Mr. Benea, regrettably, is not in. Yes, our 12 p.m. interview was on the calendar, and certainly he appreciates that it was a hot three-hour train trip from the Romanian capital city of Bucharest to Slobozia, a forgettable little transit town halfway to the Black Sea. But Mr. Benea is, um, at an important meeting. Very busy man.
The lobby of the Hermes Land Hotel is as deserted as the set of a long-canceled television show. The parking lot outside does not contain a single car. Well, we tell the girl shrugging through her shoulder pads at the front desk, we'll just pass the time by walking around the fantastical premises.
In the mid-1990s this mini-resort, sitting in one of the poorest and most forgotten corners of Europe, was profiled by The Hollywood Reporter, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and The Dallas Morning News, among other news outlets, because of its you-gotta-be-kidding-me gimmick: The entire hotel complex is a nearly exact replica of the South Fork Ranch from the television show Dallas, down to the length of the entrance road in that famous opening shot. Built by a reverential post-Communist cheese tycoon named Ilie Alexandru--the "J.R. of Slobozia," who among other colorful boasts maintained that he was a longtime personal friend of George W. Bush--Romania's "SouthForkscu" was an easy symbol of the Wild East capitalism that sprang up from the bones of Nicolae Ceausescu's murderous regime and a reminder that the unlikeliest scraps of America's surplus popular culture can provide potent inspiration to the global oppressed. Romanians of newly acquired means could come here and see their small-screen dreams come to life, ride polo ponies, even fire off a gun or two.
But that was then. By the summer of 2004, the polo field was choked with three-foot weeds, the swimming pool was drained, and the paddleboats lay rusting in the sun next to a stagnant bilge-water creek. Alexandru, like many would-be J.R.s of the 1990s, was rotting in jail on a 12-year sentence for various frauds and forgeries (his threats to "bring down the entire political system" by revealing high-level corruption apparently came to naught), and the new owners had rendered the main ranch house almost unrecognizable with a coat of bright yellow paint. Desperate to attract traffic from the nearby two-lane road, they plopped onto an adjacent cornfield a 132-foot replica of...the Eiffel Tower.
Back in the grim lobby, we are informed that Mr. Benea will be at his meeting indefinitely. Fine, we say, we'll just wait. After another 45 minutes of shrugging and sighing, with not a single customer or visitor in sight, the girl finally picks up the phone, hisses out a few sentences, and then as if by magic a gray-faced man in an ill-fitting polyester suit emerges reluctantly from the door behind her desk. Mr. Benea regards us warily through rheumy eyes, lights up a chemical-smelling Eastern Bloc cigarette, and proceeds to not answer a single question about his property or the Russian holding company that owns it. No, he can't tell us when the pool, disco, or "Texas Hotel" wing will be completed. Sorry, he won't reveal such sensitive information as his occupancy rates. Yes, that includes for tonight.
It takes about 60 seconds to realize that this mid-'90s symbol of Romanian capitalism has, in the early 21st century, become as archaic and communist as the system Romanians are desperately, and at long last successfully, trying to leave behind.
From muddy farming villages to wired urban centers, strands of anecdotal evidence are weaving themselves into an intriguing movement potent enough to topple a government, put corrupt ex-communists on the run, and inject optimism to a long-bleak country. And it gives the rest of us an object lesson in what happens when an authoritarian tries to starve his subjects of popular culture--the kids will eventually seize the very tool employed to keep them down, and use it as both a political weapon and economic engine.
Larry Flynt's Gangstas vs. Post-Commie Hacks
Back in the capital, things looked much different than in Slobozia. Though school was out and the cool kids were at the seaside, Bucharest was still swarming with giant packs of brightly (and scantily) dressed young people, spilling out of patio bars and Internet caf�s, or just stomping merrily down the busy, pockmarked streets. As a well-traveled diplomat from the U.S. Embassy told me, with a tinge of bitterness, "This is the most youth-obsessed culture I've ever seen."
