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Romania’s Monty Python Institutions

Rupert Wolfe Murray martie 10, 2015 Opinie, Societate/Life
24 comentarii 2,162 Vizualizari

Getting into a Romanian public institution is like accessing a medieval castle in a Monty Python film: you bang on the door, a beefy guard appears, blocks the entrance, asks angrily what you want, demands identification and sends you packing if you look too lowly or happen to be a Roma gypsy. Their job is to keep people out.

The comparison with western institutions is stark: in other EU member states (Romania joined in 2007) you are warmly greeted by friendly and well informed staff who do their best to handle your request, give you contact details and offer you leaflets and brochures. You leave feeling as if your visit was appreciated and they understand that a public institution actually needs some interaction with the public.

The thugs guarding Romania’s vast institutions – whose purposes are vague but costs are huge; they employ millions – make you feel that you have disturbed their boozy chat (or snooze) and that you have absolutely no right to enter the Ministry of…

One of the many bizarre facts about this poor Balkan country is that it has some of the most fabulous embassies on the planet: in London it has a Victorian town house opposite Prince Charles’ residence; in New York they own a whole block in downtown Manhattan and in Rome they have a couple of grand palaces. Most of these splendid residences serve no purpose beyond providing accommodation for retired Romanian diplomats and their extended families.

Some time ago I visited Romania’s Embassy in France, a small and exquisite palace in a smart district of Paris – a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower. There was a 1980s buzzer on the ancient door and I asked for the cultural attaché in my bad French.

“Poff teats?” (‘excuse me?’ in Romanian) shouted back an angry voice, presumably outraged that he’d been disturbed from his slumbers in a language he didn’t understand. I switched to the Romanian language and convinced the sceptical guard that I wasn’t a dirty peasant but a serious professional who had an appointment with the cultural attaché. After some time a door opened and a grumpy brute in a shabby suit reluctantly let me in, before shuffling back to his cubby hole.

The cultural attaché was as different from the glowering, monosyllabic guard as was possible to be. He was well educated, charming, multilingual and fascinating. He showed me round the palace and told me they couldn’t afford to maintain it (especially the small theatre that would cost €15m to repair) and that he would soon be sent off to Morocco as Romania’s new ambassador.

Romania’s diplomats, cabinet ministers and senior civil servants are often like this and they glide effortlessly between international postings, NATO missions, summit meetings, the European Parliament and the major capital cities of the world. They form part of Romania’s ruling class, alongside the gaudy new millionaire-politicians.

When these people enter public institutions in Romania the scene is very different: the aggressive, suspicious guards stand to attention as if the commander-in-chief is visiting and they wave them through, becoming servile and ignoring the rules of access that are so strictly applied to the rest of us.

Even though these guards can be intimidating they in turn can be easily intimidated, all it takes is a whiff of the arrogance and attitude of the ruling class. Well-dressed foreign visitors to Bucharest are treated with this fawning reverence and, as a foreigner, all you really need to get into a Romanian institution is a passport, a suit and an arrogant attitude.

The ruling class in Romania, and in many other former Communist countries, seem to regard the common people as an ignorant herd that need to be treated like cattle – and kept out of the public institutions – and public policy is made accordingly. Communicating with public institutions is incredibly complex and their websites are often incomprehensible. You can see evidence of this every day on the streets of Bucharest where cars are allowed to park all over the pavements, obliging young mothers and old people, and everyone else, to walk onto the main road in order to pass. In other words, cars have more rights than people. The worst thing about this is that everyone seems to think that treating cars as superior is normal and nothing can be done to change it.

All this reminds me of a scene in the Monty Python film “Time Bandits” where the medieval peasants all line up to meet Robin Hood, a Duke of Edinburgh type played by John Cleese. After Robin Hood says a few inane words a hulking henchman punches each hapless peasant in the head and he falls to the ground.

