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Beautiful, New, Western

Țara Oașului, Maramureș and Bukovina in northern Romania are relatively rural regions. Timber houses with angled roofs are nestled into the hilly landscape. For over ten years, however, new silhouettes have been emerging: multi-storey houses with reflective siding and painted plastering or stucco line the long village roads or loom starkly from the surrounding fields. Around them, protective wrought-iron grating, shiny stainless steel fencing or opulent granite walls protect a house that sits empty besides a few weeks every year. Their owners work abroad in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Great Britain as construction workers, cleaners, seasonal harvesters and caretakers for children or the elderly to support their families in Romania. Most of their savings, though, are invested in construction or renovation back in their home village.

A modern house proudly displays its owner‘s achievements abroad for all to see. It testifies to the hard work, courage and determination it takes to succeed in a foreign land. The generous window fronts, rounded roof forms and imported materials symbolise the modern Western lifestyle. Along with high-powered cars, they are the key to social recognition. They are a family‘s social capital to be preserved and upgraded. Wanting a “bigger, nicer house than the neighbour” is only a modern form of a societal tradition based on preserving and defending the honour and respect of oneself and one‘s family. In earlier days, duels were fought with weapons; today, the contenders are houses.


There are a number of external forces shaping the desire to build a new modern home. After all, a house is more than just a secure, longterm investment. Young men are faced with parental pressures to build a house before getting married for reasons of prestige. Yet the house often stands empty, because the younger generation prefers to move to Western countries instead of live in a Romanian village. In general, migrants are faced with high expectations from the entire village community: Nu puteam să nu o facem. Zicea lumea că nu avem, dacă nu făceam (No choice but to build. If we hadn‘t built it, people would have thought we couldn‘t afford it), Irina S., Târșolț.

Owners build the houses themselves, with help from the whole family, or they commission construction workers from neighbouring villages. Blueprints do not always exist. Simple sketches and common phrases such as Vreau o casă la fel, dar mai înaltă și mai mare (I want a house like that one, only taller and wider) leave room for interpretation and spontaneous requests sent from the owners abroad by phone or email.

The house is built in stages as the money is earned. While in 2000 it was still possible to fully finance and complete a house relatively quickly, today it can take up to 8 or 10 years or even more. Higher prices and the general economic crisis, along with expanding floor plans, delay the long-awaited move-in day almost indefinitely. Upper floors can languish neglected while the ground floor may be finished and decorated. It is a long-term, yet temporary, solution for seasonal use.

General Community Development Plan for Cajvana, Bukovina (2012) / Urban planning regulations (excerpt)

Authorisation for residential construction will only be granted if plans respect the average height of surrounding buildings and the traditional character of the area, as long as the construction will be no more than two storeys higher than neighbouring buildings. In the central zone and along county roads, generally only houses may be built with a ground floor +1 additional floor. The exterior of the constructions belongs to the public domain. Housing projects in rural areas will adhere to local traditional designs, building materials, exterior finishes, colours and other details, as well as the design of façades and the placement of doors and windows. No authorisation will be granted to residential construction plans which depart from the traditional design, size, scale, and appearance of local buildings and which disregard urban planning and architectural regulations.

I was born in this little wooden house. We were nine kids. I’ve lived here all my life. Now, my grandson has gone to France. I let him build this big house in my yard. It’s OK for me too. In summertime I sleep there, because the concrete is cooler.
Ioan G., Moișeni / Țara Oașului

So far this house has cost him 60,000 €, but the big expenses are just starting, with the finishes. It’ll cost him at least 60,000 more. The boys will work 25 years more in Italy to finish the house. They’ve got time. They’re still young.
Dan Ș., Liteni / Bukovina

All the clients call me when they come back in August. Make me this, make me that. I can’t work for all of them at the same time. If I have time, I do it. If I can’t do it, I tell them they should find someone else.
I.T., Builder, Cajvana / Bukovina

When Europe relaxes in August, Romania beats all the records.
C.B., Cajvana / Bukovina

Parallel Worlds

The younger generation often build the new houses on their family’s land in close proximity to the older houses. This has a number of advantages: Older family members can watch over their children’s and grandchildren’s new houses year round. During and after construction, the whole family normally chooses to live in the old spaces, where they cook and sit together. The older generation carry on with their traditional lives as before: They tend sheep and process the wool, harvest hay for the animals, drink water from the well, wash laundry in the creek and drive horse-pulled wagons. The new houses, then, are nothing more than a silent backdrop. Only for Christmas, Easter and in August do they revive upon the children’s return.

The house has to have storeys and be near the road, so people can see it!
V.S., Târșolț / Țara Oașului

New Views

Finished or unfinished, the new houses have drastically changed the look of the landscape. Up until the 1990s, at most 1 ½ or 2-storey houses lined the village roads. Today, it is multi-storey houses with elaborate roofs and façades. Between the tall, closed street fronts, wrought-iron gates occasionally provide a view through to other houses in the row behind. Outside the village centre, postmodern buildings jut out from the landscape. Houses straight out of a catalogue, laying fallow in the fields for years on end.

Certeze / Oaș 2015 © Private Archive CB
Certeze / Oaș 2015 © Private Archive CB

Like in the West

Designing the interiors is and has always been the women’s task. External influences are many. Magazines, catalogues and websites offer a wide palette of design suggestions, and foreign television series like the South American Telenovelas are another important source of inspiration. Last but not least, the houses they clean in their host country also awaken a desire to have the same.

