Archive for category Life in Romania

Despre umbre și ancore

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După patru ani de Anglia, am petrecut Paștele pentru prima oară acasă la părinți. Deși am venit în vizită o dată sau chiar de două ori în fiecare an, au fost primele sărbători creștine pentru care am reușit să fiu aici, din varii motive, pe care nu le voi discuta acum.
Nu s-au întâmplat foarte multe de când sunt la ai mei, nu în exterior, lucrurile au avut curgerea firească acestor zile, dar s-a întâmplat câte ceva în mine. Nimic spectaculos, nici o revelație zguduitoare, nici un extaz sau vreun cataclism interior despre care să pot spune că a schimbat lumea, nici măcar pe cea interioară. Sunt doar detalii care compun fundalul poveștii acestui ”acasă”, pe care îl privesc văzând cum s-a schimbat, încet, dar sigur, când cu hopuri, când într-un flux venit de la sine.

Mă uit la frații mei cei mici (aflați în asistență maternală) și îi văd cum cresc, poate altfel decât ne-am închipuit, sunt aproape adolescenți, la vârsta de 12 ani. Unul dintre ei pare mai deschis spre lumea din-afară, de dincolo de confortul a ceea ce cunoaște deja, celălalt, dimpotrivă, pare atât de ancorat în stabilitatea obișnuinței încât îmi amintește de omul tradițional, ale cărui vise nu s-au întins niciodată mai departe de marginile propriului teritoriu.

Mă uit la bunicile mele. Au amândouă peste 80 de ani, una dintre ele a suferit un accident anul trecut, a fost operată, a avut parte de complicații, iar acum este foarte slăbită. Poate părea cel puțin stranie asociația, și nu o fac fără o oarecare tristețe, dar seamănă cumva cu goblinii din cărțile lui Terry Pratchett: o fărâmă de ființă, cu degetele lungi și subțiri, trasă la față, adusă de spate, articulând cu greu cuvintele și zâmbind abia schițat pe sub ochii măriți pe un chip scobit. Bunicii mele Georgina am încercat să-i ascund părerea de rău să o văd așa, nu ar ajuta. I-am tăiat ciocolata bucățele, i-am arătat fotografiile făcute la Berlin, unde ne-am întâlnit cu verișorul meu C., nepotul ei, am povestit și am înveselit-o cât am putut. Până la urmă, mai greu îi este ei decât mie, și prezența mea trebuie să aducă alinare și bucurie.
Bunica Liubița, cea cu care am crescut, umblă cu două bețe, e o femeie grea și, după mai bine de 30 de ani în care își cară greutatea pe oase din ce în ce mai fragile, se resimte. Totuși, ea se mișcă în continuare, stăm la povești, i-am arătat câteva filmulețe pe interneți să o distrez. Din păcate, preocupările ei, în afară de câteva plăceri mărunte, s-au redus la minimum. Îmi pare rău să văd asta, pentru că știu că mintea bătrânului slăbește lent, dar sigur, o dată ce el își pierde interesul pentru ceea ce se află în jurul lui. Firesc, nu? Viața se subțiază încet, încet, acolo unde nu mai este hrănită.

Părinții mei în schimb sunt bine, i-am găsit energizați, organizați, liniștiți, iar pe fratele meu, maturizat, un tătic bun și iubitor, un bărbat care începe să înțeleagă că schimbarea vine fie că suntem pregătiți sau nu pentru ea, și tot ce putem face este să luăm ce este mai bun din ceea ce ni se întâmplă și să mergem mai departe. Așa îl văd eu acum (mă gândesc că el nu m-ar contrazice prea mult) și îl găsesc mai deschis și mai apropiat de mine decât poate oricând în trecut. Ciudat cum evenimente din viață pe care nu le-am fi putut anticipa ne scutură bine de moț și ne fac să ne uităm mai atenți la ceea ce avem în jur, ceea ce avem aproape, ceea ce avem în noi și cum se leagă (sau nu?) toate între ele.

Văd cum lumea pe care am numit-o atâta vreme ”acasă”, acea lume din care multă vreme am crezut că nu mă voi desprinde niciodată, se schimbă la fel cum o fac și eu. Oare începutul a fost în mine sau realitatea din jur a început ea să devină altceva decât ceea ce cunoșteam, anticipam, credeam? Cine știe, poate că există acea legătură subtilă între relieful interior și peisajele exterioare, poate că realitatea curge și se transformă în același timp dincoace și dincolo de eu, sau poate că într-adevăr dacă nimeni nu ascultă sunetul copacului căzut în pădure el se prăbușește în uitare și nimic nu va percepe căderea lui.

Acasă se simte în continuare ca acasă. Cuibărindu-mă în pat, acea senzație de confort în mirosul așternuturilor pregătite de mama pentru mine, în dormitorul unde cu 35 de ani în urmă ea mă adormea legănându-mă pe genunchi și cântându-mi din Luceafărul pe o melodie împrovizată, unde am zăcut cu pneumonie, febră și respirația îngreunată nu o dată, unde am învățat prima rugăciune de la buna Gina, unde am dormit linișititor, în ciuda unei ușoare crize de astm,  într-o noapte de septembrie dinainte de ruga din Banat, pe la 11 ani, ca să mă trezesc refăcută și pregătită de joacă și de joc în sat a doua zi dimineață, în același dormitor, cu aceeași teracotă de care m-am lipit ierni la rând, m-am simțit același copil și totodată un alt om.
Cu vremea asta frumoasă, de vară, mi-am întins pătura în curte, în iarbă, sub prunul care acum ninge cu petale, am citit, am adormit la soare și m-am trezit invadată de unul dintre cei trei pisici care populează curtea, grădina și terasa pe care și-au revendicat-o drept cartier general. Grădina cu flori a tatei își ridică aceleași zambile, narcise și lalele în căldura aerului de după-amiază. În curtea din spate latră prietenos un cățel care își găsește de joacă cu o găleată de plastic, iar când mă apropii de el se îndepărtează cu coada între picioare și urechele plecate a supunere. Îl cheamă, cum altfel, Rexi.

