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Lia Boscu

In Romania, December 1989 marked the end of the communist regime. The generations  after 1989 are born in the new democratic system - we are instantly privileged for being spared the lived experience of communism, but we still exist in its long-cast shadow. We hear stories from parents, grandparents, older friends or relatives and benefit from the growing mass of information available about the period, but the demarcation stopping us from accessing that collective experience is always present. There is a certain nostalgia for the communist system in my grandmother's current discourse – a cry for the former security of jobs and housing – in response to the rough poverty and uncertainty most of the population still has to deal with every day.  Her gaze is generous and glazes over some of the harsher circumstances previous generations had to endure.


From the other side of my family, I never knew my grandfather. He died when my mother was still young. The recurring description I have of him is as a “hostezan” (a term used to describe farmers of Hungarian ethnicity) who accumulated land in the agricultural regions of Cluj – which in the past years have seen the rise of entire neighbourhoods, with tower blocks clustered among newly built houses and the ubiquitous supermarkets. Under communism, he would've been called a “chiabur” - a wealthy countryman, not short of a bourgeois provincial who owned more land than needed for personal use and was using paid labour. Started in 1949 as a resolution regarding socialist transformation of agriculture, the collectivization drive was accompanied by intensified class struggles and the elimination of wealthier peasants through aggressive coercive systems reaching its end in 1962 - with 93.4% of the country's agricultural land included in collective structures.  Most of the land my grandfather had previously owned was lost during that period.

My family relocated from Galaţi to Cluj in 2009, a few years after an active process of retrocession had been put in place all over the country. It was only then that we found out about this long-lost land with increased economic value due to recent urban development, and even then we experienced it more as a loss. Having not followed up on the paperwork for over three decades, the exact whereabouts of this land was buried in piles of out-of-date bureaucracy, waiting for sufficient initial personal funds to start the sinuous and complicated search. Needless to say, the search was quickly abandoned - a short-lived hope, like the sight of a treasure map, but without an X to mark the spot. Nevertheless, the promise of well-being and financial security embodied by private property is long-lasting and constitutes an undeniable certainty in my family's view,.


11 months ago I came to London.

The physical distance prompted reflection on the threads I use to build my own narrative in the current circumstances. 

Drawing from a background of ownership promised and lost I started considering the modes of involvement in economy as reiterations of our position within a determined social class with a certain purchasing power. The repetition of singular economic acts performed by an individual becomes a personal economic practice and can function as a marker of identity within the recognizable code of a class system. 


The fall of communism in Romania has set the scene for changes in political, social and economic environments. In its aftermath, during the transition process (from 1989 to becoming a member state of the EU in 2007), corruption in the public services, administrative breakdowns, disorganised privatization and an unreliable legal structure and ruling have created the space for the parallel economy to grow. In 2002, in “Aspects of the informal economy in a transforming country: The case of Romania” published in the second issue of volume 26 of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Rainer Neef (cited in Potot 2010) stated that in order to cope with the constant recession,  “the informal economy, already flourishing under the communist regime, has become more developed during the years following the revolution”[1]Informal transactions have enabled individuals to circumvent deficits of the formal economy, increasing their disposable income in order to maintain a minimal standard of living. “A decade after the fall of communism, Rainer (2002) estimated that the informal sector concerned two thirds of Romanian households”[2]. The opening of European borders allowed the social networks established in the shadow economy to be pursued beyond national borders. Parallel economic activities are prolonged and modernised in the form of transnational migration – an economic practice employed as a strategy of economic survival and of adapting to a crisis.


Migration is by no means a new phenomenon, but contemporary practices render themselves to a discourse on precariousness and vulnerability. Where Europeans once emigrated en masse to other lands and colonised various continents, movement from the opposite direction has been taking hold. Capital, goods and information are more than welcome to circulate freely in the globalized world economy, but for many people mobility is arranged somewhat differently. Borders and territories are still the primary expression of national sovereignty, however multi-ethnic many populations may have become[3].


In discussing migratory movements in East-Central Europe, Claire Wallace observes that the previously dominant pattern of permanent one-way migration has been replaced by “a predominance of short-term, circulatory movements backwards and forwards across borders”[4] – which would be better termed mobility than migration. As a testament to this, Mirjana Morokvasic's article “La mobilité transnationale comme ressource: Le cas des migrants de L'Europe de l'Est” from Cultures & Conflits n°33-34 in 1999, (cited in Potot 2010) uses interviews with migrants to show that few want to flee Romania and build a life elsewhere, but rather “to temporarily compensate for the deficiencies of a faulty social and economic system”[5] and to generate additional income in order to support their families to get by.

