In Mona’s Footsteps

Just when I reach the part in the book Train to Trieste, by Dominica Radulescu, when the main character Mona Manoliu, a girl in her late teens whose spirit and

Train to Trieste cover

development is profoundly repressed by Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, is leaving Romania, I am arriving.  Mona leaves Bucharest on a train to Belgrade.  She travels out of Romania under the pretense of going as a tourist to Yugoslavia, but has the intention of then crossing the border illegally into Italy.  She leaves her family behind, as well as her first love, Mihai, a brooding and secretive Brasov native who she comes to suspect of being a member of the secret police.  But is he?

In the Romania of today, in Timsoara, the balcony of the National Theatre in Liberty Square (so-named after 1989) is closed to visitors – no one can enter.  It stands as a monument to a week of protests in 1989 which were shouted from the balcony of the National Theatre and eventually spread across the country.  It was the start of the revolution of 1989 that ended in Ceausescu’s execution and a new political era, and it began here, in Timisoara.  In the sqaure below the theater is a tall

Moussolini-gifted statue in Timisoara's Liberty Square

column with a metal sculpture of a wolf nursing its pups – a gift from the pre-war fascist government of Italy.  The Orthodox church in the Romanian Brancoveanu style stands at the opposite side of Liberty Square.  This architectural style is found only in Romania and is named after a 17th century King who was decapitated by the Turks.  Here, at the Orthodox church in Liberty Square, protesters of 1989 revolution tried to escape police gunfire but were locked outside.  Many protesters died.

What eventually happens to Mona?  I don’t know yet, because I have not finished the book, but I recommend it for anyone who has an interest in Romania’s past and an appreciation for romantic historical fiction.

Timisoara National Theater - calls for revolution in 1989 Romania were yelled from the balcony

Taking a rest in Liberty Square, Timisoara

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August 2: Timisoara, Painted Walls

In Timisoara, Ilie and Istvan, students at 2 major universities in Timisoara are our guides

Ilie leads a tour of Timisoara

Ilie finished his 3-year Geography degree last year.  He is a member of the Romanian student geography association and is continuing his studies as a Masters student in territorial planning and sustainable development at Universităţii de Vest din Timisoara.

Ilie tells us that in March, the municipality held a street festival for the student associations.  Students from the art and music departments were invited to paint their graffiti on the walls of a building that the municipality will restore someday in the future.  Timisoara is home to more than 30,000 students.

Timisoara Graffiti


After the tour, the group has a discussion and planning session at a local student pub:


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August 1: Bucharest to Timisoara. Il Viaggio.

After crossing the wrong border into Romania, coming back into Hungary, and then crossing again into Romania, our journey of almost 24 hours from Bologna to Timisoara ended at 4:00 a.m. this morning.

Barbara studying Romanian in the van

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Green Gnocchi

Gnocchi Verdi: Before departure from Bologna for Romania, I took a trip to northern Italy where I got to eat one of my favorite Italian dishes.

Gnocchi Verdi on the plate: now sprinkle parmegian on top

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The TrenItalia Paradox: to buy or not to buy (a ticket)?

What can a ticket collector do when a passenger simply refuses to buy a ticket?  The situation occurs a lot on TrenItalia trains and it can either end in a quiet renunciation on the part of the ticket controller – with the unspoken assumption that the free-rider will get off and simply get on the next train – or escalate into a heated conflict.  I rode 3 trains this week and on 2 out of the 3 trains, at least one passenger on each trip blatantly and ostentatiously refused to buy a ticket.  The Italians I have asked say that the act of refusing to buy a ticket is normalized by a climate of impunity and almost pathological disregard for operating ‘in the white’ that characterizes the current Italian political situation in everything to paying taxes to the mafia-controlled black economy that, by some estimates, makes up as much as half of the country’s economic activity.   A climate of passive consent empowers passengers to assert their “right” to a free ride.  Is it wrong?

