Pride and Concrete

The success story of those gone to work abroad

Text: Ioana Calinescu

“The golden rule: you never eat away your profit. If today you make 50 EUR, you set 40 EUR aside. If you start indulging yourself, like going to bars and’re never going to make money. Never! As the French say: Jamais!”.  

In his small kitchen in Saint Denis, Île-de-France, Old Cotroș from Certeze, Țara Oașului, has just resumed almost 20 years’ migration. In Saint Denis, a suburb of Paris, people wear brightly-coloured turbans and smells of exotic spices waft from the African emigrants’ kitchens. The apartment building where Cotroș has been living for over 10 years smells of sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls) and meatball soup. „On this side of the building it’s just a few of us, not the whole family. My brother lives next door, my eldest son and my grandchildren on the above floor, my brother-in-law lives below me, my son’s father-in-law and my cousin on the other side...It still doesn’t feel like home. And it never will!”

If you happen to be there on a Sunday, the whole building resounds with music from Oaș; through the open apartment doors you can see entire families, from toddlers wearing bibs to old women wearing traditional kerchiefs, village neighbours and other visitors, gathered around the table, talking and laughing out loud. “12 families live here; except for two Morrocan families, it’s only Romanians. We have a lot of fun. There’s many of us, so we celebrate birthdays all the time. Yesterday we celebrated my daughter-in-law’s birthday, last week my brother-in-law’s. Friday Vasile, my son, turned 23.  At Christmas we slaughter the pig and make sausages and caltaboș (sausage made from lungs, liver, mixed with rice and spices), just like in Romania. Next to us a new Romanian shop opened, whose owners are from Săpânța. This is how we enjoy ourselves: birthdays, weddings and christenings. It’s the same back home. We’ve never had a vacation, we’ve never even been to the baths”, says Cotroș, who grew up with 17 brothers and a father who had a saying: be optimistic, brave and look forward. And this is how your life is going to be. „And it has been so”, says Cotroș.

In 17 years since he’s been working in Paris, Cotroș has taken Lică (photo 2) , his wife,  to a restaurant only once. Even now they sometimes fight over the money they spent... One can’t really imagine Lică arguing. She generally keeps quiet and cleans. Like most women from Oaș come to Paris, Lică has been cleaning French people’s houses for over 15 years. She’s worked all her life. At 14 she left home; she went on a bus which – every summer – took seasonal workers from the villages in Țara Oașului to work around the country and she hasn’t stopped since. She hasn’t really had time to be a mom, though she has three children. “I grew up without parents”, says Dana Ciocan (photo 3), 28, Lică and Cotroș’s daughter. „When my parents left to work abroad, I stayed home to take care of my brothers. I didn’t do as much crying when they left as I did when they took my elder brother to work with them. My God, how I cried when he left. They took me when I was 16. I wasn’t with them when they were sleeping in abandoned houses. They had it rough, but I was priviledged. When I arrived in Paris, they were already renting a place. In the beginning, my mom would take me with her to houses where she cleaned so I would learn the job. It was so hard for me. Entering a bathroom terrified me. I didn’t even know how to turn on the water. When we left home, we had the toilet in the backyard. I had never seen a bathroom. And when mom first planted all the cleaning solutions in my arms, the smells made me vomit instantly... I would clean and vomit, clean and vomit.” Today, just like her mother, Dana is a highly appreciated housekeeper. On average, she earns 2.500 EUR / month. Just like her father has taught her, she saves 2.000 and lives on 500.

Two buildings and three floors full of Romanians

The apartment Cotroș and Lică live in has two rooms furnished with a wardrobe, bunk beds and a few wicker chairs for guests, often used also as coffee tables. Nothing more. There’s a TV set always on ProTv (photo 4).  The ten years of people living here don’t seem to have changed its air of temporary commuters’ residence. Perhaps it’s more deserted. In the beginning, five-six people would huddle together in such a room. Cotroș’s entire family lived here. Three children, a son-in-law, two daughters-in-law, not to mention friends and village neighbours who lived there temporarily until they got settled in Paris. Then the grandchildren were born - five of them - and, gradually, the young families started to occupy other apartments in the building or migrated to other neighbourhoods around Paris.

