What Can Moldova's Crisis Teach The EU?

Moldovan socialists demand the government's resignation in Chisinau on October 29

Radio Free Europe
22 November 2015
by Charles Recknagel

The European Union faces tough challenges fostering its values farther east, where oligarchs who rule or wield enormous policy influence might not share Brussels' views on corruption and rule of law.

Moldova, a former standout among the six members of the EU's Eastern Partnership program, provides a telling example. The country has been rocked by a billion-dollar bank heist that emerged a year ago and charges of corruption that recently toppled the former ruling coalition that was leading the drive for European integration.

The turmoil in Chisinau raises fears that ordinary Moldovans are losing confidence in the reform process that backers argue can bring Moldovan institutions into line with European standards and deliver a better future.

It also risks fueling efforts by pro-Russian parties to discredit the EU and urge the former Soviet republic closer to Moscow.

Here are four lessons the crisis in Moldova offers on the challenges of EU eastern expansion:

Oligarchs Make Difficult Partners

Oligarchs dominate the political systems of the three Eastern Partnership countries actively working with Brussels: Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. Many of those magnates made their fortunes under opaque conditions and fund some of their countries' biggest political parties.

Some of these same parties are now leading their countries' respective drives toward Europe. But as Moldova shows, even when parties are formally committed to European values, old habits can die hard.

Moldova's governing coalition, the Alliance for European Integration III coalition, collapsed on October 29 in a no-confidence vote after months of street protests over the disappearance last year of some $1 billion from the state banking system.

At the same time, infighting within the pro-Europe camp is undermining efforts to put together a new pro-Europe alliance. The former ruling coalition splintered over the arrest last month of Prime Minister Vlad Filat, a businessman behind the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), on charges of state theft by the Prosecutor-General's Office, which is controlled by a rival oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, who controls the Democratic Party (DP). The turmoil has left an open playing field for pro-Moscow parties if there are early elections.

Stefan Fuele, the EU's former enlargement commissioner, says the political crisis in Moldova illustrates three factors that can hamper reform efforts. "The issue of concern is [firstly] the lack of sustainability of the reform process and, secondly, the polarization of society, and third, a kind of 'privatization' by oligarchs and political parties of the democratic institutions," he says.

After the formation of each new ruling coalition in Chisinau, for instance, it has been common for the parties to divide control of state institutions between them, including the nominally independent judiciary.

But Fuele says fixing these problems does not depend upon Brussels but upon Moldovans themselves. "We want to ensure in our dealings with our partners that they have all the capacity, all the conditions to make their own choice about their future," Fuele says. "We are not imposing a pro-European or any kind of future on our partners."

He says that civil society has a hugely important role to play in applying pressure upon ruling parties to do better. The street demonstrations taking place daily in Chisinau to express anger over the bank thefts and perceived government mismanagement may be part of that corrective process.

The three other countries in the six-member Eastern Partnership program -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus -- have taken little interest in reforms or are closely linked to Moscow.

Eastern Europe Is A Tough Neighborhood

The Moldova crisis equally illustrates the difficulty of spreading European standards into former states of the Soviet Union where Moscow opposes the effort.

As many Moldovans' confidence in reforms is shaken by the corruption scandal, pro-Moscow parties have been quick to urge turning to the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union instead. That union groups Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.

The pro-Moscow argument is made easier by the facts that Russia remains Moldova's main export market and one-half of Moldovans working abroad are in Russia.

The presence of a pro-Russian, self-proclaimed statelet called Transdniester within Moldova's borders, guarded by Russian peacekeepers, adds pressure to come to terms with Moscow.

"We should be more active in addressing [pro-Russian] propaganda about what the Eurasian Economic Union offers versus what the EU offers a country like Moldova," Fuele says. "It is a competitive neighborhood."

Judicial Reforms Must Come First

For some observers, what has happened in Moldova is no surprise.

"In most of the former communist countries the transition from dictatorship to democracy and the free market cannot be done without having corruption at the political level, there are too many opportunities," says Monica Macovei, a Romanian member of the European Parliament and a former justice minister.

She says the problem is compounded when the judiciary and other law enforcement bodies are weak or dominated by political powers -- the case in Moldova.

"A lesson learned by the EU from previous accessions is that the fight against corruption and the reform of the judiciary are the issues to start with, because if politicians don't start to be punished for corrupt behavior then you can't go forward with any reforms," Macovei says.

A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Perhaps the toughest issue raised by the Moldova crisis is whether Association Agreements, without a clear promise of eventual EU membership, are enough to encourage the Eastern Partnership states to stay the course.

"These countries suffer from oligarchic, corrupt systems which have held back their development over the last 20 years, and one question is whether the kind of relationship the EU is offering them gives some kind of leverage to those who like to see cleaner government," says Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the London-based Center for European Reform.

Brussels has offered Moldova considerable access to European markets, visa-free travel, and help with adopting standards that make its products to the EU and other global markets

Both Armenia and Ukraine faced intense pressure from Moscow ahead of the possible signing of such agreements, leading in the latter case to the so-called Euromaidan unrest that unseated President Viktor Yanukovych.

But what Brussels has not offered Moldova -- or Ukraine or Georgia -- is the certainty that if they do so they will be admitted to the EU.

The closest Brussels has come is its reassurance to a post-Yanukovych Kyiv that the Association Agreement Ukraine signed on March 21, 2014, in Brussels, "does not constitute the final goal in EU-Ukraine cooperation."

Fuele calls that affirmation a "light at the end of the tunnel that shows the way forward." He adds, "We must show a light at the end of the tunnel for the country which is seriously engaged in trying to become a member state."

But Brussels seems loathe to offer such encouragement when member states are divided over the question of bringing in Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia. "There is a question of enlargement fatigue and loss of confidence in the EU and that has to do with the prolonged economic crisis in the eurozone and now the refugee crisis," Bond says.

That suggests that EU may have to decide for itself whether it really wants new members before it can judge its eastern partners too harshly for stop-and-go progress toward European integration.

It also suggests that Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine might best focus on reforming their systems for the sake of improving their own states as much as for the goal of joining the EU.

RFE/RL's Moldovan Service contributed to this report

After Fire, Romania Finds Thousands of Safety Violations

New York Times
19 November 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romanian firefighting authorities have uncovered thousands of fire safety violations following a nightclub blaze last month in which at least 56 people died.

In a statement Thursday, the Inspectorate for Emergency Situations said it had checked 1,000 bars, nightclubs, discotheques, cinemas and malls from Nov. 9 to Nov. 16.

It said many public places lacked firefighting equipment, fire permits or did not hold fire drills. It also saw widespread violations of bans on using open flames, pyrotechnics and smoking in public places.

The inspectorate said it found 3,200 violations, of which 430 were fixed during checks. It said 37 "grave violations" had led to the closure or temporary shutdown of public places and it has handed out fines of 8.6 million lei ($2.07 million).

Stories of Those Who Died in the Paris Attacks

New York Times
17 November 2015
by The Associated Press

French President Francois Hollande said the attacks in Paris targeted "youth in all its diversity," killing at least 129. Here are some of their stories:

—Ciprian Calciu, 32, and Lacramioara Pop, 29, were among the millions of Romanians who have migrated West in recent years in search of better-paid jobs. The dream of a better life took them separately to Paris, where they met, became a couple and had a son, Kevin, now 18 months old.

They died at the Belle Equipe restaurant where they were celebrating a friend's birthday, said Calciu's cousin, Ancuta Iuliana Calciu.

"They weren't even sure what restaurant to go to. There was another one about 250 meters (yards) away they wanted to go to," she added.

Calciu repaired elevators and Pop, who had an 11-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, worked in a bar.

"I'm so glad they didn't take their son that night," Calciu's cousin said Tuesday.

Flowers and candles appeared at the gate of Pop's family home in the small village of Coas in far northwestern Romania, while in Tulcea, an eastern port at the end of the 2,860-kilometer (1,780-mile) River Danube, there was a memorial service on Monday at the church where Kevin had been baptized.

Romanian Parliament Approves Govt of Technocrats

New York Times
17 November 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—The Romanian parliament has approved a government of technocrats headed by an ex-European Union agriculture commissioner, after the previous government collapsed amid mass protests in the wake of a nightclub fire in which at least 56 died.

The nomination of Dacian Ciolos is a direct criticism of Romania's politicians who are perceived as being corrupt, arrogant and removed from the problems of ordinary people.

"This government has no political objective more important than supporting and strengthening democracy," said Ciolos Tuesday before Parliament approved his Cabinet by a vote of 389-115.

Ciolos named his Cabinet Sunday, but then withdrew the proposed health minister, a 28-year-old surgeon, after photos appeared of him modelling underwear. He also withdrew his proposed justice minister, a respected democracy activist, because she had not studied law.

Wikipedia 16 November 2015

Bucharest Metro train

On this day...

1979 – The first line of Bucharest Metro (train pictured), the M1 Line, opened from Timpuri Noi to Semănătoarea in Bucharest, Romania.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Biography of the Day
12 November 2015

Nadia Comaneci

Born this day in 1961, Romanian Nadia Comaneci (who later defected to the U.S.) was the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 in Olympic competition, scoring seven of them at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.

In Bucharest, the Old Town Sees New Life

Cristian Movila for The New York Times

New York Times
11 November 2015
by Kit Gillet

On a recent warm evening, the cobbled lanes around Strada Lipscani in the historical heart of Bucharest were bustling as young Romanians and tourists filled the many bars and restaurants in this once-dilapidated part of the city.

Music blared from packed venues where crowds spilled out onto terraces, while buskers sang on the pedestrian streets in front of the National Bank of Romania, an ornate, 125-year-old building in the center of the capital city.

Like Romania itself, which joined the European Union in 2007, Bucharest has slowly been emerging from the shadows of its Communist past. And nowhere is this more visible than on the streets where the youthful population and a strong artist and music scene blend with 19th-century French-inspired architecture and monolithic relics of the Communist period.

Until a few years ago, visitors to Bucharest’s Old Town would have found themselves in an area of potholes and badly lit alleys with crumbling 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, many inhabited by squatters. Yet after years of stop-start refurbishment by the local authorities, the Old Town has come back to life.

Jerry van Schaik, a Dutch entrepreneur who has lived in the city since 2001, recalled the height of the Old Town’s redevelopment, from 2010 to 2012, when teams from big companies like Heineken scoured the streets to negotiate contracts with all the new bars popping up. “There was this craziness,” Mr. van Schaik said over coffee in Grand Cafe Van Gogh, a laid-back cafe in the Old Town that he owned until recently. Next door is the Rembrandt Hotel, the boutique hotel he opened in 2005. Mr. van Schaik began his first venture in the area, Amsterdam Cafe, in 2002, when the Old Town was not a hot destination for most locals. “At that time it was more of a village feel,” he said. “But it was lively, with a lot of cars and a lot of business going on.”

The Old Town, less than a square mile of neo-Classical and neo-Baroque buildings, was traditionally one of the city’s main areas of commerce, occupied by merchants, beautiful churches and traditional inns. But the area fell into disrepair during the Communist era that ended in 1989, with many businesses moving out and poorer families moving in.

“This area was totally derelict, and nobody particularly wanted to go there,” said Corvin Cristian, a young Romanian architect and designer who created the interiors of some of the trendiest establishments today in the Old Town, including Divan, a Turkish restaurant, and Lacrimi si Sfinti, a restaurant that specializes in modern takes on traditional Romanian dishes.

The Old Town barely survived the Communist period, as Nicolae Ceausescu, the Communist-era dictator who ruled Romania from the late 1960s to 1989, embarked on his mass project to redesign the city, tearing down old neighborhoods to construct a new civic center and his grandiose Palace of the People, one of the world’s largest administration buildings, which still dominates the area southwest of the Old Town.

About a decade ago, in an effort to restore the historic Old Town to its former prominence, local authorities embarked on a project that essentially turned the area into a construction site. Many businesses did not survive the infrastructure overhaul, including Mr. van Schaik’s Amsterdam Cafe. Slowly, however, the now pedestrian-only streets were repaved, and bars and restaurants began moving back in.

Traditional spots like Caru’ cu Bere, a 19th-century beer house with stained-glass windows, have been joined by upscale restaurants like the Artist, a high-end concept restaurant opened in 2012 by the Dutch chef Paul Oppenkamp, and Lacrimi si Sfinti, which opened four years ago.

Late last year, Gabroveni Inn, an early 19th-century inn on Strada Lipscani, was reopened following a six-year, multimillion-dollar renovation as a cultural center hosting art exhibitions, concerts and talks, while Carturesti Carusel, a cavernous six-story bookstore in a former 19th-century bank, was opened with great fanfare in February.

Crowds have flocked to the rejuvenated neighborhood, though many of its oldest buildings remain in a precarious state after decades without significant repairs. Meanwhile, a recent deadly nightclub fire about a half-mile from the Old Town is likely to lead to tougher fire safety and building inspections for the city’s clubs and bars.

Some residents worry that rising rents are driving out the few remaining traditional businesses, including independent antiques shops that survived years of neglect only to be priced out by a proliferation of often-similar bars and restaurants.

For all the optimism, even some of the area’s biggest champions say Bucharest’s new Old Town is still finding its feet.

“We are still in this growing-up phase, still reshuffling,” Mr. van Schaik said. “Now we need more originality and authentic businesses to come in.”

Wikipedia 10 November 2015

On this day...

1940 – A magnitude 7.7 ML earthquake struck the Vrancea region of Romania, the country's strongest earthquake in the 20th century.

Romania’s President Picks Dacian Ciolos as New Prime Minister

Dacian Ciolos arrives for the first statement shortly after being designated by President Klaus Iohannis of Romania as the country's new prime minister. Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press

New York Times
10 November 2015
by Kit Gillet

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romania’s president on Tuesday nominated an expert on agriculture to replace Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who was ousted last week after major demonstrations by protesters angered by graft and lethargy in the government.

The president’s nominee, Dacian Ciolos, is considered to be a capable manager whose appointment could help calm the political unrest that has roiled the country. A nightclub fire on Oct. 30 in Bucharest, the capital, killed at least 48 people and touched off huge street protests over corruption and incompetence by government officials.

After two rounds of consultations with the major political parties and a meeting with advocates, entrepreneurs and other citizens, President Klaus Iohannis put forward Mr. Ciolos, saying that “an independent prime minister, a clean person with integrity,” was needed.

Mr. Ciolos, 46, has served as his country’s agriculture minister and, more recently, as the agriculture commissioner on the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union.

“With very few exceptions, the political parties have agreed with this idea, and I am convinced that it is the correct path for the next year until the parliamentary elections when we will have a new Parliament, a new government,” Mr. Iohannis said at a news conference.

Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party had proposed Liviu Voinea, the deputy governor of the central bank, for the position, while the opposition National Liberal Party had called for a snap election. But the Liberals backed down on Monday after failing to receive the necessary backing from other parties.

It is unlikely that Mr. Ciolos’s nomination will hit any roadblocks in Parliament. The resignation of Mr. Ponta—who is under a criminal investigation for financial misconduct—has tarnished Romania’s political elite, which is trying to appear united and clean up its image.

“Ciolos is not a polarizing figure, but his image is not yet defined in the eyes of the Romanian public,” said Radu Magdin, chief executive of Smartlink, a political consulting group. “He is not well known, but he has good credentials for leading a technocrat government and his experience in Brussels helps.”

Mr. Ciolos has 10 days to name ministers, draft a legislative program and ask Parliament for a vote of confidence. If he gets it, he is likely to hold office until parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2016.

Protests have continued in Bucharest in recent days, though with fewer demonstrators than the estimated 35,000 who took to the streets Wednesday, the day Mr. Ponta resigned.

APNewsbreak: Romania Nightclub Building Had History of Fires

New York Times
10 November 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—The Romanian nightclub fire that killed at least 48 people and toppled the country's government was preceded by three blazes in the same building, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. The findings raise new questions about whether authorities could have stepped in earlier to prevent the tragedy.

The records, obtained under Romania's freedom of information law, show that there were three small fires at the old shoe factory that housed the Colectiv nightclub—one in 2012 and two in 2014. Fire safety experts say that should have been a warning.

"Once is bad, two is ridiculous, but once you get to three you know it's going to end in tears," said Chris Fitzgerald, who spent 33 years with the London Fire Brigade, some of them inspecting the British capital's best known music venues. Colin Todd, who manages a British fire safety consultancy, echoed those concerns.

"To have three fires in three years in the same building—it's quite a lot," he said.

The deadly fire at Colectiv broke out after pyrotechnics from a heavy metal concert ignited some foam decor, sending a crush of panicked revelers toward the club's single exit. The toll from the Oct. 30 blaze—which rose to 48 on Tuesday after a victim succumbed to his injuries—has horrified Romanians, underscoring for many how corruption has sapped the nation's safety standards. Romania's President Klaus Iohannis has said nobody would have died if fire regulations had been respected; government ministers resigned last week amid an explosion of public anger.

Arrests and resignations have followed almost daily. Colectiv's three owners have been detained, prosecutors have raided the district town hall and officials have questioned the local police chief over how the venue was allowed to operate with only one exit. On Tuesday, prosecutors announced the arrest of two employees of the Inspectorate for Emergency Situations, which manages Romania's fire and rescue services, accusing them of having turned a blind eye to safety violations at Colectiv.

The records obtained by AP suggest that officials should have known there was a problem.

In a one-page response to a freedom of information request, the Inspectorate for Emergency Situations said that while it had not been called to any blazes at the club itself, the old shoe factory where it operated had caught fire three times between 2012 and 2014.

The first incident happened on July 30, 2012 when an expansion joint caught fire, the inspectorate said. The second blaze happened at a security officer's booth in Sept. 15, 2014. The third fire erupted in a storage area on Nov. 28, 2014.

Emergency Situations official Raed Arafat told AP that the fires were small and occurred on the other side of the building from the club. Still, he acknowledged there were safety concerns and other club owners said having fires erupt around a venue like that was unusual.

"I have never had a fire in the past 10 years in any of the clubs that I've run, or anything like that," said Ionut Budi, who has owned the Luv nightclub in the Black Sea port of Constanta, and has managed nightclubs in the city for the past decade.

Fitzgerald, the Fire Brigade veteran, said things would probably have turned out differently had Colectiv been in London.

Firefighters "would have immediately referred it to the fire safety department, and then someone like me would have gone and done an inspection and if it was immediate risk to life would have issued them with a prohibition notice," he said.

 "That's what would happen here."

Satter reported from London. Vadim Ghirda in Bucharest also contributed to this report.

Online: The Inspectorate for Emergency Situations' fire records

Romania's President Stops Planned $161M Loan to Moldova

New York Times
9 November 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romania's president has refused to sign off on a 150-million euro ($161-million) loan to Moldova that was approved by Parliament last month.

President Klaus Iohannis on Monday sent back the bill for the five-year loan to Parliament, saying the financial aid was not "opportune" without a guarantee that Moldova would continue pro-European reforms.

The loan agreement was signed in Moldova on Oct. 7, initiated by Victor Ponta, who resigned as Romania's prime minster last week after mass protests over a nightclub fire.

Moldova's Parliament dismissed its government on Oct. 29 after a former prime minister was arrested over bank fraud.

The country has been mired in political instability since up to $1.5 billion went missing from three banks ahead of November 2014 parliamentary elections.

Mood for Change: Demonstrators Demand Clean Romania

New York Times
8 November 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—A nightclub fire in Bucharest that killed at least 45 people became the tipping point for many Romanians who have long been frustrated with corruption among leaders. But as the government resigned amid street protests this week, many remained skeptical that the leaderless street movement will succeed in doing away with the old order.

The large protests followed the Oct. 30 nightclub fire, which many Romanians blame on a weak enforcement of regulations and corruption. They continued even after Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned on Wednesday, underlining deep social dissatisfaction with an often corrupt political order that has ruled the country since the transition from communist dictatorship to democracy a quarter century ago.

Political analyst Cristian Parvulescu said the nightclub fire proved to be "the last straw" because of a widespread feeling "that any of us could have been there."

"People feel the need for change, for new faces. We have had the same faces for 25 years and this has led to this revolt as there is a real lack of competition," said Parvulescu, who is the dean of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest.

Hard-charging anti-corruption prosecutors led by Laura Codruta Kovesi have stepped up an anti-corruption drive in the past couple of years securing a record 1,051 convictions in 2014, up from 743 the year before with even more are expected this year. Among those convicted since January 2014 are a former prime minister, seven former ministers, a former deputy prime minister, four lawmakers, one European Parliament lawmaker, 39 mayors, 25 magistrates and two business tycoons.

All the major parties in Romania's Parliament have been touched by the corruption probes and convictions—from the ruling Social Democratic Party and its junior partner, the National Union for the Progress of Romania to the opposition Liberal Party—leading to a belief that politicians enter politics to enrich themselves. But with many lawmakers critical of the anti-corruption drive, solutions are not clear-cut and the old guard is unlikely to easily surrender its power and way of doing politics.

"It is so fluid at the moment, the old guard is so entrenched and the protesters are not a single group who know what they want the future to look like other than that they want the current system gone," Daniel Brett, a Romania expert and associated professor at the Open University said in an interview with The Associated Press. "At the moment everyone wants rid of the old system, but no one knows what to replace it with, or how to replace it."

In addition to the corruption, the protesters—who have taken to the streets of the capital and other cities for the past five days—have also condemned the nation's politicians for being arrogant and isolated from the problems of ordinary people.

On Saturday evening, a couple of thousand people jammed University square, a traditional site for anti-government protest in Romania.

"We want change from the people who lead us, for them to respect us, for there to be less corruption," said Octavian Rachita, a 30-year-old graphic designer who has been protesting for the past five days. He held a banner saying: "We have to be the change we want to see."

Architect Aniela Ban, also 30, said she wanted to "feel safer."

"What happened was due to corruption. We need a better medical and education system and a press that does not distort events," she said.

The protests seem to have taken leaders off guard.

It was "a shock for politicians. They didn't expect it," Parvulescu said. "These protests are about the democratization of Romania. People want more democracy. Our democracy is a facade, it is window dressing."

Protesters have also directed their anger at the rich and powerful Romanian Orthodox Church, accusing it of failing to respond to the outpouring of national grief after the fire. Pressure had already been mounting for the state to curb the financial privileges of the church.

"We want hospitals, not cathedrals!" was one of the chants that protesters shouted this past week.

Protests have been cyclical in Romania, starting with the 1989 anti-communist revolt in which former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted and executed and more than 1,300 died.

Ponta came to power in May 2012 a couple of months after major street protests, promising change, but has since angered Romanians by reneging on promises for reform. He refused to step down when he was accused in June 2012 of plagiarizing his 2003 doctoral thesis, and again refused calls to resign when prosecutors announced in June 2015 they were probing him for tax evasion, money laundering and conflict of interest connected to work he did as a lawyer between 2007 and 2008. He denies wrongdoing.

Prosecutors have also been investigating Ponta's former finance minister, Darius Valcov, who is charged with taking 2 million euros ($2.1 million) in bribes when he was a mayor. Prosecutors say Valcov, who resigned in March 2015, had hidden works by Picasso and Renoir, and 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of gold, in a friend's safe.

President Klaus Iohannis, a local mayor and ethnic German who surprisingly defeated Ponta in November 2014 presidential elections, also came to power on the back of a spontaneous revolt. That protest movement was sparked after expatriate Romanians rallied in European capitals and farther afield to protest rules making it hard for them to vote in national elections.

He has been a key player this week, announcing an interim prime minister and meeting with civic groups on Friday for consultations on the social changes there are seeking.

"Romanians want a new approach and a new way of doing politics," Iohannis said Friday.

Drummer Dies to Bring Romanian Club Fire Death Toll to 45

New York Times
8 November 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—The drummer of a heavy metal band playing when a fire broke out at a nightclub has died, bringing the death toll from last week's tragedy to 45.

Bogdan Enache, drummer in the Goodbye to Gravity band that was playing in Colectiv on Oct. 30, died on Sunday evening, said the medical director of the state burns hospital, Cristian Nitescu.

Enache was being transported on a military plane to Zurich, Switzerland, on Sunday afternoon for treatment for his burns, when he went into cardiorespiratory failure, the Interior Ministry said. The plane headed back to Bucharest, while medics tried to resuscitate him for 70 minutes. He died after he landed in Romania.

Dozens of people injured in the blaze remain hospitalized with serious burns as authorities warn that the death toll could continue to rise.

Romania continued to send the injured to other countries for treatment. A plane from NATO arrived in Bucharest late Sunday and will take a number of the injured for treatment overnight to Britain and Norway, emergency situations official Raed Arafat said.

In recent days, a total of 21 injured people have been transported to hospitals in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Israel and Germany, the health ministry said.

A fire broke out at the Colectiv nightclub during a concert by the heavy metal group, after a spark from a pyrotechnics show ignited foam decor. The band's two guitarists died last week from their injuries.

In another development Sunday, President Klaus Iohannis appeared at protest staged by a few hundred people in University Square, now in its sixth consecutive day. Iohannis, who was surrounded by security staff, was booed by demonstrators who shouted "Resign!" He spoke to a few protesters and left after less than half an hour. Iohannis has called on Romania's civil society to take part in consultations for a new government.

"I saw revolt (in the square), but also hope that things can change," Iohannis said. "I told people to stay involved, that only together we can all make Romania the country we want it to be," the president said in a posting on his Facebook page.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his Cabinet resigned Wednesday after mass protests, which have continued this week.

Enache's death was the fourth reported on Sunday. Nitescu earlier reported that a man had succumbed to his injuries at the state burns hospital late Saturday.

Mediafax news agency reported two other patients died early Sunday at the Floreasca Emergency Hospital, including a Turkish man studying in Romania, and a woman who worked at the club's bar.

Nine deaths were announced Saturday, the highest number for a single day.

In Impossible Times Come Impossible Decisions

An honor guard soldier stands next to a monument in Bucharest, Romania, in Feb. 2012, that bears the names of Jews killed when the SS Struma—the ship they were on as refugees on their way to what was then Palestine—was sunk by a Soviet torpedo in the Black Sea. All but one of the 779 people on board died. Vadim Ghirda/AP

National Public Radio
6 November 2015
by Alva Noë

The Struma was sunk by a Soviet torpedo in February 1942 as it sought to carry its cargo of Romanian Jews to safe harbor in what was then called Palestine by way of the Black Sea.

This terrible event isn't very well remembered today, but it marked the lives of my family. My father Hans Noë, who is now 86, shared this chapter of his story with me and my mother recently.

It's hard not to think of these events without recalling that similar struggles and traumas are confronted on a daily basis by the displaced people of Syria as well as other lands.

My father was a young boy living in the prison-ghetto of Czernowitz (Chernivtsi) around this time. Czernowitz is in Ukraine today but it was part of Romania back then (as a consequence of the break-up of Austria-Hungary after WWI). He and all the Jews of Czernowitz had been driven from their homes and confined to a single area of the city. As he recalls, there were about 20 people to a room in the apartment where he and his family were staying. The small house belonged to the Brettschneiders.

I asked my father about the Brettschneiders. Who were they? Did they have any choice about whether to let so many people into their home? Did they charge rent? My father only remarked that when there are thousands of people outside your door, you don't have a lot choice.

Some mornings, my father remembers, the mattresses were pushed to one side and an Italian man named D'Andrea, together with his assistant, an appraiser, would arrive and set up a little table, with a little scale and a magnifying glass. They would sell tickets for the Struma. The Struma was a ship that, it was advertised, would take Jews abroad to safety.

During those times, my father says, there was always a question: Should the family stay together, or should it break apart? The family that stays together runs the real risk of dying together. Separately, at least some of them might have a chance.

But, then, how do you break up a family? Do you send the kids to safety? By buying them passage on a boat such as the Struma? What if you can't afford to send them all? How do you decide which child to send?

My dad, it turns out, had a ring-side seat to impossible deliberations of this kind. He sat there—it was his bedroom after all—while families lined up and begged and bartered for tickets. How many tickets could be bought for this watch, or this ring? D'Andrea's appraiser was quick to explain that the goods on offer were of little or no value. Fathers and mothers made hard choices. Is it worth giving up their only disposable wealth for a single ticket?

Periodically, D'Andrea would lean over to the kid who happened to have a box of matches. That was my father. He would put a match to the Italian's cigar. The bartering and begging and sweating would carry on.

My grandfather, I am told, never seriously considered booking passage on the Struma for his own family. It was too risky. You had to travel by land to the port, after all, and no Jew could travel legally. He was also unwilling to break up his family. In any case, my dad sat there while the Italian extorted his neighbors, a witness to a quiet little atrocity.

This all happened more than 70 years ago. But there's a question that, to this day, keeps my father awake at night. It brought him to the point where he shared it with me: What if you had sent your only child, or one of your two kids, on a ship that promised to bring him to safety—and he didn't make it?

What if you had chosen for survival the one you thought had better chances. Maybe you thought he was old enough, or smarter maybe, or simply more capable of dealing with being on his own, than his brother or sister. For whatever reason you chose him. And then he didn't make it; the boat meant to carry him to safety carried him and everyone else on board to their doom instead.

Suppose you had done that, that that was your son, your choice. How do you live with that?

You assume that you face certain death, my father says. So, you pick one so that he will survive. This is an act of reason. It is an act of sick reason. But this act of reason gets undone, reversed, made ridiculous by a simple fact: The boat sinks, the chosen survivor dies and those who had been condemned to death, we live. Or do we?

My father asks: "Is it possible to survive at all from these kinds of events? I try to understand who or what survived in my own life."

My mom and I talked with him and tried to understand his words, to appreciate what keeps him up at night.

"It's like an equation, he says, and there's no solution. Maybe I'm telling you so that it will keep you up at night. And I can get some sleep."

And, so, I'm sharing it with you. Impossible choices, insoluble equations of this kind, confront mothers and fathers, and affect children, in Syria and around the world right now.

For someone who has known what my father has known, nothing has changed.

What does it mean to survive events of this kind?

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Günter Schabowski, the Man Who Opened the Wall

Gerard Malie/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

New York Times
6 November 2015
by Michael Meyer

We often think of history as somehow inevitable, the culmination of great, grinding geotectonic forces. What to make, then, of Günter Schabowski, who died this week at age 86. Few people will mark the passing of this improbable man of destiny, who made Cold War history with a shrug.

It was the evening of Nov. 9, 1989. A few weeks earlier a band of Communist Party reformers ousted the hard-line boss of the German Democratic Republic, as the eastern part of Germany behind the Iron Curtain was then known. Faced with mass protests in Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin, they sought to project a new face of change. And that night, Mr. Schabowski, an obscure functionary, became that face—and changed the world in a most unlikely manner.

The dramatic fall of the infamous Berlin Wall, the symbol of five decades of Cold War, played out almost as farce. It began in the early evening when Mr. Schabowski, newly appointed as Communist Party spokesman, dropped in on his boss en route to his daily press conference, itself an innovation for the secretive, all-controlling Communists.

“Anything to announce?” he asked casually. The party chief, Egon Krenz, thought for a moment, then handed Mr. Schabowski a two-page memo. “Take this,” he said with a grin. “It will do us a power of good.”

Mr. Schabowski scanned it in his limo. It seemed straightforward: a brief on legislation his boss forced through a reluctant Parliament that very afternoon that would give East Germans the right to travel to the West—and in doing so make the new regime the heroes of the people. At the press conference, he read it out as item four or five on a list of sundry announcements. It had to do with passports. Every East German would now, for the first time, have a right to one. They could go where they wanted, including to the West.

For a people locked for so long behind the Iron Curtain, this was momentous news. There was a sudden hush, then a ripple of excited murmuring. Mr. Schabowski droned on. From the back of the room, as the cameras rolled broadcasting live to the nation, a reporter shouted out the fateful question. “When does it take effect?”

Mr. Schabowski paused, looked up, suddenly confused. “What?”

The chorus of questions rang out again. Mr. Schabowski scratched his head, mumbled to aides on either side, perched his glasses on the end of his nose, shuffled through his papers, looked up—and shrugged. “Ab sofort.” Immediately. Without delay.

With that, the room (and the world) erupted. We now know that Mr. Schabowski was largely oblivious to the earthquake his words had caused. In fact, he had returned from a short vacation that very day. He didn’t know that the new rules were supposed to take effect the next day, Nov. 10—subject to all sorts of fine print, including the requirement to obtain visas. East Germans didn’t, either. All they knew was what they had just heard on radio and TV. Thanks to Mr. Schabowski, they thought they were free to go. Now. Ab sofort.

By the tens of thousands, in a human tide not unlike that descending on Europe today, they converged on Checkpoint Charlie and other crossing points to West Berlin. Surprised and overwhelmed, receiving no instructions and not knowing what else to do, East German border police acted on their own. Like Mr. Schabowski, they shrugged—and threw open the gates to freedom. And so the Berlin Wall came down.

What to make, then, of Mr. Schabowski’s improbable action? A “botch,” his boss would later scornfully call it, that within a few months would bring down not only Communist East Germany but the entire Soviet empire.

There are important lessons here. One is never to underestimate the power of accident. What if Mr. Schabowski had not messed up, and the next day his citizens began lining up in orderly queues to visit the West? The dramatic images of East Berliners standing triumphantly atop the Wall, victors over a hated regime, would not exist. Without them, would the Velvet Revolution have come to Prague a week later? Would Romanians have arisen against the evil dictator Nicolae Ceausescu?

Another lesson: Amid great social upheaval, it is possible at any point, at any time, for events to take a different course. Why this, not that? The answer seems to be those countless individual choices at key moments—accidents of human messiness, such as Mr. Schabowski’s, but also the courageous or inspired decisions of many others during the events of 1989, from solitary dissidents to masses of ordinary people who stood up and spoke out.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III knew this well, considering it an antidote to national hubris. “Ask any American who brought down the Berlin Wall, and nine of 10 will say Ronald Reagan,” he told me a few years ago. The truth, he went on to say, is that “we had hardly anything to do with it.” The great events of 1989 were ultimately a triumph of ordinary people, individually and collectively.

It is enormously heartening, this view of history. It gives people agency. It underscores how much the individual matters. It proves the power of one: Günter Schabowski and his seven minutes that shook the world.

Later in his life, when he was living in a small town in a united Germany, I spoke with Mr. Schabowski about that fateful evening. Yes, it was a mistake, he readily agreed. “What was I to do?” he asked. “I couldn’t exactly say, ‘Oh, never mind.”’

Did he regret it? Not in the least. Liberated from power and position, and after a stint in jail, he had cheerfully frank and unvarnished views. He and his ilk were creatures of an oppressive and corrupt system that could never be made to work, he told me. They deserved the dustbin of history. In the end, he was happy to see it happen. With his bungle, he helped put a very human face on one of the greatest events of the 20th century.

Michael Meyer, dean of the graduate school of media and communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, was Newsweek’s bureau chief for Germany and Eastern Europe during the final years of the Cold War. He is author of “1989: The Year That Changed the World.”

Outrage Ripples Through Romania After Government’s Collapse

Tens of thousands gathered Thursday in Bucharest, the capital, as a wave of nationwide protests spread throughout Romania. Daniel Mihailescu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

New York Times
5 November 2015
by Kit Gillet

BUCHAREST, Romania—On Tuesday night, an estimated 20,000 Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest, the capital, demanding political change. The next morning, Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned, saying he acknowledged a “legitimate anger in society.”

The collapse of the government did not stop the protests, however. As smaller rallies, attracting many thousands, took place in cities across the country on Wednesday evening, the crowd swelled to 35,000 in University Square, and many marched on the Parliament building to vent their frustration with a government they see as corrupt and inept, and likely to be replaced with more of the same.

The catalyst for Romania’s unusual wave of popular outrage is a nightclub fire that killed 32 last week. Grief was quickly channeled into anger over lax enforcement of regulations at the nightclub, and protesters demanded that high-level officials be held accountable and that a new government, run by technocrats, be established.

Along with Mr. Ponta, Cristian Popescu Piedone, the mayor of the Bucharest district where the nightclub is, resigned on Wednesday. That, too, did little to stem the broad public discontent.

“You can’t buy us with two resignations,” the protesters chanted.

Other protest movements have erupted in Romania in the last few years, notably in 2012, when protesters blamed the government for failing to adequately respond to the country’s financial crisis, and during last November’s presidential election, when thousands of Romanians rallied to protest voting difficulties for Romanians living abroad. However, some analysts see the current protests, among the largest since the overthrow of the Communist regime in 1989, as a potential turning point.

“People have learned that if they go out on the streets in significant numbers, it can actually lead to politicians’ stepping down,” said Adrian Moraru, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy in Bucharest.

On Thursday, President Klaus Iohannis seemed to be willing to listen.

“I have a message for the protesters: I saw you, I heard you, I will take into account your demands,” said Mr. Iohannis, announcing that the education minister, Sorin Cimpeanu, a technocrat, would be interim prime minister until a permanent successor was named.

Mr. Iohannis said he would include parties other than the political elite in consultations over whom to appoint in discussions set for the next two days.

“I decided that, further to the consultations with the parties scheduled for today and tomorrow, to consult for the first time a new actor: the civil society,” he said. It is not yet clear who will represent the civil society.

Whether this will be enough remains to be seen.

“People died, and their deaths were mainly caused by corruption,” said Madalina Enache, a 28-year-old project manager who was protesting on the streets of Bucharest on Wednesday evening.

“The only ones arrested so far are the owners of the club, not the politicians who are most responsible,” she said. “This government will just be replaced by others from the same parties. We want change. All the system is corrupt. We want to change it all.”

Many of those out on the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday were young men and women who said they wanted to live in a country where they could see real progress.

“We are out because there is a corruption of the whole political class and we desire a better future,” said Iustinian Balanescu, 20, a political science student. “We needed to come out in these numbers to get rid of the whole political class. We are tired by them, disgusted by them.”

On Wednesday evening, as the streets filled with people, some in the crowd held up banners displaying lyrics from a song by Goodbye to Gravity, the band performing at the nightclub when the deadly fire broke out. The lyrics read, “ ’Cause the day we give in is the day we die.”

Romanian Queen Marie’s Heart Returns to Her Castle

Romania Insider
5 November 2015
by Irina Popescu

The heart of Queen Marie of Romania has finally found its rest at the Pelisor Castle in Sinaia mountain resort, in the room where it beat for the last time.

On Tuesday, November 3, the box containing the Queen’s heart was moved from the National History Museum in Bucharest to the small castle in the Carpathian mountains. The ceremony included a military procession with public organized at the museum and a religious procession at Pelisor Castle.

The first part of the ceremony started at 11:00 in front of the National History Museum. Princess Margareta, Prince Radu and Princess Maria attended the event, as well as members of Princess Ileana’s family.

There were also representatives of Romanian and Moldavian authorities, together with diplomats, soldiers from the Mihai Viteazul Guards Regiment, the Representative Band of the Army, and representatives of the Romanian Gendarmerie.

The second part of the ceremony, which took place at Pelisor Castle, started at 13:30. This is when the Queen’s heart was placed in the castle’s Golden Room, the room where she drew her final breath in 1938. As of November 3, His Majesty the King declared this room a Royal Chapel, reports

Queen Marie was the wife of King Ferdinand I, who ruled Romania from October 1914 until 1927, a period which included the First World War and Romania’s Unification at December 1, 1918. Born into the British royal family, she was titled Princess Marie of Edinburgh at birth. She was one of the greatest personalities in Romania’s history. She died on July 18, 1938, at Pelisor Castle.

She was the grandmother of King Michael of Romania and the grand-grandmother of Princess Margareta, the heir to Romania’s throne.

Sorin Cimpeanu Is Appointed Interim Prime Minister of Romania

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Bucharest, Romania, on Wednesday night, continuing protests and calling for significant changes in government. Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press

New York Times
5 November 2015
by Kit Gillet

BUCHAREST, Romania—Sorin Cimpeanu was appointed interim prime minister of Romania on Thursday, replacing Victor Ponta, who resigned a day earlier after huge protests over a nightclub fire in Bucharest where 32 people died.

President Klaus Iohannis’s appointment of Mr. Cimpeanu, who was elevated from education minister, is a stopgap measure until a new candidate for the post is selected.

Mr. Iohannis has said that he will hold meetings with the main political parties about the formation of a new government over the next two days.

Despite the resignation of Mr. Ponta, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Bucharest, the capital, and other Romanian cities on Wednesday night, continuing the protests and calling for significant changes in government.

Mr. Iohannis appeared to have received the message, saying he would also consult with people outside the political elite about a new prime minister.

“I decided that, further to the consultations with the parties scheduled for today and tomorrow, to consult for the first time a new actor: the civil society,” he said. “I will convene for Friday afternoon a group representing both the civil society and what we call ‘the street.’ ”

It was not yet clear who would be part of that group.

AP Photos: Romania's Orthodox Church Is Target of Protests

New York Times
5 November 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Protesters calling for an end to widespread corruption and better governance this week have turned their anger to the powerful and rich Romanian Orthodox Church in the wake of a nightclub fire which left more than 30 dead.

Public discontent with the church is at an all-time high after it failed to address an outpouring of national grief. Pressure is mounting for its financial privileges to be reviewed.

"We want hospitals, not cathedrals!" chanted tens of thousands of protesters this week.

Protesters want an end to hefty state subsidies to the nation's biggest church, to which 85 percent of Romanians belong, and for the church to pay tax. Other officially registered churches are also given subsidies.

The Humanist-Secular Association says Romania has 18,300 churches, compared with 4,700 schools and 425 hospitals. Many were built after communism ended and religious restrictions were lifted.

In 2014, an election year, the government allocated 12 million euros ($13 million) for the "Cathedral of the Salvation of the People" a giant church under construction in Bucharest, and 30 million euros ($32.4 million) for building and repairing other churches.

Governments have been wary of challenging the influential church, which some politicians rely on for political support.

Hundreds of thousands of believers attend the church's five major annual pilgrimages, and the church has a monopoly on the production of beeswax candles.

Believers pay fees for funerals, weddings and baptisms.

See photographs on the AP webpage.

Wikipedia 4 November 2015

In the news...

• Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta (pictured) resigns over the fatal Colectiv nightclub fire.

Romania’s Prime Minister Resigns After Protests Over Deadly Nightclub Fire

Thousands in Bucharest, Romania, demonstrated against the government on Tuesday evening, accusing it of lax oversight that led to a deadly nightclub fire. Daniel Mihailescu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

New York Times
4 November 2015
by Kit Gillet

BUCHAREST, Romania—Prime Minister Victor Ponta of Romania, already under pressure from a corruption inquiry, said on Wednesday that he was resigning after huge protests in response to a nightclub fire over the weekend that killed at least 32 people.

More than 20,000 people took to the streets of Bucharest, the capital, on Tuesday night to demand the resignations of Mr. Ponta; of Gabriel Oprea, the deputy prime minister; and of Cristian Popescu Piedone, the mayor of the Bucharest district where the nightclub is.

“I have the obligation to acknowledge that there is legitimate anger in society,” Mr. Ponta said in a statement. “People feel the need for more, and it would be wrong of me to ignore this.”

Protesters blame the government for the lax granting of permits and for inadequate inspections of public venues. Some in the crowd carried signs that read “Corruption Kills.”

“I do not want, nor do I think it is fair, to leave this responsibility on those who have been in the field or on the mayors, secretaries of state, ministers,” Mr. Ponta said in his statement. “I am ready to be the one to make this gesture that parts of society are waiting for, and starting today, I am resigning my mandate as prime minister. I do this because in my years as a politician I put up a fight in any battle with political opponents. However, I won’t put up a fight against the people.”

The scale and urgency of the protests had shaken Romania’s political establishment.

On Tuesday night, President Klaus Iohannis wrote on his Facebook page: “I am impressed by the events this evening. It is a street movement that comes from the desire of people to have their condition and dignity respected. I understood that they ask and expect, rightly so, for someone to assume political responsibility.”

After Mr. Ponta’s resignation, a government meeting was scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday, when the cabinet is to decide on next steps.

Mr. Ponta, who had been in office for three and a half years, was already the subject of controversy. He was indicted in July on charges including forgery, money laundering and being an accessory to tax evasion while he was working as a lawyer in 2007 and 2008.

He had strenuously denied the charges and, until Wednesday, resisted calls to step down, although he did surrender his position as the leader of the Social Democratic Party.

In 2012, the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, announced that it would increase monitoring of Romania because of alarm about the country’s insufficient commitment to democratic values. Romania and Bulgaria joined the bloc in 2007 on the condition that they submit to regular reviews because of concerns about corruption and organized crime.

At that time, Romania was told that “urgent” action was needed to show its commitment to the rule of law, after a clash between its newly elected government and Traian Basescu, then the president, provoked a crisis.

Michael Wolgelenter and Palko Karasz contributed reporting from London.

The Strange, Dark Nights of Romania's Bear Dancers

Annual bear parade—Each winter in the rural Moldova region of Romania, locals dressed in bearskins gather in troupes to perform dances to drive away evil spirits. In 2014, New York-based photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi captured the annual festivities.

2 November 2015
by Barry Neild

To outsiders, the sight of a troupe of dancing bears, decked out in blood-red tassels, stomping through the snowy streets of a small Romanian town might be a strange, almost sinister sight.

But for those who live in Romania's eastern Moldova region, the arrival of the bears—actually locals wearing real bearskins—is a time of celebration.

The event takes place annually between Christmas and New Year's.

It's a tradition that, until recently, few beyond the tight-knit rural communities of the Trotus Valley have witnessed.

But a series of images by New York-based photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi has captured this mysterious ceremony and brought it to a wider audience.

Alhindawi, a former humanitarian aid worker now pursuing photo projects mainly across Africa, is half-Romanian and lived there until she was 8, when her family left as refugees, first to Canada and then New York.

"The bear dances were always one of my favorite memories," she tells CNN. "It's a joyous event, although the dancers don't look that way in the pictures—they're trying to look fierce."

Bear Tamer

Alhindawi's beautiful images show men and women in full bear costume, parading through the streets in and around her old hometown, Moinesti.

They're accompanied by drummers and a singing "bear tamer."

Candid shots also show the bear dancers enjoying downtime—smoking cigarettes, sharing drinks, relaxing and even kissing.

The bear dancing is meant to drive away evil spirits.

It owes its origins to the time when local Gypsies, also known as Roma, would descend into towns from the forests in which they lived, bringing with them real bears.

Townsfolk would pay the Gypsies in exchange for letting the bear cubs walk up and down their backs—seen as a cure for backache.

Older bears would be made to "dance" by being placed on hot metal plates that would make them hop up and down.

Alhindawi says this took place as recently as the 1930s.

Her grandmother, now in her 80s, recalls seeing Roma leading bears on leashes down from the forest when she was five or six years old.

"The tradition is very undefined because Roma don't write their history down," says Alhindawi. "I've done research but no one can figure out how they went from live bears walking on people's backs to people dressed as bears."

The costumes involved in the dance are actual bearskins.

Economic Hard Times

While bear dancing was once an exclusively Roma activity, Alhindawi says they've been priced out because a ban on bear hunting has escalated the price of the skins up to €2,000 ($2,200).

Most Roma, she says, have sold theirs and can't afford new ones.

Hard economic times following the collapse of communism meant an end to the days when crowds of bear troupes were welcomed in every house with food, drink and money.

Now fewer groups make prearranged stops at the homes of community figures or restaurants, where they can pick up tips of up to $100.

Recently, some have been able to make more money traveling to bigger cities like Bucharest to perform for wealthy clients.

Even though the tradition is still cherished by locals, Alhindawi says it's in danger of dying out as local cultures are diluted by Western influences and many people leave home.

Welcome Contrast

"Romania has a problem with out-migration because there are no jobs for people of working age," says Alhindawi. "They're all away in Italy or Spain or other places.

"In rural areas it's mostly older people and very young kids, everyone else is gone."

She says she hopes her photos will help pique international interest in the tradition and perhaps bring visitors to an area that sees few tourists despite spectacular scenery.

For Alhindawi—still coming to grips with working as a photographer in troubled regions, despite considerable acclaim for her work so far—shooting the bear troupes brought a welcome contrast.

