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The Neighbourhood and Its Meanings

The Neighbourhood and Its Meanings Some colourful shades of grey

In order to know the Romanian society as it is today more intimately, it is preferable that we analyse it from the inside to the outside, for the general characteristics and conclusions that might be traced from this “outside” (such as national psychologies or civilizational traits) are brought into existence by a set of norms and behaviours embraced by the “inside” (which, in this case, refers to every individual, to his family and then to his immediate community).

As such, it may be precisely the “neighbourhood” of concrete blocks, with all of its unwritten rules, that could undoubtedly be considered as the environment of the utmost importance for the development of a good citizen, since it is this “cement jungle” that influences at least half of the Romanian people and their social characteristics, in the same way that it is the national reality that determines what is specific to a country.

This point has to be made, given that one might object to it by saying that it is rather the parents, teachers or any other influencers which mould characters, personalities. In the long run, peoples and societies have striking resemblances and common realities when united by, say, nationality or interests or a political union strong enough to play an active and important role. 

The cradle of our childhood 

The neighbourhood of concrete blocks, cement, asphalt, tar and steel is the environment in which most Eastern Europeans have lived (though it is not uncommon in the “Western hemisphere”). Although every country has apartment blocks, the Eastern European architectural “blessing” was inherited from the “proletarian ideals” of the former communist regime. These buildings are, more or less, the symbol of the countries situated behind the Iron Curtain, despite other trends leading to their parallel appearance also in the West.

We are here concerned with this separated entity not because we would want to deplore the mismanagements of the urbanization process or to associate it with the neighbourhood as if it were an inherent and natural expansion of it. Nor do we want to do the opposite – to present the less fortunate realities of the neighbourhood as inescapable. Moreover, illustrating it in a too dim and dark note would be unjust, considering the intimate and valuable moments that comprise one’s life in even the bleakest surroundings.

To begin with, the scenery of the neighbourhood encloses the assembly of elements which are most representative for our point. The grey shade that accompanies one everywhere (s)he goes sets the stage in which so many people have been living. In spite of grey being believed to have a dampening effect and having the prestige of the colour of the intellect, that grey of the old buildings and secluded neighbourhoods is saddening and lacks sensibility, just like too much red may produce irritation, anger or too much purple a sense of discomfort. The lack of colour and aesthetics deprives the neighbourhood of a higher status, of that note of elegance and, before everything else, of the respectability and sanctity which the “home” induces.

It is not merely the suggestive power of colours that could be taken into account. Aesthetics is a human need just as love is. And just like the absence of a partner does not mean that the powers of Eros cannot be aroused and materialized by mental and bodily stimuli, the absence of the sublime or at least of the proper and the orderly is not a condemnation and irreversible loss – this is why even after the start of communism so many remarkable people have emerged until today from the slums and vicinities of this half of Europe. 

The (communist) devil is in the detail 

The former Communist leader, Nicolae Ceauşescu, and his urbanization project which made possible the deployment of hundreds of thousands of peasants to the newly-built blocks are responsible for the creation of such neighbourhoods. Any illegal and “antipatriotic” activity, such as listening to a foreign radio program, could easily be spotted by the next-door comrade through the thin walls which separate the apartments. Social responsibility and the sense of belonging to a close community was replaced under communism by the paranoid surveillance of the citizens and ultimately by the biggest communist dream of forced cohabitation and abolition of private property. The regime in Romania never reached the envisioned point where even meals would be taken communally in the “hunger circuses”, which were still being built and which later became, in an ironic twist, the first shopping malls.

Today, the same scars of the regime are still around and manifest in multiple ways – “each neighbour ‘fixes’ his balcony by the seat of his pants, with no consideration for the overall aesthetics. In the town, the peasant mentality is almighty. How would it be like if every inhabitant of New York ‘improved’ his apartment’s exterior anyway he wants to?” (Florin Constantiniu, A Sincere History of Romanians).

On another note, this “peasantish” mentality brings about another question, referring to the way that the word “peasant” has gained a negative connotation in a country whose ancestors were, almost with no exception, peasants, whose folklore is – or should be – a reason of pride for Romanians, in the same way the hard-working American farmer or the German Bauer is for their people. Insults like “You stupid peasant!” are today insults not because of the earlier appellative, but the latter.

What is even more common than “fixing” balconies in different and unmatchable ways is renovating the exterior of one’s apartment (usually for energy efficiency) and painting the covering material in completely different colours from those of the next-door neighbours. Ultimately, talking about the need of rules that set the proper “architectural harmony” would be nothing more than a general discussion with no real availability. No number of rules could ever change the neighbourhood and neither could any amount of improvements, aesthetic or not. It is solely the capacities of the inhabitants which must be considered.