There is nothing left to recall the traditional textile decorations with the many pillows and blankets piled up on the stately bed. Instead of the handmade embroidered wall hangings, mirrors and paintings now grace the walls. High pile machine-woven rugs rest atop shiny granite, Italian tiles, pale marble. Countless lights shine from the ceilings and arches. The show room is the living room, simply called living or songiorno (Ital. soggiorno). The oversized leather furniture and coffee table compete for attention, as does the stylish furniture that was imported or specially produced in Bukovina-based firms. Wide, open stairways lead up to the bedrooms and bathrooms.

The chairs in the dining room, the glasses on the tray, the figurines on the mantel – everything is precisely arranged, but shows no signs of use. Only the children‘s room occasionally appears lived-in amidst the chaos of toys. The entire house in all its magnificence seems just like a nice parlour there for show, not for living in. During the few weeks of the year when the owners are at home, they prefer to preserve the newness of the structure by only living in the cosy little rooms of old.

Then they went outside, walked right then left, checking out the additions, saw the different styles and started remodeling their own house. They expanded the living room and put in a patio.
I.T. Cajvana / Bukovina

I want to make my house like in Italy, with wall and floor tiles, not the way it looked before. It should be like in Italy.
D. Borșa / Maramureș

Tradition vs Fashion

With the migration of women to the West, their aesthetics of form, colour, and material are changing faster than ever. Every day, they see various living styles that differ from their customs in rural Romania. Their priorities then shift as well. For a long time, handmade textiles were the essential dowry for a village bride. They were made to last a lifetime, displayed the bride’s hard work, and were at the same time a symbol of her local identity. In one house that was designed to reflect its owner’s Western lifestyle, however, there is no room for traditional crafts from the region. The inherited textiles are now stored in chests in the attic and cellar. They are only taken out for special occasions like funerals, when certain specially-designed pieces are needed.

In their new surroundings, women also encounter another form of consumption: Instead of long-lasting materials and products, only fashionable things are preferred. Only an “up to date” décor can reflect their career success abroad. In increasingly shorter cycles, they exchange their furnishings for newer ones in order to keep up with the competition in the village. How do the women find out what their neighbour has just bought and how they can outdo it? A special kind of communication conveys the women’s pertinent information. Only those who understand this “language” can decipher the code.

Despite all this, the new furnishings are hardly used. Even the new kitchen with all its appliances is rarely used. Cooking still takes place in the old kitchen or in the summer kitchen outside.

Nobody hangs carpets on the wall anymore. Back then, people used to hang lots of icons and carpets in all the houses.
I.T. Cajvana/Bukovina

This year I have changed the curtains in the house. It’s the latest fashion here in the region. The plate, glass and crystal sets… I brought them all from Paris.
I.S., Târșolț / Țara Oașului

I just hate the kitchen I have now. I’m going to change it. Here fashion changes from one year to the other. Now I’m simply embarrassed. I can’t even look at it. I’ve already changed the chairs three times. The ones I have now are no longer in. They were very expensive. I paid 250 RON on a chair. I’ve gotten chairs for 200 €/piece. Now I have to change these too.
I.S., Târșolț / Țara Oașului

Dream Wedding

How can young people meet and fall in love in a village that is only inhabited 5 weeks out of the year? Back when only men migrated, they used to return in August with their fast cars and brand-name suits to hunt down a bride, marry her and take her back with him. Now, many young women also work abroad. They mostly choose their life partners from within their communities.

Weddings in Certeze and many other villages are not limited to immediate family members. Normally, almost the whole village is invited. This is why they are always celebrated back home, never abroad. Thus, they take place during the high season when everyone is around. Most couples marry after 15th August, others later in winter.

Like the new houses, weddings are a chance for everyone involved to gain prestige and social recognition – parents, godparents and guests. Visiting a lot of weddings in one summer also guarantees a good turnout at your own child‘s wedding. Maintaining a good reputation means attending at least 20 weddings in one summer. (Monetary) gifts for the newly-weds, along with fashionable, elegant evening wear and time-intensive up-dos, make August one of the most expensive months of the year.

Dream wedding keywords

Weddings are a perfect opportunity to blend local traditions and Western lifestyles. The new houses stand at attention along the wedding procession through the village. The groom is led to the bride‘s house in a convertible for the “traditional” wedding party in local dress. Some time later, the “modern” wedding is celebrated in the large wedding hall. The banquet is no longer prepared by the village women themselves, but rather delivered from neighbouring villages or catering firms.

Wedding in Racșa / Oaș 2016 © Nicu Canța
Wedding in Racșa / Oaș 2016 © Nicu Canța

Frunză verde de pe coastă
Frumoasă-i mireasa noastră
La față-i ca porumbița,
La spate-i ca frunzulița.

Dream wedding keywords

All across the hills of green
Oh how pretty is our bride
From the front, a turtle dove
A tender leaf from behind.

Again This Year

Every year in August, the migrants return home. If possible, they also come for a few days at Easter and Christmas. While August is busy with activity, Christmas visits are much quieter. They are a time when families get together and enjoy each other’s company in the old houses, because the new houses are difficult to heat. They attend Christmas mass together and celebrate with a traditional meal. The food may be catered, however, to save the time and effort needed to prepare such a feast.

At Christmas time, local traditions again take centre stage. Although Western lifestyles are advertised with brand-name clothing, traditional costumes are still worn for mass. Young men in traditional dress go from door to door singing Christmas carols (Rom. colinde). They are treated generously and awarded with home-made plum brandy.

Again this year keywords
Târșolț / Oaș 2010 © Petruț Călinescu
Târșolț / Oaș 2010 © Petruț Călinescu

Trei păstori

Trei păstori se întâlniră
Și așa se sfătuiră,
Raza soarelui,
Floarea Soarelui.

