Welcome…Just Don’t Steal Our Mat

23 08 2008

Back in Bucharest, fresh off our first week of school, we found ourselves browsing a home improvement store today. I caught myself marveling.

When we first came to Romania in 1999, we were working with a team of plumbers who were replacing the lead pipes in an orphanage with copper pipes. Just a few days into the project, we were first stunned and then frustrated to find that the fittings the plumbers needed to connect the pipes simply could not be bought in this country. Nowhere.

Being Americans, we understood “No” to mean “Try another way.” We fanned out. In pairs, we scavenged through the few plumbing parts stores we could find – although indeed we barely believed it was possible that an entire European country could keep their toilets flushing with such slim pickings. Surely, something was being lost in the translation. How do you say Home Depot in Romanian?

In 1999, the answer was “FedEx.” From Germany. Today, there are several possibilities: Brico Store, Practiker, and our friendly (OK, maybe not), local Mr. Bricolage. Which is where, today, I was so easily impressed just to see a selection of welcome mats, and in particular an array of mats that had a plastic fitting for a threshold, to render it theft-proof.

Now, most Romanians in Bucharest live in bloc apartments, built by the communists, with signature communist aesthetics. And if you cross the street from Mr. Bricolage and take a right at the Butane Gas station, you’ll pass through a corridor of 8-story blocs until you come to the one where the Barbusca family lives. As my son says, “In Romania, we live on the third floor, but in the elevator you have to push 2 to get there.”

Anyway, Bucharest has an abundance of many things – most of which are some variation of brown or gray in color, either because they are canine (still plenty of wild street dogs, though their numbers are declining) or because they are covered in dust in the summer and mud in the winter.

You just don’t understand the dirt in Bucharest. It is everywhere. In the summer, the sweltering heat forces your windows open and it floats in clouds, just daring you to dust the bookshelves again. In the winter, when you are truly thankful for the opportunity to shut the windows, it wraps its arms around your family’s shoes and smears its lipstick from your front door to the nearest pile of shoes.

Every Romanian family has two things by the front door: a mat and a shoe rack. They don’t call them welcome mats, and I don’t think I have ever seen one that says “bine ati venit.” Instead, if they all said, “Wipe your filthy feet,” no one would be offended because it is true.

When we first moved into our apartment three years ago, I found an old bathroom mat that had managed to cross the Atlantic with us, and put it outside our door. Romanian friends took bets on how long it would be before it was stolen.

“Stolen? A dirty rug?” I asked.

“Yes. It is too nice. Ours has been stolen three times. Just use an old towel.”

Several months later, with the rug still there, I was feeling full of Christmas spirit and set a live poinsettia outside our door. It must have been too much for whoever was watching. The plant was gone in two days. The rug stuck around a little longer.

So I lingered over the theft-proof welcome mats. I actually imagined myself putting one in front of our door and fixing it in place. But the thought of having to anchor my welcome mat just seemed a little too, well, un-welcoming.

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