The entire apartment building is split in two, smaller, mirror-like buildings and it’s got three storeys full of Romanians. Ten years before, the owner - an Arab with a knack for real estate -  had a three-storey abandoned building at the same address. Cotroș had a team of people from Oaș, eager to work, their hands as big as shovels and fiercely determined to feel human again. It had been seven years since they had fled the country under train wagons, in airless vans, hunted by Border Petrol dogs. It had been almost seven years since they’d been living like animals on the outskirts of Paris, in improvised cabins or in abandoned houses because nobody would take them in as tenants since they lacked legal papers. “From the very start, the deal was that we’d make the apartments for ourselves. So, when we were done, we finally moved in and paid rent, like normal people. That’s why it’s just people from Oaş in this building. Somehow, we made it so that we’d all fit in”,  says Cotroș.

Nowadays, the people from Oaș are renowned on the French labour market as one of the best construction workers, but back then - Cotroș laughs in his sleeve -  they didn’t know their business. They renovated the building as they thought fit. No two apartments were alike. Some they did with two rooms, some with three. They took down and put up walls depending on how big their families were. Around the year 2000, for tens of such people, exhausted and neverendlessly looking for work, eating by fits and starts and leaning against construction material warehouses for years (where even today black labour markets are formed) in wait for some order, Paris was finally becoming a different sort of home. For them the hard part was over, for the others, who were just plucking up the courage to leave home in search of work, the hard part was just starting.

That’s how it was in the beginning.

“70 people from our village left in the winter of ’97”, says Pop Toader a lui Pițoaie of Târșolț village, Țara Oașului, who’s been working as a mason in Paris for 15 years. „We crossed the border one evening, all of us in a van. In order for all to fit in, we had to stand up, like they do at the slaughterhouse. It was January and we were afraid we’d freeze, but, instead, we were left without air. We’d flick the lighter and it wouldn’t light anymore. We were as good as dead. I kneeled, a neighbour got up on my shoulders, two held him and, using a knife, he grated until he made a hole. That was our luck. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have made it to Paris alive. Do you think we felt relieved when we got there? It was worse than fleeing Romania. At least until Paris, we had relied on others, but there it was different. Get out of the van, go and fend for yourself! Where to go? Where to turn? You don’t know the language, nobody’s waiting for you. You have no plan. That’s how it was in the beginning.”

Even after 17 years of working in Paris, Cotroș doesn’t speak the language very well. And he’s not ashamed in the least. He even laughs out loud as he tells everyone how he went to the doctor who prescribed eyedrops, but, since he had misunderstood the doctor, he drank  the drops. Why should he be able to speak French anyway? His direct boss is his youngest son who’s recently turned 23 and has a small construction firm; business is going pretty well, he works 10 hours a day in teams of people from Oaș, he spends Sundays with his family or visiting neighbours from the village who have also settled in Paris. For him the adventure has long been over. Cotroș is part of the avant-garde of the Romanian workforce migration. After the fall of Communism, when the Romanian centralized production system collapsed and the work opportunities within the country vanished, the people of Oaș were the first to force the border in search of work.  Cotroș was among them. After them, a huge percent of the active population of Țara Oașului got through. After several attempts to find their place in various European countries, most of them regrouped at the beginning of the ‘90s in Paris, France. Today, Cotroș’s only wish is to return home. He’s going to stay a few years “to get his retirement money” and then he’ll go back to Certeze where he wants to set up a pheasant farm.

