Romanians abroad: Andrea Iorga talks about choosing Toronto over heading back home

Andrea milea torontoGuest writer Matt Sampalean, who returned to Romania after spending 20 years in Canada, interviews university friend Andrea Iorga, who chose to stay in Toronto, where she now works for the Ministry of Transportation in the Road Safety Division.

What year did you leave Romania and under what circumstances?

I left Romania in 2002, three months before turning 18, very much in love and with a teenage heart in the process of breaking. I was not consulted when my parents decided to emigrate, but even so, I had been keen on leaving my hometown (population 7,000) since I was about 13, so at that point, any place on the map seemed better. But those things had to do with my emotional state…Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at the fights I had with my parents over what to pack. They thought what we needed to start over were pressure cookers (we brought three; yes, I know…), duvets, pillows, silverware (my mother packed her never-used silver cutlery – part of her dowry 20 or so years earlier; it weighed at least 3 kg; we never used it once; we never will), 2 huge garbage bags full of pills (aspirin, antibiotics…you name it, they had it ), plates and cutlery – you get the picture. I managed to smuggle a bunch of books…frankly, that’s all I cared about at that age. My refusal to pack what they deemed “necessary” always brought about threats of having to “sleep on bricks”. To this day, I do not understand Romanians’ obsession with down pillows, but to each their own

What was the most striking difference between Romania and your new country?

I stepped off the plane at Pearson airport in a hot and humid 45 degrees. That’s a big shock for a girl from what’s called “the mountains”. I got into an SUV with a woman I had never met before, a friend of my aunt’s who had been living in Toronto for three years, who did not speak Romanian and who started booking it on a road I later discovered was called a “highway” – I hadn’t seen many of those in Romania!- at 120 km/hr. I knew the speed limit in town was 50, so that was the scariest ride of my life. I got to my aunt’s house and noticed a stack of Romanian books and CDs with weird white barcodes on them. She explained about “the library”. I found the concept more fascinating than the story of creation and that of evolution put together. What do you mean you can order books, CDs, DVDs online from any library (the Toronto Public Library has 98 branches) and have them delivered to the location closest to you? And what do you mean you can order books in Romanian? And what the hell do you mean it’s all free? What I’m trying to say is that EVERYTHING about Toronto was strikingly different from Romania, so I fell in love, slowly and steadily with this city I most often call home today.

How long did it take you to adjust to the new language and culture?

I’m not sure I’ve adjusted, per se, to the new language and culture. I speak English fluently, but with a heavy accent I’m really not willing to correct. I also speak four other languages and understand another three. Language for me is only a tool to get by. Culturally, I’m neither Romanian, nor Canadian. I’m a strange mix and I’ve borrowed from more than those two cultures enough to make me a hybrid I can’t really define. But 11 years ago I couldn’t identify any of that, so to answer your question, it took me 4 months to “adjust”. Three months of summer spent in Ontario provincial parks and one month of high school spent getting to know the people I call my friends even today. To talk about culture shock, I’d need another 10 pages.

What do you like most about living there?

Let’s see…did I mention I live in Toronto? What is there not to like? OK, fine, the traffic, the paralysis of life between 7-10 am and 3-7 pm. OK, public transportation. Must be by far the most inefficient public system out of all major cities. OK, I also don’t like pollution, the fact that it feels like -21 as I’m writing this, and I really really dislike the mayor. And rest assured I can complain about a few other things. But what I do like is that I have access to any cuisine in the world. This is not an exaggeration. Any cuisine, Anytime. I also like that arts and culture shows, displays, exhibits and concerts are available, accessible and affordable in Toronto (I pay $14 to go to the symphony; the cigarettes I smoke cost $11; you do the math). I take pride in living in a city where everyone is “something”-Canadian, where people feel comfortable asking and answering the question “what’s your background?”, and where no one even has the concept behind the most popular Romanian version: “who’s your mother/father/uncle?” And what I like most is that people will always hold the door for you.

Did/do you miss Romania? If so what in particular?

Do I miss it? I do, I was going to say no, but that would’ve been a lie. I miss my grandparents and I miss my friends. A lot. I miss the mist over my hometown, the colors of the sky after a storm, and the forest being five minutes away. I miss a good mamaliga (polenta), o pita cu untura si cu ceapa (bread with ham and onion), o slana cu branza (ham and cheese). I miss o hora, o sarba, o chiuitura voioasa (all traditional dances). And I wrote those in Romanian because what I miss is the feeling and you can’t translate that the way you can translate words. I’m nostalgic about Romania in the same way I’m nostalgic about my childhood. I visit Romania pretty much every year.

Would you ever come back to live in Romania? Why/why not?

Yes. I’ve done it once already. Unsuccessfully. At least now I’d know what to expect. But I’d only go back if I would know for sure that my skills and my experience would be used productively and contribute to the development of a fairer, more inclusive, less selfish society. I see no other reason to leave Toronto (for Romania or for any other place).

What do you do for a living?

I’m a public servant. I work for the Ministry of Transportation in the Road Safety Division. I’m not sure there’s an equivalent in Romania, not many people seem to be concerned with road safety over there. It’s something that bothers me quite a lot, frankly.

If given the opportunity, would you do the same thing here?

Yes, if avoiding deaths on the road and promoting safe and responsible driving would ever become “sexy” in Romania. I don’t see it happening in the next 10 years, though.

Do you ever “promote” Romania where you are? Are you proud of your heritage or do you not mention it?

I’m Romanian-Canadian to anyone who asks. I talk about Romania all the time. Sometimes I’m proud. Sometimes I’m really embarrassed, especially when Romanians’ intolerance finds a way to make headlines, again. I tell people to go visit. It’s a beautiful place, let’s face it, and there’s something for any type of tourist there. But I also tell them what to expect. I tell them the truth.

By Matt Sampalean, Guest Writer

Matt was born in Romania and grew up in a world of ration cards and clandestine Radio Free Europe broadcasts. He emigrated with his parents to Toronto, Canada in 1991 where he spent twenty years before returning to Romania as co-founder of a technology startup. When he’s not working he blogs about his experiences as a person with ‘bipolar nationality disorder’. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Romania

If you are you a Romanian in the Diaspora and want to share your story, talk about your experiences with emigration, culture shock, your new home, and your plans for retirement in the old country, either email Matt directly ( [email protected]) or [email protected] to get in touch with the editor of