Wednesday, 25 December 2013

You know you're in Romania when...

How's your cholesterol level?
You know you're in Romania when you sit down for Christmas dinner and you've got deep-fried pork fat (jumari - picured alongside), sliced smoked pork fat (slanina), various bits of fatty meat and it's all chased by chocolate ... about the healthiest thing on your plate may be the cabbage leaves wrapping your mince and rice balls (sarmale). Top tip: lemon-flavoured Pepsi just about saves you from an instant heart attack.

If you're outside Romania reading this blog, chances are that a big question on your mind is 'Will I survive living in modern-day Romania?' If you're thinking about moving here, you're definitely going to have to have somebody close to you who you can rely on completely to guide you through the language and culture.

Yes, it's true: a lot of young educated people DO speak English with fluency. Yes, there ARE modern malls and brands you'll be familiar with. However, in my experience a lot of Romanian sales representatives in stores will say that they do speak English when you ask for their assistance, and yet then end up faltering as soon as you ask anything beyond a conversational level.

When it comes to older people, the situation is bleaker. My best memory of this is being stopped by a train conductor while I was walking down the passage of a long-distance train and asked a question in rapid-fire Romanian, to which I shrugged apologetically and said 'English sorry'. The conductor just nodded and turned away without a word.

Couple that with my earlier observations here about all popular Romanian-produced TV programming being in Romanian (including all news channels); 90% of the magazines being in Romanian (even when big brand names); all the bookshops containing only a single shelf with 'English fiction' (or 'Fictiune Limba Engleza' as you'll have to figure out) if you're lucky; and my only conclusion is that if you're serious about moving to Romania you're going to have to be prepared for a tricky two years as you absorb Romanian like a sponge.

You can try to learn Romanian from overseas if you want, like I did, but you'll discover that it's very difficult to connect with the lessons and that many of them default to the ultra-formal version of Romanian which is traditionally used with older people and not the informal language actually spoken by people with their friends. I know I've learned more Romanian in three weeks here than I did in months back in South Africa, but I also know it hasn't been easy.

So the bigger question then is, SHOULD you move to Romania? Honestly that's an intensely personal answer that will depend on you and your circumstances. Are you married to a Romanian citizen who will be there to help you, and do you have Romanian friends willing to offer more support? Are you prepared to not isolate yourself in an English bubble in order to fit into the Romanian reality? Do you have the skills needed that will help you get a job with the salary you need to sustain the minimum lifestyle you'll feel comfortable with (the reality is that Romanian salaries really ARE lower than comparative salaries back in South Africa and costs are mostly equitable)?

My worst experiences in Romania have involved shocking customer care levels, where my wife has related numerous rude comments made to her by 'sales' people in Romanian; and a rather odd feeling of unease around the paramilitary-like police officers (earlier here I recounted that my first experience of Romania was being stopped by an armed guard for just taking a photograph inside the airport).

The bad driving (where most people treat regular braking like emergency braking scenarios), the ghetto-like graffiti everywhere, the crumbling paint and walls, the grim-faced people rushing (to what?) in the subways ... there are a lot of things which could put you off Romania at first.

On the other hand, I've personally had amazing experiences with really friendly Romanian people on a personal level, where I've loved the hospitality and warm greetings. In short, it's pretty much like anywhere else then ... people are too busy for you and too wrapped up in their own worries until you break through that shield by actually getting to make friends and being a real person and not just a stranger in a strange land.

Nothing I've said here is new to immigrants or particularly unique to Romania: I think everybody knows that feeling lost and helpless and angry and full of doubt is part and parcel of the emigration experience. Stick it out and you will be living in a breathtakingly beautiful country with a world class Internet network (even the oldest buildings have dirt-cheap 20 MB/s cable!) and a lot of growth opportunities (and real work required to bring those opportunities into reality).

Best of all for newcomers, where public transport isn't good enough to get you where you need to be, the taxis are really affordable (in Cluj, for example, my wife and I took several taxi trips at only 6 lei each). There are some other weird things which will still catch you out, though: I still don't know why a four Euro prepaid mobile airtime voucher on Orange costs me 25 lei (5.61 Euro). Oh, and why do the tabloid newspapers have topless women posing next to their weather reports? Please somebody share some light on the connection!

*shrugs* At the end of the day it really will come down to your job, your home and your friends. The rest is just the background music to your life, and here that music is in Romanian.

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