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.  

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!

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.  

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.