Romania’s myths, legends, warts and charms

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By Christian Nielsen

Romania defies many of the unflattering stereotypes associated with the country. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light.

Monday 17 November 2014

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

When I told people that I was going to Brașov and Bucharest, reactions varied from “be careful” and “nice girls” to “isn’t it just full of Gypsies?” and “where is that?” So I just said I’m visiting Dracula in Transylvania, and they just laughed. What did poor little Romania do to earn such scorn?

Don’t get me wrong, Bucharest and its environs have no shortage of forlorn grey buildings and decrepit streets that you would expect of the former Eastern bloc. But whereas East Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Riga, etc. have airbrushed out most remnants of that period with a post-EU makeover, Bucharest is still very much wrestling with its past.

A bit poorer than other former communist countries and with so much more ‘socialist development’ to undo – namely the widespread ‘systemisation’ of villages and towns across the country – much of Bucharest still evokes its communist past.

But that could be a blessing in disguise, if you think hard about it. Foreign investment and the rampant changes that big money brings to urban landscapes has been slower to arrive in Romania, and the complex legal wrangling over ownership of confiscated properties in what is left of the city’s old quarter has slowed the cancerous spread of cranes over Bucharest’s skyline.

Romania is also still not in the eurozone, and seems unlikely to be allowed to join for some time, despite promises to the contrary made in Brussels when the country joined the European Union in 2007.

For tourists this means two main things: Bucharest remains a relatively cheap European city trip, especially with low-cost airlines like Whizz and Ryanair now plying the route with some frequency; and it is a refreshingly authentic and richly diverse destination.

Why does authenticity matter? Well, if you travel often enough, you will know the answer to this question. European cities are all starting to look or feel a bit samey: the same chain coffee shops, strip malls lined with familiar clothes stores, the feeling that the medieval or Art Nouveau houses were finished by urban colourists.

So much slower to paint over its communist past, Bucharest is left with an opportunity to embrace the story, and what it means to modern Romania. It is a sensitive subject, no doubt, but hiding or glossing over the past is rarely a good recipe for thriving.

City planners could or perhaps should think about drawing a circle around that part of its recent history to mark the spot, as it were, where many memorable things happened. Yes, many bad things – deprivation, a systematic crushing of cultural identity and murderous actions – during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. But also ‘monumental’ things; legacies such as the building of the so-called ‘Popular House’ (more on that later) which dominates a massive swathe of the city centre, and the Parisian-styled boulevards the former dictator created may, after some decades of healing, become tourist beacons in the league of the Eiffel Tower, White House or Taj Mahal.

There are signs it may already be happening. I took an official tour of the Palace of Parliament – as it is now called after the Romanian government agonised as to what to do with this White Elephant following Ceaușescu’s downfall in a dramatic and bloody revolution in 1989 – and learned first-hand that embracing the past (it’s good and bad aspects) doesn’t come easy to some.

“It was cheaper to make it into the Parliament and use the building that so many Romanian craftsmen and women worked hard to build than pull it down,” the tour guide offered dryly in answer to the question of how Romanians now feel about this towering hulk of a building, knowing how it came into existence.

Touted as the second-biggest free-standing building in the world after the Pentagon, ‘Madman’s House’, as it is also referred to behind closed doors in Romania, covers a whole city block. Churches, hospitals and thousands of houses were demolished in the 1980s to make way for Ceaușescu’s monolithic ode to socialism, which to most who witnessed or ‘volunteered’ to build it spoke more to his and, perhaps more so, his wife’s megalomania.

In the nearly one-hour tour of the bowels of this 1,100-room monster, which only took in three of the reported 12 floors and just a small sample of the various halls, chambers and endless corridors, not once did the tour guide mention Ceaușescu’s name. Nor did she explain the backstory to the December 1989 uprising. This was an ‘official’ tour, and the guide was either careful not to discuss politics, as it were, in what is now the Houses of Parliament or she was just not very good at her job.

Intrigued by the probable side-stepping of the questions by our guide, it didn’t take much searching to learn that praising the crimes of “so-called totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims” is forbidden by law in Romania. So that would then apply to the Ceaușescu regime, I presume. Indeed, TV journalist Dinel Staicu reportedly received a hefty fine for praising Ceaușescu and airing pictures of the former leader.

