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.
“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).
New York Times
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.
New York Times
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.
New York Times
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)
One of the bears has gone blind and both need treatment for alcohol addiction
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.
New York Times
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.
TRADE, GAS WARS
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.
MOLDOVA'S BALANCING ACT
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)
Tourists taking part in one of Stefan Munteanu's guided tours stand in front of the parliament building
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.
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".
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, right, watches as a beautician applies a facial mask to a client during a beauty show in New York in 1980. Associated Press
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.”
New York Times
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.”
New York Times
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.”
New York Times
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.
New York Times
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.
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.
On this day...
King Carol II of Romania Credit Library of Congress
New York Times
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
|A young girl waves the Romanian flage at a recent anti-corruption rally in Timisoara, Romania. Gabriel Amza for NPR|
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."
On this day...
New York Times
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.
|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|
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."
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."
New York Times
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.
The Associated Press
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)
New York Times
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 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.
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
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]
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.
On this day...
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.”
31 October, 2014
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.”
15 October, 2014
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.
• It is the rarest bird in Europe, North Africa
and the Middle East
"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.
9 October, 2014
“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.
29 September, 2014
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.
23 September, 2014
“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.
On this day...
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
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.”
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
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.
On this day...
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?
16 July 2014
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.”
13 July 2014
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."
24 June 2014
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.
15 June 2014
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.
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
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
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.
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.
18 May 2014
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.
5 May 2014
A worker cleaned the windows of an office building in downtown Bucharest, Romania. Bogdan Cristel/Reuters
1 May 2014
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
Then you may get the rewards. "Being out on your own, being free and anonymous, you discover the people around you," says Solnit.
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
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.
23 April 2014
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.
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:
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:
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:
17 April 2014
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
1 April 2014
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.
Artemis Cooper, Patrick Leigh Fermor's biographer.
21 March 2014
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.
14 March 2014
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.
Patrick Leigh Fermor in the 1940s. Popperfoto
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.
THE BROKEN ROAD
Robert F. Worth is writing a book about the Arab uprisings of 2011 and their legacy.
Photo by Diana Mesesan
24 February 2014
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”.
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, email@example.com
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
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."
A single nurse looks after five premature babies in this Bucharest hospital
20 February 2014
"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."
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.
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."
17 February 2014
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."
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.
17 February 2014
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.”
29 January 2014
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
“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 Booking.com 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.
27 January 2014
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.
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.
13 January 2014
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.
10 January 2014
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