"As a new photographer, I'd like to be able to concentrate more on taking a good photo, but in east Africa, I have to watch my back a lot," she adds.

"It was so great to go to Romania and focus 100% on the photos instead of worrying about the guy with the big gun that might sneak up on me."

See more photos on the original article webpage.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi is a photographer based in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

These Famous Monsters Might Not Be As Terrible As You Think

National Public Radio
31 October 2015

Trivia expert A.J. Jacobs tells NPR's Scott Simon that Frankenstein may not have been such a brute after all. And Dracula was just misunderstood.


It's Halloween. What could be more terrifying than talking to A.J. Jacobs, our resident scholar on the nonessential? A.J.'s done some, as usual, minimum resource to discover that many monsters apparently aren't so terrible, merely misunderstood. A.J. joins us from New York. Thanks very much for being with us, A.J.

A.J. JACOBS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So Frankenstein—or (imitating foreign accent) Frankenstein—wasn't such a bad guy, right?

JACOBS: No. I think...

SIMON: Misunderstood, misunderstood.

JACOBS: Misunderstood—that's what I'm here to do is trying to salvage the reputation of some of these Halloween monsters. So yes, Frankenstein I think gets a really raw deal in the reputation department. We all think of Frankenstein's monster as this monosyllabic idiot from the movies. But actually, in Mary Shelley's original novel from 1818, Frankenstein's monster was more of a sensitive intellectual type. He read Plutarch and Goethe. He was more Brooklyn hipster and less unfrozen caveman.

SIMON: (Laughter) I hear—I sense a sequel coming on.

JACOBS: (Laughter) That's interesting, I like that option.

SIMON: I like that—you know, Frankenstein in Brooklyn. Dracula—there's now a Dracula 2.0 in some minds.

JACOBS: Right. Well, Bram Stoker named Count Dracula after Vlad Dracula, who was a notoriously bloodthirsty ruler from the 14th century in what is now Romania. His nickname is Vlad the Impaler because he did like to impale his enemies on wooden sticks. But that said, some Romanians are on a mission to show he had his good side. There's a recent museum exhibit in Romania that argued Vlad the Impaler was a victim of a Western European smear campaign. So yes, he was cruel, but so was every other ruler at the time. Plus, this I liked—Vlad was sort of, like, a medieval Bernie Sanders. He wanted to reclaim the country from the corrupt aristocracy. He was fighting the 1 percent.

SIMON: By impaling them one by one, you mean?

JACOBS: (Laughter).

SIMON: And black cats, we shouldn't be fearful, right?

JACOBS: No. They have a terrible rap, but they have not always been considered bad luck. In Japan, in ancient Egypt, they were considered good luck. And in England, in 1800s, sailors' wives believed that owning a black cat would protect their husbands when they were at sea, so everyone wanted a black cat. And there was a black cat shortage, and there was a literal black market in black cats.

SIMON: I'm going to go through the motions of being interested when I ask this next question.


JACOBS: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Have you discovered the origins of the jack-o'-lantern? (Laughter).

JACOBS: I have. I was, yes, one of the scholars who figured it out by searching on Google. And it turns out that Jack of jack-o'-lantern fame was not such a terrible guy. In fact, he's quite clever and entrepreneurial. And he almost outwitted the devil, so that's the Irish folktale. Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree to get him an apple. And then Jack carved a cross on the tree trunks so the devil couldn't get down. So Jack says I'll take away the cross if you promise never to send me to hell. So they made a deal, but, of course, the devil being the devil, he found a loophole. So he didn't send Jack to hell, but Jack was consigned to walk the earth forever, holding a lantern to light his way. And by the way—this is important—the lantern was made of a turnip, not a pumpkin. So somewhere along the line, the turnip industry got really screwed.

SIMON: Have you ever opened the door and seen a trick of trick-or-treater dressed as B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music?

JACOBS: (Laughter) No. But that's a great idea for my kids today.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JACOBS: I was going to go as Robert Siegel, so that'll be perfect.

SIMON: Esquire magazine's editor at large A.J. Jacobs. Happy Halloween, A.J.

JACOBS: Thank you. Happy Halloween, Scott.

Deadly Fire Roars Through Romanian Nightclub

Emergency workers outside a nightclub in Bucharest, where a fire killed at least 26 people. Inquam Photos/Reuters

New York Times
30 October 2015
by Liam Stack

Fire tore through a nightclub in Romania on Friday night during a rock concert that promised a dazzling pyrotechnic show, killing at least 27 people and spreading confusion and panic throughout a central neighborhood of Bucharest, the capital, The Associated Press reported.

At least 180 people were injured in the fire at the Colectiv nightclub, according to The Associated Press.

The club had advertised a concert by a local band, Goodbye to Gravity, on its Facebook page. The band was playing from a new album, “Mantras of War,” the club said, and the show was to include “a customized light show and pyrotechnic effects.”

It was not clear whether the promised pyrotechnics had caused the fire. Reuters reported that a witness said there were fireworks inside the club and that a pillar and the club’s ceiling had caught fire, followed by an explosion and heavy smoke. Video posted to Facebook by Titi Dinca, a journalist working for Romanian state television, showed ambulances and fire trucks racing through the city streets and people being treated on the sidewalk. His post described the scene with one word: “Explosion.”

Klaus Iohannis, the president of Romania, wrote on Facebook that he was “shocked and deeply saddened” by the fire. He offered no information on what had caused the blaze. “It is a very sad moment for all of us, for our nation and for me personally,” he wrote. “At this painful time, I express my full compassion and solidarity with the families of those affected by this tragedy.”

Original Sketch of Brancusi's Endless Column Goes on Display

New York Times
26 October 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—An original sketch of sculptor Constantin Brancusi's iconic Endless Column has gone on show for the first time in his native Romania.

Organizers said Monday that the 9 x 6-centimeter (2.4 x 3.5-inch) ink sketch was drawn over a photograph of the park in the central Romanian city Targu Jiu where the sculpture was erected in 1938. The sketch is the central piece in an exhibition dedicated to Brancusi in the city of Timisoara.

The brass-clad sculpture was built to honor Romanian heroes of World War I. It survived communist attempts to pull it down in the 1950s.

The 1937 sketch was loaned by the daughter of the engineer who helped Brancusi with the technical aspects of the 30-meter sculpture.

Romania's Ex-President Prosecuted for Crime Against Humanity

New York Times
21 October 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—A former Romanian president appeared Wednesday before the nation's top court, which is prosecuting him for crimes against humanity during a bloody anti-government protest 25 years ago in which six people died and hundreds were wounded.

Ion Iliescu, 85, went to the High Court of Cassation and Justice to hear the charges connected to the government's violent repression of the June 1990 protest. He denies wrongdoing, but made no statements during Wednesday's session.

A court statement said Iliescu is being prosecuted for the deaths of four people, the shooting of three others and depriving 1,000 people of their freedom. Prosecutors haven't explained why Iliescu is being charged with four deaths rather than six.

The head of the Romanian Intelligence Service at the time, Virgil Magureanu, a close ally of Iliescu, also appeared before the court. Asked whether he was guilty of crimes against humanity, he said: "That's a stupid question."

The defense minister at the time, Victor Stanculescu, also appeared, telling reporters that prosecutors had cited him as a suspect in the case.

Club-wielding coal miners and police broke up a weekslong pro-democracy protest in Bucharest in 1990, arresting and beating thousands of people. Iliescu later thanked the miners, drawing criticism at home and abroad.

Romanian television stations on Wednesday replayed the footage of Iliescu thanking the miners.

The European Court of Human Rights has ordered Romania to pay compensation to victims.

The case was never properly investigated because of the continued presence of former communists in government. But in March, military prosecutors reopened the case.

Thousands of Romanians emigrated after the 1990 riots amid doubts about Romania's commitment to democracy six months after the ouster and execution of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

Iliescu was elected president of Romania three times, serving from 1990 to 1996 and from 2000 to 2004.

US Ambassador Says Romania Still Needs a Lot of Reforms

New York Times
13 October 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—The U.S. ambassador to Romania on Tuesday urged politicians to continue reforms, stop political meddling in the management of state-owned companies and create a regulatory system which fosters investment.

"Stop meddling in the management of state-owned enterprises for political gain and allow these enterprises to operate according to good business practices, so that all Romanians reap the benefits," Ambassador Hans G. Klemm said at a conference organized by the American Chamber of Commerce.

Klemm praised Romania for taking steps to reduce nepotism, and for the anti-corruption drive which has seen the prosecution of senior politicians, including Prime Minister Victor Ponta whose trial began in September.

The ambassador did not cite any cases of meddling "for political gain." But among hundreds of corruption prosecutions there have been examples of politicians who extorted or embezzled money to enrich themselves and bestow favors to advance their political careers.

In one high-profile case, Finance Minister Darius Valcov resigned in March after prosecutors charged him with taking 2 million euros ($2.14 million) in bribes, including a Renoir painting and gold bars, in exchange for awarding contracts to a local businessman when he was the mayor of a small town.

The mayor of Bucharest, Sorin Oprescu, was suspended after he was arrested last month on charges of being part of a bribery scheme in which where city officials allegedly demanded a percentage from companies in exchange for awarding contracts.

Klemm said Romania's regulatory climate "still lacks cohesion and long-term vision," and called for rules that are transparent, predictable and stable.

The ambassador said Romania had the advantage of a well-educated workforce and resources such natural gas, forests and farmland.

"Romania's potential is great....but so too are the reforms that it must undertake to realize it," Klemm said.

The career diplomat took up his post in September, filling a position that had been left vacant since December 2012.

Boyhood Encounter With UFO Inspired Art That Soared Around The World

Ionel Talpazan's "Fundamental UFO" Courtesy of Henry Boxer Gallery

National Public Radio
3 October 2015
by Scott Simon

Ionel Talpazan thought he saw a UFO when he was a boy, and never stopped seeing them. Of course, he created them.

Ionel Talpazan was 60 years old when he died this week, of diabetes and stroke. He was a boy in a small village in Romania, given up by his parents and raised by a succession of foster parents. He told interviewers he escaped into the woods one night because he thought he would be beaten.

He saw a blue, beating light in the sky above, and was sure it was a spacecraft.

Ionel began to draw spacecraft; I'm not sure you can call them UFOs when an artist gives them such a vivid, colorful identify.

It is hard not to think that a lost, frightened little boy in the woods would dream and draw pictures of amazing machines to swoop down from the heavens and take him away.

But Ionel Talpazan had to make his own escape. As a young adult, he swam across the Danube River and into Yugoslavia, where he lived in a refugee camp before he could get to New York in the 1980s.

He had rough times in his new world, too. But Ionel continued to draw pictures of spacecraft he imagined, often thrown open to reveal innards as elaborate as schematics; but rarely people. He slept in a cardboard box near Columbus Circle and sold drawings, paintings, and small flying saucers that he made out of plaster and scavenged parts.

I don't know where life would have led Ionel Talpazan if he'd slept in a cardboard box on a corner of, say, Akron or Peoria. But in New York, a famous art figure named Henry Tobler saw an artist in his drawings, and wrote about him in scholarly journals. His pictures were included in Manhattan art galleries, and from the 1990s on, Ionel made his way in the world by his art.

By the time he died, his works had hung at the American Visionary Art Museum, and museums in San Franciso, London, Berlin, Madrid, and France. Talpazans were sold in fancy galleries from Soho to Chelsea. The man who had slept in a box moved to a New York apartment.

"My art shows spiritual technology, something beautiful and beyond human imagination, that comes from another galaxy," he once told the Western Folklore journal. "So, in relative way, this is like the God."

Ionel Talpazan imagined incredible things, and made them alive in the eyes of others. In a way, he did escape on his UFO.

Museum Prepares to Send Heart of Last Queen of Romania Home

A museum employee poses for photographs with a silver casket used to transport the heart of Queen Marie, the last queen of Romania. Andreea Alexandru

New York Times
2 October 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—A museum in Bucharest is preparing to send the preserved heart of the last queen of Romania to its final resting place—the castle where she died.

Deputy curator of the National History Museum, Cornel Constantin Ilie, told the AP Friday the museum would transfer the heart of Queen Marie in its silver casket to Pelisor castle on Nov. 3.

Marie died in 1938. She asked for her heart to be publicly displayed after her death and it was exhibited by two castles before it was sent to the museum in 1970.

Marie's son, King Carol also ruled Romania while her grandson, King Michael, was forced to abdicate by the communists in 1947.

Michael, now 93, will decide later if the heart should go on display again.

Ionel Talpazan, Whose U.F.O. Art Had Sightings All Over, Dies at 60

Ionel Talpazan, pictured in 1999 with his painting “Father and Son in Space.” Daniel Wojcik

New York Times
29 September 2015
by William Grimes

Ionel Talpazan, an outsider artist from Romania who sold his visionary works of U.F.O.s and life in outer space on the sidewalks of Manhattan before being discovered in the late 1980s, died on Sept. 21 in Manhattan. He was 60.

The cause was complications of a stroke and advanced diabetes, Aarne Anton, his dealer at the American Primitive Gallery in SoHo, said.

Mr. Talpazan claimed that one night in the Romanian countryside, when he was 8, a strange, hovering shape slowly descended from the sky, enveloping him in a celestial blue light, and then disappeared. The experience haunted him and became the source of his art.

His paintings, drawings and sculptures dealt, obsessively, with U.F.O.s and their inner workings, often shown in cross section and heavily annotated in Romanian.

He insisted that his work had value not only for art lovers but also for NASA scientists, since it articulated the magnetic forces and antimatter at work in the propulsion systems of his spaceships.

“My art is about the big mystery in life,” he told the journal Western Folklore in 2008. “How did we get here on planet Earth? Why are we here? Is there life on other planets?”

Ionel Talpazan (pronounced yah-NEL TAL-puh-zan) was born on Aug. 16, 1955, in the commune of Petrachioaia, Romania. After being given up by his parents, he was raised by foster parents in Maineasca, one of the commune’s four villages.

His close encounter with a U.F.O. occurred when, fearing a beating for misbehavior, he slipped out of his bedroom window in the middle of the night and walked out into the surrounding countryside, where he stood transfixed by what he called “a blue energy” radiating from a mysterious source overhead.

The incident left him confused, but also deeply interested in the idea of space travel, and he set about rendering his interplanetary visions, especially U.F.O.s, on paper. “I felt that by drawing them, I might penetrate their mystery,” he told The Independent of London in 1996.

He escaped from Romania, where he had worked in the construction trade, by swimming across the Danube to Yugoslavia in 1987. After several months living in a United Nations camp in Belgrade, he was granted political asylum by the United States and emigrated to New York.

A television documentary on U.F.O.s rekindled his interest in space, and he began drawing hypothetical interplanetary spacecraft. “He was interested not so much in aliens as in otherworldly technology,” said Daniel Wojcik, whose book “Outsider Art, Trauma and Visionary Worlds” will be published by the University Press of Mississippi next year. “He thought flying saucers would help bring about a better world by introducing a benevolent technology.”

In New York, Mr. Talpazan lived hand-to-mouth, at times sleeping in a cardboard box near Columbus Circle. He sold his work on the sidewalk, becoming a familiar sight at the entrance to the annual Outsider Art Fair, then held in the Puck Building in SoHo.

He was discovered by the art dealer Henry Tobler, known as Jay, who saw him selling work outside the Museum of Modern Art and wrote about him in 1990 in Folk Art Messenger, the journal of the Folk Art Society of America.

In the 1996 exhibition “Visions of Space & UFOs in Art,” at the American Primitive Gallery in Manhattan, more than a dozen of Mr. Talpazan’s works covered one wall, some of them bought by the artists Brice Marden and Terry Winters. The following year, at the same gallery, he was the subject of a solo show, “Ionel Talpazan: U.F.O.: Art & Science,” and at the Musée d’Art Brut in Neuilly-sur-Marne, France.

Mr. Talpazan rendered his U.F.O.s in various guises. Some adhered to an illustrational realism; others were abstract and heavily patterned like mandalas. Some works showed a single U.F.O. lifting off from an unidentified planet. Others showed multiple saucers engaged in battle or disappearing into a wormhole.

His titles were matter-of-fact yet otherworldly: “Red UFOs and the Statue of Liberty,” “Father and Son in Space,” “UFOs Over NYC.”

His U.F.O. sculptures, a little wider than a Frisbee, were made of plaster and painted silver or blue, then outfitted with brightly colored portholes and exhaust pipes and set on pedestals made from scavenged parts.

In the New Jersey newspaper The Star-Ledger in 1997, the critic Dan Bischoff wrote that they resembled “those old metal tops that you sent spinning by pushing a spiral rod down into the center, big and rounded and Art Deco-looking, like two hubcaps from a Studebaker stuck together.”

Mr. Talpazan’s work was exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.

In 2013, work by Mr. Talpazan was included in “The Alternative Guide to the Universe” at the Hayward Gallery in London and “Farfetched: Mad Science, Fringe Architecture and Visionary Engineering” at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design in Raleigh, N.C. This year he was part of the exhibition “Arstronomy” at La Casa Encendida in Madrid.

Mr. Talpazan, who lived in Harlem, is survived by two brothers and two sisters. About a year ago, on taking American citizenship, he legally changed his name to Adrian DaVinci.

“My art shows spiritual technology, something beautiful and beyond human imagination, that comes from another galaxy,” he told Western Folklore. “Something superior in intelligence and technology. So, in relative way, this is like the God. It is perfect.”

Romanian Music Festival Thrives Despite Local Turbulence

New York Times
22 September 2015
by Reuters

BUCHAREST—One of Eastern Europe's biggest classical music festivals draws bigger and bigger stars every year though its main hall is an acoustic disaster from communist times and the local government of host city Bucharest is in turmoil.

The 22nd edition of the George Enescu Festival, which ended this past weekend, boasted appearances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Dresden Staatskapelle, the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra and, after 15 years of negotiations, the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle.

The 2017 edition will see Milan's La Scala, conductors Valery Gergiev and Antonio Pappano, as well as the superstar Chinese pianist Lang Lang, among others.

"You have the most beautiful festival and the greatest public in the world," Indian-born maestro Zubin Mehta told reporters a day after he conducted the Israel Philharmonic.

"Every musician on stage is happy to see the smiling faces of the Romanian public, so we can't wait to come back."

A notable triumph of the Enescu festival, which is named for Romania's most famous composer, George Enescu, and was founded in 1958, is not only that it survived during the repressive communist rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, but that it seems to float above the corruption scandals of modern-day Romania.

Halfway through the three-week-long festival, anti-corruption prosecutors arrested Bucharest Mayor Sorin Oprescu, pending a criminal investigation on suspicion he awarded public contracts in exchange for bribes.

There was no immediate impact on the festival, but the city is among its biggest patrons. The bulk of the festival's budget of 8 million euros ($8.93 million) comes from the Romanian central government through the culture ministry, which has a high turnover of ministers.

"I am the 13th culture minister since 2003," Culture Minister Ionut Vulpescu told a conference. "I am absolutely convinced the festival will carry on at the standard of the latest editions."

Romania's ever-changing political landscape means, though, that the festival organisers must fight hard to obtain funds for operational costs, and must make do with outdated facilities.

Successive governments have never made good on vague promises to replace the main 4,000-seat Sala Palatului hall, which was built in 1960 for communist party meetings and has poor acoustics.

"I am sorry to say goodbye to you in this hall of party congresses," Ioan Holender, the festival's outgoing honorary chairman and artistic director for the past 14 years, told the audience before the Berlin Philharmonic performed there.

Mehta is to replace Holender as honorary chairman while the London Philharmonic Orchestra's lead conductor Vladimir Jurowski is rumoured to become the new artistic director, although the ministry has yet to announce it.

None of the turmoil seemed to faze Rattle, and the Berlin Philharmonic is set to return to the festival in 2019.

"The Enescu Festival has an incredible record in supporting and encouraging music, whatever is going on in the world outside," he said.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Michael Roddy/Mark Heinrich)

Prosecutors Indict Romania PM on Corruption Charges

New York Times
17 September 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romanian prosecutors on Thursday formally indicted Prime Minister Victor Ponta on corruption charges, including tax evasion and money-laundering, and said he will be tried by the country's top court.

Ponta will not be arrested, Livia Sapalcan, the spokeswoman for the anti-corruption prosecutors' office told The Associated Press.

The 42-year-old Ponta is the first sitting Romania prime minister to be indicted and have his assets seized. He denies wrongdoing and has refused to resign, saying he wants to remain prime minister until the December 2016 parliamentary election.

Four other people have also been indicted in the case and will stand trial.

There was no immediate comment Thursday from Ponta, who was attending a meeting of the country's top defense body to discuss Hungary's plan to build a fence along part of its border with Romania to deter migrants. Romania opposes the idea.

Romania's President Klaus Iohannis said the development was "more and more problematic" for Ponta and the government, and was harming Romania's international image.

Prosecutors first named Ponta a suspect on June 5 and he was indicted in July on charges including tax evasion, money-laundering, conflict of interest and making false statements while he was working as a lawyer in 2007 and 2008. At the time, Ponta was a lawmaker.

Prosecutors say Ponta forged expense claims worth at least 181,000 lei ($45,000) from the law firm of political ally Dan Sova, who was also indicted Thursday. They say he pretended to work as a lawyer to justify getting money from the law firm. The funds were used to pay for two luxury apartments and the use of an SUV.

Prosecutors say after Ponta became prime minister in May 2012, he appointed Sova as a minister three times, which constituted a conflict of interest.

Ponta stepped down as head of the ruling Social Democratic Party on July 12.

‘Aferim!,’ an Oscar Contender, Explores the Enslavement of the Roma

A scene from Radu Jude’s “Aferim!,” a film about the search for an escaped Roma slave in 19th-century Wallachia, part of modern-day Romania. Silviu Ghetie

New York Times
8 September 2015
by Kit Gillet

BUCHAREST, Romania—The slow black-and-white scenes in which two horsemen ride through vast, bleak landscapes in Radu Jude’s latest movie, “Aferim!,” could have come straight out of a classic American western, as could the central theme of injustice. Yet the movie is set in 19th-century Wallachia, part of modern-day Romania, where for almost 500 years ending in 1856, the Roma (or Gypsies, as they have been more commonly known) were viewed as property to be bought and sold.

The film, which won the Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is now Romania’s entry for best foreign-language picture at the Oscars, has been described as the country’s “12 Years a Slave.” The comparison underscores the effect “Aferim!” has had here: The film has set off widespread discussion about enslavement of the Roma, a subject that until recently had rarely been aired in public.

“Among Roma activists, the movie really had an impact, and many are thinking how to use it to raise awareness,” said Margareta Matache, who from 2005 to 2012 was the executive director of Romani Criss, a leading Roma rights organization here, and is now an instructor at Harvard.

“In the U.S., there’s a sense of embarrassment about slavery—in history books, memorials, continual reminders,” she said. “In Romania, slavery existed for almost 500 years, but there is nothing—nothing in the history books, in museums, no reference and no memorials.”

In 2011 Romania designated a holiday to commemorate the abolishment of the slavery of the Roma in 1856. But Mr. Jude, the film’s director, said that even then, the subject was “only really discussed by close circles of historians and Roma activists.”

His first two films, also widely praised features, were far more contemporary tales of family struggles. He said that “Aferim!,” with its historical emphasis, was born not only out of the lack of general knowledge about the slavery period but the second-class treatment of Roma today.

“I wanted to look at how the repercussions of the past come into the present,” said Mr. Jude, who at 38 is a leading filmmaker in Romania.

He discussed his film on a terrace in central Bucharest. At a nearby antiques market, people buy and sell items from the country’s period of Communist rule, which ended in a revolution in 1989. But “Communism didn’t create all of the problems we need to deal with,” he said.

“Aferim!” is only the second Romanian film to address slavery, Mr. Jude said. (The first, the 1923 silent “Gypsy Girl in the Bedroom,” has apparently been lost, with only a few stills surviving.) In the new movie, a constable and his teenage son track a runaway slave, meeting a cast of characters along the way who underscore the xenophobia of the ruling class, peasantry and Orthodox Christian priests of the day. With dark humor, the movie (for which an American release is planned next year) touches on the long history of anti-Roma prejudice in many parts of Europe, including Romania.

The story is fictional, but Mr. Jude said he drew on the historical record. Before shooting began, he held a script reading with 20 historians and made adjustments in response to their input.

Wallachia was heavily influenced by the Ottoman Empire, and the word “aferim” is Turkish for “bravo.” Mr. Jude said that the word appears often in historical documents and therefore came to be part of the story, adding a touch of irony.

“The characters in the film say ‘Aferim!’ to each other as they feel they are doing the right thing,” he said. “It is very symbolic, this aspect.”

While “Aferim!” has largely been greeted positively by audiences and critics, there has been some backlash since its commercial release here in March. “After the movie came out there were hundreds of anonymous comments posted online saying these Gypsies should be killed and that we are destroying the image of our country” by making the film, Mr. Jude said.

He said his reaction was simply, “Instead of concentrating on changing the image of Romania, why don’t they focus on changing Romania?”

Since the film won the Silver Bear, Mr. Jude and others in the country’s film circles have been looking ahead to the 2016 Academy Awards with anticipation. Romanian directors have fared well at international festivals in recent years, with Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “Beyond the Hills”) and Calin Peter Netzer (“Child’s Pose”) taking top awards, although no Romanian movie has won an Oscar.

“Aferim!” is a striking departure from those movies, which were often dark social commentaries on contemporary or Communist-era Romania.

Irina Trocan, a Romanian critic, said of “Aferim!”: “Based on artistic merit, it is worth the Oscar, but I’m not sure it is going to get it. I hope it wins—it would be great for Jude, and for Romanian cinema.”

Mr. Jude is more relaxed about the movie’s Oscar prospects.

“It is more important that the film is discussed and used as a tool for further thinking and research,” he said. “That’s more important than someone saying, ‘That’s a nice film.’”

Where Dracula Was Born, and It’s Not Transylvania

The remains of 13th-century Whitby Abbey, “a most noble ruin,” as Bram Stoker described it, above the town of Whitby in Yorkshire, England. Credit Andy Haslam for The New York Times

New York Times
8 September 2015
by Ann Mah

From its quay in early summer, Whitby was a sun-scrubbed idyll, fluttering with the trimmings of a typical English seaside holiday. Souvenir shops hawked postcards and sand toys, pub bartenders poured midday pints of beer, and the smell of fish and chips hung on the breeze. Along the shore, a row of rainbow-hued beach huts sheltered swimmers brave enough to take a dip in the North Sea. A group of sunburned schoolchildren raced through cobblestone streets, past antiques shops and tearooms, toward the 199 steps ascending to a cliff. I followed them, listening as their excited chatter gave way to dead silence. “Please, Miss,” a little girl appealed to her teacher in an unnerved tone, “I can’t go up there.”

It wasn’t difficult to see why. At the top loomed the stuff of nightmares: the skeletal ruins of the 13th-century Whitby Abbey. Surrounded by gravestones, it offered the only obvious hint that this picturesque town on England’s Yorkshire coast is the birthplace of one of Gothic horror’s most famous villains: Dracula.

Bram Stoker spent just a month in Whitby, but those four weeks in July and August 1890 were pivotal for his most famous book and creation. (Whitby celebrated the 125th anniversary of Stoker’s visit this year.) Though large portions of “Dracula” unfold in Transylvania (now Romania)—which he describes as “one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe”—Stoker himself never ventured east of Vienna. Instead, it was this fishing-village-turned-Victorian-resort where he began work on the supernatural tale, and he honored his muse by setting key portions of the narrative within its charming streets. During my visit, I discovered that Whitby still captivates, largely because of the “beautiful and romantic bits” that inspired the Irish novelist—but it also still nurtures a dark undercurrent.

Bram Stoker. The author began work on his classic horror story ‘Dracula’ in Whitby in 1890, and set parts of the narrative there. Credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“A lot has been written about Bram Stoker,” said David Pybus, the honorary manager of the Whitby Museum. “Most of it is rubbish.” Take, for example, a bench perched on a bluff, dedicated with a plaque that reads: “The view from this spot inspired Bram Stoker to use Whitby as the setting of part of his world-famous novel Dracula.”

Not actually possible, Mr. Pybus said: “That area was inaccessible to the public at the time of Stoker’s visit.” But at the museum, his diligent examination of Stoker’s letters and other documents offers an unusually accurate account of the author’s Whitby sojourn. “ ‘Dracula’ is a remarkable narrative of a Victorian upper-middle-class holiday in Whitby,” he said.

On vacation from his London day job as business manager to Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the Victorian stage, Stoker spent his first week in Whitby alone, relishing the break from his demanding boss. The two men had a complex relationship rooted in admiration, sycophancy and chats that persisted until dawn so that the actor could decompress after performances. And so, though Stoker was familiar with vampire imagery from the folklore of his Irish childhood, as well as his studies at Trinity College Dublin, some scholars have theorized that the mercurial Irving actually inspired the blood-sucking, megalomaniacal Count Dracula.

Stoker lodged at 6 Royal Crescent on the West Cliff, a stately, residential neighborhood that is today awash in bed-and-breakfasts. His wife and young son eventually joined him, plunging into a whirl of concerts, teas and amateur theater at the Spa, the seaside pavilion at the town’s social center. But Stoker preferred walking along the cliffs while howling at the wind, and researching his nascent tale—the fifth of 12 novels—at the Whitby Library (today, the building houses a popular restaurant, the Quayside). There, in a book called “An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia” by William Wilkinson, he discovered the name Dracula, which means “devil” in the Wallachian dialect. “The book is still in our catalog,” Mr. Pybus said. “But we can’t find it.”

Like the character Mina Murray Harker—the levelheaded, tender-necked young lady who narrates the book’s Whitby section—Stoker spent hours at St. Mary’s graveyard, which overlooks the town. He relaxed among the tombstones, admired the “myriad clouds of every sunset-colour-flame,” and absorbed local lore from the retired seafarers who gathered there. Some of the lighter moments in “Dracula” are drawn from these conversations, which Stoker rendered in thick Yorkshire dialect. (“These bans an’ wafts an’ boh-ghosts an’ bar-guests an’ bogles an’ all anent them is only fit to set bairns an’ dizzy women a-belderin’. They be nowt but air-blebs!”)

Though the bands of crusty mariners disappeared with Whitby’s fishing industry around the turn of the 20th century, the churchyard remains a popular spot for tourists and locals—a resting place both temporary and eternal. After huffing up those 199 steps that lead to it from the town’s high street, I paused to admire the view of the harbor mouth sweeping open to the North Sea. In 1885, a Russian schooner crashed on the beach directly below, a dramatic shipwreck that captured Stoker’s imagination. He seized the details for his book, adding a spectacular storm, a crew of corpses and a shape-shifting Dracula bounding triumphantly to shore in the form of a black dog.

Whitby’s harbor. It opens to the North Sea, where a dramatic shipwreck in 1885 was the inspiration for a scene in the book. Credit Andy Haslam for The New York Time

A short walk away, I gazed at a photograph of the wreckage that inspired the scene. “Stoker would have seen it in the gallery window,” said Mike Shaw, the owner of the Sutcliffe Gallery, which is devoted to the work of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, a noted 19th-century photographer who “captured working-class Victorian life in Whitby before industrialization.” In Sutcliffe’s sepia-toned prints, Whitby appears misty, moody and—if you replace the somberly dressed fishwives with tourists—almost identical to today. “It hasn’t changed much,” Mr. Shaw said, “except the fishing industry is almost nonexistent. Now we’re dependent on the tourist industry.”

Indeed, Whitby burnishes its tourist appeal with a sense of timelessness: old-fashioned pubs, quirky boutiques and fish-and-chip shops, which, in quintessential Yorkshire fashion, use beef drippings for frying. But the town also harbors a shadowy side as black as the masses of jet mourning jewelry it produced during Queen Victoria’s reign. Twice a year, in April and October, it hosts the Whitby Goth Weekend, a music festival founded in 1994. Mr. Shaw likened the autumn event to “a global Goth gathering—thousands of Goths come.” Even during my visit in the off-Goth season, I spotted Goth clothing shops dotting the side streets, and jet boutiques displaying pendants of skulls, spiders and bats.

As the sun descended, the real bats emerged, swooping over the remains of Whitby Abbey—“a most noble ruin,” as Stoker described it—and disappearing over the rooftops. I walked through empty streets, peering down narrow alleys and secret staircases that ended in pools of darkness. In one of the book’s most gripping scenes, Mina runs through these same streets after dark, hurrying to save her sleepwalking friend, Lucy, as she’s attacked in the churchyard by “a man or beast” with “white face and red, gleaming eyes.” I headed in the other direction, away from the churchyard and any shadowy figures. When I turned to look behind me, I saw the setting sun had stained the abbey and its surrounding gravestones as red as blood.

That night I slept with my window closed.


Getting There

Trains run hourly between York and Scarborough. The journey takes 50 minutes and a one-way ticket is £7.10, $10.60 at $1.50 to the pound. From Scarborough, buses run hourly to Whitby; the trip takes about an hour and costs £6.90 one way.

What to See

Stoker took brisk daily walks, often to Sandsend or Robin Hood’s Bay. Information and trail maps are available at the Whitby Tourist Information Center (Langborne Road;

Where to Stay

The West Cliff neighborhood is crammed with bed-and-breakfasts, all similar. Make your choice based on proximity to the town center.

Where to Eat

Whitby abounds in award-winning fish-and-chips shops, notably Magpie Café (14 Pier Road; 44-1-947-602-058) and Trenchers (New Quay Road; 44-1-947-603-212). Both fry only in beef drippings, and both offer takeout (complete with newspaper wrapping), as well as table service, with a larger menu of simple, cozy dishes like fish pie.

The Tea Stall (Pier Road) opens year-round at 7 a.m. to serve Whitby’s now tiny fishing fleet bacon or sausage sarnies (sandwiches), and mugs of delectable Yorkshire tea.

Sherlocks Coffee Shop (10 Flowergate; 44-1-947-603-399) serves sandwiches, cake, ice cream and delicious currant scones heaped with double cream, for lunch or tea.

After a brisk tramp to Sandsend, tuck into local fare at Bridge Cottage Bistro(Bridge at Sandsend; 44-1-947-893-438), like North Sea potted shrimps with brown bread, or grilled mackerel with rhubarb from the cottage garden.

Protesters Set Up Tent City, Vow 'Non-Stop'
Action in Moldova Over Banking Fraud

New York Times
7 September 2015
by Reuters

CHISINAU—Protesters who camped overnight in the Moldovan capital Chisinau vowed on Monday to press round-the-clock action against what they see as widespread corruption and force the resignation of senior officials including the president.

Angered by a fraud in which $1 billion—roughly the equivalent of one eighth of gross domestic product - has disappeared from the banking system, tens of thousands of protesters streamed into the capital of the poor, largely rural, ex-Soviet republic on Sunday. They massed near the government building in the biggest protests the country has seen.

The fraud has caused a sharp depreciation in the national currency, the leu, fuelling inflation and driving down living standards in what is already one of Europe's poorest countries where many struggle by on a family income of about $300 a month or rely on money sent back by relatives working abroad.

It has seriously damaged the image of pro-Europe leaders who have ruled since 2009 but have done little to halt gross economic mismanagement or shake off accusations of high-level graft.

About 150 protesters set up about 80 tents and demanded the resignation of President Nicolae Timofti and other officials including the governor of the national bank and early parliamentary elections.

"Our protest action will go on non-stop. People will go from here only when our demands are met," Valentin Dolganiuc, a leader of the civic platform Dignity and Justice (DA) which organized the protest, told Reuters.

Slogans in Sunday's huge protest targeted Moldova's super-wealthy oligarchs, particularly condemning two of the country's major power-brokers, former prime minister Vlad Filat and Vladimir Plahotniuc, Moldova's wealthiest oligarch.


The action united people from across the spectrum in a country heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies and where strong pro-Russian feeling exists especially in rural areas.

A display board in the "tent city" naming those who should be held to account included leaders from the pro-Russian socialists and communists as well as virtually all the pro-EU leadership.

Many protesters on Sunday held EU banners aloft while some speakers backed union with Romania of which Moldova was a part before 1940.

"We have a duty to take back our country which the oligarchs and bandits have seized from us," said Elena Cebanu, a 26-year-old nurse who spent the night in the tent city.

The scandal around the missing $1 billion has led to the EU and other economic partners withholding assistance to Moldova until it is back on an International monetary Fund program.

(Writing By Richard Balmforth; editing by Ralph Boulton)

A Train Journey From Communism to
Freedom, Almost Ended in Hungary

New York Times
6 September 2015
by Rukmini Callimachi

More than three decades ago, my mother, grandmother and I boarded a train in communist Romania, armed with the papers my mother had painstakingly gathered in an effort to give me a better life. I was 5 years old, and I had been told we were going on a holiday to Paris. I realized something was wrong when my surrogate grandfather Tata Geo (Father Geo) broke into sobs as we left the house.

It was March 7, 1979, and you needed special permission to leave the totalitarian country; passports were issued only to those who could prove they were returning. That meant that anyone who tried to leave for good was forced to break the law, and the consequences for getting caught made the decision to leave as final and harrowing then as it is today for the thousands of migrants arriving on Europe’s shores.

For weeks leading up to our departure, my mother talked loudly about the plans she had for expanding the balcony of our Bucharest apartment. She also cashed in her savings to buy a color TV, the first our family had owned, in the hopes that the Securitate agents assigned to track our family would be fooled into thinking we planned to return. My father agreed to stay back, sacrificing himself in an effort to make it appear as if the family were still rooted in Romania.

The night of our departure, I lined up my stuffed animals and “interviewed” them to find out which ones wanted to come with me to Paris. I decided they all wanted to come, and so I shoved them into a suitcase and struggled to zip it shut, only to be scolded by my mother, who said I could take two at most. I chose a doll and my stuffed rabbit, and then when she wasn’t looking, I slipped in a miniature elephant and several coloring pencils.

Our destination initially was Germany, which then—as now—was the first safe haven for political refugees.

The train left Bucharest, and hours later we crossed into Hungary. My grandmother opened her prayer book to the picture of the Virgin Mary. The page was stained the color of her lipstick from all the times she had kissed the image.

The train stopped, and I remember the conductor inspecting our papers, my mother sitting like stone.

He left, and just as the train was about to depart, a woman came running up to our compartment, banging violently on the window, screaming in Hungarian. I will never forget the look of terror in my mother’s face. The woman on the platform knew we weren’t supposed to be there, and she gestured and yelled and poked her finger accusingly in our direction, but the train was already moving. It was gaining speed, and the woman ran alongside us, until she fell back as we pulled out of the station.

Then, as now, Hungary was a place of treachery for migrants. It was a place where my family’s journey—like those of thousands of Syrians today, facing much greater risks after four years of civil war—almost came to an end. Had we been turned back, it would have meant certain imprisonment for my mother, and possibly for my elderly grandmother.

We reached Germany, where the authorities provided us temporary housing. A week later, we took the train to Switzerland, where we were awarded political refugee status.

Back in Bucharest, my father, considered one of Romania’s top pediatric surgeons, was told he was being relocated to a clinic in the remote countryside. And roughly a year after our departure, the man who would one day become my stepfather, after my parents’ divorce, was placed under house arrest for criticizing the catastrophic economic policies of Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

It took years for me to understand that we were not on a holiday. As a child, I clung to the hope that we would return to Apartment No. 49, on Vasile Conta Street in Bucharest, to the two-bedroom home where I had left all my dolls and where Tata Geo now lived alone.

I am deeply grateful to the officials in Germany and Switzerland who gave us safe passage. I am even more grateful to the man at the immigration counter in the United States who years later looked over my high school transcript and nodded, then stamped the form awarding me American citizenship.

Yet that day 36 years ago also marked a fissure in my life: There was a “Before,” a time when I felt secure and deeply loved, and where I knew my place in the world; and there was an “After,” when nothing could ever be taken for granted again. Despite the fact that I speak fluent English, own a home in America and attended elementary school, high school and college here, the nice lady at Chase whom I called yesterday to ask about a charge on my account still begins the conversation with: “What an unusual name; where are you from, honey?”

The only objects I have from Romania are the stuffed rabbit and the stuffed elephant which I was allowed to take. Both are now missing their heads.

When my grandmother died, she left me her prayer book.

The picture of the Mother of God still bears the color of her lipstick. She kissed it that day in Hungary in thanks for the fact that the train kept going, and then for every miracle along our journey since.

Bucharest Mayor Detained on Suspicion of Taking Bribes

New York Times
6 September 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Anti-corruption prosecutors in Romania detained the influential mayor of Bucharest early Sunday on suspicion that he took bribes of 25,000 euros ($28,000) from firms working for city hall.

The anti-corruption prosecutors' office said in a statement that from 2013-2015, firms which had contracts with Bucharest city hall were obliged to pay up to 70 percent of their profits from work they did for the city hall to high-ranking officials. Of that, 10 percent allegedly went directly to Mayor Sorin Oprescu.

His lawyer, Alexandru Chiciu, denied that Oprescu had ever solicited bribes, either directly or through a third party.

Prosecutors detained Oprescu just after midnight after he was reportedly filmed taking the bribe, Agerpres news agency reported.

He was later taken handcuffed by prosecutors from his home north of Bucharest. Agerpres reported that that prosecutors earlier found some of the 25,000 euros on him and the rest was found at his home. Prosecutors searched city hall, Oprescu's home, and the homes of other city hall employees on Sunday. A court will decide whether to formally arrest him later Sunday.

The 63-year-old Oprescu has been Bucharest mayor since 2008. He ran for president in 2009 and was formerly a senator of the ruling Social Democratic Party.

Wikipedia 5 September 2015

Did you know...

• ... that when Romanian headmaster Alexandru Lambrior was fired for political reasons, all but two of the teachers at his school resigned in protest within two days?

Time-Worn Village in Moldova Springs Back to Life, Thanks to Port

The Giurgiulesti International Free Port in Moldova sits along a small stretch of the Danube River. Until recently, Moldova relied on Romania and Ukraine for access to foreign goods and trade. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

New York Times
2 September 2015
by Kit Gillet

GIURGIULESTI, Moldova—Like many rural villages throughout Europe, Giurgiulesti was shrinking. The young had left, seeking work and better futures, and they never came back. The old had stayed behind, tilling the fields and nurturing the grapes on backyard vines that they used to make wine.

But these days, cars and trucks rumble through this traditional village of about 3,000 on their way toward the Danube River and an unlikely thriving port. Sitting in her office in the center of the village, Tatiana Galateanu, 53, the mayor of Giurgiulesti, said that all the commotion had created a bit of a problem.

“The houses here are very old,” Ms. Galateanu said, “so they are affected by the heavy traffic and big trucks using the road.”

Yet it is a problem she is happy for the village to have. With half of the port’s 460 employees, including Ms. Galateanu’s son, coming from the village, it has rejuvenated a place that time had forgotten. “It has a big importance here,” she said.

It does for the rest of Moldova, as well. The landlocked country, with a population of 3.5 million, is poor, agriculture-dependent and on the far edges of Europe. Once part of the Soviet Union, it was until recently reliant on its larger neighbors, Romania and Ukraine, for access to foreign goods and trade.

But in 1999, partly in exchange for ceding a stretch of contested road in the east of the country to Ukraine, Moldova was given a 1,476-foot strip along the Danube that had been in Ukrainian hands since the fall of the Soviet Union. From the strip, the borders with both Romania and Ukraine can be seen.

In 2007, after years of faltering progress, the oil terminal at Giurgiulesti’s port became active, and in 2009, the first shipments left its grain terminal. A small container terminal opened in 2012.

What is now called the Giurgiulesti International Free Port can receive seagoing vessels, and since Russia banned imports of most Moldovan food products last year, the port has played an increasingly important role as a way to access new markets for Moldova.

Last year, the port increased its shipping volume by more than 65 percent, said Thomas Moser, a German businessman and the general director of Danube Logistics, the company that operates the port.

“There is absolutely no history or tradition of ports or maritime transportation in Moldova,” he said. “So it’s been quite difficult, but we’ve managed to get this place off the ground.”

Certainly, the port has been a lifeline for the farming village of Giurgiulesti, less than half a mile away. The village is a three-hour drive south of the capital, Chisinau, and much of that journey is along pocked roads. Until the port came along, there were few reasons to visit.

“The port is good for the village, it creates jobs,” said Victor Arabagi, 32, who grew up in Giurgiulesti and now oversees vessel arrivals and departures. “Otherwise, everyone would have to leave. Too many have already left, especially young people. But some people have stayed as the port offers an alternative to leaving.”

Mr. Arabagi is among them. He said he had left Giurgiulesti to study and was “half happy” to be back.

“Some of my relatives who moved to Germany say Moldova is 200 years behind,” he said.

Giurgiulesti’s port is a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of place, with just a few hundred yards of river access.

“This is barely a port, it’s so small,” said Tariq el-Nemer, a 62-year-old Lebanese ship captain, as he stood on the bridge of his cargo vessel, waiting for it to be loaded with containers.

The port has been a lifeline for the farming village of Giurgiulesti. The town is three hours from the capital, Chisinau, and before the port there were few reasons to visit. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

A gentle slope leads from a small collection of administration buildings down to the dark waters of the Danube and to a flat, uncluttered riverbank. A single road weaves past storage silos, across the mixed-gauge train tracks that link the port to Romania and Ukraine, and down to wide berths, cranes and stacks of cargo containers. Grass grows wild on unused land, and despite its activity, the whole area can be surprisingly quiet.

Part of the port is still a construction site, with work to begin soon on a second grain berth. After that, there will be room for one more cargo terminal. “Then we’ve more or less run out of space,” said Mr. Moser, a former banker who has been involved in the project since 2005.

So far, around $60 million has been invested in the port, which is being developed by the Dutch company Danube Logistics with support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

For Giurgiulesti, the port has had little visible impact, other than the traffic. A bypass is planned, but for the moment all of the cars and trucks to and from the port go through the village.

Farmers still work the land on the outskirts of the town, creating patches of green among the dusty landscape. Some shepherds relax in the fields, surrounded by their scattered flocks.

Many of the houses, mostly one-story brick structures, look like they have seen better days. A church next to the main road between the port and the village remains half-built and gives the impression that it has been in that state for many years.

In the center of Giurgiulesti, a Moldovan flag hangs over the village hall. A local museum is next door, and the village school is across the road.

Ms. Galateanu, the mayor, said that her grandparents and parents had grown up here and that she had, too, although she went to Chisinau to attend university. She later returned to Giurgiulesti and spent 17 years as the school’s librarian before being elected mayor in 2011.

“There are records of the village being here since 1486,” she said. “I love this village. In my eyes, it’s the most beautiful village.”

Giurgiulesti still lacks the accommodation, bars and other offerings that those who come ashore at the port would look for. But perhaps that will soon change. This year, more money will flow into the town’s coffers, as more local taxes from the port shift to the village from the region.

“Starting this year, 75 percent will come to the village,” Ms. Galateanu said.

“We have a lot of plans for the money,” she said, citing repairs for the school.

“People have already gone,” she said, “but perhaps some will come back now.”

Romania Gives Moldova 110 Million Euros on Independence Day

New York Times
27 August 2015
by The Associated Press

CHISINAU, Moldova—Romania's prime minister has given Moldova 100 million euros ($117 million) in financial aid in a gesture of support for the former Soviet republic's EU membership bid.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta called for a Romanian gas pipeline to be extended to Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. Moldova relies on Russia for most of its gas.

Ponta was in Chisinau Thursday to mark Moldova's 24th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union. Since independence, Moldova has been torn between Russia and the West.

U.S. President Barack Obama sent a congratulatory message to Moldova, saying its best security guarantee was closer ties to Europe. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of developing relations "in the spirit of friendship." Moldova signed an association agreement with the EU last year, which Russia opposed.

PM Hikes Romanian Doctors' Wages by 25 Percent

New York Times
26 August 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romania's prime minister has hiked doctors' and nurses' wages, among the lowest in Europe, by 25 percent after medics threatened to strike following a court ruling that they could no longer accept informal payments and gifts.

