Blast Off to a New Romania
Jubilation, fears and odd rumors accompany Romania's entry into the European Union
by Leif Pettersen

New Year's Eve 2005 was one of the most unhinged displays of edgy chaos that I have ever witnessed. Imagine a legion of idiots… Wait, how much is 'a legion' anyway? Hundreds? Thousands? Better make it legions of idiots…

Imagine legions of idiots with unfettered access to booster rocket–sized fireworks, for pennies per blast, that will soar 100 meters into the air before detonating in a fireball the size of a city block. Now imagine they're all drunk as hell and the spirit of midnight on December 31st actually starts after dinner on December 25th and continues 24 hours a day until the last of the ammo peters out around lunchtime on the 1st. That was New Years Eve 2005 in Romania and I was primed for more of the same in 2006. After all, with EU admission coming, they had even more of a reason to party.

Iasi––Romania's second largest city––has accidentally become my second home. I unwittingly lived here for 16 cumulative months in 2004–06 due duties assigned by a certain guidebook company that rhymes with "Homely Janet". Fortunately the job came with a happily paltry cost–of–living, plus scantily clad, red–hot smokin' girls.

I have a love–hate relationship with Romania, to put it mildly. Even at the best of times, there's a certain anything–goes dodginess to it, ranging from the running improvisation of driving rules to where large portions of those new EU funds have been ending up. Most people will agree that traveling in Romania can be challenging, but enormously rewarding. However, let me assure you that trying to be productive in Romania (by neurotic guidebook author standards) is pure cruelty, akin to being continuously kicked in the groin by a trained mule. My research was routinely hindered by methodical bribery, drunken, disdainful officials and the practice of telling a flagrant lie rather than saying "I don't know", driving me into a stuttering rage on almost daily basis.

I left Iasi in September 2006 after a virtually uninterrupted 13–month stint. I was Romania–ed out and swore not to return for at least a year, but my weakness for poignant moments and unhinged parties tore me from my winter retreat on Sardinia and drew me back to Iasi to witness Romania's European Union membership celebrations on December 31st.

The 22 Myths of EU Membership
Above all, Romania is understandably thrilled to be entering the EU, but there are many concerns, ranging from the expected jump in the cost of living to whether one can still make soup with the parsley grown in one's back garden. Some 40 percent of Romania's 22 million citizens live in rural areas. These villages are among the last surviving (and thriving) peasant societies in Europe. News of greater Romania and the world eventually filters down to these people, but often after being distilled through several channels and maybe a language translation or two. Like the childhood game "Telephone," the information that originates on the evening news is vastly different from the rumors that the little old ladies exchange while sitting in front of their wooden houses on Sunday afternoons.

The government has created a Web site dispelling the top 22 myths about entering the EU. Among these are rumors that permission will have to be secured from Brussels to chop down a tree on one's property, tomatoes will taste like wax, the slaughtering of Christmas pigs will be banned, and old cars will be outlawed. But Internet cafes are scarce in places where the "toilet" is still a hole in the backyard, so rumor squashing has been slow.

Unfortunately, the anticipated jump in the cost of living is not among the list of EU myths. Historically, countries entering the EU and worse, adopting the euro, have experienced almost immediate increases in prices across the board, and not just poor, struggling, former Communist states. The French are still complaining about how prices shot up when they adopted the euro in 1999. Romania's per capita income is only one third of the EU average. When prices change here, even a few pennies more for milk, it does not go unnoticed. Preliminary steps have already been taken to ease this adjustment; for example teachers' salaries have been incrementally rising over the past two years. However, with each raise there has seemingly been a corresponding increase in the price of utilities or food. The first few years are going to seem more harmful than helpful for Romanians on fixed incomes.

Shakedowns at the Border
Alternatively, for those go–getters who had their toes on the border at midnight on December 31st, heading west to earn their fortunes in largely menial, but higher paying jobs, life just got a heck of a lot better. Previously, Romanians wanting to work abroad had to negotiate a bureaucratic nightmare to acquire expensive, three–month work–abroad visas. Well, some did, in any case. In fact, most just slipped across the border for a "vacation" in places like Spain and Italy, and would simply not return for two years or more.

In these cases, getting back into Romania was often a trial, an expensive one at that. As I experienced first hand on an ill–advised bus trip from Cadiz, Spain to Iasi in 2004, the border guards had a field day with Romanians who had overstayed their travel limits. The easy part was the mere five–euro per head extortion the Hungarian border guards demanded without so much as a glance at a passport to see if anyone on the bus had overstayed. It was just assumed that the majority had, which made us easy targets for opportunists wanting a free lunch. The Romanian border was much worse. Guards were ruthless with their own countrymen and women, pulling each one off the bus for a shakedown. A penalty of 200 euros (no receipt) was considered a light fine, while a yearlong passport interdiction was arbitrarily handed out for people who wouldn't, or couldn't, provide the requested appeasement.

