G (who asked that I don't use his real name) and I met this past summer when he was visiting Romania. We talked over drinks and I was struck by his keen sense of observation about the way things are going in Romania.When I sent him the following list questions, he didn't shy away from formulating very pointed answers, and I'm grateful for that.
1. You moved away to Australia as a 6 year old. Do you remember what you first liked about the new continent, and what you missed about Europe?
1. You moved away to Australia as a 6 year old. Do you remember what you first liked about the new continent, and what you missed about Europe?
I moved to Australia when I was 7.5 – left Romania when I was 5. I spent a year in other European countries where my parents both worked as Engineers before we eventually received permission to migrate to Australia. Before leaving, we had been living in Germany for almost two years, where I had finished kindergarten and first grade in primary school. I had friends there, I enjoyed the environment, and I was not looking forward to leaving to somewhere so far away; these are also the things I missed.
Australia is a very different place to Europe – and was so even more so at the start of the 1990’s. It’s very insular due to its isolation – in a way, I was lucky we moved to Melbourne as it was full of migrants / 1st and 2nd generation, as a lot of people left Europe after WW2 and settled there. The first thing I actually liked about the place is that, for all its faults, there are many good things going on – great beaches, nice national parks, and on average, less visible corruption (that still happens, but it happens at a higher level in politics/business/government and doesn’t transparently affect people as much as it does in Romania).
2. Do you maintain any traditions from the 'old country'.
Not really. My parents never practiced religion or forced traditions on me. I mean, we speak the mother tongue at home, naturally we also eat traditional home cooked meals (which are traditional to our family I guess), but beyond that, no.
3. How often have you visited Romania since leaving?
Not as often as I wished; with a one way distance of around 20,000km or approx. one whole day of flying (if you don’t count stopovers and waiting), and with a cost running into $2000 AUD return, it’s an expensive exercise. I’ve been back 4 times since having left, twice when I was growing up, and twice since I’ve started working.
4. Have you notice any changes over time?
Dramatic changes. I don’t remember too much from my two trips in the 1990’s (96 and 98) but my trip in 2010 and 2013 have painted a dramatic and contrasting change. I consider myself fairly observant and the most dramatic changes I have noticed are:· Between the 1990’s and 2010’s consumerism has increased exponentially – and with it, what I would consider mindless brainwashing. The one thing that Americans are good at exporting is consumerism – and between 2010 and 2013 I think Romania must have adopted it almost as a national motto. I see so many useless things advertised (TV, stores, trams, even on people’s cars) that it feels surreal. So much rubbish that people don’t need but yet are convinced they do. The people from the 90’s that I remember – well they didn’t care for much of it. They didn’t buy into gimmicks, they were blunt and honest, and they shunned throw away appliances and preferred the stuff from 40-50 years ago that was still running!
· Between 2010 and 2013 it feels like the average normal people have lost hope – and by that I mean that the vibe I got when travelling and talking to people now, as opposed to three years ago, was that a lot of people didn’t see a future. I heard people lament that there’s nothing that can be done – that it’s the equivalent of “being stranded on a desert island, with just enough coconuts to sustain you and a tree-house for shelter, but with the waters slowly rising from global warming knowing that they’ll inevitably drown” (yes, that’s an actual quote). It certainly felt that way – and my opinion is that it’s because people have cottoned onto the fact that the revolution was “manufactured” to concentrate wealth and power into the hands of few under the guise of a new, fair, democratic system, yet 20+ years on things are worse for most when it comes to baseline living. It wasn’t like this in 2010 yet, so the change is dramatic.
· Renewal – some positive things that I’ve seen are that some select cities are being revamped / renovated. Places like Brasov have had quite a bit of work done and they look spectacular. Now if only the same thing could be done for other smaller places, and maybe if the countryside could be cleaned up a bit…
5. What do you like best about Romania?
On average, people over there are still very friendly and hospitable. The older people don’t buy into the lies the politicians are selling (they’ve seen it all before) and don’t allow themselves to be manipulated over trivialities like background/heritage. They’ll have a chat, share a meal, and just make you feel at home. The younger generation is the same as everywhere else in the west – and I hope they take charge and change the system to something better.
6. What do you dislike about it?
The corruption. The propaganda used to distract the populace from the real issues. Trying to blame things on one group or another (hell, this goes for other countries where politicians try to distract the populace by blaming something on another group too). The abject apathy displayed by the people. I’m not saying there needs to be blood in the streets, but at some point, something has to change – people have to shake themselves of their apathy, get together, and hold people to account.
7. What do you consider to be a root cause for the negative light in which Romania is often portrayed in the media? Do you think it's justified?
This is going to be politically incorrect, but I’m just going to say it – gypsies. Everyone assumes that all gypsies and beggars they run into, known commonly as “Roma” are representative of Romania. That and cybercrime. Justified? Look there’s always a little bit of truth behind it, but on the whole, no, not really. Simply put, you cannot just lump a group of people into a category and blame the whole group for the actions of a small minority. The ones that cause the problems need to be held accountable. Anyone who is corrupt and accepts a bribe needs to be held accountable. The people need to change their socially accepted moral code and only then – when they don’t accept the status quo and weed out corruption – only then will things change. Running around and blaming the entire gypsy group is wrong and counterproductive – start by holding any person in a position in authority accountable, and if you disable the enablers, things will sort themselves out.
