Dan Buzatu Featured
Constanța

Remembering the 1989 Romanian Revolution

Constanța Casino
Dan Buzatu
Sarmale

The Place: Constanța, Romania

“Before me, the expanse of the Black Sea extended outwards, disappearing beyond the horizon; a dark mirror that seemed to swallow the silvery colours of the clouds above… Sea spray turned to ice as waves lashed the groynes hugging the base of Constanța’s infamous abandoned casino, forming a blanket of otherworldly icicles that hung over the water…”

Read More About Constanta

Moments ago, I’d been exhausted; recovering after the previous day, when I’d found myself lost on a mountaintop at midnight before dragging myself onwards until I came across a B&B. But now, a rush of euphoria. This very moment had been a milestone in my head for months. The burning in my legs subsided, my breath steadied. Was that salt in the air? The harsh cry of a seagull rang out overhead, and a gentle breeze fluttered against my cheeks, and… there it was. Before me, the expanse of the Black Sea extended outwards, disappearing beyond the horizon; a dark mirror that seemed to swallow the silvery colours of the clouds above. I must have looked insane to the locals; grinning as I gazed out across the water, almost forgetting I was riding a bike at all.  For the coming two weeks, I’d be tracing the shoreline, the first time I’d done so since Northern Germany.

Sandwiched between the railway tracks and the beach on my approach into Romania’s largest port city, and I found myself neck-and-neck with a freight train, blaring it’s horn at me as the driver and I engaged in an unofficial – and extremely unfair – race while it picked up speed and he egged me on through a cracked, stained window. Together, we hurtled past factories and scrapyards in the industrial outer reaches of Constanța, the city I’d call home for the next 4 days, before my new friend inched ahead of me, speeding up exponentially and deafening me with scrapes and and bangs as his rusty steed left me behind, with two short farewell honks. 

While my ears recovered, I noticed a change in my surroundings. Factory after factory had become hotel after hotel. Beach resorts, some half-finished, others barely started, but all totally empty for the winter flanked the roadsides in Mamaia, the city’s tourist centre atop an artificial sandy spit. Their superficial, glass and steel exteriors masked any hint of Constanța’s true atmosphere, and I could almost hear them whisper as I rode past: “you shouldn’t be here in winter”. In the off-season, something seemed missing; it was as though I was cycling past the ghost of summer holidays. That bleakness was reinforced by those I’d meet later, who would tell me that many of those hotels are owned and run by the Mafia, who look for a legitimate business into which they can funnel dirty money. So rather than stop to look for a place to stay in Mamaia as I had initially planned, I pushed deeper towards the heart of the city until I found a guesthouse.

My first full day of rest in a week, and I was been beginning to feel at ease, far from the icy gusts that had battered me in Northern Moldova and Ukraine. But in Constanța, something changed. Winter’s frigid tendrils closed around me once more. The cold returned with a new sense of resolve, cutting deep beneath the layers of fabric I’d caked myself in and forcing locals indoors, leaving nothing but the wind to fill near-empty streets.  Sea spray turned to ice as waves lashed the groynes hugging the base of Constanța’s infamous abandoned casino, forming a blanket of otherworldly icicles that hung over the water, and my hands burned as I struggled to steady my camera and take pictures. Nearby, gargantuan cranes towered above the docks, closed to the public but open to a local named Marius – a pilot-boat captain and head of the city cycling club who’d taken it upon himself to act as my guide during my stay – and so, by proxy, me.

I’d never expected to be enthralled by the beauty of a functioning industrial shipyard, but, traversing the maze of roads that cut through it, I was mezmerized. What looked like a factory on stilts, 20 metres high at least and scores old, creaked in the wind. Impossibly enormous wind-turbine blades lay on their side, dwarfing the boats in the water beside them. For the first time, I found myself marvelling at the industrial nervous system of a city, rather than cursing it for tainting my views. 

Like Galați, Constanța seemed to be a practical city, at least in winter while its armada of beach resorts slumbered and tourists were a rarity. Looking back, it’s difficult to separate the its true character from the bitterly cold weather that befell it, but, despite the chill, I quickly noticed a slightly more European atmosphere; initially revealing itself in the form of the first bike-path I’d seen in months. The state of the roads improved, the driving was less chaotic, and I found myself, for once, sharing the road with other cyclists. Despite being further East than anywhere else on the cycle tour so far, I actually felt a little closer to home.

Sea Spray Turning to Ice in Constanța

– Sea spray freezing almost immediately as it strikes the groynes near Constanța harbour –


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Daniel Buzatu, 42, Sales-Manager

“My wife doesn’t share my passion of cycling… My dream is to become a UCI commissaire for the world tour, which is to be working at the ‘Tour de France’ and things like that.”