All of that is history now––Romania's border corruption was targeted and largely eliminated in 2005––but workers heading abroad will face new indignities, as some of their fellow EU members have declared that they will limit the number of unskilled Romanian workers admitted to their countries, including England, Spain and even smug newcomer Hungary.

But enough of the bad news. Down the road, EU membership will be the support and balance that Romania needs to right itself after the 45 disastrous years following WWII, including 25 years under the bafflingly whimsical and megalomaniac thumb of Nicolae Ceausescu. In return, Romania's current sizzling economic growth will provide EU investors with giddying opportunities, with a highly trained, multi–lingual, low–cost workforce to drive them. Furthermore, Romania's currency, the "leu", has been rising steadily against the euro and especially the relentlessly sinking US dollar (20% in 2006 alone), which has made the formerly dirt–cheap lifestyle of traveling in Romania slightly less attractive.

Infrastructure changes are happening quickly. Not even a year ago, the national train system still issued hand–written tickets on little scraps of cardboard. Each ticket purchase required detailed information recorded in three paper logs, making each transaction seemingly take 10 minutes. Lines (i.e. unruly crowds of people trying to cut in front of one another) were ubiquitous, long and dispiriting. This Byzantine system was replaced in 2006 by speedy computers, spitting out slick, modern tickets in 20 seconds flat. The notoriously atrocious streets and countryside roads are being determinedly repaired, though there's still a long way to go. Ironically, when they went through the trouble to replace some of Iasi's water mains, the tap water went from tasting surprisingly fresh to blasting out an undrinkable metallic–flavored concoction that made my kidneys hurt. Hopefully that metallic tang eventually flushed itself out.

Partly Like It's 2007
I know you're thinking, "Leif, this fascinating breakdown of EU–driven changes is all very arresting, but wasn't there supposed to be a party?"

Indeed, I came here for debauched partying. On that note, more than a few people have pointed out that flying (and training) halfway across Europe to a destination that caused me such intense anxiety just for a party seems a smidge ill–advised. However, I suffered lavishly through the build–up to Romania's European Union membership over the past two years (that tap water was really god–awful) and if anyone deserved to be there for the celebration it was me. Well, yes, I suppose the Romanians too, but primarily me. Second, this was gonna be one hell of a goddamn party.

Or so I thought. Unfortunately, it seems that enough people blew off fingertips and relieved themselves of the burden of eyebrows in fireworks related mishaps in 2005 to make even the normally blasé Romanians concerned. With the added pressure from the EU to conduct themselves in a less anything–goes manner, Romania passed a strict fireworks law in October. Even more unexpectedly, the moonshine aficionados respected it.

The reduced possibility of being taken out by a pyrotechnics mishap dulled the edge of mayhem I'd envisioned, but Iasi was nevertheless in high gear. The square fronting Iasi's magnificent Palace of Culture was the focus of the festivities, with Romanian and European Union flags hung together from every post–like protuberance. Photo–op posing stations stood at the fringes; painted boards depicting scenes of people adorned with other EU member flags (Sweden, Italy, France) with face–holes cut out for revelers to insert themselves as the Romanian delegate. A mock road sign listed distances to Paris (1,980km), London (2,070km), Vienna (822km) and the "European Union" (0km).

The five hours of live music started slow, with a collection of lip–synching, achingly bad Euro–pop acts that bafflingly thrive here, but climaxed with the 1:30AM appearance of Zdob si Zbub (roughly, "Bang and Boom"), one of the top lives acts in both Romania and Moldova, shredding the crowd with their Romanian–folk–meets–the–Red–Hot–Chili–Peppers sound fusion. In between there was 25 minutes of fireworks, several bottles of community champagne and wine. Untold calories were burned dancing with strangers in a circular dance that I've seen before, but I was informed that on this night the circle represented the circle of stars on the EU flag.

I "clocked out" from playing travel writer soon after the fireworks and replaced my camera with a bottle of champagne, wholly submitting to the party for a few hours of indulgent revelry. I'm not a naturally exuberant person (that requires at least two bottles of champagne), however it was difficult to remain composed surrounded by thousands of Romanians, who are largely Latin–blooded people and use any excuse to lose their shit. I've watched spontaneous street parties break out here when Barcelona won a soccer championship. Why? "Because they're Latin too! Woohoooooo!! [glug, glug, glug]"

When the music finally died, I limped home through the frozen night with throngs of the most elated and profoundly inebriated citizens in the European Union. The word–play phrase "Happy News Year" (in English) had been all over the media before and after the 31st. Indeed, Romania is sure to have a huge news–making year, as they cope with their new position within Europe and the world.

In 2003, Leif Pettersen's "unhinged contempt for reality" spurred him to abandon an idiot–proof career with the Federal Reserve and embark on an odyssey of homeless travel writing. Leif's weakness for pretty girls first brought him to Romania in 2004, where the low cost–of–living compelled him to stay. See his regular rants at the Killing Batteries blog and get travel tips at the Romania and Moldova site.

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