Romania Has Lots to Boast About Abroad

A little while ago I was interviewed for a Romanian media outlet. Due to space constraints my elaborate answers were chopped mercilessly, and the result was that I received rather bewildered readers' letters. I post here the translation of the original version for the English language readers. Enjoy:

Romania has lots to boast about abroad. Aren’t you curious to know how our countrymen far away from home made it to the top in various fields? presents success stories of Romanians abroad.

Who is Ella Veres, how would you introduce yourself to the readers of
Auntie Ella Veres was born in Romania but now lives in New York City. She loves to make people laugh and enjoy life, but if you step on her toes, there’s danger because she doesn’t sit punished in the corner and cry. She acts.
My business card says writer/performer/image maker – that is I write, from poetry to theater, from essays to novels, from erotica to open letters to politicians. Then performer, which is not an actor, I'm strictly performing my texts, and at times there isn’t even a text, and I don’t confine myself just to a stage. In real life too, and on a larger scale, sometimes at society level. I employ Theater of the Oppressed techniques, in which theater is just a rehearsal for real life, and it's used to produce social change in real life. And image maker means that I create images, be it through photography, or through words, or through my costumes, wearable art, always my ultimate goal is to create a memorable image that produces in you thoughts, feelings, decisions.
When you left Romania were you running away from something or towards something?
I didn’t run at all. I rode the bus with the black marketers who were smuggling goods between Romania and Hungary, in '92. We waited at the Hungarian border for hours, until I went stupid, together with the rest of the aunties from my hometown, Zalău. I was a student at the Belle Letters in Bucharest, and I received a summer scholarship to Debrecen University to I learned to speak proper Hungarian. Though I’m half Hungarian, we didn’t speak the language anymore at home, so I learned it again as a student.
At the summer course there were students from all over the world. It was unbelievable to me, both to meet people from Australia, Bulgaria, from U.K., the U.S.A., Belgium, and that I could eat. Every morning I drank a liter of milk, gobbled pastry, honey, eggs. I don’t know where I could fit so much food, because I'm small. But I was chronically starved for years. Bloody communism!
Then I got a scholarship for my undergraduate studies to Budapest thru a cultural exchange between the two countries. Then indeed I ran, I was afraid that the Ministry of Education would change its mind. Why was I running from? From a shriveled life, from all the misery and unhappiness that I lived thru in Romania during the communist years. Of course there were beautiful things too, but few.
You know, I was a perpetual flop. I was a professional entrance-exam flopper at the Institute for the Dramatic and Cinematic Arts/I.A.T.C. Acting. I was too traumatized by the horrors of my personal life, to be able to open up before the examining committee, and of course I had no connections. In particular Mr. Florin Zamfirescu, who teaches there swore that if I didn’t get accepted that year to the I.A.T.C. he’d resign. Ask him, I’m not telling you stories. Dem Rădulescu, he was the head of the committee, said that my eyes were too big. His bloody beer-belly is too big, not my eyes. I failed; Florin Zamfirescu didn’t resign, so I took my good-byes.
Plus my son's father was dabbling in suicide, and I couldn’t bare it mentally. I had to choose between him and my little boy, and yes, I ran to have a better life, away from nightmares.
Towards what did I run?
Towards life. Into the light. Towards peace.
How did you end up straight in the United States?
Well, where else was I to go? I was a student in American Studies and journalism and I worked with English language newspapers in Budapest. My colleagues were Americans. I still couldn’t speak perfect Hungarian to feel at ease in Budapest, and I was tired of the constant ethnic bickering between Hungarians and Romanians and Gypsies. I've got other things on my mind than crap like that. One summer I got a scholarship to a university in the middle of America. I remember that I watched at the library for days episodes from We Shall Overcome, a serial about the Civil Rights Movement. I was moved very much by the dignity and stubbornness with which they fought for their human and civil rights and how they succeeded. You know, in Romania I don’t think I knew who I was, I didn’t matter. Especially as a woman it didn’t even cross my mind that I could write. There weren’t really women writers, only a few.
And I said, ‘I’d like to be part of such a society in which it really doesn’t matter what nationality you are, or gender, or age, but it matters that you want to contribute, create, and take risks.’
