Understanding Romanians: 7 paradoxes to handle with care (part 3)

6. We have a low community spirit (higher in villages) but solid family ties and values. We care a lot about our families. Couple and family relations are authentic and tight. We are willing to make sacrifices for our dear ones, unlike for the community we are part of. We love our children deeply and to my mind we are doing a great job at raising them. We make wonderful grandparents. Probably the institution of grandparents is one of the most functional and rewording in Romania. Each time I touched on the subject with a foreign student, they usually complained about a bad relation with their mothers or families in general. Whereas when you talk to Romanians they will tell you they had a happy childhood, that their parents did the best they could at raising them and that they miss their grandparents. I reckon the (16) 18 old western discourse “No matter what happens I am your mother and I will always love you but I am kicking you out now because you need to learn how to live on your own and take full responsibilities of an adult life… but you will always find a place here” is not helping much.  Also that thing with taking responsibilities since the age of 4 might be a bit overrated… as it is underrated in Romania. “A survey conducted by the research department of the Discovery Channel says that of all young people in Europe, those in Romania, although they want to spend as much time as possible with friends, are at the same the most attached to their families, more concerned about the role of <<head of household>> (about 75% answered that “the most important thing is to support your family”, against a European average of only 26%). Researchers called this <<pressured provider>>, but it was translated in Romanian as <<traditionalists>>” (translated from here).

Photo credits: Veronica Cioboata

7. We are impolite but we are kind. Bucharest is next to being the less polite city in the world. It is true that we never hold the door for the one behind us (I’d say quite the opposite, based on a an unconditional devotion to Tom and Jerry) and that we have a unique set of driving rules (these times they are real Rules) essential for the ones who want to get out of their cars alive. We use excessively the horn, we spit, we don’t give priority neither as pedestrians neither as drivers, traffic lights are just some colored lights, we throw things in the street, we are loud, we don’t respect the environment, we don’t respect each other’s intimacy, we stare at people, we scream, we shout, we gossip, we smoke everywhere, yet… we are capable of feelings. I am not even going to find us a justification and say that probably 90% of our intellectuals were killed during the communism. I will just admit that we are controlled by our instincts, greed and appetites rather than rational thinking and appropriate social conduct. Instead of worrying me, this reassures me of our inner human qualities (and of our membership in the Regnum Animalia).

I will again illustrate this by the help of two short stories. In the ‘90s, a friend of my family’s was getting happily back from work after being paid that month’s salary. The money (it was cash at that time) were in a white envelope in a pocket of his jacket. Our friend was in the tram. At some point he felt a gentle hand caressing his jacket and the money were gone. Without losing his calm he addressed to the person standing eccentrically close to him (and I would recommend this British approach to anyone who encounters the same difficulties): “Excuse me Sir, but I do believe you are trying to rob me”. And then with a desperate crying begging face: “You see Sir, these money are meant for my family. I have a little girl and a wife”. (Already the sound of the word “wife” should lower the guard of the nice gentleman).  When they got off the tram, our friend followed the nice gentleman in order to place his knock-out blow (generally we avoid violence): “And you see Sir… I also have a sick mother in the hospital”. Then the inevitable occurred. The nice gentleman looked back and took our friend for a walk until they reached the headquarters of all nice gentlemen. There, all the white envelopes were sorted and counted. Our friend was given a free guided tour of the establishment and some unselfish recommendations on what to do to avoid these kind of situations. At the end he was given his envelope back… with twice the sum he initially had.

Photo credits: Liviu Mihaiu

In Mesendorf, one of the people I started to interview wiped tears from his eyes. He started talking about a family of tourists who visited his village and whom he fed with Romanian cheese, butter, honey. Their son used to spend each evening with him in the stables looking at the cows and drinking milk just after it was milked. He was crying because their holiday was over and they were preparing to leave. “He did not speak Romanian but he was like a nephew to me. Just after one week. But they said they will be back with the boy next summer, just for me to see him again”.

There is no recipe on how to deal with your Romanian employee, husband/wife, colleague, or student. For those who are into astrology, Romania is Aquarius, ascendant Cancer. As I enounced in paradox 1 we are a country of individuals, so you will find among us many different personalities and typologies. There are of course, like everywhere else, big differences between educated and non-educated people, between rural and urban communities. Just don’t think that if we are doing stupid things we are stupid. I would like to end my post by suggesting potential foundations that would like to get involved with Romanians, to support the building of social capital above all, for the rest we have.

