Romania: 2017

Gotta be honest here, a 5-month break wasn't what I expected when I wrote about Untold Festival back in August. There are plenty of reasons I haven't been writing, but as I list them off, I can see that none are particularly good...

Work - Yeah, everyone works
Felt like doing other stuff - Don't we all
Ran out of things to write about - No I didn't
A little bit blasé about my Romanian life - Welcome to any life

It does seem we're at the cusp of something, and maybe I just don't know quite what it is nor how to approach it. Maybe it's not "we", and it's just me, but I doubt it - we're all in this together. 2016 was weird for everyone.

In spite of the absence I didn't feel all that disconnected from my Romania blogging. Email has come in fairy regularly from blog readers, and -although I'm hardly going crazy with it - I've been keeping my Instagram updated with Romania themed images.

But, this absence has been nagging away at me.

So much so that I have several unfinished posts. Unfinished for silly reasons, obviously. There's the one about going to the ER on a Sunday, with my American friend. There's one about all the traffic incidents I witnessed over the course of one day. One about the abject lack of scandals in this country. Another about the abject lack of engaging marketing. Both of the latter have their positives though.  
If I were to stick to tradition, so far as my first post of the year is concerned, I'd go on about the writing and reading resolutions, and about my themes for the year. But I'm going to leave that open-ended this time; I'd rather surprise you.

Happy New Year ;)


Untold Festival: Days 2, 3, 4

I took a 9 minute long video of the streetcar party on day two and  thought it was the greatest thing. Then I watched it on the computer the next day. As with every day at Untold it's about 4 or 5 in the afternoon before I'm ready to face the world. Another day of Untold at this point is not only difficult but almost a punishment. Yet we persist.

Eat, Sleep, Untold, Repeat. Never have I lived a more accurate t-shirt cliché.

Friends come by and we sip some tea. Three shots of it. Start feeling better and call an Uber. Oh yeah, Uber finally made it to Cluj. It's been the same pre-festival ritual four days straight. Eat, Tea, Uber, Untold.

A Brazilian marching band welcomes us in past the security gates. Nobody knows how to Samba but the beat is intoxicating (which is fitting isn't it?). The crowd follows the band through the park. To the spectators on the side it must look like Rio's take on the pied piper.

We said we'd explore but it's hard to stay away from the lure of the Arena. Plus it fills up fast. Too fast. The pit is now packed in by 9 pm, regardless of who is on stage.

______________________________start rant________________________________________

On Sunday night we catch Lost Frequencies and I fall into a deep depression. I can't take the chaotic combination of pop intros, genre switching, and hard, EDM drops. It's soulless and meaningless. It demeans the original work, it makes a mockery of remixing, and it's not even true to electro house.

It's the musical equivalent of a finger painting or trash art (I realize that's insulting to trash artists and finger painters alike, but the analogy sounds right). The drop maddened crowd seems to love it though and that makes me even more depressed. I feel like Seth Troxler at Tomorrowland and anyway, my whining is nothing new, even electro-house DJs have pointed it out.  Nonetheless, rather than kill everybody's vibe with my analysis I try to avoid spending too long in the Arena.

______________________________end rant_________________________________________

The tram and its exuberant atmosphere is a refuge from the Arena. So is the aptly named Stormkeep stage, where the DJs play real house music. It may not be to everybody's liking but at least it's coherent. The Galaxy stage is mostly a bore, as I may have mentioned already, and neither the sounds nor the names call out from the other stages.

More drinks, more dancing, more bumping into friends, more burgers from the Big Red Burger Bus, and a walk among the hammocks wrap up the experience. Kind of, there's one other thing...

Untold was all about Flag Hunting.

I could tell you all about chasing down flag bearers for pictures, but, since pictures speak many more words, the Instagram account created specifically for the purpose will tell you all there is to it.


Untold Festival: Day 1

I didn't think I'd write about Untold but I was there and started writing about Untold. Here it is, from the trenches.