Selling newspapers

After ’89, when they left home, the people of Oaș didn’t know the first thing about constructions (now their main job in Paris), but they could do ten people’s work, carry materials on their backs without complaining, sleep on wooden boards or under the clear sky and not see their children for months on end. They had proven this also during the Communist regime when they were used for seasonal works within the country. Difficult, well-paid jobs. Thus, the massive land clearing was done mainly by people from Oaș, same as the cleaning of oil tankers or the painting of telegraph poles. These people never held back from anything in return for good pay. At the beginning of the ‘90s, they had nothing to hold back from doing. They were living illegally in France and nobody would offer them jobs or take them in as tenants. It didn’t take long until the people of Oaș succeeded in turning a seemingly inextricable situation into a profitable advantage which brought them the first money earned in France. They happily embraced the temporary legal status of « the socially excluded» (SDF – without a fixed residence and without a work permit) offered by the French state and they monopolized the distribution of «street newspapers», a journal especially conceived for such people, who cannot otherwise earn their living. They quickly built the most efficient and crafty newspaper distribution network, succeeding in making masked beggary an amazingly prosper business. In the ‘90s, they made at least 50 EUR / day, money which they sent to Romania.

Even today there are still some selling « street newspapers », but most of them have legal papers, men work in constructions, while women do the housekeeping. Old Bumbușchi from Certeze (photo 5), his eyes red from conjunctivitis, in a dignified, yet humble position, is standing at the entrance into Monoprix shop on Av. Charles de Gaulle, with a view to the La Defence esplanade. People have known him for so long, that he’s become a sort of mark of the place. Every day, in front of the same store for 17 years, popular and protected by the security guards, Bumbușchi sells “street newspapers”. He proudly says that with the money earned he has built himself in Certeze a house bigger than the church and has also managed to build houses for his children.  

“In the beginning, around ’96, I returned home after nine months. I missed my child. I had left him with my sister, while I lived in abandoned houses in Paris and sold “street newspapers” at shop entrances. I did make money selling newspapers…My God. I was so ashamed….In those days, there was no talk of actual work. We all sold newspapers”, says Irina Solomeș a.k.a Jaga (photo 6), from Târșolț. Irina is one of Cotroș’s neighbours and has been working as a housekeeper in Paris for over 15 years. She loves antique furniture and collects objects the French ladies she does the housekeeping for give her and decorates her house in the village. “People know I’m a fashionable person. This year I have changed the curtains in the house. It’s the latest fashion here in the region. The plate, glass and crystal sets…I brought them all from Paris. I just hate the kitchen I have now. I’m going to change it! Here fashion changes from one year to the other. Now I’m simply embarrassed, I can’t even look at it. I’ve already changed the chairs three times. The ones I have now are no longer in. They were very expensive. I paid 250 RON on a chair. I’ve gotten chairs for 200 EUR / piece. Now I have to change these too.” Irina says that, should the French ladies she works for see her house, they’d realize they should be doing the housekeeping for her, not the other way around.

The curse of the concrete

The people of Oaș have to make money. It’s a law (“a curse” according to the young generation from Paris) which they’ve all inherited and have to observe. They are engaged from father to son and mother to daughter in a social competition they cannot resist. This can be seen even today, just like generations before, in the houses and the fancy villages of the people of Oaș. The money earned before ’89 were invested in houses. When Romania was reaching the poverty threshold in an extreme plan to pay the country’s external debt, the villages of Oaș were prospering and the old houses were “growing” a first floor. The money earned in France has irretrievably changed the face of traditional villages in northern Romania. The wooden houses, famous in Europe due to the technique of fastening beams without any nails, have turned into concrete mammoths with stainless steel balconies and roofs in waves. They have transformed, but not disappeared; because at the basis of many such houses today lie the old houses. In some new houses under construction one can still see fragments from the old house: a beam, handpainted girdle, or a wooden-framed window, over which cold concrete is poured.

