As our train heads north from Bucharest’s Gara de Nord train station, the rhythmic sounds of the train’s wheels fill our carriage. We’re in a second class compartment on our way to Transylvania, and the initial landscape leaves a lot to be desired: garbage is strewn across barren fields next to the tracks. Mangled plastic bags and bottles feature prominently in my view, as does the boxy, utilitarian architecture of Romania’s recent past. It’s a view that makes you think, what the heck are you doing here? And it is one I think many Western Europeans and North Americans have when they imagine Romania today.
It’s hard to talk about my impressions of Romania without bringing up another R word: racism. The scene above is — I think — how many people from North America and Western Europe imagine Romania. Cold and boxy and communism-y. Poor and dirty. Filled with gypsies who will steal your camera if given the opportunity. It’s that last part — the gypsies more than the others — that seems to hang like a noose around Romania’s collective neck in the eyes of much of the world.
For the past six months — a period that happened to coincide with restrictions being lifted on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens who wish to work in other EU countries — we’ve gotten most of our news from UK sources. And that news has made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that Romania is a dirty word. The narrative goes something like this:
- Romania is a crap hole filled with uneducated beggars.
- The UK is neither a crap hole, nor is it filled with uneducated beggars.
- Romania has virtually no social safety net, whereas the UK has one worthy of the world’s envy.
- Most Romanians would obviously prefer to live in the UK rather than their homeland (see points 1 through 3 if you’re wondering why).
- The inevitable influx of Romanians will cripple the UK’s social welfare net and result in higher unemployment among Britons.
Am I oversimplifying? Yes. Am I exaggerating? Somewhat. There’s hyperbole, but not much. The news we saw was — in our opinion — racist to the point that no one seemed to care enough to hide it.
It’s not just the UK that has jumped on this crazy train. Far from it. Nor, obviously, does every person in the UK or anywhere else hold these views. Probably not even a majority. But it does seem to be a brand of institutionalized racism. And we did hear a common refrain of surprise among travelers who have come to visit Romania: surprise it is so modern, surprise the people are so cool and nice, and surprise the country is so awesome.
The “Romania = poverty-stricken/eastern/gypsy” narrative seems to have been propped up by politicians and the media. After spending one month traveling around the country, I also think it’s wrong.
Here’s the thing: Romania is awesome.
Yes, the outskirts of Bucharest are undeniably ugly, but so are the outskirts of Paris,
and I don’t hear anyone complaining about Parisians.
And it’s true that even the best parts of Bucharest have a ways to go if they’re ever going to compete with the Eastern European tourist darlings of Prague or Budapest or even Krakow. It’s not that Bucharest doesn’t have charm, just that its pieces of charm are small and highly concentrated. And yet…
For us, Bucharest is a breath of fresh air compared to some cities’ carefully constructed tourist faces. And we never felt as welcomed by local people in Budapest as we have by Romanians (to be fair, part of this is probably circumstance: we stayed in a seriously awesome hostel in Bucharest with really friendly staff, and one of Romania’s top travel bloggers showed us around when we first arrived). Romanians are super nice, and we’re not the only travelers to notice this: Interwebz friends Tom, Erick, and Talon & Tigger all loved their time in Romania.
Indeed, our first impression — and our enduring impression — of Romania is that this country has a lot going for it. On a sunny Friday afternoon, life in Bucharest looks a lot like it would in Seville or Edinburgh or Toronto: the sidewalks are filled with tables and chairs, and friends — professionals, mostly — are meeting friends for a beer or cocktail and some food. It’s different from those places of course: there are no Spanish tapas or whisky bars (obvs.), you can still smoke inside (ewww), and Bucharest’s mayor doesn’t seem to be a crack addict, at least so far as we could tell (couldn’t resist; sorry, Toronto). But, overall, young Bucharesters are stylish and cool and artistic and entrepreneurial. We spent as much time talking with young Romanians about True Detective and Game of Thrones as we did about politics, history and the economy.
It’s not all sunshine and lollipops, I know. One day, we took a cab through Bucharest and the driver spent the entire 15-minute journey educating us about the way things are. He was scarcely able to hide his frustration about the state of his country, and — his words — what the EU had done to Romania. He was angry at the EU, and he was pissed at the Romanian government for their part in it. We talked to other cab drivers who felt the same, as well as young people and professionals who despaired the state of their country and were angry about government corruption. It’s not a new story, of course, nor is it a story that’s unique to Romania, but it still sucks.
So it’s not all rainbows unicorns. By a long shot. We’ve seen people huffing paint thinner in plain view — just walking along the street, breathing in toxic fumes for a quick and brutal high. I’ve seen huffing before, but only in Cambodia, a country much poorer than Romania, and it wasn’t as visible. There’s a lot of apathy toward the government. A lot. And it seems to be shared across the generational spectrum. People are sick of corruption.
