The Broken Mirror: Eastern-European Migrants’ Attempt at Recreating Home in Host Societies. An Ethnographic Perspective

Articol publicat în Enticing Cultures. Travel and Intercultural Communication in Europe, edited by Oana Cogeanu, Iaşi, Editura Universităţii „Alexandru Ioan Cuza”, Iaşi, 2016, p. 69-81.


Labour migration has been intensively analysed over the past decades, mainly on a socio-economical level. Less focus on the cultural implications of long distance nationalism was nevertheless noticed, although the most recent legal initiatives stress the importance of the diverse European spiritual heritage. The ethnographic approach to this complex identity research has also been used in few scientific investigations, despite the fact that specialists assessed its appropriateness more than ten years ago.
The Eastern Europe is known as a cultural space with a high rate of preserved customs and superstitions. On the other hand, this region provides a substantial number of work immigrants for the central Europe countries. The challenge of biculturalism can be analysed successfully in connection with migrants’ origins, more exactly with the effects of a traditional education.

Keywords: cultural practices, traditional knowledge, immigration, superstitions, rites of passage

The migration phenomenon has been the object of a vast body of scientific literature, but it has also caused radical reactions and social tension among the inhabitants of host countries. As a recent communication from the European Commission on cultural heritage states (, an intercultural dialogue would have numerous benefits on social, economical and political levels. The large image of European identity is formed by smaller puzzle pieces of local self reflection. Connections among these cultural variations can fundament a better community inclusion, based on the familiarity of similar practices and convictions.