Haideți fraților, să mergem,
Floricele să culegem,
Raza soarelui,
Floarea Soarelui.

Și să facem o cunună,
S-o împletim cu voie bună,
Raza soarelui,
Floarea Soarelui.

Să o ducem lui Hristos,
Să ne fie de folos,
Raza soarelui,
Floarea Soarelui.
Să ne fie de folos.

Three shepherds

Three shepherds were united
Oh, Heaven’s Sunlight
Golden Floral Sunlight
Thus inspired, they decided.

Come, ye brothers, all together
Oh, Heaven’s Sunlight
Golden Floral Sunlight
Dainty flowers we must gather.

To create a wreath divine
Oh, Heaven’s Sunlight
Golden Floral Sunlight
With good will ’twould be entwined.

We’ll present it to our Lord
Oh, Heaven’s Sunlight
Golden Floral Sunlight
Humble pride forevermore.

Emigration from Țara Oașului, Maramureș and Bukovina

As far back as the communist period, many residents of the infrastructurally weak regions of northern Romania were migrating to other regions of the country to take up seasonal employment. Men worked their way out of Țara Oașului, taking jobs primarily in forestry starting in the 1960s. Until 1989, cattle trade also commonly exported workers from Bukovina to other parts of the country. After the fall of communism, Romanians‘ experience with internal migration prepared them to immediately migrate abroad to other Western countries. After all, the poor economic situation at home had no better alternatives to offer. Between 1990 and 2002, therefore, the emigration rate of northern Romania was among the highest nationwide.

A international network of relatives, neighbours and friends from the same village assisted the integration of migrants into jobs and life abroad. A few places featured extremely high emigration rates: In 2002, more than 60% of workers from Cajvana in Bukovina moved abroad, mostly to Italy. In 2005, 80% of families from Certeze in Țara Oașului had at least one person working abroad, predominantly in the greater Paris region. In 2007, more than half of all employed persons from Borșa in Maramureș earned their living in Italy, especially Milan.

The high emigration rates certainly also influenced the desire to work abroad in residents of neighbouring villages. However, the geographic orientation of any given village community always depends on the success of its migrants. Once the “pioneers” have established themselves in a particular country, they can assist others from their region who follow them. For this reason, migrants‘ destinations vary not only from region to region and village to village, but also over the course of the years.

Transnational Connections

The network connecting Romanians with their host countries is a world unto itself – a well-organised and lucrative in-between world that helps make the geographical distance between relatives and friends seem more bearable. It secures the swift transportation of people, as well as goods of all kinds: clothing, toys, electronics, household appliances, letters and money to the families back in Romania, and foodstuffs, homemade goods, and, of course, information from home to those abroad.

Năsăud / Transylvania 2012 © Petruţ Călinescu
Năsăud / Transylvania 2012 © Petruţ Călinescu

The larger bus companies operate a dense network across the individual countries. Many buses tow trailers to hold the additional cargo. They have been successfully competing for years with postal and package delivery services. Back when Romanians were only allowed short-term stays in the EU, migrant workers formed solid carpooling networks that returned to Romania every three months to reenter the EU with a fresh passport stamp.

Private services transport directly from Romanian villages to larger cities abroad. Their”‘customers” trust them, know them, are neighbours or even relatives. They commute weekly between the two worlds. The uninterrupted demand for the transportation of goods secures their livelihoods in an otherwise infrastructurally weak region.


In the 1990s, as Romanian migrants’ movements in the West became more fluid and untraceable, a dynamic, flexible network took shape in the host cities’ public spaces. Train stations, parking lots, and centrally located parks became meeting points for the Romanian community. New arrivals received tips about jobs and accommodation, and other helpful advice. Experienced countrymen helped make the “newbies” transition in the host countries a bit easier. However, meetings were marked by extreme wariness and mistrust. In places where police raids could quickly shut down and disperse network hubs, trust had to be built up from scratch again and again. Business relationships were constantly being re-negotiated. Today, the big parking lots are reception centres for private transport and bus companies. Where packages can be sent to Romania and others received, people converse, meet friends, break into dance to Romanian music and enjoy the home culture.

Churches have played a central role in the Romanian community from the very beginning. Thus, the Romanian Orthodox Church and other evangelical denominations in northern Italian cities quickly became a hub where migrants could find support for their everyday needs, both religious and secular.


Breaking into the job market in the host countries is extremely difficult at first. Without residence and work permits, migrants are forced to take any job they can find. With time, an informal network develops. Workers learn of better and more lucrative jobs through acquaintances, friends and relatives. The men work mostly in construction, as bricklayers, plumbers, locksmiths, drywall builders and painters. The skills they learn often come in handy when they build their own houses in Romania. With growing success abroad, a few migrants start their own companies and employ Romanians from their own regions. Around 100 construction firms owned by natives of Certeze, Țara Oașului, alone are active in and around Paris.

Men were the first to migrate to Europe, but in 2000 women also started to work in cities as cleaners and caretakers of children and the elderly, and in rural areas as agricultural labourers on large plantations or smaller farms. Particularly in the cities, their work puts them face-to-face with new and different environments: they get a direct view into another household culture, other ways of life and different self-images of women in the host country. They pick up the new language quickly this way. They also experience a different appreciation for their work. Back in Romania’s villages, many women revert back to their traditional roles.