The western capitalist values, embodied by a certain promised lifestyle, are a pull factor for Romanian migration, seen as a valuable opportunity, even though in the destination countries of Western Europe we are received with a certain misgiving (the 2011 OECD international migration outlook shows that Romania has a very large number of emigrants to Western Europe at 12.000 emigrants per million population[6]). The profitability of the departure matters most – transnational movement is dictated by the likelihood of finding work upon arrival[7] and the possible pay, as people pass from one sector to another, and subsequently one country to another, if it allows them to improve their earnings[8]. In this respect, a collective knowledge of the location is essential and helps build networks and cultural communities overseas. Experiences enrich the stock of shared knowledge and direct migrant movement encouraging them to create enclaves “throughout the European space, inhabiting some territories and leaving others”[9].


The UK has been increasingly appealing as a popular destination, to the distress of the current political ruling class. In reality, the horrible publicity we get in the written press as “an “eastern danger” to the British job market”[10] and in pseudo-documentaries like “The Romanians are coming” has done very little to decrease the influx of Romanian immigrants crossing the British borders. When meagre salaries can be spent at multiplied value in Romania it's not difficult to understand why Wizzair flights to London Luton and back look like “crying-children-ridden cattle cars”[11]. The journey resembles the shuttling which once enabled rural inhabitants to improve their living standard by commuting to work in the city without having to fully enter the urban economic circuit. In current international mobility, the objective has remained somewhat similar – extending one's economic activities to a new territory without having to break from the former.


People who live in constant transit and continuously move between home and a distant workplace are ultimately extreme commuters – viewed by Bernd Upmeyer as binational urbanists[12]. Binational urbanism is to be understood as “an urban way of life in which a person maintains relationships to two different cities in two different nation-states at the same time”[13].

The EU strives to be a collective home, blurring national borders and enabling free movement, but it is still bound in the former European dynamic of shifting regulation - attracting and equally repelling foreigners in drawing its porous intra-state borders and its outer boundaries as places of complex relations creating friction between inner and outer space.


Accepting a binational status implies an engaged process of negotiating an inherited national identity while offsetting the disadvantages of inhabiting the home country by the advantages present in the destination country. Thus, migration exceeds an economically-fuelled movement between borders and activates a performance of identity – the residents are confronted with contradictions due to their life in two different places, which following Festinger, can be described as cognitive dissonances[14]. “In social psychology, cognitive dissonance refers to an emotional state that is experienced as unpleasant, caused by the fact that a person has multiple cognitions – perceptions, thoughts, opinions, attitudes, desires, or intentions – which are incompatible with each other”[15]. In the 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk”, W.E.B. DuBois (quoted in Hannerz's “Flows, Boundaries and Hybrids: Keywords in Transnational Anthropology”) coined the term double consciousness to illustrate the division of  an individual's identity: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”.[16] Diaspora experiences show conflicting patterns in people's lives as they use social relations to reduce dissonance and ultimately to produce consonance (a state that comes into play when the two cognitive elements are consistent with each other[17]). Attraction is a relation between force and body, a relation of exteriority: it is of the domain of the foreign. Becoming the prey of attraction, the prey of the foreign implies being produced as a recognizable subject only through distance and difference, endorsing your otherness in a different society by acknowledging that you have to perform your identity accord to Western expectations - “until quite recently, scholars had problems with placing “The East”, which becomes a mythical and phantasmal, rather than an accurate place”[18]. 


In 1933 Cioran wrote in his diary “It's awful to be Romanian; serious people smile at you dismissively”. Decades later I sympathise with him over my ethnicity’s lack of sex appeal in the uninterested and slightly troubled “Oh!” I hear in response to saying where I am from, as Romanian migrants often find themselves under the uncomfortable pressure of performing the East when travelling to work in Western Europe. When identifying a co-national presence, the instinctive and most common reaction is to actively deflect them either by physically avoiding them or speaking in English or any other foreign language at our disposal. “Although some migrants may helped each other out during the stays abroad, there is little observable sense of community belonging amongst migrants while they are still abroad. It is really only in the country of origin that the migrants publicly demonstrate a collective identity.”[19] Chameleonic as we may try to appear on foreign soil - aware of our precarious social status - at home, we don't shy away from verbosely expressing our new-found affection for the region of our recent immigration[20] by re-enacting the Other again- a personalised reproduction of a Western persona – buying brand clothing and technology, entertaining ostentatious expenses and frequently using casual jargon.


