Monday, 21 January 2013

Life lessons from Rango

Somehow or other, this blog keeps ticking over - thank you, dear reader. I'll return the honour by continuing posting regularly here: feel free to start commenting on posts! A little bit of feedback goes a long way.

Today's Short Post Monday. No really, it's right there on your calendar, written between the reminder to take your socks to the laundry and to tune into that quaint little blog by that South African guy.

I've been re-watching Rango, which is possibly the most disturbing animated movie since Coraline. Unlike Coraline, however, Rango has some real zingers of quotes, and I have one I want to share with you:
"No man can walk out on his own story."
Cue the 'touche' snort. If you're anything like me, you've probably bumped your head into this little principle numerous times. I have this theory that all cliches have a corresponding lesson which we only appreciate when we're in exactly the right context - at any other time, we'll just shake our head and shrug off the condensed wisdom.

Any reader here might think that I've got no life in South Africa, and that anything in Romania will be better. That's not true. In fact, despite evidence to the contrary here, things are going particularly well in South Africa for me. I've recently been promoted to be the editor of not one but two magazines, and am tackling a lot of refreshing new challenges completely unrelated to basic journalism: writing proposals, events planning, stakeholder meetings, coordinating freelancers, sourcing advertising, designing brochures etc.

This doesn't mean I don't want to move to Romania. I do, and if I get the opportunity to I intend to jump at it. Right now, however, life's just not letting me walk out of this specific story. I have projects to launch and make a success of, some lessons to learn, some money to make and - most of all - some life to live.

Maybe if you're in the same space as me at the moment, even if it's centering on something else (a relationship, let's say), this post means something extra to you. You'll get to move to that next chapter smoothly when the time is right, no need to push it. And if you're not in that space? Move along, nothing to see here ... maybe you'll be luckier with my next post.

Kirk out.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

South Africa's Mea Culpa

If this blog is about moving to Romania, it's equally about moving away from South Africa. I don't claim that the problems I refer to here are specific to South Africa, but if I had to name one of the main reasons for *wanting* to leave this country it's the closed-minded hatred which the majority of the white population seems to enjoy marinating in.

We get it, ok? White people feel that the politicians don't serve their interests, feel that they're being bum-rushed out of the formal economy and are sick and tired of living in fear of criminals and implied guilt for Apartheid. Nothing I've said here is new.

However, reading the comments beneath this news story just made me die a little bit more inside when it comes to South Africa. So much anger! So much smug condemnation with zero care or empathy. More than just a smattering of outright racism, from the very race group which is trying to break free from the moral shackles of a racist history.

It brought to mind the famous Shakespeare quote:
"Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Macbeth Quote (Act V, Scene V).
What makes average South Africans blame everything on the worst possible traits of the Government without any further investigation or circumspection? For the record, I am NOT going to claim that the ANC is the best government for the country, but I am also NOT going to condemn the government for everything from potholes to crime to hospital closures and the common cold.

Maybe it's the journalist in me. Maybe it's because I know that before any statement can be made in the public, it ought to be supported by evidence, unbiased investigation and fair comment from all sides involved. At least, that's the theory which even journalists themselves often don't satisfy, so what chance is there for average citizens living sheltered, fearful and anger-steeped lives?

My personal view is that average citizens will never know the exact motivations behind Goverment actions. In a democracy, more or less the last real chance anybody has to influence the Government is when they cast their vote. That's not to say that accountability begins and ends there - I just honestly think we'd all live happier lives if we follow the principles of the famous Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
The courage to change the things I can, 
And wisdom to know the difference.
 Oh South Africa, my country of birth. Where has our collective wisdom gone? The very people criticising the ANC for crimes such as corruption and greed are espousing baseless accusations and pure hatred as fact: which is the worse crime ultimately?

I get it, I do. We as a country hate being powerless. We hate feeling that we're not in control of our own lives. We hate feeling that we're accountable for something that happened before we were born, or which we don't feel we were directly responsible for.

I don't for a minute think that the commentators on that story represent the best of South Africa's intellectual elite, or even the average citizen. The average citizen is out there, getting on with life with not a thought for the closure of a hospital far away. Entitling this story 'South Africa's Mea Culpa' is a bit strong, then, but it is accurate in that it turns the spotlight of public ire back on itself.

Life is too short to be angry about things beyond our control. It is too short to be fearful of situations we cannot know about. It is definitely too short to join in that chorus of anger and frustration and dashed dreams.