The first residence abroad for many illegal immigrants is often nothing more than a park bench or tent. Depending on the relationships they form over time, workers may take shelter in overcrowded rental apartments, abandoned houses or makeshift huts outside popular urban residential areas. Despite their modesty, homes reflect traditional Romanian forms of textile-based decorations. While the wall hangings and blankets may be banned from the new modern houses in Romania, they are visible in the homes away from home along with icons, scarves and pillowcases.

As soon as they can afford it, some choose to rent an apartment, especially near relatives and acquaintances from the same village, if possible. In some suburban housing blocks, many Romanians from the same region live side by side. They cook and relax together on the weekends.

And yet: Tot nu-i ca acasă. Niciodată nu ești ca acasă! (It’s not like home and will never be!)

Homes keywords

Growing Up Without Parents

When parents have to support their families by working abroad in Western Europe, their children are often handed over to relatives or neighbours or simply left to fend for themselves. It is a common phenomenon in a number of Eastern European countries due to the lack of jobs at home. The international community has dubbed these children Euro-orphans.

Since 1989, men have often emigrated first from Romania, followed later by their wives and mothers. They hire themselves out as cleaners, nannies, or caretakers for the elderly. Many families in Romania thus lack not only a father, but also a mother. Children are usually raised by their grandparents. Older children are burdened with running the household and raising younger siblings until they are old enough to join the parents abroad. Migrants who have illegally emigrated cannot risk visiting their children in Romania, because without a valid residence permit they might not be able to return to their workplace. Many children, therefore, do not see their parents for years on end. Recently, migrants who have established a secure base abroad have begun to bring their children with them. This is reflected in the school classes of the host countries, above all Italy and Spain.

Yet, for many children, the family reunion remains a far-off dream. Official statistics identify around 80,000 Euro-orphans for Romania, while estimations by UNICEF and other NGOs reach as high as 350,000 affected children annually. These children know their parents only through holiday visits, telephone and Skype conversations, and home videos. Their parents show their love through care-packages with toys and brand-name clothing and regular bank transfers. More than other children, they crave intimacy, attention and a listening ear to hear their problems: depressive phases, separation anxiety, and an inability to trust. Most dream of starting their own families with children they will personally care for themselves.

Emigration from Yugoslavia

As early as the time between the two World Wars, a number of residents from the former Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were already migrating in search of work. They moved within the country to regions with better infrastructure, to other European countries, or overseas. Germany was also attractive to many workers. They often found employment in mining, agriculture and factories. An attempt to counter the high rate of illegal migration resulted in a 1928 bilateral agreement between the Kingdom and Germany. The contract regulated the legal status of workers employed in seasonal agriculture. It also established equal income and insurance paid to German and foreign workers. The two nations’ employment agencies took over job placements.

After the Second World War, socialist Yugoslavia made efforts to limit the emigration of its workforce through a targeted full-employment policy. The industrialisation of farmland was designed to quickly create new jobs for the growing population. Still, the economic situation reached a low point in the early 1960s. Unemployment was increasing by more than 10% every year. At the same time, the economic boom in West Germany and other Western nations had a draining effect on the population.

Although emigration from Yugoslavia in the 1950s was still extremely difficult due to strict visa requirements, restrictions were lessened in the face of the economic crisis. State-endorsed emigration was introduced to act as an outlet valve to lower the pressure in the domestic job market. The economic importance of private remittances to the country was also recognised. Therefore, in 1962 the authorities started giving out visas also for longer stays. In 1963, a decree legalised foreign emigration for work, with the exception of university graduates and highly skilled workers. Previously illegal emigrants were given amnesty and allowed to return to their homeland.

Despite fundamental social and political opposition, the different countries’ economic interests fit together well: Yugoslavia had workers, the ambitious Western industrial nations had jobs. Early on, many eager workers migrated to the West without a plan, without knowledge of the language, usually following advice from a friend or relative. Some foreign companies were recruiting workers directly in Yugoslavia. Yugoslav employment agencies were purposefully sending jobseekers out of the country. In Munich and Stuttgart, job offices appeared specifically for Yugoslav workers.

Bilateral agreements between Yugoslavia and Western hosting nations finally established the legal framework for temporary employment in the destination countries (1965: France; 1966: Austria and Sweden; 1968: West Germany; 1970: Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and Australia). With the recruitment agreements, employment migration out of Yugoslavia became a mass movement. With a total of 860,000 migrants in other European countries, it reached its first peak in 1973, where more than 550,000 were registered as ‘guest workers’ (gastarbajteri) in Germany alone. During the oil crisis and the resulting economic recession, however, Germany stopped recruiting foreign workers.

After Tito’s death in 1980, the difficult economic crisis again forced many people to secure their livelihoods abroad. The fundamental social and political conflicts of the 1990s, which ultimately led to the breakup of Yugoslavia, set off a large wave of emigration in all age and education brackets of society.

The migration rate in post-Yugoslavian countries is not at all stagnant in the 21st century. Academics and highly qualified workers increasingly seek their futures abroad now as well. Migration has taken on a different tone: many leave the country, this time, never to return.



Međimurje, the ‘land between the waters’, is a region in northern Croatia bordering Slovenia and Hungary and defined by its two major rivers, Drava and Mura. The region is a combination of water-rich lowlands in the North and East, and hills with vineyards and forests in the South. The largest city, Čakovec (population 27,000), is the centre of the region and the capital of Međimurje County, the second smallest county in Croatia. The majority of the population identifies as ethnic Croatian, with distinct Roma, Hungarian, Slovenian and Albanian communities. Međimurje is famous for its distinct Kajkavian dialect rich with German and Hungarian loanwords. Its foods, traditional clothes, dances, and customs are sometimes shared with those in Slovenia, Hungary or Austria.

