Switching from Corporate to Community Work To Make Bucharest A Pleasant Home, Void of Stray Dogs and Abundant in Green Spaces

Since bad news travels fast, I fear you’ve heard about Bucharest, the capital of Romania, in the context of the four-year-old child killed a few days ago by stray dogs in a park. I fear you think Bucharest is a horrible place.
Let it be said that there are people who have struggled to make it a better space. In the summer of 2011 while visiting back in Romania I wanted to meet shakers and movers who tried to make a difference against terrible odds, and here is one of them.

Ella Veres: We’re in Victoria Square, in a Starbucks, of all places, with Alina Kasprovschi, executive director of Bucharest Community Foundation.
Alina Kasprovschi: First, let me clarify how did we arrive at the idea of creating a community work foundation in Bucharest? It was a happy meeting of our desires to act and a national program that is developing this year focusing on community work foundations. I don’t know if you are familiar with this term? A community work foundation is an organization that gathers local resources and then redistributes them to local improvement projects, not necessarily our own projects, that is we help others with their community work projects, teach them how to create one, or others that already exist and need our support, be it financial or volunteer work, or experts like accountants, IT workers, physicians, and I’ll give you specific examples.
I’m aware that in the U.S.A. and Canada each locality has its own community foundation that deals with local issues and doesn’t wait for the mayor’s office, like we do, or E.U., to solve our problems.
It’s a gamble to establish such a community foundation in Bucharest, since it’s a large, divided city, each individual here is busy with his job, his family, and his small circle of friends outside of which he has no interest. Caught in the heavy traffic he curses, ‘Damn, I’ll be late again! And this awful dust and pollution! No green spaces! I’m powerless about all this. Well, then I’ll isolate in my own cocoon and I’ll try and go on with my life, ignoring what’s going on in this damn city.’
This is what we’d like to change, so people start involving themselves in community work. Our mission statement is to invest the time, money and energy of Bucharestians in our community, so we feel at home here, because we don’t anymore. Many of us have to stay here because this is where money is made, there are many large companies and work opportunity, but for a young family it’s not advisable to raise children in Bucharest. You have to because you have no choice, but otherwise, no. So this is what we’d like to change.
I’ll tell you a story that I love telling: I assume you heard of Habitat for Humanity? They build homes for people who can’t afford to have a decent house, they live crammed in one apartment or small house full of mold or other problems. People who have an income but not large enough to take a bank loan to buy a house, and this situation… Just the mere thought that they live seven people in one room and how horrible that is curtails their wings, their development. So Habitat for Humanity puts these people together with other volunteers, neighbors, friends, relatives, and they build their new house together. Habitat for Humanity gives them construction materials, the town hall donates the land, and they have to pay back in installments, interest-free, the money going into other construction projects for other poor people’s homes. Why I’m saying that it inspired me, is that three years ago I worked in a large American company, and we had a team building with Habitat for Humanity while we built a house. I loved it. I’ve never built anything in my life, only Ikea furniture, I feared I’d ruin people’s materials and I’d be of no help, but instead I found myself surrounded with positive energy generated by my fellow office workers. We knew each other from work, we made money together, but as human beings we were never together, so seeing with our own eyes what was our contribution, brought us very close together.
When you work in a large company, I had this feeling myself, that’s why I didn’t want to work anymore in a large company, you keep on asking yourself, ‘Okay, but what am I doing actually? What is the use of what I’m doing in this world, besides that, okay, the company value grows, and the company bond/share price grows on Wall Street, so on so forth, but what do I actually leave behind me in this world?’ and I wasn’t satisfied at all about that, though I worked very much and I had a lot of money and much professional satisfaction, but as a human being, no personal satisfaction whatsoever.
So then I decided I’d gather my friends and build a house thru Habitat for Humanity. It was the first time in Romania that someone donated their personal time, and didn’t participate thru a team building workshop. We paid our hotel, our overalls, our gloves and hardhats. After two days of working together it was an extraordinary feeling to have done something palpable and looked with our heads leaned back at the raised house and think, ‘Oh, I’ve never thought I’d be able to do such a thing!’ And I proceeded to do this for an entire summer. I kept on fetching my friends to build houses. Then this idea ka-chinged/this bell rang in my head…
This was happening in Bacău County, so we’d also drive five hours by car, we’d leave on a Friday morning at 6 a.m., stop at gas station, everything was dark and deserted, while we were all cheery that we go build houses. It was very strange to realize that people go at 9 a.m. to do office work, all morose, ‘Oh, I’m so very sleepy!’ while here we were at 6 a.m. and no one was whining sleepy though we went to hammer nails and paint walls using paint rollers.