I have been based in Romania for some time and whenever I have to go to a public institution I imagine I have to blag my way into a medieval fortress. I have to switch roles between ordinary person and arrogant diplomat. It makes life a lot more interesting than it would be in London and is one of the reasons why I love living in Romania. The other saving grace about this country is that the people are incredibly friendly, despite their horrible government.

This article will also be published on my new travel blog, which provides advice for people who want to travel independently.

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Currently there are "24 comments" on this Article:

  1. Bertolt Lazaroiu spune:

    Excessive bureaucracy may be the result of the communist era, but treating common people like shit is a long time established tradition in the Romanian territories. That’s why your comparison with the Medieval relations is accurate. Far from departing from such Medieval practices, the newly installed communist apparatus in the 1950s assumed the same seigniorial roles and even worse in many cases.
    It’s true, for instance, that Olivia Manning’s writings about Romania are full of colonial clichés, but they depict well the feudal relations between the upper class and the rest of the population, stripping off all the glam with which Romanian tend to look now onto the marvellous Romania of the 1930s.

    • This is a very useful and interesting point you make here and thanks for it. It’s really interesting to think about Romania’s modern bureaucracy as being inherited from the Communists, which in turn was inherited from the fascists and royalists and they in turn adopted/adapted the bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire. I am also a critic of western bureaucracy which also has an unacceptable side to it and in the case of the UK inherited a cruel and exploitative (but always efficient) bureaucracy from colonial times. The only way out of this, in my view, is to have public positions filled by people for just one year as is done with clubs at universities — and they work fine.

      • Bertolt Lazaroiu spune:

        And I think that you observed a very important detail in how things work: the more the keepers of the gates act like Cerbers, the more noble and detached seem to be their bosses. This is something typically feudal. They can allow themselves to be elegant and sometimes educated (or, at least, well mannered) just because they overlook all the dirty business going on underneath. Ottoman Empire also had this. If you have the chance to see a superb movie like “Winter sleep” by Nuri Bilge Ceylan you will see there many similarities between today’s Turkey and today’s Romania (or whatever).

  2. lloopp spune:

    Well, being a clerk that fakes work is an ultimate career goal for a lot of people in Romania. The communist system’s nomenklatur was serving their own interest, not the people’s, regardless of the People’s Republic that was claimed. These people have yet to learn that the State, and its institutions and clerks are the employee of the citizen, and not the master.

    And worse than that, the common Romanian citizen needs to learn that the clerks, and institutions and the State are supposed to work for him. There are numerous occasions when I started to ask a clerk to do the jobs he/she is supposed to do, and the people waiting in line for hours due to that clerk not actually working were shouting at … me, not to upset the clerk, for the power of the clerk is limitless.

    While the common citizen still breaks his back bowing to such clerks the clerks will continue to treat them as garbage. This is what needs to change first.

  3. r2 spune:

    My guess is that by being arrogant and fussy towards the public many of these people are trying to make themselves feel important. I think they are desperate to exercise some kind of authority over something. Life probably doesn’t offer them many chances to do that. They probably don’t feel very important when they get their pay, when they go shopping with their families, or when their bosses are around. They probably experience a lot of humiliation in their lives, and are trying to compensate by one of the few means available to them.

  4. lida spune:

    Looks like in Bosnia, isn’t it

  5. Andrei A. spune:

    It has been a longstanding tradition in the East, where the Industrial Revolution is an abstract concept, that part of the population be shepherded into the bureaucracy. Where the yield in agriculture is too poor for a decent life, where the industry and manufacturing are meager, or where despite their size the armed forces provide an insufficient buffer to accommodate the desire to escape poverty, bureaucracy (and clergy, which is just a facet of the same phenomenon) remain one of the few available options. It has been mentioned that we carry an Ottoman legacy- an empire whose bureaucracy grew proportionately with its economic and military decline. The czarist empire was no different and if you take a close look at other developments, such as Hungary during the last years of the XIX-th century, you will notice a vast bureaucracy absorbing the impoverished small land-holders, under the patronage of the Liberal Party (very similar to what happened in the newly formed Romanian Kingdom).
    Beyond everything else, a bureaucracy means a captive electorate- not to be underestimated in any political calculation or in any case where radical change is desired. In order to achieve this change, development is the only solution, since this mass has to be absorbed in a more productive environment lest they become a destabilizing social factor.

