Posts Tagged Romania

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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A fresh lesson on Eastern history, with a romantic flick

Roxelana_TizianNot sure how many people really enjoyed the way history was tought in school, but I can say for myself that, whilst my former history teachers had an pleasant presence in the class room, none of them really stuck to my mind whatsoever. Considering I have always loved history, that says enough.
Bombarded from everywhere with too much information about the right here, right now, and pushed to know too many flimsy things, which do not add anything at all to our lives, I also wonder how many people today do think about the past and how history made society (and the other way around). I am saying this because loosing one’s inherited wisdom and knowledge can have a destructive outcome.

At the same time though, people who do know or are interested in history should just make an effort and see it, analyse it, understand it for what it is. Too many times I have seen the past being used either as an excuse for what we/they/nations do or don’t do today, as well as a kind of a fragile safe, golden place to escape to when failing to face the present.

If you are still reading and didn’t just press the x at the top right of the page it means I didn’t bore you to death. Or maybe you are very patient. Or maybe you are just a friend who is used to my speeches.

(Picture: Painting of Roxelana or Hurrem Sultan, by Tizian)

This particular speech on history came as a result of me reading over the internet on the Ottoman Empire. It is quite silly how I got to the topic, as scrolling and jumping around the www from page to page I read some entertainment news about the Turkish period soap opera “Suleyman the Magnificent”, very much loved especially by the feminine audience in Romania last summer or so. I watched two episodes with my mum and nan while visiting and, for a soap opera, I can say it wasn’t so bad.
Should I confess that watching period soaps with my mum and nan has been a guilty pleasure of mine? Before moving to the UK, during my three months spent at my parents’ house, we used to be stuck to the tv every evening for an hour when they had a Korean period soap on.

So I stumbled upon the Turkish series yesterday, while scrolling mindlessly up and down on my laptop. And then I wanted to check how real the feminine character which bewitched the great Sultan was. And boy she was real!
During my school years, when history written by communist standards was fed into our minds, kids who were good in writing essays and stories were always asked to start from real events and fictionalise them, and compose texts about the brave Romanian people and how they have withstood the vicissitudes of history. We all read and had to learn the stories about how the Romanians, squashed in between two great empires (the third was never mentioned, the Russian Czarist Empire, of course, as Russians were the friends of our people) have been so strong and undefeated, facing both powers and never really giving up the fight.
Nothing furthest from the truth, I believe today.

One of these two powers was, of course, the Ottoman Empire. Pushed from the East by the Mongolians who had repeatedly defeated them, the Turkish came to the edge of Europe and it was there were they started to grow. Osman I was the ruler under whom the Turkish success started to come to life, and the name of the whole Empire is, if sources correct, derived from his. Mehmet the Conqueror is another name familiar to history lovers, as he crushed the Byzantine Empire by taking over the heart of it, the city of Constantinople.
I won’t pretend I am an expert on Ottoman history now, after reading some sources such as Ecyclopaedia Britannica article on the origins and development of the empire, however there are some things that I had connected in my mind even before getting better informed. One of these things is the historic background for Romania’s flawed society and over corrupted system today, and it helps to understand how history makes reality.

What I have not known clearly before, but somehow felt it to be true, was the way the Ottoman power worked. The sources talk about how the strength of the whole empire relied on dominating territories which they were not particularly interested in occupying, but only getting resources out of (I can’t help now but say “aha!!” in my mind, an imaginary light bulb over my head – sounds a bit familiar with some approaches today). That is how the South and East of Romania, while under Ottoman rule, still had their local leaders who acted as vassals to the Sultan and had to pay tribute. Some of them would be rebellious and even managed to defeat armies sent to discipline them, which wasn’t particularly uncommon either in the empire. At times, local rulers would become strong, but then this was food for warriors in need of a new fight.
And the Ottoman power was built on the loyalty and fierceness of its Janissary army. Again, it was not clear in my mind before last night that these armed troops were actually entirely made of Christian slave boys from either occupied territories or the bordering countries, snatched from their families either by force or as an established part of the tribute. These boys were then grown and educated to become the perfect soldiers, loyal to death and always willing to fight for the Sultan. To keep them happy, however, there was need for conflict and opportunity to defeat and plunder.

