Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Open Open Letter (published in April, 2015 on channel 4.com): The Romanians Are Here!! An Emotional Response to the Media Portrait of Romania in the UK By Mihaela Varzari

published on:

Open Letter: The Romanians Are Here!! An Emotional Response to the Media Portrait of Romania in the UK

By Mihaela Varzari

Photo taken during the Anti-Racism demonstration, 21 March 2015, next to Nelson column in Trafalgar Square, London
I am not defined by nation, race, age, gender or sexuality. Better say I am defined by nation, race, age, gender or sexuality so much so that I have been trying to constantly challenge and address these founding categories. I am a woman, I was born in Romania and have been living in London for 14 years. By pure chance a few months ago I came across a documentary on Channel 4 NEWS on the subject of prostitution in Romania. I say by chance, as, since my ALBA TV broke down in 2002 and so decided never to pay for a TV license ever again or watch any TV in the UK. I understand that generally people pay for a TV license as an act of supporting independent media, which in return will provide apolitical, neutral programmes, as to say reflect a state of affairs as transparent is possible, at least this is the culture TV consumers would like to believe in. I did realize after two years of watching British television that my prediction was pure fantasy and moved on to reading articles from a variety of magazines, newspapers written in English, Romanian or Spanish. (It is worth mentioning here that TV license only covers the BBC TV stations). In order to keep myself informed I have also been watching a variety of alternative media sources like democracynow, youtube, and aljezeera. To get to the subject of this letter I must identity myself as a Romanian national, who has witnessed a lot of the media in its written form and radio on EU’s annexation of “former Soviet countries Bulgaria and Romania” during the last 5 years. For some unknown reason, the order has now changed and our ears have been accustomed to hearing Romania first and Bulgaria second. 
When we hear the former Soviet countries, it is a bit of a generalization, as in the case of Romania things are quite different. Romania was subordinated to URSS until ’68 when Nicolae Ceausescu refused access to Russian tanks on Romanian territory on their way to deal with the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Ceausescu then became a hero for the West, a president of a socialist state who said NO to Russia was no longer a dictator, as he is known now but a hero, who stood up against the Mighty Soviet Empire. Consequently he was invited by Nixon to the Whitehouse, an invitation that was reciprocated by the American president in ’69. At the same time in the UK, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were received with great honors by the Queen at the Buckingham Palace, who paraded paraded alongside them in the royal, golden carriage all around London. It did not matter that people were killed in Romania for wanting to write poetry. In fact, this excess of pomp and celebration which appeared to follow the Romanian presidential couple whenever they went, now seems positively hysterical and simply just symptomatic of the climate of fear and anxiety during the Cold War. So, Romania, one might say, wasn’t so Sovietic after all. But even with so much friendship from the West, after ‘68 Romania became an insular country, without points of entry or exit. The trade routes followed different axis than they do today, and our close affiliations back then with countries like Iran, Syria, China, North Korea, many African countries like Zimbabwe etc, plus other South American states were supported according to other ideological demarcations.

Having lived in the UK has impacted on how I view my nationality. I started off by believing that nationality is irrelevant, that identifying too much with it would create absurd ideas of belonging, of fixing one’s identity and therefore limiting it. I also thought that in more general terms I was a European before I came to the UK but soon I realized that everyone saw me as an East European, someone completely alien to their values. I wanted to be from everywhre and nowhere at the same time. I did not need roots and being a foreigner seemed to have suited me just fine. It allowed me to be in two places at the same time. It was beneficial for my sense of mental freedom, which became more and more elastic. In the recent years since the attack of media on Romanians and Bulgarians, my acquired sense of mental freedom has started, to a certain degree, to crumble down. I have also started to work as an interpreter for legal courts across the U.K. and have been meeting sans papiers Romanians who work in London for £30 a day. Their humiliation has now became my humiliation. The opposite effect of everything I have believed in, started to take shape and now I was identifying myself more and more with being a Romanian emigrant. The fierce nationalism running across Eastern Europe at the moment, I believe, is only one step further from my own type of identification. When between a rock and a hard place, people need some fixed points of reference to regain strength. Nationalism can be found even in the UK, a country recognized for its political apathy among its citizens, not that being political equals nationalism. I know, it is improper to say British citizens since the Brits are Her Majesty subjects. Nevertheless, according to my own experience, nationalistic display of feelings emerges in the UK every time a foreigner attempts at criticizing its values and morals. English are quite happy to bitch with you about any other nation in the world until your criticism is directed towards them. This in my experience is not allowed and if there is anyone to have strong critical points about their own culture only the English can do it. How many times have I heard: “You don’t like it here? Then, why don’t you go back?” The complex of superiority is embedded within this country’s psyche and this is just one way to manifest itself.

Ever since early 2000's an array of documentaries made by British TV national companies covered the, at the time, unknown fear of the Romanians. There were documentaries presenting ‘aurolaci’ in English glue sniffers, homeless adolescents who run away from orphanages. They were only preceded in the 90’s by horrific imagines from inside Romanian orphanages and I guess these poor children were the first to feature out of the darkness of Romania. It seems to me that these tragic examples gave license to so many British journalists to focus with increasing assiduity on this country. Slowly, slowly the nature of the series of documentaries slightly varied and in 2009 BBC commissioned the Romanian contemporary artist Stefan Constantinescu, who has been living in Sweden since 1989, to shoot a documentary. It is still available on youtube and is titled, My Beautiful Dacia. It is in my opinion a successful attempt at portraying Romania’s transition from Communism to Capitalism, a transition sealed by the EU integration. Out of the abundance of documentaries about Romania released by British TV it is the only one which granted the subject in question its due complexity?

