16 Reasons Cluj Is The Ideal City For A New Start

I wanted something different. The big-city rat race wasn't doing it for me. I wasn't in any state to settle at my job, to put a down-payment on a thirty year condo mortgage, to get a long-term girlfriend and then to rinse and repeat. A lot of it had to do with not knowing what I wanted exactly, but I knew I didn't want 'this'. And even when I first visited Cluj in 2010, I didn't think Cluj would be 'it'. After all, what could a Romanian city with less than half-a-million inhabitants have to offer anybody from a North American metropolis? It was almost a quaint notion. Still is in some ways.

Crossing the entire city, end to end, in twenty minutes? That's like a drive to the grocery store in Toronto. Tallest building has like, what, fifteen floors? Ha, how puny. There are bigger roller coasters back where I'm from. Oh, is that an Indian restaurant? Yes, the one and only. There is also an  iStyle for all your Apple needs. What's iStyle? Also, with the only escalators in the city at Iulius Mall it sounds like I'll be doing a lot of my own stair climbing. Confirmed.

And yet, three years later, here I still am. 

Turns out walking to the grocery store is way better than driving there. And the lack of tall buildings means I get a nice view of the surrounding hills. Does your big North American city have hills? No, didn't think so. Also, escalators aren't quite as picturesque, are they? As for iStyle/Apple, who cares, I never bought an Apple product and I'm perfectly fine. The one Indian restaurant is owned by an Indian gentleman, a Colonel mind you, who hires the chefs from India. Nothing to complain about there. But I've already suggested Cluj might be the best city on earth. Granted, that was all based on my own experiences. So let's take a look at some hard facts.

1. Lowest Air Pollution in the EU - A recent research project carried out by a French magazine in collaboration with the "Respire" association found Cluj to be the best city in the EU for air quality, edging out Edinburgh in Scotland. The mountain air helps, as does the relatively small size of the city, but the report mentions that it ought to be taken with a grain of salt, as Cluj only has two stations that measure pollution levels. That being said, you can feel the clean air here anytime you get away from the main roads or the busy city center. I even forgot the word 'smog' while living here. 

2. Overall Satisfaction - The most recent version of a EU report that aims to determine how citizens perceive quality of life in their home cities had Cluj sandwiched between Amsterdam and Graz, in 8th place, out of 79 EU cities. Ninety-six percent of respondents declared themselves "satisfied" (or better) with life in Cluj. They didn't ask me, but count me in!

3. Integration of Foreigners - The very same report asked its respondents whether "they agreed or disagreed with two specific statements regarding foreigners: firstly, that the presence of foreigners is good for their city ; and, secondly, that foreigners who live in their city are well integrated." Cluj was in first place, with 91% of respondents issuing positive responses to both questions. It's not surprising though, Romania as a whole is friendly to foreigners, and most people in the larger cities have, at the very least, a basic grasp of English or another major European language. 

4. Cluj is Open for Business - Some will say this is contentious. I was just talking to a friend who says the city is being held back by corrupt officials. Indeed, a former mayor just received a four year prison sentence for corruption, the head of the Cluj County Council is also under arrest in a kickback scandal, and there is very little trust in the public institutions in general. But, things do happen. I've seen the growth over the past three years and it's obvious that the city isn't stagnating in any way, on the contrary. 

To complete the list, here are a handful of business and self-employment opportunities in or around Cluj:  

5. Startup/ IT Business - Talented developers, government incentives in the IT sector, and blazing fast internet are just the tip of the iceberg. Earlier in the year Intel acquired a company with a local office. Facebook has recently done the same with Cluj-founded LiveRail. HP, IBM, Yardi/ Property Shark, and SDL also number among the big names here. While outsourcing is still the bulk of software work done in Cluj, startups are catching on in a big way.

6. Art Studio - A new book names Cluj alongside eleven other 'art cities' to watch in the future. The local market may be in its infancy, but there is a big community of talented and creative people here. Check out this steam-punk bistro pub.

7. Bagel Shop - The staple of any good breakfast, those delicious bread donuts, are nowhere to be found in Cluj. You can weep or you can seize the opportunity and be the first to serve up beautifully toasted bagels with a variety of delicious spreadables. While Romanians are not the ideal early adopters, the bagel might be familiar enough that it could quickly go viral. 

8. Freelance Work - You got skills? Why not do your writing, photography, video, music, design, or software development from one of the coolest cities on the planet? Located near the crossroad of Europe and Asia, you're only far away from Australia. With the low cost of living, you'll manage to live a well-balanced lifestyle.

9. Teach English - While the language is already widely spoken, Romanians are always happy to get extra practice from native speakers. It's a no-brainer.

