Ronald Young is former Scottish politician and academic who has left Scotland for Romania. He has lived between Romania and Bulgaria for several years now and he has bought a house in the beautiful area of Fundata, near Brasov county. Ronald Young has also written several e-books about Romania, one of which is a very comprehensive and detailed examination of its cultural aspects. The books are free and they are written in English:
He also often writes on his blog about diverse issues and on things in Romania, on the subject of travelling, politics and everyday life. He has written more than 60 extensive posts about different aspects of Romania.
Curious about his interest in Romania, I wanted to find out more about this well knowledgeable and cultured man and why he has chosen Romania as his home. I also wanted to find out what he thought about the negative image of Romania in the British media and wondered why he would leave Scotland for Romania, considering that many Romanians leave Romania for Scotland.
Why did you leave your country?
I was a prominent Regional politician in Scotland from 1974-1990 – also holding down an academic position until 1985 which became increasingly untenable because of my neglect of my students…. I had some years earlier decided against the national political career which had been on offer…..so, at age 48, I had apparently run out of options.
Then the Berlin wall fell – and the Head of Public Health at the WHO’s Regional Office asked me to undertake a short assignment networking, on her behalf, the newly-liberated countries of Central Europe to explore how best to pursue a health promotion agenda. This was because of the strategic work I had been doing for the two previous decades on what is various called “social justice” or “marginalisation”….
The EC was then looking for consultants with my experience for the new programme of Technical Assistance getting underway and I had very much enjoyed the new challenge and the nomadic life which offered itself…..
2. You originate from Scotland and you moved to Romania. How do you see Romanians personality and way of being compared to Scottish people? Are there any similarities?
Section 14 of my E-book Mapping Romania contains two excerpts from key books – the first from a compatriot of mine (like me, with a Romanian partner) who moved recently from Bucharest to France. It describes some typical scenes – which Mike Ormsby also captures in his short stories about the country in “Never Mind the Balkans – here’s Romania” (You can read a couple of them here in “Bucharest Tales”).
Excerpt from Maping Romania
Romanians get on well with people who are happy to converse at length, especially about poetry, philosophy, history and the arts. Qualities they admire are erudition, delicacy of expression, intuition and compassion. Exchanges can be on a close personal basis, especially when you have attained a certain familiarity.
Though more circumspect than Italians, Romanians resemble them in their desire for spiritual closeness, confidences and exploration of human feelings.
Another excerpt that advises foreign people when interacting with Romanians:
– Acknowledge Romania’s special historical and linguistic position.
– Speak a few words of Romanian.
– Admire the beauty of their language, scenery, churches and monasteries. – Show you are willing to help them in their difficulties.
– Read between the lines to divine their wishes and aspirations.
– Elicit information indirectly.
– Indulge in small talk and politics, but do not “intervene.”
– Accept their lavish hospitality and reciprocate soon.
– Understand that business and social life are intertwined.
The second, longer excerpt is from a fat book called “When Cultures Clash”……. Section 7 has some further snapshots……
For me the overriding impression which remains with me is of a people who are unable to trust – and cannot therefore even begin to cooperate with one another in matters of business or civic life…..
In that sense, we are pretty different – as you would perhaps expect from our respective locations in the extreme north and south of Europe! See, for example, this fascinating cultural map (which uses 2 axes) which could put Scotland reasonably in the top right cloud – with Romania being half way down the left part of the diagram..
3. British media seems to focus on the negative image of Romanians. What do you think about Romania’s image in the British media?
The British media are notoriously insular, superficial and “dumbed- down”. Even events in France and Germany don’t get the treatment in the British press they deserve – so it’s hardly surprising that the issues selected for their attention are dramatic and negative…for example, mention Bulgaria and the British public still immediately thinks of the umbrella-tip murder of George Markov in a London street away back in 1978….
Romania has been plagued with the dark imagery of Bram Stoker’s novel – and the orphanage scandal of the early 90s simply reinforced that….More recently the anti-social behaviour of “Romanies” tarred the country’s reputation further and was reinforced by Farage and the UKIP who got disproportionate coverage in the media…. I don’t actually know how the media covered the more recent anti-government protests but do remember that the pictures of Romanians queuing to vote in various EU capitals in the 2014 Pres Elections did receive positive coverage……
4. Do you think Romanians are capable of changing this negative image?
It’s enormously difficult to improve the “image” of a country. You probably saw this fairly typical article about the issue last year – which reported that, when asked which EU country they would LEAST like to live in, 25% of the UK respondents replied Romania (4 times the nearest contender).
