In this second exclusive extract from his new book, Romania: Rude & Vile, author Rupert Wolfe Murray explains the book’s provocative title.
I like to play with foreign languages. I love to search out funny words, to practice them in ridiculous ways and make a fool of myself. This creates an immediate bond with non-English speakers, as everyone loves to listen to a fool. It also helps me learn languages fast.
This playful approach can also be used when explaining the Romanian language to foreigners. For example, I might say, “The best thing you can eat in Romania is crap: crap and chips or crap soup.” They look at me in disbelief, but then I tell them that the Romanian word for the fish carp is … crap.
And this brings me to the offensive title of my book: Rude & Vile. What I like about this title is that it will, hopefully, create all sorts of wrong impressions – which I can then overturn. People will look at it and think, How dare he say that? This is an outrage! An insult to our country! But then, if they keep reading, they’ll realise that I’m using the Romanian meaning of those words, not the English.
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By now, my Romanian friends will have worked out that I’ve just taken two of their words and made fun of them. In Romanian, the word rude means relatives, as in aunts and uncles and cousins. And the word vile is the plural for villa, as in a big house and not the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. Having explained my rather pathetic joke, this would be a good moment to end this article. But there’s more – I have a theory that the words rude and vile really do help explain how Romania functions and looks.
But first, I must state for the record that I don’t think Romanians are rude or vile, in the English sense. If I had to choose two words that sum them up as a people I’d say friendly and honest. You can find this out for yourself by travelling around the country and being open to conversation (most young people are now fluent in English). I found that not only are Romanians willing to invite you home, feed and house you for no charge, but they’re genuinely interested in what you think.
But their friendliness and warmth comes with a proviso – the first impressions are often rude and vile. People working in restaurants, shops, taxis, and the public sector, seem to have learned that treating customers like suspects in a criminal investigation is the done thing. I think this is partly because this was the style of customer service under communism when the role of the shopkeeper was to keep order while hundreds queued outside. The other thing to bear in mind when meeting Romanians is that their innate warmth is often covered by a superficial look of sadness, fed by ancient grievances, conspiracy theories and ongoing political crises.
However, the rudeness you can find in shops, restaurants and taxis is only skin deep. All you have to do is give it a few minutes and the beefy taxi driver will be giving you a detailed political analysis; the shopkeeper will be friendly; the waiter will become helpful and the public servant will help you navigate the bureaucracy. This is what happened to me time and again, since 1990, and when I hitchhiked around Romania in 2018 it was the same.
The story of my stolen bikes
I’ve had two bikes stolen in my life – a Cannondale in Edinburgh and a Brompton in a Romanian village. At the police station in Edinburgh I asked the copper how I could prevent my next bike from being stolen and he said: “build a brick wall round it, with a concrete roof and no door. And they’ll still get it.” In the Romanian village of Humor, the local policeman actually recovered my beloved Brompton. I couldn’t believe it as I had never heard of a police force anywhere in the world finding a stolen bike; I assume that most police forces don’t even bother looking.
My view is that Romanians are aware of their terrible reputation abroad and are determined to show that they personally are not dishonest. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve left wallets, phones and other things in Romanian restaurants and park benches and people come running after me to give them back.
It’s the ideal country if you’re scatty and forgetful as most people around you will look after you. And just ask anyone in the UK what they think of the Romanians they’ve come across; they may mention a tradesman, doctor or IT person they know and talk about them in the most glowing terms. What’s clear is that when they emigrate they’re driven to work extra hard and be more honest than the Pope. That’s what I think of the Romanians. Now for the main course, my main point, which is: The word rude helps explain how Romania works.
My British relatives are a distant network of gentlefolk who meet up every ten years or so at weddings and funerals. They’re charming and successful and we always say to each other “We must stay in touch”, but we don’t. It wouldn’t cross my mind to ask them to pull strings, win contracts and get jobs – although they have always responded generously when I’m doing a charity fundraiser.
In Romania, someone in a public institution or a position of wealth will get requests for favours from relatives and they may come under social pressure to comply. This isn’t to say that every public official is corrupt or that everyone indulges in these ancient practices, but it seems to be the way things are organised – a network of personal contacts is a way of getting things done in a country where the bureaucracy is dysfunctional and the laws don’t make much sense.
It’s more subtle than just relatives helping each other out. It’s about building a network of people in the right places. Underlying all this is suspicion – a tendency to not trust anyone outside a narrow circle of family and old friends. Some would say that this trait has helped the Romanians survive centuries of rule by cruel foreign empires.
I want you to become a full partner in my new business
Romania adopts laws without thought for their implementation. They have such a dog’s breakfast of laws that it’s a wonder how things work at all. But they do, and things function relatively well considering the hostile environment that private businesses find themselves in.
Romania is such a good country to invest in because of accountants and lawyers. These modern wizards navigate the bureaucracy, make sense of the laws, and can even keep their foreign clients in a state of ignorance about any bribes that need paying.
