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Bejeweled cows? Romanians strive to sort EU myth from reality

When Romania joins the EU on January 1, cows will sport earrings, homeowners will have to petition Brussels to chop down trees, tomatoes will taste like wax and homemade plum brandy will be illegal.

So go rumors spreading from Transylvanian farmers' markets to Black Sea resorts as Romania, once among Europe's most isolated nations, prepares to enter the world's largest free-trade zone. A government Web site lists 22 common myths in circulation. The Balkan country has started a national publicity campaign and the European Union has spent €9 million ($12 million) to explain real changes. Officials emphasize that Romanians can expect more investment, better law enforcement and stronger economic growth, echoing what happened in the other former communist countries that became EU member states in 2004. But old myths die hard.
„I got alarmed when an old woman asked me whether it's true she would no longer be allowed to use the parsley she's been growing in her yard in her soup,” said Anca Boagiu, the Romanian minister in charge of EU integration. „All sorts of ballads and legends have appeared. Truth is, bald people won't wake up with hair on their heads and those with hair won't go bald on the morning of January 1.” An EU poll released on December 18 showed that 65% of Romanians had a „very positive or fairly positive image” of membership. The country of 22 million people stands to receive €30 billion in subsidies through 2013. It also can count on advice and other help from some of the world's most developed nations when it joins along with neighboring Bulgaria, increasing the bloc to 27 nations.

Still, that support was down from 76% in 2004 and pessimism about the EU's benefits may increase if myths go unchecked by reality, said Onno Simons, deputy head of the European Commission in Romania. The survey, by the EU's statistical office, Eurostat, has a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points. „There is potential for euro-pessimism if people really believe that they can't slaughter their Christmas pig or that they cannot make their plum brandy for their own use – anything that is close to their hearts,” said Simons.
„This is the country of rumor. That's for sure.” Pre-membership jitters are nothing new. Before the first eight eastern European nations joined the EU in May 2004, some Poles thought their pickled cucumbers would be banned for being too small. Czechs worried that cream cake, traditionally sold on open paper trays, couldn't be sold without a wrapper. In Lithuania, salt and rice disappeared from supermarkets as hoarders feared that prices were set to soar.

Romanians are even more prone to gossip-mongering, say officials including Boagiu. The country was rife with false tales of the security of the government just before the overthrow and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day in 1989. The communist regime, among the most severe in Europe, tapped home phones, created a nationwide network of informers and regularly lied about everything from production statistics to the weather when it was to its advantage. Now, government television advertising and education programs seek to inform citizens that they can still drive old cars and chop down trees without soliciting permission from the EU in Brussels.
They also assure farmers that ear tags for cows aren't jewelry - they meet EU demands to track beef from the farm to the supermarket as part of hygienic practices. Some of the other misinformation listed on the Web site: Rich foreigners will buy Romania, animals will live better than people, millions of farmers will lose their livelihood, all butchers and milk-processing factories will close, Romanians can't kill pigs or make brandy at home, and the euro will replace the leu as currency on January 1. The truth still hasn't reached many Romanians, particularly the 40% who live in rural areas, Boagiu said.

„They say we'll have to use anesthetics and teams of doctors for the pig kill,” said Ioan Marin, a 41-year-old maintenance worker whose family has slaughtered and prepared their Christmas pig the traditional Romanian way for generations. In the ski resort town of Predeal on December 17, Marin blasted a corn-fed, 120-kilogram (260-pound) dead pig with a propane torch, then used a sardine can with jagged holes punched in the bottom to scrape off burnt skin and hair. A friend poured boiling water over the carcass with a beer mug between sips of hot, homemade plum brandy.
A dozen people stood by a hearth crackling with firewood and watched in an atmosphere of mourning, believing it might be the last traditional pig slaughter they would see. „It seems like everything will have to taste the same and look the same starting next year,” said Dan Focseanu, a 39-year-old Predeal resident who makes plum brandy on a plot of land nearby and grows vegetables, including the juicy, blood-red Ox- Heart tomato that Romanians prize and fear will disappear under EU rules. „But we really don't know what to believe until we actually join.”(Bloomberg)