The First Thing I Saw On The Way To Work

It was the Spring of 2005 and having just graduated from college, I was doing my first work abroad as an intern with the US State Department. A Romanian journalist was recently beheaded in Iraq, and worse, a US marine had just killed a Romanian pop star by bull-dozing his car while driving drunk. I was on my way to my first day of work and had to take the subway to the embassy. Much to my bemusement, this was the subway car that stopped directly in front of me on the underground platform:



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  1. Anonymous says:

    Yep. I’d be besumented too.

  2. alec says:

    Haha, that’s what I get for blogging in Safari. No spell-check, because I am incapable of proofing my own work.

  3. -B says:

    wow I wish painted trains still ran in the usa, seeing a whole subway covered in graffiti is a beautiful and nostalgic sight. Romania must truly be another world.

    Whatever your feelings on graffiti (art/vandalism/trend) consider that as an anthropological specimen this is truly a relic from another culture and, despite the hostility you understandably might feel from the message (especially considering the part of the world you work and live in), consider the work and time that went into this creative expression of beliefs — as opposed to their violent sublimation.

  4. -B says:

    I mean, better to paint subways then blow them up, right?

  5. -B says:

    And if this does not appear creative or aesthetic look at the “U” in “USA” and notice that the subway doors split the letter in two. Remember, “U” stands for “United” but the doors divide the “U” effectively illustrating the dialectics of divergent cultures and beliefs synthesizing as “America.”

    Just sayin

  6. Kit says:

    I didn’t even consider the implication of the U being painted on the door. That’s some pretty insightful shit.

    alec: were most of the subway cars there painted?

    (btw, we are big banksy fans)

  7. alec says:

    Banksy, if that’s even you, I will be in London next year for grad school. I’ll be the tall American with his shirt off at Fabric. Look for me.

    Kit: Actually, a few were. The interesting thing about the Bucharest subway was there were 4 lines total. I took the red to the blue everyday. The red went through a shittier part of town (including mine), and the subway stations and subwary cars were pretty ratty. This included a lot of graffitied cars and homeless people hassling you. The blue however serviced the business district, the embassies, and an upper class section of town. Consequently, they had very nice subway stations and brand new subway cars (even with heating, air conditioning, and padded seats — amazing for a third world country).

  8. Prosody says:

    Uh, Safari has spell check… you can enable it with the contextual menu (right-click). Well, the OSX version anyway.

  9. viulian says:

    Well, some of the subway cars even have their windows painted now.
    If you did not pay attention to the announcements, you can’t even figure out on what side of the train the platform is when the train arrives at the station.

  10. Peter says:

    Why is this funny?

    It’s like I said “f*** all Eastern Europeans”…?

  11. Illo says:

    Alec: Last time I checked, Romania was _NOT_ a third world country… but I’m pretty sure you, as an american guy working in the US State Department, are way more informed than me.

  12. Kit says:

    Back when the world was divided into 1st, 2nd, 3rd world, Romania was definitely 2nd world, being a communist country. Today, being that 1st world and 3rd world are commonly used as synonyms for developed and developing, Romania can be considered on the cusp of 1st world. Still, according to the CIA, Romania’s GDP is below the World average, placing it in the lower class.

    Alec has a reddit comment describing his perspective more eloquently.

  13. Jerry says:

    Was is this Romania place a virtual world?

  14. Lauris says:

    Dear Americans, take a look at yourselves and think if there is a reason for that. I’m confident you’ll find at least one.

  15. Jim says:

    One can’t disagree with the truth

  16. AlvinBlah says:

    and where are you from that makes your country so flawless?

    I agree that there are some serious problems with the united states when it comes to federal domestic and foreign policy, but come on, what country is 100% perfect?

  17. AlvinBlah says:

    I feel that I should clarify my statement.

    I’m not being accusatory or making an attempt at a flame war over the whole thing, but I see no worth in blindly lashing out over the United States. Especially since there is a very limited number of issues that don’t play well internationally.

    and I even agree that those issues, (wars, aggressive politics, and an economic policy that only favors our country) are deal breakers.

    However underneath all the dirty business of this and other recent administrations there is an underlying set of good values in this country, and the minimum standard of living is much better here than in most other places.

    So, I ask where you’re from not to try and cram America down your throat, but I am touchy about any comment that implies that America is the only asshole country in the world, because that isn’t true either.

    So again, Lauris, I as where you are from because I don’t believe that you are from a country that doesn’t have a single dark transgression in it’s past.

  18. Nef says:

    “However underneath all the dirty business of this and other recent administrations there is an underlying set of good values in this country, and the minimum standard of living is much better here than in most other places.”

    I am quite confident that the people of Iraq don’t give a flying fig about the great standard of life Americans enjoy at home. More broadly, foreigners will not judge the US based on its domestic freedoms or its population’s standard of life, but on how it conducts itself abroad. Despite the ‘underlying set of good values’, the US is not faring well in this regard.

  19. Mike says:

    Couple of things, before this gets even worse. Peter said it would be like him saying f*** all eastern europeans, but it wouldn’t, it would be like him saying f*** Romania- Europe is not a country, it is a continent.