 

 

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Ieri am fost cu băieții la cimitir, la crucea bunicului. Tot satul zăcea adormit, spațiile verzi din fața caselor sunt pline de păpădii, zeci de păpădii, o adevărată invazie. Am dat de o parcelă cu pomișori plantați unul lângă altul, toți în floare. Câteva case noi au fost ridicate acolo unde de ani buni zăcea o ruină părăsită. Pe de altă parte, acolo unde locuia cu ani în urmă, în adolecența noastră, bunica unuia dintre prieteni acum au rămas câteva ziduri gata să cadă, o ușă de la intrare și ea dărăpănată și într-o rână, plus o grămadă de lăstari crescuți ca o pădurice în jur. Băiatul obișnuia într-o vreme să doarmă acolo, știam fereastra dormitorului, care dădea la stradă, așa că într-o noapte de vară în care nu aveam ocupație, eu, fratele meu și încă doi prieteni am luat niște sprayuri de vopsea de mașină rămase prin curte și ne-am gândit să-i facem o farsă: i-am pictat geamul cu niște graffitti fără sens, niște mâzgăleli care să-l ”sperie” dimineața când s-o trezi să meargă la muncă. Din fereastra aia nu a mai rămas nici rama acum. În schimb câteva stive de cărămizi și alte materiale de construcție depozitate par să spună că cineva are de gând să ridice o nouă construcție.

Cimitirul în sine, unde sunt mormintele bunicului, ale străbunicilor și ale stră-străbunicilor, e aproape la fel. Pe cărarea principală câțiva copaci te protejează de căldură, crucea soldatului necunoscut e și ea acolo. Un cavou oarecare s-a cam prăbușit, băieții spun că se pot vedea oase și o cizmă înăuntru. De câte ori mergeam la Paștele mic (duminica imediat următoare Învierii) cu buna Gina la morminți (acolo sunt îngropați cei bătrâni ai ei, au trăit în același sat), ea ne povestea despre care și cine și unde. Acum zace într-un pat în casa părintească. E doar mersul firesc al lucrurilor.
Intersecția cu colțul bisericii s-a transformat poate cel mai mult dintre toate microspațiile din comuna în care ai mei locuiesc de vreo 37 de ani. Către școală aveam o pompă de unde aduceam apa proaspătă de băut într-un cant, adică un fel de găleată de metal. Școaa e aproape la fel, doar a dispărut clădirea veche, chiar de pe colț, unde se află acum o grădină de flori. Peste drum s-a ridicat o grădiniță nouă, de câțiva ani, de care chiar era nevoie. În continuare, pe direcția către șoseaua principală, a apărut un mini teren de fotbal. Când eram eu copil, aici se aflau câteva clădiri numite ”școala veche”, plus grădinița, care întâi s-au dărăpănat din ce în ce mai tare, până au fost demolate. Nu-mi lipsește nimic din toate acestea, nici nucul cel mare de la colț, doar remarc schimbarea de peisaj.

Scriu acum și cu gândul că tatăl meu va intra curând la pensie. De o viață întreagă am locuit aici. Ba chiar mai mult, în aceeași comună au trăit și străbunicii tatei, cei cu care buna Gina a crescut și în casa cărora și-a petrecut vacanțele până când s-a măritat. Există acea legătură puternică cu locul. Crescând, toate babele din sat ziceau ”ptiu, să nu te deochi, că toată ești Georgina”.
În copilărie și apoi mai târziu, când am avut primul iubit tot la sat, iar Timișoara era doar locul în care mergeam la școală, mă gândeam că nu voi pleca niciodată de aici. Atât eu, cât și fratele îi rugam pe ai mei să îi convingă pe cei bătrâni să vândă casa din orășelul apropiat și să cumpere una în sat. A fost o vreme când locul acesta era centrul universului. Și acea vreme a trecut.

Nu există nici o urmă de regret când spun asta. Dimpotrivă, mă bucur că am învățat că viața se extinde și dincolo de teritoriul deja cunoscut, de confortul unui relief pe care l-ai moștenit de la alții.
Există acea urmă de melancolie în fața schimbării care aduce cu ea frumusețea unor experiențe pe care nu le-ai anticipat conștient, dar și umbra impermanenței care îți urmărește mereu mișcările în fundal. Suntem cu toții aici, calzi și fragili, vii și atât de trecători ca forme ale unui univers în schimbare. Și totuși, nimic nu se pierde…

Scriind despre toate astea mă gândesc la A., care nu se află cu mine acum, și la insistența sa asupra ancorelor de care avem nevoie. Într-adevăr, în permanența impermanenței, avem nevoie de ceva care să nu ne lase să ne spulberăm. Unii își fixează ancorele în ambițiile personale, alții în viziunea fixă asupra realității din jur. Credința religioasă și ea este tot o ancoră, iubirea la fel. Poate că iubirea este, de fapt, cea mai bună ancoră, pentru că lumea rămâne frumoasă, vie, proaspătă și gata să vibreze și la a mia atingere atunci când te raportezi la ea și la tine cu iubire.
Pentru ca legătura dintre ancoră și ceea ce ea stabilizează să nu se rupă, este nevoie de flexibilitate. Iar adevărata iubire găsește mereu căi noi de a susține, de a ghida, de a lumina chiar și când schimbările par să fragmenteze tot ceea ce am crezut că nu ne poate fi luat.

Rămâne, probabil, doar să ne amintim că avem această ancoră la îndemână. Uneori presupune mai mult efort chiar decât a ne folosi de puterea ei. Uneori, umbra impermanenței ne bântuiește ca un animal flâmând și hăituit, care își caută o peșteră goală în care să se adăpostească. Și uneori inima noastră îi ajunge culcuș.
„Atât de mult a iubit Dumnezeu lumea, încât pe Fiul Său Cel Unul-Născut L-a dat, ca oricine crede în El să nu piară, ci să aibă viaţă veşnică” (Ioan,  3,15).

