Every life change starts with a step, the first, followed by a second, a third and so on.
Just a few years ago I took a leap into the dark, not for the first time, but for the first time in England. Although I had enjoyed campaigning for the Government in London's ethnic community my heart cried out for me to re-take my freedom, something I never had in the Romania of my youth, my freedom to paint, to write, and to connect with people of principled beliefs and a passion to make these come alive.
My mind always took me back to that lovely first agency I had joined so long ago after university, and to the very special American couple who had come ashore on our Black Sea coast from their around the world sailing trip, who had opened the agency's doors and taught me "the importance of being true to yourself and your values".
So I am now working to make a new living again, a living that is in harmony with my values, this time from my brushes and creative inspiration. With freedom comes new challenges. The citizens of Romania discovered this in 1989 - the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail and to fall. It's a new beginning for me now but my past experiences have made me who I am, and my values and past experiences are the ones that I connect with now to give me strength and confidence.
Welcome to my story
I grew up under the communist regime of my beautiful Romania ..and started my journey out of the country in 2003. Millions of people in this world have faced real challenges. Like many of them, to survive, I had to re-invent myself, to start again, and again, and again. In this journey I have learned important lessons, that life is what you make of it. And that what you make of it can be enhanced if you listen to your intuition, you really connect with people, you are willing to learn, and if you embrace change.
My story really starts in the Steppes of Russia, with my Russian grandparents, Marina Romanova and her husband Grigorie. Their vaguely Chekov life was turned to physical and emotional rubble when their home was burned to the ground by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution, when my grandfather was imprisoned, and when everything was lost, all our papers, everything.....
It really continues in WW2 when the rebuilt family house, in a tiny village in deepest Russia, where the winter snows flew in from a thousand miles, was commandeered by the Germans during apocalyptic battles against the Russian armies during Operation Kutuzov, when my mother and my grandparents had to live in underground tunnels until the occupiers finally left, burning the village and the remaining villagers as they left........ but this is another story for another time.
Home for the first seven years of my life was a two room flat in central Bucharest which our small family shared with another family of three. We then moved to the "luxury" of our own three room flat in a new concrete high-rise in a new, now leafy, suburb of Bucharest where we continued to suffer the oh so frequent power cuts, where my candle-lit studies were interrupted by the need to warm my hands over the gas rings of our tiny kitchen, where we enjoyed the seasonal absence of hot water for weeks on end, in a flat where I was ever fearful of the far too frequent minor earthquakes, always expecting a repeat of that terrible night in March 1977, when I was 7, when over a thousand people in my city lost their lives and many thousands were injured, a tragedy that even now I cannot speak about without retreating to a dark place in my mind.
Daily life was dominated by the need to queue in shifts with my parents in front of the butchers shop, or the bakery, or the grocery for as long as twenty four hours at a time, even in the dark and snowy winter months, to await the delivery truck and the inevitable rush and clamour to buy. Queuing though was a liberating event with the constant chitter chatter of the crowd totally out of character for what had been, before communism, a warm society that had then become closed, mistrusting and inward looking, ever fearful of strangers and the one in five who had become Securitate informers - even in your own family.
I had a childhood in name only. I took refuge from the traumas of my life in my school work, in after school tutorials on many subjects, in ballet, and in the peace of my own small bedroom with piles of homework that demanded concentration as failure to pass would have meant life in a factory ……. and in my books, my books, my trusty friends.
The revolution in 1989 changed our lives forever!
The memory of panic, insecurity, conflicting messages from the streets, gruesome images of dead bodies I had to pass by, the sound of gunfire, the scary tracer fire penetrating the pitch dark December nights, makes me shudder when I revisit buildings that are still, many years on, pock-marked by bullet holes. I had been taught to shoot Kalashnikovs but this was the real thing - but looking back I smile inwardly at our bravery in deciding, as young students do, to defend our university.