PS: Additional case-studies that could round our “behavioral” identity are: behavior when waiting at the traffic lights; behavior when experiencing draft that is blowing in the houses, offices, metros; the symbolics of the Christmas porc: objective of national security, subject of debate on the social arena and its role within the family.

Understanding Romanians: 7 paradoxes to handle with care (part 2)

4. We are earned hedonists but devoted to Christian values. Romanians are fond of a lavish comfortable living. This often turns into the sort of consumerism multinationals only dare to dream about. We don’t want to save electricity to fight against climate change. We do not walk instead of drive if we have a car. We don’t want to do sports because it is healthy if we don’t feel like it. We are not so sensitive to arguments related to fair trade, animal suffering, and benefits of vegetarianism. We will not eat less sugar/salt, more vegetables in our meals because it is said to support a longer and happier life, although we may feel guilt at some point. For example during a meeting for European environmental students, my team and I were constantly complaining about the food and I think we were the only ones. That is why I find awareness campaigns aiming to reduce the comfort of our lifestyle even trickier than in other countries and I am a bit worried about our upcoming carbon footprint. Last summer I asked a French colleague how it worked in France to convince people to recycle, for example. I could not help thinking that none of the mentioned methods would work in my country because we long for comfort and discipline triggers in us some sort of bizarre allergic reaction. Another example: I lived in a building where during the night the heat was turned off (as it is sometimes recommended) and I was thinking that in Romania this kind of attitude would insure the lucky Hausmeister/concierge a similar destiny to Marie Antoinette’s. Somehow all this saving electricity and heating brings bad (communist) memories to life.

Another good example to illustrate paradox number 4 is the memorial meal (“parastas”) we prepare for our loved ones who passed away. It is a real feast. We soon forget that it is supposed to be a time of recollection and celebration of the past and we focus more on the food (indeed excellent). The same goes for weddings. Also the biggest social cohesion I usually experience in Bucharest is during the night of the Easter Saturday, when almost anyone goes near a church and we sing the same religious song together. But that’s it. Afterwards we go back to our families and celebrate according to our own kernels of wisdom: “Thank you Lord, for I have eaten, but I am hungry again”; “Ate well, drank well, in the morning woke up dead”.

Good to know: Bucharest ranks second among Europe’s coolest cities, our supermarkets are opened every day (that is including Sundays) until 11 pm with late night shopping hours as a bonus just before holy days cleverly avoiding heart breaking situations when we ran out of essential ingredients such as porc chops in the middle of the Christmas celebration. I guess we also generously increased the European average with our posh clubs and innumerable street casinos. We are not as heavy drinkers as believed (we can definitely have fun without) but we are heavy smokers (at least in urban environment). We don’t have in our vocabulary expressions such as sexual harassment, both genders equally (and only sometimes secretly) enjoying  the nonchálant teasing and whistling practiced in the street or at the office. We are very aware of our self-image as individuals and we tend to judge a person book by its cover. We probably missed some style classes on the “less is more” philosophy. That’s why errors like this one could seriously affect the authority of institutions supposed to keep an eye on us.

The life of Romanians still flows around christening services, weddings (which is still supposed to be the most beautiful day in the life of a girl), Easter and Christmas holidays, New Year’s Eve celebration. We always like to have days off during these times of year. It only seems fare to me to have Christmas and New Year’s Eve off because they are truly important to us. I am especially referring to chief doctors: if you read this, please let them go.

5. We don’t respect common rules, we respect certain persons. We are not so fond of rules and our first instinct is to avoid them in an “elegant” and innovative manner and to question them in the rest of time. For example it is common sense for the drivers on the opposite direction of the road to flash me twice quickly to warn me there is a speed radar on the road, hypothesizing that anyway all of us are driving over the speed limit. We have respect for a certain person (who usually pays us) to whom we affectionately address with “Boss” and to which we assign a certain degree of power and financial status.

We are born fatalists (mandatory reading: the pastoral ballad Miorita, our founding myth). Meritocracy is missing and relations are tribal. That is the reason why many young educated people are leaving the country. We don’t have a President, we had a Ceausescu, an Iliescu, a Constantinescu. We don’t go to the doctor. We go to doctor X because the aunt of our husband recommended him/her to us. We don’t go to the mechanic. We go to a certain Gigi. We don’t get a certificate from the town hall, we get it from mayor “Z”. We don’t go to an Institution. We go to a person. We go to Mrs. Y because usually she is in a good mood and she will take us faster. Anyway she has to because our cousin helped her last time when she needed a school “intervention” for her glass breaking son. We generally don’t trust State institutions, nor people whom we don’t know.

Elisabeta Rizea and her husband. She is a symbol of Romania’s anti-communist resistance. Photo credits: http://eroinenucsoara.ro/index.php?page=elisabeta-rizea-ro.php

To be continued.

Understanding Romanians: 7 paradoxes to handle with care (part 1)

I was born and raised in Bucharest, which to my mind is now an ungraceful combination of little Dubai, some lost flavor of little Paris, lots of communist reminders and a striking “attracting investors at all costs” attitude. Bucharest seems to say “I can be flexible, careless, mindless and disrespectful of any cultural past, just pick me, pick me” and it’s turning each day into a sad buffoon-city. I lived an important part of my adult life outside Romania but every day, I am more and more fascinated and frustrated by the country I was born in, relentlessly asking myself what are we doing wrong. During the last field season I talked to many people living in Transylvania. Although my interviews targeted people’s perception about ecosystem services they also contributed to my own perception about Romanians in general and confirmed some basic “anthropological” suspicions I had. In my opinion, this entitled me to write a post on my fellow Romanians. It is not meant to offend or hurt anyone. It is meant to help understand us better by presenting some thoughts that occurred to me. If you will soon visit Romania, you will work with a Romanian, or will hire one, or will marry one (good choice!), or you simply share my fascination for these people, here are 7 paradoxes that in my view you should know about.

1. Romanians are smart (I’d even go for brilliant), but it doesn’t help us. There are several hints our individual IQ is high. Take for example the scores of the international Olympics in physics, mathematics, informatics, chemistry. We are hunted by IT companies, we are working for NASA, we are very good air pilots.  “Paradoxically, Romania is also the country where some of the most brilliant young brains in the world are born. Here the rate of gifted children is twice the average worldwide. […] Some of the most feared hackers in the world are operating in Romania. Corporations like Microsoft have a big community of Romanians among their workforce and they keep recruiting more” (The Economist, August 2012). We are good speakers of foreign languages. Our intellectual training is above average. There are testimonials from doctors in Europe that work with Romanian doctors, from companies that employ Romanian programmers or engineers and from professors that teach Romanian students. To have a Romanian in a team of scientists is probably a strength (I am not referring to myself). By the way, regarding that infamous rumor that we are lazy, it is definitely not true. Maybe our body is a bit lazy but our mind is restless. We may have heaps of defaults but this is certainly not one of them. We are just hard to motivate. Usually a tiny financial stimulus will suffice to make us work extra hours. Place a Romanian within a functional structure, give him the tools and aims to occupy his mind with and let his brain do the job. He will perform nicely.

Now what happens if you take more Romanians, say a country, and expect them to perform?  Will they match up to the individual results? NO. Because something mysterious (call it black magic) happens that totally undermines the result. The more you add, the worse it gets. The intelligence of individuals is balancing out in an abominable and mind-blowing process. The whole gets smaller than the sum of its parts. Whoever will find the dynamics and mechanisms of this “black magic” please let us know. Seeing that a country is all about the society as a whole, this explains, partly, why we are doing SO bad when we have several reasons to do well (natural capital, intellectual capital). End of story, our collective intelligence is as high as the Marianas Trench. We have a remarkable brain, but it doesn’t help us at all. Actually it makes matters worse because we tend to use it against each other. We lack a constructive thinking. We lack social capital.

2. As a group, we don’t have a strategic and long-term thinking but we can adapt to many circumstances that other would fail to adapt to. We have a high adaptability and resilience (see history). Our survival is not based on some consistent methods, but rather on imitations and smelling opportunities as we go. We are reactive to outside drivers of change, but we fail to address issues in a proactive manner and with a common vision. We are somewhat “opportunistic species”. Of our words of wisdom: “We will come through somehow”; “We will get along, it is no need to fuss”; “It is ok as it is, no need to work more”; “If you are determined you can move mountains, if you are smart you leave them there ’cause they ain’t bothering”.

3. We are creative, spiritual and warm-hearted people with a developed artistic nature but at the same time a healthy amount of unhealthy negativism. Brancusi, Cioran, Eliade, Enescu, Ionesco, Tristan Tzara, Herta Müller, Mircea Cartarescu, Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, Dan Perjovschi, etc., and “Romania, the land of Fabulospirit”.  Unfortunately our abundant creativity is not put into our best service. That is why I empathize with all the external institutions that are trying to figure out what exactly we are doing with the funds they are giving us and need to listen to our Harry Potter-esque, otherwise fabulous stories. It is also true that we are greedy for money and we would have the guts (and probably the idea how) to sell ice to the Eskimos. But once we have money, we kind of throw it left and right and avoid keeping good accounts.

