Saturday, 29 December 2012

Building national pride

This post builds on my previous one, with my take on the following question: if real life isn't for postcards, is 'national pride' just a delusion?

This is a thorny issue, isn't it? Mostly because patriotism is often used as an excuse for overlooking governments' questionable actions. In America, patriotism is abused as a means for Americans to wave the flag while the US Government sends yet more young men to die in a foreign land in the name of global peace and ... oh yes ... oil. In South Africa before 1994, patriotism was used to turn a blind eye on the racist practises of the government.

In South Africa now? Patriotism is pretty much unknown. Ask the average South African why s/he is 'proudly South African', and the answer will most likely involve a reference to boerewors (a traditional kind of sausage), rusks (a uniquely South African dunkable biscuit), and the African bushveld (wild scrub). But those aren't good reasons to ensure happiness on a day-to-day basis, are they? I mean, unless you eat boerewors and rusks every day and happen to live in the bush, chances are they're downright shoddy.

Also, you're not likely to miss these things until you move away from the country ... no doubt a bit of spicy sausage sounds real good when you're eyeing the drizzle outside your London apartment's window.

Patriotism for me is rather about defending the honour of the country where you live. When somebody says, for example, "South Africa is a horrible place to live because xyz", you immediately counter with "Aah, but have you thought about abc? South Africa is in fact great."

Well, what do I know about patriotism if I want to leave South Africa for Romania then? South Africa's greatest problem for me is that there cannot be a sense of national unity when the post-democratic Government is using the pre-democratic Government's racial categories to right past wrongs. South Africa will always be a country of 'Blacks', 'Whites', 'Coloureds', 'Asians' and 'Other'.

From a patriotic point of view, then, that poses an insurmountable problem. You cannot have a sense of 'This country belongs to us' if your definition of 'us' is flexible, and if some of 'us' are more privileged than others of 'us' (whether politically or economically).

Let's take this to the Romanian situation, then. I was reading one of the only English-language Romanian news sites - www.romania-insider.com - when I stumbled across a comment on a story that I just had to reply to. And reply to again (although that's not visible).


When we're living in a country we're unhappy with, we too easily just shrug and dream about emigrating. It doesn't matter which country you're in, either: experience shows that people living in South African go to Australia, people in Romania emigrate to Canada, Americans like to escape to Europe etc. If that doesn't tell you that no matter where you are your happiness is dependent on you and not your surroundings, I don't know what will. [Ok, maybe Afghanistan is an exception to that rule]

Here are a couple of simple suggestions for making things brighter in your life:
- Feeling lonely in the middle of a city? Get a partner or make a friend.
- Don't like your neighbourhood? Move to a new suburb.
- Hate your co-workers or your job? Apply for a new job.
- Hate people commenting negatively about your country online? Respond to their negative comments and give them the sort of local information only you have.
- Register on a penpal website like Global Penfriends and engage with people in other countries. See that the ones in the country you're dreaming about moving to suffer many of the same problems you do.
- Find a problem with your town? Send your suggestions to your local municipality. It worked out well for Matt in Romania.

In the end, patriotism starts with your personal happiness. It sounds obvious, but the happier you are the rosier the glasses you look at your country through will be. Sticking up for your country online - on Facebook, Twitter, e-mail penpals or news comments sections - is something anybody can do from the comfort of their home, and doing so will not only boost your own sense of connection with your country, but help you understand its problems a bit better as you analyse them more closely.



Thursday, 27 December 2012

Ultimate guide on emigrating to Romania

You know, if you look long enough on the internet for an answer to an unsolveable problem, you will find it. I just stumbled across this answer today:

Now I don't know that I'm looking at planting potatoes, per se, but you've got to love the dry humour.

And now to start on a lengthy diatribe on Romanian politics ... just kidding! There's enough of that online already, and for once let's have a *short* update.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Real life isn't for postcards

In between studying Romanian - thanks to my wife I can now count to 10 and say all the days of the week ... that disappearing 'i' at the end still gets me - I've been catching up on all the non-touristy news online. Admittedly, it's pretty slim pickings in English: journalists being the negative animals that they are, only the bad news makes headlines.

On that last point, there's a blog post which reinforces it heavily at the cost of the AP's Alison Mutler: http://kingofromania.com/2011/04/16/racism-in-romania/. So, to my English eyes, Romania's news is heavily dominated by politics: a president who plagiarized his thesis and a prime minister who was installed by the US Government.