Two sides

Not so careful was the guide on a private bus tour to Brașov in Romania’s central area, which is more famously known as Transylvania. The much younger, rather chirpy, guide (certainly for 7:45 am) breezily described the chain of events leading up to Ceaușescu’s ill-fated last speech on the Piata Victoriei, the ensuing riots, civilian deaths and eventual capture, two-hour trial and summary execution of Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989.

“That was Romania’s Christmas present that year,” said the guide. “Not many mourned the death of the second dictator, who made the first communist dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej who died in 1965 seem like a nice guy!”

But Ceaușescu, who led Romania from 1967 to 1989, didn’t start out that bad, she went on to explain. He became increasingly erratic and distant from the people during his decades-long rule. Something many Romanians blamed on Elena and their lack of education.

The fact that they both came from very humble beginnings gave them a common touch to begin with but that changed as Ceaușescu’s personality cult grew. He gave himself such titles as ‘Conducător’ (Leader) and ‘Geniul din Carpați’ (The genius of the Carpathians), and by the time they returned from a visit to North Korea, witnessing the grandiose avenues of Pyongyang and the socialist-inspired urban landscapes, there was no stopping them … well, almost.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

The other figure in Romanian history with an equally complicated back-story is that of Vlad Țepeș (1431-1477), alias Vlad the Impaler and inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula. A story so convoluted by folktales, legend, stories of witchcraft, eerie castles, fictional characters and a grain of truth, Vlad Țepeș is a larger-than-life character in Romanian history. But with the benefit of romantic hindsight, and a growing understanding of the bankability of such stories, Romanians clearly more easily embrace some parts of history better than others.

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, is being celebrated this year as Romania’s great protector and unifier following his bloody campaign (neatly rounded to) 555 years  ago to rid Wallachia and surrounding territories of the Ottoman Turks. Vlad was born in Sighișoara, a city on the Târnava Mare River, and raised in Târgoviște in south-central Romania, together with his brother and father, Vlad II Dracul(ea), who was Voivode of Wallachia – now a province of Romania, with Bucharest at its centre.

Time to settle once and for all the confusion between Vlad the Impaler and Dracula: The castle that hordes of tourists see in Bran, just south of Brașov, is not Vlad’s castle. It may not have even been the castle Bram Stoker had in mind when he wrote Dracula in the 19th century, as the Irish author apparently never visited the area, but rather concocted his story from a heady blend of geographical facts, patronymic borrowings (his father was a member of the Order of Dragons, or ‘drac’ and ‘ulea’, meaning ‘son of’) and regional mythology.

“In Romania today, schoolbooks and historians extol [Vlad Țepeș] as a patriot and a champion of order in lawless times, while the outside world knows him as the vampire count of a thousand cinematic fantasies … a spoof figure or a ghoul,” write Rough Guide Romania’s authors. “Horrible though his deeds were, Vlad was not accused of vampirism during his lifetime. However, vampires were an integral part of folklore in Eastern and South-eastern Europe, known as vámpír in Hungarian and strigoi in Romanian.”

Some attribute the ‘vampire’ phenomenon to regional folklore concerning a ‘flying one’ or Zburator who enters people’s homes and tortures young women coming of age with bites, pinches, tickling and worse. There are also tales of vampire-like behaviour in battle, with a victor ‘tasting’ a victim’s blood to take in his power. “Even to this day, some villagers in Romania are known to encircle their houses in salt and put up garlic against evil spirits,” our guide offers with a wry smile.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 work, which taking bits and pieces of fact and fiction, managed to stoke (sorry about that!) the imagination of a growing reading population (this is before film and TV) who were gripped with excitement and fear over such real stories as Jack the Ripper in London. Anyway, it makes for a good story and even better source of business for a nascent tourism industry.

Gypsies and sleaze

I have yet to address the other two stereotypes thrown up at the mention of Romania. On the bus to Brașov, the guide asked the dozen or so travellers what their impressions of Romania were before coming to the country.

The Israelis sitting nearest the door said “attractive girls and casinos” without blushing in the slightest. Some Americans – no sorry, they said “we’re from San Francisco” like it was a country – said they had heard of Vlad and Transylvania with a hint of embarrassment. The Italians and Spanish said they connected Romania mostly with Gypsies. I said rather pompously, as a resident of Brussels, most of my impressions were about Romania’s entry into the European Union and the “Roma question”, thinking the politically correct term would be appreciated. Nope.

