Romanian television has an unlikely hit on its hands, a sitcom with a cast of racy characters who sit in a country pub and get laughs discussing the fine points of the bureaucracy and regulations of the European Union.
One recent episode of "The Winding Road to Europe" delved into cattle breeding. As with just about any aspect of economic life, it is the subject of pages and pages of rules laid down by the E.U., which Romania hopes to join in 2007.
"It's quite simple," said the town crier, one of the show's regular characters. "A young bull in its first year on the job can do 30 to 40 females. In the second year, being more experienced, he can do 60 to 80 sweethearts. But in all cases, no more than one a day."
"Uh, I see, from now on animal sex life is standardized," said the town drunk. "They will do 'it' according to the minds on the European Commission. . . . That's what I call respect for animals."
Many here hope that membership in the bloc, now composed of 25 countries, will bring prosperity and a cure for Romania's myriad social ills. But the show's producers say it's important that people understand what they would be getting into. "Winding Road" skewers the bloc -- but at the same time it educates viewers on the union's many technicalities, such as its often strange ways of saying simple things.
In E.U. literature, cultural exchanges between countries are referred to as "horizontal aspects of culture." Labor talks are called "social dialogue." Edible fish are "living aquatic resources." The language confounds quite a few people in a country where oxen still draw carts and farmers walk their pigs on leashes.
So the "Winding Road" team decided to provide lessons in E.U. life in a country pub where the language is, to put it mildly, bawdy.
"The country pub is where Romanians traditionally talk things out, exchange news and ideas," said Gabriel Giurgiu, a former engineer who is the show's producer. "Everyone speaks in a language everyone can understand, so we thought this was the best place to explain the E.U." The show has also been a hit among city dwellers.
As 2007 draws nearer, any hint that Romania is not making progress in introducing the government standards required for E.U. membership makes people here very nervous. They shudder when E.U. officials in Brussels express doubts about press freedom and continued discrimination against the Roma minority.
Prideful Romanians have grown upset that Bulgaria, the country's neighbor to the south, has gotten better grades for its E.U. preparations. Newspaper columnists frequently fret about Bulgaria's superiority in such benchmarks as privatization of state-owned companies and the cleanliness of Black Sea beaches.
Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for Saturday, and leading candidates are vying to show off their enthusiasm for the E.U. Last week, presidential front-runner Adrian Nastase, the current prime minister, accused his chief rival, Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu, of "offending" E.U. officials by suggesting that the government was trying to hastily finish membership negotiations with the union to earn electoral points and was selling out Romania's interests.
Basescu countered that E.U. membership was a "good thing," but that Nastase was making life difficult for Romanians. Basescu said the prime minister's pledges to free up utility prices, as encouraged by the E.U., would lead to increases in the cost of electricity.
One goal of "Winding Road," now completing its first season of a dozen episodes, is to reduce expectations about the ease and glories of E.U. life. "Euro-enthusiasm is dangerously high. Surveys say that about 75 percent of Romanians want to join the E.U.," Giurgiu said. "We'd like to get that down to a healthy 50 percent. That way we can avoid the hangover from membership."
George Lungoci, who plays the village tippler, said in an interview: "It is important to say that for some, the E.U. will make things better, but it is not all roses. We want to ease future stress."
For Romania, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, the E.U. club also has a psychological dimension. After membership in the NATO alliance, which Romania won last March, a place in the E.U. would provide a further sense of belonging. The country is proud of its European roots, which it claims date back to the invasion by Roman imperial troops. Romania's language developed from Latin.
"The E.U. for us is the final break with the Soviet world," said Roxana Dica, a researcher for the show. "Being European means we can be ourselves, but part of something else, to which we have always belonged."
"The Winding Road" is E.U.-funded, but Giurgiu is looking for private money to avoid the bureaucratic tangles of getting funding from Brussels. The program is shot at Romania's public television studios and is shown Sundays at noon -- the time farmers typically return from church for a midday meal. "Priests tell me that they run out of church to get home," Giurgiu said.
The pub is called La Europa and its clientele are the stereotypes of Romanian village life: the conservative farmer, the drunkard, the wily bar owner, the dreamy barmaid, the city cousin who maintains a country house, the town crier and a teacher. All frequent La Europa for a shot of plum brandy and news.
The professor has started to raise snails in anticipation of trade with the E.U. The barmaid dreams of travel. The conservative farmer is a skeptic. The drunk is the voice of truth. Puns and off-color jokes provide most of the laughter.
During the episode on animal husbandry, the villagers contemplate E.U. rules that lay out details on how, when and where to breed farm animals. "The activity is to be performed in a special place, in solitude, but in easy reach of the animals," explains the town crier to the laughter of a studio audience.
"Winding Road" is not the only TV primer for the E.U. Romania's public television network is also producing a series of quiz shows for children to introduce them to the rest of Europe. Called "Little Stars," the show familiarizes children with European cultural and popular icons, whether it's the Roman Colosseum, Don Quixote or famous soccer players.
It stops short of directly propagandizing E.U. membership. Steluta Matios, the "Little Stars" producer, said that after the long rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator who was executed in 1989, Romanians were wary of being told what to do. "We don't want to say 'Join the E.U. or else,' " Matios said. "Our goal is to make Romanians feel at ease in Europe."