In Hamlet, Act IV, Ophelia tells tyrant Claudius: “We know what we are, but we do not know what we might be.” With this line in my mind, on a torrid summer morning I headed towards the British Embassy to discover a new perspective on what Romania is and what we might be, in a chilled dialogue with British diplomat Tanya Collingridge, the Deputy Head of Mission, at the end of her second posting in Romania. I met Tanya during Brexit when I decided to join the team of the British Embassy in Bucharest as Senior Media Officer. At the time, Brexit was probably the toughest communication brief around, and the professional challenge was too interesting to overlook. I feel privileged that during her last week as Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Bucharest, Tanya agreed to have an honest and sharp “exit interview”, sprinkled with British wit and wisdom, sharing some of her professional and personal memories and, most importantly, giving us a comprehensive overview of Romania’s evolution.
Globally, we are contemplating the rise of the political right and populism, with its worrying tendencies: racism and the exacerbation of nationalism. In Romania, we are vulnerable to the manipulative populist rhetoric because of our contradictory duality: a low sense of self-esteem combined with a high level of national pride. Therefore, an informed and objective perspective on our democratic evolution can become a vital mirroring exercise, enhancing our ability to identify our strengths and vulnerabilities, to acknowledge our role in the region, and to develop our long-term strategic approach.
Tanya, you lived nine years in post-communist Romania, during two postings at the British Embassy in Bucharest. You experienced life in Romania during different stages of your diplomatic career, which you evoke in a mix of objectivity and nostalgia. Let’s start with the basics: why did you want to come to Romania as a British diplomat?
First time I came in early 1998, when I have just found out I was pregnant with my first daughter. The job I was going to do was the Head of the development program in Romania, the so-called Know How Fund. The Know How Fund was Britain’s bilateral technical assistance programme in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. It was quite an interesting time to come.
I absolutely wanted to come to Romania. I picked the job. I was looking for a joint posting with my husband and two jobs came up in Bucharest. He was working corporate services and I got the job as Head of the development team at the British Embassy in Bucharest. Again, it was an interesting time to be here. I have previously been posted in Warsaw under communism and have been back since around 1991, when things started to change. And as Romania was then nine years on from the Revolution, I thought it would be an interesting place to do the development job and manage all the different programs that we had running here. And I was right.
What was the aim of this development job?
The aim was ultimately, ironically, to get Romania in a position to join the EU, lobbying on the EU membership. After a while, our government changed, and we moved to more social awareness work. We did a lot of work with children, inclusion, but also fish farms, making them more commercially viable. We set up, still going, CDM – the Centre for Development in Management. I went up to Cluj for their 25th anniversary and it’s really good to see that it has gone from strength to strength. I think it was a bit ahead of its time doing management training back in the mid-90s, but they are now pretty much everywhere to do their management training and it’s good to see a success story from my time still going on.
I was in Bucharest until 2001, and my two daughters were born during this period of time. My older daughter had two fantastic Romanian nannies, I’m still in touch with both of them. Romanian was her first language, and she studied it at university as a minor option, although she remembered only “mulțumesc (thank you)” and “pisică (cat)”. She was three when we left, and my second daughter was just a baby.
How was Romania back then, in 1998?
It was interesting. I think when you go on a posting overseas, it’s always good to go somewhere that’s interesting politically. There was the issue of stray dogs in Bucharest, which became a hot political issue. I like dogs, but not when they are at the level of my baby’s face. Regarding politics, corruption was a big problem then. I used to go in and lobby on rule of law and anti-corruption. When I came back here in 2018, corruption was one of the first things I heard about, and I thought to myself “have the last decades not happened, really?” But I think Romania is now on the up, it has turned a corner, it feels more prosperous. It feels like a country that’s going places. It has become more confident, more aware of itself and its standing in international organizations, not afraid to stand up for itself, for its rights and its corner. Romania has some very capable diplomats. Interestingly, most of the diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs I’ve worked with have been women, and it’s been great to interact with a fantastic group of women. I think you do better on women diplomacy than we do.
How was returning to Bucharest as Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy? Did you specifically want to come back and work again in Romania?
