Inside Romanian Design Week: What Does an Open City Mean to You?

Words: Ioana Negoescu
Illustration: Doina Titanu
May 2024

When Andrei Borțun dreams, he dreams big. So it’s no surprise that when the creative entrepreneur conceptualized a design event in Bucharest, he imagined a grand festival – one that would be “taken over by the city,” embraced and driven by its residents. The dream came true, and the dreaming goes on. Ahead of the 12th edition the Romanian Design Week (RDW), he sees this year’s show as an opportunity not only to bring together the best talents but also to “unlock” the capital’s potential, posing a question to all of us – visitors and creators, locals and foreigners – to reflect on as we marvel at human creativity: what does it take for a city to be truly open? Let’s take a moment to understand how Andrei first asked himself that question, how it led to this year’s theme, and how the festival has evolved since he founded it more than a decade ago. 

Since 1998, Andrei has been at the forefront of organizing creative events such as AdPrint Festival, ADOOR, EFFIE, Internetics, and Art Directors Club. Driven by a passion to make an even bigger impact, he envisioned a project that would unite various creative industries, engage with larger communities, and spark real change in our society and economy. Thus, in 2012, RDW was born — a festival designed to unite outstanding designers and architects, in a vibrant, interconnected community ready to innovate and inspire. It revealed the deep need for connection among talented individuals and organizations. From the very first edition, it brought creative minds together, allowing them to share their dreams and challenges. This newfound camaraderie not only transformed how they celebrated their achievements but also empowered them to collaboratively solve problems and push the boundaries of their creativity.

“RDW was initially viewed with much curiosity. Some, already interested and knowledgeable, appreciated that they could see and discover projects and organizations they hadn’t heard of yet, while others looked at what was happening as if it were a UFO,” Andrei tells us.

But what does RDW mean, in short? It is the sum of exhibitions, events, installations, conferences, and parties, all having design (product, graphic, fashion) and architecture as a common denominator. This year’s edition, with the theme Unlock the City, brings more novelties to the public. Besides the RDW Exhibition, which presents the most visionary architecture, design, fashion, and illustration projects, creative minds are promoted through RDW Young Design. For as much relevant international content as possible, the festival showcases some of the most important projects from several European countries through the RDW Design Flags section. Therefore, not only are local initiatives highlighted, but through the RDW Concept Store, visitors can find objects made by both Romanian and international designers. In this edition, the RDW Talks concept, developed last year through a series of podcasts, is now emphasizing face-to-face meetings between the public and visionary creatives from around the world.

In addition, each building that hosts the festival is carefully selected to reflect the diversity and creative potential of the city. This year it’s the turn of the former CINA restaurant, a symbol of Bucharest, a building constructed in 1907 and now a historical monument. CINA opens the conversation about those places and areas that need to be “unlocked” to bring Bucharest prestige. Probably no other place in the city would have been more suitable for this year’s theme. But then, what does Unlock the City really mean? I spoke to a few festival exhibitors to capture the essence of this edition’s concept, to see what it means to them and how it applies to our beloved city, Bucharest. 

Ioana Ciolacu, fashion designer: “The idea that the city is closed and needs to be opened or unlocked is a direction I fully support. To open a city, it takes not only an intention and a plan but also the constant application of this idea. Opening a city means being attentive to the naturalness of the habitat and its residents, customs, dynamics, typologies, but also actively working to raise the standard of living and life.”

Anca Dragu, artist, designer, and founder of the brand Una ca Luna, a ceramic studio:Unlock the City means activating the creative places in Bucharest. It is a complex event that allows workshops, design studios, architecture, fashion, ceramics, and others to open their doors to the public and interact with them through workshops. The exhibitions, curated by professionals in the field, have been and are followed by both the local and international community. Here, you can see the best new projects in the creative fields. Bucharest thus becomes a city known in Europe for creativity and innovation. As a participant and exhibitor at Romanian Design Week since its early editions, I can say that the festival brings more and more quality creations to the forefront and provides a connection platform between creative fields. ‘Unlocking’ the City makes Bucharest vibrate with creativity.”

Oana Opriș, founder of Genuin – a business with 100% European linen home&deco products: “The Unlock the City concept intrigued us with the idea of co-creating a friendlier city. For us, this year’s theme represents how we imagine Bucharest should be: 1) connected with nature and tradition, because this makes us healthier and more balanced – which is why we use linen in our products; 2) intertwined with modernity while protecting the environment – our reason for upcycling in product design with recycled textiles; 3) full of color and uniqueness – just like Ana Bănică’s illustrations, which we carefully and lovingly embroidered on the pillows we created and will present at the event. We strongly believe that the dialogue, exposure, and creativity of this edition can create meaningful conversations that move the city in the right direction and develop it on multiple layers.”

Andrei Borțun, founder of RDW: “I have always dreamed we would lose control and let people lead the city. That’s how we came to this theme, where we want people to explore the city and become friends with it through design, innovation, and creativity. We contribute to this both by bringing the CINA building back to life and through all the exhibition spaces: Combinatul Fondului Plastic or Piața Amzei being two relevant examples, which are 100% occupied until the end of the year by artists or organizations that otherwise had no place to produce various shows. To open Bucharest, I believe we need to use everything it has that is most beautiful, best, smartest, and most creative. Not to HELP, but to USE. I mean civil society, specialists, cultural institutions, the academic environment, investors, entrepreneurs, etc. To be used, there is a need for objectives, and implementation and monitoring strategies. And beyond budgets, spaces, and facilities, what’s needed is more collaboration between organizations and institutions, and more involvement from the citizens.”

Finally, I asked Andrei what he learned after so many RDW editions: “After 12 editions of the festival, I realized that long-term partners are essential, but you have to offer understanding in return to all those involved in the collaborative relationship, and often it helps to do even more than you promised. I realized how great the need for belonging is among people, whether it’s a large project, a network, a movement, or a group, and at the same time, that the team you are part of must be solid, functional, and built over time. I left the most important thing for last: namely to be flexible and to seek the sustainability of a project rather than the size of the stage or the number of spotlights. Then, don’t forget to ask yourself as often and as honestly as possible why you do certain things, beyond your own reputation or income growth.”

Bucharest has a lot of potential, and events like RDW make it more loved by the inhabitants. This year, for ten days, the city transforms, and everything comes to life through the hundreds of events and activities that take place simultaneously. People explore the streets, going from one location to another, daring to enter the courtyards or inside creative businesses, and discovering forgotten buildings that have been brought back to life.

If you are from Bucharest – or happen to be visiting these days – I invite you to join us in taking over the city and discovering its most creative and exciting offerings. And if you are from another beautiful corner of Romania or the world, then I ask you with much curiosity: what does an open city mean to you?

Sacred Flames: Orthodox Easter in Rural Romania

Words & Photos: Mihnea Turcu
May 2024

I was just over 5 years old when my grandmother took me to church for the first time one night. We dressed well and walked through the streets filled with mud and white flowers from the blossoming trees. It was dark outside, and the bells, initially faint in the distance, then louder and louder, alerted us that we were approaching. The churchyard was already full of people from the whole village, and the fact that they spoke almost in a whisper made you believe that something magical was about to happen. As if someone had signaled us, just before midnight, we all started to enter the church, and immediately after the tall wooden door, my grandmother bought me a candle and told me to keep it, not to light it yet. It was Easter Eve, the pinnacle moment of the entire Orthodox Holy Week of Easter.

The above story took place around 1984, at the beginning of my childhood in the Romanian village universe, where faith and the church deeply existed in the heart of the community. I later moved to the city, and in adolescence, the absence of grandparents and the context made me forget and distance myself from that traditional world. 30 years later, with a camera in hand, I rediscovered the people, customs, and traditions of the Romanian village.

Romania is different if you traverse it from east to west and north to south. Nature, architecture, and people’s physiognomies differ slightly from one area to another. There are initial visual contrasts, apparent and easier or harder to perceive for the eye of a traveler, but they also have deep, profound implications that vary in the structure and manifestation of beliefs and customs.

Perceived from within, in its intimacy, rural life has a particular meaning and mystery, tightly linked to faith, nature, time, and the rotation of seasons. There is no better time to get to know the Romanian village than when it prepares for celebration, and of all, the most intense and profound is Easter.

It could be seen only as a manifestation of religious customs and dogmas. Still, placed in time, in the sequence of centuries, the Easter celebration acquires a much more intense significance, becoming, best said, a necessity. Set at the beginning of spring, the Holy Week bears the symbol of the rebirth of inner life, of the purification of the soul, and of a fresh start, things that for the Romanian țăran (peasant), in his solitude with nature, must be understood as absolutely crucial. With winter now behind us, the feeling of a new life appears in every insect and every flower.

Fasting begins 40 days before Easter day, and as I perceive it, it has the physical connotation of spiritual introspection. There can be no new beginning without first realizing what was good or bad, passing through the body, followed by a confession and a spiritual cleansing. 

During Holy Week, churches with the smell of old wood reopen, and from Monday to Friday, people come to Mass services every morning and evening. The rooms are aired and refreshed, the animal stables, the streets, and the cemeteries are cleaned, and festive white clothes are washed and left to dry in the warmth of the sun’s rays. People and things move at an increasingly perceptible rhythm. In the air, you can feel everything happening and converging towards a particular moment, perhaps the most intense, the Night of the Resurrection.

The Easter celebration continues on the first, second, and third days, with consecration services in the churchyards, dances, shows, and a joyous end to the long fast. For the hurried passerby, the atmosphere among people is one of open smiles, cleanliness, and joy. However, when looking at Easter more closely, after the Night of the Resurrection, there is a renewed feeling of belonging to history, places, and time. 

A year ago, in the spring of 2023, there was total darkness on the streets of the village in Maramureș where I chose to spend Easter Eve. I had decided some time ago that every Easter holiday would find me, in turn, at one of the old churches in the Maramureș villages. There are too many and too distinctive not to see them come to life that night. An hour before midnight, the village felt empty, and the over 500-year old church tower, projected like a ghost against the starry sky. Just as I was beginning to doubt that there would be any service, I saw the steam of a breath approaching from a distance. It was the priest, and because I had arrived early, he asked me to help him pour wine over the bread into glasses. Without knowing each other, I felt that I belonged to that place; I had already become one of them. 

In the meantime, in the long sounds of the bells heard at night throughout the village, the church was filled with people dressed in traditional costumes from inside to the gate. They still spoke in whispers, but it seemed like whispers of a long-awaited anticipation, betrayed by their lively eyes. At midnight, the lights went out, and the silence of the people became one with the church’s wood. From the altar, the thick and clear voice of the priest was heard uttering the injunction that has endured for centuries, “come and take light…” 

From candle to candle, the light of Easter began its journey from the altar through the church to the courtyard, later reaching every home. Faces and hands were outlined in the darkness by the yellow light of the candle, its glow symbolizing that we know where we come from and where we are heading. With candles in hand, we entered the courtyard, closing the church’s gates behind us. The procession thus encircled the church three times to stop again at its gate where the priest, symbolizing the archangel, knocks to open “the gates of paradise,” in a dialogue with a muffled voice representing the Devil. The entire scene illustrates the entry of Jesus Christ and his victory into the world of hell. The church doors then opened wide, and the Resurrection service continued inside. 

This is the peak moment of the entire Easter celebration, and its magic lies beyond dogmas, books, or religion in the needs of the soul and in customs traced by centuries. Time seems to stop in place, and through its gate, I hear my grandmother’s voice who, one night long ago, put a candle in my hand, whispering to me, “Do not light it yet.”

Empowering the Blind, One Pair of Glasses at a Time: A Conversation with Cornel Amariei, Founder of dotLumen

Words & Photos: Andrea Dimofte
April 2024

Have you ever wondered how it feels to be blind? How would you react if you were told you’d gradually, but surely, lose your sight? What would you need in order to navigate the world around you? Perhaps you’ve closed your eyes for a while and focused on your other senses while trying to go about your typical day – certainly atypical for most, but a reality for many. There are currently over 40 million blind people in the world, each with different degrees of impairments, – and Cornel Amariei has taken on the task of helping them. He is the CEO of tech startup dotLumen, a company he founded in 2020 in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, through which he has designed an innovative device – “glasses for the blind” as he calls them – to improve the mobility of people with visual disabilities worldwide. 

Today, even with all the advancements in technology, only a few solutions can substantially aid a blind person. The Braille alphabet has been of help to pass on information for over a hundred years. Most smartphones and computers have a text-to-speech system, which converts written text into spoken words. But when it comes to mobility, walking around the house or on the street – something most of us often take for granted – there are only two solutions: the walking cane and the guide dog. Cornel and his team have embraced the challenge of bringing a new solution to the table.

Born in Bucharest, Cornel spent part of his childhood in Campul Lung Moldovenesc, in Bucovina, northern Romania. He learned to program at the age of 7. At 15, he founded Romania’s first high-school Robotics Club. During his teenage years, he also launched two companies, one of which paid for his higher education in Germany at Jacobs University. Now, at 30, he manages a team of 50 people dedicated to empowering the blind through assistive technology. His company is Romania’s first startup to get funding from the European Innovation Council. And while his products have not hit the market yet, research and development are well underway. 

I recently visited their offices, scattered over three floors, filled with gadgets and testing rooms, to learn more about their ambitious project. But to my surprise, we didn’t just talk. I spent much of the day blindfolded, trying to succeed at the many tasks Cornel and his team gave me. At first, I had to guess different shapes on papers before me. I then got acquainted with the white cane. I stumbled around their building, trying to make my way out of the elevator and onto the street. I was then ready to try on a prototype of their glasses. Still blindfolded, I carefully placed the device around my forehead. It was lighter than I expected. And then, off I went. The device is equipped with multiple cameras that constantly analyze the external surroundings. With the help of haptic and auditory feedback, it guided me through the neighborhood by generating pinching sensations on my forehead. Indeed, it helped me avoid obstacles coming my way – such as cars or children playing ball – nudging me to take safer routes. By the end of the walk, I was speechless. As we sat down for lunch in one of Cluj’s charming little restaurants, I was ready to pick Cornel’s brain for this interview. 

You are very young to have started such an ambitious project; tell us a bit about yourself.

Both of my parents have locomotive disabilities, and my sister, who is 16 years older than me, has a severe mental disability. It was a challenging environment for me to grow up in. Due to my sister’s emotional instability, the energy at home was often tense. We also had limited financial means. But, as I grew up, I noticed how much technology can help. I began a career in locomotives and became the head of innovation at Continental Automotive Systems, one of the world’s largest automotive manufacturers. I worked on their electronics and autonomous driving, initially in Romania, then in Germany, and with many international teams. I got to travel quite a bit and met many interesting people. 

So where does the dotLumen story begin? 

I often found myself surrounded by people with disabilities. When I began my career in tech about three and a half years ago, I thought of merging the two. With George, a childhood friend from Bucovina who worked with me at Continental Automotive Systems, we started researching mobility solutions for people with visual disabilities. And well, we couldn’t really find any. The guide dog and the cane have existed for decades but have limitations. Training a guide dog can be extremely expensive, and caring for them is a big responsibility too. On top of that, they’re a scarce resource. While there are 40 million blind people around the world — a number expected to increase drastically — and nearly 300 million people suffering from low vision, we have estimated just around 30,000 active guide dogs. 

Since we come from an autonomous driving background and understand how to make cars drive themselves, we thought: ‘why not try to replicate the main features of a guide dog through technology?’

What are the main differences on how a cane, a guide dog, and your glasses can assist visually impaired people?

The white cane simply extends your perception. You will only feel an obstacle up to the length of your cane. But the cane won’t tell you how to go around the obstacle – it will simply inform you there is one. A guide dog, or a human companion for that matter, would guide you. They understand the situation you find yourself in and create a path plan. The dog pulls your hand or makes you stop at a crosswalk. Our glasses take this to the next level. For instance, with the help of the internet and GPS, they can bring you to places you’ve never been before, while the guide dog can’t do that. Our glasses can also speak to you and inform you about your environment – giving you a more rounded experience. And while your dog needs maintenance, our glasses only require to be charged. 

People also don’t talk about the training conditions guide dogs go through to do their job right. They are purposely bred and born in a particular setting. They start training when they are only 6 days old and never fully experience a more normal canine life.

What is the technology behind the glasses?

From a technological standpoint, the self-driving car is the most comparable product. While self-driving cars determine the direction to take on roads, our glasses do that on sidewalks, and they must first understand their environment. They discern where the ground is and identify obstacles, which are the first thing the device determines, geometrically. But they go beyond that. For instance, the trajectory might still be unsafe even if you have a flat surface in front of you with no obstacles; a road could be perfectly flat but have cars driving on it – making it unsafe. Similarly, a perfectly flat lake would not be recognizable as dangerous by a delivery robot. Our glasses can examine each surface individually, taking in all these factors to determine whether the person can safely walk. 

They also determine distance. They contain six cameras, four of which are used for stereoscopic view, which help determine distance. They also have many sensors, such as gyroscopes and GPS sensors. They determine the distance between your movements. Then, with all that information, path plans are quickly created and sent back through feedback mechanisms – the vibrations you feel on your forehead. 

What were some of the technical challenges you encountered?

One of the major ones was that there was never a system hardware that had the computing power for what we required: to have something as small as this to compute everything it had to compute. It was a huge challenge to design a machine-learning model that could do what we needed. 

The aim is for the glasses to be versatile – to help people in as many different settings as possible. Some of the technical challenges arise from the region we test in, which is why collecting data from different parts of the world is essential. For instance, in Eastern Europe, parking cars on the side of the road is common. That isn’t the case in most of Western Europe. We struggled to teach the device that cars can be parked on the side of the road without causing danger. We also struggled to make the device work in both humid temperatures and below zero degrees Celsius. 

There was also the forehead challenge: we wanted the glasses to fit everyone. It’s as if we had to design a one-size-fits-all pair of shoes. The device had to be comfortable on your forehead. We had to study anthropometry and head shapes. We made hundreds of forehead scans to figure out how to shape the device. We now have nearly 500 – the world’s most extensive forehead study. We have the world’s largest forehead study because we have the only one. There are simply so many different shapes: some are round, some are flat, some are smaller at the top, or more prominent at the top. We didn’t want the devices to be tailor-made since that’s not scalable.

Did you interact a lot with people with visual disabilities even before starting the project?

Yes, definitely. Due to the family I was raised in, I was exposed to all types of disabilities from a young age, ranging from mental, locomotive, hearing, speaking, and, of course, visual. When you have a disability, I noticed that communities get formed, which is always helpful and wonderful. So that’s how I got to meet more people.

Which other insights did you gain by working with the blind?

I learned that it’s all about those small things that improve a person’s quality of life. We conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with blind people, to get a better understanding of the types of problems that arise in their day-to-day lives. We wanted to learn how they cook and eat. How they experience Netflix. How they determine the direction of a bedroom. We discovered that they travel much more than we would have thought – less than visually capable people, but they do travel. Each aspect of what we consider ‘normal behavior’ for us as visually capable individuals is different for a person with a visual disability. Everything from personal hygiene to how they choose their clothes. For instance, they often ask visually capable people their opinions when selecting clothes to know if colors match. 

What is a blind person’s relationship with color?

Well, a person with a visual disability can still perceive light. There are many degrees of visual impairments and many people who experience them can still perceive color. But for those who are blind, color is a concept they understand theoretically, not in practice. They also attach color to emotions – for instance, they know that red is associated with warmth and blue with sadness. I had a conversation once with someone blind about green shoes and asked her whether she preferred them light or dark green, and I could sense that while she understood the concept of the color, she struggled with its nuances. 

Tell us about some technology that already exists to help the blind. 

There are many apps designed to help a blind person in various aspects. Some of them can determine colors and suggest combinations. There is a lot of technology that can assist the blind with daily tasks. For instance, washing machines have easy accessibility features, where each button makes a particular sound. Things like that. Many people with disabilities are early adopters of technologies – it enables them to do more things. There’s this famous saying from one of IBM’s directors: “Technology makes things easier for people without disabilities. But for people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.”

How would you weigh technology’s importance in daily life vs a person’s mental well-being?

Determination and resilience are key to doing the things you set out to do. While we strive to offer mobility independence, people can have all the technology in the world, but without will and a healthy state of mind, they won’t be able to function in society, and the technology will be useless. A person’s mental health is extremely important. 

So, how should we help someone with visual disabilities? 

The most straightforward advice I can give is to first ask if they want help in the first place. Then, ask how. Most people with visual disabilities would be able to describe what they need. Then I’d say – just don’t be weird about it. People with disabilities want to be treated as normally as possible and as typically as possible. 

I think it is a shame that mainstream schools don’t teach those without disabilities how to help those with disabilities. I have noticed that people generally are well-intentioned and want to help, but simply don’t know how to. 

DotLumen has become an award-winning startup. What are some of the awards, and how do you feel about them?

Indeed, we have won multiple awards since we launched the company. We won the Red Dot: Luminary award in 2021 for design – the nominees included the Virgin Galactic Spaceship interior by Seymourpowell, the world’s first commercial spaceship. We also won the MedTech award in 2023, an event dubbed as Germany’s technology ‘Oscars.’ And we were selected as finalists for the New European Bauhaus Prize in 2023 out of over 1,450 applicants. 

Sometimes, I get overwhelmed with imposter syndrome. But other times, these awards and recognition empower me and my team, making us more ambitious. We get a boost in productivity because we want to feel like we deserve these awards. On a practical level, they also help us with international visibility, allowing us to get the attention of large companies. 

We hope that if more people and companies learn about our mission, we can accelerate our efforts to finally start helping visually impaired people.

Romanian Mucenici: Boiled, not baked, Mr. Bond

Words: Adriana Sohodoleanu
Illustration: Doina Titanu
March 2024

As March arrived, Oana Vasiliu was struck, for the first time, by the fact that her grandparents were gone. And it wasn’t just because they had stopped calling, but rather because they were no longer asking about her baked mucenici. For the cultural journalist, these beloved Romanian pastries carry a taste of nostalgia. 

She’s not alone in that sentiment. In fact, these ritualistic sweets with a recent surge of fame are a way for many religious Romanians to reflect on the past. Every year on March 9, we commemorate through this food the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste – a group of Christian soldiers killed near the city of Sebaste, in Lesser Armenia, centuries ago, for confessing their faith. To remember those who died, we often consume these pastries accompanied by 40 drinks (or 44, depending on the region.) The type of drinks can vary, from wine to brandy. And the mucenici’s cooking methods and styles tell different stories depending on who you ask, with the main question being: boiled (like a soup) or baked?

Romania constantly surprises us with its regional differences. We eat them baked in Moldova, boiled in Muntenia and Dobrogea, or not at all in Banat. In some counties, they are called mucenici/măcinici; in others, brădoși, brăduleți, brândușei, sfinți, sfințișori, sânți, the last three being variations of the Romanian word for ‘saints.’ The eight-shaped dough is prevalent in both the baked and boiled versions, but the size differs dramatically – the baked ones are usually as big as your palm, while the boiled ones are so small that two or three fit nicely on a spoon. 

Since this day usually falls during Lent, they should be made of yeasted bread dough, baked and glazed with honey syrup and cracked walnuts, or a simple flour and water dough boiled in a sweet syrup perfumed with lots of cinnamon. However, just like the ritualistic Christmas pig slaughtering, which is thoroughly enjoyed during fasting, the baked mucenici are often made with an enriched type of bread, explicitly using cozonac dough, the Romanian brioche. 

Mirela Cata, innovation manager at Ana Pan, a bakery in Bucharest, remembers the boiled mucenici as the sweet soup of her childhood, along with the bagels baked and offered alongside them. Yet she does not recall the complimentary drinks and attributes it to the restraints of the Communist regime. On the contrary, for Daniel Ion, owner of Casa del Pan, another bakery in the capital, the so-called Martyrs’ Day was a much-awaited occasion in which people shared homemade mucenici with both their neighbors and extended family, joking about and enjoying the 40 drinks. Growing up with the soup version, he came to love the baked one more. 

Marius Tudosiei, owner of Bacania Veche, an old-style Romanian deli in Bucharest, observes that “the perception we have about festive foods is interesting: sometimes we have the impression that others are doing it wrong […] that they don’t know how to do it, that they should come to us to learn.’’ Indeed, when it comes to eating, people often choose with their heart, and this organ stays mostly anchored in their childhood. For Marius, that means native Moldova with its “braided, baked, almost like a cake dough smothered in honey syrup with honey and walnut coarsely ground or crushed under a rolling pin.” To him that makes the boiled soup “an interesting dessert but only a dessert. 