    And AlvinBlah, America is the BIGGEST asshole country in the world. Not the only one, but the biggest and worst. Here’s why: the most nuclear arms in the world by far, underage death penalty, exclusive and class-based education system, racism tolerated in legal system, archaic drug sentences, untrained unlicensed hand gun owners and users, manipulation of the control of oil, extolling the virtues of freedom while being the most oppressive military force on the planet, extolling the virtues of free speech while curtailing, coercing and manipulating your media, denying your own people a right to privacy, number 1 decimator of our eco-system (i.e. Planet Earth) through emissions, pollution and laziness, and all this while your representatives in government tell us that America cares or America is no.1

    – as far as I know, NO other country in the world right now has as much chance of unwittingly dragging society in its entirety to a collapse as the USA is. The underlying set of good values you speak of end up as nothing but lip-service and camoflage while your government does things like tortures people illegaly in another country. I’m from Ireland, whats our single dark transgression in the past? who cares- maybe the invasion of scotland in 500AD…. this isn’t about the past! (and good job too- remember the native american genocide, slavery) and even right now our biggest transgression seems to be not providing adequate health care for our own citizens- oooh soomething in common. Point is mister, America is THE asshole country defined. If all you get for it is a bit of abuse in art/vandalism, consider yourself lucky.

  20. AlvinBlah says:


    You missed the point. You’ve said nothing I disagree with in the slightest. My problem stems from the holier than thou attitude that is rampant across the internet towards ALL Americans.

    Part of the problem is this far reaching stereotype that all Americans are fat, lazy, selfish, greed oriented, and fully supporting of all international actions. That’s bigotry straight and simple.

    And that’s the crux. I have no problems at all with critical attacks on the United States. It’s a country that is deserving of it, and no nation should be above scrutiny, especially when they wield the power that the U.S.A. does.

    But internally the U.S.A. is a horridly complicated place. It’s easy to point a finger and say that the internal population should do better, and in all fairness we should, but the time it takes to motivate 300,000,000 people is immense it takes years; especially when you’ve got a system in place where people must motivate themselves.

    I asked about where Lauris lives because I agree his animosity is in the right place, but his statement isn’t. You are partially right that history isn’t the main issue right now, but a nation’s history frames current events, and eventually these current events will be history that frames the issues of the future. So in my mind I see that as a method for reference. I’m sure it’s not the best way, but that’s how I approached it.

    In regards to the history of Ireland, I do not know much, I can 100% admit that, but I do remember growing up as a kid watching car bombs exploding in Belfast, and a large number of civilian deaths. Considering what I saw of that violence, I do not think that Ireland has as clean of a slate as you profess, but I could be wrong, I am only writing about what I remember seeing on television.

    To Nef:

    you are absolutely right. I totally agree with what you have said, and in light of that perspective I should have re-evaluated how I phrased my argument, but I still stand by my sentiment. The United States has some real problems, but they are solvable. However America has never been a country where public awareness changes quickly on it’s own. External forces have always forced America and Americans to react, and I mean this in regards to overall public knowledge. It took the attacks on the World Trade Center for most Americans to even know what countries are actually in the middle east.

    I’m not trying to validate that perspective, but the USA is really unique in it’s traditions of isolation that are re-enforced by it’s global location. We really are out on our own in both literal and figurative ways.

    Again, I must emphasize that I am not trying to excuse the behavior, but one must realize that the American view of the world is radically different than those of other countries and it’s a view that comes directly from the culture and history of the country.

    I hope this helps to explain, and I welcome further discussion on the issue.

  21. Gigi says:

    These are the old trains. They are currently being replaced with these:

  22. alec says:

    Long story short, this is my opinion. I can go 10 minutes to southeast DC and make two kinds of observations. First, I can say “the average income is approximately 25 thousand dollars a year, and though that is far below the average income in the United States, this places the average resident in the top 2% of global income” or I could say “this place is a shithole, and despite a relatively high standard of living, I do not consider the living conditions here first world.” I don’t see Romania or Bucharest in this way, but there are obvious shortfalls in using rather inflexible economic indicators as an end all method of qualifying and quantifying varied living conditions.

    Here is my comment from Reddit:

    Hrm, you may have me rethinking my words. I had the following impressions of Romania, which is heavily skewed towards my experience in Bucharest where the majority of my time was spent: first world education and economic development, second world government, third world levels of poverty and living conditions. I’ll put my thoughts down about the latter since that’s what you’re probably interested in: Romania has terrible problems with poverty, human trafficking, pollution, and drug abuse.

