Over a decade ago, we first came looking for the locals in the northern Romanian region of Oaș in their homeland. We did not find them. They were away in Paris. In their villages, we were greeted by elderly people outside stainless steel gates.

You are going to read a decades-long story about the hopes, ambitions and sufferings of a whole community. These people have sacrificed the comfort of a hard-earned life in Western Europe for the sake of the tradition of social competition, which forces them to build themselves a luxury life in their home villages – a life they will, most likely, never get to live.

In August and for major holidays, Oaș people make their ritualistic return home, and their villages become an open stage for this social competition. They proudly throw money around, thousands of euros on weddings, luxury cars and high-end clothing. In a single generation, they have proven that they can turn their villages of origin into concrete châteaux, a testimony to their success abroad.

Today’s rural Romania is rife with contradictions. Tourist flyers promote an idyllic, out-of-time village where peasants wear traditional garb, women do the laundry in the riverbed, and bread is baked at home. At the same time, at the height of COVID-19 restrictions two years ago, airports in the north of the country arranged flights for Romanian emigrants whose work was vital for Western economies. These two different words exist and coexist, and the essential aim of this project is to document both of them together, for as long as they will continue their parallel lives.

The brides table, wedding in Turt (Author: Petrut Calinescu)

The change began in one village: Certeze, Oaș County, Romania 

When the Revolution that ended Communism came, the villagers of Certeze – who were seasonal migrants within their country’s borders even before 1989 – were already well-used to the austere life of those who spend most of the year away from home. They had some savings and were organised in tight-knit, mobile communities, ready to explore the European labour market.

Known as resilient, diligent workers, the people of Oaș had been used by the Ceaușescu dictatorship for hard, but well-paid, labour all across the country. To increase the country’s arable land area, reclamation projects that couldn’t be mechanised had employed Oaș locals. The money they made before 1989 also went into building houses. At a time when poverty in Romania reached record lows as a result of an extreme plan of Ceausescu to pay off all external debt, villages in Oaș prospered and old family homes grew their first extra storey.

After the fall of Communism, when the country’s centralised production system collapsed and work opportunities at home dwindled, the first Oaș people crossed the border illegally in search of work.

Their children grew up alone, as they worked themselves to exhaustion in construction and housekeeping, thousands of kilometres from home, until they managed to get a foothold in the local labour market. They lived in abandoned houses or improvised shacks in the forests on the outskirts of Paris, saved up every cent they earned and sent their money back to Romania, where it would be used to build the enormous houses that would speak to everyone of their successful exile.

30 years later

Today, Oaș people brought their children over to the countries where they emigrated, and where their grandchildren were then born. They are legal residents there and many have their own construction companies, through which they are able to integrate other Oaș fellows, who have come later, into the labour market.

Between the first generation, which fought hard to make a living in France, and their children and grandchildren, fluent in foreign languages and perfectly integrated in the French society, there is an ever-wider chasm. The first-come dream of one day returning home and the next generation dream of breaking the ”concrete curse” that binds them, by tradition, to sink their hard-earned money in houses with more and more stories.

Those sprawling homes keep dreams out of reach for both generations of emigrants born in Romania. Those who dream of returning are forced to work away from their houses just so they can maintain them, and those who dream of making a life for themselves in Paris are forced to channel their earnings into finishing their houses back home. And that, in many cases, can take a lifetime.

A life that can accommodate several lives

What we have found, 10 years later, is that their existence abroad has fallen into a settled pattern. The people of Oaș have bought homes in Paris, renovated them, filled their gardens with flowers.

It appears that, in the decade since, a generation was born with the power to break the concrete curse. That of children who saw the light abroad, who no longer belong to Romania and who, 10 years ago, when we began our research, docilely accepted to put on the uncomfortable traditional Oaș costume, but then play-chased each other on the village streets of Oaș launching mock taunts in French. They are today’s bilingual teenagers – integrated, cosmopolitan.

Some of the people we met 10 years ago are now gone. They have passed away, leaving behind in Romania concrete (and concreted) proof of their dreams: almost-finished houses swallowed by ivy. Some of the children we met a decade ago, looking bored on holiday and eager to return home to Paris, are now students, future attorneys, doctors, accountants, aircraft engineers.

On the streets of Negrești, young people chat in foreign languages, while the elders look upon their grandchildren and great-grandchildren lovingly, but without understanding a word of what they are saying. Most constructions have been finished. The old wooden houses are almost completely gone, and a typical village in Oaș now looks like a suburb of a city.