 

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For the love of Cluj. Great food, great openness and lovely people

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The days I worked as a journalist for a science and travel magazine were the happiest days I have ever had as an employee. It did not really feel like I was going to work at all. It felt like I was going every day to a lovely writing and photography centre, were I would have a great time getting meaning out of words, editing texts and having debates with other likely minded people. And it was quite a stress-free environment. I do still strongly miss this.
However, lately I got back to this part of my writing which I highly enjoy. It kind of started with Trip Advisor, where apparently my reviews are read by a great number of people (or so at least they want me to believe, maybe it’s just a marketing technique). But I am writing about my or our travels here, on this blog, and it does give me the great satisfaction of still expressing how I discovered and explored different places, even if no longer I have a guaranteed public that a magazine brings.

I will write about a place rediscovered during our summer holiday back in Romania. I have visited this city for the first time seven years ago, when I first travelled there for what was called the Colloquium of Young Writers, basically a bunch of us, mainly under 40, getting together for readings, debates and looong nights staying up drinking and chatting on everything, from the most intriguing books we have read to literary gossip. From the first encounter I have loved this city.
Then I rediscovered it when I met my partner, A., who is originally from a small town close to it. He took me back to Cluj to meet his jolly group of friends, his youngest brother and his grandma. And I love them all.

I can share with you a very dear memory I have about Cluj. We were there in the springtime, staying at his brother’s and A. left a bit early one day to check something on his car with a friend. He left me sleeping in, brother was at work, but I had a key. When I woke up I strolled to the local shop to buy some eggs and then it grew inside me, warm and enveloping and so comforting, the feeling that this was the place I felt I would love to raise a family in. I literally saw myself with a pushchair and our sweet baby in it, going out for a walk in the fresh, clean air of this city placed in the heart of Transylvania, with all the hills and forests surrounding it.
Well, meanwhile we have moved to the UK and we do not have any children yet, but the memory of that feeling is kept safe.

 

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(A small plaza with terrace and church, the big Unirii Plaza, behind Saint Michael Church and a contrasting inner corner)

 

So we went to Cluj this summer for five days. We made the most of them, eating out mainly in restaurants which serve local cuisine and getting together with his friends and practising photography and make-up skills. Not one day passed without us doing some serious photo shoots with the Nikon. Yes, it somehow gave us that air of being tourists, even his friends said it, but we could still feel that one day, maybe one day we could go back, open a business there and live happily ever after.
Cluj does have a lot to offer to a certain type of tourists. If you look for non-stop partying, lots of drinking and going from club to club, I would not really know what you can find there, but I suspect not much in comparison with well-known places in Spain. If you look for big city lights and something completely spectacular, you might be a bit disappointed as well. What it has to offer is the openness of the big squares surrounded by history mirrored in the architecture, and of the big main boulevards, which give you space and perspective. It is, from this point of view, exactly the opposite of English towns and cities, which  have narrow high streets and even the boulevards are somehow tighter.

Then there are of course the side streets and always something to discover just behind the next corner, such as the restaurant Roata, difficult to find without Google Maps and/or a very good knowledge of the area’s fabric. You have to go through a gangway to get to the alley it is placed on, but thankfully there is a panel advertising for it on the road.
We’ve been here on our first afternoon for dinner with one of A.’s best friends and his girlfriend, and they did not know of the restaurant. The very good prices, the rustic décor of the place, as well as the tasty food convinced them to come back one day. The garden and front dining room were quite packed on arrival, mainly with young people, probably due to the great meal deal offers.
Thinking of it back in time it gives me the feeling of being almost like a grandmother’s house in the Transylvanian countryside.

Out meal here came with a treat as well. We did have to wait for it, but then we got Romanian plum brandy and cherry sweet liquor as treats, in the traditional small clay cups, and it was worth even the delay.

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(Roata restaurant, with the Romanian pollenta dish, the brandy and liquor cups and one of the dining rooms)

 

Roata was the restaurant which had it all: a beautiful garden, the right décor, great traditional food and good prices. And a lovely bunch of costumers, which kept the feeling of the place fresh and happy. Another place I could strongly recommend, but lacking a bit in the design department, is the restaurant Matei Corvin, named after one of the most imposing Hungarian rulers of all times, who fought and defeated the Ottoman Empire’s armies, among other achievements, a king worth knowing more of.
The place is located very central, on a very easy to access side street also bearing the same name, from the main boulevard which stretches in front of the Church Of Saint Michael, one of the most representative pieces of Gothic architecture in Transylvania. If you are in front of this big church, facing the 21 of December 1989 Boulevard, you only need to reach the left corner, go across at the traffic lights and there you are, on the Matei Corvin street, leading to the very house where the Hungarian ruler was born, today a memorial building dedicated to him. It also leads to an area packed with restaurants, cafés, pubs and bars very popular with young people, but not only. And don’t imagine you would end up surrounded by a very noisy and boisterous bunch of youngsters, it is actually very touristic and everybody just seems to be chilling out, which makes it quite different from the hectic, yet containing its own charm, Old Centre of Bucharest.

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(Images from the side streets filled with cafes, pubs, restaurants)

 

If you read this and you decide to go and check this place out, try the pork belly soup (that is if you do like fatty soups). It is a dish specific to Central Europe which I hated before trying it in Cluj. My mum loves it, everybody else seemed to be hooked on it, so I have tried it on a number of occasions, one of which I remember as a summer four day trip to the thermal waters resort of Felix, close to the city of Oradea (also in Transylvania). I could not stand it until a couple of years ago, when, while dining out with A. in his home town close to Cluj, and him having it for the 1000 time since we’ve been together, I have decided to taste it again. And oh my! I was completely into it ever since. 
This summer I have finally read the book which one of my all time favourite movies was based on, “I served the King of England”, by Bohumil Hrabal. Among the things that I loved in it was this tinny detail which the character, working in the hospitality industry, mentions: the pork belly soup. It stayed in my mind as it made me realize how popular it is not only with the Romanians, but probably around Central Europe.

