“Do you like it here?”
This is usually the first question I get asked by Romanians I meet for the first time. Or maybe the third, after “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?”
British, French, Americans would never ask such a question of foreigners in their countries – they would assume the answer ‘yes’. But Romanians are not so confident. To me, it always seem a daft question, since I bought a house and moved here in 2010 without a shotgun to my head. But to many Romanians, it still seems bizarre that a British woman would want to live in Romania of her own free will.
by Arabella McIntyre-Brown
I love it here. I live in one of the country’s most beautiful villages, a thousand metres up in the mountains, forty-five minutes from Brasov and with a reasonable internet signal. I’m incredibly lucky, with a book full of things I love about this place.
There are things about Romania that drive me nuts, of course. Some pettyfogging, some critically important. My pet peeve is the unwritten law that steps have to be of unequal height. The risers of the steps outside Profi in my local town, for instance, vary between 10cm and 20cm, and I have to concentrate to avoid an undignified lurch up or a bone-crunching fall down them.
When I asked other expats to tell me what they most love and hate about life in Romania, the subject of unequal steps didn’t arise. So that’s just me, then.
Danielle Maillefer, a Swiss writer who has been a part-time resident in Bucharest for many years, has written a book about her friendship with the Romanian royal family over several decades; she knows something about courtesy. “I am always very impressed by a country that says ‘Sarut mana’. Such elegance in their relations with others,” she says. “But then in the city, the drivers use their horns and are so rude. Can these be the same people?”
The paradox of inbuilt courtesy and urban rudeness is often mentioned. In the countryside – at least in my village – the men not only greet me with a ‘Sarut mana’, but they then follow up with an actual kiss of my hand. In the UK this would be a corny affectation at best, creepy at worst. But here in the Carpathians, the courtesy of my neighbours is unaffected and impossibly charming.
Carpathian winters are another challenge for soft expats not used to the mercury dropping down to -25C or below. But the difference between, say, British weather and Romanian is not as big a leap as it is for a Caribbean-bred expat.
Mode Peralta is a medical doctor and works in Brasov at a clinic researching into nutrition. She’s been here for four years, having met her Romanian husband while they were both living in New York. Mode is from the Dominican Republic, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti. “It’s impossible to compare life there with life here. They are two different worlds, and I love them both. Everything is different: people, food, weather – everything. Winter… yes, I find that very difficult; in fact all year round it’s cold for me! But humans adapt, and I find ways to cope.
“I’m happy, because my husband loves me and respects me, and I like the people here in Brasov. People are curious, they like to help, and are generally very nice – even though they don’t understand about being punctual for appointments!”
Mode mentions the apparent rudeness, too. “People don’t let you off buses and train, they never hold a door open for you, or say good morning in the elevator. But this is a cultural difference, nothing personal.”
She loves the landscapes around Brasov. “Romania has many beautiful places – but why do people leave rubbish everywhere? It’s such a shame to see so much trash spoiling beautiful landscapes – bottles of beer and soda, plastic bags, and so on.”
Sarah Grant, who is English but has lived in France and Romania for more than twenty years, is charmed and infuriated by turns; but even the infuriations charm her. “There is such a mountain of things that I love about this place I can’t choose one. I love the people – even the dreadful ones. I love making eye-contact on the tram: after a five-second glare, I get a smile back,” she says. “I love walking through the city at two in the morning, when I can’t sleep. I feel absolutely safe, and the city is entirely mine.
“I love the blossom in spring, magnolias showing off. The smell of lime trees after rain I’ve never known anywhere else; it’s enormously emotional and when I’m not in Bucharest I miss that more than anything else.”
She is driven to distraction by drivers’ parking habits. Cars slewed across pavements and roads at careless angles and to hell with anyone else. “There is zero civic awareness,’ she says, snarling. The parking thing is a perfect analogy for the way people think in this city. Not those born here – they care. But most people have no respect and couldn’t care less.
“I love the crumbling facades of beautiful buildings, but hate the corruption and lack of respect that lets them rot.” Sarah’s on a roll. She ticks off writers, artists, musicians she loves. “Most Romanians don’t know what they’ve got, and it’s sad that foreigners have to show them their own treasures. It’s not just communism that has given the country such low self-esteem; it goes back to Ottoman times. Five hundred years of subjugation has caused this awful blindness to anything other than what affects them personally.”