The tour guide nodded thoughtfully and quick as a whip said, “So, more Gypsy stereotypes!” She went on to explain where the Romani came from and touched on the complicated relationship Romania has with a community that numbers between 650,000 and 850,000 people, depending on who you consult. Faced with discrimination both at home and abroad, many Romani do not declare their ethnicity in the official census and often don’t carry or own identity cards or birth certificates.

Upon joining the EU, many hoped that the plight of this minority in Romania and elsewhere in the expanding EU would improve. Despite vast programmes, and funding for worthy projects aimed at education, skills and ‘inclusion’ – through the likes of the European Social Fund – evidence of continued high levels of discrimination remain. Progress in Romania itself seems to take the back-burner to wider efforts to spruce up the economy (and the streets of the capital, it has been suggested!).

The tour guide didn’t hide the fact that she regretted her country’s reputation is hurt by its association with the Romani, and the challenges they present to what is effectively a developing country in Europe’s midst.

Wisely, she made no mention of mass deportations, periods of slavery and other privations throughout the centuries that the Romani have lived in the land now called Romania. Alas, it was a trip to visit pretty towns and Dracula’s castle not a debate on the ‘Roma question’, but I was pleased to have gotten as much information as I did from such a trip.

Taxi drivers were more forthcoming about politics and sleaze – and for many a formative impression on the tourists by ripping them off during the trip from the airport to Bucharest. My driver when leaving the country – a friendly and open fellow, as almost all contacts in Romania had been – said he had been driving taxis for 16 years and despite clear improvements in everything from the roads to the ‘luxuries’ in the shops, he felt his chances of getting ahead were slim.

“It’s the rule of the first seven years,” he offered philosophically. “It gives all the chances later.” So, that’s the foundation for success in Romania, I paraphrased. “Yes, the foundations, as you say; the rich ones have the sports cars and think it is their right to be like they want to workers; they have power.”

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

I asked him, then, if he will be voting for the socialist candidate in the election the following week (15-16 November). “No, he will destroy us … like the first socialist we got after Ceaușescu!”

That was frank, I thought to myself. So it seems the economically liberal PNL party headed by an up-and-coming city mayor Klaus Iohannis of the Christian Liberal Alliance would be his preferred presidential candidate over current Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who is leader of the Social Democratic Party.

“So, Iohannis is the better choice,” I offered. The driver looked in the rear-view mirror, raised his eyebrow and said, “Yes, better, not best … but I will vote for him.”

Go-go gone?

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

And as to the suggestion of cheap liaisons in smoky pubs and go-go clubs. Well, I admit I had imagined something like Prague or Budapest, but the historic quarter, which is the main tourist hub (the bit that was spared Ceaușescu’s socialist revisionism) had only a smattering of such joints. I was approached once on my second night by the stereotypical black-leather jacketed guy offering girls and more, but that was it. Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg … these are more sordid cities than Bucharest.

I never felt intimidated by anyone. The metro, though bleak, was by no means scary. The trains ran on time and the information boards were clear. Romanians respected your space but were happy to help when approached. They didn’t tout for business or force conversations on you. They were getting on with life, as it should be.

Altogether, Romania defied many if not all of the obvious stereotypes. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light. It is definitely a tourist destination on the up, and it deserves a ‘better’ rap, if the not the ‘best’ rap.

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Hungary for a better future?

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By Swaan van Iterson

Faced with soaring unemployment and the lack of prospects, many educated young Hungarians are being drawn to the radical right. But will it give them the better future they seek?

Friday 5 August 2011

The Turul bird is the national symbol of Hungary. Jobbik voters often wear it on T-shirts, necklaces, bracelets and other accessories. Photo: Swaan van Iterson

Until last year, the international media paid little attention to Hungary. This changed when the nationalist and conservative Fidesz party, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, won a two-thirds majority in the elections of April 2010, thereby gaining the power to push through radical changes. 

Orbán moved quickly to nationalise private pension funds. In addition, he pushed through a controversial media law, which stipulates that a government-appointed media authority should monitor whether journalists provide “moral” and “objective” reporting.

More recently, in July of this year, his government passed a new church law, which officially recognises only 14 religions, and hence strips the others of the right to receive state subsidies. The Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP) called the legislation the “worst religion law in Europe”.

