Friday, December 16, 2005

Romania - Final Thoughts

Sadly, my Romania trip is coming to an end. I'm off to US for the holidays and then starting school in Boston in January. On my last night in Romania, my cousin Titi asked me what I thought about Romania overall. I had been thinking about this question for a while. My short answer is, I believe Romania is a country full of vitality and hope and that, in due course, it will reach the same standard of living as other European countries. Intelligent, ambitious, young people like my cousins will be the key to this country's transformation from a communist stalwart to a modern democratic society.

My long answer needed another experience before I could vocalize it. That experience came the next day on the way to the airport. As usual, I called our friendly and honest taxi driver, Daniel, who promptly showed up in his rickety Dacia ready to whisk me away. Daniel's car is an interesting machine. It runs on both methane gas and gasoline. Methane gas is much cheaper than gasoline so he retrofitted his car to go back and forth between the two types of fuel at the flip of a switch. Typical Romanian ingenuity! During the trip he ran out of methane gas and had to pull over and switch to gasoline as we no time to refill. Although his car was made to run on gasoline, the engine had a terrible time with it and kept sputtering along all the way to the airport. According to Daniel, the car was now used to running on methane gas and didn't like gasoline anymore. Oh well, he wasn't going to worry to much about it because he was planning to get a new car in a couple of years.

Afterwards, I thought about this experience and realized its metaphorical analogy to my impressions about Romania. Romania is like Daniel's rickety old car. After running on communist subsidies for so many years, the country sputters along on a combination of democracy and market capitalism. The new banking system that offers personal and mortgage loans (something unheard of in the old communist days) and the competitive mobile phone systems are like new parts added to an old engine block to make it run better. Fancy new stores and restaurants are like new trims and finishings. But despite the appearances, the frame still shows signs of rust. Endemic corruption and stiffling bureaucracy will be as hard to eliminate as the rust on an old car. Like a bad powertrain that can't transfer the engine power efficiently to the wheels, the road and rail infrastrcture is showing signs of age and must be upgraded soon. The temptation to switch back to the old ways of doing things is huge, but Romania has no time for it. It must catch the EU train coming January 2007.

Varza a la Cluj (Cabbage a la Cluj)

In the pantheon of Romanian food, Cluj owns the naming rights for one of the more popular dishes: cabbage a la Cluj. Few cities in Romania can claim this honor so we decided to investigate what makes Cluj so popular with tourists and taste buds alike. Cluj, the unnofficial capital of Transylvania, is a cosmpolitan city that draws its vitality from the thousands of students who attend one of Romania's best universities, Babes-Bolyai University. The mix of Romanians and the Hungarian minority adds to its complexity and sophistication. In the late 90's Cluj was swept by a Romanian nationalist movement that sought to remove many of the Hungarian minority's rights, but today the ethnic tensions have died down and the two ethnic groups seem to live comfortably together. One evening, we went to a screening of experimental short films at Tranzit, a local internet cafe, and met a couple of Hungarian students. I asked one of them what he thought about the nationalist movement. He told me that many Hungarians were quite scared of it, but that things are much better now.

I liked Cluj. The city just seemed to have its act together. The Melody hotel in the center square offered a reasonably priced room with a beautiful view of the evangelical church. If in Bucharest we had trouble finding a good cafe, Cluj gave us a choice of three excellent cafes (and a tea room) on just one corner of the main square. The city infrastructure seemed to work reasonably well, too. Soon after we arrived we got our first parking violation ticket for parking without a permit on one of the main city streets. After that we parked our car Romanian style on the sidewalk right next to the main square (the hotel claimed it was "their" parking spot; we didn't argue).

Cluj even has a sushi restaurant, if you can believe it. In landlocked Transylvania, a Japanese chef decided that Romanian taste buds need to experience more than just "varza a la Cluj", so he opened a sushi restaurant that draws a small, but curious Romanian crowd. We went there one night with a couple of friends. I was impressed with the atmosphere (our Romanian waiter was wearing a kimono!), but I couldn't say the same about the food. It must just be me. I always prefer a good local food like "varza a la Cluj".

Saturday, December 03, 2005

On The Road Again

We're off to new adventures in Transylvania, gathering new material for our blog. Unfortunately, this means our blog will not be updated as often as we would like during the trip.
After a short stint in Victoria, my hometown, and Sibiu we're off to Cluj and Bistrita. Right now we're in Cluj and we love it. We've parked our car in Piata Unirii (literally) and put up for two nights at the Melody Hotel right smack in the center of the city. We'll get back with pictures and travel impressions.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


If you're a visitor in Bucharest it can be a wonderful city, but as a resident I find it difficult to live here. I grew up in a small, quiet town at the base of the mountains. Bucharest is the opposite: crowded, noisy, polluted and spread out like a pancake on Romania's map. If it wasn't for my cousin Titi and his wife Florina, I don't know how I could've stayed here for so long. Their helpful survival tips have meant so much to us.