It was also the end of my so-called childhood and the beginning of a new world of opportunity for me, the West, equipped with a bacalaureat and an engineering "degree", destined under the old regime to design big machines, but under the new rules, free to succeed or to fail. It was down to me now, there were no more safety nets.
I had known the West mainly from books that I had read in the safety of the British Council and the American library (until the December 1989 revolution we in Romania only had one national television channel, the State broadcaster, which usually broadcast for two hours a night, and even that contained swathes of homilies to Ceausescu) and from Jane; Jane was an intellectual hermit from the communist state, in her early 50’s when I met her, quite round with loose flowing clothes, never venturing from her small back street flat unless she absolutely had to. I travelled across Bucharest for 10 years, come snow or sunshine to see her. More than anyone in my life she stimulated my mind, opened my eyes and challenged me to discover the wonders of the world: its literature, arts, cultures, languages, and religions. She died too young, leaving a clear memory of what a single person can do to change the life of another for the better, from whatever background they come from. It’s as if in life we all need a guiding star, for me it was Jane.
I re-invented myself, I became a career girl, it consumed my life, and I now look back with pride and some surprise at what I achieved! This was someone, me, who under the communists had been an introverted book-worm, a lover of maths and physics, but who emerged, like a butterfly, adapted to a new reality.
After part time university jobs as a tourist guide and as a PA/interpreter for a new British led commercial television venture with our state broadcaster (I spoke good English....and Russian and Spanish) I won my first real job - as what is called an Account Executive. I joined the first ad-agency to open its doors in Romania, founded by Reese Palley, a pioneering American and his lovely wife, an artist, who had come ashore from their around the world sailing trip on Romania’s Black Sea coast and decided to stay for a while! The young people in that first agency in Romania have gone on to do really special things. That's me in my mid twenties in the middle foreground. We all need a bit of luck in our lives.
I learned rapidly from them and from others that life in Western companies is not one job, one desk, one boss for life, that personal growth is what you make of it.
Two years later, having been given responsibility for the agency’s and I think Romania's largest ad-account, persuading Romanians to smoke even more Camel cigarettes, the owners saw a gap in Romania’s burgeoning media market for a first women’s colour magazine. Being pioneers the challenge was too much for them to resist – for me too. So I took the opportunity offered to me to re-invent myself again, joined the search for the right publishing format for our market and took responsibility, with a new title, marketing manager, for the launch - and as small "all hands to the pumps" teams do I found myself writing articles on new products on the market (especially ones I thought were right for the market - and me!!).
Avantaje, the Romanian format of Essentials, became and 20 years later remains a success. Our first edition cover is pictured above.
At that point, filled with adrenalin, I wanted another new challenge. So I used my savings to open my own ad-agency, to employ two people, take on premises, and sign up clients, mainly Arab traders from Egypt and the Lebanon, enjoying my first steps in that lovely language, Arabic – until a French client did what so many did in those days, treat Romania as a throw away toy, walking out of the country leaving unpaid bills in their wake, mine included – so I ran out of money after a year and closed. How did I feel? …a bit wiser about the West, disappointed, crushed but also very proud that I had tried!
I replied to an ad and in the face of competition from one hundred “new westerners” won the job of my life, as marketing, later sales and marketing, manager of another US start-up in Romania, this time by the multi-national, Washington, USA based, HIV/Aids prevention and social marketing organisation, PSI,
Re-inventing myself was now a part of me, so I threw myself lock-stock-and-barrel into the project, staging major rock concerts on the beaches, promoting HIV/Aids awareness in front of Romanian youth, army cadets, government officials, ministers and even Emil Constantinescu, the President of Romania, himself - that's him below with me in my Love Plus Police campaign uniform!