Cotroș and his familly

Sas Grigore “Cotroș” Griga from Certeze village, Satu Mare County, left Romania in 1994. He has been living in Paris with his wife, Lică, for over 27 years. He works in construction, she does housecleaning. Together they have three children and six grandchildren, all of whom live with them in France. In the whole of their life together, Cotroș only took his wife out to a restaurant in France once. To this day, she hasn’t forgiven him for all the money he spent on that evening.

“If today you make 50 euros, you set 40 aside.” This is Cotroș’s life philosophy.

All their three children have bought homes on the outskirts of Paris, but they each built impressive houses back in Certeze, too. The grandchildren also have a house each in their village of origin, and in 2021, when the elders were expecting their sixth grandchild, the land in Certeze was already bought and the builders’ team was already booked for beginning construction on the house of the youngest member of the family.

Cotroș’s two sons have their own prosperous construction companies in France. He works for his younger son. To him, the adventure is long over. Cotroș is part of the avant-garde of the Romanian workforce migration. After the fall of Communism, when the country’s centralised production system collapsed and work opportunities in Romania disappeared, the first Oaș people from Certeze village forced their way across the border in search of employment. Cotroș was one of them. After them, in only a few years, an enormous percentage of the active population of the Oaș region flowed abroad. After several attempts at finding work in various European countries, most of them regrouped in the early ’90s in Paris, France.

In 2011, Cotroș only had one wish – to go back home. “I’ll stay here a few more years to get my minimum contribution period for my pension, then I’ll move back home.” Ten years later, in 2021, over a barbecue and a shot of homemade plum brandy, outside his house in Certeze, Cotroș told us: “I’ll stay with the children in France for another year or two, then I come back home for good.”


In the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, colorful turbans were the norm in the streets smelling of exotic condiments from the kitchens of African emigrants in 2011, when we met Cotroș. The block of flats where he had been living for over 10 years, however, smelled of Romanian sarmale and perișoare soup.

“There’s just a few of us living in this building, not the whole family. My brother is next door, my oldest son and my grandchildren upstairs, my brother-in-law just downstairs, the in-laws are in the same building, on the other stairwell, my cousin too… It’s still not like home. It’s never like home!”

When we happened to drop by, on a Sunday, the entire block blared with Oaș music and through the open doors of the apartments you could see laden tables surrounded by families crammed together, talking loudly and laughing – toddlers with bibs, elderly women with traditional headscarves, neighbors from the old village and anyone who happened to visit.

“There are 12 families of us living here now; two are Moroccan, and the others are all Romanian. We have our fun too. There are lots of us, so there’s always an anniversary to celebrate. For Christmas we butcher a pig and make sausage and caltaboși just like back home. A new Romanian grocery store opened just down the street. The owners are from Săpânța. That’s how we have fun: anniversaries, weddings, christening parties. It’s not like we had any other entertainment back home either. We never went on holiday, to the seaside or the spa towns,” remembered Cotroș back in 2011.

He grew up in a family with 17 siblings and a father who taught them one word of wisdom: be optimistic, brave, and always look forward. That’s how you’ll get ahead in life. “And we did,” says Cotroș.

In the 27 years he has been working in Paris, he only took his wife, Lică, out for a restaurant dinner once. To this day they sometimes argue for the amount of money they spent that day. It’s hard to imagine Lică picking a fight with someone. Most of the time, she is silent and busy tidying up. Like most Oaș women who come to Paris, Lică has been working in housecleaning in French homes for 27 years.

She’s worked her whole life. At 14, she left home on one of the buses loaded with seasonal laborers leaving at the beginning of each summer from Oaș villages, taking people to work all over Romania, and she never stopped working since. She didn’t even have a lot of time to be a mother, though she has three children.

“I grew up without my parents,” remembers Dana Ciocan, Lică and Cotroș’s daughter. “When my parents left to work abroad, I stayed home to look after my brothers. I didn’t cry that much when they left, but I did cry a lot when they took my older brother to work with them. They took me along when I turned 16. I wasn’t with them in those years when they slept in abandoned homes. By the time I got to Paris, they had already rented a place. At first, I went with my mother when she did housecleaning, so I could learn the ropes. Every time I stepped inside a bathroom, I was terrified. I didn’t even know how to turn on a tap. When I left home, we only had an outhouse. I had never seen an indoor bathroom. The moment my mother plopped all those cleaning products into my arms, I threw up from the smell. It was so hard getting used to the smell… I’d clean and throw up, clean and throw up.”

Now Dana has her own home in Paris, and her daughter Jessica is a Law student.

