Sympathy for the Vampires

Priests may crucify nuns, people may rip out the hearts of the dearly departed... but Romania is a country on the upswing that deserves our help

If Romania didn't exist, Ananova.com would have to invent it. Seems not a week goes by without another freakshow headline from the land of Vlad the Impaler66-year- old Woman Gives Birth, Driver Fined for Having 'Face Like a Moron,', and this weekend, Murder Charge for Nun-Crucifying Romanian Priest.

On behalf of my Romanian friends, all of whom are much smarter and more sophisticated than me, I'd like to report that their homeland is not an easy place to find quotes like, "They took out his heart, burnt it and drank the ashes in a glass of water." But I'd be lying.

A year ago, I spent a weekend in a small subsistence-farming village in southern Romania near the Danube, and heard that exact same heart-gobbling story told by several different people about separate incidents, though if memory serves it was tea and not water that washed down the blood-organ of the dearly departed. An energetic local Orthodox priest, one of the best commie-haters I've ever met, explained and demonstrated in detail how his parishioners cling to the spooky pre-Christian superstitions of their ancestors, who have lived in the fertile Oltenia region for something like 6,000 consecutive years.

"Ask any priest in this region, and he'll tell you he knows these things are going on," he said. "I know it sounds like a bad B movie, but it's a pagan ritual that happens several times a year... Before the dead is put in the coffin, his relatives insert a needle above his bellybutton to prevent him from becoming a strigoi. But if he is already buried, they have to dig up his grave in the middle of the night. The family drinks a lot before opening the coffin!"

He showed us some freshly disturbed graves from the local cemetery, tried to explain the finer distinctions between a strigoi and a moroi, and seemed to regard his flock's weird habits with a slightly exasperated but gruffly empathetic tolerance.

Romanians, famously insecure about their international image, worry that such folkloric outbreaks may scuttle their chances at joining the European Union on schedule in January 2007. But the real obstacle to EU accession right now is not vampires or nun-crucifying priests, but the doddering ghouls in Brussels, who are suddenly uncertain they can digest any more post-communist countries after swallowing 10 in 2004.

"I hope that [Romania and Bulgaria] will make it in time," EU expansion commissioner Olli Rehn told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee last week, in the wake of the disastrous post-non European summit, "but I would not hesitate to recommend a postponement of their membership.... We need to pace ourselves after last year's big bang."

If the EU is finished expanding, the timing couldn't be worse for Romania (assuming, despite contrary evidence like this, that integration is a good thing). In November last year, for only the second time since Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, a reform-minded, anti-communist liberal, Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu, won the presidency, on a wave of youthful anti-corruption sentiment.

Basescu's early record, while dogged by the usual Romanian political intrigues, has been full of promising developments—he has announced plans to crack open the files of the notorious securitate, fired scores of corrupt local cops, launched high-level investigations into the previous government's involvement with murderous miners' riots in the 1990s, introduced a flat tax of 16 percent, put the country's biggest bank up for sale, and confronted head-on the country's cancerous problem of corruption. President George Bush called Romania a "special ally" when Basescu visited the White House in March, and no wonder—it has 800 troops in Iraq, 700 in Afghanistan, and 550 in the former Yugoslavia, according to the Washington Times. ("This is also the first time Romania is not asking for something but offering its contribution as a full partner in the Western alliance," Romanian Ambassador Sorin Ducaru told the Times.)

Basescu is promising indeed, but he could use a little help in pushing reforms through his poor, politically fragile country, especially if Europe isn't offering very much. Washington could give at least a symbolic pat on the back by allowing Romanians the same travel opportunities as Czechs and Poles, and continuing to challenge Russia in its "Near Abroad," which is Romania's back yard. The federal (and state, and local) government could also stop offering protectionism to Hollywood at the expense of the burgeoning Romanian film industry, but that would require actually caring more about developing countries than pampered domestic lobbies.

Finally, one persuasive (to me, at least) argument for extending sympathy and assistance to post-communist Europe's red-headed stepchild is the very same heart-eating weirdness that gets it on Ananova.com in the first place.

Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton's foreign policy Balkanologists and their supporters damn near fetishized the cultural and religious plurality of murderously contested cities like Sarajevo, Skopje, Pristina and Mostar. Seems to me they could have used that same logic to give love to a less-violent country where the anti-Ceausescu revolution was triggered by an ethnic Hungarian priest; where there are entire beautiful cities still largely populated by German-speaking Saxons, and where genuine religious pluralism has thrived in a way seldom matched on the European continent.

One man's strigoi is another man's engram, and more power to the societies that allow for such interpretative deviance to exist. As long as no one gets crucified.

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