We wanted to expose how Romanians are the main nationality of male prostitutes in Rome… and we did not do it
A taxi driver told us where to find boys. He wasn’t an average taxi driver. He ran an NGO helping women convicts find jobs after they left jail. Also he was an anarchist. And a former soldier who was incarcerated in a military prison after pouring a pan of spaghetti over his senior officer.
Now in his fifties, he knew the streets of Rome. He had socialised with murderers and generals. The high and low life of the eternal city. So he was the perfect man to pinpoint exactly where we could see men soliciting boys for sex.
"It's the opposite of women," he said. "The client hangs out and waits for the boys to arrive."
We knew from talking to charities, experts in prostitution and east European ex-pats that young Romanian men were the number one nationality of male vice in Rome.
This was not a sleazy part of the Italian capital. If such sleaze even exists. Here were the austere steps of Piazzale Simon Bolivar. At its summit was a brass equestrian statue of the Venezuelan freedom fighter. Nearby were the grand chambers of the Museum of Modern Art.
At the corner of a stone wall, halfway up the steps, and sheltered by an overhanging tree, stood a short 35 year-old man in sunglasses and an upturned collar. Next to him was a bike.
As we moved close to him, he crouched down with a bicycle pump in his hand, ready to inflate his tyres.
We walked into a small grove of cedars and stone pines. Here was a brass bust of Chilean independence leader Bernardo O’Higgins, taking a less prominent position than his Venezuelan counterpart. In the bushes was a blue one-man tent. It was occupied.
Opposite Bernardo O’Higgins was a broken blue chair. Scattered on the ground were empty packets of Durex condoms, Camel cigarette butts and Lube, trampled into the mud, branches and pine needles.
I took a photo with my phone.
It was a bad photo.
It even had my feet in it.
This is where Italian men have sex with Romanian boys - thought to be over the age of 16. The men wait near to the entrance of the grove. Usually older men, as younger men don't need to pay for sex. They stand like lost tourists waiting for a guide, the boys come up to them, they negotiate an amount, and go into the bushes.
But right now there was only one man with a bike. We walked past him on our way out of the grove, and he was still crouching down, with the pump in his hand.
I don’t think he was inflating his tyres.
He looked at us, through his sunglasses.
He seemed to be worried (although we could not be sure - because he had on sunglasses).
Perhaps he was thinking ‘you know that I am not really inflating these tyres. But I am going to keep on pretending that I am, so that you won’t think I am waiting for some Romanian boys.’
But there were no boys.
We needed a new strategy. We went to the outdoor Caffè della Arti, part of the National Museum of Modern Art, and ordered some coffee and water. It was a hot day. Refreshment was essential. But these drinks were expensive.
Then we took turns to walk around the area, seeing if we could find old Italian men or Romanian boys.
I carried a bulky camera and stood behind stone walls trying to take pictures in secret with a long lens. But my lens was not long enough. And there was nothing for me to photograph.
Then I spied a 60 year-old thin man in cap and shades and shorts, slightly sunburnt and looking around at the edge of wall with a small bum bag around his shoulder.
I went back to the cafe, and then my colleague took over the watch.
After ten minutes we realised that it looked as though the only people wandering around looking to procure young Romanian boys were us.
Half an hour later, we saw someone we suspected could be a prostitute. A young man, between 18 and 25, with slightly dark skin, short hair at the sides and a small beard.
We took a picture with a phone.
It was terrible.
He started talking to the old guy.
The conversation seemed to be neutral, but cordial.
Then the younger man walked into the bushes with his telephone, came back, and showed the older guy something on his screen.
What did this picture show?
We were too far away to see.
Then the 'client' left. And the young man in shorts walked in and out of the bushes, seemingly on the hunt for someone else. Did we talk to him? We were staking him out. So we didn’t talk to him. Which was stupid. Did we talk to the old man? No. But we didn’t speak Italian.
We stayed in the cafe for a long time. The waitress kept asking if we wanted anything else. And we did that thing where you order the cheapest item on the menu. Which was a small water.
Then she bought us the bill - which we hadn't ask for.
I think she hated us.
Did we hang around to see if more Romanian boys were arriving. Yes, but we were walking around with big cameras - or trying to take pictures craftily with our phones. Either the people looking for boys saw us, and became scared, or they were not there.
It wasn’t happening.
So we walked back to the grove, which was empty. Someone was coming out of the blue tent.
Who could it be?
It was a tramp with a muddy face and torn clothes.
We looked to the other side of the street. Opposite where Italians have sex with men in bushes.
The building that was standing there.
The Italian branch of the Romanian Academy. Inspired by the Académie Française, this is an institution that aims to “gather the preeminent personalities of Romania’s intellectual life” to build progress in science and art through reflection and action.
I took a picture of the gated classical mansion with its mission statement sculpted in Latin.
And we remained without a story, standing next to a broken chair, on a carpet of cigarette ends, used condoms and muddy jars of empty lube.
They are against the EU, the ‘Islamisation’ of Europe and open borders. They don’t like to be called extremists. They want to be called radicals. They can command up to a third of the votes in their countries.
Last weekend they came to one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe - Romania.
Who are they and what did they say?
Sinaia. Mountain resort and seat of the Romanian royal palace. In a packed conference hall of the lush 1912 casino, a cheering crowd watches dazzled in the dark as a giant screen flashes a countdown from ten to zero. A soundtrack of classical strings and electric guitars blasts out. The besuited crowd stands and claps in a staging resembling a product launch for a new home appliance.
Then Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right National Front, appears to give the keynote speech.
Nemesis of the European Union establishment, Le Pen is against NATO, against the EU and against the International Monetary Fund - the three international institutions arguably critical in securing Romania’s stability over the last 15 years.
Her presence seems out of place in a country where an ex-European Commissioner is now Prime Minister, an ethnic German is President and the country’s Anti-Corruption Department has locked up hundreds of the nation’s elite for bribery and fraud. Superficially, the country is a symbol of European Union values in action: transparency, technocracy and multiculturalism.
So what message can Le Pen and her nationalist colleagues in Europe’s Eurosceptic political family have for Romania?
In 2013, Marine Le Pen’s father Jean Marie, the former leader of the National Front, was fined 5,000 Euro by a Paris Court for implying Romanians were “naturally” inclined to steal.
But his daughter’s first words to a Romanian audience in Sinaia are admiration for a figure she calls one of the world’s greatest poets - late 19th century Romantic Mihai Eminescu - a Romanian.
She adds that “we know very well that not all Romanians or Roma are criminals” - not exactly an unqualified message of support for her hosts.
Members of her political movement in the European Parliament - the Europe of Nations and Liberty - have attacked Romanians in the past, but the group’s delegates here see a potential ally in the fight against the ‘Islamisation’ of Europe - and they are oozing charm.
Geert Wilders, the firebrand president of the anti-EU Dutch Freedom Party, suggested in 2009 that Romania and Bulgaria should be chucked out of the EU, but his party’s representative at this conference, Markus De Graaff states: “We would love to do trade with Romania and let our economies grow together - for Bucharest [to be] a beautiful and prosperous city - as the Paris of the East again.”
This receives cheers from the locals.
The movement is selling a vision where countries can freely trade with one another inside Europe, but each can decide its own economic path. The ideal is that independence means cash.
De Graaff adds: “We want to be in charge of our own country again - more freedom and prosperity - our Europe - a Europe of nations.”
His final words to the audience are in Romanian. They are taken from the national anthem.
“Viața-n libertate ori moarte!”
Life in liberty or death!
Founder of the Czech Republic’s Movement of Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) Tomio Okamura is a soft-spoken self-made entrepreneur with a dazzling back-story.
From a Czech mother and a Japanese-Korean father, he is a former dustman, ex-popcorn seller, and a judge on the Czech version of reality TV show Dragon’s Den, where experts interrogate members of the public about their business ideas - then finance their dreams, or crush them. The 43 year-old has also written a book on Japanese cooking.
These are excerpts from his speech at the conference in Sinaia:
“We are at war. More and more [terrorist] attacks are being planned. Islamic radicals are being dispersed throughout the world and they begin to implement the next stage of the Islamic vision… The objective to conquer Europe remains… Muslim communities are a crucial security risk. It is important to create conditions where radical Muslims leave the country… Islam is incompatible with freedom and democracy and the European concept of human rights. The European Commission should analyze the Islamic ideology defining the points in which Islam is incompatible with European law and identify Islam as an anti-democratic and aggressive ideology.”
Another speaker, 59 year-old Johannes Huebner of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), adds that: “we have an invasion from the Islamic world - but also [from] the black African world - where 450 million people are waiting to migrate to Europe.”
Meanwhile his Dutch colleague Markus De Graaff states that, while recent refugees from crises in North Africa and the Middle East have gone to well-organised shelters, those others coming via illegal means to Europe are 'fortune seekers and Jihadists':“The first group drain our financial resources, driving up taxes and public expenditures and unemployment…the second group are Jihadists - the frontline of Islamic warriors. Their goal is to conquer Europe for Islam… and the first group support the second.”
As a caveat, Huebner - like many others in the conference - stresses that he is not against these people. “I can understand it,” he says. “If I was born in a slum in Freetown or Lagos or Kinshasa - I would love to come to Austria or Germany or Sweden or Bucharest or Sinaia - it is a good place.”
The message is that Muslims should stay in their own countries, Europe should end the Schengen space of free movement and each country should secure its own borders - and not let any more Muslims through.
On this issue, Marine Le Pen is careful. She has stated she is not against races, but against criminals and not anti-Islam, but against the Islamisation of Europe. She indirectly targets Islamic culture. For example, she calls the possibility of Turkey entering the EU “a disaster” and says Turkey’s attitude to Daesh (ISIS) is “more than suspect”.
At the conference she does not accuse anyone in the EU of allowing the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, but instead states “EU ideology played a criminal role”.
Europe’s far right has been energized by this month’s rejection in the Netherlands in a referendum on whether to allow the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement.
This was seen as a victory for the country’s Eurosceptic and anti-Muslim Freedom Party, which opposed the deal - and a setback for Brussels.
In June, Britain will vote on whether to leave or remain in the EU. A negative vote for Brussels could trigger a collapse of the European Union project.
Le Pen confirms that her group wants referendums in each state on whether to stick with the EU.
“I hope the French will not wait too long for a similar opportunity,” she says.
The talk is now of the Netherlands pushing for a referendum - a so-called Nexit, which could be followed by Denmark (Dexit) or Sweden (Swexit) - a pattern which becomes harder to maintain when the neologisms turn to countries beginning with a vowel - such as Italy and Austria.
Even if Brexit does not happen, the media attention this will bring will inspire other far right groups to push for such a plebiscite in their own countries.
But democracy is not a science. Sometimes voters simply cast a vote to reject a decision - regardless of its content - due to their own disaffection towards their own situation in life.
Whatever the public’s motivation, ‘referendums’ are a brilliant weapon for these parties, as they come with the justification of being the result of the will of the people. And the delegates here make this point again and again.
Le Pen wants European nations to “take the destiny in their own hands and have a collaboration between Europeans”. She calls the European Union an “excellent failure that destroys hope and development”, and that its elite believes "treaties are more important than people".
Romania has over two million people working in the EU, is now seeing growth of 3.6 per cent, primarily due to trade and investment from the bloc, and its people still overwhelmingly support the EU and NATO. But Le Pen's message is: this is not enough.
“Romania is a big country with a high potential and deserves more,” she says.
She compares the EU to the USSR. The intention here is to convince Romania that they have moved from being at the mercy of one superstate only to find themselves under the influence of another.
This view is backed by Janice Atkinson, a former-Conservative and UK Independence Party (UKIP) politician, who sends a message to the crowd arguing: “Romania has not shaken off the shackles of communism only to have them reimposed by the EU.” This is greeted by cheering.
But Atkinson’s own past includes targeting of Romanians for political gain. As a UKIP spokesperson, she sent out a press release in 2014 to constituents stating that "Ninety per cent of ATM [cash machine] crime is committed by Romanian gangs and drug and gun crime is mainly run by Eastern Europeans.”
This event is organised by 40 year-old Romanian MEP Laurentiu Rebega, a former member of the Conservative Party - a tiny political movement which uses its media influence to form coalitions with larger parties to get its members into powerful positions.
A former agricultural consultant and ex-vicepresident of the country council of Prahova, Rebega is now VP of the Europe of Nations and Freedom.
In a stirring speech, he reiterates the message - seemingly directed at the media - that: “We are not extremists… we are not the ones who plant bombs. They are not due to Laurentiu Rebega or Marine Le Pen.”
Although his main argument seems to be ‘don’t call us extremist because we are not killing anyone’ he sends out a warning - that if forces in Europe try to eliminate his group, this will create a path for real right-wing extremists who will not respect the rule of law.
Instead he argues that his fellow members are ‘radicals’.
Rebega has the impassioned diction, clear message and a few rhetorical flourishes - repetition, brevity, the constant switch between fear and hope - that are the oratorial arsenal of Le Pen herself. The French politician seems to have faith in him as an ambassador of the nationalist cause to the Romanian people. But right now he seems to be a one-man army.
The right in Romania is divided. There are many new parties with a mix of Christian, Anti-Islamic, Nationalistic, and anti-EU messages. Some overtly invoke the symbols and ideology of Romania’s 1930s Fascist party the Legionnaires, others just seize its platform with the usual carefree attitude the country’s elite has towards plagiarism.
Recently members of the country’s larger parties have adopted elements of far-right rhetoric in their own speeches, especially against Muslims. Senior politicians and intellectuals have warned that Syrian refugees and their ‘Islamic’ culture will threaten the Orthodox Christian values of Romania.
The Romanian organiser of this event - MEP Laurentiu Rebega - is an independent backed up by only a small political movement. The audience at the conference is not swarmed with admirers. They include a few Le Pen groupies, a couple who have come back to Romania from Canada because there “were too many Muslims there”, ex-soldiers and some kids who seem to be from the local high school. Their loyalty to the cause is not too evident.
Outside the casino, when Marine Le Pen drives up in a mini motorcade, there are a hundred people - carrying just as many Romanian flags - who have been choreographed to form a crescent to welcome her.
One teenager, his head shaved on both sides, is brandishing the flag of ‘Europe of the Nations’ - a blue eagle on a white background, but he is also wearing a sweatshirt with the word ‘CRMINAL!’
As the French MEP exits her car, there are a few shouts of “Marine! Marine!”
But only about four or five.
She is not mobbed.
This is not The Beatles at Shea Stadium.
When I was interviewing a European Ambassador to Romania in his Embassy many years ago, he led me to a corner of his office, and said: “And now I would like to show you my awards.”
On a table were dozens of framed diplomas, winged plastic statues, and thick brass medals, which he had received since heading up the mission.
But he was not bragging about his achievements. Instead - he was confused.
“I don’t understand,” he told me. “I can’t go anywhere in Romania, without someone giving me an award.”
During this event, Le Pen becomes the target of this national trait.
At the climax, Romanian General Mircea Chelaru - who was last year condemned to a suspended sentence on corruption charges - and local academic Dr Victor Craciun present to Marine Le Pen a Doctorate Honoris Causa, the medal of Eminescu-Iorga, along with another award, and a plastic Romanian flag adorned with a Dacian wolf. The 80 year-old Craciun even cheekily plants a kiss on Le Pen’s face.
Although she is clearly overloaded, she doesn’t put any of the awards down - perhaps fearful she will offend someone. Then she drops a case on the floor and a medal skips across the stage.
I feel sorry for her.
“I am not a victim,” says communication specialist Monica from Bucharest, “but a person was has survived and can have a normal and healthy life.”
Interview by Michael Bird. Image by Andrei Cotrut
Smart, confident and speaking in perfect English, 34-year old Monica talks about her background and achievements.
She couches information in amusing and profound anecdotes - locking in on eye contact, seeking a route to empathy.
It feels as though she is outlining her experiences for a job interview for her profession as a communication specialist.
Instead she is recounting how she has lived with HIV and the medication to suppress the virus for 14 years.
“I was 19," she says. "Glands were swollen in the back of my neck. It was like two little horns raised up on the skin. My mother and father took me to the doctor, who told me ‘You might have love bites’.”
“I took some more tests in hospital. The specialists suspected I had lymphoma cancer. Then I found out I was HIV positive.
“I don’t know how I contracted disease - probably from sex. When I was 18, it was an experimental year. I had left school and taken time out to pass the exams for the University. I was clubbing and had one night stands and boyfriends for no longer than three months. I knew nothing about their background. I did not ask.
"I never thought that HIV could be that close to me. At that time, I knew about HIV only from movies.
“Who gave me the disease? I could not say it was this guy or that guy. I had an idea, but I never wanted to know. I am not sure why.
“When I found out, I had a reaction I could not explain to myself. I was laughing. I was OK with it.
“It’s really crazy.”
She bows her head and lets out a laugh. “For me then, I think I just wanted to get sick.
“From that time, I remember little - only images of my mother and father, together we were watching comedies on TV and someone mentioned HIV and I started to cry. I do not remember my state of mind. I wanted to forget and I forgot."
"You know who your friends are"
“My friends were shocked, but appreciated my honesty. I wanted to tell them - this is not defining me: I am not HIV. I am the same person. I found out who were my friends and who were not. That was the best thing that happened to me.”
At University, Monica enrolled in journalism and philosophy.
“Before I memorized the words in books on philosophy, but did not understand what they meant. After my experience with HIV, I realized that philosophy could help. It made me step forward. I liked Descartes. The idea of the duality. That there are good parts and bad parts to a person - and you cannot separate them. We are the whole. This explained my attitude, my thinking and my beliefs.”
After University, Monica worked in a company importing construction materials to Romania, rising from a secretary to human resources director.
“While working there, I had trouble sleeping. My medication for the virus, which I took in the evenings, caused me insomnia and I never came to work at nine o’clock. This was unacceptable for my manager.
“At the end I had a misunderstanding with the boss over money. I was kept on a salary that was too low and the executive director told me if I wanted more, I could find another job.
“Before I left, I told him:
‘You want to know why I didn’t come into work on time? I have HIV.’
“He sat back in his chair, open-mouthed, saying:
‘Really? That was why you were late?’
"I left him like that. I didn’t care any more.”
She then took on a job in communications in an EU-funded project training Roma mediators between communities and public authorities.
“I was ignorant. I had an attitude that discriminated against the Roma, such as assuming someone is a bad guy because they are a Roma - or calling someone a gypsy. I started to question myself. Is this my attitude or one I have taken from my friends and my parents? This is not someone I want to be. But it was the same with understanding people’s prejudices against my HIV.
“My life changed completely and I became a communications specialist, implementing campaigns and organizing events. I was open with everyone about my virus. They could not believe it. But their reaction was ‘OK - you did not choose this thing, so why should you be blamed?’”
Monica soon staked out a career in projects for the Ministry of Education, teacher training and working for international companies.
"I had to defend my dignity"
“In one job at an Austrian branch of a consulting firm, I told my boss I was HIV positive. She called the doctor of the firm who told her it would not affect my work or my colleagues, and that I can do the job. But still my boss wanted me out of the office. Even though she had no real reason, she fired me.
"I started a lawsuit. The way she fired me was abusive. Her lawyer tried to find errors in my work - a reason to sack me. They even called my other employers to inquire about my work. The lasted more than four months. But this did not go further because we reached a financial settlement.
“I had the power to go through all this and do something to defend my dignity. The best part of this experience is that afterwards, I started to work on the same projects I was working on in the company, but this time in the beneficiary’s team and in a management role.
“That’s my life. Bad things happen to me for being open about my status, but the reward is much more than I could ever think about."
"For some boyfriends it was hard to accept, for others not"
“It was not difficult with boyfriends. I was open all the time and they knew from the start. For some it was hard to accept, for others it wasn’t so hard. They had to go through an entire process in which they analyze their feelings against stereotypes versus new information about the virus.
"They accepted me. I was fortunate. Now I am in the process of divorcing, because of problems in relationships - as anyone else can have - not because of my HIV status.
“With one boyfriend, the condom broke and I became pregnant. Because of the medicine at that time, I could not go full-term. The baby died at two months and the doctor had to induce the fetus.
"I was at risk of having an infection and I was referred to a gynecologist in a private hospital. But the doctor did not have time for me until a week later. Then she made me wait four hours in her reception room. After that she said she could not operate on me because: ‘we do not have instruments for people like you’.
“‘What can I do now?’ I thought. Someone has to help me. I am paying for this. I started to cry. I went home. Eventually I went to Giulesti Maternity Hospital in Bucharest.
“All the nurses knew some girl was coming who was HIV positive. Each one looking around the door and then talking with one another, saying - ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s her, that’s the girl’.
‘Why do you have to be like this?’ I thought. ‘Am I not a person in need?’
Monica has now taken a new type of medication, which allows her to become pregnant.
“I still want children,” she says. “The chances of the child having HIV are close to zero, as long as I do not breast-feed. I have the right medication to have a pregnancy - but I am divorcing now, so I will postpone this.”
"I do not have regrets"
Monica's plan is to become more involved in drug education, to communicate to clubbers the dangers of new drugs made from synthetic stimulants.
“Why do I want to do this? Because drugs really helped me. I needed to talk about my problems. After I knew about my HIV, I started taking MDMA and smoking weed. I was freely talking about my HIV with everyone who asked me about the virus. I wanted them to know what happened to me and share more information about the virus and tell them that it was here next to them. It helped me come to terms with the issue.
"There are positive aspects to pure drugs. But not taking them forever. Not taking them every day.”
Monica says the virus has allowed her to educate her friends and her colleagues how it is possible to forge a satisfying career despite her status.
“I don’t have any regrets about this. If this didn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t be the human that I am right now. I would be doing something that I would not like. I would never be involved in NGOs.
"For sure I would be more ignorant than I am. It changed my life, but in a better way. I have not been a victim of this.”
Read our other stories:
Russia and the EU act towards Moldova like two fat men fighting over an after-dinner mint
Chisinau is dark.
In the subterranean walkways, lights are scarce, burnt out, flashing or dim.
People walk in darkness. There are few lamps on the street.
In the playgrounds in the evening, children sway on the swings and climb on plastic castles. They can’t see each other. Parents sitting on nearby benches can’t see them, only hear their laughing and screaming.
By the main square, people wait at the edge of the street for Mercedes minibuses to take them home.
But you can’t make out the number on the vehicle until it is a meter from your face - too late to hail it down.
Whenever you see the shape of a minibus emerging from the shadows, you reach out your arm. They all stop for you. Even if they don’t want to. Even if they don’t take you where you want to go.
When you board a bus, inside it is packed with bodies. All the seats are occupied and there are as many people standing as it is possible for the bus to hold.
They are crushed against the windows. Their heads bent under the ceiling. If you stand, you cannot see where you are supposed to get out. You can only guess at the road - and when you arch your face, wipe the steam from the glass and finally manage to see outside, it is too dark on the street to be sure of the location.
“Where are we?” you ask the people in the bus, “and where are we going?”
I don’t know why there is so much dark.
Maybe the city believes there are not enough people willing to go out at night to merit lighting up the city. Maybe there is no money for electricity.
But it discourages meetings in the late hours. It inhibits communication. It makes people afraid of footsteps behind them. Builds suspicion where there is no threat. It creates borders where none should exist.
Chisinau is a city where you hear Russian in one bar, Romanian in the next, both on the street and you can speak in both languages - even mix them up - and people understand.
In the towns to the west, they speak more Romanian and to the north, more Russian. Communism's policy of 'the Soviet churn' of moving races from one part of the Union to another created a rich but confused identity at its western border.
Now it has ambitious people with a vision too narrow for the country. Those I stayed with in Chisinau (who spoke Russian, Romanian and French) spend their evenings learning English and German by Skype. There is a desire to transcend Moldova, whatever that may be.
Almost half the workforce is abroad, on construction sites in Moscow, cleaning hotels in Milan, in nursing homes in Lyon, leaving a state of pensioners and kindergartens.
This is a nation in transit. Unsure of what it is, but aware of what it is not. It’s not Romania. It’s not Ukraine. It’s not Russia. Moldova has not yet fully become Moldova.
Torn, yes, but peaceful for now. Although there is pressure from larger states nearby.
Romanian politicians talk up the idea of a union with Moldova.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta, in his bid to be President this year, has a ‘five-year plan’ for Moldova to be part of Romania within the EU.
Meanwhile President Traian Basescu and centre-right candidates for head of state Monica Macovei and Klaus Iohannis also casually employ unionist rhetoric.
But what does Moldova say about that? Only ten per cent want a union with their western neighbour.
This willingness to redraw the map of Europe raises the hopes of people who wish for Moldova to be part of Romania. But it is not realistic.
Some politicians in Romania who I have spoken to, who publicly endorse a union, say privately “I don’t mean it”.
They use this language because the ideal of a greater Romania wins votes from locals and Moldovans with Romanian passports.
Plus it has the added benefit of pissing off Russia - a game Romania has enjoyed ever since its entry into NATO.
But when Romania toys, Moldova trembles.
