We talk quite frequently about the small Romanias scattered around the world. The small Romania in Turin. Or the one near Madrid. A small Romania in Brussels. Another one in the Paris area. Places with corner shops selling “Eugenia” biscuits, pufuleți (puffcorn) and minced meat – “mici”. At the local market, one finds stalls with Romanian artisan products: palincă, ceramics, Sibiu cheese. The names of the stalls are indigenous. Samples of Romania scattered around the world.
We rarely – if ever – talk about the pieces of Europe that are here, within our own borders. They were imported, traded for the fragments we lost when those small Romanias abroad coalesced. Beyond the money they send home, Romanians who went to work abroad gave us something we desperately wanted after communism: a country similar to those abroad. They at least gave us the foundation for this modern, Westernized country. A skeleton on which to build the future.
For about 20 years, Romanians abroad have been changing us as a society, transforming our villages and towns. Our houses have become bigger, taller, with large balconies and southern Mediterranean-style awnings. So what if Bucovina doesn’t have as much scorching sun to hide from as Turin does? After that, the summer kitchen disappeared. The dowry room has become a guest room. Open-plan kitchens have also became popular. The barn or the stable was the new garage. Bathrooms have been equipped with bidets serving as trinkets. They are a must-have, because that’s what bathrooms look like “abroad”.
Panorama shows you a fascinating phenomenon that has been under-discussed until now: we look at how Romanians who went to work abroad came to modernize their home towns on the model of the European ones they ended up in. How Suceava was transformed “on the Italian model”. How Maramures has traces of France. How in Bistrita Năsăud you can see bits of Spain and in Arad, crumbs of Germany. We dream of a foreign country here at home? Prepare to see Romania in a different light.
For the past 30 years, Romania has taken inspiration from the West. More than 3.6 million Romanians make up our diaspora, according to an OECD count from 2016. Between them and the millions of Romanians at home there is an extremely strong link – financial, developmental, cultural, personal.
All of these are showed in the interactive map below, which presents the Romanian Migration Experience Index. It shows the link between places within the country and external migration patterns and their impact.
The first conclusions are clear before even looking at all the details of the map: Maramures, Bucovina, large parts of Moldova and Transylvania are much more dependent on migration than the Southern part of the country.
Click on “What the map shows” and “Video explanation” to discover the story this map tells.
Now that we saw the link between each unit in Romania and migration flows, we look at the effects this link has. It is how we find out how the diaspora has brought pieces of Europe back home.
We discovered these pieces thanks to Dumitru Sandu, a sociologist with extensive experience in migration research in this country. He is the author of a theory according to which the country is being modernized through migrants and based on the places they went to work abroad in. “Romania’s counties are changing depending on where the majority of their former inhabitants now live abroad” – that his theory in a nutshell.
In more detail, it can be explained as follows: “We have maps of Romania showing that the counties that have sent more migrants to certain countries mainly follow, in their transformation on the road to modernization, the destination patterns”.
Based on the databases collected by Professor Sandu and made available to Panorama.ro, we have created an interactive map that shows us, at the level of each administrative unit in Romania, where people went in minute detail. It is the first such visual representation to have been published in the Romanian media.
We then look only at the main migration destination for each territorial and administrative division (UAT in Romanian). It is an experiment in which we retrace, in detail, the journey of Romanians from their places of origin to the countries where they went to work, live and study.
Click on “What the map shows” and “Video explanation” to discover the story this map tells. Inactive places on the map are those for which there is insufficient data.
If we take a step back and simplify the whole picture, here is what the “pieces of Europe” overlaid on Romania’s counties would look like. The vast majority of people in the big cities moved to the UK and to the rich north of Europe.
Naturally, Dumitru Sandu’s theory is only partially verifiable. You cannot quantify and draw clear lines between the Western influences brought home by Romanians working abroad and the natural course of Romania’s economic development and modernization.
The second footnote here would be that absolutely all analyses on Romanian migration abroad are based on old data. Romania has not had a census since 2011. The 2020 census has been postponed because of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the link exists and is hard to ignore.
In many ways, Romania has indeed modernized and is still being modernized as a result of the migration experience. What is very important here is that it is not just how many people have moved from one place here to another country that matters. The place they moved to (and they usually go to the same place according to clusters from within Romania) has unsuspected long-term consequences.
Professor Sandu gives some examples: from the historical region of Moldova, people moved mainly to Italy. “Therefore, Moldova is changing in the sense of modernization mainly along Italian lines. From Banat, Sibiu, Brasov people moved mainly to Germany – so the modernization pattern in these counties is given by what those people saw in Germany,” explains the sociologist.