10. Open the first Resto-lounge - You know those places that serve fusion cuisine, offer uncomfortable dining seating, and combine the atmosphere of bistro, club, and bar? What the hey, Cluj should have one of those. 

11. Open a proper Korean, Mexican, Vietnamese, or Lebanese restaurant - Mexican and Lebanese has been done but I'd say location and quality is what killed 'em. Like anything else, if it's actually good, I have a feeling it would go down pretty well. 

12. Indoor football (soccer) field(s) for winter - In Toronto there were some good choices for winter soccer games. Consider that every winter in Cluj, there are people who play in the snow in -10 degree weather. Can you imagine how they'd line up for a spot in a heated indoor soccer center? The one covered field here is a joke, a wedding tent offers more protection from the elements.  

13. Refurbish the Continental Hotel - The iconic city center landmark has the potential to be the coolest boutique hotel in the region. Apparently there are some property disputes and legal battles surrounding the issue, so it might need plenty of time in addition to money. Nonetheless, it's a gem. 

14. Buy a football (soccer) club - I believe both of the local clubs, U Cluj and CFR Cluj, are on the market. If you're an oil-rich sheikh, you'd be paying pocket change for a team with real European potential. 

15. Build a sustainable Eco-Tourism business - I visited The Organic Art Ranch a couple of weeks ago and enough said, just look at the gallery. A story that struck me though was that of a wealthy businessman who'd visited and insisted on sleeping in the grass under the stars. That's really low overhead.

16. Invest in real-estate - I kind of hate to even suggest this because I'm not a fan of real-estate speculation. However, in this market, it's going nowhere but up. Buy for AirBnB hosting,  to rent, as a second home, or for long term investment. It will bear fruit. 

Some of these suggestions require millions in investment, the others, a willingness to take the plunge. One thing's certain, if you're a self starter, you won't be at a loss for what to do in this little big city. 


Here Is Why Romania's Future Is Bright

The festival is only in its second edition, but following last year's inaugural event, Electric Castle has stirred up enough buzz to attract visitors from beyond Romania's borders. Walking around the festival grounds I had the impression that every other group was comprised of foreigners speaking Hungarian, English, German, or French. And judging by the license plates in the parking lots, every county in Romania was well represented. While there's plenty to be said about the artists and the music, there's something else I want to discuss in this post.

When you think "music festival", the image that comes to mind is that of overly excited youth on a drug and alcohol infused rampage, laying waste to everything in their path. Maybe it has something to do with the way festivals like to promote themselves; these are basically the images that stand out on most 'Official Aftermovie' videos from major music festivals. But obviously the experience is defined by many other factors.

Primarily it's the people.

While the standard in Romania is to expect the worse from others, this notion is quickly dispelled if you're a foreigner. The reason being that you're seen as a paragon of virtue and as a result the natives are able to uncover vast reserves of patience and goodwill. At Electric Castle everyone was a foreigner. The staff were helpful and polite, festival goers were in a buoyant mood, and despite the loud music and (literally) tons of alcohol, civility reigned. I didn't see fights, people butting in lines, nor girls getting harassed by drunk guys. Just positive vibes everywhere. Sure there were probably some incidents, 80,000 people are said to have attended, but I'd venture to say they were isolated.

Then there were the services.

Plenty of places to eat in the Food Court, from Asian to Romanian, and even raw vegan, lots of bars, rest & relaxation areas, and let's not forget the strategically placed port-a-potties. I'm only deducing here, but I imagine that the festival goers managed to maintain the good vibes precisely because the essentials were both adequate and easily accessible. I also noticed that all the temporary fixtures were solid and well installed; wires were running on top of the fencing, well out of the way of clumsy feet, and the little details didn't simply get ignored (just the observations of a former Property Manager). It was also nice to see the organizers provided festival-goers recycling incentives with an 'Eco Station' that collected empty plastic cups in exchange for beer tokens.

Having observed all this, I came to the most important realization of all.

This entire event was created by young people. It was attended by young people. It was served by young people. I'm using the term loosely but I'm pretty sure of one thing; it's unlikely that anyone involved here was more than a child in 1989. Sure, we've all been tainted by the communist legacy, but this festival proves we can shake the stereotypes, we are capable to doing things differently, and that we're able to rise above the 'good enough' mentality in order to create excellence.

As the current political class ages out, they're going to be replaced by people who, by default, have a different approach to getting things done. They will understand business, efficiency, the importance of attention to detail, and they will take pride in a job well done. This is the type of attitude that already comprises a set of ethics. The ethics of success.

Electric Castle embodies these principles, and, if it's anything to go by, Romania's future generations also embody these principles.

Here's to the future.


