Archive for April, 2011

April 17th, 2011

It’s Just What’s Done

Outside of most apartment buildings in Romania, somewhere by a little garden fenced in by bits of scrap metal and sticks that might one day know the glory of being bushes if only the tenders would stop paring them down to the last branch, exists a metal frame. Three lines, like a giant staple coming out of the ground, crude and unadorned save for the occasional peeling strips of paint. For a while, I wasn’t sure what these frames were for; maybe it was a bring-your-own-swing facility or a slightly confused reincarnation of monkey bars. I eventually saw one of these objects in use as a woman beat a rhythmic din into a rug thrown over the top.

An odd amenity, but an understandable one for a country so obsessed with the spirit of household chores it advertises pastel-colored irons for Easter in its newspapers. Aside from feeling somehow transported to a 1950′s style domestic wholesomeness, I’ve come to recognize that like the proper level of over-zealous cleaning, there are many local practices that seem to be carried out not because anybody particularly enjoys it, or because there’s some rational argument to be had, but because that’s just what’s done.

Being barefoot, to be sure, is not what’s done in Romania. I’ve seen multiple charity sites and philanthropic calls to action insisting that the people of Romania need shoes, but I haven’t yet seen a barefoot person, nor any city street that isn’t littered with shoe stores. Being barefoot inside, no matter the environs, is also not what’s done. People have slippers set aside in their houses for visitors. Doctors direct you to a shoe selection should you need to undress. A visitor to my own home, horrified upon seeing me barefoot, inquired as to whether the floor was heated. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking a stroll around the living room or moving five feet from the bath to the towel rack. I’ve heard the general idea is that if you expose your precious footsies to the ground, the ability to bear children is somehow snatched away, but seeing as this same rule is apparently applied to sitting on the floor or exposing one’s back to the air, I’m satisfied that it’s more of a superstition than a genuine belief.

I recently had a one inch nickel pipe clamp installed around my neck as a collar. Heading out to shop one spring afternoon, I wore a tank top and knee-length skirt and made my first stop at a pharmacy. The clerk looked at me in shock, but not because of the clamp. “Is it really,” she wanted to know, “so warm outside you can wear that?!” Thankfully I’d had the heart to blow-dry my hair that morning, otherwise I suspect the woman would have fainted over her concern for my lack of concern about the Romanian concern over allowing one’s body temperature to fall below a moderate fever. Wandering around the town, I’ve been asked on a few occasions by perfect strangers, mid-step, whether I’m not too cold.

Granted, some Romanian habits are rather nice and actually sensible, such as the inclination to begin meals with soup. Granted also that in the US, habits performed simply because they’re what’s done are by now less easily generalized and largely confined to the more abstract worlds of thought and language. Still, when I see the metal staple-frames standing proudly by their buildings as if to proclaim the decency and correctness of the dwellings they so inadequately decorate, I frown a little at the power that “it’s just what’s done” can exert on a landscape, beating it rhythmically into a familiar, but not especially functional, shape.