Tom Wilson lives in Bucharest for over 10 years, a city which gives him the chance to assert himself. He was born in a small city located between Manchester and Leeds, he studied politics, philosophy and economy at Oxford but he left England and settled in Bucharest in 2002. He was welcomed by Romanians like all expats from Western Europe but Tom doesn’t consider himself an expat, he says that he is an immigrant. In these hostile times for immigrants, it is a lack of solidarity to say that you are an expat, thinks Tom.
What are your first impressions about Bucharest?
The first time I came to Bucharest, I did not actually come to Bucharest. It was 1999 and I was travelling with a friend from Istanbul to Paris by train, on foot, hitchhiking, depending on the circumstances. We had been told in Istanbul that Bucharest was too dangerous and we decided to go to Sinaia. We spent over 30 minutes in Gara de Nord (North railway station), changing trains, and we were rather scared. The tower blocks we saw as we were leaving Bucharest seemed from a SF dystopia. We have never seen anything like this before. The tower blocks from England are usually very poor and dangerous and to see an entire city with tower blocks (it seemed to be like this) was absolutely terrifying.
You don’t consider yourself an expat but an immigrant, why?
It’s shameful to call yourself an “expat”. Now, in times when immigrants are seen as a threat for the European lifestyle, the immigrants for all countries – from the rich to the poor ones – should unite themselves and show that immigration has major benefits. Without immigrants, rich economies, such as Germany and Great Britain, would collapse. So to suggest that immigrants are a danger and talk about a “wave” of immigrants who threaten to invade Europe is simply not true. For a person like me who lives in a foreign country, it’s a lack of self-consciousness and a horrible lack of solidarity to call yourself an “expat”. In reality, my situation is very similar with the one of an immigrant from, let’s say, Syria: we both have major benefits that we bring to Romania.
How do you consider the attitude of Bucharest inhabitants towards minorities? Did you see any change in the last years?
I’m not sure that any change took place concerning the attitude towards minorities. The anti-Rroma rhetoric seems to be the same – namely intolerant – and I have the impression that anti-Hungarian rhetoric is worse. It’s not surprising that people think like this. The Romanian children are raised to believe that they live a Daco-Roman country, although Romania is and was always a very diverse society from the cultural point of view. If you add this to the fact that we are living in difficult times from the economic point of view, you have a recipe for finding scapegoats. People want to blame somebody for the decreasing standard of life. The only thing that improved is the attitude towards homosexuals. When I first came to Romania to be gay was illegal. And the attitude of people has changed. Young people seem less disturbed by homosexuality, which is probably explained by the fact that they are exposed to Occidental popular culture which (fortunately) shows homosexuality as being something normal. My hope is that homophobia is seen more and more as something old fashioned and “uncool” as attitude. It is starting to be slowly seen as provincial and young people don’t want to seem provincial! What is worrying is that Romania has a self image as being an ultra-tolerant society. Romanians think they are too forgiving – there is a popular myth about “the hospitable peasants who house everybody” – and people think that this is something that represents Romania. It goes hand in hand with the idea of Romania as the eternal victim of external policy (“We were caught between two great powers! We defended Christianity! We were always invaded and never invaders!”). I think this is the most dangerous myth. To position a country as an eternal victim opens the way to many abuses. Israel is a very good example in this case – it is a nation that believes that being a victim stops it from being an aggressor.
What can you say about the British community in Bucharest?
I have no idea. I think there are many British here (actually, I know for sure that there are many British here) but I know little or nothing about them.
Can you say that your life is better here than in London?
Yes. I am lucky that I have a freedom here that I wouldn’t have in London. The rent is very high there and the business market is oversaturated if you aren’t famous, it’s very hard for freelancers from “creative industries”. People from London work for free in film / fashion / journalism because there is a certain glamour associated with these areas and people want to go out of the monotony of best paid jobs. Romania offered me great chances: I had the time and opportunities to shoot a self-financed feature film while I earned my living in many ways. I don’t think this is possible in London.
Which were the biggest cultural challenges for you?
To learn the language was the hardest. But besides this, there weren’t so many challenges. If you ask someone from the Middle East or Africa, let’s say, I am sure that he/she will say that adaptation is much more difficult, especially due to people perception, cultural differences etc. But Romanians receive Western Europeans with open arms. I would lie if I say that it was a struggle for me because it was very easy. This is obviously a good thing but I think it is also a symptom of Romania’s inferiority complex towards the West.
Are you registered as inhabitant of Bucharest? How is your relation with the authorities?
I am a tourist. I can stay as long as I want, just like you can stay as long as you want in London, without registering anywhere. Before the entry in the EU, I had to cross the border for a new stamp on the passport every three months but fortunately this is over. I had once a residence permit but it’s very hard to obtain one so I gave up. I had to prove that I don’t have HIV and other things, which seemed crazy to me.
What do you think about the public policies in the field of minorities?
I am not an expert but from what I see there are some good things and some bad things. It’s good for example that Rroma young people have places allocated in high schools and universities because it’s the only way to have Rroma graduates. It’s also a good thing that there are anti-discrimination laws. But all these risk to become symbolic when the public discourse is so discriminatory. In Romania it’s ok to say things like “you are retarded” or “don’t act like a Gipsy”. Language creates reality – the way people talk affects the way in which they see the world – and I think we must make efforts to change the way in which people use words in Romania. Political correctness is a concept badly misunderstood, this is what it is actually about: to make people think the way in which they use words. The harsh reality is that most Romanians discriminate. I don’t pretend that things are better in UK – in many cases, attitudes are even worse. In UK media creates preconceptions. In Romania it is also the education system that does this and this is more dangerous. This is the aspect – concerning public policies – which must be changed: what we teach in Romanian schools.