Bucharest is certainly an insider's city. You can't just get roll into town and step into a good cafe or a good restaurant (like we did in Cluj or Sibiu). Without a guide, it takes a while to find a good place, but when you do, you'll be pleasantly surprised. We've been searching for a good cafe ever since we got to Bucharest. By that I mean a cafe that serves a good cup of espresso, at a reasonable price, a relaxing place with nice, friendly service (to be sure, there are plenty of cafes in Bucharest, but I find most of them to be stuffy and pretentious). After a long search and at the suggestion of one of our friends (Thanks, Dan!) we discovered Cafe Grand Galleron in the shadow of Athenee Palace. Its century-old premises are divided into small private rooms with one of them being reserved for non-smokers (aahhhh, deep breath!). The atmosphere is artsy, but in a non-pretentious way and the coffee is excellent. They even have laptop computers available in case you decide to check your e-mail while sipping that cup of latte. The picture below doesn't do any justice, but you can check out their web site for better photos.

Wait, even more, the Galleron is right accross from our favorite restaurant, La Mama. If you're craving some traditional Romanian food like "mamaliguta cu brinza si smintina" (polenta with cheese) or sarmale (cabbage rolls) or a hot cup of "coirba cu fasole si ciolan afumat" (bean soup), this is the place the go. The prices are reasonable and the atmosphere is excellent. We must not be the only ones thinking so highly of it. Romanians love it and the place is full every night. Yes, it is possible to eat a home-cooked meal here in Bucharest!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A little Romania Fatigue

I must admit, I'm feeling it: I have a little case of Romania Fatigue.

For all of those Romanians out there, who constitute our most loyal fan base (largely because the friends and family of Sorinescu seem to be the only ones actually reading this blog), let me first say this: I love Romania. The first time I came to Romania, I couldn't believe it was still a largely undiscovered tourist destination, because parts of it are just fairytale beautiful. I went camping in the Carpathians and strolled through charming mountain villages and marveled at the beauty of cities like Sibiu, Brasov, and Bran. Romania is a fascinating country filled with intelligent people who have a culture worthy of worldwide appreciation. It's also a country that got a lot of bad press in the early 1990's because of the child welfare situation, and like many Americans and other Europeans who've been here since, it was through working with a group of children in the system that I came to discover all of the other beautiful things about this country. There's an apt neologism for this kind of trip: "voluntourism." I came, I volunteered, I traveled. I fell in love with Romania, and the next year, I fell in love with Sorin. How could I not think Romania was a magical place?

I might not have come to Romania at all if it hadn't been for my friend Kim, who was in the Peace Corps here from 1995-96. She taught English at a high school in Bistrita, and also started a project in which teenagers from her school were paired up as mentors with children from the local orphanage or "casa de copii." Kim continued this project after she left Romania, and I joined her in 2001 to help out with an art therapy camp. I came back the next year, and now I'm here for nine months to do a documentary about several of the children I worked with in the first camp. I love documentaries that follow people over long periods of time; I am fascinated with the ways that people evolve over time--the twists and turns that life takes. Michael Apted's "7-Up" series is the best-known example of this kind of film. When I first met the children, they were living in an institution. Now, they're in foster families. I would like to come back in four more years, to see what happens when they leave the child welfare system and are on their own. I am not sure yet what shape the final film will take; it is a long process that right now is motivated most strongly by curiosity and concern. I like and care about these kids, and I am very curious to know how they are doing. Yes, there are themes and structures and techniques that I think about from a filmmaking perspective, but right now I am focusing more on the curiosity and less on structure; trying to trust that this will gradually emerge. It's not so easy sometimes.

So, this brings me back to my fatigue . . .This fatigue comes from the disconnect I feel between my own interest in the kids and my desire to have others know them through me (via the film), and the reaction I get from Romanians when I tell them what I'm doing here. One of the most important attributes a filmmaker can have is a thick skin, coupled with an absolute conviction about one's work. I have neither at the moment, to be honest. Thin-skinned and capable of seeing others' point of view to the point of losing track of my own, I find it a daily struggle to defend myself against the disapproval. The objections are nearly universal: "Why can't you show the beautiful things about Romania? Romania has more than abandoned children! Why don't you document the problems in your own country?" These questions range in tone from teasing, to impassioned, to angry. While I initially found the candor and directness of Romanians refreshing, I must admit that I am very weary of defending myself. If one more Romanian suggests that I make a travel program about monasteries, I think I will scream.