Also interesting to see that only 1% of the respondents said they had visited the country – compared with 6% for Bulgaria (which has one third of Romani’s population)…..each UK visitor who can be encouraged to visit Romania has, therefore, potentially a much greater impact back home than a visitor to Bulgaria!
More personal contacts need to be encouraged – for example, I don’t know how active the town twinning system is at the moment, or the Romanian profile there. And more effort needs to be put by tour organiser into encouraging activities which bring visitors together with locals….(see answer 6 below).
But it’s more basic than that – if I’m correct about the problem of trust (and a Romanian academic – Prof Hutu – applies here the important Hofstede cultural concepts to Romanian organisations), the obvious question to explore is what those in authority are doing about it – eg in the universities. I’m not in a position to explore this – but people like Sorin Ionitsa could be worth contacting about that question.
When I was on a Fellowship in the States in the late 80s I came across a fascinating structure called City Leadership which brought leaders from all sectors of city life together once a month to forge bonds of understanding. There is a global version of this here – although I can’t speak of its success.
5. People who settle in another country ten to use certain terms when pushed to define themselves – which, if any, of the following do you use?
- Political refugee?
- Economic immigrant?
Certainly never the first – I avoid those circles. When I started to blog (in 2009) my profile referred to me (half jocularly) as a “political refugee from Thatcher’s Britain” and I did actually feel that. And I have certainly benefitted financially from my career as a consultant in a way I never did in Scotland. But I do enjoy moving around – so the “nomad” (which is in my E-mail address from 2003) bit is probably the most appropriate
6. Why did you choose to stay?
The old story – love! I met Daniela in the Romanian Prime Minister’s Office in 1992 – and we have been together ever since. Although, until 2008, I was most times in other countries – not least Central Asia (8 years).
7. You will have seen a lot of changes in Romania in the last 25 years – can you share some of your impressions?
See the brief excerpt at the end from the 50 plus posts I’ve done on my blog. ( The excerpt refers to the Romanian movie ” The child’s pose” which portrays contemporary Romania.) Excerpt:
Călin Peter Netzer, the film’s director, portrays a mother consumed by self-love in her struggle to save her lost son and her own, long since riven family. In quasi-documentary style, the film meticulously reconstructs the events of one night and the days that follow, providing insights into the moral malaise of Romania’s bourgeoisie and throwing into sharp relief the state of institutions such as the police and the judiciary.
8. Would you ever contemplate returning to the UK?
Not really – the weather is too bad. And I wouldn’t recognise the place after 27 years!!
9. What are the advantages of living where you do?
Not Bucharest certainly – it’s too large, noisy…even aggressive with its ornate mansions and palaces – and huge Boulevards. It’s Transylvania and my mountain house I love…..
Amazon and the internet have allowed me to keep in close touch with intellectual life – although I was able to boycott Amazon until the Anthony Frost English Bookshop closed its doors in February this year.
And, for the past decade, I have enjoyed easy access to the paintings and wines of neighbouring Bulgaria.
10. Have you considered taking out Romanian citizenship?
Indeed – but I need to work on my Romanian!
11. How do you feel about BREXIT?
Gutted – it threatens to strip me of my European citizenship and therefore make life much more difficult for me.
12. How do you feel about the present British reaction to immigration?
Understandable – the New Labour Government was very stupid in 2004 to allow immediate free labour movement to the citizens of the new Member States. Something only a couple of the older member states allowed at the time….. Until 1998 net migration to the UK had been only 50,000 but then shot up in the following decade to more than 250,000 annually.
13. How do you feel about the present global flow of migration?
The US and UK Governments opened a Pandora’s Box with both globalisation and the Iraq War. It’s difficult to see how the forces released can be returned to the Box…Of course immigration has historically had important cultural benefits but the present 50 million level is politically unsustainable.
14. In the 1990’s after the revolution, people used to say that it will take us around 20 years to recover our economy and become a country with a strong economy and a strong position in the world. It seems somehow that we are still recovering economically. How do you see Romania’s future, let’s say in 20 years?
Ralf Dahrendorf, in his famous little book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (1990) famously said that
“it will take one or two years to create new institutions of political democracy in these recently liberated countries, maybe five to 10 years to reform the economy and make a market economy, and 15 to 20 years to create the rule of law. And it will take maybe two generations to create a functioning civil society”.
A Czech (who had been an adviser to Vaclav Havel) suggested in 2011 that
what we see now is that we have completed the first two stages, the transformation of the institutions, of the framework of political democracy on the institutional level, there is a functioning market economy, which of course has certain problems, but when you take a look at the third area, the rule of the law, there is still a long way to go, and civil society is still weak and in many ways not very efficient.