The bass is bumpin'. Tiesto is making us sing along like it's kindergarten for adults. I don't know any of his new songs although he was top dog when I was coming of age in club land. He still is apparently. That was like 15 years ago. He's old. I'm old. Fuck it. 

I'm drinking this nasty cocktail called Beton- Concrete. The name does it justice even if it tastes mostly like cinnamon. Should've got the hint when the barkeep told me I'm only the second guy to order it tonight. I can't wait to finish it. The cup is getting soggy.  
Thinkin' back to Route 94 who has melodic house tracks with millions of views yet he built up and played the exact same beat for half an hour. Maybe only the headliners are allowed to get the crowd going.

Meanwhile the place is twice as crowded as last year. Looks like people think it's the real deal. Cluj Arena is rammed and so are the food stalls. The only place that's got some breathing room is the  Streetcar. And man is it a party. It's bouncing on the tracks and on the inside too. Best party so far.
Tiesto giving it a run for its money though. Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike will too. Fair enough that's what this festival is about.

We left after Tiesto. I ended up waking up well into the afternoon.

Key takeaways after day/night 1:
  • Galaxy stage (Polivalenta) is a disappointment so far (musically speaking)
  • The tram is bumpin', the addition of the second car is good for space 
  • Line ups look worse than they are
  • Don't order drinks that sound weird
  • Explore more


Childhood Memories: International Relations

When we were kids, my brother and I spent all day playing outside with the other neighbourhood boys. When it wasn't soccer, it often meant the 'ștrec',  a deep embankment on either side of the train tracks that crossed Blaj from one end to the other. The ștrec was headquarters. That's where most of our games started or ended. We were soldiers, cowboys or indians,  hunters, explorers, and, best of all, we were spectators to one of the greatest spectacles of all: the thundering passing of trains.

The ștrec today is smaller and more overgrown

The Rapid (now InterCity), especially, was a joy to behold. It would fly by in a blur of grey and blue, holding the promise of far away places that were as inaccessible as Coca-Cola or Juicy Fruit.

Three of us (my brother and I and another kid) were practicing karate moves on the embankment a little ways from our usual spot. We had just finished watching Bruce Lee's Fists Of Fury and today we were all Bruce Lee. We practiced high kicks, roundhouse kicks, flying kicks. We play acted the most spectacular scenes, trying not to kick each others' heads off. Then, alongside our Bruce Lee yelps, we heard the shrill horn of an approaching train and stopped to watch as the Rapid locomotive came into view.

Maybe we waved as it flew by, maybe we didn't, but from the last car there came a hail of colourful objects that landed at our feet and in the grass around us. It was candy. Candy that we'd never heard of, or seen, or tasted before. I'm fairly certain there was a stick of Juicy Fruit, and there was caramel, and some hard candy that tasted like real fruit. We were so excited that I can tell you what winning the lottery feels like. We split the loot into three and ran home to show our parents.

My mother thought the train might've been from Czechoslovakia. I don't know and probably never will. But in case you're reading this and you remember throwing a handful of candy to three urchins playing on a railway embankment, your gesture will never be forgotten. It was one of the best days of my life.

I'm sharing the story because it was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the cover photo of this PressOne article (very much worth the read). And although we didn't live on an isolated mountaintop, far from the basic conveniences of city life, we were far from taking for granted the all the things that we have now. What's more, it's a good reminder how, in time, all past difficulties (or triumphs) become little more than a blur, much like the trains I used to watch.
I hope that the little boy in the picture gets the opportunity to reach the same conclusion some day.


The Prophet of Lyon

The little time I spent in Lyon left me with the impression that it resembles Cluj - maybe a Cluj 100 years into the future, but nonetheless some sort of Cluj. The city's topography, with its perched 5th Arrondisment, and the Place Bellecour, which bears a striking resemblance to Piata Unirii, down to the mounted horse statue, helped cement that notion.  But this is not what this post is about.

