Reflecting on my Romanian identity in Maastricht
May 4, 2009 1 Comment
One of my Romanian professors in Civil Law once said that equity does not exist in the absence of inequity, and advised the aspiring lawyers sitting before him to search for the truth by gathering as many perspectives as possible on the subject matter in order to be as objective as possible.
His words came back to me when I arrived in Maastricht. I felt the need to rediscover my home country, Romania, by analysing it was perceived by foreigners and by setting my previous hectic life in Bucharest against my new surroundings in a small, yet beautiful and peaceful Dutch city.
Bucharest Vs Maastricht
Antagonisms are obvious when trading a big capital city for a smaller community, where people still take time to enjoy the moments which are important to them.
Morning traffic in Bucharest
The memories of agitated mornings, when there would never seem to be enough time to enjoy a cup of coffee, of weekday afternoons that I could never take off because of my busy work programme and of furious street drivers until late in the evening started to fade away after just three months of living in Maastricht.
Equally new to me was the warm and kind attitude of the Dutch people I met during my first weeks in Maastricht. The vivid sight of people smiling on the bohemian streets of the city centre, or cycling, even through bad weather, their ability to fully enjoy a sunny day, or the first Sunday of every month, when shops are open, all these images contrasted deeply with the vision of Romanians eternally dressed in grey coloured clothes.
I realised that Romanians’ passion for dark colours was not a matter of fashion, but rather a way of revealing their deep sadness. This is a consequence, in my opinion, of the communist regime that controlled Romania for almost fifty years, and which is still the most feared obstacle to the reconstruction of the country. The loss of hope for a better tomorrow is the kind of attitude that is partially still affecting contemporary Romanian society.
However, the 2007 accession of Romania to the E.U. seems to have brightened up spirits a little. Recent European Barometers show that Romanians have gained more faith in European structures than in their own government. Globalisation is gradually taking over traditionalist Romanian society, without raising too many objections from the majority of citizens.
The integration of the Romanian market into the Single European Market has brought, besides multiple advantages such as economic growth and foreign investments, a degree of competitiveness that has become especially visible in the labour market. Big foreign companies have penetrated the internal market and have introduced a new working ethos. It is certain that competitiveness is a premise for economic growth. However, I can’t help noticing that its impact goes beyond what was predicted, and that it is especially affecting the lives of the three million people who reside in Bucharest.
The consequences are multiple, as Bucharest has transformed itself from a place that used to be known as “Little Paris’ into a never sleeping, hectic battlefield for all its inhabitants. The impact of switching from a controlled state economy into full capitalism is now interfering with day to day life.
Given this context, I was very surprised to discover a big gap between the way I perceived my country and the general idea that foreigners had of it. I began wondering where the truth lied: could my way of understanding Romania be called more truthful or was my attachment for my country distorting my opinion?
Romania’s place in Europe
Romania’s accession to the E.U. brought along a unique culture that is rooted in orthodox religion, a wealthy potential in areas such as tourism, and a genuine enthusiasm for the EU project; and here I am not listing quotes from political speeches by Romanian leaders or country reports. I am simply describing a common feeling amongst Romanians who realise that a Europe brought together is a stronger Europe, a process in which all the parties involved have to put in something in order to gain something.
Unfortunately, my personal experience of travelling abroad, mostly in Europe, before the accession, had taught me that most foreigners knew little, if nothing, about Romania.
Right now the people I meet seem to know more, but it’s all bad. The Italians and even the Spanish consider most Romanians as a social threat due to the excessive mediatisation of unfortunate incidents involving some unrepresentative Romanians; the French have a tradition of linking Romania with prostitution, and for all Europeans Romanians are potential workers who want to steal their jobs – these are just a few of the ways in which Romanians are portrayed in Western-European newspapers.
Romanians in Maastricht
When I arrived in Maastricht three months ago, I was surprised to discover a better reality. I felt welcomed and appreciated, maybe sometimes even exotic. I was also surprised to see just how many Romanians have gathered here in Maastricht. I live with two Romanian housemates, and at school I meet many Romanians, mostly master students like myself.
First days in Maastricht
If I had to describe the group of Romanian students in Maastricht, I would say that they are very different from other foreigners, whether German or Belgian. Most of the Romanians I know here are following a Master programme, with or without a scholarship. I believe their choice to study in a symbolical place like Maastricht is also another proof of their enthusiasm for the European project.
As for me, studying European Law at Maastricht University, was the result of an extensive research I did on the Dutch academic system. I opted for Maastricht because of the university’s specific problem based learning (PBL) methodology, which encourages students to express their own opinions. Maastricht graduates often possess a typical confidence: they are diplomatic in expressing their views and they are not easily intimidated.
