How would you explain Britain to a Romanian who has never been here? Would you start with mundane facts, such as our practice of driving on the left-hand side of the road, not the right as over there? Would you tell him or her about Shakespeare, the Royal Family, the weather, cricket, and tea-time with cucumber sandwiches? Probably not if you are under 50, or live north of Leicestershire and west of Hay on Wye. Whatever your age and wherever you come from, it can be disconcerting to hear what people from other countries think about yours, like being told that you drive on the wrong side of the road.
“When I first came here I noticed a lack of principles in the general population, and my opinion hasn’t changed. On the contrary... There is a lack of shame.”
Alexandru – Alex for short - made that forthright remark after having kindly agreed to talk to me on skype a few days ago. He is a journalist with ten years experience of working in the Romanian mass media. Today he drives a taxi in Portsmouth. He has lived there for just over a year, and he, his wife and young son share a house with another family. Alex’s training - and his natural inclinations - have made him curious. He likes to know how things work, what makes people tick. Nothing daunted, he says that being a cabbie is one of the best ways to get to know a country. Getting to know Britain has been a revelation in more ways than one.
Alex comes from Brăila, an attractive old city in south-east Romania. Brăila has a population of about 160,000 – roughly three-quarters of the people in Portsmouth – which has settled comfortably on a lazy stretch of the Danube, close to the Moldovan and Ukrainian border just before the river loses itself in the Delta, where millions of migrating birds come to nest in the reedy wetlands, before seeping via thousands of byways into the Black Sea. Although Romania is a predominantly Latin country, Brăila is a Slavonic name. The city was first mentioned in Catalan navigation charts in 1325, and the Ottoman Empire ruled it for nearly 300 years. In the 19th century Brăila became one of the busiest ports in this part of what was then Wallachia, a principality struggling to keep its feet in the midst of much more powerful, rival powers. Graceful Neo-Classical and Neo-Baroque buildings adorn its centre, and along with the area’s stunning Neolithic and ancient Greek archaeology (to choose two periods at random), they show that this is – or was - a cosmopolitan place.
Brăila has seen better days. So have many of its people. In the socio-economic chaos that followed Romania’s 1989 revolution, conditions for ‘ordinary’ folk - i.e. those millions who were unlucky enough to miss out on the bonanza from the overnight sell-off of the State’s farm machinery, and from the dissolution of Romania’s industrial base - have had to struggle for survival without any government handouts.
A chaotic 17 years of getting used to ‘free market capitalism’ the hard way left many cynical about the blessings of the great white bird of the West, and then, in 2007, almost totally unprepared for it, the Romanians took the EU plunge. For Romania, joining the other 26 EU nations has probably been a good move in several ways - not just because of funding that has come their way but because membership of the European club has given its citizens a sense of belonging to the West rather than to Russia (which for historical reasons scares them rigid), even if they are not wholeheartedly in favour of down-graded, Western values - but huge inequalities persist, and government ineptitude if not downright greed has left the foot sloggers, who form a majority of the country’s 21 million inhabitants, feeling desperate. Like most Romanians who remember communism, Brăileans are used to hard graft. They also know how to live on their wits. For many, the only answer to an impossible situation at home has to look for work abroad. This they have been doing for many years, and as some pundits are admitting, there is no reason why the huge numbers of Romanians who want to work honestly should focus on Britain in 2014 rather than other, closer European countries available to them. We cannot vouch for the dishonest ones, but other nations have their criminals too. To date, most Romanians working abroad have chosen Germany, Italy and Spain as being the most convenient nations to aim for, because they are not only closer to Romania but lie within the Schengen Agreement which allows free movement across their internal borders.
“Why did you come to Britain?” I asked him.
“It was an opportunity for me to take food; I had a friend who was already in the country and he told me there was a chance to work with hire cars. I had given up my job on a paper in Bucharest called Adevarul (The Truth) because I did not agree with the way it was run.”
If you are lucky in Romania, you can earn 400 Euros a month, but such earnings are by no means the norm, and with rising fuel costs many people find this income impossible to live on. Because of their thriftiness, and the survival of the extended family network, some manage by growing their own food on small gospodării (small family farms, ‘subsistence’ farms in official speak), and sharing it with city-based kin.
“Did you try to get work as a journalist?”
“Yes, I tried once. Someone gave me the name of the picture editor of a local newspaper. But you know what? I sent him my cv but he never even replied!”
Anyone who has also tried this gambit knows that this is by no means unusual for anyone looking for a job in the British press, wherever they come from.
On political correctness:
“I think it has been imported from the Americans and it is doing a lot of harm. You make too big a thing of it. For example, why does someone object, when I stop the car for 15 seconds on a disabled parking space, at a time when it is perfectly free? 15 seconds! It’s a kind of double standards. In Romania, you are used to think for yourself – but this sort of thing suspends common sense.