You may disapprove of this, you may call it corruption, but is it worse than British law, which allows big companies to legally avoid tax and invest their profits in offshore tax havens? Britain’s big advantage is that we’ve had hundreds of years to embed our corruption into the establishment, and give it a sheen of respectability, whereas in Romania it’s raw and obvious.
And key to it all is that word again, rude – the network of contacts. There is corruption at every level of the system and without it nothing would work. Every family pays small bribes to teachers, officials and even priests – in order to get things done – but they’re not considered bribes. Every Romanian knows that these public officials are badly paid and the bribe they’re handing over is more like a tip or an undeclared service charge. It’s also an insurance policy: people in hospitals know they must tip everyone down to the nurses and cleaners if they don’t want to be neglected.
The best way to explain this is with an example from a village that shall remain nameless, where I lived in the early 1990s. I used to run a project in a home for abandoned kids back then and I wanted to set up a business which could make a profit for the charity. I had various ideas and spoke to the local mayor. When I told him I wanted to set up a business in his village and look for investors he got excited and said: “I can arrange everything. Just leave it to me.”
But what did he know about business? He was the mayor of a village and his background was in the local collective farm. He was just a fat peasant with a tie. How would he negotiate all the licences, approvals and paperwork and why would he bother? What was in it for him?
Gradually I worked out his perspective. A western mayor faced with the same question would simply have referred me to the relevant public sector authority, and I would have been shown the relevant procedures, given a link or a brochure, but this guy saw it as a personal business opportunity. He understood my question as meaning, I want you to become a full partner in my new business. All you have to do is help us register with the authorities and sort out the paperwork. That will open the floodgates to an endless flow of cash.
He also, presumably, thought there would be short term cash available which he would distribute with largesse in the county capital – thus building himself a new network of contacts (pile) who could be called on later when needed.
We hadn’t even discussed what type of business we were thinking about; it was just an idea at that stage, for a bakery, and he didn’t seem to have the capacity for discussing ideas. He thought I was offering him the opportunity of a lifetime, so he grabbed it with both hands. Needless to say the conversation ended there, but I did learn some useful lessons about working in Romania.
Enough about rude – it’s time to talk vile
A villa has a noble origin as a big house in ancient Rome and if you look it up on Google it sounds quite good: “a large and luxurious house in its own grounds”. But in Romania the vile are a plague on the landscape for the simple reason that most of them are too big, badly designed, painted in horrible colours, surrounded by huge fuck-off-I’m-rich walls and they ruin the look of whatever community they’re located in.
Almost all of the old houses in Romania, especially those built prior to World War II, look so much better than the modern monstrosities.
One of the best things about Romania is the villages, as the people are friendly, the landscape is often beautiful, and their traditional way of life is fascinating. In fact, Romanian villages so inspired me that I think the best way to save the planet from global warming is for most of humanity to live as the traditional Romanian peasants do (or did): on smallholdings, caring for the land, keeping busy, and undermining the planet-destroying force of factory farming.
Some of Romania’s villages are ugly, however. These are located near the big cities where the local big shots build their weekend villas. Any architectural charm that these areas once had has been replaced by a plague of vile – huge orange and blue monstrosities that are protected from non-existent burglars by high walls and alarm systems. And they’re usually empty, as Mr Big and his brood also have a posh place in the city and they probably hate being in a village. As a result there’s no extra people to use the local shop or fill up the village school. This is another nail in the coffin of the Romanian village.
It’s happening in the city too. In Bucharest there are countless examples of beautiful old Belle Epoque (1871-1914) buildings that were knocked down and replaced with a modern horror. But it’s not all grim – compared to Russia, where I worked for six months in Nizhny Novgorod, the Romanians are good at preserving some of their ancient buildings.
It’s time to end this long story and make a concluding point, which I will keep short: The word rude is useful because it explains how Romania works, and the word vile offers insight into how the country looks.
Romania: Rude & Vile can be purchased from Amazon.
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@Wolfe-Murray, you attempt into gaslighting Romanians that the title of your book is not offensive is really pathetic. The book title Romania: rude & vile is destined to the English-speaking world, where the title would be taken at face value, not as a joke based on a homophony. The purpose of the title is to reinforce the image of a country, as you put it, rude and vile, while placating Romanians with your spin about vile (houses) and rude (relatives). The title is not only insulting, it is racist in the light of The Equality Act 2010 where victimisation based on nationality (not only skin colour aka race) is forbidden. Your ridiculous attempt to spin around Romanian words vile (plural of houses) and rude (plural of relative) does not hide racist title. If you cannot see the racism, try replacing the word Romania with Jamaica, Nigeria, Pakistan, even Afghanistan. Would such a title acceptable? NO. You would be accused in no time of race crimes, have Police banging at your door and cancelled publicly in seconds, on the basis of the Equality Act 2010. But when it comes to Romania, apparently the said Act is not applied, and anyone can insult Romanians with impunity. I rest on my case; the title of your book is insulting and racist, and your verbal salad about Romanian houses and family relatives is just spin to cover the deliberately offensive title.