Other small details seem to indicate that the Romanian student community in Maastricht is growing. Whenever my Romanian friends and I start speaking our language at the Mensa, someone will definitely come by and greet us in Romanian. Maybe not every day, but pretty often…
Dutch people are open and show a lot of interest in the history of Romania, especially in tales about communism or the very impressive House of Parliament in Bucharest (the former House of the People, where the communist dictator Ceausescu used to live), which is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.
One of my Dutch fellow students has an extensive knowledge of Romanian current affairs. He always asks me for news regarding the Romanian president, and I find myself knowing a lot less than he does.
There are however several misconceptions which regularly pop up in most conversations.
Five misconceptions about Romania
1. Romania’s official language is Russian – False. Romanian is a Latin language, very similar to Italian or Spanish. Romanians have two distinct roots, namely the Daciens (a tribe belonging to the Thracian group) and the Romans. Romanian, unlike Bulgarian for instance, is not a Slavic language, although it contains words of Slavic origin, brought in by emigrating Slavic tribes; Romanian was also influenced by Greek, Hungarian, German and Turkish.
2. The words “Roma” or “Romani” derive from “Romania” – False. The Romani people, also known as gypsies, are thought to have originated in central India, from where they started migrating towards Europe. The word “Rom” originally means “man”, and “Roma” is its plural form. In Latin, “Roma” was the name of the city of Rome, named after its founder and first ruler, Romulus. The name “Romania” derives from the Latin “Romanus”, which means “Roman”.
3. Dracula was real – False. Dracula is the title of a fiction novel by Bram Stocker published in 1897, depicting the horrific tales of a blood thirsty vampire from Transylvania. Research has shown however that there isn’t any relevant connection between the fictional character of Dracula and the 15th century Romanian ruler Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia, or Vlad the Impaler. Vlad’s father was member of a knight order called the Order of the Dragon, a semi-military and religious society, which brought him the nickname “Dracul”, which means “devil” in Romanian. The name “Dracula” means “the son of Dracul”.
4. Romania is unbelievably cheap – Not entirely true. Contrarily to the picture shown in Hollywood movies of South-Eastern Europe, it is not likely that the average Western-European tourist can come and buy a hotel in Romania and live the life of a king. Real estate speculations and the market inflation surrounding the Romanian accession to the EU caused prices to skyrocket. There are areas in Bucharest where houses can reach huge prices varying from EUR 2,4m to 4m, as expensive as French castles in the Loire Valley. In the border regions, many Romanian citizens prefer buying a house either in Hungary or in Bulgaria.
5. Romania is old school – False. In spite of its status as a developing country, Romania has evolved at high speed in the past few years. Foreign investments have helped create new, modern industries and its large labor forces have transformed Romania into a centre of interest for both the European Union and states overseas. Although the communist era has left visible traces in architecture and art, new landmarks of development have risen next to the grey apartment buildings which are also typical of Budapest or Berlin. Contemporary art is flourishing, and the latest technologies are accessible to an increasing percentage of the population.
Redefining my Romanian identity
Since I moved to the Netherlands I have felt the power and depth of the European integration. The simple fact that I am sitting at lectures next to students from all over Europe and that I can listen to their opinion makes me aware of the larger community that we all belong to.
Yet I have noticed differences of status between Romanians or Bulgarians and the rest of the population. For instance, Romanians and Bulgarians are still required to have a work permit if they want to be hired by a Dutch employer; this status was supposed to end in 2009, but has been prolonged by the Dutch government until 2011.
With a Romanian friend in Maastricht
As for me, I am enjoying my stay in Maastricht; I like studying and living here because I feel like I have almost everything I need to be happy. Of course, I envy my Dutch fellow students who can go home for the weekend. The 2000 km that separate me from my family are less easy to travel.
The different ways people react when I tell them I come from Romania, whether they raise an eyebrow or become more interested in me, have taught me a lot.
As I became aware of the different perceptions of South Eastern Europe, I realized that I had to find answers to questions that I hadn’t asked myself before. This has helped me redefine step by step my Romanian identity.
Before coming to Maastricht, I had wondered for example whether Romania is the only European country with a large Romani minority group; what I discovered is that Spain has an even larger Romani minority. Is it correct then to link the recent Romani exodus to Western Europe to Romania only?
Being a Romanian in Maastricht has its ups and downs. It saddens me to hear people say during university workshops that families in Eastern Europe don’t enjoy proper living conditions, or that Romania should be kicked out of the European Union; but I also feel very proud when I introduce Christian, my German friend, to the work of one of the most exquisite personalities that Romania has offered to universal culture: the composer George Enescu.
Whenever I miss home, I listen to his Romanian Rhapsody.
Romanian Rhapsody by George Enescu
By Andra Gunescu
Andra Gunescu is a law student from Romania who is interested in “capturing some of Maastricht’s atmosphere”.