Valentina Ion, the owner of the artisanal bakery Grain Trip, fondly remembers the mucenici soup from her upbringing. She describes a dough spread thinly, from which her mother or grandmother would cut small eights in the traditional shape. She watched with wonder and yearning as the dough followed its rhythm, becoming the coveted soup. Others with a more romantic view talk about the dusty table and ghostly pale eight-shaped figures. Precision-bound bakers emphasize the perfect amount of pressure needed to create a flawless doughy eight. 

I could write that I remember my mom or myself cutting out those little eights repeatedly until the cows came home and the table filled with tens of tiny infinities, and our arms grew numb. But those are not my memories. When it comes to mucenici, I am more focused on the result than the process. All I can remember are the cold, flavorful spoons of sweet, thick, nutty soup I fed myself one after another until my stomach could take no more. 

Revisiting Traditions

Oana grew up in Moldova and remembers seeing the Muntenian sweet soup for the first time when she moved to Bucharest. She asked (and dazzled) the shop’s assistant for information. Iasmina Resid, my former student, now a pastry chef at Angeline pastry shop, grew up in Bucharest and spent her childhood holidays in Banat – she never had the Moldavian mucenici until they became fashionable a few years ago.

The fact that many more people are not aware of these regional variations is a sign of their upbringing in a time when social media was not yet born. But just like their older brother, the cozonac (a Christmas cake), and their Easter sister pasca (a cheese cake), mucenicii have recently grown in popularity. Facebook, Instagram, and Google are now filled to the brim with mucenici recipes, including eyebrow-raising descriptions to cook them: with rose, pistachio, lemon, and caramel or chocolate.

Revisiting traditional recipes is cool and enriches the array of options with, most of the time, delicious new styles. Plus, it has the advantage of keeping the tradition alive in some form (let’s not forget that any tradition was an innovation at the beginning). 

Talking about old recipes, Valentina admits that change and novelty happen whether we embrace it or not. “A young buyer will search for a contemporary product [with a traditional feel to it], but it would be a waste not to exploit the opportunity of giving old traditions a new twist,” she argues. Yet she adds: “As long as it is a well thought innovation, not for posterity’s sake or profit.”

For Iasmina, revisiting food traditions is an opportunity to leave her mark and improve older recipes with new ingredients and techniques. Mirela, not only a more senior chef but also a pastry instructor, considers the revisited mucenici as a trendy niche

Believing in the power of stories and in the memory of taste, Oana shares Iasmina’s view to exert creativity, but given the short window of traditional availability for this dessert, she prefers eating the version she grew up with, untouched. Her grandparents cooked at home – her grandfather followed recipes strictly from his childhood; her grandmother got inspiration from magazines. Her mother had always been curious to try new things. That may partially explain Oana’s favorable attitude toward novelty. “Innovation is welcome as long as the client accepts it,” she says. Marketing consultant Linda Willy believes that generations are changing, including the modification of their references, so ritualistic foods can also be integrated into adapted versions.

I do not have a problem with revisiting them either – it is fun and challenging to devise alternative ways of doing something, perhaps, and hopefully, even better than your mother. Traditions are known to be shapeshifters, yet they have become heavily commodified lately, raising questions of belonging and identity. 

Don’t Lent Your Money (They Say) 

Innovation means mucenici covered or filled with chocolate (it could even be Nutella!) and served with whipped cream, crème pâtissiere, raspberry syrup, or fresh strawberries. They can be sprinkled with sugar vermicelli, pumpkin seeds, or pistachio; treated pretty much like a Belgian waffle. But, whereas the gauffre de Liège was born out of Prince-Bishop’s appetite for sugary treats, March 9 is a religious celebration in Romania. 

The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste commemorated on this day were Roman Christian soldiers tortured to death for their faith in 320 AD by order of Emperor Licinus, the same one who, together with Constantine, had issued an edict granting toleration to the Christians seven years before. Indeed, emperors can be moody. 

The soldiers resisted temptations. They endured stone beating, drowning in a frozen lake, and were ultimately left to die with their legs crushed, their bodies cremated, and their ashes thrown in it. Miracles were reported that night – the lake melted, and 40 shining garlands descended upon the victims. Relics were spread throughout the land, and their veneration cult began. This developed alongside older pagan beliefs and practices related to the cult of the departed: offerings to the gods and the belief that the beginning of spring was a special time, making possible the return of spirits among the living. 

Housewives clean the houses, make fires to cleanse the yard, and sprinkle holy water over family members and cattle for protection. Some people engage in divinatory practices, others in a bit of drunkenness (a sure thing if the 40 drinks custom is strictly observed). People believe that if it rains on March 9, then Easter will also be rainy; if there is thunder, the following summer will bring rich crops; they know a long autumn lies ahead if the temperature falls below zero the night before the Martyrs’ celebrations. Furthermore, to increase household resources, on mucenici day, no money should be lent.

From Snakes to Lakes

The mucenici themselves have a ritualistic space, time and purpose. There are set rules – old books say they must be taken to church for blessing, before their offering and consumption. The main ingredients – wheat, honey, and walnuts – are among the sacred ones, each with a plethora of meanings and symbols behind them. 

The dough is woven into specific shapes, each with meaning. In Moldova, the eight-shape represents a stylized human figure, not the mathematical sign for infinity. In some places, it is believed that eight is the number of days the soldiers spent in prison. Some link the S-shape to the snake motif, which stands for temporal transformation (the Earth shedding its winter skin to make room for the spring one), ancestral perennity, regeneration, and fertility. 

In the region of Oltenia, villages in the Olt, Argeș, and Teleorman counties bake a clearly anthropomorphic shape – it has a head with eyes and nose and mouth, belly button, hands, and legs, and it is called brădoși or brândușei. However, Western Oltenia villages simplify the whole thing down to a round flatbread upon which 40 stamps are made with a pipe. The Southern-boiled version holds the watery syrup as a reminder of the lake the martyrs were thrown into. The late Radu Anton Roman, the beloved culinary journalist, mentioned a coin being placed randomly in one mucenic in some areas (just like the Catholic Epiphany gateaux du roi.) 

Since the festivity is attached to Orthodoxy, we share it with other Orthodox peoples, such as the Ukrainians and the Russians. Ukrainian mothers and grandmothers bake zhavoronki, yeasted dough larks as heralds of spring and symbols of the martyr soldiers. Children toss the doughy birds into the air to symbolically welcome spring and bring luck to farmers. In Russia, the Martyrs’ Day precedes maslenitsa, the butter week leading up to Lent fasting and reminds us of the Mardi Gras celebrations. 

So there you have it, paganism and religion one after the other, a cavalcade of fact and myth, meanings, practices, and beliefs from times past. Habits and beliefs that can get lost when mucenici shine brightly in shops’ windows from January to May, dressed in cosmopolitan attire hard to distinguish from other contemporary desserts. Chocolate, pecan nuts, tonka, and cream make them modern and international. Identity will not get scared of a pair of pink sprinkles, but time might get to its core – being around for a couple of months leads to dulling the eye and palate. As they say, sometimes less is more. 

Why Does It Bother Me So Much?

As a social science budding researcher, concepts such as consumerism, aestheticization, desacralization, hipsterization, and commodification come to mind when considering mucenici’s newfound popularity. For a while, year after year, I monitored social media for reactions to this seemingly tiny phenomenon, just another expression of our times. I wondered why no one seemed to see the dangers of losing our stories and identity. 

Tiberiu Cazacioc, a Slow Food fellow and expert in sustainable agriculture and UE food quality protection schemes, wrote that taking a dish out of its context “commodifies, banalizes, and standardizes; .it levels and kills cultural and social traditions.” Furthermore, anthropologist Florin Dumitrescu published his PhD thesis about the “supermarketization of the ritualic involvement,” making it all easier to understand and contextualize. 

Mucenici, like cozonac, coliva (Romanian “death” cake), and pasca, were once homemade foods. They are now available in supermarkets, restaurants, and sometimes even in street food stalls. One explanation for this leap is the fact that people no longer cook that much at home. This means professional chefs come to save the day, in classic or modern dress. Their offer is sometimes marketed or curated as a repository of tradition, together with the associated rituals and emotions. 

Oana thinks that the 10-year-long history of revisiting Romanian cuisine has elevated ritualistic food, making it as suitable as traditional lay food — and inducing nationalism and authenticity. But she notes a lack of storytelling surrounding them when they are used beyond their traditional context.

Daniel believes that overly exceeding the traditional timeframe of some foods leads to the loss of tradition and eventually the pleasure of tasting them. He’ll have mucenici two weeks prior to March 9 and one week after. Mirela puts them on the menu for about a month before and takes them out in mid-March. Zexe Brasserie starts selling them, boiled and baked, three days before the festive day, so people have time to stock up, says owner Ana Consulea. 

At Grain Trip, Valentina launches them exactly on March 9 and keeps them all month; it’s her personal choice. “People ask about them being made outside the season, but I just think they’d lose their appeal, we do the same with cozonac for Christmas and pasca for Easter,” she says. “It is not necessarily wrong for products with a ritual character to be prepared during the rest of the year as well [..] it is important for preserving  traditions and products with Romanian specificity that they are promoted in the most intelligently. But this can mean different things depending on the bakery/restaurant and the audience that each one has. The more people talk about traditional products and the more we try to carry on traditions through well-made products, the better.” 

The solution? Mirela has one: the already existent lay versions that are very close to the real thing – cheesecake for pasca and Polish bagels for mucenici.

Chocolate, pistachio, and spice make everything nice, and I am not one to say no to trying them (and retrying them for confirmation). What really bothers me is their desensitizing effect. Ritualic foods ahead of or long after their due date lack any emotional load. I put my trust in these traditions to keep us grounded in a more globalized world. 

In a market brimming with neon-coloured industrial products, I need my mucenici to keep their humble paysan clothes, to stay simple and start being baked or boiled on March 9, continuing the long line of grandmothers who baked and grandfathers who either cracked open walnuts or drank the 40 glasses. This might be seen as hate, but it is actually love. As a society, we live in the most permissive time ever; we remove and reinterpret daily what we no longer like or use in its classical form, and that liberty is amazing. However, I find it reassuring that some things happen the same way year after year, maybe even century after century (I know a mucenici recipe from 1883). 

For sure, there’s no offer without demand. Bakers and other mucenici makers give their clients what they want and, in the process, enjoy robust sales. I just hope we do not lose the appetite due to overstimulation and kill a tradition in the process. 

So, baked or boiled? 

I liked Valentina’s answer – do we really have to choose? 

Each recipe has its charm if it’s well prepared. The industrial versions focus primarily on quantity/price, not taste, making the memory of our grandmothers’ cooking a hefty one. Valentina grew up in Muntenia and loves the boiled ones “a little more.” Influential food blogger Laura Laurentiu lives in the mucenici-free land of Banat and recently adopted the Moldavian style. 

As for me, my true king of the North remains the boiled, chewy cinnamon ones, although my Muntenian mother also bakes some delicious brioche for my Moldavian father. 

I haven’t baked or boiled any mucenici yet – I am lucky to have my mom around, and just like Oana, I know there will come a time when March 9 will make my heart tender. 

Electronic Music under Communist Romania: The Sound of Resistance

Words: Dragoș Rusu
Illustration: Sorina Vazelina
February 2024

The cultural resistance in music during communist Romania was an important part of the broader opposition to the regime. While the government sought to control all forms of artistic expression, musicians found creative ways to resist these efforts and to express their dissent. Electronic music was a relatively underground movement that struggled to gain recognition from the state authorities. But some musicians established themselves in the scene and made immense contributions. I want to highlight some of these incredible sparks of originality, formed in the shadow of a totalitarian regime without access to technology or educational resources independent of the party’s doctrine. 

I was born a few years before the fall of the communist regime, so this article comes with a set of biases and risks, as I write about a time I did not live through. As an object of study, history is often dotted with ups and downs, ellipses of time, myths and legends, multiple versions of the same stories, or subjective testimonies appearing without factual and verifiable data. In this story – as in any other – the storyteller’s status is privileged by the present-past temporal axis, as we see past events through the lens of the present, constantly modified by our own social conditioning, education, or ethnocentrism. 

However, testimonies left by electronic music artists who lived through the communist regime indicate that the transgenerational circulation of ideas and ways of thinking in these communities was a fluid process. These elements belonged to a deep dimension of intelligence known as sonic thinking – a concept theorized by the Danish sound researcher and musicologist Holger Schulze – and had their own rhythm, passing through endless validation processes and ultimately evolving into an artistic form of resistance.

Underground Music

The Communist government in Romania controlled all aspects of cultural production, including music. The Communist Party sought to use culture to promote its ideology and consolidate its power, and it imposed tight censorship on all forms of artistic expression. The party’s direction was that a musician had to make music for the masses, for the proletariat. Much of this music consisted of mandatory propaganda songs about the supreme leaders of the country, designed to arouse enthusiasm for socialist and communist ideals. Despite these restrictions, some artists sought to resist the regime’s attempts to control, and in the realm of music, several forms of cultural resistance emerged during this time.

Artists used to gather in small underground circles and music scenes made of musicians who played music banned by the regime, including Western rock and punk. Since electronic music had no lyrics, it was harder to be censored. Nevertheless, all musicians from all genres were kept under strict state supervision. They often performed in secret, and their concerts were attended by a small group of family members, friends and fans. While these scenes were relatively small, they were influential in shaping the country’s cultural landscape. They served as a space where people could express their opposition to the regime. 

Romanian electronic music emerged from classical music, which, according to composers Costin Miereanu and Doru Popovici, had three precursors: Ioan Căianu, Dimitrie Cantemir, and Anton Pann. At the beginning of the 20th century, George Enescu became the first Romanian composer to synthesize folk music with the trends of his time’s classical formation. Enescu used modern musical language and experimented in several areas. He is now considered the most valuable Romanian composer of all time. 

With the advent of new technological means, the second half of the 20th century laid the foundations for electronic music through various sonic experiments made by artists and experts. Within two different generations, several Romanian composers, musicologists, teachers and theorists refined the contemporary music of their time. The first wave included (among others) Aurel Stroe, Ştefan Niculescu and Anatol Vieru. Octavian Nemescu was part of a second, younger generation of musicians experimenting with electronic sounds. In 1984, he was among the first to create one of Romania’s most important electronic music albums. The album was named Gradeatia/Natural and was released by Electrecord, the only Romanian label from the communist regime (many years later, in 2018, it was reissued by the Belgian label Sub Rosa).

The association between Romanian music and Electrecord is inevitable. The two grew up and developed together, lived in a strange and natural symbiosis, and experienced intense historical moments that influenced Romanian culture. It could be argued that Romanian music would not have existed without Electrecord – and vice versa. Electrecord was one of the most profitable state-owned companies during communism. It produced a considerable amount of records with Romanian folklore music, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies each year, reaching the most remote villages and contributing to the effervescence of patriotic and nationalist spirit, omnipresent in the political climate of the time. Besides folk music, Electrecord also released a significant amount of jazz, pop, disco, electronic, contemporary, and traditional Roma music. Like many brands that declined after the revolution, Electrecord’s life wasn’t easy: other record labels emerged, CDs appeared, and vinyl presses were sold throughout Europe. The cultural opening towards the West generated an increasingly free market, in which Electrecord did not survive. 

The Cultural “Big Bang”

The Romanian communist regime began in 1947, but between the ‘60s and early ‘70s it underwent a series of political changes, generated by the death of Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej and the election of Nicolae Ceaușescu as General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party (in 1965) and Head of State (in 1967). During that period, the regime experienced a cultural opening towards the West, denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the short relaxation of internal repression. Ceaușescu created a positive image in the country and the West. Composer Octavian Nemescu talks in his work History of Spectral Music about this period of ideological liberalization, which eventually emerged into “a real Big Bang, an explosion in all arts: music, plastic arts, cinematography; new artistic musical movements with a Romanian imprint.” 

This short period of relief didn’t mean total freedom. It was a more relaxed control from the state: artists manifesting ideas not following the Party’s doctrine were still risking being censored or persecuted. In a talk in 2017, Nemescu remembered that he tried to create a small resistance group in his college years with two other musicians, Corneliu Cezar and Lucian Metianu. The group was called OCL after the names of the three composers, and it was born under the “realistic-socialist-proletarian terror of mass culture.” Nemescu said that it was difficult to find books and magazines in those years about avant-garde directions that were popular in the West, and that he eventually found an echo in the Romanian cultural realm. “We were doing a certain type of music just to pass the exams and something different for ourselves. Sometimes, there were scandals during the exams, and we were threatened with being expelled and sent to work. That was the ultimate sanction. If you didn’t follow the instructions, you were sent to work in a factory.”  

Nevertheless, when this short period of liberalization manifested, new ideas emerged in the Romanian musical context. One of these emerging ideas was ecology. Art creators were no longer called painters or sculptors, but installation artists. They immersed themselves in nature and created music in the midst of it so that they could be charged with the natural energy of the surrounding environment. “We said: ‘Down with concert halls, art galleries and institutionalized museums, all these huts that came with the Renaissance!’ We campaigned to return to ancient rituals, where magic was the most important,” Nemescu recalled.

New Sounds, Old Equipment

The first electronic music studio in Romania was established around 1965. It was created following a collaboration between the State Committee for Culture and Art and the National University of Music in Bucharest, under the guidance of Tiberiu Olah, composer and professor at the university. The studio was equipped with modern devices, such as a Buchla 100 modular synthesizer – brought from the USA at the time – as a Moog synthesizer, a Philips sound generator, and a magnetic tape recorder. Students at the university were encouraged to explore electronic sounds and techniques, and many of them went on to create innovative works in this field. Corneliu Cezar was one of the firsts. Regarded as a pioneer of musical avant-garde in Romania – and described by Nemescu as “a kind of Jean Cocteau of Romania” – in 1965, he made the first Romanian electronic piece, Aum. The studio was rudimentary, still “imperfect,” according to Nemescu.

Working with synthesizers involved a relationship with people from the engineering field: those who built them. Outside of the academic walls, one of the first attempts of this kind was made in the ‘60s by Bibi Ionescu, the bassist of the rock band Sfinx. But the tradition of electronic keyboards did not begin with him. Although they circulated with difficulty in the hands of musicians (due to limited access), the piano or electronic organ (such as Fender Rhodes or Hammond) made its presence felt in Romanian music since the early ‘70s, even though they were not capable of producing the same sounds as synthesizers.

In an interview, Bibi Ionescu recalled a day in the ‘60s when he was listening to the album Pictures at an Exhibition (by Emerson, Lake & Palmer), when he found a picture of a Moog synthesizer with some abbreviations: VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator), TCF (Tunable Control Frequency), VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier). “Not only did I not know what I was reading, but I also had no documents to find out the application of those terms in audio. […] However, Freddy Negrescu, a sound engineer at Electrecord, helped us. He was a man with absolute hearing and a passion for electronics. He was also a radio amateur who told us that we needed a field effect transistor. In the end, we used the keyboard from a Romanian clavichord. After burning about three transistors, we managed to build an oscillator. Musically, it sounded absolutely strange, but this imperfection helped us terribly. We played with this oscillator for the first time at Casa Studenților in 1973. How can I tell you?! It was crap, but people saw and heard something new for the first time.”

Even though the state control was strict, some musicians managed somehow to buy (or sell) guitars and synthesizers. The secret police knew these and other instruments were circulating in the country (eventually creating a black market). Still, the situation was tolerated since some musicians, those not politically engaged – playing music with no lyrics – were playing abroad and bringing those instruments when they returned home.

Spectralism: Incredible Sonic Experiments

Although relatively unknown at the time, the spectral music movement, which originated in France in the early ‘70s, was also discreetly developing in Romania. It was considered more an aesthetic than a style, or as the American composer Joshua Fineberg puts it, a recognition that “music is ultimately sound evolving in time.” 

An ​​important group of early spectral composers was centered in Romania, where a unique form of spectralism arose, partly inspired by local folk music. This tradition, as collected by the Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók inspired several composers, such as Corneliu Cezar, Anatol Vier, and Horațiu Rădulescu, as well as Iancu Dumitrescu and his partner Ana Maria Avram, who said that his music “reflects the attempt to free that God who lives in every piece of matter,” and that this avant-garde period in Romanian music gave birth to incredible sonic experiments “of such a violence, intensity, and ecstatic tremor, that claim sound through a concentration of the basic sonic matter.”

Another isolated case in the history of Romanian electronic music is Costin Miereanu, a composer and musicologist established in France. Miereanu developed his style by combining Erik Satie’s techniques with an abstraction of traditional Romanian music. In 1981, he became the curator of the Éditions Salabert label, and in 1984 he founded Poly-Art Records, the label on which he released some of his most important electronic music records: Pianos-Miroirs, Carrousel, Jardins Oublies and Derives.

Besides the music recorded on discs, a significant amount of electronic music was produced in film studios to soundtrack animated films. Animafilm, the most important Romanian studio for animated drawings, emerged from the numerous international awards the Romanian artist Ion Popescu-Gopo won. The studio experienced its heyday between 1964 and 1989 (and after the fall of the regime, it suffered a similar fate as Electrecord, not being able to stay competitive). Much of this experimental music was created from the film industry’s need for sounds. Several Romanian producers contributed electronic pieces to this studio as animated and science fiction films required “strange,” exotic, and spatial sound palettes. Shortly after its establishment in 1964 and throughout the regime, Animafilm became a trusted international brand, producing 60 films per year during the good times. But it was not immune to censorship and control from the Securitate (the secret police agency): a series of valuable films, such as Victor Antonescu’s 1973 co-production Robinson Crusoe, were banned from being screened, on the grounds that the indigenous people presented in the film were cannibals. These films were seen by the Romanian public after 1989.

Some Romanian Electronic Music Heroes

Adrian Enescu contributed greatly to Romanian electronic music through the dozens of records he released on Electrecord and the music made for artistic films during the communist regime. Without him, Romanian electronic music would have had a different course. Evidence of this can be found in both volumes of the Funky Synthesizer album (released in 1982 and 1984), the Stereo music project (whose hit song Plopii impari managed to arouse a curious interest among today’s generations), and the soundtracks for about 65 titles of Romanian cinematography. Among these, Faleze de nisip (1983), Ringul (1984) and Pas în doi (1985) contain music that can be easily classified as electronic, with a touch of synth-wave, disco, and experimental sounds. Enescu also made music for theater and ballet throughout his career, reaching China, Australia, Japan, Canada, and South America. Although he was an electronic music pioneer, his modest personality never allowed him to consider himself as such.

After Enescu laid down the foundations, several prominent musical personalities arose. Most of their works include influences of Western electronic music. Mircea Florian, also known as Florian din Transilvania, was one of them. He started playing folk music in the ‘70s, later moving on to electronic and experimental music. In 1975, he released the single Pădure liniștită, La Făgădăul de piatră/ Cu pleoapa de argint, and a decade later, in 1986, he released Tainicul Vârtej, an album that marked new sound experiments in Romanian music. Throughout his career, Florian founded several concept bands and was interested in avant-garde artistic experiments, as well as combining various musical styles, from folk to Romanian archaic music, from electronic to progressive rock and new wave. According to Florian, the repressive system of the Miliția Police (the police forces in the Soviet Union) in the ‘70s succeeded in making regular people turn very eagerly against appearances: “Many friends of mine had their hair cut in broad daylight. Even if it was a minor thing, you were literally chased and hunted down. At one point, the Miliția obtained the right to chop ladies’ skirts if they were too short, or trousers if they were flared.” He remembers that private parties at people’s houses were the only safer place you could go. “I don’t remember having any scandals (in those parties). If they were called, the Miliția would usually come, but hardly anyone called them. Surely, there were problems if you got drunk. Let’s not forget that the strongest, most common drug in Romania was – and still is – alcohol.”