The answer required here resides in observing the demographics of the neighbourhood and the traits of each group of people. Aging parents, whose children and other younger relatives have generally left for the capital or in many cases for abroad, are the remainders of the heydays of the “Golden Age” of Romanian communism, in which laborers knew their place and their work in factories now closed. Consequently, there is no real desire of starting new projects for their apartments or for their community, other than making sure the stray dogs and cats of the neighbourhood do not perish from hunger. Anyway, unlike in many completely deserted villages in the countryside, the greatest part of the people still consists of the middle-aged persons with or without children. In most cases, the French expression “métro, boulot, dodo” is the most suitable one for the realty of lengthy working hours with an incomparable remuneration to that of the wealthier European neighbourhoods.

The neighbourhood is affected by the residual moods of its inhabitants’ daily labours. the distress of the worker (whether teacher, public functionary or anything else) comes home with him after a long day of work – endless complaints and liberation of the triggered and twisted nerves is poured onto the life partner and children, either in a reasonable and controlled manner, either in a stormy and frightening way (the habitual and persistent conflicts and adverse clashes between family members). Finally, when it comes to the youth, “gangs” of young people wander disoriented to and from, “prolefeed” music playing out of their phones, no longer having to attend the meetings and unions organized by “The Motherland’s Falcons”, the youth wing of the deceased Romanian Communist Party, and to the good sake of the elderly, no longer disturbing the quietness of the neighbourhood with forgotten games such as hide-and-seek or the casual football game with a random wall or two rocks serving as goals. Only by winning the tricky lottery of life and thus a good family and educators can children become responsible adults, unless they possess the wisdom of growing up into the people we all want for our nation through their very own powers.

Shared households with multigenerational inhabitants (although more common in the countryside) are witnesses to conflict and disproportionate reactions on behalf of the adults, who are having a hard time in managing the future of their offspring, especially when traditional expectations clash with technology. In the neighbourhood’s olden days, eternal thanksgiving must be attributed to the grannies and grandpas who took good care of their grandchildren while their parents were at work. The solution of a nanny is unrealistic from a financial point of view, so parental responsibilities have to be carried out by retired people who might have wanted other pastimes, but obligation and necessity made them the de facto caregivers for most young families. 

Mixed “rustic” feelings 

The ad-hoc barbeques, accompanied by a degenerated form of traditional music mixed with oriental influences and by the eternal cracking of sunflower seeds create a little universe between the concrete walls of the neighbourhood. Enticing as it may be, the usual circumstances of such pleasant activities and their “aftermath” do not conform to bourgeois expectations of the neighbourhood. Only the real “good citizens” succeed in bringing to a peaceful and proper end this wide range of pleasure pursuits. It is sometimes said that private undertaking must be immune to idle judgment, but the neighbourhood is nevertheless marred by the leftovers of the barbeque, the unnecessarily loud music whose lyrics in spotty grammar tell of imaginary enemies and women, and by the uncontrollable smoke of the fire which lords over the enriched atmosphere of the neighbourhood. In the end, it is only on a strictly personal level that deeper observances about the environment such activities create can be assumed.

The spleen mixed with the sense of disgust toward a failed political class, although justifiable, is in fact of no real use to the improvement of the living conditions of people who live in the urban neighbourhood. Since those who live in the urban areas have more access to internet service compared to the aging population of the villages, they might be considered as having a greater influence in forming the public opinion of the country. Therefore, it is easily noticeable how every single citizen has high expectations for the future, while no real answers or idea for how to bring it about. Growing up in the neighbourhood means in truth witnessing thousands of contrary and angry discussions about the growing price of utilities, food receipts and cheap insignificant chit-chats about the God Democracy, said to be not so interested in these places, now encountering great problems even in countries where its reign was believed to be supreme. 

Any prospect for change? 

In order to address an issue that is overshadowed by more general problems such as corruption or political agitation, a flexibility of the acquisition of information is required. Unfortunately, even in such cases it is merely too rare that a real desire for betterment sustained by proper attitudes ends up instilled into one’s consciousness. Conversely, the usual responses are made in the blink of an eye and with a distrustful tone.

The Neighbourhood has no beginning or end, is shapeless and still almighty, lives in our minds forever, even if only a short period of one’s childhood is spent among the concrete blocks. This jungle of right angles and inexpressive structures is more complex than one might believe at first. Only by experimenting this reality can a genuine opinion be formed about it. At the end of the day, it is still true that each individual has the power to make the best use of his or her surroundings and mould them into something that facilitate the pursuit of happiness and of freedom which goes beyond material confines.




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The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)

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