I definitely wanted to come back here. I had applied for the deputy ambassador job before, several years ago, and hadn’t got it. I was quite upset and angry at the time, but then I thought, I’m not going to give up, I’m going to try again because I want to come back and see how Romania had progressed, to revisit old connections and friendships. I think Romania is still pretty much a country of two halves: you go into Transylvania and Banat and it all feels prosperous, clean, and tidy; and you come to Bucharest, which should be the showcase for Romania, and it’s run down, there are potholes in the pavement, and graffiti everywhere. One of the things I wanted not to do before I left was break my ankle, which is something I did last time due to a hole in the pavement. I think Bucharest needs a new image, and a strategic communication campaign: “proud of Bucharest”. Clean up the graffiti, it looks sad and shabby! And I’m not talking about the buildings, I know there’s an issue with ownership and doing them up, but people need to be prouder of the city and where they live. I think Sector One, where I lived, seems quite sad in comparison to some of the other sectors. I went to a funeral in the Jewish cemetery, and in that part of the city buildings and the grey communist blocks had been painted and they looked really nice. It all seems cleaner and tidier in other parts of the city. From my perspective, the central square – Piața Romană – should be looking amazing because it’s a transport hub, it’s one of the main places in Bucharest. And people need to be proud of the city and where they live.
Your work during your postings in Bucharest covered different fields and responsibilities. For the past 5 years, you teamed up with British Ambassador Andrew Noble. How was the transition to this new level?
As deputy ambassador, you run the embassy with the ambassador. So, you deal with the finances, HR, making sure everything works and everything happens the way it should do. We had a big embassy renovation while I was here, which was quite challenging as it took place in Covid. But apart from the administrative side, I stood in for the ambassador when he was away and I have had oversight of the political team, because a lot of my background has been in political military stuff: cyber security, dealing with Russia, Ukraine, which has taken up a huge amount of time. The UK collaborates very well with Romania on cyber security and asymmetric threats, we see you as a close ally.
Brexit, the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine – your mission in Bucharest was full of unexpected events and challenges.
It’s been one thing after another. People always ask if Brexit has altered our relationship with Romania. I don’t think it has. Our relationship has just gone from strength to strength over recent years. The embassy has almost doubled in size: there were 14 diplomatic staff when I arrived here. I think they are now 25 or 26, and it’s not because of Brexit, it’s because of the strength of our relationship. We have people here from various government departments, we have police and legal cooperation. Our bilateral relations are growing, and it just shows the strength of our relationship with Romania, particularly on defence and security, which are the most important part of it. Defence and security have always been priorities – the latest events have strengthened resources and relations even more. But it’s an area where we have been very likeminded with the Romanians, and we’ve cooperated a lot with them. Romania is a great ally in NATO.
Why did you want to become a diplomat?
Oh, that’s a good question! I wanted to become a diplomat when I was very young, about 13. We had careers talk at school, and we had a careers officer come in; you had to fill in a form that was fed into a machine. I was interested in languages, and it came up with two options for me: diplomat and immigration officer. And my teacher told me: “Well, you can forget being a diplomat because they only take people who are privately educated or who go to Oxford or Cambridge, and you’re not going to get into either of those. And you’re the most tactless person I know, so you should forget that.” Her reaction has strengthened my resolve, and here I am, a career diplomat. If someone tells you that you can’t have something when you are 13, it makes you even more determined. And as I went through school, I told myself this is what I wanted to do. No one in my family had been a diplomat or even knew anything about it.
Do you think diplomacy was a rewarding career?
Yeah. I mean, it’s like all jobs, it has its highs and lows. My first few years in the Foreign Office were extraordinarily dull, I won’t pretend. I was in the information technology department, which was in its infancy then. Afterwards, I was moved to finance. Both were quite dull jobs. But I knew I was going to get a posting after two years and I had great colleagues there. Good colleagues make up for a fairly dull job. And I went to my first posting to Warsaw a few weeks after my 22nd birthday, which seems very young now.
After Warsaw, I went to Vienna for a year to the OSCE (The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). And after my first time in Bucharest, I went to NATO for four years and then back to London. And then Paris, and back to London again. And afterwards Romania again.
You have travelled between West and East, witnessing some extraordinary political and social changes during your career.