Another pioneer was Rodion Roșca. He was a unique case in the history of Romanian electronic music. His story dates back to the early ’70s. Even since high school, he experimented with the possibilities of generating unconventional and unusual sounds. The production technology was relatively modest then, but Rodion had enough creativity to experiment with sound. He initially used one, then several tape recorders to obtain a similar sound to a synthesizer through guitar overdubs. A graduate of the Cluj Music High School (playing the clarinet), Rodion recorded over 70 pieces in his apartment between 1970 and 1977. Rodion’s music (and that of the Rodion G.A group, founded by him and Gicu Fărcaș and Adrian Căprar) did not find an audience at the time, despite him being active as a musician and playing concerts with his band. National – and especially international – recognition came after the 2010s, when he was discovered by Ion Dumitrescu, a musician and manager from the record label Future Nuggets. In 2013, the renowned British label Strut Records released the compilation The Lost Tapes, an anthology of approximately 20 songs made by Rodion Roșca during the communist era. To learn more about his unique story, I recommend delving into the Imagini din vis project, a documentary film that compiles an archive of unreleased tracks and photos from the ‘70s and ‘80s. “During the communist years, my life was a nightmare because of the regime’s aversion to Western and decadent fashion, and I’m referring here to boys who wore long hair. But I didn’t have conflicts with the authorities because the songs were generally instrumental, or had lyrics by Romanian poets,” he said in an interview. More recently, at the Europalia Romania Festival in 2019, he shared these reflections about his career and today’s electronic music: “I am not modest, and I know my worth. In many articles, I have been called a sound tamer or a sound inventor because of the use of tape reels to produce unique sounds for those times. The sounds of the 21st century are fabulous and absolutely revolutionary. Their incredible diversity makes today’s music attractive and clean.”

Instead of Conclusions

Knowing our Romanian music precursors is essential, despite the limited and subjective information available today. Not to feed our sense of national pride or to shape a so-called national identity, but rather to understand that although we have suffered from a cultural inferiority complex over time – comparing ourselves to the West – we have also given rise to unique sparks. The course of Romanian music as we understand it today would undoubtedly have been very different without these pioneers. 

Although separated by entirely different times, with different regimes and ideologies, one can find an elusive link between the precursors of electronic music from the communist regime and contemporary Romanian electronic musicians. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, with free access to the West and the development of technology in the past decades, producers and musicians of electronic music from our times have adopted their sound in a myriad of specific ways. Nevertheless, they inherited a particular history of struggles and experiments, a complex and complicated history of the Romanian sound.

Casa Din Vale: Embracing Authenticity in the Heart of Maramureș

Words & Photos: Lucía Blasco
January 2024

It’s a new day in Breb, and Roxana Vale is ready for it. I see her waving from a distance in a glowing-green winter jacket. Her stunning orange hair shines in the white landscape, almost as brightly as her smile, as she watches her dog going in circles around the haystacks. “Benji, come here!” she calls, as the pooch keeps jumping in the snow. She runs after him on the unpaved, icy road. “Let’s go for a walk; I will show you around,” she proposes, full of energy. 

Roxana can’t hide her enthusiasm. She loves living in Breb. It’s been six years since she and her husband Florin, both now kicking off the 40s, gave their lives a good shake, leaving the comfort of the city where they met and lived for a while – Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania’s largest city  – to start a passion hospitality project in rural Maramureș. Florin had always wanted to take the leap and move to the countryside. He was tired of his job in the city and the constant work trips. Roxana embraced the idea of starting a new chapter in a bucolic environment, and to try out a different lifestyle. In 2015, they decided to buy a piece of land together, and the adventure took off.

With time and effort, the empty land evolved into a complex of eight beautiful, traditional houses that make part of a sustainable tourism project. The concept behind the rural hotel is to bring houses in ruins back to life. The couple restores old traditional houses they find and bring from different parts of the region to rebuild, keeping the typical wooden architecture alive. In the beginning, Florin was coming to the village just on the weekends, dedicating all his spare time to supervising the reconstruction of the first house. “Being part of the building process was really important to me,” he says. Eventually, they made the move, and settled down in Breb, where they now live with their two daughters, Nina and Iza, who attend the local school. Judging by the expressive laughs of the girls, they seem to be enjoying this slow-paced way of living as much as their parents. The couple named their hotel Casa din Vale after their family name, Vale, which also means “valley” and translates as “the house in the valley.”

But Breb is not the most comfortable place to live in, admits Roxana. “At first, I had to get used to the silence and darkness at night. As you can see, it is now muddy outside and cold inside. The wooden floors creak. But you have to embrace the imperfections; that’s why you come here: to taste the authentic life.”

The House in The Valley

Located in Maramureș County, a region in the north of Transylvania, Breb is a village surrounded by the northern Carpathian mountain range. Traveling to this area has often been described as a step back in time, partly because of the century-old Romanian traditions that still make part of the villager’s daily life, but also because of its agrarian landscapes, its  history  too often forgotten – less industrialized than the rest of the country –  and its traditional wooden architecture.

This architectural aspect was a crucial part of Florin and Roxana’s project: “We had the desire to save part of the ancient architecture of Maramureș. To get closer to the traditions, the simple and calm life of the village. To make sustainable and innovative tourism through accommodation in old rebuilt houses.”

With their savings, they bought a house in Breb in 2015, the same year they had purchased the land. The restoration was hard work: the house was dismantled, and the walls, which were over a century old, were rebuilt piece by piece, exclusively with local materials. They numbered all the wooden pieces to know where each would go once rebuilt. The roof alone was made out of 15,000 shingles. It was a complex process. They managed to achieve it with the help of a local craftsman, Vasile Pop, who was in charge of the construction works and with whom they have collaborated from the beginning until now. 

The emotions when the first renovation was done eight years ago still move them today. “It was amazing,” says Florin, showing with pride some pictures of the process. He helped physically in the restoration and “learned a lot from the workers along the way.” The outcome was so positive that they bought a second house that same year. And the project kept evolving. In 2017, they managed to finish a third house. It was also a life-changing moment, as they decided to leave their jobs in the hustle and bustle of the city, and move to the village for good. Once there, they built five more houses over the next few years. There are eight houses in total now, seven “awaiting for guests to discover their charm and stories,” while the eighth one (Casa Iza, named after their younger daughter, born the same year they finished its restoration), is where the family lives.

“We are happy to keep these architectural treasures alive, even though we have provided elements to adapt them to current times,” they say about their project. We have “remade and rethought everything on the inside,” with the aim to “create a new space, mixing authentic accents with a cottage/bohemian twist.” For instance, they adapted the rooms to include double beds and bathrooms, which didn’t exist in the old times. The idea, Roxana says, was to create a simple yet cozy space, to recreate in the Romanian countryside some sort of wabi-sabi feeling – a Japanese philosophy that embraces natural elements and the beauty of imperfection. She also describes it as “fusion cuisine;” it combines modern and traditional elements for a holistic travel experience, embedded in a trip back in time. There is undoubtedly a fairytale element in Breb, and Casa din Vale – with its homely, inviting and sustainable soul – found a great way to embrace it. 

Old Times, New Experiences

Visiting Breb makes for a truly rural experience and a journey back through time. Most of Breb’s villagers (around 1,000 people) grow their own vegetables and have farm animals – chickens, sheep, goats and pigs – in their backyards. Horse and mule carts are common means of transportation, and it’s easy to see women spinning wool in the old manners at their house porches, local craft artists working the wood, and shepherds with their flocks.

But the village has been slowly growing as a rural vacation spot. Many people in Romania regard it as a tourist destination. However, it is still underdeveloped in many ways – especially in the eyes of the foreign traveler – although there have been international visitors, including British monarch King Charles III, who  bought two houses in the village and has been a frequent visitor.

In fact, Roxana and Florin highlight the international profile of their visitors: “Our first guest, in 2016, was an American poet who was living in Bucharest at the time, Tara Skurtu. We had 95% foreigners that year, mostly from the UK, Germany, France and Italy.” Then Romanians started to come: “In 2019, national customers made up about 30-40% of our client base. But in 2020, with the start of the pandemic, only Romanians came.” Sadly, something shifted. The couple noticed that the Romanian tourist profile began to change among some Breb visitors. Local people from the village started to convert their houses into guest houses as well, but its low quality reflected onto the vacationist profile, attracting a different kind of local tourist; the one who plays loud music outside and is not interested in discovering the region. “But good quality tourism is still coming, people who want to understand the local culture, relax and embrace nature. We are happy that we keep maintaining that tourist profile.”

To Florin and Roxana, the old customs of Breb’s inhabitants only make it a more interesting place to visit;  that’s why having the right guests is important for them. In their own words: “We started our project to preserve old traditions, to keep them alive, and to help develop a further sense of community.” Breb, just like many other villages throughout Romania, suffers from an exodus of people.

To contribute to the community,  they began hosting cultural events – from evenings with local singers to traditional cooking classes or sculpture workshop visits – open to anyone curious enough to discover more about this part of the world and its people. In 2019, they started organizing a yearly festival (Fest and Vale), local fairs, as well as summer events, including open-air theater for kids and outdoor film screenings. For instance, they hosted one of Transilvania International Film Festival’s (TIFF) “Caravan Screening,” amongst other movie events, some in collaboration with the environmental NGO World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Romania. They also work with an entity that organizes three-day marketing camps at their location, attended by professionals mainly from Cluj and  other cities such as Timișoara.

As of 2022, they began hosting jazz nights and talks, such as with  Teofil Ivanciuc – a travel expert from the region, and with William Blaker –  a British writer, who gave insights about his personal experience in Breb. These types of events give Casa din Vale a fresh twist within a rural, traditional context. 

Newcomers

When asked about the locals’ reaction to this modern spin, Roxana proudly describes it as “a win-win situation that goes beyond tourists coming here to spend money.” She says they ensure that everything, from the food, to construction materials and musicians they collaborate with, are all local so that the community grows organically too.

Considering the Vale family’s past city life – contrasting their neighbors traditional way of living – it’s inevitable not to wonder about the degree of culture shock.  “Our life is much slower here, but we are still modern consumers” Roxana says. Breb’s inhabitants have primarily lived in the village for generations, many with a farmer’s lifestyle. How were Roxana and Florin, these “modern strangers,” welcomed? 

“People were curious and friendly, but also a bit skeptical. You can imagine how the old ladies looked at my blue hair – it was blue when we moved here; I have changed my hair color three or four times since then. There were some reactions. I also have tattoos, which in the summer attract attention,” Roxana says. “I could sometimes feel them making funny comments behind my back. But they were all very welcoming, maybe sometimes even too much, to the point it became like a competition between them to be our friends. But we kept a diplomatic distance to avoid getting into their dramas and squabbles.” Part of the differences also lies in their degree of religious practices. For example, the locals attend church every Sunday, while Roxana and Florin do not. “There are differences between us, though, of course, we respect everything they do here,” adds Florin. 

In the meantime, the couple’s next focus is to expand their cultural gatherings and events to keep sharing with the community, and help more people discover this charming and unique part of Romania that changed their lives forever. They look to the future through positive eyes:  “Let’s all be healthy, more optimistic, more empathetic and serene, like a summer day in Magic Land Breb!” 

My First Dance with Romania’s Bear Dancers

Words & Photos: Mihnea Turcu
December 2023

Fright at First Sight

It was December 1982, right after Christmas, when the winters started early and everything was already covered in white. That evening, in the small town of Darabani, in Romania’s eastern Moldova region, I went for a walk with my grandmother. I held her hand tightly as I let my eyes look up at the dancing flakes in the blue light of the street. I was about four years old, floating and dreaming, enchanted by the snow’s color and smell. With my hand in hers, I felt in harmony. I felt safe.

We had reached a pedestrian alley in front of the cinema when a group of dark, brown, furry beasts surrounded us from one side. They leaned over and growled, jumped, and rolled on the ground, showing their fangs, getting so close with their fierce heads that it seemed deliberate – almost as if they wanted to touch and scare us. Steam came out of their mouths, and instead of hands, they swung enormous claws in the air. Overwhelmed, I experienced a mixed sensation of pure fear and curiosity. My heart was pounding, and I had become small(er), covered by a thunder of deafening drums.

I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled into the midst of a Bear Parade. And it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But my curiosity, fueled by my camera lenses over the years, urged me to explore further these exotic events in which people dress up as bears. They take place in the villages and towns of what is now northeastern Romania. 

The moment, long ago in childhood, remained deeply imprinted in my mind and soul. My grandparents later moved from Moldova, and for many years after that, I lost touch with the local traditions. However, once photography became my form of expression, these deeply preserved memories returned and called me. The only natural thing I could do was to go back there and rediscover them.

Dancing Evil Spirits Away

A journey through the winter traditions in Moldova’s entire region is difficult to undertake or fulfill, with time being the main adversary. Everything happens almost simultaneously, and you can only be in one place. The events start a day or two before Christmas and end on the second or third day after New Year.

The Bear Dance is an old tradition throughout the Balkan region. Some sources say it dates back to the Geto-Dacian civilizations, and they have been initially related to their mystical beliefs. However, there is no proof of this supposition. A more realistic theory places the origins of our tradition back to the 17th century, when groups of nomadic gypsies traveled the area with their tamed bears, convincing local people of their healing powers. Over centuries, people have transformed it into a way of expressing their own spirituality. Its symbolism and manifestations vary from one area to another, and the masks change drastically within relatively close regions, taking on different connotations from one cultural area to another. Although initially scary and frightening , it celebrates “joy” and the freeing of the spirit. 

The change of seasons and life’s close connection to nature push people towards a need for revitalization, a return to the depths of the soul, cleansing, and expression. Over time this tradition found its place in our region amid winter, when the body rests and the spirit, between the end and the beginning of a new year, redefines itself.

We have developed a true cult for bears in Moldova, with our mountains and endless forests. They have come to be perceived not only as violent, cruel, and unpredictable animals but also as powerful, pure, and respected. All these feelings have transformed them into something sacred, almost totemic for us.

The Bear Dance is probably the most spectacular masked dance I’ve encountered in the Carpathian region. It’s full of symbolism and has numerous meanings: the spirit of the forest, the supreme master of cosmic energies, a manifestation of fertility, and the energy that drives away death, illnesses, and evil spirits. It was not uncommon for sick children outside the Christian tradition to be named “Bear” with the firm belief that it would help drive away illness and heal them.

One Tradition, Many Ways

The bear costumes can be made either from real or fake skin. In the towns and cities in the Bacău area, such as Dărmănești, Moinești, Comănești, and Asău, natural bear skins dominate, and the events are organized on consecutive days, reaching the scale of a spectacle. Further north, in Botoșani county, in the villages of Tudora and Vorona, the outfits are made from various materials, mixed among ancient and modern masks and other animals. In the Iași area, in the villages of Ruginoasa or Coarnele Caprei, masks are made from horsehair or sheepskin. Just a few hours away, across the Siret River, in the space of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, groups are predominantly constituted by traditional costumes, ancient sheepskin masks, and others symbolizing and ridiculing community characters: the officer, the doctor, the priest, the gypsy, the goat, or the shepherd.

Preparing the mask for the festivities receives special attention, with the most archaic ways being found in the villages of northern Moldova, in the Suceava area. Here, ropes made from oat straw, up to 40 meters long, are crafted and then sewn onto the wearer’s clothes. People use calf or lamb skin over a metal bucket for the bear’s head shape. In the end, the costume is thrown into the fire, symbolizing the death and rebirth of vegetation.

Further south, toward the center of Moldova, in the villages along the Trotuș Valley, the tradition has evolved into large-scale performances with scenes, competitions, and famous groups gathering from all the villages. Here, the masks are made from actual bear skins, processed, and adapted.

A fog that carols the village’s streets in the days before New Year, repeating the dance from house to house, is composed of at least four or five ‘bears,’ escorted by their ‘bear masters,’ a symbol of those who have tamed them, the connection between the wild beast’s world and those of humans. In front of the procession, a few drummers are setting the rhythm. Whistlers wear traditional Romanian costumes, followed by several other masks with various representations.

The Bear Dance, like all other traditions during the winter holidays in the Moldova region, comes and traverses generations from somewhere far away, beyond time. 

These customs have a life of their own; they live outside of religion or culture, being a pure form of expressing the spirit. But this world lives beyond the written words, and you would best feel it only if you would find yourself suddenly surrounded by a group of dark beasts, murmuring and howling, rolling and swirling, in waves of steam and the sound of deafening drums. Each time I return here to see them, I do not know if I will meet the heart of a four-year-old boy holding his grandmother’s safe hand or have awakened inside me the spirits my ancestors felt for generations.

Bucharest Don’t Forget Me! Safe Spaces for the Queer Community

Words & Photos: Lavinia Ionescu
November 2023

For me a safe(r) queer space is something soft and warm where all participating bodies are treated with respect regardless of color, age, ability, orientation, identity, and class.

— Paula Dunker (artistx).

Bucharest, the administrative and cultural capital of Romania. Eastern Europe. Europe.

I am here – we are here.

In a society where tensions towards the LGBTQAI+ community are manifested locally and globally, I wish to show the importance of queer safe spaces. Make this journey with us to see how we manage, what accomplishments, aspirations and dreams we have. What our past has taught us, how our present is and how we represent our future – from here, from the “edge of the empire.”

I’d like to live in a world that accepts, enjoys, and encourages diversity. A world that develops horizontally, making each of us a reason for joy. Regardless of whether we align with mainstream gender norms or sexual orientation, whether we are trans, cis, non-binary, agender, gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual, everyone has the right to choose their own identity and live their life in society with their loved ones. A world with arms wide open, a world that welcomes us all. 

A lot has happened in Romania in recent years. For a while, the future seemed bright. Especially after 2001, when Article 200 of the Penal Code finally decriminalized sexual practices between partners considered to be of the same gender. Over time, as a community, we have gained the courage to express ourselves and overcome the fear of venturing out into the world. And I don’t want to reinforce the stereotypes that suggest that there were no queer people in Romania before the Revolution of 1989. 

Increasingly, over the last decade, the LGBTQAI+ community has found resources to shape their own narratives, to coagulate into a vibrant and supportive local community where the vital need for safe spaces is met, and where they support and encourage each other. It has become a reality. The LGBTQAI+ community is constantly seeking to build bridges of dialogue and cooperation with queer communities in other parts of the world, to propose anti-discrimination public policies; to support and celebrate the spaces where they feel truly protected, understood, free to express themselves. And here, I am not only thinking about the physicality of a place, but also about other possibilities of connection – in thoughts, in affinities, in feelings.

I often wonder about the safe spaces that exist in my city, Bucharest, for the LGBTQAI+ community. I often think about what these safe spaces are and why they are important to us. For me, first and foremost as a person who identifies as a woman, then as a bisexual polyamorous person, there is a need and a constant search for peace, from which the feeling of joy of being can grow. A positive record of my nervous system that, here or there, I can feel safe and not in danger. I can let my guard down. I can look the world in the eye and let it look back at me, see my true face, unmediated by limiting social norms and mores about what it means to be a woman, about what kind of sexuality I have or what kind of romantic relationship I prefer. Unencumbered-sunny-blooming with all those around me.

The historical lack of a culture of acceptance, along with stigma towards non-conforming bodies and non-heterosexual orientations. The lack of understanding within biological families – a space considered to be safe for its members but which often becomes an impactful or even traumatic environment for children, teenagers, but also adult queer people. The lack of a legal framework to protect queer people. These are just a few of the many obstacles the LGBTQAI+ community faces. Confronted with all these challenges, the community managed to discover, overturn and redefine collective memories and re-examine their strong desire for self-determination. And thus, a local queer culture modeled on awareness, compassion, acceptance, and support. 

And since I’m talking about community, it is important to answer the question What does a safe queer space mean? through several voices. Although representative, the voices in the following lines do not claim to speak for the entire community. Certainly, the subject is vast and essential and can be explored in many different ways, just as there are countless individualities and subjectivities. But one thing I know: they all put in perspective a more protective and gentler world.So, accompanied by a pleasant summer breeze, I met some of my friends in Bucharest’s green spaces, as a symbolic renewal. And for a little while, we enjoyed each other’s presence. We took photos, laughed, and imagined possible answers. — What does a safe queer space mean to you?

I met Iris a few years ago at Manasia Hub, a terrace hidden among the winding streets of Bucharest, where queer-friendly parties have been organized over time. Iris was in her first year at the Faculty of Psychology in Bucharest. With a warm, calm yet curious nature, she often wears diaphanous dresses with dark vaporwave accents, quickly immersing herself in the local queer art community. Over the past years, she has participated as an actress, writer, and playwright in several performance and independent theater projects, including Miraj. A possible space, Trepidations/Antigen/Perfect Time, part of the Triumf Amiria project;The Museum of Queer Culture and the show With Every Touch we Will be Reborn during Bucharest Pride 2021. They presented archival materials and subjective narratives centered on representative moments from local queer history.

At the beginning of my transition, I felt that anonymity offered me the most safety. Coming from a small town, it felt liberating at first to be able to exist in a space where I could move, unfold, make mistakes without my decisions being scrutinized at every turn… Over time, I came to realize that the safest option was and is within the community. Here I am given enough space to discover myself, process, and (re)integrate traumas, acquire new understandings about who I am and what my needs are, and how I can relate to the people around me, so that my needs are fulfilled and restructured appropriately. And I still strongly believe that there is no emotional safety more valuable than being given space for understanding and healing. I’m glad I’ve reached the point where I can actually call this city (and especially its people) – my home, my safe place. 

— Iris Horomnea

My home. My safe space. The phrase took a nostalgic thought to Macaz Bar Teatru Coop, a space I adored, which for many meant home. A self-managed theater-bar, a cooperative with horizontal organization, an inclusive space – until 2019 when it closed. There we rejected all racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, etc. behaviors and attitudes. A place whose absence we feel deeply because it gave us the opposite perspective: it was not a place that existed by virtue of the market economy, open only to profit. Rather, it was a place with honest prices whose economic activity was motivated only to the extent that it provided the possibility of paying the rent and the utilities of the space created for the community, for the people, for their safety and joy. To keep such a place alive was not easy. And with the pandemic – impossible. On a hot summer night, I met Nanci and so many other splendid people on the improvised terrace on the stairs of Macaz Bar, amidst the songs of loud manele (a genre of Romanian music usually sang and produced by Roma people) and the creaking rails of tram 21. We had the chance to get to know each other better and create our joint project CUTRA, a queer feminist magazine.

Now, when we met, the light was falling beautifully on Nanci’s vintage shirt. I was on a terrace with many glass objects, reflecting the noon rays. Nanci is a non-binary, multidisciplinary person. Cartographer, dancer, and choreographer, curator and manager of cultural projects. A presence whose vivacity you cannot forget. An enthusiasm that stays with you. For them, the safety of queer spaces has a concrete, practical, applied dimension.

A queer safe space is a place where every person can be themselves without fear of judgment, discrimination, and harassment. I want safe spaces everywhere in society equal access to quality medical services, easy access to contraception and abortion services, legal recognition of LGBTQIA+ couples, and equal rights with heterosexual couples + inclusive and feminist education. 

Although still few places and queer initiatives have a major impact on the wider society, I have the feeling that things are moving in a positive direction. I trust the young generation. I trust that we will build more and more queer safe spaces that provide access to resources, including financial and support for community members, counseling services, support groups, and access to information.

— Nanci

We have a support network, I think. At the same time, I know that more can be done. Two non-governmental associations based in Bucharest, MozaiQ and Accept, fight for the rights of LGBTQAI+ people. Others, from other centers of the country, do the same. Sens Pozitiv offers support to people diagnosed with HIV. E-Romnja, a Roma feminist organization, fights for the rights of Roma girls, women, and queer people. Self-organized DIY centers like Filaret 16 have non-discriminatory policies and “bring people together with a common goal: questioning the status quo and building alternative ways of living and spending time together.”

Friendly institutions, such as the National Dance Center of Bucharest (CNDB) and the Replika Educational Theater Center, support queer theater performances and other cultural-artistic initiatives of the community. This year, for the first time at the Uniter Gala, British Council Romania offers an award for a performance-manifesto with and about the transgender community in Romania – TransLucid – for the promotion and support of social inclusion.

The last time I saw Patrick, a trans filmmaker, was in the transLucid show. I greatly appreciate his power to work towards the cohesion of the local trans community and his ability to give hope to trans people that Romanian society can be home for them too. I would have loved to meet him one of these days for a summer lemonade, but this time we only got to talk through texts. He was leaving the city – Pride week had started in Iași and the next day the march was taking place there, the 3rd edition so far. 

Only in safe queer spaces does my trans identity find peace and fulfillment, because there I am, finally, among “my people.” I know that a space is safe because my anxiety is gone, there is no more pressure to perform a role; instead there is the freedom to experiment and have fun in new ways, with a lot of creativity, assumption and assertiveness. In necessarily queer safe spaces I can simply be, as I feel others feel.

— Patrick Brăila

Another person I care about very much and whose presence in the artistic environment has given our queer scene a lot of visibility is Paula Dunker, my Libra sis, with whom I have spent endless moments over the past 10 years and to whom I am grateful for the strength and perseverance with which she inspires an entire community. When we met in Ioanid Park, she was wearing a pale purple transparent tank top and loose white pants. We took pictures, ate sourdough bread on a bench, and laughed. To me, Paula is always like a breath of fresh air – refreshing.

