May 2006

Where is the global etiquette book that tells the poor foreigner what not to do? A book that tells you, for instance: do not offer a Chinese person a clock as a present, because the Chinese word for ‘clock’ is the same syllable but on a different tone as the word for ‘death’; do not give a Russian shoes as a present, because it implies you wish the person to leave (dă-i papucii!1); and do not offer a Romanian an even number of flowers, because even numbers are for the dead, not the living.

Such an etiquette book would be very helpful to further inform the foreigner that other items associated with death for Romanians are towels and candles. Thus, a housewarming present of a set of kitchen towels (a perfectly reasonable gift in the U.S.) would be unwelcome, along with, say, a scented candle as a hostess gift or even fancy soaps, since the latter imply that the hostess might actually be in need of such. For Romanians, towels, soaps, and candles make for inappropriate gifts. For Americans, these simple, usable objects are perfectly reasonable gifts.

Over these past ten months in Romania, I have discovered that what the guidebooks and orientations told me upon arriving has had little use in daily life. For instance, Fulbrighters coming to Romania today probably do not need to be told in their orientation program, as I was, to watch out for and not fall for the “passport control” scam that might be perpetrated upon them in the streets. Rather, what I should have been told was how to say, if confronted with such an obvious scam, the Romanian equivalent of: “Guys, this jig is up. You need to find a new line of work.”

Even more useful would have been a quick review of the taxi scene. Within a week or two of my arrival in Bucharest, a taxi driver tried to convince me at the end of the ride that the meter ran in euros and not lei. Fortunately, I had enough Romania to say, “E o glumă?”2 And it would have been good to learn by a method other than personal experience that one should read the door panel of the taxi before getting in, because the prices are posted, and they can vary widely. Rider beware! It’s not the driver’s fault if an unwary foreigner gets in a taxi plainly advertising rates ten times the norm.3

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This well-known Romanian phrase means “Give him his (house)slippers!” with the implication that you’re throwing the bum out.
“Is this a joke?”
Good news. Since writing this essay in 2006, taxi prices have been regulated.