Odd happenings seen through wild Romanian eyes
“Maybe this is the way it is for everybody, only you are weaker, or less lucky, or have seen something they all have not.” – Nick McDonell, Twelve
A few months ago, on the 7th of April 2012, whilst the rich were attending a dramatic and emotional Oxford – Cambridge boat race on the Thames, the working people of Southampton and Portsmouth went to St Mary’s stadium in Southampton to see their favourite football derby and get totally drunk, under the escort of the police. In other words, it was an entertaining Saturday for many people of all walks of life – panem et circenses for the Britons.
Now, at the beginning of June, the same charade extended to the whole country to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen, God save her. The royal circus was a good opportunity to go to the street parties and get off our faces once again while the rest of the world admired the addled British patriotism. I wonder how the Jubilee went in Northern Ireland, where there were some Troubles only a generation ago. Never mind that the institution of monarchy is completely irrelevant in today’s world, or that the money spent on the celebrations could have been used in thousands of better ways instead of flamboyantly pissing it down the drain wearing nothing but a Union Jack and a fur coat. Arousing the cheap sense of patriotism to make phony news is something the UK does with incredible efficiency (as pointed out by Mr George Orwell), and it works with everybody even if they don’t speak the language and have only been in the country for a few months. The sheer hype of the non-events during a five day weekend made everybody love this country, myself included.
As an ‘immigrant’ still getting to know the place and the people, every endeavour leaves me somewhere between fascination and stupor. Last week, after police broke up a party of around 3000 people celebrating Her Majesty, I had the thrill of running into about 12 drunken English male twenty-somethings at night, leaving the Southampton Common. They were average looking in all respects and might well have been students or neighbours or what have you, but as it turned out, they were EDL wannabe douchebags with hearts full of hate and repression.
I was with a Romanian, two Poles and a British black guy. As soon as they saw us, they started yelling at the black guy, calling him a ‘filthy n*gger’, a ‘monkey’, et al. Then they realised we weren’t from the Isles either, and started throwing beer cans at us, along with the casual ‘immigrant scum, go back to where you came from.’ Alcohol had scrambled their faces into horrific caricatures and their crazy eyes were looking in eight directions at once. We went to the car, and as I was making it clear to them that we’re from Europe, my mates Julian and Bernard were picking up a jack and a wrench from the car boot, God only knows what for. We were surrounded by this bunch of aggressive pigs cussing at us for no reason. When the good ole boys noticed my friends tooled up with head cracking metal objects, they took a few steps back allowing us to get safely in the car – after which Julian, from behind the wheel, drove away but quickly turned as he got the idea of driving towards the a-holes in first gear with the accelerator to the floor and revs in the red. The noise of the engine and the squeaking of the tyres must’ve scared them pretty badly, because one of them plunged on the side of the road face down, thinking we were gonna run them over. As the car handbrake u-turned twenty feet from them I could hear somebody genially screaming ‘European scum’ at us – we burst out laughing and went home for a spliff to disperse the heavy atmosphere.
Goddamn English hillbillies are no different than every other type of hillbilly, but the trouble is these particular ones were under disguise, not wearing tall boots and shaved heads with swastika tattoos. Some people practice senseless hate with the same conviction with which commune dwelling hippies practice free love and flower power, and just like Lt Aldo Rayne in Inglorious Basterds, I like my Nazis in a uniform so I can spot them from a good distance. Failing that, the only recourse is to treat everyone sneering at my accent like a fascist who hates my Romanian guts. Not a good way to make new friends.
Now, this would have been an unrelated incident, unworthy of writing about, unless it somehow mirrored, in my head at least, some past events that have taken place this year, surprising the hell out of me.
It’s beyond debate that Britons are somewhat wary of Romanians, since even the authorities officially consider us a ‘high risk country’. During my first ever uni class in the UK, Dr Nick – the lecturer, who’s a bright and otherwise friendly guy, thought I was from Denmark because I transferred from a Danish university and when I told him I’m Romanian, he said “oh, but you have a lot of experience outside Romania” and I said “yeah, three years”. “Good”, he replied smirkily.