The comments sections of blogs are fascinating, because there you get some real insight into what Romanians and expats in Romania are feeling. Again, to my English eyes, not too good. Plenty of complaints about how Romanians (especially in Bucharest) are apparently cold-hearted, how there isn't enough money to fix the infrastructural problems in the country, and how most Romanians are eager to head to brighter shores.

Everything sounds very familiar to me, because it matches my experiences in South Africa. Here, our president is considered a national joke by the middleclasses who never voted for him, nobody is ever satisfied by the ageing infrastructure, and the residents of Johannesburg would happily mow you down in their cars on the N1 Highway if it meant getting home five minutes earlier.

There also appears to be a debate in Romania about 'What is Romanian?' and more specifically 'What is Romanian popular culture?' Again, judging by the comments Romania is caught in the South African Catch-22 situation: anything emulating the West too closely is seen to be a sellout, and anything not emulating the West closely is seen to lack refinement.

Some genuine concerns in Romania appear to be ruthless taxis fleecing tourists, prices on unscrupulous restaurant menus being by weight (and then a lot more being served), and Romanian doctors generally expecting a 'bribe' for services delivered (I wonder if that would work for me as a journalist?). Still, none of these are reasons to avoid the country as a destination to live: I don't expect to rely on taxis, I'd just avoid *those* restaurants and I'd add the doctors' bribe into the consultancy fee.

No, I don't expect all Romanians to be singing carefree songs while they skip down the streets of Bucharest. I don't expect all buildings to look as colourful or clean as they do on photoshopped postcards. I don't expect everybody to love their jobs and support the politicians in power.

For me, that's where real life differs from tourism. You stop drinking bottled water (although Romania apparently has 1/3 of Europe's mineral springs if you believe the Romanian Tourism Board) and start drinking what comes out of the tap. You stop expecting other people to entertain you, and set about entertaining yourself.

All I want from Romania is the following: decent safety, medical care and education services; a job I can feel proud doing; and new places to explore in my spare time. I think I'll get that there, and the rest I'll get from my wife and our family and friends. Thank you, Romania Tourism Board (which strangely provides prices for all example goods in dollars and not lei), but I'll find out what things cost exclusively in lei.

PS: Romania Tourism does provide one useful page on their website - http://www.romaniatourism.com/romanian-language.html.

PPS: The problem with applying for a job on Christmas is you wait a *long* time for any response. Why can't this company's recruiter just happen to be a workaholic who answers e-mails from home the day after Christmas?

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Wish me luck!

The more the merrier!
Can an English-speaking journalist get a job in Romania when he's not even in the country? This question has been running around my head ever since I started contemplating the move, and I just took the plunge! Yes, I just sent my CV and covering letter to one of Romania's biggest media groups, on Christmas day no less.

To soften things a little I did start with 'Stimate Domn/Doamna' and end with 'Craciun Fericit!', with the rest in English. At least they can see I'm trying, right? Unlike many Romanian websites, the one belonging to the media group I applied to at least has an English version, which proves that they are  more open-minded than the others.

That's it, isn't it? It's Christmas today, I've got no clue how I'll move to Bucharest if these guys actually DO have a job for me, but where there's a will (and a big salary) there's a way. Wish me luck, and Craciun Fericit to all of you too.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Travel journalism's failures

Anthony Bourdain
Have I said that technology is a crazy thing? Try googling 'Romania + Blog' and be amazed by the mixed bag you'll come up with. One of the first hits I got was this site: http://blog.travelchannel.com/anthony-bourdain/read/romania-what-the-hell-happened/

As I happen to know Anthony Bourdain from the Masterchef television series, this raised my interest. Dipping into the all-out comment war was an eye-opener as well: split down the middle between Romanians who clearly hate the country and Romanians who hate Anthony Bourdain.

Ok, so the next step was obviously to watch the video, which you can do here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0qsV_pJ_nc

What's the point of having a blog if you can't wag your finger at people? I'll take this moment to climb onto my little soapbox and criticise everything that show stood for. Shame on you, Anthony Bourdain. For a show about food, there was practically no food on show here.