And I liked the quiet campus. Between the buildings there was a green, green lawn, and in the evening fireflies were everywhere, they were quite busy flying and glowing the fireflies, and no one would kill them.
They had rights.
Well, in ‘97 I got an internship to Radio Free Europe in Prague and I met Mr. Michael Kaufman, who was on sabbatical from the New York Times and worked at a regional magazine. We became friends. He had fun listening how I saw things, and he liked my writing. Poor man died of pancreatic cancer. Anyway, I said I'd try to get an M.F.A. in Creative Writing in America. So I spent the winter holidays writing applications. I was accepted at Columbia University, but they asked for money that I didn’t have. Michael said they were disorganized, they needed money to renovate their buildings, that a tile fell on the head of a student, and he sued them, and wouldn’t I want him to talk to Andrei Codrescu who teaches at a college in Louisiana? Well, talk, but don’t call in your favors. And Andrei read what I sent him, an essay in which I wondered why high school girls in Romania if they got married they had to switch to evening classes automatically even if they weren’t pregnant, and a novella about how a little boy saw his parents' divorce. Andrei said that not only I was a good writer but I had a heart of gold. Alright. And they accepted me; they gave me a scholarship, to assist Andrei at his journal Exquisite Corpse. I didn’t help him much, ill equipped as I was, but he didn’t get upset. Probably I was entertaining and he's by nature helpful. Finally I said to the head of department to let me teach, I loved students, and he did. Some of my students remember me even now. Once I gave all of them As.
And that’s how I ended up in America.
How was the experience of emigration? How were you received by the Americans?
I went through many experiences. At first, as a student, I came against bureaucracy. One department messed up my visa, the other couldn’t pay me, out of some itsy-bitsy glitch. I thought it was horrible that in America too they have a mindless bureaucracy. But in the end it resolved, just like in Romania, you must know someone who knows someone and everything gets done, which disappointed me. I thought that bureaucracy was typical communist. No, sir, it's everywhere, flourishing and powerful.
But after we got rid of these problems, it was fantastic. I managed to do in three years in the U.S.A. more than I did in my entire life in Romania. Exhibitions, performances, writing, studying photography. I learned so many new ideas and techniques, whatever you wanted was available at the university. You want to make poster size pictures, as big as this door? Here you go, this printer can do it! Whereas back in Romania nothing was possible, what more can I say? I thought I was in heaven.
And the Americans we met, not my fellow writers, those were weird, jealous, one was frustrated that my vocabulary was rich, that I knew complicated words of Latin origin, and he, who was raised in Boston didn’t know them. Well, it’s not my fault that I was born in Romania! But the rest were very kind and generous to us, students. There was an organization that matched us with hospitable local families. Oh, what beautiful houses they had, what good taste, what modesty, curiosity and warmth they showed us. Even now we're friends with them. But we moved to New York, it was too hot down there. And anyway I'm used with the metropolitan agitation, I get suffocated in a small and quiet town, as if I’m stuck again back in my hometown Zalău where it was a scandal at my high school when I trimmed my hair down to half an inch.
How did you find the people, the new rules? Did you have culture shock?
I was delighted by how many kinds of nationalities and people I met. And the respect and kindness we received. With what love they looked at my little boy, and how quickly he settled in. I didn’t have culture shock, but thermal shock. On New Year’s Eve we were walking in flip flops and shorts.
It was a delight to go see the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. To go by boat in the swamp, to dance to Zydeco music, oh, and the exquisite dishes we had.... A little culture shock was their religiosity, and that some denominations have huge churches like congress halls. And the elephantism, some Americans are giants, with waves of flesh, and legs like pillars. I stared with nausea at them.
Now they’ve become invisible.
What followed?
In 2001 we moved to the East Coast where we had to start all over again from scratch. As if we moved to another continent. It was very difficult financially. Horrible. Especially since we moved when the terrorist attack happened. I applied for a green card, it was approved, then in five years for citizenship, the painful times passed, but it was harsh. Stupid me I abided by the law. For a period of time I was allowed to work only in my field, and if I couldn’t find those jobs, then I didn’t work, not even under the table. After that I took any job. But I'm not sorry, because otherwise I would have lost a lot as a writer. You know, you can have a comfortable life if you are a writer and teach at a university, or even better, live only from writing.
