Questioning my national identity alongside new friends that I will never see again
We’re in Bologna, where autumn suits the orange and red galleries like garment made to order. The perfect place for any season really, damn it.
Gathered around the table and glasses of local red or white, we’re a bunch of stranieri brought together by random chance… or fate. We’re all doing well. We’re young but not too green. This ain’t our first rodeo, neither the last one, hopefully; we’re used to solo traveling and we’re doing it in style.
We’ve all got different reasons to be here but really, it’s just one: Because why the heck should we not be in Bologna in November drinking wine and learning Italian with locals? Why shouldn’t we let life follow its random course that takes us where we need to be? And tonight we had to be here, around this table, all of us, though we didn’t even know each other’s names.
I had just had a calzone (il calzone, maschile — even though la pizza is feminile — go figure!) that I’d smelled and craved for for two days as I passed by that place on my way back from school. And it so happened that while we were eating, the (new) friend I was sitting with received messages from the group chat telling her that they were gathering again. Did I want to join them? It was my second day in Bologna.
There seemed to be a clique at the language school, I gathered, like high school but cooler (because none of us lived on our parents’ money anymore. Took me a while but I made it into the cool kids’ club — international league — and it’s better than ever. Judge me all you want, we all crave to fit in after all.)
So there we were: a Romanian, an Australian, a French woman living in Dubai, a couple of Germans, Spanish, Swiss, Czech etc. Though it was cold, the wine and good conversation kept us warm. There’s nothing like conversations between strangers: everyone is feeling each other, and everyone’s being themselves… but better. There’s something very honest about talking to people you might never get to see again. You could be anyone because you’re really no one to them. And before long, they’ll be your everyone.
In between laughs about vegemite and animals trying to kill you in Australia, we end up talking about country stereotypes.
“But have you heard that the Australians declared war against the emus twice — and lost both times??”
The others never heard of it and the Australian wouldn’t admit to such embarrassment so the Romanian had to call upon the worthiest sources available.
“It’s on Wikipedia,” she claimed with utmost gravity painted on her face. “And my Australian friend confirmed it.”
A Google search attested. Thousands of birds took over the country-continent, tormenting humans, especially farmers, by munching and pooping on their hard-worked crops.
Though disconcerted at the exposure of his country’s shameful past, our Australian friend continued, with faked desperation:
“I don’t get why everyone believes that everything’s trying to kill you in Australia. It’s a lovely place! …Have you ever heard of killer drop bears?”
He paused for suspense.
“Yeah absolutely,” he then proceeded to reinforce his statement. “They’re cousins of the koala bears but they’re carnivorous. And their most common attack strategy is to jump off from trees on your back.”
Everyone was shocked but no one surprised. Of course, it’s Australia. I nudged the French woman sitting next to me, to pay attention to the story, signaling her with a cunning smile that she didn’t want to miss out on the good laugh about to come.
“And I’m sure they only attack tourists, don’t they?” I added laughing.
“Yeah absolutely. They check your passport first. They smell you, of course. Or, if you’re Aussie you show them the secret hand sign 🤙 and they’ll leave you alone.”
Everyone was rolling off the floor laughing.
“But you can repel them with vegemite,” he then adds in a serious tone. “I’m serious. You just dab some behind the ears, on your back — and you’re saved.”
Yeah. As if we’re idiots. A deadly animal won’t be repelled by vegemite, we concluded. There was a lie hidden somewhere so obvious in this story, that we couldn’t see it.
On to the next country-based stereotype.
“What about you?” we nod to the woman from Dubai. “What sort of things have people been asking you about your country?”
“Ohhh lots of stereotypes! For example: are you allowed to drink alcohol in Dubai?”
“Well, are you??” we all asked, our jaws nearly dropping in disbelief at the news.
“But how? — as in, can you drink openly, in public? Or just in your own home?”
“Nooo, when we’re in clubs we actually take our tea flasks with us and drink from there, somewhere in a corner or in the bathroom rather,” she mocks our naivete.
“What about physical contact?” I venture. “Are you allowed to kiss your partner in public?”
“No, that one’s forbidden actually.”
“Really? What about holding hands?”
“Yeah, that one’s fine.”
“Fine as well.”
“But nothing romantic — just friendly.”
“Yeah, it’s a Muslim country after all.”
“And what happens if you do it?”
“I mean they don’t impose it strictly but they give you a nudge.”