  6. Laura spune:

    Look on the bright side. Romanian clerk will treat you badly, make you wait forever and even yell at you; but if you insist enough they will eventually help fix your issue in the end. At the same time a western clerk will never step out of their box and fix an issue that doens’t 100% fit their knowledge. Never ever. Not even give you the smallest hint where to go and obtain more info. If what you need is not a 100% match of their competences they will set a predefined robotic answer and repeat it blankly to you until you’re brain dead and just leave willing only to drop dead and be rid of it. It is true that thet won’t ever loose their nerv in doing so but sometimes it’s just better if the person yells in your face but solves your issue too, especially when you are desperate for a solution and noone is willing even as much as to look for one or help in any way.

    • Margot spune:

      There is no bright side to being treated like a piece of human garbage.
      As to your comparison between the Romanian and the Western clerk,
      it is an exercise in delusion. You’ve been living in la la land (both in Romania
      and abroad) if you really believe what you wrote.

      • Laura spune:

        I stand for what I said of course. And I’ve been living in both Ro and west. Or “lalaland” if you prefer to call it like that…
        Not trying to defend the Romanian clerks by any means. Just wanted to point out that western ones might also treat you like human garbage, just not up front. They’d just do it with a smile on their face instead, which might be even more frustrating.

        Otherwise the author is perfectly right in noticing how Romanian state employees with very small functions tend to abuse whoever they can just to get a feeling of importance. He’s just not completely right about everything else.

  7. it_s__not_news spune:

    A piece of advice: with guards in the Ministries of Shit in Romania you have to deal like this:
    a/ Look important, speak on the phone, ignore what is he saying, give the id 30 seconds after he requested it, you’re too busy
    or
    b/ Throw angry, serious looks all around you. Pass the ID with just 2 fingers, your face should be of a stone
    or
    c/ Completely take it over: Oh common man, give me a break, where do I have to sign. Well, this may work for me, being native is important.

  8. Andrei A. spune:

    I am reminded of this story, about a young medical student who, coming fresh out of school, donned the uniform and was dispatched to the Eastern front as a doctor-lieutenant. Due to a shortage in medical personnel, and because he had a smatter of German, he was temporarily reattached to a Wehrmacht unit. Thus, he ended up being trapped inside Stalingrad and just when despair was at its utmost, a German courier showed up on a side car motorcycle, asked him to sign some papers, delivered a note to his commanding officer and then told the man to jump in. They raced to the Pitomnik airport, which would be overrun by the Soviets in a matter of weeks and the man made it on a German flight and then to Bucharest, since the Wehrmacht documents pointed out not only the date for the completion of this temporary service, but also the fact that he was due two weeks of R&R.
    His motto, and I know it sounds selfish, was the he owed his life to German bureaucracy. And his conviction, which many of us share, was that had he been dealing with the latter day incarnation of our own bureaucracy, they not only would have forgotten him, but maybe even made sure that he would not get out.

  9. Bogdan Brebenel spune:

    I have been based in Romania for some time and whenever I have to go to a public institution I imagine I have to blag my way into a medieval fortress. I have to switch roles between ordinary person and arrogant diplomat. It makes life a lot more interesting than it would be in London and is one of the reasons why I love living in Romania. The other saving grace about this country is that the people are incredibly friendly, despite their horrible government.

    It’s really difficult to understand author’s appetite for masochism… Why in the world would you accept and, strangely enjoy to some degree, to be humiliated?

