Welcome to Europe! A Romanian Austrian Dutch Story

I arrived in Austria in the summer of 2007. Not on January 1st like many European countries feared, even 7 years later. No, on January 1st, 2007 I was in Piata Universitatii in Bucharest (University Square) and celebrated what the Romanian newspapers at the time called "The New Year's Eve of Integration". Alongside French friends and other thousands of Romanians, I was taking part in a historic moment for Romania: its accession to the European Union 18 years after the fall of Communism.

I remember a general state of joy on the streets of Bucharest, young men and women cheerfully waving the Romanian and European flags, toasting champagne and hugging each other. It was not uncommon that random people would smile to each other and stop for a quick chat on what does this moment meant for us and Europe. A confident speech of the Romanian President Traian Basescu tried to infuse the Romanians' minds and hearts with the hope of a united Europe after the dark years of communism, and implicitly, a better future for all of us: "It was hard, but we arrived at the end of the road. It is the road of our future. It is the road of our joy."

In the summer of 2007 I arrived in Vienna, Austria to reunite with my, at the time, Austrian boyfriend. I knew it was not going to be easy to integrate as I didn't speak the language, although I was fluent in other 3: English, French, Romanian. I didn't know anybody except my boyfriend and his family and 3 Romanian friends from university who lived there since 2004 already. I knew it was going to be hard to get a job as Romanian citizen, as I needed to get a work permit first, although I had a university degree and some years of work experience. I informed myself before leaving and it didn't seem easy. But I took it all as a challenge and opportunity to develop myself and grow in a new international environment. I didn't leave Romania because my life back home was difficult and unbearable. Prior to my arriving to Austria, I resigned from a PR Manager position in one of the top 3 advertising agencies in Bucharest. At that time, I didn't think of myself as a migrant. All I knew was that I reunited with my boyfriend, something everybody was doing all over the world.

It was not long before difficulties began, though. Holding a Romanian passport and citizenship proved to be quite challenging. Getting residency and a job required nerves of steel, great energy and speaking German. Basically, in this particular case, my boyfriend had to vouch for me in each institution we went since I was not fully considered a European citizen. Social security is still payed by the employer, so without a job, there's no social security either. I got a private one though until I got hired, but those are usually expensive and limiting. For example, if I got pregnant during the first year, they wouldn't cover any costs. Getting an Austrian mobile number required residency proof and a bank account. Without a job, you wouldn't get a bank account. I got it all sorted out eventually and my stay became legal right from the beginning. But during this process I realized that integration to Europe was not so easy when you carry a Romanian passport.

So, it seemed that the solution to all these problems was getting a job. And that was quite adventurous as well. It took me 1 1/2 years. During all that time I took German classes and tried to find a legal way to earn money. At that time, like most of the European countries, Austria required a work permit for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens in order to enter the labour market. Due to that, the Public Employment Service, AMS, was known as extremely reluctant to grant work permits to Romanians and Bulgarians. On a funny side note, I was once told by one of their office workers that marring my Austrian boyfriend would be probably much easier to get a job!

Let's be clear. Romania joined European Union but it didn't enjoy all the rights, yet. Restrictions on traveling were lifted, studying abroad became more accessible, but access to the labor market was greatly limited. In this case, I thought I would become a freelancer, since getting married just to get a job was not quite my idea of having a relationship. But even for that I needed a work permit! In the end, what I did was to register as a freelancer in Romania, and payed all the taxes there, while I worked in Communications for Austrian companies! At times I was offered to work black but I refused as I didn't want to perpetuate the stereotypes, not to mention, it was illegal. At that time I really felt that as a Romanian migrant I was pushed, indirectly, by the Austrian state to work illegally. I didn't have many options although I wanted to stay within legal boundaries.

But if you were lucky enough to get an interview and eventually the job, the company was required to go through endless time consuming procedures. Lots of documents and the proof that you were a unique worker, in a way that no Austrian could do your job, required to be filed and later examined by an AMS special commission and within a month you would get the result. In case the work permit was granted you were bound to stay with the company which hired you for 1 year. Then, 1 year later, the company needed to file another application for you and only than you would get your lifetime work permit in Austria as long as you stayed on its territory. I got mine in 2010, 2 weeks after the AMS commission reviewed my file and no wedding ring on my finger!

The biggest support in getting through all this was no other than my Austrian boyfriend and his family and friends. The psychological pressure was immense. I was trying to do things right and felt punished for it. Or extremely limited. All of this because I was coming from a particular country in Eastern Europe. To all institutions I have been to, my Romanian citizenship always raised a problem. Things couldn't be easy. It always had to be difficult. So, you slowly start to feel small and unwanted. It makes you think in a dangerous way: me vs them. It gives power to anger and frustration. And it takes time to understand what's happening, and how do you get through, and not fall into the "me vs them" or "me feeling inferior" trap. It was around that time when I started to realize what it means to be a Romanian migrant!

Back home, during my trips to Romania, everybody I met and knew, family, friends were very surprised to find out how hard it was for me to get a job. "But we are part of European Union now" they would tell me. Yes we were, but not quite fully. Every time I went back home, I realized that Romania saw the world with different eyes other than the world saw Romania.

Now, fast forward 7 years later at the City Hall in The Hague, Netherlands. It's March 2014, restrictions to the European labor market for Romanians and Bulgarians were lifted in January, and I am trying to get information about registering my new residence in The Hague. It's early morning and after walking around inside City Hall, not knowing exactly where to go, a cheerful and relaxed Dutch information officer greets my partner and I in English and invites us to The Hague International Center. He offers us a cup of coffee and explains what I need. Basically, not much. "It's all easy", he says. An appointment by phone to register at the Immigration Office where you automatically get the social security number. With that you can easily open up a bank account, get a Dutch phone number, register for family doctor, get insured. I am calling from his office and I get the appointment in 2 weeks time.

It's all easy now indeed compared to couple of month back when everything was as difficult in The Netherlands as it was initially in Austria. What a huge difference a political decision can make in our lives, the memories it forces upon us and the way we feel!

Next, he brings me a pile of brochures to take home with everything I need to know about living in the Netherlands: expat survival guide, first steps guide to settling in, Welcome to the Hague guide, city maps and so on. I need to sort out some administrative papers between Austria and Netherlands and deadlines are tight so he gives me his business card and tells me that in case Austria "makes any problems" he will help. We chat a bit more about migration and its limitations. Finally, we thank him for his help and coffee and were heading lighthearted to the exit. Few steps later, I hear him shouting:

"Oh, and Welcome to The Hague, Miss!"