And Orbán and his party are not finished yet. His latest idea is to allow secondary school children to study “basic military science” starting from the coming academic year.

But it is not just the Fidesz party that is making news in Hungary. Further to the right on the political spectrum the radical Jobbik party, which won 16.7% of the vote in the 2010 elections to become the third largest party in Hungary, is drawing attention.  The Movement for a Better Hungary’s (A Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom) manifesto is mainly based on, among other things, nationalism and the combating of so-called “gypsy criminality” (cigánybűnözés). Many believe that the party was closely linked to the Magyar Gárda (the Hungarian Guard that is now dissolved, but still active under different names), which was established to protect the population against this “gypsy crime”.

Jobbik’s main support base is not only found in the ranks of the poor and poorly educated workers in the northeast of the country, but increasingly amongst the urban young. In early 2010, some 15% of under-25s said they would vote for Jobbik – the party was particularly popular among university students specialising in the humanities or history.

This raises the question of why Jobbik is attractive to more highly educated students in Budapest. Most narratives paint a picture of a faceless crowd of “societal losers” who vote for the radical right. Can the same terminology be used to describe these students? I travelled to Budapest to find out. During a month of extensively interviewing students and hearing their story, while trying not to judge and to remain objective, I learned that radical right voters can be far from being the indistinguishable mass of victims they are often taken to be.

 Of multinationals and gypsies

A Jobbik student attends class with pen and bracelet in the colours of the Hungarian flag. Photo: Swaan van Iterson.

Farkas Gergely (25), a recent graduate in economics and sociology, is a Jobbik member and one of the youngest members of parliament. According to Gergely, the lack of prospects many students face leads them to vote for his party: “Many students in Hungary cannot find work once they graduate… For 20 years, no party stood up for young people and so they looked for something new. We have filled that gap.”

A lot of the students I have spoken to indicate that having a university degree in Hungary is no guarantee for a secure future. According to Marcell, a 25-year-old public administration student, the bad socio-economic situation is a result of, amongst other things, foreign interference: “Multinationals, transnational companies and foreign banks have come to the country in droves since 1989. They were able to operate here without paying any taxes while local firms had to pick up the tab – they got no special perks,” he says. “The result is that the multinationals have devoured our economy. They became the rulers of our homeland. Every Hungarian government over the past 20 years has been their unquestioning servant.”

Szuszanna (21), a medical student in Budapest, believes that it is mainly Jewish enterprises that have received this beneficial treatment: “We’re not happy with the Israeli companies which buy up everything here – they ruin everything. They take a lot of money out of the country and invest very little,” she argues.

In Szuszanna’s view, the trouble is that if you want to do something about the situation, you’re immediately labelled as an anti-Semite. According to her, the same problem arises around the “gypsy question”. The Jobbik introduced the term “gypsy criminality” into Hungary’s political discourse, which finally made it, in Szuszanna’s view, possible to talk about the situation – something that is very urgent, she believes: “During communist times, everybody was obliged to work, but that changed with the advent of capitalism,” Szuszanna tells. “Now that you can get benefits, a lot of gypsies don’t work anymore. They spend their benefits on alcohol and cigarettes and when this runs out, they often steal.”

Radical change

Student supporters of Jobbik greet one another by saying “Szebb Jövőt”, meaning “A better future”. They would like to see change not only in the socio-economic conditions but also in the political situation. János (26), who studies IT, believes that students vote for Jobbik because they want radical change. According to him, Hungary never underwent a change of the regime (rendszerváltás). He thinks that many communists continue to be in power under the guise of socialism and that communism actually never went away in Hungary. Moreover, like János, a lot of students view the socialists as being corrupt.

For a lot of the students, 2006 was the time they decided to join the Jobbik party. That year, an audio recording surfaced from a closed-door meeting, featuring the then socialist president Ferenc Gyurcsány. On the recording, Gyurcsány admitted that “we have been lying for the last one and a half to two years” about the economic situation in Hungary. The leak led to public outrage and mass demonstrations, including the occupation of the state television building by football hooligans and radical-right students.