You can’t help reputation, so the best thing you can do is own up to it, for good or ill. It goes both ways, too – Romanians work hard to feed the stereotypes and more times than not the result is involuntary humour of the best type. A friend and I went to a TESCO the other night to buy some beer, after drinking a quart of the Famous Grouse together. I for one was sloppy drunk, and the minute I entered the shop all hell broke loose. First I knocked over some bottles and they shattered on the floor, drawing the immediate attention of the vigilant staff. They said we are visibly drunk and we need to leave – and so I did, but my man Julian didn’t give up so easy. Homeboy said all he wants is a sixpack and he has the money to pay for it. When the black security guard told him that he will not be served alcohol, Julian snapped at him accusing the guy of being racist. He also told the Middle Eastern clerk that he won’t stand for discrimination. “Yer both xenophobic pigs and won’t serve me just because I am Romanian. This is bullsh*t.”
He continued rambling unintelligibly and yelling out Romanian curses while the dumbstruck guard escorted him outside with obvious anxiety. I witnessed the whole scene from the pavement in front of the shop and started laughing so hard that it caused me to vomit.
Even through the whirlpool of scotch and beer, one idea prevailed: a thing such as the immigrant syndrome definitely exists – a destructive mindset characterised by paranoia and a severe inferiority complex in relationship with the host society, plus a strange prejudice built up by the media across decades of sensationalist news and hysterical reporting. Cult films and sports balance out the situation on a positive note, yet Romanian national identity in the foreign eye is still an uneasy mix of Dracula, thieves and robbers, football players, poverty, communism and man-eating bears.
The interesting thing is that in the midst of the pro and counter Europe debates, there are people of every description trying to make a living. The pursuit of happiness, as it were. I happen to come from a poor neighbourhood and I grew up with many other kids whose parents were not so keen to send their offspring to school as were mine, so they spent most of their time in the streets. Once Romania joined the EU, most of these young’uns went to Spain and Italy seeking an easy living. Two of them, with whom I used to play cops in front of the block of flats we all lived in, have recently found out about me living in the UK and they gave me a call a couple of months ago. They asked me if it were at all possible to find them temporary accommodation so they can do illegal construction work (?). I told them it’s almost impossible to do that here, but if they had some money saved up, I could get them a cheap room.
On the 28th of April they called me to pick them up from the coach station in Southampton and when I got there, I found out they actually had no money and therefore I couldn’t sort them with a place to stay. Turns out the mischievous weasels that they are thought I would go soft and take them into my own house – which almost happened, but not quite, because my girlfriend was visiting and we were on our way to London for a few days. I obviously knew better than leave the keys to two lying and desperate punks who I hadn’t seen in ten years. However, they were right about the going soft part, and they managed to convince me to talk to some friends from uni, also Romanians studying Computer Science, to let them sleep in a spare room in their house. So we did, and I was off to London.
When I came back three days later, I found my geek mates from uni in a state of angst that is hard to describe… they apparently had been the victims of verbal abuse and borderline bullying. They tried to contact me, they said, because my two childhood chums had five more friends I had no idea about, who probably came down on a later coach and they all moved in uninvited as soon as I was gone, acting like the house was theirs and paying little attention to the rightful residents.
It also turned out that the construction work actually meant stealing vast amounts of spirit from supermarkets and then selling it on the corner for half the price. The ‘gang’ would go from supermarket to supermarket, filling up shopping carts with all things expensive and then they’d simply make a run for it. Surprisingly enough it worked for a day, but the next morning, two of them got arrested and swiftly deported. There were only five left when I arrived at this mad scene – straight off the train, after two sleepless days. I thought I was hallucinating – the kitchen looked like a very untidy storage room full of bottles and cans and frozen foods. In the bedroom, dirty clothes everywhere, more booze and three guys whom I didn’t recognise were sleeping on the floor fully clothed, with their shoes on. At first, I thought the boys had hit the jackpot, but I quickly realised that the stuff wasn’t ours to throw a party with, but it had to be somehow sold. Ashamed and disappointed, I suggested they pack everything up and vanish as fast as they appeared. Of course, I cracked open a stolen beer and maybe a bottle of Remy Martin too; after all, I needed a drink to cool off the adrenaline shock.
Since at first they wouldn’t budge, I had to threaten the wankers with calling the police on them. It was clear the poor computer nerds were traumatised enough and they needed help, so I had to do something radical. ‘Grassing up’ is unspeakable where I’m from and I might catch a savage beating for even mentioning it, but it’s the only thing they are afraid of and the only efficient weapon I had against five big dudes who are no strangers to juvenile detention. I also half jokingly said I’d call their mothers back home, but they were not bothered at all, despite Romania being a Latin and therefore matriarchal culture. Seems that goes more for some than others, but that’s another story.