Romanian Beauty

Not long ago, I wrote a short post on another kind of Romanian beauty, but I came across a blog that's full of stunning images of local scenery. It's nice to see somebody's taking the time to curate these images and offer them to an international audience (in English). Browsing through it helped whet my appetite for the upcoming Romania tour this summer.

Here's the link to the blog, and a bunch of sample shots.


Putna Monastery
                                                              Sulina, Danube Delta

Fagaras Fortress


Cabin in the Carpathians
 Rainy Street in Brasov

Beauty in the fields


In My Country...

Many years ago, I dated a girl who was half Laotian and half Chinese. I liked that even though she was born in Canada, she had these backup cultures on which she could form her world view, just like I did. When we talked we'd sometimes get into discussions about things like the different ways in which Canadians, Romanians, Laotians, or Chinese prepare chicken. "I ate chicken feet and chicken hearts back in my country," I'd say. We'd both be grossed out (because that just isn't done in Canada) even though it's not unusual in our backup cultures to eat everything but the beak.

Then one day she said to me, "You're always talking about your country, but it's kind of boring." Ouch. She wasn't saying Romania is boring though, she meant that the cultural discussions we had were less interesting than talking about work, movies, music, and other random everyday Canadian stuff. Needless to say, we didn't stay together very long.

It's a bit weird that I'd still remember that, but not surprising. It's the brutally honest things that people tell you about yourself that tend to stick. And I did talk a lot about my country. Romania was - and still is - worth talking about. It's also because most of my friends and the people with whom I would interact came from so many different places. They too would start stories with the words, "In my country..." and I could see in their eyes how their memories transported them across the oceans and the continents that now separated them from their native land.

I can safely say my favourite thing about living in Toronto was the number of cultures one could encounter on a daily basis. If you're learning a new language you can find natives to help you practice. If you're craving international food you can find restaurants serving entirely authentic dishes. If you want to date a half Chinese, half Jamaican Toronto's the spot. It's fascinating to be part of a multicultural society, but there's still something missing as long as you're away from home. You can try to fill the void with a good job, with new friends, with new experiences, and with all kinds of entertainment, but there will always be this other place, (not so) far away.


28 Changes in Cluj Since 2011

It's now been three years.

My one-way trip from Toronto had me arrive on April 1st, 2011, the irony, right? I came in via Budapest. They don't even have that connection anymore.

Let's see what else has changed, in no particular order at all...

1. The mayor
2. The other mayor
3. The Janis on Eroilor is no longer there
4. There's a beautiful new stadium

5. Cluj are no longer a force in Romanian football
6. The steps to Cetatuia have been rebuilt
7. All you can eat sushi is a daily thing 
8. More Canadians (and other foreigners) are calling Cluj 'home'
9. Quality of services is improving 
10. There is a new park (Iulius)
11. You can now find a pretty decent burger around here 
12. Saw the opening of the first (and probably still the only) Thai restaurant in Transylvania
13. Central Park got a haircut (a bit on the short side)
14. You can fly to more places in Europe (Basel is the latest direct flight)
15. The casino got a makeover
16. More festivals and events than ever
17. Awarded European Youth Capital (2015)
18. In the running for European Capital of Culture (2021)
19. Saw a small bakery turn into a successful franchise
20. There's a little ski slope on the hill in Feleac
21. Google mapped the entire city on Street View
22. Took a few years but Eugen Ionesco finally got paved
23. Obsession (the club) closed down
24. New office buildings and condos are sprouting like mushrooms
25. New runway at the airport for smooth landings
26. There's a liquor store that keeps the beer in a refrigerated room (like you're supposed to)
27. The local IT cluster aims to create Romania's largest tech campus
28. New trams look pretty cool, even in purple
29. A bunch of other new stuff I just don't know about 

I'm sure there are plenty more changes to come, but here are the four that would make all the difference in the world. 

- Moving all communications cables and suspended wiring underground
- Restoring the old historical buildings
- Building new parking lots to clear up the sidewalks
- Roads: both new and improved

What do you think about the changes in Cluj so far? What are your expectations for the coming years? Leave a comment below.


O Sa Scriu (Si) In Romana

De ce?

Pentru ca, de ce nu.

E si alceva. Mi-am dat seama ca pot macar sa traduc articolele vechi, scrise in Engleza, si sa le fac 'available' in Romana. Apropo, o sa scriu asa in felu meu, cu Englezisme si cuvinte inovative. Sper ca sunteti excitati, cum am fost si eu de cand am ajuns inapoi in tara. 


Are Romanian Women The Most Beautiful In The World?

More than once, I was asked to write about the beauty of Romanian women, but...

I have no words. Besides, I may be biased, but clearly it's a rhetorical question.

However, there is no shortage of Facebook pages and Tumblr blogs dedicated to the subject.

Image: Geanina Olaru @ weheartit