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


Reason I Love Living in Romania #76 - Ramsons

In the 100 Reasons I Love Living in Romania series that I started at number 58 a few months ago, I talked about the piata and the pleasure of eating real fruit and vegetables - a luxury that is now almost non-existent in North America thanks to supermarkets and seed providers like Monsanto. This Top 100 wouldn't be complete without a post on a very important discovery made at the piata: Leurda,  the Romanian word for Ramson, or, Allium Ursinum

Basically it's garlic. 

And who doesn't like Garlic? Vampires, that's who.

The rest of us should forever be grateful that garlic exists and that it make any dish taste better. It's like the bacon of non-meat ingredients. But common garlic is by no means practical; crushing it, peeling the skin, adding it to cooked dishes, and having to wash your fingertips really well after doing all that it make it a chore-like ingredient to deal with. It's worth it, but it's a chore.

Not so with Ramson(s). Like any leafy green, you just wash it and use it, pretty much however you like. Though it tastes of garlic, the flavour is rather more aromatic and less pungent than its bulbous cousin. It's perfectly acceptable to add it raw to salads, or to use it as garnish, as with chives. But I'm going to give you the best recipe for a ramsons salad -my own creation. 

At the piata, leurda is sold in generous bunches at 2 lei per bunch. If you were to use it all up in one dish, you'd be scaring vampires away for days, especially if consumed raw. When you cook it, it's a whole other matter.

Here's my recipe for Sauteed Ramson and Tomato Salad with Quail Eggs, Feta & Radish (serves two as a side salad, one if that's your dinner). You can be pretty liberal in your interpretation as long as you keep to proportions. 

- Cut some feta into cubes. Greek salad portions, according to your taste.
- Chop two or three red radishes into rounds
- Prepare 6 quail eggs: boil for 10 minutes, peel and cut lengthwise in half 
- In a hot pan (wok is good), add a fistful  of ramsons along with several cherry tomatoes.
- You will see the the ramsons quickly shrinking in the heat as the tomatoes begin to sear
- Add salt, pepper, olive oil and give it all a quick toss - this is fun, but don't get carried away 
- Once the tomatoes' skin begins to split and the ramsons have become bright green, algae-like strings, this part is done (about a minute).

Add everything to a salad bowl, sprinkle with olive oil and fruity balsamic vinegar (pear or apple is fine), add salt and pepper to taste, and you're done. 

You will notice the following.

Sauteed ramsons taste a bit like baby bok choy with garlic. The combination of ramson, tomato and feta, is predictably delicious while the quail egg and radish add great contrast with their respectively soft and crunchy textures. The fruit-infused balsamic vinegar serves as the great unifier, bringing harmony to the ingredients and creating a well balanced dish.

If I didn't live in Romania, it's likely I wouldn't have come across this amazingly versatile plant, which, though available, remains relatively undiscovered in North America.

The tasty result


How To Love Romania Like A Foreigner

It's no secret that foreigners in Romania tend to have a much better opinion of the country than its native inhabitants. This, of course, goes for almost anywhere else, but it really stands out in Romania. It's easy to say that it's the novelty that attracts foreigners here. When you visit a new country, your senses are assaulted by new experiences and the more unpleasant bits of a trip get washed away by the euphoria of discovery. This doesn't explain what makes people stay though.
My experience, and that of others who've made the move to Romania, is that the initial appreciation doesn't need to depreciate as long as you follow these four simple rules.

1. Look at solutions, not just the problem - We all know that Complaining (with a capital C, yes) is a beloved pastime in Romania. It's normal to complain, humans do it all the time and it can be therapeutic. The secret to effective complaining is in splitting the discussion into the bitching session and the solution session. Steps below:

a) Identify the problem.
b) Bitch and moan about the problem
c) Vent your frustrations some more
d) Suggest some solutions to the problem.

Here's an example in script format.

(A group of [F]riends in a restaurant. Although they are sitting in the non-smoking section, the smoke from the room next door is making its way to their table.)