Traditionally known as Hortus Croatiae (‘Croatian Garden’) due to its famous flowerbeds, Međimurje today is also known as ‘little Switzerland’. The later name alludes to the industrious spirit of the people, with the region’s large number of manufacturing businesses, as well as to the high rate of labour migration to Switzerland. Migration from the region dates back to the Austro-Hungarian period but has intensified since the 1960s. Besides Switzerland, a favourite destination, people from Međimurje have also migrated to Germany and Austria. The migrations to Austria were particularly impressive as, due to the relative proximity, many workers managed to return home on a weekly basis and more closely organise family life at home. Following Croatia’s independence, this trend intensified. While there are almost no households without a history of work abroad, the context of labour migration has changed for many young people from Međimurje employed in Slovenia or Austria today. They no longer see their weekly commute between the two homes the same way their parents’ generation did, but just as one of the available options.

Međimurje © Bojan Mrđenović 2017


Imotska krajina is a micro-region located in the eastern hinterlands of Split-Dalmatia County. The name comes from the early medieval Croatian county Imota, while krajina literary means ‘borderland’. The region mainly encompasses the fertile Imotski Valley (Imotsko polje), defined by the Biokovo Mountains to the West, the River Neretva to the South, and the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina to the East. Its centre is the town of Imotski (pop. 4,700) built on the hill above the valley, famous for its two karst lakes, the Red and the Blue. The more recent history of Imotski records frequent changes in governance between the Ottoman Empire, Venetian Republic, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslav Kingdom, later the Socialist Yugoslav Republic and recently the independent Croatian state. Responding to the massive shifts in power, the people of Imotski often moved as well.

Imotski Valley © Bojan Mrđenović 2018

Recent migration history goes back to the early labour migrations of the 1930s, with the internal Yugoslav migration of seasonal workers to the Dalmatian islands, small-scale traders and craftsmen around Yugoslavia and Italy. After 1968, Imotski was one of the regions with the highest migration rates to Germany, followed by intensive migration to the US in the early 1970s. Imotski’s migration connection to Germany resulted in a particular affinity for Mercedes vehicles, flooding the city with Mercedes vehicles from the 1970s onwards. The omnipresence of the migration experience also created space for socialist experiments, resulting in two cooperative factories opened in the city exclusively with investments from labour migrants. After Croatia’s independence in 1991, a number of migrants, principally from the US, and others from Germany, returned with their families to their homeland. From the mid-2000s and particularly after Croatia’s entrance into the EU, migration trends have returned to the old patterns, with Imotska krajina today one of the regions with the highest numbers of emigration.


Situated in the lower basin of the River Drava from which it takes its name, Podravina is a region on the right bank of the river. Similar to neighbouring Međimurje, the region is defined by its fertile fields in the North, with concentrated agriculture and forests and hills in the South. It is defined by its border with Hungary to the North, Bilogora Mountains to the South and the Slavonia region to the East. Even though some locals would describe their regional identity as distinct from larger Slavonia, and though the border between Slavonia and Podravina remains flexible in cultural terms, the research project followed the river and the famous Drava regional road through two counties (Koprivnica-Križevci and Virovitica-Podravina Counties). Koprivnica (pop. 115,500) is the largest city in the region, followed by the towns of Križevci, Đurđevac, Pitomača, and Virovitica. The majority of the population is ethnic Croatian, with Roma, Hungarian and Serbian communities.

Podravina © Bojan Mrđenović 2018

Labour migration from Podravina started in the early 1960s through informal channels and intensified after the agreements with Austria (1966) and Germany (1968). As one of the most prosperous regions in former Yugoslavia, labour migration in Podravina was less intense, but affected more intensely in rural areas, with whole villages moving abroad. In the big migration waves of the 1960s and early 1970s, parents left their children behind with their grandparents, to join later after the parents were able to organise better living conditions. The move of entire families to Austria and Germany affected their return, as those families whose children moved were also less likely to return and invest in life back in their hometowns and villages. While there are some households with retired returnees, there are just as many families who do not consider returning and numerous young individuals preparing to depart.

Bauštela and malter

In the popular culture of Croatia and broader former Yugoslavia, bauštela (Ger. Baustelle, Eng. ‘construction site’) and malter (Austrian Malter, Eng. ‘mortar’, ‘cement’) are central motifs related to the early labour migrants. Gastarbajteri are frequently associated with continuously mixing and delivering cement. This image is related to the fact that early labour migrants, frequently males with low or no qualifications, often gained employment in construction. They were experienced with construction at home and sought work in the formal construction industry. Backbreaking labour brought good income, which suited the migrants as it gave them the opportunity to support their families and make investments in family homes back in their countries of origin. The experience left a whole cluster of local hybrid words related to construction sites, such as bauštela, bauštelac (‘construction worker’), fuš (from Pfusch – ‘job done badly’), šihta (from Schicht – ‘shift’), šlus (from Schluss – ‘end’), kibla (from Kü­bel – ‘bucket’), gletati (from glätten – ‘to straighten out’), heftati (from heften – ‘to staple’) and many others. A similar register of borrowed words exists associated with cars.

On the other side, as early generations of labour migrants began to invest in private homes back home, these sites became bauštele themselves. Due to the remoteness of the owners’ jobs, the construction of homes was often long, stretching to several years and dependent on the amount of workers’ income and free time. Therefore, building occurred in the summer holidays only, accompanied by the sound of small cement mixers working in front of the future gastarbajteri homes. In a few cases where the men were already working abroad, some women filled the vacuum in the house construction and supervision, engaging in mišati malter – (‘cement mixing’), traditionally seen as exclusively male work.