Paula Dunker is the vocalist of the queer act FLUID and, as she calls herself, “the mother of the techno-faggothique musical genre and lifestyle,” but also the mother of the party series Queer Night (since 2010). She is a writer, performer, choreographer, playwright, actress and part of the CorpFluid collective – “a community digital space that questions and explores the relationship with one’s own body, but also the factors that influence the social models of relating to the body, emotions and self-image.” 

Someone once said that there are no 100% queer safe spaces there are spaces that are safer than others. The only constant in this work-in-progress is that the production of queer safety is always contingent, negotiated, and fragile, and does not attempt to reproduce already existing power structures. (…) Queer safe(r) spaces propose an intersection of its physical, discursive, rhetorical, virtual, material, emotional and imaginary capacities.

— Paula Dunker

That being said, I’m taking a moment to bring up the concept of intersectionality. Let’s reflect on it together. One’s identity is never one-dimensional, but has several sides that can simultaneously represent discriminatory factors in a social setting. Gender identity, ethnicity, education, socio-economic status, romantic and sexual orientation, physical ability, mental health, religion, residence (migrant status) – all can be fundamental to a person’s identity, and can lead to discrimination. 

People who identify as Roma and queer suffer not only from racism but also from a “lack of information about the history of Roma in Romania.” They also face oppression based on their gender or sexual orientation. In this framework, what does a queer safe space mean for Roma LGBTQAI+ people?

I discussed this with Cristina, a queer Roma who describes herself as “non-binary in gender, thought and expression and in constant transformation and search for cool vibes.” For her, the multilateral aspect of discrimination is also reflected in the description of a queer safe space.

We met at Cișmigiu Garden, one of the city’s most famous parks. And I immortalized the moment under the sentimental green trees of the oldest public garden in Bucharest, near the brightly colored terrace of the Apollo 111 bar. This place hosts parties every week, and many of them are LGBTQAI+ friendly – Dirty Disco w. Eugen Radescu, the series of ballrooms Lil’ Paris is Burning Ball or Viva la Diva, local drag show programs that bring the queer community into the spotlight and celebrate it.

Cristina is also a DJ – DJ Mitroi – and most often you can find her in the evenings, playing manele at Grădina ArtHub, a queer-friendly space committed to maintaining a safe environment for the community. Here, other Roma queer people, like Arhanghela and DJ Aldessa, with her feminist tracks, put together dance nights.

A queer safe space is a space where everyone’s rights are respected. It is not enough for the space to be queer-friendly to be safe. If it tolerates racism, classism, ableism… it’s not safe. Fortunately, although few, queer safe spaces are not just a utopia in Bucharest. 

— Cristina Mitroi

As I come to the end, I want to share the testimony of Luca, a young queer person who works at the Accept association and co-organizes the international queer film festival ART200. Luca coordinated the anthology, A Space Just Ours, by the HECATE publishing house, in which they brought to the forefront LGBTQAI+ love stories.

Although I have done it several times, both on the street and in many spaces around the city, I always sit with a small cloud of fear over me if I show affection towards a partner or if I expose my nails too much. A safe space is the space where this cloud of anxiety disappears and where I can be queer and express myself as such without any hesitation. It is the space where I know that, if I were to be assaulted in any way, those around me will be on my side, with me, and together, we will be able to recreate a sense of safety.

— Luca Istodor

I am writing this concluding paragraph while drinking ginger lemonade on the terrace of Londohome, a place like a sweet home, as someone wrote in a recommendation on social media. With decent prices and a friendly atmosphere where life stories flow freely, it’s the kind of place that invites you to chill, read a book, enjoy a glass of wine, listen to an indoor concert (they have many such events). As I write this last paragraph, I’m feeling grateful for the opportunity to bring up such a complex and important topic. I write with my retinas filled with the still raw green of the tree leaves, thinking of all my queer friends who have had the openness to meet and answer my questions. I’m thinking of the joy of going through this life together; of the efforts that will reward us deeply. I embrace meeting in our differences, non-divisiveness and reconnection, soft looks and tender hugs. Here’s to the evanescent lights of the city. To peace and cats. To openness and joy. To what was, what is, and what will be.  

The Danube Delta: Healing the Scars of Romania’s Greatest Natural Resource

Words: Catalin Gruia
Photos: Dan Dinu
October 2023

Imagine a place so extraordinary that even a seasoned traveler like NatGeo photographer Costas Dumitrescu, who has been all around the globe, compares it to “being on another planet.” This amazing destination, which the Romanian explorer returns to “at least once a year,” is none other than the Danube Delta, right in his homeland. “As someone raised in the city, the unreal abundance of fish and birds, its unique smell, and the sense of boundlessness and mystery within the delta’s towering reed walls still amaze me to this day,” says Dumitrescu.

At the top of any foreign visitor’s must-see list, the Danube Delta – the youngest Romanian land (having emerged in the last 15 – 20,000 years) – is a collection of superlatives: UNESCO World Heritage Site status, a RAMSAR site and NATURA 2000 area, it features 15 heritage sites (including Castres, Greek, and Byzantine fortresses); it comprises 30 types of ecosystems, and hosts over 9,500 species of plants and animals.

But the list doesn’t end there. The delta is home to the world’s largest compact area of reed beds and the largest colony of pelicans on the planet. The more than 400 lakes in the lagoon complex, covered in the summer with carpets of water lilies, thistles, mint, and several other aquatic plants, are interrupted by the sandy banks of the sea fields. There are also impressive bodies of forests with an astonishing exhibition of trees interwoven with wild climbing plants that make you  feel like stepping into a giant jungle. And of course, most importantly, the delta is where millions of birds from Europe, Asia, and Africa come to nest – a paradise for birdwatchers. In fact, it is home to 360 bird species.

Carmina Nițescu, who has been organizing kayak photo tours in the Danube Delta alongside her husband Călin Stan for years, describes the area’s unique charm: “Even during the summer months, mornings are cold. But the fog makes things more interesting: you come across all kinds of birds almost impossible to see during the day, like the night heron. At the entrance to Lac Rădacinos (a popular natural lake), you might come across a fisherman checking his nets. Seagulls or pelicans lazily float on the water beside the boats, patiently waiting for something to happen.”

When the river reaches Pătlăgeanca, a Romanian village of about 130 residents, it splits in two. The northern branch (Chilia)  extends 104 km, carrying about 60% of the Danube’s water and alluvium. The southern branch (Tulcea) flows southward until it reaches Ceatal (Furca) Sfântu Gheorghe. At this point, the river divides once again. Sulina, the short road in the middle, is permanently dredged and maintained for navigation along its 71 km. The Sfântu Gheorghe branch deviates to the southeast and, after 112 km, reaches the sea, forming the Sacalin islands. 

Here are the broad water lines of the second largest delta in Europe (5800 km2), a living organism in continuous reconfiguration that grows annually by about 40 sqm thanks to the 67 million tons of sediments brought by the Danube.

From a geological point of view, the delta is in a mobile region of the Earth’s crust called the Danube Delta Platform, and its structure consists of a crystalline basement overlaid by a kind of sedimentary cover, a succession of Paleozoic, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Neogene, and Quaternary deposits. After a formation process that lasted millions of years, today, we are in danger of destroying the peak of this geo-biological scaffold in a fraction of a second.

People have inhabited the delta since ancient times without their footprints to matter. It wasn’t until 1857 that the devouring spirit of the Anthropocene began to make its mark. This pivotal shift followed the Treaty of Paris, which led to the establishment of the European Commission of the Danube. Between 1865-1902, the Sulina River branch, today recognized as the poorest in terms of biodiversity, was made navigable. But it was the intervention of the socialist planned economy for the intensive exploitation of natural resources that really put the Danube Delta to the test. Over more than four decades of forced industrialization during communism, 100,000 ha were dammed, 85,000 were transformed into fisheries, agriculture, and forestry, and local people were employed in factories of all kinds. Following a visit in 1991, the explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau said he saw a “mixture of the gorgeous and the horrible” and found it “incredible how it stayed alive after what you did to it.”

Although communism has passed, its wounds can still be found everywhere, either glaringly visible, like the gloomy ruins of the sand quarry or the dilapidated blocks where wild donkeys grazed at Caraorman, or hidden from view in the torn fabric of the biodiversity of palustrine, fluvial ecosystems, and coastal areas.

In the early years of post-communist freedom, resourcefulness and a disregard for the law led to poaching and economic activities that began to put pressure on the biosphere. “The delta is supervised by five bodies with control and protection roles. However, they are almost neutralized by poachers. I remember how the head of the Delta Police was wringing his hands, not knowing how to persuade the drivers of the cars to change. Most of them were old security guards turned into poachers’ informants for a fee,” wrote journalist Liviu Mihaiu, former governor of the Danube Delta, in an article published in the local edition of National Geographic magazine in 2009.

After the Revolution, affluent people from Romania built sumptuous holiday villas here, disturbing the waters and soul of the place with opulence, rapacity, and high-speed boats. Locals began to rush for wealth, seeking to emulate them. Some turned to poaching, while others embraced the destructive development model of chaotic weekend tourism. At a glance, you can understand what has happened in the last 20 years by passing by the village of Crișan, which stretches along the cliff for seven km dotted with villas, cabins, guesthouses, and elegant pontoons, next to ruined fishermen’s houses. Or by strolling along the path already deformed by concrete slabs through the perpetual construction site of holiday accommodations and buildings in the Lipovian village Mila 23, the most sought-after by tourists.

Saving the Delta

Guide Iliuță Goean fears that nothing will be left to show visitors in a few years. The shadow of a new form of tourism frowns on delta’s face – one of fast travel, where tourists try to cover everything in just one day. “During the summer, when the lakes and canals are less than a meter deep, thousands of boats zip through them eight hours a day. Almost the entire volume of water in a narrow channel passes through the propeller cone of a 200-300 horsepower engine, which comes at 70-80 km/h. Imagine how many fish get caught in that propeller! Also toads, frogs, crayfish, and birds. The food chain is broken, the vegetation is destroyed. We are no longer just talking about microorganisms, pollution, and the release of gasses underwater. If you break a link in the chain of life, it’s over,” he says. 

A Bucharest native, in love with the Danube Delta since childhood, Goean moved here about 20 years ago and advocates enjoying nature through slow travel. He believes that visitors can largely influence the delta’s future. “First of all, choose an authorized operator, which is listed on the Ministry of Tourism’s website,” suggests the guide. “There are a lot of advertisements on the net by obscure PFAs posing as travel agencies. The boat should have low to /medium speed, below 25-30 km/h. Then, pay attention to three things: you want a guided tour, slow travel, and an uncovered boat. If you choose these three elements correctly, even the transfer from the shore to the Balta can be a wonderful experience.”

Goean is not alone in fighting for responsible tourism in the area. In the last decade, a movement focused on saving the delta and reviving the local community’s identity has also emerged. The multiple kayak-canoe champion Ivan Patzaichin and the architect Teodor Frolu founded an NGO in 2010 to teach ecotourism to locals. According to Teodor Frolu, the vice-president of the Ivan Patzaichin Association – Mila 23, “to have a balance between the exploitation of the Delta and its preservation as a natural ecosystem, you must return to traditions,” which you should bring up to date through income-generating solutions. The locals should “reclaim the inheritance they threw away, without realizing it was valuable.”

The inhabitants are the descendants of the Russian Lipovians and the Uranian Hahols, who arrived in the Danube Delta in the 18th century. Around 8,000 Cossacks (also known as Hahols) came here at the end of the 18th century after Tsarina Catherine II destroyed the military center of the Zaporozhian Cossacks in Ukraine. The Lipovians are former Don and Dnieper fishermen who left Russia and were persecuted when they refused to modernize the Russian church. After centuries of semi-isolation, when the delta became, after 1989, almost overnight, attractive to big-money tourists, these locals, gutted by the dissolution of their traditional world that began under communism, were thrown into the mix of weekend tourism.

For the Ivan Patzaichin Association – Mila 23, regardless of any suitable measures that may be decided in Bucharest, the responsibility of preserving the balance in the Danube Delta lies with the residents. They must find a way to restore equilibrium, keeping their traditions while ensuring decent incomes. 

For these locals, who may have felt ashamed of traditions like the oar or their parental houses, seen as symbols of backwardness, the association designed and patented the “conotca” – a combination of canoe and boat – to rent to tourists. This encourages fishing where visitors are accompanied by a local. Tourists are taken to eat soup cooked on the spot at a refuge. The ecotourism infrastructure in Crișan also set up a bird sanctuary for wildlife photography in Caraorman, and organized a gastronomic route in Mila 23. And much, much more.

In Lipovean, fish takes the spotlight, cooked to perfection by the locals, and Mile 23 is probably the best place to eat it. The cooks here have won all the culinary competitions organized in the delta. In tiny houses, they cook according to the day’s menu, divinely! The smaller the guesthouse, the better the chances of eating fresh fish from the delta. And the bigger the hotel, the riskier your fish might come from overseas. 

Why? Guide Iliuță Goean also introduces us to the tangled secrets of laws, markets, and restaurant kitchens. “No hotel can buy fish directly from the fisherman. The law obliges the fisherman to take the fish to the market. This is where the high-quality fish (carp, catfish, pike, salmon, found in smaller quantities) and all the low-quality fish (crucian carp, redfish, etc.) are sold. Furthermore, the markets force the buyers to give you x kg of high-quality fish, but only packaged with y kg of poor-quality fish. At a hotel where you need 200 kg of fish daily, imagine how much staff you need to clean, filet, and portion that much poor-quality fish. And then, hotels prefer to buy semi-prepared products from supermarkets, giving them a faster cooking flow. There is distribution by Metro by Selgros: the ship comes to the Danube Delta, docks at the pontoon, and drops boxes of frozen fish imported from Asia, Africa, and other regions. The drama begins: you may wake up to find that from a Pangasius comes a wonderful filet of  Zander, and so on.”

Room for Hope

The pelican, the symbol of the Danube Delta, perfectly embodies the spectacular yet delicate interplay of strength and fragility, clumsiness and elegance within this ecosystem. These large birds with wingspans of up to 3m and long beaks, like a species of chilled pterosaurs from another world, are highly vulnerable in the face of modernity. A few centuries ago, their majestic flocks gracefully dominated the skies across Europe. As civilization advanced westward, pelicans retreated to the continent’s southeast, where they fared relatively well until the end of the 19th century. The Austrian naturalist Eduard Hodek, who made several research trips to the area between 1869 and 1886, wrote, perhaps exaggerating, about the presence of “millions” of pelicans inhabiting the lands between the Danube and the sea.

The colony of common pelicans at the Roșca-Buhaiova Reserve, the largest in Europe, numbers about 21,000 individuals today, according to an inventory made by the Romanian Ornithological Society in 2018. Be sure to try to see a flock of pelicans while you’re in the delta. Nothing seems to distill the grand spectacle of wildlife in the biosphere. You need a good guide, luck, and patience, just as pelicans need their hunt with precise rules in a script that evolution has perfected over tens of thousands of years. “Look at them; look at how they throw the water up. That’s their style of fishing. Several pelicans gather and form a circle in the middle of the water, or a semicircle if they have a shore nearby,” exclaims Iliuță Goean.

Pelicans are extremely patient when hunting. They circle a school of fish from afar and begin, step by step, to tighten the circle. Suddenly, they all put their heads in the water – and throw the water out to scare the fish. That’s how they push them to the middle. After they’ve narrowed the circle enough, the big frenzy begins. On the surface, only the tails are visible, then you see them rise again, all in unison. They repeat the pattern until their bellies are full. And their goiters.

“We have this treasure trove of biodiversity; it’s not something to be taken lightly,” Goean says. “This is what a trip to the delta should be: a biodiversity lesson in Romania’s most beautiful aquatic amphitheater, where people can understand the importance of preserving habitats.”

I’ll Have Some Cornbread, Please!

Words: Andrea Dimofte
Photos: Lucía Blasco
August 2023

In a world where different types of food are constantly vying for our attention, there is a humble staple that has remained consistent: bread. The love for bread is difficult to overstate. It nurtures our body and soul, imprinting itself on our collective consciousness. Like a warm hug, bread symbolizes comfort and connection. And the good news: there are many kinds, from the crispy French baguette to the soft and salty Italian focaccia. Today, I’ll write about the Romanian cornbread. 

When it comes to corn-based Romanian dishes, cornbread is the underdog. Corn holds a significant place in the Romanian consciousness. The grain has become a main character in Romanian cuisine, assimilating into many traditional dishes. But corn is not native to Romania. It arrived here from the West during the 17th century after the Spanish brought it to Europe from Mexico. Romania’s territory became a corn’s oasis, and today, Romania is among Europe’s top three corn producers. For the 2022 harvest year, it ranked just second after France. You can ask any Romanian about their relationship with corn, and they will likely give you a passionate answer. 

Corn is hearty, cheap, and adaptable for many cooking methods, so it has become a popular ingredient. You can find pufuleți – corn puffs that closely resemble cheese puffs. These were ones of the few snacks available under communism. They boomed in availability and popularity after the revolution. They are still popular today, evoking a sense of sentimentality.

But the corn superstar is mămăligă – a cornmeal porridge or a type of polenta. Having started from humble beginnings in rural areas, mămăligă is one of Romania’s most beloved traditional foods: it can be eaten as a main dish, with cheese and sour cream, or as a side to grilled fish or sarmale, cabbage rolls often filled with minced meat. It can be eaten for dinner, lunch, and breakfast, particularly in rural areas. It can even be a substitute for bread! Many families will argue about the “right” way to prepare it. And while it holds historical and cultural significance, some trendier restaurants are modernizing and reinterpreting how this type of polenta is eaten. From the many recipes for polenta to even how we eat corn cobs – grilled, boiled, with salt or other spices, shaved down, or eaten straight off the cob – Romanians love corn. 

The Golden Masterpiece

Romania has a strong agricultural tradition, with many communities relying on corn for farming. It is only natural that cornbread is more popular here, in the countryside. In Suciu de Jos, a village in Maramureș, northern Romania, making bread is like a ritual. Lucreția Filip, 63, and Ludovica Kvechita, 58, are excited to prepare cornbread – from scratch. They are good friends. Upon seeing the camera, they insist on putting on their costum popular (folk, traditional clothing). They are both from a nearby village, but have been living here for many years. “Regarding food, many things are done uniquely here in Maramureș. We even have different names for ingredients,” says Ludovica. “For instance, we call potatoes picioci instead of cartofi.”

Ludovica’s kitchen is adorned with traditional tapestry. In the corner, a small TV shows women dancing to folk songs. I notice the dry batter resting in a large wooden bowl, colloquially called copaie. It already smells good. Lucreția and Ludovica made the flour themselves: untreated, by mixing corn and barley on a stone mill in their backyard. “You can truly taste the difference when the flour is homemade, compared to store-bought,” proudly declares Lucreția. While they sometimes make wheat bread too, “if you make it from scratch, cornbread is better for your silhouette,” says Lucreția, this time giggling. 

They then take the wooden bowl to their backyard, where their masonry oven is also located. They begin to place the dry batter into iron skillets. Their hands move swiftly. They whisk the wet ingredients separately, then mix them into the skillets. By this point, they have created somewhat of an assembly line, and the pace quickens. With great care and tenderness, they place the now ready batter inside the oven, pushing it towards the fire. 

“Cornbread is sacred here,” Ludovica says as we wait for the bread to grow. “We dip it in sheep’s broth when we go to mass, for Easter, or for pomană” (a traditional ritual involving food offerings after someone’s passing). Religion plays a significant role in their daily lives here and is often intertwined with food. Occasionally, the bread is dipped in donkey milk, so Lucreția rushes to quickly heat some up in the kitchen. Naturally, the milk they use is fresh. 

A few hours later, the moment arrives. Lucreția and Ludovica retrieve the golden masterpieces from the oven. They both now seem relaxed, exchanging proud glances. We wait patiently, observing the perfectly crisp crust as it cools. Then, with a touch of humor and ease, they flip the bread, removing it from the skillet that has been its home. They bring out the milk and cut a few slices of the loaf. Each bite offers a crunchy resistance before surrendering to reveal the tender crumbly interior. Inspired by their choice, I also decide to dip it into the milk. It’s a sweet flavor with a savory undertone. It tastes heavenly. 

Our Heroes

Lucreția and Ludovica are not only heroes in the kitchen. They take pride in keeping Romania’s rural traditions alive. They contribute to their community by making traditional garments in a vibrant mix of colors. These tapestries dress up local festivals and celebrations, while their clothing is worn by their peers or sold at local markets. Lucreția and Ludovica also take care of orphaned children with the help of their husbands. I met Claudiu, an 8-year-old boy who kept us company while they made the cornbread. He is one of the children they support. When asked about his favorite meal, the answer is pasta. Lucreția smiles, placing her hand on his shoulder. “Some of these kids have been brought to us since they were 1 year old. Others came straight from the hospital, after being abandoned by their mothers,” she explains. 

Ludovica has her own children: a daughter and a son, both of whom completed their university studies in Cluj-Napoca, one of the most up-and-coming cities just a few hours away. They now live in Italy, working in the hospitality and agriculture sectors. This is a common scenario for many families in the Romanian countryside. Often, the younger generation departs for cities or other countries. Economic disparities, limited prospects, and a yearning for modernization fuel this exodus. Nonetheless, Ludovica notes, “they come back with a big appetite and leave with suitcases filled with fresh local produce.” She smiles as she hands me another loaf of cornbread. “Have some more!”

SanThé, an Inclusive Teahouse by Olympic Champions

Words: Ina Țăranu-Hofnăr
Photos: Silviu Paun
August 2023

On my first visit to SanThé, I feel like I’ve entered someone’s living room. I don’t know if it’s the small space, the flowery curtains or the numerous lights that give such a cozy vibe to the place, but I love it. My waitress is Mădălina. She is wearing a white t-shirt, black pants and a gray apron with a colorful heart woven onto it. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and several red barrettes keep her hair away from her face. 

She asks me what I would like to drink. I respond by asking her about her favorite tea. “The tea of love!” she says, giggling. Behind her, her mother tells me they don’t have this tea and starts listing the available specialties: mint, green, black, jasmine, etc. I tell her I would still like the tea of love. Mădălina sets off triumphantly towards the bar, and her mother follows her, with uncertain steps. A few minutes later, Mădălina brings me a small porcelain teapot with a reddish liquid. I am unsure if it is a berry or a rooibos blend, but it is delicious. Her face lights up with a huge smile as I express my enjoyment.

Mădălina Marin is one of the nearly 30 people with Down syndrome that make part of the staff of SanThé, the first teahouse in Romania where people with this disability serve – more than a half of whom are also Olympic champions. In the heart of Bucharest, on Lipscani street, this little-known tea shop is quietly making a big difference offering tea, coffee, and cakes sprinkled with essential lessons of dignity, perseverance, and love.

Georgeta Bucur runs the teahouse. She is also the founder and president of a Down’s syndrome association in Bucharest. From day one, her objective was ambitious: she wanted to create an inclusive and safe space for people with disabilities, validating their place within society.

“Limits Down, Abilities Up!”

Georgeta learned the lessons of inclusion and tolerance from the best teacher she has ever had – her son. Her second child, Theo, was born in 2001 with Down syndrome. The birth of a child with a disability meant a 180-degree change in her life. She resigned from a comfortable job at a bank to become Theo’s personal assistant, giving up an attractive salary for the 2000 lei (US$443) she receives monthly from the state.

Georgeta says it was not easy for her to raise Theo in Bucharest: “When he was little, and I was riding the tram with him, there were people who did not know what Down syndrome was. Some would pull their children away from him, fearing their child might catch it.” She soon realized Theo needed a community of young people like him. And she, in turn, needed other parents who knew what it means to raise a child with Down syndrome. 

Nine years ago, with her husband and eldest daughter, she decided to found the Down Plus Bucharest Association, which she chairs. The slogan, “Limits Down, Abilities Up!” speaks about its core values: developing the abilities of people with Down syndrome through creative and sporting activities, and changing their perception in society. “I didn’t know how to act other than a mother,” confesses Georgeta. “I looked at the members in our association: what they need, what they like, what talents they have, and what they would like to do.” 

The experience of being Theo’s mother led to the SanThé project. Georgeta remembers that when her son was little, he liked to play the waiter: “He would come with a tray in his hand and a napkin on his arm, like a real waiter. He had a notebook to take our order. Even though it was from simple play, I saw that it was possible to make it a reality, so I moved onto the next step.”

