Archive for December, 2013

Going home for Christmas. Flavours of Banat countryside

 Craciun 100

Another winter, on my parents’ street. 

There is no better time than the present time, they say, as both the past and the future are, in great proportion, reflections of our own minds. And if it is so, how to better tell one’s life story than starting from what is here and now, in one’s grasp, fresh and throbbing alive. As it happens, that “one” is me myself in this (inside) land.

Since I’ve left Romania, it’s the first winter holidays I’m back at my parents’ for. The travel was the most adventurous of all so far and the time spent here feels so cosy, familiar and somehow new and surprising. It might be because I’m the same girl who left her parents’ house when she was eight, to go and live in a flat in the city with her grandparents, because of both fortunate and unfortunate circumstances, and because I’m different now, a woman who’s grown out of her own and the others’ expectations. Considering at least that I used to be so convinced I will never leave the region I grew up in, Banat, and I wouldn’t even want to think of moving to another country, my life today looks so different from what it’s been imagined it would be.

But I intended to write about my journey and my time here on this holiday so far, and the little revelations that came with it. Traveling from Bournemouth area to London proved most difficult and even tearful this time. True, when I booked my ticket out for the 26th I was trying to save some money and I knew at that time there won’t be any transport available. All those months ago we weren’t sure yet if I was going to travel alone or with my partner, meanwhile he decided he could use the money earned over Christmas and New Year’s, for the goals he has in 2014, and I couldn’t but agree. So the plan was for me to take the train to London on the 24th and stay there till the Boxing Day morning. Easy, right?

Wrong. The weather seemed to disagree with my plans and I was offered a double lesson. First, I really really really really (I couldn’t write really as many times as needed, as you’d quit reading my posting right now) need to be better organised. A difficult task for my bohemian side, but (hopefully) not impossible.
Second, I am blessed with great people around me.

Now what happened: it took me much more to finish packing than I planned or thought it would. Still, checking the train times at around 17:00 on Christmas Eve, the South West Trains web site seemed to let me book tickets for the after 19:00 trains. Yes, the storm was making havoc, but if the train line site didn’t say anything exactly about the later trains I expected to be able to catch one. Maybe I just didn’t look in the right place.
Fact is when I was finally done with packing, tired and sad and feeling guilty I didn’t spend more time with him that day, my partner dropped me off at the station on his way to work. And then disaster struck. I looked at the train station electrical panel to realise the only train left to travel that evening was the past 20:00 one to Southampton. SOUTHAMPTON????!!!  I was done, finished, heart-broken. There was no way for me to get to London, no more trains, and I couldn’t push my partner to drive me there as he would work for three nights on a row. Bursting into tears (I know, just like a silly cow) I called him to disclose the disaster. He asked me to calm down and go home. Later he texted me not to worry, everything was going to be alright, he talked to his brother and they would arrange the details later.

On Christmas Day my partner’s brother drove all the way from London only to pick me up, so that next morning, very early, he could give me a lift to the 757 Brent Cross bus stop to Luton. I was saved. And I can’t say enough how lucky I feel to have such great people close to me, on whom I could count to save my so much planned and dreamt of winter holiday.

The night of 25th, before catching that flight, was a torment: I couldn’t really sleep, I don’t even know if I slept, it felt like I was drifting away and sinking into sleep, only to regain my conscious hearing, open my eyes and see that it’s been only about an hour since I’d last check the clock. Horrible.
One thing went like clockwork: my luggage weighted exactly how much my home scales said, and my boarding was as smooth and stress free as it can get. Bingo!

The flight itself was shaky and not very pleasant, presumably because of the windy weather sweeping across Europe. I tried to sleep, I almost managed to, and I helped the little girl sitting next to me to get over the fear and feeling sick. Told her to look at the birds flying when it’s windy, they too are a bit shaken by the air flow, but nothing serious happens. Making her feel better and be less afraid helped me feel better. Truth is I do enjoy flying and usually at take-off I feel a bit like a Stargate character in space shuttle (well, I never said I’m the sanest in the world) and at landing I’m just as content as an elf who’s wrapped 1000 presents for the greatest children in the world.

My brother with my nephew and my foster brothers were waiting for me at the airport. We went home, unwrapped presents, they got me the loveliest pair of fuzzy slippers, we chatted and looked at photos and then I’ve slept for 12 hours. At last!