    About Romanian institutions… as long as they are run by inept individuals that lack education, instruction and basic people-skills (such as answering questions, trying to be helpful, polite and nice) the service will continue to be horrible. It’s been like that for as long as I remember… sorry, I am wrong… throughout the entire existance of those institutions… one of the reasons almost 4 million Romanians (and counting) have chosen over the last decades to seek greener pastures.

  10. St.+James spune:

    @ Laura

    Atat autorul, cat si onor antecomentatori, ne vorbesc ca si cum n-am avea nicio experienta prin tari straine. Ori eu ma indoiesc ca exista natie o europeana mai experimentata decat noi in aceasta privinta.

    Apoi, autorul si-ar dori sa credem ca autoritatile romane si cele vest europene ar forma un cuplu antagonic. Fara a pune la indoiala faptul ca se descurca, gratie si unui personal mai bine raportat numarului de petenti, mai eficient in majoritatea cazurilor, a formalitatilor banale, raportul se schimba radical in favoarea autoritatilor romane in cazul celor nu cu mult mai complicate. Cat apreciati ca dureaza inscrierea in cartea funciara in Austria ? Intre 18 si 24 de luni. Nu zile, precum la noi. Credeti ca in Germania nu-i necesar sa dormi in masina pentru a prinde un loc mai in fata la coada ? Ei ! As ! Cand sunt doar 3 functionari distribuiti pentru inregistrarea tuturor santieristilor romani de pe teritoriul Germaniei (Wiesbaden – anii 90 si 2000/2001) nici altii nu se descurca mai bine. Pentru ca pur si simplu n-au cum ! Elvetia ? La fel, dar nefiind stat comunitar, il excludem.

    Eu nu doresc sa va vorbesc ca si cum mi-ar fi straina nesimtirea sau indolenta unor concetateni care paraziteaza administratia. Sau altele, precum nepotismul si pilele. Nu voi contesta nici acel exercitiu de putere dintre functionar si cetatean, sesizat de un antecomentator, desi, mult mai rar, ce-i drept, este practicat si in alte parti.

    Doar ca m-am saturat sa ni se vorbeasca de parca am fi down & finished. I agree only with the first part !

    • Bogdan Brebenel spune:

      Considerând raționamentul pe care îl aplicați Elveției, ar fi trebuit exclusă și experiența din Germania pentru că Romania a fost admisă în spațiul european de abia în anul 2007. Dvs. vorbiți de anii ’90 – ’01.

      Experiența mea cu ORICE autoritate românească, fie ambasadă, fie agenție guvernamentală a fost întotdeauna neplăcută (ca să nu folosesc alți termeni mai duri). Nu are rost să comparam funcționarul român cu cel vest-european. În ce privește Canada și Statele Unite, interacția față în față cu funcționarul public este ca și inexistentă, vasta majoritate a chestiunilor desfășurându-se la telefon sau online. Cu bine.

      • St.+James spune:

        @ B. Brebenel

        Uneori imi zic si eu dupa “putea totusi sa fie mai amabil(a) !”, insa nu-mi impart experientele in placute sau neplacute. Nici in tara, nici aiurea. Clientii sau sefii te intreaba doar cat de repede obtin ceea ce vor (“ieri, daca se poate”) si de impacarea lor depinde linistea zilei. Daca insa supararea dumneavoastra provine din faptul ca v-a fost zadarnicita o investitie sau un plan a prin reaua-vointa a unui functionar, atunci, fireste, va inteleg. N-am trecut printr-o asemenea experienta.

