One can easily sympathize with the exasperation of Alexandra Toma, described in 2005 by the Romanian daily Jurnalul National as “the single Romanian political advisor for foreign policy in the American Congress” (according to the article, as of early 2005 she was serving on the staff of House of Representatives member Stephen Lynch (Democrat, Massachusetts)):
In America, Romanian “orphans” are famous. Everyone asks me about them. That’s all they know. Just orphans, Ceausescu, and Dracula. Those carservice2u are the three questions I always get asked. “The Romanian Orphans” are always on the TV. (Ana-Maria Luca, “O romanca la Capitol Hill [A Romanian Girl on Capitol Hill],” Jurnalul National, 25 February 2005, online edition).
Alexandra Toma’s frustration is not unique. Alexandra Diaconu wrote an excellent article wittily entitled “Cum ne vindem tara (How we sell our country)”—the title possibly a play on the famous chant of the rampaging miners of June 1990, with whom the country became identified in the international consciousness, thanks to televised images of savage “Balkan” brutality and chaos. (The miners roamed the streets of Bucharest shouting “Nu ne vindem tara,” that is, “We aren’t selling [out] our country.”) Diaconu observed:
When you say France, a few words automatically come to mind: wines, perfumes, refinement, Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the list goes on. When you say Italy: “la dolce vita [the good life],” Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Pavarotti, Milano, and fashion, the Colosseum, Venice or the [Leaning] Tower of Pisa. When others speak of Romania, however, assuming they have heard anything about us, they think in the first place of Dracula, Ceausescu, Nadia, street children, corruption, immigrants or, and even worse, the imaginary Romanian terrorists that still appear in post-1990 American films [I’d love to know exactly which films she is referring to here, because I am very familiar with the topic and don’t know what she is talking about: Call me Ahab! See my most recent publication on the topic, “Orwellian…Positively Orwellian” Prosecutor Voinea’s Campaign to Sanitize the Romanian Revolution of December 1989” at http://homepage.mac.com/khallbobo/RichardHall/pubs/Voineaswar091706.html].
…Without question, Romania has an image problem. In the past 15 years, it has become something of a national refrain repeated periodically by politicians in electoral campaigns, by cultural elites, when the foreign press judges us critically, when any foreigner confuses Bucharest with Budapest and when our sportspeople return from international competitions laden with medals. [Diaconu, Evenimentul Zilei, 5 June 2005, online edition]
A comment on Diaconu’s characterization seems in order here before moving on. The Bucharest-Budapest confusion, one which frankly is at least understandable because of the similarity of the two capital names in English and many languages, is ceaselessly annoying to both Hungarians and Romanians—and regional specialists—who feel insulted and powerless to overcome foreign ignorance about what is for them a simple, but huge distinction. And it does matter…to the point of having the potential to contribute to wounded national pride and inter-state tensions. When US Team Captain Dennis Ralston was presented with the Davis Cup in 1972 in Bucharest, after what an English commentator termed “the noisiest, angriest, the most absorbing and most passionate contest in the history of Davis Cup competition,” Ralston thanked “‘the good people of Budapest’ for their kindness and spoke of the memories the US team would take back with them ‘of Budapest’s sportsmanship’…[that this] ‘famous victory means Budapest will forever be remembered by American tennis’” (Keating, The Guardian, 11/28/97). Of course, perhaps this mistake should not have been surprising, given that the English commentator recounted of one match that “the linesmen were as partisan as the crowd and with armed guards around the court the efforts of the referee to restore a semblance of fair play were negated by the intimidatory martial atmosphere,” while the American player Stan Smith opined, “I have never been more pleased to be off court. Every arena steward seems to be toting a sub-machinegun and by the look in their eyes the safety-catch is undoubtedly cocked and ready.”