But I think it's a boring existence, you’re isolated from reality, and you can have as many public readings and book signings as you want, but if you haven’t experienced what the average man lives through in America, you don’t have a strong connection with reality, and you don’t touch the readers. I believe art is a force for social change. I’m not interested in elitism, cliques, in writers that huddle together and praise each other. I function rather solo. It's hard, but that’s how I am.
I’ve changed often my environment, my microcosm, at times because of need, at times willingly, to explore, to create new and authentic materials. For example, I worked in a famous club, Copa Cabana, and so I wrote about the mafia there, its cut throat sharks but also its pockets of unexpected tenderness. I worked at a bar, I wrote the stories of its drunkards. I taught at a university, I wrote about my students, we actually wrote together. I always change my environment, and I don’t say what I’m actually up to, only later. I managed a studio with artists suffering from mental illnesses, and so I wrote another booklet out of it.
At times I create the audio version of the narrations.
Is there still a fascination with Eastern Europe, with communism, with Ceauşescu? Did this help you in anyway?
I wouldn't call it fascination. Curiosity, perhaps, although the new generations aren’t interested in the past, they are busy with Facebook and videogames; communism is something old-fashioned for them. But the older ones who have heard of Ceauşescu shake their heads in dismay, ‘A good thing that you shot him!’ and they pity us for what we had to endure, and are compassionate. It helped me emotionally that I could burst out in writing. I better understood our life and what we’ve been thru.
But they are really fascinated about Dracula and vampires. It's great fun to see such a reaction, it’s not conscious. I assume I'm not the first to inform you that Americans have not heard much about Romania, but about Transylvania, oh, excuse me, everyone knows and loves Transylvania. So it's finally my luck that I was born there and I can say without being divisive and all that other political crap, that I'm proud that I’m a Transylvanian. And it’s a big difference to see them smile fondly, and after we get over the gory stories of Vlad the Impaler, I can tell them about the places and the people where I grew up, and they laugh or cry when they hear me out. No other ethnic group is better received in America than Transylvanians. I vouch for that.
If you were to draw a parallel between Romania and other countries what do you think Romania's cultural profile is?
I don’t understand the question, are you talking about branding? I think it's a Romanian national illness to constantly assume that Romania is this and that way, and all Romanians are this and that way. Romania is made up of many individuals, many activities, there are many nuances; there isn’t a centralized entity, easy to categorize.
I love traditional art in Romania when it’s really traditional and made with talent. About high art, I think there are both many talented people, in all fields, some recognized, some lost, destroyed, and many charlatans in high places that are loved by the Romanian public. And there are treacherous scoundrels who destroyed many cultural values, so what can I say?
Romania belongs to the world, the talent born there would make many people's lives better, but Romania doesn’t handle its talented people responsibly. If you get international awards, then yes, Romanians are proud of you. Although, I don’t know why, because they haven’t personally contributed to the personal fight of the winner.
How is your present life in the States? What are the greatest achievements so far and what are your plans for the future?
I’m currently during a period of 'hatching'. I have to edit a lot of unfinished material, so I'm a little of a hermit these days. No more spontaneous adventures of finding new materials. Discipline, daily work, work, work. And I have the joy of my son, who makes electronic music and studies for his Master’s in psychology.
My achievements? Well, today simply getting a foothold in Manhattan is an achievement. That I can walk 20 feet and pass by a Moroccan cafe, a Pakistani restaurant, a Samba dance studio, a Chinese laundry, a Puerto Rican butcher, counts as an achievement today. How many wouldn’t want to live here and had to give up?
Sure, I'm a little proud that I wrote books, that I've had photography exhibitions, that I had my plays staged, or that I produced them myself, but for me it's not that interesting. While I create them it’s interesting, after that, I drift to the new puzzle at hand. I think the writer, the artist has a utilitarian function, much like the shoemaker, watchmaker, well, maybe not the best examples, there’re less and less of those craftsmen nowadays, but that I do something useful. I want to help in my way.
But it’s inflation of writers with the Internet. So I have nothing to boast about.
