What brought you to the Netherlands?
I came here about 16 years ago – I remember it as if it were yesterday –, on the 2nd of September, in 2002. I traveled here by bus. It was already night time when we arrived, and someone was supposed to wait for us – I wasn’t alone, there were three of us – and take us straight to our workplace. Well, that person wasn’t where we agreed to meet and, as I didn’t even have their phone number, I had to make a call to Romania to find out what the number was. I was the only one in the group who spoke English. I went inside Amstel station and I felt startled by that rich variety of people, some were coming, others were going. You wouldn’t see that in Romania. I bought a calling card and I kept struggling to dial the number, as something didn’t quite work. At some point, a guy came to me – I think he must have been an Indian native – and he showed me what I was supposed to do. He helped me without me asking him.
The reason why I left Romania? I came here to work. Many years, I lived in Constanța and my neighbor, with whom I was on greeting terms, needed a plumber in the Netherlands. At the time, I had a plumbing company. He told me the pay was not that good, but the trip costs would be covered, and we’d need pocket money in order to be able to cross the border. Back then, it was still compulsory for the Romanian tourist to have 500 euros as pocket money, so as to prove they can support themselves for three months because that’s how long you could stay as a tourist. And that’s how I came to Amsterdam.
I’m the only one – of the three from back then – who “survived”. And you’ll understand right away why I’ve said: “survived”. The plan of the person who brought us here was to send us also to Germany, to Berlin, where he had a hotel that was being renovated. In fact, he has about five hotels now, three of which are in Amsterdam. And he did send us there, where we found another 15 Romanians, most of them also from Constanța. The conditions were extremely harsh there. The hotel was like a haunted house, without lights, without beds or showers, even without toilets. We had to install everything after a night of travel. I think we didn’t spend more than a month there, and I’ll tell you why. One day, we left for a walk in town, there were four of us. When we got back, there were several police vans at the hotel gate, so it was obvious we weren’t working there legally. Somehow, we managed to get inside the hotel through the back door, we got our luggage and we left, roaming on the streets until morning when we decided to return to the Netherlands.
What was it like in the beginning, here, in the Netherlands?
I was very, very difficult. Eventually, I had to quit working for my employer, who was a great businessman, but who never paid us on time. I discovered the trick he used. Every month he would pay us a few days later than he should have. For instance, this month he’d pay us on the 1st, the next one on the 5th, the third month on the 10th, and so forth. Like that, two months a year we’d work for him for free. And I discovered this swindle. None of my colleagues believed me, although I explained it in a logical way and I even had a bitter quarrel with them. Only one of them was on my side – a guy also from Constanța –, and together we confronted the boss. He was surprised and asked me how come I realized it, how did I discover it. I managed to get him to pay us also for those days that he had technically stolen from us. He promised then that it wouldn’t happen again, but of course, he didn’t keep his word. But I have to say that we had very good housing conditions. I quit working for him after about three years when I managed to find some work outside of that contract and I worked independently. That’s how we began to get in touch with people outside of our group, of our bubble. Even now, I’m still friends with that first person who helped me become independent.
The first three years were the most awful, I would say. It was so hard, that I decided to return to Romania. I missed my family too much, especially the kids, who remained behind in Romania. I have to say that before returning, I worked for a Dutchman who had a coffee shop (establishment where soft drugs may be sold, ed.), I built a kitchen for him. His brother, Ramon, an extremely fair man, was arguing with his brother, sticking up for me. Ramon told me: “Pompi, if you want to come back to the Netherlands, you’re welcome to stay at my place for free.”
So I went back to Romania and I tried to build something there. But, even though a lot had changed there during the three years that I had been away, I didn’t feel it was for the better. Hence, I returned to the Netherlands, straight to Ramon, who kept his word and took me in.
I remember that during that time, right before leaving for Romania, I met in Dam Square a Romanian family, two young people who had taken a leap into the unknown, unprepared, with nothing but their wedding money in their pockets. They were both from Transylvania. They were looking for work. After meeting with him for several Sundays, he told me that he had found some work. He had to install drywall, only he didn’t know how to do that. I taught him how to do that, I even gave him the necessary tools. I kept in touch with them, and when I returned to the Netherlands, he helped me, in return, to find work. And from that point things changed, everything started going really well. To give you an example, right now, I have the keys to 13 homes, all given by the owners, so that I can have immediate access in case there’s something wrong with a pipe, a faucet etc. I am, if you will, their trusted right-hand man.