Finally, there are the characterizations of Romanian émigrés who have settled in the U.S. and Americans who have spent extended time in Romania. “What do Americans see when they look at a Romanian?” asks Andrei Codrescu in The Disappearance of the Outside. “Three things: Dracula, Eugene Ionesco, and Nadia Comaneci. In other words, sex, the absurd, and gymnastic ability” (p. 42) (Ileana Florentina Popa, “Cultural Stereotypes: From Dracula’s Myth to Contemporary Diasporic Productions,” VCU thesis, p. 77, May 2006 at [http://etd.vcu.edu/theses/available/etd-07212006-171925/unrestricted/popaif_thesis.pdf].). In other words, essentially the plotline for the Seinfeld episode which introduced this paper!)
Brand-ing Romania: Beyond “The Bottom of the Heap”
That Romania’s image or “brand,” is not merely a partisan political, and thus bounded, issue, has increasingly been realized by those for whom it is a matter of business, a reality of life, rather than a matter of an intellectual’s blame game. The “image of Romania” has even spawned a BRANDING website—[http://www.brandingromania.com]—to discuss the issues of constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing stereotypes. On 24 June 2005 Corin Chiriac got the ball rolling by asking posters their perceptions of “stereotypes of Romanians and Romania.” The following example was given to spark debate:
People and Personalities: Ceausescu, Dracula, Nadia Comaneci, Hagi [famous soccer player], and folklorists.
Character and Behavior: sa moara capra vecinului [screw your neighbor], proasta organizare [poor organization] (lines and especially poorly formed lines, ignoring scheduled hours), lack of respect for rules (cut to the front of the line mentality)
Events: The Revolution of 1989, Cerbul de aur [annual Brasov-based talent show], mineriadele [referencing the five brutal journeys of the miners towards Bucharest in 1990, 1991, and 1999]
Places: Bucharest, the Danube Delta, Prahova Valley (Predeal, Sinaia), Sfinxul
Monuments or buildings: Casa Poporului [Ceausescu’s “House of the People” monstrosity], Hotel Intercontinental, the monasteries of Bucovina, Bran castle.
The website appears partly responsible for new reflection on the issue of “branding the Romanian image” in the Romanian press that goes less in search of scapegoats for the situation and more in search of solutions. On 25 October 2005, Mihai Ghyka wrote an article entitled “Branding Romania—a ship sunk at the dock” in the daily Gandul in which he opined:
Romania—the country of gypsies. Romania—the country of handicapped orphans. Romania—a corrupt and dirty country. Romania—a country lacking in civilization. Whether or not we like them, these are the most frequent associations that pop into the mind of foreigners when they are asked what they know about Romania. For better than 15 years, the image of Romania in the world has been left to accidental whimsy.
In recent years, Romania has spent an annual budget of approximately 20 million Euros, promoting at random tourism, Brancusi [famous sculptor], Romanian products, the Enescu Festival and diverse commercial fairs…Each minister promoted his activities as best he knew how, by himself. (Mihai Ghyka, “Branding Romania – vaporul scufundat in port,” Gandul, 25 October 2005.)
A truly fascinating and insightful reflection on all this was posted on the branding website on 3 February 2006 under the title “Permission to Brand”:
Starting from zero “Romania has so many problems in terms of perception that it becomes difficult to make an inventory,” says Valeriu Turcan, president of the Agency of Governmental Strategies, which is spearheading the branding Romania campaign. “The difference between Romania and other countries is that its Communist past and its experiences right after 1989 have been much more negative and visible in Western media compared to the others.” Turcan cites the ‘Mineriade’, where miners traveled to Bucharest to violently break-up an anti-Neocommunist demonstration, the orphanages and Romanians who break laws abroad as image wreckers. “This picture is incomplete, out of date and extremely difficult to change,” he adds.
Country branding expert Simon Anholt says that this problem exists in many transition economies. “Their brand is still strongly tainted with negative imagery acquired under Soviet influence,” he says, “and the majority of foreign publics have not yet updated their perceptions. The only reason why Bulgaria and Poland are doing better [than Romania] is because they are better organised and are doing something about it.” “Romania was a blank page after the Revolution and this was what was first communicated,” says Ioana Manea, managing partner at brand and communication firm Loco. “These things do not have the depth they used to have.”