This is a message which applies equally to South Africans and you, in whichever part of the world you live. One last relevant saying: "You're either a part of the solution, or you're a part of the problem." I know it's easier to just be angry, but anger ultimately rots our own hearts and does nothing to change whatever it is we're angry about.

Maybe if all those people commenting on that story felt so strongly about it, they could have donated money to the hospital, or started a charity to raise money. But they don't, because this is just one more problem in a country full of them, and it's just one more example of something they know nothing about but which they identify as bad. And surely, if it is bad then it must be the ANC's responsibility, as they are the source of all evil. And surely, if they vent their anger in a comment however small, somebody, somewhere will care enough to do something about it.

I have done something about it. I wrote this blog post. And I've closed that story. It's all I can do for now, and I'm man enough to recognise and admit that. Certainly, adding more anger to that specific soup isn't going to make it taste any better.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

To have problems like these!

Yes, money. Stop salivating: it's all Romania's! 
Things here have gotten a bit gloomy, so how about a spot of positive news? Like this story for example. The EC Commissioner for Regional Policy, Johannes Hahn, has said that Romania 'must absorb EUR 5 billion in EU funds to avoid losing them'.

Even better, there's a commitment from the EU's side that saving these funds is not in Europe's best interest, but rather that they need to be spent in a 'sustainable, intelligent, smart way'. Ok, let's forgive the man the redundant use of 'intelligent' and 'smart' in the same sentence: I always say don't look a gifthorse in the mouth, and especially not when it's offering you EUR 5 billion.

Some come on Romania: this is a national emergency! Help the Government spend all that money! Sure, it won't be easy, and your bank cards may well end up being swiped until they leave burns on your fingers, but now is the time for creative shopping at only the most expensive stores. Spare no expense: if the shop assistant tells you the item you want is on a discount, wave him away and pay double the value!

EUR 5 billion buys a hell of a lot of whatever governments tend to buy with huge handouts. You know: parks, some fresh paint for the offices and maybe a truckload or two of croissants. I definitely think that a little Romanian ingenuity will keep that money cycling around in a manner which truly is both intelligent and smart.

Here's some impressive maths if the rhetoric fails to elicit a chuckle: with a population of 21 million, that EUR 5 billion would be enough to give each and every Romanian citizen RON 1 071 (which if stats are to be believed is more than the average individual Romanian salary - RON 856). One month's salary for EVERYBODY, or a park and a spot of new tar? Hmm, I know which way I'd vote if I were Romanian.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

All fear the Romgarians

Distorted reality.
I've just returned from a two-day business trip in Namibia, where I was on the launch of the new Volkswagen Amarok bakkie with the automatic transmission. Two days out of the office in a foreign country,  driving a powerful car through astounding desert scenery, and being wined and dined to the limit ... remind me why my job as an automotive journalist sucks again?

Oh yes, I can't afford buying an Amarok on my salary. Or a Nissan Murano, which is my current test vehicle for the week. Or the BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe I fell in love with on another recent test. Or ... yes, my life is in a chocolate factory where I can actually eat a couple of blocks at a time. Just enough to keep me hooked, but not enough to make me sick of it, and never a full slab to gloat over. Keeps you humble. Or just frustrated, haha.

In other news, the views on this blog almost doubled in my absence. Maybe blogging is like wine-making: it's better if you leave it alone for a while? I like to think however that I've got hordes of readers waiting in eager anticipation for my next pearls of wisdom on Romania and South Africa, and the grey bits in between  A bit like I like to think that I'll oneday drive a BMW 6-Series, maybe.

So, Romania ... have you heard about Neil Farage's personal war against allowing Romanians and Bulgarians to flood the UK? Probably trying to protect all the Pakistani, Chinese and South African emigrants already there. It's also tinged at least a little with the fear of all those Romanian gypsies (see previous blog post).

I'd read this story before leaving, and waiting for me upon arrival back at my desk was this little gem just twisting the knife deeper. For those looking for a quick summary, British anti-EU party UKIP is being very vocal in opposing the EU's responsibility to remove movement controls from Romanian and Bulgarian citizens on January 1, 2014. On the surface, the idea is that all of Romania and Bulgaria will immediately emigrate to the sunny skies of Britain, and the little island will promptly sink.

