Working at the dawn of a new era

11 Mins read

Considered the beginning of morning twilight, the dawn phenomenon begins with the first sight of the light in the morning and continues until the sun breaks the horizon. And as the twilight advances towards sunrise, three phases occur, all distinguishable by the amount of light there is in the sky.

It is a combination of astronomy and geometry, or if you’d like, of the fascination of the unknown and certainty of facts. Determined by the angular distance of the centre of the Sun, each beginning of a new day is marked by the following three: astronomical, nautical and civil dawn.

As a tiny portion of the sun’s rays illuminates the sky, the fainter stars disappear. What might not seem like the start of a new day to the naked eye in a polluted city like London, the Sun’s position of 18 degrees below the horizon marks indeed the stroke of astronomical dawn.

Tick, tock, and time gradually passes. Sailors now have enough illumination to distinguish the horizon at sea, which means, nautical dawn has hit. And lastly, for the ones on dry land, luckily in bed or unluckily wrapped up in a dirty blanket in a subway passage, the civil dawn is here: when there is enough light for most objects to be distinguishable, so that some outdoor activities, but not all, can commence, the sky’s clouds and haze are hosting bronze, orange and yellow colours.

Wake up.
Get up.
Look up.
It’s time for work.

Man standing on the tube [Irene Chirita]

Even early in the morning, standing is normal [Irene Chirita]

Gheorgita, Adrian and Andrei are very similar to these three dawn phases. Obscure and mostly silent, Gheorgita Cazac, just like the astronomical dawn, prefers to be a good listener, rather than a talker. He also takes the time to adjust to the break of light he’s just been offered.

Adrian Angela, the nautical dawn, is shy, but courageous: the spark of light at the end of the tunnel is enough to break him open, while Andrei Rotarita is bold, funny, and has thoughts with no inhibitions. There is enough light for him to speak his mind, breaking in colours, as the sky does at civil dawn.

At five in the morning, on the southbound Northern Line platform at Burnt Oak station, the three Romanian men look just like any other person there: layers on layers, wool hats, big rucksacks and heavy jackets. But the reason I am out in the cold staring at them is the lost look on their faces.

My eyes were already open when the alarm went off on that Monday morning in early January. My mind did not give me peace, and as I tossed in bed all night. Around 3:00 am I gave up and realised there was no point in trying to sleep.

I’d always feel anxiously excited before a test, a trip, a date with someone I am beginning to like, and now, getting out of my comfort zone. For a few days, I was about to wake up around 4:00 am, take the first tube train at my station and interview complete strangers about why there is so much sorrow in their eyes.

I left my house with my Nikon DSLR and analogue Pentax cameras wrapped around my neck, in a cross, both on each side. I put a notebook in my left pocket and a few pens in the right one. With my phone in hand, ready to record in any second, logistically, I was ready. Now all I needed was the courage.

Man sleeping on the tube [Irene Chirita]

The early tube ride allows people to catch a few more minutes of sleep [Irene Chirita]

According to research conducted by the Guardian in September of last year, Romanians are “the second biggest immigrant community in the UK,” overtaking Irish and Indians. Official figures reveal how “the number of Romanian nationals living in the UK in 2017 was estimated to be 411,000 – a jump of 25% on the previous year, and the largest increase for any country.”

I live in an area in London where, as soon as I set foot out of the tube station, I do not feel like I am in London anymore. And despite what people I know think, it is not because I live in Zone 4, but because of the atmosphere.

The walk between the station and my house is of approximately seven minutes, and sometimes when I am on my way home and I am tired of the turbulence of the city. So I take off my headphones and just listen to the world around me.

On the main road, the Burnt Oak Broadway, there are a few independent shops. The one at the top of the street is a supermarket called Bucovina – named after Romanian’s most prestigious region, known for its numerous monasteries and heartbreaking landscapes – and there is usually traditional folklore music playing.

It reminds me of the parties my grandmother used to throw with her family and friends when I was little. Around ten people were dancing the “hora” in her tiny living room after some glasses of rachiu – a traditional alcoholic drink. So it makes me smile.

A few more steps down the road, there is another, but this one has a Turkish owner. As I enter, he greets me with “buna, ce faci?” [“Hi, how are you?”] and we make small talk in Romanian. “I prefer talking to my customers in Romanian, rather than English,” he even told me once. And I appreciate it.

A little further on there is a Romanian bakery with the smell of my childhood birthday cakes. So trust me when I say that, stopping there, just for a few seconds, brings me far away from London.