An old saying from Oaș goes like this - “If my neighbour’s got a three-storey house, mine has to have four. ” And a more recent saying - “What does someone from Oaș do when they return home? They tear the house down.” Meaning they take down a wall, they make a summer kitchen, they change a roof according to the fashion of Oaș and what the neighbour across the street has been doing to his house. A house from Oaș is never done. It keeps on transforming. “With the money from France, we took it all down and built an attic”, says Irina from Târșolț (whose French ladies should be doing her housekeeping), looking proudly at her two-storey house. „We’ve changed the windows again, down here it was a garage. We’ve taken down the ground floor three times. We didn’t like it. We don’t like it now either, so we have to take it all down again. I want the door to be bigger. For the balcony we had a wrought iron balustrade, but I took it down and sent it to my sister in Satu Mare because it had become out of fashion. So now we have a stainless steel one. Right now we’re taking out the tiles off the barn because it doesn’t match the new one on the house. They’re really good tiles. But my heart aches. I paid 2.000 German marks for it. It was the most expensive back then. This big barn was made after we built the attic. An uncle of mine came by and said such a big house deserves a big barn! And that was it. We couldn’t NOT do it. People would have said we didn’t have money if we didn’t do it. But we have no use for it because we haven’t had any cattle for 20 years. My husband suggested turning it into a wedding salon, but one’s just opened here in the village. 3.000 seats.” The village of Târșolț is inhabited by 3.000 people, including children. And that’s if they were home at the same time.


The bride’s wedding

During the year, the villages from Oaş are deserted. No sound of cattle coming home, of hens or horse hooves. The soundtrack of the traditional Romanian village seems to have turned overnight into a muffled noise of concrete mixers and the village elders into site inspectors. In August, however, everyone returns home and the village alleys are blocked by luxury cars. In some villages from Oaş, if you want to get from one end to the other you can be stuck in traffic even an hour. Especially after the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, when wedding season begins. And when it begins, it won’t stop till September. It’s tradition! Weddings take place at home, not among foreigners. And no matter how cosmopolitan their lives might be, no matter how many nationalities they might come into contact with in their apartment building in Paris, in the subway, at work, at the corner shop, the marriages still take place between people of the same village. And the parents still get to have the last word.

A villager who doesn’t want to be the talk of the village will attend even 20 weddings in a summer. Weddings in Oaș work as a social mutual aid fund. It’s an investment in the children’s future weddings. Those who have small children start to stringently attend weddings in order to ensure a certain number of guests at their own children’s weddings. Otherwise, how would they be able to gather around 1.000 (and maybe even more) physically and mentally exhausted guests at a wedding? A usual wedding costs between 40.000-50.000 EUR and, should virtually all the guests arrive, it produces around 100.000 EUR. Everything is organized with the help of specialized catering firms, so that accounts for all weddings having the same menu (a menu identical to the one at Christmas dinner, when the people come back home for the winter holidays). Although they’re intent on having state-of-the art professional kitchens, most of them don’t cook when they return home, but would rather place orders with catering firms. As regards the women who, in the olden days, were called to fold sarmale at weddings, today they go to beauty salons.

In summer, a villager from Oaş spends approximately 3.000 EUR on weddings ; that’s if he or she has no weddings in the family, but if that’s the case, then the expenses rise to 5.000 EUR. To this, add the trips to the beauty salon for each wedding (there is no female wedding guest without a fancy-looking bun) and the dresses. In August, one cannot get an appointment in a beauty salon. There are over 25 in Negrești Oaș, the book full of appointments made from abroad many, many months beforehand. One day, when one of the hairstylists fainted with exhaustion, the women who had appointments waited for her in the salon - as if on a bus at rush hour - to come back from the hospital and finish their buns. Not one of them gave up. But they did have time to complain about this year’s number of weddings. One of them said she was supposed to attend 40 weddings.