I was also impressed with the way we were tended by the staff. The portion of the pork belly soup at Matei Corvin is huge, but I mean humongous! We went to eat there twice in those five days and the waitress noticed me and A. debating whether we should split a portion or not. A. wasn’t very keen on it, of course, being such a favourite dish. Then the waitress suggested she would bring me half of the normal portion in a smaller bowl, as I also wanted to have a bite of mititei (grilled long meatballs).
At the end, when the bill came, there were two whole portions of soup on it. We were again talking and I said I did not mind, anyway at least I did not waste food (which I graciously do while at home… shame on me). The waitress rushed to our table and asked if the bill was right and apologised, saying the lady at the cashier made a mistake and of course we do not need to pay for two whole portions. We appreciated her checking with us and not waiting for us to say something.

Now leaving food aside, Cluj is a great place to be in the summer. The weather is still hot, but then there are plenty of places where you can hide away if it gets scorching: cafés, bookshops (the best is Librarium, on Eroilor Boulevard in Cluj – the one starting at Unirii Plaza, just behind Saint Michael Church – with cosy sofas in a reading room on the first floor), parks and museums.
A friend of A.’s, who now started her doctorate in Arts, took us to this most amazing café, not easy to be found either and unfortunately I do not remember the name of the place. A former colleague of hers apparently owns the place. You have to go through a gangway opposite the church I have previously named, then take the stairs on your right up to the first floor, and you get to this space with the ceiling all painted and two walls completely covered with potted plants.

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(The green bar, the Botanical Garden, a terrace on a very rainy day and my love A. on a narrow side street)

 

The Botanical Garden, not far from the centre, is another favourite spot in Cluj. Taking a nice stroll up the hill you get there in about 20 minutes to half an hour. It might not be comparable, size wise, to the big gardens of Europe, but it is well organised and it has its undeniable beauty. 

The Italian garden is very pretty, and I for one love the Japanese garden, then the area which is filled with vegetation typical for the Romanian temperate climate forests: it’s thick, cool, fresh and comforting. Away from the noises of the city, many people come here to read or even to learn during exam sessions.
And then many come for wedding photography. Indeed if we were to conduct our future business in Cluj, this would probably be the place many couples would request for.

However, we would suggest a completely different space for a photo shoot: the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania. A. and his best friend in Cluj, V., actually came up with a great idea of doing a photo session here, after I applied make-up on his girlfriend, G., and both of them got dressed in traditional clothing. Unfortunately, I did not get to go myself, as next we had a second session with other people, and I worked for the whole of that day doing make-up and hair. But the results stand proof it was good effort put into it.

 

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(And our friends posing for A. at the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania)

 

And Cluj is not only a great city with a vibrant cultural scene, so that on a hot weekend you can stumble upon the display of Aida opera for free in the Unirii Plaza, or you can pick and choose on art exhibitions, but it is also located in a lovely area. Only about 33 kilometres South one can visit the town of Turda, a very historical place, where salt was mined from Roman times and later, under Franz Joseph’s rule, the industry went into further development. Today the old salt mines are arranged as a touristic space, with small boats on an inner salt lake, with mini-golf and a small football pitch, and the whole design looks so futuristic you get the impression you stepped on an alien planet. Outside you can go bathe in the salty lakes which formed in the very old pits and you do not even need to be a good swimmer for that: the water will just hold you floating as long as you know how to keep your head out. Just one advice: never, but never gulp the water in the lakes, it is most probablu bacteria free due to the saline concentration, but it will make your throat burn and you will be under the impression you are chocking.
Unfortunately, on this occasion we did not have enough time to go to the salt mines, where I had been for about four hours daily, a whole week, some years ago, as therapy for my lungs after a couple of bronchitis. And it must have worked, as no more such infections in my lungs occurred afterwards. Living at the seaside for more than three years now helped a lot as well.

In Romania we have these caricatures about people from different regions, which always occur in jokes. The image of people from Transylvania is they are hard-working, sensible, very calm and very, but very, very patient. Actually, they are also said to be slow. You know, like they’d rather do something taking the long, slow route, but doing it properly. Or they take a long time to understand anything. Their opposites are meant to be the people in the South, who tend to be quick, witted, but shallow, always trying to cut corners and to avoid any effort. A typical joke sounds like this:

John from Transylvania moves over to his cousin George in Oltenia (in the South). One day, after church, the priest in the village approaches George for a word in private.
– George, don’t take it in a bad way, please, but I do need to ask you something. Tell me, are you taking John to the pub on Saturday evenings?
– Yes, father, but we don’t cause any trouble.
– It’s ok, my son, don’t worry, I wasn’t thinking you were. But while at the pub, do you tell John a lot of jokes?
– Yes, father, you know how I am, I enjoy a good laugh, but we do no harm.
– It’s ok, my son. I am sure you don’t. But could you please not tell him any more jokes after 8 in the evening as he always laughs on Sunday mornings and disturbs the mass.

People in Cluj do come across to me as relaxed, as taking time to do things, to meet friends, to chat and to get together. They seem to still have that bond with the community, to nourish it and keep it as an important part of their lives. It is no wonder, after all, as most reports on Transylvania in reputed magazines such as National Geographic always present the region as very traditional and idyllic not only in the way they do things here, but also in the human relations.
Open, but not overwhelming, calm and welcoming, at the same time respecting your own individuality, this is how I have always found Cluj and its people. And this is why I will always want to go back.

 

 

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Why I left Romania

If anybody asks me why I have left my country, Romania, I think the best answer I could give is by showing them the following video. It all happened in Bucharest just a couple of weeks ago, on the 10th of August, and if you are not a Romanian you won’t, of course, understand what they say. Be patient enough and watch it through, pay attention at what age group the people in this video are, the aggressors especially, and you might get a good impression on what I am also going to tell you.

The video is filmed at the so-called “Sunday walk” initiated by the most popular journalists (they do not really deserve to be called such, but never mind) of the television channel Antena 3. They had been broadcasting like mad hours and hours of a talk show after the owner of the media trust had been found guilty of fraud and prosecuted to go to jail, on the 8th of August 2014. They were inciting people to go out in the streets and protest because their beloved mogul is being condemned on political reasons and without real grounds, of course while being clean as a new born baby’s mind. They were clearly stating that this was all the work of the Romanian President, that the court was acting as a puppet and there was no justice in what they ruled.
In other words, one of the major television channels in Romania was making serious accusations regarding the Romanian President and the Romanian court. I wonder if any of them made a formal complaint to any superior forums, such as the European Court of Human Rights. If not, I wonder why.