At the same time, the Sultan’s Harem was made entirely of Christian girls and women. This came as a surprize, as many things concerning the private life of the Ottoman ruler. And somehow I owe this to the Turkish period soap opera. Well, my guilty pleasure proved not entirely bad after all.

In the Golden Age of this Eastern Empire, under the rule of Suleyman the Magnificent, who brought it to its largest territory in history, strange things happened in his harem.
To highlight these strange things I need to say first that the Sultans didn’t have wives. Not really shocking, considering that a wife would have had more rights, even in those times, than a concubine. If what I have read is correct, which I have no reason to believe it wasn’t, the sultan would have four Kadins, who were his favourite concubines. Also, the harem would be led by the Valide Sultan, the Queen Mother. The most favoured of the four Kadins was the one who gave him his first son and assumed heir to the throne. And then there were all the other concubines, most of them would only spend one night with the Sultan to whom they have been given as gifts or bought from the slave markets. There were many virgins in the harem, who performed the duties of servants.

So how shocking is it that the most powerful Sultan, the one who extended the empire into Europe by conquering modern Hungary and getting to the gates of Wien, broke all traditions in this aspect?
No wonder the story has the power to fire up imagination.

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(Photo: In 2009, at the entrance to Topkapi Palace, Istanbul)

An Ukrainian girl, kidnaped in a Tartar raid over her village, when she was only 14, then sold as a slave to the Sultan’s harem, had somehow pulled it off and got chosen for the Sultan’s bed. At the time there was already a favourite Kadin, who gave the Sultan his heir. However, the Ukrainian young woman, whom the Sultan named Hurrem (the cheerful one), became the love of his life. He wrote her poems, he named her his lover, best friend and advisor, and one of the sons she gave him became the new heir to the throne, after the former first Kadin was banished. He even freed Hurrem from slavery, and when she converted to Islam, took her as a wedded wife, breaking a strong tradition in the history of the Turkish Sultans.
Apparently, the reason why the women in the harem were enslaved Christians was that, by law, no Islamic woman could go to bed with a man who wasn’t her husband, this being considered adultery, a very serious offence. The Sultans imposed their way around it, until the strongest of them decided to wed his former slave.

I find this story fascinating in quite many ways. First, a strong woman succeeded to secure her place beside one of the strongest man in the world at them time, against odds. Second, with this started what was known in the Turkish history as the Sultanate of Women, which lasted for about 130 years, time during which either the consort or the mother of the Sultan in power, or both, played a very important and active role, behind the scenes, even in politics.
The say that behind every great man there is a great woman is somehow proven right. It might be the mother who brought him up. The correction I would bring is that there tends to be a great woman BY every great man.

Then there comes the romantic side. Give a man a whole harem, the opportunity to choose from hundreds of beautiful women, if he falls in love, he would stick by his loved one.
And another quite romantic detail is that this woman wasn’t considered to be a particular beauty. Ugly she wasn’t, according to the paintings showing her, but apparently the written sources mention that she didn’t distinguish herself by looks, but by brains, wit and a very pleasant presence.

These being said, I will go back to the way the empire dominated territories such as Wallachia and Moldavia, both part of today’s Romania. The Ottomans did not have any interested whatsoever, as a warring power, to invest in such territories, especially as they were led by local Christian rulers. They took tribute in money and resources, including humans. Some people who lived in poverty even sold their kids to be slaves, as there was a chance they could have better prospects for the future becoming Janissaries or going to the Sultans harem.
I grew up with stories in communist books about how strong and inventive the Romanian people were, how they always managed to fare through, how they faced Turkish armies even if they were outnumbered and not skilled in waging war. One of the best tricks up their sleeves was to run to the mountains when the Ottoman troops were approaching and to set fire to crops and poison wells. This way, the armies would have to go back. It was taught to us as a very inventive way to face the adversities of a strong empire.

I am not saying it wasn’t. The peasants wouldn’t have stood a chance against such armies, anyway. But on the other hand this was the state of things: lack of stability, starting everything from scratch again and again, a dominating power which never invests, but keeps on milking everything they can from the locals. This was indeed the story of the South and East of Romania, so different from how things were in Transylvania, were the Hungarian rulers, with the advantage of having a long range of mountains as a natural defence, strengthened the boarder and fought against the Turkish armies or had treaties with the Ottomans. 