Victor Ponta approved the raise Wednesday, urging more reforms in the health system. "If it were possible, I would have raised (salaries) by 100, 200, 300 percent, with all my heart because it is correct," he said. The health system is one of the last areas to be reformed in Romania. The increase is effective Oct. 1.

For years, doctors and nurses have depended on "the envelope"—bribes and informal payments slipped into the pockets of their white jackets. Gifts ranging from chickens and fresh fish in rural areas to a bottle of whisky or expensive wine were also customary.

Some 7,000 doctors have emigrated in the past four years due to low pay, low morale and a lack of investment in the system.

Cristian Parvulescu, dean of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration, said the raise was "a reaction to the threat of a strike, not an attempt to correct the system."

"We will not see an end to informal gifts, not with a 25 percent raise," he told The Associated Press.

Salaries for doctors now start at 1,600 lei ($413) a month, less than the average national wage of 1,860 lei ($480). Union leaders estimate that with the 25 percent raise, a senior doctor would earn 7,000 lei ($1,810).

Officials ignored the system which flourished after communism ended in 1989, there was a lack of solidarity among doctors demanding reforms and decent salaries.

However, a court recently ruled that medics were public clerks and it was illegal to receive compensation, prompting the protests by the College of Medics.

Wikipedia 24 August 2015

Did you know...

• ... that Romanian writer Lucia Mantu kept her real identity a close secret, with even her editor Mihail Sadoveanu only finding out by accident?

Wikipedia 23 August 2015

On this day...

Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism/Black Ribbon Day in Canada, the European Union and the United States.

1939 – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, a 10-year, mutual non-aggression treaty, which also included a secret protocol dividing Northern and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.

Wikipedia 11 August 2015

On this day...

106 – The region of Dacia, comprising regions of modern Romania, became a province of the Roman Empire.

Bring Moldova Back From the Brink

New York Times
10 August 2015
by Thorbjorn Jagland

STRASBOURG, France—The Republic of Moldova—a tiny country of just 3.5 million people—is at risk of becoming Europe’s next security crisis, with potential consequences far beyond its borders.

A former Soviet Republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova sits at the crossroads between Europe’s East and West. Since it declared independence in 1991, power has alternated between the Communist Party, which has traditionally sought stronger ties with Russia, and pro-European parties that have staunchly advocated membership in the European Union.

In 2009, the pro-Europeans came to power and made progress toward their goal. They signed an association agreement to deepen political ties with Brussels and gradually integrate Moldova into the European common market. Exports increased, the economy grew and, in return for a series of reforms, including improving human rights, Moldovan citizens were granted visa-free travel into E.U. territory.

Yet today the picture is far less optimistic. Over the last six years little has been done to open up the country’s economy and its institutions. Corruption remains endemic and the state is still in the hands of oligarchs, while punishingly low incomes have propelled hundreds of thousands of Moldovans to go abroad in search of a better life.

Many still look to Brussels for the answer, while others instead believe that prosperity lies with the Eurasian Economic Union, led by Russia. What unites both camps is their palpable resentment toward venal elites. Ask an average Moldovan how life varies under the different parties and you’ll frequently hear that it makes no difference.

This widespread public frustration now has a lightning rod. At the end of last year, $1 billion disappeared from three of the country’s banks. The scandal has come to epitomize the state’s failure to protect citizens’ interests. Few believe that the individuals responsible will be held accountable or that the money will be returned. The taxpayer bailout that was required to stabilize the banks has bludgeoned public finances. The value of the Moldovan currency, the leu, has dropped, interest rates have rocketed and a recession looms.

All outside financing has been suspended, pending concrete action to address corruption and get the financial sector in order. If the authorities fail to do what is needed to restore external support—and quickly—the country will face serious economic turmoil. Social programs for the poor and vulnerable will be cut just before the harsh winter months.

The regional picture is also bleak. In recent months, there has been a serious deterioration in relations with Transnistria—the breakaway, Russian-speaking province along Moldova’s eastern side. Two decades ago, encouraged by Moscow, Transnistria declared itself independent and hundreds died in the ensuing fighting. The conflict has since been frozen. The crisis in Ukraine, however, has sparked fears of a thaw.

Many in Moldova worry that Transnistria could become the next Crimea, an anxiety that has been further fueled by appeals for Russian protection from some of the province’s civic groups. Transnistria’s leaders complain that Moldova is conspiring with Ukraine to keep them under economic blockade and have now ordered Transnistrian army reservists between 18 and 27 to mobilize. At this stage, a full-blown military conflict is unlikely but, in such a tense environment, even skirmishes could spiral out of control.

Moldova’s newly formed government must act quickly. The country’s three main pro-European parties recently entered into a coalition and the Parliament narrowly approved Valeriu Strelet as its prime minister, who also supports E.U. membership.

The clear lesson from Ukraine has been that, in today’s Europe, a state’s strength and stability depends on its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was deeply destabilizing, but we must never forget that the crisis in Ukraine began with the people’s profound disillusionment with their political institutions.

Moldova, too, must now think of its democratic security. Alongside the urgent measures needed to fix the banks, the government must immediately begin purging corrupt officials from public bodies. As a start, the dozens of judges—some very high-profile—who have been accused of egregiously abusing their power should be investigated. Law enforcement agencies must also do everything they can to arrest the individuals responsible for the massive bank fraud.

In order to give people confidence that justice will be served in these cases, murky political interference must be eliminated from the judicial system. Legislation currently before Parliament that would guarantee the impartiality of state prosecutors should be implemented without delay. And to prove that no one is above the law, the current blanket immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of Parliament should be reduced.

More fundamentally, Moldova will need to implement the basic checks on power that should exist in any democracy. The key anti-corruption agencies—the Anti-Corruption Center, the National Integrity Commission and the General Prosecutor’s Office—must be set on an independent footing, with clear powers and genuine muscle. Robust restrictions on party funding will be necessary to weaken the grip of big money on politics. New rules will also be required to break up media monopolies and provide critical journalists with better protections.

As the guardians of the European Convention on Human Rights, which sets out where state authority should end and citizen power should begin, and which nations across Europe are obliged to uphold, the Council of Europe will seek to help Moldova carry out reforms that meet international standards and are deemed legitimate at home and abroad. Whatever their differing hopes for the country’s future, both the European Union and the Russian Federation have an interest in the success of these efforts. Neither will benefit from a weak neighbor that brings with it financial black holes, organized crime, trafficking and uncontrolled migration.

Despite years of disappointment, many Moldovans still hold great ambition for their country. They maintain that, freed from corruption, it can be transformed. But first, this captured state must be returned to its citizens.

Thorbjorn Jagland, a former prime minister of Norway, is the secretary- general of the Council of Europe.

Prince Charles: 'More should be done to help small farms'

BBC News
8 August 2015

The Prince of Wales has called for more to be done to help small farms stay in business.

Prince Charles was speaking in Romania, where he has launched new projects to help rural communities.

Charlotte Smith travelled with the Prince and spoke to him about his concerns for the future.

You can hear the full interview in a special edition of On Your Farm on Radio 4 at 06:30BST on Sunday 9 August and on the Radio 4 Website afterwards.

Drought Affects Shipping on River Danube, but No Disruptions

New York Times
7 August 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romanian authorities say a severe drought is affecting shipping on the River Danube but ships are still managing to navigate along Europe's second longest waterway.

Florin Boboc, a port captain in the southern city of Giurgiu told The Associated Press Friday that vessels are loading less because the water is shallower. The river fell to 90 centimeters (35 inches) Friday in Galati, the largest Danube port, almost 5 meters (16.4 feet) below warning levels.

"There are some areas where you can't sail," Boboc said. "Water levels have fallen, but ships are sailing; they're being careful."

He said the most affected areas are about halfway along the 1,075 kilometer (670-mile) Romanian stretch of the river.

Ships transport goods including liquid gas, metal ores and unrefined sugar, as well as passengers.

Romanian Tax Authorities Probe Celebrities, Moneylenders

New York Times
6 August 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romania's tax authorities say they will investigate the country's big earners, including celebrities, moneylenders and pop stars, to verify the sources of their incomes.

The head of Romania's tax authority, Stefan Diaconu, said Thursday authorities were intensifying the fight against tax evasion, having identified 7,800 people to investigate, and were actively pursuing more than 300 cases.

"Whether they are public figures, turbo folk stars or moneylenders ... they will also have to prove the origins of their incomes," said Diaconu in a statement. Turbo folk is a Balkan genre of music that mixes folk, oriental and electronic influences.

The authority said the probe, coordinated from eight cities, would focus on people who had bought property or a single item worth more than 70,000 euros ($77,000) and cars more than 25,000 euros ($27,500). The statement said that 132,000 people had been identified who had discrepancies of more than 10 percent between estimated and declared income. There are 14.3 million tax payers in Romania, a country of 19 million.

According to global management consulting company A.T. Kearney, Romania's underground economy was worth an estimated $45 billion in 2013.

Tax authorities this year launched a series of checks on small businesses, many of which do not issue receipts. It is common not to receive the exact change when paying in cash, a preferred method of payment. Romania has few laws regulating the terms of individual loans.

Romania has stepped up its anti-corruption drive in recent months.

When Architecture Meets Pop Culture (Kanye West Included)

Oana Stanescu, with an architectural model, likes to push boundaries. She has designed a 50-foot-high volcano and a viewing pavilion for Kanye West. Credit Brigitte Lacombe

New York Times
5 August 2015
by Stacy Anderson

For a serious architect who has designed public housing in Dallas and a bridge in Slovenia, it may come as a surprise that Oana Stanescu’s best-known work is a 50-foot-high volcano that Kanye West ascended onstage during his grandiose Yeezus tour.

But then again, Ms. Stanescu, 32, is not your typical bespectacled architect, reaching for trophy buildings or lucrative commissions.

Along with Dong-Ping Wong, her partner in the West Village architectural firm Family, Ms. Stanescu is making a name for herself in design circles for her ability to merge pop culture with utilitarian design.

Her firm recently completed the Hong Kong flagship store of Off-White, a high-end streetwear brand started by Virgil Abloh, Mr. West’s creative director. Ms. Stanescu is one of the designers behind the +Pool project, which is seeking to install a floating swimming pool in the East River. Other clients have included Marina Abramovic and the New Museum in New York.

“Oana is a creative ticking time bomb; she never stops,” said Carl Jackson, 41, a filmmaker who recently hired Family to design two projects in San Diego: a film studio and a sustainable housing community.

Ms. Stanescu’s penchant for pop culture began in Resita, an industrial town in western Romania, where she grew up watching British MTV and listening to Guns N’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction.” They offered an escape from Romania, which was in the violent throes of a revolution and the ouster of Nicolae Ceausescu.

“I have memories of hiding in the basement, sleeping on floors where there were no windows,” she said.

Ms. Stanescu studied architecture at Polytechnic University of Timisoara in western Romania. Midway through the six-year program, she landed an internship at REX in New York, formerly a branch of Rem Koolhaas’s prestigious Office of Metropolitan Architecture.

From there, she worked at other top architecture firms, including Sanaa in Japan, Herzog & de Meuron in Switzerland and Architecture for Humanity in South Africa, before joining Family in 2013.

“At one point, my mom said, ‘There aren’t enough continents for you,’ ” Ms. Stanescu said.

She now lives in a sunny townhouse in Harlem, which she shares with friends and a dog named Perry, and teaches a graduate-level design course at Columbia University, a short walk away.

Her most famous client remains Mr. West, for whom she is working on several projects, the details of which she cannot disclose. The two met when he hired the Office of Metropolitan Architecture to design a viewing pavilion for his short film “Cruel Summer” during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. The association has given her a taste of tabloid scrutiny, with several media outlets, including Glamour magazine UK and Metro, inaccurately crediting her with baby-proofing Mr. West’s homes.

“How strange,” she said of her brush with the gossip mill. “Design is at its best when it’s collaborative. I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of what architecture can do.”

Romanian Landscape, Among the Winners of This Year’s
National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

Romania, Land of Fairy Tales. White frost over Pestera village. Location: Bran, Brasov, Romania. Photo by Eduard Gutescu

Romania Insider
4 August 2015

An autumn landscape shot in Romania was one of the winning photos of the National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest 2015.

Romanian photographer Eduard Gutescu took this picture near Bran, a mountain region in the center of Romania. He named his photo Romania, Land of Fairy Tales.

Gutescu’s photo was one of the top 10 best pictures out of a total of 17,000 entries in this year’s competition.

An underwater photograph of divers swimming near a humpback whale taken by Anuar Patjane Floriuk of Tehuacán, Puebla, Mexico, has won the 2015 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest grand prize. See all the winning pictures here.

Lukoil Managers Charged for Money $1.95 Bln Laundering

New York Times
3 August 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romanian authorities have charged Russian oil producer Lukoil with complicity in money laundering worth 1.77 billion euros ($1.95 billion).

Prosecutors at the Court of Appeal in Ploiesti, where Lukoil's refinery is based, on Monday charged Romanian and Russian company managers for allegedly misusing the company's credit and capital.

The statement said from 2011 to 2014 "the suspects knowingly used company goods and credit granted to the company to benefit other companies in which they had a direct or indirect interest."

There was no immediate reaction from Lukoil in Romania.

Last month, prosecutors froze Lukoil's assets and bank accounts worth about 2 billion euros ($2.22 billion).

Romania has stepped up its anti-corruption drive in recent months.

Roche Drug Maker Probed in Romanian Graft Case

New York Times
31 July 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Swiss pharmaceuticals company Roche confirmed Friday it is being investigated by anti-corruption prosecutors looking for evidence that drug companies offered doctors vacations and other incentives in exchange for prescribing cancer drugs.

Roche Romania told The Associated Press it was "fully cooperating" with anti-graft prosecutors and would provide the requested information.

Authorities have refused to say which companies are being probed, but Romania Curata, a site that reports on corruption, said 11 companies have been targeted, including Roche Romania, GlaxoSmithKline Romania and Pfizer Romania.

Pfizer, which was not immediately available for comment, told daily Evenimentul Zilei that it respected the "highest international standards and compliance procedures," and was unaware of any investigation.

Some 61 homes and offices were searched in Bucharest and in the northwest of the country on Tuesday in a probe centered on a number of medical institutes and the way certain cancer medicines were purchased and prescribed, according to anti-corruption chief prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi.

A prosecutor, speaking only on condition of anonymity because an investigation is underway, said that vacations and other material perks offered from 2012 to 2015 were worth tens of millions of lei (millions of dollars).

The anti-fraud tax department said Friday a number of tourism agencies issued bills to pharma companies from 2013 to 2014 purportedly for medics traveling abroad. Some of the bills, to destinations including Las Vegas and Paris, were fictitious, enabling the companies to claim back the 24-percent sales tax, a statement said.

"Same Language, Same Country, We Are All Romanians"

Radio Free Europe
29 July 2015

Young Moldovans protested in front of the parliament building to demand that the country's constitution be changed to identify the state language as Romanian, rather than Moldovan. The question of whether Moldovan and Romanian are distinct languages is a divisive issue in the country. Watch video clip here.

Romania Court Gives Stalinist-Era Prison Chief 20 Years

New York Times
24 July 2015
by Reuters

BUCHAREST—A Romanian court sentenced a Stalinist-era political prison commander to 20 years in jail for murder on Friday, the first such ruling against a prison head since the collapse of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

Dozens of political inmates died in the jail on the outskirts of the small town of Ramnicu Sarat, 150 km (94 miles) east of Bucharest, which between 1956 and 1963 was commanded by Alexandru Visinescu.

Prosecutors gave the court evidence of Visinescu's direct involvement in 12 deaths at his prison and accused him of subjecting inmates to beatings and starvation, and denying them medical treatment and heating.

According to the Institute for Investigation of Communist Crimes (IICCMER) up to 2 million people are estimated to have been victims of communist repression in Romania between 1945 and 1989, including killed, imprisoned, deported or relocated.

Visinescu, who turns 90 in September, has repeatedly said he only followed orders and blamed the country's Stalinist leadership of the then dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.

Visinescu, who can appeal the ruling, did not attend the trial on Friday. He has been living in central Bucharest, very near IICCMER's offices, local media found, and has been receiving a special military pension.

Investigations are under way into several other former prison commanders, and IICCMER has said it has a list of 35 prison officials aged 81 to 99 who it says committed crimes.

Historians say about half a million Romanians including politicians, priests, doctors, officers, land owners and merchants were sentenced and jailed in the 1950s and early 1960s and a fifth of them perished in prisons such as Ramnicu Sarat.

Many communist-era officials still have public roles and continue to wield political and business influence in Romania.

(Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Romania Bans Holocaust Denial, Fascist Symbols

New York Times
22 July 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romania's president has signed into law legislation that punishes Holocaust denial and the promotion of the fascist Legionnaires' Movement with prison sentences of up to three years.

President Klaus Iohannis signed the amendments to existing legislation, approved by Parliament last month, on Wednesday.

The legislation also bans fascist, racist or xenophobic organizations and symbols, and promoting people guilty of crimes against humanity by up to three years in prison.

Holocaust denial refers to refuting Romania's role in exterminating Jews and Roma between 1940 and 1944. About 280,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma, or Gypsies, were killed during the pro-fascist regime of dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu.

Romania has a few right-wing fringe groups such as Noua Dreapta, or New Right, which could be affected by the new law. Noua Dreapta's followers are anti-gay, closely adhere to the Romanian Orthodox Church and support Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, the leader of the 1930s ultra-nationalist Iron Guard movement, which was active in Romania from 1927 to 1941.

Romanian Queen Marie’s Heart to be Placed at the
Pelisor Castle in Sinaia Mountain Resort


Romania Insider
17 July 2015
by Irina Popescu

Queen Marie’s heart will be returned to the Romanian Royal Family after it was kept in the National Museum of History’s deposit for more than 40 years. The heart will be placed inside her residence at the Pelisor Castle in Sinaia mountain resort.

His Royal Highness King Michael had this initiative and the Romanian Royal house already reached an agreement with the Ministry of Culture, reports local

Queen Marie was the wife of King Ferdinand I. She was one of the greatest personalities in Romania’s history. She died on July 18, 1938, at Pelisor Castle.

According to her last wish, her body was buried at Curtea de Arges Monastery in Romania, and her heart was placed in a small golden casket and interred in her Stella Maris chapel in Balchik. After that area has been ceded to Bulgaria, in 1940, her heart was transferred to Bran Castle. Princess Ileana built a chapel there for the Queen’s heart, according to Romanian historian Diana Mandache.

The communist regime moved the heart once again and put it in storage at the National Museum of History in Bucharest, where it was kept until today.

The heart should be moved to Pelisor Castle this fall.

Pelisor is part of the Peles Castle complex and was built in 1899–1903 by order of King Carol I as a residence for his nephew and heir King Ferdinand.

Romania Parliament Speaker Calls for Reforms of Ruling Party

New York Times
16 July 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—The speaker of Romania's Parliament on Thursday called for a profound overhaul of the ruling party after Prime Minister Victor Ponta was indicted on corruption charges and had his assets seized, a first in Romania.

"We are in a crisis situation... with the leader indicted and deputy leader condemned" for corruption, said Valeriu Zgonea, a long-standing member of the Social Democratic Party.

Ponta, who earlier resigned as party leader, was indicted Monday on charges including tax evasion, money laundering, conflict of interest and making false statements while he was working as a lawyer in 2007 and 2008, and his assets were temporarily frozen. He is Romania's first sitting prime minister to be indicted. He denies the charges.

He said Wednesday he would consider resigning if his political rival, President Klaus Iohannis, guaranteed that the next premier was chosen from the ruling center-left coalition. But Ponta also said he would prefer to remain prime minister.

The deputy leader of the Social Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, was convicted in May of fraud in a referendum to impeach Romania's former president. He was given a one-year suspended prison sentence. Nonetheless, he indicated Thursday he is considering running for party chairman.

"In Romania, the system is reminiscent of the 'communistoid' mentality which affects our credibility," Zgonea said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We need a change of mentality... that is what the young generation is saying to us."

"Unfortunately, the opposition parties are even less reformed," he added.

However, he said that the anti-corruption fight which has been stepped up in recent months, has brought more investor confidence.

"Since the end of 2014 we have seen an 11 percent growth in foreign investment," he said.

He said the ruling party needs "profound reforms," and to quickly hold a congress to choose a new chairman. Romanian media have touted Zgonea as a possible candidate for that post.

Romanian Prime Minister, Accused of Graft, Is Indicted

Prime Minister Victor Ponta of Romania in Bucharest on Monday, a day after he stepped down as head of the Social Democratic Party. Credit Daniel Mihailescu/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images

New York Times
13 July 2015
by Kit Gillet

BUCHAREST, Romania—Prosecutors in Romania temporarily seized the assets of Prime Minister Victor Ponta on Monday after indicting him in a corruption investigation, accusing him of forgery, money laundering and tax evasion before his ascension to power.

The announcement came a day after Mr. Ponta said he was stepping down as head of the Social Democratic Party, saying he would not hold any party leadership positions until he had proved his innocence over the accusations dating from his time as a lawyer.

On his Facebook page on Sunday, Mr. Ponta posted a letter addressed to senior party leaders in which he said that he had made his decision in “a bid not to let this situation harm the party.”

Mr. Ponta, who attended a meeting with prosecutors from the country’s anticorruption unit on Monday and will remain prime minister, returned to Romania on July 8 after a three-week stay in Turkey, where he underwent knee surgery. The timing of his absence was a source of widespread speculation, coming during a time of increased political pressure.

The Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, had called for Mr. Ponta’s resignation as prime minister after criminal investigations were opened by the National Anticorruption Directorate on June 5.

“In my view, a prime minister facing criminal charges is an impossible situation for Romania,” Mr. Iohannis said at a news conference at the time.

Mr. Ponta, who in June survived a no-confidence vote as well as attempts to have his parliamentary immunity lifted so that prosecutors could investigate acts while he had been in office, has maintained his innocence.

Moldovans, Romanians Call for Reunification, Scatter Flowers

New York Times
11 July 2015
by The Associated Press

CHISINAU, Moldova—About 2,000 Moldovans and Romanians have called for their countries to be reunited, throwing flowers onto a river separating the two countries.

Moldovans gathered in the southern village of Ungheni on Saturday and shouted "Unification!" Romanians rallied on the other bank of the Prut river.

Some people crossed the border from both sides to demonstrate friendship.

Moldova, an ex-Soviet republic, was part of Romania between 1918 and 1940. They both speak Romanian.

Thousands have rallied in the Moldovan capital in recent months calling for reunification. Moldova signed an association agreement with the European Union last year, angering Russia.

Romania, already an EU member, is a strong supporter of Moldova's ambition to join the bloc.

The ceremony at the Prut river has been taking place annually for 20 years.

Change Comes From the Margins

Detail from "Dada Conquers," by Raoul Hausmann.Credit Raoul Hausmann/Bridgeman Images, via Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via ADAGP, Paris, 2015

New York Times
30 June 2015
by Costica Bradatan

In 1916, Hugo Ball, the German writer who would soon become a founding member of the Dadaist movement, wrote the following account of his first meeting with the men who would be his artistic and philosophical compatriots: “An Oriental-looking deputation of four little men arrived, with portfolios and pictures under their arms: repeatedly they bowed politely. They introduced themselves: Marcel Janco the painter, Tristan Tzara, Georges Janco, and a fourth gentleman whose name I did not quite catch.”

Ball was also the creator of the “Cabaret Voltaire” in Zurich, a city where the Romanian Tzara had come to shelter from the war. But almost as soon as he arrived, Tzara started a war of his own, an artistic revolution of grand proportions. Dadaism may well have started on the first evening at “Cabaret Voltaire” in February 1916, with Janco’s paintings and Tzara’s poetic performance. All these men, in one sense or another, began their transformative work from the margins.

Ball’s somewhat inelegant account suggests that Tzara and the others showed up carrying their marginality around quite visibly. Looking “Oriental” (at that point in time, a label that most certainly implied “otherness”), appearing slightly lost and bowing more than they should have—as recent immigrants often tend to. Tzara was indeed doubly marginal: as a Jew and as a Romanian. At the time Jews in Romania were so marginal that they could not even become citizens; and in Europe Romania suffered—as it still does—from that kind of marginal condition for which those living in better places use the condescending euphemism “exotic.”

Tristan Tzara

Credit Henri Martinie/Roger Viollet, via Getty Images

And yet it must have been Tzara’s marginality that enabled him to do what he did: founding an artistic movement meant to deride systematically a civilization whose blind trust in instrumental rationality and fetishization of technology had pushed it into one of the most destructive wars the world had ever seen. For Dadaism the center—be it artistic, philosophical, intellectual, economic or political—was not worthy of anything but mockery. Tzara could afford the gesture; coming from the furthest margins, he didn’t have any qualms about crying out loud against and smashing the conventions of the center, exposing its damaging lies, and turning the dismantling of its pious proclamations into a prolific career.

Tzara’s case is not isolated. Indeed, there is a strong sense that not only Dada but also avant-garde in general is very much about a rebellion of the margins against the center. A remarkable number of avant-garde artists of the 19th and 20th centuries came—in person or vicariously, through their work—from the margins: Munch, Malevich, Brancusi, Picasso, Chagall, Kafka, Borges, Joyce, Frida Kahlo, Paul Celan and Fernando Pessoa, to name just a few.

Of course this process has never been restricted to art movements. And geography has no special claim on marginality; the center can have its own marginals—racial, ethnic, social, political, intellectual and epistemic, as we have forcefully been reminded of late. Historically, figures like Walter Benjamin, Hans Jonas and Simone Weil effected their own influence by operating from outside the standards of their accepted academic disciplines.

While it may seem like a mere staple of historical progress, the almost electric force of change from the margins is felt by us anew each time a damaging or oppressive convention is smashed or overturned. In the United States, we are immersed in such a moment, after an almost dizzying chain of events—the most immediate and profound being the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage; the increased cultural awareness and tolerance of gays, lesbian and transgender people, brought to the attention of many in the mainstream by the public transformation of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner; and the gradual changes in policing being put into effect in cities across the United States. Despite the possible impression that each shibboleth was toppled overnight, each was the result of years of agitation, strategic fighting and pressure on the center from those outside it.

It would be a simplification of the full nature of the center to identify it as merely the site of social change or of victories in the march toward what we might like to believe is greater social justice. The center has a character of its own, which does not care one way or the other about our moral imperatives.

By definition, any center is a site of concentration and intensity—after all, it’s the place toward which everybody is attracted in some way or another. That’s also what makes it so formidable. The center possesses a wealth of prospects, opportunities and resources, but also anxieties—it is the place where the possibility of collapse, disintegration or descent into chaos figure prominently. To keep such dangers at bay, life at the center has to be regulated in every detail, its energy well managed, impulses properly channeled and spontaneity standardized. Sophisticated and expensive bureaucracies are developed to make sure that the pursuit of happiness does not turn into a stampede.

There is, then, a certain way of conducting your life at the center, of making a living, getting an education, writing an academic paper, of greeting your neighbor, dressing yourself or just sitting at the table. You signal your determination to belong to the center by unreserved conformation to its standards. For all these elaborate protocols are also meant to ensure that not everybody gets in and that enough are left out; this way the center makes itself perpetually desirable.

Power and standardization, though, make for an intriguing combination: to gain full access to the former you have to excel at dealing with the latter. The better one is at following the standards established by the center the more one advances towards the place of power. And that can be intoxicating. Among the many privileges of the center, for example, is the power to name things, one of the greatest powers of all. From there you can say what others are doing, and who they are, without them having any say in the process.

As long as one does not follow the standards set up by the mainstream (the center’s other name), one’s work is in vain, no matter how brilliant or original it is. Indeed, the more original, the more problematic. In 1925, one of the finest institutions of higher learning in Europe, Goethe University Frankfurt, rejected Walter Benjamin’s habilitation thesis, “The Origin of German Tragic Drama.” The work did not meet the standards of the German academia, which disqualified Benjamin from teaching at a German university. The center’s punishment for disobedience can be crushing.

What usually happens as a result is that an inordinate amount of talent, energy and time is spent on figuring out the best ways to elbow one’s way to the core of the mainstream. Then, once there, one has to behave in a way that will never jeopardize one’s position. Since most do what they can to keep their place within the status quo, far-reaching innovation is usually discouraged, and conformism rules. In the sphere of humanistic scholarship, for example, that’s conspicuous in the scholasticism that often comes to dominate one discipline or another. Desperate that they not be left out, the aspirants (Ph.D candidates!) blindly imitate the establishment’s preferred style—using and abusing the same formulaic language, the same safe patterns of thinking, the same old tricks.

“Creativity,” then, often boils down to recipes for the reproduction of the same with a minimum of variations; only a select few would risk their position by engaging in something too bold. Yet if this conformity remains unchallenged over time, a general sense of atrophy threatens to set in. That’s when the center, as a matter of life and death, needs significant challenges from the outside.

And that’s what marginals are for: to stick out their tongues at the center’s elaborate protocols, at everything “established” and “respectable.” They use the center’s standards—if they ever do—only to undermine them. Marginals, uninvolved in the ceremonies of the center, often end up not taking anything too seriously. In the arts, they often make the greatest ironists because, for them, irony is much more than a mode of expression, it is a way of life.

The biggest irony, however, is that all these attempts at derision and subversion, all the marginals’ mockery, usually end up making the center stronger; they are needed in the same vital way an organism needs antibodies. If the center manages to recruit the marginals to work for its own purposes, then it is saved. Indeed, the center often thrives on marginals. Take the academy: When the mainstream is just about to collapse under the weight of its own scholasticism, marginals can save it through a healthy dose of unorthodox ideas, wild theories and other shocking novelties. Not only did Benjamin eventually become part of the canon after his death, but he has revitalized significantly the same field in which his habilitation thesis was found substandard. The savage novelty of his thinking, the unusual cast of his mind and his profoundly unclassifiable genius—all markers of his marginality—have ended up not only strengthening the center but also expanding its epistemic horizons. That may also be the legacy of the American marginal, who have enacted their own form of change on the center.

But even in their moment of victory, those very same outsiders face a challenge. Marginals know only too well that, by subverting the center, they risk becoming part of it; those who challenge the canons or ideological foundations of the mainstream most vehemently can turn one day into canonic figures themselves—think Picasso, Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Dylan.

But perhaps there is something further to learn from the Dadaists. Since they led profoundly ironical lives they don’t mind: One more irony doesn’t really matter, the whole thing is a farce anyway. “Everybody knows that Dada is nothing,” says Tzara. “Like everything in life, Dada is useless.”

Among the center’s chief virtues may be that of knowing how to absorb the healthy dose of nihilism that marginals often smuggle in with them from the periphery.

Costica Bradatan is an associate professor in the Honors College at Texas Tech University and the religion/comparative studies editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. His most recent book is “Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers.

‘Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century’

Francis Picabia, (1879-1953); “Tableau Rastadada,” 1920; cut-and-pasted printed paper on paper with ink. Credit The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA, via Art Resource, NY, via 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via ADAGP, Paris

New York Times
25 June 2015
by Andrei Codrescu

Jed Rasula’s history of Dada, “Destruction Was My Beatrice,” dispenses with a few old chestnuts of art history, chief among them the chronological fixation on Dada as a precursor to Surrealism, or a younger sibling of Futurism. The ordering by art critics of 20th-century avant-garde movements has required that they be both recognizable and dead. This has made them convenient and marketable, while draining away their revolutionary content. The art market embraced the products of every “ism” as soon as it recognized its distinct style. The only avant-garde that escaped the zombie line is Dada.

What is Dada? “The true dadas are against DADA,” Tristan Tzara wrote in the “Dada Manifesto.” “In principle I am against manifestoes, as I am against principles.” Dada was a big no, a radical negation of art and reason, the partisan of a resolute Nothing. “Da” means “yes” in Tzara’s native Romanian. Its reiteration, the skeptical “da-da,” intended to end the dialectical march of war-bound European thought and recover the human scale from the grand syntheses of philosophy and propaganda. Maintaining the clarity of this paradox meant that anyone could join in with his own definition of Dada and, most important, with novel forms of art.

Historians, including Rasula, agree that the putative source of Dada was a soiree of mayhem at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, in February 1916, a month or two before the magical word “Dada”—which is also French for “hobbyhorse” and “nursemaid”—was found. The performers included Hugo Ball, a German mystic, philosopher and cabaret producer, along with the diminutive Tzara, who recited Romanian verses printed on scraps of paper he fished from his pockets. The hubbub of Cabaret Voltaire lasted only a few months, but it was sufficient for incubating a variety of novel artistic forms that were, at first, indistinguishable from earlier modern art rebellions like Cubism and Futurism. From this modest beginning came Dada.

A professor of English at the University of Georgia, Rasula uncovers why Dada didn’t expire along with the isms it either spawned or incorporated. The fertility of Dada found rich ground in America, where its spirit was active before it had a name. The French artists Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, restless and tired of Europe, made New York their playground. They found the New World de facto Dadaist, and New York the perfect place to deploy their subversive imaginations. The Armory Show of 1913 brought the excitement of new ways of painting, sculpturing and making art to an American public that acted like crowds at a circus: Outraged and shocked grown-ups booed and hissed, while thrilled and rowdy children cheered. (Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” drew “more than its share of lampoons” at the Armory Show, Rasula writes, but it would be “The Fountain,” a urinal Duchamp purchased in 1917 and signed “R. Mutt,” that would persist as “Dada’s most recognizable product.”) Rasula notes that “the visual assault” of the Armory Show “was what the genteel public—with its belief that art was a hothouse flower far removed from the rough and tumble of the street—held most objectionable. A setting more ripe for the assault of Dada could not be imagined.” From its birth Dada did not stand apart from cinema, vaudeville or popular culture: Dadaists were at home with Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, the comic-book pleasures of the masses and American-style publicity.

One of Rasula’s insights is to reveal Dada’s kinship to jazz, and thus to the specifically American “modernist” outlook that blossomed throughout the century but was more acceptable in Europe than in its birthplace: “For a while, many took jazz and Dada to be two faces of the same thing.... The early course of jazz was dominated by novelty and humor, and if the musicians heard about Dada, they probably would’ve agreed with Hoagy Carmichael that jazz was Dada’s twin.”

Rasula makes visible and obvious (though oddly obscured in previous accounts) the threads connecting Dada with the New World, and overthrows with nearly imperceptible flair the misconceptions separating the European avant-­garde from modernism. Rasula, himself a scholar of modernism, shows it to be both an umbrella term for the use of academic services to the art market, and a worldwide continuum of the necessarily contradictory human spirit in art. At today’s crossroads between “reality” and “virtuality,” this reassessment is of great use: It provides both a sense of the necessity for “the unmaking of the 20th century,” as the subtitle has it, and a reason for younger artists to go on, using the technologies of the 21st. This may be a magnificent moment of treason in conventional scholarship, which rarely departs from a careful reading of primary sources. The academic decorum is breached only occasionally by Rasula, as in the passages of obvious delight in one of his characters, the fabled and sexually adventurous Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who may be the original body artist, a creator of weird and elaborate costumes that included decorations of her hair and skin.

Still, a missed opportunity of “Destruction Was My Beatrice” is Beatrice herself. The Dadaists, Rasula writes, “acknowledged female emancipation but did not welcome women artists in their ranks,” and he makes mostly brief mention of the extraordinary women artists and collaborators who received little attention until recently: Hannah Höch, a first-rate photomontagist; the great poet Mina Loy; Jane Heap, a co-editor of The Little Review; her companion and co-editor Margaret Anderson. Both male and female Dantes were led through the heaven, purgatory and hell of the 20th century, only to emerge in this retelling (and the continuing practice of many contemporary artists) uncompromised, ready for the 21st, when Dada can claim both fidelity to its original defiance and serve as a still-living collection of usable techniques.

The two most closely observed characters in Rasula’s study are Picabia and Kurt Schwitters, a Frenchman and a German. These are not arbitrary choices: Dada was emphatically internationalist, yet German and French Dada seemed, at times, two different creatures. German Dada was more aggressive, more receptive to radical politics, readier to brawl and to take to the streets, while French Dada was more self-mocking, theatrical and humorous. Both Picabia and Schwitters are exceptions: They are entirely Dadaist avant la lettre and providers of the essential rebellious spirit, partly American in Picabia’s case, and close to self-taught folk art in the case of Schwitters.

Some of Dada’s splinter artistic movements hardened in architecture—Marcel Janco’s buildings in Bucharest, for instance—while near kin like Futurism and Constructivism ended up either embraced or annihilated by Fascism and Communism. These became instantly historical, compromised moments, in contrast with Dada, which remains a movement, too quick to stand still long enough to be captured by its products or by histories, including those of some of its founders. In its effort not to acquire a signature style of its own, Dada pioneered nonetheless a specific typography. Jed Rasula ends his meticulous investigation of his subject on an ambiguous, nostalgic note—not quite nostalgia for his protagonists, but a touching regret that he has to leave them behind.

“Destruction Was My Beatrice” pursues its subjects narrowly, abstracting them from the (mostly hostile) history and politics in which they made art. It’s uncanny that Rasula has succeeded, on such a small canvas, in writing a history of the 20th century that picks up where Peter Gay’s 19th century ends in “The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud.” Oddly enough, in a ghostly and Dadaist manner, Rasula’s gaze also resembles Barbara Tuchman’s in “A Distant Mirror,” an eerie look into the “calamitous 14th century.” Maybe Time itself is Dada.

Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century

By Jed Rasula
Illustrated. 365 pp. Basic Books. $29.99.

Andrei Codrescu is the author of “The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess.”

Romanian Parliament Blocks Investigation Into PM Ponta

New York Times
9 June 2015
by Reuters

BUCHAREST—Romania's parliament blocked a criminal investigation against Prime Minister Victor Ponta on Tuesday, prompting renewed criticism of the European Union member state's commitment to fighting high-level corruption.

Ponta has rejected calls by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis to resign after prosecutors named him last Friday in an inquiry into forgery, money-laundering, tax evasion and conflict of interest.

Lawmakers voted 231 to 120 to preserve Ponta's immunity.

Romania is seen as one of the EU's most corrupt states and its justice system is under special monitoring, though its prosecutors have won praise from the EU executive, while parliament has a patchy record of approving such requests.

"I regret to see that parliament has turned into a shield for Victor Ponta suspected of penal deeds ... His resignation is the only way to end the current situation," Iohannis said.

Ponta said earlier on Tuesday his leftist government would survive a vote of no-confidence called by the centrist opposition for June 12 and this would end a week-long political crisis and prepare the country for talks with the International Monetary Fund.

"Any allegations of wrongdoing by government officials should be fully investigated without interference, and the law should be applied equally to everyone," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

Ponta has denied wrongdoing and his office said the accusations had previously been put forward by political enemies and "meticulously dismantled" through clear proof and documents.

"I will present all evidence, because I haven't had any possibility up to now to do it, and I am absolutely sure that I am innocent," Ponta said.

Ponta said talks with the IMF and the European Commission to review Romania's 4-billion-euro precautionary aid deal would go ahead on schedule late this month or in early July.

His government's planned tax cuts will be at the center of the talks. Ponta said the tax cut plan was expected to clear parliament by the end of June.

Negotiations have become increasingly strained, and both the IMF and European Commission have warned that Romania's tax plans could endanger its fiscal targets.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Wikipedia 7 June 2015

Did you know...

...that the burial shroud of Moldavian Princess consort Maria of Mangup (pictured) is both the oldest found in a Romanian monastery and "the most beautiful one"?

Romanian President Calls for Premier to Resign Amid Graft Inquiry

New York Times
5 June 2015
by Kit Gillet

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romania’s president called for the resignation of the country’s prime minister, Victor Ponta, after the country’s anticorruption agency opened criminal investigations into whether he was involved in forgery, money-laundering and other crimes when he was still a practicing lawyer.

“In my view, a prime minister facing criminal charges is an impossible situation for Romania,” the president, Klaus Iohannis, said at a news conference on Friday. “On the other hand, the worst thing that can happen to Romania is a political crisis. Considering all these, I ask for Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s resignation.”

But Mr. Ponta, who has been prime minister since 2012, posted a message on Facebook, saying he would not step down. “I respect President Iohannis’ public stand,” the message said, “but I was appointed by the Romanian Parliament and only the Parliament can dismiss me.”

Mr. Ponta was called into the offices of the National Anticorruption Directorate on Friday to answer questions related to events that took place before he became a government minister.

He has been named as a suspect in 17 counts of forgery, as well as money-laundering, conflict of interest and tax evasion. Prosecutors say that Mr. Ponta falsified documents to cover payments of about 40,000 euros, or $45,000, for work that was never done.

According to investigators, Mr. Ponta colluded with Dan Sova, a Romanian politician and former transport minister, who was also a lawyer at the time. Mr. Sova is under investigation for complicity in the abuse of office.

On June 2, Parliament voted 72 to 66 to deny a request by the anticorruption office for Mr. Sova’s detention.

“Now it is much clearer why the party and Ponta invested so much effort in protecting Mr. Sova,” said Adrian Moraru, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy in Bucharest. “They knew the case could lead much higher.”

Romania has been on a drive to clean up its politics in recent years. In 2014, 1,138 people were convicted of corruption, including politicians, judges and prosecutors.

Laura Stefan, an anticorruption expert and a former director in the Romanian Ministry of Justice, said she did not think Mr. Ponta, a former presidential candidate, would have been called in if the anticorruption office was not planning to indict him.

Nevertheless, she said, “I don’t think this will necessarily end Ponta’s political career as it would in other European countries. In Romania, you don’t die politically from something like this. Even being convicted is not a political death. We have lots of convicted politicians.”

Mr. Ponta was already under attack politically, with the opposition National Liberal Party announcing that it planned to file a no-confidence vote against the prime minister on Friday, the day he was named as a criminal suspect.

Romanian PM Under Criminal Investigation, Rebuffs Resignation Calls

New York Times
5 June 2015
by Reuters

BUCHAREST—Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta rejected calls for his resignation on Friday after prosecutors named him in a criminal investigation into forgery, money-laundering, conflict of interest and tax evasion.

Ponta denied wrongdoing and his office said in a statement that the accusations brought against him had previously been put forward by his political enemies and "meticulously dismantled ... through clear proof and certified documents".

Romanian prosecutors have made a series of high-profile arrests this year in what remains one of the poorest and most graft-addled countries in the 28-member European Union.

A former prosecutor who took office in 2012, Ponta faces a general election next year. His government is now pushing a series of disputed tax cuts through parliament and is in fraught talks with international creditors over an aid deal.

The shock investigation of Ponta could increase instability in a country with a history of it in the quarter-century since the overthrow of Romania's Communist dictatorship, although he has survived several previous scandals. Ponta was bruised after a surprise defeat at the presidential election in November.

The opposition filed a no-confidence vote against Ponta's left-leaning government on Friday, a move which had been in the works for some time. However, although he lost allies in the wake of his presidential defeat, Ponta still commands an overall majority in the Balkan state's parliament.

The inquiry into Ponta mainly concerns his time as a lawyer and accuses him of colluding with Dan Sova, a former transport minister in Ponta's cabinet who was previously subject to a corruption investigation.

A separate inquiry announced on Friday targets suspected conflict of interest on the part of Ponta during his tenure as prime minister.

President Klaus Iohannis, who defeated Ponta at the ballot box on an anti-corruption platform, called on Ponta to resign over the investigation, saying his position was untenable.

"I respect his public position but I was appointed in the job by Romania's parliament and only parliament can dismiss me," Ponta wrote in a Facebook post after a discussion with Iohannis.


Prosecutors have lodged a request with parliament to hold a vote on lifting Ponta's immunity from arrest. Under a much criticized Romanian law, prosecutors need approval to detain sitting lawmakers for graft offences while they were in office.

Lawmakers have a patchy record of approving such requests and in March blocked an investigation into Sova, sparking low-level street protests.

Romania has emerged from steep recession and its economy grew 4.3 percent in the first quarter of this year. But it has been prone to instability for years. Ponta himself came to power after bringing a no-confidence vote against his predecessor.

The International Monetary Fund and the European Commission have shored up Romania with a series of aid deals since 2009, the latest of which expires in September.

Negotiations have become increasingly strained, and both the IMF and European Commission have warned that Romania's ambitious tax-cutting plans could endanger its fiscal targets.

"The political scandal will probably weaken the government's position in negotiations with the European Commission and the IMF," said Dan Bucsa, a CEE economist at UniCredit Bank AG London. "As a result, the government could postpone controversial decisions—such as the VAT cut scheduled for January 2016—in order to comply with EC/IMF requirements."

Romania's currency, the leu, was down 0.60 percent at 1242 GMT after word of the investigation emerged.

"The Romanian leu and RON (leu-denominated) debt are expected to underperform on political uncertainty as investors are likely to require higher risk premium," said Ciprian Dascalu, chief economist at ING Bank in Bucharest.

Romania's poor graft record means the European Commission in Brussels has kept the Black Sea nation out of the EU's passport-free Schengen zone, and its judiciary under special monitoring.

But prosecutors have won EU and investor praise for an energetic crackdown on graft that has reached Ponta's inner circle, including his ex-finance minister, in recent months.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Romanian St. George Mural Painted Over After Criticism

New York Times
2 June 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—When a gigantic mural of St. George appeared next to a historic church dedicated to the revered figure, many hailed it as a brilliant piece of street art. But the influential Romanian Orthodox Church was not amused.

The surreal interpretation, replete with a faceless saint and a masked unicorn with a pink tail, went up just yards from the 18th century church—triggering outrage from priests and pious residents. Days later it was painted over.

Officially, the church denies having a hand in erasing the mural and insists it is opposed to censorship. But supporters of the mural, which measured some 300 sq. meters (3,200 sq. feet), point to the church's behind-the-scenes social and political influence. The perpetrator of the whitewashing remains a mystery.

More than 80 percent of Romanians belong to the Orthodox Church, and some people in the neighborhood said the mural was disrespectful of traditional Orthodox artwork. By European standards, Romanians are fervently religious, many honoring saint's days, carrying icons in their wallets and crossing themselves when they pass a church. Support for the church surged after communism ended in 1989.

Father Emil Caramizaru, the church's head priest, told local radio that the mural was "like a caricature. ... It can be offensive to our consciousness as Christians." His comments led to accusations that the church wanted to censor art that did not fit Christian Orthodox dogma.

Artist Iustin Moldovan, the leader of the group that painted the mural, said he had been told by city officials that the mural would be painted over following church complaints. "This is censorship," he said. "We are going back to 1989"—referring to the last year of Romania's communist dictatorship.

City Hall denied that either it or the church had ordered the mural wiped off. It referred questions to the owner of the building on which the mural was painted. The owner has not commented on the artwork.

After the row broke out, people flocked to the site and snapped photographs of the mural, which was on the side of a building in a rundown square next to the church built by Constantin Brancoveanu, a Romanian prince canonized in 1992 as a martyr.

The mural still has fans, especially among young people.

"It's a shame it's been wiped off," said 29-year-old Nicusor Cristea. "It was clearly St. George, and lots of people came to see it."

Prince Charles Launches Foundation to Support Rural Life

New York Times
2 June 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Britain's Prince Charles has long been enamored of Romania's rural traditions and now he's set up a foundation to protect and promote them.

On Tuesday, the prince launched the Prince Charles Romania Foundation to sustain the East European nation's heritage and rural life and support sustainable development.

Charles owns two properties in the northwestern Transylvania region, which he visits regularly.

Charles said he launched the charitable foundation because, "I love Romania."

"It is for training and education purposes and skills development," he said at the launch in the ethnic German village of Viscri.

Charles arrived in Romania on Sunday and has been staying in his country retreat in the remote village of Valea Zalanului.

He first visited Romania in 1998.

Prince Charles Visits Transylvania Where He Owns Property

New York Times
1 June 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Britain's Prince Charles is visiting Transylvania, the wooded region in northwest Romania where he owns several properties.

Charles met President Klaus Iohannis in Bucharest in Bucharest on Sunday before traveling to the remote village of Valea Zalanului where he owns a country retreat.

Iohannis and Charles discussed the situation in neighboring Ukraine and rural traditions that have been preserved in some parts of Romania, the presidential press office said.