She switches back to her mountain of blessings. “I love the little museums everywhere, the memorial houses; gems. Each one an oasis, tiny havens where you just walk in and sit for a while. Magnificent Radu Voda monastery, and little Bucur church, run by nuns, marking the place where the city was founded.
“This is a city of miracles if you have an eye, time and energy,” she says, full of emotion for her chosen home.
Like Sarah, Shajjad Rizi is passionately in love with Romania. Born and bred in London, he has family there, but his own family is in Transylvania – his kids were born here. Shajjad came to Romania in April 1990 and 27 years later is deeply rooted in Cluj. “What do I love about the country? The people. From Moldova to Constanta, the people. Romanians are very open and friendly, open to ideas and to discussion, easy to talk to, good at conversation.”
He laughs as he admits to loving traditional Romanian food. “I’m a fat man. Cheese, wine, slanina…” Coming from a Muslim culture, he knows his mother would be horrified at her son’s craving for smoked pork fat, but he’s unrepentant. “And soup! This is a nation of soup makers. I love a good ciorba.”
In 1996 Shajjad and his wife Katie founded the charity Little People, based in Cluj. “We provide soft care for kids who stay in hospital long term, usually with cancer. From renovating playrooms to psychosocial support, Little People works to give the kids as good a quality of life as possible.” Social care is an issue here, he says; funding is a constant struggle, of course, and it’s often about politics as much as medicine. But, he stresses, “Romanians have generous hearts, and once they are convinced, they give.”
One emotion that expats share with Romanians is despair over the current State of Chaos, aka government. So close are the opinions that the single word ‘politics’ needs no elaboration. There are some hollow laughs at the farcical goings-on that would be highly entertaining if the consequences weren’t so dire; if the expat comes from Britain or America, there is the double irony of home-grown political farce, too, so Romanians shouldn’t feel alone in having politicians from Absurdistan.
Mary Estes only arrived in Romania at the start of June, so she’s new to everything and still absorbing first impressions. Growing up in a small town in Florida, she found Bucharest something of a culture shock, but not as you might expect. “On the metro, on the street, people look unfriendly,’ she says. ‘But if I ask for directions they’re always kind. The other day on my way to work I stopped abruptly to take a photo, and a guy in his 20s said – in English – ‘Do you need help?’ I loved that.”
She showed me a photo of a mulberry tree. “I saw two men pulling down a branch of this tree and picking berries, which they offered to a woman walking past. Such kindness in the middle of the city.”
Even people begging in the street were on a different level, she said. “So many people asking for money in Romanian, and then in English. One middle-aged guy was sucking a lollipop and asked me for one leu. ‘Sorry,’ I said as I had no cash with me. ‘Okay. Where are you from?’ he asked, and we started a quiet conversation.
“If you refuse a request for money in New York City they would not be pleased with a refusal and would get angry. Here people are not aggressive. They ask, but accept a No. I feel safe in this city.”
Mary shares Sarah Grant’s disdain for drivers in Bucharest: ‘They have no patience. Constant honking and lack of any interest in what pedestrians might be doing. And I have a keen sense of smell, so the petrol and diesel fumes are pretty noxious.”
So what brought her to Romania? ‘I was newly divorced, between jobs, 44, no kids. I’m very close to my family but I felt that my life was small. I wanted adventures.’ But Romania? Was a 5,000 mile journey necessary? “My sister had been working in Romania for two years, and while visiting her last Christmas, I met a British expat here. I made the decision to move pretty quickly.”
And has Romania lived up to expectations? “I didn’t know what to expect. Americans aren’t educated about other countries, so Romania was a blank slate. The move was more of an emotional challenge but I’ve been continually surprised. Every time I turn a corner I’ll find something amazing.”
Mary is lucky, as her new partner is something of an expert at Romanian bureaucracy. For most of us, the loathing of anything to do with the public sector is a common factor, and it never gets any easier however long you live here. Not just the sheer amount of paperwork demanded by the least regulation, even those carrying a pointless tax of two or three lei, but the attitude of ‘civil’ servants. If there is a training school for public officials, the first and most important skill to be acquired is “Jobsworthiness” with a side helping of truculence.
Cuthbert, an expat who wanted to notify the local authority of his change of address like the good citizen he is, tells a tragic tale of uncivil non-service that will send a shiver of recognition down the spines of many other migrants. Here’s just a small extract from the saga.