The monasteries in Romania are VERY NICE. I also personally think they are VERY BORING ON VIDEOTAPE. This is not to say that an excellent documentary on Romanian monasteries could not or should not be made--BY ROMANIANS. Seriously, you Romanians, get your video cameras out, and start documenting those monasteries! We all have our ideas of what we think is beautiful. I personally think that the children I know are beautiful and interesting, and it's unfortunate that the "abandoned child" has become the symbol of Romania's bad international image. The kids certainly have no idea that they're part of the reason for Romania's bad press, or that they're part of a grim historical legacy (Ceauscescu's anti-contraception policies and otherwise disastrous government policies), or that they're ugly and embarrassing things not to be videotaped, for fear of damaging Romania's image. It's true, my subject is not new or original, but my approach is sincere. That's all I can do.

I welcome comments that come from a concern about the children's rights, and about the role of the media in general. I empathize with Romanians' frustrations with members of the international media--who are usually able to travel with greater ease than they--who come here looking for the exotic, the dramatic, and the sensational, just as they do everywhere, in every country. I agree that outsiders' perceptions of Romania are skewed by a disproportionate focus on certain subjects and stereotypes. But these mediamakers aren't out to destroy Romania. And in the case of the abandoned children, the media attention brought a great deal of aid to the country that helped to improve conditions dramatically for this population group (which has yet to decline in numbers.)

Yes, there are a gazillion social problems to document in the US. But I'm really here to document a "social problem." I am just following a story about these kids, in a country I think is amazing. Hopefully the "beautiful things" about Romania will come through. In the meantime, I am just going to have to learn to develop a thicker skin.

To bribe or not to bribe?

A da spaga sau a nu da spaga? This is the question.
"Spaga" is the Romanian word for bribe, an important concept in a country where the size of the black market, if recorded, could have a significant contribution to the gross domestic product. I'm not merely exaggerating; as an example, ANAF (National Agency for Fiscal Administration) estimates that 30% of the cigarettes sold in Romania are sold on the black market. Spaga is the oil that lubricates the mechanisms of the black market in the underbelly of the Romanian economy. Romania has made great strides in minimizing corruption and thus eliminating the need for spaga, but old habits die hard and it will be a long time before you'll find yourself in front of a public functionary without even thinking of giving a bribe.

As a funny side story, one of our American friends was taking a Romanian language class in Los Angeles, and one of the first words the teacher taught them was "spaga". She even taught them the phrase "Cat e spaga?" (How much is the bribe?), as if spaga is a listed price on a bulletin board outside a government institution. Americans need a lesson in Eastern European capitalism! As a Romanian who's lived half of his life in the US, I'm aware of the concept of spaga and how pervasive it is in in Romania, yet I have no idea how and when it's appropriate to give "a little attention" to someone. So I decided to investigate the spaga market and determine the going rate for a few common transactions by asking a few friends and relatives.

Let's say you find yourself pulled over by a traffic cop. Perhaps you feel guilty because you know you broke the law. The cop, friendly has he always is, will tell you how much the fine is and proceed to start writing the ticket in front of you. But before he starts writing, he will gently remind you again that he's going to write you a ticket for this infraction. Bingo! This is the first sign that a little spaga could get you out of this tight situation. Great! Your spaga radar went off, but how much to give? No worries. The Romanians have a going rate for this. Quickly calculate half the amount of the ticket (it's not that hard, the cop already told you how much the ticket is), search your pockets for that amount, and hand it discreetly to the cop. Problem solved! You're off to where you were going.

However, there are plenty of hard working, law abiding citizens who would not pay a bribe even when suggested they do so. My cousin told us about the time he refused to bribe a cop even when the cop repeatedly signaled "I'm going to write the ticket, sir! Should I start writing the ticket, sir?" Sometimes, my cousin said, it's just better to pay the whole ticket and not live with the guilt that you've contributed to Romania's endemic corruption.

I have my own personal story on this topic. One of my goals for this trip is to get my Romanian passport back. I lost it (or perhaps surrendered it, I don't remember) when I got my American citizenship. The process of getting a passport in this country is fraught with complications (a topic for a future posting, perhaps). I'll just say that at the end of an exhausting day of shuffling between government offices, talking to five different people who gave me five different answers, I ran into a nice public functionary who advised and showed me how to write a request for speeding up the paperwork (I'm leaving the country in three weeks!). She was polite and helpful, two qualities which you don't often see in a government worker here. I was so taken by her attitude, that my Romanian side of the brain instantly thought that perhaps she was just signaling for a spaga. After all, the most common situation for a bribe is when you want to circumvent the excruciatingly slow bureaucracy. But the American side of my brain said that perhaps it is possible even in this country for a public functionary to act in the best interest of a regular citizen. For a few seconds, my split personalities fought a moral battle. To bribe or not to bribe? When in Rome, do like the Romans? In the end, the American side won. I simply thanked the government worker and walked away with a clean conscience, although wondering how many more obstacles I will encounter in this ongoing saga.