Charles, who was seen Monday in Valea Zalanului, usually stays several days in Transylvania. The British embassy does not comment about his visits, due to their private nature.

Charles is enamored of the countryside and wildlife in Romania, which he has been visiting since 1998.

Iohannis was mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu until he became president in December.

Moldova Eyes Russia’s Embrace as Flirtation With Europe Fades

A parliamentary election sign in Chisinau, Moldova, in November for the anti-European Socialist Party showing some of its representatives with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Credit Gleb Garanich/Reuters

New York Times
21 May 2015
by Andrew Higgins

CHISINAU, Moldova—Daniela Morari, a Foreign Ministry official who has been traveling her country trying to nudge Moldovans toward the European Union, has heard it all. People are worried that “if you join the E.U., everyone becomes gay” and that Brussels bureaucrats “won’t let you keep animals around your houses,” an alarming prospect in a largely rural country.

It does not help that such views are encouraged on Russian television by growing pro-Russian political parties in Moldova and a deeply conservative Orthodox Church obedient to Moscow’s ecclesiastical hierarchy. “We go to a place for an hour or so, and then we leave and they all go back to watching Russian television,” Ms. Morari said.

Russian propaganda aside, however, Moldovans say they have more than enough reasons—not least widespread corruption here, the shadowy power of business moguls, and the war next door in Ukraine—to look askance at the European Union, which Ms. Morari fears is losing out to Russia in the struggle for hearts and minds in this former Soviet land.

Six years after the 28-nation bloc first targeted this country and five other former Soviet republics for an outreach program, that disenchantment, which is mutual, will be on display Thursday as European Union leaders join those from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine for a two-day summit meeting in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

Instead of enjoying a new European dawn, the prospective partners are deeply mired in their own troubles. Or they are veering closer toward Moscow, swayed by a contrasting combination of a Brussels bureaucracy focused on technical minutiae and President Vladimir V. Putin’s far more clear and assertive effort to return former Soviet satraps to Moscow’s fold.

When European leaders last held their Eastern Partnership meeting in 2013, they were hoping to prod Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor F. Yanukovych, to sign a so-called Association Agreement. In coded bureaucratic language about “European aspirations,” they stirred hopes that former Soviet lands might one day, at least in theory, be allowed to apply to join the European Union.

Alarmed by what he saw as a Western plot to encircle Russia, Mr. Putin began his effort to annex Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea, and subsequently backed rebel forces trying to tear eastern Ukraine away from Kiev. Chastened by the turmoil in Ukraine and the souring of relations with Russia, European leaders are now scaling back their eastward push.

Diplomats have spent months arguing over the text of a joint declaration to be issued at the Riga meeting, with some countries like Germany resistant to any wording that would raise unrealistic expectations in Moldova, Ukraine and elsewhere of admission to the European Union. A near final text circulating on Thursday acknowledges the “European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned,” but leaders still needed to sign off on that timid endorsement of a possible road toward Europe.

It is the kind of waffling that has left many former Soviet subjects less than enchanted by European entreaties. “Russia doesn’t have to do anything,” said Yan Feldman, a member of a Moldovan government council set up to combat discrimination. “It just has to wait. The idea of Europe has discredited itself.”

Indeed, there is little to show from the six years of courtship of the former Soviet republics. Ukraine aside, Georgia is stuck in limbo amid fierce political infighting, and three other partnership countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus—have rebuffed Brussels’s inducements and moved closer to Moscow.

But nowhere is the gap between expectation and reality bigger than in Moldova, which last year secured visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens after being trumpeted by Brussels as the Eastern Partnership’s “top reformer.”

Today, Moldova’s feuding pro-European politicians, like their counterparts in Ukraine, are so tainted by their failure to combat corruption and create a functioning state that, to many here, Russia looks appealing.

“They called us the best pupils in the class,” said Iurie Leanca, a leading pro-European politician. “But we have lost the support of society.”

Mr. Leanca would know. He was prime minister, until elections late last year that brought a surge in support for the anti-European Socialist Party, now the biggest single party in Parliament. Its campaign slogan: “Together With Russia!”

Pro-European forces still managed to form a coalition government, but only with support from the Communist Party.

While insisting that Russian propaganda had played a big role in shaping opinions, Mr. Leanca acknowledged that his government was also to blame. “They saw good will but did not see any results on corruption or poverty,” he said of the voters.

A recent opinion poll carried out by the Institute for Public Policy, a Moldova research group, found that only 32 percent of those surveyed would support joining the European Union—an option that Brussels has no intention of offering—while 50 percent said they would prefer to join a customs union promoted by Mr. Putin. Over all, support for the European Union in Moldova has plummeted to 40 percent this year from 78 percent in 2007, according to the group’s figures, which were based on what it called a representative sample of Moldovans.

Chiril Gaburici, a former telecommunications executive recently installed as Moldova’s new prime minister after last November’s inconclusive elections, said he was “not happy” about Europe’s terminological retreat in the draft statement for the Riga summit meeting.

But, he added, Moldova’s pro-European politicians have themselves dashed many hopes, noting that ordinary people are disappointed after years of hearing leaders “talking about reforms and a better life but not seeing that much real change.”

A long series of scandals, including the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from a leading bank, have provided powerful ammunition to pro-Russian forces.

One of those is Renato Usatii, a businessman turned populist political maverick who rails against corruption, spends much of his time in Moscow and drives a $350,000 Rolls-Royce. He was barred from competing in the November poll on what many viewed as a trumped-up pretext of registration irregularities.

“Even pro-European people who like the idea of Europe now hate the reality of what it has created,” Mr. Usatii said. Europe, he added, “is losing Moldova.”

A senior European diplomat, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely, complained that Moldova’s pro-European politicians were “very good at singing the European song” to impress Brussels.

But in reality, he added, “they have really mucked up,” discrediting both their own pro-European parties and the European Union. As a result, the diplomat added, many ordinary people now believe that “Russia cannot be any worse.”

That is certainly the conclusion of Alexandres Botnari, the mayor of Hincesti, a small town in central Moldova that the European Union has promoted as an example of the benefits to be had from drawing closer to Europe. Those were supposed to include funding to guarantee that all Hincesti residents have clean water and modern sanitation.

Unfortunately, Mr. Botnari said, shaking his head at a slick brochure about Moldova’s successes in partnership with Brussels, “reality is totally different.”

Only a third of homes in Hincesti have sewage pipes, many do not have drinkable water, and nearly all the roads outside the center of town are still pitted dirt tracks.

The mayor, despite being a member of the nominally pro-European Democratic Party, said Moldova would be better off, at least economically, joining Mr. Putin’s customs union.

While the European market is much bigger and richer than Russia’s, Mr. Putin imposed tight trade restrictions in 2013 on Moldova in retaliation for its flirtation with the West. For now, exports to Europe have not yet risen enough to make up for what was lost in Russia.

“We cannot live without the Russian market,” said Igor Dodon, the Socialist Party leader, as he sat in an office bedecked with photographs of himself meeting Mr. Putin in Moscow. Mr. Putin, he said, told him that Russia wants to revive trade and political ties with Moldova, but only if the country avoids moving toward NATO.

The European Union, Mr. Dodon said, “needed a success story and chose us. But now everyone sees this was all an illusion.”

Nonetheless, when measured by the highly technocratic criteria Brussels uses to assess success, Moldova is still the Eastern Partnership’s top reformer, having adopted 10,500 European standards for food, electrical goods and a vast range of other items.

But, conceded Ms. Morari, the Foreign Ministry official, success in changing sanitary norms and other arcane rules, while perhaps crucial to the creation of a modern country, “is difficult to communicate in a sexy way.”

Review: ‘The Japanese Dog,’ a Family Reunion in Romania

Photo by Romanian Film Initiative

New York Times
20 May 2015
by Ben Kenigsberg

On the surface, the brooding, cynical dramas that have come to represent the standard of Romanian cinema—“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”—have little in common with the humane family portraits of the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (“Tokyo Story”). But both types of movies are uncommonly attentive to the passage of time and show an interest in the ways people are obligated to act toward one another.

The Japanese Dog,” the first feature from Tudor Cristian Jurgiu, is an hommage to Ozu, down to the way Mr. Jurgiu often isolates different generations within the frame. The protagonist, Costache (Victor Rebengiuc), is a curmudgeon reeling from his wife’s death and his house’s destruction in a flood. When the movie opens, he is reluctant to accept help from others and is under pressure to sell his land.

His son, Ticu (Serban Pavlu), an engineer living in Japan, returns home, bringing his wife and their son. The visit gives Costache a chance to act as a grandparent and to discuss unresolved matters, like the romance Ticu left behind and what Ticu sees as his father’s chronic failure to communicate.

While it lacks the richness of some of Ozu’s masterworks, “The Japanese Dog” steers clear of sentimentality—an impressive feat, given that the title somewhat preciously refers to a toy dog. The movie depicts a hopeful side of Romania, peeking through even Costache’s lonely world.

The Japanese Dog

Opens on Thursday

Directed by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu; written by Iona Antoci, Gabriel Gheorghe and Mr. Jurgiu; director of photography, Andrei Butica; edited by Dragos Apetri; produced by Tudor Giurgiu and Bogdan Craciun; released by m-appeal. In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Victor Rebengiuc (Costache), Serban Pavlu (Ticu), Kana Hashimoto (Hirouku), Toma Hashimoto (Koji), Iona Abur (Gabi) and Alexandrina Halic (Leanca).

Romania President Raises Alarm Over Illegal Logging

New York Times
18 May 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romania's president says a new law allowing the logging of small woods could lead to "uncontrolled deforestation" in the country, posing a national security threat.

President Klaus Iohannis said Monday that the proposed legislation could lead to the logging of as much as a million hectares. Romania has 6.6 million hectares (16.3 million acres) of forest, home to brown bears and wolves.

Thousands of Romanians have recently staged protests against illegal deforestation, accusing political parties of allowing the logging of swathes of woodland by failing to impose sufficient controls.

Reacting to the protests, the government said Saturday it would temporarily ban the export of wood.

Iohannis said deforestation would be on the agenda of the country's next national security meeting. He said illegal deforestation was "a threat to national security."

Moldova Rally Urges Reunification With Neighboring Romania

New York Times
16 May 2015
by The Associated Press

CHISINAU, Moldova—Shouting anti-Russian slogans, 3,000 people have rallied in Moldova urging the reunification of the former Soviet republic with neighboring Romania.

Moldovans marched Saturday from a central square in Chisinau past parliament shouting "Good bye, Russia! Don't forget Bessarabia is not yours!" using the historical name for Moldova.

Russia first annexed Moldova in May 1812. It was part of Romania from 1918 until 1940, when it was annexed to the Soviet Union under a Nazi-Soviet Pact. Moldova declared independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union disintegrated.

George Simion, a Romanian who heads Action 2012 that organized Saturday's rally, was expelled from Moldova this week for five years after Moldova's security agency said he posed a threat to national security.

Some 10 to 20 percent of Moldovans support reunification, polls show.

Romanian Minister Found Guilty of Vote-Rigging in Referendum

New York Times
15 May 2015
by Reuters

BUCHAREST—A senior Romanian minister was convicted on Friday of electoral fraud over a 2012 attempt to impeach a president and political rival, a judgment that dealt a blow to Prime Minister Victor Ponta's efforts to demonstrate to the EU a hard line on graft.

Regional development minister Liviu Dragnea was convicted of masterminding a campaign to use bribes and forged ballot papers to swing an impeachment vote against then president Traian Basescu, arch rival of Ponta's ruling Social Democrats.

The court gave Dragnea, a powerful figure in Romanian politics, a one year suspended jail sentence, which spares him prison. He will, however, be banned from holding public office. The decision can be appealed.

Dragnea, 52, is the second member of Ponta's cabinet felled by graft charges in the European Union state, after the finance minister was put under investigation in March and resigned.

Ponta suggested the ruling was politically motivated, "a symbolic decision to convict a political action".

His trial has put renewed scrutiny on Romania's performance in tackling corruption on a political and judicial level. Brussels keeps the country's justice system under special monitoring.

While giving prosecutors high praise for their work, it has criticized Dragnea being allowed to remain in office while under investigation.


In July 2012, Ponta's ruling Social Democrats and their allies tried to oust arch rival Basescu, from the presidency.

A referendum plunged Romania into a constitutional crisis and drew fire from Brussels and Washington who saw the rule of law undermined. The attempt ultimately failed as the turnout did not meet the threshold of 50 percent of all registered voters.

Dragnea's conviction risks being an embarrassment for Ponta, who suffered a surprise defeat at a presidential election in November and who faces a general election at the end of 2016.

"A dangerous precedent has been set for organizing elections ... which can impact democracy and parties' freedom to call people to the polls," Dragnea, who denies any wrongdoing, told reporters after the verdict.

He said he had resigned his post as minister as well as that of executive president of the Social Democrat Party

In indicting him and 74 other people in 2013, prosecutors said he had told local party members and mayors to use any means, including bribes, to swell turnout. He had suggested county prefects set up polling stations in tourist resorts that were not registered constituencies.

When all else failed, prosecutors said, they forged voting papers.

"Dragnea tasked some of his close allies ... to do everything in their power, including by breaking the law, to get people to vote."

They said Dragnea, as party secretary general, organized an illegal system by which local party members sent back real-time information about the turnout and results before polls closed.

A continuing anti-corruption crackdown has pointed to further graft in his party, with both his father-in-law and brother-in-law also under criminal investigation.

Finance Minister Darius Valcov resigned in March, accused of taking kickbacks in exchange for favoring a company for a public works contract.

"I don't think there will be major political consequences for the party after the conviction, as they and Dragnea will play the 'it was a political decision' card," said Mircea Marian, a political analyst.

Romania Turns Hacking Crisis Into Advantage, Helping Ukraine

New York Times
13 May 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Ukraine is turning to an unlikely partner in its struggle to defend itself against Russian cyber warfare: Romania.

The eastern European country known more for economic disarray than technological prowess has become one of the leading nations in Europe in the fight against hacking. The reason: the country's own battle against Internet renegades and a legacy of computing excellence stemming from Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime.

Both historic twists have ironically turned Romanian cyber sleuths into some of Europe's best. So much so that NATO tapped Bucharest to defend Ukraine from Russian digital espionage by sending experts to monitor Kiev government institutes and train Ukrainian IT specialists.

Ukraine says Russia's Federal Security Service is coordinating attacks on government offices as part of a proxy war against Ukraine's government, amid real fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels in the east. Ukrainian security operatives say that, with Romania's help, they have foiled attempts to spread malicious software intended to disable the government's computer network or steal intelligence.

At NATO's summit last year in Wales, President Barack Obama and other leaders decided to create five "trust funds"—or narrowly focused programs funded by NATO member counties that are meant to help Ukraine reform and modernize its defense capabilities—including one for cyber defense to help Ukraine's military modernize.

Romania, a member of NATO's cyber coalition exercises, volunteered to lead the Ukraine Cyber Defense Trust Fund—and tapped the state-owned Rasirom company. The alliance notes the Rasirom, the cyber-security provider for Romania's top state institutions, has "a rich experience in cyber defense."

"We are trying to be a regional leader," Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said in a meeting with foreign media outlets. "That is why Romania ... has been appointed by NATO to be in charge of (Ukraine's) cyber security and preventing cyber warfare."

At the opening of a regional conference on cyber security, U.S deputy Secretary for Commerce Bruce Andrews on Monday praised Romanian company Bitdefender which created "Bitdefender Box." one of the first security products made specifically for home networks. It protects devices by scanning network traffic to detect and block potential security threats and noted that Romanian was the second language spoken at Microsoft in offices around the world, after English.

Ukraine itself had no say on which country NATO tapped to provide its cyber security. But since 2013 it has cooperated with Romania on fighting hacking, phishing, child porn and DDoS attacks, which attempt to disable a website by swamping it with traffic.

Europol is also tapping into Romania's cyber savvy. The European police agency's chief, Ron Wainright, said 20 percent of Europol's cyber defense experts are Romanian police officers. "The expertise that Romanian specialists bring in their daily fight against this threat is extraordinary," he said on a recent visit to Bucharest.

If Romania is a leader in cyber policing today, it can perhaps thank a string of high-profile cases of Romanian hackers attacking the United States in 2011. That year, Romanian cyber criminals stole $1 billion from victims in the U.S., and an unemployed Romanian taxi driver calling himself "Guccifer" hacked the emails of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and former President George W. Bush. Marcel Lehel Lazar accessed and published private Bush family photos, including selfies of Bush who appeared to be shaving in the shower and soaking his feet in a bathtub.

The security breaches so alarmed Washington that the FBI launched a program to train 600 Romanian law enforcement officers on fighting cybercrime.

Last month, Romanian police broke up an alleged cybercrime ring and arrested 25 Romanians. The Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism said that between February and December 2013, a group of 52 Romanians and foreign citizens carried out more than 34,000 fraudulent cash withdrawals in 24 countries, netting more than euros 15 million ($17 million).

The gang targeted banks in Puerto Rico and Oman. Romanian police said the group broke IT firewalls to obtain the details of corporate clients which were used to clone credit cards.

Romania's tradition of computer skills dates back to the communist era when Ceausescu decided to make engineering and math education priorities at top universities.

Microsoft, Google and Oracle all have businesses in Romania and there are 93,000 employed in the industry with 6,500 graduating in IT every year, according to Anis, the Romanian software industry association.

Romanians also have computer success abroad. Gabriel Marcu has worked at Apple since 1996 and is a senior scientist there, responsible for color calibration on all Apple products.In 2008, Razvan Olosu , the former CEO of Nokia Germany, founded Novero, a company making Telematics products for automotive clients which he ran until 2013.

One industry expert said Romania's success relies on teaching IT from a young age.

"Faculties are turning out very good specialists who are highly sought after by big companies," said Rasirom general manager Aurelian Tolescu.

Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Wikipedia 10 May 2015

On this day...

May 10: Independence Day in Romania (1877)

Romanian Gov't Declassifies Communist-Era Prison Documents

New York Times
29 April 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania's government has declassified secret documents relating to prisons where hundreds of thousands of opponents of the former communist regime were incarcerated.

The government said Wednesday it was declassifying documents from 1957 to 1962 which were "necessary for solving ongoing trials," and in the interest of "free access to information of public interest."

Alexandru Visinescu is on trial accused of crimes against humanity for the deaths of 12 prisoners at Ramnicu Sarat, where he was commander from 1956 to 1963.

Ion Ficior faces the same charges for the deaths of 103 people at Periprava labor camp, which he ran from 1958 to 1963. Both have denied wrongdoing.

Octav Bjoza, head the Association of Former Detainees said opening the records would help the younger generation understand the country's past.

However, he said he regretted it had not been done earlier when more of the former communist officials were alive.

"These criminals died peacefully in their beds, while prisoners died in humiliation without getting justice," Bjoza told The Associated Press.

About 500,000 Romanians were held as political prisoners in the 1950s and early '60s as the government sought to crush dissent.

Historians say one-fifth of those prison inmates died due to insufficient food and medicine, beatings and lack of heat in their cells. The Communist regime led by Nicolae Ceausescu collapsed in 1989.

EU President Promises Moldova Closer Cooperation

New York Times
28 April 2015
by The Associated Press

CHISINAU, Moldova — The EU president has promised Moldova closer cooperation with the European Union, while urging it to reform its justice system and banking sector and fight corruption.

Donald Tusk called Moldova, which neighbors Ukraine and Romania, "a key ... partner of the European Union."

He later said it was the most promising of the EU's eastern partnership countries which also include former Soviet republics Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine.

Moldova signed an association agreement with the EU in June. Russia responded by placing an embargo on fruit and some vegetables.

"Right now Moldova is facing hardship both for domestic reasons and for reasons of regional instability and uncertainty," Tusk said Tuesday in Chisinau.

Moldova, a country of 4 million, hopes to join the EU in 2019. Tusk said these EU aspirations would have "a happy end."

Moldovan officials have recently investigated the disappearance of $1.5 billion from state-owned and private banks before November's elections. Moldova's currency has lost 20 percent value this year.

The current government is backed by communists, who favor a slower approach to reforms.

Review: ‘Closer to the Moon’ Recounts a Bizarre Bit of Romanian History

Five men and one woman, all with important connections in the Communist Party and members of the Jewish community of Bucharest, rob the Romanian National Bank, in what will become one of Europe’s most notorious bank robberies. By Sundance Selects on Publish Date April 12, 2015. Photo by Internet Video Archive.

New York Times
16 April 2015
by Manohla Dargis

Closer to the Moon,” a fictionalized tale about a weird chapter in Romanian history, tries hard to slap a smiley face on a calamity. In 1959, a group of formerly true-believing Romanian Communists, all Jewish, did the unthinkable when they robbed a branch of the state (and only) bank. They were soon caught, but the story went from curious to crackpot when officials decided that the robbers would portray themselves in a state-produced film titled “Reconstruction,” recreating their gangsta roles with secret meetings, gats and getaway cars. Apparently believing that the state might go easier on them if they cooperated, the robbers played along, all the way through the show-trial end.

This history has inspired a couple of documentaries, including one also called “Reconstruction” (2001), by Irene Lusztig, whose grandmother, Monica Alfandary Sevianu, and grandmother’s husband, Igor Sevianu, were part of the bank-robbing gang. It isn’t widely available, but “The Great Communist Bank Robbery” (2004), by Alexandru Solomon, a smart, bitingly sardonic chronicle of the same incident, can be rented online. It’s worth a look because the robbers offer a fascinating entree into crazy Communist Romania and because Mr. Solomon doesn’t pretend he knows why they did what they did. Rather, he shuffles through the possible motivations—Zionism, despair, nihilism—deconstructing an event that from mysterious start to grim finish looked a lot like a suicide mission.

Written and directed by Nae Caranfil, “Closer to the Moon” draws on many of the same facts that appear in “The Great Communist Bank Robbery,” but in the service of a less adventurous movie with familiar Western actors, English-language dialogue and badly strained uplift. In a narrative move that further obscures the interesting if clouded truth, Mr. Caranfil also frames his version with a needless contrivance. In “Closer,” the robbers pull off the heist using a diversionary tactic: They pretend that they’re shooting a film. With overblown gestures, they fire up a movie camera and overplay to the audience of ordinary looky-loos, creating a pantomime that will be echoed when, after their arrest, they must recreate the crime in the official propaganda picture.

Like Mr. Solomon, Mr. Caranfil divides “Closer” into chapters, each meant to throw new light on the tale. Vera Farmiga stars as Alice, who not long after the story opens, returns to Bucharest. She soon takes up with her old comrades, including her unhappily married ex-lover, Max (Mark Strong). (Max seems to be a conflation of Mr. Sevianu and another conspirator, Alexandru Ioanid; the crew was nicknamed theIoanid Gang.) Mr. Strong and Ms. Farmiga can be predictably, cartoonishly fun, like a Romanian Boris and Natasha, but even they can’t always make clunky dialogue sing or navigate slippery tone shifts without showing the strain, and neither is especially convincing here, whether playing it heavy or light. (Some warring accents and Mr. Strong’s two-bit rug do some scene-stealing.)

Mr. Caranfil never manages to negotiate the thickets of ambiguity, tragedy and bleak comedy, although the problem may be that someone behind the scenes just didn’t see the profit in a no-exit narrative. Mostly, though, by stressing personal tears and woes over the larger political picture, “Closer to the Moon”—the title comes from a savagely comic suggested punishment—downplays how apparatchiks hijacked reality for a carefully staged, serial fiction called the Socialist Republic of Romania that starred Nicolae Ceausescu as the benevolent leader of a cast of smiling, happy millions. In this putative paradise “there was no crime and no opposition,” as “The Great Communist Bank Robbery” puts it with memorable, ferocious cool. “Only the terror imposed by the government on the people.”

Closer to the Moon

Opens on Friday

Written and directed by Nae Caranfil; director of photography, Marius Panduru; edited by Roberto Silvi; music by Laurent Couson; production design by Cristian Niculescu; costumes by Doina Levintza; produced by Michael Fitzgerald, Renata Rainieri, Bobby Paunescu, Alessandro Leone and Denis Friedman; released by Sundance Selects. In English and Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Vera Farmiga (Alice), Mark Strong (Max), Tim Plester (Dumi), Christian McKay (Iorgu), Joe Armstrong (Razvan), Harry Lloyd (Virgil), Marcin Walewski (Mirel), Anton Lesser (Holban), Allan Corduner (Flaviu) and David de Kayser (Moritz).

Closer To The Moon

New York Times
12 April 2015
by Sundance Selects

Five men and one woman, all with important connections in the Communist Party and members of the Jewish community of Bucharest, rob the Romanian National Bank, in what will become one of Europe's most notorious bank robberies. They subsequently find themselves the subjects of a nationwide manhunt, and after two months of investigations, they are arrested, forced to star in a propaganda film about their crime, and then executed. Only Alice, the female member of the group, finds her life spared by the authorities.

Wikipedia: Closer to the Moon

Romania’s Anti-Corruption Mania

New York Times
4 March 2015
by Patrick Basham

BUCHAREST, Romania—With its wide, tree-lined boulevards and Belle Époque buildings, this city was once known as Little Paris. Today, Romania’s capital feels more reminiscent of the French Revolution as it is roiled by a legal reign of terror.

In November, the leader of the center-right National Liberal Party, Klaus Iohannis, was elected president on a populist, anti-corruption platform, succeeding Traian Basescu of the more conservative Democratic Liberal Party.

Only lately had Mr. Basescu thrown his weight behind a long-running anti-corruption drive that had seemed relatively toothless. For Mr. Basescu, it was a useful political tool to attack opponents, as well as a way to appease American and European critics of Romania’s governance. But his move was belated.

With Mr. Iohannis’s victory, the anti-corruption effort went into overdrive. While executive authority rests with the prime minister, Victor Ponta, who heads the Social Democratic Party, the presidency can be a powerful bully pulpit.

Denied justice for decades, first by dictators, then by ineffectual democrats, Romanians enthusiastically backed the anti-corruption cause. After a judicial sweep that started under Mr. Basescu netted more than a thousand convictions of politicians and businessmen last year, the campaign proved a key electoral issue.

Crude populism now carries the day. The television networks relentlessly cover every perp walk. With the courts convicting at a rate of more than 90 percent, scores of politicians from all the main parties have been disgraced.

The nation is running out of prison space. Condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, Bucharest’s jails are desperately overcrowded; the justice minister recently announced that he was seeking European funding for several new prisons. Little else looks as if it’s being built these days. Businesspeople I’ve spoken to have become wary of public-private partnerships since they view such arrangements as too easy to construe as graft.

Bribery is, in fact, endemic in Romanian life: Politics merely mirrors social norms. Everyone in politics and business is presumed guilty of something. Most Romanians admit that they care little about shortcomings of due process, whether it’s laughably thin evidence or prosecutors’ tutoring of judges in verdicts.

The rise of the prosecutorial state threatens even its own. In November, a former top prosecutor, Alina Bica, who was appointed by Mr. Ponta to head the government’s unit investigating organized crime, was herself arrested on a charge of receiving kickbacks while in office. She had previously participated in developing Romania’s criminal code on government standards. In Mr. Basescu’s words, “Nobody is above the law.”

It’s commonplace for suspects to be pressured to name names in exchange for possible leniency. It’s also routine for family members to be arrested as additional leverage for the prosecutors. One particularly Orwellian measure is the use of “preventive arrests” to imprison certain high-level suspects accused of white-collar crimes on grounds of stopping them from committing similar alleged offenses in future.

Despite official denials, everyone knows the courts are not as politically independent as they should be. A number of those arrested, I was told, have ties to Russian financial interests—which makes them easy to portray as serving the interests of a foreign power that many Romanians regard as a threat.

Before his election in 2012, Mr. Ponta had characterized the National Anti-corruption Directorate as a modern-day version of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s feared secret police. But as public opinion turned in the directorate’s favor, the prime minister changed his tune.

A pro-market politician, Mr. Ponta now acts as cheerleader for the anti-corruption drive—finding it a handy tool for targeting his enemies in the media, particularly the owners of critical newspapers. Soon after Mr. Ponta clashed with Adrian Sarbu, the owner of the Mediafax Group, which publishes Romania’s leading business paper, Mr. Sarbu was arrested on charges of tax evasion, money laundering and embezzlement. He has denied the allegations.

The prosecution of Dan Adamescu, owner of the independent newspaper Romania Libera, is also troubling. Mr. Ponta accused Mr. Adamescu of embezzling from his own insurance company to help finance Mr. Basescu’s re-election campaign. Mr. Adamescu was found guilty and received a more than four-year prison sentence.

The apparent political motivation behind the Sarbu and Adamescu cases demonstrates how an effort to reduce the relationship between money and politics has served instead to ramp up score-settling and judicial overreach.

Another unintended consequence of the anti-corruption campaign is that it has fueled anti-American sentiment. Because the State Department had expressed the fear that a corrupt Romania could become the next Ukraine, with popular anger at a corrupt oligarchy leading to disorder, some Romanians now view the legion of hasty convictions as a misguided attempt to impress America.

The European Union has monitored corruption levels since Romania’s 2007 entry into the Union. While Brussels has never threatened to withhold funding, there was anxiety in Bucharest that a failure to push reform could lead to Romania’s voting rights’ being suspended.

As arbiters of good governance, neither the United States nor the European Union should remain silent over the Romanian government’s abuse of prosecutorial powers. Certainly, a less corrupt Romania would be a better European Union member and a more reliable NATO ally, but it would be a mistake to accept the sheer volume of justice, rather than its quality, as a reliable metric of success.

Romania’s anti-corruption campaign has rapidly metastasized into an illiberal crusade. The public’s insatiable appetite for justice only exacerbates the threat to the country’s democratic future.

American and European governments should congratulate Romanians on their newfound determination to eradicate graft, but now encourage a change in the government’s approach. Romania’s democratic development would be better served by a public process whereby past misdeeds were acknowledged, documented and then forgiven.

Only a comprehensive process that rewards disclosure with amnesty will allow Romanians to stop looking over their shoulders, figuratively and literally. With international media scrutiny, a truth commission would make a powerful statement that democratic Romania will vigorously punish future transgressions—but in a transparent, nonpartisan and judicious manner.

Patrick Basham is the director of the Democracy Institute, a public policy research organization based in Washington and London.

Merkel Hopes Moldova Isn't in Russia's Sights After Ukraine

New York Times
26 February 2015
by Reuters

BERLIN—Germany's Angela Merkel said on Thursday she hoped Russia's Vladimir Putin would not try the same strategy in Moldova as he had in Ukraine, and expressed support for the country's efforts to forge stronger ties with Europe, to Moscow's chagrin.

The chancellor, asked at a news conference with visiting Romanian President Klaus Iohannis whether she thought there was a risk that Romania's eastern neighbor could be in Moscow's sights, replied: "Well, we hope not."

Germany and European Union member Romania feel "politically very closely linked to Moldova" and will support the new pro-EU government of Chiril Gaburici, she said.

Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, has ratified a political and trade agreement with the EU, turning its back on a future in a Russian-led customs bloc.

"There are many small steps that show Moldova is our close partner," said Merkel, citing the EU's attempts to offset the impact on the Moldovan economy of Russia's ban on imports of wine and food from Moldova in retribution for its overtures to the EU.

Iohannis said there were "no indications at the moment" that Moscow would interfere in Moldova.

Merkel and Iohannis both said the crisis in Ukraine had put the spotlight on the situation of Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova with strong ties to Russia, which Moscow has warned Moldova it could lose if it moves closer to Europe.

Ukraine's war against pro-Russian separatists was partly triggered by Kiev pursuing similar pro-EU policies to those now being adopted by Moldova, in the face of opposition from Moscow.

British Prime Minister David Cameron warned this week that Russia could try to destabilize other countries in eastern Europe if it was left unchallenged over its actions in Ukraine. "Next it'll be Moldova or one of the Baltic states," he said.

The center-right Romanian president said there was no need for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to take the part of ethnic Hungarians living in other countries in the region including Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Serbia.

Iohannis said he was in close contact with political parties representing Romania's Hungarian minority, adding: "There is no Hungarian problem in Romania."

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke)

Russia: Rehab Plan for Alcoholic Bears

One of the bears has gone blind and both need treatment for alcohol addiction

BBC News
25 February 2015

Two alcoholic Russian bears who were kept in appalling conditions for more than 20 years could soon be enjoying a new life in Romania.

In February, a court ruled that the male bears must be confiscated from their owner, who kept them in a small, rubbish-strewn cage at a restaurant in the Black Sea city of Sochi. The animals—one of which is blind—became addicted to alcohol after visitors continually gave them drinks, the Tass news agency reports. While the removal order comes into effect in March, they're currently still living with the owner, and need travel paperwork to be issued by the Sochi authorities. "The court order is there to take them away but there is nowhere to put them in Sochi," says Anna Kogan, head of the Big Hearts Foundation, which is coordinating the move with support from other animal charities. A bear sanctuary in Romania has now offered to re-home the bears and provide them with treatment for their alcohol problems.

"It's a very expensive process to move them abroad," Ms Kogan tells the BBC, adding that the foundation is still looking for logistical help to transport the bears by boat across the Black Sea. But if they make it to their new home, their chances of recovery are good. "The people there have worked with dancing bears who had similar problems... it can be done," Ms Kogan says. The restaurant owner previously defended keeping the bears, arguing that beer was good for them because of the climate.

Romania Sends Ambulances to Moldova in Tug-Of-War With Russia

New York Times
15 February 2015
by Reuters

BALTI, Moldova—A stone's throw from the mounted T-34 Soviet tank in the center of this Moldovan city is an emergency ambulance service set up by Romania, one of several soft power moves to steer its eastern neighbor away from Moscow's orbit.

Wary of Russian intentions after Ukraine lost control of Crimea and much of its east to Russian-backed forces last year, Romania is trying to bring Moldova toward the European Union.

Its sweeteners, the ambulances, as well as offers of cheaper gas supplies and closer trade ties, have been warmly welcomed by impoverished Moldova's two-month-old pro-European government.

Some locals are wary of Romania's intentions, but many are grateful in this corner of Moldova, where villagers trudge along muddy, unpaved roads and western cars like the red, Volkswagen ambulances are novel enough to win salutes from their children.

"People calling 903 for an ambulance ask us to send them the red cars with the red men," said 35-year-old Ion Picalau, a rescue captain with the newly-created ambulance service in Balti, about 60 km east of the Prut river border, who trained for the job for six months in Romania.

Moscow has warned Moldova that its drive for closer ties to Europe could cause it to lose control of Transnistria for good, just as Ukraine lost Crimea, and lead to more costly gas from Russia, its main supplier.

The Romanian government is unapologetic, saying even though it sees Russia as a serious security threat, it will step up a battle that is, for now, economic rather than military.

"(Russia's) main weapon is neither warplanes, nor its tanks or its frigates. It is energy," Prime Minister Victor Ponta said in a televised interview with local media in November. He has vowed to press ahead with a gas pipeline to Moldova.

Among the people of Moldova, divided into several ethnic groups with varying allegiances, Romania's actions have met a mixed reaction, with some seeing them as a bulwark against Russia and others worried Romania may try to swallow Moldova up.

Part of Tsarist Russia for a century, Moldova joined what was known as Greater Romania after the First World War but was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

It is now split between a Romanian-speaking majority and the breakaway region Transdniestria, propped up by Russia in one of a series of "frozen conflicts" that have kept separatist regions in several former Soviet republics under Moscow's wing.

NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, US Air Force Gen Philip Breedlove has said Russian forces could easily annex Transdniestria. Moscow has denied any such plans.


EU and NATO member Romania championed Moldova signing a trade agreement with the EU in June and, as Russia moved to restrict imports of Moldovan wine, fruit, vegetables and meat, Romania overtook Russia as Moldova's largest trade partner.

Moldovans can now travel visa-free to Europe's Schengen zone and to wean them from Russian gas, Romania has built a 43 km (27 mile) pipeline across the border, inaugurated last year on the 23rd anniversary of Moldovan independence from the Soviet Union.

The project will initially cover about five percent of Moldova's energy needs, and Romania plans to extend the pipeline to the Moldovan capital Chisinau, offering gas for 1,010 lei ($263) per 1,000 cubic meters, excluding transport fees which are still under negotiation.

That compares to the Russian price of more than $300.

Moldova's acting Economy Minister Andrian Candu told Reuters it was a "key project ... creating a basis for our country's future integration in the European Union's internal market".

Romania funded about three-quarters of the initial pipeline's 26 million euro cost and is expected to fund the extension while Chisinau is seeking international financing for the pipeline. Critics note that gas has yet to flow and question whether the line to Chisinau will ever be built.

Candu estimated the extension's overall joint costs at 200 million euros, with 120 million to be invested by Romania.


Romania's emergency ambulance and rescue service, developed in the early 1990s by Raed Arafat, a Syrian-born doctor of Palestinian origin, will soon straddle the border.

As well as training up Balti's medical workers, Romania donated five ambulances to the city and rescue helicopters, based in Romania, will soon fly across the border, taking victims to Chisinau, or, if they have dual Romanian-Moldovan citizenship, possibly to Iasi.

"There has been strong political will from the two prime ministers to achieve this," Arafat, who is also Romania's deputy interior minister, told Reuters.

Romania has also donated buses and books to Moldovan schools. It has given passports to 500,000 Moldovans since the country's independence in 1991 and sponsored Moldovans, including Economy Minister Candu, to study in Romania.

Such help plays well with Romanians, three-quarters of whom support reunification with Moldova, a country of 3.5 million sometimes referred to by its historical name Bessarabia.

Graffiti and stickers advocating reunification adorn walls, lamp-posts and trains across Romania, and February saw the creation of a cross-party group in parliament to lobby for it.

In Moldova, however, only a fraction of MPs openly support reunification and the country's large number of left-leaning voters also oppose closer ties with the EU.

"The people on the other side of the Prut river in Romania are our blood brothers, so I think their help is sincere," said Vasile Braghis, a 45-year-old Moldovan businessman.

"But ... the overwhelming majority of the population support the continuing statehood of Moldova."

Joining the EU could be a long drawn out process. The new European Commission team says it does not envisage new members within the next five years. For Moldova to reach candidate status it would need to meet criteria on human rights, the rule of law and be seen as a functioning market economy.

Petr Neikovcchen, 51, town hall official in the Gagauz region in southern Moldova, says minorities such as Bulgarians, Gagauz, Ukrainians, Russians and Bulgarians felt threatened by growing ties with Romania and were lukewarm about the EU.

"We Bulgarians and Gagauz consider integration with the EU a complicated process that will take decades, whereas cooperation with Russia is a reality, achievable tomorrow," he said.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Tanas in Chisinau and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Matthias Williams and Philippa Fletcher)

The Romanian Entrepreneurs Making Money from Communism

Tourists taking part in one of Stefan Munteanu's guided tours stand in front of the parliament building

BBC News
11 February 2015
by Calin Cosmaciuc

Bucharest, Romania—It may be more than 25 years since communism came to an end in Romania, following the violent overthrow of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, but feelings still remain raw in the country.

Such was the level of repression and grinding poverty under the communist regime that ruled the country from the end of World War Two until December 1989, that most Romanians still don't like to discuss this turbulent part of their history.

It was a time of severe food and fuel shortages, and the feared secret police, the Securitate, which by 1985 had 11,000 agents and 500,000 informers. Thousands of people were arrested and killed.

Yet while the wounds haven't healed for many Romanians, the growing number of tourists that today visit Romania, and in particular its capital Bucharest, are keen to find out more about life in the former Socialist Republic of Romania.

As a result, over the past two years, Romanian entrepreneurs - most who were only children at the time of the 1989 revolution - are starting to organise "communism tours" for foreign visitors. The tourists typically come from across Europe, the US, Japan, China and Israel.

The guided walks take in key buildings and locations in Bucharest linked to the former communist regime.

Lack of Food

Stefan Munteanu, 31, has been organising such tours since 2013, after he invested 2,000 euros ($2,263; £1,480) of savings to set up his business Open Doors.

He now organises 10 tours a week, which each attract an average of 15 participants, and cost from 13 euros per person.

He says that tourists find out about his business via three main sources - his own website, Tripadvisor, and recommendations from hostels and hotels in Bucharest.

"I was only six in 1989 when the communist regime fell, but I do remember the lack of food, the queues at the grocery stores, and the power cuts," he says.

"Now it is over, but we have to accept that communism was part of our recent history... let's see how we can profit from it."

Mr Munteanu says that "the biggest wow" for tourists is inevitably the giant parliament building.

The grandiose structure and its 1,100 rooms was Ceausescu's most notorious vanity project.

Originally called the People's House, it was designed to be both his personal palace, and home to all parts of the communist administration.

To make way for the vast building, which is 270m (889ft) long and 240m (787ft) wide, Ceausescu ordered that one fifth of the historic centre of Bucharest be bulldozed.

Work on the 3bn euros project started in 1984, and it had not been completed when Ceausescu was executed by firing squad in December 1989.

The building was finally finished in 1997, and while now home to both houses of the Romanian parliament, such is its vast size that only a third of the structure is occupied.

Continuing Taboo

Fellow tour guide Marius Zaharia, 33, has a number of communist props to show the tourists who join him on his three-hour walking tours around central Bucharest.

He has photos and old newspapers from the era, one of the former regime's coat of arms, and even a pack of communist-made cigarettes.

Mr Zaharia ends his tour by the former Romanian Communist Party office building where Ceausescu and his wife Elena fled from by helicopter during the 1989 uprising.

He says that while most Romanians wouldn't want to go on such a tour, he hopes that this will eventually change.

"Many Romanians do not cope with the past, and this is why the tours of communism haven't been done until recent years," says Mr Zacharia.

"We still have this taboo, many don't like to talk about it."

However, he adds that if tourists can now go on organised walking tours in Berlin and Munich looking at locations key to the history of Nazi Germany, then he hopes that more Romanians will be able to accept communism tours in their country.

The Romanian government certainly hopes this is the case, with the Ministry of Tourism saying that the country's communist past should be more extensively used to attract foreign visitors.

As a result, plans are now afoot to create a museum focused on the country's more than four decades of communism.

Maria Stoe, 33, another tour guide, says she hopes such developments will help Romanian's better cope with the country's past, "because the society is not totally recovered after so many years of communism".

The Executioner

While other Romanian entrepreneurs are now starting to make and sell communist-themed souvenirs, such as porcelain piggy banks shaped like Ceausescu's head, it is the walking tours which remain at the centre of the industry looking back at the Socialist Republic of Romania.

The Ceausescu piggy bank costs 80 euros

One of the tour guides who is older than most is called Dorin Marian Carlan.

Now in his 50s, he was a member of the army firing squad that executed Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu after they had been caught near the city of Targoviste.

While no fan of communism, Mr Carkab says he is still uneasy that the couple were shot after a military trial that lasted just one minute and 44 seconds.

He tells the BBC: "I just hope that history won't repeat itself, I mean the communism, but also the faked trial and execution of the Ceausescu's."

Christine Valmy, Builder of U.S. Skin-Care Business, Dies at 88

Christine Valmy, right, watches as a beautician applies a facial mask to a client during a beauty show in New York in 1980. Associated Press

New York Times
7 February 2015
by Catherine Saint Louis

Christine Valmy, an immigrant from Communist Romania who helped build the professional skin-care industry in the United States from the ground up in the 1960s, founding the country’s first licensed skin-care school and becoming a sought-after authority in the field, died on Jan. 18 in Bucharest. She was 88.

Her daughter, Marina Valmy de Haydu, the director of the Christine Valmy international schools, confirmed the death, which was announced only recently. Ms. Valmy had homes in New York, Paris and Bucharest, where she was involved in charity work, her daughter said.

Skin care was not Ms. Valmy’s original choice of careers. By 21, soon after World War II, she had graduated from law school at the University of Bucharest. But the Communist authorities forbade her to practice law because her family owned land and properties, her daughter said; Ms. Valmy’s father was Romania’s customs director before the Communist takeover and had since been relegated to unloading ships as a stevedore.

Her disappointment, her daughter said, led to prolonged depression and a life-changing suggestion by one of her doctors: to take dermatology and cosmetology courses at the university’s medical school. She did, and after graduating in 1948, she opened a salon in Bucharest offering face treatments using botanical remedies she made herself.

But the business barely provided a living—“We were living hand-to-mouth,” her daughter said—so Ms. Valmy moved to Greece and ultimately to the United States looking for better opportunities. She arrived in New York in 1961 with just $25 to her name and her daughter and parents in tow. They settled in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Ms. Valmy was quickly surprised to discover that there were no skin-care specialists offering facials and individualized skin advice in New York—services common in Europe.

At the time, cosmetologists were so focused on the booming hairdressing trade that skin care was not even taught in cosmetology schools, said William Strunk, the president of the Aesthetics International Association, a trade group for skin-care specialists founded in 1972.

Most American women were not making a habit of thoroughly cleaning their skin, exfoliating and unclogging pores. Skin was viewed largely as a canvas for powder and blush.

“Women were just putting makeup on top of problems,” Ms. Valmy de Haydu said, but her mother “harped on the fact that people have to take care of the living organ that is their skin.”

In 1966, Ms. Valmy, a woman of regal bearing, opened a professional school on 57th Street, where she began teaching the latest techniques in skin care and how skin functioned.

“Christine was able to inspire the first wave of professional skin-care experts,” Mr. Strunk said.

She is widely credited with coining the word esthetician, which she cribbed from the French word for beautician: esthéticienne.

Magazines and newspapers solicited her advice, and she marketed a line of creams, masks and exfoliants under her name. But Ms. Valmy was quick to acknowledge that there were no miracle potions that could give someone a flawless complexion.

“It’s like caring for your teeth by brushing them three times a day,” she said. “Caring for the skin is something you have to do all the time.”

She also founded a trade group, the American Association of Estheticians, and by 1968 she had set up an American chapter of an international association of beauty therapists called Cidesco, from Comité International d’Esthétique et de Cosmétologie.

Josephine Wackett, the vice president of Cidesco International, credited Ms. Valmy with distinguishing the “scientific skin-care treatments” offered by estheticians from cosmetology, which in the United States mostly meant hairdressing and manicures. “She was a true pioneer,” Ms. Wackett said.

In 1971, Representative Lawrence J. Hogan, a Maryland Republican, entered into the Congressional Record a tribute calling Ms. Valmy a forward-thinking leader who had established her field “as an honored profession” and a source of hundreds of jobs.

To date, more than 85,000 estheticians have graduated from her 15 schools in 8 countries, including Japan and India.

She was born Christine Xantopol on Oct. 25, 1926, in Bucharest, the daughter of Christofor and Florica Xantopol. She changed her name to Valmy after arriving in the United States, taking it from the 1792 battle in which the French defeated the Prussians.

Two of her marriages ended in divorce. Her third husband, Henry Sterian, a fellow Romanian, died in 2010. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two grandsons. Her son-in-law, Peter de Haydu, is president of Christine Valmy Inc.

Ms. Valmy wrote three books, which she sometimes autographed with the inscription “Your face is my business!” “Esthetics,” a seminal textbook in the field, published in 1979, called for more rigorous standards for her profession.

In the late 1970s, Ms. Valmy and others successfully lobbied for the licensing of estheticians as a distinct profession. Before then, only a hairdressing license was legally required to treat skin.

“If you’re going to be a shoemaker,” Ms. Valmy said, “you don’t go to a tailor school.”

Staying Put and Bearing Witness to the Holocaust

Daniel Owen

New York Times
27 January 2015
by Rena Silverman

See slide show at article website

While recent terror attacks and anti-Semitism have led a growing number of French Jews to flee to Israel, another European Jewish community is determined to stay put, and has been for a long time.

Seventy years ago today, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz, where one million Jews died during the Holocaust. Nearly all of the 30,000 Jews from Oradea, in modern-day Romania, had been sent to the concentration camp complex. After the war, some 2,700 survivors chose to return to Oradea. Daniel Owen spent almost two years photographing that community, where he found that despite all odds—from a dwindling population to few synagogues—this group maintains strong hope for remaining in Oradea.