    I’ll share the two things that stick out in my mind that made Romania an outlier in my days of traveling/work: 1) I have never in my life been harassed by more fucked up pre-teens. Their drug of choice of was huffing model glue to the point of asphyxiation. This would turn them into change-hungry zombies who would pull and tug at you from all directions. Yes, a lot of these children were gypsies (Romania has the highest gypsy, or Roma, population in Europe and they remain really isolated from the rest of Romanian society). I also saw a small group of these kids (all under 13 I’d estimate) having a mini-orgy right on a subway platform. 2) Bucharest is the only place I’ve been to where it’s inadvisable to run in the city. Why? Because the streets, even in the good section of the city, are filled with stray dogs that have formed packs. In 2001, the estimates were of 300,000 stray dogs. Given that Bucharest has ~ 2 million people, that’s 15 percent of the mammal population in the city. I’d frequently see half chewed up cats, rats, or other dogs on my quarter of a mile walk to work.

    Anyway, point being is that one can have a decent amount of income but still have a low living standard. I know average income and per capita GDP are easy numerical ways of dividing the world into first / second / third tiers, but there’s a lot of indicators that make me place Romania outside of the ‘first world’.

  23. MIke says:

    First off, i’m not here to debate America, i’m simply talking about what applies to this image.

    Belfast is in another country. It has nothing to do with the actions of the government of Ireland or the people of Ireland as a whole, let alone our current identity, which is what is being discussed here. If you want to discuss asshole nations through history, I’m sure i could have a decent go at the british for occupying my country for 700 years against constant rebellion and opposition from the natives, but that doesn’t help anyone and both countries have moved on from it.

    As far as missing your point goes, i don’t think i did, your point was “and where are you from that makes your country so flawless?”
    Then it seemed to be- due to your clarification- America isn’t the sole bad country in the world. “I am touchy about any comment that implies that America is the only asshole country in the world, because that isn’t true either.”
    Then it seemed to be why do other countries all pick on america and americans online. “My problem stems from the holier than thou attitude that is rampant across the internet towards ALL Americans.”

    The reputation your country has garnered is deserved. You as a citizen as well as your government and military are responsible for letting it reach this stage. Hence you recieve hostility from people online because no other country is as reprehensible as America for problems arising in alot of the world. (distribution of wealth, political interference, conflict, the spreading of fear rather than understanding through open threats made by your executive)

    Don’t get me wrong, i don’t hate america, americans or you. But when you come online, identify yourself as an american and spark off a cultural debate by defending the place with political rhetoric (underlying set of good values, single dark transgression) you embody what annoys people from the rest of the planet about America, as it is now. (the whole not practicing what you preach thing)

    Now let me pose you this one question if you will indulge me: Why shouldn’t America and Americans be criticised online/in art/in vandalism for being “THE asshole country”? And if they can’t be criticised for what they’ve done wrong, what could the rest of the world do about it instead?

  24. mark says:

    What’s a romania?

  25. AlvinBlah says:

    I’d be happy to answer your question. I do think that you’ve got a point that I did not present myself well, in my first post.

    America and Americans are totally within scope of any and all forms of criticism. I’m not rejecting that. I don’t I embrace it.

    Let me be clear, I don’t care a shred whether or not America and Americans are criticized online/in art/in vandalism for being “THE asshole country”.

    In regards to the vandalism I think it’s kind of neat, I equate it to phrases like “Fuck the police”. It does not bother me. I also don’t agree that America is special in being above criticism. You cannot claim to be from a representative country and be against criticism.

    But I also don’t think that I’ve sparked a cultural debate, so much as defend against an insult. I don’t think that criticism and insults are the same. I am not talking about the picture that Alec posted either, so much as the comments in the thread. The picture doesn’t bother me. The off the cuff statement that all of America is bad does bother me.

    We do have a representative system, for better or for worse. And right now it is for the worse. Americans have voted for security through violence out of fear, and the current administration reflects those beliefs. I don’t agree with any of them, but that’s the nature of our system…in America the bad guy can win. But democracy is not inherently benevolent and it carries many flaws with it, I and many other recognize that. But it’s the system we grew up in, and with all consequences bundled in we accept that burden.

    I still think that I’m confusing the conversation, I’ve got no problems at all with the Fuck USA graffiti, I was upset because Lauris’s statement wasn’t a criticism it was just a lash out. I agree that there is a lot wrong with the USA and one doesn’t have to look far to see things wrong with it. But I personally didn’t appreciate the way it was said.

    I’m curious, you seem to equate the citizens with the elected body, what do you do in your country when your elected body enacts polices that are against your personal wishes? In America most of the civilian body becomes politically powerless when leaders deviate from initial campaign promises or when they deviate from public opinion. President Bush is very unpopular right now, but Americans don’t really overthrow their government often, but he’s also acting outside the scope of what most Americans desire?

    Other than electing a different set of policies what do you expect American citizens to do?

  26. “Banksy, if that’s even you, I will be in London next year for grad school. I’ll be the tall American with his shirt off at Fabric. Look for me.”

    I’m sure Banksy is all about partying with topless American frat boys at overpriced played out dnb clubs. Look for him at a booth in the back blowing rails with branjolina.



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  29. alec says:

    Alec, Romania isn’t a third world country. Fuck USA!

  30. dracula says:

    bucharest business!!

  31. […] The First Thing I Saw On The Way To Work with 15,399 unique hits — A picture captured by Alec during his first day at the State […]

  32. Hellow…

    I saw this really great post today….

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