This is how I filled up my thoughts that morning, while the broadway was silent, and the shops were closed.

Adrian Angela on his way to work [Irene Chirita]

Adrian Angela on his way to work [Irene Chirita]

As the southbound Morden – via Bank – Northern Line train was three minutes away, I realised I had enough time to pick someone to talk to and hop with them on the carriage.

Gheorgita, Adrian and Andrei were already on the platform when I got there. From the jokes they shared with each other, it was obvious that there is a bond between them. I did not approach the men before we all sat on the train. Them in line, and I in front of them. The men did not notice me until Andrei swore in Romanian while we made eye contact. We all laughed. “Here I go,” I thought.

There is no day to pass by and not hear people complain about immigrants coming to the UK just for benefits, but in many Romanians’ cases, they are here to better their lives. Many have left children, families, education and high standard job roles to secure a better living for the future.

As the Guardian explains: “Although Romania had record growth of 7% last year, communism has cast a long shadow and the country remains ranked as the second poorest EU nation in Europe.” And because many are used to very low salaries, and have no experience with the UK system, they also accept working for much lower than the minimum wage.

“I’ve seen many move here recently and work for £40 per day,” confessed Gheorghita. “And I ask them, ‘are you stupid? How are going to pay your rent? Your bills?’ Just to come here and say you work in the UK, that’s not a purpose.”

“I am not ashamed of hard work,” confesses Adrian. “It depends on each one’s mentality. As long as I am getting paid, that is enough reason for me to put in the hard work. I used to work seven hours a day in Athens and here the standard is ten, excluding the overtime I do almost every day. Despite this, my work ethic has remained the same.”

Andrei and Adrian have lived in London for five years now, while Gheorghita has been here since 2008. The three men all come from the Northern Eastern part of Romania, known as the region of Moldova. In London, they work together as carpenters for an Irish constructions company, where Adrian is actually one of the supervisors.

When I asked them what they do in their free time, with the same empty look in their eyes, they said they don’t have any. The usually work seven days a week. “If we refuse to come one day, they won’t call us back. We always have to available.”

People on the tube during morning rush hour [Irene Chirita]

The are many different people on the tube during morning rush hour [Irene Chirita]

Andrei has left his wife with their eight months and two-years-old children behind. He visits them on Christmas and Easter, and sometimes in summer. His dream is to make enough money to open a business growing apples back home and leave the UK in less than five years.

“To be honest, I want this Brexit to come quicker so I am forced to go home, otherwise I’ll never feel like it’s enough,” says Andrei, laughing nervously. Adrian had worked in Athens for fifteen years before moving to the UK. With two kids in secondary school, he came here to provide them with a better future, and for that, financial stability is key. As I asked him where he’d rather be, and without hesitation, he said, “next to them back home.”

Gheorghita has three children and he managed to bring all his family here. However, he doesn’t see them much, since he works a lot. Two of his kids were born in Romania and another here. “I am still here because of [them],” he told me. “They all speak English very well – leaving the house at 8.30 in the morning and coming back at 4:00 pm from school, it is obvious. But they don’t know much Romanian anymore, especially the youngest. So I can’t think of having to leave and putting them in difficulty now.”

None of them knows what will happen if Brexit goes through, but they have theories. As Andrei sees it: “There is nothing stable here. Today I am on my way to work, and by the end of the day my boss can lay me off. Brexit or not, we live in uncertainty day by day.” On the other hand, Gheorghita said “many don’t realise it yet, but prices are going up. And as the pound will have no more value, who is going to work here for no money?”

As the train approached Euston station, I shook their hands. Manly. Raw. Firm. It was a handshake of understanding. And as I looked in each pair of eyes, I did not see that much sorrow anymore. Their looks were now filled with a bit of relief and hope as if I reminded them of what’s important.

From left to right, Andrei, Adrian and Gheorgita on their way to work at 5am [Irene Chirita]

From left to right, Andrei, Adrian and Gheorgita on their way to work at 5:00 am [Irene Chirita]

You’d think that once day one was over, I wouldn’t be as nervous about approaching and talking to other people anymore. Dressed and equipped exactly the same as the day before, it was again too early to leave. Walking back and forth in my small tight kitchen, I was anxiously biting my bottom lip thinking of what went well or wrong the morning before.

Also, you’d wonder why I decided to put myself through the hell of waking up that early to hop on a certain train. My parents have friends, we know people. I could have approached people in a lighter environment.

