Front Page      Everyone's Irresponsible Lightness



   By Alexandra Ares

   For Halloween, which happens to coincide with my birthday, I flew from New York to Bucharest to celebrate with my family. On the same night, the capital of Romania was shook by the deadly nightclub fire that so far has killed 32 people and injured 180, many of whom are still fighting for their lives. It all happened at a free concert for the new album of a gloomy rock band, faithfully called “Goodbye to Gravity.” The fire started due to gross negligence of all the parties involved, from the band members who had lit indoor fireworks with no concern to the fire hazard, to its owners who had skimped on fireproof isolation, to the Sector 4’s Bucharest City Hall and Fire Department staff who had lightly rubber stamped dubious permits. The only one door, makeshift nightclub called “The Collective” is located in the basement of the Pioneer factory, which used to produce the most coveted Adidas shoes during communism. A place only five minutes away from where I stayed. Had some old friend invited me to attend the free concert, I could have been one of the victims.   

   Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis declared three days of national mourning for this unprecedented tragedy. The Mayor of Sector’s 4 City Hall promised to build a memorial for the victims, and all the government’s units took swift action. Too late. A cry of revolt and desperation coagulated via Facebook, which has ten million members in Romania, last night resulting in a huge march of protest against the entire government. As a Romanian-American who travels to Bucharest every year, this march of protest had a strange deja vue quality. From the early 90s, when Bucharest was first rattled by riots against the government, each year I’ve seen a new riot and a new march aimed to topple either the incumbent President or government—that is with street pressure not votes. It’s a case of, “here we go again,” and I stay glued to the television watching how legitimate revolt is always timely tied to the (often petulant) interests of whatever party happens to be in opposition. And yet, nothing never really changes. The same act will play out again and again, only with new actors. This time, on Facebook and on the street, people have been asking for 100 resignations for each death. Young Romanians demanded rightfully they feel safe in their own country.

   To all these Romanians I would like to tell that, to some degree, everyone is guilty, not only the government and the parties directly involved in this tragedy. Romanians are highly individualistic people who don’t like to obey rules. It’s a fact. The much praised US team spirit for the common good is largely lacking there, unless some national tragedy strikes. Everyone is in it for itself. From speed limits to “no drink and drive” to “no smoking” and to “do not litter” signs in public spaces, everything is negotiable, everything is relative, everything can be bent and twisted on a case by case basis, especially with the right incentive. The road to corruption starts here, in everyone’s permissive approach, in everyone’s irresponsible lightness. Until this mentality will change, every government official recruited from this very pool of people will act more or less the same. Romanian television pundits are lecturing the public non-stop on how to govern ideally, yet most of them, given the chance, would scoff at rules and take the sweet shortcut; or, upon finishing their cigarette, they would toss the butt on the sidewalk— like everyone else.  

   Because of this everything-goes, lax mentality, unqualified people are often promoted; new building developments are chaotic; strict proper zoning as practiced in the US is largely absent; quality control for roads and highways to park alleys and sidewalks is dismal by American standards; a lack of attention to detail outcrops everywhere. “Rules are for fools,” is many a smart cookie mantra. For instance, E.U. law prohibits smoking in many public spaces and segregates smokers and non-smokers areas in restaurants. Go to almost any restaurant or bar in Bucharest and everyone smokes everywhere, proudly rebelling against observing the rules. These places are lively and fun, but hell for non-smokers. Given this general lightness of being, to quote Milan Kundera, it’s a miracle that Romania hasn’t had even more fires in nightclubs, bars and restaurants.

   The Prime Minister of Romania, Victor Ponta, resigned after the march. Many people are going to follow him, while the direct culprits will most likely go to jail. We can only hope that with increased accountability will come a renewed respect for the rules, on both sides of the barricade: government and governed. Only this will make Romania a safe and civilized place for all its citizens.

   As a hard-headed Romanian myself, I used to bitch against my loud fire alarm in my New York building, which strictly goes off when I burn my food ever so slightly. After the tragedy in Bucharest, I have a renewed sense of appreciation for the safety it brings me.

Alexandra Ares is a writer and journalist, editor of Manhattan Chronicles, and author of several books, most recently, Brand New Americans