He saw it not just as a story about survivors, but also survival itself.

“There have been a million stories done on the Holocaust and not to take away from that, these are brilliant stories,” said Mr. Owen, 28. “But this to me was a little more significant. Seventy years ago, this happened, it was horrible. But what about the next 20 years? That’s really the question I’m asking.”

Mr. Owen became interested in photographing the Oradea community in February 2013, while working on a project nearby called “The Romani: A Forgotten Generation.” He was walking down a road when he stumbled across a massive structure.

“I saw this synagogue sitting half-abandoned, unused,” he recalled. “And I said, there’s a Jewish community here?”

That building was the Zion Neologic Synagogue, one of Romania’s largest, which Jewish residents are now hoping to convert into a museum if they can find the money.

“At the beginning of the Second World War, there were over 20 synagogues in Oradea, a very big population,” Mr. Owen said. Now, besides a solitary functioning synagogue, there are a “handful of other ones that are just sitting in disrepair” after being destroyed by the Hungarians, the Nazis or, mostly, neglect.

Mr. Owen’s introduction to the town came through Emilia Teszler of Asociatia Tikvah, a local Holocaust remembrance and human-rights organization. She led him through a small-gated complex to find a Jewish community center and the area’s only functioning synagogue.

He said community leaders “guarded the survivors at first, as they should, in order to protect them from anyone who might want to use their stories for personal gain.” Instead, he began with families of survivors, photographing and interviewing them about their lives.

“I never saw it as survivors and nonsurvivors,” he said. “Everyone was affected by the Holocaust in this community in one way or another, and everyone had a story to tell.”

That was definitely true. He learned from his interviews why some families returned to Oradea after the Holocaust instead of seeking a new start in the United States or Israel.

“One gentleman that I spoke with was a son of a survivor,” Mr. Owen said. “His father waited for his wife for 10 years before remarrying, in hopes that his wife would somehow have survived and make her way back. She never did.”

After gaining the trust of the community leader, Mr. Owen was allowed to interview survivors in their homes. He was told to proceed with caution and not bring up the Holocaust. But he found many of the survivors opened up, although with a caveat.

“As one of the survivors explained to me, it’s one thing for you to hear this and for you to share it, but it’s a whole different thing to live it,” he said. “He told me, ‘I saw the capability of human beings to murder without regard.’

Among the survivors was Zoltan Böhm, an 87-year-old from northern Transylvania who was deported to Auschwitz at 15 before he and his brother were transferred to Mauthausen-Gusen in Austria. There, the brothers worked in rock mines carving out bunkers where German arms were produced and stored.

His brother did not survive.

“After hearing the sobering account from Mr. Böhm, I really felt the gravity of the story and my responsibility to tell it as best I can,” Mr. Owen said. “This is real. It really happened. It is not like a movie.”

Most of Mr. Owen’s photographs are not straight portraits. One of the Auschwitz survivor Iudith Varadi, 87, shows the back of her hat as she enjoys the music of a klezmer musician playing his clarinet against the glow of a synagogue window. (She has since died.)

Mr. Owen photographed the last functioning synagogue, Sas Chevra, during Shabbat services. Normally, men and women are supposed to sit separately, but the synagogue’s balcony is in such bad shape that the women had to join the men downstairs.

“I never really wanted to focus on the temples as a primary subject, per se, but rather as a metaphor that depicted a shell of the former community,” he said.

Mr. Owen plans to continue his work in Oradea, perhaps even expanding it to other cities throughout Romania. But he said he gained perspective since beginning the project.

“Do I see the world differently now?” he asked. “That would be an understatement.”

Recalling Romania’s Revolution

Joseph Rodriguez

New York Times
22 January 2015
by Andrew Boryga

See slide show at article website

Joseph Rodriguez grew up in Brooklyn when it was devoid of hipsters and even the city itself had a bit of a drug habit. You can hear it in his voice: a gravelly, nonstop commentary. That much has been documented, woven into the tale of a photographer known for depicting American subcultures.

“People think of me as a gang photographer; an urban photographer,” he said, nodding to work in Los Angeles, East Harlem and the Mexico-United States border. But that’s not accurate. “I’m a photographer of the world.”

That is evident in “Romania”—a just-released e-book from FotoEvidence—which he photographed between 1990 and 1996 as the country stumbled to free itself from the grips of a Communist despot. Mr. Rodriguez was living in Sweden in 1989, when reports spilled across the Baltic: A revolution had erupted in Romania, seeking to overthrow one of the most brutal Communist regimes in history. Mr. Rodriguez was intrigued.

“I come from that Lewis Hine documentary tradition,” he said. “Where’s the problem? Let me document, and expose it.”

Under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, it was difficult to enter Romania. That changed when Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas in 1989. (It was televised.) In the following months, Mr. Rodriguez partnered with nongovernmental organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the Swedish Red Cross to depict the sickening conditions facing countless Romanian orphans.

“The way we have day care centers here, they had orphanages there,” said Mr. Rodriguez, recalling his first trip to Romania in 1990. Ceausescu’s reign placed utmost importance on the factory and the worker, encouraging families to reproduce, then reproduce some more. There was not enough food, resources or parents to go around. Mr. Rodriguez’s photographs from this period show orphanages as prisons.

“Children were tied to beds, living in the dark,” he said. The black-and-white images have a despondent feel: Orphans cling to fences, their heads shaven, staring out windows, searching.

The work was intended to raise money for NGOs, and did, but the conditions Mr. Rodriguez witnessed in Romania called for more. “You have to understand, I came at a time that was virgin,” he said. Legendary photographers like Inge Morath, Paul Strand and Henri-Cartier Bresson had all worked there, but not since 1975. With access no one else had, Mr. Rodriguez embarked on his quest with no guarantee of publication or financing. “Each time I just saved my little pennies in a box,” he said. “Eventually I had enough and said, ‘O.K., I can afford to go now.’

After exploring orphanages and psychiatric institutions, Mr. Rodriguez turned to the industrial landscape. He found men and women earning pennies working with cadmium and mercury, nuts and bolts—without a thread of protective clothing. The water they drank was dirty, the materials they used outdated, their expressions tired. “Ceausescu was all about work, work, work,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “At one point, those factories were open 365 days a year.”

Around then Mr. Rodriguez was also working on a project documenting the Los Angeles Police Department’s efforts to combat gang violence. It was a tough time, he admitted. He needed a break, and found it in Romania.

“I went out to the countryside and tapped into those pastoral flows,” he said. “I wanted to get a sense of what humanity can be, or at least look like.” Those photographs show a lighter side of Romania, capturing pastures and farmers, smiling, though their postures hint at hesitancy.

“Romanians, in general, are warm people,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “They invite you to stay at their house. Share food. But you must understand, there was a lot of fear in them, too.” At one point in the Ceausescu regime, one in three citizens was a member of the secret police. “They kept a lot of stories in their heart.”

He recalled one photo of two children posing in front of Casa Poporului, the People’s Palace, known today as the Palace of the Parliament. At the time of Ceausescu’s execution it was a nearly completed shrine to the leader and the Communist regime. “That’s years and years of the Romanians’ salary,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Instead of food and fruits and vegetables, the people got that.”

After his final trip to Romania in 1996, Mr. Rodriguez returned home, proud. “My photographic vision grew stronger with this project,” he said. “It was important for me to open myself up to this other world which wasn’t easy to get to.”

Unfortunately, editors did not share his enthusiasm. While a selection of work was published in an in-flight travel magazine (whose editor was later fired), the majority of the project failed to garner interest and was shelved. Until now.

“My images are sad, but they are important,” said Mr. Rodriguez, content this work will finally be seen. “They are a reminder of what has been; a journey we don’t want to go down again.”

Romanian Who Claimed He Invented World's 1st Jetpack Dies

New York Times
20 January 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—A Romanian inventor who claimed he beat the Americans to make the world's first jetpack and went on to design and build dozens of vehicles, calling the modern-day car "a disgrace," has died aged 81.

The hospital in the southern city of Ploiesti said Justin Capra died Monday evening. The cause of death was not given but Capra had diabetes.

Propelled by poverty and curiosity, Capra began inventing gadgets in childhood, and graduated as an engineer. He crafted unconventional flying machines and dozens of prototypes of fuel-efficient vehicles in his lifetime, including in 2011 a single-seater car that did 470 miles to the gallon (about 200 kilometers to the liter), running on a mixture of gasoline and water. He blamed "social, political, and economic reasons" for his belief that it would never be built on a mass scale.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta called him "a great Romanian and inventor known throughout the world for his inventions."

In 1956, under communism, Capra invented the "flying rucksack," a personal flying machine. In 1962, one was produced in the U.S. by Bell Aircraft Corp. "All that was different was the color," Capra insisted in an interview.

There were reports that Capra created the jetpack to escape communist Romania, but he said he had a less ambitious aim, in his time as a conscript in the Romanian army. "I wanted to run away from barracks without the colonel seeing me."

A parachutist tried his invention but crashed. Capra was advised by aviation pioneer Henri Coanda to change the fuel, which he did and came up with an improved version. The same parachutist tried this in 1958 and this time it worked better.

However, under communism, citizens were not allowed to own a flying machine and Capra was unable to patent his invention.

Of automobiles, he said: "They are a disgrace. They weigh 1,000 kilograms (half a ton) and carry people who weigh 60 kilograms (130 pounds).... Of 1 liter of fuel, 980 milliliters shifts the car and 20 milliliters is for us."

He warned with apparent foresight: "Instead of becoming a means of transporting people, (cars) will become a reason for blocking the traffic," because the number of cars exceeds roads being built.

There was no immediate word about funeral plans or survivors.

Romania Reopens Case of Dissident 30 Years After His Death

New York Times
19 January 2015
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romanian prosecutors say they will reopen an investigation into the death of a well-known dissident who was killed in prison in 1985 on the orders of the former Securitate secret police.

The prosecutors' office said Monday it would be probing the circumstances of the death of Gheorghe Ursu, who was killed in prison for keeping a diary in which he criticized the regime of former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

His son, Andrei Ursu, went on a hunger strike in October to protest the lack of investigation into his father's death. He ended it after 17 days when he received assurances the case would be reopened.

Critics say Romania has been slow to prosecute those who allegedly committed abuses under Ceausescu because many officials retained their jobs after 1990.

Famous Romanian Castle Welcomes Half a Million Visitors in a Year

Bran Castle

Romania Insider
14 January 2015

Over half a million people visited last year a famous castle in Romania which has been often linked to the myth of Dracula, making it one of the most visited touristic spots in the country.

The Bran Castle in Brasov county, Central Romania, welcomed 540,000 visitors in 2014, more than half of whom were foreigners. The castle saw the number of visitors going up by 9% throughout the year compared to 2013, said Alexandru Prişcu, management representative with the castle.

Events organized in the castle, such as music events, exhibitions or themed events helped it attract more tourists, so the management plans to continue organizing them in 2015.

Bran Castle, now under private ownership, used to be a Romanian patrimony building until 2009, when it was recovered by archduke Dominic de Habsburg and his sisters Maria Magdalena Holzhausen and Elisabeth Sandhofer. They decided to keep it open to the public.

Bran Castle is often associated with the legend of Count Dracula, although the castle has little connection with the historical figure Vlad Tepeş, who is one of the inspirations for the vampire legends. The impressive Medieval castle was built towards the end of the 14th Century by the Brasov Saxons in the same area as an earlier, wooden fortress, which was destroyed in the mid-13th Century by invading Mongols. Bran Castle is at the old frontier between Wallachia and Transylvania and guards a vital route through the mountains. Bran played an important role in the battles between the Ottoman Turks and European kingdoms and principalities throughout the Middle Ages.

Wikipedia 10 January 2015

On this day...

1475 Moldavian–Ottoman Wars: Moldavian forces under Stephen the Great defeated an Ottoman attack led by Hadân Suleiman Pasha, the Beylerbeyi of Rumelia, near Vaslui in present-day Romania.

1940: A Warning to the Soviets

King Carol II of Romania Credit Library of Congress

New York Times
6 January 2015
by International Herald Tribune

BUCHAREST—Speaking today [Jan. 6, 1940] in Chisinau, the main town in Bessarabia at a distance of twenty miles from the Soviet frontier, King Carol virtually defied the Soviet Union to try to attack his kingdom.

“Bessarabia is, was and forever shall be a Roumanian province,” he said. “The unity of the country is the best guaranty that our frontiers will never be invaded.” He was met at Chisinau, a town built by the Russians during their hundred years of domination of Bessarabia, by military and civil authorities and by delegates of Russian, German and Ukrainian minorities living in Bessarabia. All these assured the King they would shed their blood ‘‘to the last drop’’ to guard the Bessarabian frontiers.

New York Herald Tribune, European Edition, Jan. 7, 1940

Long Plagued By Corruption, Romania Seeks To Make A Fresh Start

A young girl waves the Romanian flage at a recent anti-corruption rally in Timisoara, Romania. Gabriel Amza for NPR

National Public Radio
27 December 2014
by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

Romania is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Europe and it's been that way for years. It's a tough legacy to overcome, but there are signs the country is trying to make a fresh start.

Klaus Iohannis, an underdog presidential candidate who campaigned on a platform of fighting corruption, won a surprising victory last month over the ruling party's nominee. Iohannis, 55, was sworn into office last Sunday.

To make headway, he'll need to work in tandem with Laura Codruța Kövesi, who heads Romania's National Anti-Corruption Directorate. She faces the tall task of rooting out graft that has plagued the country since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe 25 years ago.

Kövesi is lanky 41-year-old, a former teen basketball star with a tough-as-nails reputation. She says the legacy of her prosecutor father and her strong Romanian Orthodox faith inspire her to seek justice.

Kövesi says her agency sent some 890 defendants to trial, including former ministers, parliament members and even the ex-president's brother and the head of Romania's organized crime and terrorism investigation unit.

One of her high-profile cases involves software licenses sold at inflated prices for use in Romanian schools. Nine former cabinet ministers are under investigation in that case.

The nearly $200 million confiscated by the courts in connection with those cases are more than seven times the directorate's annual budget, she says.

"It is encouraging for the Romanian people to see that we take action, that the authorities function so well," says Kövesi. "It leads to an increased trust in our institutions and also encourages more people to come here and file complaints."

And yet Kövesi acknowledges that corruption is deeply ingrained in the Romanian psyche.

She and other anti-corruption figures say that attitude developed in the years following the collapse of communism, when law enforcement was weak and opportunities were rife for politicians and businessmen to make money from the shift to a market economy.

"The transition period is one in which law enforcement bodies were weak, when even police were afraid to go out on the street," recalls Monica Macovei, an EU parliament member and outspoken Romanian anti-corruption activist. "So you have a lot of money in the public budget being transferred into private hands without knowing how to do it."

Macovei says an independent judiciary and Kovesi's directorate are forcing Romanian politicians to be more accountable, something the Romanian public is demanding with a vengeance.

During November's Romanian presidential elections, thousands of Romanians took to the streets in Bucharest and other European capitals to protest mismanagement of the polls.

At issue was the right to vote abroad. Many expat Romanians were prevented from voting during the first round at their embassies in Paris, London and Munich, among other cities.

Those complaints sent a surge of sympathetic voters to the second round and swept Iohannis to victory over the candidate of the ruling Social Democratic Party, Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

Iohannis, the former mayor of the Transylvania city of Sibiu, is of German descent and is the first Romanian president from one of the country's ethnic minorities.

"We are a nation that has shown the world that we embrace democratic values, that we want courage and that we want change," Iohannis said earlier this month.

He agreed in writing to 10 measures to clean up corruption and ensure transparency, says Macovei.

"I have some worries deep inside, but I don't want to discourage him or anyone else. I just wish him to be strong and not to listen to those in the parties, so I wish him not to listen to these voices coming from a dark past," Macovei says.

In Iohannis' hometown of Sibiu, many believe he can succeed.

He served as mayor for 14 years in the city, where he once taught high school physics and has one of the few homes here outfitted with solar panels. He is credited with turning the city into a popular tourist destination.

The president's Lutheran pastor in Sibiu, Kilian Doerr, says when Iohannis was first elected as mayor, a local taxi driver commented: "Now we can leave all the doors open here, no one will steal anything anymore."

That may be wishful thinking, but Doerr believes that under Iohannis, "corruption and misuse of public funds won't be allowed anymore."

Wikipedia 25 December 2014

On this day...

1989 Romanian Revolution: Dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu (pictured) and his wife Elena were condemned to death under a wide range of charges and executed.

Romanians at Ceausescu's Grave, 25 Years After Death

New York Times
25 December 2014
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romanians nostalgic for the communist era gathered Thursday at the grave of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, who were tried and executed on Christmas Day twenty-five years ago.

Some Romanians have made the pilgrimage to the Ghencea cemetery into an annual tradition. This year, about 15 people gathered at the burial place.

Ceausescu's 24-year-rule was characterized in the later years by food and power shortages and a lack of basic freedoms. But the few Romanians who turned up at his grave expressed nostalgia for an era where there was more security.

Caltea Oprea, a retired engineer, clutched two beeswax candles and said his red knitted scarf was a symbol of communism.

"After communism ended we were run by thieves and bandits," he told The Associated Press. "Ceausescu was not perfect but communism was a necessary evil; everyone had a job and a house."

Earlier this week, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis called for an investigation into the killings of over 1,100 people during the uprising that led to Ceausescu's downfall. They were shot, stabbed or run over by military vehicles.

Romania has implemented democratic and economic reforms since then, but no real investigation was made into the shooting of the unarmed demonstrators during the uprising because former communists retained power after 1989.

"The fact that there are people who today are free and have blood on their hands who committed crimes in communism and in the revolution shows that we as a society are incapable of... punishing the guilty," Iohannis said after he took office this week.

25 Years After Death, A Dictator Still Casts A Shadow In Romania

The wall where Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed on Dec. 25, 1989. The white lines, added in 2013, show where they fell. Gabriel Amza for NPR

National Public Radio
24 December 2014
by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

Twenty-five years ago, the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe were falling like dominoes. And on Christmas Day in 1989, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by firing squad. The deaths of the despised couple ended a quarter-century of iron-fisted rule that translated into oppression and misery for most Romanians.

Yet many in that country—including some of their opponents—question the summary nature of the Ceausescus' trial and sentence.

One is the commander of the military base in Targoviste, some 50 miles northwest of the capital Bucharest, where the couple spent their final four days. He is retired Gen. Andrei Kemenici, and he lives with his wife in a small apartment a short drive away.

The 78-year-old jokes with a visitor about how he and other retired public servants would have fared better if Romania had remained communist.

"I would have had four rooms instead of two," he says.

But his smile fades when asked about Ceausescu and his legacy.

Kemenici says he still resents the last Romanian communist leader using the military to bring their countrymen to heel.

"I, like the rest of the army, was sick of him," Kemenici explains. "He was always taking from the Romanian people and wouldn't offer anything in return. ... That's why we had it so bad."

Chronic Shortages

In addition to violent political oppression, Romanians suffered repeated food shortages under Ceausescu's rule because he exported most of Romania's harvest and took drastic steps to curb the country's heavy debts. The situation worsened after he appointed his wife first deputy prime minister.

Those debts were largely the result of Nicolae Ceausescu's overreaching industrial and infrastructure projects. The costs sank the Romanian standard of living to nearly the bottom of the former Soviet bloc.

"Among all the communist countries—Hungary Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland—we had it the worst, except maybe Russia," Kemenici says.

He adds: Given that Ceausescu's regime routinely killed Romanians, "there was no other sentence possible for him than death."

But when police in Targoviste brought the Ceausescus to then-Col. Kemenici's headquarters on Dec. 22, 1989, he says, he was ready to protect them with his life.

It was the height of the bloody revolution in Romania, in which hundreds of protesters had been killed.

The army eventually switched sides and joined the revolt, which sent the Ceausescus fleeing. Hours later, they were arrested in Targoviste.

Kemenici says his superiors ordered him to hide the couple and make sure they came to no harm while they figured out what to do with them.

It was a tough assignment, Kemenici says, given that many soldiers on his base hated the dictator.

There was also Ceausescu's arrogant behavior. The prisoner demanded a meeting two or three times a day, and the exchanges never ended well, Kemenici recalls. He says Ceausescu would shout: "Hey, Colonel, don't you know? I'm the one protecting the sovereignty and unity of Romania."

Ovidiu Carstina, who is the director of a museum that opened in September 2013 on the base, has similar stories of the detained tyrant's pompous attitude.

He says the army-issued metal cups and plates the couple was given to eat off of didn't please him or his wife, who were used to fine china.

"He was very shocked the officers would get such lowly meals," Carstina says, adding that the prisoners received the same food, including tea, jam and bread for breakfast, and cabbage, potatoes and occasionally meat for other meals.

A One-Hour Trial

Kemenici says Ceausescu's attitude softened somewhat the day before his trial, as if the dictator finally realized he'd lost control of Romania.

"I was no longer his slave," Kemenici says. "From then on, Ceausescu called me Comrade Colonel."

He says he promised the leader each day that he and his wife would be moved to Bucharest for a proper trial.

But his superiors had other plans. They hastily arranged a military trial at the base that was video-recorded.

The museum director says the day before, a Romanian official came from Bucharest and told his colleagues: "We'll do them here." Carstina says it proves the decision to execute the Ceausescus was made beforehand.

Kemenici was also bothered by the lack of any evidence during the trial. "The only thing on the table were the glasses of the chief judge," he says.

He adds that Ceausescu didn't believe he was getting due process either, calling it a conspiracy by Kemenici's superiors and other opponents. To this day, some Romanians still think the entire revolution was a planned coup d'etat, especially since many members of the communist regime became part of the new government.

"He didn't believe they were doing this on their own," Kemenici says. "He told me that the Americans and Russians got together to do this."

The trial, which began on Christmas Day, lasted less than an hour, Carstina says, adding that the chief military judge, Gica Popa, delivered the verdict after only minutes of deliberation.

He declared both Ceausescus guilty of genocide and sentenced them to death.

Video footage shows it wasn't until paratroopers assigned to carry out the execution arrived that the couple finally grasped what was about to happen.

Nicolae Ceausescu shouted: "I have the right to do what I want!"

His wife, Elena, struggled and cursed at the soldiers. She shouted: "Don't tie us up!" and "Don't offend us!"

They were hauled outside, lined up against a wall and shot dead by one of the paratroopers. Carstina says it happened before the camera could be turned on.

Another soldier was then asked to step forward and fire his Kalashnikov at the wall so it could be recorded. It's that gunfire one sees in the execution footage that was broadcast around the world, the museum director says.

Dealing With The Legacy

Bullet marks from that day are still visible on the wall, which is now part of the museum. Painted white outlines on the pavement show visitors where the couple's bodies fell.

Kemenici says he and just about everybody else watched the execution. One exception, however, was the chief judge—Popa—who stayed in Kemenici's office and rummaged through a desk.

The retired general recalls telling Popa afterward: "You didn't see what you did."

He says Popa took off his cap, made a sign of the cross and said: "God help us." Then he laughed and said: "You know what? They still deserved it."

Kemenici is convinced that the reason the chief judge killed himself a decade later is because he felt guilty.

He adds that Romanian officials' rush to judgment never gave the Ceausescus a chance to reflect on their actions. But Kemenici says he thinks about what happened every day.

After listening to Kemenici tell his story, his granddaughter, Eliza Burcea, gives him a hug. Like her granddad, the 23-year-old feels Ceausescu deserved his fate but questions the process.

"I think it haunts everybody in my family," she says.

Carstina also has questions.

"It's hard to judge if the way they were killed was right or wrong," the museum director says. "No matter what evil they committed, they were also human beings."

Ex-Mayor Sworn In as Romania's New President

New York Times
21 December 2014
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania—Romania's Parliament swore in a former mayor as the country's new president following an election he called a triumph for democracy 25 years after communism ended.

Pro-Western Klaus Iohannis, 55, promises a different style from combative outgoing leader Traian Basescu who leaves office Sunday having served a maximum 10 years.

Iohannis also vowed to fight corruption and build "a powerful nation," as he took an oath Sunday before Parliament, then headed to the presidential palace to formally take over from Basescu.

"Mentalities must be changed," he told lawmakers and dignitaries. "I want a Romania where there is no place for putting on a show" in politics.

He surprisingly defeated Prime Minister Victor Ponta in the Nov. 16 runoff, tapping into anger from thousands of overseas voters who were unable to vote in the first round. Iohannis received hundreds of thousands of votes from Romanians who work abroad which he called "a triumph for democracy."

His victory sent a feel-good factor through the nation of 19 million and he notched up just almost 1.3 million likes on Facebook.

Atypical for Romanian politics, the slow-speaking ethnic German mayor of Sibiu refuses to participate in bitter personal attacks.

He promises good relations with the U.S., the European Union and particularly Germany.

Basescu was credited with a commitment to the anti-corruption fight and has a strong pro-U.S. stance. The U.S. will open a missile defense base in southern Romania, which has angered Russia.

Romania was suspected of hosting a CIA secret prison which it has denied. On Saturday, Basescu declined to comment on the most recent reports, saying Romanian prosecutors were investigating.

10 Things to See: A Week of Top AP Photos

The Associated Press
18 December 2014

A man stands by tombstones carrying names of Romanian military personnel killed in fighting around the Otopeni airport during the anticommunist uprising 25 years ago, outside Bucharest, Romania, Monday, Dec. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Teacher Recalls Being Shot in 1989 Romania Revolt

New York Times
17 December 2014
by The Associated Press

TIMISOARA, Romania—Adrian Kali remembers a two-year-old girl being shot dead in front of him twenty-five years ago to this day during Europe's last anti-communist revolution of 1989.

The history teacher was one of thousands who took to the streets in this western Romanian city in December 1989 to protest the 25-year-rule of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, fed up with food and fuel shortages and the lack of basic freedoms.

Some 93 people were killed in Timisoara, a city 500 kilometers (310 miles) west of Bucharest, where the uprising that toppled Ceausescu began Dec. 16 with a protest over the forced deportation of ethnic Hungarian priest Laszlo Toekes.

Anti-government protests spread through Romania and more than 1,100 people died during the revolt, which ended after Ceausescu and his wife were executed in a summary trial on Dec. 25. Romania has implemented democratic and economic reforms since then, but no real investigation was made into the shooting of unarmed demonstrators during the uprising because former communists retained power after 1989.

Kali, 46, was shot twice on Dec. 17 in the melee, in the shoulder and back, after going to Decebal Bridge to protest against Ceausescu. His thoughts, however, were centered on the toddler.

"She was being held by her father. They shot her across the street from the Youth Center. The bullet pierced her and exited her father," who was injured, he said. "It was premeditated murder."

Kali keeps a small packet with one of the bullets that wounded him.

"We are now much freer than we were before. We can see the world, our children can go abroad and study. Also democracy is something we gained in the revolution," he told The Associated Press. "However, other things are not solved yet. ... Who shot at us? Who killed us? Who stole our dead?"

Alison Mutler in Bucharest contributed to this report.

A Moldovan Student Gets Face Paint

Yahoo! News
1 December 2014
Reuters Gleb Garanich

A Moldovan student gets face paint in the colours of Romania's national flag applied over his head before attending a rally calling for the reunification of Moldova and Romania as well as to commemorate Romania's National Day in Chisinau December 1, 2014. Moldova's pro-Europe parties appeared certain on Monday of being able to form a new coalition to press on with a drive towards the European mainstream after elections even though the pro-Moscow Socialist Party took first place.

National Geographic Best Trips 2015
Maramureş, Romania

Photograph by Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin

National Geographic Travel

Boldly Old World

In the historic Land of Maramureş, the hills are alive with ways long forgotten elsewhere in Europe. “My cows don’t like grass that is cut with a machine,” Ion Pop says while harvesting his meadow near the village of Botiza. “They prefer the clean taste of handcut.”

The splendor is not just in the grass. In this remote northwest corner of Romania 300 miles from Bucharest, the schedule is set by the seasons, the weather, tradition. In each of the five valleys, with their meandering rivers and haystack-dotted fields, life plays out as it has for hundreds of years—though one recent change is telling. Rather than asphalting roads that are mainly used by horse and carriage, Maramureş has newly upgraded its bike trails—pathways to experience the region at the pace it deserves.

Maramureş is a wooden world. The farm tools are made of wood, and wooden gates, chiseled with century-old motifs, form the glorious entrances to modest yards around wooden, steep-roofed houses. UNESCO-designated churches from the 17th and 18th centuries tell stories of faith and glory, saints and sinners, crime and punishment, through still vivid paintings on their wooden walls.

Many of the colorful wooden crosses at the Merry Cemetery in the village of Săpânţa are inscribed with lighthearted epitaphs written in verse. They laugh in the face of death—and hence celebrate immortality. —Pancras Dijk, @Pancras_NatGeo

Travel Tips:

When to Go: May-June for wildflowers; July-September for hiking; September for harvest events like the Chestnut Festival (Baia Mare), Onion Festival (Asuaju de Sus), and Autumn in Chioar (Remetea Chioarului).

How to Get Around: Baia Mare is the region’s largest town and its transportation hub. From Bucharest, the quickest option is the 85-minute direct flight to Baia Mare International Airport. Rent a car at the airport to travel regionally, and walk, hike, or bike in villages and rural areas. The English-speaking staff at the Maramureş InfoTurism office in Baia Mare (open weekdays) can provide biking, driving, and hiking itineraries, plus information about public transportation and bike rentals.

Where to Stay: Small, family-run guesthouses are located in many villages. Rates typically include breakfast or all meals. The Village Hotel in Breb has three guest rooms in the main house and three small cottages, each restored or built using reclaimed local materials. Owners Duncan and Penelope Ridgely, who started developing the bucolic Village Hotel compound in 2007, are as close to local as British expats in Maramureş can get. In addition to lodging, the Ridgelys can arrange biking and walking tours.

Where to Eat or Drink: The Casa Iurca de Calinesti hotel, located next to Elie Wiesel’s birthplace in Sighetu Marmatiei, has an adjacent restaurant offering traditional Maramureş tastes, such as palinca (fruit brandy) and ciorba de burta (tripe soup). Weather permitting, sit in the courtyard and watch the chefs spit-roast a whole lamb or pig over the open fire or grill vegetables, sausages, and trout on the hearth.

What to Buy: Hand-carved wood spoons and crucifixes, ceramic pots, brightly colored woven vests, and traditional clopuri (straw hats) are among the items crafted and sold by local artisans. Follow the self-guided Way of the Crafts tour to meet village craftspeople and purchase Maramureş-made creations.

What to Read Before You Go: William Blacker’s memoir Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (John Murray Publishers, 2010) is an insightful look into the customs and cultural traditions of rural Transylvania and Maramureş, where the author lived from 1996 to 2004. [SEE: Along the Enchanted Way]

Helpful Links: Visit Maramureş and Romania Tourism

Fun Fact: There are close to a hundred wooden churches in Maramureş, and, while most are locked, it’s usually possible to find the key. When faced with a locked church, get a local’s attention, point at the door, and say, “Cheia?” (pronounced kay-ya), Romanian for “key.” Chances are good that the person you ask can locate the church’s key keeper to let you in.

Insider Tip From Pancras Dijk: Spend a clear night in the village of Breb and watch the most beautiful Milky Way you may ever see.

Wikipedia 17 November 2014

In the news

• Opposition candidate Klaus Iohannis (pictured) is elected President of Romania.

Wikipedia 10 November 2014

On this day...

1940 – A magnitude 7.7 ML earthquake struck the Vrancea region of Romania, the country's strongest earthquake in the 20th century.

Romania Hunger Strike Prompts Inquiry Into Dissident’s Death

Andrei Ursu in Bucharest in October. He ended a hunger strike on Wednesday.
Credit: Cristian Movila for The New York Times

6 November, 2014
New York Times
by Rick Lyman and Kit Gillet

BUCHAREST, Romania—Andrei Ursu celebrated by eating a banana.

The Romanian-born American ended his 17-day hunger strike Wednesday afternoon when the government, after years of delay and inaction, agreed to open a new investigation into the beating death of his father, a prominent dissident, in a communist-era prison three decades ago.

“There is a high chance the next step is going to take a very long time,” said Mr. Ursu, 56. “It is a brand new fight.”

A day earlier, in an ornate, narrow courtroom just across town, Alexandru Visinescu, the 89-year-old former camp commander of Ramnicu Sarat prison, sat quietly as the widow of a former prisoner, breaking into tears, told the judge how her husband weighed less than 75 pounds when he was released.

His trial, the first brought against a government official from the communist era in nearly a quarter-century, is expected to last as long as two years.

Romania has long had a reputation as one of the most reluctant among former communist states to uncover the dark pathways of its totalitarian past, particularly involving the Securitate, its dreaded secret police. But in recent years, with the announcement that Mr. Visinescu and perhaps others would finally be prosecuted, optimism sparked that Romania might at last be prepared to confront its brutal history.

But these two cases, and others lingering in the shadows, help explain why that spark has dimmed. Bureaucratic delays, withheld documents, unresponsive officials, public apathy and the slow grinding of investigations and litigation—while victims, perpetrators and witnesses grow old and vanish—have created a growing sense that a full reckoning may never come.

“People are fed up and think nothing will ever happen,” said Marius Stan, a political scientist and former investigator who has spent years researching communist-era crimes. “Among the public, there is fatigue, disappointment.”

Why Romania has been so much more reluctant to uncover its past is explained, in part, by the way the country moved out of communism. Romania is unlike Poland and other Eastern bloc states in that the toppling of its dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989 was in some ways more of a palace coup, with many of the former top officials surviving the transition and lingering in the government for years and decades.

“The situation is very complicated,” said Cosmin Budeanca, director general of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile, the government-funded group responsible for searching the records made available to it for evidence of old crimes. It is a phrase he uses often.

Mr. Budeanca, a historian, described the group’s task as sifting for evidence, building case files and presenting them to prosecutors, who can choose to do what they will with them. But only a portion of the relevant documents are open to the investigators, and many of the archives that are available are in a jumble, without indexes, a sea of paper.

The institute’s mandate is to deal first with the oldest cases, from the 1950s and ’60s.

“Many files were destroyed,” Mr. Budeanca said. “It’s frustrating. It’s very frustrating.”

Even in Mr. Visinescu’s case, only a handful of witnesses could be traced. Mr. Visinescu, a former prison commander, is accused of torture and of being involved in the deaths of at least 12 political prisoners between 1956 and 1963.

For more recent cases, like that of Mr. Ursu’s father, it is even more difficult.

“Current Romanian politicians are willing to bring charges against people from the ’50s and ’60s, but they are very reluctant to go after people from the Ceausescu period,” said Vladimir Tismaneanu, a professor of politics at the University of Maryland who headed a 2006 commission set up by the Romanian government to examine communist-era crimes. “The main issue is political will.”

Romania is in the final 10 days of a presidential election.

“Romania must really come to terms with its own recent history,” said Klaus Iohannis, the candidate of the center-right Christian Liberal Alliance. “It is a major problem, I think.”

Mr. Iohannis promised to reignite a national debate on the topic, if elected, and he called for the creation of a national museum of the communist era.

His opponent, the current prime minister, Victor Ponta, representing the center-left Social Democrats, agreed that the past should not be forgotten, but he seemed eager that Romania look forward.

“It is important to know the past, but I think now most of the political leadership is much more focused on the future,” he said.

Mr. Budeanca was not holding his breath. “It is a sensitive topic in Romania, the time of the communists,” he said. “You hear about it from politicians only in the time of elections. After the election, all of this interest disappears. It is complicated.”

Mr. Ursu’s father, Gheorghe, died in detention in 1985. According to later testimony, he was repeatedly beaten by guards and by other prisoners. Mr. Ursu and others say that the person most responsible for his death was Marin Pirvulescu, a former major in the Securitate who was in charge of interrogations.

Mr. Ursu, who moved with his mother to Chicago in 1986, often returned to Romania after 1989 to petition the courts and politicians for justice. He staged a hunger strike in 2000, ending it when investigations were opened involving two militia members who were convicted of murder in 2003 for conducting some of the beatings.

But Mr. Ursu continued to press for a case against Mr. Pirvulescu. The current hunger strike was begun, he said, when he had amassed what he considered to be a mountain of evidence, yet still hit resistance from Romanian officials.

The gaunt and unshaven Mr. Ursu spent most of the past weeks on a sagging blue sofa in the ornate meeting room of the Group for Social Change, a nongovernmental organization in Bucharest. Dull light filled the room, silhouetting a chandelier and ornate plasterwork.

The news that his demand had been met came with the weary knowledge, he said, that bringing the investigation to fruition, if that ever happens, will be the work of many, many months.

“I hoped for this solution,” Mr. Ursu said, “but I didn’t think I had too many chances, to be honest.”

Spy Allegations in a Presidential Race Conjure Romania’s Authoritarian Past

Prime Minister Victor Ponta, a presidential candidate, is denying charges that he was a spy.
Credit: Cristian Movila for The New York Times

31 October, 2014
New York Times
by Andrew Higgins

BUCHAREST, Romania—The front-runner in a presidential election here on Sunday disappointed his 10-year-old son recently by informing him that, contrary to feverish talk on the campaign trail, he was not a Romanian James Bond.

“I told him: ‘I am sorry. I am not a spy.’ He said, ‘What a pity as that would have been nice,’” Romania’s center-left prime minister and presidential hopeful, Victor Ponta, recalled in an interview.

When Romania’s departing conservative president, Traian Basescu, first declared last month that Mr. Ponta, long a political enemy, had worked as an undercover agent, he tapped into a rich vein of Romanian political culture clogged with accusations and counteraccusations of undercover skulduggery.

“We are obsessed with spies,” said Robert Turcescu, a prominent television journalist who shocked his colleagues, his viewers and also his own family by suddenly announcing on air last month that he was until last month an undercover agent for Romanian military intelligence, though he had never informed on his colleagues.

Too many Romanians still have what he called “incomplete résumés,” he said in an interview, and needed to come clean about their hidden allegiances. Only then, he added, will the country finally overcome the traumas left behind by Nicolae Ceausescu, the Stalinist dictator who ruled here from 1965 until 1989.

A bloody and still murky revolution that toppled Mr. Ceausescu in December 1989 overthrew Eastern Europe’s most authoritarian government, ending a paranoid dystopia in which one in every 30 Romanians worked as an informer for the ruthless security agency, the Securitate.

But it left in place a vast network of security officers and their collaborators, whose connections and access to compromising information made them powerful figures in the post-Communist order. While Poland and most other former Communist countries moved swiftly to come to terms with the past, Romania long dodged any reckoning.

Only in October did it finally put on trial 88-year-old Alexandru Visinescu, a sadistic former prison commander whose prosecution had long been sought by traumatized former inmates.

Mr. Ponta, the prime minister and presidential candidate, was 17 when Mr. Ceausescu lost power, so he had no connection with the old Communist government. He described this Sunday’s election, the first stage of a two-round contest that will finish on Nov. 16, as “the end of a special period in our country’s life, the end of the transition from Communist time to a clear and consolidated democracy.” All the leading candidates are under 50, he said, “so none of us had any position in the Communist period.”

Referring to the departing president’s allegation that he served as a spy in the 1990s, Mr. Ponta denied having a secret past and predicted that “this is the last time you will see these kinds of allegations and obsessions in the Romanian political environment.”

Others, however, expect Romania’s spy mania only to grow in intensity as fading phobias inherited from the Ceausescu era are eclipsed by a new source of anxiety, at least among corrupt politicians and businesspeople, over the influence of the still-powerful security organs.

Armed with evidence collected by the domestic security service from phone taps and other forms of monitoring, Romania’s anticorruption agency, known by its Romanian-language initials D.N.A., has in recent weeks arrested a host of prominent figures, including previously untouchable political barons like Viorel Hrebenciuc, the parliamentary leader of Mr. Ponta’s Social Democratic Party.

“Politicians who are corrupt are very frightened now,” Dan Suciu, a former government official and journalist, said. “They are getting paranoid about spying and worry that everything is being listened to and that everyone is being watched.”

Anticorruption campaigners, previously loud critics of the role played by the security organs in fostering and protecting corruption, now welcome their focus on fighting graft, particularly now that they have been mostly purged of old Securitate officers and, overhauled with help from the United States and Europe, bear little resemblance to their brutal and omnipresent Communist-era predecessor.

A clear sign that security work has shaken off much of its past stigma is that a former head of the foreign intelligence service, Teodor Malescanu, is among those running for president while the current head of the domestic security agency, George Maior, is widely expected to replace Mr. Ponta as prime minister if the latter wins the presidential election.

Currently, the most determined critics of the domestic intelligence agencies are for the most part those who worry most about being accused of graft. “Hysteria against so-called Securitate methods” in the fight against corruption is “entirely manufactured” by powerful figures who fear arrest and the media outlets they control, said Sorin Ionita, a policy analyst at the Expert Forum, a research group in Bucharest.

“Romanian politics are not about ideology, about left or right. All our political battles are about corruption and the rule of law,” Mr. Ionita said.

He said he was skeptical about Mr. Ponta’s assertion that a new generation now coming to power marked a decisive break with the old elite that dominated the early post-Communist period.

“They speak foreign languages and know how to behave in Brussels, but this doesn’t automatically make them any better,” he said. “They were created by the old networks according to the old criteria, mainly the belief that they should be above the law.”

This belief put down deep roots thanks largely to the legacy of the Securitate, remnants of which protected and promoted its own and its favorites long after Communism collapsed. “After 1989 many of the people who had been in power before or collaborated with Securitate were reactivated,” said Mr. Turcescu, the television journalist who outed himself. “They looked like you and me, but they had a black past linked to the security system.”

Through blackmail, protection rackets and other schemes, he added, former Securitate officers “poisoned the whole system and created fear among political leaders of doing anything that would go against the interests of those connected with the security system.”

Over the years, accusations of links to the security services either before or after the Communist period have been leveled at just about every prominent figure in the country, the second poorest in the European Union, including the president, Mr. Basescu. He has denied that he collaborated with the Securitate while serving as a merchant navy captain and has now in turn accused Mr. Ponta of working as a secret agent for S.I.E., Romania’s foreign intelligence service.

“Victor Ponta must admit that he was an undercover officer of S.I.E.,” the president told a Romanian television channel. “This isn’t a bomb,” he said, but “a reality which I am ready to prove.”

The foreign intelligence service has little of the sinister baggage associated with the domestic service, but the allegation that Mr. Ponta worked as an agent while serving as a prosecutor is still potentially damaging and could, if proved, expose the prime minister to prosecution.

But the spy allegations could even help Mr. Ponta’s chances by adding a dash of glamour and adventure to his otherwise humdrum image, as the candidate himself freely admits. In the past, said Mr. Ponta, Mr. Basescu “has tried to depict me as a weak person and called me pussycat,” but “the moment he promoted me to the position of James Bond he in fact did me a favor.”

His main rival in a field of 14 presidential candidates is Klaus Iohannis, a slow-talking and uncharismatic provincial mayor whose main promise is that he will bring efficiency and probity to a country better known for its bad roads and disorderly ways.

Another prominent candidate, Elena Udrea, is backed by the president. But she, too, has become entangled in an allegations of espionage after photographs popped up on the Internet last week that showed her on a visit to Paris early this year with friends. Also posted were receipts from her stay at a luxury hotel. News media outlets, even those controlled by her political rivals, declared her the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by intelligence operatives, possibly Romanian but also perhaps French.

Mr. Basescu said the photographs of Ms. Udrea were “again evidence that the services have been involved” in the election campaign. Speaking to the Romanian news media, he said he had tried to restrain Romania’s security agencies during his 10 years as president but now, “at the end of my term, there are some games at the top that I do not like.”

Slender-billed curlew: Where has Europe's rarest bird gone?

15 October, 2014
BBC News
by Horatio Clare

The Danube delta, where the river flows into the Black Sea, is a magnet for birds—the lakes and marshes are host to more than 300 different species. But one bird has not been seen there for many years.

"To the memory of the slender-billed curlew," says Dr Janos Botond Kiss, raising a beaker of ruby-tinted plum brandy, pressed from the fruits of his garden.

Kiss is legendary in Romanian conservation, a man who knows the Danube delta as well as anyone alive, and he is drinking a farewell to another legend—one of the rarest birds in the world.

The slender-billed curlew used to migrate from Siberian breeding grounds to wintering areas in the Mediterranean via the delta's archipelago of waters, marshes and sighing trees.

Kiss saw it several times, but it does not come here now.

Tracing the bird through its last haunts from Morocco to the Balkans, I have arrived here on Romania's Black Sea coast, at the delta's fringe, only to hear the same story.

A beautiful white and gold bird, finer and paler than the plump Eurasian curlew known to most birdwatchers, has gone. No-one knows why.

Slender-Billed Curlew

• It is the rarest bird in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East
• Critically endangered—there may be as few as 50 left
• Measures between 360mm and 410mm from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail
• Has dark grey legs, and a white tail with four or five relatively thin dark bars.
• The only nesting records date from the early 20th Century in the Novosibirsk
   region of south-west Siberia
• Source: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

"The impact of hunting on the migration route would be minimal," says Kiss. "The wintering areas are so vast it is unlikely minor changes affected them there. But Russia is still effectively a closed country. We don't know what happened there."

As a man who lived through Romania's communist years, Kiss knows all about Russian legacies, and about hunting.

"The first time I saw a slender-billed curlew I had my gun. I still don't know why I didn't shoot it. I am glad I didn't—it would have been a significant part of the population," he says.

One of his 19 cats climbs his shirt, claws out. Kiss winces but does not flinch. In his garden are 30 species of fruit trees—peaches, plums and apples sway in the branches like soft treasure.

Kiss has the gift of propagating life. It is largely thanks to him that the Danube delta reserve, one of the great habitats of Europe, has survived into this century.

"In the 60s there was balance, it was mostly local people hunting for their families," he says.

Everything changed with what he calls "mega-paranoid communist agriculture".

"They grabbed land of any kind, even what was unsuitable for farming," he recalls. "There was a conviction that wild species were in competition with agriculture. They shot cormorants, pelicans and egrets. Maybe in England people like nature because it is other to their environment. Here it is not so."

When his father-in-law fled Romania, the crime of being his relative saw Kiss confined to an island in the delta for three years.

"Now I was the prey species—I stopped shooting," he smiles. Returning from exile, Kiss founded what became the Delta Biosphere Reserve. He needed fit and educated men to guard it—he found them in karate clubs.

They caught a government official shooting swans in a protected area. The official escaped censure, while Kiss was sacked, then reinstated and appointed secretary of state for the environment by the next government.

"I concentrated on trans-frontier reservations," he says, "nature doesn't respect borders."

A green corridor between Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary and a reserve for rare seals on the Bulgarian border are among his achievements.

And what of the slender-billed curlew? A creature of the littorals, where water, sky and land bleed into one another, it lived in this soughing, murmurous world of bulrushes and rattling reeds, among the glasswort beds, where salt and sweet waters mingle.

Its companions are all around us—white pelicans and black storks like hussars with their red bills climb the thermals, swallows and martins volley into the wind. The autumn migration is under way, without the slender-billed curlew.

"Everything has a beginning, a climax and an extinction but if man is involved in speeding such a process it is a great sin," says Kiss.

The slender-billed curlew's recorded history sees the rise and fall of communism, the flood tide of Western capitalism, European integration, and now, perhaps, the ebb of those currents in the face of globalisation.

The career of Kiss parallels the strides—and now, he says—the stumbles of European conservation.

"We will lose the richness of the delta. I am glad I am old—pressure on protected areas is greater every day," he says.

"But what about the people you trained, the younger generation?" I ask, "Surely they give you hope?"

"Who says hope is the last thing to die?" he returns, with a twinkle. "The Chinese."

And so we drink another toast to the slender-billed curlew, and to the world it leaves behind.