Five perspectives on migration were identified by Kumar Bagchi: estimations on the numbers of migrants, assessments of the socio-economic effects of the migrants’ presence, causes of migration, integration or assimilation of immigrants, and the ethics of migrant treatment when it comes to various ethnic, linguistic and religious identities (2009). A different approach of the last perspective is possible by analyzing the intermingling of inherited folk knowledge with the new assumed identity. Life events such as weddings, births and funerals, next to holidays, disconnect the human mind from quotidian facts and give the opportunity for in depth search. Mainly rituals “trigger automatic responses that appear to be completely mindless” (McCauley, Lawson 2002: 1). Sometimes individuals who left ethnographic zones are not even fully aware of the information they suddenly put into practice. Traditional information is acquired without a specific interest because “rites of passage stand out from the mundane ritual background” (McCawley, Lawson 2002: 3). Birth, marriage and death are crucial moments of life, as Balandier notes, when we turn to the sacred dimension of the world (1996, 13). It is the procedural and not the declarative memory (McCawley, Lawson 2002, 49) that helps the transmission of such gestures.
The South-Eastern region of Europe is suitable for this approach, thanks to the high amount of preserved traditional practices and beliefs. Moreover, Romanians, Bulgarians, Moldovans and Ukrainians are the most frequent nationalities found among the immigrants in the European Union. As the latest migration flux statistics show, Romanians, Ukrainians and Moldovans occupy the first, the second, and the fourth place respectively in Italy, while as in Greece, Bulgarians and Romanians hold the second and the third positions ( According to the IMO Report for Norway, “there was a significant increase in registered immigration” of Romanians in 2012, compared with the previous year (11) – the influx was about 10 times bigger (34).
An ethnographic investigation of the immigrants could be categorized as “transnationalism from below” (Portes et al., 1999: 221) or as an analysis centered on the immigrants’ “ways of belonging” (Levitt and Glick Schiller, 2004: 605) to their initial culture. The migrants’ holidays and rites of passage have not been discussed so far as identity marks from a large geographical and anthropological perspective. I based my paper on three semi-directive interviews with Romanian women immigrants to Greece, Italy and Spain in order to suggest a possible approach to migration dynamics and complexity. Their age varies from 29 to 57, they all graduated from high school and are Orthodox Christians. The amount of time spent abroad ranges from 5 years to 11. One is a returning migrant, she put an end to her work experience in Greece, while another continues to live in Saragossa, Spain, without any precise anticipation of her coming back in Romania. The third and last subject apparently returned home from Italy, but she mentioned that it would be necessary for her to leave again, just for two months, so that she could finish renovating her home from Boţârlău village, Vrancea district.
All the recorded declarations seem to exemplify what Ahmed et al. (2003: 2) observe, “although migrants often move across vast geographic distances, the greatest movement often occurs within the self”. Life abroad triggers an automatic reaction of self-assessment and traditional memory, where available, fills in the gaps of the adaptation effort. Obviously, an endless comparison between here and there begins, with a permanent shift that makes the being home idea very relative. Circular mobility (Beciu, 2013: 369) of work migrants also constantly nourishes the specific socio-cultural behaviour.
The first and most predictable conclusion for the immigrants’ state of mind when it comes to their cultural roots is nostalgia. It is caused mainly by a seemingly clash between two different ways of living which imply several levels of perception. Firstly, European host countries have a long history of industrialization and urbanization, while as the East continues to reveal a pre-industrial (Sjoberg, 1955: 445) type of society. Secondly, the antinomy grows on faith parameters: Eastern Orthodox Christians are less able to experience religious emotions in Catholic or Protestant ceremonial contexts. Consequently, the last psychological opposition perceived by Romanian immigrants and not only by them, lies in the secular outlook on life. Traditional and even autarchic social systems still convey consistent cultural information. The second and the third level of perception are directly responsible for the immigrants’ tendency to duplicate the socio-cultural behaviour from home wherever they go, but nostalgia is never late to break this mirrored world.
F.D. lived in Rome, Italy for 11 years. Her narrations managed to synthesize the religious and the cultural clashes very well: “[If] I go and give alms to someone, Catholics say: «Your religion is more stupid! The dead don’t eat! How could you do such a …» and they laugh. I mean they really laugh!”. Moreover, she admitted that the Italians’ inability to say “Bodaproste!” (a formula that the Romanian custom imposes in order to magically transfer the goods to the departed), prevented her from having a fulfilment feeling. Grazie cannot supplant the ritual function, since it expresses a reception in this world, and not in the Afterlife.
The solution found by the Romanian immigrant in question may be described as a broken mirror, since it forces an identical cultural reflection in an altered social frame. She declared that she goes to Roma or handicapped beggars from Romania with fresh, warm food, as the traditional beliefs demand. P.Z. also declared that Romanian immigrants who preserve the giving of alms for their dead relatives have Romanian recipients as well since “Spaniards wouldn’t understand…”. Such behaviour shows clearly that migrants “have an interest in maintaining their own cultural repertoire, as values of tradition could help to reinforce their cultural identity and give them a feeling of belonging”. Nevertheless, this conservative attitude may result in a “lower well-being” (Bobowik et al.: 2010, 405) caused by interaction with a totally different social system that manages to crack once more the image created mainly by the first generation of immigrants.
A study published in a political sciences review states that Romanian immigrants from Spain are more attached to their traditional customs that Bulgarians (Gonzalez Aldea: 2013, 416). This piece of information may orientate an identity focused research, but it lacks a thorough ethnographical investigation. Without a precise questionnaire filled in by both nationalities it would be safer to say that the South-Eastern region provides emigrants with an important cultural heritage, with significant consequences on their everyday reactions to the host environment. Beliefs, customs and holidays have very similar equivalents at Bulgarians, Moldovans and Romanians, but what is truly important in this socio-cultural context is that migration triggers a defensive return to these identity marks and sometimes manages to enlarge their dimension. Such is the case of the Bulgarian immigrants from Munich analyzed by Krǎsteva-Blagoeva mainly for the food practices. “Unexpectedly, many women prepare traditional Easter cakes, requiring hard kneading of the dough (the same happens in the case of the Romanian cozonaci). Some of them only colour eggs red, a tradition which is almost forgotten in Bulgaria. In Germany it has been revived by immigrants of the first and second generations as a distinction from the local tradition of making multicoloured eggs” (2011, 261).
This cultural resistance sometimes defies laws and regulations in host countries. A frequent Romanian superstition goes that you should not throw away your garbage after sun set, because you will be throwing away your good luck. As P. Z. declared, many Romanian immigrants in Spain would rather risk a fine than take out the trash at night time, when the local administration demands it. They continue to believe in this magic interdiction and achieve inner peace. They are convinced only good things will happen because they did not break traditional rules.
The clash between pre-industrial social systems from the South-East of Europe and host communities that experience the second and third phase of urbanization (Abraham: 1991, 40) results in a dissimulation behaviour. Immigrants are very similar to urbanites to this respect. They camouflage their cultural identity under the ‘promissory character’ (Goffman, 1959: 2) of a standard appearance. Nevertheless, whenever two specific conditions are met the mimic game ends up and magic gestures are performed without hesitation or embarrassment. Firstly, traditional beliefs and customs are used to surpass rites of passage, as we mentioned in the beginning. Weddings, births and funerals take place all the time, but what traditional knowledge does is that it offers psycho-cultural solutions to such life crisis. Doubt, fear and anxiety are dispersed by superstitions and folk beliefs. Secondly, the immigrants’ behaviour is allowed to reveal its true socio-cultural patterns in familiar contexts, amongst friends and family. These small identity isles are often appreciated by the host communities who learn to recognize certain nations after their frequent display of traditions. F.D. told me that Italians dance joyfully together with the Romanians when festivals are organized for the Romanian community. Moreover, Romanian weddings are highly praised by Italian participants and at Christmas, Italians take pictures of the Romanian immigrants who go carolling and say “Well, they are Romanians, they maintain such practices…”
A.G.’s wedding in Greece did not miss ritual sequences.