See Daniel's Full Background

I have a two kids, a boy and a girl. My wife doesn’t share my passion of cycling; I am one of the members of the ‘Euxin Cycling Club’ here in Constanța; we go to amateur races on road bikes and mountain bikes. I am the happiest person on the planet; this is how I describe myself, at least for the last 5 years. In my spare time I am a commissaire for the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), which is the international cycling federation. I’m usually delegated for road races in Romania. I am responsible for checking the guys in the group and making sure they don’t injure themselves, that everything is “fair play”, and that kind of thing. My dream is to become a UCI commissaire for the world tour, which is to be working at the ‘Tour de France’ and things like that.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

“I used to live in the capital of Romania, Bucharest, but I didn’t really find my place there… As soon as I had the chance to come back to Constanța with my work, I took the opportunity…”

See Daniel's Full Answer

For me, home is my city, Constanța. I used to live in the capital of Romania, Bucharest, but I didn’t really find my place there. I went there just for university and then for four more years after that for work. As soon as I had the chance to come back to Constanța with my work, I took the opportunity straight away. Here, I have my friends and family. I call myself a guy who likes to have friends around him all day. For me, it’s my small universe here. I think everybody should have their own universe, and this one is mine.

In the first two years of university in Bucharest it was ok, because I had lots of friends and a life other than just being home with my parents. I was going to lots of parties and things like that. But then, I got responsible. I finished my course, and I what I started to not like was the fact that it was a very crowded city. There was so much pollution and smog from all the cars. The job that I had was one that suited me. I was working in sales; I’m a guy who cannot stop speaking. But the people over there came from all the other regions of Romania. Some of those people might be trying to take advantage of your friendship. I don’t like being used like this, so that’s another reason I came back.

What is special about Constanța?

“Only one thing: the seaside. It’s the biggest town on the seaside in the country… I cannot live without the sea. When I lived in Bucharest, if I went a month without a visit to the sea, I did not feel good.”

See Daniel's Full Answer

Only one thing: the seaside. It’s the biggest town on the seaside in the country. We have the beaches here, and fun, joy, sun and plus 25 degrees for 6 months of the year; even though it’s -2 right now! During the summer, Constanța is one of the busiest cities because of the resorts; we have 6 resorts on 40km of the seaside. It’s good for my job. I sell swimming gear, and it’s my customers that come here, and being here is a big plus for my business. 

I cannot live without the sea. When I lived in Bucharest, if I went a month without a visit to the sea, I did not feel good. I came from Bucharest to Constanța once for just 3 hours so I could see the beach. For me it’s just something I cannot live without. I have kids now, and they’re going to the beach every afternoon in summer. 

Constanța Beach

– The first beach I’d set foot on for around 2,000km, just after the weather improved –

What is your main concern or worry about Romania?

To be honest, it’s the image that people have of some Romanians in Europe. When you go abroad, as much as you see innovative people working in factories and things, there are also beggars, shoplifters and other people that I cannot be proud of. That’s the reality.”

See Daniel's Full Answer

To be honest, it’s the image that people have of some Romanians in Europe. When you go abroad, as much as you see innovative people working in factories and things, there are also beggars, shoplifters and other people that I cannot be proud of. That’s the reality. I don’t like that. I’m trying to figure out how Romanians can do something to get rid of that image when they’re abroad. 

I was in a restaurant meeting a guy in Germany, and outside there were some Romanian beggars, and he saw me talking to them in Romanian. I didn’t give them money, but I spoke with them. What I think is most important is that people take notice of Romanians who are doing good things, who are working. I have at least 15 friends working for companies in Vienna. The negative images always get more attention than the positives; always bad news gets seen more than good news. 

Do you remember much from when Romania was communist?

“I saw the struggle my parents faced raising me and my sister. If you can imagine, every day from 4.00 p.m. until 7.00 p.m. there was no power. It was 1986, and I had to do my homework with a small candle.”

See Daniel's Full Answer

It all changed with the revolution in 1989. I was 12-years-old, so I think I remember a lot from it. Every day, I went to the grocery store to buy two breads for the family; that’s all we could afford, along with just one bottle of milk. There were food rations, and we could not find a lot of goods. We had some money, but we couldn’t buy anything because we couldn’t find the things we needed. The opposite of that is the capitalism we have now, where we can find everything but cannot afford to buy it.

