Great books about Romania in English: Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania by Mike Ormsby

We had planned to do so much this weekend, not least watching the Arsenal lose at home to Blackburn in the cup, but then while drinking our Saturday morning coffee we noticed on Twitter that the Kindle version of Mike Ormsby’s Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania was currently free. We downloaded it immediately and subsequently couldn’t put it down. It is – for those of you who want the money shot in the first paragraph – one of the best books about Romania we have read in a while.

Published in 2008 (simultaneously in English and Romanian, as Grand Bazar) we were first tipped off about the book by regular contributor Geronimo, in this comment of late last year. We are amazed it had been off our radar until then. We should clearly get out more.

A collection of stories (58, if we counted correctly) the book covers just about every topic you would imagine (from the hazards of being a pedestrian in Bucharest to post office bureaucracy) as well as plenty you might not (attending a funeral, car alarms). Each is presented as a stand alone story, with each acting as an irresistible invitation to the next. And even if you don’t think much of one story, no problem: there will be another one along in a moment. Perhaps the pick of them is the faithful description of taking a budget flight from Baneasa Airport, or the very last story: a fond look at Cismigiu Park. Though it would be very easy to dip in and out of the book, you will not: you will read it, as we did this weekend, in one or two sittings.

What Ormsby does by taking this short story approach is to avoid ever making the book about himself. Indeed, by book’s end we know very little about Ormsby; this is exactly the point: Romania is the protagonist of the book, not Mike Ormsby. Some other writers (with less talent but bigger egos) who have tried to write books about Romania could learn a lot by reading Never Mind the Balkans.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Ormsby’s book has been compared a lot with William Blacker’s wistful Along the Enchanted Way, which we reviewed here. (And do note that we certainly do not place Blacker in the less talent/bigger ego bracket. As we have said and written many times before we may disapprove of Blacker’s politics but adore his storytelling).

Both Blacker’s and Ormsby’s books are based on years of experience of living in Romania (Blacker in a rural setting, Ormsby in a – primarily – urban environment) and the two books are marvellously written with a keen eye for the many peccadilloes of Romanian life.

Yet while Blacker’s privileged background and reactionary politics infect every page of Enchanted Way, Ormsby (who might well be a Lord, a Baron or a Duke, we do not know and we do not care) takes a far more everyman approach. Where Blacker detests progress and cravenly expresses his desire for the Romanian peasantry to know its place and remain in the dark ages in perpetuity, you get the impression reading Ormsby’s book that he actually wants to see Romania move forward. He understands that the hopes and dreams of most Romanians are much the same as anybody else’s. He certainly doesn’t condemn them for wearing jeans or shopping at supermarkets. It is refreshing to find a foreigner write about Romania from this perspective, of an equal, and not from the supercilious, I know better than you approach taken by others.

And that, for us, was perhaps the most pleasing thing about this book. Ormsby observes Romania and reports – in tight, sharp, waffle-free and often witty prose – what he sees. Nothing more. He doesn’t judge and he certainly doesn’t claim to know any better.

There aren’t many books about Romania we genuinely wish we had written ourselves, but this is one of them. Read it immediately.

  • Alex

    Where did you find the book for free? At Amazon it costs at least £3.

    • It was free for a few days over the weekend.

    • Geronimo

      Perhaps you should just pay £3? It is definitely worth it.

      • Well worth it.

        • Alex

          Is the e-book readable on other platforms besides Kindle as well? I’m using a Samsung 10.1 tab

          • Alex

            Well, I can’t buy the e-book in my country “due to copyright restrictions”. Go figure. Mind sending me a copy of your free copy? 🙂

            • Not sure I can but will see.

              • Alex

                Any luck with the free copy? 🙂

          • Parmalat

            I’d like to have a free copy too 🙂

            • Dear Parmalat,

              There will be another 2-day ‘freebie’ giveaway of my book, from Amazon, later this year. Not sure when. Will try to remember to let you know, if you did not get a copy yet.

              I have a question, unrelated.

              What did you mean, below, by this: “It’s better with former communists and Securitate than with foreigners…”

              Multumesc for your interest in my stories. You can read all my FHM & Playboy columns, from 2008 until present, in Romanian & English, at my blog, in case that interests u.
              Numai bine

  • Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had a great shout out to Romania last night re: the horse meat scandal. Check it out here!

    • Very good. So that’s what Stewart does when he isn’t kissing Obama’s behind.

      • Expatescu

        And you would prefer him sucking Romney’s dick?

        • No, but I do wish somebody would remind him that Bush isn’t running the country anymore.

          In other news, seen what Obama’s man in charge of gun control has been saying?

          That’s right, he’s telling people to, erm, go and buy guns.

          • Expatescu

            Actually, he hasn’t mentioned Bush for some time – but the spectre of a Republican president was enough to scare him (and most people) to near death.

            The main gun argument in the US is over handguns instead of shotguns, which in many ways misses the point. The Democrats will never go for a complete ban on guns because far too many voters in the US are bizarrely nutso about their guns. It seems like a holdover from the Wild West myths – you don’t like the way a guide rides his horse so you shoot him. Madness.

            • Expatescu

              “guide” – guy

            • Parmalat

              Of course you shoot him. Very good!

  • Giuseppe

    Unrelated to the Ormsby book, but probably related to the other book you’ve mentioned here…

    One of the things that annoy me to no end are people, most of them foreigners to these lands, who wax poetic about the Romanian countryside. Sure, it’s beautiful and it’s unspoiled, compared to most of Europe; but honestly, some people make it seem as if they would like to see Romania turn into some sort of huge European Middle Ages theme park.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love this country enough to want to preserve as much of our traditions and folklore as is possible, but let’s not kid ourselves. The Romanian countryside is one of the greatest economic and social burdens this country has.