F1 - This smoke, can't stand it anymore. (waves hand in front of face as if to clear the air of smoke)
F2 - Yeah, it's like nobody in this country has heard any of the evidence over the last forty years that explains how harmful smoking is.
F3 *coughs*
F1 - Nope, they refuse to believe. This is ridiculous though, completely ruins your meal.
F4 - And your clothes!
F2 - All it takes to change the law, is for one of the people who works in a place like this to sue for getting lung cancer. That's how it happened in Canada.
F3 -  It'll be years before that happens here! The EU will enforce a ban before that.
F1 - Okay, what if there was a website that tells people where you can find non-smoking places in Romania?
F2 - Yes! Great idea. And it should rate the level of clean air. Like this place says it's got a non-smoking section, but we may as well be sitting in the next room.
F1 - Exactly, this would get one star or something.

And that's kind of how nonsmokingromania.com was born.

2. Appreciate the authenticity - In Romania you meet a person, you start talking to them, and in the next five minutes you know their life story. This is a lot more interesting than "nice weather we're having". Also, when was the last time you ate fresh feta straight out of a shepherds lunch basket (One of the best videos on the foreigner's experience here, with my buddy Sam. The part I'm talking about is at around 8:20, but well worth watching the whole thing). And yeah, freshly mowed lawns smell great, but if you want perfect decor outside, you might as well get a Persian carpet and lay it out front. Grass is meant to grow wild and your yard should be full of things that grow. Also, food should be natural, and in Romania it still is, for the most part.

3. Get involved - Remember those huge Rosia Montana protests? Without taking away from the dedication of the local organizers, I do want to point out that the movement as a whole, was initially started with the help of a feisty activist named Stephanie Roth -obviously not a Romanian. During the protests, one of the most vocal people was a Norwegian-Canadian who now lives in Cluj. He created some videos and was very active in promoting the cause.
There is also this lady I came across on twitter. She's a British expat who's moved to a village in northern Transylvania.  I don't know her, but I find what she's doing for her community is very admirable and I'm certain her involvement in the community makes her feel good. And accomplished.
Without ever getting involved, nothing does change. It's that whole Be The Change philosophy. It's the only way. There is no magic button.

4. Appreciate the good things - Here are some things I love about living in Romania. I think they're all taken for granted by most Romanians.

a) Great internet service: Other than Google Fiber (available in three cities only), internet in North America is a joke. Your average package costs about $70/month, it's slower than the most basic package here, oh, you also get a usage cap of  around 150 GB per month. Sounds fun doesn't it, pirates? Here are a couple of packages in Canada and one from Romania (no usage caps, of course).

b) The outdoors are amazing. You got cool stuff like mountain villagescave systems, and this thing. There's also the Danube Delta and the Black Sea coast that offer moments of magic.

c) The wine is really good. Holds its own against French or Italian wine good. Too bad it's so poorly marketed outside of the country that it forces foreigners to buy cases here and ship them back home - I met a French guy doing just that in a local wine shop.

d)  Don't think I can repeat this enough. Natural tasting food. It's extremely common to meet people who don't like tomatoes in Canada - it's because they've only ever eaten the tasteless, plastic, supermarket tomatoes. Same goes with apples, peppers, cucumbers, cheese, honey, and pretty much any product that is made, or grows, locally. I don't know how long it'll still last, but I know I'm going to enjoy every bit of it while it does.

e)  No last call in bars/clubs: This might not seem like a big deal, but if you want to go out and have a proper party, trust me, a time limit puts a real damper on things. You haven't partied till you come out to meet the sunrise. This is every weekend in Romania (every day @Janis  for those who know). This is also never in Canada.

I often hear, "Foreigners and their foreign money love Romania, but it's not the same when you're a Romanian with a Romanian salary." Point taken. When, and if, that's the case. But let's be honest, this doesn't apply to every Romanian. Neither does it apply to every foreigner. It's a very escapist generalization that only propagates the myth that we're powerless to do anything about the fate of our own country.

I'll leave you with this question: Out of the four rules above, which of them are exclusive to foreigners with foreign money?