That’s when I decided this is what I want to do in life: I want to do good deeds for people, and I want to put people together to do good deeds. And I thought about people exactly like myself: corporate workers, who keep on working while thinking, ‘I’d like to do something else. But I don’t know where, or when, so I’ll keep on plodding along with my life, and if something crosses my path, then alright, if not, it shall remain just a dream, like many other unfulfilled dreams.’
So when I… I have a child, today he is one year and two months, so in a way it’s his birthday since we still count the months. So when I gave birth I said, ‘Alright, I want to take advantage of the maternity leave,’ Romanian state pays two years of maternity leave, which is extraordinary compared with the U.S.A. where as far as I know is only about 10 weeks, so I said, ‘Okay, this is a period in which I can experiment. I can try one project and if it works out, then I’ll keep at it, if not, well, besides giving birth to a child, I also birthed a foundation.’
It was perfect timing because the community foundation movement was just looking for people who could fit their mission, so I started working out of the maternity ward! Skype conferencing with the other group members, before giving birth, then I stopped talking for about two weeks, and I discovered, ‘Look, how great it is that I have time to stay home to take care of the baby, and is so much better than taking him to a nursery school or leave him with a baby sitter, while I can also work.’ My previous job wouldn’t have allowed me to do this. I had to work a lot of overtime for that company, travel a lot abroad, from my p.o.v. it was an unacceptable way of raising my child. This was the most important thing, that I could raise my family and not sacrifice it for my profession.
Okay, so last year we got started. We understood the concept, that we are a kind of brokers of good causes, we look for those good causes and then we pair them with people that can give them support. We started gathering money, we didn’t want to put our own money, but we got smaller amounts of money from other people like us, and I do believe that our concept will work, even if Bucharest is a large, agitated city. It’s quite an effort to gather money from individuals and not go to a company and ask for sponsorship. But we wanted to do it this way, even if economically is not that efficient, because we wanted to see what support we have from the community.
Besides asking people for their money we also polled them on several questions, but the main ones were: what are the things they’d like changed in Bucharest, and what would they be willing to invest: money, time, energy, or their contact network.
So we chose five projects we’ll work on during our first year: the foremost by far was volunteering for the community. Exactly like we did with Habitat for Humanity, people want to invest two hours and when they look behind be able to say, ‘Wow! I’ve built something! I can see the difference!’ This was a recurring answer.
Then we’ll deal with children issues. There are many problems in this field: from education to, let alone I don’t even talk about abandoned children, but what happens to children when their parents work 12-hour shifts and they’re with the baby sitter or in an after-school program, lacking the kind of education we’d wish for them.
Another project that raised interest was creating green spaces, ecological cleaning, so on, and the fourth project is, very visible in Bucharest, probably you’ve noticed it, stray dogs, community dogs. Many persons said it was important and they’d get involved, but well, some said, ‘I personally want to work on this! I personally, with my very hands, want to kill them and turn them into gloves!’ Others would say, ‘No! I want to find shelters or families who could adopt them!’ The opinions vary, people are very passionate/fiery on this issue, which is why I think the dog problem continues, because people could never agree what we want to do with these dogs, and while we still can’t agree with each other, they keep on multiplying more and more and become an even huger nuisance.
Okay, so out of these five topics we chose four. Our first project we work now is…  
EV: But let’s talk a bit more about these dogs. I see them everywhere sprawled on the sidewalks in the sunshine.
AK: We’ll get to the dogs too. Our first project is called ‘Volunteering Bursa’ thru which we go to people like us, corporate workforce, who’d like to do something, but don’t know where, don’t know how, and we ask them, ‘Okay, in what field would you like to volunteer and for how many hours?’ Then we find them a project, not ours, but one that’s already running. We found out there are very many of them in Bucharest, and we had no clue they existed. It’s amazing how many are and how diverse and how beautiful they are, but nobody knows about them. So that’s what we want to do, connect people with these projects. We are in the phase of visiting and figuring out their needs. They are so diverse, from social problems of children, old people who need help, to health, ecology, animal rights, women’s rights, culture, art, architecture, urbanism. We found about 12 fields, which will help with matching volunteers to something they take real interest in.
