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.