A discussion followed with Cosmina Simiean, the director general of the General Directorate of Social Assistance of the Municipality of Bucharest (DGASMB). They had carried out projects together before, so when Georgeta explained to Cosmina her idea, she quickly jumped on board, and told her about a free space they owned on Lipscani Street. The SanThé teahouse was first opened in 2015 as a social economy project, with European funds. But while the location initially employed people from vulnerable groups (young people who grew up in the child welfare system, people of Roma ethnicity, and women over 45 years old who struggle to find work), the pandemic paused the initiative, and the space had to close.

Cosmina suggested that DGASMB could offer Down Plus Association the space for free, in exchange for volunteers managing the teahouse’s logistics and operation. And things took off from there.

Involuntarily Volunteers

“We sorted out the tearoom, cleaned, took down the curtains, and washed the windows. As the opening day approached, I worked with the new staff and tried to teach them how to make tea and interact with the customers. About two or three days before the opening, I realized we didn’t have a bartender. What shall we do? We didn’t have the budget to hire someone. And then the idea came to us: we, the parents, would do the work.” Georgeta remembers the enthusiasm with which they all approached the project. “That’s how we organized ourselves. It worked out well!” 

SanThé reopened its doors in June 2021. Every day from Thursday to Sunday, two young people with Down syndrome and their parents work in rotation. It’s usually the mothers who sit at the bar, prepare drinks or clean but some of the fathers also come to give a helping hand. Everything from the cleaning products to the drinks served, is paid for by donations. 

Everyone working here is a volunteer: nobody gets paid for the hours they spend at the teahouse. Georgeta explains that this is because, according to Romanian law, the moment you are employed, your status as a person with disability gets lost, even if it’s of the first degree.“ “You have to go from one committee to another, in order to prove that you have a disability all over again. It’s much too complicated,” she says.

From a financial point of view, the employment of people with disabilities under the current legislative context does not make sense either. “For example, if a person with disability works part-time, he would probably be paid around 800 lei (US$177) per month. At the moment, the social allowance is 1125 lei (US$249) per month. So, in order to work for lower pay, he would lose his disability status (and the benefits that come with it, like free public transport) and those 1125 lei, which are hard to get in the first place,” explains Georgeta.

Yet, she believes that SanThé is successful for everyone involved: “Young people with a disability now feel they are making themselves more useful in society. I can see the glow in their eyes when someone who has been served a cup of tea says thank you. You can also feel the joy of their parents, and of the people who enter the tearoom.” 

This was actually the case of my visit to SanThé which made me curious to know more about the story of Mădălina, the waitress who served me the “tea of love” with such charm and joy. 

The Girl of Their Dreams

Mădălina was born on August 23, 1989, in a hospital in Bucharest. Her parents were at the peak of their happiness: they had a 5-year-old boy and were now about to meet the long awaited girl of their dreams. Although no one told her anything, Cristiana, the mother, noticed the medical staff treated her baby differently than her firstborn child. Doctors and students spent more time around her, whispering to each other. Sometimes they took her into another room for random examinations.

At home, two weeks after the baby was born, Cristiana noticed her daughter had a staph infection on her scalp. The same thing had happened to her son, but because the bumps seemed to be getting worse, Cristiana called the rescue. “The doctors told me I had to bring her back to the hospital because she has Down syndrome. What did this mean? – It’s a genetic disease, which we don’t know the causes of or future repercussions,” the mother remembers being told.

The second shocking moment quickly followed. Even 34 years later Cristiana’s voice breaks as she remembers the moment: “They told me to abandon her. How can a doctor say such a thing? When I came back two months later, and the doctor asked me if she was ‘downie’, I answered: ‘Yes, she is downie, and I don’t want you to consult her.’ I asked for another doctor.”

Cristiana not only did not abandon her daughter, but is doing her best to give her a regular life in which she can explore all her abilities and passions.

Swimming (and Life) Lessons

Mădălina’s grandmother, who took care of her, died in 2003. Cristiana quit her job and became her daughter’s main carer. She took her to school, dance classes, dressmaking and, in 2008, to a life-changing swimming lesson.

Far from being born with a natural swimming talent, on her first day at the Floreasca pool, Mădălina accidentally pulled another child to the bottom. He was okay, but both she and her mother cried from the shock. “I thought about how to proceed,” Cristiana remembers, “I asked her if we should leave or stay. And, still hugging, we finally stopped crying. ‘Let’s sit down,’ I said. And she replied: ‘No! I want to get into the water!'”

For two years, every week, rain or snow, Mădălina continued to go to the pool with her mother. She swam for pleasure until, in 2010, at a swimming competition, representatives of Special Olympics Romania saw her potential and offered to train her professionally. Five years later, Mădălina was selected to represent Romania at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles. It was her first time leaving her home country alone. She returned with a silver medal, which was only the beginning of her Olympic journey. Four years later, the young athlete competed in gymnastics at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi.

The girl who doctors said had no chance in life became a triple Olympic champion and a double Olympic runner-up, taking the gold medal in individual compound, beam, and floor and the silver medal in parallel bars and vault.

Sadly, the pandemic had a devastating effect on Mădalina’s trajectory. In 2020, she was supposed to participate in the Kazakhstan edition of the Special Olympics World Winter Games, this time in cross-country skiing, which she had started practicing on the side. Those plans did not happen, but, moreover, the isolation transformed her from a sociable and active young woman to a more withdrawn one. Her mother remembers her saying that she “didn’t know anyone anymore.”

Luckily, Georgeta stepped in. They had met her at a fashion show the Down Plus Bucharest Association had organized for young people with Down Syndrome who dreamed about becoming fashion designers. 

Georgeta invited them to several of the association’s activities, and insisted that Cristiana not let her daughter isolate herself more. Ultimately, the two of them became members of the “Down Plus family,” as Cristiana calls it. 

Mădălina and Cristiana have been working in the teahouse since the reopening, and continue to come with the same pleasure every time. This experience helped Mădălina a lot, her mother believes. “She feels useful, with her job she socializes more, and has learnt how to ask questions and listen to others. She is more responsible now.”

Dreaming of a Happy Ending

The future is uncertain for some young people with Down syndrome, but these parents are doing everything they can to create a place where they can thrive and feel safe. “Most of them are over 30 years old. Their physiognomy remains that of children, but it seems that their organs age much faster than ours,” says Cristiana. “And when – God forbid! – we won’t be around anymore, we want them not to be alone. We want to create a center where they can live and do activities. I am grateful to the Bucur family for everything they do for people with disabilities.”

Georgeta Bucur also dreams of a restaurant or a pizzeria where young people with Down syndrome can be employed with proper documents. “Only the change in legislation holds us back. If only I could hire them without ruining their pension files!”.

In the meantime, the young people with Down syndrome from the association continue to come to the teahouse. They put on their aprons and name tags to serve tea, coffee, and the cake of the day with a big smile.

Before leaving, I look at Mădălina, who makes the heart sign with her palms together. When you have time, stop by SanThé. It’s the only place in the country where you can drink “love tea” served by people who defy all odds.

Making Art from Waste: A Conversation with Alina Teodorescu, from InContext

Words & Photos: Andrea Dimofte
August 2023

On a mountaintop, surrounded by rich forests and unique natural mineral springs, Slanic Moldova has been, in many ways, forgotten. But this remote town in northern Romania has also become a host to one of the country’s most innovative artistic initiatives – despite being an area with little public funding.

Artist Alina Teodorescu grew up here. After living abroad for many years, she decided to come back and open InContext/Slanic Moldova, a contemporary art and music residency program attracting people from around the world. Through this private initiative, she is bringing a small town back to life.

InContext aims to be an inspiring space for artists in a non-traditional creative environment. Each residency lasts a month and brings in talents from different countries. So far, artists from India, Brazil and Iceland, amongst others, have participated. It also encourages Romanian creators to join, collaborating with both up-and-coming local artists and more established ones, such as Dan Perjovschi.

The program pushes artists to engage with the local community and environment while sharing workshops, film screenings, readings and exhibitions. Its mission is to create a bridge between different geographies, audiences and socio-economic classes to foster critical thinking. It also wants to show how art can boost people’s beliefs in their communities. 

Alina has a particular interest in upcycling and continuously explores how we can benefit from it. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in her sunny studio, which she nicknames “centrala,” Alina spoke to me about how art can be created from waste, her motivations to bring artists together, and her life’s journey. 

Traveling through Romania, you quickly see two different realities: while cities are vibrant, many rural areas feel abandoned. How was it to grow up here, in Slanic Moldova?

I only understood how special it was to grow up here after many years of living abroad. I had a colorful childhood – there was a lot of green, and for a long time, it was everywhere. Autumn was like a carnival. Then there was a lot of white; sometimes there would be so much white that the roads would have to close and we would stay isolated for days. We learned to have nature exploding in our backyard. The abundance of nature made it so that our activities were always connected to it. We would create farms for snails, and build fences for ponds with frogs. That was normality. There was no real sense of danger because there was no criminality here. Growing up in a small community, everyone knows everyone. My parents were teachers. There were only two schools in town. But we took it all for granted.

As I grew up, I became aware of the existence of big cities – started dreaming of them. There were a lot of foreigners who would come here to visit, so hearing foreign languages was normal. I can’t say our school was very proactive in helping us connect to the foreigners coming in – but there was always a fascination and curiosity about them.

When did you decide to leave Slanic Moldova?

I left Slanic Moldova to go to Bacău when I was 14 to attend a high school specializing in art. I knew I wanted to pursue a path in the arts. Luckily, my father was an art teacher. He helped me prepare for the exams and motivated me to go: he told me I had to work hard, since competition in big cities was high. When I arrived, to my surprise, I realized I was quite good. I felt comfortable. I even entered national competitions. But I realized that there was a pragmatic element to art as well. Though I wanted to continue studying art at university, I switched to architecture at the very last moment. 

I guess I got scared of becoming a “hungry artist.” I finished a degree in Interior Architecture and Furniture Design at a university in Bucharest before going to Milan to continue my journey there. Alongside designing, I began writing for architecture and design magazines, which opened up amazing opportunities. I would go to design fairs and would know all design-related businesses. I then came back to Romania to start working on my own projects. I ended up managing larger projects when Romania was booming in design – since many concept stores and malls were being built.

Tell me about your first trip out of the country. 

My first trip abroad was in France. I was 16. I went on a class trip with other students from my town because I was painting religious paintings with my father. We painted chapels and created icons. We went to a small village in France to exhibit the icons we had made. I then started traveling for holidays and quickly realized I wanted to experience living abroad as well. This curiosity brought me to Milan.

What made you move away from design and towards art?

After eight years in design, I began to feel like I was suffocating. Like I was only using 30% of my capabilities. Soon after, my friend and father passed away that same year. I felt I lost both my pragmatic and spiritual pillars. It was a difficult time in my life in which I decided to pursue my curiosity in arts. I knew nothing about it, since I had focused my entire life on design. So I packed everything in Bucharest and moved to London. I studied at Sotheby’s. By the end of it, I knew I wanted to create my own art. But I would sit on Tate Modern’s steps and cry. I didn’t come from the Royal College of Art or Royal Saint Martins. I was in my 30s, and it didn’t feel right to suddenly say I was an artist. It was frightening.

On one of those miserable days, I met an Indian artist. Hours of conversation ended in me booking a flight to Bombay. I went there without knowing anything about him or his country. I brought a friend and we arrived at an art studio, one of the most creatively fertile spaces. Poets, philosophers, activists, and painters would gather, debate, and exchange thoughts. I stayed for a few weeks. They welcomed me, encouraged me and even selected some of my works to produce. They taught me how to exhibit and sent me back to London to do just that. That was my stepping stone into the art world.

What kind of medium do you use?

I experimented a lot, and perhaps because of the church windows I would paint as a child, I got into transparencies. I went from painting on glass and printing digital works on transparent surfaces to creating objects and site-specific installations. I am in a constant state of experimentation. Today, I am much more interested in creating art from things found in landfills. I was exposed to the amount of waste we produce through my travels. I’d like to think that if I leave something behind, it is from extracting something bad from the world and putting it into art.

Is this how you became interested in upcycling? And what exactly does it mean?

Yes – I understood the impact trash has on nature. I am a mountain girl and feel connected to it because of my upbringing. Upcycling simply means applying creativity to waste, on materials that are usually discharged. I got so into it that I now think waste is the most beautiful thing: from an aesthetic point of view and the fact that you can bring it back to life. It’s easy to create beauty when you have money. But creativity can be applied to anything, and it’s so much more meaningful to extract it from an ugly place and create something beautiful again. So now my art is filled with wood waste and textiles.

How do locals respond to your upcycling initiatives?

The topics of our projects have always been related to environmental issues, but it was only later that we could implement things in practice. In the third year, we managed to create partnerships with the local garbage management. We also started working with a company that produces compostable bags from Bucharest. We worked with the town hall to deliver free compostable bags to reduce organic waste in the city. We created a three-month pile-up program, where we tried to teach the community a better system to avoid food waste. This system would not only help reduce waste quantity, but also help tackle the bear issue: bears coming into town, feeding off the trash. We had high school volunteers going door to door, offering these bags and information about the benefits of composting. Sadly, our volunteers were oftentimes rejected.

But that summer, we collected two tons of organic waste, the only independent contribution to the first generation of compost that the biggest collecting composting station in the area ever produced.

What inspired you to take on such an elaborate project?

InContext was actually born in India. I kept going back for 6 years afterward. It was the most beautiful journey I ever got to experience. I also attended other residencies in Brazil and Greece and started understanding what it brings to an individualistic creative process. I think most artists today are very individualistic. You don’t often get to see groups of artists working together anymore like you used to see in Paris long ago. Residences facilitate a platform for them to share experiences, learn from each other and experience different cultures. I realized that where I come from is very suitable for artist residencies. I started to come back here with a set of new eyes.

And what did you see through these new eyes?

I was curious to learn more about where I come from and the resources here. The town is known for the mineral springs, but even today, we don’t know how to properly use them. There was a time when they were certified, even winning medals in national competitions and against other European water springs. Slanic Moldova was in full bloom in the 1890s, when all the beautiful buildings were built. The town specialized in treatments, targeting mainly gastronomical and respiratory diseases.

Sadly, after the revolution 100 years later, everything faded away. Many things got privatized and sold to people needing more expertise to continue running the town properly. Today the research into benefits of the mineral springs has stopped. A lot of people left for better jobs in big cities or abroad. But the springs continue to exist. And I saw potential.

What are the challenges in bringing contemporary art to a provincial town?

I am going to give a sad answer. People are used to a routine and don’t see the use in diversifying interests. Parents don’t encourage kids to do different things, so we must motivate them extra to attend workshops. We need to offer complimentary food, sometimes even gifts, to convince people to attend our organized activities. It takes a lot of work.

Teenagers dream of going to mainstream festivals like Untold (the largest electronic music festival held in Romania), so they don’t care about alternative, smaller workshops or festivals with experimental music. For instance, we created a small music festival because having music in these forests is just so magical. Music connects people more easily than other art forms – it adds so much to the experience. We combined live concerts with DJ sets and experimental music performances. We worked with passionate people and we will hopefully continue to do so. But while we attracted people who already enjoyed alternative music, many locals simply came for the free drinks and left quickly after. But we keep trying to unite people – pushing for collaboration in a broken system.

Do the foreign artists and locals mingle well together?

The locals can sometimes be intimidated. Many aren’t fluent in English. It also depends on the culture of the artists we bring in. For example, the Brazilian artists were the most joyous group. They wanted to connect with the locals. The artists from India were more rigorous in their creative process, but more reserved towards the local community. It is interesting to see how they generate different reactions.

How is the dynamic between the artists?

Strong connections are created. It is a beautiful, intense and intimate experience. We laugh together, we cry together. It is also interesting to see how each artist has different creative processes. We try to bring artists together that help each other. Surprisingly, you always have similar characters in a team: there will be a person who helps everyone, just as a person who constantly complains.

Do you have Romanian artists who come?

Yes – we really want to facilitate cultural exchanges and invite Romanian artists to join. We think Romanian artists are at a disadvantage internationally because, sadly, there is not much support from the cultural segments here. We especially try to encourage artists from this area, in Moldova.

The next step would be to create exchange programs and bring Romanian artists to other countries, allowing them to be exhibited there. That would bring things full circle.

Have the local authorities helped you in any way?

We had a good collaboration at the beginning, and I must admit that this project exists because of them. They encouraged and helped us out, not financially, because they didn’t have the budgets, but they helped with some logistics. Not necessarily with promotions because that isn’t their strong point – rather we did the promotions for them. Sadly, as the years went by, we didn’t prove successful in attracting votes for them, so they gave up on us.

How do you see the contemporary art scene evolving in Romania?

I will give another sad answer. I don’t think it’s evolving. It might even be regressing. There’s a lack of long term vision at the governmental level. Because of that, there is no continuity and a lack of expertise in key positions in the cultural segment. There is a high barrier for young people to enter the public system to generate change. Alternative projects aren’t being supported. And because of the lack of funds, projects become competitors instead of coming together to fight for certain causes.

How did your program navigate the uncertainties and hurdles the pandemic brought?

Well, we had to stop. Borders were closed. But we refused to close our doors to the local community. We also focused on becoming financially sustainable. I wrote nine funding applications that were both time-consuming and unsuccessful. European funds are difficult to access, and sadly, local funds too.

Donations are not part of the Romanian psyche. When people walk through the door they don’t see the donation box. They don’t process it. There aren’t many CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) budgets dedicated to culture and sustainability – most go toward education.

We began implementing upcycling because of my background in design. I see potential in the luxury waste industry – if I can call it that. We started taking expired textile catalogs of high-end design shops and turning them into decoration accessories or fashion. It is a beautiful process resulting in unique products. We also began upcycling furniture and hope to attract a wider public. 

We haven’t given up!

How Do You Like Your Coffee? A Taste of Romania’s Coffee Culture

Words: Maria Raicu
Photo: Bogdan Balaceanu
Illustration: Doina Titanu
August 2023

It’s very early in the morning and I am still sleepy. It’s 2003. I’m 16 years old and in my second year of high school. School starts at 8am. I’m still in bed, listening to the tasty clamor coming from the kitchen, as my mom prepares breakfast before another day begins to unfold in our apartment, in this small town in Southeast Romania, Slobozia. Every morning starts the same. I’ve never needed an alarm clock. While my mom washes the dishes from last night’s dinner, my dad goes into the bathroom, which he doesn’t leave for the next half an hour, making us beg him to come out. I rush to the kitchen, my eyes half closed, looking for coffee, a 3-in-1 soluble mix of instant coffee, sugar and powdered cream – all in one sachet, which I really enjoyed back then and from time to time, I might still indulge in. This may be one of the weirdest things to mention when writing an article about specialty coffee, but bear with me.

Coffee culture in Romania has quickly evolved, and people from different generations and backgrounds have different ways of enjoying coffee. This is an article on how coffee is consumed by the people around me, like my mother, and the specialty coffee my friends and I drink today.

Savoring every sip – my mother’s love for coffee

My parents drink two coffees per day. For them, coffee drinking is sacred for several reasons. It soothes both the mind and the body, and offers them one of the few moments they have to reconnect. Their ritual is as follows: my mom wakes up and makes the coffee. She grinds the beans in a small electric coffee grinder she found at a promotion in a supermarket. She then puts one teaspoon of coffee in each small cup and pours bubbling hot water on top. That’s it. No sugar, no milk. They drink the second one in the afternoon after their siesta. That is when they also have something sweet with their coffee; either dark chocolate or digestive biscuits. 

My mother, Nicole Raicu, is 62 years old, and loves her coffee. She was born in Țăndărei, a now small town in the southeast of the country. Her first memory surrounding coffee is tied to the fascinating stories that an old Roma woman was weaving while solemnly contemplating the bottom of a coffee cup turned upside down. She was practicing the ritual of reading the ‘future’ in the lines left by the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup. My mom wasn’t at all attracted to the smell or taste of coffee, but she was happy her mother would give the old lady flour and eggs in exchange for nettles, wild mushrooms, and the stories that filled her childhood with images of lands and people she would have hardly come to know otherwise.

Later on, in the 70s, she discovered the taste of ‘real coffee’ and fell in love. She remembers it happened while she was at a friend’s place doing homework, when all of a sudden she was offered coffee. “It had the taste of emancipation, of freedom, of the forbidden fruit.” That is because at home they weren’t allowed to have it. It was considered something too elegant and refined, she remembers. Since then, this relationship has remained her most reliable. In the magical potion, she has always found a most trustworthy confidant to share her aspirations with, her passions and pleasures, and her time of celebration and ceremony. Many of my mom’s friendships were formed and strengthened over a cup of coffee – authentic or not.

Coffee during communism

During communism, people would drink coffee in small cups as it was something precious and expensive. It wasn’t real coffee made out of coffee beans, but a concoction that had many ingredients now considered unusual by the younger generation – chicory, chickpeas, oats, and rye. Real coffee was found in diplomatic shops and it would cost a lot compared to the salaries they received. A kilo was around 210 lei, which meant almost 10% of the average income, which in 1985 was 2827 lei.

Real coffee was kept for special occasions: a doctor’s visit that required special treatment or when one needed to ask someone a favor. Our parents’ generation gave gifts of coffee, chocolate, liquor, and cigarettes as tokens in exchange for the service provided. From a visit to the doctor, to thanking an acquaintance for helping you out with a better spot in the student dorm for your kid, coffee was always there to make things official. It came as a plus and not as a substitute for money. If you weren’t a doctor or a higher-up in your field, you certainly wouldn’t even enjoy the gift, but keep it for the next dire circumstance. Being so scarce, coffee was a symbol of power and status. For those who were powerful, offering it was a recognition; for those receiving it, it was an obligation to return the favor by helping the person with whatever they needed. 

My mom admits that since she first tasted coffee, she has seldom passed a day without it. When I asked her what coffee means to her, she said: “It’s my daily dose of energy and vitality, it gets me ready for a work day or vacation day.” Coffee was always there for her when she was happy or struggling; when she was in love, or just in the middle of a breakup. My mom doesn’t know what specialty coffee is, although her taste for coffee has evolved as she grew older. Even if she is buying single-origin beans from around the world, she is still bound to the coffees she can find at her local shops in Slobozia. 

As much as my mom’s coffee ritual brings me comfort and nostalgia, I can’t help but notice the stark contrast between her simple routine and the world of specialty coffee. While my mom enjoys her classic drip coffee every morning, there is an entire  culture of coffee enthusiasts exploring unique brewing methods and exotic beans. Specialty coffee has become an art form, with baristas mastering the craft of creating the perfect latte art and roasters sourcing beans from all over the world. It’s a world of complex flavor profiles, where the subtle nuances of a coffee’s origin and roast can be tasted in every sip. But with this new wave of coffee culture comes a sense of exclusivity, a perceived notion that only those who can afford expensive equipment and beans are ‘true’ coffee connoisseurs. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of specialty coffee and forget that at its core, coffee is a simple pleasure that brings people together. My mom’s humble coffee ritual may not be Instagram-worthy, but it’s a reminder that the joy of a good cup of coffee can be found in the simplest and most familiar of routines.

The specialty coffee buzz – from coffee shop to home brewing

According to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the term ‘specialty coffee’ refers to “coffee that is graded 80 points or above on a 100-point scale by a certified coffee taster (SCAA) or by a licensed Q Grader (CQI).” This type of coffee is grown at high altitudes, and custom-roasted according to its profile to highlight and enhance its natural flavor and tell the story of its origin. The barista traces the steps of the coffee beans from the nutritious soil to eager taste buds. Just as a magician, he uses his set of skills to constantly recreate the best spellbinding experience. Due to the change in humidity, the temperature of the water, the grinding method, and many other factors, it is always a challenge. This is how true artistry is proven during international contests and in your local specialty coffee shop alike.

Tinu Cojocaru, 45, first discovered specialty coffee in 2013 when he went to Origo, one of Bucharest’s most famous specialty coffee shops, which opened that very year. Tinu started going for coffee with his friends once or twice every week, but now spends around 260 ron/month (approx 50 euros) for the coffee that he drinks at home, which he prepares using a Lelit, an Italian espresso machine, recognized as one of the more affordable machines one can use to make the best version of specialty coffee at home. The decision to buy it came after thorough research and following the advice on espressoman.ro, a forum for coffee lovers who want to experience the taste of specialty coffee at home. The forum was created by Liviu Frățilă, whose specialty coffee adventure began in 2007, as mentioned in his first blog entries. While searching for a good espresso machine, he started a discussion thread on Softpedia, a popular Romanian forum. His thread now has 6,287 comments. On his blog, he describes Espressoman as “an online platform, blog, and a wonderful and animated forum, which wants to be a tool for the rising Romanian community of ‘home espresso’ enthusiasts, or more precisely, for those who drink at home a better espresso/cappuccino that in most cafés in Romania.”