“I went armed with all documents listed online. The guy behind Guichet 3 told me I needed something additional. Could he write it down? He handed over a printed text with the requirement encircled. Text was gobbledygook: two lines of words with no spaces. Or the longest word in the Romanian language. A lovely lady in our accounts department at work took one look and said that this didn’t apply; in fact it didn’t exist.”
Cuthbert gathered more papers and went back. “I have originals, copies, dispensation from the Pope, and a tuft of fur from the Queen’s favourite corgi. ‘Where’s the xxx?’ asks the woman behind the counter, demanding a document no one had mentioned before. “The xxxx?!” I ask in disbelief. ‘You are missing a DhcjvkvjfhsTgcjvkhohig. Come back with it in the morning,’ says the official.”
Cuthbert went back with the DhcjvkvjfhsTgcjvkhohig. “The new face behind the guichet looked through the pile of papers and said everything was in order. ‘Grozav!’ says me, and I ask when I can pick up the new permit. ‘Oh,’ says woman. ‘You can’t leave the dosar today. This guichet is closed.’ I feel my brain boiling. ‘How come, when you’re in it and you have my file?’ She handed it back through the window. ‘Come back in the morning.’”
None of us has escaped this game. But it’s a universal thing. Migrant or Romanian, it’s inevitable.
This is a civil service problem. The private sector is very different. My favourite shop, where I’ve spent a fortune over the years, is German-owned DIY store Hornbach. Staff are delightful, eager to help. ‘Vorbiti engleza?’ I ask when my Romanian deserts me in my search for tile grouting or plasterboard fittings. The orange-clad employee often switches to English, but if not, they’ll rush off to find a colleague who can. A request for blood, fish & bone fertiliser resulted in a huddle of orange as they conferred before offering alternatives. Romanians love to help, so the uncivil non-service is a matter of culture and long training rather than personality. Nonetheless, it’s mind-numbingly infuriating.
“Come back tomorrow.” This chorus is echoed by Karam Alsati, a Syrian student studying English at Transilvania University in Brasov. “They don’t care. Even the person at the international office at the police station will only speak Romanian. International office… it’s crazy,” he says.
Karam has EU refugee status and is treated legally as a Romanian citizen. Being a migrant in Brasov has a great advantage, he says. The city’s Migrant Centre is run by Astrid Hamberger. “She’s a really lovely person,” he says. “She really knows her job, knows the law, and knows everyone here. I can text her with any problem and she’ll solve it.”
Karam has been in Romania for almost three years; his mother and sister are in the Netherlands, his father and grandmother are still in Syria. The thing he loves most about Romania is the peace of life here. “It’s so peaceful. No fighting in the streets, no worries about being out at night,” he says with feeling. “And there’s no racism. I’ve never been treated as a foreigner. And I’m Muslim, but they accept me as just one of them.”
Manele music, he says, is worse than awful, especially in the student dorms; food is a minor challenge, being so porky. But the thing that really bugs him is how much Romanians moan about Romania. “They complain that they don’t have enough money. That’s not enough reason to hate your country. It’s a really lovely country, and it’s cheap to live here; education is really cheap.” Karam got a grant of €120 a month for his first year and his mother sends him some money, too. “This isn’t London or Reykjavik; €200 a month is okay.”
Shajjad Rizvi’s experience doesn’t match Karam’s, in one instance. “I grew up in London where diversity is the norm. Not here. I’m brown, and some people don’t know how to treat me. There is a streak of racism in Romania, for gypsies, for colour, for Hungarians. And a level of homophobia. The Gay Pride march in Cluj last month was blocked by the city mayor. It’s mostly because the country isn’t used to diversity; they haven’t met difference, so they feel threatened by what they don’t yet know. It will change, in time.”
Romanians who hear criticism about their country from foreigners can take offence and tell the critics to shove off back home if they don’t like it here. But they miss the point. We love it here despite the naff bits. Sometimes even because of the naff bits. No country gets 100% on its feedback form, not even Bhutan or Iceland, held up to the world as shining examples of nationhood. Like a beautifully eccentric aunt, we love this country for all its facets and enjoy reminding its native citizens how glorious it still is, and how much potential it has. We feel the romance and see not just the grubby top layer, but the natural lustre of the pearl.