Remembrance of things past… I am grateful to Jim and Sheilah. (2)

by Viviana on March 9, 2010

in Personal,ROMANIA

Remembrance of things past… I am grateful to Jim and Sheilah. They made me relive some of the best moments in my life. Below are some excerpts from their book about our lovely country, with more good than bad, and about a very young and enthusiastic Vivi…Viviana Ball née Palade, that would be me (lol).

Second excerpt from DRACULA IS DEAD – How Romanians survived communism, ended it, and emerged since 1989 as the New Italy – Sheilah Kast and Jim Rosapepe

(more in my next post)


TO THIS DAY, THERE are Romanians who believe Ambassador Rosa­pepe spoke Romanian pretty well.

They are wrong, but not for any lack of trying by his competent, energetic, and creative language teacher, Viviana Palade. She did her valiant best with a not-very-gifted student.

In elementary, junior, and senior high school, Jim had studied French for a total of nine years. He took two years of Latin. He had been born in Italy. Both of his parents and his older sister spoke Italian. But with him, almost none of it stuck.

The State Department offered Jim instruction in the Romanian lan­guage as soon as he was selected ambassador to Romania. But in the midst of wrapping up his business and his duties as a state legislator, as well as digging into the issues he would face as ambassador, language lessons didn’t seem like the best use of his time. He arrived in Bucharest having learned only a handful of phrases and memorized a few more for Romanian TV interviews.

The night before we entered Romania for the first time, he was on the phone in our Vienna hotel room, comparing notes with Steve Strain, the embassy’s public affairs officer in Bucharest. The arrival of a new American ambassador the next afternoon was bound to draw press coverage, and Jim wanted to be sure that if he said in Romanian, “I come with an open mind and an open heart,” it wouldn’t be heard by Romanian journalists as, “I’m showing up with a hole in my head and an aortal leak.” (The arrival turned out fine.)

John Klipper, the Romanian-born American businessman who chaired the Romanian-American Enterprise Fund, introduced the new ambassador to a young female employee of the Fund who moonlighted as a language instructor. She was as beautiful as her name—Viviana. And her grasp of the American language, idioms and all, was perfect.

After two years of Vivi’s efforts, Jim made progress. He could chit-chat (briefly and superficially) in Romanian, he could understand newspaper articles about topics he was familiar with and, most impor­tant, he could memorize or read short statements in Romanian and drop them into television and radio interviews. This was a useful job skill because, as his television-correspondent wife pointed out to him, what TV producers want are sound bites. If you give Romanian TV producers sound bites in Romanian, that’s what they’ll put on the air.

It worked—too well, as it turned out. After several months, Roma­nian TV viewers and radio listeners had heard so many Romanian sound bites coming out of Jim’s mouth, they assumed he was fluent. He’d travel around the country, and some would chatter away to him in Romanian until he had to confess, “I’m not a Romanian speaker. I just play one on television.”

Language can be a window into a nation’s personality, as Jim learned through Vivi’s coaching. Compared with English, the Roma­nian language is circuitous. Ideas are often implied rather than stated directly. Such indirection seems to fit the way Romanians commu­nicate—one could debate whether they shaped the language or the language shaped them. Working with Vivi on speeches he planned to give, Jim learned it often took many more words to make his point in Romanian than in English. And occasionally, when he drafted something especially blunt, Vivi would protest, “You can’t say that in Romanian!”

We watched Vivi explore some of the possibilities of the changing Romanian economy, such as filing on-camera reports about Romanian culture for an English-language TV show geared to expatriates. We also watched her fall in love with a charming Irishman, John Ball. Early one spring in 2000, we went to their late-afternoon wedding in the Orthodox Biserica Alb? (White Church) in downtown Bucharest, and then to the dinner and reception in a nineteenth-century mansion what doubled as a club for oil company executives.

Compared to some of the village weddings we would later attend, which were family celebrations, this party was full of young, good-looking, elegantly dressed cosmopolitans. Vivi was stunning in white satin and lace, John in formal evening clothes. There was lots of pop music as well as traditional tunes. The evening proceeded in a rhythm any Romanian would recognize: an appetizer, then time to dance; a fish course, more dancing; salad, then a few dance tunes; roast beef, more music. Everyone was prepared to dance the night away.

Except us. This was the first wedding we had attended in Roma­nia. Because the festivities had started at 4 p.m., we assumed they’d wrap up in no more than six or eight hours later. We will always remember Vivi’s amazed expression when we gathered our coats to leave just before midnight.

“You’re leaving now?!” she asked incredulously. She must have thought that all her attempts to clue us into Romanian language and customs had gone for naught. No one but the oldest fogy leaves a Romanian wedding until the wee hours.

Within a year, Vivi had left the Enterprise Fund and struck out on her own as an entrepreneur. She started a business to teach languages to people who need language skills in their business or profession. She called it WordLand International.

One of the niches she found were Romanian executives who wanted to quickly acquire enough English to handle a negotiation themselves, instead of relying on an assistant.