Perhaps there's hope in this country, in which case the answer to the opening question should be a resounding "NO!" But theory is much easier than practice and often the answer becomes "Perhaps!" I will know the answer when I hold my Romanian passport in my hands.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bucharest - The International City

We're stuck in Bucharest for the next few days and with little else to do, we decided to explore the city and continue enlarging our social circle. This is how we ended up at the opening night of a new nightclub (Quo Vadis). Bad weather notwithstanding, the club was full of people who were more than willing to pay $5 for a mixed drink. Sometimes we wonder how in a country where the average salary is $250/month some people can afford to go out every weekend.

After the club, we went out to a Scottish Ball at the National Military Circle, a beautiful building used as a protocol house by the Romanian Army. When we entered the building, it felt like we had just stepped into another world. The beautifully decorated ballroom was resonating with music and the dance floor was full of men (some wearing kilts) and women dancing to traditional Scottish songs. Bucharest seems like such an odd place to host a Scottish ball, but the atmosphere was warm, welcoming and we thoroughly enjoyed this serendipitous moment.

Today we decided to go to Intercontinental Hotel to check it out. For those of you who've never been to Romania, Intercontinental Hotel is a Bucharest landmark like Eiffel Tower is to Paris or Big Ben is to London. In the old communist days it was an intimdating place where foreign journalist mixed with diplomats within the watchful eye of secret police disguised as waiters and prostitutes. Nowadays, the place is tame, quiet and has a business feel to it. It still retains its charm even though it lost the title of Romania's most expensive hotel to the Marriott that opened a few years ago accross town. We had a coffee and tea and spent a couple of hours reading and studying.

On the way back home we decided to get lost through the small streets of Bucharest. We had another serendipitous moment when we stumbled upon a charming little park surrounded by beautiful old houses. Not far from there we discovered the Institute Francais which is currently hosting a Belgian film festival. Amynescu was happy to discover this francophone oasis in Bucharest and we immediately made plans to attend tonight's movie screening.

All in all, an interesting weekend full of surprising discoveries. Who would've thought that Bucharest can be such a cultural mecca?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

10 Things We Love and Hate About Romania

Moving to a new place stirs a lot of emotions. Good or bad impressions are quickly formed, but they fade with time as we adapt to the new place. We've been in Romania for over a month, so we decided that now is the best time to take stock of what we love and hate about this place.

So here it goes, in no particular order, what we love and hate about Romania.

10 Things We Love:

1. Fresh tomatoes and cucumbers - the vegetables here are amazing! Organic is the norm; we're hoping the small farmers will survive the mass production revolution.
2. telemea - fresh sheep or goat cheese that melts in your mouth.
3. kindness of strangers - we've met many people who considered us their guests and wanted to genuinely help us.
4. generosity of friends - what would we do without friends like Titi, Florina and Adina? We've decided that friends are absolute necessary ingredient to a comfortable living here.
5. haystacks - they dot the countryside, giving the place a fairy tale feeling.
6. folk art - traditional costumes and houses are beautifully decorated, even functional, ordinary everyday items are richly decorated.
7. patience with bad romanian language - Romanians are pleasantly surprised when a foreigner (like Amynescu) speaks their language.
8. the Carpahtians - the mountains are beautiful and for the most part undeveloped and wild.
9. hitchiking - this is an effective and inexpensive way of transportation in some parts of the country. We've used it many times in Bistrita.
10. young, smart people with lots of ideas and curiosity about the world around them.

10 Things We Hate About Romania

1. bureaucracy - people who are unwilling to think outside the box and always point to some higher authority.
2. bad service - rude waiters, even people at the tourist information kiosks are sometimes rude.
3. evil taxi drivers - only in Bucharest, so far; they will charge you double the fare if they sense you're a foreigner (that's if they even want to take you in the first place; they won't even bother for a short ride)
4. abandoned cars - they're everywhere, blocking the sidewalks, parked on the streets, a real nuisance and an eye sore for the entire country.
5. phlegm - we've never seen so much spit on the sidewalks. Could it be related to the fact that in Romania 46% of men and 24% of women smoke regularly?
6. pollution - from diesel fumes to cigarette smoke, your lungs will be put to the test.
7. driving - we still can't figure the driving rules in Bucharest, perhaps because so many people tend to ignore them.
8. pretentious bars, cafes and shops - places where well connected Romanians go to see and be seen.
9. uninspired architecture - entire neighborhoods of ugly, communist era apartment blocks
10. things that sorta' work - low-quality, locally made goods; and there are no exchanges and refunds.

We'll revisit this list at the end of our stay here to see how our impressions change over time.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Puiu Tatii

Daca noi romanii tot n-am inventat plimbatul pe jos, cel putin ne putem da mari ca am inventat plimbatul calculatorului. Asadar avem dovada aici cu nea' Todorel pe care l-am intalnit zilele astea plimbandu-si puiutul de Pentium prin Bucuresti.