Many of the Jobbik supporters believe that socialist “indoctrination” does not only occur in the political sphere, but also in the education system. Jószef, a PhD student in political science who is researching euroscepticism, would like to build an academic career but, in his view, it is very difficult to earn money as an independent political scientist in Hungary: “You need to have a political colour, otherwise you’ll get nowhere in this field,” he says. “Personally I have had no problems but I have heard others say that it is difficult to get a good position if you’re not a socialist.”

And it’s not just academia. In Katalin’s opinion the media is also dominated by “liberal leftists” (referring to the socialists). The “simplistic and oversexualised” American programming on television annoys her: “The Hungarian media is extremely prejudiced and, above all, extremely liberal,” she complains. “People watch MTV, use drugs, find it normal to be gay and encourage others to become so too. That’s just ridiculous.”

The “bias” of the Hungarian media does not stop Jobbik from reaching the public, János stresses. He says that the party bypasses the mainstream media by being very active on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, this helps the party to connect better with young people.

Eszter, a master’s student in public administration, thinks that Jobbik is a party for the young generation in a country where there is an intergenerational divide in politics: “Older people lived through communism and miss the security and stability of those times. In those days, there was still work for everyone. This means that older people vote more frequently for the socialists. Young people don’t have the same experiences and sympathies.”

Hungary’s Young Turks?

Badges worn by a Jobbik supporter. Photo: Swaan van Iterson.

Péter is a university lecturer at both ELTE and Corvinus University. He says that students who vote for Jobbik regularly voice their political views in their essays and assignments. According to him, history students in particular are drawn to the party – a phenomenon that does not surprise him in the least: “Hungarians have a history of lost wars and lost independence. This gives you a reason to become nationalistic. Young people are convinced that, given all they’ve lost, Hungarians can only count on themselves.”

Many of the students I spoke to integrate their political views not only into their studies but also their plans for the future. Ákos (21) describes knowledge as his “weapon” with which he can build his future and change the world. Towards that end, he is studying history and Turkish. He believes that Hungarians must have more control over their country, and the only way to achieve this is to become more independent from the West.

Surprisingly for all those right-wing Europeans who oppose Turkish membership of the EU because of the supposed civilisational differences, Ákos wishes to strengthen ties between Hungary and Turkey, as he believes the two countries share a common history: “Most people believe that the Hungarians are descendants of the Finno-Ugric tribes, but this is untrue. The Turks and Hungarians are brothers and there is a lot of research which shows that Hungarians are related to tribes in Kazakhstan.”

For other students, Jobbik is more a part of their daily reality than their future dreams. Barnabás (20), also a history student, wears black jeans and a leather jacket bearing Hungarian nationalist iconography, as well as an armband in the colours of the Hungarian flag. His interest in the Hungarista subculture began when he turned 16 and started listening to nationalist rock bands like Kárpátia and Romantikus Erőszak, whose songs include 100% Magyar (100% Hungarian) and Lesz még Erdély (Transylvania will be ours).

“It is very, very important for me to be part of the Jobbik movement. It is an integral part of my Hungarian identity,” Barnabás admits. “You really get the feeling that you belong to a group. Jobbik helps people who feel out of place but have a strong bond with Hungary to find a community. Before I joined Jobbik, I often felt alone, like I didn’t belong anywhere.”

According to Ákos, this sense of loneliness is common among young Hungarians who have few extracurricular activities to engage in or groups to join. For him, Jobbik is almost more like a family than a party: “At Jobbik, you feel that you’re at home. You are surrounded by people who think just like you and who want to reach the same goals.” He ended our conversation with the following words: “We’re there for each other. We fight for each other. Also for you, a better future!”

The students I talked to are trying to change their future through the Jobbik party. The way they actively engage their political ideas in their daily activities, studies and career plans, and use modern utilities like social media, makes it impossible to label them as ‘losers of the modern world’ or the modernisation process. But despite the solidarity and belonging that Jobbik inspires in its young members, the question is whether the radical right path they are treading is the way to achieve their dreams of independence, pride and well-being.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. It is published here with the author’s consent. ©Swaan van Iterson.

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Life as an outsider

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Among the most hated people in Europe, Roma are treated as second-class citizens at home and abroad. Nikolaj Nielsen spent some time with members of a Roma family.