The younguns had more reason than usual that season (June 2004) to celebrate. The hated Social Democratic Party (PSD)--successor to the Communists, misruler of post-Ceausescu Romania for 10 of the last 14 years, and most grievously the ally and ringleader of violent rural miners who periodically invaded Bucharest in the early 1990s to crack student skulls--had, only a few days before, suffered wholly unpredicted losses in local elections across the country, especially in big cities and university towns. An alliance of two center-right parties, the Liberal Democrats (P.D.) and the National Liberal Party (PNL), had made surprising gains by campaigning against the blatant corruption of the PSD's notorious "Local Barons," a specifically Romanian breed of regional tycoons who leverage their multiple political posts to enrich their own companies and punish their enemies. Unapologetic, J.R. Ewing�style corruption, as noticeable as the stench from Bucharest's open sewers, has long been identified as Romania's single biggest obstacle to catching up with the civilized world.
Like every Romanian governing party since World War II, the PSD, led then by longtime president and former Communist hack Ion Iliescu, tried to manipulate television to influence the elections. Private TV stations that had been coasting along without having to pay taxes or even electricity bills were now getting visits from the feds, and those who offered positive coverage found themselves with fat government advertising contracts from state monopolies such as the country's lone international airport. Just prior to the June 20 ballot, the federal censorship body issued a ruling that media outlets were prohibited from so much as covering candidates criticizing their opponents. In a heavily rural country of 23 million residents scattered across a territory twice the size of New York state, where subsistence farming is the norm and villages count themselves lucky to have paved streets and plumbing, the practical effect of the TV crackdown was to mute half the nation's only source for political information: the terrestrial, state-owned television stations.
But in the urban centers, where there was cable and satellite TV, there was a way around the restrictions, in the unexpected form of original music videos. In the 30 days leading up to the election, and especially during the final 48-hour blackout, two of the most heavily rotated spots on the handful of 24-hour Romanian music channels were defiantly anti-government hip-hop songs. Ca$$a Loco, a goofy, Beastie Boys�inspired three-man rap/R&B group, posed as sleazy, mafia-looking candidates from a familiar-looking political party called "PDS" for a song called "I'm So Happy That You Failed." And an edgier, more acerbic crew known as Parazitii (The Parasites) eschewed satire for a more direct hit, entitled "Jos Cenzura!" ("Against Censorship!"), featuring a music-free, one-minute guest monologue from...Larry Flynt.
"Uh, I can't believe that, uh, Romania, being a country that should have learned from the past, is still exercising censorship," the Hustler publisher croaked in the middle of the heavily rotated video, wearing a suit behind a desk under an American flag. "Nothing worthwhile can come of this. And people have an inherent desire to be free, and they're gonna be free--if not with the existing government, a new government that they will put in their place."
"Man!" laughed Parazitii manager Gianiny Munteanu, recalling the stunt just after the elections. "I mean, you really need balls to do that in Romania!" Like many Romanians younger than 30, the Parazitii boys are less enamored of J.R. Ewing than their elders, and contemptuous of the wannabe oligarchs who mistook his rancid wheeler-dealing for proper capitalism. "Corruption is the big problem here," Munteanu said. "And it's not just the politicians. People in the street, the older generation, my parents. I cannot explain to them many things. Because they lived like 50 fucking years in communism--what can they expect?"
The youth-fueled June 2004 local elections scrambled the country's political calculations, giving liberals crucial momentum heading into the November 2004 national vote. (In most of Europe, especially the post-communist part, liberal means anti-statist.) When the dust settled last December, Bucharest mayor and Liberal Democrat chief Traian Basescu was the new president, and the National Liberal Party's Calin Popescu-Tariceanu was prime minister. For only the second time since Ceausescu's Christmas Eve execution in 1989, commie-hating reformers ran the country, thanks in part to the voting habits and cultural activity of a new generation that knows more about gangsta rap than Dallas. The fat, oligarchical J.R.s of the Social Democrats have yielded, kicking and screaming, to a scrappy collection of entrepreneurial Eminems.