I saw the struggle my parents faced raising me and my sister. If you can imagine, every day from 4.00 p.m. until 7.00 p.m. there was no power. It was 1986, and I had to do my homework with a small candle. TVs worked for two hours per day, from 8.00 p.m. until 10.00 p.m., and the programme was just two hours, all about the Communist president – Nicolae Ceaușescu. It was all propaganda. I remember in the last 3 years, from 1986-89, on Sundays from 3.00 p.m. until 5.00 p.m., we had two extra hours for animated cartoons. In those days, I was having classes, and I didn’t go to the first hour of classes just so I could see the cartoons. I remember, it was history class! It was some crazy old Russian cartoons, but for me as a kid it was amazing. 

Could you share your memories from the 1989 Romanian revolution?

“Thousands of people were coming around us… Black cars were usually from the communist party – of course, that day I had to be in a black car. So [my uncle] had to drive up onto the pavement, then abandoned the car there… When I got to Constanța, I remember there was a big bus that had just crashed into the railway station. I got off the train and saw my father; he was not crying, but he was shaking. The revolution had started while we’d been on the train.”

See Daniel's Full Answer

Yes, I remember. To be honest, I remember quite a lot. The President, Nicolae Ceaușescu, has left in one of his helicopters after a demonstration. Two days earlier I’d arrived in Bucharest. My Godfather lived there, and he was an ambassador for Romania in Iraq. So I was visiting him, and I could see on the television that bullets were being fired and there was fighting. I remember my Godmother was on the balcony crying, because she saw everything. I was only 12, so I could not understand a lot. One thing that impressed me, his son took us in a car to the railway station to send us back to Constanța. We were on a big boulevard, which was 8 lanes or something, trying to get to the station. Thousands of people were coming around us, because he had a big black car. Black cars were usually from the communist party – of course, that day I had to be in a black car. So he had to drive up onto the pavement, then abandoned the car there. We had to run with our bags to the station. 

When I got to Constanța, I remember there was a big bus that had just crashed into the railway station. I got off the train and saw my father; he was not crying, but he was shaking. The revolution had started while we’d been on the train. It was quite violent for about 5 days here. We had lots of people with guns. They said there were terrorists here, but I don’t really think that was true. I think people were shooting each other because they didn’t know what to do. All-in-all, I think close to 4,000 people were killed in those 5 days. In the army, they were shooting each other. They said “you’re a terrorist, I’ll kill you!”, and the others said the same. But there were no terrorists. It was chaos.

What was the adjustment like after the Romanian revolution?

Nicolae Ceaușescu escaped by helicopter, but he was caught. He was judged in 3 hours, and after 5 hours he was executed, along with his wife. And the whole process was on the TV. People were very happy that they saw those two dying, and dead. The psychological effect gave them some closure.”

See Daniel's Full Answer

People were trying to find a leader that they could follow. They found one, which was one of the revolutionary guys, who arranged a new government. People were really, really happy that Ceaușescu left. The new guy who came in promised everything would be ok; we’d have food, water, power, everything. And people started to believe this. But after all that, it’s been 25 years and still things have not changed a lot. There have been some good steps, but I think the communists now are still leading the country. There will not be any violence any more, but there is tension, even though people have forgiven each other. 

One good thing that happened out of it all, is that Nicolae Ceaușescu escaped by helicopter, but he was caught. He was judged in 3 hours, and after 5 hours he was executed, along with his wife. And the whole process was on the TV. People were very happy that they saw those two dying, and dead. The psychological effect gave them some closure. Both of them were responsible for the corruption.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen I your lifetime here?

For Romania, it’s been entering into the EU in 2001. It was a very good step for Romanians. But I think our expectations was to see even bigger good changes than have happened up until now. But things aren’t going so speedily.”

See Daniel's Full Answer

For Romania, it’s been entering into the EU in 2001. It was a very good step for Romanians. But I think our expectations was to see even bigger good changes than have happened up until now. But things aren’t going so speedily. People thought it would solve all our problems. But it’s not. We still need to work, to sole our problems, be creative and responsible, and show the EU that we are an opportunity; that we can be of real help and are not a third-world country. 

Constanța Casino

– Constanța’s famous abandoned casino –

What is the best thing to ever come out of Constanța?

“Gheorghe Hagi… is a very great patriot… he has a football academy. All the money he earned was put into his academy… There are around 25 players who started here and then were sold to other clubs for serious money. The money isn’t important for him, though. It’s his passion…”

See Daniel's Full Answer

We have Simona Halep. She is the number one in women’s tennis. She is from Constanța, and was born just 3km from our street. We also have a football legend, which is Gheorghe Hagi, who is a very great patriot. He came back after playing Barcelona, and other international clubs, and he has a football academy. All the money he earned was put into his academy. It’s a very productive football school. There are around 25 players who started here and then were sold to other clubs for serious money. The money isn’t important for him, though. It’s his passion, that’s why he does it. So that’s why I think he should be seen as a legend from Constanța and also in Romania as a whole. 

