The Joys of Music and Retail

  In the summer of 2011 I conducted a series of interviews attempting to write a positive book about Romania, to put out there a message of courage and dignity, and poke thru the mass despair of living under the awful economic and political situation that continued 20 years after the fall of communism. I talked to various people whom I considered had had an inspiring life, be they older or younger folks. Marcelo Vihar  was one of them.
Since writing the entire book proved to be a heroic task, and I am not one, alas, I got caught up in my own struggle to survive and got derailed. So I shall start posting the interviews one at a time, hopefully I can manage maintaining the pace of one a week, thus be done in two years. It is rather overwhelming, as if an elephant has fallen on top of me.
Someone, please be a sponsor and pay my bills and get me a paid professional transcriber. There’s a PayPal button at the bottom of this post.
I apologize to my interviewees for my delay.
I hope you enjoy their words and spirit as much as I did.
Marcelo Vihar, in his early 30s, a Hungarian Romanian pianist living in London, soft, gentle, sensitive, sincere. Shoulder long thick blondish hair, honey brown hypnotic eyes. Tall. Slightly stooped. Dressed in jeans, velvet jacket, white shirt, various youthful necklaces and bracelets. He has a deep, mellow voice.
Marcelo: I don’t know if I reached that stage when I can give interviews. I don’t have the confidence yet …
Ella: Well, you have to start from somewhere…
M: I do have to start from somewhere, but overall I can start it from the beginning…
E: Sure, from wherever you feel like it. We were chatting that you’re now in London.
M: Briefly, ever since I was a child I made music. When I was five years old I started with my guitar, then I studied piano, and well, I was always surrounded by music.
E: Was your mom a musician?
M: No, no one in our family was a musician, but they were musical. My father played the guitar at home and my mother sings, but she never gave a concert as such. She has a beautiful voice. She’d sing at times in the kitchen while she cooked, that was all. Both myself and my sister were interested in the guitar. She studied guitar. I started studying guitar but I didn’t like it. I took some private violin classes when I was six years old and I loved it. I had a very good teacher but she didn’t have a university degree and couldn’t stay on teaching at the school. It really wasn’t a school, more like a club. Before ‘89 they had in Romania what was called Casa Pionierilor, The Boy Scout House, and they sent her somewhere else because she didn’t have a degree.
E: This was happening when? During the ‘70s or ‘80s?
M: Before ‘89, in ‘88, maybe ‘87. Then I discovered the piano, so since ‘88, ‘89 I studied the piano. I never had experiences doing anything else, other jobs, you know, and often this wasn’t good. My father always supported me financially, and when I came here, I also lived in Germany before, then I came to London, I studied music, and I had no other skills than music. And I said, what can I do…
E: How old were you when you graduated? 20?
M: 22, 23. Upon graduation I said, “I have to find some job. I want to stay here, with my girlfriend.” I met her in school here, she plays the piano, she’s from Japan. She studied piano and guitar since she was little, but also studied media journalism. So after I graduated from a three-year conservatory, I said, “I want to stay here, I don’t want to go back to Germany. I have friends here, my girlfriend also wants to stay here.” But the only thing I knew was music. I tried to play in various ensembles, but it was rather difficult. I couldn’t find anyone with the same vision, there are so many musical styles. So I found a hotel and I played there thru an agency. I played in various places, hotels, bars, restaurants, wherever the agency sent me.
E: Did they tell you what to play?
M: They often asked me…. I studied classical music and after school I suddenly played less and less classical music and I had to learn how to play jazz standards, film music, or pop music, something that people could recognize, a kind of background music, quieter music. Well, I deviated a bit from classical music. I couldn’t play the same way I played before, in school, I deviated from one style to another one. So I played for about five years in various bars and hotels and after awhile I realized it hurt my performance. I even fell into a depression, “What I do is not appreciated, time passes and I can’t go on like this!”
When you are a piano player you don’t get regular work, just gigs. The agency sends you, “Go play Saturday and Sunday!” and you don’t get much money. Then you have to wait for their phone call to tell you, “Well, go and play Monday and Tuesday too.” It’s never something steady.