I met Tinu at Aviatorilor and went to Ototo (which is Japanese for younger brother), a concept store that sells locally roasted coffee and many sustainable and environmentally friendly Romanian (but not only) brands. The atmosphere is cozy with good lighting, green vibes, and lovely smiling people. They have a special coffee selection from the best local roasteries: Sloane, Origo Coffee, Pressco, Incognito, Nomonym, Dropshot, MABO Coffee, and Bob Coffee Lab. 

Tinu was going home on vacation and was planning to buy 3 bags of coffee: one to take with him, one for when he comes back, and one for Carmen, his wife, to enjoy at home while he is away. This means that he needs to pay attention to the date the coffee was roasted. The best coffee for him is the one that was roasted two weeks prior. He used to buy a lot of Origo roasted coffee, but now his favorite is MABO. He looks for the best-tasting coffee that he can make using his espresso machine. When he travels he always takes his Aeropress along. When he books a hotel room he usually calls in advance to make sure the room has a kettle for fresh boiling water. One of the bags he bought was roasted a few days earlier. The coffee is from Brazil, and he will use it for filter and Aeropress after two weeks have passed so that the taste and flavor will be at their peak. He chose it as the best and cheapest version he could find for his requirements, which was 55 ron (11 euros) per 250 gr. 

We are now at his home sitting around the dining table, the room warmly lit by an oversized paper mushroom ceiling lamp that is hovering above us. He now recounts his first interactions with a barista. He remembers how serious and proper they were when describing the coffee that was served. It felt strange at first, he says. He didn’t quite get it. Later on, he understood that that was the signature of the place and that, more or less, each coffee shop started developing its own vibe. He laughs when he remembers a particular barista who, back then, he thought was ridiculous for his pedantic speech and demeanor. We both laugh as it is clear what he is referring to. This used to be a trend (in some cases still is) among fine-dining restaurants in Bucharest, promoting a certain type of service believed to suit the tasting experience. Some of the servers are so serious, he says, laughingly, that they somehow make him think of the soup-nazi, (a side character in the Seinfeld series that was serving one of the best soups in New York. Once he absurdly felt his soup was being disrespected by his customers, he would ban them). When asked if he ever felt intimidated by this approach, he said that he sometimes felt like it was exaggerated, but he got used to it because of how much he loved the coffee. 

Tinu’s favorite places to go for coffee are Origo and Steam Romană. His drink of choice is a double espresso. He remembers how he didn’t even drink coffee before his 20s. He didn’t like it as it was too burnt and needed sugar.

Adding sugar to your specialty coffee is usually frowned upon because it limits the experience of the coffee’s natural sweetness. At Origo, in the beginning, they were very adamant about not using sugar, to the point where you felt judged. Max Balthazar, 27, – barista at AM Social Space – says he likes it when his clients feel at ease to ask for personalized drinks, sugary or not. He noticed how when you accommodate one’s personal needs, as a barista, you create a certain ease around the space which makes people come for more. He has been working in the coffee business for just three months, but already feels comfortable in the coffee shop. He can easily froth milk and make a well-defined rounded heart design but admits that this is just the first step in mastering the craft of latte art.

Specialty coffee shop owners in Bucharest thought of a clever method to break Romanian’s obsolete taste in coffee (the very burnt Italian espresso style) through a comfort blend. A type of coffee, is roasted and prepared to fit a more general taste, but still keep up with the specificities of a specialty coffee: fragrance, aroma, flavor, acidity, body, and aftertaste. This blend helps baristas get people accustomed to a taste different from what they are used to, and educates them towards a more refined palate. The comfort blend offers a more balanced, tasty yet simple enough taste, to convert the old-fashioned coffee drinkers more used to the ibrik coffee (a traditional unfiltered Turkish way of brewing using finely ground coffee boiled in small copper pots) and taste than to the acidity-powered taste of the specialty coffee.

Tinu’s espresso machine broke a few days ago and he and Carmen are thinking about which new one to buy. It broke after he ground the coffee too finely. The water was coming through with too much pressure and got stuck behind the wall of finely ground coffee, making a sound that announced the unfortunate fate of their most used and most loved home device. They are willing to pay 2,000 euros for a new one, together with an exterior coffee grinder so, in case it breaks, they won’t need to change the whole thing.

After listening to my mom’s stories about coffee, I reflect on the deep connections we share with this magical brew and how it brings people together. From the simplicity of a traditional cup of coffee shared with loved ones to the artistry of a perfectly crafted latte, coffee has the power to bring people together and elevate our everyday experiences. The rise of specialty coffee culture is a testament to our desire to taste and appreciate the complexity and nuances of this beloved beverage, not just a drink but a reminder of the beauty in our delicately human daily practices.

Burning Man’s Principles in Romania: A Conversation with Gabriel Muscalu

Words & Photo: Andrea Dimofte
August 2023

Burning Man: a music festival? No. A party in a desert? Maybe. A temporary city? Yes. Many cannot fully describe this experience which is best understood by participating in it. Burning Man is a cultural movement, a human gathering. Gabriel Muscalu attended his first burn in 2018 and, like others, was immediately struck by its power to change his perspective on life. Everything – from the dust, the art installations, the night lights, the creative mindsets and the focus on community building – inspired him to bring its principles to his home country: Romania. 

Burning Man started on a beach in San Francisco, U.S., in 1986, after Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James brought a wooden man they built to burn. A small, curious crowd quickly formed around the fire, and a community was created, built on 10 principles still practiced today. These principles include radical inclusion and civic responsibility, amongst others. In short, Burning Man encourages acts of gifting, not exchanges, aiming to create social environments unspoiled by commercial transactions, while encouraging participants to rely on their inner resources. Today, Burning Man takes place in the Black Rock Desert (BRC), in Nevada, U.S., attracting nearly 80,000 people annually. Participating can be a lot of work: preparation, organization, and shared responsibility. It builds a large community based on creative collaboration and growth, while respecting the environment by leaving no physical trace behind. It is made up of thousands of social networks (colloquially called “camps”), each varying in size, each expressing its own identity, each offering different experiences to its members and guests. You will find camps dedicated to the circus, live music shows, hammocks, or even simply giving hugs. Camps are also where you sleep, eat and shower (sometimes!). They can also have art installations, varying in sizes, designs, and concepts. The many art installations in the desert create a sense of magic – some are even on wheels, changing locations daily.

While Burning Man’s evolution over the past three decades has been a hot topic for many years – precisely because of its transformation from a low-key hippie gathering to a mainstream counterculture event, it is important to shed light on the positive impact regional burns can have on other countries. The Burning Man Project has affiliations throughout the U.S. and over 35 countries called “regional burns.” And Romania is now one of them, thanks to Gabriel. 

In 2019, after meeting Marian Goodell, CEO of the Burning Man Project, Gabriel made Romania part of the burn’s official regional networks. With friends, he created the Burner’s Hub in Bucharest, and started organizing yearly burns throughout the country: RoBurn. Many believe that Burning Man’s principles are needed in Romania, a country still confronted with conservative mindsets by western standards. Gabriel and other hub members are pushing for a change in discourse. They organize local workshops and events to encourage creativity, critical thinking and push for a less judgmental society. “I think everyone is an artist – but great artists have their own style,” he said as we chatted about the thrills and challenges in bringing the principles to Romania. Gabriel is also involved in international projects. He participates in building Vampire Empire, a camp at Burning Man themed around vampires and minimal techno. He is also involved in building a school for underprivileged children in Colombia, dedicating quite some time on the ground there. 

Burning Man has become a considerable part of your life. What did you learn from your first burn? 

You learn that you can share what you already have. It doesn’t need to be huge, even just offering a glass of water can go a long way. You understand that you can truly create something out of nothing. You realize you can replicate the same model of gifting and self-expression wherever you go.

Burning Man can sometimes get complicated, especially since everyone involved is a volunteer, but this is the magic of the process. It teaches you how to build something from scratch in the middle of nowhere, in one of the harshest conditions on Earth, with the sole mission of giving. It’s incredible because you can then take the things you learned there and spread it wherever you go. I am now helping to build a school in Colombia and so many of the same things apply. Burning Man is like a good virus that spreads a new way of thinking. 

What would you say are the biggest misconceptions or stereotypes about Burning Man?

Sadly, social media is filled with posers. Some people go to Burning Man to take photos for fashion/influencer purposes. So, if you’ve never been there before, it is easy to assume that costumes are expected. But when you arrive, – you quickly realize that comfort is the most important thing. People reach for their pajamas. People get naked. 

And when I first heard that no money is used at Burning Man, I was skeptical. I thought it was one of those American marketing things. But it’s for real. Nearly 80,000 people really do get along without any money. For instance, in many countries, going to a party and being “cool” still means showing how much money you spend: going to a club, booking a table etc. This concept still attracts people, like flies to honey. But at Burning Man it is all about being a good human being. 

Another misconception about Burning Man is that it is a music festival. Well, it is and it isn’t. Many people run straight to Mayan Warrior and the other big art cars, trying to catch all the DJs, but that’s not what it is really about. 

In many ways, Burning Man is about self-expression and creativity. How do you express yourself creatively?  

I think everyone is an artist – but great artists have their own styles. I create with my head and hands. I play music. I play minimal techno and I love it, because I can enjoy it for 3 days straight. Most types of music use a lot of hi hats, an essential part of a drum set, which I find can tire you in time. Minimal techno doesn’t. I also think that music tends to be all about excitement, especially when you are young. But as you get older, you look for something else, for something deeper. Minimal techno is not about the excitement, it’s about the voyage. But music is subjective and often relates to how you feel at a particular moment. 

Last year at Burning Man, I was surprised and disappointed to see just how many people used sync when playing. I think sync takes a lot of the flavor and creativity out of the sets. It makes things easier if you are playing high, but so much gets lost. In many ways, it is like living in fear. I kept nagging my friends about it since I was the stage manager at our camp – and I kept saying: “We are Burning Man! Don’t be afraid, just play what is inside your soul – who cares about the rest.” 

Tell me a bit about Vampire Empire, your camp at Burning Man. 

In 2019, we were just a small camp – if we can even call it that. Though we had placement, we were just 5 RVs with a shade structure, without any events. Placement is essentially when the Burning Man Project gives you the green light, and location, to set up a camp, after filling out an application. But even if our camp was small, I realized how difficult it was to create it. Last year, in 2022, we had a lot more structure. We had a proper camp. We were 65 people, of which only 10 were Romanians, with the rest from other nations, mainly from the U.S. But it’s not easy. I would say that in the last months running up to it, it had become a full-time job. You need a lot of time and dedicated people, and I didn’t have the time I would have liked, since I was also setting up RoBurn. So, my Romanian friend Diana actually orchestrated Vampire Empire at the main burn. 

Why the name?

We decided to name it Vampire Empire because we all love vampires and, of course, because of Transylvania. We had everything to do with vampires: a coffin, two organ instruments, and bloody marys. The decoration was filled with vintage stuff. We kept away from the stereotypical Disney vampire themes. We were the real vampires! We even had a torture booth. I also have a funeral business in Romania, which played an inspiring role. 

You brought a regional burn here – how was the process? 

It took me 6 years to get to Burning Man from the moment I first heard of it. In time, I realized that many Romanians were in the same position as me – who wanted to go but did not because of high costs, or because they were unsure of how to start or simply because of the distance. Burning Man’s website is massive, which can overwhelm you if you don’t know much about it. To truly understand Burning Man, you need to feel it. So, I just thought: “Why not bring their philosophy here, back home?” 

Our first gathering was in Bucharest, in December 2019. We had a small budget, and did not have the necessary knowledge, or the volunteers. I talked to Steven Raspa, a founding member of the regional network committee, who encouraged me to start small. And he was right. The Burning Man Project capped the first RoBurn event at 400 people. We rented the ground floor of a building used as an artist hub, one of those that doesn’t market itself, where artists can sleep too. We thought it was perfect. And it was a lot of fun. We burned the wooden structure behind the building, and were lucky enough that the firefighters didn’t show up. I met many people there who are now helping me grow it. 

Of course, this was all happening right before the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, with lockdown restrictions present but a strong desire to keep the small community alive, we kept putting on low-key events for those who wanted to participate. 

In the summer of 2022, RoBurn was in the middle of nowhere, on a mountain near Craiova (in the southwest of the country). My grandfather lives in the area, so he put in a good word for us. And the most incredible thing happened: a policeman, the mayor, and neighboring villagers all embraced our community and welcomed us. We had homemade wine and bread brought to us. Gifting happened naturally. I guess they were friendly towards us because many suffer from loneliness, since the area is experiencing an exodus of people and doesn’t receive many tourists. They were also happy and surprised that we didn’t leave any trash behind. 

This summer, 2023, we had around 150 participants. Although many came for the first time, more people understood the principles and arrived better prepared. Our youngest participant was four years old, and our eldest was 78. I think this was the best RoBurn yet.

Does the Burning Man Project help you in any way?

They only give us advice, but we manage to be self-sufficient. We manage to have money for art projects for the following year. Everything is done with private money. 

How big is your community here in Romania? Do you have many expats who are involved locally too? 

We have around 200-300 people coming to RoBurn. Though mostly Romanians, we have a few foreigners, the first being my Mexican friend Javi.

How did you get to meet Marian Goodell, CEO of the Burning Man Project?

She was invited to Bucharest in 2018 to give a speech at a marketing conference. At that time, I had already created a Facebook page called “Burning Man Romania” – to find other Romanians who wanted to go to the burn. Only afterwards did I realize I was not allowed to use their official name for my personal use. When she came, she took notice of the page and, funnily enough, left me a comment on it. “I’m coming to Budapest” she wrote, adding that she would like to meet. I didn’t realize who she was. I answered saying if she meant Bucharest, then of course, but Budapest would be trickier! We set up to meet. But, for some reason, she didn’t show up because of an issue with her phone. And so, I went back to Facebook – and told her off! I think she enjoyed that. Finally, we ended up at the same dinner with a few more people. She has this flawless way of talking, which mesmerized all of us. She didn’t even mention who she was. It was only after dinner that I realized by googling her. 

After the conference, she extended her trip and traveled north of Romania, truly falling in love with it. We remained in contact, and she decided to help me out to make Romania part of their official regional burns. She thought, maybe: “Let’s help these bastards; they’re onto something.” 

We met again at the official burn in BRC, in 2019. She waited for my friends and I with a vișinata, a traditional sour cherry liqueur from Romania. She blew my mind. She had even kept it in the original bottle – one of those crappy plastic ones that has nothing to do with the drink. The ones that our grandparents use for their homemade visinata – a carrot juice or plastic water bottle. She had kept that for an entire year so that we would drink it together out in the desert. That’s the kind of person she is. 

Tell me about the Burners Hub; what was its purpose and why did you have to close it down?

The Hub was a fantastic project in Bucharest – a space where people came to create and party. Sadly, we had to close it because I went to Colombia temporarily to help build a school, and nobody else could agree on how to continue running it. Rent had also become an issue. But the Hub 2.0 will happen in the future in another location. I’d love to buy a piece of land in the countryside where it can permanently exist, with a house with proper insulation, where we can hold events. 

Given Romania’s relatively recent history with communism, under which self-expression was not encouraged, do you face any challenges in explaining the concept to people?  

I see this as an opportunity. The challenges lie more with the older generation; we have yet to interact much with them. But we haven’t had any challenges with the generation who grew up at the end or after the Romanian revolution. We only struggle when explaining that we are not a festival. Romania has only experienced music festivals so far, so it just takes time to clarify why people need to work even though they purchased a ticket. The money funds everything from the toilets, the generators, the gasoline, and the cables, but we are all volunteers. 

People also expect to know the artists’ lineup in advance, so we also explain that though there will be music, it will happen organically, depending on who is there. While I can tell them what programming we will have in our camp, I do not know what will happen in other camps.

But people need to experience it to understand. We are not rushing the process and are enjoying every step. Even with the work involved, it is a lot of fun and we are proud of what we have accomplished so far. 

Why do you think it is important for other countries to be part of the Burning Man network, and how can society benefit from its exposure? 

Most countries, Romania included, measure their success based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but this system has failed us. Burning Man shows us an alternative way to move forward, away from consumerism. The 10 principles are simple to follow, though it takes time for people to adopt them.

In many ways, Burning Man helps you understand the cycle of life. If you build a camp from scratch, you see it come to life. You deal with all the emotions that come with it – whether it makes you or breaks you, or both. You then pack everything up in a box, moving forward with important personal lessons learned.  

Conservation Carpathia: Bringing Us to the Wild Side

Words: Lavinia Gogu & Andrea Dimofte
Photos: Bogdan Balaceanu
August 2023

Their interest in wolves brought them together, but their love for Romania’s abundant forests – and for each other – pushed Christoph and Barbara Promberger to build one of Europe’s largest conservation projects. Christoph Promberger always had a passion for nature conservation. After finishing his master’s thesis on wolf behavior in the Yukon Territory, Canada, the German biologist started The Carpathian Large Carnivore Project (CLCP) in Romania in 1993. It was the first project to study the behavior of Carpathian wolves and other large carnivores in the area, such as bears and lynxes. Barbara Fuerpass joined the team a few years later. She was captivated by Romania’s wilderness of the 1990s, but later also saddened by the abusive deforestation.

Romania has Europe’s largest continuous forest region, covering over six million hectares, possibly up to 500,000 hectares still virgin or at least in a close-to-original state. The Carpathian Mountains are home to the country’s most diverse mix of wildlife, hosting over 3,500 animal species. Christoph and Barbara outlined an ambitious conservation plan: to protect the Făgăraș Mountains area, part of the Carpathian Mountains in southern Transylvania and northern Walachia, by turning it into Europe’s largest forest national park – what they fondly refer to as the “European Yellowstone.” The couple founded Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) in 2009 to prevent deforestation and create the world-class wildlife reserve that protects and allows biodiversity to thrive. 

They began buying land in 2007. They aim to acquire 35,000 hectares to stop unsustainable logging and abusive exploration practices, and support ecological and wildlife restoration. The areas they bought include the Natura 2000 site in the Făgăraș Mountains and the Piatra Craiului National Park, thus provoking additional 200,000 hectares to be fully protected. In 1996, after Piatra Craiului was designated national park, the government restituted parts of it to private individuals, consequently leading to trees being cut down. That is why Christoph and Barbara could buy land, too. Following the model of other international conservative philanthropists, they intend to eventually donate the land to the state for management, with a solid and respected legal framework, to guarantee the ecosystem’s and wildlife’s preservation for future generations. They believe that a national park must belong to the nation.

In addition to acquiring land, FCC has a lot of conservation projects underway. They replant trees in areas affected by deforestation and focus on rewilding, having reintroduced bison and beavers into their natural habitat. Their next step is to bring the vultures back to the Romanian forests. They also have strong initiatives to support local communities by establishing sustainable economic opportunities. They create jobs and educational projects while encouraging conscious tourism.

Though they have been facing many challenges, Barbara and Christoph are well underway to transform their conservation initiatives into realities together with local communities. After Romania joined the EU in 2007, they could access European funds. With the country’s general economic recovery, the population’s appreciation for nature is changing. Today, many Romanians are proud of their native forests, home to the most significant European large carnivore population and one of Europe’s most important biodiversity hotspots. The younger generation, especially, is becoming more in tune with the importance of environmental protection.

After a few days of hiking together, we spoke to Christoph and Barbara in their bohemian-decorated living room at their Equus Silvania Equestrian Center, the guest house they completed in the early 2000s, near the little village of Șinca Nouă. The space was filled with books dedicated to wildlife, a piano with romantic song sheet music, and pampered cats roaming around, nesting on our laps as we spoke. As their energy filled the room, we couldn’t wait to dive deeper into their story: to better understand how the German man and the Austrian woman devoted their life to conserving Romanian forests. 

What was your first contact with Romania?

Christoph: I was doing my master’s thesis on wolves in Yukon, the northwest corner of Canada. They are amazing animals and I love them, so I decided to study their relationship with ravens. I was curious; the Natives of the Yukon know there is a deep relation between the two species and many researchers reported anecdotal observations of them spending a lot of time together during winter. When I returned to Europe to write up my findings, I wondered what to do next. I wanted to continue working with wolves, and in the early 90s, the Iron Curtain had just fallen, so Eastern Europe had become accessible. The West had more money and know-how but there were more wolves in the East. Italy had 150, Sweden 100, Portugal 300… while Romania had 3,000. Luckily, I got to know someone who worked at the Forest Research Institute in Brașov and we created a team to explore the Carpathian Mountains. That’s how I first got to Romania in 1993. We started out small, but over the years more staff and volunteers joined the team, and I decided to stay more than just a few years.

Barbara: I grew up in a rural area in Austria: I always loved spending time in the country, in nature – for me, city life would have been a tragedy. And although I didn’t grow up on a farm, I always had a close relationship with animals. So, it became obvious to me that I would be a veterinarian. But as a teenager, I realized that this profession is not about animals as much as it is about their owners. I was very disillusioned. At that time, I was reading quite a lot about the science of animal behavior, and I realized that that was the path I wanted to follow in life, so I ended up studying biology in Vienna. I wanted to work with wild animals, not sit in a lab. And like Christoph, I wanted to know more about wolves. Naturally, I headed to North America and the Yukon, Canada. 

Christoph also worked in that area in Canada, is that where you met? 

Barbara: No. Someone I met in the Yukon recommended that I meet Christoph, since he was working with wolves in Europe. He gave me his address and phone number. It’s a long story because all the information I received was wrong, and this was before the internet, so I couldn’t find him on Facebook. I eventually found out his place of work in Germany. When I finally reached him, I realized he was Bavarian by dialect, and imagined him working with captive wolves in the Bavarian Forest National Park. But luckily, he was working with the wild wolves and told me they needed someone right away. When the conversation ended, I realized I had forgotten to ask where I was supposed to go. In fact, that very same day I received an acceptance letter for a project in Poland that I had applied to. But I was more intrigued by what Christoph had told me. 

I called Christoph again and found out that it was Romania. At the time, all I knew about Romania were Ceaușescu, the orphanages and, of course, the Carpathians. I will never forget it: Christoph said that Romania is shaped like a lemon, and that right in the middle is Brașov. I arrived in Brașov a week later. It was late, dark, and people seemed reserved. But the first days I discovered the area, the surrounding villages were wonderful. At the time, I didn’t speak the language and the locals didn’t understand German, but somehow, I could understand them. I first fell in love with the country, and then with Christoph. 

Christoph: It happened over time. Barbara and I worked as a team for several years before we got together. But once we did, in 1997, we married just a year later. Sometimes you just know.

You both say you loved Romania right away. What fascinated you the most about it?

Christoph: I think the wildness of the country, as it was in the 90s. But also the wildness of the people, and I say that in a positive way. People were so connected to their environment! Of course, there were some negative aspects – like the killing of wolf cubs – but Romanian people were authentic and untainted by the western way of life. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the Bavarian forests, but when I first arrived here and saw the woods, bears, wolves, and lynxes, I understood what a forest is: beyond nature, it’s an ecosystem. When I returned to Germany, the over-managed forests there seemed soulless.

Barbara: Things were not so regulated in Romania in the ‘90s. I appreciated that a lot because there was a lot of common sense. Sometimes, a life without rules can be chaotic. But it can also allow certain freedoms and creative ideas to arise, new concepts in segments still untapped in the country at the time. We liked the idea of a real fresh start.

Why did you decide to stay here?

Christoph: We completed the Large Carnivore Project in 2003. We had an offer to go to Scotland together to work in conservation. But when we visited, we found a gloomy landscape. A local told us that we were lucky to have a beautiful day. “It’s the first day in half a year when it doesn’t rain,” he said. I prefer a snowy winter to a rainy one. In addition, I had become very attached to Romania; it gives me a sense of belonging. I realized that Romania had become home when I was visiting Germany. Back in Romania, we wanted to open an equestrian center to develop equestrian tourism because Barbara loves horses. We were very naive about what it means to open a guest house, but in 2004 we opened the center. It was exciting but intense, since we also had two small children. We did almost everything by ourselves. We took care of the horses and the kids while cooking and trying to make money as well. We worked on international projects too. 

How did you create the Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) and what is its mission?