I found myself working all hours of the day, always on the road to the next event (that's me on the right of our Love Plus Police Academy balloons) with amazingly creative Romanian TV producers and ad-agency teams, teams that I have since come to realise are as creative and as willing to innovate, if not more so, than their counterparts in the " West", making tv and radio programmes and campaigning videos which actually won international awards at the Cannes advertising fair for our tiny PSI unit and for Romania. And I found myself leading the creation of a national distributor and direct sales network for our healthcare products and writing reports back to Washington at any time of the day that I was still awake - or on Christmas Day.....
As a result of the campaigns in Romania I was asked by PSI in Washington to mentor other young PSI teams in countries that I discovered were even poorer than us in money terms - in the mountains of Albania, in the lovely kingdom of Lesotho and in Swaziland where my first rock concert in Africa, to which an estimated 20,000 enthusiasts turned up, ended in complete chaos with me, one of two white people present, running for my life after my main star decided to "walk among his adoring fans" causing pandemonium - but beginning a love affair in me for the unconstrained love of life in Africa that is undimmed by time.
Later, completely exhausted, after leading the promotion of a new sustainable rural, organic farming project for remote communities in Romania for a British private commercial/charity partnership I moved to England at age 33 to be with and to eventually marry someone who had been my mentor and guide since my last years at university in Bucharest, and to a whole step-up in terms of re-invention. While studying (first for an MBA at Henley, which I quit at the end of the first year, having at least passed all my exams, because the subject matter seemed of little relevance to the real life conditions and rather unconventional business practices! of emerging countries) and waiting for my work visa, I took to painting, to writing, and to all things that a civilised open society does for its people. I volunteered for charities and immersed myself in a mental health charity, volunteering alongside those with schizophrenia or depression, who were bi-polar or had learning difficulties. I started to enjoy the childhood I never had, throwing stones on the beach, painting pebbles, experimenting with my unusual cakes, laughing, things I never had or did when I was young – for that’s all I ever wanted, just to be happy – its what most of us want .
My first and only job in England, much to the amazement, giggles and pride of my friends back home, was in the Communications Directorate of a large British Government department in Victoria, for a short time working on campaigns to influence the population in favour of Eco-towns then working with colleagues in the MoD, the Home Office, DfID and the FCO on campaigns to influence the young, especially young Muslims, to reject violent extremism - and me, a Romanian citizen at that time, doing that.
But, after three years I needed my freedom back. The Civil Service seemed to me all too similar to the communist regime of Romania for my liking - all top down instructions, absolutely no listening, a hierarchy insulated from the real fears and concerns of the streets, focused on winning a media triumph today regardless of the impact on people tomorrow and in the long term - or this is how it seemed to me, it was my own experience. This was not for me.
With my husband I had been back to Africa perilously flying in a single engine Cessna at 1500 feet, dodging dark African storms, landing on remote waterlogged dirt strips at community projects in places that he refers to as “God’s own Country” .......and to that beach full of penguins in the Cape, to that sunset, and to my real purpose in life, to something that I know Jane will be proud of as she watches over me.
I decided then to use my life experiences to find ways of empowering those living on this beautiful planet who are less fortunate than me, to carry on Jane’s work, work that had so materially touched and enhanced my life and enhanced the lives of so many others.
Thank you for reading this!
There is much I will write in due course about the impact of 50 years of communism on the country of my birth. Anyone who would like to know more of Romania in the first half of the 20th century I do recommend one book - "The Last Romantic, A Biography of Queen Marie of Roumania, by Hannah Pakula". It tells of the life of our extraordinary Queen Marie, grand mother of the future King Michael, between her birth in 1875 and her death in 1938, the years before the fascist takeover of Romania in WW2 and the Yalta decision of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin to award Russia sphere of influence over most of Eastern Europe including Romania. Queen Marie was born, on her father's side, to be Princess of Edinburgh, eldest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, grand daughter of Queen Victoria - and, on her mother's side, she was grand daughter of the Tsar of Russia. Marie married Ferdinand, Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (of Germany) who became King Ferdinand I of Roumania. These family ties and the proximity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire influenced the whole course of Romanian history, for good and bad, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WW1.