ABSENCE MAKES YOU WONDER: WHAT’S GOING ON?
You know how it feels, right? You’re leaving a place you think you know well; except maybe you don’t, not anymore, because the place and the people have changed, somehow. In my case, it’s the UK.
I’m sitting in a train to Manchester for my flight to Romania, listening to a song called Gettin’ Better, by Mamas & Papas, it’s perfect pop, you’d recognize it. But Mama Cass is singing about romance in 1960s California, not about the people sitting opposite me in England 2012.
Mama Cass was, however, overweight, so there’s a link to what puzzles me: why are so many Brits obese, these days? That’s not better. it’s a health hazard.
Maybe it’s hormones, or too many calories? Whatever, the average Brit now resembles the average American and I notice it because I’m not here often. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but does presence – in the UK – make you more likely to get heart disease? Not to mention diabetes, gallstones and high blood pressure? In the airport I watch families queue for fries, doughnuts and ice cream. Wake up, Brits!
I browse the BBC, checking the latest from Syria. But the top story says British women are the fattest in Europe, 24% are obese, and British men second on 22%. One in three British kids are overweight, or obese by age 9. TV chef Jamie Oliver and footballer Steven Gerrard are urging our government to fight obesity through cookery teaching in schools. We Brits also win at binge drinking, above Finland and Ireland. Rule Britannia, and pass the aspirin.
Soon my plane is soaring over Transylvania and I ogle it like a lover because Romania is my adopted home and one day I’ll have a sheepdog. Bucharest’s Otopeni Airport glitters like some Vegas casino and even the taxi driver takes his time. Of course, there is no seat belt in the back, because the laws of physics do not apply here and his clients would presumably prefer to crash through the windscreen than sit on a buckle. But what’s this? The car in front just INDICATED. Another car SLOWED down. It happens again, and my eyes pop. What’s going on, here? Has President Basescu put Valium in the drinking water?
But no, wait…I recall a recent chat with a Romanian friend in Azerbaijan. We were both complaining about Baku drivers (who are terrible) and I mentioned Romania being third in Europe for traffic accidents. My Romanian friend argued that the reason for this is not driving, speed or seat belts. “It’s roads,” he said, “Romanians drive well, now.”
If that’s logic I’m Aristotle, maybe but he has a point: driving here has improved and I notice it today, because I have been away for a year. Fewer cars? It doesn’t feel like it. Stricter driving tests? We’ll come back to that later. Or maybe Romanians have simply realized that life is not Formula 1, and death is just a kiss away?
The odd thing is, stats suggest otherwise. Accidents here rose by 20% between 2007-8, with 2000 killed. Between 2008-9, 2800 people died. In 2011, the number was 3,151*. And yet, from what I can see, drivers in Romania are more careful and less aggressive so I’m curious to see stats for 2012. I don’t own a car and I have not driven for seven years, but I hope I’ll be here to read them.
It’s good to be back in Bucharest, catching up with friends, including a bright young lady who works at the Parliament. Maria wears very high heels and very short dresses and reckons there are decent people in politics. She hopes to be a deputy. I tell her many Romanians think politics is all show. Maria disagrees and says: “It’s getting better, there are some good people in every party, and young politicians with smart ideas, there’s hope for us all, we have to try, see ya!”
She wobbles away on her heels and the workmen gawp and drivers beep and if those were votes, Maria would be PM.
My tennis partner Todd the businessman is also an optimist. He says the Romanians are hospitable, not xenophobic. He’s a black Canadian and has no problems here, except for when he wanted EU funds to create jobs in Bucharest. Some VIP asked him for 10% in şpaga (bribe) on a €5m grant. “That’s €500,000!” Todd says, “I told them where to shove it, and dropped my application.” He flips the ball in the air and hits a serve that almost takes my head off. Game, set & match.
Over cold drinks, I ask Todd about driving in Romania and he rolls his eyes. His Egyptian wife had to pass 9 exams to get her licence, including a psychology test, a gynaecological test, and a blood test for syphilis. “I know Romanians adore their cars,” Todd says, “But do they **** them, too?”
We agree that the problem is probably outmoded bureaucracy, and that those guys who wanted 10% şpaga are dinosaurs and they’ll be gone soon.
Me too, back to Azerbaijan, by the time you read this. Damn! Summer is coming and I’ll miss Romania. But I know what song I will play in my headphones on the way to Otopeni in slow traffic, because…. believe it or not, there’s something groovy and good about whatever we’ve got, and it’s gettin’ better…
* from Eurostat & Radio Romania
First published in Playboy, June 2012, by S.C. MediaFax SA, Romania.
Romanian version:playboy jun