Christoph: I went to the Piatra Craiului National Park in 2006 to print a large map. I spoke by chance to the director of the park, who told me that with the restitution of forests to people, who owned them before they were nationalized during communism, people started to cut trees without anyone stopping them – since everyone, from the forester to the authorities, was bribed. It was shocking and frustrating because we had been involved with the research project there, and national parks are supposed to exist to protect nature. With the fall of communism in 1989, the government privatized many of its formerly nationalized forests. The National Forestry Directorate distributed protected park lands to private individuals, who could do whatever they wanted with them. Many just wanted to make money, selling them off to logging companies. Soon everyone in the area got involved: from the police to the forest guard. Thus, the timber mafia was born.

Trying to find solutions, I spoke to the park director who said: “The only solution is to find someone who would buy these forests and protect them.” We laughed together, as we thought that wouldn’t happen. But a few weeks later we found a Swiss donor who decided to get involved. That’s how we got the first funds and started the foundation to save the Piatra Craiului National Park. This was before we set our eyes on the Făgăraș Mountains, which have the potential to become the largest national park in Europe, the “European Yellowstone.”

Barbara: In fact, the vision to create a national park in the Făgăraș Mountains took shape over time. Since everything started as a land acquisition project for conservation purposes, we did not communicate our project to not influence land prices. But when we also began buying deforested areas, we had other challenges. For example, forest laws require replanting to occur two years after deforestation. And then, we realized that the land we bought needed to be protected from illegal logging, so we raised funds to finance forest guards. That’s how we started communicating the project.

How have you been perceived by the local community and what challenges have you encountered?

Christoph: The name I got from the people in the area is “Neamțu,” meaning “the German” in Romanian. I even appeared that way in newspaper headlines, so we will probably always be considered foreigners, even if we live here for the rest of our lives. But we get along well with the community. People appreciate the fact that we learned the language and that we promote the country. However, our nationality was also used as propaganda by the timber mafia. We were demonized, accused of stealing resources and selling the country. People who didn’t know us were inclined to believe that was true.

Barbara: When I told the public that our purpose is to buy land to protect it, some even suspected we had found gold. The idea that our goal was purely philanthropic was dubious to many Romanians since these kinds of projects are not common practice here. 

How do you involve Romanians in FCC projects?

Barbara: We have a volunteer program, and although we’ve often been told we don’t have enough Romanian volunteers, this is quickly changing. The younger Romanian generation now believes that it is an activity that benefits their personal development. From the CVs we currently receive, we can tell that many people have experience in volunteering. Our team now has 130 people who are all passionate about the cause, even though it is a challenging job, whether you are working as a security guard, planting trees, or organizing events.

Which of your conservation projects do you think will have the most substantial impact on the future of Romania?

Barbara: We are still buying land, but we will probably stop at some point. We will protect the forests and find ways to compensate individual forest owners for conservation, rather than deforestation. We will continue to reforest degraded landscapes, to complete the missing links in the ecosystem – we started with the reintroduction of bison and beavers into the wild. The reintroduction of vultures is the next step. They became extinct due to killing and poisoning; people poisoned wolves, and when the vultures consumed their carcasses, they, too, died from poisoning. Back then, people considered wolves, not bears, the main enemy because they attacked flocks. 

What is the most pressing conservation issue: deforestation or illegal hunting?

Barbara: Deforestation is more problematic because it has a much longer impact: if you cut down a forest, it won’t recover for the next 120 years. Although it needs to be controlled, hunting doesn’t damage the ecosystem as much as habitat loss. Many animal populations regenerate faster than the forest.

Christoph: I’m not as relaxed about hunting. The functions of an ecosystem depend on wild animals. 

What do you think about the supposed country’s bear overpopulation problem?

Barbara: Nobody has any proof of the claimed growing bear population. We see many on social media and on the side of the streets, but what do we see? Public opinion is influenced by the media, so it has become a topic of debate. Hunters are upset because trophy hunting has become illegal, so they are incentivized to show how bears are causing more trouble. I have lived in Romania for 25 years and know that these things have happened before. Every year, people get killed by bears. But back in the day, it was usually just a small mention on a newspaper corner. People used to be afraid of wolves much more than they are of bears now. 

Christoph: We’re not saying there aren’t more bears – we are saying that we don’t know, and nobody knows. We do believe that bears have started showing up in areas where they weren’t seen in the last 20-30 years.

Barbara: Also, the habit of going into the forest didn’t exist before. Now people go hiking and mountain biking – so of course, more bears are seen.

You have studied the behavior of wild animals in the Carpathians for ten years; what should be our reaction if we meet a bear?

Christoph: There are two situations in which bears can be dangerous. When you catch a female bear with cubs, she may attack you to protect her cubs. The second case, which can easily be found in many parts of Romania, like in Sinaia, Predeal, Băile Tușnad, Transfăgărășan and others, is when bears fed by tourists have lost their fear of us. Also, once they associate humans with food, all is good if they get it. But if they are not fed, any factor can cause them to become aggressive.

Barbara: That’s why people must keep their trash out of reach. For now, the government seems to be only trying to find a solution to legalize trophy hunting to reduce the bear population, but luckily, they are constrained by European legislation. I am convinced that even if half of the bears disappeared, the situation would not change much. Trophy hunters will not shoot the cubs, but will instead target large bears, which are more impressive on the wall. We need to make sure that garbage is not accessible to bears, that there are patrols to scare them, and that they are not fed by people. These methods are used all over the world. Ultimately, a fed bear is a dead bear. 

Why and when do you intend to donate the land purchased through FCC to the State?

Barbara: When we founded the FCC, we emphasized that the land would not belong to the foundation forever, but that it would be returned to Romanians, provided that the area is protected. The government will have to offer a very concise way to manage and finance the national park in the future.

Christoph: Douglas Tompkins, a famous conservationist and philanthropist, said: “By definition, a national park must belong to the nation.” I followed his example. He bought a million hectares in Patagonia, South America, to create several national parks, and then offered the land to the state on the condition that it manage it and eventually add territory to the preserved area. That is what we intend to do.

Have you always been environmentalists? What is your lifestyle now?

Barbara: I think we are lifelong learners. I remember in college I wasn’t aware of all the consequences of my actions. I learned many things later. But when it comes to nature preservation, I learned from my parents. They taught me how to recycle. How to not be wasteful in any regard. We try to offer a completely vegetarian menu when we put together events or conferences. If we offer meat, we make sure we know its source. 

Christoph: But our lives and jobs have quite a large carbon footprint. This year we’ve already had many flights for foundation purposes, which of course, is a disaster. So I can’t point the finger at anyone because we’re not perfect. But I am aware and try to tip the balance as much as possible through small, constant actions. If I can change something for the better, I do. We use a Dutch company that makes phones with materials from areas where child exploitation is prohibited. They do not use resources from war zones, everything is recycled, and any component of the phone can be changed/repaired: for example, if my camera is broken, I can replace it. There are thousand such examples, and the more we follow, the better it is.

When you become aware of the consequences of your actions and the importance of preserving nature, you start to question every decision you make. 

Reinvention & Slow Living: A Conversation with Yuki Ichiro

Words: Lavinia Gogu
Photo: Bogdan Balaceanu
August 2023

Yuki stands as one of Romania’s first Japanese restaurants. This small, family-run operation offers the most genuine Japanese experience in the capital; a relaxed setting with authentic Japanese flavors where everything is created with care and attention to detail. From the Ukiyo-e prints on the walls to the staff’s traditional kimonos and the characteristic aroma of miso, everything at Yuki’s reminded me of a trip I made a few years ago to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

While admiring shelves filled with different teacups – which I later learned are individually dedicated to regular clients – I asked about the restaurant’s owner. His name is Yuki Ichiro. I confess that I didn’t expect to find him working in the kitchen. But, as I was to discover, there is nothing conventional about Yuki.

Yuki Ichiro’s professional path is colored with many adventures, bold choices and “a lot of luck,” as he likes to say. It all started in the US three decades ago. After finishing his marketing studies in Oregon, he moved back home to Tokyo, where he spent eight years working in the advertising industry. Life in Japan’s megacity was busy and fun; filled with countless office hours and after work parties – “even when we finished work by 9 or 10 pm!” he remembers. But there were some more travels awaiting him far away from Japan, this time in Europe. The first stop was the Netherlands. Ichiro moved to Rotterdam to enhance his academic experience. He met his now ex-wife there, a woman from Constanța, in south-east Romania, with whom he has two children. The couple moved back to Tokyo where he founded a consulting firm, but they eventually settled in Bucharest. In 2014, in collaboration with Ishii Makoto, a chef and friend from Tokyo, Ichiro opened up the restaurant that bears his name.

At a table tucked in the back, which also serves him as a working desk – and still wearing an apron – Ichiro pours me herbal tea and tells me his story with a warm, kind voice. 

Something that stands out about your background is how well-traveled you are; all the different places where you have lived: from the suburbs of Tokyo to Western and Eastern Europe, via the US. How did your travel journey start?

When I was in high school in Japan, only a few chose to study abroad: the prestigious universities in Tokyo were preferred. I was the only one among my high school friends who decided to study in the US. So I did it – and I began seeing the world and gaining a new perspective. “If you do what everyone else does, you’ll be as good as them at best,” my father told me, encouraging my decision to study abroad. Perhaps his message pushed me to be different and to accept new challenges. He was quite a strict parent. I wouldn’t say we were friends. But I do remember some of his teachings. 

After I finished college, I returned to Tokyo and worked for seven or eight years in advertising. But I wanted to see and experience what Europe has to offer. This is how I ended up doing an MBA in the Netherlands, where I met my ex-wife, who introduced me to Romania. 

At that time, I was already financially independent and I think I took that step (of studying and living abroad) more out of curiosity. Maybe I was bored with my life in Tokyo. But once I finished my MBA , I was hired by a French company to open a subsidiary in Japan and ended up being one of its founders. So I moved back to Tokyo with my ex-wife and lived there for nine years. 

I didn’t doubt my choices in life – I didn’t question my destiny. In Tokyo, everyone worked extremely hard and I never had a problem with working overtime or on weekends. We worked a lot, but we also had fun. I would go out to party after work, even when we finished at 8, 9 or 10 pm! 

So, what brought you to Romania?

In 2011, after an earthquake, tsunami and then radiation, we decided to come to Romania. These unfortunate events were the triggers. 

Before that, I would visit Romania once a year, for a week or two, for my children to see their grandparents at the seaside. The idea of moving to Romania was mine, a decision I processed for nine years. I actually think I had this idea planted in me all along, since my very first visit here.

My ex-wife was more skeptical about the move because she loved Japan and had learned the language. She didn’t think it was the right time: it was too early. We decided to live in Bucharest and not Constanța because there is a Japanese school here, in Pipera. Our eldest son was in primary school and the youngest in kindergarten. It took some time to get things in order in Japan and prepare for the move, but I did it with pleasure.

I can say that I have always considered myself lucky in life. And this brings me to another thing that my father told me. He was an entrepreneur, and even if he could delegate, he preferred interviewing each employee personally. He always asked candidates if they considered themselves lucky, and wouldn’t hire them if they said no. I think I’m lucky.

What were the first culture shocks you had when you visited Romania?

My first impression of Bucharest was that the city is gloomy. The buildings and even the people seemed gray, starting with their choice of clothing to their facial expressions. And I don’t mean it negatively; I’m just comparing it to how it looks today. In fact, I knew from my wife that Romanians are very friendly and open-hearted people, once you get to know them. 

But I can’t say that I was surprised by anything. I was already used to culture shocks.

What do you like the most about living in Bucharest?

Romanian traditions are beautiful. What captivated me the most was the slow pace of life. Tokyo has a quick and exciting pace. Everything works flawlessly, as expected. But every time I came here, I was fascinated by the leisurely life of the locals and I dreamed of it: a good balance between personal and professional life. Family orientation is a Romanian inclination that I really appreciate.

There are many advantages of living in Romania. Expats who are restaurant customers always tell me that they are delighted with the friendly people, the city’s safety (Bucharest is considered one of the safest European capitals) and the reasonable cost of living. 

Now that I have lived here for 10 years, I realize some problems with the educational and medical systems exist. I now understand my ex-wife’s reservations because these factors are also very important in the quality of life. The quality of the services in the stores and the relationship with the authorities and governmental institutions can also leave something to be desired. But that’s another story. Life is good here in Bucharest.

How do you like to spend your free time in Bucharest?

I like the parks in the city. I also enjoy Romanian films: the stories are authentic and I appreciate the actors’ performances. I have over a dozen DVDs with old movies, but I watch current Romanian movies too, both in cinemas and on Netflix. Currently, my favorite Romanian films are “A fost sau n-a fost” (12:08 East of Bucharest) and “Anul Pierdut 1986” (Clouds of Chernobyl), which I recently saw in cinemas.

But if I have more time at my disposal, I prefer to travel around the country. I love the countryside, where I have discovered so much beauty, for the eye and spirit. 

When I explored Transylvania and Bucovina, I met many foreigners. Veteran travelers know just how lovely it is here. They often come from Western Europe and always seem to know where to go and what to do. There is something precious here. I love the small villages, Criț and Viscri in Transylvania. I always bring my friends from Japan to visit and they are delighted. These places have a special beauty and sense of authenticity.

Is there something you dislike about living here?

I don’t like that, in general terms, the authorities are unwilling to help you much. Maybe it’s not a surprise for others, but where I come from, town halls, for example, are there to serve you as a citizen. This is reflected in how they are organized. For example: someone explained to me that the main entrance of the City Hall of District 1 is for the mayor and for the most important people, while the citizens have to go through a small door at the back. In contrast, in Japan, public service is really public service; officials are there to serve the citizens. The citizens enter through the main entrance while the staff enter through the back. 

In addition, corruption is still part of the Romanian system, although the situation is improving. Many people are intrigued by the fact that it still doesn’t seem normal to me. I am often asked why I’m not happy that money can solve problems. But things are improving year by year.

What are the major differences for you between Romanian and Japanese societies?

There are many differences in the education systems. In Japan, schools prepare children for life: they teach them to become members of society and train them to work well in a team. But by living here and observing my children’s education, which has a Romanian component, I observe that they are unprepared for teamwork.

The Romanian education system focuses on the subjects of study and encourages competition. For example, exam results are displayed from the highest to the lowest grade, with first and last names. In Japan, exam results aren’t displayed at all. My parents never asked me about my grades, much less compared to other kids. Another difference is that, in Japan, students have a lot of extracurricular activities. The year is filled with events, and the kids have assigned responsibilities at each event.

In addition, schools in Japan have committees with a wide variety of subjects, ranging from animal committees to flower committees and such. These are held regularly and push students to make decisions according to their roles. It simulates society on a micro level. These school organizations have hierarchies. The older students are the leaders while the younger ones are the apprentices, so they learn from their seniors. This system is implemented from a very young age, sometimes even at kindergarten, to inspire mutual respect and trust. This system is continued throughout the Japanese work environment. Every time you start a new job, you start from scratch. You become an apprentice all over again. In Romania, I noticed a different mentality; that your boss is allowed to exacerbate his/her power over you, while in Japan, the approach is that the leader takes care of his or her subordinates. By the time a young Japanese man reaches adulthood, he has been through this hierarchy system three or four times. He is ready and knows how to integrate into the team, respect his peers and lead. 

Considering these cultural differences, how do you relate to the Romanian staff in your restaurant?

They are talkative and I enjoy working with them, but they are unprepared for teamwork. It can sometimes be quite difficult for me. It may be difficult for you to imagine, but in Japanese culture, when you join an organization, you will work in several departments for the first two years, regardless of what college you graduated from. This is the training period where you must understand what everyone does to form a holistic view of the company. This philosophy is also applied in services, sometimes with great success.

For example, if a chef has the time to serve the client, he does. This is because they can better explain the dishes, ingredients and preparation methods. I don’t think many restaurants do this here, but I try this multipurpose method because I think it makes sense, especially in a small team. But I often hear: “I’m a chef, I don’t wash dishes.” Things don’t work that way in the Japanese system.

So is this why I caught you working in the kitchen when I got to the restaurant?

Yes, I make desserts, I help in the kitchen for an hour or two, I even patrol the street in front of the restaurant. And this creates funny reactions because people get worried and sometimes even ask me why I am cleaning the street. But that’s teamwork. And I think this mentality is hard to implement after the age of 25, when people are already trained. Perhaps this is one of the biggest challenges of running a business here as a Japanese person.

What lessons from Japanese culture and from your father would you like to pass on to your children – and which ones from Romanian culture?

I retained a formula for success from my father which I interpreted like this: result or reward = talent (from 1 to 10) x effort (from 0 to almost infinity) x luck (1 or 0).

And speaking of effort: a strong sense of purpose and resilience to hard work have always been values found in my father’s words which are also fundamental to Japanese society. Japanese schools focus on compassion and empathy more than competition between students. Teamwork requires compassion, and compassion requires mutual respect and trust. 

What about luck? Well, reality hurts, because we are not lucky all the time. One thing we could do is to continue to make an effort – that is, to be alert, so that we are more likely to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

However, no one can continue to work hard all their lives. We need breaks. The question is when to work hard and when to rest, and we’d better find out the answer that works for us earlier in life rather than later. But the painful reality is that we do not have an answer until we work hard. Only in adulthood can we be wise enough to discuss these decisions in terms of life stages. 

Japanese culture teaches us to work hard because rest comes after significant effort. But here in Romania I am learning a completely different approach. One that helps me find balance on my own terms.

How is the balance between personal and professional life now, in this unpredictable post-pandemic socio-economic climate and with a war so close?

First of all, I am lucky to be in Romania, both as a freedom-loving individual and as a hospitality entrepreneur during the pandemic. The regulations were not as strict as in most other countries in Europe and our business survived. 

Now, as in many other restaurants everywhere, clients are coming back to enjoy their social life, probably even more than before, while many customers have become accustomed to eating food delivered at home, unfortunately. 

How has the Asian cuisine scene in Bucharest changed in recent years?

Over the last seven and a half years since I opened the restaurant, a lot has changed. Several restaurants with this profile have opened and the quality has improved, but of course, when it comes to Japanese cuisine, Romania is still in its infancy. Here, when you think of a Japanese restaurant, people tend to automatically think of sushi. 

In other parts of the world this association is changing. In Western Europe and the US, Japanese food is no longer perceived as just sushi, but also as ramen and many other things. Every market goes through the same stages. We noticed this in the US 30 years ago, then in the Netherlands 20 years ago.

Which kind of Japanese food do you serve in your restaurant?

Ishii Makoto, the chef with whom I launched the venture, is not a sushi chef: he specialized in traditional Japanese dishes. He is originally from Tokyo and has worked in the food service industry for over 20 years. 

In Japan, sushi is not an everyday food, and I don’t know any Japanese person who eats sushi daily. Rather, we eat them on occasions. When I lived in Tokyo, I would eat out maybe once a month, and we would occasionally go to a restaurant with friends to enjoy the talent of a specialized chef.

Yuki is a restaurant that serves authentic Japanese food in a city that focuses more on sushi – how does it work?

Our restaurant in Bucharest works well even if we don’t serve sushi because Romanians naturally favor what is good. Several foreigners have expressed this observation to me. I’m used to quality ingredients and the vegetables taste amazing here. Even my mother, who visited Romania twice, mentioned that the ingredients here taste better.

Of course, if you go to the supermarket, you can find products imported from Holland, Turkey or Greece, but Romanians know how to identify the natural taste of food. And that’s exactly what we try to offer at our restaurant: food with genuine, natural taste. We do not use flavor enhancers or chemicals of any kind. Romanians can identify this difference and appreciate it.

Which dishes from Yuki’s menu would you recommend to someone only familiar with sushi from Japanese cuisine?

We practice slow cooking, which is why we have a small menu, so I think it is important for our guests to try them all.

“Wild Romania”: A Conversation with the Man Behind the Documentary

Words: Catalin Gruia
Photos: Dan Dinu
August 2023

On paper, things may look perfect: 13 national parks, 14 nature parks, two geo-parks, several hundred Natura 2000 sites (covering Romania’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats), and reserves of local interest. In Romania, you can find the Danube Delta, Europe’s largest wetland (which makes up 33% of the length of the Danube), 50% of the Carpathian chain, and 65% of the virgin forests of the European Union. Almost a quarter of Romania is declared a protected area. But if you look a little closer, you see that national parks occupy only 1% of the country’s territory, and strictly protected areas are very few.

Yes, Romania is “the real Noah’s Ark” of the continent’s biodiversity, but more and more species, from the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) to the European bison (Bison bonasus) or even the Romanian hamster (Mesocricetus newtoni), risk disappearing. Our nature is rich, but we dedicate too little money to protect it – and seem to be in no rush to change anything. 

Who can explain how things are in reality? After spending 450 days throughout 10 years – through 45,000 km – in 30 of the country’s most important protected areas, nature photographer Dan Dinu knows the situation on the ground better than most people. He is the director of Romania’s most famous and elaborate wildlife documentary film, “Wild Romania,” offering unique images from spectacular regions and singular stories about the country’s biodiversity. Dan Dinu has been practicing wildlife photography for over 20 years, learning by heart the true meaning of perseverance: waiting and listening to what nature has to say until the shot appears. 

How did your passion for wildlife photography begin?

It all started with my interest in nature, fueled by little adventures from childhood when I was venturing through the forests. Later on, I discovered The Zoological Atlas, a book that influenced many children of my generation. It pushed us to dream of adventures in exotic jungles or remote deserts. Although I flirted with several photographic genres initially, I remained dedicated to nature, and, more recently, I took a step toward documentary film. It was a natural transition. Everything settled in 2010, when I began the Wild Romania project, which became the cornerstone of my career. Now, I use photography and film for conservation and educational projects. Beyond any coercive measure, education will help us most to change our perception of the importance of nature in our lives.

How difficult are wild animals to photograph in Romania, compared to fauna elsewhere?

It is not easy to be a wildlife photographer in Romania. Romania was the hardest for me compared to other areas of the world I’ve traveled to. Our animals are much more shy and hard to see. I took the first good picture of a bear only after I already had fine images of chimpanzees, black rhinoceros, or even a blue whale, certainly much rarer animals! Among the emblematic native species, lynx and wolves are the most difficult to photograph. Lynx, like any feline, know how to camouflage themselves – I have probably walked past them many times without even noticing them. On the other hand, wolves sense you (and avoid you) from a very long distance.

To photograph a lynx on the Piatra Craiului mountains, I once had to wait 24 hours (12 per day), in the winter, at -10 °C (14 °F). I used a camouflage tent and was frozen and numb because I couldn’t get out or move much. After two days, when barely a sliver of light was left, a lynx confidently came to the tent and offered me a magical portrait. An image that I did not dare to dream of and which became the emblem of the Wild Romania project. 

And talking of Wild Romania, what was the most memorable or funniest adventure while filming the documentary?

After more than 10 years of completing the Wild Romania project, I have had countless adventures in the field. We were surprised by a flood in the Ponicova Cave. We were rained on and soaked to the skin innumerable times on the mountain. We were put to the test by strong winds in Făgăraș and Ciucaș. And much, much more…! Even if sometimes it was difficult for us, we had fun. At the end of the project, we decided to include all these adventures in a film that would tell our story and the making of the documentary. This film was very well received by the public and I hope it encourages those who want to take the first steps toward this field.

What do you think was the impact of the project?

The project’s two main components, the photo album and the documentary film, played a massive role in creating a community of passionate people who supported every step of the way. The photo album was initially intended for a smaller print run, but we doubled the initial print run following many pre-orders. We thus had the opportunity to donate over 600 albums to schools, libraries and environmental NGOs, and to print 9,000 albums so far. I am happy that this unique book about our country’s biodiversity has been so well received, and I hope it will influence new generations to appreciate and protect nature. 

The documentary Wild Romania, the first film of this scope created exclusively by a Romanian team, was very well received by the public. It was released at the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF) in front of over 2,500 people. It was accepted to 20 major festivals and won eight awards. It was a unique opportunity for many spectators and film lovers to better understand Romania’s biodiversity. 

Added to these primary components are photography exhibitions, conferences, a mobile app and many other minor things to take the project forward. What’s more, we founded the Wild Romania Association to be able to get involved in projects aimed at the protection and conservation of nature through a visual component. Through this project and the ones that will follow, we will also make a much-needed contribution to preserving a healthy nature.

What thought crossed your mind when you started working on “Wild Romania?” 