Hey, don't take it from me. In their own words:
Only in November, the Home Secretary admitted to the Daily Telegraph she was powerless, impotent to stop thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians flocking to the UK. There it is, cold as today’s snow that Britain is not in full control of it’s destiny having handed it over to the Eurocrats.
And there we have the real motivation for UKIP: they're stirring up anti-EU sentiment by criticising the the UK's apparent powerlessness to prevent those hundreds of thousands of Romgarians (let's just contract it, shall we?) from flooding in. Darn those 'Eurocrats'. They don't appreciate the sanctity of a good crumpet, and seem awfully bound to agreements made six years ago.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised that there's a link to this blog in one of the UKIP stories - a blog with only one post incidentally - and it yields some interesting gems. Like this:
HALF the population of Romania earns £287 or less per month. They can receive a rise to £307 per month in job seekers allowance from 2014 in the UK, for not working. Even the highest paid group of professionals in Romania is better off in the UK working on minimum wage. 
This is an interesting debate, except it shows all the hallmarks of politics. These stories quoting UKIP patently don't try to speak to any Romgarians. They also don't question a huge assumption made.

Have a look at this story from the BBC, and this story from Romania. Do you spot the little flaw? In Britain, the average UK salary is £26 500 (or £2208 per month - €2661). Romanians on job-seekers allowance may well earn more than they did in Romania, but they will be earning 1/7th of the average UK salary.

The real problem with all this vocal Romgarian fear is that it assumes that Romanians and Bulgaria won't realise this. It doesn't take into account that as difficult as things are in Romania, this is where people have their families and lives. It's not like they'll be queuing up to move to the UK to be welcomed by people like Nigel Farage, and live the good life on 1/7th of the national average salary. Even if they do, chances are they'll return, and because there was less sacrifice required in order to move, logic implies they'll be quicker to return when things go sour.

For me, the deciding factor in this debate is this photo:
Nigel is really afraid the Romgarians will come catch all his fish, you see. That'd make photos like this one really difficult to take.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Romania's media landscape

From journalist to covrigi baker? 
Ok, it's time I bring some more of my own content to this blog, after a lengthy stint commenting on and republishing from the admittedly limited pool of English-language resources out there.

The best thing to remember when you're researching a new country is that it's not on Mars - it's practically just around the corner, and you can ask the people there questions.

I mentioned earlier that I'd joined a couple of expat groups online, and managed to make a very useful contact: one of the main English-language publishers in Romania. Here's a message I got from him, related to the media situation in Romania at present.

Journalists are facing very tough times, as many media papers closed down.
Being a publisher myself I also know the very tough advertising market in Romania.
A mid level journalist would make around EUR 400-500 nowadays. Most of the journalists do PR now for corporates and make almost double that amount.
For any first-time visitors here, I'm particularly interested in the Romanian media landscape because I'm a journalist in South Africa, both by trade and by education. I must admit, the publisher's response doesn't exactly fill my heart with joy.

"Tough times", weak advertising market, low salaries and journalists exiting the industry ... yeah, it's not exactly looking like a dream career in Romania. Why didn't I study something which is actually in demand, like Computer Programming (a big hit in Cluj I hear)?

Something I noted to another guy in Romania I'm chatting to is that it seems most expats landing in the country immediately start a blog, and write a book about Romania. Well, I've got a jump-start on them with my blog already here I guess, lol. I seriously don't think I need to dump another book into the market upon arrival, which would be tough to do anyway thanks to the weak advertising market alluded to above.

What to do, what to do. If you have any bright ideas for an English-speaking journalist operating in Romania, feel free to give me a shout. Alternatively, I could always just go make covrigi outside Gara de Nord - apparently that's another big hit.

Oh, as a side note: one of my best rediscoveries was the Google Translate for Chrome plug-in. Google now conveniently translates all Romanian websites into English with a single right-click on a website. Who cares if the grammar is a bit messed up? At least my reading pool has expanded dramatically while I'm still struggling with learning Romanian.

Will gypsies ever be Romanian and not only Roma?

What are this girl's hopes and dreams? To steal your wallet? 
This is a fair question to ask, and a serious one given the intense racism still held in the hearts of otherwise perfectly average Romanians against gypsies living in the country. Blamed for practically all petty crime in Romania, and often confused with Romanians when travelling overseas - thanks to the Roma connection - it's a complex knot to untie.

Acclimatizing to a new country has a number of phases: you first get off the plane and judge the country by what the airport looks like. Then you step outside and judge the country depending on how friendly your taxi driver is. Then you arrive at your apartment and judge the country based on the number of television channels you receive. And then you open your fridge and judge the country based on what you can eat.

