A Volunteer's Life in Romania

The Neighbor's Goat
Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  )

Sa moara si capra vecinului!”

That’s a Romanian idiom, the meaning of which translates to: “If my goat dies, I hope my neighbor’s goat dies, too.”
     I have heard this many times and occasionally ask Romanians about it. When I brought it up recently with a small group of my university students, they laughed and noted with pleasure that I’d picked up on this cultural nugget. Then one added, “Well, they really need to update that. These days, it should be, “If my goat dies, then I am going to steal my neighbor’s goat!” Then more laughter.
     These five words strung together speak volumes about the Romanian mentality. This obviously stems from rural areas, where many people actually do own goats — as well as chickens, sheep and pigs — though millions of other, more urban Romanians now live side-by-side in communist-era bloc apartment buildings with no yard in which to keep any animals. Yet the phrase sticks around.
     As does this one, which I hear Romanians mumble even more frequently:

“Romania este o tara frumoasa, pacat ca este locuit.”

This, sadly enough, translates to: “Romania is a beautiful country, what a pity it’s inhabited.” Many Romanians have told me that the majority — or at least half — of her citizens are not “good” people, but are souls willing to cheat their own neighbor, to bribe, or to do just about anything to get ahead. Because of low salaries and poverty, many Romanians, understandably, have short-term horizons (as in “tomorrow” or “next week”) when it comes to money. But dig deeper and you realize that this mentality is also about the preference to make a quick, easy buck, often through corruption, rather than by establishing a long-term business relationship.
     “Loyalty” and “trust” are simply not in the vocabulary. The reputation of Romanians abroad, especially in Western Europe, is poor, often based on stories of stolen cars, petty thieves and sneaky immigrant workers. One foreign national in Bucharest who works for an international tourism firm, told me about scores of Romanians working on cruise ships around the world. On ships where this person has worked, if there was a theft on board, the captain would have the Romanian crew members’ cabins searched first and 90 percent of the time they were guilty.
     After more than a year in Romania, I know many things about this country, but I continue to learn every day and, at times, struggle to understand it. The mentality of the people, their attitudes and rampant negativism, particularly when compared to their more upbeat and faster-advancing — but also formerly communist — neighbors such as Hungary and Bulgaria, is something hard to grasp. Some Romanians jokingly blame it on their ancient roots from the sly and barbaric Dacian tribes who were conquered by the Romans.
     On numerous occasions, Romanians, mostly young and educated and part of a slowly emerging middle-class, have told me how they want to leave, or how their countrymen make them sick or embarrass them, or how the poor national attitude drives them positively insane. Some of these people are my friends, among a small number of whom I really trust and like very much, and some are strangers I’ve just met. For instance, a 20-something woman recently asked me several questions about the United States and its work hours, salaries and opportunities for advancement. Unlike most Romanians, she not only asked about our “big” salaries but also costs of living, thus evaluating the whole equation.
     “In Romania, we don’t like to work hard,” she said flatly. “We are lazy people. We like to complain about low salaries and not having money, but we would never want to work like you Americans. The boys are the worst, so lazy, and not very ambitious. They just like to drink and have fun. And girls, well, we like to look pretty, and I guess we are better workers, but we don’t like to work a lot and always want to take holidays.”
     I was stunned but appreciated her candor. Of course, there are many exceptions to these wide generalizations. I’ve met numerous Romanians, particularly in Bucharest and a few other places, who work American-hours for much smaller salaries (though good for here) and who try their best to succeed, despite the odds and a difficult system. But I have to say that the young woman’s comments, while simplistic, are not far-fetched. There is also a factor of ignorance and the huge fact that Romania was liberated only in 1989 from a vicious communist regime. But so were other countries. There must be more to it.
     One day last summer, while living with a Romanian host family during my Peace Corps training, I was waiting for a bus with my host mom and her young daughter. A few drunk guys walked by — this at 8 a.m. Then a driver pulled a crazy move but still honked and yelled obscenities at a passing motorist, displaying anger that is so common. I mentioned that sometimes when people cross a street, even in a marked crosswalk or at a stoplight, drivers don’t stop or sometimes even speed up.
     “This is Romania,” Silviana said, using another common phrase. I said that maybe it will change with time, perhaps by the time her daughter becomes a mother.
     “No way,” she said. “But maybe when she is a grandmother, or a great-grandmother.”
     I certainly hope it isn’t that long. As a volunteer working and living here, and trying in my small way to help, this legacy is very discouraging. I’ve mentioned a number of positive developments and traits of Romania and its people in previous columns and in my regular journals home to family and friends, but there’s no denying the scarred psyche and shifty ways here, which apparently breed cheating and laziness. Fortunately, not all Romanians are like this and many in the younger generation, I believe, are changing the country for the better, slowly but surely.
     I look forward to the day when “Sa moara si capra vecinului!” falls out of the Romanian vernacular. Maybe when all the bad goats are gone.

Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working at the West University of Timisoara, as a business
consultant for the Center for Career Development, and is also teaching courses. We have asked Andy to file reports for his two years of service of what his life is like working and living in Romania. In recent weeks, Andy visited the American University in Bulgaria, which is now collaborating with his career center, and he won a grant to attend an NGO Youth Forum in Serbia & Montenegro. He will finish his Peace Corps tour at the end of July next year.