Two foreigners stumbling through a country with nothing more than frequent mutters of 'hello' and 'cheers' would always produce something which needs to be viewed more as entertainment than a balanced report on a country's culture. Unfortunately, it's easier for countries which are self-assured and have nothing to prove to accept a few hits than those like Romania, which are still rebuilding themselves on every level.

Really, travel journalism is just cultural imperialism: stand on the outside, look in, scoff and maybe deign to hand out a compliment if one of the natives impresses you. I speak from experience here, because South Africa's tourism industry is built on the Big 5 animals and some iffy tribal dances.

Watching the show, I felt Romanians' pain, because it's a pain I share: as insiders we're allowed to criticise ourselves because we've earned the right, but when outsiders hit close to home by mistake and not through empathetic understanding, it stings.

Maybe one day I'll get a chance to film a couple of Romanian documentaries of my own, which I'll share here, just to set the record straight. Romania deserves better, and there's nothing better than disproving a smug [insert family-friendly expletive of choice]. Anthony Bourdain: thanks for another item on my bucket list!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Through the looking glass

Bucharest webcam
Technology is something else, innit? Whenever I travel to a new location in Johannesburg, my first stop tends to be Google's Street View: on the down side, wherever I go I get a bad feeling of de ja vu; on the plus side, I never get lost.

A couple of months ago I realised that I could do the same thing with Bucharest, and gave my wife her first view of Bucharest's streets in ten years. It was a brilliant experience: we couldn't afford the holiday, so we got a cheap alternative courtesy of the kind folks at Google.

This evening, another penny dropped: webcams! Not just for dirty old men online, lol. Another short Google, and voila, result: http://jurnalul.ro/webcam/1-mai-turda-126.html. Wow ... looking at the cars and (wow!) trams moving, I finally had a little viewpoint into this country which is taking up my every waking thought at the moment.

My journey didn't even have to end there: http://jurnalul.ro/webcam/poiana-brasov-bradul-419.html. Mountains, snow, people! Oh man, voyeurism at a whole new level. Do those little happy skiers think for a second that there's a South African watching them from continents apart, wishing for his own shot in their skis? If that sounds spooky, I'm sorry. There's a more positive side to this: I figure that people could send each other messages by writing messages in the snow in the view of one of these webcams. How cool - no pun intended - would that be?

Technology really does make the world a smaller place. Just because sharing is caring, here's a webcam showing Johannesburg: http://inside-joburg.com/webcam-johannesburg. And with that, it's back to the interactive Romanian pronunciation lessons from http://learn.transparent.com!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The devil is in the detail

Captain's Log: Star Date 20/12/2012. Hmm, a day after my 27th birthday - a day I spent trying to convince my wife to go on bigger rollercoasters than she was willing to, and then copped out to playing with the science experiments in the kiddy's corner of the themepark we went to. Ok, that's not entirely fair, we did go on a couple of rides and I was mildly afraid of dying at one point when my restraint didn't buckle up, but that's a story for a whole other kind of blog.

The Great Prepare for Romania Strategy is going full steam ahead: so far I know the names of a few possible places I could work in Romania (McDonalds isn't one of them). I downloaded a useful guide to learn Romanian grammar here: http://fsi-language-courses.org/Courses/Romanian/FSI%20-%20Romanian%20Reference%20Grammar%20-%20Student%20Text.pdf. Don't know how useful it actually is - only time and what looks like a lot of hours will tell.

A thought just struck me: I feel like I'm starting from scratch here, but I can at least read. I mean, I don't understand what I'm reading, but at least all the lines on the screen/paper are not just little squiggles. So that puts me ahead of a Romanian six year old, right? All depends how you look at it, I guess, but I'm a cup half full kind of guy.

Rather disconcertingly, I learned that there's a male and female version of 'two', but 'three' is gender neutral. And coffee is male and biscuits are female, go figure. And you put the adjective after the noun, most of time, except in greetings, when it's fine to reverse the order. My Romanian wife shrugs and says, 'Don't ask me, I just speak the language, I didn't make the rules.' Thanks honey, lol.

I'll get there though. I already speak a second language in South Africa (Afrikaans - a localised version of Dutch), so although my mind is willing to accept that there are other languages to think in, it's not helping that in Afrikaans the letter 'v' is pronounced with an 'f' sound while in Romanian it is prounced with a 'vee' sound. 