Being at my parents’ home is different this time, if only considering I’m trying to eat as low carb, high fat as possible. The last part isn’t so difficult, as they have just had a pig sacrificed, in the old tradition, for Christmas, and now we’ve got homemade sausages, the best in the world, smoked and hanged to dry, sângerete or black pudding and caltaboș or what the Germans call leberwurst, bacon and pork grease and all the joys of a fat meat eater. The low carb part comes a bit more difficult, with the traditional chicken noodle soup (back yard reared poultry, they come running when you open the door, as it’s their signal for “come and be fed”), with the mashed potato and the Romanian mamaliga (worldwide known as polenta). Still, the pickled cucumbers, beetroot and red pepper, the zacusca (a very popular kind of vegetables stew, made with aubergine, carrots, peppers) help as acceptable side dishes in my new eating style.

It’s most difficult to fight my mum’s delicious cakes and sweets. This year she’s made a type of French fancy which is different by the fact that the sponge is moist and this makes it even more delicious. Then there is the usual two vanilla filling and caramel layers cake, with a chocolate icing, and the old Greta Garbo, with walnuts and strawberries jam. There is some left in the tray in the living room, used more or less as a storage room in winter, and every time I pass through in my way to the huge bedroom the sweet smell of walnut, mixed with strawberries and chocolate aromas, just seems like a winter childhood dream still alive.
If there is one thing that I could single out as reminding me of my home region, of my parents’ village, is the smell. Different smells, which all come together to say “here is where I grew up, this is what I will take with me no matter where I will go”. And, at the same time, it was one of the first things I’ve noticed to be significantly different when moving to the UK: the way the air smells, indoors and outdoors.
It might be linked to my childhood as a person with allergies triggered asthma attacks. Back then, and probably now still, I could smell a clean room or a dusty one or a room with mouldy walls, even if it wasn’t visible. But asthma attacks are a thing of the past I am not any longer concerned with, fortunately.


Now, the smells of old familiar things have come to my mind not in a nostalgic way, but as something I want to keep with me, a small and important thing speaking of my roots. The way an old countryside house smells like, the wood smoke, the Greta Garbo aroma, the traditional sausages and ”jumări” (a kind of crackling, served on their own and not as crunchy), the dry vegetable garden, the smell of fresh snow and freezing cold (I haven’t yet been blessed with these so far, unfortunately), so many things talking the same silent language.
I don’t feel nostalgic or wanting to go back to my childhood, even if I came to realise the house where I grew up and which I have called “home” for all these years will no longer be our family home sooner than expected. My father being a priest has lived in this parish house since I was about 3 years old or so. But now he’s got two more years till retiring age. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, a priest can still practice priesthood and have a job as such for as long as he is physically and mentally fit, as it’s considered a vocation rather than just a profession. Apparently, they have come to ask priests to retire when they reach the age most people become pensioners.
It’s something I always knew would happen and most certainly both me and my brother have grown out of our teenage years, when we urged our parents to convince grandmother to sell the house in a neighbouring town and buy one here, in the village they’ve lived in for so long. At the same time, it’s a change coming sooner than expected and it just makes me realise it is high time for me to  find a way to store the heritage of where I’ve grown up, distilled into potions to be given further to my children or to whoever is interested in trying the flavours of different places.   




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The Lost Europe

During my last University years, I joined two cultural studies groups, led by members of The Third Europe Foundation in Timisoara. One of them focused on literature studies, while the other carried on social study to achieve an anthropological view on history. With all the debate today in the UK regarding immigration and countries like Romania, my home land, I’m not sure of how The Third Europe sounds, but for me it has a lot of meaning. Let’s see if we can decipher it together.

How many Europes do you know today? Yes, of course, we can think of Europe as being a big book with so many pages of history, culture, social changes, economy, geography and so on. But generally we speak of Western and Eastern Europe. Well, apparently this leaves things out and the people who started the named foundation were aiming at filling the gaps. This “Third Europe” is actually what has been torn apart by the two wars of the XX century, and ever since the whole world seems to have forgotten about it. It is that part of the continent which has been more or less covered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one which many of the people living in the countries nowadays considered Eastern Europe are still praising in their memories, even if only for the cultural heritage. It’s Central Europe.
While some people might have heard or known of it, most haven’t, not even in the countries politically transferred behind the Iron Wall after WWII. Ask a Romanian which countries are part of Central Europe and the chances are very slim they would pick out their own.

