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On a wet day in May I found myself heading up Finchley High Street, passing a charity advertising itself as giving aid in Romania. I went in, and the girl unearthed an old flyer that elaborated on how they provided much-needed social welfare in the country. Like any other high street charity in the UK, it was a shop full of books, clothes and bric-a-brac going for a song. There was nothing special about it other than its purpose. I don’t imagine the Londoners in there browsing the shelves gave it much thought – they were looking for bargains. But why Romania?

The short answer is that it was set up in the early 90s, when hundreds of charities responded to the need for help in the post-Ceaușescu period. This leads to the idiosyncratic situation today whereby charities in the UK are funding the welfare of another European Union country.

Romanians have a sense of being different, of living in a country that is different. And it is. Well, all countries have their unique qualities, but this one and its people raise the temperature. They don’t leave you unaffected or unmoved; they invite a reaction.

For millennia, foreigners from west and east have been crossing this place, the land of Romania. The poet Ovid, banished to the Black Sea from Rome, died miserable in 17 AD in Tomis - now Constanța. Today the position of the foreigner, a Western one at least, is privileged and limited. Privileged because most of us are usually treated kindly; limited because Romania is a deep well, difficult for an outsider to plumb.

‘They can always outsmart us,’ I was told by an experienced Western immigrant. They certainly played the Russians cleverly in the heyday of the USSR, and some would have it that they’ve played the European Union likewise in the last ten years. This is a country quite used to dealing with outside powers and their representatives.

They can be their own worst critics. They will accuse themselves of ‘a lack of civility, a lack of respect, exhibitions of frustration, a world of excess’. They will do themselves down as per the Romanian commenting in a Trip Advisor travel posting about Bulgarians being ‘a bit more civilised and open-minded than us.’ Self-absorbed introspection can look like self-flagellation – witness a well-known author writing on the Romanian feeling of hysteria, when he talked of those who’d been abroad for a long time, returning to the abnormality of life here. There’s a recognition of the dark side of life here that can outshine flickers of hope.

As an Englishman not integrated into Romanian society but on the outside looking in, I had gone there to work and found it a country of character, a long way from the anonymity of developed consumer societies. From my first night staying in Bucharest’s Hanul lui Manuc hotel in 1996, I was engaged by the incongruities and the strangely inexplicable, although it wasn’t difficult to understand the young lady who knocked on my door at midnight, asking for a light. In the 90s I was always being asked, ‘What do you think of our country?’ In time the question more or less disappeared, but I was still looking for an answer.  

Working with the public administration, mostly on EU-funded social projects related to the Roma (also known as Gyspies), the real benefits to their communities weren’t...