It surely gives you much reason for reflection when you are of a nation always in between big powers, and only briefly managed to raise and develop, when the whole world is shaken somehow. The time Romania really flourished was late 19th century, early 20th, as both big closest empires shook and crumbled around.
Right now though, it feels like the country is still led by some distant rulers, who couldn’t care less of what really happened to it.

 

 

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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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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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Povești cu bunici

Am regăsit-o pe bătrână de cu două seri înainte la același semaforul din colț, cum treci din Piața Unirii spre strada Matei Corvin. De data asta am cumpărat un buchet de margarete, ocazie cu care chiar am privit-o: baticul, hainele, până și ridurile vorbeau cumva despre viața unei femei de la țară, obișnuită cu munca grea și traiul simplu. Pe partea cealaltă de stradă ne-am oprit să răspund la telefon, am văzut că altă fată cumpăra celălalt buchet de margarete și m-am bucurat.
Florile le-am folosit mai târziu, ca parte din decor pentru ”Zaraza” a lui Andrei Ruse, cumpărată astăzi în Librarium, și o dată ajunși unde suntem cazați le-am pus într-un borcan cu apă. Mă gândesc să presez una și să o păstrez în carte.

La Cluj am venit miercuri, într-un foarte plăcut drum cu trenul, din care două ore am dormit lungită pe toate cele patru scaune acoperite cu pluș, în timp ce A. mă veghea pe mine și bagajele. Cam egoistă, știu. Și de când am ieșit din gară mă bucur de orașul ăsta, cu arhitectura lui, cu străzile lui late și luminate, cu străduțele înguste și răcoroase, clădiri renovate la tot pasul, mâncare foarte bună și  oameni parcă mai relaxați decât în București.
După-amiaza am petrecut-o la Roata și în Shadow cu prietenii lui, oameni faini și foarte calzi, și cu umor de-ăsta ardelenesc de-ți merge la suflet. Am ieșit apoi la fotografiat, pe când treceam prin Piața Unirii se întunecase deja. La colțul cu semafor dinspre strada Matei Corvin nu am aruncat nici o privire bătrânei care vinde flori, dar i-am auzit glasul, blând, molcom, cu accent vălurit de Ardeal, simplu, neînsiropat în stilul  celor care îți întind câte un buchet vai de el, ca să cerșească de fapt agresiv și te fugăresc cu mâinile întinse până te răstești la ei. Mergând mai departe, cu ochii la fațadele luminate, printre terase ”de centru”, m-am întristat. Era deja aproape de teatru când am zis că a doua zi neapărat voi cumpăra un buchet de flori de la ea.

I-am spus și lui că m-am întristat și mă gândeam oare de ce. Ce a fost în glasul ei de m-a atins așa? Poate eram obosită, poate contrastul dintre terasele pline și simplitatea femeii de la țară, poate cumva gândul ascuns la bunicile noastre, care sunt trecute deja de 80 de ani și cine știe cât și cum vor mai trăi. Sau poate să fie ceva și mai adânc, acea parte a mea care rămâne legată de sau care poate tânjește după o viață aproape de natură și de oameni în același timp, în care nu totul are valoare pecuniară, în care familia și grija pentru cele ce te înconjoară contează mai mult decât ambițiile carieristice, necesitatea de a te simți unic și de a te așeza pe tine însuți în centrul întregului univers.

Au trecut ani buni de când mă tot gândesc să adun  poveștile bunicilor și să le păstrez amintirile chiar ca inspirație pentru literatură. Cred că merită spuse nu doar pentru că sunt ai mei, ci pentru că nu sunt singura care mă întreb cum au putut trece ei prin atâtea schimbări, cum a fost adolescența lor în timpul războiului, cum s-au îndrăgostit, s-au căsătorit și au avut copii într-o lume pe muchie de cuțit, aspră, nesigură, zdrobită sub călcâiul unor ideologii schiloade și mutilatoare. Și mai știu că există tentația de a romanța aceste experiențe ale generațiilor dinainte, mai ales ale bunicilor, pentru că lumea lor este cumva aproape de a noastră și de așteptările pe care le avem de la realitatea imediată, dar și la distanța perfectă pentru a o îmbrăca într-o aură delicată, un văl aproape nedetectat, ca o a doua pleoapă, aurie și transparentă, prin care privim înapoi.
Probabil că, genetic vorbind, dar și psihologic, ne simțim mai apropiați de bunici decât de părinții pe care avem nevoia naturală să-i contestăm pentru a ne elibera din umbra lor. Moștenirea bătrânilor însă părem să o purtăm de bună voie și chiar ca pe o necesară conectare la originile adânci.