In other news, I e-mailed the King of Romania. Not literally the king, he has a site (and a guide to Romania) here - http://kingofromania.com/. Matt recommended I contact him, but I don't know - judging from some of his posts it might be better for me to stick with Romanians who speak English rather than English (or in this case - Americans) who speak Romanian. Whoever said Romanians are cold, huh?

Yes, this third post marks a departure from my previous entries: finally we get into the nitty-gritty detail, the 'put up or shut up' preparation. Your mileage may (and probably should) differ, but I'm already getting excited about this. I just hope I can win the lottery or remotely land a high-paying job in Romania and speed things up: if anybody asks, I know stuff. What stuff? Whatever you're paying for!

There we go: another Blogger new post screen defeated. Death to the emptiness! Here's to defying the online culture of just re-tweeting and Facebook-liking things other people have created: who knows, maybe by post 2 000 I'll have more than one reader and a couple of Google bots interested in this blog. For now, dear reader (and you, dear Googlebot), good night and good luck.

Monday, 17 December 2012

This way is up

All good blogs tell a story, right? My story - all 27 years' worth of it - is a bit of a mixed bag so far, but you can expect some twists to come.

To catch you up on the background, I was born in a small town on South Africa's coast (George) and went to a really small primary school in an even smaller town (Sedgefield). My parents took me back to George for my high school education, which was looking back on it now amazingly sheltered. I'm not complaining: a peaceful childhood is something to reminisce over [only 27? That doesn't feel right].

University at Rhodes in Grahamstown - another small town in a different province (sad note: travelling to University for the first time was the furthest I'd ever travelled across SA). After an equally uneventful B.Journalism degree, I returned to the idyllic coastal town of Knysna, with my first job at the newspaper which my (then) recently-deceased grandfather had founded. It was my homage to his memory, as much as the real start to my own story.

A emerging unscathed from a couple of questionable decisions, I discovered the world of Internet Relay Chat and met my future wife on a trivia channel. Only one small snag: she was a Romanian citizen, living in Scotland. Ok, so that was a massive snag, and it would have been worse if an aunt I hardly ever spoke to happened to die and leave me just enough money to travel to London on a two-week holiday where we met for the first time.

By that stage we'd already spent countless months chatting online, running up huge phonebills and playing chess online - you'd have to be in the situation to understand that one - and so it was no huge surprise to us when we got engaged. The UK government doubted our intentions  unfortunately, and rejected my visa application for settlement as a fiance. To the Queen: you owe me the R7 000 application fee (around 600 Euro) I had to pay, for a rejection decision which came in only three days.

[Narrator voice: "Things were looking bleak for our star-crossed lovers. Poorer yet more in love than ever before, they had a hard decision to make. Either endure nine months apart to appeal the decision, or take a more drastic step."]

That 'more drastic step' was for my fiance to apply for a vistor's visa to South Africa, and for me to circulate my CV to every newspaper nationally in the same group as the one I'd been working at in Knysna. I got two bites: one at a tiny rural newspaper, and one in Johannesburg. The Big Bad city it was.

Fast forward a few years, and my fiance and I succeeded in getting married, succeeded in finding her not one but two jobs, and survived a number of hops between apartments, cars and visions for our future. I'm now working as an automotive journalist, but I don't see myself as a petrolhead. Like somebody said on another blog: Johannesburg is all about money, and on Johannesburg's streets cars are simply money on the move.

Why tell you that whole story? Just because my past proves convincingly that people can overcome huge challenges with limited resources and enough effort. Things haven't always been smooth, but that's fine: sticking out the marathon means you'll always end up a lot further than the hundreds who simply drop out along the way.

Where to now? Well, Romania, I hope. Why not? Well, a good few reasons if we're honest, but then again a few years in Johannesburg has not only made me skeptical about the pursuit of money in general - it's a bit like working in a chocolate factory, you see - but my wife and I both need a fresh start. A fresh start with snow at Christmas, a fresh start where my skin colour isn't indicative of my history and prejudicial to my future, and where there are new challenges to overcome.

I'm a sucker for that, you see. Maybe it's because I'm a writer by trade: why spend all the effort to make the stories I write interesting, if my own story is losing my interest? Can we do it, or will we change our minds and just move to Cape Town (a beautiful seaside city in South Africa) like so many other tired Johannesburgers? For me that's just too cliched, and whatever else you read here cliches will not be a part of it. I promise.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

In the beginning

The best thing that can happen to you in  life is to feel utterly disillusioned. To feel that everything society has fed you is worthless, to feel that the path you're headed in is not one you like, and to dislike the people around you.