This didn’t help me in the least, and after awhile I reached a point that I lost many gigs, it was a period in which I played only once a week, or twice a month, and I stayed home and I was about to give up everything and go back to Germany to my parents. I couldn’t afford to pay my rent even, my girlfriend supported me. She was lucky she has a rather good job with a Japanese company, and she supported me, and so last year in December I said, “I have to do something else, I have to look for something else, other than music. I can work in sales, in retail, in a clothing store on High Street!” So I sent my bio everywhere and in the end I found a job in a clothing store.
I had luck, they didn’t even ask me about my bio. I entered every store along Oxford Street and I said, “Do you have…. I’m looking for a job!” and everybody said, “No,” or, “Come next month,” or, “Leave your bio,” and I realized I won’t have a chance, because my entire bio is about music, I had no experience in retail. In my entire life I never did anything else but music, and if someone got to read it, they won’t be interested in hiring me. But I was lucky, I entered a store and I asked for the manager and we chatted a bit. She was a very open-minded woman. I told her I had no experience in retail but I needed a job. I told her where I was from and she said, “Could you come tomorrow for a second interview with another manager?” And the next day I talked with the other manager and they said, “Tomorrow you can start work.” I had such luck! I said, “How extraordinary that I can do this retail job and financially I am secure.” Secure to a point. I don’t earn enough to…
E: …afford a smart phone. [Laughs]
M: Exactly.
E: What the hell is going on with phones here? It’s utterly mad in Europe. It’s awfully expensive.
M: Phones, rent are the most expensive, if not in the entire world, but in Europe for sure. We have zones, 1, 2, 3, 4. Here we are in Zone 1 and it’s exorbitant. People who live in Zone 1 probably pay £2,000 a month, and we live in Zone 4, an hour away by subway, and we pay for a small apartment, two rooms, 790, so 800 just for the rent.
E: Anyway, let’s get back…
Well, my father is right in many things, it’s good if you get to know special people.
E: What are those special people? Do I qualify for that?! That’s why he wanted the two of us to meet?! [She giggles] God, special people!
M: At my workplace, it’s okay, I talk to the clients, I help them find the right size in pants, but they are different than me. We can’t really talk about art, they are much simpler people, my co-workers. The clients at times are interesting, they start chatting. It’s a different environment. This is helpful for me because being a piano player I became an entertainer, and living in these circles, the music business, is different. It’s not glamorous this music business. I’d go to work, play for 3, 4 hours, say hello to the waiters or the cooks or the manager, exchange a “How are you?’ “I’m fine,’ I’d sit at the piano, play for 3 hours, take a 10 minute break, play more, at times I didn’t even get to talk to anyone!
This routine didn’t do me any good at all.
I enjoy talking to people and even entertaining them. I had a few extraordinary moments when I played the piano and people would come and appreciated my music and had requests. I discovered many things thru people, especially at the hotels, they come from different corners of the world, I’d ask them, “Where are you from? What music do you like?” Fantastic! But that happened infrequently. In this retail job I communicate with people daily and it helps me very much, especially with my English, to improve it, and it helps me get to know myself, to see what I am capable of, how I should behave, how I should talk to people, listen to them. All this psychology. At my piano…
I just talked about it with my girlfriend that while I went to school in my first year in London my English was… When I came here I thought that my English was exceptionally good, but I got hammered in my head. [She laughs] I realized I knew nothing! My English was…
E: [Laughs] I know what you mean, I’ve just come from Romania and there everybody thinks they speak English! [Laughs] They employ some gibberish!
M: Then I realized, man, I have to start from zero! I thought I’d come here and I speak with everybody in super English. I set myself diligently in my first, second year, and finally in my third year I was able to communicate with my professors, my classmates in a fluent English. But after graduation, being a piano player for those five years, I had regressed, and I said, man…
E: But how do you communicate with your girlfriend? In Japanese?
