Guest writer Matt Sampalean highlights the main reasons to choose the central Romanian city of Cluj for a new investment or a new start in life.
I wanted something different. The big-city rat race wasn't doing it for me. I wasn't in any state to settle at my job, to put a down-payment on a thirty-year condo mortgage, to get a long-term girlfriend and then to rinse and repeat.
A lot of it had to do with not knowing what I wanted exactly, but I knew I didn't want 'this'. And even when I first visited Cluj in 2010, I didn't think Cluj would be 'it'. After all, what could a Romanian city with less than half-a-million inhabitants have to offer anybody from a North American metropolis? It was almost a quaint notion. Still is in some ways.
Crossing the entire city, end to end, in twenty minutes? That's like a drive to the grocery store in Toronto. Tallest building has like, what, fifteen floors? Ha, how puny. There are bigger roller coasters back where I'm from. Oh, is that an Indian restaurant? Yes, the one and only. There is also an iStyle for all your Apple needs. What's iStyle? Also, with the only escalators in the city at Iulius Mall it sounds like I'll be doing a lot of my own stair climbing. Confirmed.
And yet, three years later, here I still am.
Turns out walking to the grocery store is way better than driving there. And the lack of tall buildings means I get a nice view of the surrounding hills. Does your big North American city have hills? No, didn't think so.
Also, escalators aren't quite as picturesque, are they? As for iStyle/Apple, who cares, I never bought an Apple product and I'm perfectly fine. The one Indian restaurant is owned by an Indian gentleman, a Colonel mind you, who hires the chefs from India. Nothing to complain about there. But I've already suggested Cluj might be the best city on earth. Granted, that was all based on my own experiences. So let's take a look at some hard facts.
1. Lowest Air Pollution in the EU - A recent research project carried out by a French magazine in collaboration with the "Respire" association found Cluj to be the best city in the EU for air quality, edging out Edinburgh in Scotland. The mountain air helps, as does the relatively small size of the city, but the report mentions that it ought to be taken with a grain of salt, as Cluj only has two stations that measure pollution levels. That being said, you can feel the clean air here anytime you get away from the main roads or the busy city center. I even forgot the word 'smog' while living here.
2. Overall Satisfaction - The most recent version of a EU report that aims to determine how citizens perceive quality of life in their home cities had Cluj sandwiched between Amsterdam and Graz, in 8th place, out of 79 EU cities. Ninety-six percent of respondents declared themselves "satisfied" (or better) with life in Cluj. They didn't ask me, but count me in!
3. Integration of Foreigners - The very same report asked its respondents whether "they agreed or disagreed with two specific statements regarding foreigners: firstly, that the presence of foreigners is good for their city ; and, secondly, that foreigners who live in their city are well integrated." Cluj was in first place, with 91 percent of respondents issuing positive responses to both questions. It's not surprising though, Romania as a whole is friendly to foreigners, and most people in the larger cities have, at the very least, a basic grasp of English or another major European language.
4. Cluj is Open for Business - Some will say this is contentious. I was just talking to a friend who says the city is being held back by corrupt officials. Indeed, a former mayor just received a four-year prison sentence for corruption, the head of the Cluj County Council is also under arrest in a kickback scandal, and there is very little trust in the public institutions in general. But, things do happen. I've seen the growth over the past three years and it's obvious that the city isn't stagnating in any way, on the contrary.
To complete the list, here are a handful of business and self-employment opportunities in or around Cluj:
5. Startup/ IT Business - Talented developers, government incentives in the IT sector, and blazing fast internet are just the tip of the iceberg. Earlier in the year Intel acquired a company with a local office. Facebook has recently done the same with Cluj-founded LiveRail. HP, IBM, Yardi/ Property Shark, and SDL also number among the big names here. While outsourcing is still the bulk of software work done in Cluj, startups are catching on in a big way.
6. Art Studio - A new book names Cluj alongside eleven other 'art cities' to watch in the future. The local market may be in its infancy, but there is a big community of talented and creative people here. Check out this steam-punk bistro pub.
7. Bagel Shop - The staple of any good breakfast, those delicious bread donuts, are nowhere to be found in Cluj. You can weep or you can seize the opportunity and be the first to serve up beautifully toasted bagels with a variety of delicious spreadables. While Romanians are not the ideal early adopters, the bagel might be familiar enough that it could quickly go viral.
8. Freelance Work - You got skills? Why not do your writing, photography, video, music, design, or software development from one of the coolest cities on the planet? Located near the crossroad of Europe and Asia, you're only far away from Australia. With the low cost of living, you'll manage to live a well-balanced lifestyle.
9. Teach English - While the language is already widely spoken, Romanians are always happy to get extra practice from native speakers. It's a no-brainer.
10. Open the first Resto-lounge - You know those places that serve fusion cuisine, offer uncomfortable dining seating, and combine the atmosphere of bistro, club, and bar? What the hey, Cluj should have one of those.
11. Open a proper Korean, Mexican, Vietnamese, or Lebanese restaurant - Mexican and Lebanese has been done but I'd say location and quality is what killed 'em. Like anything else, if it's actually good, I have a feeling it would go down pretty well.
12. Indoor football (soccer) field(s) for winter - In Toronto there were some good choices for winter soccer games. Consider that every winter in Cluj, there are people who play in the snow in -10 degree weather. Can you imagine how they'd line up for a spot in a heated indoor soccer center? The one covered field here is a joke, a wedding tent offers more protection from the elements.
13. Refurbish the Continental Hotel - The iconic city center landmark has the potential to be the coolest boutique hotel in the region. Apparently there are some property disputes and legal battles surrounding the issue, so it might need plenty of time in addition to money. Nonetheless, it's a gem.
14. Buy a football (soccer) club - I believe both of the local clubs, U Cluj and CFR Cluj, are on the market. If you're an oil-rich sheikh, you'd be paying pocket change for a team with real European potential.
15. Build a sustainable Eco-Tourism business - I visited The Organic Art Ranch a couple of weeks ago and enough said, just look at the gallery. A story that struck me though was that of a wealthy businessman who'd visited and insisted on sleeping in the grass under the stars. That's really low overhead.
16. Invest in real-estate - I kind of hate to even suggest this because I'm not a fan of real-estate speculation. However, in this market, it's going nowhere but up. Buy for AirBnB hosting, to rent, as a second home, or for long term investment. It will bear fruit.
Some of these suggestions require millions in investment, the others, a willingness to take the plunge. One thing's certain, if you're a self starter, you won't be at a loss for what to do in this little big city.
By Matt Sampalean, guest writer
(photo by Corina Chirileasa for Romania-Insider.com)