He then went on to make the useful distinction “between democracy understood as institutions and democracy understood as culture. It’s been much easier to create a democratic regime, a democratic system as a set of institutions and procedures and mechanism, than to create democracy as a kind of culture – that is, an environment in which people are actually democrats”
Thanks to the efforts in the judicial field over the past 10 years (due to EC pressures), citizens have at last a feeling of some movement – although there are some concerns that the prosecution system has been manipulated; and the political system is totally unreformed….But, compared with its neighbours, the trends are going in the right direction in Romania. We should not underestimate the significance of this – Romania is the one bright spot in this part of central Europe – economically and politically….
But we have to be realistic – The Italian political system took 50 years (after the Second World War) to get serious political reform underway…..The next step must surely be for citizens and activists to resist the temptation immediately to polarise issues – there is no excuse, for example, for the hypocrisy of those who excuse Johannis for his misdemeanours when Sibiu mayor. Most Opposition parties carry the stain of their role in the privatisations of a decade ago…… The political tone needs to be lowered and intellectuals like Pipidi-Mungiu become less partial….
When Romanians asked me 20 years ago how I saw the future of their country, I advised realism….know with what difficulty we had faced our own modernisation efforts in the poast-war period..…Europe at the moment is an utterly confusing place….and optimism has disappeared…indeed the very notions of “progress” and “human agency” have been badly punctured….
I would like to see elites express more realism, modesty…indeed humility about what is possible…..
15. You have written several ebooks on Romania. What inspired you to write about this subject?
One of my daughters was visiting me in my mountain house in the Carpathians – and I wanted to help her prepare for her visit. I’ve been writing a blog since 2009 – Balkan and Carpathian Musings – which contained the odd post about particularly cultural aspects of the country. So I simply gathered some of them together; did a little series of thematic posts; cut and pasted; and filled in some of the obvious gaps….. Finding appropriate hyperlinks was one of the features which made the book fun to do….
I like to try to get “under the skin” of any country I stay in… It’s not easy to find books which do justice to countries – travel books do their best but are somewhat one dimensional. More serious books suffer from being written from one particular academic discipline – be it history, economics, politics. Anthropology seems to offer more eg this one I unearthed – The anthropology of Ireland. And this series on the cultural history of cities is quite excellent.
A couple of sections of the (extensive) library of my mountain house cover the sort of writing I like – which includes books about village life and writing which focuses on object- w G Sebald’s use in his novels of old photos; Edmund de waal’s focus in a family history on amber miniatures; Neil McGregor’s various histories built on various cultural artefacts eg Germany – the memories of a nation. It’s good also to see some of the objects – on an excellent blogsite.
16. What are your favourite places that you would recommend to anyone coming to Romania?
Probably the most difficult question for me to answer – since every visitor has different interests. Transylvania is a must – ideally a car or bike tour…..taking in the Bran-Rucar valley (and Zarnesti).
Old Bucharest needs to be seen – best through Valentin Mandache’s walking tours….
Although Bucharest has never been an attractive city for me – its buildings are pretentious if not aggressive in their opulence – it has fascinating architecture and many lovely galleries and parks. So it is worth wandering around – as these sites show –
- Unknown bucharest
- Bucharestian is an ambitious site which offers not only images but other goodies such as these crisp comments on Romanian mores
- Alternative Tours experience of which is reviewed here
But visitors really must meet some Romanians – there used to be great website which offered opportunities to do that through meals at residents’ homes…..
SAMPLE EXCERPTS FROM POSTS WITH ROMANIA LABEL
My relationship with Romania goes back exactly 26 years – I arrived to heavy snow and dim lights in January 1991 and, for a week, was ferried to places such as Brasov and Alba Iulia in an ambulance (I was on a WHO assignment) to meet various dignitaries; subsequently travelling to and from Iasi in the East by train.
In mid 1992 I took up a year’s assignment in the Prime Minister’s Office, working with the newly-elected big city mayors and the Ministry of the Interior to design the country’s first EC project of support for local government – during when I had discussions with several very senior politicians and officials and had a vague sense then of the iron fists and years of experience concealed in their gloves, eyes and voices.…
I was even one of a small number of foreign guests given seats of honour and a special mention at one of the first Conferences then of the renamed Social Democratic party (PSD) – which was all too quickly admitted to the Socialist International…This proved to be a useful network for some very skilful operators to use to pull the wool over Europe’s eyes about the dismal reality of reform efforts in the country in the 90s.