Then we want to launch a project that will stretch for several years, that will have several rounds of financing, we call it ‘100 Tiny Ideas Can Change a Large City’. The idea is to find small projects that we can help develop by matching them with sponsors. We’d like to create blogs for them, so that people can read about the experiences of those who get involved with community work and how this impacts on their lives. Why is it important to do this? To educate the population. I believe it’s also a matter of education in Romania.
The third project is, there are many in London, and I heard also in Germany, called ‘Vegetable Gardens in Parks’. In London, I don’t know if you’ve heard, there are vegetable gardens in parks where, you might even have to pay an entrance fee, you can see how a tomato grows. People take their children over the weekend and hoe the tomatoes, and explain the children that, ‘Vegetables don’t grow in supermarket, and look what do the bees do, and the butterflies,’ so on, and then other topics connect with this, healthy food, how to cook it and so on.
Now we arrived at the dog project. Such divergent views, but everybody agrees upon that it’s not okay to have loads of stray dogs in the streets. So then what should we do? We arrived at the conclusion that we can’t have extreme solutions, like killing all of them. They did it in Botoşani, one night someone killed all the dogs in town. It was an inhumane act which you don’t want to repeat, no matter how upset you might be that a dog bit you it’s not acceptable to think about exterminating all the 100,000 dogs that roam in Bucharest. What would the simultaneous death of 100,000 dogs mean? It’s unacceptable.
But on the other hand they can’t continue being on the streets and multiplying, so on. So we had to look at the bottom of the problem, what’s the cause of it, since at present many dogs are fixed, and still puppies show up. Where do these puppies originate from?! If you take a look at them the majority have earrings, which signifies that they had been fixed. Veterinarians estimate that a street dog lives maximum five years. So in theory they should stop being a nuisance in five years, yet we struggle with this problem for the last 20 years.
Speaking with several animal protection organizations we found out that the puppies appear because people who own dogs don’t fix them, and they throw their new litters on the streets. So if we’d round up all the community dogs off the street, come spring we’ll have the problem again because dog owners will throw the new puppies in the streets, and they turn into community/stray dogs again and again. So we created a project to go to the source of the puppy problem, to convince yard dog owners to fix them. Well, they have various convictions that a dog shouldn’t be sterilized because then it doesn’t bite anymore and doesn’t protect the house anymore, turns fat and lazy, so we, together with a veterinarian, have to explain them it’s not so. Plus though we have free sterilizing services, still they don’t take advantage of them because they think that for sure it costs something.
We’ll have communication campaigns in which we’ll go door to door with our volunteers and explain that everything is free, and they’d get rid of the problem of throwing non-stop puppies in the streets. Let alone how many puppies die crashed by cars. And how many end up at veterinarian clinics. Puppies are thrown in the clinic yards over the fence, since it’s a veterinarian clinic, isn’t it, they have to love them, and so on.
We have a family friend who is a veterinarian. She is overwhelmed with despair. Each spring and fall, every morning she opens the gate and finds a crate of puppies, some barely born, and being veterinarian she loves animals and can’t kill them all, even that okay, euthanasia is a humane solution, well, it is and it isn’t, so all kinds of artificial solutions are floated, like international adoptions. But you can’t adopt thousands of dogs. And if you send them for adoption and the problem reappears next season, what have we done then?! This is our next project, we’re still researching, when are the dogs making puppies, when is the best time to sterilize them, so in spring we’ll roll our communication project to convince people to sterilize their dogs.
EV: Could you connect me with your veterinarian friend?
AK: Sure.
EV: I’ve never seen a stray dog in New York, or in London.
AK: From what I’ve seen on TV dogs are euthanized there. And probably is okay to euthanize 100 stray dogs, but we have 100,000 dogs! And many people are attached to their dogs, many live in apartment blocks. They take care of them, they sterilize them. It’s our case too, we have dogs, but I can’t take 50 of them in. I also have a cat, and a child… But it’s alright. If someone would come up and say they must be euthanized, which it actually happened. There are all kinds of absurd situations, like when people hear the hingherii/dogcatchers/dog-killers/flayers are coming, they hide the dogs in the apartment building, then they let them out again. It’s a horrific hunt/chase. People feel they are at war with the town hall, it simply doesn’t work, aside of the question of morality and justice, it doesn’t work. People will always find a solution to hide the dogs even if they don’t keep them in their house and after a day they show up again.