So this process continues, right up until you start judging the country on your interactions with police officers, government officials, business owners and criminals. Maybe somewhere around this point you start noticing other minorities in the country (apart from you as an expat) and you ask yourself how well they're being treated by the majority, and what this means for the psyche of the people you're wanting to essentially become a part of.

You can't tell a South African much about racism we don't already know, that's for sure. As a white South African with my adult years post-democracy, I've had more than my fair share of introspection about race relations, analysing race as a construct at University, balancing reverse racial discrimination in the workplace (a government policy called Black Economic Empowerment) with the overwhelmingly evident need to transform an area which is still dominated by white South Africans even though we are a minority.

Maybe that's why I'm so sensitive to issues involving race, discrimination and racism in particular. I like to think, however, that regardless of my background I'd still find racism in any form despicable, and the mass stereotyping of entire groups of people into specific categories as unfair and utterly wrong. It turns out, however, it's easier to outlaw racism in countries' Constitutions than in their hearts and minds.

For anybody not familiar with the Roma, there's a decent short summary here and a lengthier Wikipedia article here. My favourite quote, however, comes from this article, where the writer puts this problem particularly succinctly: 
People make it easy for themselves by blaming the Gypsies for Romania's bad image in the world, eternally bewailing the fact that people abroad are unable to distinguish Romanians (all honourable, peaceful, diligent citizens, blessed with the virtues of their forefathers) from the gypsies, this "surrogate folk," as our stupid, racist jokes will have them. In fact the Gypsy problem in Romania results from Romania's policy towards the Gypsies, and not from the "inferiority of their race."
Perhaps one should recall from time to time the historical roots of the problem. The Romanians in Wallachia and Moldavia – alone in Europe – made the Gypsies their slaves, binding them to the soil. Torn from their nomadic way of life, the Gypsies were forced to put down roots on the land of their masters. Like the black slaves in America, free people were turned into workhorses – albeit rational ones.
This culture of 'othering' towards gypsies in Romania isn't particular to the country, either. It's certainly not something which the 'cultured West' is immune to, even when gypsies are specifically in focus. Have a look at this textbook definition of 'othering' from that great bastion of British journalism, The Sun, or this story about France's mass deportations of Roma.

To any Romanians reading this, despising somebody just because they identify themselves as a gypsy is wrong. I can give you a million reasons why this is, but no post is long enough. Oh, I don't know them, you might say. You don't know how they are. No, you're right, I don't, but I'm willing to wager that neither do you. I look at these photos of Romanian gypsies, and I don't see evil people there. Certainly, a different culture, but not so alien that it deserves the wrath one commentator expressed in a discussion thread:

Naturally I didn't let him get away with it. With every comment I fought him tooth and nail - indeed, I still am - but common sense is hard to impose on somebody who has grown up with various casual racial constructs an unquestioned part of life. However, it's not just about him - it's all of Romania, France, and even the UK (as my stories show).

It's wherever somebody is discriminated against with a complete lack of understanding. The solution is obvious: Romanians need to enter into discussions with Roma, both formal and informal. It's the only thing that worked in South Africa, in the US, in Germany ...where healing only came through true understanding. Instead of attributing all evil to gypsies, rather go speak to gypsies about what it's like being the outsiders in the country of your birth - through doing so, you'll be deconstructing the myth instead of reinforcing it.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Know your sectors

I think any immigrant's hardest job is learning a foreign language. When you bump into somebody and they start rapidly talking to you, first you have to place the context before your mind can unlock the words you may already know. Are they talking about prices, do they need help or are they giving you directions?

If you're anything like me, to unlock that context you first need to recognise some key words. Ajutor, Buna, Miercuri and Zece are some of the 'context triggers' I've learned so far ... and then I discovered this useful list of Bucharest suburbs by sector here:

Sector 1Dorobanţi, Băneasa, Aviaţiei, Pipera, Aviatorilor, Primăverii, Romanǎ, Victoriei, Herǎstrǎu, Bucureştii Noi, Dǎmǎroaia, Strǎuleşti, Chitila, Griviţa, 1 Mai, Pajura, Domenii
Sector 2Pantelimon, Colentina, Iancului, Tei, Floreasca, Moşilor, Obor, Vatra Luminoasă, Fundeni, Ştefan cel Mare
Sector 3Vitan, Dudeşti, Titan, Centrul Civic, Balta Albă, Dristor, Lipscani, Muncii, Unirii
Sector 4Berceni, Olteniţei, Văcăreşti, Timpuri Noi, Tineretului
Sector 5Rahova, Ferentari, Giurgiului, Cotroceni, 13 Septembrie
Sector 6Giuleşti, Crângaşi, Drumul Taberei, Militari, Grozǎveşti, Regie, Ghencea
There's a stack of very useful 'context triggers' which will undoubtedly come up in any conversation in Bucharest. Heck, it might not be enough to get you to the address, but at least you'll be in the right suburb! Just looking through the list, an interesting question is why anybody would name a suburb after the 13th of September. Let's add that to the yet-to-be-solved list, shall we?
PS: Aah, you just have to love Wikipedia
The name comes from the main street in the area: Calea 13 Septembrie, which is named after the date of the closing battle of the 1848 Wallachian Revolution which was fought on the nearby Dealul Spirii between the Ottoman troops and the Firemen division of Bucharest. The 13th of September is the Firefighter's Day in Romania since then.


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Reality check, tears and all

You know the best part of life? Being reminded that you're completely, utterly, inescapably human. I don't know what works for you - the death of a loved one, getting fired, a beautiful sunset - but I hope you've found it.

I'm not saying that we should walk around all day crying and reflecting on how amazing life is. However, it's pretty important to do that from time to time: to refocus, to put things into perspective and to really get in contact with your heart.

If I sound residually soppy, it's because I just watched the most amazing movie: We bought a zoo. I can't guarantee that you'll experience a life-changing moment while watching it, but I know I did. There was just something in that movie which connected deeply with me.

To tie it in with this blog, at its core the movie revolves around giving up your life as you know it in favour of something far simpler. While the challenges remain, you get to see them in a new light and ultimately emerge with both a better bond with your son and a running zoo. Ok ok, I won't share any more spoilers, but it's a truly beautifully composed movie.

I'll go so far as to admit that I shed a couple manly tears. If that's still a no-no for a guy to admit, it shouldn't be: there's nothing like a good cry to cleanse off the rubbish that the world coats us in on a daily basis. Now that I've done my bit for empowering men to connect with their emotional sides - you're welcome, women - back to the point.

The point ... the point ... err ... in case We bought a zoo doesn't work for you, I hope you find something which does and are receptive to it when the moment arrives. I think the worst possible punishment we impose on ourselves is not living our lives.

When I started this blog, I wrote that I wanted to start living life again, and to reassert my control over it. If you've followed the journey to this point, you'll have seen that I have. I'm sharing this with you because it might just inspire you if you need some inspiration, or maybe because it's a slow day with nothing good on television. Either works.

Now, however, it's time for my beauty sleep. Maybe one of these days I'll do it right, because it's not working yet!

Why democracy discourages voters

Now THIS is a voting queue
This post initially started out as a comment on a news thread discussing the low voter turnout at Romania's elections (around 40% if I recall correctly), and somebody had made a good point: the other 60% of voters that stayed home - presumably because they didn't care or felt that their vote wasn't needed - could in fact have swung the entire outcome if they'd all pitched up.

This got me thinking: why are people discouraged from voting? This isn't just applicable to Romania, but really in all democracies experiencing low levels of voter participation. 

It's like an episode of the gameshow, Survivor. None of the contestants knows how anybody else is going to vote beyond a shadow of a doubt, and that's even in a closed system. They spend weeks forming alliances and planning complex strategies ... and everything still crumbles as one or two fickle people change their vote at the last second. How much more chance is there of knowing how anybody else will vote, on a national scale? 

There would be no need to vote at election time if we were certain that our preferred candidate would win. Indeed, if you support an underdog, then you're discouraged from voting at all as well.

To rephrase that, the way democratic elections are structured then is problematic because there are the following scenarios:
- Your vote isn't needed because your chosen candidate will win without you (you can't know this)
- Your vote won't make any difference, because your least preferred candidate will win by a landslide (you might have suspicions about this)
The only time *your* vote would truly be important is if the two candidates were drawn, and only your vote could separate them. You would never know that.

Seems like a rubbish system if you think about it. The one time your vote is important, you'll never know it was your vote that resulted in victory. In all other occasions, you'd have been better served staying at home. Given this, are we really surprised that people don't go and vote?

We need a different political system. One where your vote goes towards your chosen candidate, and your chosen candidate has full control over your political decisions. That way you feel that your vote will count, and you will directly profit (or lose) from your decision. These days, even if your chosen candidate wins, if he's not part of the majority party he's going to have no real political power to effect change.