The news about this Romanian mogul has made it even into British media, as far as I know in one newspaper I would not like to link to. His name is Dan Voiculescu, his wealth rising to approximately 350 million euros, and he is now in jail for the fraudulent purchase of the Romanian Institute for Food Research. He was prosecuted to 10 years in jail, for money laundering and buying the institute for 60 million euros under its worth, by fraudulent side agreement and paperwork, thus causing the Romanian state to lose these money.

Now let me tell you a few things about this “charming” pensioner, a media mogul with such an impressive fortune, and the founding president of the Conservative Party, who twice initiated the procedure for the dismissal of the Romanian President. Both attempts failed, as not enough Romanians came to vote. Anyhow, I am not a supporter of any of the current political parties in Romania and I am certainly not a supporter of any particular politician there. The only thing I can say in this matter is that, while they have tried twice to cause the dismissal of Traian Basescu, the still acting President, they have failed.
Also, Voiculescu is not the first wealthy Romanian politician to go to jail during the President’s mandate. A prominent figure in the Social-Democratic Party (the old Communist Party with a new name, a political group which has ruined Romania after the hasted execution of the former dictator), the named Adrian Nastase had been jailed for the first time in 2012, as being found guilty of acts of corruption while being the Prime Minister. He got out of jail under parole just a year later.
Then, at the beginning of this year, according to the Romanian media, another case was built against him, regarding bribery, usage of fake documents with the Romanian Border Agency and blackmailing. He got another 2 years in jail, but funny enough, got out of jail again just last Thursday, on the 22nd of August, as he had served a third of his sentence.

The good part is that these people have been jailed. The bad part is they are getting out of jail so soon. It really enrages me to know that a friend of mine, from my parents village, has spent about 2-3 years in jail (if I remember correctly) for helping some of his mates transport and sell big bags of flour they had stolen from their work place. The story is that these boys, all in their late teenage years or early twenties, were working at a food depot. Their employer was exploiting them, failing on a continuous basis to pay them their salary. Meanwhile, they were struggling back home, as they all came from families facing financial difficulties. The employer and owner of the depot kept saying that they will get their money next week, when next week came he never paid them their whole salary, so the boys decided to take their part by stealing and selling some flour bags.
While I do not commend what they have done, I do understand the circumstances. I had visited this friend when he was in jail and after he got out I understand he did well. Now we are not in touch anymore, he started working as a lorry driver and I think currently lives in Italy. I knew this boy and he is not your common thief. He came from a family struggling, with a drunkard father whom his mother finally divorced, had to pay him his part of the flat so that she can still live there with the two boys, and then lost her job due to the factory she worked in not doing so well.
To see that the wealthy and corrupted people in Romania, leading figures in politics, get out of prison in no time while young boys from struggling families get to spend years as inmates does enrage me.

But now let’s get back to Dan Voiculescu.
I am blessed to have amazing friends back in Romania, whom I miss, but whom I am also very glad to know. Nowadays Facebook and blogging helps us keep in touch and, while we are miles apart, I can still appreciate their friendship, all that I learn from them and all that we share. One of them is Mugur Grosu, an amazing artist and Romanian journalist (a species in peril) who has worked, with a whole team, on investigating what happened to Ceausescu’s money. While it was known that the dictator had an impressive fortune for himself and his wife, it has never been truly found and claimed back by the Romanian government. That money should have come back to the people, as they have been gathered through the people’s work and misery.
Guess what: as evidence suggests, evidence investigated by my good friend and amazing journalist and artist Mugur Grosu and the team he worked with, Ceausescu’s money has never been deposited in personal accounts with foreign banks. The accounts were opened under the name of the trusted Securitate officers (political police) or other high ranked officials working under the command of the dictator. One of the most trusted and most successful ones was Dan Voiculescu. He led the operations of the Romanian company “Crescent”, which was responsible for massive exports for the construction industry, and apparently made a profit of 1.5 billion dollars.

Now it really becomes clear why Ceausescu was shot after a very rushed trial. He had to be put down before he could talk about the money. His trusted directors, such as Dan Voiculescu, had to be able to keep the fortune and live happily ever after, as successful businessmen in a country where people like me could not work as journalists anymore. A country where the elderly go to protest in the streets against the “unjust” prosecution of the media mogul, and they attack the young journalists from other television channels. What the young lady in the above video asked the pensioners was why they protest against the prosecution of a person found to have stolen from the Romanian state. Have they been with him when he did it? Have they shared his fraudulent profit with him? And then a disgustingly coward man with grey hair kicks the journalist from behind. And later in the video we see an old man lifting his clutch as if to hit the cameraman with it.

Yes, Romania is unfortunately a very young country with no real set of values at the moment. The older generation either regrets Ceausescu’s time, or support today’s big thieves, successful businessman who have profited from the money they got into accounts for the old Communist regime. These are the people who vote massively and whose vote can be bought with a bag of flour and couple of bottles of oil. These are the people who have voted for the former President Iliescu, after he summoned the miners from Jiu Valley to come and restore order in the capital, where young people, mainly students and intellectuals, where PEACEFULLY protesting in the University Square against the government composed mainly of ex-communists. They voted for Iliescu again after people were killed in the streets by these miners, after the opposition parties head offices had been raided and destroyed by these brutes, some of which were suspected not to be real working class after all. And the older generations still voted for him.

And, after all, they are the generation who brought up many people my age, who have learnt the same lesson: know your place and, if you have the opportunity, go on and make your fortune with monkey business. Everybody does the same anyway. What, do you think these journalists and intellectuals are not being paid to claim they mean what they say? Come on, don’t be a fool, they are paid and they just do what they are told to.

