I went to Romania for a TEM Lab consulting project for an IKEA supplier, thinking my sole focus would be to advance the business with strategic market entry recommendations. However, I left with friends of those “mysterious” people, an appreciation of their rich culture, and a historical and hopeful perspective of this nation. I left behind my second acasă (home) in Romania.
The Detective, Madelina & Popasu
The detective Marian is a tall, masculine, yet soft, and gentle guy. The first time we met, he handed over a small glass of liquor—53% of alcohol, as I just dropped off my luggage in Popasu, the bed and breakfast. I soon realized the liquor Pálinka is a symbol of hospitality, but I couldn’t forget the “53%” guy.
Madelina worked at Popasu after her undergraduate in Business Administration. She taught me how to get hot water any time from the coffee machine. What hot water to a me is what iced water is to my American colleagues.
Madelina and I got very close during the project. We resonated on our identity as the only girl in the family, and more importantly an explorer. Madelina never travelled outside of Romania, but the world comes to her. In Popasu, she talked to travelers from the UK, US, Germany, Sweden, Australia, etc. She likes international guests as they are open to conversations and interactions, while domestic guests are more conservative and less approachable.
When Madelina took time off, Marian would come and help. As the son of Mama Maria, the owner of Popasu, Marian often stuck around as bartender, translator, and storyteller. He shared stories of him resolving mysterious cases while making coffee for us. Sometimes he sat with us while we were enjoying the incredible food. He was always amazed and appreciative for how much we enjoyed the Romanian local cuisine. Who can resist it?
The unexpected tears came at the night before our departure. Madelina helped my team and I cook some dishes to express our appreciation to the great hosts. The detective came and, of course, gave us more Pálinka… and the homemade fresh strawberry liquor—my favorite. See, I was finalizing my conversion into a Romanian.
After dinner, we gave gifts to Mama Maria and Marian. He had tears welling up in his eyes. His gift was a patch from our veteran teammate Nick. There is a tradition in uniformed services to have their own patch as a focal point for unit pride. The detective hugged his mom and us, and urged us to visit again.
Barbeque & European Union
Mrs. Doina Filip was our first interviewee from the client company and a genuine lady I’m very fond of. On a very sunny cool day, we finally got to meet her husband Mr. Tanasie Filip in their cabin on the mountain. Mr. and Mrs. Filip served us authentic Romanian barbecue with real wood fire on top of a mountain. They were so hospitable that we had to fight hard to help clean the plates.
They have twin daughters, an economist and a math teacher, both settled in Austria. Mr. Filip said currently 4 million young talents, especially doctors, work outside Romania. It’s been increasingly rapid since 2007, the year Romania joined the European Union. He was sad to see the talent gap of a whole generation, but he also witnessed medical care moving to Romania. He actually supported a UK-based charity, Sunshine & Smiles, to provide free dental care to village children, for years.
Mr. Dragos Pislaru, however, has a more positive perspective. Mr. Pislaru is a board of our TEM Lab client, a well-educated business strategist, a former Minster of Labor, and a catalytic force for Romania entering EU. He envisioned and promoted opportunities from the EU, such as infrastructure development, financial loans, and educational sponsorship.
This legacy transformed Romania. Popasu got its logo designed by a western European artist, like many other small businesses in rural Romania. The popular tourism attraction Salina Turda salt mine was revived and modernized in 2008, under the PHARE ESC that the EU Commission put forward to improve infrastructure and access to education. Free movement of labor and favorable trade agreement have attracted enormous multinational businesses and knowledge transfers, which contributes to Romania’s over 3% growth rate.
Prison & Laughs
Before arrival, I researched Romania’s history, but I was not able to really comprehend it until I was there.
The moment I walked into the Communism Prison Museum, I was overwhelmed with a sense of sadness and depression. The faces of those “prisoners” covered the walls along the hallway. Those are not cold stories; each individual on those walls was damaged during that time.
As a Chinese person, I grew up hearing stories about communism—my parents suffered from the disaster of hunger caused by the Great Leap Forward. However, they told me as a fact, a piece of history.
But here, I observed a never-recovered wound with blood running down. I saw all the grey and breathless pictures of people that could have had a different life. I walked into tiny and dark cells that felt freezing and desperate. I couldn’t move my eyes from poems and art the “prisoners” created. I went to the empty room with a black iron chain in the middle of the “black cell.” I could hardly stay one more moment.
Then, I heard laughter. I turned around and saw two huge and incredibly hazel eyes. A Romanian baby being carried stared at me with heart-warming smiles. He babbled constantly, moved back and forth, leaned towards me, and tried to wiggle himself from his mom’s arms. His smiles and laughs were like a ray of sunshine that brightened my world. I smiled and shook his chubby hands. His mom was generous and gave me the opportunity to hold the little baby.
Suddenly, I figured out what kept this nation moving forward after such a long difficult period of time, what magnetized over 1 million visitors every year, and where the future would lead to. The spirit of never giving up, the mentality of never forgetting history, and the courage to rise from ashes… just like my home country.
The Romania trip ended. But the memories are still fresh. My heart is still there.