Yes, and now I’ll be quite happy to spend some time in London again, although I extended my posting in Bucharest for a year. We were sent here for four years, and we have the option of a fifth year, which I took because I felt that Covid had stopped me doing a lot of things I wanted to do. One of the main drivers for coming back out here was to travel around Romania to know it better, and I’m leaving still never having been to Oradea. But we’ve done as much travel as we can, both this time and the last time I was here.
Do you have a favourite place in Romania?
Yes, Brașov. I did language training in Brașov the first time round, and it’s just an amazing place. It has a very special atmosphere, and it has become very prosperous over the years as well. When I went on my language training there, back in ’98, I was five months pregnant. The train pulled in at the station, and after Gara de Nord in Bucharest it all looked neat and tidy – they had BRASOV spelt out in plants. And I thought “this is surprising”. It just seemed very different from Bucharest. And I guess it still does.
Foreigners used to consider Romanians friendly and welcoming. Do you think we still have that?
Yes, absolutely! I think it’s difficult to see with your own compatriots, but Romanians are friendly, welcoming, kind, helpful, and nice. If you have any problems somewhere, someone will come and help. People are friendly, welcoming, and open. All of our friends who’ve come to visit have been absolutely delighted with your country. I would say not so much in Bucharest but going up to Transylvania, where they were just blown away by the countryside, the beauty of the country, the hiking trails, and the friendly people. I think Romania is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited. It’s just so unspoilt and amazing.
Unfortunately, we tend to be very connected to politics and we project our discontent with the politicians over Romania as a whole, overlooking its progress and its opportunities.
It’s probably the same anywhere. But people are less political in the UK. I think Bucharest has a lot to offer. It has some amazing architecture. We’ve taken some friends on Valentin Mandache’s architectural walks and admired the different styles of the buildings – the beauty of some of them is quite amazing. There are pockets of loveliness in Bucharest. There’s such an eclectic mix here: you just need to get off the beaten track and explore the side streets and you can find some really beautiful places.
Do you have a favourite place in Bucharest as well?
I think the Armenian quarter is quite up and coming now. It’s got lots of interesting little restaurants and cafes. I think it is going to be the next trendy place.
Beyond working with the female diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, how were your encounters with Romanian politicians?
I have never been treated with anything but friendliness, respect, and courtesy. I’ve never been discounted here because I’m a woman. I’ve meet women high up in banking and some excellent women politicians here. Romania doesn’t really come across to me as a sexist country. Obviously there will always be some people, but I’ve never felt pushed to one side as I have sometimes in the UK when I was dealing with the security side: it was very male dominated and sometimes I’d be the only woman in the room. And you struggle to get your voice heard. That’s never happened here. People have always given me the space to speak rather than seeing me as the decoration in the corner.
What’s your advice for young female politicians in Romania?
Be yourself! Fight your corner! Don’t give up! Be a bit bolder, a bit more assertive sometimes, and it pays dividends.
Did you have many opportunities to practice your Romanian?
Yes, but I used it more outside of Bucharest. I have learnt Romanian twice, for my two different postings. I think if you learn a language later in life, it doesn’t stick as well as when you learn it earlier. But my speaking, reading, and understanding are fine.
I think the funniest thing when it comes to speaking in Romanian was back in my first time here. I did speak Romanian a lot because hardly anyone spoke English in those days. So, we took an ambassador out to Târgu-Jiu because we were doing a lot of projects there with the World Bank for redevelopment after closing down the mines. I was talking to this woman, I’d been speaking to her for about five minutes in Romanian, and she started looking agitated. And I asked, “Is anything wrong?” And she said to me “I haven’t understood a word because I don’t speak English”. And I said, “I’ve been speaking Romanian”. But I guess they’ve never heard foreigners speaking Romanian, so it was quite funny to them.
I was talking to a taxi driver a few weeks back, he said “you speak beautiful Romanian, best Romanian I’ve ever heard a foreigner speak’. And I said, “have you heard many foreigners speak Romanian?” He said “no, you’re the first”.
With so many Romanians is the UK, you might have other opportunities to practice your Romanian back in London. What will you miss the most after leaving Romania?
