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.