Is Cluj The Best City On Earth?

It's a question I ask myself at times.

Let's put it this way; I've been around. Maybe not all around the world, but halway-ish maybe. Sailed the canals of Amsterdam, biked from one end of Paris to the other, took the train from Budapest to Berlin, drove the 405 in LA, and yeah, I even rode a hay cart back in the day. But other than enjoying all these forms of transportation, I got to enjoy the places I visited. I don't know about you, but when I visit a place I always ask myself,  'would I live here?' While the answer is often 'yes, why not', the only place I moved to was Cluj.

Cluj, how do I love thee, let me count the ways:

1. I love your smell. It's like earth, and air, and city. I will never forget my first day here, when I  walked out of the arrivals building at the airport and breathed in your smell. Spring. You're the city of eternal Spring. On a balmy day, it's what you smell like, even if it's December, or August.

2. I love your people. I used to think they talk funny, but it's because they sing when they talk. They're calm, your people. I remember the time a neighbourhood hooligan was 'yelling' all kinds of obscenities  at a guy on the soccer field. Even though I understood the death threats, it still sounded like he was singing a lullaby. We kept playing, the cops came and took him to the drunk tank, and that was that. No biggie. 'Keep calm and carry on'. Invented in London, embodied in Cluj.

3. I love your eclectic architecture. The Gothic church, the Baroque buildings in Unirii Square. Let's hope they get the restoration work they deserve.  If it happens, there's a chance people will confuse you with Prague. You can handle it.

4. I love your bohemian spirit. You're ready to welcome anybody from anywhere. The Dutch businessman, the British expat, the Latin American/Tunisian/EU Citizen student, the German and American tourists. You're equally willing to let your citizens fly out and explore. Plus, not many cities are equidistant from three European capitals.

5. I love that you're growing. You have to take the good with the bad sometimes. You might gain some weight in cement, but it will help swing your weight at the higher levels of governance. And it's exciting to see you grow.

6. I love your curves. The only things that should be flat are roads and tables, the rest is up for debate. It's nice to be nestled by hills, it reminds your people that your backyard is rich and beautiful. What mysteries do you hide in your haunted forest? What's your good side, the north or the south?   Maybe it's the view driving in that distracts drivers and causes those accidents up on Feleac.

7. I love your cabbies. They never take the scenic route and they have some of the best stories.

8. I love your food. You got all the staples here.  Good steak, good burgers, good duck, probably the best Pad Thai this side of Europe, and let's not forget the Doner Kebab. But this is just the restaurants, because when summer comes around, it's a pleasure to be a stay-at-home vegetarian. Ah, and the drinks - well, they don't have all to be local, good job on shipping that Oban.

9. I love your malls. There are only two. I like that, I'd go crazy if I had to stroll through more than two malls, ever. Also, they both have cinemas, which is nice.

10. I love your art. There's always some artist killing it with a cool display in the city center or with beautiful gallery work. The music scene could use some help, but there's no shortage of places to enjoy music from elsewhere. But the art that  truly excites in Cluj is the vibrant creativity. Slowly but surely entrepreneurs are bringing in new ideas and concepts to the city. It's the easy networking and connections between various types of people that create the electric buzz of a city that's coming of age.

It is what it is.
I know where I've been, and this is where I am. 
Although Toronto is a world-class metropolis, I'm living the dream in Cluj.

I can travel anywhere in Europe within 3-4 hours via direct low-cost flights from the local airport; quick flights got me to Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona in 2013. I can watch movies at the cinema, sometimes before they come out in the US -and pay less for the ticket. I also have faster and better internet access than I could dream of anywhere in North America. It also goes without saying that I'm paying much less for rent here than I would for a very crappy apartment in TO, or that my commute to work is 10 minutes on a bad day. Although, infrastructure wise, it can be rough around the edges, it's the safest city I've ever been in -but this goes for most of the country.

I don't think I could ask for more, I'd feel greedy. I already live in the perfect city.

Photo credit: streetsofromania