I made the blueprints myself, a rough draft for how the house should look, and then when I returned in ’93, I did all the work with my brother and a cousin who helped me.
N.B., Imotska krajina

When we did the façade, we drove around Austria a lot, and I was attracted to the colours, those bright colours they have. When you drive, and you are bored, you look out, you travel. Our façade was among the first here, and we took it from Austria.
J.N., Međimurje

I am in the construction business and will tell you now that I built about three hundred houses in which no one lives. Those are all gastarbajteri; they financed everything, decorated fantastically. I can tell you that what was modern then is now out of fashion. It was never used, their couches, their TVs; there are still black and white TVs that were never turned on.
I.T., Imotska krajina

We invested in the infrastructure, and not in the rooms. Just what you need to live normally and be comfortable. I know a lot of those who went up North and built a house. Now nobody is at home. They don’t return anymore since their children stayed there. Now it stands unused. It decays unused because practically they are home two or three times a year until they retire. And for what? I never aimed to do that.
J.N., Međimurje

Neither Here nor There: Children and Retirement

The mass departures of young men and women created a variety of new family arrangements. The conventional situations where males went abroad for work and women stayed at home to take care of the children and the household were reversing. Women were increasingly travelling alone to work abroad, followed by a growing number of parents leaving children behind with their grandparents. As most of the early migrants were living in conditions unsuitable for children, leaving the children behind was a painful but more practical solution to create space for more appropriate living conditions. In return, split families created less fixed life paths for the children, who either joined their families abroad after they became young adults, or organised their lives at home independent of their parents. Through the research, a number of the migrants interviewed reported remaining to live in these split-family arrangements.

Even when early migrants’ stay abroad had ended and they managed to build homes in the villages and towns of their birth, many of their children remained to live abroad. The new realities now create seasonal movements for retired migrants, now grandparents themselves, spending parts of the year back in their home communities in Croatia and the rest elsewhere with their children and grandchildren. The movement is additionally motivated by integration in the welfare systems of the host societies. Use of social and health care networks abroad remains the preference among the retired migrants interviewed, even after a partial return and retirement back home.

I have everything there, it is also my home, but to live there again … no. I like it here at home.
Đ.C., Podravina

Everyone is going away. It hurts us a lot. We returned because we love our country and then we see everything in demise, but we are too old to do anything about it.
K.M., Podravina

I visited Germany four times [after leaving]; my husband never again. He says, he has closed that door behind him. Even though he is sorry, we have returned.
K.M., Podravina

The Stuff

Separation from the rest of their families and the relatively high mobility of labour migrants produced a constant flow of goods to and from home. From their places of employment, migrants were bringing and sending sweets, clothes, music records and cassettes, household appliances, tools and machines, even construction materials and furniture for those living closer to the border. Life in the capitalist Western European societies brought more choice and access to cheaper consumer goods. Back at home, the stuff from Germany, Austria or Switzerland had sentimental value but was also particularly beloved for its aura of modern allure.

Migrants’ families back in the home communities sent their workers abroad homemade foodstuffs, mainly homemade meats, preserved vegetables and alcoholic beverages, but also traditional pieces of clothing. One of the interlocutors in Imotski shared a story of a grandmother visiting her family in Frankfurt, carrying water canisters from Imotski to Germany. Even though everyone teased the old woman, she came on her terms and the family enjoyed and praised her proper coffee so far away from home. Back in Imotski, they gave her the nickname kavulja – one who deals with coffee.

The network of carriers often extended much farther than the parties on either end, including work colleagues, compatriots and, later, even bus and truck drivers. The routine sending and waiting for packages and goods was an inevitable part of Friday afternoons and Sunday evenings. The train and later bus stations of Vienna, Salzburg, and Munich were buzzing with migrant workers waiting for passengers from home.


The prosperity of early labour migrants and growing disposable income based on hard physical labour opened the way for the exhibition of newfound wealth. Early on, cars became the favorite object of conspicuous consumption and an adequate means to increase their drivers’ status. The value of imported vehicles quickly spread even among the locals who did not migrate. The preference for German cars resulted in the overwhelming presence of such vehicles in the gastarbajteri communities.

Among the growing variety of choices, a unique emphasis was given to Mercedes vehicles. As many workers chose Baden-Württemberg and Stuttgart as their destination, they were increasingly employed by the Mercedes corporation. Returning home in the newest model of Mercedes was especially important to represent all their owners’ hard work and newly found success, regardless of their actual living conditions at home or in the host country. Like sediment layers in rock, the overwhelming presence of particular models (123, 124, 126 or 190) testifies to the decades that were the most prosperous for the migrant communities.

Today, the town of Imotski and broader Imotska krajina are places with the largest numbers of Mercedes vehicles per capita in the world, with 13,000 Mercedes-Benz vehicles out of 20,000 registered. Old and new Mercedes-Benz models are everywhere. Proud owners of Mercedes-Benz vehicles are members of the Imotski Old Timer Club, which gathers around 150 members and actively participates in Old Timers’ shows in Croatia and neighbouring countries. In 2017, the club started an initiative to build a monument to Mercedes. The marble figure, representing an actual-size Model 115, locally known as ‘Minika 115’, is planned to be erected on the location of the Partisan Monument destroyed in the 1990s.