On the 19th of June we made our way to the fanzone located in the aforementioned Bellecour. We walked down from the 5th on the Avenue Point du Jour to the Rue de la Favorite, and finally, somewhere in a little street, we ran into some kids playing in an alley on the side of a small building. We were dressed in Romania fan attire; jerseys, flag, clown hair, and good cheer. "Allez les Jaunes!" I chanted. But I was wearing the red Romania jersey and that probably didn't make much sense.

One of the kids eyed us suspiciously. "D'ou etes vous - where are you from?" he asked, his eyes narrowing. When I told him he said, "You're going to lose, Romania is going to lose! Portugal is going to win the Euro! Le Portugal va gagner!" I did what any sane person who'd watched Portugal play, and struggle with ties, against Iceland and Austria in arguably the most accessible group of the competition would do. I laughed in that little bastard's face. I laughed and went on my merry way, chanting "ROOO-MA-NIII-AA!"


Why Trump is Winning America

How does anybody explain the Trump Phenomenon? Most opinion pieces talk about his fear mongering, an ignorant supporter-base, the disarray in the GOP, weak opponents, or his anti-establishment persona. The fact is, Trump is a polarizing figure, but he's never going to win the presidency. Still, that doesn't explain why he's come so far.

I live in Romania. I only really hear about Trump if I want to hear about Trump. It's a blessing.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't discuss a man who's making a serious run for the world's most powerful office. But people seem to be missing the bigger picture.

Why did Trump get so big?

I don't believe the 'perfect storm' explanation. How he plays on people's fears in a precarious geopolitical situation, how he's a straight talker in a world of political correctness run amok, and how he's not in anybody's pocket. These play a role, maybe, but there's more.

If you've read more than a couple of posts on this blog, you'll know I criticize Romania and Romanian society as much as I sing its praises. When anything is particular to any one nation, it's more than likely that its citizens have something to do with it.

Trump is particular to America much like Gigi Becali is particular to Romania. In fact, there are more than a few similarities between these two jokers of modern politics. Although Trump hasn't been in jail - yet  - and doesn't own a sports franchise, they both talk to much, 'tell it like it is', have a surprising number of supporters, and seem to share a passion for gaudy home design.

But, thankfully, Romanian society is not quite like American society. This might explain why Trump is just a couple of steps from the presidency while our own Gigi is simply getting readjusted to freedom - and is mostly ignored.

A brief aside on the difference between Romanian and American (Western) society...

In June, 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave Harvard graduates  their Commencement Address. The scathing rebuttal of Western culture in his speech is, in many ways, even more relevant today, but the part I want to highlight is his criticism of the media; "the press". I've condensed it, but you should read, or listen to, the entire speech.

"The press enjoys the widest freedom...But what sort of use does it make of this freedom? What sort of responsibility does a journalist or a newspaper have to his readers, or to his history -- or to history?

The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it...We may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: "Everyone is entitled to know everything." But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it's a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information...

Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislative power, the executive, and the judiciary. And one would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?

One gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment; there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspaper[s] mostly develop stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend."

This 'wide freedom' to publish absolutely anything is the backbone of free speech, but thanks to the media, free speech in the Western world is only 'free' insofar as it's trendy. It negates truth and relevance in exchange for excitability and political or corporate agendas. We have to look at the Trump Phenomenon through the lens of another modern trend....

Have a look at this trailer (it starts where it needs to start): Hot Girls Wanted
You don't see it in the trailer, but her friend's reply is: "Exactly, you gotta be selfish once in your life."

Do you?

In America, this is just one small part of the modern creed: It's all about 'looking out for number one' or,  'doing you'. I mean, really? Isn't,"I gotta do me" a euphemism for masturbation? How about "Don't judge me", and the all-dismissive, "I don't care what anyone thinks"? This is nihilism at its apex. This is the point where everybody else's  thoughts and existence matter so little that the ultimate achievement has become the most ego-driven ambition of all time.