8 December 2010

Part one: Being Turkish

Emiliya doesn’t want people to know that she is Roma. She wants people to know that she speaks four languages: that her parents scrubbed toilets and washed cars in Brussels to put her through the Medical University of Varna in Bulgaria; that she is a qualified nurse in Bulgaria and that her degree was transferred and approved by Belgium’s ministry of public health. In Belgium, she is qualified as a midwife. Michel Van Hoegaerden, from the Brabant Medical Committee, signed her transferred degree and dated it March 30, 2009.

©Nikolaj Nielsen

“I say I have a Turkish background. I never say I’m Roma because people think we are all thieves and criminals,” explains Emiliya in French, speaking as she rolls meatballs on a plate of flour in the kitchen of a one-bedroom apartment in Anderlecht. On the wall in the living room is a framed photo of an unsmiling Emiliya wearing a plain grey jacket over a white shirt. Opposite, a black flat screen Samsung television stands on a cabinet. A child’s white plastic pony with a red saddle lies on its side on the boarded wooden floor. Emiliya and her mother, Leylya, sleep in the kitchen on a foldout couch with a leopard-print quilt. Her older brother, Veudsi, and his wife and four-year old daughter share the bedroom. Everyone’s shoes are neatly arranged outside in the hallway. Five Roma families, all from the Razgrad region of Bulgaria, live in this building. The building’s owner is Turkish and thinks her tenants are as well.

Emiliya joined her parents in Brussels last October. After graduation, she was hoping to find work in her field but for the administrative hurdles in Belgium. She spent five months as an intern with no pay at the hospital in Varna. She could work, but the 300 Leva (€153) a month salary was not enough. Her mother has been pressing her to get her papers regularised in Belgium, to get into the system and obtain a Belgian identity card. “My parents push me to continue with the paperwork, otherwise I would have quit by now,” she says.

Emiliya helps her mother clean the apartments of wealthy Turks in Brussels and earns five to nine euros an hour when on her own. On Thursday evenings, she attends an advanced level French class, which costs her €140 per semester. Last week, she started babysitting a five-month-old baby, whose mother is Turkish and father is a German psychiatrist. She earns seven euros an hour. Altogether, Emiliya’s mother earns around €900 a month. Her brother also has a degree, but in biology, says their mother Leylya, as she pours her daughter an orange soda. He taught for three years in Bulgaria and earned €90 a month. Veudsi now works in a night shop in Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis. His boss is the mother of Emiliya’s babysitting charge.

“When I was little my brother and I would look for metal to sell,” Emiliya says. “My father could not support us all so he left for Belgium.” This was in Senovo, a village of around 1,500 habitants in the Razgrad region of northeastern Bulgaria. About 500 of the villagers are Roma and live apart from the rest of the population. The collapse of Communism 20 years ago has left a legacy of abandoned factories. Over time, some were stripped for scrap, leaving expanses of cracked concrete, where shrubs and gnarled trees have taken over. A large Turkish minority secured many of the key administrative positions throughout the region. There is one Roma at the tax payment office in Razgrad. But he tells everyone he is Turkish, according to Biser Alekov of the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network.

Emiliya’s father, Slavtho, first came to Brussels 10 years ago on a 15-day tourist visa. His wife came a year later and both filed for refugee status. They lived in a dilapidated house in Anderlecht with nearly 30 fellow Roma, and managed to receive limited social benefits. Each family had a room off a long narrow hallway, with just a single toilet between them. Then, in September 2002, the police raided the building at four in the morning. Someone in the house had been running a prostitution ring. A few hours later they were all on a plane bound for Sofia.

“We neither had time to gather our things or our documents,” says Emiliya’s mother. “Slavtho was still in his boxer shorts.” She smiles at the experience now. A week later, Slavtho returned and found work on the black market, washing cars. This time he didn’t report to the Belgian authorities. Leylya again followed him and they eventually earned enough to send their two children to university, housing and feeding them from abroad.

For the past three years, Slavtho has been transporting Roma from Razgrad back and forth to Brussels, a business that pays better than car-washing. He bought himself a blue Mercedes Vito van and says he drove 140,000 km in 2009. It has 303,3017 km on the clock and in around 36 hours another 2,200 km will be added.

Part Two: E 56 autobahn, Austria

Thirty-eight kilometres outside Vienna and the snow begins to fall.  The large flakes melt on impact.