TrenITalia Paradox

The heart of the matter is that the belligerent passenger places the ticket controller in an impossible paradox: quietly cede control to the passenger and reveal to the other passengers that there is really no enforcement power behind the ticket system, leaving the ticket-buyers’ sense of self-superiority and the non-buyers’ sense of socially imposed ‘shame’ as the only control mechanisms, or confront the passenger personally, all the time knowing that no one has your back…except only maybe the imagination of a quiet, unseen masses of law-abiding passengers.  In one case witnessed, the ticket collector quietly and peacefully asked the passenger (a young man who said he didn’t have his identity card…his arm was in a sling.  I turned around to peer at him from between the seats) to get off the train at the next stop.  In the second case witnessed, the passenger refused to buy a ticket faced off with the ticket controller.  The conflict escalated into a high-tension face-off with insults and yelling.  The train car was hot and small, full of passengers.  The tension kept rising as a dozen passengers were held witness to the breakdown of TrenItalia law.  The ticket collector had probably been in the same situation so many times before.  She wasn’t going to let the passenger go, but at the same time had no real way to enforce the compulsory ticket obligation.  The passenger became more and more belligerent.  Should the collector have let the passenger get off at the next stop, with “shame” as the only punitive mechanism, or was she right to assert an aggressive confrontation of the rule-breaker?  With 15 minutes to the next stop, there was no end to the conflict in sight.  What should the passenger witnesses have done?  What is their moral obligation?  As I set off for group travel and tourism to Romania tomorrow (or, today, since it is past midnight in Bologna), I think about this paradox and its implications and the rules and economics – of both power and money – that govern and dictate the way we travel, the travel rules we choose to abide by, and those we don’t.

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Italian-Romanian round table

On July 28, the Italian members of Turisti non a caso sat down with the 6 Romanian guests for a round table discussion focusing several main themes including tourism in Romania, Romanian economic transition, the situation of women during and after communism, and stereotypes of Romanians in migration destination countries. “Under Carlceascu, you had enough, but nothing to buy. Now, under capitalism, you can buy anything you want, but have no money to buy it with,” said one of the Romanian participants. In their own words, Romanian visitors suggested some important factors in considering the contemporary Romanian problematique:

Italian-Romanian round table

Italian-Romanian round table

  • Romania can’t afford to refine its own oil, so it sells it to Shell, and gas is expensive in Romania for this reason (even though Romania is an oil-rich country).
  • Romania has become a consumer instead of a producer. It is difficult to find Romanian products in Europe because goods come from small producers and can’t really be mass exported. The production mechanisms are often too small to enable producers to conform to EU regulations, so goods can’t really be exported: they aren’t competitive on the European market.
  • After 89′ agricultural cooperatives were dissolved and farmers were left without heavy machinery. They couldn’t afford the kind of machinery required to farm large plots of land. Small farmers were left to produce for themselves, and are often left bankrupt and forced to sell their land. In the European Agricultural community, the more land you have, the more you can lower your prices and compete in the European economy. There has been difficulty making the Romanian agricultural community more competitive, also because people are wary have collective farming in large land cooperatives given their experience under communism. They’d rather remain small-farm producers.

    Italian-Romanian round table

    Italian-Romanian round table

  • Socialism had the aim of developing industry, so the traditional Romanian agricultural tradition was left behind. Because Romania had once been a fundamentally agricultural society, and under the weight of the industry-focused socialist economy, the country was “turned upside down.” Farmers were forced to come to the cities and to the industrial centers where they worked in factories, but were largely unqualified workers. The “quality of the products produced during that time wasn’t very good.” After the revolution, many of the farmers were offered a very small price for the land, and most people sold.

After a short break, discussions turned toward the topic of stereotypes and the need to confront Italian stereotypes of Romanians working and living in Italy.  Italian members of the round table suggested that one main stereotypes characterizes Italian views of Romanians in Italy: that they are prostitutes or caretakers.  When asked about their own stereotypes of Romanians, the northern European youth volunteers from Germany and the Netherlands (currently based in Bologna as volunteers and who visited Marzabotto with the Italian-Romanian group) said they believed that most people in their own countries didn’t have stereotypes about Romanians in particular, but rather about Eastern Europeans in general.

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Day 3

clockwise, L to R = Stefan, Istvan, Ilia, Andrea, Daniela, Alina, (Lavinia not pictured)

Our hosts at the house - a social center - where the group takes its meals

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