We set off with a very altruistic idea: to show others what a beautiful country we have. It wasn’t long before I realized I didn’t fully know it either. This project made me understand nature better. I learned more about this field and made all the necessary connections to truly appreciate its importance in our lives. We often forget that we cannot exist without nature, and are part of it. It does not belong to us; we belong to it. Our arrogance took us to great heights, making us invent absolute comfort behind concrete and glass cities. But it also made us forget that we breathe nature, eat nature, and are nature. Without the 10 years I spent in the wilderness for this project, I probably wouldn’t have had the time to look at things so philosophically.

So why do we need wilderness?

Because we evolved as a species along with other animals and depended on them. We cannot go forward into an utterly dystopian future where we only eat synthetic products and breathe artificial air. We could be capable of this – we have shown that humanity can overcome any challenge – but now is the time to return to our roots and put all our intelligence to work to protect the wild. It’s not hard to do that. Sometimes, we only need to let nature thrive on its own, don’t harm it. She helps us unconditionally, sometimes without us even realizing it. Have you ever wondered how many extra insecticides a city would need to get rid of mosquitoes if there weren’t urban bats or woodpeckers and other insectivorous birds to eat them? Or how many rodents would thrive on the streets if nocturnal birds of prey or hawks did not keep their uncontrolled breeding in check? We’d probably put some speakers if we didn’t hear birds singing in the parks. They say we don’t truly appreciate what we have until we lose it. Let’s not get there; let’s protect what we have. The efforts to bring back the wilderness will be much greater than those to keep it as it is now.

I suspect there are few local species left that you haven’t encountered in your explorations. Is there an elusive one you dream of for your personal photo atlas?

Having managed to photograph the lynx, the wolf now occupies the top spot on my list. I had the opportunity to see one very close that was chasing a deer, but unfortunately I only saw it from the car. The wolf wasn’t scared of us. He looked at us for a few moments and then slowly moved away. I could have taken a photo without a problem if I didn’t have all the gear in the trunk! At least I learned one thing: to always have the camera at hand on roads in the middle of nature. So the search continues. 

What is, for you, Romania’s leading natural wealth?  

Romania still has a well-defined and protected core of wilderness. This wilderness core is the main wealth of the country, a biodiversity hotspot to keep the natural values unaltered. It is essential locally and for the entire continent because we have a genetic bank for almost all of Europe’s fauna and flora. 

For a foreign tourist with only one trip to  our country, where would you recommend them to go and why?

It’s difficult to choose just one place, but the Danube Delta makes us unique on a European level. It is one of the few places on the continent where there is wildlife you can only find in the African savannas or during the great migrations: the time when several thousand birds go fishing, pelicans and cormorants alike, it is remarkable! Hundreds of seagulls accompany the group, and dozens of egrets or herons sit at the edge of the reeds to catch a fish confused by the ambush. It’s a moment that cannot leave you indifferent. 

Could you give us more recommendations of places or programs for wildlife watching accessible to the average tourist?

The Carpathians are definitely in second place. You can’t help but think of their wildness when walking through Romania’s nature. I would point here especially to the Alpine Region, whether from Făgăraș, Retezat, or Piatra Craiului. Although they are not the highest mountains in Europe, nor the longest, they make up for it in the diversity of their landscape. A guided tour to a bear observatory – one that has been appropriately and ethically done, where the animals are not abused – is an exciting option to see these animals in their natural environment.

A third recommendation would be the virgin forests. Our country owns approximately 65% of the European Union’s pristine forests, and these inexhaustible beauty resources are at the core of our biodiversity. To really feel such a place is fascinating. Like interconnected wires in a tight fabric, the myriad relationships between its elements, from the tallest beech trees to the tiniest mushrooms, are fabulous. With an excellent guide to explain them, you can understand the importance of such a place that functions like a giant organism.

Last but not least, I would add three other fascinating areas to the list: the Apuseni Mountains – with thousands of caves and some of the largest karst complexes in this part of Europe– Dobrogea – with its unique steppe landscapes and the Măcin Mountains, among the continent’s oldest mountains –and the Iron Gates Natural Park. The Danube meets the Carpathians in this place and forms an absolutely spectacular landscape.

All these recommendations are amazing for the tourism sector, but  let’s come back to sustainability: what would be your first important step if you became the next environment minister?

I would have not one, but three measures. The first would be a stringent regulation of wood exploitation and an obligation to replant  and ecologically reconstruct the disused areas. Thus we lay the foundations for better management of resources, and those involved will understand that they must have long-term conservation measures among their obligations. The second step would be a ban on the unnecessary use of plastic. If nature wrapped bananas or oranges in a protective peel, why do we wrap them in a non-recyclable plastic film? The third measure would be the renaturation of all wetlands along the large rivers or the Danube Delta. They can be the fastest way to store carbon and help develop biodiversity, as they are a sanctuary for fish reproduction. As a bonus measure, I would return custody of protected natural areas to NGOs, possibly in partnership with the state authorities that manage them now. I would find a solution for natural and national parks to have direct funding from the ministry and not depend on Romsilva, the National Directorate of Forests, a state-owned enterprise responsible for the forests owned by the Romanian state, and the management of hunting and fishing grounds.

What are, in your view, the main threats to Romania’s biodiversity?

We have a blessed nature, but no money or rush to preserve it. A quarter of Romania is declared a protected area, but if you look closely, connecting  habitat patches is a problem. National parks occupy only 1% of the national territory, with very few strictly protected areas. Yes, we are a real Noah’s Ark of European biodiversity, but more and more species are at risk of being pushed overboard. 

Climate change, pollution, and loss of forest areas are the main threats here – and across the planet. Global warming has already been affecting us for many years, and the effects are visible at every step: shorter winters, lack of snow, and periods of prolonged drought. This year, we saw how the Danube dried up in a manner rarely seen before. All of these things put a lot of pressure on animals and habitats. Industrial pollution may have decreased in recent years; many communist compounds are closed, and the remaining ones are aligned with European standards, but the plastic problem remains. It’s sad to walk through nature and see so much trash thrown randomly, especially near towns. The loss of forests is also a problem. Let’s be serious: we cannot live without wood, and our country has plenty of this resource. They just have to exploit it sparingly and in a way that is fair to nature. On the other hand, wood is the only building material that stores carbon, making it particularly important to protect  for us to transition into a society that limits the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Although we are threatened by the same global problems, we can thrive locally if we manage our resources responsibly.

Connecting Forests with Music: a Conversation with Nico de Transilvania

Words: Lavinia Gogu
Photos: Marius Sumlea
August 2023

As an old saying goes: in life, you should manage to build a house, have a child and plant a tree. DJ and music producer Nicoleta Cărpineanu has done them all. Through her social involvement in forest conservation, she has helped plant over 150,000 trees throughout the UK and Romania.

For Nico, better known by her stage name, Nico de Transilvania, the forest is the cradle of her childhood, a source of creative inspiration and a space to develop a noble mission: the preservation and reforestation of degraded landscapes.

Nico migrated to the UK 25 years ago. She now lives in Brighton with her son Rumi. But as she spent time building a life there, while traveling the world producing electronic music and teaching yoga, her soul stayed at home, in Romania. The artist composes a musical style she calls “folkloric electronic.” She promotes Transylvanian folklore treasures through her music, together with local artists who still preserve Romanian traditions, such as the sound of the flute.

The artist founded her own production house, Musică Without Frontiers, in 2018. After roaming the native plains, collecting stories and sounds, she composed her first album, Be One. She founded Forests Without Frontiers in 2019, a charitable initiative whose mission is to replant forest landscapes. She was named Ambassador of the Făgăraș Mountains by the Foundation Conservation Carpathia in 2021, so she initiated campaigns for raising funds for planting trees and promoted the initiative of regenerating degraded landscapes to spread awareness regarding the cause. And, in 2022, she completed her latest album, Interbeing.

I met Nico in the old town of Bucharest over a coffee. Although on this occasion she was coming to her home country in a difficult time, to attend her mother’s memorial, she explained to me that she also wanted to go to Nucșoara, a commune in the northern part of the country at the foot of its highest peak. She felt the need to be surrounded by nature to record forest sounds and folklore elements for her upcoming album, a creative residency funded by Cambridge University and the Romanian National Foundation of Culture (AFCN). 

I admired her floral dress, paired with a studded denim jacket and a scarf with orange tassels, an outfit that inspires a bohemian air – a free spirit. I could tell that she has a high degree of empathy even before I found out that she had devoted herself to charity work, just from the way she addressed the waitress. She told me about her musical journey and her desire to help the Romanian forests flourish. But she also shared a glimpse into the events that inspired her to start the charity and gain a new perspective in life.

It’s been two decades since you moved to England. Tell me about the time you left Romania.

I have always had an altruistic component. I started doing volunteer work at the age of 17. I would go to the reading room to study after class, and then to an orphanage in Zalău, in Transylvania, close to my hometown, to spend time and help with the children there – even just to hug them. Through that experience I got in touch with a charity organization in the UK. The charity invited me to speak in schools and in locations where they were raising funds. So, when I turned 18, I went to England to join their team as a volunteer while studying – and stayed in the UK because I fell in love with an Englishman.

What memories did you leave Romania with?

I grew up at the foot of the Meseș Mountains, surrounded by nature, in a village called Ortelec, with grandma Rozalia. I learned a lot from her, including how to live in harmony with nature, the forest, traditions, songs and their local stories. Grandma died at 80, when I was 10 years old. In her last years she couldn’t walk much, so she spent more time with my family. She had long white hair, and I remember combing it, then making two pigtails and tying it into a bun. She sang me songs from the old days and told me about her many children. She raised 15 children, 10 born to her and five step children. I was never bored with her. 

After a few years in the UK, when I was 21, I started missing home so much that I wanted to go back. But I realized that I could actually do more for my country by living in the UK. Now, when I miss home, I make Romanian dishes. I enjoy making sarmale and polenta. 

How is your life in Brighton?

I have now lived in Brighton for 20 years. Life here is serene. I live by the sea with my boy, who is 18, soon going to college. Brighton is almost an hour from London, and it’s also where I have the office for the NGO I launched four years ago, Forest Without Frontiers. It’s a multicultural city – with people from all over the world – and musically and artistically it’s a rich, bohemian and eclectic place.

Tell me how you got into the music scene.

My father worked in hospitality, he was a chef. My mother was passionate about music; she was blessed with a special voice and used to sing at our church. I was basically raised with a brass band, with ancient songs and fiddlers. 

When I arrived in England, I studied choreography, dance therapy, performing arts, and communication studies. Practically, all the courses you couldn’t do here. The passion for djing started during that period. I had a friend who loved music, and we bought together a mixing desk, and started mixing. I can say that this passion came from the idea of creating mixes that I would like to dance to. So I started composing my own collection of songs at home. 

I realized I liked it, and a few years later, I started mixing Balkan music. 

So how did you decide to start mixing Balkan music?

I went to Asia with my friend Nick Carling, who is now a DJ in Brighton. The journey began in Sri Lanka, then I was in India and Nepal, then returned to Sri Lanka. I did my first month-long intensive yoga class there while mixing at night. During that time, I rediscovered a part of me I think I had forgotten since I was a child: a kind of emotional freedom. When I returned to England, Nick gifted me a CD of Fanfara Ciocârlia (a well-known band of Balkan music). He said: “Nico, I know you miss home, look what I bought you.” I started mixing it at parties – at that time we organized a lot of parties. And I bought more Balkan music CDs. 

I then traveled for 10 years all over the world and mixed Balkan electronic music. But until DJing became more demanding, I continued my work as a yoga teacher whilst doing charity work. And I ended up working as an Associate Producer on the movie Wild Carpathia (a documentary series exploring Romania’s panoramic Carpathian Mountains) for at least four years. I contributed to the first three episodes. We did research, chose stories, film locations, and selected music. And that’s how I discovered some people who are doing good work here, in Romania, to preserve the environment and forests.

Why did you choose to call yourself Nico de Transilvania?

I’ve been calling myself that for almost 12 years. I was in Sydney, and I met some locals who were impressed that I was from Transylvania because they couldn’t believe that this place actually existed. So I decided to name myself Nico de Transilvania to represent my place of origin.

How would you describe your musical style and the music you compose?

I love hip-hop, funk, blues, and electronic dance music. Folkloric elements are at the core of the music I produce. I call it electronic folk with jazzy notes. I really like the trumpet and saxophone. I mix a melange I call “global electronic music.” Traveling around the world, I realized how interconnected music is: the Egyptian flute is similar to that of the Indian, whilst reminding me of many Mexican and Romanian elements. 

I love playing at cultural events. I once played at the Art Dubai Fair. I started with a song from Pakistan, followed by a song from Romania, then one from France, after that, songs from Egypt and India. After the show, someone came to ask me about a song he liked a lot. I told him the song was Palestinian and then I learned he was from Israel. That’s how I came up with the name of my label: Musică Without Frontiers. There are no borders on the dancefloor, we are all one. And that’s where I got the inspiration to name my first album Be One, which is about unity and humanity.

What can you tell me about your second album?

Interbieng is a project funded by AFCN and the University of Cambridge through the Endangered Landscapes Artist Residencies program. I worked with Silvia Dan, who sings on the album and whom you see in the photos. The entire album is recorded in nature, right in the Nucșoara area, where we plant trees.  

Both music and charity work are my passions, and I am happy I have managed to combine them, along with my love for tradition and the care for the elderly.

How did you become involved in protecting the Romanian forests, and how is your music connected? 

Growing up with a strong connection to nature and inclination towards charity work, I always felt the need to protect our forests. And merging it with music was very natural to me. In 2018 I was at Sarmisegetusa, in the Orăștiei Mountains, making a project to preserve the virgin forests in that area, and I talked to a journalist who suggested that I listen to a flautist from the area. That’s how I met Babu Ion, the artist who inspired my initiative – and one of the flute players I collaborated with for the Be One album. He took his flute and said that I must listen to it in the middle of the forest because that’s the only way I would “feel the magic.” He was incredible. His flute recital was inspiring, but also him as an artist and human, so I promised him that I would find a way to make his talent known. 

Just a few months later, we got funding and started recording together with other whistlers in the area. They suggested that I also meet Buna Ana, who is the village singer. Unfortunately, when I met Buna Ana she had lost her voice. But luckily she is also a talented writer of poetry, so I asked her to write me a poem. This is how the first song from the first album, “Doina,” got created.

While spending time there, I spoke with many locals who all told me of their worries regarding deforestation. So I decided to donate everything I earned from the album to plant trees in the Orăștiei area.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to plant any trees in the mountains of Orăștie. We couldn’t find an area in which a protection contract could be signed to guarantee that they wouldn’t be cut. Luckily I already had contacts from working with Wild Carpathia, and that’s how we were able to set up Forest Without Frontiers. We now plant trees in protected areas.

How did the local people with whom you created the album react when they listened to it?

I presented the album to them in an avant-premiere. I surprised Babu and Buna Ana, for her 90th birthday, by showing them the making of the film. Both were delighted. It was really a highlight in my life. Especially since they couldn’t believe that people appreciate their traditions, that they wanted to buy the album and that sales were donated to plant trees. 

In which other ways are you involved to help the local community?

During the pandemic, for my 40th birthday, I organized a lockdown party over zoom at my house called Music for Earth. Along with musicians from all over the world, I mixed from my living room to spread joy and have some fun. We also collected funds and sent food boxes to 51 elderly people for a month every week, to support the elderly in the Transylvania area.

What inspires you to be so dedicated to charitable activities?

Eight years ago, I woke up admiring a beautiful beach in Phuket, Thailand, from the balcony of a high-end hotel. It hit me that I was living in a bubble. The night before, I had played at a fancy wedding, and though I had put on a good show, I felt completely empty inside. That is when I decided to focus more of my time on charity work – since it brings me the greatest joy. My lifetime carbon footprint had also accumulated, and I started becoming more aware of the impact climate change has over our environment.

There was also the time when my son turned 16. I kept thinking about what to get him for his birthday. At that time, I was in the middle of deciding what to do with some money I’d received from selling a piece of inherited land. I asked my son for advice: “Should we invest in a fundraising campaign to plant trees, or go a different path?” To which he told me: “Mum, we must invest in the trees.” So we planted 15,000 trees for his birthday.

How many trees have you indirectly helped to plant so far?

I have also been involved with planting trees in the UK. To date, we have indirectly planted 150,000 trees in the UK and Romania, thanks to music. 

Vama Veche, a Journey Within

Words & Photo: Mihnea Turcu
August 2023

On a blistering hot mid-summer afternoon in 1999, I was dropped off by the side of a road. I couldn’t see it, but I knew the sea was on my left side. I could feel it from the warm wind, the smell of dried seaweed, the white air filled with salt, and a fine dusting of seashells. If I had taken the then unpaved street that led directly to the sea, I would have seen a few tiny houses with stone fences and a terrace or two with old wooden tables and some chairs. But I went through the cornfield in front of me instead, straight to the Black Sea. For the first time in my life, I was unknowingly entering the realm of Vama Veche, an enchanting journey into the deeper questions of life.

I went out a few meters further on a wild white beach, different from anything I had seen until then. The beach seemed to be no more than two or three kilometers long. A strong wind from the sea; the smell of fine sand; waves breaking on the shore, throwing cool water droplets at me. I experienced an enveloping feeling of freedom. To my left, in the distance, a few lone tents battling the horizon. To my right, on a sand dune, a boy and a girl, naked, embracing each other. That moment stayed with me forever. Then and there, I fell in love. I felt that I had arrived, at last. That I didn’t have to search for more. That everything had meaning and charm and consistency, and all I had to do was let nature, the village, and the people around take over me.

I would later realize that these were my steps to grow out of adolescence. Everything new was intense and felt like a decisive blow in the chest. A part of a hidden life was coming to the surface. Freedom took on new meanings. And these new meanings were manifested in Vama Veche in many different ways. 

An Oasis of Freedom

Those of us born in Romania in the 70s have lost crucial moments in history. Ceausescu’s regime hid the world’s reality from us. We began our childhood during the intensity of the last years of communism, and lived our teenage years in a country that was trying hard to learn how democracy works. When the regime fell in 1989, many of us were shy, introverted, quiet, and full of shame. It was what the system, our parents, and school instilled in us. But our growing pains began as the country started to open up. For me, like for many others, the village of Vama Veche, in the corner between Romania’s border with Bulgaria, became a playground for exploration. 

The village’s old name was Serpărie, which can be translated as “snake pit.”  It was the perfect example of a melting pot. Romania had been at the intersection of several empires for centuries. Its southern region, which Vama Veche is part of, was passed from Turkish, to Russian, and finally to Romanian administrations. Communities of Turks, Tatars, and Russians lived here, mixed with Bulgarians and the populations of local shepherds. 

During the time of the monarchy, between 1913 and 1940, when Romania’s border stretched much further to the south than it does now, the Romanian artistic and political elites spent their summer in the charming atmosphere of Balchik, a town – then Romanian, only 60 km south – that today belongs to Bulgaria. Writers, painters, and poets fled Bucharest’s summer heat, taking shelter in Balchik’s coolness of the sea and wooded hills.

In 1940, Romania lost the southern part, and a few years later, the shadow of communism engulfed the country. Vama Veche became a sort of guard of the southern border, while Romania’s northern coast embarked on an extensive ‘architectural modernization’ journey. Vama Veche and its neighboring village, 2 Mai, located just a few minutes north, remained frozen in time. The two villages began attracting summer bohemians yearning for their time in Balchik. 

Mrs. Sultana Dumitrache is an octogenarian woman with a joyful, penetrating glance and slow, calm, calculated movements. She remembers life in Vama Veche was about working the land and growing the animals. “In the 1940s, we were like 30 families here, and there was no store in the village, no church and no bus connecting us to the rest of the world.” She recalls the first tourists that arrived in Vama Veche in the 60s and 70s: “A doctor came here for the first time around that time. He was from Bucharest and he loved the village.” Next summer, her rooms were fully booked, and her backyard taken over by tents. There was no electricity either back then and she was happy to cook for all of her guests. “We used to keep food and drinks in a bucket at the end of a chain, deep down in the coldness of a fountain. Life was very simple here.”

Some kept coming year after year, as the relationship between the locals and the newcomers often resulted in long-lasting friendships. “I still receive postcards, even after so many years, from doctors, professors, and other influential people who have stepped into my house. We all respected and loved each other back then” she sighed. “But times have changed. Now everything is about wealth and greed.”

Throughout the years fondly remembered by Sultana, Vama Veche became a hidden and nonconformist cultural space; an oasis of freedom resisting the control and suffocation of the communist security apparatus. Artists, doctors, students, and intellectuals began to arrive. Uncensored art, literature, nudism, anti-regime conversations, and hippie music’s influence took root in the 70s and 80s. The communist regime knew of this phenomenon, and tried to control those dynamics through surveillance methods. Years later, some declassified security files revealed the presence of informants among both tourists and locals. White-shirted officers attempted to supervise the activities on the beach, appearing in hilarious discord with the nudist group’s bohemian appearance. But the system had no weapons, nor was it prepared to fight the symbolism of long hair or the metaphors hidden in guitar chords. The communist party could only sit and observe.

From the 70s throughout the 80s, the wild beach encouraged you to dream. Once back in the house, at the dining table or in the silence of the tent at night, Vama Veche’s mood turned into a quiet state of meditation. This was the atmosphere, years later, as I arrived in Vama Veche. To my surprise, I was about to witness the village’s eclectic history and accelerated changes unfolding in front of me.

Vama Veche after the 90s: a Hippie Stronghold

In the early 2000s, Vama Veche was still a small place. On the dusty streets, you may see a tired horse pulling a cart, and a few dozen houses. There were some terraces and lively bars from which you could invariably hear the chords of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The Jack, El Comandante, Stuf, and La Pirati were all next to each other. People used to hang out there until the night broke with the first ray of sunlight.  

For many years, in the beginning, I chose to stay in a tent close to the sea. I would usually arrive in Vama Veche late at night, stepping slowly between the ropes, careful not to trip over the tents already on the beach. The sun rose from the sea, and quickly passed above the tent’s green tarpaulin. The sun’s rays would first touch your eyelids, and no matter how much you turned away, they would still kick you out of your tent early in the morning. You had only one thing to do: to jump straight into the sea. In Vama Veche, you lived outside of time. Each day seemed to pass like lines from a poem.

I interacted with people I wouldn’t have otherwise in the city; we suddenly shared our opinions and had deep discussions. Vama Veche transformed us into a community. Here I learned to let nature guide me. Here I felt that we are a spirit, an emotion, and a soul before anything else.

Vama Veche took us out of the dizzying flow of the city, teaching us to sit and think. We spoke about hippies, music, and Woodstock. The proximity of water made us go deeper, and the infinite expanse of the horizon calmed our thoughts. Vama Veche was the perfect place for this culture to flourish. A small village, forgotten at the edge of Eastern Europe, on the shore of the Black Sea. Nature and wildness attracted those who simply needed to breathe, to find an escape from the reactionary force of the communist regime. Vama Veche was a place of recharging, cleansing, and resistance for the generation before mine. Three decades later, it was our turn to resist and protest, this time against kitsch, materialism, consumerism, and the superficial. Vama Veche revealed everything we had in common.

Gentrification and Nostalgia

During the 80s, Vama Veche was declared a marine and terrestrial natural reserve. But the government never understood it should have been protected as a cultural reserve too. The few public actions, Salvați Vama Veche (Save Vama Veche) or the Stufstock Festival, did not find strong support. Initiatives died on their own, powerless against a society not investing enough in fighting against commercialization, the tide of misunderstood democracy, greedy politicians with vested interests, and an eager rush for profit.

Ironically, Vama Veche became a victim of its own reputation. By early 2010s gentrification took over. The beach got divided and concessioned, covered with umbrellas, canopies, and sunbeds, replacing the simple charm of the mornings in the tent. Modern and high-rise guest houses appeared in place of the old and hidden gardens, and new terraces, bars, and restaurants made Vama lose its meditative essence. Sadly, most newcomers (‘investors’) were alien to the Vama Veche’s spiritual mood. 

The old community is now dissipating. Some left the country in search of a future outside Romania, while others sought peace on the wild beaches of Bulgaria. But in the inertia of history, of the change and rotation of generations, the place has always remained alone in the game of opinions and preferences. How did those who arrived in Vama Veche years before me view me as a newcomer? Vama Veche is a personal experience for each one of us. 

I come back to Vama Veche every summer. In more than 25 years since we first met, she and I have both changed. But every time, I am surprised at the joy in the eyes of the young people who arrive there, with the amazement I felt years ago. Every summer the same story repeats itself. Vama Veche’s charm is always in the eye of the beholder. It is up to us to either remain anchored in the melancholy of the past or let ourselves be carried away by the spell of this place, constantly reinventing itself but never disappearing.