Yes, my generation and the younger ones had their own University Square protests, against the government austerity measures and against mining with cyanides for big foreign profit in the Western Carpathian Mountains. They have won, so far, but who knows for how long? Meanwhile, people like me are not needed, after all, how many young intellectuals who don’t like or practice monkey business can one corrupt country accommodate? And not to forget that you might get attacked by enraged 50+ men if you dare do your job and report on how people ask for one of the wealthiest man in the country, with communist money, to be released from prison. Or for part of his wealth not to be confiscated, so that their beloved television channel can still broadcast and fill their empty lives with filthy circus.

I think this kind of sums it all up why I am no longer in Romania, but trying to live a peaceful life while earning a decent salary, travelling, doing my writing and getting ready to help my parents when they have to retire on pitiful pensions. However, I intend to write more about the matter and even, in a future article, explain the cultural and historical differences between the provinces, which make the whole country not to stick well together. These days I have read a very good material about how Transylvania, where I come from, was brought down and has not benefited at all from being part of Romania, and, in a way, my feelings agree with it.

 

 

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Disappointing, but still loved

Two days in Bucharest, then we took a very early train to Timisoara, my home city, the place where I had spent almost 20 years of my life. How I loved it and thought I would never, but never move away! Still, I first decided to move to Bucharest, after my first big step out of my planned life story, out of my comfort zone – spending one year as an Au Pair in the US, an experience which to this day seems somehow surreal to me. Then it was the UK, thousands of kilometres away and a life experience which I never really thought I would have, even considering my unrealistic dreams of being a volunteer working with children in Africa (I could never have afforded it, nor could I today, still).
Back in Romania the best option for traveling, other than to rent a car (which costs just as much as it would here, in the UK), is the train. Flights are too expensive. By train you also get to actually see the country, although it is a long journey from Bucharest to Timisoara, about 600 km in 8 hours. I would not really recommend a coach, as they take almost the same time and you don’t get much more comfort sitting on the same narrow chair. On the train, as not all the seats are taken, you can stretch your feet, put them up on the one in front of you or next to you, and even take a good nap if you are able to. Luckily I can always sleep in trains, and sometimes in the most difficult postures, like crouching on one seat with my head on the back or arm rest. I probably look very silly, but don’t quite care about it.
On this travel I did take advantage of the rain and slept for a good 3 hours. Unbelievable, but true: Romania turned for one summer into England and the other way around, at least weather wise. We had some very rainy days there, and although I am not very up to date with the news, according to Facebook it seems the rain recently caused some floods all over the country, including in the area where my parents live (close by, they are on higher ground) and in Cluj, where my partner is from.

A very rainy morning, but no loss, passing through the fields in the South, not much to see, the landscape gets exciting as you approach Drobeta, the city situated on the Danube river, on the Eastern end of the defile where it pierces the Carpathian mountains. While we were getting closer to this city, I woke up. I must have my inner clock set to wake me at about this point of the journey. Seeing the big river that defines Central Europe, its waters mirroring the greatness of the kaiserlich und koninglich  power of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, its flow mirrored in Strauss’ waltzes, is always a must. And not for the history it has seen, but for the natural beauty. In the area called Cazane all you can see is the mountains slopes covered by dense forest, the slightly wavy waters of the river, the viaducts built for the railway and roads, the Portile de Fier (Iron Gates) Dam, and the town of Orsova spread up the hill at the end of the defile. In its narrowest place, this crossing dug by water through the mountains measures 230 m in width (about 250 yards).

Our five days in Timisoara have been thoroughly planned, but the weather and some other factors made us change part of these plans. We haven’t managed to see my friend Liana Toma and her family, this amazing lady who is a house mum, a poet and an independent chef at the same time, and who keeps the loveliest of the loveliest cooking blog. It is in Romanian, but you can activate a translation function and trust me, it’s worth it. Once you have went on translation mode, however, your only worry would be keeping things in control and not diving completely into the culinary heaven it inspires.
Those of you who tasted my spinach and salmon roll, the biscuits I served on my good bye day at work with Allied Care in New Milton, or the almond rolled cookies I served on our Secret Santa day last year would be pleased to know the recipes are now available. This way, I’m trying to make up for my sins of forever postponing sharing them with you. Shame on me.

 

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What we managed to do is visit my cousin’s family in a typical village for Banat region, with big gardens and large backyards with lots of poultry and other such animals which don’t come as pets, but for consumption. On Sunday we got in my brother’s car and went on to have a barbecue afternoon, which lasted for some good 5 hours. 
I won’t bore you with all the family stories, although Anka, this cousin of mine, is quite amazing, a recent mum to two adopted brothers and a passionate biker, only about a week after we left she completed the Transalpine trip in Romania, riding her bike on the serpentines  high in the mountains of Fagaras. But what I will say is that visiting for the first time their old house in the countryside (the family used to live in the city until the grandparents passed away) I found a piece of my childhood there.
The scent of a typical traditional house in Banat was the sweet perfume of the day. If I were to describe it, I would say it’s the combined whiff of old wooden floors and furniture, of local dish
es and pork products smoked in the household, of homemade jams and compotes and drinks, and the gentle scent coming from the gardens and fields. It’s the flavour of calcimine inside accompanying the coolness of the walls in the summer and the engulfing warmth in the winter days. It’s the smell of hay, of straw, of vines and of vegetables. The smell of new cement and of old bricks.

It’s probably how I can best describe my home region at this time.

 

And this brings something else into mind. One lazy afternoon I took my foster brothers out in the back yard to lay down in the sun and play cards while catching a tan. They lasted for a bit out there with me, but I guess after half an hour they got bored and left me to it. As I was laying there in the blazing light, sweat all over me like a second, liquid skin, I could hear and see the world from the height of the grass blades. Some bees were buzzing around the tiny wild flowers, some pigeons were lazily cooing, chicken were walking around in their yard faintly cackling of boredom as well, sweet nothing to do on a summer afternoon in the Romanian countryside. The sun rays were sweeping over the roof of the house, framed by the trees’ green, the whole world seemed to purr softly, half asleep, and still so vibrant, pulsating alive through its every pore.