In the dichotomy of these characters, different and sometimes conflicting lifestyles are balanced,  enriching the cultural capital of the migrant – the traveller becomes a mediator between different narratives and histories, generating continuous dialogue.

Migrants maintain their relation to home through social, political, creative and economic participation in their origin country and manifest their cultural experience and heritage in the host country - Kevin Robins' 2003 article “The Enlargement of Meaning” published in volume 65 of Gazette. The International Journal for Communication Studies (cited in Upmeyer, 2015) argued that this double coding allows them to inhabit “multiple worlds at the same time. […] migrants can develop hybrid identities that switch between virtual and geographic locations.”[21]. Being involved in the economy of both countries – by working in one and sending remittances in the other – the transnational migrants keep one foot in both worlds and create communities that bridge national boundaries and are independent of state mediation[22]. By compensating the disadvantages in one country with the advantages of the second inhabited city,  ethno-national identity is decoupled from territorial requirements through movement across borders and the possibility of a long-distance nationalism [23] - a way of life that keeps the freedom of options alive and in constant reinvention, beyond the geographical limits of nation-states. This relation between the two different cultures, potentially complementing each other, calls for exchange and revisions of the established understandings of solidarities and social connections. Focussed on the performativity of the process as a series of meaningful actions in the free movement of capital – both economic and more importantly cultural – a positive discourse can emerge. One that resists a biased rhetoric shaped on stereotypical actors by addressing culture as a dynamic and mutual transformation process[24] in which the networks and trans-local [25]relations created by migratory movements are crucial.


“Meanings and meaningful forms can only persist if they remain continuously in motion and reinvent themselves perpetually. […] In order to maintain culture, people as actors and networks of actors need to re-invent culture perpetually and reflect on it, and experiment with it."[26]




[1] Potot, S, “Transitioning strategies of economic survival: Romanian migration during the transition process” in  A Continent Moving West? EU Enlargement and Labour Migration from Central and Eastern Europe, IMISCOE Research, Amsterdam University Press, 2010, p. 251


[2] Ibid.


[3] See exhibition text for No Place – like Home: Perspectives on Migration in Europe, group exhibition at ARGOS Centre for Art & Media, Belgium, curated by Paul Willemsen


[4] Wallace, C, “Opening and closing borders: migration and mobility in East-Central Europe” in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol 28, No. 4, October 2002, p. 603


[5] Potot, S, “Transitioning strategies of economic survival”, p. 250


[6] Nae, Tatiana-Roxana, ERSTE Foundation Vienna Fellow, “Migration and its Effects on Economic and Demographic Development in Romania”, paper supported by ERSTE Stiftung, p.5


[7] Potot, S, “Transitioning strategies of economic survival”, p. 258


[8] Ivi., p.259


[9] Ibid.


[10] Pyzik, A, “Poor but Sexy. Culture Clashes in Europe East and West”, Winchester/Washington: Zero Books, 2014, p. 1


[11] Ivi., p. 25


[12] See Upmeyer, B, “Binational Urbanism - On the Road to Paradise”, Amsterdam: trancity˟valiz, 2015


[13] Upmeyer, B, “Binational Urbanism”, p.8


[14] See Festinger, L, “A theory of Cognitive Dissonance” (1957), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001


[15] Upmeyer, B, “Binational Urbanism”, p.9


[16] Hannerz, U, “Flows, Boundaries and Hybrids: Keywords in Transnational Anthropology” (1992), WPTC-2K-02 , p.12 in Working Paper Series, Transnational Communities Programme,,


[17] Upmeyer, B, “Binational Urbanism”, p.9


[18] Pyzik, A, “Poor but Sexy. Culture Clashes in Europe East and West ”, p.136


[19] Potot, S, “Transitioning strategies of economic survival”, p.262


[20] Ibid.


[21] Upmeyer, B, “Binational Urbanism”, p.11


[22] See Levitt, P, “The transnational villagers”, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001


[23] See Anderson, B, “Long distance nationalism” in The Spectre of Comparison: Nationalism, South-East Asia and the World, (1998), London: Verso, 1998


[24] See Hannerz, U, “Flows, Boundaries and Hybrids: Keywords in Transnational Anthropology” (1992), WPTC-2K-02 ,,


[25] See Hannerz, U, “Transnational Research” in H. Russel Bernaard (Hg.): Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology, Walnut Creek/London/New Delhi: Altamire, 1998, p.247


[26] Hannerz, U, “Flows, Boundaries and Hybrids”

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