A Romanian Family, on Its Own
‘Waiting for August,’ a Documentary

Georgiana Halmac and one of her siblings. Their mother left Romania to work in Italy. CAVU Pictures

9 October, 2014
New York Times
by Jeannette Catsoulis

“God, I’m not having any children,” Georgiana Halmac, 15, says with mock severity midway through “Waiting for August,” a fly-on-the-wall portrait of seven Romanian siblings whose mother is working as a housekeeper in Italy. Even if Georgiana’s pronouncement were in earnest, who could blame her? As cook, cleaner, laundress and caretaker—there’s no father in the picture—Georgiana is the de facto adult in a household of children and teenagers, who all accept their temporarily orphaned status with admirable equanimity.

Unseen and unheard, the Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai—whose parents fled to Belgium during the Ceausescu regime, leaving her behind for a year as collateral for the secret service—captures the siblings’ emotional limbo with evident empathy. Their home is a cramped apartment in Bacau, their daily routine giving Georgiana little time to study for important exams. Capably mediating disputes and comforting the little ones, she never complains; only on rare outings with friends do we see her serious, patient features transform into those of the carefree teenager she may never have the chance to become.

Soft in tone and muted in color, “Waiting for August” is a child’s-eye view of one family—among many in today’s Romanian economy—rising to the challenge of living without parents. On Skype and on the telephone, in conversations and in the mail, the mother is a constant, longing presence, her summer return a fixed point of anticipation. For Georgiana’s sake, we hope it will be for good.

Nicolae Corneanu, Bishop and Police Informer, Dies at 90

29 September, 2014
New York Times
by The Associated Press

Nicolae Corneanu, an Orthodox bishop who in 1999 acknowledged collaborating with the Securitate, Romania’s feared secret police, confirming suspicions that senior clerics had been closely tied to the regime of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, died on Sunday at his home in Bucharest, Romania. He was 90.

A church spokesman, Lucian Florea, confirmed the death.

In an interview with the Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno, published in April 1999, Bishop Corneanu said that he had been recruited as an informer in 1948 when he was arrested by the Communists. He said he had signed papers that led, in 1981, to the excommunication of five dissident priests who had accused church leaders of prostituting the church to the demands of Communist rulers. He also informed on priests visiting Communist Romania.

“I have disgust for what I did on certain occasions,” he said in the interview. “For example, many priests and faithful were imprisoned when I was bishop. Some of my priests protested against the Communist dictatorship and were persecuted. I did not protect them.”

His critics said that in exchange for his collaboration he was promoted within the church and allowed to travel abroad, a rare privilege.

“Of course I made a mistake,” he said, adding, “I gave into pressure.”

The confession and apology displeased some church leaders, but earned him a level of popularity with Romania’s general population. On the news of his death, bells rang out at Orthodox and Roman Catholic parishes on Sunday night.

Over the years he also irritated church leaders with his tolerance of the Roman Catholic Church and homosexuals, though in his apology he regretted not helping his persecuted Roman Catholic colleagues.

Bishop Corneanu helped President Traian Basescu prepare a 2006 report on the abuses committed during the Communist era. He was bishop of Banat, in western Romania, from 1992 until his death.

Mr. Ceausescu, who ruled Romania for 24 years, was forced from power in 1989 in a popular revolt joined by the Romanian Army. That same year, he and his wife, Elena, a high government official, were executed by firing squad.

Come. Eat. There’s Plenty of Food.
Restaurant Review: Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse on the Lower East Side

23 September, 2014
New York Times
by Pete Wells

“I want everybody to sing on this one,” the man behind the Casio at the far end of the dining room calls out. “Come on, the two North Korean Jews in the back!”

Do I have to fill in the picture? To know where we are, do you need to see the smeared pitchers of schmaltz on every table? Smell the chopped garlic on every steak? Hear the yip of the small child whose head hits the ceiling as he is hoisted on a chair by adults drunk on “Hava Nagila” and Stolichnaya? Did you think the person commanding the imaginary visitors from North Korea to get up and dance the hora was the maître d’hôtel of Per Se?

No, the only possible setting is Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, the most wonderful terrible restaurant in New York. What happens at Sammy’s doesn’t happen at other restaurants, and vice versa.

The rest of the Lower East Side can obsess over filament light bulbs and salvaged barn beams; Sammy’s, virtually unchanged since opening in 1975, will be ready when fluorescents and drop ceilings make their triumphant return to fashion. Inside the dining room, lighted like a bail bondsman’s office in Detroit, are hundreds of faded business cards, yellowed newspaper clippings and curled snapshots taped and tacked to every surface. Outside on Chrystie Street, scaffolding obscures the faded red and yellow painted signs in front of the building, which looks as if it has been marked for demolition. Like a Mississippi juke joint, Sammy’s seems to have been put together under the theory that nobody is likely to stay sober long enough to inspect the décor. (Known for selling vodka bottles encased in ice, Sammy’s is New York’s original bottle-service restaurant, and still the only tolerable one.)

Other steakhouses can drive themselves crazy over internal temperatures. At Sammy’s, the meat will be cooked. If you have something more specific in mind, if you want it medium or black and blue, then write your request on a sheet of paper, tear it into small pieces and throw them into the air when the piano player sings “Happy Birthday.”

Two times I asked for garlic-smeared skirt steak, called Romanian tenderloin at Sammy’s, cooked medium rare. One steak arrived medium well, and the other time a single steak ranged from well done to bloody, and every degree in between. I wasn’t asked how I wanted a broiled veal chop. It was seared on the outside and raw inside, the way other places serve tuna. When nobody asked how I wanted sweetbreads broiled, I feared the worst. Another surprise: Scored and blackened on top, they were close to perfect.

The servers follow a template unique to this restaurant, too, dressed in Sammy’s T-shirts and jeans with a dishrag swinging from one pocket. Speed trumps ceremony. Standing over a metal bowl of chopped liver, they pour a cascade of schmaltz from on high, go at the liver with forks to mix in the shredded radishes, fried onions and lumps of fried chicken skin, and do not necessarily notice the stray bits that escape the bowl and land on the table. The ritual ends, not with “bon appétit” or “enjoy your meal” but with, “O.K., start eating.”

The classic style of waiting tables at Lower East Side Jewish restaurants, by turns cranky, funny and crankily funny (discerning one from another could take decades of practice) probably died with Ratner’s, but flashes of it still surface at Sammy’s. One night, when we kept asking our server if we’d ordered enough, he rolled his eyes, checked his watch and said, “Tell you what: If you’re still hungry, the Chinese food will be here at 9:30.”

Hungry we weren’t. As always at Sammy’s, I walked out feeling as if I had eaten a football stuffed with chicken fat and beef. The kitchen, so unpredictable when it comes to meat temperatures, is absolutely consistent in its ability to produce starch that detonates inside the stomach. The fried kreplach are grenades of dough with a tiny core of chopped meat that tastes like dough, too. The latkes are flavorless and textureless, but not weightless. Better than either, the kishke could stand some gravy and some salt.

In fact, with the exception of the grandmotherly sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage, almost everything at Sammy’s needed salt. Once it was added freely, the chopped liver was beyond reproach, the skirt steaks and lamb chops were excellent, and the fried silver-dollar potatoes were worth talking about. I can’t figure out why Sammy’s is cutting back on sodium after all these years, unless it is suddenly trying to atone for decades of treating schmaltz as a dietary supplement.

The menu is less distinctively Romanian than it once was. The last review of Sammy’s in The New York Times, written by Mimi Sheraton in 1982, praised the Romanian salad of whipped eggplant with green peppers; the broiled brains; the mush steak; the pitcha, a seasoned gelatin made from calves’ feet and garlic; and the baked unborn eggs. The recent menus, stapled inside manila folders as they have been since the Koch administration, haven’t offered any of these specialties. This is how a culture disappears.

But if Romania has faded, Sammy’s is still loudly, raucously, endlessly, embracingly Jewish, a permanent underground bar mitzvah where Gentiles can act like Jews and Jews can act like themselves. One night, I went with a woman who had spent the summer in Europe, as synagogues and Jewish-owned shops burned in one city after another. In Sammy’s basement, when strangers joined their hands in the air and danced between the tables, eyeing our food as they passed, I could see her grow less tense every minute. “It feels so good to be back in a place where I can be out,” she finally said.

And if this is not your heritage—if you aren’t quite sure what is happening when the man at the keyboard belts out “Sing us a song, you’re the schmatte man”—the entertainers at Sammy’s will still get to you. Dancing and singing along to some dumb old tune being played by a musician in the corner: This is how people had fun in the Old World, by which I don’t mean just the parts of Europe where the Lower East Side’s Jews came from, but also the world before amplifiers and apps and first-person-shooter video games and all the forms of entertainment that drive us into ourselves. Sammy’s forces you out of yourself; I don’t think there’s another restaurant in New York where people talk to strangers as readily as they do here.

“Would you like me to take your picture?” somebody at the next table asked one night. “Do you want our seltzer charger for your egg creams?” another asked us. As a table of about two dozen people filed out, a woman in the back called to them, “Thank you for dancing with us!”

Is this a three-star restaurant, as Mimi Sheraton thought in 1982? By today’s standards, of course not. It is closer to one. But if you need stars to tell you what to think of Sammy’s, I’m not sure I want to share my seltzer charger with you. I’ll give it to those nice North Korean Jews instead.

Wikipedia 21 September 2014

On this day...

1939 Romanian Prime Minister Armand Călinescu (pictured) was assassinated in Bucharest by pro-Nazi members of the Iron Guard.

A Legacy Helps Young Photographers

Ian Parry on his last assignment for the Sunday Times newspaper in Romania, standing on the balcony in Bucharest where only three days before Ceacescu had given his last speech that started the revolution. Dec. 23, 1989. Photo Courtesy of the Ian Parry Awards

3 September, 2014
New York Times
by James Estrin

PERPIGNAN, France—An exhibit of scholarship winners and runners-up of the Ian Parry Awards will show this week at Visa Pour l’Image festival.

Ian Parry was only 24 when he became a contract photographer for the Sunday Times of London—an exalted position for someone his age. Aidan Sullivan, the paper’s director of photography, relied on him regularly and let him go photograph the Romanian Revolution. But, above all, they were friends.

“The thing that struck you about Ian was his lust for life,” Mr. Sullivan said. “He was always smiling, bright, eager, determined and dedicated. Much of his character was reflected in his imagery. He was always seeing the world through kind eyes.”

After photographing the fall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989, Mr. Parry offered to help his colleagues by carrying their film back with him to London to distribute to their agencies. The film never arrived, and neither did Mr. Parry. His plane was hit by a missile.

Mr. Parry’s death hit his friends hard, especially Mr. Sullivan.

“I was heartbroken when we lost Ian, and as a young director of photography, I of course felt an enormous amount of guilt as I had agreed to let him go to Romania to cover the Civil War,” he said. “I was determined that I would try and create something positive from this tragedy.”

So Mr. Sullivan, along with Mr. Parry’s friends and family started the Ian Parry Scholarship to keep his memory alive and to help other promising young photographers follow their dreams.

Twenty-five years after Mr. Parry’s death, an exhibit of scholarship winners and runners-up is at the Visa Pour l’Image festival, featuring some of the brightest young photographers of the last decade, including Jonas Bendiksen, Marcus Bleasdale, Sebastian Liste, Kitra Cahana, Farzana Hossein and Dominic Nahr.

This year’s scholarship was won by Venezuelan photographer Alejandro Cegarra. The judges also noted Rahul Talukder as highly commended, and Mario Wezel of Germany also received a commendation. An honorable mention was given to Md Shahnewaz Khan of Bangladesh, and a special prize went to Hosam Katan, a photographer from Aleppo, Syria.

What separates the Ian Parry Scholarship from other major photography awards is that it focuses solely on young photographers at the beginning of their careers, either attending photography school or under 24 years of age. It is about potential rather than accomplishment, and a much-needed vote of confidence in an era when changes in the media business make it ever-harder for young photographers.

“The Ian Parry award meant a lot to me,” Mr. Bendickson wrote in an email. “In part because it came to me in my early twenties, just as I was trying to figure out who I was, what photography was and how it all fit together.”

The scholarship winners are published in the Sunday Times and receive a cash prize of £3,500 (approximately $5,760). Perhaps more important, they receive the advice and support of photographers like Don McCullin and Tom Stoddart and editors like Jon Jones of the Sunday Times and Mr. Sullivan, now the vice president of Getty Images, as well as previous winners.

“The Parry is more than an award, it is a family,” Mr. Bleasedale wrote in an email. “We all meet and get to know Ian’s family and they are still central to the award and the selection. We stay in touch and the winners over the years have become great friends with each other. I think it is the most important award I have won in my career.”

No Invitation Necessary
Hungry City: Moldova in Midwood, Brooklyn

Moldova, in Midwood, Brooklyn, is devoted to the food of the small former Soviet republic wedged between Romania and Ukraine. Yana Paskova

28 August, 2014
New York Times
by Ligaya Mishan

Branches twine above. Balkan folk-punk pulses below. The mural on the back wall is a postcard writ large, of a cave monastery a millennium old, transplanted from the cliffs along the Dniester River to a utilitarian strip of Midwood, Brooklyn. The tablecloths are red and the chairs hooded in brocade, and every table seems to seat at least eight.

On my visits to Moldova (New York’s one restaurant devoted to the cooking of the small former Soviet republic wedged between Romania and Ukraine), I felt as if I had crashed a wedding and been immediately made welcome. There’s a cheery bravado to the dining room that comes off as charming rather than theme-parky. The details are genuine: The waitresses’ blouses were hand-embroidered in Moldova; the sashes draped on the walls are worn at Moldovan nuptials by “sponsors” who promise to guide the newlyweds through married life.

Likewise the food, which includes ciorba, a soup whose primal sourness is achieved via a base of bors acru: fermented wheat bran, cornmeal and stale black bread, laced with lovage and sour cherry leaves. Crumpled-looking pork-and-veal meatballs crowd the surface. They are quick stabs of salt.

The restaurant’s owner, Radu Panfil, immigrated from Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, in 2005. For a while, he worked at Paradise, a Russian hot spot in neighboring Sheepshead Bay. At Moldova, which opened two years ago, the menu is written in Russian as well as Moldovan—a language effectively identical to Romanian—which speaks to both southern Brooklyn’s demographics and the complications of Moldovan history.

The name of Ileana Cosanzeana, a princess from Romanian folklore, is invoked alongside pan-fried pastries stuffed undaintily with cabbage, potatoes or cheese. The knight Fat-Frumos, who rescues her from a zmeu, a shapeshifting part-human, part-multi-headed dragon, presides over steamed dumplings with similarly hearty fillings but delicate skins, crimped like gyoza. Also worthy are the less heroically designated “lazy” dumplings, akin to Italian malfatti, simple squeezes of cheese, egg and flour, tossed in a pot.

The menu is too much for a party of two. Even four would be overcome. Bring everyone you can and stack the table with creamy salads of veal tongue or salmon and red caviar; mititei, sausages attended by mustard, raw onions and pale, vinegary peas; and kashkaval, a gentle sheep’s milk cheese from Transylvania, served in crunchy deep-fried slabs that look like Filet-O-Fish. Pierce one, and the cheese within, nearly liquid, swoons on the plate.

Entrees are heavy and generous: a broad plank of beef, forthrightly seasoned; practically an entire rabbit, nicely tender; breaded and baked fillets of zander, a flaky white freshwater fish that’s a cousin of walleye. A version of chicken Kiev arrives gilded with a slice of tomato and melted cheese, and floods the plate with butter and dill when cut.

The hardest-working dish is mamaliga, a cornmeal porridge like polenta. (Jonathan Harker eats it for breakfast en route to Castle Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel.) It manifests as an appetizer, patted into angel-weight orbs around nubs of pork belly and fried; as creamy mounds half-buried in feta, a supplement to almost every entree; and as an entree in itself, with a rubble of pork as a side. On first bite it is mild, but you are meant to mix in the feta and pour on sour cream, along with a stinging, vinegary garlic sauce that changes everything.

The servers have strong opinions about dessert. Obey and there will be prunes engorged with walnuts and topped with red grape halves for a bright sting; sour cherries rolled into cigarillo crepes; fried handfuls of dough sealed with sour cream and grape jam.

Beware the baba neagra, described on the menu as a “chocolate backed pudding.” It turns out that chocolate is present only as a color; the cake, traditionally made with chisleag, or soured milk, is nearly black from prolonged baking. It appears as a dark fang, flanked by slashes of sour cherry sauce like a mauled heart. It is almost sweet.

Wikipedia 23 August 2014

On this day...

Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism / Black Ribbon Day

1944King Michael dismissed the pro-Axis government of General Ion Antonescu, putting RomaniaAllies for the remainder of World War II

Moldova's Winemakers Seize Upon Region's Geopolitical Moment

A glass is filled with Moldovan wine at a wine fair in Belgium in 2013. Yves Logghe/AP

30 July 2014
National Public Radio
by Dan Charles

Consider, for a moment, the misfortunes of winemakers in Moldova, a former Soviet republic in southeastern Europe, tucked in between Ukraine and Romania.

Their country is the poorest in Europe, with a per capita GDP about the same as Honduras. They'd love to sell their product—which has gotten approving nods from foreign critics—in wealthier countries. But most of those customers don't even know that Moldova exists, let alone that its winemaking tradition goes back thousands of years.

"It's a very popular question: Where's Moldova?" says Veaceslav Nivnea, marketing director for Albastrele Wines, a company based in Chisinau, the country's capital.

Now throw in a dose of political upheaval. And we're not just talking wars and revolutions, Soviet rule or destruction of vineyards during Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign in the 1980s.

There's more. Late last year, Russia, traditionally their biggest market, banned imports of Moldovan wine, ostensibly for reasons of food safety.

But the timing—right before Moldova was set to sign an agreement to pursue closer ties to the European Union—suggested that the move could have been political retaliation. (The EU's food safety authorities saw no problem with the same wines.) Meanwhile, right next door in Ukraine, there's a political crisis and escalating violence.

So are Moldovan winemakers feeling beaten down? Not at all. "It helps us," says Andrian Davidescu, commercial director of Vinaria din Vale, another wine producer. "Before, nobody knows there is a country Moldova. Now, they know where it is. Next to Ukraine!"

In fact, 13 of Moldova's top wine producers chose just this moment to promote their wines—which observers say have improved vastly in recent years—to wine reviewers and importers in the U.S. Earlier this week, they held a tasting event in Washington, D.C. At each table there was a sign: "Looking for importer." On Thursday, they'll be doing the same at the Astor Center in New York.

According to Christy Canterbury, a New York-based wine expert, wines from Moldova certainly could claim a place on the wine list, if given a fair chance. "Prospects for the dry aromatic whites are fantastic," she says. Their biggest obstacle? A lingering perception among many importers that former Soviet republics "must be rustic countries that don't know what they're doing."

Moldova has outgrown that reputation, she says. Winemakers are using the latest technology, and "the terroir is excellent." She's tasted 13 wines from producers on the current tour. Eleven of the 13, she says, "were very good." (The other two were "fine, but nothing to write home about.")

The other big obstacle for Moldovan producers, she says, is the crowded wine marketplace, and the tendency of shops to put wines from Moldova in the section marked "Other Regions," at the back of the store or the bottom of the rack. Canterbury advises Moldovan producers to focus on promoting their local wine varieties, such as Feteasca Alba and Feteasca Neagra, because few others grow them.

But the essential problem of Moldova's obscurity remains. The country's winemakers need something to grab a buyer's attention; something that gives Moldovan wines an identity, and makes them memorable.

Canterbury has one idea. There may not be another country in the world that relies so heavily for its economic survival on this ancient drink.

Only 3.6 million people live in Moldova, but somehow it's the 14th biggest wine producer in the world, just ahead of Brazil. According to Canterbury, roughly a quarter of the country's population works, directly or indirectly, in the wine business. Astonishingly, it even boasts the world's biggest wine cellar, a vast cave with 120 miles of passageways, of which 34 miles are used. Moldovans even claim that the shape of their country resembles a bunch of grapes.

So who's got a catchy marketing slogan for a small, embattled country that's kind of like a big, big vineyard?

Wikipedia 18 July 2014

On this day...
1976 – At the Olympic Games in Montreal, Nadia Comăneci (pictured) became the first person to score a perfect 10 in a modern Olympics gymnastics event.

Fauna, Flora and Freighters in the Danube Delta

A family fishing in the delta. Credit Cristian Movila for The New York Times

16 July 2014
New York Times
by Elizabeth Zach

I once heard an unusual tale about an Indian investment broker working in Bucharest, Romania, who had become enchanted by the Danube River Delta region, with its lonely canals, floating reed beds and silver onion-domed monasteries alongside quaint blue cottages in fishing villages one could only reach by boat.

But back then, in 1999, there was no real way to explore the area, teeming with such a variety of wildlife that it had been named a Unesco Biosphere. There were no comfortable places to overnight, aside from some depressing Soviet-era hotels. So the Indian expat Diwaker Singh decided to build a resort that would offer a window into the delta, a region that is home to more than 1,200 species of plants and trees; 100 species of fish; tortoises, foxes, otters and wild boar; and a vital hub for some 300 bird species from as far away as Siberia and China in their southerly migration. Mr. Singh’s vision was realized nearly a decade ago with the 2005 opening of the Delta Nature Resort.

The resort, which has since changed hands, was opened against the backdrop of an Eastern Europe that was making significant economic strides. And the story of it lingered with me, for many reasons. Like Mr. Singh, I have a fondness for Eastern Europe. My father was born in Budapest, and I was an exchange student there in 1991. I toured western Romania at the end of my year abroad. Two years later, I served with the Peace Corps in Poland.

Back then, Romania was still redefining itself after the overthrow and assassination of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. It seemed a hopeful gesture to open an eco-resort in a historically neglected region, to employ locals in order to create a robust economic engine. Last summer, I returned to Romania to see what had become of the country, and that dream.

The great Danube River, the Continent’s longest after the Volga, originates deep in the Black Forest in Germany and meanders southeastward through 10 countries and four capitals before finally emptying into the Black Sea. There, touching the borders of Romania and Ukraine, it disintegrates into a wild labyrinth of channels, swamps, lakes and countless corridors of reeds.

I got to the delta region via road. Upon arriving in Bucharest, a resort bus and driver were waiting for me. It would be a three-and-a-half-hour drive. We passed prairies and groves of dried sunflowers, miles of apple orchards and, along the roadsides, makeshift wooden tables with bushels of gladiolas and mountains of red and green grapes for the honest taking. We sometimes shared the road with horse-drawn carriages sinking beneath loads of humongous watermelons or bright yellow corn and had to occasionally make way for gaggles of geese or shepherds and their flocks crossing the road. I saw, too, abandoned factories immersed in weeds and bleak prefabricated tenement housing with laundry fluttering from balconies, legacies of Communist urban planning. It seemed as if little had changed since my last visit to the country, almost a quarter century ago.

The Delta Nature Resort, with its 30 bungalows, overlooks the western edge of the delta, just outside the town of Tulcea. While I checked in, I went over my two-day itinerary with the resort’s tourism director, who told me she had arranged for a speedboat to take me along one of the three main delta canals. When we looked at the map, however, and she showed me which canal, I told her I was intrigued by another one because I’d read the area around it had served as hunting grounds for Ceaucescu. The director laughed and, sweeping her hand across the delta map, said, “But this was all his!” I ended up taking the tour she suggested.

My bungalow was comfortable and spacious, with whitewashed walls, a sitting room and colorful rugs across the wooden floor. After unpacking, I sat on the veranda for a privileged view of the sun setting across the desolate steppes. It was silent, until I heard — and then turned to see — hundreds of egrets among the reed beds erupt into flight toward the setting sun, and then suddenly swerve en masse toward the Black Sea, a spectacular image, as if in a dream.

The moment of stillness was but a memory the next day, when I headed out from Tulcea’s harbor on a speedboat with Vasile, a burly, stoic man who chain-smoked and spoke no English but, I was told, was a delta native who’d fished the area since he was a boy. We zipped by deserted, rusty barges and houseboats until Vasile took us north into quieter canals and slowed down to point out to me whenever he saw an egret or stork or falcon, sometimes a cormorant, in the distance, standing motionless. We cruised by fishermen and women in track suits with their poles amid weeping willows and black poplars, and by grazing cows and goats.

At one point, Vasile abruptly slowed the motor and jerked the boat around. He’d seen something. “Problem?” I asked, but he only put his finger to his lips as he veered into a narrow, heavily wooded channel. I was alone with this stranger, and my imagination started to get the best of me until we reached the mouth of what I saw on my map was Lake Furtuna, one of the delta’s largest. And as we entered, I was greeted by a stunning vista: a vast carpet of pelicans covering almost every inch of water, clucking and paddling and flapping their wings among clusters of white and yellow waterlilies. I ambled to the bow, marveling at the scene and snapping photos, so engrossed that I barely noticed Vasile had turned off the motor. When I looked back at him, I saw his boyish half-smile, and that he was every bit as transfixed as I was.

At Sulina, the delta’s biggest town, Vasile motioned that he would nap while I went ashore to have lunch on the esplanade. My meal was fatty swordfish and French fries, but also a tasty house white wine, accompanied by stray dogs circling my table. When I returned to the boat, Vasile was still asleep, so I continued along the esplanade, looking up at iron-lattice balconies hanging at rakish angles and buildings in various stages of arrested decline, all covered in chipped paint. I saw snoozing mutts in front of boarded-up houses, and I tried to imagine the prosperous port Sulina had once been in the early 1900s, when it was the seat of the European Danube Commission.

As we sped back toward Tulcea, in almost every direction I looked, electrical power cables stretched toward the horizon. There were hollowed-out warehouses and crumbling smokestacks, and giant freighters plying the canals. In Tulcea, a Soviet-era factory still used for manufacturing aluminum juts out to the shore. On my map, I saw how the waters had been dammed and rerouted over the centuries to make it easier to navigate. Never before had I seen the industrial so close to the pastoral, and moreover, where the pastoral is supposed to be protected.

While the resort offered a way into this idyll, staying there was a reminder that it was not the well-oiled machine you’d find in a busier tourist destination. Among the things that went wrong: My meal orders in the restaurant got consistently mixed up, a television there blared nonstop, the pool was dirty, the Jacuzzi was out of order, the safe in my room was broken. The staff, though well intentioned, was young and inexperienced, as command of English was seemingly the sole requirement for employment.

The frustration slid off me the next day, when I took an excursion on a small fishing boat across the brackish Lake Samova toward the 19th-century Saon Monastery. My guide was Ross, a 20-something who spoke English and was working as a chef and tour guide at the resort. Homesick for the delta, where he was born, he’d recently moved back from a six-year stay in Italy. His passion for the delta was evident throughout his tour, when he pointed out a true silver pheasant at the monastery aviary, and the glowing icons and exquisite paintings inside the church, as well as a wooden pagoda sheltering five copper bells. Later on the boat, he plucked marsh thistles, and happily described how he spices his cooking with them.

If everyone who spent time in the region was entranced, why was it still a sleepy backwater, I wondered. I talked about this one morning with a French couple at the resort, and they referred me to an independent tour guide in Tulcea. I caught up with Iuliana Stanescu via email a few days later, told her my impressions of the delta and asked her for hers.

“I like my job, and most of all I love this beautiful spot called the Danube Delta,” she wrote me. “The authorities don’t apply the law as they should in order to keep this spot clean, they don’t implement a development program.”

Edward Bratfanof, governor of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority, acknowledged that it could be better preserved. While there are no “industrial activities” inside the reserve, he said, fishing, reed harvesting, cattle breeding, small-scale agriculture, tourism and “services for people’s day-to-day life” are allowed. He acknowledged, however, that the speed at which freighters travel there remains a problem.

A new law is under consideration “in view to protect the fauna and flora and to reduce bank erosion.” It was a delicate balance, he added, to encourage tourism and revenue for the region and yet “decrease the pressure on natural resources, especially on fish populations.”

I left the delta dazed by its utopian landscape but, like Iuliana, concerned for its vulnerable beauty. This was nearly a year ago, and I thought recently to track down Diwaker Singh, curious as to what had happened to him and how it was that the delta region had so beguiled him. Now living in London, Mr. Singh quickly responded to my email, telling me he still visits the delta at least once a year.

“Romania is resplendent with natural assets which can be exploited for sustainable tourism,” he wrote me, describing how he and his wife were personally invested in the resort, ensuring its quality for guests. “However, the country has found little interest with tour operators because of lack of adequate, targeted and sustained marketing.”

He told me of Ceausescu’s industrialization of the delta region, how the deposed dictator had converted it to farmland with a focus on exports, in light of proximity to the Black Sea.

“The current generation of Romanians love their nature and are keen to preserve it,” Mr. Singh wrote. “I strongly believe that in time, as the economy of the country improves, the delta will come back to its full glory.”

Romania Puts Former Prison Commander On Trial

13 July 2014
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — For the first time since communism collapsed in Romania 25 years ago, a former prison commander goes on trial Monday charged with being responsible for the torture and murdering prisoners considered a threat to the country's old order.

Survivors say the delay in bringing perpetrators to justice was a cynical tactic by Romania's new rulers, some of whom held senior positions under the communist regime, to avoid accountability.

"These criminals were left in peace on purpose and most died in their beds. now they are bringing some of the crimes to light and it is important," said Octav Bjoza, director of the Association of Former Political Prisoners in an interview with The Associated Press.

Alexandru Visinescu, 88, goes on trial charged with crimes against humanity for deaths that happened under his command at Ramnicu Sarat prison from 1956 to 1963. Since authorities brought charges against him, Visinescu says people in the street have shoved him to the ground and called him a criminal. He has pleaded not guilty and calls himself a scapegoat.

"I only followed orders. They should ask those that gave the orders," he told the AP on Friday. "I am convinced they will do anything to take revenge.

"Why didn't they put me on trial in 1964?" when the political prisons closed "or after (Communist leader) Nicolae Ceausescu died? Why now?"

He contests the number of deaths that prosecutors say happened under his command and denies mistreatment happened under his command that led to prisoners' deaths. The word "criminal" is scrawled on the outside wall of the building where he lives in a shabby one-room apartment, full of old photographs of him in uniform and as a young boy. Born into a family of peasants, Visinescu said his father died the year he was born.

He seems more resigned than he was a year ago when he cursed and lunged at reporters after hearing charges against him and says he expects to go to prison. Another former prison guard was charged in 2000 with aggravated murder, but died before his trial could get underway.

Former ministers, diplomats, army officers, farmers, priests and workers considered a threat to the Communist regime were locked up in prisons from 1948 to 1964. Historians say one-fifth of the 500,000 who were incarcerated died. Bjoza says there were 40,000 political prisoners when communism ended with only 3,000 alive now.

Former prisoner Valentin Cristea, who was incarcerated in Ramnicu Sarat while Visinescu was commander, communicated by Morse code in the grim lockup where prisoners were mainly kept in solitary confinement and banned from communicating.

Cristea, 84, said he learned that the inmate in the neighboring cell, former army officer Jenica Arnautu, had gone on hunger strike to protest mistreatment, was being force-fed with a tube down his throat. In November 1959, three days after the tapping on the wall stopped, Arnautu, who was 36, died, Cristea said in an interview from his home in Campina, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Bucharest. Visinescu denied knowledge of the case.

Prosecutors say 14 people died under Visinescu's command, and said corpses showed signs of malnutrition according to doctors who signed the death certificates. They accuse Visinescu of denying medical treatment and postponing the hospitalization of gravely sick prisoners. "The regime ...did not allow for the minimum survival conditions in the long term, "the indictment said. "Prisoners died in a long drawn-out process, that was nonetheless efficient, in which they were tortured physically and mentally," were denied food, and were physically punished on the slightest pretext, the indictment says. Visinescu says fewer died.

A probe ordered by the Communist government in 1968 into the prisons concluded the state had installed "a regime to exterminate political prisoners from 1948-1964."

Diplomat Victor Radulescu Pogoneanu, who was serving a 25-year sentence for "plot and treason," died at Ramnicu Sarat after prison guards held his paralyzed legs and dragged him down stairs, banging his head on each step, according to the indictment. Visinescu denied he had been dragged down the stairs.

Bjoza said many prisoners died disappointed that there had been no attempt to punish former prison guards.

"We forgave these people but there has been no justice, so we feel condemned again."

Moldova's Leader Backs Firm Pro-Europe Stance

24 June 2014
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP)—Despite protests from Moscow and only partial support among his own people, Moldova's prime minister says he believes his firm pro-European stance will benefit the country's relations with both the West and Russia in the long term.

Prime Minister Iurie Leanca says Moldova's entry Friday into an association agreement with the 28-nation European Union will make it a "more predictable country, which is good for our partners in the West and ... in the East."

In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Leanca called European integration the "fundamental choice" of his government for the poor, former Soviet republic of 4 million sandwiched between much-larger Romania and Ukraine.

He said the tragic developments in Ukraine directly affect Moldova and "its security, its trade, especially with our traditional partners in the East." Ukraine saw mass protests and its former president toppled after he abruptly pulled out of a similar EU agreement in November.

Leanca said his government had been clear that it intended to move closer to the EU ever since it came to power in 2009, unlike the former government in Ukraine.

"When you show hesitation, when you show a certain confusion on what you want to achieve," it can have a detrimental effect, Leanca said.

Russia has taken punitive trade measures against neighboring Baltic states and Ukraine as those countries sought closer ties with the West. Last year, Russia placed an embargo on Moldovan wine and brandy as Moldova said it planned to go ahead and sign the agreement with the EU, where half of its exports now go.

Moving closer to the EU— which about half of Moldovans favor— is the best solution for the country's future, Leanca said. With average salaries of just 220 euros ($300) a month, some 600,000 Moldovans now work abroad, half in the EU and half in Russia.

The EU is "the most efficient instrument in modernizing the country, in modernizing the institutions, in making them accountable, in achieving the real independence of the judiciary," Leanca said. "(I want) to make sure the country has a good system in place to fight corruption ... to give the citizens ... confidence that this country has a future."

Leanca, a former foreign minister, said his government was concerned but also optimistic about the frozen conflict in the pro-Russian separatist region of Trans-Dniester, which broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears that Moldova planned to reunite with Romania. There are still 1,500 Russian troops stationed there and Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March raised concerns that it could also annex Trans-Dniester.

"I appreciate the fact that no decisions have been made that could have destabilized the situation (in Trans-Dniester) as happened in eastern Ukraine or it happened unfortunately in Odessa," he told the AP, referring to riots in that Ukrainian port. "I want to ... do our utmost so that the situation remains under control and ... we can find a lasting peaceful solution."

He said his government would persuade citizens with "facts and arguments" that the EU was the country's best option but Moldovans themselves will choose whether to pursue a future with the EU or closer ties with Russia when they vote in the November parliamentary election.

"This will be the most democratic way to decide the destiny of Moldova," he said.

Alison Mutler contributed to this report from Bucharest, Romania.

Windsurfing Behind the Iron Curtain on the Black Sea

A parade in 1970s communist Bucharest

15 June 2014
BBC News
by Tanya Beckett

The countries of the former Eastern Bloc have totally transformed themselves since the fall of the Iron Curtain 25 years ago, as the BBC's Tanya Beckett reflects—drawing on her own experiences of the region, both then and now.

When I was 14 years old my parents took my brother and me to Romania on holiday. My father was always up for a bargain vacation abroad and it seemed, as they say, like a good idea at the time.

I didn't have much experience of hotels, but this one was awful—drab with a broken shower, and the food was pretty much inedible.

We exchanged our pounds for Romanian lei in clandestine manoeuvres, swapping wads of cash wrapped in napkins back and forth in the hotel.

In the absence of anything else to occupy our time, we managed to find a man teaching windsurfing on the Black Sea.

So we spent most of the time wielding a sail in the sun, and becoming pretty proficient in the water, as our parents waved frantically, shouting inaudible instructions from the beach.

The natural beauty of the country must have been a cherished bright spot for Romanians stuck in an otherwise grey and hopeless existence.

There was the odd bit of male attention for an adolescent me, but that was clamped down on pretty quickly by the security police, of whom most people seemed to live in terrible fear.

Beggars on the streets

Romania's Securitate seemed to be everywhere, and that wasn't just in people's minds. It was, as I was later to learn, the largest police force in the whole of communist Europe.

The few Romanians we could talk to described how they wanted to get out of a country where they could not choose their work, and where hope for a better future seemed an impossible prospect.

As part of my brother's and my education, our parents opted for a trip to Bucharest.

It was not the sort of day out you might hope for as a teenager—the capital was grey, and for all that we had been taught about the equality and benefits of communism, the streets were littered with beggars.

Fencing on bottled water

The experience of the holiday meant that when I studied at university, I found I had little tolerance for the table-banging students who espoused the benefits of communism without actually having understood how it worked in practice, and the despair it wreaked on society.

Whilst a student I went on a fencing trip to Poland. It was a test of survival. We couldn't drink the tap water and the only option we had while we were training was to prise open endless tiny bottles of fizzy water with anything we could find.

There was nothing in the shops really, just some ghastly salami, and the windows were filled with displays of the same item—quite often with those bottles of fizzy water again.

If you expressed a hope that there might be an alternative, you were batted back with not just incredulity, but impatience. Why entertain the prospect of diversity when all it could lead to was frustration?

When we travelled around, we noticed that the Poles had no interest in us at all. It seemed that the weight of their terrible history had expelled every ounce of joy from their souls.

The only escape was the lure of vodka, which we were introduced to on New Year's Eve. I wasn't used to handling spirits and aside from a few rather jolly flashbacks, I remember very little about the festivities at all.

Nostalgia for communism

Last month, decades later, I returned to central and eastern Europe to film some reports on how former communist countries had changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We wanted to capture how some economies had managed to make the transition to market capitalism and how it had affected people's lives.

You can guess that in any society there are those who are driven by the idea of possibility and are happy to take risks, whereas there are others who favour the prospect of security.

The recent roller-coaster ride in the aftermath of the financial crisis has shown just how dangerous rampant capitalism can be, so this was a particularly interesting time to find people in some cases reflecting wistfully on the stability that communism had offered.

The two countries which leapt out at me as being polar opposites were, by coincidence, Romania and Poland. The latter has become a dynamic economy driven by hard working, determined people.

We visited a Fiat factory which was energetic, shiny and new. It looked to be at the cutting edge of how a business with a global perspective should be run. Gone was the pall of grief: it had been replaced by a nation with a uniform sense of purpose.

Romania, which we visited a couple of weeks later, was different entirely—Bucharest embodied a sense of opportunity squandered.

There are terrible cases of poverty, and Romanians are angry that government after government has failed to deliver on the nation's promise.

The next quarter-century

I wondered if the different outcomes had their roots in how their revolutions had taken place—in Poland through a dogged march by the unions, and in Romania a bloody confrontation which masked what was in effect, a coup.

Perhaps the trajectory of their economies since then came down to the political momentum at the start of their transitions.

When I came home and reflected more on what I had seen, I felt encouraged. Central and eastern Europe still has a way to go, but the next 25 years will be much more sure-footed than the last.

Prince Charles: ‘I have come to love Romania’

His Royal Highness receives honorary doctorate from the University of Bucharest

3 June 2014

Message of acceptance for honorary doctorate by Bucharest University for contributions to sustainable agriculture and rural development

‘(….) Romania has become closer to my heart (…) I have come to love Romania for its unique and unspoilt natural beauty, its fascinating patchwork of landscapes and rural communities, each with their own diverse customs, together with the astonishingly rich and varied biodiversity of a countryside that is truly a European and international treasure. (…)’

‘However, even now, tragically, all too often the region’s really remarkable historic architecture and rural settlements seem subject to piecemeal destruction—largely, it appears, through lack of information in the local areas.(…) Romanians have much to be proud of , and this pride should lead you to do everything possible to protect your traditional way of life (…)’

31 May 2014

Full Speech (PDF)

Britain’s New Immigrants, From Romania and Bulgaria, Face Hostilities

A Romanian Orthodox service in Luton, north of London. More than 100,000 Romanians  were living in Britain in 2012 Luke Macgregor/Reuters

31 May 2014
New York Times
by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

LONDON—Three days after Andrei Opincaru, a 29-year-old Romanian, arrived in Britain this year, police officers saw him smoking a cigarette on the street. They stopped, searched and questioned him about having marijuana.

“I asked them: ‘What are you doing? You cannot do this to me. You’re treating me like a criminal,’ ” he recounted. The officers, he said, laughed and went away. “To them it was just a joke,” he said.

Mr. Opincaru came to Britain in hopes of landing a good job by taking advantage of newly extended employment rights for workers from Romania and Bulgaria, which were among the latest entrants to the European Union. But Mr. Opincaru, like other newcomers, was surprised by how little his European citizenship did to shield him from an intense political backlash against the employment measure.

The tension became more apparent last month when Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, expressed discomfort at the idea of having Romanian neighbors, suggesting there was a high level of criminality among Romanians in Britain. “This is not to say for a moment that all or even most Romanian people living in the U.K. are criminals,” he said. “But it is to say that any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.”

In an interview with LBC Radio, Mr. Farage, whose wife is German, was pressed on whether he would feel uncomfortable with German neighbors. “I think you know the difference,” he replied. “We want an immigration policy that is not just based on controlling not just quantity but quality.” The independence party, known for an anti-immigration stance, won about a quarter of the vote in last month’s election for European Parliament members.

Mr. Opincaru, who found a job in construction, shares an apartment with four Italians and two Portuguese who also came to London for work. But he and other Romanians say they are made to feel like second-class citizens, more so than the migrants from affluent countries in Western Europe, despite having equal legal rights. One bank refused to let him open an account, he said, though he provided all the required documents and had secured a job and a national insurance number—the equivalent of a Social Security number.

Being a Romanian in Britain is “very, very difficult,” Mr. Opincaru said. “They’re not treating us like other citizens from Europe,” he added. “Wherever you go and they hear you’re Romanian, they change the music.”

When the European Union extended full employment rights to Romania and Bulgaria this year, allowing workers there free movement throughout Europe, nationalist politicians warned there would be a flood of desperate immigrants who would take jobs from native workers. Headlines predicted a surge in crime and cheating on benefits. One Conservative politician, Philippa Roe, said the arrival of Romanians and Bulgarians would escalate problems like begging.

In November, the government froze loans and other financial support for thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian students as a “precautionary measure.”

But the figures published last month did not reflect an influx of migrants from the two countries. The number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain from January to March of this year dropped to 140,000 from 144,000 in the previous quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics. That compared with 1.7 million migrants from the rest of the European Union working in Britain, it said.

And not everyone has been unwelcoming. The Muswell Hill Baptist Church in London has set up a charitable organization to help Romanian migrants. “We should respond to them as European citizens, not per nationality,” said Martin Stone, who leads the program. “We should grow up and not lower ourselves to petty nationalism. We know where finger-pointing has led to in the past.”

Part of the antipathy today stems from previous decisions to allow unfettered immigration from Poland and seven other Eastern European countries immediately after they joined the European Union in 2004.

The number of native Poles in Britain has grown tenfold since, and today they are the second largest immigrant population, just behind Indians and ahead of Pakistanis, who have colonial links to Britain.

This year, the government tightened rules for migrants seeking benefits. Migrants may not seek jobless benefits for three months after their arrival, and they must show weekly earnings of at least $255 before they can apply for child care, unemployment, housing or health care benefits.

Romanians and Bulgarians interviewed in Britain acknowledged that the benefit system was subject to abuse and said the rules could be stricter. But they said the government and public response to their arrival had been disproportionate.

About 101,000 Romanians and 57,000 Bulgarians were living in Britain in 2012, according to the latest annual residency data from the Office for National Statistics. They gained the right to visa-free travel in 2007 when both countries joined the European Union, but they required work permits until the beginning of this year. They were significantly fewer than Britain’s Asian population, and fewer than the French, Irish, Italian, and even German and American populations.

Around 23,000 Romanians and Bulgarians arrived in Britain in 2013, a threefold increase from the previous year, according to the statistics office. They were among the 201,000 immigrants from the European Union over all, it said. About 134,000 British citizens left the country during the same period.

The number of Romanians applying for a national insurance number more than doubled, to 47,000, in 2013 compared with the previous year, according to the latest figures from the Department of Work and Pensions. About 18,000 Bulgarians registered. In contrast, about 102,000 Poles applied.

Despite the tension, Romanians and Bulgarians said they were eager to make the move to Britain. And one recruiting firm said the workers were much needed in Britain to meet labor demands.

Companies posted 36,285 job offers in Britain in the first quarter of the year, according to Tjobs, a recruiting company that places Romanian workers across Europe. Andreas Cser, the company’s president, said British companies were having particular difficulty filling jobs in the construction and infrastructure sectors.

Eugen Smintina, 39, found a job with an electrical company. “I would like to say to all English people that I come here as a Romanian citizen in your country because I have work,” he said. “Not because of alcohol, drugs or stealing other people’s jobs.”

Andreea Corsei, 28, who has a law degree from Romania and arrived in London this year to pursue a Ph.D. in criminal law, dreams of setting up a law firm with her husband, Daniel, who is also studying law. Romanians in Britain face “walls that are higher to climb” but also the opportunity “to prove what you can do,” she said.

Radu Florescu, Scholar Who Linked Dracula and Vlad the Impaler, Dies at 88

Radu Florescu in 1975. Arthur Grace/Zuma Press

27 May 2014
New York Times
by Margalit Fox

Have you ever seen Count Dracula and Vlad the Impaler in the same place at the same time?

Of course not, and that, according to Radu Florescu, is precisely the point: The two men, he argued, were one and the same.

Professor Florescu, who died on May 18 at 88, was the scion of a distinguished Romanian family and a noted scholar of Balkan affairs. But he was known to a much wider public as the author of books that sought to identify Vlad, the evildoing 15th-century monarch, as the historical inspiration for Bram Stoker’s antihero.

Professor Florescu’s death, in Mougins, France, from complications of pneumonia, was confirmed by his family.

By day, Professor Florescu taught at Boston College, where, at his death, he was an emeritus professor of history and the former longtime director of the East European Research Center there.

He advised the State Department and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts on the Balkans and wrote a string of scholarly books, among them “The Struggle Against Russia in the Romanian Principalities: A Problem in Anglo-Turkish Diplomacy, 1821-1854.”

But thanks to his moonlight job, Professor Florescu was for four decades also one of the world’s leading experts in matters Dracular.

The first of his many books on the subject, “In Search of Dracula,” published in 1972 and written with Raymond T. McNally, helped spur the revival of interest in Stoker’s vampirical nobleman that continues to this day.

“It has changed my life,” Professor Florescu told The New York Times in 1975. “I used to write books that nobody read.”

Radu Nicolae Florescu was born in Bucharest on Oct. 23, 1925. As he would learn in the course of his research, he had a family connection to Vlad, who was known familiarly if not quite fondly as Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler: A Florescu ancestor was said to have married Vlad’s brother, felicitously named Radu the Handsome.

At 13, as war loomed, Radu left home for London, where his father was serving as Romania’s acting ambassador to Britain. (The elder Mr. Florescu resigned his post after the dictator Ion Antonescu, a Nazi ally, became Romania’s prime minister in 1940.)

The younger Mr. Florescu earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford, followed by a Ph.D. in history from Indiana University. He joined the Boston College faculty in 1953.

In the late 1960s, Professor McNally, a colleague in the history department, grew intrigued by affinities between events in Stoker’s novel, published in 1897, and the actual history of the region. He enlisted Professor Florescu, and together they scoured archives throughout Eastern Europe in an attempt to trace Count Dracula to a flesh-and-blood source.

Vlad emerged as the prime suspect, for he and the count, it transpired, had much in common.

Both were noblemen from the same part of the world: Vlad was prince of Walachia, an area that with Transylvania, the count’s stamping grounds, would become part of Romania.

Both shared a surname: Vlad’s father, a member of the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric brotherhood convened to fight the Ottomans, was known as Dracul, meaning “dragon.” Vlad was called Dracula, “son of the dragon”—or, as it is sometimes translated, “son of the Devil.”

Both Vlad and Count Dracula displayed marked criminal proclivities: Vlad was known for dispatching his Ottoman foes (as many as 100,000 in some accounts) with sharpened stakes. Dracula, who did not care for stakes, favored a more direct approach.

