Neighbours make a revolution

by Raluca David

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Many of the readers, I am sure, will be more or less knowledgeable about the recent controversy over Romanians and Bulgarians immigrating to the UK. Some say we are coming here to steal their jobs and their houses, or their state benefits – and now, we have been advised to stay away from Britain, because it is rainy and cold. This spring’s weather seems to come at the right time to make a point. But I will attempt to persuade the reader that some of us Romanians in the UK are not here to steal your jobs. Some of us are here to plot the New Romanian Revolution. And for our purposes, a rainy cold climate is just what we need so we can hide away and plot.

One year ago, for the 2012 Romulus magazine, Cristina Parau wrote about her childhood in rural Romania in communist times. She, like most of her generation, lived in a small village where summer was spent growing food only to have it taken away by the State in autumn. Winter was not better. When there were no electricity cuts, you could watch Dallas on TV – it was the only programme besides communist propaganda. Libraries were empty, and the few people that had books hid them away out of fear of imprisonment. That was Romania in the 70s and 80s, when our fellow Wolfsonian Cristina was growing up. No wonder she came to the conclusion Romania is a wounded country – a society whose horizons were cut so short, people’s main preoccupation was to watch their neighbours and be watched. And if you did dare look outside of your box then “what would the neighbours say?”.

This certainly looks like the perfect recipe for a society that collapses onto itself. But here I am, child of the 90s, telling you a different story. I was born a few months after our communist leader was killed, only a few months into the 90s – but just enough so that the first air my lungs took in was an air of liberty. Now, doing a DPhil in Psychology here in Oxford, I have an understanding of what has happened to me. I know that the way one learns to see one’s self and the world as a child will remain throughout one’s life. I was brought up in a growing society – a society where everyone was looking ahead only for a better and better tomorrow. Change was not a hope for us, in post-communist Romania. It was a daily reality. It all began with not having to queue for our food for hours, and being able to get oranges even outside Christmas time. At first I wore clothes sent from Germany by our newly-emigrated friends. We lived in a one-room studio, me, my mother and my father. Then my father started going to “The Abroad” and coming back with miscellaneous objects to sell on the Romanian market. Romanian people worked hard throughout the 1980s, gathering money – when there was nothing to actually buy. That is why in the early 90s, even the German umbrellas from our closet were on high demand. So we moved to a 3-bedroom apartment. Soon, my father started importing German cars to sell – and around the same time came a succession of our very own Volkswagen Passatt cars – four second-hand ones and then finally, about ten years ago, our very first new car. As I was growing up, so was Romania: and that’s how I learnt the world works – a world in which every day meant a better day and a better place.

The trick worked for me. I studied hard and I went to the best school in town – though my family was not particularly wealthy this was possible in the post-communist Romania where it was still a normality that all schools belong to the state and were free to everyone, provided your grades were good enough. The school taught me equality in a bizarre way – although it was the best school, classmates came from very varied backgrounds. Yet most of us had two experiences in common: holidays spent in the countryside with grandparents, chickens and pigs; and afternoons spent playing in the mud outside the block of communist flats, together with the fireman’s daughter and the doctor’s son. I didn’t imagine that to some people this would seem unusual, until I came to England and the notion of “social class” was explained to me.

The air of liberty and of progress was deep in our lungs, as Romanian teens of the millennium. When I was in high school, the very first kids in our school were starting to leave for “The Abroad” and because this was the norm if you wanted to do well, I followed. A big flock of us followed. Around 30,000 Romanians currently study in universities around the world (according to statistics of the International League of Romanian Students Abroad). Of all countries, the largest number, at the moment, is in the United Kingdom: around 4,500.

Last year, Cristina was telling you about a Romania where the eyes of the neighbours were closely watching you and preventing you from looking anywhere outside your horizons. Am I telling you about a whole different Romania? Not quite. Neighbours are still watching. But now, the norm is you have to be the best, to gather the most, to reach the highest – because the neighbours are watching. As a child in Romania when you get back from school with a 95%, your mother will ask how many of the kids got 100% – and most importantly, which of the kids. When I was doing my first year of BSc in Durham University, I was shocked when, after the first assessment, I was not allowed to know how the others did. But like any proper Eastern-European, I found my way around this. We were meant to pick up our marked essays from a pile in the departmental common room, and as soon as I learned that the results were out I ran there and counted all the people that had done better or worse than me. By my second year, I gave up the habit. My brother, who is 13, is still in school back in Romania. When he comes home from school with a 95%, I ask him what he would like to improve.

Is my version of Romania any better than Cristina’s? Am I proud of the thousands of poor Romanians going to Italy, Spain, even Britain, to work hard and buy a Mercedes so they can show off back in their village? Is it in any way surprising that after decades of having nothing, the village is impressed with the shiny, luxurious new object? We all want a life of comfort and plenty, do we not? Except Romania is ill with this desire. Unfortunately the Mercedes has another effect: envy and spite. This is where society forms its cracks, where its solidity is weakened.  And when the whole of society has this same greediness, including the political class, you have all the ingredients for corruption. But who should fight corruption, in a society so full of cracks it will break at the first move?