Why is this negative moment positive? Because it's the first step towards recovery: towards 're-illusionment'. From the moment you're born you're told what to think: your parents, your friends, your Government, your employer, your religious leaders. It's time you think for yourself.

If you're lucky, becoming fully disillusioned doesn't happen all at once: you're surrounded by micro-disappointments your whole life, things which just feel 'wrong', and one day all those little things crystallise into your personal world view. It's not an end to your journey, it's just the start of a lifetime discovering what feels 'right', knowing only what feels 'wrong'.

I don't claim to speak for everybody. Indeed, the furious debates I've gotten involved in point to me holding viewpoints which are very contrary to the popular doctrine. I don't have a problem with that: I'm not living my life as a popularity contest, and if anything the 'right' way generally fits somewhere between all the emotionally-charged polar opposites.

Ok, so at this point you're wondering if I can add anything constructive to your life with this blog. Maybe that's not my goal. Sometimes what many people need is something deconstructive - a voice to question the popularly-accepted truisms, a voice to challenge.

I'm not at the end of my journey. I'm just near the start. I'm adding daily to the list of things which are 'wrong' with society, and trying to find a useful place for myself in that society. As a taster, some of the things which are patently wrong - but, as is typical of humanity, best compromises - are as follows:
- Capitalism. Everybody is promised a middle-class life, but the reality is we still need street sweepers and the system will ensure a constant supply.
- Democracy. Everybody's voice needs to be heard, but democracy is at its heart a 'majority rules' system where the majority parties dominate, or the minority parties compromise within coalition governments.
- Charity. Save the rhino. Save the baboon. Save the lesser-spotted egret. Since when did human suffering take a backseat to animals'? By placing the responsibility for poverty with poor people, we simultaneously absolve ourselves of charitable responsibilities and deny that capitalism is a failed system.

I recognise that my context has informed those viewpoints. I live in the city with the highest contrast between wealth and poverty in Africa: Johannesburg, South Africa. I'm ekeing out a middle-class life for myself, sharing the same streets with the ultra-wealthy and the dirt-poor beggars. Complicating the political mix in South Africa is the racial dynamic, where being a successful white citizen carries with it a side-helping of guilt: you're statistically in the country's minority, and as such everything you have deserves to belong to the country's historically oppressed majority. 

Complex discussions surrounding racial identity, political performance and entrenched social capital form the unescapable background for life, drowned out by the workday monotony and re-runs of Survivor on TV. Isn't life complex enough, without these added problems? I say this with full recognition that people the world over are facing equally universal challenges flavoured by their unique geopolitical situations.

More than anything, life in Johannesburg has reinforced for me the pointlessness of caring for what Matt in his excellent blog calls the 'Money Tree'. Driving through some affluent suburbs, you can trace your whole life in a single street: first I will live here, then I will move here, then I will move here, and finally I will retire here. It's the same thing with cars: I first drove a Ford Lazer, then a Hyundai Atos, then a Renault Sandero, now a Citroen C3. Later I hope to drive a Volkswagen Jetta, then a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, then maybe a BMW 6-Series.

People living my 'dreams' drive past me every day and force me to question my life's goals. Why do I want a Jetta when I already know my next goal will be a C-Class? Why do I want to continue working in this job if it will never get me to a 6-Series salary level? Why seek happiness which is so temporary and brings with it - for most people - only added stress through added debt?

No, I don't want to be 'rich' if being rich means being constantly unhappy. In many ways I'm already rich, relative to the world's intense poverty. Rather, I want to contribute, to make the world a better place for having me in it, and to continue enjoying the priceless happiness of my wife's hugs. There's no debt with those, and nothing better later on you see: just a lifetime of acceptance and love.

I can't say that all my posts will be this long, but I hope this sets the tone for the blog. It's a journey which may well take me to unimagined places as I try to create a story for my life which extends beyond my car purchases and the movies I watched. If you're craving more before the next installment arrives, check out my opinion pieces on MyNews24 - a South African news website's community forum: MyNews24 opinions

Just because it struck a chord with me, I'll end on another quote from Matt's website: "Everything will be alright in the end, and if it's not alright, it's not yet the end".