That will have to change. I have a feeling that electronics will come to politics' rescue, as everything in our lives has become programmable and customisable. Why not this too? Just imagine ... personalised levels of medical care, taxation and other Government-sponsored services, all based on who you voted for. Now THERE is an incentive to vote, innit?

Modern Romania

It's time I flip into 'content aggregator mode': short post Wednesday has flowed over into short post Thursday! Just discovered a brilliant website:

In the words of its author:
Great job Allan - if he could do this, why couldn't AP?

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

An ode to America

Hang on ... an ode to America? You thought this site was about Romania, or at the very least South Africa, right? It was written by a Romanian, mkay? Close enough. And there's an interesting sub-text relating to Romania indirectly, which ties in very nicely with what I've been talking about here.

Yes people, Wednesday: Short Post Day! Enjoy it while it lasts, lol.

Here we are:

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Google Olympics

Here's some food for thought ... the number of times that a country is mentioned online is indicative of A: How interested the rest of the world is in the country; and B: How vocal the country's citizens are in representing themselves.

Surely this is a measure of a country's 'culture' as well? As humans we measure ourselves by how much we're spoken about, and people who're more well-known are by default more popular or influential. That's pretty much the philosophy behind Google's page rankings, and people's Klout score.

So then, the obvious question: where does Romania sit in The Google Olympics? To compile these results, all I did was google the country's name in English, and I captured the total number of hits Google returned. Some of the results are expected, but some others are surprising. After the jump, there's a conclusion which ties this all together.
  1. China - 3,510,000,000 results
  2. "United States" - 3,260,000,000 results
  3. France - 3,150,000,000 results
  4. Canada - 2,900,000,000 results
  5. India - 2,660,000,000 results
  6. Japan - 2,340,000,000 results
  7. Australia - 2,310,000,000 results
  8. Germany - 1,760,000,000 results
  9. "United Kingdom" - 1,540,000,000 results
  10. Italy - 1,520,000,000 results
  11. Spain - 1,290,000,000 results
  12. Brazil - 1,190,000,000 results
  13. Israel - 935,000,000 results
  14. "New Zealand" - 877,000,000 results
  15. "South Africa" - 834,000,000 results
  16. Romania - 679,000,000 results
  17. Egypt - 673,000,000 results
  18. Iraq - 522,000,000 results
  19. Quebec - 409,000,000 results
  20. Mongolia - 276,000,000 results
Extra, extra, read all about it: China out-googles the United States! Maybe not surprising given its population. But how do you explain Australia's ranking? Australia has a population of 23 million, and yet it is mentioned online 2,3 billion times - almost as much as India, which has a population of 1,2 billion. Why has Australia captured the global imagination to such an extent? Kangaroos?

How about Israel? With a population of only 8 million, Israel returns almost as many hits as Brazil - a country with 197 million citizens! The driver must be religion and conflict with Palestine.

Aah Romania, 679 million hits. Not too bad actually, if you consider that it's only five times fewer than China. My guess is that the relative newness of the Internet allows for these sorts of discrepancies, which will even out over time as countries' populations come fully online and start talking about themselves.

The thought I want to leave with you, however, is this: as we move deeper into the information age, how many times a country is mentioned on Google is going to come to reflect exactly how much of an impact it makes on the global consciousness. Those ramifications affect every aspect of life: from tourists to business people to emigration.

In the global village, a country looking to raise its image needs to focus beyond a Ministry of Tourism website with beautiful pictures, towards the number and quality of conversations taking place online about the country and initiated by the country's citizens.

That's where the magic happens: it's where Romanians speaking back to the world get to say, "Look guys, we appreciate the Dracula connections, but there's a whole country here that isn't represented by your preconceptions. Here's who we are, what we think, what we can offer you and what we expect from you."

That, dear reader, is nation-building for the 21st Century. It must also scare the pants off the tourism boards, when they realise that it's completely out of their control. If they're smart, however, their limited tourism budgets will be spent on raising the optimism of their own country's inhabitants, and those new ambassadors will go online and start millions of conversations far more efficiently than the most expensive advertising campaign ever could.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Culture > Tourism

Important note: these are animals, not South Africans
Why does one travel somewhere? Do you go there to look at the natural beauty? If you happen to work in tourism, that's a hard sell: there's a lot of natural beauty worldwide. Beautiful forests, wildlife, rivers, oceans, waterfalls ... what to choose, as a tourist?