To tell you the truth, I have to admit myself that I had no idea whatsoever before attending these two cultural studies groups. Then I had the chance to learn from people like Mircea Mihaies, Adriana Babeti, Smaranda Vultur, most of them professors I’d known from the University, about the heritage of this lost Europe. It was then when I understood where the high esteem people in Banat (Western part of Romania) had on German ethnics came from. And at the same time I could see that this lost Europe was never, in truth, found, ironic as it may sound. The paradox of Central Europe is that it has always existed, but never fully acknowledged until it came apart, was wrapped and buried. People from the countries which became part of the communist block were indeed looking with high esteem towards Wien and the “Kaiserlich und Koniglich” (Imperial and Royal) power, simply because it brought a lot of good investment in their lands. At the same time, apparently the Austrian Germans and the Hungarians, the two ruling nations, were not so happy anymore, looking further on the map.
The world I’ve studied about more than ten years ago and to which my thoughts go back now was as such the heir of an Imperial and Royal dream, a Utopia in which people worked in a joined effort for the benefit of all nations living and prospering together. Ordinary men and women from Timisoara and Praha and Warsaw, be them locals or German colonists, played their part in this world built on the music of Strauss and the image of a benevolent ruler, emperor Franz Joseph, as Encyclopaedia Britannica states: “ he was to his civil servants an unequaled model of exactitude, devotion to duty, and justice”.

Timisoara Unirii Catalina George

(lamps in Union Square in Timisoara, probably not the first ones in Europe, though they might as well be)

Born and raised in Banat, a region which was highly colonised with Austrian Germans, and with the colonists came investment in the mining industry, as well as agriculture, tourism, education and infrastructure, I grew up praising this heritage. I have as well inherited that sense of pride all people in Banat had, summarized by the saying “Banat is the crown” (“Tot Banatu-i fruncea”). One of the last regions to be incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, taken back from the Ottomans, who have conquered it from the Hungarians (complicated, isn’t it?), Banat saw some of the best projects in Europe of those times. How many people know today that in 1884 my home city, Timisoara, was the first city in Europe, yes, in Europe with electric light on the streets? There were about 731 lamps to start with. And this is not the only premiere in Timisoara that gave local people that sense of pride and of being the chosen ones, as well as the ones capable of bringing the Imperial and Royal dream to life, in peace with all their neighbours, no matter if they were Serbian, Hungarian, Jewish or German.

By joining The Third Europe groups I could now base my pride as a Banat born and raised person on something certain, on historical facts, as well as understand the ups and downs history has brought us to. Funny enough, it wasn’t the literature studies I was most drawn to and most involved in, but the anthropological ones.
The main project going on at the time was based on collecting stories from the elderly locals about how life was and how things happened. We were using the “life story” method, encouraging people to tell us about their lives as they pleased, with little to no intervention from ourselves, not to alter their stream of thoughts and memory. All we did was to politely start a conversation and briefly explain that we’d like to know how life was for them, and then just use our active listening skills, encourage them to keep telling whatever they wanted, and politely support their effort. Of course we would record what they told us, with their permission. In the end books were published about Germans in Banat, or other ethnic communities. The study was based on recurring things in people’s stories. What they thought was important and mattered and was worth sharing in their lives spoke about the thinking of their time, about how people experienced history first hand, what made a great impression on them, what their traumas, dreams and disappointments were. This was history from live memory.

Now I remembered all these because I’m about to write about my life story, in a way that maybe can help other people see more in me and other nationals from the same home country than just a Romanian dreaded as the poorest of Europe, unskilled and ready to do anything to get a piece of the cake, involving mostly crime, milking the British benefits system or stealing a job of a worthy Briton. Maybe my life story can tell more about these Romanian people without a face, “vermin” as some say, coming from a “rat hole” as others claim, maybe it can show that Romanians like me have a lot to offer to whoever wants to learn from other’s experience, history, hopes and dreams and, in the end, their humanity.
Saying stories are like windows to the world is probably a cliché. But maybe when visualising this cliché sometimes we don’t grasp all its meanings: a window is an opening to another world/side/image, but at the same time it’s a mirror. We might not always consciously see our reflection in it, but it’s always there and we do grasp it, even if just with a glimpse we don’t even realize dangling at the corner of our eyes.  