De ani de zile îmi spun că mă voi așeza cu bunicile mele, Liubița și Georgina, la masă, ca să îmi povestească cele auzite și răsauzite, dar și amintiri încă neîmpărtășite. Am plecat de vreme bună de lângă ele, deși cu buna Liubița am crescut, în 2005 m-am mutat în București și de atunci ajung, în medie, de două ori pe an acasă. Le văd tot mai fragile, mai nesigure, ca și cum prezența lor fizică s-ar pierde ușor-ușor într-o umbră de amintiri fugare și gata să se risipească.

În iarnă, când am fost acasă singură și am petrecut mult timp cu familia, am reușit în sfârșit să o pornesc pe buna mea să-mi spună despre copilăria ei. Din păcate, nu e ușor. Atunci a vorbit parcă mai în voie, și-a găsit firmiturile de pâine ale unei vârste poate mult uitate și, ușor-ușor, când mai poticnit, când mai limpede, am adunat câteva ceva de la ea. După ce am plecat mi-a zis mama la telefon că îi povestea ei de îi facea capul calendar și că tot spune că o să se apuce să le scrie, cum am îndemnat-o.
Acum în vară mi-a fost mult mai greu să o mișc pe buna mea la vorbă. Se fâstâcea, își cerea scuze că face greșeli de gramatică, dacă nu a fost mai mult la școală, că nu-și găsește cuvintele așa cum ar vrea. La un moment dat a intervenit și mama, moment în care bunica s-a lenevit și a început, ca un copil, să tot tragă cu ochiul la televizor și să caute să scape. M-am și zburlit puțin la ea, zicându-i că dacă vrea să-mi lase ceva să-mi lase amintirile ei, că nu vreau nimic altceva.

Când am invitat-o pe ea să continue, fața mamei s-a luminat ca și cum s-ar fi așezat în fața unui foc nevăzut, care-i încălzea obrajii și-i strălucea pe retină. Contactul cu propria copilărie a adus în privirile ei, la fel ca în ale buncii astă-iarnă, un fel de dulceață caldă și moale, un fel de întoarcere asupra unei comori interioare, a unei vetre care încă păstrează un pumn de jar. Mă intrigă acel mod în care amintirile ne aprind, în timp ce descompun realitatea în franjuri prin care vedem ceea ce vrem să alegem, și nu mai suntem nici acum, nici atunci, ci într-un fel de interspațiu și timp din afară, nedefinit și fără limite.

Încă nu m-am lămurit dacă bătrânica din centrul Clujului m-a făcut să mă gândesc la propriile mele bunici, la visele tuturor bătrânilor noștri, la așteptările lor care s-au năruit, care s-au dat peste cap sau care s-au pierdut printre amintiri. Dar știu că modul în care văd viața bunicilor mei se apropie foarte mult de cum privesc țara asta, o Românie nesigură, mereu pe muchie, mereu cu șanse pierdute și cu generații de sacrificiu în lanț, una după cealaltă.
Totuși, sunt destule pe care trebuie să le scot de sub vălul unei a doua pleoape, interioare, și să le văd mai de la distanță, mai ca un privitor care nu simte nevoia să compeseze toate pierderile moștenite și duse mai departe. Atunci aș putea fi chiar eu cea care schimbă tonul, fundalul, direcția.

Între timp, poveștile bunicilor trebuie descoperite și păstrate ca marcaje, semnale, avertismente. Fără moștenirea asta, s-ar putea să ne trezim că tot ce facem este să căutăm să compensăm, să scuzăm sau să împlinim ceea ce s-a întâmplat deja, dar nimeni nu a reușit să-și asume, să împace și să încheie.

 

 

 

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