A Volunteer's life in Romania

    Looking for Ben Franklin in Timisoara
    by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  )

    ONE BLUSTERY DAY in November 1989, Dorel Jurcovan stood in line several hours for a half a kilogram of meat — just over one pound — his family’s ration for a whole month. Ration lines were a way of life in Communist Romania. Waiting, more waiting, for 5 eggs, less than an ounce of butter and a half-gallon of milk.
         Night fell in Timisoara, and still he had no meat, so he began to ask about the slaughterhouse and delivery truck — how could they be sure meat would arrive? Other people around him suddenly were nervous and moved away. One man uttered, “It doesn’t matter. Look, I want to go home from here,” meaning the alternative was to be hauled off to jail for challenging authority. Dorel eventually received a piece of meat the size of his forearm, but most of it was bone and fat.
         “I was so furious when I got home,” he recalls. “I just shouted — not at my wife or daughter — but shouted, ‘If we can’t ask a simple question, we are just doomed. Our lives have no meaning.’”
         So a month later, when anti-Communist protests erupted in Timisoara’s streets and main plaza, Dorel was right in the middle, even circulating his secret writings to Western journalists covering the drama. Fueled by TV reports from nearby Yugoslavia that the Berlin Wall had come down and change was engulfing the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, the December 1989 Revolution rumbled across Romania and into Bucharest, leading to the toppling of the government and the Christmas Day executions of evil dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his equally hated wife, Elena. Dozens of students died in the melee, martyrs for freedom, though many believe a simultaneous coup d’etat engineered by Romania’s Securitate, KGB-like secret police, actually toppled Ceausescu. Nonetheless, Communism was dead in Romania.
         Today, Dorel is a successful, 57-year-old businessman and an inspiring, yet unassuming figure. Another Peace Corps Volunteer and I met him recently — he’d asked us to come to his restaurant and talk business. His story was so amazing that I went back another night to have him tell me more. After six months here as an economic development Volunteer, I can tell you that this country needs more people like him.
         A nuclear physicist by training, he spent many years working for the Romanian state’s Research Institute, specializing in semiconductors and machine circuitry.
         “Before the Revolution, I had no idea about starting a business,” he says. “I had zero knowledge of accounting, economics or marketing. I didn’t even know my salary. My wife took care of the finances. I was just so focused on my job, the technical aspects of it. But I eventually realized that I could be my own master. Economics is like a game of chess. There are rules but you just have to have common sense.”
         Fortunately for him, his writings surfaced after the Revolution and he received letters from around the world, including one from Norway in 1990 inviting him to an economics symposium. He and his wife, Luita, daringly packed up their old car with food and clothes and headed northwest with just enough money to buy gasoline. They encountered the kindness of strangers along the way, as well as the excitement of crossing the border for the first time and seeing new countries.
         “When we got there, it was paradise for me. It was incredibly beautiful. These people seemed so rich, their houses so big, but they were nice to us. For the first time, we were treated like human beings, like normal people. I made great connections, new ideas. It was so exciting for me. Everyday was something new, like I had a new life.”
         Not long after, Dorel and his partners began importing floppy disks and started a computer training business. They tried many ideas in the next three years, most unsuccessful, but came to the conclusion that “people eat.” They opened up 3+1 Pizzeria, so named after original partners plus a new one, on a busy street in central Timisoara. Pizza did not exist in Romania before the Revolution, so people gobbled it up — and still do. His little restaurant, smaller than some living rooms I’ve seen in America, cranks out a few hundred pizzas daily. Ironically, because of seemingly endless red tape and widespread corruption, he believes it is harder to start a business now in Romania than it was during the years immediately after Communism.
         Along this journey, he sought out American and other Western books, devouring The One Minute Manager and other self-help business guides. He befriended previous Peace Corps Volunteers, and another American development worker, who’s now in Mongolia, has been a steady and trusted mentor for him. His daughter, Ioana, now attends law school in San Francisco. He has great affinity for America.
         But it is Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which Dorel has read 13 times in the past 30 years, that guides him daily – in his marriage, friendships, the restaurant and his work in international development.
    “If you understand Benjamin Franklin, then you know how people in the United States think even today. More honesty than other places. A strong work ethic — this notion does not exist in Romania. Have you ever even heard the words ‘work ethic’ in Romania?”
         In 1994, Dorel was the grateful recipient of a grant to visit the United States as a businessman from a developing region. “I didn’t believe that I was going until the plane’s engines started,” he remembers. “It was a big moment for me.”
    He traveled to several cities, met with a number of business people and consultants, but also toured scores of pizza restaurants, where he specifically observed processes and equipment. He likes to show off his kitchen’s ventilation system, which is modeled after one he first saw in America — he took copious notes and made measurements with his arms and footsteps. Naturally, he remembers his first impressions at the airport in Philadelphia, a city he was excited to see because of Mr. Franklin.
         “The guy who greeted me was so nice, but I was suspicious of him. “We were taught to be suspicious, because if you weren’t, you could lose your life. I thought about it later, what a wonderful feeling it is to always trust people, to always have trust. But you only have that when you are free.”

    Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working as a business consultant for the Chamber of Commerce in Timisoara, Romania. We have asked Andy to file reports for the next two years of what his life is like working and living in Romania.