Author: Petrut Calinescu

Two stairwells and three stories brimful of Romanians 

The flat Cotroș and Lică were renting in 2011 had two rooms furnished with a wardrobe, two bunk beds and a few rattan chairs for guests, often doubling as coffee tables. That was all. The TV was always on ProTV, a Romanian channel. The ten years they had spent there didn’t seem to have changed the apartment’s vibe – it still looked like a place for commuters’ overnight stays. Perhaps a little less crowded. Back in the day, five or six people would live in a single room like that. Cotroș’s whole family had lived there. His three children, one son-in-law, two daughters-in-law, not counting friends and neighbors from the village whom he put up until they found their place in Paris. Then came the grandchildren, five in all back then. Gradually, the young families started to occupy other flats in the building or migrated to other neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris.

The block had two stairwells back to back, each with three stories brimful of Romanians. The owner, an Arab with enterprising acumen, used to have an abandoned three-storey building on that spot. Cotroș had a team of Oaș people from his homeland, eager to work, with palms the size of shovels and a dogged determination to feel like proper human beings again.

It was almost seven years since they had fled their country, hanging under train carriages or hidden in suffocating vans, chased by frontier police dogs. For almost seven years, they had been living like animals in the forests around Paris, in improvised shacks or abandoned houses: with no legal documents, no one would have them as tenants. “From the beginning, the deal was that we’d build these flats for ourselves. When we finished them, we finally moved in as tenants, like proper people. That’s how we filled the building with people from Oaș. Somehow, we made it fit us all,” remembers Cotroș.

Now, Oaș people are recognised on the Paris labour market as some of the best construction workers, but back then, in the beginning – Cotroș laughs to himself – they didn’t really know much about the job. They took the building and renovated it as they thought was best. No apartment is like another. Some of them have two rooms, others three. They broke down walls or built new ones depending on the sizes of their respective families.

In the early 2000s, for dozens of people from Oaș – exhausted, forever on the lookout for a job, eating whenever they had a chance to, spending years leaning against the walls of construction materials warehouses, where black labour markets are held to this day, as they waited for orders – Paris was finally becoming a home of sorts.

Cotroș still can’t speak French very well, after 27 years working in Paris. And he is not one bit embarrassed by it. He told us, laughing, about the time he went to the doctor and was prescribed eye drops, but he couldn’t understand what the doctor told him, so he drank them.

Besides, what would he need French for? His direct boss is his youngest son, who has his own construction company, he works 10 hours a day in a team made up of Oaș people and spends his Sundays with his family or visiting village neighbours who have settled in Paris.

Cotroș | 2011

“The golden rule: you never eat away your profit. If today you make 50 euros, you set 40 aside. Only once I had a beer in town and it cost me a few franks. I felt so sorry for that money I was sick for a week. You’ll never make money if you start going to restaurants. We have fun too, but we do it at home.”

I’ve been in France for 15 years. Before that, I was in Belgium, Germany, Austria, but I ended up settling here. We’re very well regarded, as trusty workers. Of all of us who came over, Romanians and Serbians are the most well-seen. We are respected, France as a country is good to us, but we’re still foreigners here. That’s the trouble. Only home is at home.

The people here got used to living together, we fell into this habit of living on top of each other – Serbians, Portuguese, Romanians, Arabs, Black people, Japanese, Chinese, every nation on Earth. They have their own customs, we have ours, we don’t get in each other’s way, we each mind our own business. We wouldn’t have time to cause trouble anyway – we leave for work at the break of dawn and come back late at night…

This block we live in was built by us from A to Z. When we started renovating it, it was a ruin, completely abandoned. We divided the space. Sometimes we made two apartments out of three, or enlarged some. We somehow made it fit us all, so we could pay rent like normal people. Back then, no one would rent us a place to live, since we didn’t have our documents.

We couldn’t go on living like animals in abandoned houses.

My younger son is 23 and has his own construction company. I raised them to be hard workers. My older son and my daughter, too – every month they set aside 700 euro. I’d like to see anyone in Romania managing to do that. Why do you think people are so eager to work here? Money! Anything you do here, you get paid for it! I love going to work at 5 in the morning and coming back at 7 in the evening, as long as I know that I get paid for my work. That makes me want to work even more.

When I go back home, the silence at night scares me. I wake up and can’t tell where I am. Here, I get up from my bunk bed on the other side. So, when I’m back home, I turn to get out of bed on the wrong side and bump against the wall. It makes me angry. You can say whatever you like, life’s good in France, life’s good in Germany, life’s good in the UK, but there’s no place like home. Even if someone told me they’d pay me 2,000 euro a month to stay here for the rest of my life… never! I’ll stick around for another five-six years, until I get my pension that I’ve been struggling so hard for, and then you’re not seeing me dead around here. I’m going home.

