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.