Pollsters during the last General Election campaign said immigration was the single issue aside from the economy that most concerned UK voters. My experience of Romanian immigrants in the UK is more personal and first hand than most – I was raised by one.
In January 1956 at just fifteen years of age my father, Dinu Barbu Ion Coltofeanu was sent to study at Taunton School in Devon by his parents, Corneliu and Sanda. On finishing his studies he moved to London and became a British National in October 1964. He met my mother, an English girl called Ruth, in April 1975 and they were married two years later. In 1981 they moved to Dorking in Surrey and I was born later that year followed by my sister Alice in 1984. Dad worked as an Independent Financial Adviser in London for forty years before retiring to East Grinstead in West Sussex in April 2011.
He is saddened by the portrayal of Romanians and Romanian immigrants by much of the British media and occasionally experiences its knock-on effect on the British public first hand. About fifteen years ago a Conservative Party member knocked on the door of our family home. When Dad asked him about his Party’s policies the gentleman replied, “well, first of all we’ll stop all these bloody Romanians coming here.” Last week he was queuing in a bookshop in East Grinstead when he overheard a woman at the checkout voicing her disdain for Romanian immigrants. “Oi!” he retorted.
Despite these sporadic episodes Dad is desperately proud to be British. He loves the country pubs, the sense of humour, the newspapers, the England Rugby Team and ‘Have I Got News For You’. He’s created an ever-expanding model village in his attic made of miniature cottages that he collects from Charity Shops. Every Christmas he delivers gifts to elderly and isolated people with other members of his beloved Rotary Club and the highlight of his well-earned retirement is spending two days a week volunteering in the house and gardens of a nearby National Trust Property.
Dad’s well aware of the Romanian reputation for thievery. Last weekend after a couple of drinks he joked that when someone steals its called kleptomania but that when a whole nation steals it’s called Romania. But I remember a Saturday morning walk into town with Dad and Alice when I was very young. We entered the newsagents and Alice, who was too young to know you had to pay for these things, reached out from her pram and helped herself to a chocolate bar without anyone noticing. Half way down the road my dad spotted the chocolate smeared all over her face and hands. I vividly remember wondering what Dad would do. Had we ‘got away with it’? Was it worth returning to the newsagents? After all it was ‘only a chocolate bar’. We went back and paid. I’ve never forgotten that day.
Dad was very impressed with the smattering of Romanian I taught myself from a phrasebook 18 months ago in preparation for ten days I was about to spend volunteering on a farm in the Transylvanian mountains – my first ever visit to Romania.
The Transylvanian countryside is truly mesmeric in its panoramic natural beauty and I was humbled by the hospitality and friendliness of every Romanian I met. The people are cash-poor but largely self-sufficient. They work long, hard hours but maintain a blissfully unhurried way of life. It was glorious, and being ‘off-grid’ from social media and without my mobile phone I quickly fell in love with the place. Covered in earth I sweated all day under the sun in the gardens and fields then gorged on the farm’s produce and homemade brandies every evening with the other volunteers.
The village’s sense of community is an example for all. The villagers couldn’t understand when I told them that if you go to a stranger’s house in England to ask for a glass of water you would most likely have the door shut in your face.
Sadly, since television has found its way into their homes, villagers are bombarded with adverts for western products and ideals that they’ve never had any need for. Yet they are made to fear they will be left behind if they do not move with the times and many of the old ways are sadly dying. Despite the arrival of democracy after the Romanian Revolution of Christmas 1989, they are still a struggling transition economy. Corruption is rife and many maintain that life was better under Communism.
The UK government is considering launching an advertising campaign to discourage Romanians from coming to the UK when transitional controls on migrants from “A2 accession countries” are lifted on January 1st 2014. In truth, Romanians have had access to the UK for six years already so most that want to come are already here, while larger diaspora populations already exist in Italy and Spain and so if anything migrants are more likely to head there. The government might also do well to remember that millions of UK citizens work and live abroad.
I spent one month writing a record in New York in summer 2010. I felt I witnessed a city ahead of its time with its overwhelming and utterly enriching mix of peoples, cuisines & cultures. I’ve always found meeting people from different countries and cultures to be one of the most rewarding experiences life has afforded me.
So when I see Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party adding a clock to their website counting down the days to the Romanian and Bulgarian invasion I switch off, call Dad, and organize a convenient time to go for a curry together. He will tell me all about the origins of the problems in the West Bank and as we walk home I will dream of cultivating my own piece of land in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania one day.
Quite simply, I look at my father, the Romanian Immigrant and think “how can more people like that in this country ever be a bad thing?”