After all the delights of the countryside, which I deeply cherish, as being raised there, we did take two trips to Timisoara. This time I was slightly disappointed with the city I hold so dear. First, the most beautiful square in the city, Piata Unirii (Union Square) is dead for this summer. They have closed it all, replacing the old sewage and plumbing systems, which is a positive thing. However, the way they have done it, killing completely for the season a place which used to be the heart of the whole historical centre, full of restaurant and terraces, buzzing every evening with the sounds of the people sitting around with a drink or some sweet treat to enjoy, was probably not the best idea. It almost makes you wonder if there is any economic personal interest to bankrupt some local businesses.

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Our old pizzeria, Cora, located on one of the streets coming from Piata Unirii, by the most beautiful    and still functional synagogue in the city, is still there, still pretty and they still make great food. It’s a   shame, however, that while in Timisoara, if one wanted to find a fine restaurant with local cuisine they might face an uncomfortable challenge. Who goes to Timisoara to have pizza and pasta?
There are Casa Bunicii restaurants (Nana’s House), easy to find on Tripadvisor. On our first evening in the city we went to one and enjoyed a meal on the terrace, late at night. Still, I was slightly disappointed: while my pork chop and sauce were tasty, it came cold. I was so hungry I didn’t send it back. My partner’s skewers like in Bucovina, set on fire under our own eyes, for a deep pleasant chargrilled flavour, were just as good as the ones I tasted in the winter. The sour cherry liquor hit the spot as a dessert drink.

 

 

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Then we took the kids to the city, a trip which has become tradition. Going around in the Children’s Park, a place I used to visit a lot in my own childhood, well decorated and arranged, with lots of small rides, swings and slides and fancy objects, was very enjoyable. For years the park had been partly abandoned, in the way that there was no new investment, but recently they have renovated it all.
After the kids had a good play and climb and jump around, we went to have lunch just across the big Intercontinental Hotel, the first building with automatic sliding doors in the 70s, if I’m not mistaking (a story I know from my father). The restaurant Curtea Berarilor (Beer Brewer’s Court) had been recommended to us, and as we entered the inner yard it looked really nice. We had a sit and waited forever to be served, so we started to play a word game with the kids as we were all starving and bored to death. When the food came… my chicken wings were the blandest thing I have ever eaten, the soured cream and garlic sauce had no garlic in it. Not nice at all. We tried not to make a big thing out of it as it was a day for the kids to enjoy out in the city. The dessert we had at Cofetaria Trandafirul (The Rose Cake Shop), another place I used to go regularly to since a child, made up for the bad experience with the restaurant.

It could have been better. We could have enjoyed Timisoara more, if only Piata Unirii and the streets around it didn’t look like a war landscape, if only the restaurants were better, if only. But then my old city can still make it up to us next time when we go to visit.

I left Banat with the feeling that it is all still there, just as I knew it, content that everybody at home is doing well, my grandmothers are still in good health, and everything is as I used to know. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have more to discover for me, all as expected, nothing fresh and unexpected.
I still love my home region and would recommend people to visit it. When they are going to finish with renovating the streets and the square, it will be much better. As for restaurants, Tripadvisor should help. And if you haven’t been so used to how everything is around there, the risk of being bored dissipates as well. It’s a region full of history, and an inquisitive eye and mind would most certainly be happy to explore it.

(Foto 1: made by me. Fotos 2 and 3: Attila Vigh)

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A journey to Romania

From the 25th of June to the 9th of July, we have put together more than 1500 kilometres travelled by train, thousands of photos, a good bunch of great friends, a few disappointments in Timisoara and some seriously good food eaten in Cluj, in other words, our welcomed Romanian holiday, which shouldn’t have happened to start with.

Starting 2014, we had other plans, which we are meticulously puzzling together. Going to Romania wasn’t in the cards. Then I found out that a friend of mine was getting married, and this was a great opportunity to be in the wedding of one of the most fascinating women I have ever known closely. And when I say this, I mean really being part of the event: we offered to do the make-up and photography for the wedding, as a gift for the bride and groom. But just about a month before our flight I’d got the news she wasn’t getting married after all, wrong decision.
Still, the whole travel turned out to be an experience we needed. We came back tired, but refreshed, more relaxed and with that feeling that life just goes on for all of us, friends and family, and there’s no room for nostalgia, but for contemplating and taking part, when possible, in what our friends and family do and experience as well. At the same time, we have taken the opportunity to work with people who modelled for us, which made our holiday this spicy mix of leisure, business and getting together as well.

First, it was Bucharest. We have landed there as our initial plan was, for a trial make-up and photo session with the bride to be, which we did not do, obviously. It was, anyhow, much more convenient regarding travel times (flights at a more reasonable hour rather than 7:00 in the morning) and cost. We stayed there for a day and a half, then took an early train (yes, 5:45 am!) to Timisoara.
How did we find Bucharest? Same old, same old, it was us who were more detached now, relieved of the everyday madness to succeed in a city without rules, where being tough, unscrupulous and knowing the right people is a must. I can’t but admire my friends who still work in the Romanian central media, such as Mugur Grosu, poet and artist (visual arts are also his field), one of the people most pleasant to listen to in the whole wide world, whatever it is he is talking about. And yes, he does talk a lot, but it’s fascinating, his speech is like a journey taking you to some awesome places, a ride on a magic invisible carpet. He has been working for 3 years now for this architecture magazine called “Zeppelin” which keeps publishing in a city where major newspapers were closed one after another and only a couple of tabloids thrive.

(Photos by Catalina George and Attila Vigh. In photos: 1. Mugur Grosu. 2. Silviu Dancu. 3. The whole group while Silviu was telling and acting a story from his travels)

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We had to get together with Silviu Dancu, my most fascinating writer friend on Facebook (and in real life) who posts on a daily basis on the social media platform the best short texts on whatever draws his attention. His Facebook writing is instant literature, philosophy and journalistic reporting, all in one, like a hot coffee, a cold ice cream, a drop of alcohol, served with a discrete candle aside, burning essential oils. This guy, an old friend of Mugur’s as well (they come from the same seaside city of Constanta), apparently manages to freelance in Bucharest on cultural contracts of organising events and PR services. And he’s not the bachelor who couldn’t care if one month he’s out of money for drinks, he’s got a family, managed to buy a flat and is doing pretty well in that harsh and unforgiving city. True, he has got an impressive CV: worked in the past for the Romanian Cultural Institute under the best management it had ever had, as well as for the Polish Cultural Institute in Bucharest. I am but amazed myself at how well these people are doing in a place where, in the end, I decided I didn’t fit in anymore.