How do you look back at all these years?
I don’t regret any decision I’ve made during these years. Even those three years in the beginning, as difficult as they were, have helped me. The experience acquired then has helped me tremendously. Now, I don’t do just one trade, but four or five, and I do them well. I’m very satisfied here with my renovation and construction company that I’ve had since 2010.
On a personal level, the situation has changed. The kids have grown and, of course, a long-distance relationship doesn’t last, so, I divorced. My son, Bogdan, is here with me and we work together. On top of that, he’s also a football player, and he’s even been a bit of a hero for his team, Swift Amsterdam, where he plays goalkeeper. The team – which isn’t in the first class – played for the Dutch Cup against another team of European stature, SVB Vitesse, from Arnhem. Bogdan managed to defend a penalty, which secured the victory of his team and allowed it to go on to the next round. He was, of course, the team’s hero, but the story continued with a match with Feyenoord. They lost, but it was nice that the Feyenoord fans – it’s well-known how these fans are, they’re called hooligans – were asking for his autograph, his shirt, his gloves. Even the coach personally congratulated him because he had delivered a very nice match for a team in an inferior league. And he’s in the club’s history books as the best goalkeeper in over 100 years since the club was founded.
But I’m also very proud of my daughter, Oana Corina Constantin. She’s a well-known gymnast, who took part and even won gold in various competitions, including European and world championships. She’s currently coaching, together with her boyfriend, a team of artistic gymnasts in Göteborg, Sweden.
What do you like about the society in which you live?
Oh, but what’s not to like! The Dutch are very open people. I like it a lot that they look you in the eye when they talk to you. They’ll tell you to your face what they have to say. To a Dutch person, it’s irrelevant where you’re from, what matters is what you do. When you meet a Dutch person for the first time, the first thing they ask is not “Where are you from?”, but “What do you do?” It’s important to them that you be active, that you do something, it doesn’t matter what. Staying home is not encouraged. They take care of the public space, but also of their homes, they maintain them well, they don’t let them collapse. You rarely see a house that’s not well maintained. They’re very modest. I was telling some friends that in Amsterdam it’s the taxi drivers that wear a suit. One day, when I was on the bus, I was looking and there was a university lecturer who was dressed in such a simple and modest manner… What can be more beautiful? In this society, you feel you’re equal.
But there are also aspects that I don’t like, such as that they’re stubborn. In my work, if I tell them that something should be done in a different way than they’d like, they won’t give up on their idea, and they also won’t admit that I was right when they come to me afterwards to ask me to do exactly what I had advised them initially, maybe even a year before that. Surely it’s an aspect that has to do with their personality. That’s what I think.
Is Romania in your future plans?
I love my country very, very much. It’s the country where I grew up and where I was educated. In spite of that, I don’t want to be buried in Romania. It’s my way of protesting against what’s happening in the country.
What does success mean to you?
My definition of success consists of the small things. To me, success is not something material, my goals have never been financial. If in the evening, when I get back from work, I’m satisfied that I managed to do everything I had to do that day, then that’s success to me. Ditto if the person I work for is pleased.
What kind of a relationship do you have with the Romanian community in the Netherlands?
I’m still close to Romanians, I even work with them. For instance, I’m now working together with five brothers from Botoșani. One of them is a deacon, after a little while he’ll become a priest at the Russian church – because he speaks also Russian. Over the years, I saw that the number of those who came here has increased. I’ve met people who have integrated very well. On the other hand, I have to say that there are Romanians and Romanians. Some of them have also caused me a lot of trouble.
What would you advise a Romanian who would like to come to the Netherlands now?
Romanians sometimes think they’re more important than they are. Many come here thinking that they’re entitled to everything and that they’re irreplaceable. Do you remember when Ceaușescu was telling us that ARO is the best off-road vehicle? Now we have “the most beautiful country in the world”, “the biggest administrative building”, and so forth. If it’s featured in a National Geographic documentary, it doesn’t mean it’s the most beautiful country in the world.
My advice to those who come here is to leave all this behind, and come here with modesty, not thinking that they’ve moved to God’s country. It’s always possible to fail, no matter the stage of your life. It’s hard to climb up, but very easy to slip back down.
An interview by Claudia Marcu
Translation by Mihaela Nita
Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin – www.cristiancalin.video
Photos from the personal archive