This is the time for my story to take a turn. Think back to the 30,000 Romanian students abroad. According to estimates of the International League of Romanian Students Abroad, around 30% of these students wish to return and change something in our society. They now come from outside of the system. They care little what the neighbours say, for they have had neighbours all around the world now. So I ask you again – is there any good to come from a society so greedy and so obsessed with gathering? No, not directly – but as a side effect, here we are, 100 Romanians in Oxford according to estimates of the Oxford Romanian Society. Would we have been here if not for the flawed society pushing us further? Certainly, some brave ones would have made it. But how about the majority of us, whose grandparents never dreamt of going to University and whose parents, when they were our age, thought they would never cross the border of Romania?  The very fault of society served well to force Romanians to go further – so now we can return and change society from its roots. Is that possible? I think so, and let me tell you why I am an optimist. Let me tell you a little about what, and especially who, has shaped our identity as Romanians over the centuries and decades.

Around the year 1600, Romania was split into three countries: Transylvania (to the west), the Romanian Country (to the south) and Moldavia (to the north-east). All three of them were under foreign rule – and the Romanian Country and Moldavia were under the Ottoman Empire. At that time, it was not unusual for Romanian nobility from these two provinces to become educated at the Ottoman court, and such was the case for Prince Dimitrie Cantemir. Name sounds familiar? That is because very recently, the Cantemir Institute was founded within the University of Oxford. So what did this prince do to get an institute with his name? Being one of the most educated of his time in Moldavia, he wrote books – and among them was the first written history of Moldavia, which even today shapes what Romanian children learn in history classes.

For a long while after Cantemir, the Romanian “cultural scene” remained silent – the provinces were too busy fighting the Ottoman Empire. Then, in the late 1800s, Romanian culture suddenly flourished and we had Classicism, Realism and Romanticism happening all at once. This was all made possible by a bunch of peasants, including our national poet Mihai Eminescu, going abroad – this time to Austria and Germany – to be educated. Coming back from Berlin and carrying the flame of European Romanticism, Eminescu wrote about the Romanian village, the life of a people close to nature, and about great historical figures fighting for the provinces. Through all of these, he wrote about what it means to be Romanian. Nowadays, most people in Romania, even those not at all interested in poetry, will still be able to recite at least some verses from Eminescu.

Between the two great wars there was a short time when we finally did not need to go abroad to define ourselves. “The Abroad” came to us. Romania was finally a kingdom united  and our kings and queens of German origin put us back on the map of Europe. Bucharest was called the Little Paris – it was bohemian, free-minded, and it had its own spirit. Our writers and musicians were speaking of both the urban and the rural Romania. Of the intellectual Romania – and even today when we define intellectuality in Romania, we think of them. But there was even more to this period. If Romania has ever had a say in the world of ideas at a European level, it was at that time. Maybe you’ve heard of Dadaism, the “avant-garde” art movement. Dadaism was initiated, among others, by Romanians in Zurich, who turned literature upside down and started writing sentences made from words randomly cut out of newspapers.

The good times didn’t last – there came the second World War, communism, and “The Odious” (Ceausescu, by the nick-name Romanians used for him). What we keep dear today from these times are the free-spirited Romanians who escaped and went to Paris or the United States. One of the most appreciated Romanian philosophers wrote in French. He was called Emil Cioran, though you may not know him. But perhaps you’ve heard of Eugen Ionesco (originally Ionescu), the Romanian playwright working in Paris at the same time. I can go on and tell you about George Enescu, our greatest composer, who also worked in Paris. When we speak today of who Romanians are and what we have done, we say these names.

Many of these expatriots missed Romania dearly, but there was no way for them to return. The regime would have swallowed them. Make them write propaganda, perish in prison, or dig at “The Canal” (the canal between the Danube and the Black Sea which was meant to enable transport between these. Later Ceausescu also wanted to build a Canal to move the Danube to Bucharest, which was never accomplished. Today, however, the young Romanians educated in Paris, Berlin, Harvard, Oxford or all the hundreds of other great places CAN return and WILL return – at least some of them. What will this mean for the country? If we go by the algorithm of history, which I have done my best to describe here, I believe it would mean a New Romanian Revolution. One for the spirit and for society, for a real change to take place. Maybe 1989 was not really a revolution; some argue that it wasn’t, since the ex members of the communist party became the new democratic leaders in 1990. This is not for me to judge here, I was not even born at that time. But maybe the real revolution is yet to come. A New Romanian Revolution. A new Romanian identity. This I believe is for me to judge, because I am here, in Oxford, seeing it with my eyes.

So be patient, and don’t throw us out of Britain just yet. Bear with us, and keep your eyes on the Romanian teens of the millennium – because this is all taking place under your eyes.


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