Landing in Bucharest gave us a chance to meet these great people we are still in contact with. One of them is also my former editor-in-chief Ionut Popa, from “Terra Magazin”, a monthly publication on science, history, geography and travel, and while he is the same great guy I have known for some good years now, I could see disappointment in him. It’s a sad story that, after I was made redundant, the whole team who used to make this magazine, the best and oldest Romanian publication of its sort, has been removed. While all of them did find good jobs, I guess we will all carry with us the regret of something we loved doing being snatched from us just like that, with no good reason, and turned into a pitiful thin journal with lots and photos and silly toys to make it sell better, apparently… I have seen it on a newsagent’s shelf and felt like I was looking at a brochure of a questionable taste.

On the other hand though, this guy, Ionut Popa, has no long ago published a great travel book about his journey to Lake Baikal, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and his writing, while being based on the exactness of a scientific approach (the author is a Doctor in Geography), is also very poetically personal. It was, after all, the personal experience of a man, not only a scientist, on the long and strenuous journey to the Island of the Shamans (Okhlon Island), not through direct physical effort, but through the effort of being confined to a small space in a train compartment for days, while the wild landscapes just rolled under his eyes.
And indeed the book ends with the most poetic epilogue, which has even taken me by surprise, and I know this man, I used to work next to him (literally, desk by desk), debate, laugh and rake our brains together for ideas for more than two years. What he is involved with right now is something most successful in Western countries, judging by the amount of books and magazines centred on this: travel writing publishing. A book like his “Baikal, a Deep Blue Eye” would for certain sell very successfully in a country like the UK. In Romania, he is at the moment investing effort in this uncertain field.

If I have kept you reading to this point, you are most probably asking yourselves, well, what about the city? Is this an exclusive account on my friends, who might be great people, but whom you will probably never meet, or was it meant to be a story on our recent travels through Romania?

True, I have written a few good long fragments about these people I know closely and admire, testing your patience at the same time. In a way, I had to do this. If I am telling others about my country, what can be more important than to let them see the people I know there, the way I know them? In a sea of grotesque images about Romanians, watched through a lens set to only show the ugly, the dirty, the unfit, the messy and the meager, talking about beautiful Romanians can be the missing pieces of the whole picture. 
And how much it is missing still!

Landing around lunchtime on the 25th of June, we got out of the airport and on the bus to face a confirmation of one of Bucharest’s realities. On the one hour ride to Union Square (Piata Unirii), so many long sad faces around us, so many unhappy and tensed expressions, dry grey glances, bitter and doubtful, made us remember the roughness of this place. However, over our holiday this feeling not necessarily faded, but took a few steps back, allowing others to come into light.
When one visits Romania, be they one of the nationals established abroad or a foreign traveller, they will most certainly have strong feelings towards the place and its people. Some might see mainly the poverty, the misery, the struggle, and that expression of tensed resignation. Or on the contrary, they could notice Romanians chatting lively, local young women having a really nice figure, with a sensual or really provocative attitude, very feminine or very aggressive, chic or cheap imitation (yes, it is possible) of today’s pop culture kitsch. Depending on the part of the country they find themselves, they could manage to distinguish that sweet waved Transylvanian accent or the sharp cut, loud Bucharest one.
In a crowded place such as Centrul Vechi (the Old Centre) in the capital some may be tempted to try and avoid too much contact, as the streets and terraces full of people who are mainly out drinking and chatting (not so much for eating) can give you a sense of agoraphobia. In Cluj-Napoca’s big open squares, where your sight isn’t blocked by so many crammed buildings, the plan and details of the architecture are more obvious, give you the feeling of being in a very historical place, as well as time and space to explore at leisure. The hotchpotch of buildings from different periods of time in the centre of Bucharest can get the visitor dizzy and will require a sustained effort of observation to make sense of it all and to be able to see its hidden beauties.

At times… or even most of the time it can be difficult even for somebody who has lived in the Romanian capital to see these treasures. The reason does not stay only with the eyes of the beholder, unfortunately it means that the communist conspiracy against all that was built in the late 19th century, early 20th, has almost succeeded. It was in the old regime plans to cover it, hide it, even destroy it if possible. Little is known of fake buildings or architectural feints meant to keep away from the onlooker the edifices built in the 20’s and 30’s or even earlier, in times when the local monarchy was loved and their governance appreciated. Even after about 10 years in this city, my partner A. did not come to like it in too many ways and he is not a big fan of the way the place is built. On the night before the last in Bucharest, at the end of our holiday, we took a longer stroll with Mugur and Silviu on the backstreets of the central area, where most people don’t go regularly, unless they are looking for more cultural, alternative cafés and bars. Talking about the city and what makes it beautiful and worthwhile, a passionate debate started: A. was stating that its beauty is lost due to neglect, so many buildings left to decay and almost becoming a threat to safety, while Silviu explained how it is all due to the poor laws, subject to corruption, in the same time affirming his love for Bucharest. He used to hate it as well, until he fell in love with the place.
I myself tend to agree with Silviu, although A. brings good reasons into the topic: the greed, corruption and egotism of so many so-called rulers in our country tend to shadow its charm, its history and its values, cultural, human and natural. But then here we are, some of us still trying to uncover them, to remove the dirt, the refuse, the claws that cling on anything that can be sold, used, transformed in money and up to date Western luxury.

And there is still much to uncover, to clean, to polish and to bring out into the light. It takes effort, eyes to see and inquisitive minds to be able to reach the realities behind the harsh surface of daily, mediatized Romania (on all fronts).

(to be continued)

 

 

 

 

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