    Where some see communities that are in touch with nature or whatever other romantic(ized) notion, I see a horrific level backwardness. These people don’t live the way they do by choice, because they’ve experienced the “downfall” of modern civilization or because they can’t take the pressure of modern life anymore and they want to commune with nature. No, they live like that because they don’t have a choice, or because they simply don’t friggin’ know any better.

    The notion that rural Romania has to somehow be saved from the evils of running water, paved roads, communication technology and, probably, even electricity usually comes, as far as I’ve seen, from people that have enjoyed a privileged lifestyle.

    It reminds me of those jerk-offs that abandon their multi-million dollar homes to live with some isolated tribe that still thinks the Earth rests on the back of tortoises so they can preach that dying of malaria or dysentery in a mosquito infested hut/tent is somehow better, or at least nobler, than having running water and a hospital that’s not 200 miles away. In the process, they usually also make a documentary that, unsurprisingly, also earns them enough money to expand their little multi-million dollar homes.

    • I see your point, but no foreigner is to blame for Romania’s “backwardness”. Romania and Romanians are to blame! The country will never modernize as long as former communists and Securitate continue to rule the country and the populace bows in submission. While they do, I see no problem with enjoying the High Middle Ages of the rural parts!

      • Parmalat

        It’s better with former communists and Securitate than with foreigners…

  • Look at this response in New York City in January 2013!

  • Regarding Bucharest, what troubles me the most is the sheer lack of respect for the historic buildings. Romanian businessman are destroying the city out of greed. What else does Bucharest have but its pre-WWII architecture?! Ceausescu already destroyed a huge swath of the historic center when he built his palace in the 1980s and leveled thousands of historic villas. Bucharest cannot stand to lose anymore!

    I am always astounded how for all the Securitate of the past there really is very little police presence in Bucharest in 2013. My local station on Berthelot usually has at least ten of their Dacia Logans in the parking lot at any hour of the day. I also almost never see any fire trucks in Bucharest, only ambulances. Contrast this with the USA or the UK where literally whenever you walk outside a fire engine is speeding by and police are all around. . .

    • Parmalat

      I would level to the ground all pre-WWII architecture and keep only what Ceausescu made + modern buildings.

      Not only that pre-WWII architecture doesn’t make money, but it also costs a lot to maintain. And frankly it looks like s*it too, inside and out. If I had a pre-WWII villa, I would level it to the ground and build something more simple or something more modern instead.

      There are more than double the number of SRI officers today (not to count the ohter secret services) than there were Securitate officers back in 1989. So what you’re saying doesn’t make sense, Securitate was not meant to stay on the street, each Militia section had their own Securitate officer responsible responsible with counter-intelligence duties back in the time but still you wouldn’t see him on the streets.

      And the Logans are parked because the Ministry of Administration and Internal Affairs doesn’t have money for gas anymore. Proximity police still patrol the neighborhoods by foot though…

      • Romanians seem so quiet and submissive to me. Why was any Securitate ever needed? There are all these guards in front of buildings and parks today. Doing what? I never see them doing anything. There is no violent crime here. You don’t need guards. Romanian crime is through corruption and money laundering.

        • Parmalat

          Don’t forget that Communism civilized the Romanian people. You can not have violent crime in a closed, egalitarian and carefully controlled society like the one we had before 1989.

          We all had to accept each other and we were all the same, no need to kill anyone. Today – yes, I’d cut the heads of a few people! But back then… why would anybody do that?! He wouldn’t get too far anyway. People didn’t even know how it was like over the borders.

          A study should be done about how the pre-1989 Romanian society managed to virtually eradicate violent crime. After 1989 a wave of violent crime exploded, driven mostly by gypsies and culminating with the killing of composer and tv producer Ioan Luchian Mihalea.

          Right now the gypsies and violent crime have moved to the West, that’s why decent people can find peace and tranquility over here.

  • Ethan

    The world needs more Sex Pistols drops.

  • This sounds interesting. Is it available at Anthony Frost in hard copy I wonder? I only flew into Baneasa once in all of my time here, having always opted for Air France or KLM. My Wizz Air flight back in 2009 was absolutely my worst flying experience ever. The border police there even messed up with my passport and came after me ten minutes later while I was outside trying to figure out the taxi system(?) with a different stamp.

    Regarding Blacker, I read his book and know of him because he courted a girl in Valeni, Maramures (Nastafa as mentioned in the book briefly) where I myself spent all of 2003. Of course it is a bit contradictory to enjoy money and come from the West while detesting progress in Maramures. What I will say, is that coming upon Valeni back in September 2002 was a profound life experience that I have yet to equal and probably will ever equal. To meet a mountain village without running water, phone service, internet service, to experience an older, European world rooted in the land with strong communal bonds was ecstatic for me! Humanity is losing touch with nature, with one another and in turn with culture. Romanian peasant life connects people to something very basic and primitive in themselves—the yearly cycle of the seasons; wholeness and continuity; traditions and community; that is, the natural bounty and fundamental pleasures of life on earth.

    Romanian rural life is truly one of a kind in Europe and I hope the villagers find a way to preserve at least their spirit and values amidst the purple colored villas and BMWs now in the yard.

  • Roger Ramjet

    “Blacker’s privileged background and reactionary politics infect every page”

    Welcome to the Marxist Review Of Books!!!!!

    • Erm, hardly. Why is that even remotely Marxist?