M: I spoke English, but it wasn’t enough to just see her daily. I’d meet friends too, but I became somehow isolated, secluded because I’d go to my job, come home, talk to my girlfriend, then the next day again I went played the piano, came home. I’d play in the evening, when all my friends would go out. They’d often call me, “Let’s have a juice, or beer, go to a club,” and I’d say, “I can’t because I play the piano from 7 to 10,” or 8 to 11, so I fell in a bad routine and was suffering from depression at the time, especially when I had no more gigs, I’d stay home and couldn’t even play the piano. We have an electric piano.
I have to pay attention, it’s 12:29, there is enough time. I start work at 1:30. From here in Hyde Park it takes, 5-10 minutes. I’m sorry we can’t hang out more, we could have gone to have a drink or…
E: Some other time. [Laughs]
M: I hope we keep in touch and there will be another occasion as soon as possible.
E: I don’t know, Marcelo, weather is horrid in London. Though I love the people, they are so very nice, so sweet. I didn’t expect that at all. I thought they were all like the people in British movies, all of them furious, but no, they’re so kind.
M: There are many foreigners. London is the most international, cosmopolitan city in the world. There are so many…
E: In the world?! I can tell you for sure that it ain’t! [Laughs her head off]
M: Maybe New York too it’s the same? It must be the same.
E: Of course. But I tell you, the transit workers in the subway are so very nice. I didn’t expect that. I thought they’ll be snooty and arrogant, only to see they are sooo…
M: They often are…
E: Not with me, I don’t know, maybe they like my hat?
M: [Laughs] Depends. In New York too you find all kinds of people, don’t you?
E: Sure. But New York is rougher. It’s an eight-million-people city, plus the tourists, but London is cute. Rather small, really. All my info came from the movies. I was imagining something imperial that crushes you, like our humungous Casa Poporului/House of the People, that’s how I imagined it, something enormous. Instead… I went to the museum, well, in an hour I was done with it! What kind of museum is this?! In New York I’d be wandering around its galleries for two days and still haven’t seen it all.
M: Really?
E: Really.
M: So in America everything is bigger, the streets, the fridges.
E: Sure. I expected to find the Kitchen Sink, the Young Furious Men, Look Back in Anger, A Clockwork Orange, Richard Burton screaming, smashing things.

M: My parents are very disappointed in London, they’ve been here 2, 3 times and were very disappointed in the system, coming from Germany… The health care system here is catastrophic, a disaster. If I make a doctor or a dentist appointment they will see me in two months, unbelievable. In Germany you call and this week, or at the most next week they’ll take you. Here you have to wait. It’s inexcusable.
Many British people who were born here complain about the governing system, they always blame the government. It’s a mess, though on the surface everything shines. I think in any country if you live there, for example I love Paris, I’ve been there for four days, I loved it, but as a tourist you see things one way, and when you work and live there, problems become obvious.
E: How was it during the riots?
M: Our neighborhood wasn’t affected, only in Tottenham. In your area, nearby Seven Sisters…
E: Yes, they said they burnt down a bus.
M: They vandalized, I don’t know if they fixed it by now.
E: I’ve seen phone booths all smashed up.
M: They were all young, 16, 17 year old kids, just street kids that show off, break windows whatnot. There were rumors they’d come downtown on Oxford Street that week, and they let us go home earlier, instead of 10 we left at 9, but it was just for a few days, I don’t know what they showed on the news.
E: Burning buses, burning buildings. You couldn’t tell if it was contained.
M: You don’t know what to think.
E: Yes, you believe it’s worse than it really is. But let’s move on, since we talk about London life, I was very surprised to see so many Hungarians and Romanians here. How do you feel about that?
M: You found Romanians?
E: Many of them. On the street I overheard them speaking.
M: In our area, around 2008, 2009 they arrived in mass, as if they brought them here in large trucks... [She laughs] There are so many of them shopping in food supermarkets, you hear just Romanian. I often say, “Cool, I’m in Romania!” [She laughs]
It’s very hard for them, many Romanians leave home, come here for awhile, work very hard jobs. I don’t know what is their legal status, if they are allowed to work as Romanians, or not. I have a German passport, I can stay here, I don’t need a visa. My girlfriend being from Japan had big problems with her visa, she was asked to go back. I helped her out, it was very hard, but eventually I could help her stay. So I don’t know what is the status of Romanians, some come only to work, but others get integrated and stay here. Most of them, I think, work in menial, hard construction work and then go back home.