The thesis of “In Search of Dracula” has not been universally accepted by scholars, nor did all reviewers embrace it. But for the authors, who became the toast of the television talk-show circuit, that did not matter.

Other collaborations followed, including “The Essential Dracula: A Completely Illustrated & Annotated Edition of Bram Stoker’s Classic Novel” (1979); “Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times” (1989); and, shifting focus to Robert Louis Stevenson, “In Search of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (2000).

Professor Florescu also wrote “In Search of Frankenstein: Exploring the Myths Behind Mary Shelley’s Monster” (1998) and “Dracula’s Bloodlines” (2013, with Matei Cazacu).

A resident of Antibes, France; Scituate, Mass.; and Poiana Brasov, in Transylvania, Professor Florescu is survived by his wife, the former Nicole Michel, whom he married in 1950; a sister, Yvonne, a Benedictine nun known in religion as Sister John the Baptist; three sons, Radu, Nicholas and John; a daughter, Alexandra Lobkowicz; and 13 grandchildren.

Professor McNally died in 2002.

If, in his second career, Professor Florescu risked the opprobrium of some ivory-tower colleagues, he seemed unperturbed. At Dracula conventions around the world—and there are many—he sometimes materialized wearing a cape, a reliable indication that when it came to Stoker’s sanguinary protagonist, Professor Florescu did not mind sticking his neck out.

Romania's Revolution Through the Eyes of Three Generations

Elvira Nitoi, Cristina Ciocarlan, Ioana Sucu, Camelia Sucu

18 May 2014
BBC News
by Emily Young

Camelia Sucu knew that people had died on the night of the Romanian revolution when she saw the street cleaners scrubbing away the blood the following day.

She, along with thousands of others, had been in the square on 21 December 1989 demanding the end of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime. She arrived in the afternoon with her mother and then-husband after watching Ceausescu's earlier speech on TV. The address was meant to win the public over, but descended into chaos.

As the night came, with protesters still chanting: "We want freedom, down with Ceausescu", it turned violent and shots were fired.

"Everybody was running," says Mrs Sucu. "I could hear the bullets and I could see the broken car windows.

"I remember being kind of scared, but also being together with all the other people—we encouraged each other."

She readily admits that she didn't know exactly what a free Romania would look like, or how it would work, but she is clear that she wanted to be "free to talk to foreigners and free to travel".

For her, a free-market economy has worked out well. After the revolution, instead of becoming a doctor as planned, she set up a successful furniture business with her then-husband.

In her mid-20s at the time, she had recently moved into a new apartment with her young family and was frustrated by the lack of choice of chairs available to her.

"Before 1989, bookshelves, chairs were all similar... I wanted something lighter, more colourful."

Today, sitting in her in swish designer showroom, her life is very different to the one that she and her mother had envisioned before the revolution. And yet 25 years later, her daughters just cannot imagine her life under communism.

"I'm always curious when I hear your stories... were you constantly afraid?" 23-year-old Cristina asks her mother, referring to the many strict rules under communism that to her seem nothing less than bizarre.

"We can't imagine being forced to do something."

Her sister Ioana adds that even though her parents take her to Revolution Square every year to help understand what people died for, it still seems difficult to understand how it worked.

"My future husband's parents told me that they were afraid that their friends would tell the state police about them watching movies," says Ioana, explaining that they were very nervous about having anyone new in their house.

The sisters express their amazement at the thought of it being illegal to own a video recorder. They don't appear to have wanted for much.

Ioana, 27, runs a special events company, while Cristina plans to open a children's playground later this year. They both studied in the UK and exude confidence, worldliness and ambition.

It's something their grandmother, 69-year-old Elvira Nitoi, comments on, saying it is one of the ways in which she sees the world has changed. "In the communist era, women were not as empowered," she says. "Now they struggle more to get a good career."

Mrs Nitoi, who herself worked in a textile factory, also wants to dispel her granddaughters' idea that everything was grey and miserable.

"It is not as you picture it. In my circles we used to makes jokes and talk freely," she says.

"Without wishing to be nostalgic, some things were better, for example the certainty of tomorrow, everybody had a job, nobody was on the streets."

But that's not how her daughter Camelia remembers it.

She says that although her childhood was very happy, when she became an adult she understood how difficult life was, and was at times afraid.

At one point she describes how difficult it was to get baby milk, and how, when she was lucky enough to get hold of 18 Pampers nappies, they were kept for special occasions. When she talks about queuing for food, she points out that she's not talking about minutes but the hours spent waiting for eggs or bananas.

"We were fighting every day to get something on the table."

Romania has come a long way since then but it is still the second poorest country in the EU, behind Bulgaria.

Investment banker Matei Paun says the country has not met its economic potential.

"It is obvious to the naked eye that the level of development is at least five if not 10 years behind Poland."

He blames it on the country not having a clean enough break with its past and not bringing in much-needed radical reforms.

"The fact that there is clear lack of reformist leadership is a big hindrance.

"One of the biggest undermining problems in Romania is that you don't have an authentic, ideologically driven political system. You don't have a left and you don't have a right which makes the democratic process difficult to manage," he adds.

It is true that there is a certain dissatisfaction with politicians amongst Camelia and her family.

"We have to learn more about how to choose. Left side, right side, middle. The parties are so young. They can't prove which direction they are," says Camelia.

"There is a choice of bad and not so bad," says Cristina.

This lack of conviction in today's politics, it seems, is something they all agree on.

Wikipedia 9 May 2014

On this day...
Independence Day in Romania (1877)

Pictures of the Day

5 May 2014
New York Times

A worker cleaned the windows of an office building in downtown Bucharest, Romania. Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking

1 May 2014
BBC News
by Finlo Rohrer

A number of recent books have lauded the connection between walking—just for its own sake—and thinking. But are people losing their love of the purposeless walk?

Walking is a luxury in the West. Very few people, particularly in cities, are obliged to do much of it at all. Cars, bicycles, buses, trams, and trains all beckon.

Instead, walking for any distance is usually a planned leisure activity. Or a health aid. Something to help people lose weight. Or keep their fitness. But there's something else people get from choosing to walk. A place to think.

Wordsworth was a walker. His work is inextricably bound up with tramping in the Lake District. Drinking in the stark beauty. Getting lost in his thoughts.

Charles Dickens was a walker. He could easily rack up 20 miles, often at night. You can almost smell London's atmosphere in his prose. Virginia Woolf walked for inspiration. She walked out from her home at Rodmell in the South Downs. She wandered through London's parks.

Henry David Thoreau, who was both author and naturalist, walked and walked and walked. But even he couldn't match the feat of someone like Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor who walked much of the way between his home village in Romania and Paris. Or indeed Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul at the age of 18 inspired several volumes of travel writing. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald and Vladimir Nabokov are just some of the others who have written about it.

From recent decades, the environmentalist and writer John Francis has been one of the truly epic walkers. Francis was inspired by witnessing an oil tanker accident in San Francisco Bay to eschew motor vehicles for 22 years. Instead he walked. And thought. He was aided by a parallel pledge not to speak which lasted 17 years.

But you don't have to be an author to see the value of walking. A particular kind of walking. Not the distance between porch and corner shop. But a more aimless pursuit.

In the UK, May is National Walking Month. And a new book, A Philosophy of Walking by Prof Frederic Gros, is currently the object of much discussion. Only last week, a study from Stanford University showed that even walking on a treadmill improved creative thinking.

Across the West, people are still choosing to walk. Nearly every journey in the UK involves a little walking, and nearly a quarter of all journeys are made entirely on foot, according to one survey. But the same study found that a mere 17% of trips were "just to walk". And that included dog-walking.

It is that "just to walk" category that is so beloved of creative thinkers.

"There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together. Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively," says Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking.

"Your senses are sharpened. As a writer, I also use it as a form of problem solving. I'm far more likely to find a solution by going for a walk than sitting at my desk and 'thinking'."

Nicholson lives in Los Angeles, a city that is notoriously car-focused. There are other cities around the world that can be positively baffling to the evening stroller. Take Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. Anyone planning to walk even between two close points should prepare to be patient. Pavements mysteriously end. Busy roads need to be traversed without the aid of crossings. The act of choosing to walk can provoke bafflement from the residents.

"A lot of places, if you walk you feel you are doing something self-consciously. Walking becomes a radical act," says Merlin Coverley, author of The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker.

But even in car-focused cities there are fruits for those who choose to ramble. "I do most of my walking in the city - in LA where things are spread out," says Nicholson. "There is a lot to look at. It's urban exploration. I'm always looking at strange alleyways and little corners."

Nicholson, a novelist, calls this "observational" walking. But his other category of walking is left completely blank. It is waiting to be filled with random inspiration.

Not everybody is prepared to wait. There are many people who regard walking from place to place as "dead time" that they resent losing, in a busy schedule where work and commuting takes them away from home, family and other pleasures. It is viewed as "an empty space that needs to be filled up", says Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

Many now walk and text at the same time. There's been an increase in injuries to pedestrians in the US attributed to this. One study suggested texting even changed the manner in which people walked.

It's not just texting. This is the era of the "smartphone map zombie" - people who only take occasional glances away from an electronic routefinder to avoid stepping in anything or being hit by a car.

"You see people who don't get from point A to point B without looking at their phones," says Solnit. "People used to get to know the lay of the land."

People should go out and walk free of distractions, says Nicholson. "I do think there is something about walking mindfully. To actually be there and be in the moment and concentrate on what you are doing."

And this means no music, no podcasts, no audiobooks. It might also mean going out alone.

CS Lewis thought that even talking could spoil the walk. "The only friend to walk with is one who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared."

The way people in the West have started to look down on walking is detectable in the language. "When people say something is pedestrian they mean flat, limited in scope," says Solnit.

Boil down the books on walking and you're left with some key tips:

    • Walk further and with no fixed route
    • Stop texting and mapping
    • Don't soundtrack your walks
    • Go alone
    • Find walkable places
    • Walk mindfully

Then you may get the rewards. "Being out on your own, being free and anonymous, you discover the people around you," says Solnit.

Moldova, the Next Ukraine

A military memorial in Transnistria, an area in Moldova that Russia may soon annex, comes complete with a life-size tank.   Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times

23 April 2014
New York Times
by Nicholas Kristof

CHISINAU, Moldova—If there were an Olympic competition for bravest country in the world, the gold medal might well go to Moldova. Wobbly politicians from Europe and America should come here to get spinal transplants.

Think of Moldova as “the next Ukraine,” for Russia may be about to take a bite out of this little country, nestled beside Ukraine and Romania and often said to be the poorest country in Europe. Russia already has bullied Moldova mercilessly for trying to join the European Union, imposing sanctions such as a block on Moldova’s crucial wine exports. Russia is even threatening to cut off the natural gas on which Moldovans depend.

“We hope that you will not freeze,” one senior Russian official publicly warned Moldovans.

Yet the valiant Moldovan government refuses to buckle. It is determined to join the European Union and forge bonds with the West.

“There is no alternative for us but to pursue European integration,” Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, a former diplomat, told me in perfect English in his office here in the capital, Chisinau. “We are European! No one should contest this.”

Moldova’s love for the West is unrequited. Washington barely notices it. No sitting president has ever visited. Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Ukraine this week would have been a perfect moment to drop in and show support, but it didn’t happen. After all, Moldova has a population of less than four million and no obvious strategic significance.

With a few modest gestures, President Obama could reward Moldova’s grit. Instead, in the face of American obliviousness, President Vladimir Putin of Russia may formally annex part of Moldova, Transnistria, in the coming weeks.

Transnistria is a Russian-speaking enclave within Moldova, armed by Moscow and protected by Russian troops. Transnistria claims to have seceded and established an independent country, and, in a troubling omen, its government (which Moscow controls) appealed this month for Russia to annex it.

So Russia could soon swallow both Transnistria and a chunk of southern Ukraine, including Odessa, to access it.

Transnistria remains a police state, so I slipped across the border as a tourist, and the area feels just as the old Soviet Union did. Indeed, Transnistria should market itself as an open-air museum of Soviet rule, complete with Lenin statues, Russian troops on the roads and an intelligence agency still called the K.G.B. The propaganda department is in overdrive, with countless billboards celebrating patriotism and past Russian triumphs.

“You must be proud of your country!” one billboard declared.

Transnistria’s military memorials complete with a tank or armored personnel carrier praise the heroism of local people and denounce those killed “by fascists” in fighting with Moldova’s military in the early 1990s. One giant collection of posters celebrated Russian and local heroes and praised “those great men who contributed to our culture.”

Transnistria’s apartment complexes are dilapidated and identical, and, despite large Russian subsidies, the economy is a mess. But a vast modern sports complex is the pride of the region. The atmosphere was such that I expected to run into the crusty old Soviet leader of the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev.

“For people here, Putin is a hero,” one young woman told me.

It’s true that the Moldovan government in the past was sometimes heavy-handed or threatening to Russian speakers, and, just as Moldovans had the right to leave the Soviet Union, people in Transnistria should have the right to secede from Moldova. But that should happen when Russian troops are gone and people have the right to speak freely.

Moldova, which is Romanian-speaking, is rural, relaxed and green, but the economy crashed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and perhaps one million people fled the country to find work. In some Moldovan villages, it is difficult to find young women because so many left for jobs abroad. According to human rights monitors and United Nations officials, these women were tricked, raped and trafficked by organized crime into brothels across western Europe.

In recent years, the government has tried to build a pro-Western market economy, and the country is rebounding but still fragile. Many fear that Putin will now direct his “masked warfare” of infiltrators and provocateurs to turn Moldova into the next Ukraine.

It may be too late to deter Putin in Moldova, but, whatever happens, we should back Moldova’s plucky government. The United States can help by supporting infrastructure for Moldova to import natural gas and electricity from Romania, making it harder for Putin to freeze Moldovans into submission. We can nudge the European Union to embrace Moldova’s desire to join.

And if President Obama could visit this gutsy country for a few hours, people would cheer him as he’s never been cheered—and he would see an example of gold medal grit that we can all learn from.

Old British Pathé Newsreel Footage Shows Romania During the 20th Century

23 April 2014
Romania Insider
by Shaun Turton

Fascinating glimpses into 20th century have been uploaded to YouTube by the British Pathé, including numerous clips of Romania shot during the period.

King Michael arriving at Waterloo Station, Queen Marie of Romania visiting New York, the 1969 European Boxing Championships in Bucharest, Russian troops pursing Germans while they retreat from the country in 1944—these are just some of the black and white news clips now available to watch online.

Another shows a glamorous royal wedding between the Archduke Anton of Habsburg and Princess Ileana of Romania held at Peles Castle in 1931. The uprising against Nicolae Ceausescu is also among the clips.

The footage is accessible after the British Pathé, the newsreel maker which documented all walks of life on video during the 20th Century, uploaded its entire collection of moving images to YouTube.

The archive of 85,000 clips, or 3,500 hours of footage was digitized in 2002 thanks in part to a grant from the National Lottery, and is now freely accessible to anyone around the world.

Historic moments covering both World Wars, tragedies like the Hindenburg disaster, rare glimpses into the lives of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe are just some of the thousands clips available.

The full collection of videos on Romania is here on YouTube.

Nina Cassian, Exiled Romanian Poet, Dies at 89

Nina Cassian read her poetry at Cooper Union in New York in 2003. Credit Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

18 April 2014
New York Times
by Margalit Fox

Nina Cassian, an exiled Romanian poet who sought refuge in the United States after her poems satirizing the regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu fell into the hands of his secret police, died on Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 89.

The apparent cause was a heart attack, her husband, Maurice Edwards, said.

A prominent writer and translator in Romania before she was forced to seek asylum in 1985, Ms. Cassian had since become well known in the West. Her poems—some translated to English; other, more recent ones composed in English—have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere.

Her English-language collections include “Life Sentence: Selected Poems” (1990), “Take My Word for It” (1998) and “Continuum” (2008).

Intense, passionate and cleareyed, Ms. Cassian’s poetry often centered on the nature of erotic love and—both before her exile and after—of loss, death and decay. In “Ballad of the Jack of Diamonds,” published in The New Yorker in 1990 in a translation by Richard Wilbur, she wrote:

Here is the Jack of Diamonds, clad
In the rusty coat he’s always had.
His two dark brothers wish him dead,
As does the third, whose hue is red. ...
One brother, on his breast and sleeves,
Is decked with tragic, spadelike leaves.
The next has crosses for décor.
The motif of the third is gore.
The Jack of Diamonds is dead,
Leaving a vacuum in his stead.
This ballad seems at least twice-told.
Well, all Rumanian plots are old.

But Ms. Cassian’s work could also be mordantly funny, as attested by “Please Give This Seat to an Elderly or Disabled Person,” displayed in New York City subways by the Poetry in Motion program, a joint effort of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Poetry Society of America:

I stood during the entire journey:
nobody offered me a seat
although I was at least a hundred years older than anyone else on board,
although the signs of at least three major afflictions
were visible on me:
Pride, Loneliness, and Art.

Ms. Cassian was born Renée Annie Katz to a Jewish family in Galati, Romania, on Nov. 27, 1924. Her father was a noted translator who rendered into Romanian the work of writers in German and English, including Edgar Allan Poe.

When she was about 11, her family settled in Bucharest; there, under Romania’s fascist wartime leadership, she attended schools in the Jewish ghetto. As a teenager she joined a Communist youth organization: Communism, she felt, offered a more salubrious alternative to fascism.

Trained as a pianist from the time she was very young, Ms. Cassian studied painting, literature and composition at the University of Bucharest and at the city’s main conservatory; her musical compositions, many for the piano, were well regarded in Romania.

Her first volume of poetry, “La Scara 1/1” (“On a Scale of 1/1”), appeared in 1947 under the pen name Nina Cassian. It was condemned by Romania’s Communist authorities for its Surrealist cast and lack of appropriate ideology.

For the next few years, Ms. Cassian’s work hewed to the Socialist realism the party preferred, but she found she could not stand that way of writing and reassumed her own style.

Ms. Cassian’s first marriage, to the novelist Vladimir Colin, ended in divorce. In 1985, not long after the death from cancer of her second husband, Alexandru Stefanescu, she traveled on a Fulbright fellowship to the United States, where she taught writing at New York University.

While she was in New York, a Romanian friend, Gheorghe Ursu, an engineer and poet known for opposing the Ceausescu government, was arrested by the Securitate, the state secret police. Tortured, he died of his injuries.

Among Mr. Ursu’s papers, the Securitate found several unpublished poems by Ms. Cassian in which she lampooned the Ceausescu regime. It was no longer safe for her to return home. Granted asylum in the United States, she settled on Roosevelt Island in New York City, where she lived until her death.

Mr. Edwards, the retired executive and artistic director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, whom she married in 1998, is her only immediate survivor.

Ms. Cassian’s other work includes the English-language collections “Call Yourself Alive?” (1988) and “Cheerleader for a Funeral” (1992), as well as her translations into Romanian of Shakespeare, Brecht, Molière and Paul Celan.

Though she moved with apparent ease in American literary circles, reading and lecturing widely, Ms. Cassian by her own inclination remained something of an outsider. She was amused, for instance, by a practice she deemed singularly American, in which a poet giving a reading precedes each work with a précis of the very work to be read.

Parodying this practice, as The New York Times reported in 1995, Ms. Cassian liked to say:

“There was a pear tree on my grandfather’s farm, and one day I noticed that when its blossoms fell, they looked like dandruff falling on my grandfather’s shoulders. So I wrote a poem about it. It goes like this:

On my grandfather’s farm
there used to be a pear tree.
When its blossoms fell,
they looked like dandruff
falling on Grandfather’s shoulders.”

Pictures of the Day

17 April 2014
New York Times

A Romanian woman burning incense at a cemetery in a village southwest of Bucharest. Orthodox Christians went to church and cemeteries early on Maundy Thursday to light candles, burn incense and mourn relatives as part of a southern Romanian tradition. Bogdan Cristel / Reuters

The Man Who Went Looking for Freedom

1 April 2014
BBC News

Fighting the system used to be dangerous anywhere in Eastern Europe. For one protester from a small Romanian village it was disastrous—and also for his family, whose every word was recorded by the secret police. Carmen Bugan, who found the transcript of her childhood, tells their story.

See more photos and a documentary at the article's website on BBC News

Carmen Bugan is the author of memoir Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police

Soon after my brother's birth in February 1983 my father, Ion Bugan, was faced with the biggest decision he ever had to make.

Should he and my mother continue secretly typing anti-communist manifestos on an illegally-owned typewriter and distributing them around Romania? Or should he go to Bucharest to take on Ceausescu all by himself, without telling anyone a word about it?

Thirty years on we still live with the legacy of my father's choice. And with the discovery of an intimate, horrifying story of our lives written by the secret police, the Securitate.

This was a Romania of food shortages, frequent power cuts, and ferocious reprisals for any form of dissent. The sounds of forbidden US radio stations—Voice of America and Radio Free Europe—woke us up and put us to bed every day, sending shivers up our spines as they merged with the noise from the kitchen. They gave my father hope that life could be better if only people stood up for themselves.

The Securitate was well acquainted with my parents. In early 1961 my father was in a bar with his best friend Petrica and a few others complaining about high tax rates and the collectivisation of farms. They came up with a plan to hijack an internal flight from Arad, in the west of Romania, and to fly it out of the country.

Petrica was a retired air force officer who in civilian life repaired radios like my dad. They had no idea that one of their friends was a Securitate informer.

All were captured before they had a chance to take control of the airplane and condemned to eight years of hard labour "for preparatory actions leading to fraudulent crossing of the border" (leaving the country without permission was illegal) and "plotting against public order".

My father, in his 20s, found himself in terrible prisons at Jilava and Deva and at the Great Island of Braila labour camp, where he met some of the political dissidents who were systematically tortured there.

In July 1964, my father and his friends were liberated in a general amnesty but the Securitate followed his every move, looking for any reason to discredit him and throw him back in prison. Suffocated and intimidated, in February 1965 dad bought a compass, binoculars, antibiotics, a few vials of caffeine, some cans of sardines, and a roll of salami. He and Petrica made a heart-stopping escape from Romania in a blizzard. Dodging police and hiding in haystacks, they made it all the way to the Iron Curtain at the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

On 2 March 1965 at 07:30 in the morning, starved, weak and frozen, they rolled down a hill, jumped a 2m-high barbed-wire fence and nearly crossed into Turkey. The patrol squad showered them with bullets in no-man's land, just 400m from freedom, and sent them back to Romania. My father was sentenced to 11 years at the harshest prison of all, Aiud, for "fraudulent crossing of the border, punishable with art. 267 of the penal code".

Part of the sentence was a five-month period of torture by solitary confinement and starvation while wearing 45kg of chains day and night, in the "special" wing of the prison at Alba Iulia. The prison records say he was transferred to Alba Iulia "for judicial affairs" which is true in a sense: my father was tortured there in order to "admit" his supposed role as an "accomplice" in the theft of money that had "disappeared" from his radio repair shop after he ran away to Bulgaria. My father's own account of this period is hair-raising: he was fed once every two days, and allowed to wash three times in the entire period he was held there.

But, as dad puts it, there was an angel looking after him—he was transferred back to Aiud and freed in January 1969 as a result of changes to the penal code.

Dad now attempted to live a normal life. He married and had children. Things didn't seem so bad on the surface. We had summer holidays on the Black Sea and built a lovely house in our village, Draganesti, near Galati, in eastern Romania.

But behind the scenes the Securitate pushed him to breaking point, following and spying on him. My mother, Mioara, was denied a career in teaching because she married a "political agitator" and was therefore likely to "pollute the minds of the younger generation". Told to choose between job and husband, she opted for the marriage, and they both began working in a grocer's shop. Before long, mum was running the shop, and as dad had been banned from keeping the books at his TV/radio repair workshop, she did that too. Dad worked on repairs when he wasn't stacking shelves. My parents put up with their lot, and worked hard.

By 1981, however, there were not many groceries to sell. Hungry factory workers yelled at them: "What am I going to put in my bag for lunch?" Evening bread queues often ended in fist fights. When the doors closed for the day, my father's angry outbursts at the back of the shop mingled with blasts of Radio Free Europe. One day he told my mother: "I don't want to spend my life just breathing air, and doing nothing."

They bought two typewriters, one of which they did not register with the police, and began making anti-communist flyers protesting against shortages and human rights abuses. They spent the nights typing and driving all over the country to put them in people's letterboxes, while my sister and I slept. The police kept coming to the house to check the prints of the legal typewriter, and to see whether they matched with the letters.

On 10 March 1983, about a month after my father and I visited the hospital with a bouquet of carnations to see my new-born brother, Catalin, my father took to the streets of Bucharest. On top of our red Dacia car, he mounted placards demanding human rights, and denouncing Ceausescu as a torturer who should be put on trial. Then he drove through the city centre, throwing leaflets from the window and blowing a whistle to attract attention.

The spies drew a map of Bugan's protest drive through Bucharest

He had said nothing to my mother. She was in the hospital with Catalin, who was close to dying from an untreated lung infection. My younger sister Loredana was away at gymnastics school and I was at home, aged 12, with my grandmother. This marked the beginning of hell for us.

Dad's protest landed him back in Aiud, condemned to 10 years of hard labour for "propaganda against the socialist regime", punishable under art. 166 line 2 of the penal code. My mother, my sister, my brother and I were placed under close surveillance.

We became accustomed to travelling across the country for a yearly prison visit, letters sent but not always received, food packages returned to us because "the prisoner did not behave appropriately". Rotten fried chicken, softened apples and ulcer medication were sent back in the battered cardboard boxes in which we had placed them months before, hoping he'd receive them.

The Securitate had their own keys to our house and ordered us not to pull the curtains in the kitchen to make it easier for them to observe us. We later learned that my father had accumulated the codenames Andronic, Butnaru, Cazul Cocor, and Barbu, while Mum was codenamed Bela and Barbu. A school friend codenamed Cornelia was in charge of keeping a record of my feelings about dad for the Securitate.

In 1985 mum and dad were forced to divorce. By 1987 I had become accustomed to children at school, and one of the teachers, referring to me and my sister as "the criminal's daughters".

On his birthday in 1988, Ceausescu proclaimed a general amnesty. My mother quipped that history would remember him for his compassion—having no idea that we would find her words transcribed 30 years later in government archives.

When my father walked home in the night on 5 February 1988, secret microphones in the house "registered an atmosphere of joy coming from the children". My father "visited each room", "asked for his shaver" and looked "for his radio". He cradled Catalin in his arms, they noted. The transcripts of that first night say that "the family went to sleep at 03:45 in the morning. The Obj. [my father] complained of a pain in his heart."

The Securitate kept thousands of files on the Bugans

None of us remember all of these details, they are a gift from the record-keeping Securitate, but I recall the smell of prison on dad's clothes.

A couple of months after dad's return from prison, the secret police files note:

"At 01:32 in the morning, we could hear someone trying the door to the room equipped with listening devices. The door doesn't open. We hear the footsteps of someone walking away and the insistent barking of the dog as to a person who is a stranger to the house."

It is a transcript of the Securitate registering itself in the act of trying to come into the house to change the microphones. I read this file last August for the first time. It made me understand that when we heard noises in those years in Romania we weren't really crazy as we thought.

After receiving a series of invitations from mysterious men to meet them in town, death threats on the phone in the middle of the night, and even a call from a woman offering sex to dad, we decided to seek political asylum in the US. It was my turn to make a heart-stopping journey to the American Embassy with my father's prison papers to give testimony on behalf of the family.

I managed to get into the Consulate but I was promptly arrested on the way out and interrogated for 45 minutes. I kept repeating what I was told to say: "We are under American protection, you can't do anything to me." They let me go and told me to never go back there again.

The Securitate records show how "concerned" they were about us and what might happen, as immigrants, to our sense of Romanian identity. They tried to dissuade my mother from going to the US—they told her that life in the West was a form of slavery to rich, lazy capitalists.

We waited 11 months for our passports, under house arrest. One record says that "after we have used every method to discourage the obj. [this time Mum] from leaving, we decided to expel her from the Communist Party". It was, even according to the Securitate's own file, a humiliation ceremony, where her friends were forced to hurl insults at her.

"Your girls will become prostitutes," the passport clerk yelled at my parents. "Our hand is long," they said, turning to my father, threatening us with death if we spoke about what had been done to us once in America. I now read my mother's declaration in the files "not to damage the image of our socialist regime by actions or words", and wonder how she must have felt to leave the country in her 40s with three children, a husband who had returned from the heart of evil, and no idea where we were going.

As we made our way to Michigan at the end of 1989, each carrying one suitcase in which we packed a lifetime, the Berlin Wall tumbled down behind us. The bloody Romanian Revolution followed at Christmas time.

We arrived as political refugees in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 17 November 1989, travelling via Rome, and landing at night, in a snowstorm, not speaking a word of English.

In a refugee centre in Rome we had been taught that Americans, when they ask "How are you?" don't really expect an answer; that they all have chequebooks; that they value democracy and free speech; and that all immigrants gain 8kg in the first year in the West because, well, there is just a lot of food to eat and most of it is rather different from our homemade soups. We couldn't have been more thrilled with all of that.

We became eager to "assimilate" into Western life.

My sister and I would often ask the people in Grand Rapids we knew best: "Do I look American yet?"

At the same time we saw on a donated television how the Ceausescus were executed. My father said: "This is all wrong, now the world will never find out from him about his abuses." My mother cried: "They are just two old people, they should not have been killed." And all of us danced in the living room with joy that a revolution was happening in Romania.

I wondered if my father's protest might have played some role in bringing it about. My father wanted to return. We said firmly: "We are staying here, and you are not abandoning us yet again."

Twenty years have passed. We cleaned nursing homes, churches, worked at Burger King, made golf clubs, Mum worked in a children's clothing factory, and we went to school. My father collected all of the discarded televisions we found, fixed them, and we had a TV in each room: "Such a waste," he'd say.

We became American citizens. My sister and I married. She and her husband bought a house in the suburbs. We became "Romanians by birth".

In 1999 Romania opened the archives of the secret police to people who had been subjected to surveillance during the communist years.

My father said: "I know who I am. I don't need to know what the Securitate said about me." But I disagreed and managed to find our records in 2010.

Now, it was one thing to experience the Securitate following and threatening us. But it is another thing to read the complete record of our daily lives, including the traps neatly laid out for us, to lure us into committing an offence, which we escaped simply by instinct or luck.

So, when my mother was in the hospital with my brother, the Securitate placed next to her a "patient" who also had a "sick child". Nurses and doctors helped to stage it all. The woman who became Mum's "friend" had a question scripted for her to help her spark the conversation. She produced reports on what mum said about my father and his dissidence.

Another example is a "legend" (a technical term used by the Securitate) by which an "Amnesty International employee" came to ask mum about my father and whether we were persecuted because of him. The officer was trained to have a German accent, and to look nervous. He invited her to a hotel in town to talk "out of the reach of the microphones".

This was a trap to throw my mother in prison for speaking with foreigners about my father. Again, we now have the official record against which we can test our own memory of that day when the man came to the house. After he left, my mother said: "No-one is this worried about us, I don't trust this stranger." It was a lack of trust that saved her.

There are records of dreams we recounted to each other in the mornings. The transcriber knew us so well, he or she was able to read and duly note our moods. Some even took sides in family arguments, noting on the margins of the transcripts who they thought was right. It's like having had a one-sided relationship with these invisible broadcasters of our tormented souls.

Needless to say, the documents have been sifted through, parts have been blotted out in black ink, pages are missing. What I have is what was given to me as publishable.

But we now have every letter that my father wrote to us from prison and we wrote to him. Half of the letters are direct transcripts—they were copied out by the censors—while half are paraphrases of what we wrote. There are not always quotation marks to indicate which of the words are ours, which are theirs. It is nearly impossible to detangle the self from the words of the Securitate. Some of the letters were not forwarded to us, so I read them for the first time last summer.

The question of what my father was thinking of when he drove away to Bucharest on 10 March 1983 has lost its painful intensity for us over the years. Yet in the files I see our daily recitation of blame and anger at the time.

That question would have remained unanswered if it hadn't been for a trip to Romania that we took as a family in October 2013. My father was by then 78, my mother 67, so it was a good time to make the journey back.

Walking into my father's prisons, Jilava and Aiud, the cells completely submerged in darkness and bone-chilling dampness, reading the records of his admission to the prison infirmary with fractured ribs and "bruises from hammer applied to fingers", I understood what I could not have understood before.

When he left home, the car stuffed with placards and leaflets, my father knew what he was returning to. Yet he had no choice. For him the family was his country and the country was his family. If he did not fight for everyone else, he could not have hoped to put food on our own table. Or a shred of dignity in our lives. He left us out of desperation and moral conviction.

He protected us by saying nothing to us. But you can only understand this by going into the prison rooms where he suffered. And by standing next to him while he shouts that he has no memory of receiving beatings that fractured his ribs, even though you face him, with the radiography record trembling in your hands. This is the side of heroism no-one likes to talk about, not even him. But it is the face of heroism that now makes me proud.

Reflecting on a Writer’s Walk Through Europe

Artemis Cooper, Patrick Leigh Fermor's biographer.

21 March 2014
New York Times
by Kenan Christiansen

From the time he was a boy, acclaimed travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor wanted to live like a character in a novel. Somehow, he found out how. During his lifetime, he was stabbed in Bulgaria, car-bombed in Greece, targeted in a blood vendetta, and hunted by German soldiers after kidnapping their commander on the island of Crete and handing him off to a waiting British submarine during World War II. But his story started in 1933, when at 18 he was focused on the single goal of walking across Europe, “From the hook of Holland to Constantinople.”

“This journey means more and more to him the older he gets; he realizes that in a funny way, it set the course of his life,” said Artemis Cooper, his biographer, who was an editor of Mr. Leigh Fermor’s third and final book about the trip—one that fans of the writer’s inimitable flare for whorling descriptions and evocative prose have waited nearly three decades to read. The story ended up being called “The Broken Road,” a reflection of the fact that the writer was unable to finish the book before his death in 2011. It ends in midsentence, with him still 500 miles short of his goal. Below are excerpts from a conversation with Cooper about Mr. Leigh Fermor, known affectionately as Paddy, and his adventurous walk.

Q. When did Mr. Leigh Fermor first devise his trip across Europe?

A. He was the kind of kid that makes all parents despair. When he was 18, he had finished school, but seemed absolutely unemployable. His father was this eminent geologist in India—one of the hardest-working people you could meet. And all of his friends would say, “Why can’t you be like your father?” But of course to Paddy, that just sounded like life imprisonment.

All he really wants to do is become a writer. Of course, he had nothing to write about and only produced the usual adolescent poetry that nobody wanted to read. At the time, he was in turmoil. He was going to too many parties, having too many hangovers and on the inside he was completely miserable. Then he describes that it just came to him from one moment to the next: He would walk across Europe.

He traveled through Europe during a significant time in history.

Right, he crosses through Germany nine months after Hitler comes to power. At the time, Paddy wasn’t interested in politics or Nazidom, except that he recognized it as something hateful and extremely regimented, but the young Nazis were certainly interested in him. They had heard about the Oxford anti-war debate, so for them, he represented an example of the young, decadent, Englishmen, who would not fight for king and country. During some of those clashes, Paddy tried explaining the anti-war movement that was happening within the younger generation in England, but of course that didn’t cut much ice.

Paddy was more interested in writing about the hospitality he received, as he traveled further East to the more remote parts of Germany. For a child who had been born in 1915 and raised with a visceral sense of anti-German sentiment, he was amazed by how kind people were to him, by the generosity he was shown. And this continues throughout his trip.

Mr. Leigh Fermor seemed to have a natural gift for drawing out people’s hospitality.

Oh yes, and they didn’t want him to go, no matter how many cigarette burns he left in the sheets. He could put an incredible spell on people. Part of it was he had the right kind of curiosity. Even at the age of 18, he was extremely interested by the way the past enriches and leaks into the present: the way you can see it. And these counts, living in their dusty old schlosses must have loved that. Here this kid comes along, hungry to know all about their family history: all the wars they had participated in and their great dynastic marriages. And suddenly, instead of seeing themselves as part of some washed up bit of broken empire, bang in the middle of nowhere, with the world moving very fast around them, their place in the world became this wonderful treasure house of history, with lineages stretching back past Charlemagne to the depths of time.

What else did he see?

In Bulgaria, he encounters Islamic culture in person for the first time. He sleeps alternately in mosques, hayricks and grand estates, and meets wealthy barons and humble peasants in homespun clothing. The Bulgarians tell him if he ever goes to Romania he’ll be attacked by wolves, bears and gypsies but, of course, that never happens. Instead in Bucharest, he meshes with a lovely high-society crowd and goes to nightclubs and parties. In Greece, he travels from monastery to monastery, picking up Greek from the monks. And there he finds Mount Athos, the holy mountain.

He wrote that only men were permitted to go there.

Yes, and not only is it only men, but no female animal is allowed there either. You will only see roosters there, you will only see rams. I don’t know how they control the cat population, realistically, I don’t think they do. The reason for this is the mountain was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. As the story goes, if a woman tries to go to the island, she’ll see a terrifying vision of the Virgin Mary surrounded by flames saying, “Get out! There is another queen than thou!” Paddy knows he finally left the holy mountain when he descends into a valley and spots a group of young girls playing in the fields.

What did the journey mean to him?

Remember, most of what you’re reading is put together 30 years after the walk. At the time of the journey, he was a callow youth, and the descriptions he jotted down were quite pedestrian. It was only in hindsight, after a world war and the dark years of Communism, that he really was able to write what he felt about that particular swath of civilization. Memory can be slippery stuff and sometimes it was hard for him to find the overarching voice that would somehow absorb the reality of the diary with what he’d written later on. But what he’s created is this wonderful poetic vision that is lyrical, evocative, learned and all the things we love about him. Together, those books are a kind of love letter to Europe: the Europe that perhaps never existed but lies suspended somewhere between memory and imagination.

Wikipedia 18 March 2014

On this day...
1906 – Romanian inventor Traian Vuia became the first person to fly a heavier-than-air monoplane with an unassisted takeoff.

After Crimea, Wary Eastern Europe Asks: Who's Next

14 March 2014
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP)—Broken promises of help from the West. A tragic history of Russian invasion that goes back centuries. A painful awareness that conflicts in this volatile region are contagious. These are the factors that make nations across Eastern Europe watch events in Ukraine—and tremble.

From leaders to ordinary people, there is a palpable sense of fear that Russia, seemingly able to thumb its nose at Western powers at will, may seek more opportunities for incursions in its former imperial backyard. The question many people are asking is: Who's next?

"There is first of all fear ... that there could be a possible contagion," Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlatean told The Associated Press in an interview. "Romania is extremely preoccupied."

Specifically, concerns run high that after taking over the strategic peninsula of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be tempted to try a land grab in Moldova, where Russian troops are stationed in the breakaway province of Trans-Dniester. It's one of several "frozen conflicts" across Eastern Europe whose ranks Crimea—many in the West now say with resignation—has joined.

In Romania, which neighbors predominantly Romanian-speaking Moldova, Monica Nistorescu urged the West to stand up to Putin—lest he come to view himself as unbeatable.

"The world should stop seeing Putin as the invincible dragon with silver teeth," said Nistorescu, "because we will succeed in making him believe that Russia is what it once was."

Across the border, Moldovan fears of Russian invasion were in no way theoretical: "We are afraid the conflict in Ukraine could reach us in Moldova," said Victor Cotruta, a clerk in the capital Chisinau. "Russian troops could take over Moldova in a day."

Many in the region are keenly aware that Poland had guarantees of military aid from France and Britain against Nazi aggression. But when Hitler invaded in 1939, France and Britain didn't send troops to Poland despite their declarations of war. That history feeds skepticism that NATO would come to the aid of eastern member nations in the event of a Russian attack.

"Poland's history shows that we should not count on others," novelist Jaroslaw Szulski told The AP.

Such feelings are particularly acute in the Baltic nations that are members of NATO and the European Union. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have sizable Russian populations that Moscow periodically declares it needs to "protect"—the key word Putin used in justifying its invasion of Crimea.

"I'm a bit skeptical," said Tiina Seeman in Tallinn, Estonia, when asked if she believed the West would come to her nation's rescue. "I'd like to believe so but I can't say I trust them 100 percent."

Moscow routinely accuses Estonia and Latvia of discriminating against their Russian-speaking minorities. Tensions between Russia and Estonia soared in 2007, when protests by Russian-speakers against the relocation of a Soviet-era war monument ended in street riots. Many Estonians blamed Moscow—which has handed out passports to ethnic Russians in the Baltics—for stirring up the protests.

As she arrived at an EU emergency summit on Ukraine last week, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite expressed more confidence than Seeman in the U.S.-led security alliance: "Thank God! Thank God that we are already 10 years in NATO!"

But she, too, expressed grave concerns about Russia's actions: "Russia today is trying to rewrite the borders in Europe after World War II."

History weighs heavily in Eastern European minds as they contemplate the future.

Many people see Russia's seizure of Crimea as similar to their experiences after World War II, when Soviet troops rolled through towns and villages, effectively putting them under the Kremlin's rule for decades.

"Of course there's a potential threat for us in the future," Katerina Zapadlova, a waitress in a Prague cafe, said with a bitter smile. She recalled how Soviet troops rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring liberalization movement.

"I'm afraid," she said, "It's because of what they did to us in the past."

Some experts say those fears are overblown.

"I wouldn't be afraid of Russian aggression in a short term," said Michal Koran of Prague's Institute of International Relations. "I'm 100 percent sure (that NATO would help its eastern allies). I think that NATO gets stronger as a result of the conflict in Ukraine."

Mutual economic dependence also lowers the likelihood of an armed conflict between Russia and the West. Russia's economy runs largely on the massive natural gas supplies it sells to Europe every year—and in 2012 it bought $170 billion in European machinery, cars and other exports. But it is also precisely the reliance of both eastern and western European nations on Russian energy that gives the West fewer options in taking a hard line against Moscow.

Romania's foreign minister also said that NATO has taken positive action in dealing with the Ukraine crisis, citing the dispatch of AWACS reconnaissance planes to fly over Poland and Romania to monitor the crisis.

"The measure taken by the North Atlantic Council aims ... to prevent tensions at a regional level and to guarantee the security of state members," Corlatean told AP.

Yet he, too, could not refrain from expressing historical fears, evoking the bloodbath that resulted when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ordered troops to fire on protesters in the dying days of his regime.

"Romanians followed very closely everything that happened in these weeks, especially the dramatic events in Kiev," said Corlatean. "For us Romanians, this reminded us of the December 1989 revolution."

Some countries like Poland, which shares a border with both Ukraine and Russia, are already starting to take precautionary measures. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has warned that instability in Ukraine may be prolonged and lead Warsaw to upgrade its weapons. At Poland's request, about 300 U.S. airmen and a dozen F-16 fighters arrived in Poland this week for a military exercise.

Tusk alluded to Europe's appeasement of Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s as he warned about the implications of letting Russia get away with its takeover of Crimea.

"Anyone who believes that peace and stabilization can be bought through concessions is mistaken," Tusk said last week in parliament. "Europe has made such mistakes, and they always led to a catastrophe."

Scislowska reported from Warsaw. Associated Press writers Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, Karel Janicek in Prague; Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; Corneliu Rusnac in Chisinau, Moldova; Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia; Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania; Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

A Walk Through Time
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘Broken Road’

Patrick Leigh Fermor in the 1940s. Popperfoto

7 March 2014
New York Times
by Robert F. Worth

In the winter of 1933, an 18-year-old named Patrick Leigh Fermor set out from the Hook of Holland to cross Europe on foot. His goal was Istanbul, which he bookishly insisted on calling Constantinople. He had little more in his rucksack than a volume of Horace and a few blank notebooks. He also had a bad reputation: The masters who expelled him from school—for a flirtation with a local girl—saw only “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.” He spent the next year charming his way through a doomed prewar landscape of landed aristocrats, feudal peasants and benevolent monks, sleeping alternately in schlosses and hayricks. It was a journey that would become legendary, not so much for the extraordinary things he saw and recorded as for his prose—an utterly unique, hybrid vehicle that combines youthful exuberance with a dense, dauntingly erudite display of verbal artifice. Unlike most authors of travel literature (a rattlebag genre that doesn’t really do him justice) Leigh Fermor does not confine his role to that of camera obscura. He builds dense whorls of wordplay to echo the carvings in an old church door; he slips into baroque historical fantasias, scattering a shrapnel of words like “gabions,” “hydromel,” “eyot” and “swingle­trees” at the unsuspecting reader. In between salvos, there are moments of ferocious humor and quiet, lyrical beauty.

In part, this richness is a measure of the extraordinary gap between the experience and its narration. Leigh Fermor did not begin writing the first book about his journey, “A Time of Gifts,” until the 1970s. In the intervening decades, he had written several other books, becoming a fiercely learned autodidact and adventurer. His exploits during and after World War II—when he helped to kidnap the Nazi commandant in Crete and deliver him to a waiting British submarine—are said to have helped inspire his friend Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels. As a result, the travel narratives are a kind of palimpsest in which his younger and older selves exist in counterpoint. He initially considered naming the first book “Parallax,” to reflect this split perspective.

Few books have been as keenly or lengthily anticipated as the third and final volume of Leigh Fermor’s youthful travels. (A second installment, “Between the Woods and the Water,” was published in 1986.) It never appeared; burdened by writer’s block and frailty, Leigh Fermor was still working on it when he died in 2011 at age 96. But he did leave a manuscript. His biographer, Artemis Cooper, and the British travel writer Colin Thubron chose to tidy it up and publish it as “The Broken Road,” a reference to the abrupt narrative halt before the author reaches Istanbul.

“The Broken Road” narrates Leigh Fermor’s travels in Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, a more tribal and violent world than Northern Europe. It does not always have the gemlike polish of the first two volumes. But it is an unforgettable book, full of strange encounters with a prewar Balkan cast of counts, prostitutes, peasants, priests and castrati. The greatest pleasure of all, as usual, is Leigh Fermor’s own infectious, Rabelaisian hunger for knowledge of almost every kind. His memory seems eidetic; his eyes miss nothing. He seems to carry within himself a whole troupe of sharp-eyed geographers, art historians, ethnologists and multilingual poets. For anyone who has tried to document a journey, reading him is a humbling and thoroughly inspiring experience.

“The Broken Road” is also full of his signature verbal architecture: The Orthodox bishops “in copes as stiff and brilliant as beetles’ wings, and the higher clergy, coiffed with globular gold mitres the size of pumpkins and glistening with gems, leaned on croziers topped with twin coiling snakes.” Or the Virgilian evocation of a passing flock of storks in the Balkan mountains, which goes on for pages: “All at once we were under a high shifting roof of wings, a flotilla that was thickening into an armada, until our ears were full of the sound of rustling and rushing with a flutter now and then when a bird changed position in a slow wingbeat or two, and of the strange massed creaking, as of many delicate hinges, of a myriad slender joints. They benighted the air.”

In some respects this book is even more satisfying than its predecessors because it is less guarded; the narrator emerges as an angrier, more troubled and more persuasive character. One of my few quarrels with “A Time of Gifts” is the dogged high-mindedness of Leigh Fermor’s youthful self. Where is the lust? Where is the rage? This man is 18 years old, for God’s sake. He never gives way to the curse-spitting xenophobia that overcomes most travelers (certainly me) at some point in their journeys. He runs into plenty of jams, and meets plenty of pretty young girls; but there is something a little too noble about him, too much of the innocent abroad.

This time things are different, and the young man seems to break free of his older narrator. At one point, lying on the damp earthen floor of a Bulgarian peasant’s hut, he gives way to revulsion at the “noisily hibernating rustics swathed all over this stifling hellhole.” He is overcome by self-hatred and yearns for the comfort and status of his school-bound peers. Elsewhere, he meets a spirited Bulgarian girl named Nadejda and falls in love with her; their romance, though apparently unconsummated, reeks of the adolescent emotional frailty that seemed absent in the earlier books.

