Two Romanias

Romania came out from behind the Iron Curtain over 25 years ago, but it’s still a country with one foot in the past as it moves resolutely into the future. It’s all factories and multinational corporations and big box stores and neo-Gothic McMansions built by Roma families next to crumbling grey apartment blocs and roads clogged with flocks of sheep and an inscrutable bureaucracy that would make Kafka’s head spin. We experienced all this and more during our last visit to Romania, where my husband and I were setting up a new factory. Here’s a story about doing business in Romania, the new land of unbridled opportunity.

 The first thing that greets you when you arrive at the Timișoara airport in western Romania is a billboard advertising the expertise of a local business consultancy company, “Your competent partner for Romanian Birocracy” [sic]. A short reminder of how while much has changed in Romania, much has also remained the same.

While Romania has been on a steady path of economic and political transformation since the late 1980s, Romanian bureaucracy remains an anachronism best handled with the expertise of local partners. This caveat, alluded to even in the advertising at the airport, would only be confirmed during our visit.

Business consultancy services for foreigners are an important business here. The airport is flanked with glass office buildings and sprawling factories bearing the names of Italian, German, and American multinationals who all wanted to be part of Romania’s much-anticipated debut into the world market, guided no doubt by consultancy companies like this one.

These days, Romania is a hot spot for foreign investment, due to its competitive labor costs, educated workforce, and geographical proximity to hungry markets of western Europe. While neighboring Serbia, Moldova, and the Ukraine have proven to be politically unstable in recent years, Romania promises investors comparative security. It is also not uncommon for companies to ‘reshore’ business from China to Romania, which offers comparable labor costs at a fraction of the headache and risk involved in doing business in East Asia.

All of this opening up to the world is also happening against the backdrop of this moment I captured while driving from the airport: the road was blocked by hundreds of sheep crossing, herded across by a Romanian shepherd wearing a sheepskin cape, stepping out of the fog and the Middle Ages.

After Bucharest in the east, Romania’s capital and undisputed center of political and economic life, Timișoara is Romania’s second city. Due to its geographical location, the region has always enjoyed advantages relative to other parts of the country given its proximity to Europe, as well as the cultural and economic links with Central Europe forged by centuries-old German settler communities. Timișoara’s local economy flourished with foreign investment after the Revolution and the fall of the Iron Curtain, and this only accelerated after Romania’s ascendancy to the European Union in 2009.

There are tremendous opportunities to be had here, admittedly most for foreign investors, but also increasingly for average Romanians. As my husband’s brother Björn is fond of saying, “Everyone thinks America is the land of unbridled opportunity, but these days, it’s Romania.”

Luckily, we already had help in place for our own little international business endeavor. We had come to Romania to sign the documents for purchasing an old building that had been used, variously, as a sewing factory, bakery, and an NGO, to turn into a factory for electronics manufacturing. Dominik’s brother Björn has a local network of trusted advisors—and friends—who have been supporting him since he first came to Romania in the early 2000s and built ESO Romania, the subsidiary of the family’s electronic manufacturing company in Germany.

Björn spent most of his 20s living in Lipova, a small city between Timișoara and Arad, where he built a factory from his garage, adding on piece by piece over the years. He grew to love Romania, learned the language, and became part of the community in Lipova. His wife even gave birth to two of their children here, at a time before the wave of development had extended to the healthcare system. After more than a decade of blood, sweat, and many patient dealings with local officials, it was finally time to expand into new facilities.

Renovations on the building for ESO Romania are coming along.

And in grand Romanian style, we were doing it the ole’ boot-strapping way. The property would be purchased, and then the existing building would be renovated bit by bit, self-financed with ingenuity and hard manual labor. The banks in Romania provide financial services like mortgages and personal loans at exorbitant rates (c. 18% or more for a mortgage), so you have no choice but to bootstrap.

Like the Gothic-inspired mansions built by wealthy Roma people along the highway between Lipova and Arad, the regional capital, you add windows this year, next year comes the heating system, and perhaps the year after that, the wallpaper, if everything goes well. Of course, we plan on having things go much faster than this, but in Romania, business is often a work in progress.

As the wife of one of the co-owners, I was just along to sign the documents at the notary, physical presence being a strict requirement according to Romanian law. It was my second time in Romania, but because of my husband’s family’s ties to Romania—through family friends, employees, and the company—I felt familiar with Romanian culture, and I was curious to see how the economic development and political integration were changing the country, and its people.

Lipova, where ESO Romania is located, is a quiet, small city in the countryside. You can still see people riding bicycles, elderly women dressed in black headscarves, walking slowly together, arm in arm along the street. But development is arriving here too, though many of the roads remain unpaved, and according to the local grapevine, will remain unpaved short of a small miracle to break the local government gridlock. But just last year, the first grocery store came to town, pushing out the local vendors and the impressive Basilica Maria Radna has been renovated with EU funding. Roundabouts have been installed to better manage the increased traffic—more people, but not all, have cars these days.

We had to go to the notary in Arad, and were accompanied patriarch and matriarch of a family who had long been close with my husband’s family and helped Björn build his company in Lipova. They were along to help us with any issues that might arise. The first indication that we were in for an adventure, or an ordeal, came from my sister-in-law, who had lived here for seven years before returning to Germany. At the door to the notary’s office, she turned to me and said, “You know, the last time we were here, this took 4 hours.” I shook my head, “But we have already sent them all the documents in advance, I think this should be quick.” She just shrugged.

