I was born and raised in Romania. For many years, I thought I was born in the wrong place. From a certain point of view, I still believe this. There are just too many things going wrong around here: we don’t have proper roads, our politicians are notoriously stupid and it’s almost impossible to get something from any state owned administration without bribe (and I can go on like this for hours).
But, from another point of view, I find a subtle advantage in all this “being born in the wrong place” thing. It’s true, barely surviving is an exercise of pure will here. But, if you bear with me for a few paragraphs (and a small story) you’ll be surprised by the outcome. At least, I know I was surprised.
In hindsight, I guess I started to see this “wrong life context” situation differently only in the last 4-5 years. After I sold my company, 4 years ago, I traveled like a fugitive. I saw a lot of countries, made a lot of real life friends in all kind of places and had the time to study a few different cultures. The unexpected conclusion was that environment does affect us, but not as I so far believed.
In other words, I experienced perfectly oiled social mechanisms (like the one in New Zealand, for instance, which, believe me, is a social masterpiece compared to the one in Romania) who produced fearful, shy and somehow limited individuals. And it seemed somehow logical, you know: once you’re completely enrolled in that perfectly tuned mechanism, your life gets so easy, that the mere thought that you may change something to it, even – or perhaps, especially – if it’s for the better, it’s absolutely frightening. In that context, courage is just an empty word. Fear of losing (your job, your house, your partner or your money) is the daily mantra.
Well, if you live in a system where there’s not much to lose, there’s not much to fear either. Let’s dive in.
That Was Not My War
Part of my life was under communism. Until I was 19, to be precise. During that time, military service was compulsory. After I took my exam for the faculty of Letters at the University of Bucharest, I traveled to Timisoara, in October 1989, for what I thought to be an easy 9 months holiday under the camouflage of military service. Alas, it wasn’t set to be even remotely a holiday.
Traditionally, if you were a student in communist Romania, your military service was somehow easier. Your superiors weren’t so hard on you (provided that your parents were keeping those small bribes coming in) and some of the actual tasks (like guarding the facility perimeter, which was the only “war” mission during peace) were limited in time.
Unfortunately, we got in the wrong place. We were the only group of students, around 30 people, in a facility with more than 400 veteran soldiers who were set to be there for 1 year and 9 months, more than double than our time. Enough of a reason to give us a lot of trouble. Add to this the understandable envy for an allegedly better lifestyle after military service (given the fact that we were going to the University) and you’ll have a better picture of how we felt. Definitely in the wrong place.
In December 1989, two months after I started to serve, one of the most important political events of the last 50 years unfolded right under my eyes. It’s still called the Romanian Revolution, but truth is it was just a chaotic succession of events which ended up with the killing of Ceausescu and the reign of a new generation of communists, more cynical, shrewd and aggressive than the first ones.
Being caught in the army by a revolution is a very unpleasant thing. I won’t go into details, because I wrote another article describing those frightening days (The Sun Always Rises In At Dawn), I will just tell you that I didn’t sleep for 5 nights in a row. Also, I was literally under fire, with bullets passing me by so close that I could clearly hear them. A few times I was very, very close to dying.
Apart from the natural question “When is this going to end?”, what do you think it was the most common thought in my head, during those sleepless nights? Of course: “Why is this happening to me? Why am I even here? This is so wrong.”.
To make a long story short, I survived. In a few months, army was over and I could get on with my life. But the brutal experience of being thrown in a war I couldn’t avoid, the pressure of coping with all that confusing context in which I didn’t know how and when to act, the constant fight with the fatigue, all those things were now part of my life. I sucked them up and went ahead, adjusting, taking risks, making mistakes, like everybody.
The Bird Plane Incident
Fast forward 2 decades. A few years ago I was on a plane in Los Angeles. We were set to fly to Auckland, New Zealand, over the Pacific Ocean. I was after one full week in Vegas, a bit tired, but ready for the flight, which I heard it should take around 9 hours. I fell asleep just minutes after we took off. And get up after another few minutes (or so I thought, at the moment). There was an announcement made by the captain and people around looked scared. Apparently, the plane hit something and we had to get back to LA. I was asleep for two hours, it seemed.
At the airport, I realized it was for real: looked like a bird (or something) hit the nose of the plane. 3 meters on the right or on the left, and it would have hit one of the engines.
As I lined up for the bus who was taking us to a hastily booked hotel, I saw that people were really scared. Nobody was talking and a woman next to me, dressed in black, was shaking. I started to talk to her. She was from Croatia, originally, but she was living in Australia for 15 years now. I could feel her fear.
I decided to fool around for a while, just to shift her focus from the incident. In like 15 minutes, we were laughing, cracking jokes and planning to meet in Croatia next year. People in front of us and people behind us were laughing too. Fear was gone.
In the morning we met again at breakfast, just before jumping into the bus who was taking us back to the airport, for a new flight. She was smiling. And so did the other people at tables.
And then I realized something very important. In her lifestyle, that was a major event. Her neat, calculated and perfectly predictable lifestyle was for a few hours completely chaotic. Truth is we were just 3 meters away from dying.
But in my own personal universe, it was just a slight flight delay. The experience of being so close to death during the Romanian Revolution raised a subtle tolerance level in me. I don’t know if it was the “danger tolerance level” or just “the chaos tolerance level” but it was something that made me stay calm during that bird plane episode.
You Don’t Look Like A Romanian
Yes, I was born in the wrong place. That’s true. But I worked my ass trying not to do the wrong things.
Every once in a while, my virtual friends from all around the world are asking me something along these lines: “Why do you think you’re born in Romania? I mean, you don’t even look like a Romanian. You look more like an Irish.”
In time, I learned not to answer with the long story I already wrote in the post above. Instead, (with a little bit of a theatrical pose, I admit it), I breathe in and whisper slowly: “I don’t know. I think I’m just lucky”.