I remember vividly Ralf Dahrendorf’s judgement in 1991 that it would take at least a generation to make the beginnings of an impact on the communist mindset inculcated in central european countries for 50 years. But the European Commission knew differently and made a decision in 1997 which shocked me to the core – that EC technical assistance to central European and Balkan countries would no longer be governed by “developmental” objectives but rather by their ability to meet the formal legal requirement of the Acquis Commaunitaire (AC)…….ie of EU membership
It was obvious that the old power structures were still firmly in place but a break in the rule of ex-communists had taken place in 1996 when a liberal President was elected who sadly proved to be ineffective – and the old communist rule continued under Iliescu until sea captain and Bucharest ex-mayor Basescu took power in 2004. Only then can it be said that the reform of state agencies (slowly) started – very much under the eye of the EC…. Although the country was admitted (with Bulgaria) to the EU in 2007, its judicial performance (with BG’s) caused sufficient concern to ensure that it was subject to continued monitoring under the terms of the Verification Mechanism. This continues….
By then, however, the EC and EU strategy was simply to request Romania to observe the legal formalities of the AC; and to set up and ape the institutions of old Europe (already started through “twinning” with appropriate agencies in member countries, in the last decade with the hundreds of millions of euros of EC Structural Funds managed entirely by Romania).
Tom Gallagher’s Romania and the European Union – how the weak vanquished the strong(2010) documents the sad results
Noone, it needs to be stressed, is an expert in the transition from communism to a system of liberal democracy – or whatever we want to call the European system. We need to be very clear about this….noone expected it the Wall to fall – the only remotely equivalent experience was the collapse in the 70s of the Iberian and Latin American dictatorships – so people like me had (slowly) to try to build up a new set of putative skills and capacities……with rather limited success as I try to explore in The Long Game – not the log-frame (2011)
I can’t pretend to be an expert on Romania – since I returned only in 2009; have divided my time since then between Bulgaria and Romania; and don’t even speak the language…..
But, thanks to my Romanian partner, I did take part in workshops, for example, for Young Political Leaders led by American advisers who really shocked me for the disdain they showed for policy matters – everything was about political marketing….These, of course, were the days when everyone was preaching that the State should be dismantled….only in 1997 did the World Bank Annual Report grudgingly admit that they may have gone too far in their exhortations about privatisation…….
Another memory I have of these days is the Head of the European Delegation (Karen Fogg 1993-98) who gave every consultant (like me) a summary of Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work – civic traditions in Italy (1993) which suggested that the “amoral familiasm” of southern Italian Regions had undermined their pretences at modernism and effectively placed them 300 years behind the northern regions. Putnam indeed spawned an incredible technocratic literature on the concept of social capital and ideas on how it could be “engineered” to deal with the new alienation of modern capitalism..
Romanian communism had almost 50 years to inculcate more cooperative attitudes and behaviour – but the forced nature of “collective farms”; the forced migration of villagers to urban areas to drive industrialisation; and the scale of Securitate spying created a society where, paradoxically, no one felt able to trust.
From 1990 the market became God; Reagan and Thatcher had glorified greed; the state was bad; and television – which had been limited by Ceaucescu to 2 hours a day – the great good……As the commercial stations and journals spread, the values of instant gratification became dominant.
…….Even if I wanted to, I could not really sum this country up. I have known it for 23 years; it has become my home-base – at least, in the past five years, for half of the time.
When you read the older material which can be accessed – text and photographs – you do get a profound sense of the richness of Romanian society between 1880 and 1940 – rich in both possessions and characters. The architecture gives a clear sense of it – grand in the cities and individualistic if not eccentric in the towns and villages.
Romania has lost a lot since – so many of its writers lost to either persecution or migration; so many of the more recent younger generation seeking their professional rewards abroad….
Despite the almost American nature of the spirit which is evident in the Bucharest streets, on commercial television and in the fixation with flashy cars and speed, the past is still clearly evident – in both good and bad forms.
All countries which were in the area of Soviet influence experienced suffered deprivations and repression – in one degree or another. It would be a bit invidious to encourage a league table of suffering although Ceaucescu’s invasion of women’s intimacy and the scale of (illegal) abortions that led to must rank as one of the worst measures in post-war Europe – along with the digging of the Danube canal and wanton destruction of villages in the 1980s.
Equally, however, more of us who were lucky enough not to experience the post-war communist repression should have the honesty to recognize the undoubted improvements to social life which such regimes generally brought to the life of peasants and workers and, in particular, their children – the parents of the present generation.
I have learned a lot about the richness of Romanian culture in the few weeks I have been drafting what was originally about 10 pages of blogposts. ..AND IS NOW Mapping Romania – notes on an unfinished journey