May 23, 2014 1:07 pm

Letter from Romania

‘Back in their own country, the Romanian ‘barbarians’ drink cappuccino and eat paella and sushi’
An illustration by Romy Blümel depicting Romanians at leisure©Romy Blümel

“You’re Romanian? I’d never have guessed. You seem so nice!” A Frenchwoman recently treated me to this kind evaluation. Frightened by the hordes of Roma and Romanians invading western Europe, a Brit might well have said the same thing.

Back in their own country, the “barbarians” drink cappuccino, Coca-Cola, Earl Grey tea, English gin and French wine. They eat pizza, paella and sushi, strawberries and tomatoes from Spain, sausages and butter from Germany. And though they used to dream of the west as a paradise of prosperity and tolerance, as they work for increasingly long terms in other EU states, their view of the western way of life progressively dims.

This applies particularly to the young. The generations born in the last years of communism, who did not have to live through its deprivations, are inclined to interpret the Ceausescu dictatorship from the perspective of western theoretical socialism, or seek to rediscover the national and religious traditions of a country whose influential Church never really disappeared under communism and now graduates more than 10,000 ecclesiastics a year. With considerable vocal nostalgia, the parents of Romania’s young people look back to the time when the Party guaranteed them lifetime jobs and free apartments.

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The majority of Romanians are nevertheless aware that without the support and encouragement of Brussels, Romania’s judiciary would not have managed to put ministers, deputies, presidents of county councils, mayors and even a former prime minister behind bars – all of them found guilty of corruption.

Those who know little about Romania content themselves with clichés. They talk about corruption, trickery, bureaucracy, begging, prostitution, organised crime, outlaw gangs roaming across Europe. And there’s truth in this picture but not the whole truth. Most Romanians are decent, hardworking people. Nationally, though, it seems that organisation is not our strong suit. Famous for finding humour in adversity, Romanians say that there’s no organised crime at home because the criminal networks just can’t get organised … hence this country’s difficulty in dealing with EU rules. Admitted in 2007 in exchange for advantageous contracts for EU investors and a domestic market of 19 million consumers, Romania has managed the pitiful feat of paying more money into the EU budget than it spends. In fact, by the end of 2013 Romania had only spent a quarter of the €20bn allocated from the EU structural and cohesion funds. The combination of local bureaucracy and administration from Brussels is evidently lethal. Foreign corporations, on the other hand – from Carrefour to Vodafone – realise profits that annually outstrip their most optimistic expectations.

Although they complain about almost everything, my compatriots are very sensitive to criticism. Some have gone so far as to consider me guilty of helping create a negative impression of Romania – the result of having written the novel Deadly Confession (Spovedanie la Tanacu), which tells the story of two young Romanian women raised in a communist orphanage. The protagonists go their own ways: one to work in the west; the other becoming a nun in one of the thousands of religious houses erected after Ceausescu’s fall. The first has the courage to open herself to the world and new experiences; the second closes herself off in a convent from dread of being alone and the perils of freedom. Isn’t this the story of Romania today, torn between the hope of integration into a larger world and fear of losing its own values?

. . .

Membership of the EU has given rise to reverse migration. Hundreds of young westerners come to study at Romanian universities, while others, in search of work, establish themselves more or less permanently in this country with which they have fallen in love. Fifteen thousand Italians now live in Timisoara alone. They have created 3,000 companies in a city of 400,000 inhabitants.

For years people from France, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Spain have been buying huge parcels of agricultural land that they could never afford in their own countries and are dedicating themselves to “green” agriculture. Their labour and investment represent a massive success story within the national economy. A British traveller to Transylvania, who supports the peasants in their rediscovery of traditional handicrafts, has become Romania’s most ardent advocate abroad. His name is Prince Charles.

EU and Nato membership have lately become key assets for Romania, whose people have been many-time victims of history and geography as a result of their proximity to the Russian empire or the Soviet Union. In the context of the current crisis in Romania’s neighbour, Ukraine, the EU will only consolidate its credibility in Romania if it heavily sanctions the actions of Vladimir Putin. It will lose much more, however, if it lets a new iron curtain fall over eastern Europe.

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Translated by Jean Harris. Tatiana Niculescu Bran was born in 1962 in Bucharest. Her novel ‘Deadly Confession’ inspired the film ‘Beyond the Hills’, winner of a Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Her most recent book, ‘Agent’, was published by Polirom in 2013

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