And yet, I’ve also yet to see what the UK media warned of: dishevelled masses of Romanians who are desperate to escape their relatively comfortable existence for uncertainty in Western Europe and the UK. Those who are leaving Romania seem to be, for the most part, young, highly educated, and with impressive language skills. They are people who would contribute wherever they go, not suck the social system dry, and — quite frankly — Romania would miss them.
Maybe I’m not looking hard enough?
That brings me to another R word.
We’re in another taxi, this time in the lovely university city of Cluj-Napoca, which everyone just calls Cluj. Our driver, who spent 15 years in Ireland and the UK, is telling us how awful he is finding life back in Romania since returning one year ago. He tells us that his friends from the past are on drugs or get drunk in the morning. He is Romanian, but he is also Romani. In his own words:
“I’m a gypsy, but I’m not like many gypsies. I have a job. I have a diploma.”
Gypsie is a pejorative term. Consider the English term for getting ripped off — gypped — and you can see why. Romani is the term to use if you don’t want to come across as a total ignoramus, and it refers to an ethnic group who have been discriminated against since they came to Europe from India 1,000 years ago. And yet, everyone in Romania uses gypsy (when speaking English, at least) even — apparently — Romani people themselves.
The Romani have a bad reputation, and it seems impossible to go anywhere in Europe without running into them. In Seville and Granada, Romani women approach tourists in the street with bundles of sage. They offer the sage as a gift, and if you are foolish enough to accept, they demand money. Geoff and I got to the point where we’d shove our hands deep into our pockets whenever we saw these women so they’d have nowhere to put their gift. Geoff would literally scream “OCCUPY HANDS” as we approached these ladies, reminding me to, well, occupy my hands.
And yet in Romania, the Romani span the economic spectrum. There are rich gypsies and poor ones. There are Romani — like our taxi driver in Cluj — who choose to leave their culture and live amongst mainstream society. There are Romani who beg and steal, but there are many who don’t. And, yes – there are Romani who have traveled to the UK and are claiming benefits.
So what does all this have to do with contemporary Romania and racism? Nothing. And everything. It’s complicated.
Romanians are distinct from ethnic Romani. The Romani live throughout Europe; Romania has large numbers of Romani, but so do Spain and France and the US and other countries. Romania seems to be mostly picked on because of the large numbers of Roma, and the linguistic similarity: Romanian vs. Romani. The similarity makes it impossible, it seems, to forget the association between Romanians and Romani, and all of Romania seems to be destined to be saddled with the rather poor reputations of a relatively small proportion of its citizens.
There is another problem, however: the logic used to “defend” Romania against the reputation of the Romani necessitates slagging the Romani:
A: Why are you going to Romania? Don’t Romanians, like, steal from you?
B: No, that’s the Roman-i, not Roman-ians.
A: Oh (lightbulb moment).
In other words, the common way to defend Romania against the prejudice of outsiders, it seems, is to push the prejudice somewhere else. And while the reputation of Romani may be deserved by some members of the community — the women and children begging in Spain and France do seem to have less than honourable intentions at times — the reputation surely can’t be deserved by the entire ethnic group. Or an entire country. I just can’t believe that. And how is it different from any other group of people or society?
The hysteria we heard about Romania while in the UK? It couldn’t have been further from the experiences we had in Romania, which were awesome.
When we chat to people about our time in Romania, the most common reaction is a strange incredulity followed by confusion and then curiosity. The question we get more than any other: what is it like there? When mentioned in the media, Romania is often described as one of the poorest countries in Europe. And this, along with the Romani association, seems to saddle the country with a rather unfair reputation.
After spending a month in Romania, we have this to say about the place: Romania is awesome. The people are insanely nice. Young Romanians — at least those we met — are cool and well educated and cosmopolitan and well traveled. We made friends with a few locals who, I’m sure, we’ll remain in touch with for years to come, and will hopefully see again, either in Romania or abroad. We were not robbed by gypsies.
In addition to having great people, Romania is beautiful. Far from being scary and filled with vampires, Transylvania is a wonderful place to visit, with quaint villages that wouldn’t look out of place in Germany’s Bavaria region. People in most cities have a high level of English, and even if some don’t, Romanian is a Latin language, meaning it’s pretty easy to figure out the meaning of many written words if you have some basic French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese. Ice cream is cheap — like less than $1.00 Canadian for a scoop in a waffle cone — and you can get a half liter of Ciuc beer, one of the local lagers, for about $2.50. If that’s too rich for you, you can get generic beers for even less.
The worst part about travel in Romania was how long it took to get around. Romania doesn’t have a particularly well-developed highway system, and the trains are slow. That said, the main destinations that most tourists want to see — Brasov, Sibiu, Sighisoara, Cluj, and Timisoara — are within three to 10 hours from each other. Not great, but manageable, particularly if you take an overnight train for the longer journeys.