On my last day before moving to Romania, I made a stop at my usual bakery.
- Hey, I came by to tell you that it’s the last time we meet.
- Ah, tired of Paris already? Where are you moving?
- To Romania.
- But, why!?
- To work there.
- To work? But there’s no work there!
- What do you mean?
- Why else would they possibly all come to beg here?
Bam, she said the words. To beg. She could already picture me in an rusty old train, on my way to the gates of hell. While China produces cheap electronics, Romania would be a huge beggar factory, massively producing poor people ready to ask for money all over Europe.
“Mâna întinsă care nu spune o poveste nu primeşte pomană!” — The hand that does not tell a story does not receive charity!
While the very funny Romanian movie “Filantropica” is self-ironical with this cliché, Romanians appear to suffer from it. Already back in Paris, my friend Vlad was mad about it. I could witness his anger when, after introducing himself at a party, he got asked :
- Hey, what’s with the accent? Where are you from?
- Oh. You want money man?
I was wondering what was going on in his mind at that point. Well, he simply felt like a black guy who’d got offered a banana “for fun”. Drunk French humor do not cross every borders apparently.
This got me thinking. How can you revamp a country’s bad image? Today i’m going to try with “More Communication”. Here is an article to show you that Romania is not only about poverty and despair. As I live in Bucharest, I will talk about what I know. But first, let me do a quick sum-up of the situation.
What is Romania?
Well, to make it short it’s one of the main European Latin countries and the last one to hold a direct reference in its name to the Roman empire. Quite logically, Romanian is one of the closest language to the original Latin, mixed with a touch of French and Slavic among others. The country used to have some strong French influences, which more recently were replaced by American ones, as well in terms of culture than politically-speaking. Indeed Romania lies between Russia and the West, making it a key strategic ally for the US. In between, the country lived 40 years of communism lead by Nicolae Ceaușescu, until he was executed at the end of the bloody 1989 Revolution.
Part of the confusion comes from the Romani people (also referred to as Gypsies), a nomadic tribe originating from Northern India. They are part of the 3 main minorities living in Romania, alongside Hungarian and Germans. As a nomadic people they are very badly perceived and shunned everywhere they go, especially in Romania. At the same time, mafia-like groups have sprung up, enslaving and forcing them to beg in the streets. When in 2007 Romania entered the European Union, it triggered a massive movement toward richer countries, suddenly amplifying their visibility. Because of their name similarities, the Romani are often seen as representing the entire country, when actually Turkey or Spain hold way bigger crowds than Romania.
Getting rich after the Revolution
It is not very clear what happened during the 1989 Revolution; many even doubt that it was a real revolution. The fact is that when the shift from communism to capitalism happened, the country’s assets were quickly privatized and divided between a few. While Romania has one of the smallest GDP of the former communist countries, it also boasts one of the largest number of great fortunes. Take the example of Rompetrol, once a state-owned oil company. Worth $615 million, it was sold in 1998 at the very cheap price of $50 million to Romanian Dinu Patriciu. He then sold it 12 years later for a whopping $2 billion to a Kazakh company. He explains that the deal with the Romanian state was totally legal, the state just did not have the intellectual resources to conduct better negotiations.
Chopping off heads
But there’s something new. Recently, an anti-corruption frenzy took Romania by storm. In 2013, a young prosecutor, Laura Codruţa Kövesi, was appointed head of the DNA, the anti-corruption agency. Since then many of those big fish, known to be “untouchable”, got to experience Romanian prisons first hand.
“The cleanest government” as former Prime Minister Ponta used to call his, has already 13 ministers getting prosecuted — including himself. Some of them are already convicted, while as for the ones pending trial, let’s just say that so far the DNA prosecuted more than 1000 people with a 90% conviction rate. Of course many of them know very well how to exploit the loopholes of the judicial system. For example, a new trend is to write books “of scientific value”, which reduce jail time by 30 days. The practice has ballooned: if in 2012 only 7 papers were “written” behind bars, between 2013 and 2015 the figure grew to 415 publication. Nevertheless, this is a huge change in mentalities, as corruption just turned from a running joke, to a serious matter that is simply not tolerated anymore.
The far-right epidemic can’t touch this
Far-right parties have been on the rise all over Europe especially since the refugee crisis got more media coverage. But not in Romania. Some might argue that it’s because of levels of immigration close to zero. Indeed, even Afghan refugees have a bad image of Romania. When two of them aiming for Hungary discovered they had instead entered Romania, they apparently started crying and asked to be sent back to the border.
So the good news is that high level of corruption did not trigger an extremist backlash. Instead there has been a growing web-activist community, and street-protests have multiplied with successful outcomes.
That’s so cliché
Like everywhere, not everything is perfect, especially in remote parts of the country were you can find extreme poverty and very harsh living conditions, but enough has been said about the sad part. Let me show you a few of the nice things happening in Bucharest.
Eating and drinking: it is possible!
Food! There’s many great places to eat, see for yourself.
Drinking! Take Manasia, a bar that is sharing its building with… The police station. The police had to sell part of their building for economic reasons, and got quite the buyer. In addition, an incredible summer place to go to is Grădina Eden, a huge garden/bar in the center of Bucharest. I strongly advise you to go there this summer.
Let’s go to the mall
One of the main visible changes after the revolution was the apparition of huge billboards covering the facades of the former communist blocs. Naturally, the next logical step was malls. Malls are everywhere and they are enormous. People come and spend money, there’s not much more to it. Capitalism has definitely landed here.
Romanians make music
From Bucharest’s clubs scene to the more summer-ish electronic-music festivals, Romania is said to have one of the most respected house and techno scenes. The trio Rhadoo, Petre Inspirescu and Raresh with their label Arpiar, had a real influence on Techno’s sound over the past few years. They’re playing all over the world, but to see the real magic you have to come on their mother land. Indeed, one of the characteristics Romanian DJs are famous for, is their incredibly long DJ sets. At the last Sunwave, Rhadoo played for 9 hours straight, and that’s not even his longest set apparently.
Oh, and by the way this article is getting written listening to nicecream.fm, this good-looking chill Romanian web-radio.
An IT scene warm and exponential
In 2001 Romania decided to exempt from taxes the people working in IT companies. A good call for a country ranked the 2nd best European country in professional competence and intellectual training. A lot of big companies moved some of their biggest European offices there: Google, Microsoft, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Oracle… Romanian is often said to be Microsoft’s second official language. A booming sector already getting celebrated by events such as ICEEfest, a multidisciplinary festival.
Finally, Romania has one of the fastest and least expensive internet in the world. An explosive cocktail making the country one of the main outsourcing destinations worldwide, filled with freelancers excelling in code or design. They are a part of the fast growing co-working communities, with the like of TechHub, ConnectHub, Cluj Cowork, Hub One Zero, Nod Makers Space, and of course ImpactHub and it’s amazing community.
A bright future
Here you have it, a different look at Romania. And because I’m all about good news, here is another one: it will only get better. Things are moving faster than Romanians like to admit it, and it’s entirely up to them, but the country has a huge potential. It’s also up to them to communicate more and more about the great things they do, and therefore, change their international image.
About me: I’m a French freelance mobile developer based in Bucharest, Romania.
I’ve also recently started a newsletter selecting 10 cool events happening each week in Bucharest. I write it in Romanian to learn the language, therefore don’t mind the grammar ;-).