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Cel mai bun job

Cu vreo doi ani în urmă, petreceam ore întregi cu căștile pe urechi la birou, fie că editam texte, le scriam sau eram cu ochii după știri/prin presa online. Aveam cu cine vorbi și mai ales despre ce, însă era mai plăcut și poate mai ușor să mă bag în sfera mea de cuvinte și sunete atunci când lucram. Și astăzi, cât am stat în bucătărie scriind la un proiect, am trecut pe căști și playlist.



Nu-mi lipsește munca de birou, nu duc dorul statului pe scaun ore întregi, a durerilor de gât înțepenit și de spate, a datului pe net, de care în mare măsură m-am cam săturat. Dar pot să spun fără nici un dubiu că locul de muncă de redactor la ”Terra Magazin” a fost cel mai bun pe care l-am avut până acum, și asta în ciuda faptului că nu câștigam foarte mult. Adevărat, nici puțin, pentru presa scrisă, dar nici cât un salariu de tabloid, cu care am avut o tentativă eșuată chiar înainte de asta.

Nu plâng după fostul serviciu, nu stau pierdută cu mucii-n șervețel și ochii pe site-ul revistei, smiorcăind și văitându-mă în gând că a trebuit să plec. Îmi pare rău că n-am mai ajuns deloc să trec pe la redacție, să-mi vizitez foștii colegi, care mi-au fost chiar dragi. Mișu, care era responsabilă (și cred că încă este) cu imaginea revistei ne punea tot felul de muzici și ne dădeam câte o strigare să mai reducem din text că-i strangulăm fotografiile. Și merita să facem asta, oricât țineam la cuvintele noastre cele prețioase. Cu Emi am avut nu o dată discuții după discuții, care de care mai filozofice sau sociale. Țin minte când am vorbit (haios, nu?) despre sinucidere, când descoperisem Joy Division și povestea lui Ian Curtis. Amândoi cu studii de teologie, vedeam situația cam la fel: nu e locul nostru, creștini fiind, să judecăm oamenii disperați, care ajung la gestul ultim fără speranță sau total eliberator.  

Apoi de la Bogdan, fotoreporterul nostru cel de toate zilele, am învățat câte ceva despre fotografie. Cu el și cu Alin Totorean, un nebun și jumătate, în sensul cel bun, explorator solitar care doar la dracu-n praznic nu s-a dus (nici în Antarctica), am mers în toate deplasările prin stațiunile din țară, pentru seria ”Deșertul balnear românesc”. Diferiți între ei, pe cât de echilibrat Bogdan, pe atât de pătimaș Alin, m-am plimbat cu ei de la Herculane până la Vatra Dornei, și am lucrat bine împreună. Am râs, am mâncat fie pe la restaurante surprinzător de bune, fie conserve și suple la plic, am pornit pe coclauri și am fotografiat grămadă, de la peisaje la care să tot stai să te uiți până la clădiri în ruină.


Dar cel mai apropiat mi-a fost Johny, oficial cunoscut ca Ionuț Popa, acum doctor în geografie, redactorul șef, de fapt cel mai bun șef direct pe care l-am avut ever. De la interviu mi-a dat o stare bună, de om căruia nu trebuie să-i împachetez în șapte straturi de staniol colorat ceea ce am de zis, pentru că vede și înțelege dintr-o privire. Iar treaba asta a fost reciprocă. Discuțiile despre ce avem de făcut erau clare, concise, nu aveam ce lălăi, nu aveam probleme și tensiuni. Cât despre cele prietenești sau pur și simplu dezbătut pe teme savante, hehe, pot să spun că-mi lipsește stilul lui de a te pune pe gânduri, de a te face să ieși din zona de confort, în care crezi că cunoști și faci și dregi, și asta fără să te simți ”înjurat” sau ”maltratat”. Cred că Johny este unul dintre cei câțiva oameni, foarte puțini, a cărui critică nu m-a pus niciodată, dar niciodată în gardă. L-am ascultat, am înțeles, am dat rewind și am schimbat ce era de schimbat. Simplu.