We have a well-developed sense of humor, doubled by a risky dose of mocking spirit. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we always make fun of trouble. But this does not make us feel happy or positive. You can easily see people in the street or at the cash desks are virtually not smiling, nor looking at you. We also make acid hypercritics (just as I am now?!? and as Romanian comments to this post may be). Romanians will often use “constructive feedback” as an euphemism for blunt hostility, and a more or less disguised intention to make you look bad in the eyes of others, especially if you compete for the same thing or share the same working field. Last but not least, we absolutely love to complain. We are so good at it, that sometimes we give the impression we live a worse life than we actually do (this also explains a great deal of those lousy survey results). We make exceptional poses as victims and we cultivate this exquisite gift assiduously (not clear to me whether it is a role or we actually believe what we are saying). For example when I asked people in Viscri (!) about their life they gave the impression they were unhappy. As a principle, we don’t appreciate what we have. We always fear others have more and better than we do.

Romanians are hospitable. It sounds as a cliché, but it’s true. We take joy in receiving people in our homes, talking, joking and eating. There is an unwritten rule in Romania that you don’t receive anyone in your home without giving (forcing) him something to eat and drink. And by eating we do not understand the Lilliputian-esque portions that exist abroad (God forbid!). For example, during my field interviews in rural Transylvania, I could have lived on this hospitality (food and drinks I was “forced” with during my interviews) unless I did not have slightly different food habits.

To be continued.

Forms without content?

By Tibor Hartel

Philosophers say that there is no form without content and no content without form. They are wrong, and the modern times demonstrated it. It is indeed possible to have a form without content:)

If you don’t believe me I suggest you to:

–          Compare the artistic works of the early-middle 20 century with the modern times.

–          Compare the architecture of the early-middle 20 century with that of modern times.

–          Compare the music of the early-middle 20 century with that of modern times.

–          Compare the average ecology paper of the early-middle century with an average ecology paper of a modern high ranked ecology journal.

You will find that indeed, forms without content exist. These forms without content (or with cheap content) are driving our modern society, including thinking – if you don’t observe them it is just because they are too obvious and they appear (look matters!) in a very fancy and sophisticated way. If you also observed the increasing number of young people who feel that something missing in this life – but they dont know what, it is probably that content which is missing. Modern society offer them structures with empty content.

I think we should try to refill the forms with meaningful content. And then start to talk about sustainability. Because it seems that the word sustainability, together with ‘conservation biology’ have the same fate as the above mentioned big intellectual maniphestations and products. They became cheap and empty soon after they appeared.

(I was thinking about these today morning while listening a Oliver Onions)

To our readers in the Philippines!

By Joern Fischer

We have an interesting phenomenon, which we seek an explanation for! For the last two weeks or so, about half of our daily visits have been from …. the Philippines!

Obviously! (Or not…)

Dear Philippinos, we are happy that you find our blog so interesting! Can you enlighten us why your nation has suddenly such a big interest in us? We look forward to hearing from you!


All you need is love: on the Beatles and Ecosystem Services

By Henrik von Wehrden

Recently, I was listening to The Beatles while reading about ecosystem services, and suddenly I was struck by the parallels of the band and the concept.
A common division of ecosystem services arrives at four groups: Provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural services. The Beatles consisted of four members, so there is a start towards a link.

John Lennon was the provisioning service in the band, offering raw and creative energy. Provisioning services are straightforward to understand to non-scientists, since e.g. food and water are vital for humans. Likewise Lennon’s driving force was vital and easily tracked by fans and audiences. After all, he was the walrus. His power dominated all other member at times, and to many people he was the overall most important figure. On the other hand many people would wonder while one would have to put these simple dynamics into a complicated concept such as ecosystem services, and likewise Lennon was a shining figure who continued the steady rise even after the Beatles broke up. His power challenges all other services, yet is basically simple and intuitive. He wrote Nowhere man for himself, believing hat his creative energy was useless at times.

Paul McCartney was the regulating service, giving his decompositional, detoxification and purification services to the band. The vital power of these services is difficult to grasp, yet provisioning services are often useless without regulating services. Just as the song Yesterday, regulating services reach their prime in times of need, and thus are vital — yet often their importance is not readily comprehensible. The creative power of Paul as well as regulating services often demand repeated loops, such as in Hey Jude, Ob-La-Di, Let it be etc. … so cycling appears a common trait here.