EV: So there still are hingheri/dogcatchers/dog-killers/flayers?
AK: Sure. But now they are not allowed to euthanize them. When was Băsescu the Bucharest’s mayor? In 2,000, around then. He won the elections because he promised to sterilize the dogs, so on, but in a year he changed his mind, he said: euthanasia, all dogs had to die. So what happened was that the dogcatchers/dog-killers/flayers/hingheri came, you had 24 hours to pick up your dog from the shelter, which didn’t quite work out, because until you figured out where was your dog, they didn’t quite wait for 24 hours, they’d euthanize them promptly upon arrival. All kinds of alarmed arguments and rumors broke loose. That dogs were killed by bludgeoning them up with bats. Everybody felt under siege, ‘Let’s protect our dogs! Let’s bribe the hingheri/dogcatchers/dog-killers/flayers so they don’t come, or announce us when they’ll come so we know to hide our dogs timely!’
Again, it was not a civilized solution, and it just didn’t work at all. So, they might be sterilized, but still here they are in the street.
EV: I never thought about what happens to them in shelters. I thought people adopted them.
AK: I watch a lot of TV and I know that they have very strict criteria. If the animal is showing signs of illness or aggression, they don’t have funding to deal with it, they euthanize it. Half of the animals ending in shelters in the U.S.A. are euthanized, which is again, a lot. And the adoption system is much more developed than in Romania. Here the problem is that you don’t have 100,000 people in Bucharest to adopt them all. They would have adopted them by now. There’s supply but no demand, economically/marketwise doesn’t work. [Gently laughs]
EV: We should move from dog issues now.
AK: Sorry.
EV: The fault is but mine. Could you recall any family model that made you want a more meaningful life? Or an anti-model?
AK: All I can say is that I was born in a country where isn’t much community work involvement. I think of my family as a family of kind people.
EV: Were you born in Bucharest?
AK: No, I attended university and settled in Bucharest, but I’m from Galaţi. My parents often let kids from the orphanage come to our house, and they’d give them stuff, but it wasn’t a constant thing, and we, their own children, weren’t coerced into following their example.
What happened was that before ’90 orphans were not allowed to get out of orphanages. They were like jails. You know how the conditions were, in two words: horrific, dreadful. [Gently laughs embarrassed] Then after ’90 they were allowed to go out during day, and returned in the evening to sleep. But since there were all kinds of shortages, they had no food, they started to beg. They’d knock on doors in apartment buildings and beg for food, for clothing. I remember that we became attached to some kids that came to us, and my mother called them to come constantly. She placed them at our table and gave them good clothing, not rubbish that she’d throw to the garbage anyway. And I’d give them school supplies.
But it’s not that it made a deep impression on me. I just discovered on my own when I was a teenager that I liked being kind to people. It makes me feel good. It’s in a way a selfish feeling. I nurture my positive energy by doing good deeds for people. This is how I function, without being able to say why or how. The more I do it, the better I feel, so were I to make a profession out of it, life would be beautiful. It’s every working person’s dream.
On the other hand I’ll never make the money I made working for a multi-national corporation working in a foundation, for you want to use the foundation money on good deeds, not on team-building trips abroad. We are three people working full time and we want to keep it as slim as possible, with a minimal overheard. We got our laptops as donations, our headquarter is in a beautiful villa, you’d think, God, we have plenty of money to afford it, but we were given office space by the Romanian American Foundation. They let us use their water and the internet, so we don’t have to pay anything. We try to find all kinds of ways of keeping it on a shoe string so we can use the money truly for the community.
EV: How did the family react when you informed them you’re done with corporatism?
AK: Everybody is okay with it. My father is a doctor. For him his profession, that he likes, means money and status. ‘Be careful what you do. Think: you have a nice position!’ He is more materialistic. My husband is very supportive of me. He is one of the ten persons involved in the foundation. He works in a PR company, and he helps us very much by connecting us with people. He is the one who supports us financially, since during this period I receive an amount of money from the state, but I work as a volunteer for the foundation. I’m in a totally different income bracket than a year ago.