E: I’ve seen two of them digging up the streets by St. Paul’s Cathedral, on a Sunday!
M: They put a bit of money aside and go back. It’s very hard, myself even after 10 years, is still hard, I don’t fit in the work place, in this country, society. That’s why I think I have a hard time in music, only now as if things start to move a bit faster with this new job, I started to meet new people, to go out, with friends, but I still feel I don’t belong here, I don’t fit in…
I don’t know how long it’s going to be like this.
It depends from person to person. Some come, stay for two years and things start rolling for them, have very good jobs, they integrate, learn the language. It takes me longer. I will succeed, I’m a fighter and I’ll succeed. I’m moreof a snail, I walk slower, but I shall arrive at my destination.
E: [Laughs] What is your destination? How would you like your life to be?
M: I don’t think so much about money. Many ask me, “Don’t you want to be famous and have money?” That would be cool, but as long as I can do what I love, music, to make music, since I worked for so long. Ever since I was a child I dedicated my entire life to music, I studied, I played, and to be able to do what I love and have an income from music, from what I love doing, without other worries, then I’d be content.
This competition I entered, if you heard of Jamie Cullum, he is a piano player and he first started playing in the Pizza Express, in bars, restaurants and hotels, and now he has I don’t know how many records.
E: He plays classical music?
M: Oh, nooo, he plays jazz, funk, pop-rock, and he organizes this… I think in New York you have Super Star or…
E: American Idol.
M: American Idol, but this one is cheesier. I don’t watch American Idol, because the singers seem to me artificial, some of them have talent, but they sing cover songs, they are not musicians. I don’t boast about myself, “Oh, I’m the real thing,” but I’m indeed a musician, I’ve studied all my life and I know what I’m doing, it’s my field, but still…
E: Alright, so this competition?
M: This competition has a similar style, but he searches for musicians who can play an instrument.
E: And then what?
M: Then if he finds them they receive a prize. I don’t know, out of 100, 200… Everybody sends in demos, bios, headshots, and the winner gets a record deal. So I’m gonna try that now.
E: If you win, what will you record?
M: If I win I’ll finalize many of my unfinished compositions, ideas that need development. Were I to have this freedom, I’d spend a lot of time with my songs in a studio with several musicians, and we’d create something together. I recorded an album in 2008, an arrangement for piano and violin. I paid for everything. It was extremely expensive. We did everything in one day. Actually we booked for eight hours, but we didn’t finish, we had to record seven pieces, but after eight hours we still had two more pieces to record, so we had to book more time to finish the album. Well, it takes sometimes a year to record an album, and I wanted everything finished in one day.
This project cost me £1,000, I still have the bill, 968 or so, extremely expensive.
E: But you did it.
M: I did it and I might do it again, but I have no money to go into the studio again. What I’d like to do now is to organize concerts, this might help me, and stop playing the hotels. I play only on two Sundays a month in a restaurant, just for money truly, it’s not a pleasure to go there, they don’t appreciate my music, it’s a members’ club, rich people. They come eat and talk, they don’t pay any attention to my music.
E: Why don’t you play louder? [Laughs]
M: I can play as loud as I want, but they don’t appreciate it.
E: Bang the piano, man!
M: My existence makes no sense there.
E: Maybe you find a sponsor among them.
M: When I worked in hotels I found interesting people from other countries, but here in a year, nobody talked to me, nothing.
E: Maybe they want a different kind of music? Maybe they are into folk music. [Laughs] What if you play Romanian music?
M: I do play Romanian music too. There is a girl there… What I am lucky with is that the staff is extraordinary, we get along well, and there is a girl from Russian there, a waitress, and I said, “These people don’t listen to my music anyway, I’ll play a Russian Christmas song.” A Russian carol I learned in Germany, where I had many Russian friends from Kazakhstan and they taught me. And the waitress serving at the tables, looks at me and we start laughing and we had fun.
