes; the showing nothing for your cash at the end of the day, because you’re indebted to “the Man” for stuff you never bought! The feeling and almost forced acceptance that you’re not “human”, after all, and thus you “should” be treated like an animal – is why I left. I refused that!

And thus, like my friend said in college: it was physically painful when I got my car from the shop, after I paid just $500 for my deductible and they made it as good as new again, after my wreck a couple of years back, when they pretty much had to replace half of the front of the car to make it move again. The damage was then about $3000 – but it cost me about $500. And I make a tad more than $1000 a month!

I feel so helpless, and so desperate at times like these. And more than anything – I feel guilty for the access to laws, and justice that I have here, in the States! I want to figure out something, other than forcing money on my parents, that they never accept anymore, to make this right! It’s never been right for them. Never been right in that Godforsaken country, ever since I can remember … And they don’t deserve this. Most people there don’t deserve this treatment, but what is there to make it right?!

This year, we’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Revolution – and still little change on the “humanity” front has been seen! Little to none. How’s that for desperation?!

And although I know it’s not fair to blame God for everything, turning to God in moments of desperation is all you’ve got left – so, a question beckons, every time I face this kind of reality: did God really create all of us equal?! Then why do I feel like I don’t deserve what I’ve got now, and rather my parents do, but will never get it, probably?! Never is a pretty darn long time! And also, if we’re all equal, then how and who screwed us up so badly, after Creation?! How can He allow us to become so un-equally screwed up, after He sets us free into the world?!

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