Other examples: “Which part of the country is more influenced by Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain? The big cities. The population in the big cities, i.e. Bucharest, Cluj, Constanta, Timisoara, does not have a specific country of destination. People go to the developed north, because they have a higher level of education. As for France, for example, at least according to the data from 2011, I know that Maramures is the area most in touch, through migration, with France. As for Spain, everyone knows about Teleorman, Dâmbovița, the Southern counties. There are two other counties in Transylvania that are mainly linked to Spain through migration, and these are Bistrița-Năsăud and Alba Iulia”.
Prof. Dr. Dumitru Sandu, sociologist, director of the Center for Migration Studies – The University of Bucharest
What do we mean exactly when we say that Romanian communes and cities are being modernized along foreign patterns? First of all, they change in terms of culture and mentality.
“The contribution of migrants to the current modernization of Romania is mainly related to the development of the new institutional culture”, says Dumitru Sandu. “It’s about what, in English, is called ‘institutional accountability’. That is to say, institutions should take into account what the population says and be held accountable by the population – transparency. Romania suffers on these two counts: the government doesn’t listen to what the population has to say and it’s not accountable, there is no transparency.”
Beyond this new institutional culture, the diaspora brings home many other ideas they see abroad. Their families are beginning to adopt these mentalities. Their neighbors, perhaps with relatives abroad, do the same. The neighbors’ neighbors, who have no one abroad, copy the new fashions, the new behaviors. From the way they dress, to the claims they address to the mayor, to the way they look at the rubbish on the street, to how way they tidy their yard, gate and front of the house, or the way they furnish the interior; how children are brought up in the West and what can be “imported”. Often, without realizing it, migrants send all these changes home. In two generations, they change a whole country.
“All these changes in mentality through migration are not just about those who have returned home,” Dumitru Sandu explains. “All those who are abroad have relatives, friends here whom they change in their own fashion. I, as a parent, (fortunately my daughter came back home from abroad) maybe visit my children abroad. I go to their place neither blind nor deaf. I learn from what I see there. The slogan delivered in Piața Victoriei on August 10, 2018 was clear: “We want a country like those abroad”. That’s not a story. We want a country like those abroad”.
How do these things work in the examples below, which I found in the commune of Rebra, in Bistrița-Năsăud county? It’s a place that has completely transformed due to the massive migration from here to Spain (especially to the Madrid area):
And if you think Romanians are subjective when looking for pieces of foreignness in their own country, Panorama also shows you the foreign perspective.
Pietro Cingolani is 1) Italian; 2) an anthropologist; 3) a researcher who has studied migration along the Romania-Italy route for years. Cingolani is the author of a reference book on Romanian migrants in the peninsula. He has also written many articles about our diaspora in his country.
Since the late 2000s, Pietro Cingolani began spending a lot of time in the village of Marginea, in Suceava, which is considered a pioneer in terms of migration.
“People moved very quickly from Marginea to the West, as early as 1993. What was later seen in other Romanian localities with regard to migration was first seen in Marginea and other pioneer villages”, he explains.
From male migration (young men), to women going where their husbands were, to the feminization of migration, these are some of the trends that were first seen in the pioneer villages.
Context: during the first years after joining the European Union, i.e. when Cingolani was commuting from Turin to Marginea, it was estimated that one in four Romanians living in Turin came from Moldova – Marginea, Bacău, Rădăuți, Suceava.
When I ask him, during a Skype interview, if he has seen traces of his native Turin in Marginea, Pietro Cingolani doesn’t hesitate for a beat: absolutely! The style in which the new houses were built is a specific style.
“Migrants observed and built in Italy. Many of them also have construction companies and are very competitive on the Italian market. If I think of my friends who have renovated or built houses, they all worked with a Romanian company. Me too! They are very competitive both in terms of quality and prices.”
It even happens that Romanian migrants working in the construction sector in Italy are sometimes paid in building materials, which they bring home to make a house like there.
“I’ll give you an example: one of the first people to build a new house in Marginea showed me a picture of a house he saw in Trofarello, near Turin. While he was driving his car, he took a picture and based on that picture he drew up a project and built a house just like the one in it. His house in Romania is the twin of the one in Italy!”.
When I ask him to explain what he means when he says he saw the Italian influence in the new houses built in Marginea, Pietro Cingolani shows me the photos he took years ago. They’re not quite the Mediterranean houses I expected, but the influences are visible, though clearly mixed with interpretations of the place.
“It’s hard for me also to say what the Italian house is like, but I can say that certain elements, like balconies, the entrance to the house, the garden in front of the house – these are specific to Italian houses.”