Exista ceva în redacția aia pe care nu-l găsești pe toate drumurile: încredere și prietenie. Adevărat că era și un birou mic, în care lucram un pumn de oameni, nu mai mult. Dar până și disputele de viziune se duceau tot prietenește, chiar și despre gafe vorbeam fără ranchiună. Țin minte că uneori, editând textele unor colegi, mă trezeam vorbindu-le peste ecran că ”X, vezi că acolo ai zis așa și e cam…”, până a venit unul dintre ei și mi-a zis că ar prefera să-i dau feedback personal și nu ”nechezând” prin redacție (termenul îmi aparține mie, acum). Avea dreptate.

Și că vorbim de prietenie, Johny era sursa noastră de muzică și filme, de multe ori. De la el m-am ales cu o grămadă de muzică electro și de ”cilău”, vorba celor de la Guerrilla (chill out, pentru publicul larg), pe care o ascult și acum. Pe Apparat nu știu de unde l-am agățat, dar îl ascultam pe la birou, și de acolo de fapt și postarea asta de azi.


Dimineață, la prima oră (9:00, se înțelege), eu și Johny eram deja la birourile noastre. Ajunge și Bogdan, grăbit și ușor întârziat: ”bună dimineața”. Johny își ridică privirile încruntate din spatele ecranului masiv de Mac, ediția 1999: ”bună dimineața ești tu”.

Altă dimineață, tot prima oră, toamnă. Ajung și eu îmbrăcată într-o fustă de catifea neagră, cu volan și broderie deasupra genunchilor, cămașă neagră cu turcuaz, volănașe pe la mâneci, pălărie clasică pe cap, sacou cu blană falsă și ceva inserturi de dantelă. Se uită Johny la mine și îmi spune liniștit ”tu ești prea elegantă pentru orașul ăsta”.

În fiecare an, în ianuarie, când ne întorceam la muncă, aveam săptămână de chefuit. De cele mai multe ori erau cam toate materialele terminate pentru numărul de februarie deja, deci nici o presiune. Întâi bineînțeles că aducea fiecare câte ceva de acasă, de la pomana porcului, de pe platoul de prăjituri, o sarmauă, o măslină, o sticlă de răchie. Aveam dezlegare de la conducere ca pe la ora 3-4, după ocazie, să sărbătorim (zile de naștere, Bobotează, ce-o mai fi fost). Și sărbătoream întâi întoarcerea la serviciu, apoi Sfântul Ion, apoi ziua mea de naștere, încă o săptămână de ghiftuială.


Dintre toți, cu Johny țin în continuare legătura și ne mai scriem pe facebook. A venit la lansarea mea de carte din București, anul trecut, acum mi-a trimis cartea lui ”Baikal, un ochi adânc albastru” să o citesc. Voi scrie despre ea, pentru că este literatură trăită și chiar merită să o citiți. Mi-a făcut cadou și DVD-urile lui cu Star Wars, pe care le împrumutasem înainte să plec în UK și am uitat să le duc înapoi la București.


Tot prin jobul meu de la ”Terra Magazin” am și cunoscut o grămadă de oameni care fac lucruri pe care mulți doar ni le imaginăm: un producător de filme documentare, care a călătorit împreună cu câțiva colegi la izvoarele Amazonului și a primit permisiunea (nici nu o mai așteptau, la patru ani de la depunerea cererii) să viziteze unul dintre triburile din jungla amazoniană, exploratori, alpiniști, speologi care intrau în peșteri virgine de prin Asia, pe domnul Alexandru Marinescu, zoolog și oceanolog, singurul român care a ajuns la bordul vasului Calypso al lui Cousteau, la cei 70+ ani ai săi umbla mereu sprinten, cu o servietă casual pe umăr, și ne scria niște articole de mai mare frumusețea, pe care de cele mai multe ori le scurtam fără nici o tragere de inimă (de obicei păstram pentru site fragmentele scoase).

Și tot în perioada aceea l-am cunoscut și pe partenerul meu, despre care spuneau colegii că nu mă bate suficient când trăncăneam pe fast-forward la birou. Trecând peste glumă, perioada cât am lucrat la revistă a fost cea mai bună pentru mine în presă. Și acum, singura presă în care mai am încrede rămâne cea de nișă: National Geographic+Traveller, și un Glamour pentru informații de beauty și lectură ușoară, de relaxare.

Să pot scrie pentru un National Geographic ar fi un vis pe care deocamdată l-aș atribui doar norocului.



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