George Harrison was the supporting services. While e.g. nutrient cycling is clearly of key importance it’s complicated to measure and quantify. No one will doubt the importance of supporting services, yet primary production is considered by many as too simple a concept, even though many other ecosystem services demand the power of precisely such supporting services. At times their contribution can be remarkably simple, such as in Here comes the sun, and primary production is illustrated by the vital contribution of a Sitar in Norwegian wood. Peak importance is reached in songs such as While my guitar geently weeps, which interestingly enough relied on the creative power (or let’s say provisioning services) of George’s friend Eric Clapton.

Ringo Starr was the cultural services. Everybody states that these are really important, but they are difficult to graps and even and even harder to put a quantative label on. While critics often stated that Ringo was for sure the least gifted musician of the Fab Four, which he frequently stated as well, he is living proof that technique is not everything. He and cultural services are living proof that there is more than meets the eye. Besides singing Yellow submarine or writing Octopus’s garden, his creative talent is easily overlooked, yet without his culture everything else was futile, and his driving and slightly off beat style got and kept the Beatles going early on.

People often state that the Beatles would have been nothing without Brian Epstein, who motivated them into some sort of organized concept. I think that role is matched by Biodiversity, the conservation of which was one key motivation for developing the Ecosystem service concept. Mr Epstein was already a made man when he started managing the Beatles, he paid for first gigs, made test recording sessions and developed their breakthrough style on stage. Sadly, Epstein died of an overdose of 6 sleeping pills, which were believed to be a common dose to him, yet in combination with alcohol were deadly. Let’s hope that planetary diversity may not meet a similiar fate by being intoxicated…

George Martin produced all albums of the Beatles. He put the whole and often raw parts into a coherent concept, and made necessary orchestrations and adaptations to generate an overall working concept. This could be matched by the Millenium assessment and the work of some few motivated individuals, such as Gretchen Daily.

“My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.” — To me no one but Steve Jobs ever summarized better not only the Beatles, but also the importance and overall idea of ecosystem services. According to a recent poll, one of the most improbable statements for anyone to make is: “I do not like the Beatles”. They changed to world to the better. Let’s hope and work together that the ecosystem service concept also changes the face of the planet for the better.

All you need is love.

Blinded by our science?

by Tibor Hartel

Yesterday I suddenly noticed something which was always very obvious in Romanian rural landscapes: a horse with so called ‘horse glasses’. People sometimes put these glasses on the horses to limit their range of view, and make them ‘more collaborative’, and it looks like this:

Only yesterday I started to smile when I saw this. Because suddenly I recognized myself in that horse. My glasses with the very same effect were put on me by my culture and by my scientific training. I often feel that I dont see and cannot approach the reality because of my own knowledge which is ‘standardized’ and scientific. Do you feel the same sometimes? Like your (conservation scientist or other type of…) knowledge, like a wall or fortification prevents you from seeing, valuing and accepting the reality? If yes, please let me know at least I know I am not alone:)

Able to capture the start of the big Universe but unable to stop destroying Life on Earth

by Tibor Hartel
I read today in the news: researchers captured the start of the Universe, that is, what happened just after the Big Bang, which was ~13.7 billions of years ago.
With all respect to the huge funds and the NASA researchers, this Big (and Bang) news makes me smile: a species which ‘entitles’ himself Homo sapiens (i.e. kind of ‘wise guy’) living in an infinitely small – in fact inexistent – planet in this big Universe develop a technology to discover the ‘beginning’ of everything. But the very same species is unable to halt its own destruction. Interesting disproportions (and claims) no?

‘Species of Community interest’: but which Community?

by Tibor Hartel

The delineation of Natura 2000 sites is a condition for the adherence to the European Union (EU). These sites are delineated based on lists of species and habitats from the Habitats Directive. These species and habitats are called ‘…of Community interest’ and are strictly protected.

Romania and other Eastern European countries joined the EU, and this sharply increased the Natura 2000 sites (both in number and cover) at country level. To use a terminology which is often used in the country, a number of Natura 2000 sites were ‘declared’ based on lists of species and habitats of Community interest. And now armies of scientists research the natural systems to identify species and habitats of Community interest in order to develop a scientifically sound management plan for them.

It looks a bit funny and ironic, but it seems that in the traditional social-ecological systems people are not interested in species and habitats of Community interest. In fact, in most of cases they are not even consulted properly about this, and don’t even know why these should be ‘of interest’ for them.

Traditional agriculture is good for biodiversity therefore make a region attractive for conservation.

Therefore the question rise: of which Community interests are the species and habitats of Community interest?