Romania has been a big part of my life; I spent nine years of my life in Romania. I’ll miss the food, particularly in the summer when the markets are absolutely full of the best vegetables. I like cooking, so I’m not looking forward to going back to English tomatoes. The food, the people, colleagues in the embassy, the job. The job has been amazing, I’ve really enjoyed it because of the variety. No day was the same.
The British Embassy is very active in Romania. From diplomatic, military, and cultural relations to British NGOs operating in Romania, we are connected on multiple layers.
It’s interesting because we had diplomatic relations during communist times, but now they sort of exploded due to the new generations of Romanians who want to be part of NATO, to have an impact, to be a force for good. We are like minded with the Romanians on a whole raft of things. And it’s very easy to work with the Romanians.
How did you feel the impact of Brexit in Romania?
Romanians regretted Brexit. That was the first thing everyone said to me: “we regret it”. But people are pragmatic here, and they understand that we can build relationships bilaterally, in NATO or other international organisations. There’s a whole raft of other stuff that we can do together, it doesn’t have to be tied to the EU.
Many Romanian students still choose to study in the UK, and you have met some of them in the embassy, as interns or local staff.
I think it’s great when people who have studied or worked in the UK come back and want to work for us because they understand how the UK works, they understand our perspective on things and our little peculiarities and quirks. All of our country-based staff here are absolutely fantastic.
What should we improve in Romania? You have mentioned before the never-ending story of corruption…
I think it’s improving; I think you’ve turned a corner on corruption. I’ve seen quite a lot of progress in the five years, hopefully it won’t turn back the other way. From an outsider’s perspective, not a cynical Romanian, things are going in the right direction now.
I do share the same feeling, but I am always told that I am too much of an optimist.
There was a time when Romania was doing great stuff on anti-corruption and then it all started going wrong again. But now I think it’s on the way up and will continue in the right direction.
Beyond corruption, I come back to my issue regarding the capital: Bucharest has a lot to offer. It’s a very lively and vibrant place to visit, but it doesn’t give the best impression to visitors. You have amazing art museums, tiny ones, big ones, really world class, but people often just fly in and go up to Transylvania. They should also be encouraged to spend some time in Bucharest, appreciate the lovely parks, the architectural styles, the cultural side, the concerts, and the festivals. Of course, the driving is terrible in Bucharest. But when you take a stroll down the Calea Victoriei during the weekends, you see an entirely different city. With cleaner streets and buildings, sidewalks repaired and a change in the way people relate to their capital, Bucharest could really shine. Outside Bucharest, the driving is fine, but you have to keep stopping to look because the landscape is beautiful, and you need to have an Instagram moment.
That’s a very good unique selling proposition for Romania: the country of Insta moments. What was your feeling when you came back for your second posting?
It was this feeling of the place being on a positive trajectory. In 2018, when I returned to Bucharest for my second posting, people told me they just wanted to be seen as a normal European country. I think Romania is definitely a country on its way up.
I was in Warsaw this summer, having dinner with my Polish teacher from when I was 22, with whom I am still in contact. Warsaw, I think, changed very quickly, and lost some of the bits that made it Polish. I think I expected Bucharest to be the same, so I was disappointed that it hadn’t made more progress. But I think things are gradually improving around Romania, as well. I went to Focsani pre-pandemic, which is a fairly rural little town. And my first view driving into the city was like “wow, it’s so clean and tidy”. I went to meet the mayor and the prefect, and they said their mission was to clean up the city and make it a place where people wanted to live. If people live somewhere that looks nice, they’ll take more pride in it. And I think they were right. It felt loved. It felt like people took pride in where they lived, when I was talking to the lady at the museum, for instance. So, people make things happen when they want to.
Tanya, thank you for your deep sincerity and valuable friendship. Let’s end the discussion with a quick question: Romanians versus Brits, how are we different?
You have some quite colorful expressions, quite creative. I had a teacher who told me it was important to understand swear words because then I could understand if someone was swearing at me. And I thought that was sensible.
On a more serious note, I think Romanians are a lot warmer than the British people. We are considered polite, but I guess that we are just sort of cold. I don’t think the cultural differences between our two countries are that great. And when really important issues are on the table, we’re on the same page.
The interview in Romanian was published by republica.ro