Communism and its fall-out also exercise a powerful hold over the western imagination. Visitors to Romania still bring packet soups and Mars bars, to use as currency. They are also scared to venture out after nine o’clock at night. Anthropologist Vintila Mihailescu, director of the award-winning Romanian Peasant’s Museum, says that compared to other ex-Communist countries in the region Romania still has, for the outside eye, a still strongly visible label of Communist country. Something the authorities and people have failed to change. “When a person, a group, a nation does not build itself an image, it is attributed one, the first one at hand,” he adds.
Another problem is the vacuum of knowledge the west has of Romania. “Many free citizens of Europe are confused between Budapest and Bucharest and Romania and Bulgaria,” says Manea. “We deceive ourselves that Nadia Comaneci meant something to the world and that everyone knows Hagi,” says Naumovici. “Romanians are too optimistic and see Romania as the most beautiful place in the world. Education is partly to blame for this. “We [Romanians] were taught during primary school that we beat the Turks,” he adds, “that we can repair a car with a piece of wire, while the Germans had to wait for a spare part to come from the factory.” (Anca Pol, Ana-Maria Smadeanu and Michael Bird, “Permission to brand,” 3 February 2006, the ‘The Diplomat – Bucharest’)
Wally Olins, one of the apparent gurus of country image-making, suggested recently that Romania may already be developing positive elements to counter the negative ones associated with its international “brand.” Part of Olins’ philosophy seems to be something of jiu-jitsu, making lemonade out of lemons, as he suggests with Nicolae Ceausescu’s “House of the People.” Like it or not, this interests foreigners about Romania. According to Olins: “If I tell people I am going to Bucharest, 20 % believe I am going to Hungary [the Bucharest-Budapest confusion], another 20% asks me what I am going there for, and 15 % ask me if I am going to see Ceausescu’s palace.” (Wally Olins, interview by Cosmin Popan, “Romania devine brand fara stirea ei,” Cotidianul, 15 February 2007, online edition). In other words, use what you have, allow the audience or market to determine comparative advantage/value…and go with the flow.
What? You say you’ve never heard of Nicolae Carpathia? Look him up on the Internet. The last time I did [late summer 2005], Nicolae Ceausescu had 67,000 webpages, Nicolae Carpathia 14,500! (Of course, neither can hold a lit torch to Dracula, who weighs in at 2,270,000 Google hits!)
Well, if you haven’t, don’t feel so bad, neither did I until recently. Nicolae Carpathia is the Anti-Christ of the “Left Behind” evangelical Christian book-series that sketches out visions of the future based on a very specific reading of the Book of Revelation in the Bible’s New Testament. Over the past decade, more than 60 million copies of the “Left Behind” series have been sold (Michael Standaert, L.A. Times, 25 May 2005)! A low-budget film based on the series came out several years back starring Kirk Cameron, a “teen-age heart throb” of the 1980s television sitcom “Growing Pains,”—Cameron is himself a fervent born-again Christian.
Dr. Stu Johnson described “Nicolae Carpathia in the Apocalyse Series” in an article on http://www.Leftbehind.com posted 20 May 2004:
Fairly early in Apocalypse Dawn, we meet the charismatic Carpathia:
Not every politician was pushing for more and bigger weapons and more and bigger armies. Goose had heard of a United Nations representative from Romania named Nicolae Carpathia. Surprisingly, Carpathia was pushing for disarmament in his own country. At the time he’d heard that, Goose had never thought it would happen. Romania was part of Eastern Europe, left orphaned by the failed Soviet Communist government, and host to a series of bloodthirsty dictators who had only been driven from office by equally bloodthirsty military uprisings. Most military analysts had figured that the country would be awash in political unrest and military action for decades to come. Instead, Carpathia had begun to quiet Romania down, almost as if by magic. [emphasis mine] (Dawn, pp. 47-48)
Later, we learn more of Carpathia as Romanian satellites are leased to U.S. forces to fill in gaps in their system, sent into chaos by “the disappearances” [author’s note: i.e. the Rapture whereby the “saved” are suddenly and inexplicably plucked from earth to heaven].