We sat down in the reception, joining several people who from their strained stares looked like they had already been waiting for some time. One women came out quickly from behind the counter and ushered us to the back office, where we were given the first audience with the notary.

The notary presided over a wood-paneled office, his desk strewn with papers. He was dressed in a grey suit, cut a few sizes too large, wearing a red silk shirt, gold pinkie ring, and a green paisley tie.

Next to his desk, the news played on a big flat screen TV at a volume just loud enough to contribute to the white noise in the room, but not loud enough to actually watch. In front of where the notary sat stood a statue of the blinded lady justice stood balancing the golden scales, flanked by a small flag of Romania and the European Union, and next to this, the Bible.

Waiting at the notary.

After the first hour of the notary receiving visitors and taking calls on his cell phone with a Celine Dion ringtone (from the song’s soaring climax, “You’re here, there’s NOTHING I fear, and I know that my heart will”…by which point he answered the phone), it was announced that there was a problem with our application. The square footage listed on our contract was not the same as the one given in the land registry. After another two hours of calls with the Titanic ringtone and heated discussions, we were told that the square footage had indeed been correctly input into the computer, but there must have been a technical problem with the software because the computer was displaying the incorrect figure.

After the “discrepancy” was resolved, things moved quickly. A translator read the contract to us in German and we took turns signing the documents. This step took less than 15 minutes. The waiting took over three-and-a-half hours. We all shook hands and then it was done: we had made it through the bureaucratic procedure and were now the proud owners of a building in Romania.

On the road back to Lipova, I thanked our Romanian friends for accompanying us on our trip to the notary, and helping straighten out the problem with the discrepancy. We got to talking about the past. Things were very hard for the average Romanian under Ceaușescu, and I realized that this reaction at the notary–the unwillingness to admit that someone had made a mistake or assign blame–was probably borne of a system in which doing so would have resulted in serious problems for the person responsible. In this case, the typo was without consequence, but the reaction seemed to have come from a deeply ingrained place of fear.

I asked them what they think the biggest change in Romania has been since independence. The man said, “Well, we used to be so excited when we got a bicycle. Now people are unsatisfied with their old car. Now there’s always something better to be had.”

As we were driving along, most of the cars were indeed a bit old, and I thought about what he said. I suppose the insatiability of human desire is something I have taken to be a natural truth about human nature for as long as I can remember, perhaps because I have always lived in a society with an economy built to satisfy needs–and feed endless desires. But this is an uncomfortable truth, particularly once you recognize it in yourself. Isolation from the global marketplace, whether through a communist political system or poverty, shields you from it.

His wife, a gentle, elegant woman, said that for her, one big difference, of course, is freedom. You no longer have to worry about what you say or who hears you say it. You no longer have to live in fear of the notorious Securitate, the repressive state police under Ceaușescu who brutally stifled even the whisper of dissent. She also said that you no longer have to worry about hunger. During the 80s, stores were empty and meager rations were allocated: 100 grams of turkey per person, per month, one 200g pack of butter per family. It never added up to enough. Food was doled out in grams, rather than kilos, the legacy of which can still be seen in the menus at restaurants that display the weight in grams of all meals (not even just meats).

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The infamous, drab Soviet-era apartment blocs.

It is hard to believe how different their lives are today, and how different things were just a generation ago. The distance between each generation is vast, much greater than the difference between my parents and me, or even my grandparents. How does this society manage to hold together so well, I wonder? Today, the urban landscape is still dotted with those rather unsightly bloc-style apartments, where each family was given approximately 300 square feet of living space (another number that always adds up to “not enough”), but now, each family has the right—and greater resources—to lead a self-determined life. But there are still multigenerational families living in those spaces, and I have to wonder how such essentially distinct sets of experiences, perspectives, and especially dreams for the future can be accommodated under the same roof.

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When we got back to Lipova, we went over to our Romanian family friend’s house, where all their children and grandchildren had gathered to meet us.

There we were, sitting around a table in a house the family had built themselves and decorated in bright, optimistic colors, with modern furniture. The table was spread with a kind of bounty unimaginable before the Revolution: Coca Cola, plates of cookies, Italian coffee, oranges—goods loaded on trucks that under Ceaușescu would have been diverted long before arriving at the market. Even if the goods had reached their intended destination, there wouldn’t have been money back then to buy them, anyways.

Tonight there was a decadent layer cake, homemade, to serve the guests. This too was a luxury that back then would have been reserved solely for weddings or a milestone birthday, baked with sugar rations that had been saved over months in preparation of the special occasion. Today, it was just a Tuesday night, and friends were in town. Cause for celebration can now be smaller, and more festively observed.

Our host took another bite of cake and swallowed slowly, as if the taste of sugar were still surprising.

“Today would have been Ceaușescu’s 98th Birthday,” he said suddenly, still chewing his cake.

His family gathered around the table remained quiet, as if observing a moment of silence, not out of respect for the fallen demagogue, but in gratitude that that period was now over. Life went on in Romania, despite Ceaușescu, and tonight, surrounded by friends, we all had many reasons to celebrate.

January 25-26, 2016.

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