Romania Day 3: Why Culture is a Story

It’s midmorning and I’m walking through Piata Sfatului, the main town square, on my way to the bus stop. I love this route. Not only is it made beautiful by the architecture and Mt. Tampa rising up behind it, but it is full of people.

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People intrigue me, especially in public places like these. We share this common space, yet we all come for different reasons and we all come from different places. When I see all of these people, I always wonder what story is attached to them. What drew them here? Why are they just sitting on that bench beside the fountain? Who are they talking to on the phone?

I’m thinking about yesterday when I was at the journalism workshop with all of the Romanian students. They were debriefing their experience doing an assignment that required them to approach three people they did not know and ask them a question. The aim was to get a story from the person. A lot of the students talked about how nervous they were, how awkward it made them feel, and how awkwardly some of the people answered. One girl stood up and said that she didn’t think the people of Brasov were ready for this type of exercise (she later revised her statement and said that maybe she was the one who wasn’t ready, but either way the statement was intriguing).

The statement sparked a respectful debate about whether or not Brasov was ready for this- for strangers to ask questions aiming at the heart- or whether it was a human condition in general, or whether it was all in the timing or the approach. I listened curiously, but critically, trying to understand the cultural mindset fuelling the discussion.

I’ve spent a couple of days here combing through for the details, trying to understand the culture. Today, though, I zoomed out to look at the big picture. This is what I know:

Yes, we’re all from different cultures, but ultimately we’re all human. There’s a certain interconnectedness to us that transcends culture. Whether or not Brasov was culturally ready for that type of experiment, what I know to be true is that we all have a story. Some of us are more willing to tell it than others, and some are less willing to listen than others, but we all have one and it matters. There’s the larger, collective narrative of humanity, but there are also smaller ones: the narrative of your family, and the narrative of your singular life as a whole, or the narrative of one event or moment in your life.

Stories are important because they connect us and because of that, they have a great ability to impact and induce change.

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(The door to the office I work in).

When I say that I’m trying to understand the culture here, what I’m really trying to do is piece together the larger narrative of this place. I’ve drawn on history to try to understand the present day narrative, and I’ve asked questions about where Romania’s future narrative might be going. All of this is to understand the space I’ve arrived in. Culture is largely the story of a place, expressed in symbols and traditions and values and stories (the smaller kind). I was dropped into Romanian culture and I’m trying to figure out which intersection I’m at in this story.

I think journalism intrigues me because it’s like I’m figuring out the plot, the characters, the setting of a story either backwards or in real time. What I have to work with are my observations and the people around me to bring the real truths or the real story to the surface.

We all do this unconsciously every day. We develop our cultural narratives by contributing to it with our own. That sounds super philosophical but if you look at social media, for example, you see this all over the place. Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook- they are all driven by story and, as a collective (with likes and retweets and hashtags and shares, etc), we decide what stories are important. We decide what is of value to share personally and we culturally “vote” for what gets pushed to the top.

What I’ve observed in Romania so far is that their narrative is in a new chapter, or maybe even a new book in their series, and the chapter or book preceding it was a hard one. Some people here are still reminiscing about the old chapter. Some are looking ahead to the new one. Some don’t know how this whole plot is going to turn out. Some are jaded about where this story has placed them.

It’s an interesting tension and I’m reluctant to say more because it has only been three days and I don’t think I can accurately describe it much further. Next week I’ll be starting to do some more in-depth interviews for my articles and I’m hoping that every story will help me see a little bit more clearly.

I think I love Piata Sfatului because it’s a gathering place (real-life social media if you want to go there) and being surrounded by all of those stories reminds me how much I can still learn. It keeps me humble. It keeps me curious. It keeps me in a posture of growth.

That’s a good place to be.

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