One of the most vivid passages in “The Broken Road” takes place in Bucharest, where young Paddy (as all his friends called him) checks into what he takes for a modest hotel, the Savoy-Ritz, giving his bags to a baffled patronne. He returns late that night and discovers that it is not a hotel but a brothel. The laughing madam ushers him into the kitchen, where four attractive young prostitutes are eating a late supper: “I was given a chair and a glass of wine, and the girls on either side cut off bits of chicken breast and offered them on their forks with friendly solicitude.” The women, charmed by his youth and innocence, feed and fuss over him for several days, telling him stories about their clients and themselves, though he remains discreetly silent about whether he got anything for free.

“The Broken Road” ends in midsentence, and the editors have chosen to follow it with excerpts from the diary Leigh Fermor wrote in early 1935, mostly at Mt. Athos in Greece. These are fascinating precisely because they are so ordinary: Suddenly we see how lucky we are that Leigh Fermor chose to wait four decades before starting. Young men have strong legs and eyes, but it is the older narrator, with his multilayered perspective, who knows how to turn memory into art.

History also played a role. “The Broken Road” is strewn with ominous, proleptic hints about the future that only we—and the older narrator—are privy to. In “A Time of Gifts,” the Nazis were a constant presence, crass and often ludicrous, waiting to inherit Europe. In this book, it is both the Soviet boot and the Balkan breakup that lurk throughout, as young Paddy listens to his Bulgarian and Romanian friends spew hatred of one another. But he also evokes a quiet, starlit world where countless eccentricities of folk art and culture bloomed in isolated villages and persisted for centuries, untouched by the glare of television and the Internet. Much of this is gone now. We can be grateful he was there to record it.

From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

By Patrick Leigh Fermor
Edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper
362 pp. New York Review Books. $30.

Robert F. Worth is writing a book about the Arab uprisings of 2011 and their legacy.

A 700-km Walk Across Romania with Peter Hurley

Photo by Diana Mesesan

24 February 2014
Romania Insider
Diana Mesesan

At a certain moment in his life, Peter Hurley took a look back, took a look forward, took a look around and understood he had to start on a different road.

In a fancy cafe from the Old Center of Bucharest, a man carrying a big rucksack and hiking clothes gets in. He has either just arrived from a mountain trip, or he simply makes a short detour from his way out of the city. Let’s be clear about the rucksack. It’s not the medium-sized backpack kids carry around every morning on their way to school, nor the kind the IT guys wear on their backs carrying their laptops. This one is big and you could bet all your money saying that it contains some cans, clothes, a tent maybe and other necessary items when one gets on the road.

The man, a 40-something red-hair guy with shining eyes, takes off the heavy pack, puts it on a chair and takes some books out of it, with a white, simple cover. It shows a drawing of a small wooden church, a cross and the title “The Way of the Crosses”. Below is the name of the author, Peter Hurley, who happens to be the guy in front of me. He has already ordered a long, black coffee, “the longer, the better”.

The Way of the Crosses

He started his day in his apartment in Balta Alba, loaded his rucksack with books he ought to send to some acquaintances in Austria, Ireland, his homeland, or here, in Romania, where he had moved many years ago, so many that it’s almost useless to actually count them. It was around 1994 when Peter arrived here, a 26-year-old man, a bit confused and still searching his way, like all 20-something people are. He had traveled to the Czech Republic and was impressed by a certain feeling about this Eastern area, a certain spirituality, hard to define, but which got him hooked and made him move over here and start a marketing business with a friend.

The first impression is that, well…Peter is quite an introvert guy, who answers briefly and who will most probably won’t let himself dragged into the narrative of his own story. But I’m wrong. He does wait a few seconds until he answers. He does start a bit reluctantly and seems like he’ll limit his answer to some very few sentences. But then, just like a mechanical clock that it’s switched on and suddenly starts working, some internal trigger goes off and Peter starts talking. Without even realizing it, you’re the one who’s absorbed into his story.

Five years ago he kind of quit his job, sold all his shares in the advertising company he helped founding, Mercury 360 Communications and retained a very small stake in the market research company Mercury Research. “A few things happened at the same time. I sort of founded myself in an isolated personal situation that made me draw a line and made me reevaluate. I took a look back, took a look forward, took a look around and understood I had to start on a different road. At the same time I knew that there was a reason why I came here, a reason that I later had forgotten.”

Along the years he came to the conclusion that there were some great things about Romania. Foreign investments, expertise and intelligence, they are all so important, but equally important are “the things that are from Romania and I thought the the balance was too far over along one side. Too many things coming in and the Romanians would go: Who am I? What do I have? What is this about?”

Peter Hurley started organizing a festival called “The Long Road to the Merry Cemetery”, in Sapanta, in the Northern part of Romania, in Maramures county, trying to save the traditions which he considered so important. Save the traditions…that’s a big thing to say. But Peter found something really valuable here and he slowly began to understand that it isn’t about the tourism, nor about IT, or similar things which get promoted, it’s about people’s values. “We are talking about knowledge, living knowledge and until the last man dies, it’s not dead. The more people know, the more relevant it is.”

“For three years I’ve been investing in the festival and I lost everything, but I’m a really stubborn Irish guy, once I’ve done something and I think it’s a good idea, I’ll keep doing even though it’s difficult and maybe misunderstood by people.”

While he’s talking, you can feel his enthusiasm, how serious he is about the whole thing and not in the sort of an idealist guy’s way, who is disconnected from the actual reality and tries to preserves a myth. And you can also sense the disappointments he went through, because this isn’t a country where many people actually care.

“It’s about the Romanian rural civilization and the connection to a way of life that maybe is going into history, but it’s not distant history, it’s still part of the life. But apart from this heritage concept there are 9 million people living in this rural area, and apart from that there are 4 million farms, let’s call them farming households, let’s call them agricultural subsistence farming. What happens to all this people?”

But then on the 7th of October, 2012, he got a different idea.

“I was on a harvest festival in a village, in Romania, that was promoting the rural civilization. I could see that this festival was getting all the support of the organizations, local municipality, but in fact most of the music was prerecorded, nobody was playing live, most of the food sold there has been busked in, sausages from Carrefour, the local politicians were using this in order to be re-elected and a television was filming this. It was an anomaly, a parody. The only people that came with instruments to actually play sounded the worst because there weren’t any microphones. The traditions are dying and these sort of artificial events are only accelerating their death.”

He understood then he had to pursue his goals in a different form, by walking 700 km from Sapanta to the Peasant Museum in Bucharest.

“And why am I walking? Well, I’ve spent all my money. There’s nothing left. I’m pretty sure no one listens when you talk, so there seems to be no point. All I have now is my body, my mind and my spirit. They’re still in good shape; I can do things. And this walk is the best idea I have right now,” he wrote in his book.

The same rucksack which he stuffed with books to send them away at the post office had been used to carry only the essential during the long walk. It was hard deciding what not to take. “I gave up the soap, the vitamins, even the toothpaste. All the books. I was left with the clothes I had on me, three pairs of socks, two changes of underwear, a t-shirt and pajama pants to sleep in, and then my additional winter clothing,” Peter wrote in his book.

“At first I thought I would do 3.4 km an hour. I thought I’d be able to do 30 km a day in 6.7 hours. I thought I would be leaving early on in the morning at 8 and it would be early afternoon when I got to the destination.” He realized pretty quickly it was taking him much more time: 12 – 13 hours of walking a day.

The night he got the idea, he looked at a map and realized that if he were to do this walk he knew some people and these people should know other people. And where he would not know anybody, he would simply knock on the door. He started his walk on the 26th of November, from Sapanta.

“Of the whole 26 nights there were four nights where I knocked on the door of complete strangers. Three nights I got it pretty much from the first knock, but on the fourth night, I got it only from the third try. You have to struggle with yourself to go on and knock on somebody’s door. It’s very hard to get up and do this. The hardest was when I tried it in a town, Valenii de Munte, it was very hard, hard, hard.”

“The best experience I had was a night before the general elections, on the 9th of December. It was heavily snowing. I had a long long day. I knocked on the door of this house and a voice from inside said: come in. I opened the door and a man in his 60s from his bed said, “Come in, I’m, so glad you’re here.” “You’re so glad I’m here?” I asked him. “I mean I’m so glad you’re not outside, it’s such a horrible night.”

There is a big pause after he recounts this episode. I recall a story I listened to on the This American Life radio show, about a black man in his 20s, in the USA, who gave up everything he had and tried to make a similar walk across the United States, “The peace pilgrim”, hoping to get shelter and food from strangers. He had been on a long search for spiritual truth and this walk was meant to really bring some meaning to his life. But it failed. People looked with distrust and even fear and nobody helped. He had to end his walk after three days.

“Who are you, what are you doing, is this a joke?” people were asking Peter. “It was also mixed with genuine concern. You can’t be walking in the middle of the night when it’s snowing like this. It was rude to knock on somebody’s door. I put them into a difficult situation. What are you doing? I’m walking across the country. Why? Why not in the summertime?”

“Why didn’t you have the patience to wait until summertime?” I also ask him. “Because I don’t have much patience. Also I had worked so hard in 2012, I didn’t have a day off and the project that I was working on had a two-week break, in the middle of December. I realized it wasn’t going to start again until Christmas. From my experience, I know you can be lucky before Christmas, you can have good weather, without snow.”

He didn’t take any notes, just a few photos. That’s all. “I didn’t have time. I was exhausted. The people that you just met or bumped into, you have to talk to them. There is a physical and psychological recovery that needs to take place.”

“With all the money in the world I couldn’t have done that walk. You couldn’t do that staying on your own in a hotel in nighttime. Watching TV. You would become overwhelmed by a complete sense of futility of the whole exercise. But then I realized that these people were picking you up. In some cases I helped them and in all cases they really helped me. This exchange of energy was really powerful.”

“The idea of abandoning yourself, that was what it was. Abandoning yourself to the will of the people that you meet. That became central to the motivation of keep going. If you have the money to choose the chocolate bar, the bed, the bus, then you’re grabbing control of the spirit that should be guiding you. The Indians have a word for that, the South-Americans too and maybe we would call that spirit God, whatever you want to call it, whatever your gig is. It doesn’t really matter.”

Getting home was amazing, Peter says, and he throws a big, big laugh. “Amazing. amazing! I can’t describe. There was an amount of regret that it was over, a tiny one, but compared to the feeling of achievement. Not like I’ve won, I’ve got the gold, but rather like... I can’t believe that God gave me that.”

“I think when you’re walking, you’re giving God a chance to line everything up.. If you are driving fast in a car the faster you drive the further you are from synchronicity with the planet. I used to drive, I still drive, I also drive fast, it’s good for you when you are in a hurry, but you do have to recognize…when you’re walking you give things the chance to line up.”

After the whole thing ended, he decided he should write a book about that walk. “Writing the book was so much harder. In the last five years the easiest thing I have done is that walk. The hardest was to write the book and to get it by the deadline.”

But he did and with the help of 54 master students of the Faculty of Letters he got it translated into a record time. He then made the walk backwards, this time driving, visiting again all the people he met and offering them the book.

“When you’re walking, you detach and you’re able to get into a meditative state of mind. The big challenge is being able to keep this concept in this active life, in this urban environment.” So how do you keep it alive? I ask him. “That’s the idea, you don’t. It has to be a way but I didn’t find it yet. But you have to keep trying.”

By Diana Mesesan, features writer,

Orphans' Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child's Brain

Close In the Institute for the Unsalvageable in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania, shown here in 1992, children were left in cribs for days on end. Tom Szalay

24 February 2014
National Public Radio
by Jon Hamilton

Parents do a lot more than make sure a child has food and shelter, researchers say. They play a critical role in brain development.

More than a decade of research on children raised in institutions shows that "neglect is awful for the brain," says Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital. Without someone who is a reliable source of attention, affection and stimulation, he says, "the wiring of the brain goes awry." The result can be long-term mental and emotional problems.

A lot of what scientists know about parental bonding and the brain comes from studies of children who spent time in Romanian orphanages during the 1980s and 1990s. Children like Izidor Ruckel, who wrote a book about his experiences.

When Ruckel was 6 months old, he got polio. His parents left him at a hospital and never returned. And Ruckel ended up in an institution for "irrecoverable" children.

But Ruckel was luckier than many Romanian orphans. A worker at the orphanage "cared for me as if she was my mother," he says. "She was probably the most loving, the most kindest person I had ever met."

Then, when Ruckel was 5 or 6, his surrogate mother was electrocuted trying to heat bath water for the children in her care. Ruckel ended up in an institution for "irrecoverable" children, a place where beatings, neglect, and boredom were the norm.

Polio had left him with a weak leg. But as he got older he found he had power over many of the other children, who had more serious disabilities.

"There was no right, there was no wrong in the orphanage," Ruckel says. "You didn't know the difference because you were never taught. I was put in charge of kids and I treated them just the way they treated us. If you didn't listen to me, I'd beat you."

Researchers began studying the children in Romanian orphanages after the nation's brutal and repressive government was overthrown in 1989. At the time, there were more than 100,000 children in government institutions. And it soon became clear that many of them had stunted growth and a range of mental and emotional problems.

When Nelson first visited the orphanages in 1999, he saw children in cribs rocking back and forth as if they had autism. He also saw toddlers desperate for attention.

"They'd reach their arms out as though they're saying to you, 'Please pick me up,' " Nelson says. "So you'd pick them up and they'd hug you. But then they'd push you away and they'd want to get down. And then the minute they got down they'd want to be picked up again. It's a very disorganized way of interacting with somebody."

The odd behaviors, delayed language and a range of other symptoms suggested problems with brain development, Nelson says. So he and other researchers began studying the children using a technology known as electroencelphalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain.

Many of the orphans had disturbingly low levels of brain activity. "Instead of a 100-watt light bulb it was a 40-watt light bulb," Nelson says.

As the children grew older, the researchers were able to use MRI to study the anatomy of their brains. And once again, the results were troubling. "We found a dramatic reduction in what's referred to as gray matter and in white matter," Nelson says. "In other words, their brains were actually physically smaller."

And the scientists realized the cause wasn't anything as simple as malnutrition. It was a different kind of deprivation—the lack of a parent, or someone who acted like a parent.

A baby "comes into the world expecting someone to take care of them and invest in them," Nelson says. "And then they form this bond or this relationship with this caregiver." But for many Romanian orphans, there wasn't even a person to take them out of the crib.

"Now what happens is that you're staring at a white ceiling, or no one is talking to you, or no one's is soothing you when you get upset," Nelson says. So areas of the brain involved in vision and language and emotion don't get wired correctly.

Izidor Ruckel says he suspects the wiring in his brain was changed by his time in the orphanage. And that may have contributed to his troubles after leaving the institution.

In 1991, when he was 11, Ruckel was adopted by an American family and moved to San Diego. At first things went pretty well, he says. Then he began to have a lot of conflict with his adoptive parents. Ruckel says it wasn't their fault.

"I respond better when you beat me, or when you smack me around," he says. "That never happened. When you show me kindness, when you show me love, compassion, it seemed to make me even more angrier."

And those feelings became increasingly intense. "I felt angry to a point where I could feel my heart is turning black," Ruckel says. "And at the same time I have been raised in a Christian home. And you know with my Christian faith I always wondered, am I a child from Hell? What went wrong with me?"

Scientists can't answer that question for Ruckel or any other individual. But they now know that, as a group, neglected or abandoned children tend to have abnormal circuitry in areas of the brain involved in parental bonding.

When typical children are shown pictures of their mothers, the response in the amygdala, a brain region that plays an important role in emotional reactions, is much greater than when they see a stranger, according to Nim Tottenham. She's an an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Her team repeated the experiment with children who had been adopted after spending time in an orphanage or some other institution. This time, the children saw pictures of either an unfamiliar woman or their adoptive mother. And "the amygdala signal was not discriminating Mom from strangers," Tottenham says.

This sort of brain adaptation may help children survive in an environment without parents, she says. But it also may affect the kind of family relationships these children have once they are adopted.

Tottenham, who is a parent herself, says all the research on neglected children reminds her of something that should be obvious: "Parents are playing a really big role in shaping children's brain development." And parenting, she says, is a bit like oxygen. It's easy to take for granted until you see someone who isn't getting enough.

Children who lack parenting in the first couple of years of life are the ones most likely to have long-term problems, researchers say. Other neglected children, though, often show remarkable recoveries.

Things turned out pretty well for Izidor Ruckel. After leaving home at 17 and being out of touch with his adoptive parents for several years, he learned that his family had been in a serious car crash. He realized he couldn't just leave them there. So he went to the hospital.

"It was really hard because I wanted to make sure they were OK," he says. "I was scared. And I didn't think I was going to be forgiven for everything I'd put them through."

But they did forgive him. And since then, he says, he and his adoptive parents have become very close.

That may be possible because his brain has changed, Ruckel says. "I believe that even the brain cells that don't work as a child, I believe that they can develop as a grown man."

Scientists have their own version of that idea. They say the brain has a remarkable ability to rewire itself and compensate for things that go wrong during development, including some problems caused by neglect.

Ruckel is 33 now and lives in Denver. In addition to writing a book about his experiences, he's also produced a documentary on Romanian orphans who were adopted. And he's raising money for a second documentary about what happened to the orphans who stayed in Romania.

"I've become an advocate fighting for other orphans," Ruckel says. "And I believe that has everything to do with my parents because I realized what love, what compassion, what affection can do."

Romanian Doctors Tempted Abroad by a Better Life

A single nurse looks after five premature babies in this Bucharest hospital

20 February 2014
BBC News
by Nick Thorpe

"There are several reasons one might stay in Romania," says medical student Andreea Rosca sweetly, over a ginger beer in a Bucharest bar. "You love your country, you have family, friends. Maybe you dream about changing the system. I personally do not believe it will happen."

In the past seven years, 10,000 doctors and nurses have left Romania, according to estimates from a doctors' organisation.

Most of those who leave are young, at the start of their careers. They cannot live on the 250 euros (£205; $340) monthly starting salary, they say, and unlike older doctors are insufficiently experienced to set up a private practice, parallel to their work in state hospitals.

A specialist can earn 1,200 euros a month from the state, and at least double that in private practice.

So Andreea, 27, plans to pack her bags as soon as she graduates from the Medical University in Bucharest this summer, and to try her luck finding a medical career in France or Switzerland.

"I do not feel the moral obligation to stay here, considering that nobody is doing anything for us to stay and to have a decent life."

'Too poor'

More than half her class plan to leave Romania, she says: for Germany, the Nordic countries, France or the UK.

"Thirty per cent of the Romanian population does not pay health insurance, because they are too poor," explains Dr Cristian Posea, medical director of the Cantacuzeno hospital in Bucharest.

"Yet they are still entitled to state medical care."

He is proud of the equipment at his hospital, and of the rearguard action he and others fight to persuade doctors and nurses to stay.

"The maintenance of the equipment is problematic though," he admits.

In the intensive therapy ward for premature births, I count five babies in incubators in the care of a single nurse.

In hospitals in western Europe, the ratio is closer to one nurse for two babies, Dr Marian Martin explains. For the healthy babies, there is just one nurse for 14 babies.

"It is difficult, but this is the situation."

At 37, with a family of her own, she still lives with her parents.

'Bad management'

In a waiting room in another building, pregnant women sit quietly watching the door. Inside, Dr Ilonka Gussi rests on a bed, a little weary. A specialist in difficult pregnancies, she has worked 80 hours in the past week, half in this hospital, half in her private practice.

"Many hospitals only provide accommodation and staff, while patients are expected to arrive with their own medication. The hospital is just an intermediary," she says.

She feels the main problem is more about bad management than lack of resources. Hospital chiefs are often appointed in Romania on the grounds of political loyalty, she says, rather than professional ability.

In a cafe down the road from the hospital, Costin Minoiu opens his laptop to show me the latest job offers from abroad, mediated by his organisation Careers in White.

There are jobs for nurses in Britain for £12-14 an hour, for doctors in Ireland for 50,000 euros a year, and one for a specialist in Denmark for an annual salary of 83,000 euros—numbers which would make any Romanian doctor's eyes water. I ask why anyone stays.

"Some people don't want to relocate their family; some are just in love with eastern Europe and want to stay and make a difference here—there are a lot of doctors like that."

He has no qualms about helping medical staff leave Romania.

"In an ideal world, they would work abroad a few years, gain useful experience, then come back. But it doesn't often happen like that."


On a Saturday morning in the mainly Hungarian-speaking town of Sfantu Gheorghe in central Romania, hospital manager Robert Nagy takes me to the casualty ward.

He checks the figures: 3,300 people came to casualty in the first 40 days of the year, he says.

The hospital serves the whole of Covasna county. Dr Alexandru Mundru says he stays simply because he likes his job: "I used to work in the insurance system—but I missed the daily practice of being a doctor."

This morning he's the only doctor on duty, serving two waiting rooms full of patients. The shortage of doctors is particularly acute in three fields: casualty, anaesthetics, and surgery.

In intensive care on the third floor, the sound of elderly people groaning into oxygen masks punctuates my conversation with Dr Emese Jakab.

"Most of the young doctors would like to stay, but they have no choice but to leave, mostly for Germany," she says.

An important part of Robert Nagy's job is to tour the country, trying to recruit medical staff before they either leave or are snapped up by other hospitals. To help him, the town council offers free accommodation for 5 years for doctors who move to the town.

"But the biggest problem is still to come," he says. "Replacing the doctors who retire."

Related Stories

Bulgaria's Departing Doctors 20 November 2013
Viewpoints: Bulgarian and Romanian Migration 25 December 2013
Romanian Healthcare On Verge of Collapse 11 August 2010

Romanian Sausage To Be Saved Under New EU Rules

17 February 2014
National Public Radio
by The Associated Press

MOGOSOAIA, Romania (AP) — Romania's national dish looks like it will be granted a European Union reprieve.

The Romanian Meat Association says officials in Brussels have agreed that bicarbonate of soda, which gives spicy "mici" bullet-shaped grilled meat delicacies their springy texture, will be permitted by the EU.

Romanian food industry officials said Monday they have been lobbying Brussels since a ban last July on mici.

Mici, (pronounced MEECH) originated in Turkey during the days of the Ottoman Empire and are traditionally eaten with mustard and hunks of bread or french fries. Romanians eat 25 tons — or half a million — of the skinless sausages a day.

The EU's food safety committee will vote Thursday on the additive, followed by a vote in the European Parliament. Since the ban, the EU has allowed Romania to continue to produce mici, but not export them pending this week's vote. A culinary staple in the Balkans, other variants such as "cevapcici" — eaten in the former Yugoslavia — and Greece's "soutzoukakia" are also expected to be allowed to contain bicarbonate of soda.

Kevin Hill, a chef who works in Romania, said the EU had been concerned the additive was being used to disguise bad meat.

"It is part of Romania's heritage," said Hill. "It is like fish and chips for England."

‘VHS vs. Communism’

In Communist Romania in the 1980s, a young translator became an unlikely voice of freedom. She illicitly dubbed thousands of foreign films, distributed on VHS tapes, turning B-movie stars into heroes.

Watch video on New York Times website

17 February 2014
New York Times
by Ilinca Calugareanu

I was raised in Romania in the 1980s, under a Communist regime that, among countless repressions, reduced television to two hours a day of dull propaganda, traditional music, patriotic poems and censored films. One day when I was 6, my parents found a way to borrow a VCR. They invited their friends, and all night they watched grainy VHS tapes of Hollywood B-movies. I remember the films, but more so I remember how I felt when I stepped into the living room — like walking into a secret, magical and free world.

All the dialogue on these movies was dubbed into Romanian in a husky, high-pitched woman’s voice. Throughout my childhood, these films provided a glimpse into the forbidden West, resplendent with blue jeans, Coke and skyscrapers. As Hollywood movies became ubiquitous through the black market, this voice became one of the most recognizable in Romania. Yet no one knew who she was.

After the 1989 revolution I learned the true story, which I present here in this Op-Doc video. In 1985, Irina Margareta Nistor, a young translator at the national television station, met a mysterious entrepreneur. He was smuggling, copying and distributing movies on VHS tapes. This was the beginning of a working relationship that lasted more than a decade. In all, Ms. Nistor says she dubbed more than 3,000 different films. Thanks to her, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bruce Lee became popular heroes in Romania.

In a time when the Romanian state controlled every aspect of its citizens’ lives -- including food, heat, transportation and information -- people found a way to escape and resist the state’s far-reaching hand, through the power of movies.

Ilinca Calugareanu is a London-based Romanian documentary filmmaker. She studied documentary filmmaking at Manchester’s Granada Center for Visual Anthropology. This Op-Doc video is adapted from an upcoming feature-length documentary, “Chuck Norris vs. Communism.”

Pictures of the Day

29 January 2014
New York Times

A stray dog on an empty train platform in Bucharest, Romania, during a blizzard. Nearly 200 trains have been canceled and two highways closed in southern and southeastern Romania. Robert Ghement / European Pressphoto Agency

Budget-Friendly and (Almost) Dracula-Free Transylvania

A view of lower Sighisoara, Romania, from the city's clock tower. Seth Kugel

27 January 2014
New York Times
by Seth Kugel

“Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things,” said a certain sharp-fanged count to his English visitor, freshly arrived by train to Transylvania.

In some sense, things haven’t changed much since Bram Stoker published those words in 1897. I arrived by train myself in mid-January and I, too, found strange things: A picture-perfect medieval town square packed not with tourists but primary school students. “Bagel” shops that don’t sell bagels. An Eastern Orthodox priest denouncing guitar lessons and raising bees.

Look, I fully intended to experience and write about Transylvania with no mention of vampires or anything described in novel by an Irishman who had never visited the region. I even requested that Twitter followers tracking my travels abstain from Dracula-related remarks.

That’s because the real place—now a large swath of central and western Romania and almost certainly the place on earth most commonly mistaken for fictional—is mountainous and beautiful, its ancient towns lively and well preserved, its ethnic and political history rich and complex. In other words, a place well worth discovering in its own right, not digressing to mentions of scary monsters.

That worked until I was taking money from an A.T.M. in the scrupulously well-preserved medieval center of Sighisoara. Glancing up, I saw the sign: “Banca Transilvania”—and realized I was down the block from a medieval clock tower with torture chamber beneath; across the street was the house where Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Draculae, is said to have been born in 1431. A chill went down my spine. In my head, well trained since “Sesame Street” and “Scooby Doo” days in how vampires operate, organ music played, and lightning crackled.

I had come to Transylvania in the winter knowing that I would be sacrificing the mountain hikes and farm stays popular among summer visitors—but hoping to find cheaper prices, snow-dusted castles and perhaps a day of skiing. And soul-satisfying food: If there was ever a dish made for post-slope replenishment, it’s Romanian ciorba de burta, the cream-based tripe soup that is rich, ubiquitous and cheap.

Alas, there had been no snow for a month, which meant no skiing, no fairy-tale dusting of ancient roofs. Still, having medieval towns and villages of Transylvania to yourself has its advantages. In Brasov, the 250,000-person city where I spent a day, that meant being the lone person gawking at the 16th-century Black Church, framing photographs through old city gates, and wondering at how just about every building in town is marked “Monument Istoric”. Still, some were more obviously Istoric than others. Wandering narrow side streets I fell for a tiny 1837 home with an intricately carved wooden door and faux Corinthian columns bordering the windows; in front of it was a Romanian-made Dacia car propped up half on the sidewalk to allow traffic to pass.

The brisk winter temperatures made me more appreciative of bakeries selling warm-from-the-oven breads. In Brasov, I stopped at a shop called Bagel Magic, which in fact serves warm covrigi, which are like bagels Photoshopped like a celebrity for a cover photo—from pudgy and irregular to slender yet curvaceous (without, thankfully, airbrushing out the poppy seeds). Mine cost 1.5 lei, or 45 cents at 3.25 lei to the dollar. In Sighisoara, young and old lined up in the rain to pay one leu for truly piping-hot covrigi at the sales window of Gigi.

Brasov is the traditional home base for visits to two castles in the region: Bran and Peles. They could not be more different.

Bran Castle is probably the most touristy spot in Transylvania thanks to its completely dubious connections with both the fictional and historic Dracula. But with summer hordes replaced by a handful of Romanian tourists and a school field trip, I quite enjoyed the visit (the 25-lei admission price didn’t hurt). Perched almost precariously on the side of a hill, the castle—which once served as a toll collector’s headquarters and a defense post against Ottoman aggressors—truly seems like the sort of place a vampire might have lived.

In fact, I found out, the home was last used as a residence by the Romanian royal family before it was seized by the Communist government, and it is decorated largely from that period. (Although on the higher levels, things did get a tiny bit creepy—up there, where wind swirled and whistled outside, I came upon some restrained displays about Dracula.)

Peles Castle is a wholly different and entirely more mind-boggling experience. Built by King Carol I as a summer residence beginning in 1873, its lavish halls are filled with endlessly ornate detail, like a Versailles for the late 19th century: Carol seems to have spared no expense in the Arab and Turkish-themed rooms; his astoundingly vast European arms collection—swords, battle axes, guns—is displayed in all its excess in one hall, along with a full-on man and horse armor display that will leave no medieval fantasist unhappy. In an adjoining room is his collection of Ottoman and Persian arms, so flowery and ornate by comparison that they look runway-ready for Constantinople Fashion Week.

Still, Sighisoara, under three hours from Brasov by train (and free for me, as it was the first leg of my already-purchased return trip to Budapest), was the highlight. I’m very picky about medieval walled towns, having skewered places from Dubrovnik, Croatia, to Èze, France, as little more than polished museum pieces. But unlike those places (and true to what guidebooks said), Sighisoara is truly living medieval town, its 16th- through 18th-century homes largely still inhabited. When I stopped into a place called the Medieval Cafe for a 5-lei warm winter drink made of black currants, I could hear children playing in the neighboring schoolyard; I would later see the same kids rushing out of school in the square in front of the clock tower, which in many other places would be strictly tourist territory.

The city walls are guarded over by eclectic watchtowers, each maintained by (and named for) a different guild of historic craftsmen—tailors, tanners, cobblers, furriers, rope makers. But the clock tower is the true fairy-tale attraction. It was first built in the 13th and 14th centuries; a Baroque roof was added in the 17th century, along with its most charming element, seven figurines based on Greek and Roman gods that rotate each day of the week. From the belvedere at the top (which you reach through the creaky-floored museum, 12 lei) you get a remarkable 360-degree view of the city; astonishingly, I could spot barely a single building, even in the more modern lower city, that appeared to have been built in the 20th or 21st century.

Eager to see the much-touted Carpathian villages, I rented a car (I paid in euros, the equivalent of $33 a day) and drove out to the rural villages, many of which feature impressive fortified Saxon churches. That Saxon population, which once dominated many of the villages, has since largely evacuated to Germany, replaced by Romanians, Hungarians and Roma, the three largest ethnic groups in Transylvania today. (For those wondering, the last Romanian census counted zero vampires, though admittedly was largely taken in the daylight.)

After passing through Biertan, whose church was closed and residents not very chatty, I found a warmer reception a mile or so away in Copsa Mare. In the local magazin mixt—the cool Romanian term for convenience store—a woman used hand gestures to explain that I should knock at the house next to the church; there, an adolescent boy fetched the key and led me through its battered arched doorway. The old church wasn’t anything special, although the experience of getting into it had been. So I left a donation in the bowl and took off to wander the town.

It was a village of dirt roads and modest, mostly Saxon-style houses; I noticed nothing out of the ordinary except several young girls carrying around guitars. When a young man pulling buckets of water from a well spoke to me in near perfect English, I asked him about the guitars. “There’s a lady in the town who is teaching the children,” he said.

“Great!” I said. He did not agree. He was the town’s Orthodox priest, and the guitar lessons, he said, were an effort to recruit families to the Pentecostal church in town. He introduced himself as John (his name is actually Ioan Bico) and seemed delighted to entertain me for the next few hours. He may have been a priest, but he wielded a sharp tongue recounting an opinionated chapter of the town’s recent ethnic history. To summarize: the Saxons used to refuse to marry Romanians, yet when they moved to Germany, the men found themselves discriminated against and returned to marry not only Romanians but even the more-maligned Roma. (He called them Gypsies, and they were not spared maligning from him either.)

He eventually invited me over for a beer—nonalcoholic for me, he insisted, since I was driving—and to see the icons he paints and sells to supplement his meager pay. He was also a beekeeper, and I happily bought a jar of honey for 20 lei. Conversation ranged from Hollywood to the Internet to birth control and abortion. (He did not think highly of any of the four.)

I had not eaten since breakfast, so I headed back to Sighisoara in search of a reasonably priced meal. Finding the pub-like Cafe Martini near the town center, I ordered a feast as most customers just drank beer and listened to a soundtrack lost in the ‘80s (Springsteen, Tina Turner, Asia). I had that tripe soup called ciorba de burta, mititei (grilled ground meat patties), cascaval pane (breaded, fried cheese), and the great Romanian dessert of papanasi (hot doughnuts, topped with sour cream and currant jam)—and returned, stuffed, to my guesthouse.

I was staying at Casa Soare, a family-run pension in the lower town, a 10-minute walk down from the citadel, where I had scored a winter discount at 80 lei a night—about 20 percent off the price—by calling in advance. It was a nice place and worth the modest expense, but I had two lodging regrets. The first—that I had not stayed in a village or on a farm—was unavoidable: Most rural guesthouses were closed for the winter. But I realized I had missed an opportunity when I picked up my rental car at Casa Baroca, just down the block from the Vlad Dracul house. I got a tour of the place, and it was amazing. Entering through the 300 year-old front door, I found rooms under vaulted ceilings decorated with traditional furniture, antique wood stoves, old wood floors. And winter prices were only slightly more than what I was paying: 100 lei, down from 140 in summer.

Still, perhaps I was better off at my place. Staying at Casa Baroca, I had learned, would be in violation of a town ordinance forbidding foreigners to lodge in the citadel. Admittedly, the law was written around 1515 and is probably not still in effect, but in a city with a torture chamber, you can’t be too careful.

For more photos from Transylvania, go to Seth Kugel’s public Facebook page or follow him on Instagram, @sethkugel.

Early 20th Century Bucharest in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road

27 January 2014
Romania Insider
by Paul Wood

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road is like feeling a fresh spring breeze against my face. It reminds me of Aristotle’s definition of happiness as bloom upon the cheek of youth.  It reminds me too of why I am in South-Eastern Europe and how much I love Romania and Bucharest, because after 15 years here I still feel like a tourist.

Patrick Leigh Fermor set out, aged 18, in 1934 to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. In the 1970s the first volume of his trilogy describing his journey came out. I read it years later at university. Between the Woods and the Water, the second volume, came out in 1985 and describes his time in Hungary and Transylvania.

I remember that book’s publication well as I did not have the cash to buy a signed hardback copy in the shop near where I lived. A quarter of a century passed and I gave up hope that we would ever read his description of Bucharest, to set beside his description of Budapest. Then after his death in 2011 we were told that the final volume in his trilogy had almost been completed. Now it is published.

In fact it is unfinished, which makes it much easier to read quickly. Reading Fermor’s wonderful Ruskinian prose takes time. It can sometimes be, as Tennyson described reading Ben Jonson, like swimming in treacle.

After taking over a year to walk there from the Hook of Holland, we learn from The Broken Road that Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed in the city he (rightly) always called Constantinople only ten days before setting off again for Greece, where he was to make his life. He said he never left Constantinople ‘without a lightening of the heart’.

Fermor did not like Constantinople, but he loved Bucharest. Oddly enough though, the chapter on Bucharest is one of the weakest in the book. It does read at times, as he himself admits, like an article from The Tatler. Yet the chapter is terribly interesting for those of us who live in Bucharest; one cannot imagine a Tatlerish Bucharest now. How different Bucharest was in 1934—not least in the upper class circles where he moved, after putting up by mistake for a few days at a bordello called Pisica Vesela, where the girls made friends with him.

On his first full day in Bucharest he enters a cafe on Calea Victoriei and feels a revulsion from the well dressed customers, who looked  ‘shiny and commercial despite their rice-paper cheeks. I had the illusion that the talk of this gleaming and overupholstered Babylon consisted entirely of sneers.’

That sounds like some Bucuresteni of the present day but Fermor has a remarkable gift for inspiring friendship in total strangers and in the cafe he meets a man who takes him to the opera and after that to a grand party and from then on he is lionised by the aristocracy. He also had many introductions from his time moving from castle to castle in Transylvania as described in the second volume of his travels. He says ‘there was a strong bohemian, anti-conventional and un-pompous strain in the section of the Romanian world in which I now found myself.’

That describes quite a number of my close Romanian friends, but I have been very lucky. Most Romanians are very different, very conventional, very unbohemian, sometimes even a little pompous.

Of course he is describing a class many of whom later fled or were killed. Most of the ‘historic centre’ of Bucharest, i.e. the part built from 1880 to 1914, as a taxi driver reminded me the other day, was built by and for a class of people who left the country after the war if they could—not the upper classes only but the upper middle classes and the business class. Bohemianism in 1934 in Romania and in England was confined to a minority of the upper classes and a tiny minority of metropolitan intellectuals. Since then it became much more common in England, but is very rare in Romania.

The Romania of the elite in 1934 had great style, we learn. Nowadays the elite—the rich and powerful, if they are the elite—are singularly lacking in style. In fact, Romania has so many wonderful charms but style is not one of them. Another reason why Romania should restore the monarchy. The peasants clad in costume are gone too but much about the countryside remains much the same or did until a moment ago.

Apart from two chapters on Romania the book is about Bulgaria and very good indeed. I liked it all the more because even though I do not know Bulgaria very well I had been to almost all the places he visited. He describes Plovdiv and Tarnovo well and thinks Sofia a pleasant village. How lucky he was to get there in time—before modernity. Fermor arouses in me for the first time an interest in Bulgaria, whose gentle charm for me has been an acquired taste. I acquired it in the end but only now do I feel an interest in the place.

Reading Fermor’s jeu d’esprit about Greece before and during the war, Roumeli, in memoriam just after he died has made me decide that Greece is still worth visiting, despite the affluence and tourism that have altered it out of recognition from the shepherd strewn Balkan kingdom he knew. I shall try to find the profound Greece, if it still exists, far from motorways and airports. The profound Romania is everywhere and I must visit it much more before it too goes. I have been telling family and friends for fifteen years to come to Romania before it is spoilt but I have not followed my own advice and have seen far too little of the provinces. From now on I shall stop jetting around the globe and stay around here.

Europe, Facing Economic Pain, May Ease Climate Rules

Goats grazing near wind turbines in Fantanele and Cogealac villages, Romania. Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

22January 2014
New York Times
by Stephen Castle

LONDON—For years, Europe has tried to set the global standard for climate-change regulation, creating tough rules on emissions, mandating more use of renewable energy sources and arguably sacrificing some economic growth in the name of saving the planet.

But now even Europe seems to be hitting its environmentalist limits.

High energy costs, declining industrial competitiveness and a recognition that the economy is unlikely to rebound strongly any time soon are leading policy makers to begin easing up in their drive for more aggressive climate regulation.

On Wednesday, the European Union proposed an end to binding national targets for renewable energy production after 2020. Instead, it substituted an overall European goal that is likely to be much harder to enforce.

It also decided against proposing laws on environmental damage and safety during the extraction of shale gas by a controversial drilling process known as fracking. It opted instead for a series of minimum principles it said it would monitor.

Europe pressed ahead on other fronts, aiming for a cut of 40 percent in Europe’s carbon emissions by 2030, double the current target of 20 percent by 2020. Officials said the new proposals were not evidence of diminished commitment to environmental discipline but reflected the complicated reality of bringing the 28 countries of the European Union together behind a policy.

“It will require a lot from Europe,” said Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for climate action. “If all other big economies followed our example, the world would be a better place.”

But the proposals were seen as a substantial backtrack by environmental groups, and evidence that economic factors were starting to influence the climate debate in ways they previously had not in Europe.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, described the proposals as “totally inadequate” and “off the radar of what climate science tells us to do in Europe to avoid climate catastrophe.”

Wednesday’s proposals came from the European Commission, the Brussels-based executive arm of the bloc, and would next require approval by the group’s member states and the European Parliament.

The energy and climate debate, which is playing out across Europe, reflects similar trade-offs being made around the world on mending economic problems today or addressing the environmental problems of tomorrow.

The political and policy response to climate change has failed to keep pace with increasingly dire warnings from scientists about the cascading effects of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants in the atmosphere.

What progress has been made has come largely from cost efficiencies adopted by businesses and consumers primarily for financial reasons—the switch from coal to cheaper natural gas for electricity generation in the United States, for example, and the cumulative effect of years of increasing efficiency in buildings, vehicles, appliances and manufacturing around the globe.

In Britain, despite public protests, the government is pressing ahead on proposals for fracking, which has helped the United States drive down its energy costs. Germany’s plans to shift away from nuclear power by 2022 and to encourage the development of alternative sources are running into complications including higher energy costs for industry and consumers.

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, defended the new proposals as a hard-fought compromise and proof that it “is possible to make a marriage between industry and climate action.”

He said the measures showed that Europe was still playing a global leadership role in reducing carbon emissions.

That drew a tart response from Friends of the Earth, which accused the commission of putting the immediate interests of industry ahead of Europe’s broader welfare.

“Barroso and his commissioners seem to have fallen for the old-think industry spin that there must be a trade-off between climate action and economic recovery,” Brook Riley, the group’s climate and energy campaigner, said in a statement. “This position completely ignores the huge financial cost of dealing with the impacts of climate change and the 500 billion euros the E.U. is spending every year on oil and gas imports.”

The British government, a frequent critic of what it sees as moves by the European Union that inhibit economic performance, welcomed the proposals. It singled out for praise the scrapping of national targets for renewable energy in favor of an overall goal of producing 27 percent of Europe’s energy from renewables by 2030, an approach that will leave countries battling among themselves over who should do more.

“If you set rigid, inflexible targets, that is likely to result in greater costs,” said Edward Davey, Britain’s secretary of state for energy and climate change. “We believe our existing approach will enable us to meet these objectives without having to take more action, but we believe other countries will have to take more action.”

Before Wednesday’s announcement, business groups lobbied hard against more stringent targets that they worried could endanger Europe’s still very feeble economic recovery and slow the job creation needed to bring down an overall unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent.

In a letter sent to the European Commission this month, 14 executives at large companies called for “one single, realistic target” and warned that “the high-cost of noncompetitive technologies to decarbonise the power sector” will strain businesses already hit by Europe’s high energy prices, particularly for electricity, which costs twice what it does in the United States.

Ms. Hedegaard on Wednesday acknowledged that Europe needed to bring down its energy prices but said that the shift to renewable sources played a “negligible” part in the problem. But she also took a swipe at what she suggested were unrealistic demands by environmental activists, noting that “we are trying to do something that is achievable, that is doable and practical for 28 governments to back.”

Greenpeace has called for a 55 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, and activists argue that Europe could and should have gone further than the 40 percent carbon emissions proposal because the bloc is already well on track to meet existing objectives.

In 2007 the European Union said it wanted to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent in 2020 and was even prepared to reduce them by 30 percent by the same date if other big economies also took significant action. It also set national targets for adopting renewable energy.

According to the commission, total greenhouse gas emissions from the 28 members had by 2011 fallen to 16.9 percent below the 1990 level, and to 18 percent lower by 2012. That suggests that the 40 percent reduction target by 2030 should be attainable.

But the 2011 and 2012 reductions partly reflect the drop in industrial output in Europe after the financial crisis, which plunged almost all of the bloc’s nations into recession—something policy makers are desperate to reverse.

Europeans have also been disappointed that other big polluters have failed to follow the lead they set in 2007.

“The European Union said it wanted to lead globally, but it quickly discovered that other countries were not willing to engage in a race to the top,” said Andrew Jordan, a professor at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, part of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

Andrew Higgins contributed reporting from Brussels.

The Ballad of the Romanian Shepherd

Ghita the Shepherd

13 January 2014
BBC News

Shepherds have a special place in Romania's history and in its culture, and their lifestyle has not changed much in centuries—until now. Social media has turned at least one of them into a celebrity, writes Caroline Juler.

On a dank Monday evening some weeks ago, a Romanian shepherd called Ghita left home with his sheep. He wasn't in a lorry but on foot, accompanied by several angajati, or hired men, some shaggy dogs, and seven donkeys loaded with gear. Ghita was off on his autumn transhumance, heading north for his winter pastures. It would take him six weeks.

For a country whose defining myth revolves around shepherds, Romania isn't all that keen on its pastoralists. The Ballad of the Little Sheep (Miorita) tells of a herdsman who lets himself be murdered by two rival shepherds even though one of his lambs, who has miraculously acquired the power of speech, warns him in advance. Miorita is sometimes taken as a metaphor for Christianity, another way of showing Christ's courage in turning the other cheek. It's also said to mirror the experience of the Romanian people who have endured numerous invasions, occupations and humiliations without, it is claimed, ever losing their identity.

When Romanians were agitating for independence in the 19th Century, Transylvanian shepherds were seen as the rugged pioneers of the nationalist movement. Long before then, they had established shortcuts over the Carpathian Mountains to seasonal grazing in what is now Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Caucasus, southern Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Poland and the Czech Republic. Having crossed from Hungarian and Habsburg lands into Ottoman Turkey and Russia, they returned home to their more isolated communities with information, ideas and ambitions fired by the world outside.

A shepherd's CV has to offer some crucial USPs: caringness, self-reliance and dedication. He—and it's almost always a he, although in real life women did the same job—is synonymous with the kindly ideals of Christianity and for that matter Islam—but for all that, he is a humble, often solitary, sometimes rootless figure.

During Communism, certain Romanian sheep farmers did rather well. People still talk about Mr B from Poiana Sibiului who asked Ceausescu's permission to buy a helicopter. Mr B's flocks were hefted over several mountains, and he argued that being able to fly would let him keep track of them more easily. His request was refused, but Poiana is famous for other reasons—many of its shepherds built luxurious mansions at a time when most people had to stand in queues to buy food and lit their homes with 40 watt bulbs. Inaccessible to big machinery, many mountain farms escaped collectivisation, and the men and women who commuted there from the less exclusive plains, spoke of "going to America".

Like farmers worldwide, Romanian flock masters enjoy a good grumble. But things have got tough for them since 1989. Once guaranteed, prices for wool have plummeted. Although there is an international market for Romanian lamb, and sheep's cheese sells well, "slow food" has not made enough of a difference to the shepherds who find it healthier—and cheaper—to walk their sheep to far away winter pastures rather than keep their animals inside.

With its origins in the Bronze Age, if not earlier, transhumance is a form of semi-nomadism. It sounds romantic but in the past, Romanian shepherds occasionally resorted to transporting their animals by train, something they could never afford to do now.

Romanian shepherds still look archaic. They wear a long sheepskin cloak called a cojoc or sarica. With the shaggy fleece on the outside, it's also their bed, so when shepherds call the cloak their house, they aren't joking. When they sleep at all, it's outside, in all weathers. The hired men earn between 200 or 300 euros a month. They also receive daily meals, work clothing, and a cigarette allowance.

Romanians are generally learning more about their shepherds thanks to television.

In August this year, a well-known phone company began an advertising campaign that highlighted real people doing real jobs. One of them was Ghita.

Dressed in his cojoc and rimless pot hat (another must-have piece of shepherding rig), sitting by a campfire and dancing with sheep, Ghita Ciobanul, or Ghita the Shepherd, has taken Romania by storm. Ten days after the phone company put him on Facebook, his page had clocked more than 200,000 likes. A month later, they had doubled.

In the past, Ghita has had to move his sheep illegally, during the night. Given the hazards of crossing Romania's rapidly urbanising, motorised countryside, it's the only way. Accidents and shootings have cost him scores of sheep and many dogs. Maybe this year, thanks to his new-found celebrity, Ghita will be luckier.

HIV Street Art Event in Downtown Bucharest

10 January 2014
Yahoo News

A man walks past a graffiti on a board during a HIV Street Art event in downtown Bucharest January 10, 2014. According to the organisers, Romania's health ministry and various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) launched HIV Street Art, a national information and education campaign to raise awareness about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Romania had 12,119 registered HIV positive cases by the end of last year, health ministry data showed, a fraction of the roughly 2 million patients overall in Europe and Central Asia. Picture: REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel