Rucsandra Pop: I love Bucharest for its hidden poetry (interview)

She is a full time mother and a writer of theater plays. In few months (after maternal leave) she’ll go back to work (the area of communication and marketing) and she’d finish her PhD.-thesis. She jokes about herself saying that she is a stand-up scientist, because she does things differently. She studied literature in Braşov (Romania), journalism in Bratislava (Slovakia), sociology and cultural anthropology in Warsaw (Poland) and she had been also a Fulbright visiting scholar at Indiana University in the US. In her spare time, she organized poetry readings, conferences and all sort of events that were missing in the cultural scene at a given time. Rucsandra Pop.

B: What’s going on in your busy life of drama writer?

R: One of my plays is called ‘Oracol’ (The Oracle), and it is a one woman show, about unconditional love. It had the premiere in 2011, when I was in the US, and ever since we had over 40 shows in 8 cities all over Romania.

The second play is called ‘Talk to the Bomb’ and is about a love triangle (a girl and two boys) who meet in Vama Veche, on Romanian sea side, in 2001 just before 9/11. The play is about the loss of innocence and about the fact that men and women are sometimes incapable of dialogue and this is the main reason they hurt each other. At a bigger scale, the same thing can be said about two different cultures, and this is why 9/11 has such a strong impact on the lives of the three characters. ‘Talk to the Bomb’ had the premiere in 21.12.2012, as we wanted to celebrate with this play the much expected end of the world.

A third play that I wrote – called ‘Huevos congelados’ – is now being rehearsed and is going to have the premiere this summer.

B: You are finishing your study. What is the topic of your PhD.-thesis?

R: Next year I should finish my PhD in Anthropology and Folklore. My topic is the biography of my grandfather – Mihai Pop – who was an important folklorist with a very interesting life and career, both locally and internationality. He was a man of many disciplines – he started with linguistics, moved on to sociology, ethnomusicology, to later discover the folklore, the semiotics and finally the anthropology. In the 30s, he studied in Prague where he met the famous Czech and Russian structuralists. Then during the Second World War he was a cultural attaché in Bratislava, during the First Slovak Republic. He actually finished his PhD at Academia Istropolitana in Bratislava in 1942. He was a true Central European citizen and he later became a specialist in the area.

B: Why have you chosen this topic?

R: I like to say that the topic has chosen me more than I chose it – one day I discovered what a fabulously interesting guy my grandfather was and I wanted to share his story with the rest of the world. In reality, it was a bit more than that. Mihai Pop lived for 93 years and he was professionally active during 70 years, browsing one war, a few major shifts in the political regimes and crossing a few major disciplines. He was a socratic personality having the gift of inspiring people around him and the ability to unite the east with the west. He was in touch with many important scholars of his times – from Claude Levi-Strauss, to the linguist Roman Jakobson and Umberto Eco, then a young semiotician. I followed on his footsteps and got full with his story that I now want to share. I think that there is a lot to learn about history and life just by looking at his biography.

Central University Library in Bucharest.

Bucharest: Central University Library.

B: How ordinary people can understand this topic and your choice?

R: I do hope the ordinary people will understand my topic. I think of the final product more as a book than just a PhD paper – just for a scientific audience. My aim is to write the interesting biography of a Romanian intellectual who had a fascinating life and who lived during the 20th century very aware of what was going on this planet. After all he spoke eleven languages and he could also read between the lines. Romanians have a fascination with the interwar generations of intellectuals but they know too little about them. I’m digging for more. My grandfather was part of that generation, but he was not among the stars. Bringing him – and others like him – into the spotlight can give us a better understanding of our recent history.

B: Could you estimate the influence of your research on Romanian culture, education, art-science?

R: I think that my way of conducting and presenting my research is out of the box. And this is because I’m not a real academic. I’m first of all a story teller and I also have a marketing background that forces me to give interesting presentations. I also follow Actually, together with a group of friends we organized in 2009 the first TEDx conference in Bucharest. I think academics that are boring for their public are old fashioned. I sometimes joke about myself saying that I am a stand-up scientist, because I do things differently. And this could be sometimes disturbing for more traditional professors. I don’t disregards methodology and theory – I just try to do things more engaging for the others and I strongly believe the new generation is looking for a re-fresh. And I don’t wait to have resources in order to start a project – I work with what I have at a given moment.

B: Can you work on your projects without dependence on money from various foundations’ funding?

R: I started this project on my own and then I went back to school, because I felt I needed more information and more discipline. But you can see in the way I work that I keep the freedom to follow my passion and share it with the others, I don’t hunt academic titles. My project is an open project, I look for enthusiastic young people to come and work with me. And they do. Research is hard work, but it should also be fun. I also think that my studies abroad changed my way of doing things. I am a Romanian that had access to the Francophone and the American education system. And I feel those influences in the way I work, in the books I read. From the American school I’ve learn academic writing, an art that is neglected in Romania. I try to share this knowledge with the people who are as enthusiastic about their work as I am about mine.

Rucsandra Pop - Romanian journalist, drama writer and 'stand-up scientist'.

Rucsandra Pop – Romanian journalist, drama writer and ‘stand-up scientist’.

B: You are also mother. Do you have time for cultural events during maternal leave?

R: Up to now I was “forced” to make time at least for the cultural events that I generated. I don’t go every time one of my plays is staged. But sometimes I am needed to be the sound engineer or to help in any other way. When you are an independent artist, you cannot say I’m the writer I don’t get involved. You are an active part of the team. Now, as the summer is here and the baby is older I’ve promised myself to attend other events as well. Most of the times together with the baby. I take my son with me whenever I can. Not only because I’m still breastfeeding but I want him to experience all sorts of things, not just live in a bubble.

B: Is it easy to be (to move, to breathe, to create) a mother in Bucharest?

R: In my opinion the best description of Bucharest was given by a French traveler a few centuries ago. He said: Here we are at the gates of Orient where everything is taken easy. Bucharest is an easy town after you have managed to tame the beast. In my first years in Bucharest I was terrified by how crowded and crazy and noisy it was. Now I have my own oases in the city. If you are on Bulevardul Magheru – one of the main boulevards – Bucharest is chaos in full swing. If you move in the right direction you can find the most charming and quiet places and magic little streets.

To love Bucharest you have to know Bucharest or to find the right guide. For me as a writer this convoluted city is a continuous source of inspiration. First of all I am passionate with history – and to love this city you have to understand all the layers. The fancy underwear comes from the times it was called the little Paris, the gray ugly dress was a gift from Daddy Ceausescu, and the high heels and that bling-bling – is the capitalist make up. And on top of all that you have the Oriental kitsch, the sweet smell of the Turkish shawrma (shaorma).

As a mother, that’s a completely different story – yes, Bucharest does have a few nice parks, but no sidewalks to go with the stroller on, as most of the sidewalks are occupied by illegally parked cars. So, I would say that Bucharest is not the most baby-friendly place on Earth.

B: Which Romanian cities do you like besides Bucharest?

R: I grew up in Brasov and I think this is one of the most beautiful cities in Romania. I hate the weather there, but that’s a different story. Brasov is a bit like Bratislava. It has a very Central European look and feel. So does Sibiu, which is smaller but much more exciting from cultural point of view than Brasov. They are both old German burgs, but during communism Brasov suffered a Stalin kind of mutation. Inspired by the Big Russian Brother, Ceausescu has brought here people from a much poorer part of Romania to work in the recently opened factories. And this sort of social engineering makes Brasov a lazy town culturally speaking. Fortunately it has lovely surroundings, as it’s in the middle of the mountains. Another magic place is Sighisoara, an old medieval town, it looks a bit like Prague in miniature. There are many other special places, the most exotic being the Danube Delta.

Romania: the culture.

B: Have you ever considered emigration to another country or continent (and why)?

R: I lived in three different countries for one year: Slovakia and Poland when I was younger and United States recently. And I’ve traveled a lot in the last 15 years. I think that our generation is lucky – unlike the generation of our parents. For us emigration is a strong term as we have the freedom to experience the world. I consider myself a citoyenne du monde and up to now whenever I had the mood and the opportunity I moved around.

B: What is the difference between Bucharest and Bratislava, Vienna, Budapest, London or Paris?

R: I love this question, because I love all these cities in a totally different way. London and Paris are Capitals with a big C – full of opportunities, but expensive and demanding. You have to give them your time, your ambition and your heart. They will eat them all. Plus your money. If you’re willing to give all that, you can blend in.

Bratislava, Vienna, Budapest is the Central European golden trio. Vienna and Budapest are more voluptuous and more luxurious, but they have a history of nationalism and xenophobia that is re-bursting these days. They are great places to visit – great food, great art, great sites but as an outsider is not easy to find your place there on long term. At least this is my feeling. Bratislava might not be as fancy at the first glance, but the people have the hearts big as a bus. You could be adopted in no time, with one important condition – to learn the language. Bratislava is small and easy and charming.

Bratislava and Bucharest have at least one thing in common – they are nicer when you explore them with a local than with a tourist guide in your hands. I hate tourist guides anyhow, but in Bucharest they won’t help you. The coolest places will never be on the Lonely Planet. Bucharest is to smell and taste and love. But in order to love it you have to come with an open heart.

Bucharest and its architecture.

Bucharest: the architecture.

B: I used to live in Bucharest in 2009. I can see huge difference between ‘then & now’. Can you see and also describe the improvement / movement / significant change of your (capital) city?

R: I think that in spite of the crises, Bucharest has flourished in the last few years. People took over the city in many ways, they have finally discovered the civic spirit. The most obvious sign were these year street protests against the gold exploitation in Rosia Montana (an old gold mine in Transylvania). People were out on the street for weeks in a row for a greater good that was not bigger salaries or pensions. It was nice to see 15.000 people marching on the streets of Bucharest with no political agenda, but with a civic responsibility.

I think people realize more and more that the city is theirs to play in. And you can see that lately there are many events that happen in the streets. The traffic is stopped by the authorities and the pedestrians take over. One of the major changes in terms of life style is that more and more people are using the bikes as an everyday means of transportation or just for recreation. Five years ago riding a bike in the Bucharest traffic was suicidal. Now it’s less and less so. And this can be coupled with the fact that people started to jog quite a lot. I have many friends running marathons, and this was not so a few years back. People seem to love themselves and their city more.

There are also bad things happening and one of them is the continuous destruction of old historical buildings in order to build more modern stuff. The city council not only that agrees with this type of aggression, but it sometimes generates it.

B: Are there more opportunities for street art, community work, urban spaces, open public discussion?

R: Oh, yes. In the last few years the art galleries and artistic spaces appeared like the mushrooms after the rain. 2009 was a year of major shift in mentality. Many people lost their corporate jobs or they just quit and decided to follow their dream. For many of those people the space of self realization was art. As a consequence, the city flourished with opportunities created by these people or by the ones who were already in the game. Also, some companies started to talk to these people and help them manifest themselves. I’m glad the companies understood that the target and their needs are changing.

Another thing is that people have less money than when the economy was booming, so they travel less and then, spending more time home, they feel the need to create here creative spaces, they become more aware of their own town. To make things you need help from the others, so people get together, they plan and they do stuff.

B: Can you name some of interesting activities, unique projects or places (where you would like to go if you had time & energy)?

R: Back in the summer of 2012, when I just came back from US, a colleague from work told me about this group of friends, mainly architects, who took over an old and very beautiful house that was almost destroyed. They were living there and fixing the house in the mean time. I went to meet them. I thought that this was a squat, but they told me that they talked to the owner – a member of an old aristocratic family, who recently got his house back. But he was living abroad and he didn’t have time to take care of this property. So, he decided after a while to allow the young architects to live in his house. They started to repair the house step by step and they transformed it in an underground cultural center – so it became a squat with the approval of the owner. I staged there two of my plays.

This is the story of this place – called Carol 53 – in short. But in reality there were many phases, that include public debates about housing and squatting and social architecture.

Rucsandra Pop is watching her own play.

Rucsandra Pop – watching her own play.

B: Cultural center instead of abandoned building. What a nice idea! Are there other similar stories?

R: I can say that this is a trend – people occupying public or private unused spaces. The young generation organizing all sorts of events in transitioning spaces. Many parties are happening in old palaces or historical building that are being not used for their initial purpose. For example the coolest New Year party took place in the old National Library, a huge palace downtown – that for the moment is empty.

Another project that I love and I see as representative for Bucharest these days is lorgean theater, a theater that was opened in a 32 square meters apartment. It started in 2009 as a joke of the owner of this apartment, the writer Jean Lorin Sterian who invited his friends to perform in his home and he invited both friends and strangers as audience. The project grew organically and this year in April the first domestic theater festival took place. During HomeFest over 20 dance and theater performances took place in homes around the city. Random people were excited to have the opportunity of hosting art in their living rooms.

B: What is the most important difference between your life and lives of your parents (regardless to IT or technology innovation)?

R: The difference is huge: my father for example came from an old noble family. He was born just when the war started. He was raised with some values and living standards (almost all his family spoke French on daily basis) and he spent almost all his life during the communist regime – with no food or with very bad food, with no opportunity to travel and a gray life. We were born in this gray/sad life missing almost anything and became adults in times when one can have everything. And more. Of course, our parents educated us in such a way that we are aware of the past with all its layers and we appreciate the really important things. Between the verb to be and to have, my parents always valued the verb to be. And they taught us to do the same. So, I think the major difference doesn’t lay in the amount of things we can buy, but in the fact that, unlike our parents, we have the freedom to travel and express ourselves. The freedom of not being permanently afraid. But we forget this too often. The gadgets and devices come with that freedom as well.

B: What is the biggest difficulty for people interested in art (in age between 30 & 40) in Bucharest?

R: In my view, the biggest difficulty for artists is the lack of cultural managers, producers and fundraisers. As an artist I have to do too many things on my own and I know that if I had the help of a trained and engaged person, I could grow my projects much faster. The only domain that now doesn’t have only artists but also starts to have an infrastructure is the applied arts. In the last few years there is a new generation of curators and galleries doing a pretty good work. Fashion has also grown enormously in the last years. More and more top stars – like Madonna, Beyonce and Jenifer Lopez are wearing clothes made by Romanian designers like Maria Lucia Hohan and Andreea Badala. But in the field of performing arts everything is still chaotic. We still lack specialists. I don’t say that we’re missing money, because I know that the money is out there you just have to have the time to apply, ask or beg for them. For me the human resource is still a problem. I am at a level where I know that if I want to do more with my theater productions I need a manager. And I cannot find this manager yet. And I kind of know everybody who knows everybody in this city.

My analysis refers more, of course to the independent scene. What happens at the political level is a joke. In the last few months we had 3 or even 4 Ministers of Culture – all politically appointed and all of them missing the point. There is a great scene that the politicians do not understand. The biggest disaster was the demolition of Romanian Cultural Institute – an institution that for some ten years was representing very well Romania abroad and which was destroyed for political reasons.

Bucharest: the reconstruction.

B: What should have been done better in this city (tourism, infrastructure, local politics, community life)?

R: As for what should have been done better in this city – this is a question with a ten pages answer. But to cut it shortly I think the most important thing is to have an active and powerful civil society that would impose on politicians their idea of what the city should be. A city should be designed according to the needs and dreams of its inhabitants, not according to some political agenda. When the bucharestoise will understand that only their love can shape the city, Bucharest will be a better place. Until then we will keep accusing the politicians, that they take the wrong decisions, or we will blame each other that we’re parking illegally and throwing trash on the streets.

B: Do you love Bucharest overall (why)?

R: Even though I grew up in Brasov, I was born in Bucharest and my family has been here for a couple of centuries. This city is in my blood. I’ve also lived abroad and when traveling and living someplace else you get perspective and get rid of the local complexes. Bucharest is not the heaven on earth but it has many features that make it a nice city to live in. For example, one thing that Romanians don’t appreciate is that the crime rate is very low in Bucharest compared with other big cities. It’s also a very effervescent city – some call it the new Berlin – and I partially agree with this. There are many thing lacking but this gives you, the citizen, the freedom to invent them, to experiment. You just need lots of energy to fight or avoid the system that is not going to help you. So, the answer is: yes, I love it, for its hidden poetry. But sometime this love turns in a love-hate relationship. As Facebook would put it: it’s complicated.

Prepared by: Boba Baluchova; Photo: Palo Markovic & Rucsandra Pop (archive)


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