Columnist Eleonore af Schaumburg-Lippe writes in her weekly column about life as an expat in Romania. This week she tells about friendship and the use of the word ‘contacts’ in Bucharest.
Moving to Bucharest, I know many newcomers worry about how to make friends. It is a question, I have heard it more than once.
And I just want to say, don’t worry, Romania is probably one of the easiest countries in Europe for a new expat to meet people. Romanian people are very friendly, and you will be positively surprised about with what warmth they greet you. Otherwise there are a lot of expat communities where people from all over the world meet up, and the chances of finding fellow countrymen is quite high in the going out places, in the Old Town, for example. Unless of course you are from a Scandinavian country, then it is not so likely that you will meet fellow citizens.
You will relatively quickly be surrounded by a lot people as an expat, many people will be curious about who you are, what you do and how come you came to Romania.
These are the normal questions you will be asked, which is understandable and mostly a sign of curiosity. You will, among the many people you meet, find some friends too.
But what can come a bit of a surprise is when you notice some people you see as friends will mention the word ‘contact’ or ‘contacts’.
People will say something like: “Oh, you are a good contact!” or “You’ve got good contacts!”. My answer would usually be: “Well, yes, I know people, and some are friends, not contacts, that is not how I see my friends or even acquaintances.”
The word contact related to friendship was a new word for me, and I couldn’t really figure out what it meant. Slowly I realized that Romanian society has a bit of a different structure to what I know from Denmark.
I realized that when people use the word contacts, they mean your network. What they are interested in is maybe not so much a friendship, but who you know, people in high positions that they want to meet, whether you can open doors for them, help them to attend different events, find them a job, or introduce them to your network so they can meet potential new contacts.
I can only explain it as a leftover from the days of communist times, where who you knew had a significant influence on how your life was. As someone told me, it was all about who you knew, and who your contacts were.
This is something I wasn’t used to in Denmark, and for that matter I am a not a good contact. Usually I forget to ask people what they do, even sometimes their names, instead I find it much more interesting to learn about people I meet. I’m more interested in finding out if they are nice to talk with, if they can make me laugh or have some interesting stories to tell – these can be work-related, but mainly they are not.
What I truly dislike is people coming up to chit chat with me at an event, and at the same time their eyes are wandering behind me to see if other more interesting people have shown up. When that happens they wander off, and return maybe only if the other person is not interested in talking with them. This is probably the most superficial situation I can find myself in.
But to call people I chit chat with at different events friends is tricky. There is a subtle difference, some may become friends in time, others remain on the chit chat level, which can be cozy enough, unless they are one of the eye wanderers, then life seems a little too short to spend time even chit chatting.
The one experience I remember that surprised me the most and enlightened the ‘contact phenomenon’ for me, was once I got an electricity bill that seemed outrageously high, I asked a Romanian friend, if there was a number for customer services. His answer was: “No problem, I’ll call the director of the electricity company and have it sorted out.”
The director! In Denmark that would be a complete waste of time, and I would certainly never disturb the director with a simple electricity bill, but here it is just a sign of how things can be, it is all about who you know.
This feeling that some people see you not as a friend but as a contact can be a truly disappointing experience, and a little mistrust can appear in you, where you suddenly question the people who surround you, who are friends, and who see you as a contact.
Of course it is a fine balance, there are acquaintances and just people you meet, but in my world friendship is something special and different, and probably most people only have a handful of friends, that they can call real friends. My simple definition is friends are people who are there for you, and you are there for them in good times and bad times, the ones you can call or meet when you have good news or bad news to tell, the ones who like to spend time with you or vice-versa, not because of the so called doors you can open for them, but because you like to spend time together.
Considering how many people you meet during a lifetime, a friendship is something special.
What I call the Romanian version of friendship is in my mind a bit different. I have observed that for most Romanians I know, their friends are mainly childhood friends, and children of friends of their family. These are their close friends, and then they have friends and contacts.
So go out, enjoy life and enjoy all the very interesting people you can meet here in Romania, people from all over the world, and just the fact that they are now working in Romania usually is because of a really good story, that is worth listening to and discovering.
But take care of yourself, and learn to see who friends are and who is there with a secondary agenda; a sheep in wolf’s clothing who sees you as a contact.
By Eleonore af Schaumburg-Lippe, columnist
Eleonore is Danish, she holds a BA in Organization and Management and specializes in Corporate Communication & Strategic Development. She is also a Market Economist and a Multimedia Designer. She is currently working in Bucharest as the Executive Director of UAPR the Romanian Advertising Association. As a Danish Viking in Romania, with a great passion for ’covrigi’, she has a burning desire to find out more about Romania especially Bucharest, and enlighten the small differences in the culture between Denmark and Romania.. Her weekly columns will give you insights into an expat’s life in Bucharest written with humor and a big Danish smile.
(photo source: Photoxpress.com)