When a car would drive by, the whole village would run out to look at it.
I.T., Imotska krajina

“He” [the Mercedes 115] drove our parents from Germany. ”He” is the monument. To drive such a car from Germany … You may pick which girl you like. You may sit in front, in the front seat of the church. People invite you to be their best man, they run after you, talk to you. They consider you a wise man.
I.T., Imotska krajina


While the weekdays were devoted to work and interaction in the new location with varying degrees of success, weekends were dedicated to the family and the old community.

In the early days, the Yugoslav socialist state organised local clubs for socialisation, education, and entertainment, as well as soft control of the migrants. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, many of these clubs were transformed into national associations assembling Croatians or focusing on the local regions. Weekends were also a time for religious practice and related activities, organised by local networks of Croatian Catholic Church Missions. Local associations organised weekend language schools, amateur sporting events, and cultural activities. Cultural associations with a regional emphasis grew out of this, promoting the practice of traditional folk dances characteristic for the regions.

The community life reserved only for the weekends was soon recognized by a growing entertainment industry, with Yugoslav and later Croatian pop stars touring Germany, Austria, and Switzerland exclusively on the weekends. In return, for those migrants who lived closer to home, weekends often presented an opportunity for short visits, with bus tours departing on Fridays and returning on Sunday evenings.

We thought we would stay for five years; why would we do it for longer? And look, it was forty.
K.K., Međimurje

It was hard for me because of the language. I can’t say anything else. A young man quickly finds his way around. But I would not do it again. The foreign land has its own ways; it does not know of your pains.
K.M., Podravina

In Germany, you work and spend your money; in Croatia you work and spend the bank’s money.
Z.B., Imotski krajina

Songs about Germany

Ganga is a style of folk singing typical in Imotska krajina and larger regions of Dalmatia and Lika in Croatia, Herzegovina and western Montenegro. Ganga songs are performed as a combination of solos and chorus lines, where the soloist begins the verse and is joined by the chorus at the end. While the style may resemble wailing for first-time listeners, ganga songs are traditionally performed for a range of occasions (weddings, village gatherings and celebrations, departures). The lyrics are flexible and modified to fit the strict rhyme scheme. They are mainly about love and love troubles, but often address other issues of importance for the singers. There is a strict division between male and female songs, and traditionally men and women do not perform together. The increasing number of men moving to Germany for work has impacted the local ganga songs of Imotska krajina. Carried by freestyle lyrics, there are a number of songs describing the experience of separation and migration, informally known as Gastarbajteri ganga [gastarbajterska ganga].

Oh my dear mother, I am not afraid of hunger, since my sweetheart works in Germany

Oh, look at the handsome one, mother saw him, he got a caravan from Germany

Oh Germany, I curse your paths for bringing tears to my face.


Emigration from eastern Serbia

Fertile soils characterise the regions of Zvižd, Stig and Braničevo in eastern Serbia. Despite this, mostly less educated and unemployed people started to leave the area in the 1960s to find work abroad. For qualified workers with salaries sometimes above Western standards, emigration was not yet an option. First to migrate were the Vlachs, a Romanian-speaking minority, followed later by the Serbs. According to estimates, the emigration rate among the Vlachs was four times that of Serbs.

The migrants reached Austria and Germany in the 1960s, as well as Switzerland. In the 1970s, they focused on France. When the economic crisis caused living standards to rapidly decline in the 1980s, many people left the region who had previously never considered migrating. The political and social struggles of the 1990s triggered a broad-spectrum emigration wave in eastern Serbia as well, especially to Italy.

Today, emigration persists unabated. Economic insecurity continues to discourage many migrants from investments that would help their children enter the Serbian workforce. Lack of jobs or opportunities for advancement drive even young people with job training and university education out of the country. Preferred destination countries besides Italy include the Scandinavian countries, particularly Norway. Slovenia, as a member of the EU and a former part of Yugoslavia, is attractive for many as well.

Entrance into the workforce differs greatly among the host countries. If no employment contract can be obtained, many people start the journey to a better future illegally. They stay with relatives or friends abroad and use their network and experiences in the informal economy to look for (undeclared) work. Other migrants acquire legal residency through a marriage of convenience. Still others come ‘to visit’ or use the temporary Schengen visa to enter legally – and stay forever.

Kučevo, Zvižd © Gavrilo Masniković 2017

All for the Children

The first generation of migrants intended to work abroad for some time in order to make a living for themselves and their children. They saved to raise their standard of living, but most of all to invest in their children’s future. They wanted to provide them with a good education or starting capital for a small business. The new house they built back home was always to be the centre of their entire family.

Abroad, the migrants lived simply and set aside all they could for the family. The faster they reached their savings goal, the sooner they could return home. Working overtime brought them even closer to their goal. The extremely humble and cramped quarters in which they lived normally did not leave any space for their children to join them. Therefore, they had to leave their children behind with their parents, as hard as it was. They saw their growing children only ever sporadically during company holidays. Gifts of all kinds (money, toys, clothes, the newest gadgets, etc.) were given to make the separation and the waiting between visits more bearable. As soon as the parents’ work hours and living conditions allowed, their children moved abroad to join them and continue their schooling there.

Other children stayed in their home country, finished their education, began work and started a family. Their jobs there are often only temporary, however, and salaries low. Even additional income from farming is usually not enough to provide for their families. Thus, many young families in Serbia still depend on their parents’ financial support from abroad.

Stay, Return, or Commute?

Where do I live my life? Can it be here and there at the same time? Where will I spend my final years? These basic questions continue to divide generations of migrant families. Their decisions leave behind lasting traces in the whole society, both at home and abroad.