EV: Haven’t you exhausted your contacts? ‘Oh, dear me, here she comes again!’
AK: No, no. They’d come to me saying, ‘I’d like to do something, I have money but I don’t know whom to give it to.’ They’d come to me like to their good-deed adviser, and they keep on coming. I try not to wear them down. When I see they lack interest I don’t force myself on them. Not everybody takes an interest in it, it’s alright.
It’s true, now, being a stay-at-home mom, and developing this foundation, and taking care of the kitchen, I don’t have much time for friends, but nor did I have time before to hang out in bars and restaurants, since I worked 12 hours a day, so it’s not like I lost my friends because I’m preoccupied by community work.
Some laugh at me, ‘Well, now, you got your insurance to go to Heaven.’ Or, ‘You’re an idealist. You’ll see pretty soon reality.’ Or, ‘People are mean, everybody just takes care of himself.’ And ‘Why do you need to rescue Bucharest?’ and such… But I don’t feel any need to rescue Bucharest, Bucharest doesn’t exist, it’s an entity without a soul, it’s us who make Bucharest.
Once we were arguing about what happens to Bucharest because they demolish the city, they build suspended highways, and there are many initiative groups and foundations that mount protests and they asked us, ‘What is your position on this matter?’ My answer was, ‘I don’t care much about the buildings, but about the people inside and outside the buildings. That’s where my interest is.’ A country might be utterly run down, but if its people are united, that’s the real richness, beyond statistics on income, and so on. It’s important how united are its people.
EV: As if there’s movement along the lines you march yourself. Or do you experience insularity?
AK: Not at all. Or, I do feel insular, but because there are many little islands close to each other and we’re just discovering each other now. Ten years ago few people did anything, Romanians didn’t get involved in community work. It was rather foreigners who came with aid. But nowadays many local people have a lot of good ideas. Only many stay at that stage, of good idea, or small project that only 20 persons heard of it. It’s a beautiful idea, but we can help it grow.
EV: So, the future?
AK: I think this will work out well. Not because I hope and wish so, but because I talked to many people, at events like Street Delivery we were talking about earlier, and we saw there is a common denominator, and many people we didn’t know, offered their contact info so we keep them informed about developments and they tell us it’s very interesting, and shoot us looks of doubt, ‘You’re idealistic. It won’t work.’ but with a positive, hopeful doubt, like they’d like it to happen, but they are in disbelief that it shall. There is real potential for people getting involved in community work, all they need is a movement to carry them over.
I asked someone how should we attract more people, and we were advised to, ‘Take baby steps, don’t mention rescuing Bucharest, because it’s a scary, daunting task, so far off, and they’ll flee in horror, better mind their own business. But if you tell them, ‘Look today I need you as a volunteer for two hours,’ and tomorrow, ‘I’d like a bit of money for another thing,’ then next week, ‘Would you bring your friends to plant trees?’ it’s not that scary any longer and slowly, slowly people realize that they are working for themselves, not for others.’ They don’t amass insurance points for Heaven, but indeed they do something for their own lives, and it’s a different way of spending your free time, than the usual mall, movie, club hopping, so on. It’s a way of feeling good about yourself.
EV: They all seem to mention the Heaven Insurance Policy…
AK: I don’t know how things are concerning Heaven, if this is your question.
EV: I do believe it is.
AK: I don’t know, I’m preoccupied about what I do here. Later I’ll figure it out if it indeed exists, if... I’m preoccupied by the present. I don’t want to see what shall happen from now in 50 years.
EV: Even so, how is your Utopia, how would Heaven look like?
AK: How would Heaven look like? Aside from my spiritual beliefs, an utopian society is a society that all resources, and I’m not referring only to money and food, but also energy, and time, are used exactly for what they are needed and not squandered. And there is a very good connectivity between people, between entities, since there’s talk about what are we doing for nature, or better said, against nature, and what happens with the climate warming and urban sprawling, so on.
Yes, Heaven is that state of equilibrium, of balance in which we all find our place where we are needed and where we can give the most. Utopia would be… yes… how it would be if everybody has, and not necessarily a communist society in which everybody has equal shares, but a society in which no one has overwhelmingly more, or the entities that have too much, willingly redistribute their wealth where it’s needed.