Apparently a young person with no perspective in life is willing to do a lot of things, including professional stealing, getting arrested, lying and cheating and even possibly joining the Army. They simply won’t listen to reason. After long and painful arguments and pushing and shoving, I sent them off to London to join other groups of incompetent petty criminals they knew from Spain and they didn’t leave empty handed. The devious bastards took a camera and a hair clipper from my buddies, leaving them completely bewildered as to what on earth had just happened in the past few days. I had to pay for the stolen goods and then some, for herbal therapy, and the last thing I heard, the five aspiring bandits were deported after being caught red handed in some London mall.
Serves ‘em right, thieving little pricks. Now, what have we learned from the two separate occurrences with the dozen English nazis in the park and the half dozen Romanian shoplifters in my boys’ house? Mike Skinner, also known to the large public as The Streets, was right: Geezers Need Excitement and personal background makes little to no difference in the matter.
Another example of alternative lifestyle would be that of my friend Peter and his girlfriend Ramona, both Romanian students, Peter – a fresh graduate waiting for his degree to come through, and his girl in her second year of art school. They haven’t paid for food or drinks in months, because just like the blonde, suburban version of Mickey and Mallory, they have found a place in Sainsbury’s where the security cameras can’t see, and they have been doing their daily shopping free of charge since then. Turkey, salmon and seven year old French wine are now on the menu regularly, with myself being invited to dinner every other day. (Thanks, guys, you’re the best). I shop at Aldi for 20 quid a week, because I get too nervous to shoplift, especially when it’s food, so the gourmet treats I can get from Peter and Ramona are more than welcome. Do they risk their freedom merely for palatable food and short lived thrills? Yes. Does it affect society? No, just the supermarket’s bottom line and maybe their personal record in the future. In hindsight, if equal opportunity was a real thing, these guys would never have even thought about shoplifting, but as it stands right now, hunger pushed them to start doing it, and after finding the crack in the surface, the whole thing developed into a sport.
Us Romanians come down here with the conviction that we have been ripped off at some point in the past and it’s our own personal duty to Right some Wrongs. Capitalism and television quickly stormed over the country after the bloody Revolution of ‘89, and if life in communism was about family and working hard knowing that you’ll be as poor as ever no matter what, which didn’t matter anyhow because there was nothing to buy in the shops, well, it took us a couple of years to adjust to the idea that capitalist life is about a lot of money and if you didn’t want to starve and be homeless, you could either get rich fast through whatever means at your disposal or work for someone who will never pay you enough to make ends meet. Unemployment never existed during communism, and it hit Romanians pretty hard when it appeared, turning many of them from life-loving but traumatised victims of Ceausescu, into greedy, single-minded cynics. This mentality set the scene for a swift adoption of everything American, including the idea of free-market, which we interpreted our own way. Let’s just say that nobody is too worried about taxes, fraud, or public property in the business environment back home. Some got rich, some went to jail, some found comfort in a shabby middle class living in huge concrete developments throughout the place, and others left the country for education and expansion of the mind. I ended up in Britain, and the results of my decision can be seen in my writing.
I was expecting the British government to keep their word, but at the end of 2011 the work restrictions for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals in the UK were maintained for another full year, until January 2013, after the govt. promised to lift the crippling ban two years ago. It’s pointless to go into detail here about how being unable to work is affecting students and goes against European principles and boosts the black market and blah blah. The government is saving face trying to blame unemployment and a slumping economy on immigrants – it’s textbook bullsh*t typical for politicians. The internet is full of English culture and language tests you can take for fun, so why not test newcomers and if they pass give them the right to work right away? I’m still waiting for my work permit to come through and I applied in January. Babylon system.
I’m not a fan of either morals or judgement, but there are some hints in these stories about both human nature and society, for whoever may read in. The beauty of it is it can go either way – it’s ambiguous, just like life; make of it what you want, as long as it’s anything at all. Arguing about migrants’ rights or the dangers of racism and xenophobia is as bland as it is redundant – that ship has long since sailed. Now we (everyone living in Europe, I mean) have to deal with the reality in the street, which knows no principles; at this level, it is more like “sh*t runs downhill, money runs up”. Consider it trickle-down economics, if you like Ronald Reagan.