Even if you *can* draw the tourists in, after they leave the country, what then? The cycle repeats, and you try to appeal to a fresh crop of tourists, because chances are you won't get everybody to repeat their experience.

Culture, of course, is the answer. For example, South America has a lot of natural beauty, but it doesn't have Australians. Japan has countless reasons for tourists to visit the country, but none of those is that you'll get to experience American culture.

It makes you reflect: what exactly 'is' culture? It's a mosaic made up of every thought and emotion which a country evokes in the minds and hearts of people: historical recollections, awe at architecture, reverence at local customs, respect for a way of being which is completely different and yet not foreign.

Important note: this is not a 'Romanian kiss'
It's this culture in the mind of tourists which seals the deal - people go to America to see cowboys; they don't go to see cowboys in America. Impressing a positive impression of a country is also highly beneficial in the new global village: once the tourists have left, the country concerned continues to receive foreign direct investment, a stream of skilled immigrants, invitations to positions of influence (whether that is to perform at a concert or send politicians to sit on a United Nations panel), and respectful interactions for expats or business leaders worldwide.

Why this sudden focus on culture vs tourism? And what does this have to do with Romania? Simply, I discovered this website: What an amazing idea, in their own words:
The Romanian Cultural Institute, a public body founded in 2003, is tasked with raising the profile of Romanian culture around the world. In order to achieve this, it spreads information and spearheads cultural projects involving Romanian artists and writers. Furthermore, the Romanian Cultural Institute acts as means through which foreign audiences can experience the products of Romanian culture.
Reading this was a 'eureka' moment for me. It's no secret that the average Romanian is pretty tired of the constant references to Dracula, gypsies and Ceausescu in foreign media, and I fully understand why. It's exactly how I feel about South Africa not being raised on a global platform without 'Nelson Mandela', 'Big 5 animals' and 'Cape Town' making an appearance.

This is what a reliance on tourism results in: a short-hand caricature of a country which presents elements of its core without giving any feeling for its depth, roots and nuances. For that you need - you guessed it - culture.

Romania is part of the European Union, and as a country it is struggling with the age-old problem of 'How to modernise and still retain our heritage?' Also, in a country with Communist roots, there's a distinction to be drawn between the 'evil West' and 'being modern'. Again, South Africa is no different: every day we face the ongoing debate surrounding the country's varied African tribal cultures and the generic American culture which we're drip-fed via imported television.

True nation-building on the global stage is a discussion: it's a presentation of a culture by members of the country, it's a tasting of that culture first-hand by tourists, it's a reflection on the culture by travel journalists.

At this point I have to take my hat off to Romania: in South Africa, we don't have a 'South African Cultural Institute'. Partly because there's no funding for this, and partly because there's no such thing as THE South African culture. Also, more cynically, it's easier to just tout township tours and game-drives. I'd bemoan the fact, except this blog isn't about that: it's about 'How Awesome Is Romania?'

My answer now? More so than ever.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The goal

Cool night:
goodbye my friend.
Check our bags;
the new beginning's end.
Take my money,
scan me for metal.
Guide me to the gate;
waiting, my petal.
Now we board,
but first the walk.
Endless corridors,
too excited to talk.
A multitude of worlds
lie beyond each door.
But wait, this is ours:
here no more.
On the plane finally,
strapped in our seats.
Engines roar:
our new heartbeats.
TV, trayfood,
make a bet.
Clouds, are we there?
No, not just yet.
Endure the turbulence,
don't be scared.
It's all over -
here was there!
Another airport:
busy land of men.
The day's warm light,
born again.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Dreams are like cars

Dreams need constant fuelling if they're going to be kept alive, don't they? That's why so many New Year's Resolutions fail the moment they're broken the first time ... normally somewhere around January 3. Luckily for me, I resolved to move to Romania with my wife in December last year, so I'm immune from that particular danger.

My greatest risk is rather how do I keep the dream alive, as it risks being pushed to the background of my life's current day-to-day troubles and mini-goals? I always knew that I wasn't in a position to just drop everything, buy a ticket to Romania and hop onto the next departing plane - adult life tends to get in the way of impetuous behaviour, doesn't it? - but knowing something and facing the reality are altogether different.

So here we are, January 4. My few contacts in Romania are giving me mixed signals, but I think I've got a fair enough picture of life on the ground in the big R. I've exhausted Wikipedia, other Blogspot blogs, Romania's few English news sources and whatever else Google has managed to scoop up for me ... and now I'm just waiting. Waiting for money to fall into my lap, waiting for contractual obligations to end, waiting for an e-mail with a job offer too good to refuse ... and while I wait, I continue living.

It makes me think of that Adam Sandler movie, I'm normally not a big Sandler fan, but the concept and ending of this movie was extremely thought-provoking for me. In it, Sandler's character has a remote which allows him to fast-forward his life to the various defining moments he is hoping for: a big promotion, a relationship milestone etc. In my case, emigrating.

Without ruining the movie too much for those of you who haven't watched it, Sandler's big lesson is that if you fast-forward your life to the moments you think are going to be the highlights, you A: miss out on all the detail that gets you there, and B: don't always get what you expect in the end.

I guess, then, that the challenge I'm facing is to have my dreams and my current life parked side-by-side like cars, and to drive them successfully at the same speed down the road. This is a relevant simile, because if one of the 'cars' drives too fast or takes a de-tour, it will leave the other car behind and ultimately result in a crash or injury to myself as the driver.

Also, I have to note that the petrol price in South Africa is expected to rise yet again this year. Lovely. Drive two cars side-by-side, split my attention between them and keep both from running on empty ... sounds like a challenge to me.

Where's that coffee? And what are *your* views?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Romanians: eternal optimists

Here's a little nugget I just have to share from

When I moved to the US, I thought americans were just too damn positive. There was no way that everything was so ‘great’ and ‘awesome’ all the time!
And then it struck me: it was all just a matter of translation. What if people simply have different meanings for the words they use other than the dictionary meaning?
So I’ve made these graphs to make it more clear what does “it’s a good start” really mean.
Objectively speaking, things probably fall on a bell curve:

I'm guessing many of my Romanian readers are still hovering between 'What is this garbage?' and 'I don't like it' ... give me a chance, and we'll get you to 'Even so...'!

Global musical chairs

Musical chairs: circular. Coincidence or warning?
What makes some people live their whole lives in the same town, most likely working in the same job for decades, while other people start hopping around the globe as soon as they finish school?

My grandfather had this great story: "There was this old man who used to sit every day on his balcony, strumming his banjo. His banjo, however, only had one string, and the old man would always pluck the string in exactly the same place. Oneday his grandson asked him, 'Grandad, why does your banjo have only one string?' His grandad paused, then smiled slowly: 'I've found the note I like.'"

That story sums up for me the reason we should never criticise other people who we feel could do more with their lives than they are. Why criticise somebody who has found happiness in their life, if you are still looking for your own happiness?

When it comes to migrations, there are so many options that we have open these days. Whereas in the past, you'd spend your whole life in one little village, and a visit to a neighbouring village would require a difficult trip via ox-wagon, these days we're practically overwhelmed by choice.

Do you want to move to a different suburb, a different town, a different province, a different country or even a different continent? You can, right now if you want. One day we'll have access to interstellar travel, and we'll have a similar number of choices.

But this isn't right, is it? It's downright frustrating! I've only just figured it out: humans like to be able to trace their lives on a sheet of paper, preferably seeing consistent improvement. How do you manage that with all this choice? How do you decide which is better: moving to a different city in your same country, or moving to a different country altogether?

It's almost enough to send you running for the nearest small village, buying a small house with a small balcony and a banjo with one string.

In life, all we deal with is unknowns, and the more we know the more we realise we don't know. The choice of 'where should I live' is particularly frustrating because if we play our lives out on a stage, then where we live is the choice of which stage we grace. This is going to determine the people we interact with, the opportunities we have, our very core happiness!!!

Or is it? Are people really all the same, facing the same problems? Is a person who will be successful in the United States just as likely to be successful in Australia or France? And how much further is this decision complicated by the 'global village' phenomenon ... I mean, if you like pizzas you no longer have to live in Italy, do you?

If my articles are all full of questions, it's because these are the very questions I'm grappling with at the moment. In my case, would I rather live in the United Kingdom, Romania or simply move from Johannesburg to Cape Town in South Africa? There are more pluses and minuses for any of the options than I'll list here, and besides it's not relevant: these articles are only intended to encourage people who are afraid, and to temper the enthusiasm of the overly-optimistic.

Because that's life, you know. It's not all golden: it's just a series of compromises. If you decide that you want a compromise, then you are in control; if you compromise because you can't get what you want, then you aren't.