Future plans I had some, but you caught me in a period of euphoria due to new information. I’ve finished reading and watching several scientific documentaries about cloning, nano technology, and I can’t get over them yet. My plan was to finish all my work, create a library on the Internet, and prepare myself in case my years are numbered or an illness comes, so that everything should be in order when time comes to check out from life’s grocery store. That was my plan for the next decade. But when I hear reputable scientists, and not one, but dozens, that in 2030 we’ll have the practical capability to become immortal, to backup and duplicate our brains, to heal the sick, and even revive the dead, my head is pounding. Can you imagine that? Meanwhile a friend tells me that even pain killers are difficult to buy in Romania.
And while this is happening in the world of science we busy ourselves with all kinds of nonsense, jealousies and back stabbing, addictions and discriminations of all kinds, wars, and political thieveries. What can I say.... I told my mom here they cloned cats and dogs for big money. Mom asked, ‘What for, in Romania it’s full of stray dogs on the street, no one needs them.’
How wonderful it would be if I could clone myself and raise myself, since I’ve always wanted a little girl too, but to do this here in New York, to grow up here again, a life without rape, without abusive alcoholics, without Securitate and communists who trampled upon my youth.
We thought with a friend about how great it would be to clone Robert Redford, so there’s each for everyone. 100,000 pieces. What a smart and beautiful and generous man. And Marcel Iureş would be interesting. Miles of him. But he should speak perfect English, and maybe about 20 years younger and nonsmoker. And then perhaps he’ll get an Oscar and all the Romanians would be happy.
From your point of view, are Romanians patriots?
Romanians are of all sorts, from narrow-minded patriots who believe that being a patriot is to tout your trumpet, ‘Look at all the awards we’ve got, we’re way better than Americans,’ or Hungarians, etc. and there are wise patriots who try to change the negative things of the country they love.
Last Sunday was the Israel Day here and I watched their parade, how they all came, from the millionaires to the ones on welfare, with their side locks and Jewish Orthodox long shirts, with flags, with all their caboodle. Why we, those coming from Romania, don’t also have our parade? How I’d enjoy it. But we don’t. Too much evil was done to us, or we did it to each other, to trust or forgive our neighbor and march side by side in joy and pride.
Not a day goes without me hearing Romanian words on the street here. They quarrel on their cell phones, desperate that they’ve lost each other in this huge city.
What advice would you give to those who are now thinking to immigrate to the U.S.A.?
I wish you good luck. I’m sorry that Romania is emptying, but if you think it's better for the short lifespan we have, to make it blossom here, march forward, soldier. The health system is wobbly, the rent is very expensive, we work a lot, you’re not allowed to smoke at work or in restaurants, or pinch women on the street, or catcall them. Otherwise there's room for the whole globe. But you'd better not curse people in Romanian on the bus or on the street, thinking that they can’t understand you, because you never who you’re talking to and they might slap you silly.
How are seen Romanians overseas?
Which ones? We, who are here in the U.S.A.? People generally love us. I went to an exhibition opening and a gentleman who sells art said that every person should have a Romanian in their life, so lovably crazy we are. Yeah. But there were discussions about chicks who get married for a green card and then promptly divorce. A disgrace, but Russian women do this too; worse, push them into bankruptcy with jewels and furs and tropical vacations.
If you ask me about those in Romania, they’re not really visible here. Although it’s paradoxical. New York City has more than 8 million people stacked on top of each other on a little island and it’s known worldwide, while Romania's map is larger, it has 20 million people, but for now it feels like you guys are on the moon.
But let's hope that the future will be different.
How has New York City influenced your personal and professional development?
I cannot imagine my existence without New York City. I would climb up the walls without New York City, out of boredom, anxiety, and pain. Here I can do whatever crosses my mind on a limited budget. Especially if I produce a showcase, actors work voluntarily for visibility.
Living here, you don’t have to travel to see the world, experience the art and culture of other nations, since the world comes to you, literally. On some sunny days I put out my table with my pictures and books and all kinds of small things I make, Midtown, in a plaza. I meet people from all over America and around the world. I’m the Romanian embassy at street level, in my humble way. You never know who you talk to, and what will happen next.
Then professionally people take you seriously here. In Romania they aren’t very nice. I was blown away when I wanted to interview Mr.