This image may look barbaric and may even suggest a sort of photographic evidence to incriminate a murderer. In fact, it represents nothing more than an initiation rite performed by the Godfather (naş de cununie) in traditional communities from Romania. It marks the end of the lad social status: the groom is about to become a man, to be the head of the new family and the group accepts him after this symbolic sacrifice performed by the master of the initiation. The bride was stolen during the wedding, as the tradition demands, towels were offered to the Godmother and to the Godfather and they honoured this ritual gift by special dances. Another ritual dance was performed at “the sweet glasses”, when money are given as a gift to the newly weds and all the guests have wine. All these exotic conduct is never repressed by immigrants who benefited from important cultural heritage. Once educated by traditional communities, they rarely break unwritten laws. A.G. refused the possibility to organise her wedding without these archaic customs, although she accepted Greek rites such as buzukia or the modern gesture of throwing the wedding bouquet to unmarried women.

Both F.D. and A.G. reproduced a magical gesture in the secular societies they chose to be their temporary homes. After the wedding, the groom and the bride are brought inside the house by the groom’s mother, who uses a towel to get hold of them both. This symbolic gesture of acceptance also protects the new couple from a negative reaction the threshold deities might have, since this rite is performed in the doorway. The fact that Romania was far and the newly weds entered in a rented house, and not in their home were the forefathers are believed to reside at the threshold did not affect the ritual. Things were even more contrastive in F.D.’s case, since she welcomed ritually the newly weds into the restaurant were the party was held. There are some obvious cultural links missing here, since the performer is no longer able to connect the marriage to a physical home, but we should remark the cultural pressure to obey to a traditional precept.
The first generation of immigrants maintains traditional practices as a psychological compensation for their troubled destiny. F.D. declared that she felt a burden lifted from her chest after having brought her son and his wife inside with the towel. Her explanation implied the transgenerational transmission: “It was done to me and I felt it did me good”. Moreover, she used to word verified to underline the efficiency of magical practices. A.G. admitted that folk beliefs and customs eased her home sick a little. Therefore, this entire cultural realm that travels together with the immigrants is a response to an unfamiliar world, a response that implies a self-definition. F.D. declared that she feels herself different, after having performed rituals: “you feel a fulfillment; you go to sleep with the feeling that you were able to do something good”. The good concept thus implies patriarchal culture, actions and beliefs that preceded the individual whose existence becomes meaningful only inside tradition.