Utopian speaking, I’d like to see our resources going in the right direction, where they are needed and make things work.
EV: So people who are successful financially in their profession, you try to remind them of… All the media noise, so very loud about VIPs. Everything seems to be about money and the people who have it. That they are dubious, arrogant, they isolate themselves, and yet you have the belief that this is untrue… Do tell me: How do you change the tide of their bad press.
AK: Well, I don’t believe that anyone is born bad. And I also don’t believe that a person who has money turns into a bad man, or that making money is a bad thing, and it must be that you made it in a dubious way. I believe that people who have money are all the time besieged by demands and everybody expects that those who have money should solve their problems while they stau cu ochii în soare/bask in the sunshine, without moving a finger, and money should just shower down on them from somewhere. Well, that’s not alright.
I think a different approach is needed for moneyed people, so they see what is their gain, what’s in it for them. That’s why we say in our mission statement that we invest money, time, and energy, and not that we donate them, because really it’s an investment, and these people who have money can see palpable ways how their life changes if they do good deeds in a wise way. Support sustainable projects, that lead to an ulterior development.
As for the press, well, I gave up watching TV, not just because it’s unhealthy for my child to stare at the TV screen, but even before I arrived at the conclusion that if you watch TV you see the entire country is a disaster and nothing works, and everything is bankrupt, and we shall die of hunger tomorrow morning, and IMF will buy us out, if they didn’t already. At times I wonder if all those conspiracy theory of international order are true. But it’s better for me not to even know the truth, so I can live my life the best I can. In the end it’s within my power to do my best, apart from what the government wants, how much money is in our country, how much money we have to pay back to IMF. I think there are resources and values and capital in this country that can make things work. If we focus only on what doesn’t work, and we dissect and we split hairs into four, which is customary on TV, how horrible all is, and why nothing works, were we to look on the other side, how many good things do happen, there would be a different energy that would make things happen.
So I choose to network with people who do just that, focus on what works, on what do we want to build together, what is our responsibility and within our power to do. Street Delivery is such a project, I don’t know if you are familiar with it?
EV:  Like a street fair of good deeds?
AK: The idea is that the street is shut for cars and open for pedestrians, trying to make Bucharest a friendlier place. At Cărtureşti, they being the organizers, they bring in not necessarily foundations and non-profits, but all kind of projects and people who make you feel better in this city, from food to art, theater, music, so on.
We always say our target audience is Cărtureşti fans, people who read, who are interested about what is going on, who want to go places and feel good, creating their oasis of goodness within a desert/waste land of nothing working, badly paved roads and so on. These are the kind of people I choose to be in touch, and it might be an isolationist policy, I might not have an overall view, but what I’ve discovered is that looking only this direction, I see more and more people, and literally I have such wonderful encounters that at times I’m speechless when I realize we’re so many thinking the same way, and this gives me power to keep on going.
Well, now everybody discuses why half of the high school students failed the graduation exams, and our education system is a disaster, and how it would be better to leave the country. I have no clue if this would be better, but when I look at all the things that we could take care of ourselves, without waiting for the government to deal with, or whomever, to solve our problems, and rescue us, I think us individually we could do a lot of good things.
At times I do get scared, ‘What if I’m heading the wrong way? What if when I’m fifty I’ll realize I took the wrong turn and this is it, my life ends, what would I do then?!’
EV: You’d have about 20, 30 more years left though.
AK: Sure, but I might realize this only on the last day of my life, and this scares me. It’s rather against the tide what I’m doing. Well, when I get scared, then I say, ‘Thank you very much. I indeed got scared, now it’s time to get on with my work,’ which is a good sign.
EV: It’s a great thing that your husband is supportive of you.
AK: Indeed. Were I to have to argue about it with him, or justify myself, or be a single mom, probably I wouldn’t… Then our extended family is very helpful. Now my child is with my husband’s father, who is very happy to help us with this, so I never have the feeling that I have to sacrifice something to do what I do. This is very important.
