Guest writer Leon Schnell regrets that his story won’t have a convenient happy ending, but he’s got a lot of living to do still
The time was December last year, towards the end of a restless holiday, when I decided with sudden clarity that I wanted to move to Romania more than anything else.
I’d like to say that by now, almost six months later, that all my varied efforts and never-ending thought about Romania has paid off in a eureka moment which will see my wife and I boarding a plane for Bucharest next month. That’s how it works in movies, right?
I’m sorry to say, dear reader, that if immigrant life is difficult then life as an aspiring immigrant contains all of the challenges and none of the pleasures. I have already struggled with all the usual problems: trying to learn a new language, trying to make new Romanian friends, puzzling over my budget to keep the dream alive.
I have not, however, had the luxury of walking down Bucharest’s streets firsthand, taken photographs of the countryside outside of the city, laughed at the vampire tourism during a visit to Transylvania or even eaten my first mici. I’ve not driven on the right-hand side of the road (we’re left-hand drive here in South Africa: thanks Britain), or celebrated my first snowy Christmas (mid-summer and old fat men in red suits just don’t gel).
Imagined doing those things? Yes. Discovered a website offering a surprising number of live webcams of common Romanian settings? Yes. Scoured through countless (most often poor) photographs taken by tourists? Yes. Heck, written stories about Romania? Yes again. But I can tell you now that it’s not enough, and I consider myself a pretty tenacious guy.
At one point I wrote that wanting to emigrate gave me more of a global perspective, where the run-of-the-mill daily problems in South Africa only became small blips. That’s true, but it’s equally true that that ‘global vision’ leaves you with a cloudy and distracted local vision, where very little is left to satisfy you in the country where you actually *are*. In this manner you’re quickly deprived of real life in two countries, not just one.
Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t given up the dream of moving to Romania. If the lottery ticket I bought last night turns out to be a winner after all, I will indeed be buying some plane tickets tonight. That said, several observations and the constant emotional drain a seemingly impossible dream has placed on me has seen me downgrading Romania from ‘going to move soon’ to ‘one day, hopefully’.
So why can’t I just hop on the first plane out, without the lottery? I’m married to a Romanian woman, so that will surely make the visa struggle easier, right? It will, yes, but real life – as opposed to dreams – contains some inescapable real-world implications.
The first of these is that plane tickets cost money. A lot. The second is that before I even think about life in Romania, I have to escape all or at least most of my South African contractual obligations. Starting with a new six month rental agreement, to the remaining year of a 24-month cellphone contract, to bringing my car’s resale value to match its remaining loan amount in another year or even two.
Those latter considerations, which I initially ignored, ended up weighing more heavily on my mind as I realized that even with the best job offer in the world I couldn’t just skip countries. While I might be able to consolidate some of the debt into an easily-repayable loan, it’d be an extra drain on a Romanian salary which everybody universally appeared to agree was not great to start off with.
Dial things up one more notch and actually start looking for jobs in Romania, and things got even bleaker. Applying for jobs in another country is the next thing to impossible, because you cannot hop on a plane for every job interview. Applying for a job as anything other than a native language speaker with some exotic scientific or engineering skills, and you can forget about it.
I knew that from the start as well, but again I tried to ignore it. I know that my skills would indeed be of value in Romania, even as an English-speaking magazine editor, but ultimately it just became one bridge too far.
When I read a recent story on Romania-Insider stating that only 5% of Romanians earn above €1000, that was the final nail in the coffin. I earn a fair bit more than that in South Africa, and while some things in Romania are indeed cheaper than in South Africa, they’re not that much cheaper that I could justify the move any longer. I especially didn’t see myself, as an immigrant, managing to immediately land myself in the top 5% of Romania’s economy.
This was another inescapable realization for me: it’s not just about me. Heck, if it was just me I might give it all up for a bit of volunteer farming in Romania’s rural areas. But it’s not just me – I would have to either earn enough to cover the loss of my wife’s salary in South Africa as well, or we’d both have to land good jobs (doubling the impossible task).
Don’t get me wrong: I was never hoping for the penthouse lifestyle in Romania. I fully realized I was intending to move to Bucharest, not Miami. I did attempt the impossible: from sending in blind prospective job applications to Romanian companies (no response) to e-mailing a CEO of a South African company based in Bucharest (friendly response but still no job).
Looking back at the past six months – is that all it was? – I don’t regret a bit of it. I ended up giving a lot of other would-be immigrants some inspiration through my articles here and on my blog. I also plugged into a couple online expatriate social networks and gave a lot of would-be immigrants in South Africa a lot of advice I wouldn’t have otherwise.
More important than all, I met some amazing people in Romania, had great discussions (all by e-mail, regretfully), and maybe helped to lift Romania’s public perception by one iota. I created a blog that is attracting a growing stream of readers, and learned how to write for myself and not just for my company. It’s not all been darkness and gloom, and following everything I’ve read about Romania I still want to move there.
Is that going to be now? Probably not. Am I going to delete my blog? No. Am I going to stop contributing here so regularly? Yes – until I have local experience I’m not going to foist my opinion on anybody anymore. A quote from a movie suddenly seems apt: “All stories have a happy ending. If you’re not yet happy, it’s not the end.”
If you’re in Romania now and reading this: you live in a beautiful country and I am extremely jealous of you. Yes the country’s got its issues, but they all do (I know mine does), and democracy will see the politicians singing a better tune over time. If you’re outside of Romania and wanting to move there: don’t give up unless you feel you have to.