Florin Piersic and he refused. I was told that he loves talking, when he makes public speeches ruins the programs because instead of speaking three minutes he talks 30, and it would be a good idea to put this to good use, he’s a treasure of oral history. But he scolded me on the phone. Journalists are no good. I assumed that journalists in Romania aren’t much respected.
Here in New York I can quite easily access cultural personalities for an interview thru their obliging PR team. I promoted Romanian culture by publishing interviews in magazines for a while. But then I stopped. I'm nobody’s publicity trumpet. I prefer to talk to a potter in Maramure
, or to an ethical former political prisoner, or to a dedicated young woman that organizes national cleanliness days in forests, than to hear bored movie directors about how they made their depressant films, what prizes they acquired, and so on, like broken records.
Would you like to come back to Romania?
Well, I keep on coming back again and again, but nothing solidifies. I thought that I would be commuting between Romania and America. But every time I tried to bring my ideas and my art to Romania as an independent cultural agent, there seemed to be no need for it. They’d write galore in the newspapers, sure, but that was about it. Plus, oh my, what I went thru with the cultural entities.
Last time I traveled there, in 2011, I had a photo exhibition in the Cluj University Library lobby. Big announcement in the newspapers, on radio, TV. Opening night, I speechify the population when
tronca! tronca! the library administrator comes downstairs and yells at me, in front of my guests, when I'm going to put my pictures on the wall! 'Well, here they are, already exhibited.’ The lady says, 'These?! These are small!’ ‘My dear lady, first of all we have here guests for the opening, and so you ought not scream, then small they may be but they are art photos that I exhibited dozens of times in America.’ 'No!’ she screams again. 'We exhibit only large pictures.’ 'Well, I don’t have large pictures with me.’ 'We’ll print them for you.’ 'Okay, do so.’
And the next day indeed she peeled mine off the wall and put their shoddy pictures, albeit three times larger, printed on the library’s fantastic printer from my digital files. Yeah.
Then I went to
Zalău, my parents’ town, to Sălaj
County Library, to organize a public reading. Here in New York City we do that from time to time in public libraries, as a local author you have the right to go and schedule a reading of your work. And I thought that it would be the same in our town, since librarians too are paid from the Romanian state money, right?
And I communicate with the librarian and everything seems okay, until two days before the event a journalist calls me to tell me that the chief librarian told the local media that she didn’t actually support my event because my writing is obscene. I was stunned. I tell the journalist, 'There must be a misunderstanding; we haven’t even decided what I’ll read. Let me talk to the lady.' And indeed the librarian lady tells me that a colleague actually read my monologues and she doesn’t want the people to say that she pollutes the young minds of Zalău with American writings. 'Well, Ma'am, but we haven’t decided what we shall read, since you’ve been busy. Weren’t we supposed to decide today?! And what obscenities are you talking about? Haven’t we said that I might read from the life of World War Two veteran Theodore Bodea? The only crazier monologue is the one with the stoned guy who has some fantasies, but I didn’t say we’d read that to high school kids. However, do you have Mircea Cărtărescu in the library? Of course you have! And is he also obscene in your vision? Of course not, he has international prizes. Indeed.'
Anyway, it was lots of noise in the press, and in the end the local literary club gathered and I read my works and they gave an opinion if I was or not talented, if what I wrote was literature or not. When that was not what was all about. I had come to make friends, maybe to organize an artistic exchange, to see if in the future it would be possible to come with a group of American writers for a creative retreat, who knows. I dropped the idea like hot potatoes.
Sure, I had good experiences with dedicated people at Scena Theatre in
Târgu Mureș,
at the American Corner in Baia Mare, the Theatre Department in Cluj and Radio Cluj, at the Romanian Peasant Museum and the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest. Somehow the bad experiences drenched my enthusiasm.
But, you know, nostalgia has a strong pull. Throughout my travels in Romania I interviewed generous people about their lives, minus
Piersic, and slowly, slowly I’ve transcribed and translated into English the material, making a collective portrait. Often I find myself in Romania when I hear their voices.
I'll be ready in a year or two, and maybe then I’ll be noticeable to the rulers of the land there.
Meanwhile I put some of them on the blog.


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, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.

New York,
July 26, 2013 

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