"Ce mai faceti nea Todorele? Ati iesit cu calculatorasul la plimbare? Vai ce frumusete de monitorel are, manca-l-ar mama, sa nu vi-l deoache cineva. Vaoleu! E cam frig, nu vi se pare? Si nu cred ca l-ati izolat termic prea bine. Duceti-al acasa sa nu prinda vreun virus.
Hai, sanatate! Sa va creasca odrasla si sa-l vedem la o diagonala mai mare data viitoare."

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Victoria - The Summer Resort

I had been itching to visit my hometown, Victoria, a small town at the base of the Carpathians, about halfway between Sibiu and Brasov. As soon as the filming in Bistrita was over, I ditched the rest of the team and made a solo escape to Victoria. To cover my tracks, I first took a shuttle bus to Sibiu and then the train (the slow one, or "personal") to Ucea station. However, in Ucea my plan ran into troubles. The bus service that used to run regularly between Ucea and Victoria was cancelled. What happened? Did Victoria fall off the map? Dejected, I walked out of

the train station and to the main road where a traffic sign showed the world that Victoria was indeed still there and for a brief moment I thought of walking all the way to town (if it wasn't so cold and rainy). But then I remembered that hitchhiking is a popular means of transportation in this part of the world, and before too long a car picked me up and deposited me in the center of town.

Victoria used to be lively little town. Built around a chemical factory that employed half of its citizens, it grew from a small outpost in 1945 to a town of 10,000 people in its heyday in the 1980s.

I always remembered my hometown the way it looks here, in a photo taken several years ago: A beautiful town flanked by the majestic Carpathians.

But this time, the town seemed deserted. The chemical plant had laid off most of its workers after the revolution, and many of the young people had emigrated or found jobs elsewhere. On this day, the town was particularly quiet because the school teachers were on strike and all schools were closed. On top of it, it was late October and the town's main attraction, the municipal pool (strandul). was out of commission for the year.

I took a stroll around town and went by the old apartment block where I lived for 18 years of my life. It looked the same.

The cultural center (caminul cultural) which used to house a movie theatre, a recreational room and a library, was always a hotbed of activity, but on this day it sat deserted with its windows broken. The only place that seemed more lively was the small market at the south end of town (piata) where I ran into a couple of my old teachers. I talked to them for a while and promised to visit them next time when I come to town (those of you who know them should recognize them).

While grabbing lunch I talked to a couple of elderly people who provided the best quote of the day: "Ehhh, Victoria e ca o statiune linistita. Noua ne place!" (Ehhh, Victoria is like a quiet resort. We love it here!). Indeed it is. For a few months of the year, Victoria comes alive to welcome tourists and those like me who have left and come back on vacation. The rest of the year the town is quiet and unnassuming.

Besides the market, the only other places that were doing a brisk business were the few bars around town. At the town hall, I ran into an old friend from high-school (Tisu) whom I later met for a few drinks at Paulica's bar. Trying to think of who else may be around, I called Schwantz out of the blue and set up to meet with him at the same place. This is how my day in Victoria ended. Sipping a couple of cognacs with some old friends and musing about Victoria and its fall from grace.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Knowledge Strike

On the day I visited Victoria, the teachers were on strike and both the middle school and high school were closed. This, I thought, would be a great opportunity to recall the old "school daze."

I first sneaked into the middle school (scoala generala) which I hadn't seen in over 18 years. I walked upstairs to the Romanian language classroom, which served as my homeroom for 4 years between 5th and 8th grade, and sat in the same corner where I sat during those years.

From there I remembered the long hours of Romanian language classes and the teacher who literally pounded the material into our heads.

Next I went to the room where it all began, the 1st grade room. It used to be called "the fairytale room" because it had some beautiful mural paintings of scenes from fairytales. Nowadays it's simply called room #7 (sala 7), although you can still see the words "Fairytale Room" on the door, despite someone's best efforts to paint them over.

To my surprise, the room looked almost the same as it did 30 years ago. The paintings are still there and they still give the room its magical feeling.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed how beautiful the paintings really were. Only a painter who loved children as much as he loved his job could've done this. Sadly, some of the paintings are starting to peel off and given the current state of affairs (with teachers on strike for better wages), it may be a long time before any funds can be allocated to preserving these murals.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Ciobanas cu 300 de oi (Shepherd with 300 sheep)

This is the title of a popular Romanian folk song...
Shepherds are mythical figures that still exist in Romania. Popular folklore is full of songs and stories about shepherds who symbolize the union between man and nature in this idyllic country.

Whatever the symbolism, I think shepherds are just plain cool, and would gladly exchange my high-tech job with a shepherd's job (but only for a little while!). So, one day, when we ran into couple of shepherds on the side of the road, we took the opportunity to visit their quarters and learn more about their lifestyle.

If you want to step back in time, all you have to do is visit a shepherd's hut in Transylvania. During the summer months these temporary shelters serve as sleeping quarters, a kitchen and, of course, a cheese-making factory.