The pursuit of fame for the sake of fame.

Is it any surprise that Trump has been repeatedly labelled a narcissist? A businessman whose main business is growing the brand's name through any means necessary isn't exactly publicity shy. But it's obvious that the star of The Apprentice absolutely revels in it.

But again, let's take a step back from Trump.

In 2012, a study entitled "The Value of Fame: Preadolescent Perceptions of Popular Media and Their Relationship to Future Aspirations" (emphasis, mine) found that an aspiration to fame was the most common goal among  the 10-12 year old respondents. These kids want fame for the sake of it, just like their role models.

Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and Farrah Abraham all skyrocketed to fame thanks to sex tapes. Is it then surprising when a small-town Illinois girl leaves home at 18 to star in pornographic films because she's, "trying to be famous"?  What about the moron whose claim to fame is getting the logos of major brands tattooed all over his body. He now delights Instagram followers with images that highlight his poor taste, like a wedding right he bought for himself. What about the cast of Jersey Shore, with a combined IQ of 80 and planet-sized egos? Or just about any YouTuber who tries to extend his 15 minutes by hiring publicists and PR people because of one viral video

Much like a potential Trump presidency, none of these people offer anything of value to the world. Not one thing. Not even actual entertainment. Because entertainment is meant to mirror reality, not the other way around.

America should be asking, "Where did we go wrong?"' not, "can Trump be president?"

America went wrong when it started replacing human values with artificial values. It used to heap its praises on people who were doing extraordinary things. Mostly. And then the dynamic shifted. People stopped paying attention to whether those things were important to begin with. Moreover, even achievements started taking a backseat so long as an individual's (extraordinary) personality continued to sell newspapers and generate ratings...and clicks. Trump himself is a case in point.

If the YouTube 'stars', the reality TV 'stars' and, and all the fame-seeking fake celebs would read this (if they did read) I know exactly what they'd say. "Don't judge me." And to that I say, "I'm not judging you. I'm judging the lies I'm being fed: That you're worth talking about, hearing about, looking at, listening to. I'm judging you as a reflection of a society that's flipped its moral compass 180 degrees."

In a nation that can no longer discern entertainment from reality, or distinguish lies from the truth, Trump isn't the problem, he's just one of the symptoms.



Five Years

I moved here with high spirits and low expectations. My official stance was that in one year, maybe two, I'd move back to Toronto. But in the back of my mind I think I knew there was no going back. Had that been an option, I wouldn't be here now - or wouldn't have moved to begin with.

These past few years delivered the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Loneliness, broke-ness, self-doubt,  finding love, 'finding myself', reconnecting with family, making a new family, new friends...new life.

Ultimately it's the sum of this baggage that makes you belong somewhere, and in five years, I've gathered enough to belong here.

These are some of the reasons why:

1. When I visited Toronto last summer it felt merely familiar, not like a trip 'back home'.
2. I usually drive at least 10-20 meters before putting on my seatbelt
3. I learned how to do Romanian small talk. It's not about the weather or sports teams, it's about how something (work, city, country) is not going well. Great bonding experience.
4. My Romanian has improved considerably
5. My (spoken) English has suffered as a result
6. I'm a lot more direct
7. I'm more likely to put up with bad service
8. I now think it's common sense to build my own home -someday
9. I can't get lost in Cluj
10. I'm a 'regular' in a few places
11. Always run into people I know when I'm out and about (but it is a small city, to be fair)
12. I have a Romanian ID card
13. I have a Romanian health card
14. I bought a new car
15. I've signed up for debt (to the bank)
16. I think about the various aspects of raising my future kids here
17. I've voted in elections
18. I've planted trees that I want to visit when they 'grow up'
19. I'm involved with other projects
20. I've experienced the Romanian hospital ritual ('donations')
21. Everytime I come back to Cluj, I know I'm at home, and everything is right with the world. 

Five years on, I'd say it's looking pretty permanent. But let's see what happens....

Here's to the next five.