Romania from the outside: the journey starts in South Africa

south africa to romania mapGuest Writer Leon Schnell, who is based in South Africa, tries to find a way to move to Romania with his Romanian-born wife. This column will follow his story along this path, as well as cast a different light on Romania, as seen from the outside.

If you’re not familiar with South Africa, I don’t blame you. I didn’t know anything about Romania until I happened to ask a girl I was chatting to over the internet where she was from, and her answer was Romania. Some quick Googling ensued, and that was the start of my journey to emigrate to Romania with that girl – now my wife.

It’s been an interesting journey that kicked into high gear last year, when I moved from ‘Well, visiting Romania will be nice’ to ‘How do I feasibly emigrate to Romania?’ The journey has taken me from the comment fields of Romania-Insider’s news stories to the expatriate community of InterNations, the forums on Expat-Blog and – of course – starting my very own blog.

One of my earliest blog posts ironically summed up the challenges and simplicity of the task: somebody on Yahoo Answers said that they wanted to emigrate to Romania and pick potatoes, and asked how to do it. The best answer as voted by users? “Well, you grab them at the very bottom of the plant and pull.”

My Romanian wife worked in the UK for a while, including Scotland, and still speaks English with a strong Scottish accent. That works just fine for her in South Africa, where our language of business is English. My Romanian, however, leaves a lot to be desired, so as a working journalist – I’m a magazine editor – I don’t have a lot of opportunities in Romania’s media landscape.

Sure, I applied for a job with one of Romania’s biggest media conglomerates that actually had an English version of their website, but never got a reply. I didn’t really expect one, because everybody in Romania was telling me the same thing: English-language media enjoys a very niche role, and print media in general is suffering. Hmm … time to become a covrigi salesperson, it seemed.

Why would I want to move to Romania? All indications are that the Eastern European countries are regarded as the international stage’s ‘country cousins’, and I’ve actually found a lot of parallels between Romania and South Africa. Take, for example, that both our countries are trying to recover from a very difficult political history, and that our upwardly-mobile middle-classes aspire to emigrate to greener pastures. Or that our currencies are pretty similar (RON 1 = ZAR 2.71). Or that our citizens appear to always be complaining about infrastructure development and our clichéd position on the global stage (Romania has Dracula, South Africa has Mandela and the Big 5 wildlife).

There are some notable differences, though. Romania’s Internet infrastructure is definitely first world (your internet, television and landline bundles cost as much as I pay for my cellphone contract alone). Your public transport infrastructure appears to be a lot better (in South Africa trains and buses are decidedly working-class transport modes and we don’t have trams). Romanian is your only official national language, while in South Africa we have eleven (and a population just as fractured).

The biggest deal-breaker for me, however, is South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment policy. A comprehensive policy implemented by our first democratic government, the BEE system rates companies based on the number of black (or native African if you prefer – although white South Africans defend their claim to being ‘African’) employees and management members they have, the BEE ratings of the businesses they do business with, and the race of the companies’ owners.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those racist relics of South Africa’s Apartheid past. As a white South African, I never really dreamed of leaving the country, and always attributed the country’s high crime statistics directly to their economic and social roots rather than a fuzzy racial stereotype. We’re a developing country, and there’s no shame in that: South Africa has deep infrastructural inequalities to repair, and a lot of commendable work has taken place in that regard.

Then why Romania? Because BEE is something that good intentions alone can – or even should – sweep under the carpet or circumvent. I can’t speak on behalf of all white South Africans, but I feel that there’s a general understanding over WHY the policy is necessary. However, that doesn’t remove the sting of seeing companies deliberately hiring black employees to improve their BEE ratings, or realizing just how many advertised jobs you cannot apply for because you have the wrong color skin. Despite all the problems which Romania has, this is at least one I would not face.

There are softer reasons as well, of course. I want to explore the locations of my wife’s childhood memories. I want to see snow over Christmas (we hardly have any snow in South Africa – even in winter). I want to ski. I want to drive the Transfăgărășan highway (Top Gear fan!). Professionally, I’d like to help drive the resurgence of English-language media in a manner which is widely embraced rather than niche and elitist, and have my successes recognized as my own rather than publicly identified as the product of my race.

So what exactly is my master plan? That’s still in a state of flux, and for future stories. Some of the detail is already in my blog, if you really have to know now. The biggest detail is this: emigrating poses difficult challenges, but if you’re doing it for the right reasons and with the right partner at your side I think it’ll be a lot more do-able. Through my stories, let’s both find out if I’m right.


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