Russia does the same. It wants Moldova to join its customs’ union - an open market rival to the EU. Posters in Chisinau from the Socialist Party, ahead of the elections next month, advertise the benefits of the union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
At the same time, Russia enforces an embargo on the sale of Moldovan wine in Russia. Moscow is sending hundreds of ex-pat migrants back to their home country. In a nation of four million people, where 100,000s work in Russia, this wounds the economy and job prospects of the people.
Russia offers one hand out to greet Moldova and, with the other, it punches Moldova in the face.
Moldova is being wooed and fooled by both the east and the west. But there is no long-term plan. They don't know what to do with the country.
To them, the Republic is important, but not that important. This is not Ukraine. This is not Poland. Moldova is disposable, but also significant. From a geopolitical point of view, the empires of Russia and the EU act towards Moldova like two fat men fighting over an after-dinner mint.
Meanwhile Moldova’s political class is equally deceptive. The politicians boast of their connection to western Europe, but the businessmen who back the politicians have financial links with Russia.
Their heart turns to Brussels, their wallet to Moscow.
But on the ground, there are bonuses to this.
From the people I spoke to, a major difference is that this year they have gained the right to travel visa-free through the Schengen space of the European Union, which they can add to their access to former states of the USSR, as well as Turkey and the Balkans.
Suddenly the poorest nation in Europe has the people with the greatest freedom of movement.
An evening in September. There are thousands of people out on the streets. In the distance in the town square is a stage flashing with red and white lights.
Chanteuse Sofia Rotaru is singing with Romanian lyrics, but when she ends a song, she shouts ‘Spasiba’ to the crowd.
The Cernauti-born 70s pop star is now in her sixties, but still packs a crowd when she gives a free concert, this time sponsored by Renato Usati, a businessman turned political opportunist, looking to advance in November's Parliamentary election.
Crowds have brought their children to see Sofia.
But the sound is distorted. She needs to shout to be heard. The stage is no more than a blurry figure surrounded by bright colours.
The audience is standing, watching, unmoved, not lip-synching to the songs or clapping their hands. No one is eating or drinking. No one seems to care. They are here because there is something going on and that something is free.
Two three-year old kids are chasing an empty plastic bottle down the street, moving between the legs of the audience, tripping up, falling down, getting up, grabbing the bottle again, throwing it, all the time laughing and shrieking with joy.
The children don't want to see Sofia.
They only want to watch a plastic bottle skipping down a pavement.
The crowd nearby turn away from the stage and watch the kids, with sympathy and envy.
Twice-elected mayor of a Romanian sea resort and ex-prison detainee Nicolae Matei shows off his private zoo
The mayor of the Black Sea town of Navodari, Nicolae Matei, sips a Turkish coffee in a pavilion, a few steps from his large detached villa in the town center.
A short and stocky man of 46, he arches his eyebrows, giving him the suspicious look of a public official who rules over 37,000 people, but is risking prison in a corruption trial.
Suddenly his smile is broad. His arms are open. With a slow move, he turns to his left, beckoning towards something in the distance.
"Llama!" he shouts. “Come to Daddy!”
Nothing stirs inside the enclosure. A llama chews some hay without responding to the twice-elected leader of the local community.
Around the beast’s legs, goats stir and chickens peck. From another cage, I hear baboons, macaques and creatures of an indefinable race.
"It's like in the jungle," says Matei.
A few years ago, the mayor traveled to a South African nature reserve, an event which inspired him to replicate the experience in his home town.
He started to build this zoo in 2009. But at that point he only housed squirrels.
Now, cages packed with tens of different species surround his house, as though a Biblical Ark has crashed onto a Romanian seaside resort.
The mayor intends to build a huge safari park over a few dozens hectares.
“It should have green areas, water and viaducts, as I've seen in other countries,” he says. “All the tourists who come to the seaside would spend a day visiting this park."
The mayor is also a businessman who owns a chicken farm. He imports the animals through his company and many of the carnivores feed on the meat he processes.
As the mayor takes me on a tour of the cages, he carries a large bowl full of fruit and bread. The animals capture his attention. I cannot interrupt him as he feeds them. The macaques prefer blueberries and grapes, while the mayor leaves an orange inside the fence for a baboon.
Matei feeds a three-week old baby deer with two bottles of milk, which the deer finishes off in a couple of minutes. It is a delicate creature, but Matei says she has powerful instincts.
"I used to leave her in the yard,” he says. “You should have seen the dogs running after her. They couldn’t catch her.”
In a cage under a roof hides a kangaroo. Right now he is not hungry.