        Am putut observa fel de fel de reactii a unor concetateni in fata autoritatilor straine. In general romanul este mai cuminte, mai cuviincios, in fata lor si accepta mai usor faptul ca trebuie sa revina altadata sau un termen de rezolvare mai indelungat. Nici n-are incotro. Fiind singur-singurel nu prea ii mai arde “sa faca gat”, sa sicaneze cu sesizarea superiorilor, sa dramatizeze situatia, sa inceapa teoria contribuabilului (“din banii mei esti platit !”), sa zoreasca neintemeiat solutionarea cererii, sa vorbeasca flegmatic, sa faca gesticulatii largi, sa instige pe cei din jur, s.a.m.d.. Ma rog, cred ca intelegeti ce vreau sa spun: nu-si mai permite cu atata usurinte sa hartuie social pe un altul. Intors pe taram valah isi aminteste dintr-odata ca poate ! Pe seama acestei versalitati cred ca nici nu-si judeca obiectiv relatia cu autoritatile/administratiile . O zi placuta !

        • St.+James spune:

          erata: ale unor

        • Bogdan Brebenel spune:

          Neplăcerea mea profundă vine din faptul că funcționarul român are o lungă tradiție în a umili publicul. Mentalitatea este cea descrisă de dl. Murray. Măria Sa funcționarul consideră că face un favor imens unui subiect și nimic mai mult. Imaginați-vă reacția acestor indivizi dacă cineva le-ar reaminti politicos că de fapt ei lucrează pentru public… cred că sunt în asentimentul multora cu ceea ce spun… Îmi amintesc spre exemplu de baia de mulțime pe care am făcut-o să înscriu o simplă Dacia în trecut, sau mai de curând când a trebuit să îmi extind pașaportul românesc (deși m-am asezat la coada de la ora 6:00 am). Ce să mai vorbim despre ce s-a întțmplat cu alegerile prezidentiale in 2014, in mai toate capitalele mari europene! Este jenant ce se întâmplă. Nicio preocupare pentru a face viața cetățenilor (mai) simplă. Afișe cu instrucțiuni pe toți pereții, atmosferă generală de bâlci, nimeni nu știe exact ce trebuie făcut. Lume pusă pe drumuri aiurea.

          Poate că românii se comportă altfel în fața funcționarului străin (sunt mai docili cum spuneți) pentru că știu că problema le va fi rezolvată, mai devreme sau mai târziu. Nu are nimeni atac de panică pentru că riscă să i se închidă geamul de la ghișeu în nas. Sau că i se va răspunde impertinent. Există un protocol clar ce trebuie urmat și asta e.

          • St.+James spune:

            @ Bogdan Brebenel

            Sigur ca sunteti in asentimentul multora, poate chiar a tuturor. Dar acelasi statut de victima il vom impartasi si cand se va scrie de …

            … doctori indiferenti, soferi inconstienti, asistente impasibile, politisti corupti, preoti lacomi, profesoare moarte dupa sex, ministri analfabeti, jurnalisti cumparati, angajati indolenti, educatoare batause, prestatori de servicii fara cuvant, muncitori lenesi si hotii, politicieni fara Dumnezeu, dascali nepregatiti, artisti netalentati, tarani inapoiati, formatori de opinie naimiti, elevi drogati, instalatori tupeisti, sportivi figuranti, judecatori obedienti, intelectuali parsivi, interlopi brutali, votanti prosti si incapatanati …

            … pentru ca toti ceilalti sunt vinovati, dar sa uitam ca si suprasemnatul e roman ! :)

  11. dusu spune:

    ca posesor de pasaport ruminesc,ma bucur ca traiul acolo vi se pare “cool ”
    apreciez ca aveti spirit de observatie,dar nu i greu ptr unul care vine dintr o lume cu un avans de sute de ani,ha ha
    v as intreba totusi,ptr ca actualitatea ne ofera exemplul,daca in cazul unei greseli impardonabile ,ministrul de externe UK,ar fi dat afara purtatorul de cuvint ? sau poate pe cel ce a tiparit ?
    la aurescu de i ar fi dat o bomba s o ofere neamtului,io cred ca ar fi acceptat !
    deci,in afara de spoleiala,care e mai usor vizibila,exista radacini adinci de sute de ani
    si sa mai stiti un lucru;in Transilvania profesia de rumin,specialitatea comunist a adus mari profituri ptr cel ce o practica