The two brothers we visited, Vasile and Iosif, were so happy to see us that they quickly invited us to a traditional meal of "mamaliga cu branza" (polenta with cheese). But first we had to toast the "tuica", the local plum brandy, which is an absolute necessity to lubricate the meal.

Then, they fired off the "stove" with some branches gathered from around the hut and proceeded to boil the water for mamaliga. When the polenta was finished, they added the sheep cheese and some bacon.

Despite the fact that their facility wasn't quite up to FDA standards, we ate the food and toasted the drinks without worrying too much. After all, people had been living and eating like this for hundreds of years. In exchange for their food we gave them our pastry snacks which they gladly accepted and ate them like a delicacy.

They asked us lots of questions about America and if people there tended sheep like they do. They were a bit incredulous when we told them we hadn't seen any free-roaming sheep in America.

At the end, we showed them footage of the video we shot of them. They were quite enthralled by it. We figured it must've been the first time they had ever seen themselves in a video.

We posed a few more times and then we left, but not before taking with us a chunk of fresh cheese.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Northern Transylvania

Bistrita is located in the northern part of Transyvlania. Yes, that is the land of Dracula and the people of Bistrita are quite happy to associate themselves with this western legend even though it was pratically unknown to them until 15 years ago. Enterprising locals have quickly seized on this tourism opportunity and Bistrita, along with a few other counties around Transylvania, now offers its own version of Dracula's Castle. We have no opinion on the quality of this tourist attraction because we didn't bother to visit it (even though we were there during Halloween) much to some of our Romanian friends' surprise who thought our only reason for being there was to visit the castle.

Of course, we were there for more important business such as taking photos of the beautiful (and more authentic) countryside and hanging out with the local shepherds (more on this later).

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Off to Bistrita

A few days after Betsy (Bootsenescu) arrived we embarked on our first reconnaissance trip to the countryside. Amynescu wanted to go to Bistrita to see the children she had met 3 years ago while working with her friend Kim's nonprofit organization C.O.P.I.I. (Child Outreach Partnership Initiative, International).

The only way to get to Bistrita is via a night train that leaves Bucuresti at 9:00 pm and arrives in Bistrita at 5:30 am.
We figured that couchette tickets would be the most comfortable way to go, but after a hellish ride in an overheated compartment, we concluded that it would've been better to ride on top of the train, like some people do in India (Betsy has some good stories about her "upper class" rides in the Indian sub-continent). Needless to say, we arrived in Bistrita exhausted and ready to... sleep.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


This is Macarena. I recognized her instantly when I saw her sitting at the base of a monument in Piata Victoriei, inhaling silver paint from a plastic bag. The small margin of celebrity she has achieved--at least among dedicated documentary film viewers like myself--does not appear to have changed her circumstances much. Macarena is one of the subjects of Edet Belzberg's 2000 documentary "Children Underground," about a group of street children living in the Piata Victoriei subway station, most of whom inhale a toxic paint called Aurolac to get high. It's a very troubling film, and Macarena's experience makes for some of the most heartbreaking sequences. There is an emotional investment that comes with watching someone's life unfold on camera, especially such a dramatic and painful life. I instinctively said hello to her and asked her how she was. She was in the process of getting high and it was a struggle for her to comprehend what I was saying; to focus her dark eyes on me. She smiled delightedly and jumped up when I told her I'd seen her in the film. She kissed me on both cheeks with lips encrusted with little flakes of silver paint. She has radiant skin, with a flush of color in her face that I'd like to think comes from the November chill rather than the paint fumes. She asked me if I would buy her a salad and some shoes. I said yes to the salad, no to the shoes. She wanted to know where I was staying; if she could come home with me. It is so uncomplicated to care about her in a two hour film; it is much more challenging when she emerges from the narrative and wants to move into my apartment. She asked me to take her picture, and I left her behind as gently as I could.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Welcome Betsy!

As soon as the word got out that amynescu's Romania project was approved, her supportive friends called in with offers to assist in this new endeavour. Maybe it was their humanist spirit, or maybe a sense of adventure, but regardless of the reasons, amynescu gladly accepted their offers.

Betsy (lovingly called Boots) is the second friend, after sorinescu, to arrive in Romania to help with the documentary. Bootsenescu brings with her many years of experience in making films about social issues. Betsy is one of amynescu's best friends. They met while working as assistants on a Victor Nunez film, an exhausting ordeal that made them realize they could survive anything--even hauling camera equipment through rural Romania in the winter snow.

Betsy is shown here at an outdoor cafe in Cismigiu Park where we all went out to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and discuss the next step in our project.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" is the title of one of the best Romanian films to be released in the last few years. If you have a chance to see it, please do. We're not the only ones to think so highly of it. The judges at Cannes awarded it the "Un Certain Regard" prize in 2005. The film chronicles the experience of the ailing Mr. Lazarescu who is shuffled from hospital to hospital in a tragi-comic web of bureaucratic red-tape and indifferent doctors, as his life is slowly draining away.