The Bulgarian immigrants from Munich that we invoked earlier also use circular motivation to pass on traditions: we are who we are. I.N. a Bulgarian woman, spoke about this cultural antinomy: “It was very difficult for me to explain to my children why there are no red eggs here in Germany. So I told them that we are Bulgarians, our Easter is not on that day and our eggs are red” (Krǎsteva-Blagoeva: 2011, 261). This attitude represents another symptom for the attempt to recreate home image despite all conditions. Immigrants assume their minority status as a unique chance to resist on an emotional level and use fragmented reflections of their culture to preserve the feeling of general safety. Hence going East occurs more frequently as a mental projection (immigrants say “This is how we do it at home” – Aşa se face la noi) than as a geographical movement.

Two subjects I recorded also described another rite of passage whose performance duplicated the Romanian customs. The ritual bathing after baptism (scăldătoarea) offered another opportunity for an identity declaration. A.G. told me that they threw the bathing water on a fig tree and they shouted and whistled as it is usually done in Romanian villages for “the neighbours to see our tradition (…) They were indeed very surprised, they came outside to watch us”. This cultural display is worth it all, even fines (in Spain for disposing garbage in the morning) or Police visits requested by neighbours, as A.G. mentioned.

Nevertheless, pragmatism, which derives directly from secularization, lurks beneath some magic gestures and this phenomenon does not only take place abroad. In Romania too, ritual bread (colacii) is replaced by cakes, the ritual sleeves for the midwife are transformed to unexpected gifts, such as a TV set. Rituals manage to survive in these altered forms because of the subtle and efficient pressure put by the collective unconscious. It is the magic gesture which has to be repeated, as the traditional community expects, and not its initial form. In F.D.’s case the ritual towel used to bind the newly weds (a towel once woven in house looms) became a tablecloth. The innovation was based on the idea that a tablecloth is more useful and resists better in time, being used mainly on festive occasions. Consequently, all symbolic implications of the traditional towel that becomes a metaphoric bridge between different life stages are lost, since the performers focused on the union idea, as F.D. said: “it is a life commitment. It means that the mother-in-law agrees to it for a life time. She takes them and ties a knot to unite their lives”.

A different kind of pragmatism, from an emotional specter, was indicated by P.Z. She told the story of one of her work colleagues, who went home for her father’s funeral. Tradition still demands in Romania that the dead is buried after three days, and this shocked the returning home emigrant. She said: “but still, this custom must change for us, too”. She even engaged in fights with her grieving mother, trying to convince her not to listen to the elders who supervised on a cultural and anthropological level the funeral. Such reactions foretell migrants’ acculturation.

The comparison between the two ways of living dilutes both worlds in the end. P.Z. words transmit this futile chase of a restful place after immigration: “Usually, when you come home, it seems to you that, well, in the other place it was more beautiful! While you are in Spain you think about home being more beautiful? Yes. It is a sort of a … you seem to never find your place to be anymore”. As long as it is preserved the inherited culture manages to house wanderers and to motivate their everyday behaviour.

The shattered mirror metaphor uses a centuries old superstition to suggest what Professor Lawrence Raw indicated in his conference opening lecture: the self is reflected in the other in the same way the image from the mirror looks back at us. Since Antiquity, it is believed that the unclear reflection of a person in water and other shining surfaces indicates a troubled soul. Moreover, the symbolism of the mirror belongs to “the truth, the honesty, the heart’s content and to consciousness” (Chevalier, Gheerbrant: 1995, 369). Migration puts all these to a test.

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