Otherwise the atmosphere is so monotonous, so boring, my presence there has no meaning.
E: Do we need to leave now?
M: 12:55, we can start walking slowly…
E: I want to find that Speaker’s Corner, where people stand on a soapbox and talk.
M: On a box? Not in Piccadilly Circus?
E: No, no, here.
M: We can go back by the subway stop. They have a tourist info point there. They must know about it. I’d like now to find out about that too.
E: Okay. [Always giggles] Let me ask you, how do you see your future?
M: I know I have in me something special. I didn’t yet reach that point of exploding, of having that chance, to explode musically, but I know I have something in me and I know the day will come when I will… I have so many musical ideas in me that I’d like to bring forth.
E: What bewilders me is that your professors don’t help you out. Such isolation...
M: My professors… I studied classical music in school, and classical… the professors, I love classical music, but there were professors that, for example I’d talk about pop music, and they’d say, “Oh, pop music is cheesy!”
E: [Pauses] Only hope keeps us alive, isn’t it?
M: Hope feels good. Before I was anxious about the future. Now I’ve relaxed, this job helped me a lot. Communicating with people from different countries, different cultures, I realized that it’s better to take it as it comes, it’s more relaxing.
Before I was worried, what will happen if I don’t succeed…
E: If you don’t succeed at what?
M: But now I think…
E: If you don’t succeed at what?
M: If I don’t succeed at my music.
E: Oh, fuck it! What will it be then? What will it be then?!
M: Now I’m quite relaxed, and I think it’s much better. I achieved… I have so many things in my head and I want to explain them.
If I want to give a concert I don’t worry if the audience will like it or not. Before I’d be worried that I wouldn’t succeed, but now I’d like to play everything and I don’t worry anymore.
E: Wouldn’t you like to play something just for yourself? Just for yourself?
M: Sure, I’d like to do something that first of all I like, if I don’t play something that I like, it’s not honest, is it?
E: It’s so complicated. I woke up two, three days ago, and for the first time in my life I said to myself, “From now on it’s just downhill.” [Laughs]
M: Downhill?!
E: Yeeees, I had this revelation one morning. Downhill. “From now on it’s downhill.”
M: In what sense, downhill?
E: I don’t know, in all senses. [Laughs] “From now on it’s downhill.” [Pause, long pause] Would you be able to wake up one day and think, “From now on it’s all downhill?” [Pause] No? It’s a totally alien concept for you?
M: It’s so very, very hard. At work at times I think there are days when people upset me and I think I can’t have success, at work, you know. But then I converse with people and things flow smoothly, but some days I can’t have a conversation. I suspect not all days are good days. [Pause]
E: I sometimes feel that everything is a huuuuge nonsense. And so much pain. I’m not sure about all this. [Pause] I’m not sure about all this. But we have to be alive for awhile longer, don’t we? So we get into all kinds of complications, to keep busy.
M: Take it as it comes.
E: [Mocks him gently] I surely do, I surely do. [Laughs] But after awhile you are fed up with it. You get fed up.
M: It’s a very good saying, “Take it as it comes.’
E: It surely is, it surely is.… But you get bored after awhile. You get bored.
Well, let’s go, you’ll be late.
M: We have to find where that box is.
E: Is this a large park, or they just think it’s large?
M: What have you heard about it, is it sure in Hyde Park?
E: This is what the dearly-departed Florian Pitiş said.
When did you leave Romania?
M: In ’97.
E: What do you remember about Romania? Does Romania, or its absence, affect you?
M: Often I long for Romania.
E: What do you long for?
M: The people. I’d like to go there. Since ’97 I simply didn’t get to… I either was in school in England, or if I was on vacation, if I managed to go for a week, I’d go to other countries, to Spain or wherever I’ve never been before.
E: That’s our Romanian for you, snobbish. [Laughs] Have I told you what I did in Romania? This year instead of going like any sane person would do to the Caribbean or somewhere luxurious, I came and stayed three months in Romania!
