‘Not my problem’. Over the past year, I’ve slowly come to realize that this is the Romanian mantra, seemingly uttered with a frequency that most people reserve for ‘how are you?’ and in some cases ‘dude, I’m so wasted’. This is particularly true with the over-40 Romanian age group, who are still more or less running things here and clinging to the Ceausescu mentality of ‘Look Out for Number One’.
If a guy gets caught in the middle of an intersection behind a traffic jam while running a stale yellow in order to gain five seconds on his journey and ends up blocking cross traffic, he says ‘not my problem’ gesturing as if the traffic in front of him is to blame. If the post office changes it hours to a lazy 10am-to-4pm schedule so that anyone with a normal job cannot pick up their packages (and no one can pick up packages on their behalf) you’re told ‘not my problem’. If the water to your building is cut with no notice for construction or maintenance, you’re told ‘not my problem’ as well as ‘how should I know?’ when you ask the foreman when the water might be turned back on. If the brand new street, that took four months to resurface, has potholes within a week because the guys hired to do the job were the brothers and nephews of the lead engineer rather than qualified workers, you’re told ‘not my problem’.
The lack of even basic accountability in Romania has never been a selling point, but it has really been killing me in recent weeks.
I encounter this sentiment more than most people, because I’m an idiot and still have the naivety to ask what seem to be fair and simple questions about the state of daily life here (‘Will the Internet be fixed this week?’). Romanians have long since stopped even acknowledging these indignities as they are simply a way of life and no one knows differently.
A good Romanian friend of mine just returned from a two week training course in Scotland for her new job. She was constantly amazed that everything always worked, the schedule was always executed on time and nothing went wrong. Buses arrived when they were supposed to and never broke down en route, the Internet never died, hot water was hot, cold water was cold, people smiled and were genuinely friendly… Things that everyone takes for granted outside of Romania are foreign here. During her few days back in Romania, being newly reprogrammed to be polite and friendly, she was shocked and hurt at how people responded to this attitude. Her favourite story from Scotland was about the time she bought a shirt; the shirt was too small and she just resigned that she was screwed and maybe she could give it to someone. In Romania one cannot return anything no matter what the circumstances. If the shirt has fleas or the TV doesn’t turn on, well that’s certainly not the store owner’s problem. Goodbye money! After much encouragement from her Scottish colleagues, she hesitantly returned to the clothing store and they ‘refunded my money! And they smiled while doing it!!!’ The unthinkable had happened.
I know I’ve been here too long as I am starting to become the same way. No unnecessary smiling, no affable nature, no please, no thank you, no holding the elevator door for people, no conversation with strangers beyond, ‘what do you want?’ and ‘that’ll be 5 lei.’ And yet, Romanians describe themselves as ‘warm’. I know this to be true with family and very, very close friends, but in every day interaction you get cold replies, if you get replies at all. You know that Romanians are unnecessarily rude and curt when you find yourself reminiscing about how genial the people were in Paris.
I’m having this hissyfit, because I’m pissed off that once again there is no water in my building. Usually I can shake this off, but today it happened during a crucial part of the day (coffee time). To be fair, things have improved immensely from two years ago. During the summer of 2004, my water was out at least once a week (as opposed to the much less hampering every other week outage I enjoy now) due to some mysterious work being done on the street in front of my building that persisted for three months. One time they went home at 5pm on the dot on a Friday afternoon, leaving the water off, so we had no water all weekend (‘not my problem!’). Another time, we went without hot water for over a week. And I’m told even this isn’t considered much of an inconvenience by Romanian standards. Friends report that while they were growing up they’d be without water for weeks, usually with no explanation.
When observers ask why Romania is developing at such a slow rate, I wonder if officials tell them ‘not my problem’ without putting down their cigarette or if their just keeping talking on their cell phones and don’t answer at all?