Signs of foreignness are also abundant inside: “the fact that the traditional dowry room has disappeared. In the new, ‘Italian-style’ houses, there is no longer the dowry room, but the living room. Of course, it’s not only in Italy, but people who have done this told me that they also arranged their living room, including in open-plan concept, because that’s what they saw in Italy. The kitchen joined to the living room doesn’t exist in the traditional house. We can’t say it’s an Italian-only model, but they designed it according to what they saw in Italy.”
The house is only one of the measuring units of the foreign-influenced modernization. In these places with a strong foreign connection, it’s not just the houses or the material approach that have changed. “The lifestyle has changed too. The way people live and their social relationships,” says Pietro Cingolani.
“A house is also a household, not just a building. It’s a universe of social relationships. The building style has changed, but so have social relationships.”
If it was once customary for the younger generation, especially the sons of the family, to build a house next to their parents’ house, things changed quickly for the families with children working abroad.
“What happened in Marginea – and not only in Marginea: people started building further away, on the outskirts of the village. Partly because there were no available building plots in the village, but also for independence. We don’t really want to live next to old people anymore. It’s very clear that new areas have emerged, far from the village center, with new houses. These are areas of strong development, where people who have moved abroad have built houses,” says the Italian anthropologist.
Marginea (Suceava), pictured between 2006 and 2010 / pictures by Pietro Cingolani
The pictures the Italian researcher showed me (see photo gallery above) portrayed Marginea as a building site.
During the first 15 years of the exodus (1995-2010), Marginea’s built-up area increased almost sixfold. The demand for land increased so much that the course of Sucevita river was changed.
What do we see there now? A commune with the feel of an Italian town. Modern houses, one more luxurious than another, a pizzeria with a Turin-worthy menu. A village that awaits the ‘Italians’ come summertime. The people here have been in Italy for so long that they are more Italian than they are local. Or at least that’s how the Marginea people think of them.
Below, Marginea today:
The same Marginea, but after two decades of high migration to Italy / pictures by Panorama
Another foreign perspective: at the end of 2015, the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin opened a fascinating exhibition called “Brave New World – Migrants’ Dream Homes“.
The project was to span several years, but the first research was on Romanian migrants’ homes. Later, a book came out on this topic, with articles in which anthropologists, sociologists, Romanian and foreign journalists analyzed the whole universe of meanings and consequences hidden by the “imported” houses of Romanian migrants: what they mean for the local economy, for the local real estate sector; what they mean from an ethnographic, architectural and social point of view.
“A modern house proudly displays the owner’s earnings obtained abroad. It’s a testament to the hard work, courage and ambition needed to succeed in a foreign place. Large windows, elaborate roofs and imported materials symbolize the Western lifestyle. Along with powerful cars, they are the key to social recognition. They are a family’s social capital,” say the exhibition curators.
New houses belonging to migrants from Cajvana, Suceava, working in Italy / photo source: Amelia Tue, Brave New World, 2015
Photographer Petruț Călinescu has been documenting Romania’s external migration for years. Most of the photographs exhibited at the “Brave New World” were shot by him. Since 2010, he has photo-documented communities in Maramureș, Oaș, Țara Lăpușului, Bucovina. Most of his time, however, was spent on the Certeze-Paris route.
“At first, I wanted to make a regional project on the Balkans and I also went to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo”, says the photographer, in an interview with Panorama. “I found it a bit more spectacular here. In Bulgaria, you don’t see villages changed by migration.”
That’s how the Pride and Concrete project came about, showing a spectacular clash of worlds, between new and old. A clash caused by migration. Once the dust settles, we can see the contours of modernization.
Floarea Baltă poses in the unfinished house of her daughter, who was working at the time in a pastry shop in Paris (Certeze, Maramureș, 2010). Photographer: Petruț Călinescu, Pride and Concrete
On one side, you have “this old world of wooden houses and old people who lived their lives according to an agricultural calendar”. On the other side, there’s the new world, with its Western feel and colors. “In the span of just a couple of years, some huge changes have happened”, the photographer comments.
When the money started coming in, there was an explosion – you could see the changes almost overnight. That’s because the money went, first and foremost, into houses. It was only afterwards that a lot of local businesses opened up: cafés, hairdressing salons, car washes, etc. All of them are businesses opened by migrants, the documentary maker explains.
“They’re a super hardworking community,” he says of the people in the Certeze area, where he has often been. “When you shake hands with them, you can see that their hands have not become ”shovels” by using the mouse. Diligence is a concept which is pretty hard to perceive, so it becomes visible through the houses you make. That’s how this rush to prove who’s the most diligent started. I’ve come across people who’ve made a house following a bet made while drinking some beer that they can make a bigger house.”
The opulent houses of Certeze have often been mentioned by the national media over the past 20 years. Petruț Călinescu says it seems to him that it’s more about fashion there, not necessarily the migration destination. “They bring a palm tree, a painting of Bonaparte, but at street level it doesn’t seem to me to bring the architecture of France. It’s more of a potpourri, a blend of styles. If you walk down the street, you wouldn’t say you’re in France or Sardinia.”