The idea came to me months before while leaving for a trip. Having to take the first train to go to the airport that morning, I saw them. My carriage was full of men, but there were also a few women here and there. It was still dark outside, and the shadows of the tube’s neon lights would pose on each of these people’s faces.

The silence was almost too loud. And by looking at their sad expressions, I could not help but think of how each of them might have families, and money, and houses, and cars back home. And yet, there is no happiness in their eyes. They were on that train, and their hope and dreams were miles away.

Man reading on the tube [Irene Chirita]

Many use a tube journey to read or catch up with the news [Irene Chirita]

That second morning it took me a while to find someone willing to have a chat. Getting off any next station to get on another carriage, my attention was drawn to a guy in a bright yellow jacket. He was talking to the girl next to him. As I hear them speak, I recognise the language. Once again, I thought, “here we go.”

They seemed like a couple, but what I got to understand short after presenting myself, was that they are just friends: each has their own partners. The only thing they have in common is the same ride to work.

Ancuta, 28-years-old and bride-to-be in September this year, is a cleaner, while Mihai, 26, is a handyman, working hard to soon become a carpenter. They have no kids, but their plans are mature and responsible. With help from family and friends, they have moved to the UK with one main goal: to secure themselves a future. However, when I ask if they either see it here or back in Romania, their answer is uncertain.

“For now, I don’t think I want to stay here,” says Ancuta. “But maybe I just think this now, who knows later?”

“If you had asked me this question a year ago,” follows Mihai, “I would have probably said the same. But after recently spending six months in Romania, I kind of changed my mind. I’ve made a comparison between my life here and there, and the difference is huge.”

Mihai's hands [Irene Chirita]


Ancuta told me about her previous jobs and her experiences when I asked her if it is hard for her to work on sites. Surprisingly, she finds it better. “When I came here two years ago, I started working in hotels among other Romanian girls. The job was hard, the entourage was also. And I learned no English. But since I left that job, I have no other option than talking in English and the diversity makes it better.”

When I asked them how has Brexit affected their lives here so far, they also seemed to feel no impact. However, Mihai thinks it might have a positive outcome. “Think about it. English companies will take over, and maybe there will be no EU deal, but everything we need will be local. And hopefully, the prices will drop.”

They left me at Mornington Crescent, short after Ancuta told me all about her wedding plans and how she was going to travel back home in a week, to start planning. Romanian weddings are elaborate and full of traditions – religious and social – and she wants to make sure her fiancé and she have enough time to organise it all.

Ancuta on her phone early in the morning [Irene Chirita]

Ancuta on her phone early in the morning [Irene Chirita]

On my way home that morning, I thought about where they wanted to be rather than on that train and on their way to work: in bed. Not on a holiday by the beach, nor somewhere fancy. What they were craving was just a few more hours of sleep. “I hear many of my colleagues wish for holidays in Dubai, but we are responsible. Sometimes, we don’t even have the courage to let ourselves dream.”

The following day I decided I’d spend my ride just observing and photographing, but before I get to the station, I bump into one of my mother’s friends. Cristina Viorica Puzdrea was working a 14 hour shift that day, at the cafe right next to the station. As she invited me for a coffee in the dark space illuminated by the fridge’s tungsten light, I saw how tired she is. Between work, school and home, she has little to no time to take a break.

Curious, but not intrusive, she asked what was doing out and about that early in the morning, and so I told her. I have always seen her as the person who sees the best in people, so when she gave me her opinion, I remained surprised.

“I don’t see any of these people sad. I see them nervous and uneducated. I wake up earlier than them. We ask them politely and all we get is rudeness.” She felt like they would bring sorrow on themselves, starting with the attitude.

I was intrigued. I had never thought of it that way. “Many come in here and skip the line,” continued Cristina. “I am in contact with different ethnicities every day and no one behaves as ill-mannered as Romanian people. And I am Romanian!”

Cristina Viorica Puzdrea at work [Irene Chirita]

Cristina Viorica Puzdrea at work [Irene Chirita]

Taking a new perspective in, I thanked her for the coffee and let the caffeine and her words kick in. I would always argue that my country’s beauty resides in its landscapes, while people’s mentality is what usually brings us down.

However, we are always aiming to learn more and do better: we shape ourselves and try to integrate into each country we are migrating to.

Will we ever stop aiming for a better tomorrow? Probably not. But if we do, it won’t be because of Brexit, but for letting the sadness in our eyes take over.






Featured image by Irene Chirita

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