EV: Having in mind that you lived in the corporate culture, you know how to dress, how to put yourself together, and interact so they don’t think you’re dubious. But still how you deal with it. I speak out of personal experience. Something made me think about wealth and kindness at length: Yesterday I met one of my high school friends. I live in America, but I’m a poor person by American standards. I’m an artist that, like you, doesn’t want to have a large overhead, and I operate on a slim, slim, slim budget, so can I maintain my life style, so I can do what I like without interferences.
My high school friend is a construction engineer and has her own company, together with her husband. And they are successful, yet honest people. She tells me they have auctions, I’m not very clear how this works here, but my understanding is that the government auctions its projects, and though they bid a lower price, the government needles them with all kinds of trifles, while others who bid twice as much, win the auction, since they bribe someone in the government.
But in spite of the fact that they maintain their honesty, they are prosperous people. And she told me, ‘Look, my son wanted us to buy him a Mercedes, though I didn’t want a conspicuous Mercedes. Yesterday we went with our shinny Mercedes to drive my mother-in-law to a village in Oltenia. I was awfully embarrassed, just awfully embarrassed, knowing how poor people were in that area.’
So she felt guilty that they were prosperous.
As we were walking in the Peasant Museum area and I told her, ‘How beautiful are these villas. Incredible what sophisticated people lived once here!’ It was strange that she said not that indeed, as I was under the impression that there lived people who were intellectuals, and professionals, who worked hard for generations, but that, ‘All this richness was made on the peasants’ back, they were exploited la sânge/to the bone. Even the museum was created to honor the peasants’ upheaval of 1907.’ I was a bit unsettled. Money is dirty.
Also you know, she owns a company, she needs to keep up her perfect looks. She goes to manicure, to hair salon, wears stylish shoes. I was in a summery dress with flip flops. This is how we go about it in New York. And my hairdo, as you see, is avant-garde, shower and go, no time for hair salons, and suddenly I felt self-conscious, ‘How does she feel about walking with me on her side?’ and I’d think about our income disparity, and things that shouldn’t be thought about in a friendship. I was thinking, ‘Is she embarrassed by me?’ But she actually had a great time! While I was agitated, ‘Well, now that she creates an event for me in her home town, now I’m to go to the manicure and hair salon, so she can be proud of me?!’
Do you have this kind of interior debate? Do you show up in jeans when you approach your potential sponsors?
AK: I do have this kind of interior debate. I know too well how much appearances matter in the corporate world, though it always annoyed me, since it’s a superficial matter. It was awfully annoying that I had to dress in a certain way, like a uniform, since I’m just as bright when I’m wearing a pajama. This is how I was raised. My father is the type of distracted savant, he is one of the… now he retired, but he was one of the best doctors in Galaţi, in the entire geographical region, in Moldavia, in his field. They’d send him patients from as far as Iaşi, saying, ‘You must go to that doctor only for your tests before surgery!’ so on, but on the street if you saw him, nu dădeai doi bani pe el/you’d not think much of him/you’d take him for a beggar/looser. He’d say, ‘What matters is what’s in my head. I don’t give a hoot of what people think about me.’ So I think I grew a bit like this.
But ending up in a corporation I conformed and I became a woman who wears high heels and goes to manicures and hair salons before an important meeting, knowing I had to look impeccable. So I’m torn now. I enjoy looking well put together but I’m not at ease. It’s not the real me. I’m comfortable like this, in a T-shirt and jeans, but indeed when I go to an important meeting, I give up the T-shirt and jeans and it’s alright, this is our convention, no problem. The way we agreed to speak Romanian and not French, so I accept I have to dress in this way. It’s a matter of standards, and it’s okay.
It helps me, comparatively to a person who worked all her life for a foundation, in a non-commercial environment, that I can understand the other side. When a person considers giving me money, he doesn’t do it because I ask him, or because my cause is a good cause, but because he resonates or because he gains something, ‘What’s in it for me?’ you know. Not necessarily that there is an exchange, but that I make them feel better if they give money.
I was thinking awhile ago, that our foundation should be very professional, run exactly like a company, efficient, professional, that sets some goals and pursues them. Not functioning on a whim, like, ‘Oh, well, today I don’t feel like doing this,’ so on. This is a big problem with donors in Romania, no one informs them how the money was spent, they never receive an update, nothing. There was a lot of arguing when with the 2010 flooding. A lot of people were raising money for help, but then later no one knew what happened with that money. ‘We used them for the flooding efforts, thank you very much.’ But we’re talking about millions of Euros. I want our foundation to be very responsible and accountable. If you give me 50 lei, I shall tell you what we’ve done with those 50 lei. Not that, ‘My thanks. I’ll give you a call next year when we’ll need money again.’ This is our principle: transparency, responsibility. Which I might have not had, were I to go straight from college to working for a foundation.