Elsewhere, the situation is different: “Earlier this year I was in Racșa, in Oaș, an area from where people moved to England. And new houses with English, Victorian influences are starting to appear, with very large, super imposing columns”, Petruț Călinescu says.
The small house (meanwhile demolished) of the old Gherman family stands next to the duplex built by two of their grandchildren, who moved to France (Moișeni, Țara Oașului, 2010). Picture by: Petruț Călinescu, Pride and Concrete
How do those who have made a business out of importing these “pieces of Europe” to Romania see things?
“I worked in the construction industry, and pretty much everything I saw there I applied here,” Ionuț Givan says. Ionut is a real estate developer with projects in Bistrița-Năsăud, Sibiu, Cluj and Suceava.
He started his business in 2008, after about nine years of working in the construction industry in Spain. His whole family was working in Spain at the time – him, his two younger brothers, with whom he still works (they also worked together in Spain), his mother and father.
That’s where he learned all he now knows about the real estate business. When he came back, he did it with all that know-how he got there. “I tried to come with the technique I saw and learned there, with the strategy, everything…”
Only with the technique or was it the style as well? “Clearly we were also inspired by the look of the buildings abroad. We tried to give the buildings a different look, to which the Romanian market responded positively”, he answers.
Adapted to suit the Bistrita climate, the Spanish style works very well on the local property market, the builder admits.
The partitioning, the Mediterranean architecture, all have become a very profitable business model. “You should know that we work on higher prices than outside. The prices per square meter, what I’m paying subcontractors now – well, I wasn’t getting that money in Spain as a subcontractor”.
Projects of the Bistrița real estate company run by Ionut Givan and his brothers, who worked in Spain in the construction industry
The Givan brothers returned home only partly because of the economic crisis, but mainly because the real estate field was booming in Romania. “We still had work to do there (in Spain), but we wouldn’t earn as much as we used to. So we thought it would be appropriate to do something at home” says the real estate developer.
Last year, his company had a turnover of 47 million RON – against 50 thousand RON in 2008 – and now it employs over 150 people. Most of his permanent hands have worked in the construction industry abroad. And the pandemic has brought him even more manpower. “Many came back last year. We even have a lot of job applications now, applications from people who came back from abroad.”
“The new houses are made to very high standards. Working there for two, three, five years, when they came back to Romania, the people no longer liked their house, the car, the gate, the fence, they changed everything. Yes, I want to live in my own country, but having a better life, like they have over there“, an engineer says, in a study by Professor Andra Jacob Larionescu, from the Faculty of Architecture at Spiru Haret University.
The professor has also extensively studied the effects of migration on local architecture, with a case study also in Marginea, which is probably one of the most documented communes in the country. Between 2009 and 2011, Andra Jacob Larionescu collected data and interviews from 50 households in Marginea.
Her research showed that migration has favored the import of new building systems, construction techniques and machinery, as well as more economical or better performing heating, sewage, water and electricity systems. “We’ve been abroad and seen modern things, so we thought to do the same at home”, one migrant told her.
“We used 15 cm building blocks and extruded polystyrene inside. Just like we saw in Italy”, another local said.
At least during the early years of the migration-fueled real estate boom, the building imitation also had several unwise, if not comical, elements. A lot of houses built in Italian style were also insulated in the same way: “You come here at a temperature of -35°C with the same system (insulation system like in Italy, editor’s note)?” one builder complained.
“How I liked the houses in Italy!”, said S.N., another inhabitant of Marginea. “I didn’t have a house with a bathroom and that’s why I left. As I worked for an elderly lady, I saw how easy it is to take care of a disabled person. So I said the first thing I wanted was a bathroom. If someone gets sick, everything is within reach, you don’t have to go outside, you can do the laundry, it’s different. After I went to Italy, I said yes, the car and everything else is useful, but the most important thing is the bathroom”.
“My wife told me: in the house we have, we can’t build a bathroom. Let’s build, demolish and rebuild”.
According to the 2002 census, Andra Jacob Larionescu writes, only 16% of houses in Marginea had a bathroom. In 2011, half of them did.
And now bathrooms no longer serve only the functional role S.N. spoke of, but are luxurious spaces with natural stone, imported ceramic wall and floor tiles. The migrants’ bathrooms were fashioned out of an understandable necessity and have become a symbol of the break with the past, of modernization and westernization. They are, like the houses in which they are located, a particular symbol of the foreign pieces brought home by the diaspora.
Because nothing tells you more clearly that you’ve come a long way than the fact that you no longer have to go far to get to the toilet or hot water.
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