  12. homer simpson spune:

    1) Laura’s point is interesting, we are like italians and greeks, hate government, trust only family &friends
    2) why is romania a balkan country? no balkans on my travel map

  13. Sergiu Simion spune:

    Megamasina sociala romaneasca vazuta de un englez

    Dincolo de regretul ca articolul nu ajunge exact la publicul lui tinta , nu pot decat sa remarc luciditatea chirugicala a unui diagnostic care reuseste in doar cateva propozitii sa descrie esenta sistemului securist pe care politologii si sociologii romani nu au reusit sa-l descrie in 25 de ani de tranzitie pentru ca nu au nici interesul sa-l vada , nici sa-l descrie pentru ca au fost formati in cadrul lui daca nu cumva fac parte chiar din el :

    „The ruling class in Romania, and in many other former Communist countries, seem to regard the common people as an ignorant herd that need to be treated like cattle – and kept out of the public institutions – and public policy is made accordingly.”

    „ One of the many bizarre facts about this poor Balkan country is that it has some of the most fabulous embassies on the planet: in London it has a Victorian town house opposite Prince Charles’ residence; in New York they own a whole block in downtown Manhattan and in Rome they have a couple of grand palaces. Most of these splendid residences serve no purpose beyond providing accommodation for retired Romanian diplomats and their extended families.”

    „Communicating with public institutions is incredibly complex and their websites are often incomprehensible. You can see evidence of this every day on the streets of Bucharest where cars are allowed to park all over the pavements, obliging young mothers and old people, and everyone else, to walk onto the main road in order to pass. In other words, cars have more rights than people.”

    „The other saving grace about this country is that the people are incredibly friendly, despite their horrible government.”

    Pe de alta parte , in comentariile la articol autorul nu depaseste cliseele atat de raspandite la noi :

    „It’s really interesting to think about Romania’s modern bureaucracyas being inherited from the Communists, which in turn was inherited from the fascists and royalists and they in turn adopted/adapted the bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire. I am also a critic of western bureaucracy which also has an unacceptable side to it and in the case of the UK inherited a cruel and exploitative (but always efficient) bureaucracy from colonial times”
    Rupert Wolfe Murray

    Altfel spus , radiografia exacta a sistemului face totusi abstractie de adevaratele lui origini.
    In acest caz , este omisa piesa de rezistenta a birocratiei comuniste de la noi care vine de la sistemul criminal K.G.B. de tip lagar de concentrare:

    „DIRECTIVELE NKVD din 1947 pentru ţările din orbita sovietică”
    ( Moscova 2-6-1947 (Strict secret) K-AA/CC113, indicaţia NK/003/47)

    Source :
    Christopher M. Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky
    KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev Hardcover – October 12, 1990

    N.B. Ma deranjeaza mult faptul ca un articol foarte bun despre societatea romaneasca si problemele ei si care se adreseaza de fapt romanilor obisnuiti este scris in engleza. Este ca si cum un ziarist roman foarte bun se stabileste la Londra , face o excelenta radiografie societatii britanice si o publica in „The Times” dar …scrisa in romaneste.
    Desigur ca „The Times”nu ar fi publicat niciodata articolul scris in romana ( si nimeni nu l-ar fi condamnat ! ) si i-ar fi cerut imediat ziaristului sa-l traduca in limba engleza pentru ca dupa o regula minima de respect ziarul nu-si poate obliga cititorii sa invete romaneste ca sa citeasca un articol publicat in cadrul lui, dar la noi stim de mult ca actioneaza in mod simultan o logica inversa si un complex de inferioritate.



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Rupert Wolfe Murray

Rupert Wolfe Murray este consultant independent pe probleme de comunicare. Scotian cu resedinta la Bucuresti Citeste mai departe


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