M: Well, I’d like so much to do like you, I’d like so much to… But since ’97 we managed to go for a week only in 2004, I couldn’t call it a vacation, everything was in a rush, right after my grandma died, it was bad. I didn’t manage to go see anything, I just chatted a bit with our neighbors and we came back. I’d like to talk to my high school friends, see how people think now… I loved Timişoara. I remember my high school years, my friends. I went a lot to the opera. I met a Japanese conductor in Timişoara. He had a residency for a season. He was Japanese but lived in Canada.
E: That’s where you got this Japanese thing going on. [Oh, how she laughs]
M: Maybe. I got along very well with him and he liked me.
That conductor was extraordinary. He helped me a lot. I told him, “I want to come to the opera every day,” and he said, “I’ll reserve a box for you above the orchestra, in the balcony.” I took all my friends. [They both laugh] Some of my friends didn’t even understand opera, they fell asleep in the back of the box, [They so laugh] but I was all ears and eyes, I loved the opera very much.
E: Do you write operas?
M: [Pause] No, I haven’t arrived at that point yet to compose an opera.
E: Why not?!
M: I grew up with opera. I loved the environment. This is what I most remember about Romania. I’d love to go back. I’d love to get to know the country better. There are extraordinary regions that I didn’t see when I was a child and I’d like to see them now.
E: The best would be to go on September 25th
when is Let’s Do It, Romania! National Cleaning Day, and everybody goes picking garbage from outside localities.
M: I’d love to go for three months like you did, with my friends, see how people think now, what has changed. I know many things haven’t change for the better, but...
E: Well, some things changed for the better. Some people got fed up with just complaining, and since they had to stay there because they had aging relatives, or something, they thought, “Let’s improve our life.” But in general people want to leave.
M: There are so many Romanians that went abroad.
E: When I went back all they wanted to hear was that I had an astounding success in America. It was very strange. [Laughs] For them, you score only if you had an astounding success. If you are an honest person, a struggling artist who loves what she does but didn’t have an astounding success, they think you’re not good enough for them. [Laughs] Yeah, and the conversation revolves a lot around if one is a ratat/a failure/washed up or not. I forgot about that notion of ratare/failure/being washed up. I was flabbergasted.
M: I know from my parents who go there every year, that people changed. Before people helped each other, or talked to each other, they all knew everybody’s business, especially in small towns. Now people became meaner, envious if you live abroad. I’d be so interested to go to Romania and discover more. People, places.
E: I tell you, this is what I did. I have this digital recorder and ask people to talk about their lives. This way I was able to discover, not so much the present, but the past! The things that happened there, my hair stood up on its ends.
M: It’s extraordinary to discover the past.
E: Yes! It never crossed my mind that such exciting things had happened in that boring little town!
M: Wait a minute, we are going the wrong direction.
E: And no one told us about! History was not told to us the way it happened. Very strange. I wonder where we are now.
M: This is the corner of Hyde Park underground station.
E: I think the box is on Hyde Park Corner.
M: We can ask. [Ambulance siren.] What plans do you have for today?
E: I will go to the National Gallery and a few other art galleries.
M: [To the info booth agent] Excuse me, Sir, is there a place in Hyde Park where people get up on soap boxes and give speeches?
Info Agent: Yes. At the Speaker’s Corner. But it’s only on Sundays.
E: Oh, I leave tomorrow for America. What’s it like? Who gives the speeches?
IE: [Teasing them] Weirdoes like you.
E: Weirdoes like us?! Oh, no, Sir. We are honorable persons. It’s just that I grew up under communism with no freedom of speech, and we had this hippie actor who told us in a book about how he visited London and what a marvelous place it was. How in Hyde Park people would get on boxes and talk to crowds about anything, from nonsense to political tracts. And I thought that was so wonderful… We are no weirdoes.
What made him say we are weirdoes, Marcelo?! Are we weirdoes? Do you think my hat made him think I’m a weirdo?
Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, promoting quality art being one of them, I’d be ever so grateful.

Thanks go to my family for their quiet support, and to Len Vretholm  for his enthusiastic proofreading.
March 17, 2013
New York

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