Slavtho pulls into the right lane and slows to 60 km/h. The headlights of oncoming traffic make visibility difficult. He lights his seventh blue label L&M cigarette since Brussels. “I only smoke when I get stressed,” he says in broken French, before shifting down a gear. It’s going to be a long night. For the past 12 hours, Bulgarian and Turkish pop, and the odd 50 Cent track, has been playing non-stop. The compass on the dashboard is stuck on north-east. Wrapped around the base of the gear stick is a worn red wristband with Club F1 in white thread. A wooden American bald eagle and a green necklace with a gold tasselled end dangle from the rear-view mirror. The fuel gauge is broken and the wiper handle has snapped off at the base of the steering wheel. The engine, however, purrs.

Before setting off from Anderlecht early that morning, one of the male passengers from Krivnya, a Roma village near Senovo, made a comment about the tyres. The weight of five Roma, a driver, and a vehicle packed with luggage has had a visible effect. Slavtho double-checked the pressure and then knocked the nearside headlight back into place with the palm of his hand. Satisfied, the passengers boarded, moving bags to reach their seats. Emiliya hugged her father and wished him a safe trip.

Through Belgium, Germany, Austria and finally on the Hungarian side of the border, Slavtho pulls over at a service station for a deserved break. It’s one in the morning and rain and cold sweeps across the asphalt. Slavtho sleeps for an hour. There are still 1,200 km left to cover and another 10 hours before they even reach Romania. At 3.45 am, the van passes Budapest in heavy fog. Finally, the morning light begins to reveal the low-lying Carpathian mountains of Romania.

Not yet seven in the morning, bundled bodies on old bicycles emerge, one by one, from the fog. Their slow but steady peddling looks punishing, their breath visible in the morning cold. In Pecica, Slavtho overtakes a cream-coloured Dacia 1310. Plumes of grey smoke billow from the Dacia’s exhaust and the smell of fuel enters the van. As the fog lifts, the remnants of Soviet-era cities and towns begin to emerge. Concrete apartment blocks dominate. There is rust everywhere and the soil is black.

Almost all the Roma in Brussels come from the Razgrad region in northern Bulgaria and most have no bank account. Travel by plane is generally not an option. Slavtho charges €80 a head from Brussels; €120 return. “Soon Bulgaria will become a full member of the EU. Bulgaria vacation; Brussels work,” he says.

For several years, Bulgarians have been emigrating to other countries in Europe. The low income and high unemployment rate at home, compounded by the financial crisis, have forced many to seek their fortune elsewhere. Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state, and marginalised and vulnerable groups such as the Roma face even greater challenges. According to a June 2008 Eurobarometer report, an EU-wide public opinion survey shows that nearly a quarter of all Europeans would feel uncomfortable having a Roma as a neighbour. In some countries, like Italy and the Czech Republic, that figure approaches a half. The figure drops to six percent if the ethnic minority is not Roma. Emiliya’s aunt explains that some Roma accept the stigma. Others, like her family, decide to hide it and try to blend into the mainstream.

“I have no pride in the Roma community,” she says. “I am proud of the Roma in my family. Many of us carry the stigma as a burden, others act against the stigma. It’s more comforting to do so, in a sense,” she adds.

The EU promotes the integration of disadvantaged groups into the labour market through its Structural Funds. The funds support projects focusing on education, vocational training, improving infrastructure and social assistance. “It is not acceptable in Europe that there are a people who are stigmatised and excluded,” said EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Vladimir Spidla at a seminar in Brussels for Roma inclusion. But the lack of political will, combined with the corruption of the previous administration in Sofia, marginalised most EU Roma initiatives. Today’s administration inherited a budget deficit and a culture of governance that is largely inefficient and often incompetent. Two months into its mandate, some do not expect significant change.

Bulgaria’s new prime minister, Boyko Borisov, met an informal coalition of five Roma NGOs at the beginning of the year in an attempt to spur public debate, explains Liliya Makaveeva, president of Integro Association, a Roma organisation based in Razgrad. ”We met with the GERB (Bulgaria’s leading party) on March 2 (2009) to develop a charter on Roma integration,” says Makaveeva. “But after the elections no Roma was invited to participate in the party. There is no Roma representation in the government.”

Borisov ran on a platform promising to weed out corruption and shake off Bulgaria’s tarnished reputation. But Bulgaria is currently going through yet another corruption scandal. According to an edition of the English-language weekly The Sofia Echo, a 27-year-old broker and several magistrates in the Supreme Judicial Council were selling high-profile magistrate posts to anyone willing to pay €200,000.

