I was recently flipping through my copy of "War in Eastern Europe: Travels through the Balkans in 1915", by John Reed. John Reed was an American newspaper columnist who travelled through the region in the middle of World War One. Since hardly anybody else who wrote in English managed to do this, his book is a fairly unique document. It's still interesting reading even today. (Reed was also a card-carrying Communist, back in the days before Communists were necessarily either tedious, wicked or silly. There's a very good movie about him -- "Reds", from 1980 or so. Yes, it stars Warren Beatty, but it's very good anyway.) Reed spent a couple of months in Romania, bouncing in and out of Bucharest, before moving on to Russia. Alas, he didn't much care for it: "The Rumanian... speaks a Latin language strongly impregnated with Slavic and Asiatic roots -- an inflexible tongue to use, and harsh and unmusical to the ear.
And he has Latin traits: excitability, candour, wit, and a talent for hysterical argument in critical situations. He is lazy and proud, like a Spaniard, but without a Spaniard's flavour; sceptical and libertine, like a Frenchman, but without a Frenchman's taste; melodramatic and emotional, like an Italian, without Italian charm. One good observer has called Rumanians 'bad Frenchmen' and another 'Italianized gypsies'." Well, mee-ow. But wait, he's just getting warmed up. "Shopkeepers and cabmen and waiters in restaurants are thieving and ungracious; if they can't cheat you they fly into an ugly rage and scream like angry monkeys. How many times have Rumanian friends said to me: don't go to so-and-so's shop, he's Rumanian and will cheat you. Find a French or a German place... "There is nothing original about [Bucharest], nothing individual. Everything is borrowed. A dinky little German King lives in a dinky little palace that looks like a French Prefecture, surrounded by a pompous little court. The government is modelled on that of Belgium... Frenchified little policemen bully the market-bound peasants, who dare to drive across the Callea Victoria and interrupt the procession of kept women. Cabarets and music-halls are like the less amusing places on Montmartre; you can see Revues based on dull French ones... A surface coating of French frivolity covers everything -- without meaning and without charm." Phew. Well, it's an interesting historical document, but why bother to quote all this bitchiness and bile? A couple of reasons. One, _War in Eastern Europe_ was a very influential book, and to a certain extent still is. After _Black Lamb and Grey Falcon_, by Rebecca West, it may be the most-read book about the Balkans of the last hundred years. When Robert Kaplan wrote _Balkan Ghosts_ (which became a very influential book in its own right, unfortunately), he carried a copy of Reed with him. A number of the prejudices that Reed expresses do still seem to be around today, and I think Reed may have had at least a little to do with that. Second, Reed is an example of an interesting phenomenon: the tendency of the traveller in the Balkans to fall in love with one Balkan nation, and then judge the others by how much (or how little) they resemble the loved one. One visitor becomes enamored of the Serbs, and defends them against all critics; another falls just as violently in love with the Albanians, finds tragic beauty in their history and truth in their way of life, and comes thereby to loathe and despise the Serbs. Reed? Well, one chapter later we find this: "But the key to the Balkans is Bulgaria, not Rumania. Leaving Bucharest on a dirty little train, you crawl slowly south over the hot plain, passing wretched little villages made of mud and straw, like the habitations of an inferior tribe in Central Africa... "But across the Danube is another world... It is wonderful to see again the simple, flat, frank faces of the mountaineers and free men, and fill your ears with the crackling virility of Slavic speech. Bulgaria is the only country I know where you can speak to any one on the street and get a cordial answer... where if a shopkeeper gives you the wrong change he will follow you to your hotel to return a two-cent piece. Never was sensation more poignant than our relief at being again in a real man's country." So Bulgarian is full of "crackling virility", while Romanian is "harsh and unmusical". And the shopkeepers, instead of being angry monkeys, are so /very/ honest. -- The point here is that this sort of thing isn't unique to John Reed, at all. (These quotes aren't really showing him at his best. Reed was actually a very interesting writer, usually a lot more sensible than this and often quite perceptive). I've read at least half a dozen other authors -- journalists, historians, political scientists -- who seem to have fallen into the same trap, from World War One right up to the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. And us? Well, we did get pretty fond of Serbia and (some) Serbs while we were there, but I don't think it quite reached the point of infatuation. There were things to like in Serbia; there are things to like in Romania. You can be interested without becoming obsessed, you can get involved without getting sucked in. I think. If I start to babble about having found a real man's country, though, it's probably time to move on.