“Did you guys hear that Indonesia’s looking to ban couples from booking a hotel together unless they’re married?!”
“Yeah, heard about it! But they won’t do it in Bali,” added our knowledgeable Australian.
“They’re also Muslim but they won’t do it in tourist areas because they rely on tourism so much,” our friend from Dubai added. “That’s the same in Dubai. They close an eye but you’re not allowed to do all those things when you go further out in the rest of the country.”
We all feel a bit more enlightened by having our dumb questions answered.
“Okay,” I go. “Come on guys, I know there must be lots of stereotypes about Romania. Go on and ask since we’re doing AMA now!” I said bracing myself.
Silence. So our French friend goes:
“Is Romania… sad? I mean with the grey buildings, communism — is it a sad place?”
I pondered her question for a few moments. Couldn’t deny it, it feels less glamorous than Italy or the UAE, for sure. Less open-minded than many places I’ve been to. More pessimistic than many nations I’ve spoken to. Even though Italy was rallying to condemn domestic violence against women as we were speaking there.
“It feels a bit sadder, yes. The buildings are indeed all grey, a vestige of communism. And some people are grey as well, I think. From the grey life they lived.
I think our country, like most post-socialist countries, lost its hope a little. Communism kept us stuck in the past, isolated from the rest of the world, and I think we’re still a bit confused about what we’re meant to do with this freedom, perhaps also lagging because of it. Things are improving though,” I added. “And at a drastic speed, they are. But the people who live there don’t see it. In my city, the buildings aren’t all grey anymore but some are colorful and lively; it’s a beautiful place — and it’s developed a great deal. It’s been ristrutturato and it looks and feels joyful and energic again. It’s not a tourist city like Bologna yet, but it’s up and coming. You have to understand though,” I continued “that coffee is 4–5 euros there, and the salaries average at 500 euros. So its people are sad because life’s not that enjoyable when you can’t afford even the basic joys of life. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I had to live on a Romanian salary,” I concluded. “I probably wouldn’t be the bubbly self that I am.”
A few days later I’m back to Romania. The pavement is cracked and uneven, I fear it might break the wheels of my suitcase as I rush on my way to the train station. It’s December 1st, Romania’s National Day, and I’m in Timișoara, the city that claimed the “European capital of culture” title this year. The city where the anti-communist revolution broke the water 34 years ago, which minced student lives in exchange for a crippled democratic system. On my way, I stop at a small independent coffee shop to get my caffeine fix and the radio plays a well-known Romanian singer that I have a secret crush on. It’s fit to listen to Romanian music today, I figure, so I switch Spotify to the soft, romantic tunes of The Motans’ music.
Italy is nice but there’s no coffee like home. Coffee in Bologna did not disappoint, but my first coffee back in Romania was better than the dozens I’d had in the days prior. The name of the place (Narativ Cafe) suited a bit too well the lyrical disposition I was in.
I pondered whether I should spend the day in Timișoara, but the bunch of events they’d planned for the day didn’t appeal; perhaps I’d had too much of cultural events in Bologna. It feels like I’m committing a small betrayal still.
The main train station looks awful, half-abandoned and just about to crumble any time. People meddle about it, some in uniforms, seemingly bearing an official title hard to determine, seemingly unaware of the danger that dystopian building poses. It’s hard to find my way around because the pedestrian pavement ends where it should continue, forcing me to cross the street, and then it ends again, forcing me to jaywalk (with my suitcase) a 4-lane carriageway. I find my way to the coach, at last — there are no trains this morning. Not glamorous at all. Just like Romanian life.
We’re living fine. Islands of sunshine are scattered around, where you can enjoy outstanding coffee, a free wine-tasting event, or even a full weekend of jazz music in the park. We’re artsy, bohemian like that. The broken pavement will remind you though of the misery those islands of joy are surfacing from. We’re restoring our dignity and pleasure to live, one island at a time.
But you know what? I don’t even resent the broken pavement, corners of misery, or the grey buildings. They’re real. Like our past. Nothing real will ever be all glamorous and perked up.
Perhaps all too often we are trying to mask the scars of the past and force ourselves to become something new before we are ready. We’re not ready yet, but we will be. If the life that bursts out here and there isn’t a testament to the hope we’ve still got and the hard work it takes to flourish into something beautiful — then I don’t know what is.
We’re still healing. Have some patience with us, France. Europe. World.