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A guide to Romania: Info for foreigners

As a foreigner travelling or living in Romania, there are a few other things you should know:

The infrastructure

It’s poor, crumbling, and being replaced only slowly. The streets will have potholes and as a driver you will share them with jaywalkers, stray dogs, chicken, perhaps even ox-driven carts. The roads in the cities are sinewy and winding, making driving a stressful experience. The intercity roads pass through villages, which will slow you down considerably.

Electricity can be unreliable and so can the landline phone service (although both have improved lately).

Diversity

Romania has its minorities (Hungarians, Gypsies) but by and large it is not a diverse society. If you are of Asian or African descent you may find yourself looked at. In a large city it is very unlikely to get worse than that; racially-motivated incidents are non-existent in Romania and people may stare simply because they are curious and have not been exposed to other ethnicities.

Social mores

Romanians are a recently urbanised (and even today about half of the population lives in the countryside). Some customs of behaviour common in long urbanised societies are not yet widespread in Romania. Don’t be surprised if people ask you how much money you make, or if you hear them commenting on other people’s appearance. Gossip is common. That being said, Romanians are highly social people and you will find yourself invited into people’s homes very soon after coming to the country (you will be expected to reciprocate). A lot of business is conducted in informal settings, and Romanians do place a high importance on personal relationships. They will often visit unannounced and expect to stay as long as the socialisation needs demand it. If it is your birthday, you are expected to buy everyone drinks. Weddings are lavish, day-long affairs.

Negativity

A pet peeve of mine is how many Romanians can be disparaging to their own country and culture. Do not be surprised to hear locals bash not only the government and politicians but also the people and its culture. In my opinion this is due to frustrations with Romania’s recent history, which has had many false starts. People simply imagine that elsewhere their own lives would be different and much better. This is mostly fantasising of course, and, a welcome change, the young generation of Romanians is quite patriotic and less subject to be negative in this fashion. It seems to me that the people most likely to be bitter and perpetually dissatisfied are those who came of age during the early years of Communism (these were indeed a time of change and promise for many, as people from the countryside could move to towns and get an education), only to see the Communist society turn dictatorial before crumbling and leaving a state of complete confusion in its wake.

Women

I should probably talk about this too – although I hope that if you move to Romania you are not doing it for the women; Romanians take pride in their land’s daughters. (Not unsurprisingly: in almost every country I visited, one of the first questions I was asked was what I thought of the girls. As a side note, Romanians, who can generally be described as tall, lanky, and dark-haired, are a welcome and exotic respite from the Slavic looks prevalent in most of Eastern Europe.)

However, should you find yourself involved with one of the country’s fair maidens, there are a couple of things you should be aware of. Romanian women are not “liberated” and independent like Western women. Romanian society still has a traditional role for the woman as someone who follows the man and is (in a relationship) somewhat subordinate to the man. She is still expected to cook, clean, look good, while the man goes about his manly things. A woman is not expected to be domineering or to have the last word; rather, the man is supposed to be assertive, and a lack thereof is a serious shortcoming in the (relatively) macho Romanian society. Romanian girls are not shrinking violets, and will get their way if they set their minds to it, but they are comparatively demure when compared to the average Western woman. In a couple, separate bank accounts, separate holidays and the like are unheard of. Divorce is still somewhat of a social stigma, although the ’90s have brought a large increase in the number of divorces (and also in the number of singles).

Conversely, if you are a lass and get involved with a Romanian guy, the above still applies: remember that the man is expected to lead and provide, and even if this is changing as more women become financially independent, being too assertive can make it difficult for you to relate to a local.

Foreigners

Until recently Romania has had comparatively few foreigners living or travelling in the country. While this is changing fast (with Romania’s economy growing and the country’s reputation as a party place spreading), as a foreigner you will still be a bit of a novelty, especially if you go to a smaller city. You will be seen as wealthy and worldly. If you work in Romania, it will be automatically assumed that you are a knowledgeable professional and able to provide leadership. This is nice, but make sure you do not fail to confirm these expectations. Romanian humour can be very biting and you do not want to find yourself at the receiving end of it. Also, don’t be self-deprecating; it will puzzle your interlocutors, who expect you to live up to their expectations of you.

Right now, in any large city in Romania you are likely to find Italians, Turks and Israelis in rather large numbers. Whether it’s the similar culture, the business opportunities, or whatever else, these guys seem to enjoy living in Romania. Bucharest is a cosmopolitan city and you are likely to find other nationalities there, but elsewhere in the country these three seem to be the predominant expatriate groups.

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