8. If you had the opportunity to work in Romania in your chosen field, would you take? Why/why not?
I would not work in Romania as an Engineer – or in any other profession that I can think of – at least not on a full time basis. This is not just because the lack of income or opportunity (I’ve met quite a lot of Romanian Engineers who’ve left Romania specifically because of this). My main reasons are as outlined above (corruption, general feeling) – but even then, the truth is, I could not remain in one place for too long – I long travel too much and I prefer working in a global environment.
Having said that, I did say not on a permanent basis – so I’d entertain the idea of taking a job / running a business which took me in and out of Romania (and other countries as well), but I would still not live there on a permanent basis.
9. Here's a soapbox, get on it and give us any other thoughts on the matter.
First – disclosure – my background is ethnically Hungarian (well probably around 75%) – and I am an Engineer with ample experience working in the resources industries (mining/oil/gas) and a background in electronics/
telecommunications, but don’t
hold this against me! (I’m also not a conspiracy nut / communist
/ socialist /
capitalist or fervent supporter of any one single ideology).
Firstly, I think Romania (and Eastern Europe) are in for a shock. There is so much opportunity to make something better of it all, but I think the people are too slow to wake up and realise the breadth and depth of the machinations with regards to what is happening. It’s blindingly obvious to those, in Romania and other places, if they don’t let themselves be led by mindless consumerism.
People need to want change – and be willing to fight for it. I think this is something that has been lost on the new generation (thank you TV, Internet, and learned complacency via brainwashing media!). They need to rid themselves (through legal avenues) of the corrupt politicians. The country needs to reform and society needs to take an introspective approach; do people really want to leave their grandchildren a crumbling shell of a nation as their legacies? The country is resource, intellect, and labour rich. It has extremely innovative people, who leave because the opportunities don’t exist locally to express these ideas and have them flourish. None of this will happen without reforms.
I don’t know which system works best – but I can tell it’s not the current one. The Scandinavian style of social policies, to me, seems to mix just the right amount of social welfare with capitalism and consumerism; barriers to entry are low when it comes to businesses due the lowest corruption level recognised on most globally measured indices. This is something Romania can achieve. The people need to want it, and believe it can be done. They need to drop the feeling that they’re a broken people and do more things together as a community again, for the good of the group. (Yes I know this sounds like it borders on advocating communism, but I promise, it is not what I’m going for).
Another thing that really annoys me – what the hell has happened to the train system in Romania! People stealing newly laid rails? Nails? Girders? If someone’s doing this for profit, because it’s easier than holding a normal job – throw the book at them and stop letting them get away with it. Trains are what bring the tourists in (more so than buses and planes), so if you want more foreign investment in the country, make people actually enjoy their journey through it. The quality also needs to improve, as traveling from Austria/Hungary (not going to mention Germany/France) to Romania the differences were night and day. Speaking of night, the overnight trains were disgusting … it was very sad to see. They need an overhaul.
When it comes to corporations, especially multinationals – the government needs to make sure the people are not exploited while politicians or friends / family thereof receive kickbacks. Corruption needs to be stamped out and this can only happen if people demand reform, and hold their representatives to account.
Naturally environmental concerns aren’t high on the list when people are finding it hard to make do / put food on the table. But things like environmental stewardship and collective consciousness are very important. Your coverage of the mining fiasco with Rosia Montana is an example where corruption + multinationals + locals + environmental concerns came to clash. I sincerely hope that the mine is not permitted to go ahead, because the truth is that it will be a net cost to the country over the next century. This is because CIL and CIP processes, which are used in mining and refining gold, are very hazardous and the tailings dams need to be lined very specifically / maintained for a very long time – otherwise eventually cyanide will leech into the groundwater and contaminate the ecosystem / water supply. I could go into further technical details, but that will take a whole other post (I’ve worked with tailings dams in the mining industry). Suffice it to say, the public has not been informed of the whole truth – or the environmental impact statement and maintenance estimates were incomplete or incorrect.
I want Romania to succeed. I want it to be better. I want the standard of living to be high enough so the average person doesn’t have to think about “Should I buy that bit of beef and not have hot water / turn off the lights all the time to save on my electricity bills?” It’s an embarrassment to know that the social services have become so bad that average people are just getting by, on an average monthly salary (the law needs to change on this one), while seeing politicians driving around in €100,000 cars.
I would like to see a Romania which is not rife with corruption, where people don’t look at each other and think “Oh, Romanian” or “Oh, Hungarian” or “Oh Gipsy” etc. This is not idealism, it’s a simple fact that when people aren’t pushed to the edge of poverty, when they have something to look forward to, and they have work where they feel content and productive, these types of thoughts disappear / don’t really enter the collective consciousness. Yes there are problems with Romanians, Hungarians, and Gipsies – a small, tiny subset of them – but it’s no different with others in the world. One thing we need to recognize, as individuals and groups, is that most of us have very similar needs, wants, and desires – shelter, food, companionship, comforts, and opportunities (and to be left alone at times!).
On a final note – as much as I am for a “Global Community”, I don’t think Romania (or most Eastern European nations) are ready completely to allow insane foreign investment in certain asset subclasses – things like housing, farm land, etc for example should be restricted. This only helps big corporations and high net wealth individuals (and is one of the reasons that the South-East Asian nations are not permitting outright ownership of houses and businesses in many nations like Thailand and Vietnam). The net effect, Romania has already felt – unreasonably high prices that nobody can really afford, with very few becoming very wealthy and most being priced out of the market, even after the prices have fallen. I’m not saying this is easily undone or can be rolled back, but certain limitations could still be put in place to discourage this practice.In summary, Romania will always have a place in my life, but only if there is systematic and positive change will it ever become a focal point again.