What do you do during the Holidays here?

“We have a tradition here that 3 days before Christmas, we sacrifice a pig. It should be around 100kg. People gather with their families, and they slice the pig together, and prepare it… Every house has a place where they raise pigs for the purpose of sacrificing them at Christmas… The meat should be used throughout the whole winter. From that meat, we can make lots of food.”

See Daniel's Full Answer

We have lots of pork. We have a tradition here that 3 days before Christmas, we sacrifice a pig. It should be around 100kg. People gather with their families, and they slice the pig together, and prepare it. Usually it’s the man that cuts the pig. Every house has a place where they raise pigs for the purpose of sacrificing them at Christmas. In the main cities like Constanța we don’t have this as much, but in the countryside it’s everywhere. The meat should be used throughout the whole winter. From that meat, we can make lots of food. We have something that is very specific here called slavina; it’s the grease from the pork along with the skin which we take off and leave to dry for about two weeks, and it’s very chewy and very good. We eat lots of meat and also vegetables, but Christmas traditions are mainly about pork. In some regions, such as Dobuja, which from 1633 until 1835 was under Turkish occupation, we eat lots of sheep; at easter, we have a tradition when we sacrifice a lamb. But in the West, we have some influence from Slovakia, and traditional food like palatschinke, which is a sweet pie with cheese in it.

I have a friend who lives in Canada. After 10 years living there, he bought a pig from a website and tried to sacrifice it in his yard with his friends and family. The police came and were like “what are you doing?!” and he was charged with something. You’re not allowed to do that there! He tried to explain to the police that it was his culture and traditions but it didn’t help.

What national or local dish do you recommend for me to get a taste of Romania?

Number one should be Sarmale, which is made with pork meat, rice and cabbage. I can also recommend Zakuska, which is a combination of vegetables and is very good. For us, it’s very tasty, and it has onions, tomatoes and eggplant in it. 

Life According to Locals #Constanta #Romania #InterviewsWithLocals Click To Tweet

Dan Buzatu


The Plate: Sarmale

“There’s something so satisfyingly neat about Sarmale; each roll is a parcel, wrapped in cabbage and hiding within, at least in this case, pork and rice, and their self-containment means each feels like a tiny, micro-meal in it’s own right. In contrast with other typically heavy food from this part of the world… sarmale is light and delicate, never overpowering and, despite their consistent flavour, never tedious either.”

Read More About Sarmale

As with the likes of Polish pierogi, and Ukrainian barzscz, sarmale had been been everywhere for the past 500km of the Arctic to Asia cycle tour. In Moldova, it’s known as ‘zeama’, in Turkey, ‘sarma’. The specifics may vary, but the general rules are the same: a leaf, usually either cabbage or vine, wrapped around a filling, often rice and meat, forming a parcel that has either crisped and browned as its baked or become moist and soft as its simmered. Since some claim it is Romania’s “national dish”, despite its Turkish origins, I was hardly surprised when Dan suggested I try it.

There’s something so satisfyingly neat about sarmale; each roll is a parcel, wrapped in cabbage and hiding within, at least in this case, pork and rice, and their self-containment means each feels like a tiny, micro-meal in it’s own right. In contrast with other typically heavy food from this part of the world (mamalyga I’m looking at you),  sarmale is light and delicate, never overpowering and, despite their consistent flavour, never tedious, either. A blend of Mediterranean and Slavic kitchens, its seasoning was such that wouldn’t seem out of place in Greece, but was tempered by a gentle mellowness from the cabbage, harking back to Romania’s slavic influences. In the case of this review, I’d been given the simmered, not baked, version; the exterior had softened, but still gave enough resistance to vary the texture with each bite.  Within, both the texture and taste of the rice and meat balanced one another and, as I ate, I found myself picturing the immensely time-consuming and dexterous preparation process that created these tiny bundles before me; each leaf wrapped tight around their contents, not a single spillage in sight.

Unparalleled in the region in their sheer variety, sarmale’s addictively moreish nature meant it was, without a doubt my favourite meal I’d come across in Moldova or Romania and, as the world outside succumbed to winters abrupt revival, I warmed the soul over my rapidly depleting pot of cabbage rolls.

Sarmale


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Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

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