“The guys prefer to use their hands a lot with a little bit of nego­tiation in English, rather than having the assistant with them,” she explained. So she scheduled short courses to fit their schedules, cen­tering on the specific vocabulary they would need in their particular business.

Another niche was older Romanian managers who know their business cold, but lacked the English skills their younger colleagues had. They didn’t want to be embarrassed when making a big presen­tation.

When WordLand was about a year old, and Sheilah asked what had been the biggest challenge, Vivi sounded like many an American entrepreneur.

“The hardest thing was finding the instructors I could trust to unhesitatingly send out to clients,” she said. “It took month after month after month of training. And even then you still don’t know. What if it’s just another investment, and not the right one? You train the people and you waste your time and your resources to do that and you still don’t know if, after three months, they will tell me, ‘Okay, thank you very much, goodbye, it was very nice meeting you.”’

Vivi said Romanian labor law didn’t allow her to add any restric­tions to her contracts with instructors, such as a non-compete clause that would have prevented instructors she trained from setting up their own businesses. She just had to risk it. Sheilah asked whether Vivi had had to rely on connections to cut through red tape to get her business going.

“Connections in the sense of Romanian pile?” she asked. Roma­nians use pile, the same word for “nail file,” to describe contacts and maneuvers that “file down” bureaucratic resistance. “Everybody [from abroad] I talk to these days says, ‘It’s exactly the same as in our country.” All the Americans I talk to say that if they want something, they have to go to someone they know there, and it works better.

“For example, some American told me, if you want to get the repairman to fix the phone, you make a call, and if you don’t know the rules, you talk to the operator and you ask to send someone to fix the phone, but they don’t send anyone. If you call and say, ‘I want to talk to your boss,’ and you talk to the supervisor, you get your phone fixed in five minutes. This is the secret. This sounds exactly like Romania. If you know how to make a point, you get what you want.

“I don’t need connections. If I stand in a line for a good reason, I don’t mind. I have my own set of rules. I don’t want to pay extra for something I can get on my own.”

But at the same time, Vivi says some of her American clients are frustrated with the attitudes they encounter in daily life in Romania.

“They are so depressed about what’s going on in Romania and the way they are treated. They come to us and say, ‘Guys, I can’t stand it anymore. The people are so unhelpful.’

“For example, a man goes to the store, where he points to something, and the clerk, pretending she can’t understand him, asks, ‘What?’ in Romanian. Then a young person appears and says, ‘What can I do for you?’ Even if it’s in Romanian, the young one understands, but the old one doesn’t.”

Why are younger workers motivated in a way older workers are not? “You never know,” Vivi mused. “Self-motivation, usually. Not outside factors. They just think, ‘You never know who that person might be whom I’m helping, and what may happen as a result.”’


VIVI WAS HALFWAY THROUGH high school when Communism collapsed in Romania. Now, she looks back on what she calls “a national, systemic disorganization” during Ceausescu’s regime.

“I guess the lack of order is very Communistic. I guess they want­ed us to be disorganized. Everybody acted like sheep, going from the left to the right, and going to queues and yelling at each other, ‘Hey, meat is coming!’ and moving from one queue to the other, to get meat, cheese, whatever.

“There were even fake queues. There was even a joke about it. An old lady feels sick while walking in the street. She leans against a wall, and within ten seconds, two hundred people are behind her in a queue. A young boy comes to the queue and asks what they are sell­ing, but nobody knows, which wasn’t very unusual. You could stand in a queue and know nothing about what they were going to sell, because it would just grab you. Forget about thinking; they keep you standing in the queue and you don’t think. So the boy goes to the old lady in front and asks, ‘Hey, granny, what are you doing here?’ And she says, ‘I felt sick and leaned against the wall.’ He says, ‘If you felt sick, why didn’t you leave?’ She says, ‘What? When I’m the first one in line?”’

If older shopkeepers in Bucharest appear to be sullen, maybe it’s because they lived through more years of such tactics than Vivi did. Or maybe because, unlike Vivi, they didn’t have a grandmother who often told her grand-daughter about a pre-Communist state of affairs called vremuri normale—normal times. What did “normal times” mean to Vivi?

“Vremuri normale is something like, you go to the market and you can get tomatoes, cheese—real cheese, not like in Communism—meat, everything for a different price, and you don’t have to stand in a queue forever. To me, vremuri normale is when everything is settled. I can still remember my grandmother talking about the big oil companies, shoe factories, and textile plants, and private people owning them. The laborers were very serious. For fifteen years, or forty years, they were still there delivering good service.

“I think stability is, in a phrase, vremuri normale. That’s exactly what everybody wants now, but it’s sort of impossible because the conditions change from today to tomorrow—they just change non­stop.”

There’s a big difference between a society like Russia’s, where Communism stretched through seven decades, and Romania’s, where it lasted only four. Romanian grandmothers could paint a picture of ‘normal times’ for a generation, like Vivi’s, that would grow up to be entrepreneurs.

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