British expats in Romania: They come over here, taking our jobs...
As the UK prepares to open its borders to Romanians next year, Jerome Taylor meets the unlikely expats who have moved in the other direction
Dave Bryan is not used to speaking in English. The 28-year-old County Durham native walks into a bustling restaurant in Bucharest's bohemian Lipscani neighbourhood and orders a cup of fruit tea in perfect Romanian. He jokes with the staff like any local. But when he opens his mouth to a fellow Brit, the thick North-eastern accent of his birthplace is unmistakable.
"It feels weird man," he says. "I've even begun to think in Romanian. English is a language which now feels foreign to me."
Mr Bryan is a British national who has decided to live full-time in Romania. He moved here eight years ago and has forged a somewhat unlikely career as a pop star. He even represented Romania in the 2011 Eurovision song contest, after his adopted nation warmed to the fact that a western European man had bothered to learn their language and wanted to represent their country.
Like many of the expats living here, he has viewed the increasingly hostile reaction coming out of Britain towards Romanian and Bulgarian migrants with a mixture of disappointment and embarrassment.
"Brits are trying to escape the UK as well," he says. "The British are too proud. We have a go at people for leaving Romania but there are plenty of us wanting to leave as well. Round here people emigrate to find work and opportunities. In Britain they sit around, moan and take money off the Government."
Mr Bryan dropped out of college at 17 and the only work he could find was as a bin man. After trying out some volunteering work in Romania he fell in love with the country and has never considered returning – even if his fame hasn't produced the kind of return it would back home.
"You get fame in Romania but you don't get the money with it," he says. "I might be able to make €600 (£515) for a wedding and €100 for a concert. But I've got a name for myself and I'm surviving in something that I love to do."
No one knows the exact number of Brits who live in Romania because, since its accession to the European Union in 2007, they no longer need to register. By contrast, western European nations have been allowed to restrict the number of Romanians and Bulgarians crossing their borders. But come January 2014, those quotas will be lifted. The British embassy said it believed the number of Brits living in Romania is 3,000-4,000. According to the Romanian immigration authorities, the number of UK citizens registering to live there has fallen from 435 between April 2011 and March 2012 to 298 between then and January.
The Romanian economy is one of the reasons why Brits were once attracted – but it was one of the European nations hit hardest by the global economic crisis and many early investors got burnt. The property market crashed and some multinational companies pulled out. As part of an IMF-led rescue deal, one of the harshest austerity programmes in Europe has been imposed on the Romanian people. In 2010, public-sector wages were cut by 25 per cent.
But for those who stuck around there is still the opportunity to make good money – in a country where the cost of living, even if the salaries are low, remains cheap.
"The quality of life is much higher," says Damian Galvin, who used to work for Aston Martin before moving to Romania in 2003 and setting up his company, White Mountain Property, in Brasov. "My income is a tenth of what I had in the UK but you can dine out for a fifth of what it costs in the UK."
Council tax can be as little as £27 a year while Bucharest is one of the few European capitals where you can still find a pint for £1. Food and petrol is surprisingly expensive – a litre of fuel will set you back 6 lei (£1.16). But given that British expats usually earn more than their Romanian colleagues and there's a flat income tax rate of 16 per cent, they often have a lot of expendable income at the end of the month.
Given the preference for English speakers, even those who don't know much Romanian can quickly find work. Francis Chantree, 50, from Hemel Hampstead, moved to Romania's second largest city Cluj Napoca after he fell in love with a Romanian woman online.
"I know what people think," he says. "But she didn't want to come to the UK so I came out here. I got very lucky, I didn't really know what Cluj was like or even whether I'd be able to find work. But the town's a really nice place and there are plenty of employment opportunities." He now works for an American software company as a proof-reader.
But few expats are starry-eyed about the realities of doing business in Romania. Corruption and bureaucracy remain endemic. Last month, the European Commission's latest progress report stated that the country was still failing to live up to European standards six years after it joined the EU.
The damning verdict came as little surprise to David Howe, a 45-year-old from Northern Ireland who is now in Bucharest and has a company, InvestRomania.com, that helps foreigners find safe ways to spend their money.
"You can do business but the reality is doing anything more than you can monitor yourself will get you fleeced. It's socially acceptable to skim so you need maximum supervision. Anyone coming here needs to develop a third-world mentality because that is what you're going to," he says.
Many Romanians might balk at such a comparison, but virtually everyone you speak to admits that "spaga" – the local word for bribes – is an inevitable fact of life. But while Romania may be corrupt, it is not violent. Despite being a sprawling city with some shocking levels of poverty, Bucharest has one of the lowest crime rates for a European capital.
Michael Fraser, 30, the son of a British diplomat who came to visit his dad in Bucharest for a holiday and never left, runs Mojo Music Bar in the old town. "It's the safest city I've ever been to," he says. "I go back to Loughborough and see two fights in a weekend. I can honestly say I've probably seen no more than five in the past 12 years."
Romania for him is a country that is deeply misunderstood in western Europe. "The first opinion people have is what they read in the press and it's generally really bad about Romania," he says. "But 99 per cent of people who live here love it. And you know what? There must be a reason for that."
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