The piece de resistance of the enclosure are the lions. Both the male and the female are in the mating period, so it is not the best time to bother them.
The male lion walks near the fence, his head dipped, posing a silent threat.
Matei says that he feeds them with only boiled meat, to reduce their aggressive instincts.
But when the male roars, you can hear the anger in his voice echoing between the blocks and along the boulevards of the town.
This is not the only place where one can find lions in Navodari. The industrial resort is packed with bronze and stone statues of the regal feline, emerging between communist blocks or guarding public institutions. I counted at least a dozen in the most visible places.
There is a reason. Matei is born under the sign of Leo. For him, the lion is a symbol of power.
In November 2012, Matei was arrested on corruption charges. He allegedly tried to bribe a police officer, in order to obtain his support in criminal cases under investigation by the cops in the nearby city of Constanta.
A few days after his arrest, around 1,000 residents of Navodari protested in the central square to petition for his release. He spent five months in detention, but his trial continues.
Nothing in this town seems to move without his approval. Every decision that takes place in the town hall is passed unanimously by the council. When Matei was in prison, vice-mayor Florin Chelaru consulted with him twice a week on local policy.
In the documents related to the case, one of the discussions intercepted by Romania’s graft-busting National Anticorruption Department (DNA) reveals how Matei styles himself as ‘The Emperor in Navodari’.
It seems every king needs a jungle.
Our 80-day journey has come to an end. We travelled 13.000 kilometres, crossed 11 countries (including the separatist republics) and written 53 posts. Our blog will be taking a break now.
We’ll be back with materials from Romania and Bulgaria in autumn when Ioana Hodoiu will take my place as I am heading off on a scholarship. We’ll also write some press materials and we’ll correct the mistakes which had seeped into the on-line journal because of my hurry and ignorance.
The comments section was full of flaming opinions regarding the hacking of the Romanian language, triggered by the names of Caucasian towns. It’s funny to see so much surety and passion in those foreign to the region. The correct spelling of a town’s name is highly disputed even by the locals themselves. Only for Sukhumi there are 30 variations in spelling, each similar to a political statement recognizing an interpretation of the town’s history. My objective wasn’t to write a diploma paper on changes in town names, so I decided to transliterate from Russian one of the ways the name is written on the entry plates into town or to use the name on the English map. As regards comments about words ‘which do not exist in Romanian’, I can only say that, fortunately, the Romanian tongue is very dynamic – otherwise, I would have had to express myself via countless combinations of cheese, cabbage, badger and colt.
As I have met many journalists in the region, we will try to write several materials together which will be published either here or on the CRJI site.
We managed to travel through the countries around the Black Sea without our car being stolen, without falling prey to rakets or without being bamboozled – as we had been warned so often during our trip. However, the most important thing is that not once did we pay anything to the road police, the customs officers or the border guards (except in Transnistria where, out of 10 verifications in a day and a half, we gave in to one and paid a 20-dollar ticket for a fabrication).
After returning home, people kept asking me about differences and similarities with Romania. Regarding major differences, at least on the bank of the Black Sea, nowhere else have I found that mixed atmosphere of swindle, disgust, repugnance and arrogance that crawls up on me every time I make the mistake of visiting the Romanian seaside.
Another major difference is that, except for Romania and Bulgaria, every country is basically an open wound, bearing the deep marks of recent armed conflicts. Even Turkey in relation to the issue of the Kurds. Colleagues my age studied in improvised schools, in bunkers and have lost friends and family in such conflicts; their parents and grandparents were arrested, deported or executed. The region is similar to the Balkans’ situation of the ‘90s, but at a much larger scale and with conflicts spanning over the past hundred years, with abuses and events of an unthinkable cruelty. The international community has had absolutely no firm reaction whatsoever, much less an efficient strategy to mend things.
An important similarity would be the general virulent tone against primitive politicians. The simple folks I talked to, no matter their country or religion, expressed their utter disgust against their own politicians and the belief that foreigners see them as barbaric only because of the latter’s politicians and leaders. Moreover, interethnic conflicts that break out on and off are caused, first and foremost, by mystifications and manipulations for political purposes. Dictatorship, ultra-nationalism and religious zealotry have done the most harm.
None of these countries needs a redeeming leader. An excellent infrastructure, no visas and a free media are the only tools necessary for things to improve instantly.