Cotroș | 2021

“I always tell my children: enjoy your life! We never knew how to, all we did was work. Do whatever your soul wants. This heap of money we made – we’ll use it to pay the doctor in our old age. We lost all that was best in our lives. Me and my old lady, we started off with nothing, we had to earn it all. ”

Half of my life was spent in foreign countries. That’s what I regret the most, not staying home. I might not have been so successful, but I’d have been a lot healthier. I lost what was most important: my youth, my health, my identity. I never cared about politics. I cared about having a place to work. You think I’d have stayed abroad and not come back home to sleep in my bed, otherwise? Even potatoes would have tasted better in my own country.

In France I miss my house, the people in my village, my village, these forests, this water, the air –  I even miss Romanian stupidity.

I wish I could bring my whole family back to the country. I’d come tomorrow and start working again, at 60. But where to find work? My grandchildren can’t speak Romanian properly. My children built much better lives abroad, but the stress and the homesickness took their toll. My son has all the paperwork done trying to open a pig farm in the country, but the administration is leading him around by the nose. They won’t move a finger to help, not one bit, all they do is get in your way until you say – forget it, let’s go back abroad.


The wedding industry in Oaș and the grand return of the emigrants

For 11 months a year, the villages of Oaş are deserted. No sound of cattle coming home, of hens or horse hooves. In the past 20 years, the soundtrack of the traditional Romanian village seems to have switched to the muffled noise of concrete mixers, as the village elders have become site inspectors.

In August, however, everyone returns home and the narrow village streets are blocked by luxury cars. Especially after the Assumption of Mary, when wedding season begins. Once it begins, it won’t stop until September. A single village can have as many as 10 weddings in a day.

Wedding parties are held at home, not among strangers. No matter how cosmopolitan their lives, no matter how many nationalities they might come into contact with in their block of flats in Paris, in the subway, at work, at the corner shop, people still take spouses from their own village. The parents still get to have the last word.

Author: Petrut Calinescu

Weddings as Forms of Interest-Free Loan

If they don’t want the whole village to talk behind their backs, a Oaș local can go to as many as 20 weddings  in one summer. Oaș weddings function as interest-free loans. They are investments in the future weddings of your offspring. Those with small children begin to attend weddings diligently, to ensure a large number of invitees for their sons’ and daughters’ in the future. How else could an average wedding bring together 1,000 guests, all of them physically and financially exhausted? If not more. A regular wedding here costs 40,000 to 50,000 euros and, if almost all guests honour the invitation, makes about 100,000 euros in gift money.

Wedding food is, like most things in Oaș, between two worlds. The party tables are heaped with platters with catering finger snacks, side by side with hearty plates of steaming food fresh out of the hands of the village wives. Wedding food is cooked with great enthusiasm, in large cauldrons – sarmale, mutton or chicken soups, sensational stews after traditional recipes.

The women who cook for Oaș weddings are called socăcițe and are often relatives, friends or neighbours of the bride and bridegroom. They usually do it for free, to help lower the expenses involved in a wedding. You often see them suddenly dropping what they are doing and joining a round dance or the țâpurit (singing).

“In this one month, I make as much as my dad earns in one year in Spain. But I only slept 90 minutes last night,” confesses a young university student from Cluj, who spends summers working for a catering company in Satu Mare.

For a month, the upper level of the wedding hall in Târșolț, not yet finished, hosts seasonal workers brought from all over the country for the Oaș wedding season. Waiters, cooks, kitchen aids, table clearers, dishwashers and others sleep on inflatable mattresses laid directly on the concrete floor, in rooms that haven’t yet been mortared, with no furniture at all.

Last autumn, the owners of the wedding hall in Târșolț brought from Paris a team of Oaș people just to do the general cleaning and prepare the enormous venue for winter. They touched up the building, painted the walls, washed windows, prepared and stored away thousands of chairs, washed and stacked tons of plates, and then returned to their work in France.

The pride of holding a wedding does not come cheap – but wait, there are two of them

In one summer, a single Oaș local will spend about 3,000 euros on weddings – unless the bride or groom are from their own family, in which case the expense grows considerably, to about 5,000 euros.

Add to this the cost of evening dress and hairstyling for each wedding – no woman would go to a wedding without an elaborate bun. It’s impossible to slip in between appointments at a hairdresser’s in the area in August. There are over 25 of them in the village of Negrești Oaș, all filled to the brim, appointments secured from abroad months earlier.

One day, when one of the hairstylists passed out from sheer exhaustion, her female clients waited at the salon, as if stuck on a bus at rush hour, for her to return from the hospital and finish constructing their buns. None of them gave up their appointment. It gave them time to complain about how many weddings they had to attend that year.