And to top it all, in Oaș there are two types of weddings. The one in traditional costumes which is held at the bride’s house and is called the bride’s wedding, and the wedding in „royal clothes” which is held at the village wedding houses. The duration of the wedding differs from one village to the other.  In some villages, first comes the bride’s wedding; then, the bride is left to rest for a few days, so that the wounds and bruises from the boots and the traditional bride costume heal (photo 8), and, only a few days later, does the royal wedding take place. In others, everything happens in one breath, in one single day. A bridal gown weighs over 20 kilos and costs between 2.500 and 8.000 EUR, depending on the jewels which embellish it. Following the migration, Swarovski crystals have started to appear on the Oaș bridal gowns. The boots are custom-made by one of the villagers and are so rigid that every bride ends up with sore ankles. The brides stays dressed like this for roughly 10 hours. At the end of the day, their hips are bruised, and no matter how hard housekeeping is abroad, the Oaș brides all have charley horse. Under the scorching August sun, the brides suddenly turn white and have to sit somewhere in the shade so as not to pass out. The adorning of the bride starts two days ahead and the longest procedure is the hair weaving, which only a few women from the village know how to do. The weaving takes about 8 hours and it is done in two days. The night before the wedding the bride sleeps in a fixed position, a part of the wedding crown already stuck in her hair. Industrial margerine is used for weaving. Maria Veletean from Certeze, one of the few women who still know how to weave the bride’s hair, earns around 9.000 EUR in August just for the weaving. She works as a housekeeper in Paris for the rest of the year.

Once, a horse-drawn carriage filled to the brim with wedding guests, would gallop through the village several times in bellharp (violin) sounds and joyful voices would fill the air. There are young people today who still remember the bellharper (the violin player) firmly planted in the middle of the cart and the wedding guests, together with the bride and groom, standing in the cart and chanting as the horses galloped. The transformation occurred almost instantly. There was no adjustment period. How long does a cart take to turn into a convertible? A few years of hard work in Paris, Vienna, Milan…

In Paris 

In September, the people of Oaş gather the plums for the moonshine, shake down the apples, load the cars and return to their lives in Paris, where most of them live in small and crowded apartments, where they are lodgers and alleviate their homesickness with sarmale and bacon. However, not all of them can afford having a real roof over their heads. There are still some who live in the woods around Paris, in improvised camps, without running water and under threat of evacuation. They are those who left Oaş later and, under the pressure of the social competition back home, want to make up for lost time. Though they earn nice money, around 2.500 EUR / month, they’d rather save it than pay rent in Paris. Nevertheless, there are some, more and more in recent years, who have started to buy properties in France. Grigore Moiș is one of those who have made it in Paris. He left in 1996 and today has a prosperous construction firm. From the profit made, he manages to set aside about 100.000 EUR / year. He has bought a house and land in the suburbs of Paris where he lives with his wife, mother and two children. He estimates his fortune at about 1 million EUR. Nevertheless, they are so used to working and making money that his wife  (photo 9) still works as a housekeeper, earning 2.000 EUR / month. 

“The millionaires’ village” from Bucovina

At the beginning of the ‘90s, the people of Certeze set the tone for migration in Țara Oaşului, but Certeze isn’t the only success model in northern Romania. Maramureș, Moldova, Bucovina also have their own stories which have become examples for the neighbouring communities. Cajvana, for instance, is known as the „millionaires’ village” from Bucovina and its history is strikingly similar to that of Certeze. These people made a name for themselves even in Ceaușescu’s time when they set up an ingenious and prosperous business. During the year, the people of Cajvana would go to the poultry farms throughout the country and offer to clean the poultry sheds for free on the condition that they keep the garbage. Afterwards, they’d sieve out the filth and come back home with sacks full of „squander”, as they called it – rest of food from the hens. With this squander they’d feed their pigs which they later sold at animal fairs throughout the country. Following the selling of the pigs, the money would be enough to buy a Dacia per family. Just like the people of Certeze, they went abroad to work at the beginning of the ’90s, they were chased through forests by frontier guards, they lived and worked in conditions difficult to imagine. Nowadays, most of them live in Italy.

Between the first generation, who fought hard to make a life for themselves „abroad”, and their children, who speak the language fluently and are perfectly integrated in their adoptive societies,  a growing abyss opens up. The former dream of returning one day home and the latter of breaking “the curse of the concrete” which forces them, according to tradition, to invest their hard-earned money into multiple-storey houses in their native villages. These big houses prevent both generations from seeing their dreams come true. Those who dream of returning home are forced to work far from them in order to ensure the upkeep of the houses, while the ones who want to have a life „abroad”, are forced to invest all their money in finishing them. And that, in many cases, might last a lifetime.