“I can give you access to another satellite system,” [said Cody].
Remington curbed his frustration with the situation. “What satellites?”
“Satellites leased by the Romanian government,” Cody said. “Other satellites that Nicolae Carpathia owns and has offered for your use.”
Remington knew the name. Carpathia was an international figure, and part of the reason the U.N. peacekeeping forces and the United States Army Rangers were presently in-country. Carpathia had taken his own country by storm, becoming the darling of the population over the last few years after getting off to a less-than-sterling beginning. Yesterday, the president of Romania had stepped down and suggested that the legislature appoint Carpathia as their new president [author’s note: i.e. a clear Hindenburg-Hitler analogy here]. In a surprising turn of events, both houses had unanimously done just that. Before becoming a member of the House of Deputies in Romania, Carpathia had been a shrewd businessman who had his fingers in many international business ventures. He’d gotten rich. Remington wasn’t surprised to learn that Carpathia had invested heavily in communications, and satellites would have been one of the most natural investments. (Dawn, pp. 213-14)
According to Michael Standaert in his review of the most recent book of the series, “In the Beginning; The Rising: Before They Were Left Behind” by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, “this prequel sets up Carpathia as embodying everything stereotypically liberal” (Standaert, 2005). Indeed, Carpathia is the creation of a conspiratorial group of “international bankers”—could there be a clearer code for “Jews”?—and, as if that were not enough, almost unsurprisingly given the radical right-wing leanings of the authors and many of the readers of the series, Carpathia is “a genetically engineered test-tube baby with the DNA of two homosexual fathers”[!, the trifecta…how prosaic]. And Satan’s forces predictably use the cherished institutions and policies the radical-right attributes to “liberals” (i.e. the left in the political parlance of the American right)—the U.N., disarmament, peacekeeping forces, and satellite television (somewhat ironic I would add given the use of this by evangelical fundraisers themselves!; clearly they have in mind here Ted Turner and not Ruppert Murdoch)—to establish tyrannical “one world government.”
The hazy popular and media images of Romania shine through in the character of Nicolae Carpathia. It is a simplistic and, frankly, tacky amalgam. Nicolae Ceausescu, “Genius of the Carpathians”…and so we get “Nicolae Carpathia.” A brutal dictator who was initially perceived in positive terms: he presents himself as a man of peace, a proponent of “disarmament,” a supporter of Israel (when he really is not), a neutral arbiter of international relations in a difficult time. When the Ceausescus were executed on Christmas Day 1989, the Romanian media hyperbolically proclaimed “The Antichrist is Dead” (the deconstructivists among Romanian intellectuals at home and abroad ascribed intent of the former communists to cynically use religious language to cleanse their sins before the population and buy credibility—to me this is over-interpretation.) Romania is depicted as a place of chaos, military intervention, and mystical leaders and politics. And if that is not enough, Carpathia’s political assistant is named Stolojan—the last name, it just so happens, of the Romanian Prime Minister from September 1991 to November 1992. One interesting difference, however, that would be difficult for evangelicals to explain is that whereas Ceausescu banned abortions, Carpathia imposes them!
Predictably, and it would be interesting to see what Romanian evangelicals actually think of the series, Romanians have not been amused by the selection of a Romanian as the anti-Christ in the end of time! (Indeed, as Theodor Stolojan’s political profile rose once again in Romanian politics in early 2007, the daily Cotidianul noted the influence of the “Left Behind” series was such that “when you look up the word ‘Stolojan’ on the Internet, the first five results refer to the character in the book,” leading the author to opine “it is impossible to estimate for just how many people the Romania described in the book [is for them Romania]” (Barbu Mateescu, “Stolojan si presedintele sint eroi negativi in SUA,” Cotidianul, 17 February 2007, online edition). Of course, the very fact that this paradigm [Nicolae Ceausescu] is used is because it exists—it says everything that Nicolae Carpathia is a Romanian, not say a Bulgarian, Albanian, or Hungarian.
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