“In Romania, whenever you go into a shop for example, it’s your fault if something goes wrong; the assistants aren't interested, but here in UK as a service provider, I have had a very bad experience, too. Here ‘the customer is always right’ and they are NOT always right!
“I have observed that you can’t have an argument with the British. The moment you say ‘hello’ and they know you’re not British, some people don’t say a word after that. There are several reactions to the question ‘where are you from?’ Every time I end up swallowing my words. They start off very polite, thanking you 20 times – I believe the first one, but not the rest. they are suspicious of you as a taxi driver, about fares and payment, all because you’re a foreigner.”
On drunkenness in the streets:
“I have never been drunk in my life: I hated to see people drunk and never wanted to be like that. But can you answer me this: why does everybody, and I mean everyone from 15 to 90, go to the pub and get drunk? Why do educated, rich young women get drunk and show themselves off in the middle of the street? In Romania, most women would never do that; they have too much shame. My colleagues, who work at night, have had their minds blown.
Alex acknowledges that life in Britain is neither better nor worse than elsewhere, it is just different. He is a great fan of BBC Radio 4 - "I listen to it all the time" - and there are a few other things that he likes:
“People around us, they are used to immigrants and understand our condition. They try to help us and are very tolerant. I have to think how it would be for a Chinese taxi driver in Bucharest who didn’t know the route.” I can imagine: his passenger would despise him and fly off the handle.
“At home it’s not save to be a taxi driver. Here, in one year, I have been verbally attacked but never in fear of my life. There it’s different. Society still works here.
“At home we are used to seeing Gypsies begging in the streets, whereas the British would be shocked by that.”
On government handouts:
“My parents and grandparents taught me to stand alone, to be self-reliant. There are too many pillows around people here. I mean the benefits [system of social security]. I really dislike this kind of behaviour. Why do people not help themselves? You know in Romanian there are words for this: mila (pity or charity) and pomana (alms). If someone receives money or help, it’s shameful.”
“You know, I think British people don’t know how to feel any more. And it’s because of fear. Did you see the film Crash?”
“No, I haven’t, but I’ve read about it”.
“Well in Crash, people are so desensitised that they have to get violent to feel anything. I think it’s because of fear. You know, all those surveillance cameras, and it breeds fear, not internal morality. At home [in Romania], you learn from others how to behave; here you learn from the government, which knows best. In Romania that fear doesn’t exist. You can feel yourself free there as a human being, as a free animal.”
As a too-complacent Brit, this was the most uncomfortable comparison: after all, was not Romania the country that was forced into nearly 50 years of brutal communist rule? And they feel freer than us? But I know exactly what Alex means, because that sense of personal freedom is one of the joys of travelling in Romania.
And there is another weird paradox:
“The Brits say you’re lucky to have a job here – so I feel ashamed to be working!”
Should he stay or should he go?
“I’m 33 years old and I don’t want to forget who I am. And I have to think of my son [who is three]. I ask myself, ‘do I want to make him British?’ If I did that, he would miss a lot of very good customs in Romania. The education could be better here, but I don’t think he would become a superior person.
By the same token, he does not feel easy about returning to his homeland, mainly because of the lack of the physical, legal and financial security. It is a hard dilemma.
Alex is keeping his hand in the writing game by publishing three blogs. You can find them via these links:
After we had finished talking, Alex sent me a link to a song performed by Păsarea Colibri (The Humming Bird), a Romanian folk group. The lyrics come from a poem by George Coşbuc, a poet I have heard a lot about but never read. Its title is Lordul John and its message is pretty clear – that just because you are a British aristocrat, don’t think you are better than the rest of us. I will translate it later, but for now, eat your heart out, Alf Garnett:
Un barbat grozav de tare.
Lordul John prinzând de veste
Cine e si unde este
Vrea sa stie daca e adevarat
Ca multi lorzi de vita veche
Din îndepartatul nord
Lordul John e-ntr-o ureche
Fluiera pe drum si cânta
Si e cel dintâi la trînta
Si e cel mai tare lord
A gasit în urma satul
Pe taran el l-a gasit
Ocupat cu maturatul
Si asa, ochindu-l bine,
Lordul drept spre dânsul vine,
Far-a-i zice, far-a-i zice bun gasit.
Si-apoi gata de bataie
El se-ndreapta spre taran
- Spui ca esti grozav de tare
De ti-a mers cuvânt prin lume
Eu din Londra vin anume
Trânta deci cu tine vreau.
Dar taranul se cruceste,
Simte palmele ca-i ard
Lenes târnul si-l propteste
Scuipa-n palme si se-ntinde
Si pe lord de brâu îl prinde
Si-l azvârle, si-l azvârle peste gard.
- O sa stau acum cu tine
Sa ma lupt.
Mai vrei ceva?
Auzi tu cu ce gând vine!
Lordul John privind cu jale
Si tinându-se de sale
Spune sa-i azvârle calul
Sa poata pleca.