EV: Thank you. If there are any questions I’ve failed to ask you…
AK: Well, I’m passionate about what I do, and often I can’t tell if the one who listens to me sees a clear red thread running thru my speech. Well, there is a detail I’d like to add, they often ask me, ‘Okay, how did this idea come to you? You were all the time away, in meetings, when did you have time to even think things out?’
I always remember with joy how three or two years ago, two years ago, we were on vacation, on the beach, your mind free of the day by day worries, and it came to me, while reading Cousteau’s biography. Jean Jacques Cousteau, the sea explorer. He says there how when he was 35 years old, two children, having an ordinary job, so on, and one day someone invited him, he loved swimming, so he was invited to dive into the sea and test an autonomous diver swimming costume. You know how they used to be, like they were on a space ship, about 50 kilograms heavy, made of iron, and there was a hose thru which the oxygen came. Well, this was more like what we know nowadays, everybody is scuba diving with those things on their back. And he says how when he got in the water, he went for a weekend, and when he looked around in the water, he discovered a world he had no clue it existed, and his entire life changed.
So I often think about how I was on the beach, we were in Costa Rica on our exotic honeymoon. That white sand and those palm trees, everything perfect… and it hit me, ‘It’s not absolutely obligatory to lead a linear life, to keep on working in this corporation, like it or not, and when I retire I shall do what I really like, take my grandchildren to the swimming pool. No, something can show up and everything changes radically!’ and for me it was that moment. What does motivate me personally? And so, after three days...
EV: Did you inform your husband promptly?
AK: Well, it was a long vacation; we had time to discuss matters. Usually on previous vacations we’d try to settle in for three days, enjoy it for one day, then get depressed for the last two days because our holiday ends so quickly. Then we had enough time to thoroughly look at how it would really work out financially, since with our corporate-worker mindset we kept on focusing on financial projections. It seemed feasible. But then we returned to work, and we didn’t have time for much thinking. I wanted to have a baby, and it seemed incompatible to give birth to a baby and start a new project at the same time, it seemed to me you can’t put so much energy in two matters…
EV: One more question: how did it feel to be a Romanian hire for a multi-national corporation? Did you feel exploited, or less than your American counterparts?
AK: I never had the feeling that I’m not their equal. That’s what I liked very much. Well, sure, the corporate bullshit, ‘We’re one large family,’ blah blah blah, but when they restructure the company, the HR announces you your job is gone. But overall I enjoyed being their equal and able to speak to the company vice-president on the same footing, and he’d listen to my opinion and if it was a valid one, he’d act on it, if not, he’d tell me so, without firing me.
It was utterly different than a Romanian company where you had to get past his vigilant secretary to even talk to him, and you’d shake with fear when the director summoned you, what might he have to tell you, and you kept your head lowered, don’t ever contradict him, so on. I didn’t encounter such behavior in this American company. It was a straightforward work relationship and, in the end, efficient, because this is what’s all about, not that if we like it or not, but if it functions.
For me it was an opportunity to work in a multi-national company, as opposed to a Romanian company. Clearly I had many benefits, my salary was larger, the experience I learned, all that training and workshops, I still benefit from now. The most important thing I received from this company during the five years I stayed with it was travel. They had offices all over the world so I traveled more than I’ll even be able to travel to the end of my life. I’ve seen, I don’t even know how many continents. Alright, I’d go to the airport, hotel, then office, and if I was lucky I’d go an hour on the streets in the night, but still it was an extraordinary experience. This is how I’ve seen New York too.
EV: Thank you.
AK: I thank you. I’ve rather talked my head off.

Update: I wrote Alina to see if the foundation is still active, knowing how hard it is for them, and yes, they continue to do their good work. They have new projects, some of their initial ones were put aside, as their efforts got structured.

Here are the links to interviews with several other wonderful people who likewise struggle to make Bucharest a better place:

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
September 5th, 2013

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