People in Oaș hold two wedding parties. The one in traditional outfits, held at the bride’s house and called the Bride’s Honour, and the one in “city clothes”, held at event halls in the villages in the region.

The number of days the wedding party spreads over differs from village to village. In some, the Bride’s Honour comes first, then she is given a few days to mend the raw wounds from her boots and the bruises left by the Oaș traditional wedding dress, followed by the “city” wedding. In others, it all happens in one go, in a single day.

A bride’s gown weighs over 20 kilos and costs 2,500 to 8,000 euros, depending on the rhinestones and the complexity of the decorations. As locals migrated, Swarovski crystals began to appear on Oaș traditional clothes. The boots are made to order by a village craftsman, so rigid that no bride ends her wedding without raw sores on her ankles. A pair costs about 500 euros and can only be put on by wrapping a plastic bag over the stockings, or the foot won’t go in.

On average, brides wear this outfit for about 12 hours. At the end of the day, their hips are black and blue and – no matter how hard they work in housekeeping abroad – their muscles are sore. In the sweltering heat of August, brides suddenly turn white in the face and need to sit down in the shade before they pass out.

The dressing of the bride used to begin two days before the wedding, and most of the time was taken up by the braiding, a craft only a few women in the village still knew. 10 years ago, the brides’ hair was still plaited after the traditional method, which could take as long as eight hours. Nowadays, only Rusca village still keeps this painstaking tradition, while the others  take a shortcut that uses wedding headdresses – elaborate, but no longer organically braided into the bride’s hair.

In Rașca village, brides still spend the night before their wedding sleeping in a fixed position, with part of the headdress already attached to their head. Regular food-grade margarine is used in the plaiting, to help the beads slip down hair strands.

Maria Veletean from Certeze, one of the few women who still know how to do a bride’s traditional hairstyle, earns 9,000 euros each August from the plaiting alone. Maria spent many years working as a housekeeper in Paris.

In the second half of August, in Oaș, cars with brides and bridegrooms parade around, to be seen by as many people as possible. What starts as an exotic tableau for a foreigner becomes the norm in a few days. Cars with brides and bridegrooms advance slowly, stuck in the traffic jam on the main street of Negrești village, now turned into a stage paved with hot asphalt for those who come to display the new cars they have bought since last year.


Mișca’s Dream

In the winter of 2010, Mișca’s house was standing alone and proud on an empty, snowy field. It’s been over 10 years. Dozens of houses have been built around it. Streets have been paved, streetlights have been put up. Yet Mișca’s house is lonelier than ever.

Ghiță Zelea, nicknamed Mișca, spent over 20 years pouring concrete in Paris. He started work on his house after a bet with a relative who told him he would never manage to build a home bigger than his. Not only did he add two storeys on top of what the wager involved, but he wanted to set up a gym in the attic. At least so he told us when we met him in Saint Denis, Paris, in 2011.

We met again in the summer of 2012 in Târșolț village, right outside his house. A gentle breeze was blowing between the brick walls. It was warm outside, and Mișca was having a beer while considering what to do, rather at a loss. Soon he would have to leave, but the double-glazed windows he had ordered far ahead of time still weren’t there. Construction was advancing at a snail’s pace under his long-distance guidance. Apart from unforeseen financial issues, the worker teams in Romania, which Mișca coordinated from Paris, either didn’t stick to the agreement or did shoddy work.

Mișca’s house is something of a flagship of Oaș homes that never lived to fulfill their destiny. Mișca never fulfilled his either. In the summer of 2021 we learned that he had passed away in a French hospital, after a long suffering. His wife had died a few years earlier in a traffic accident; their two children were also in the car. It was August and they were going back to Romania. Paris-Oaș drives are long and exhausting. Eager to return home, most Oaș people do the drive in one go, with no overnight stops. Speed and lack of sleep often cause accidents on this route. By some miracle, Mișca’s children were unharmed. He survived, but never recovered from the shock of the accident.

Today, only the green leaves of ivy populate Mișca’s dream.


Co-financed by the Administration of National Cultural Fund (AFCN) and the Romanian Order of Architects, through the Architectural Stamp Duty (OAR).

Thanks to all who allowed us to share their stories and helped us with the field research, especially: Remus Țiplea, Mihaela Grigorean, Cotroș family from Certeze, Solomeș family from Târșolț.

Media partners: Panorama, Scena9, Igloo, Radio Romania Cultural


Web documentary & book:

Web development: Dani Ivan
Book design: Alice Stoicescu
English translation: Anca Bărbulescu