Migrants of the 1960s came for a time as ‘working guests’. They only wanted to work abroad ‘temporarily’ to provide for their families and raise their living standard. They often saved some capital to start a business back home or secure their retirement. Their strong emotional ties to their homeland and its familiar environment never faded. Far from home, they continually longed to go back and immediately returned after retiring.

The second generation of migrants was not much different. Some spent their early childhood with their grandparents in Serbia, later joining their working parents abroad. Many of them stayed and are employed there today. They visit their parents back in Serbia for vacations, holidays and family celebrations, helping with household and outside chores. Some would like to start a business in Serbia. At least by retirement age, however, they too plan to return.

The third generation was born and raised outside of Serbia. There, they completed their school and job training, formed their circle of friends. Their relationship to Serbia consists only of sporadic visits, and they cannot imagine a future living in that country. If the older generation is not satisfied seeing their children and grandchildren for only short visits to Serbia, they are the ones who must commute. Temporary commuting between the two worlds then becomes a permanent way of life.

We have to leave here, because nobody cares if we have enough to eat. If the people from here did not work abroad, poverty would be everywhere.
NN, Stig

In Serbia, I miss the order and discipline from Switzerland.
B.S., Zvižd

Braničevo © Ivana Masniković-Antić 2017

Austria is a well-organised country. All your rights are mailed directly to your house. Here, it’s not as easy for people.
R.I., Stig

We are there, but our thoughts are here.
M.J., Zvižd

We lead two lives – we work there, we live here.
S.S., Stig

I like Switzerland, because I earned my money there, but I cannot live there.
B.S., Zvižd

Austria is a country without sun, with people without hearts.
R.I., Stig

We lost our health in Austria.
R.I., Stig

Save – Invest – Spend

When Yugoslavia legalised temporary work abroad for its citizens in the early 1960s, the state was expecting a number of positive outcomes: domestic unemployment would decrease, and then the migrants would invest in their home economy after their return. This, in turn, largely suited the migrants’ own interests. They planned to open businesses or modernise their farming tools and methods after returning.

Back at home, they then used their savings to start a company or import farming equipment. Enthusiasm increasingly gave way to disappointment, however. The state offered no reintegration programs, and no funding for fledgling companies. On the contrary. Legal restrictions made private investments difficult. An instable economic situation and corruption both played their part in the failure of many new businesses.

Real estate seemed to be the only safe investment, an insurance for old age and an inheritance for their children. That is why the migrants constructed new houses and rebuilt farmyards. They also acquired homes in the foreign countries in which they had worked for so many years, though. Still today, many migrants feel more secure retiring there than in Serbia, due to the more reliable social and healthcare systems.

Returning migrants frequently purchase an apartment for their retirement in one of the larger cities, because in some areas of the countryside the infrastructure just cannot meet their daily needs. Villages become depopulated; once-prestigious houses are for sale. Their value has sunk to a fraction of their original cost. The younger generation shows no interest in the houses, or even in country life at all.

Status Symbols

For many people, working abroad is the only possible way to improve their standard of living. Inseparable from the drive for financial security is also the desire for social recognition at home and beyond. The hope is to shake off their image as unemployed countryfolk and replace it with that of successful migrants living a Western lifestyle. Social advancement, achieved through hard work and skill abroad, is signified by diverse status symbols.

Big cars and extravagant family celebrations indeed play their role. Houses, however, offer many more opportunities to demonstrate new wealth in all of its facets. Houses are always present in the village, even when the owners are not around. Luxuriously detailed inside and out, the Western deco-house makes a statement. Gardens may be designed like another living room, with pavilions, fountains and multiple statues. Artistically pruned conifers and boxwood trees reflect the newest international gardening trends. Shiny, stainless-steel fences and richly decorated cast-iron latticework create a boundary between the world of luxury and the outside.

In the owners’ absence, neighbours or hired help take care of the house and yard, sometimes also of older family members. Many Vlachs employ seasonal or long-term workers from Romania for these tasks. The Vlachs’ new economic and social status defines not only their relationship to the Romanians beyond the Danube – it also secures them social recognition from the Serbian majority, where Vlachs were previously seen as poor and backward.

Family Celebrations

Christmas and Easter are not the only occasions for the whole family to reunite in the homeland every year. Important life events such as baptisms, birthdays, weddings and funerals are also celebrated within the family, in Serbia when possible. On the local level, this includes Zavetina, a holiday dedicated to each village’s patron saint, and on the family level Krsna Slava, a holiday for each home’s patron saint. In recent times, quite a few migrants have started to celebrate where the majority of their family live, even if some relatives must leave Serbia to join the gathering. Either way, the festivities are always celebrated outside the home in restaurants or halls. They are also good opportunities to demonstrate acquired wealth. The newest technologies are welcome here: drones with cameras guarantee spectacular pictures of the event.

Pomane is a holiday to remember the deceased, which is celebrated at pre-appointed times over multiple years. For a few years now, an unusual rite of anticipation has spread throughout eastern Serbia, known for its distinct death-oriented culture: the living celebrate their own Pomane. It is perhaps a kind of ‘test,’ due as well to the uncertainty whether one’s loved ones will be able to come to Serbia every year for the Pomane. If they die outside of Serbia, the majority of migrants are returned to their homeland and buried there.

Memorial statues can sometimes be seen in the front yard, or engraved marble plaques set into the wall of the house, honouring the deceased. A special kind of rivalry has developed in the cemeteries: ornately decorated houses are constructed for the deceased, complete with furniture and material comforts. This new form of mausoleum opens up another dimension for demonstrating wealth and prestige – beyond death.