Walking back from a tasty meal at a great (and possibly the only) Mexican restaurant in Bucharest, we got the opportunity to channel the sense of righteous indignation the film had left us with. Lying behind this blue metal kiosk by the side of the road was an incoherent older man, likely very intoxicated, wearing very few clothes in the cold October weather. Conveniently, there was a hospital about 50 yards away, so we asked for help but were told that they didn't take "that kind of patient" there. While the security guards were quick to tell us no, one of them still seemed to want to help. He told us that if we called the ambulance, they would be obligated to pick our guy up, but they wouldn't be happy about it. This was confirmed when Sorinescu called 961--the ambulance or "salvarea." To their credit, they arrived within 15 minutes, and lifted the incoherent man off the sidewalk onto a stretcher. However, they weren't sure how much luck they'd have getting a hospital to admit him. The neighbors informed us, after the ambulance left, that the man had been living in the kiosk all summer. They also told us that someone had called the salvare the night before too, but that the man had refused to go.

Every day since, we've been walking past the kiosk to see if "cetateanul turmentat" (the drunken citizen) is back home. We haven't seen him, though, and we wonder if the hospital--in the event they admitted him--was able to revive him. Did he make it out? Did someone put him somewhere warmer? Or did he get shuffled around like Mr. Lazarescu, no one caring who he was or who might miss him?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Albalux Luxury

We're pleased to find little remnants of times past in every corner of our apartment. One of them is the Albalux washing machine. Albalux is a brand of white goods made in Romania during the communist times. Sorinescu's mother had one just like it and she never quite warmed up to it. She preferred to wash clothes by hand. Now we know why.

The machine has two speeds: on and off. To empty it, we had to connect the tube to the drain, although, as amynescu observed, the machine would've drained on its own because it leaked so much. Needless to say, washing clothes with our Albalux machine was quite an adventure. The landlady was surprised we even attempted to use it, and she was so embarassed of it that she promised to get us a new one. A few days later we got our wish.
Step aside Albalux, here comes the Whirlpool!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Hunger Circus

Today we went shopping at Bucharest's newest mall, Plaza Romania, complete with high-end boutiques, a state-of-the-art cinemaplex and a food plaza with McDonald's as its crown jewel. After walking around the mall for two hours we felt like we had never left the US. The only difference is that the prices were higher.

The irony of it all is that the mall was built on the foundation of a building that Romanians sarcastically referred to as "The Hunger Circus." In the late 1980's, Ceausescu's ambition of building the ultimate communist society led him to believe that the appetite of ordinary Romanians would be better served by cafeteria-style meals. Forget the daily trip to the market, waiting in line to buy milk and bread, the constant struggle to obtain quality food. Instead, you could have your pre-processed communist goulash served up in a massive soup kitchen. What a great way to complete the socialist utopia! The State could tell you not just what to do and what to think, but also what to eat.

A couple of these large, domed buildings were planned and erected in the capital city of Bucharest. Ceausescu's vision was that they would serve as food markets and public kitchens, eliminating the need for private kitchens in personal apartments. The spectacle of daily mass feedings was widely ridiculed. Officially known as "agro-alimentary complexes", the new buildings were quickly named "the hunger circus" by cynical Romanians. Fortunately, the 1989 revolution ended these communist experiments and the clowns at the hunger circus never got a chance to stage their sinister joke.

The ultimate irony is that, today, the food plaza with its dizzying array of foods does make the place feel like a hunger circus, but of the capitalist kind. Romanians of all walks of life are more than happy to partake in it and they seem to enjoy it.

--(by sorinescu, former Young Pioneer)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The 'Hood

We live in Bucharest, near Piata Victoriei, in a little one-bedroom apartment on the ninth floor of this classic 1970's Eastern Bloc structure (far left in photo). When Amynescu was looking for housing, many people mentioned to her that this apartment building was built by its architect inhabitants to withstand earthquakes. She hopes that the building's integrity will not be tested during her stay in it. The interior of the apartment is decorated with lots of nice paintings by the owner's family members, as well as a full Romanian library.

Our most modern amenities are a high-bandwidth internet connection and cable TV, which help offset the challenges posed by some less recently updated features (see our posting "Albalux.")

Rumor has it that the heat (or "caldura") will be turned on today or tomorrow. One of the vestiges of communist-era central planning is the central heat system, in which entire neighborhoods share heat generators that are turned on when someone decides it's finally cold enough. We were urged, via a posted sign on the entrance to the building, to be at home at 5PM today to make sure our radiators weren't leaking. We dutifully complied, but . . .nothing. Fortunately we have lots of good blankets.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Sometimes We Make Exceptions

I wasn't feeling too sprightly before my very long trip (with 4 plane changes and two 6-hour layovers in Boston and Munich), but by the time I landed in Munich I was a mere shell of a person. The lack of sleep pre-trip was due in part to my European Shoe Anxiety syndrome, which arises before every trip I take to Europe. It's the basic incompatibility between comfort and fashion. Going to Romania presents a particular challenge, as there is a great deal of walking over various types of terrain as well as a footwear aesthetic that is at odds with my arch pain.

