Romania is here (even when I’m not there)

Last week I asked for recommendations for must-reads on Romania on my Facebook page, and to my utter and pleasant surprise I got about fifteen people replying within the span of half an hour. All with great suggestions that made me expand both the Further Reading appendix to my guidebook (pub date Feb 2020) and my personal to-read list. What was more, two of these wonderful commenters, Ghent-based, suggested I could borrow some of their books. I thought I’d have to probably message them so that it would actually happen, but no: again to my surprise my boss pressed a book into my hands at work on Tuesday morning. ‘Someone dropped this off for you yesterday,’ he said, as I joyfully cradled Never Mind the Balkans: Here’s Romania by Mike Ormsby. I browsed through the pages and found a postcard from Tatiana, wishing me a pleasant read and with her number on it for when I was finished. No need to tell you this was a very good start to my day. I miss Romania awfully – autumn looks and feels quite forbidding here in Belgium and it inspires a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. Whereas I know I could be roaming the mountains and feel perfectly blissful despite, or perhaps even because of, the season. So, suddenly getting surrounded with local Romanian love is the best thing that could happen to me right now.

Although I was reading two books at the same time already (well, there are five in my bed and another five next to my sofa, but I’m reading two actively) I eagerly plunged into Mike Ormsby’s hilarious and poignantly accurate descriptions of life in Romania. Essentially the book is a collection of very short stories dealing with encounters, mishaps and descriptions of ordinary life in Romania – many of them no more than two, three pages. If you are Romanian or know Romania intimately you will know that ordinary life in Romania may appear quite extraordinary and at times baffling to the outsider. But to already-insiders, every single one of these stories will make you want to run there and embrace Romania, despite all its flaws which are lavishly displayed on these pages. As one reviewer put it, this book is a ‘chronicle of slightly agonised passion’. I love that. If you know Romania, you know what that means: to love it to bits whilst feeling mildly agonised or wildly exasperated about its shortcomings – and secretly loving these flaws too – because what would Romania be without them?

Some of these accounts made me cringe – such as offoce@operanb.ro – the title of a story and the Bucharest opera’s email address at the time of writing. They seem to have taken the hint and changed it although the new website isn’t exactly easy to navigate. In fact, I cannot even find out how to subscribe to their newsletter, which is what Ormsby was trying to do at the time. Other stories made me double up with laughter (not physically because I was in bed or on the sofa reading this most of the time which makes doubling up a little hard, but definitely did so inwardly). In Haide, fă pişu! Ormsby recounts how he found his friend Jack the perfect apartment in downtown Bucharest – only there seemed to be one tiny downside. At night Jack heard his neighbour whispering this phrase outside his door over and over again, while walking his little dog up and down the corridor. Mike duly translated this phrase for him – it means ‘Come on, do a pee!’

Not only are Ormsby’s stories very entertaining, his writing is delightful too. He handles his pen deftly, painting an all-too-recognizable picture of Romanian life with it with sentences such as these:

‘His wife Rodica is perched on the old sofa, giggling at the TV and popping sunflower seeds faster than a parrot.’

Or this:

‘A middle-aged woman sits down opposite me, hair frosted like a cake, fingers dripping gold.’

And this will sound familiar to anyone who has regularly travelled by train in Romania:

‘The passengers would insist on closed windows, always. If you opened one, they made faces, muttered about draughts, flu, and catching their death. Then they’d stand up and slap it shut, fixing you with a cold stare, as if to say forget it. Strange then, that some trains had doors that hung open for hours.’

Now I don’t know why Ormsby uses the past tense here because on many trains this is war-on-windows is ongoing. It’s a tough game that usually ends in a polite, smiling cease-fire (and cease-oxygen). My borrowed book is now bristling with blue sticky notes, marking the bits that amused me most. Here is one more:

‘Two monks wander around chatting, dressed in long black robes and with bushy black beards. It must be a nice life here, away from the hustle and bustle: just you, your mates, and God.

Baptism in Brașov

And then there are the titles that hardly need a story to them – When we get organized is a pretty self-explanatory line. But in every single case I found myself reading eagerly towards the punch line – because there always is one. And it’s always good: Ormsby is as skilled a writer as he is witty. Yet, everything in between the title and that redeeming punchline is worth savouring as much as what sandwiches it. I can tell you it is an envy-inducing book for an aspiring writer – or at least for one as envy-prone as me. But I suppose the more important thing is that this book unites Romania-lovers all around the globe. If there were to be a contest in that department I’m sure I’d end up pretty high on the list of Romania’s most ardent devotees. Alright, enough of this. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover. Wouldn’t want to spoil the experience.

Young people walking towards a festival in Brașov

This book is Romania hugging you. It may smell under its armpits and its coat may be a little worse for wear, but there are crowfeet all around its eyes set in a stubbly face, and these eyes are soulfully and alluringly smiling at you: ‘Come here! Stay! I know I’m not perfect but I am your home. No matter where you go, I am your home.’ And you are utterly helpless in the face of so much devilish charm. Romania is the country you love despite of everything and because of everything. And although I’m not Romanian I definitely consider Romania my home too – maybe not my first, but definitely the one where I feel most at home. Most hugged (also literally, sometimes by total strangers). This book has just confirmed that bond – and made my addiction to Romania even worse. So thank you, Mike Ormsby. It’s appreciated.

‘The yard is full of animals: sarcastic geese, nervous turkeys, ducks, cats, skinny dogs, gossiping pigeons, and dozens of hens.’

PS Oh, did I mention there are two sequels to this? They’re called Never Mind the Vampires: Here’s Transylvania and Palincashire: Tales of Transylvania. Not read yet but at least I know where to turn to when Fernweh hits me hard again. A very consoling thought for now. I may yet survive winter. And do listen to Why Not?, a Romanian 90s band (managed by Ormsby) which sadly did not last long but makes an excellent companion while reading the book. I learned to climb the mountain, I learned to watch the sun… I love it.

Chopping wood for winter in Lapusnicu Mare

PPS And thank you for reading. This is very much a non-SEO-proof post – my sentences are too long and I have way too much stuff in brackets, but I like to write the way I like and not let my SEO plugin tell me what (not) to do. I did a lot of external linking though – they’re going to like that. Anyway, I’m having a day off so I’m not going to let anyone boss me around. Except myself and I do that a lot. I find it terribly hard to do nothing – to which this post testifies.

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(Grand)mother and daughter leaving Oravița station

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