A few months ago, on the 27th of October, Channel 4NEWS presented another documentary on Romania, titled Iasi the Sex Capital of Romania. The reporter Paraic O’Brien flew to Iasi to demonstrate his thesis, namely that Iasi, this large, university city from Northern Romania is the country’s sex capital. He proceeded by filming the moment the plane landed and surprise, surprise, right at the airport’s carpark he witnessed young males tuning their cars and taking pictures of half naked girls. “Jackpot!”, Paraic must have thought to himself on seeing this and couldn’t believe his luck. “I see prostitutes and I haven’t even got to the city yet.” Other images from the city shown girls walking in the street, perhaps rushing home from university or high school, girls dancing in a night club or some real prostitutes shouting by the railway station, where prostitution has existed since the 90’s. The suggestion made by our reporter possessed by such investigative journalistic talents is that girls walking the streets of Iasi, at night equal prostitution. The documentary features conversations with local pimps who go about bragging about the number of girls working for them in Europe, including UK. Coincidence has it that the nature of my job puts me in contact with many legal cases on Romanians and if there is someone who has insight but unconfirmed knowledge, then that person is myself or my colleague interpreters. I can actually remember all six Romanian prostitutes I interpreted for in courts during my four year career. Again the coincidence has it that I grew up in Iasi and I know the city very well. First of all, no one can tune their cars in airport’s parking place, as it is secured and secondly is always full with taxis and cars because the airport tends to be quite busy. It seems to me a totally improbable version of events, to the point of believing that the Mr O’Brien, the maker of this documentary orchestrated the tuning of at the cars scene in order to support his flimsy, unsustainable, difficult to prove thesis. Did he take his info from a “source”, as investigative journalists do and then he tried to prove it by making things up? This is my supposition. He made it up as he went along, as barristers put it to the witnesses in court. On Tuesday, the 26th of February, Channel 4 presented the last of two episode documentary The Romanians Are Coming, which depicts the not so fulfilled, or prosperous, or even decent lives of working class Romanian immigrants. Time and again we see Borat-like images of the families back in Romania paired with their sad, sad lives in the UK. The question raised here mainly addresses why Romania does not provide decent work opportunities so people won’t need to humiliate themselves abroad.

That these types of fictional or highly exaggerated and stereotypical so called pieces of investigative journalism still on major network is alarming. To what kind of ideology are they subservient to? What kind of political agenda do they actually serve? This type of approach can only reinforce a traditional, patriarchic, therefore expired outlook on the new-comers within EU. They are allowed to be part of the Big Europe as second class citizens and are ready to embrace everything what real progressive Left parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain view as obsolete in the West: multinationals, massive and brutal privatization, stock exchange system, lobbying for political parties, IMF etc. Romania has been experiencing a forever transition period ever since communism fell. This transition could be rapidly translated as this: there were some bad guys who called themselves communists even if they didn’t understand Marx, who got killed by the new guys, who called themselves social-democrats but who in reality were wild, Turbo capitalists, identifiable by the local motto “ I am rich, never pay tax, I have friends in high up places.” Now we have some new types of dictums coming from IMF, EU legislation and some Anglo-American lessons in lobbying, market research, more populist speeches and media manipulation through a constant assault on the its audience with political scandals to the point of creating numbness. EU integration was not negotiated in the case of Romania and all the laws and impositions were eagerly accepted. Romania became a virgin market for the West in terms of banking and pharmaceutical co, which exist in abundance in all cities across Romania, alongside numerous shopping malls, where no one seems to shop since Romania is still not a consumerist society and ordinary people cannot afford shopping therapy. This is a kind of summary of the recent Romanian history, marked by economical colonialisation through EU legislation. This is the place where the cheap workers who get jobs as cleaners, fruit pickers and laborers come from. The eastern part of Europe is still trying or they do not try enough – under the burden of the ‘unconditional love’ provided by its Western counterpart – to negotiate a position of equality within the European borders. As a result, European integration is not based on collaborative, exchange of values and interface based on dialogue but in fact is quite the opposite where a master-servant relationship is being reiterated. The integration is partly paid back on behalf of the new members by being used as cheap labor or in other words by commodification of human labor. What I have been experiencing through living here is that the issue of migration, which has been flagged up by UKip in the recent years and then taken on board by the Conservatives, masks or better say mystifies a more burning issue, that of debilitating poverty, created across Europe, where everything is connected. Who takes responsibility for such increasing disparity between the rich and the poor? The answer is; not the impotent European governments, whose sole purpose seems to be managerial and subservient to multinational corporations focused on private economical gains. The shared humiliation I have been experiencing since the attack of media on Romanians has started to shift from the emphasis on the national to the economical and I notice how the increasing poverty in the UK is being given a bad name by the current Tory “ridden” government. It seems that Romanian as well as the English poor have a lot in common: being made fun of by the media and hugely underpaid by the economical system.