During the first weekend after my arrival, we all went up north to Cluj for orientation. On the way we stopped in Sibiu, a beautiful medieval city that I had visited two years ago. What I had remembered most about Sibiu were the old cobblestone streets, shiny with pools of rain. This time the sun was out, the vast central plaza was fenced off, and jackhammers were tearing the street up in layers. High on a post was an artist's rendering of the new plaza, due to be completed in late 2006. It showed a vast expanse of brand new stones, laid out in a red and white diamond pattern. The sign also announced that Sibiu had been named the European Cultural Capital for 2007. Around the square, the facades of old buildings were being retouched with bright new paint, new stores were opening, and the sidewalk cafes had temporarily become more sidewalk than cafe. Walking around in my ugly comfortable shoes, I felt sad and indignant about the dusty piles of old, polished stone. History was literally being swept away and replaced with those new, sharp-edged chunks of granite that I didn't think were nearly as pretty. I complained about this to my new Romanian friend Dan, as though I had some claim to the city after spending only a few hours there. The truth of the matter is that the new stones will probably be more high-heel friendly, and thus less dangerous for ankle-boot-clad Romanians and their fashionable European counterparts. But I still liked the old ones better.

When we got to Cluj, Dan decided to take a few of us to one of his old haunts. Cluj is a pretty university city with lots of old architecture. It is a much more manageable city than Bucharest, in that it's smaller, friendlier, and less chaotic. It's also colder and wetter, so we were looking forward to the warm intimacy of the cellar cafe that Dan described, with folksy music playing and candles burning on the tables. We had a little trouble finding it, because it had been renamed and extensively renovated. The entranceway to "Diesel" featured a new foreign currency exchange desk, a coat check, and three surly young gentlemen dressed in black. They confiscated my water bottle and cast a disapproving glance at our shoes. We decided to go in anyway, since Dan was curious. The old wood furniture Dan described had been replaced with ultra-modern, white plastic furniture and panels of red light on the tabletops and along the bar. There was a blinding strobe light, a couple flat-panel TV's, and an assortment of beautiful women. We ordered some pricey cocktails and took in the ambiance, since it was too loud to converse. When our waiter handed out extensive karaoke menus and told that each of us would be expected to perform, I panicked a bit. It was English-only night, but I wasn't up to channeling Britney Spears or Celine Dion or Cristina Aguilera. We decided to escape while we could.

On our way out, I caught one of the surly guys checking out my shoes again. I looked at him and said, "It was nice you let us in, even with these ugly shoes on." He said dryly, "Sometimes we make exceptions."

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Meet the Escus

Amynescu is in Romania for nine months to make a documentary. Note that this is the same period of time it takes to conceive and give birth to a child, and that both experiences may be equally painful. This is not to say that the process of making a film is not incredibly rewarding, especially with a kind, supportive Sound Recordist/Travel Coordinator/Boyfriend, who also happens to speak fluent Romanian. He is right there at her side, urging her to breathe and push. Being an Alpha male, he's sometimes over-emphatic, but overall he is doing a great job keeping his microphone in check.

Perhaps you may have noticed that a disproportionate number of Romanian names end with "escu," from the more sinister "Ceausescu" to the more benign "Ionescu" or cheerful "Popescu." The reasons for this are unclear. However, Amynescu chose to "Romanianize" her screen name because of its flattering phonetic association with Romania's greatest poet, Eminescu. Mihai Eminescu is best known for his lyrical, romantic poems like "Luceafarul," ("Evening Star") which you can enjoy in English at

Sorinescu also chose to further Romanianize his name, since he had always felt left out growing up in Romania without an "escu." Sorinescu is an engineer who left Romania at the age of 18, and has returned several times to visit friends and family. In 2003, while vacationing at the Black Sea Coast in Costinesti, he met Amynescu. Neither of them ever imagined that they would one day be living in Bucharest and writing a blog together. Some blogs will written by Amynescu, and some by sorinescu, but others are joint endeavors.


The views, statistical analyses, findings, and opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of any grant-making institution, and are solely those of the authors, who reserve the right to completely change their minds upon the acquisition of greater wisdom and better comprehension of the Romanian language.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Bine Ati Venit la Blog-ul Nostru! (Welcome to our Blog)

Having failed to keep any written record of our time in Romania so far, aside from a few emails sent hurriedly from smoke-filled internet cafes, today we decided to start our very own blog. Inspired by such blogging luminaries as Dabney and Ann (, Jen Simmons ( and Bayard Stern (, we hope that you will share our lives with us via this virtual journal, thus sparing you the inconvenience of a clogged inbox or a guilty conscience for deleting our e-mails without reading them first.