November 6, 2008 in général
At 4am on Wednesday morning, staying up all night in honor of the US Presidential Election, I found myself at Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s primary train station. Standing outside the locked building was a mix of travelers waiting with luggage, teenagers huffing from plastic bags, sanitation workers sweeping, and various hustlers trying to get money from the people who waited. I, myself, had to dodge a couple of leather-jacketed men who insisted they could put me on a bus to wherever I needed to go, Brasov by noon. Later I watched two nearby couples interact with a younger huffer, laughing uncomfortably as he half sang, half shouted something to them. Meanwhile, taxis kept pulling up periodically, and people with bags would try the locked glass doors without luck. Their attempts were understandable, though, because inside the glass doors were other travelers, miraculously inside the warm(er) building even though it was supposed to be closed until 4:30.
These other travelers were, in fact, the cast and crew of the 14th season of The Amazing Race, filming their way through Romania. I looked inside and watched the teams of two flanked by cameramen and production staff. They all seemed unaware of the motley crowd outside those doors. They talked to each other, milled around, and consulted maps. One particular team of young women looked too manicured for such a contest at such an hour. At 4:20am, the ticket counters opened early for them; the crowd outside moved closer to the locked doors. Ten minutes later, the station’s McDonald’s franchise let the cast and crew inside while keeping the public, now allowed in the building, locked outside. Soon these contestants would be headed out of the capital in search of adventure!
And for those of you who are fans of the show, the Romania episode will be full of classics: gymnasts, gypsies, and vampires. Through some connections of mine here, I found out that the cast travels to nearby Bran Castle, engages in a challenge that included coffins and stakes, and visits a gypsy village (possibly in search of a clue). Of course, some of it plays off of the cultural myths about Romania. There is no question that some Romanians are interested in selling vampire kitsch to spook-seeking tourists, regardless of the relative lack of native tradition actually concerning the monsters. Much of the rest of the population at least tolerates it. And The Amazing Race clearly aims to take advantage.
But the show exploits more than the vampire legend. The most intriguing element of The Amazing Race episode in Romania relates to the gypsy village, which was, strangely, a fake. Constructed specially for the show in an area with a relatively low gypsy population, the artificial village was “populated” with ethnic Romanians dressed up in gypsy attire. Yes, even the supposed gypsies were impostors, as authentic as their costumes may have appeared. All this was done for the benefit of a reality television show. And tourism, of course.
Because most countries try to export a symbolic and friendly image of native culture that will lure tourists into spending strong currencies in a bid to purchase access to it all. Australia has promoted koalas, kangaroos, happy indigenous people, and blonds with surfboards leading a laid back life along the beach. Scotland pushes kilts, bagpipes, and Mel-Gibson-as-William-Wallace (not to mention all things whiskey). Romania is certainly not exempt from these kinds of campaigns, and the gypsy village proves just to what lengths people are willing to go. By dressing up ethnic Romanians as gypsy villagers, The Amazing Race and its Romanian collaborators are presenting an idealized image of gypsy culture, one meant to dazzle foreigners with exoticism.
The reality is more fraught. Tensions toward and within the gypsy population in Romania remain strong; prejudices are performed daily in the most progressive communities; divides exist socially and within the government about how to work with this minority group. Debates flourish about how to even provide education for children in gypsy communities. The quaint, friendly, built-to-order gypsy village, with its cast of Romanians in gypsy costumes, couldn’t be more of an idealization of the situation here. It censors the poverty, the alienation, and even the violence that contribute to the gypsy reality in Romania, as well as elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Myself, I am unqualified to say anything truly meaningful regarding this subject. Except I can’t help but be intrigued by a reality show that not only employs cultural proxies and fakes, but helps to sell a glossy version of what makes up a country like Romania. For my money, I think showing the real Romania would make excellent television; but no, the producers want to keep the glue huffers locked outside and the gypsies lighter skinned. Maybe the danger is that if we, as viewers, saw the reality, we might lose interest in the contestants and the contest itself. After all, what’s amazing about it? People flying all over the world in competition for money? What’s amazing about that? Besides what it excludes.