TIRGU-MURES, ROMANIA — If all political promises and hopes come true, Romania just tumbled into its last year as a postcommunist republic few people can accurately place on a world map. In 2007, Romania is supposed to join the European Union table.
Yet my visit to the motherland to ring in the New Year had little to do with Romanian politics. I came to see family for the second time since leaving more than two years ago for Washington. When I arrived after Christmas, I was convinced my Romania wouldn't still be the repository of orphans, vile wild dogs, or secret prisons that foreign media makes it out to be.
And I was right. It's not just that. But it's also not much more. Sure, there have been numerous laws put in place to meet EU standards - some better enforced than others. But at the point where politics or justice meets culture and the local way, tried and true customs prevail. This is what my Romanian friends (and sometimes my parents) - who work in both private and state-owned organizations - would call "only in Romania" moments. The phrase "only in Romania" describes any event or happening that stands askew in a system that otherwise looks reasonably functional from a distance.
Take New Year's Eve, for example. My friends and I rushed to the central square in downtown to watch the city-sponsored fireworks, only to flee 10 minutes before midnight because thousands of people were launching their own fireworks. There was a sad recklessness in the way people threw firecrackers at each other or tossed circles of fire that barely flew over children's heads. The media later reported that more than 10,000 people called medical emergency services on New Year's Eve - hundreds of these calls having something to do with injuries from fireworks.
Legally fireworks can only be sold between Christmas and New Year's Day. It is also against the law to use them in places where they can pose a threat to others. But "only in Romania" does the lack of responsibility and respect for others turn a night of celebration into a night of spontaneous bonfires, which the police do nothing to stop.
This is not just a street-level phenomenon. The medical system is another example of an establishment rife with "only in Romania" moments. Newspapers run accounts of nation-wide shake-ups, with crooked hospital managers being tossed out like spoiled food. But my father, a doctor, says that some managers continued to work as doctors in their old hospitals, forging alliances with newly minted managers and tutoring in abuse and corruption.
This health system is the same one that accuses doctors of taking gifts from patients while overlooking the fact that most physician's salaries are not much higher than those of garbage men, but way below people working in state-owned gas and electricity distribution companies. This is the same system in which a hospital report says beds in a surgical ward were occupied more than 450 days in a year. The answer to this riddle is that those beds played host to more than one patient at a time. Fifteen years out of communism, this is not just about facilities, it's also about abusing a patient who is system-illiterate and doesn't know that he or she is entitled to a private bed.
One of the country's better newspapers, Cotidianul, welcomed the new year by reviewing a series of ideas - intellectual, social, economic, and political - that make Romania the way it is. They explored Romanians' self-portrayal as victims of history, the belief we are the chosen people, and an unfortunate dependency on a patriarchal attitude that doesn't do much good to a country trying to become a market economy part of a functioning EU.
Much has changed since 1990 when Romania emerged from communism, but unfortunately progress in individual responsibility is still lacking.
If the basic laws in place are not followed and the people don't demand enforcement, Romania sacrifices its hopes for a fair, healthy, and safe life for all its citizens.
But it isn't just the failure to uphold basic laws. It's those other moments of unkindness and shallowness that eat away at the fabric of civil society: the 19-year-old, in labor, left in the maternity ward by herself for almost two days because she had AIDS; or the Romanian starlet, held up as a national role-model, for being cast in ABC's hit series "Lost."
A perennial Romanian joke refers to people's tendencies to move out of the country: "Last one to leave, please turn off the lights." Studies of the Romanian Academy show there is truth to that: The population has decreased dramatically since 1990, and the birth rate is among the lowest in Europe. The population is expected to drop 5.5 million more people to reach a low of 16 million around the year 2050, with more than half of the population of retirement age.
I don't know yet if I will be one of the Romanians who will never return, but I know that if I join the deserters, it won't be because of the macro political or social climate, but a wearisome culmination of those seemingly insignificant "only in Romania" moments.
• Cristian Lupsa, born in Romania, is a journalist in Washington.