Geese stroll the streets of Intorsura on a lazy summer evening | Photo by Carmen Paun
ÎNTORSURA, Romania — The name of the village means “the return” — but these days people aren’t coming back.
Like many other Romanians, people from the village of Întorsura started moving abroad soon after communist rule ended. In the early 1990s, local young people went to work in Italy, where language and weather are similar. Since Romania joined the EU just over a decade ago, the departures have intensified, with many people from Întorsura now living and working in Italy, the U.K. and Germany.
Most of the remaining residents of the village, which sits by a hill covered with vineyards and pastures in the southwest of the country, are old people living off pensions, social benefits or remittances from relatives abroad.
“For every three inhabited houses, there’s one that’s abandoned,” said Marian Cioi, the 58-year-old village mayor.
The population of Întorsura has dwindled by a fifth in the last decade and a half, as older residents die and younger ones move abroad. The village had 1,786 inhabitants in 2002 and now has 1,470, according to figures provided by Cioi. The numbers decline every year, he said.
Almost half of the Romanian population lives in rural areas.
The exodus from the village reflects a phenomenon that has deeply altered Romania and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe in recent decades — people leave the country for better paid work in Western Europe and only come back for holidays, or not at all.
Romania has experienced the biggest increase in emigration among EU members since 1990, according to a recent World Bank report. Between 3 million and 5 million Romanians — from a country with 19.6 million citizens — now live and work abroad. Most of them — some 2.6 million people — are of working age, representing almost a fifth of the country’s labor force.
“Our young people are working in other lands, unfortunately, and there’s no one left to do any work in the yard [to help those] who are 70 years old,” Cioi said.
Întorsura is not just a case study in migration patterns. For the first seven years of my life, it was home — and was also the setting for many school holidays thereafter. I still have relatives in the village and return regularly, as I did this summer.
In many ways, Întorsura looks like countless other villages dotted all over Romania, where many people still retain a strong connection to the countryside. Almost half of the Romanian population lives in rural areas.
The only asphalt-covered road in Întorsura is one that goes to neighboring villages. The other roads are made of dirt, which would occasionally mean getting stuck in a car on rainy days years ago. These days they are covered with gravel.
On a recent lazy sunny day, geese and dogs wandered along those roads and people gathered in front of their yards to chat. Most of the homes look the same: A small porch leads into the house, whose rooms lie on the side of a long hallway. The money sent by relatives abroad has started to change some appearances, though — double-glazed windows are the latest trend. Some villagers have also managed to build indoor bathrooms in recent years, but most still rely on an outhouse in the back of the yard.
Some 20 years ago, Întorsura teemed with children. Now there are 104 pupils in the local school, prompting concerns that it may be closed, said Leontina Călin, a 26-year-old mother of two.
“They keep on asking you to pay taxes, they want your money, but everything is bad” — Eugen Călin
Călin is one of the few young people still living in the village but even she and her husband are part of the migration story. For the past few years, they’ve made a living as seasonal workers in Germany, picking fruit and vegetables. They work for one to two months at a time and can come back with up to €4,000 — an amount they wouldn’t earn in the village in a year.
Before she started going to Germany, Călin used to work in a bakery in the village. It was hard work for little pay. She lifted heavy flour bags and sometimes worked in intense heat for more than 12 hours — all in return for around €150 a month, Călin recalled.
The bakery has closed in the meantime, unable to compete with the wages offered for seasonal work abroad.
Romanians have not just left the country to work as laborers. Highly skilled people have also emigrated for better jobs, particularly doctors. The number of Romanian physicians working abroad exceeded 14,000 as of 2013, representing a third of the country’s total number of doctors, the World Bank report shows. Meanwhile, the national health system survives on meager resources.
Călin’s brother-in-law, 33-year-old Eugen Călin, has experienced the shortcomings of the health system first hand. He and his wife also do seasonal work in Germany but he had to cut short a recent spell there, picking asparagus, after being diagnosed with kidney failure.
After spending a few days in a hospital in Craiova, the city nearest to Întorsura, Călin was told he had to go to the capital Bucharest for a biopsy, because there were simply no doctors available to perform it. In the hospital, he had to share a room with nine other men and give the nurses money to change his sheets.
“Things are bad in this country. They keep on asking you to pay taxes, they want your money, but everything is bad,” he said, sitting on a chair, hands in his lap, in a neighbor’s yard. He and his wife have talked about having kids, but he worries there will be no schools left for them and no future for them in the village.
Eugen Călin’s parents are at least fortunate enough to have him and his brother around, as they go to Germany for only a few months a year and always come back.
Their neighbor, George Coiman, barely sees his children. His 31-year-old son left for Italy more than 10 years ago and never came back. Six years ago, Coiman sold some of his land and used the money to visit his son. He still talks fondly about the trip, often recounting different stories from the visit.
Coiman’s 29-year-old daughter, who lives in England with her husband, keeps in closer contact, coming back to Întorsura at least once a year.
“We’re worse than the Albanians,” declared Coiman, a slender man pushing 60, who sees people from the southern Balkan nation as Europe’s leading migrants. “We have migration in all four directions.”
“The whole country is affected by the lack of workforce, and this is just the beginning” — Andreas Friedmann
The lack of working-age people leaves the village vineyards unattended, lamented 63-year-old Ioana Neagoe (who, full disclosure, is also my aunt).
“Everyone you hear about has left,” she said. “That one in England, that one in Germany. Everybody’s leaving.”
With no one to tend their fields, older villagers have leased their land to Andreas Friedmann, who runs a 3,500-hectare farm in the area. His is the only substantial business in the village, employing 35 people. But even Friedmann is struggling to hold onto workers.
He started a program to train young people to work in his farm, paying them the minimum net wage of €250 a month. But many moved abroad, either upon finishing the program or even before, he said.
“The whole country is affected by the lack of workforce, and this is just the beginning,” Friedmann predicted.