Senovo’s mayor, a Bulgarian named Atanas Tsanev, is trying to improve people’s lives with the limited resources at his disposal. “We get 100,000 Leva (€50,100) per year and half of that goes on salaries and rubbish collection,” he says. Tsanev is forthcoming and frank as he lays out the situation. “The money from this year’s budget was gone by September 9. We are worried. Twenty years ago, things were better. Senovo was the centre of the municipality. Today times have changed, but not improved. Back then everyone was employed at the factory. Our biggest problem is not having enough people working, followed by the lack of funding.”

Tsanev says they received some money from EU funds and were able to lay 5km of road. But Senovo remains a divided village. He’s hoping for another 20,000 Leva (€10,000) to dig a drainage system in Senovo and Krivnia. Emiliya’s house is in the Roma quarter on top of the hill overlooking what the old people call ludogorie, the wild forest. The house is large with a new roof, several bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen with modern appliances. Parked across the street is a grey Opel Calibra: “the Ferrari of the gypsies,” points out a local.

In the valley below, the Beli Lom river winds through the Bulgarian quarter where the streets are paved and rubbish is collected regularly. The Roma, in contrast, bury their waste in the fields. Their streets, with the exception of the main road leading into the quarter, are potholed and for the most part broken asphalt. A yellow school bus collects the children to take them to primary school several kilometres away. Many homes have outhouses; some families grow tobacco, while others raise goats. In a small concrete warehouse, a group of Roma women and children are busy cracking walnuts with pin hammers.

Emiliya’s grandfather has lived his entire life in the Roma quarter of the village. He remembers how life used to be. His wife died three years ago. Together they would wake up every day before dawn to milk the cows at a collective farm he helped to set up. He milked 25 cows a day, he says with some pride, until the machines arrived in 1958. Now he receives a small pension that just covers his utility bills.

Emiliya’s second aunt, Yukla, has also lived here her entire life. She is the only Roma in the village that works at Kaolin, a local mine and factory that produces silicon for ceramics and glass applications, where she earns 400 Leva (€200) per month. She was due to retire in December after 32 years’ service. The village is nearly empty and some houses are boarded up. Most Roma have left for Belgium for seasonal work, but will return to improve their homes and put away what savings they can.

Several hundred metres away, a truck carries sand from a pit belonging to Kaolin. As it speeds up the dirt track, it passes four young Roma kicking a football around in the field.

Brugmann University Hospital, Brussels

Emiliya is waiting in the hallway of the human resources department at Brugmann University Hospital in Brussels.

A friend told her that they treat workers without papers. Perhaps they also hire them. She has in her hand a CV and diploma. There are six empty seats but Emiliya prefers to stand. She is nervous. Dutch and French-language notices are pinned to a board. She first came two days ago, but the orange office door was locked. Today, she is determined to speak to someone. To take a chance. She knocks on the door and enters the office. Fifteen minutes later, she exits and follows a human resources assistant to another building. Impressed by her CV and degree, the woman arranges a formal interview the following Friday with the head of recruitment, Françoise Joudart.

“I would be willing to work for free, just to specialise and learn,” says Emiliya as she returns for her interview with Madame Joudart. But Emiliya believes she has no hope of getting work. Why would they hire someone without the proper paperwork when there are Belgians, more qualified than her, she says, looking for the same job? Madame Joudart greets Emiliya with a firm handshake. Twenty minutes later Emiliya leaves disappointed.

In the hallway, Madame Joudart explains the situation. “She has a qualification equivalence and it’s really good. But the problem here is that we have no free positions. We have three people already on our list. We can’t take her as a midwife. We need nurses. Not having papers is not a problem for the hospital. We are a public hospital with a social aspect.”

Emiliya is running late for her 11.00 appointment to clean an apartment in Ixelles. She rushes to the metro, buys her ticket and tries to relax. But she is both anxious and upset. “I know what I am. I know what I want to do. I know this,” she says. Her CV and diploma stick out of her white handbag. Then the metro doors open. Emiliya hurries out, runs up the escalator and disappears into the crowd.

Nikolaj Nielsen is a Brussels-based independent journalist. His website is

This article first appeared in the October 2009 edition of The Bulletin. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Nikolaj Nielsen.

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