I was young when the revolution happened in Romania. For the outside world, it was perhaps hard to understand how a country of highly religious people could watch as their president - whether he was a simple man by the name of Ceausescu or Satan himself - was executed by a firing squad pretty much live on TV. It was horrible. And even more horrible is what led people to that cold day in December '89.
Viewed from Romania, there was a whole different story - a grey one - that Romanians have had to live with. Can you imagine living with one half of a bread loaf a day? With soy salami instead of meat? With the same pair of grey shoes, clothes and life as the next person? With two hours a day of TV programmes transmitting state propaganda? With being forced to have as many as eight children because contraception was illegal, carrying a jail sentence? Everyday. Day after day. For almost half a century.
We had no control over our homes, lives or even bodies. We were allowed no real opinion. We belonged to the grey and darkness spawned by communism - and the sad part is that even after the regime fell, the grey stayed. Since the end of the Second World War, we waited for the Americans to come, and some died with that dream, still waiting. Then after '89, we hoped that the West would come and help, teach us their fantastic way of life or embrace us. What we got was corporations making billions in profit by using the country's cheap labour and selling us everything and anything. For years, there were billions to be made. There still are. A country of 20 million people is a fantastic market for any retailer. A country where the minimum monthly wage is about £150 is great for any manufacturer, looking to save on labour costs.
But, through all of this, we also learned. Romania is, today, a country heading for a great future. Will it happen tomorrow? Probably not, it will be a one-step-at-a-time process. But what the entrepreneurs and new generations have succeeded is comparable to conquering "the new Indias": amazing businesses, creating jobs, bringing hope. Westerners love to visit Romania. They say it is a beautiful country for tourism!
All of this seemed so far from when I was a little girl. With my parents and many of the people we knew, we dreamt. We wanted a better life. We didn't want it by begging, stealing or cheating. We wanted it as hard-working, educated people. My parents and my aunt are doctors in Romania. My grandfather was a male nurse and acted as a doctor in the neighbouring villages in communist and post-communist Romania, covering areas lacking in medical services. They have worked hard all of their lives. During those times, "freedom" was the most beautiful word in the world.
All my friends are university graduates and are willing to work 12-16 hours a day for a better life. I am an award-winning communicator - journalist and image consultant. Many of us speak multiple languages - for example, apart from my mother tongue, I am fluent in English, and I speak Spanish, French, some Italian and some Dutch.
For years, my respect for the West has been indestructible. It had its chequered past - from slavery, the KKK, race-riots, and all that - but it has learned from it. The modern West stood out as an example of a New World - one where everyone has a chance to make it, and where your fate wasn't decided by your birthplace, your skin colour, your heritage, your accent or your lifestyle choices. It was a place where the son of a Hungarian émigré was elected president of the French Republic and where a black man born in Hawaii became the president of the biggest democracy in the world. The day Obama was elected, I was happy as if he was MY president too. That's how much he stood for in my world view.
What I also loved about the West was the open-mindedness, the willingness to accept people from all walks of life, fantastic new ideas that changed the world and made each of our lives better - just imagine how many people laughed at Steve Jobs at first! But he got his chance to shine, and I doubt he would have been as successful in a former communist country. We watched TV, and dreamt of such stories, and saw the West as the promised land.
Imagine my bafflement in the last few months. Somehow, Romanians have become a plague of locusts, coming to the UK to drain the public purse and overwhelm the NHS. The hordes of savages are coming to take over Britain, one theft and porch-defecation at a time. I found it funny how the story of one alleged Roma defecating in front of a house made the news. Maybe if they ran a DNA test, they would find it was British poo! Certainly, my experience in Soho on any given Friday night suggests that some Brits aren't shy about using the street as a loo...
What fair chance does the Roma population get? In a weepy story published a few weeks ago, a journalist in London was writing (a totally biased piece, by the way) on how bad the Roma have it in Romania. Now the tabloids are taking their turn on the Roma in the UK. These people cannot win, it seems. And neither can Romania - when the Roma are "at home", we are heavily criticised for not finding solutions - and did the tabloids ever have a field day pointing fingers at Romania and other eastern European countries for their "Roma problem"! Now the West, after criticising for two decades, has a chance at finding solutions. Have at it!
But judging by the tone of these articles, they are almost to the point where they will start blaming Romania for protecting the Roma population during the war (not that the regime at the time didn't have its number of victims in the Roma population, unfortunately. But it came down to a lot lower number than many other European countries)!
I live in London, actively avoid telling people where I'm from. Not because I am ashamed of my country. On the contrary. Actually, when leading publications or TV stations went off the rails in Romania, people boycotted them in a way that had an effect. Yes, in a country which publications here call "third world", we don't put up with such things. Is there a great part of society that does? Yes. But in the end, they were forced to tone it down or lose viewers. And they had to. To my amazement, this doesn't happen here. Day after day, the Roma and the Romanians are lynched by the tabloid media and some part of society seems to keep buying papers and clicking links.
I am not poor. I am not begging on the streets. And I don't want any money from the state. I will probably never make the front page of any tabloid - I don't have the right cup size or eagerness for the 15 minutes of fame. Any of the things I do - writing, book editing or volunteering for NGOs would simply not fit the desired pattern!
I avoid telling people where I'm from because I have never judged anyone by their skin colour, their life choices or where they were born. I judge them on the basis of whether they are good people or not. And I feel that should apply to me, too. So I get ahead of myself and avoid having to list all the good things I have done in life in order to convince people I'm not what they were taught I would be by the media and politicians seeking votes.
Have the UK tabloids broken any laws with the sheer hatred they are spilling? Probably not, I'm sure they have an army of lawyers telling them exactly what can and cannot be done. But they have broken and pretty much murdered common sense, decency and what humanity stands for all together. I won't bring up journalism rules, they aren't doing that either.
Getting back to my point about the West: what is truly sad is that it seems the some parts of the West have chosen to forget what they stand for. The dream is gone. But don't worry. It seems there might be "29 million Romanians and Bulgarians" coming to take over and remind them...