Going local: when is an expat no longer an expat?

Newsroom 22/02/2019 | 09:12

After a long break in the UK, BR’s resident expat tries to readjust to life in Bucharest, and encounters some surprisingly impressive services – the public ones.

By Debbie Stowe

When is an expat not an expat? One unhappy answer is when they’re an immigrant. As a Brit – or Westerner – in Romania, there’s an uncomfortable disparity in how welcome we are made here, and how our equivalents doing the reverse journey – Debora Stoescu, say – would be treated in our home countries.

This is worse since the Brexit vote, and the horrible process of making Europeans who have made the UK their home, laid down roots, contributed to society, paid taxes and so on apply for settled status, and disenfranchising them.

But it was also the case before, and seems to apply the world over, wherever richer/whiter/Westerner people going to less developed countries are “expats” and those going the other way are “immigrants”.

Some Brits I know who’ve been here for years say they no longer consider themselves expats. It’s a much more attractive attitude than can be seen from those who swagger around town, giving it the big “I am” as we say in London, just because they happened to be born in a more developed country.

But no matter how much you adapt, how well you speak the language or how integrated you are, a foreigner still enjoys the advantages of perception, that Romanian trait of wanting to make a Western visitor feel at home and take away a good impression of the country.

I was pondering this life cycle of an expat after a recent readjustment following a lengthy visit to the UK. After (gulp) 15 years here, I like to think I’m pretty integrated – that I’m not one of your newbies who’d get ripped off by a taxi driver or be shocked when service is not with a smile.

But after a six-week Christmas holiday, I found I had slipped back into UK mode. Why is that driver not stopping to let me cross when they have a red light anyway, I found myself thinking upon my return to Bucharest? Why isn’t that shop assistant being friendly and polite to me?

I suppose even after 15 years, you can take the girl out of the UK, but you can’t take the UK entirely out of the girl.

Super services

The service culture may take some getting used to again, but some other Romanian services have really impressed me of late – the public ones (yes, really). A couple of months ago, when we were leaving home one chilly afternoon, we found a note on the car windscreen that said there was a cat under the car or in the engine.

Closer investigation under the bonnet revealed a tiny pair of eyes peeping up, accompanied by mewing. My partner’s attempt to rescue the kitten earned him a scratch to the hand, so we called 112, which put us through to the fire department who said they’d send someone. This presumably being a very low priority, we got ready for a long wait.

Within three minutes, a fire engine, siren wailing, came screeching around the corner. That’s a coincidence, we thought; it can’t be for us. But it pulled up, and out piled five firemen who set about trying to free the kitten! They eventually succeeded, and when we tried to give them a thank you/spaga they wouldn’t even take it! Well done, chaps!

(The end of the story isn’t quite as good, as the kitten ran straight into the engine of the car behind, and the firemen asked us to put the note on that car’s windscreen, with the addition of “Don’t call the fire brigade”!)

Not long after, I was attempting to buy a ten-journey metro pass. This might not sound too difficult, but with one small child in my arms and another tethered to me with some reins, I was struggling and flustered.

The task completed, we were waiting for the train down on the platform, when the ticket salesperson approached, proffering a ten lei note that I had left by mistake. I hadn’t realized, and she could easily have pocketed it, or waited to see if I went back for it or not.

Taxi drivers who rip you off may be a real part of the expat experience, but they’re not the full story.


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