While Romanians leave the country for Germany, a family of Germans have chosen to settle in a village in Sibiu County.
Ten characters in one story. We count them on our fingers. Firstly we have Mike and Marion, two kind Germans who put down roots in the village of Alma Vii alongside their son Tim. Next there is Mrs. Sanda and Mr. Ioan, their permanent employees. Then it comes the house – Alma Via – a character in itself: white, bright and welcoming. Alma, the abandoned puppy who now knows German and is living the dream and the cats Miezi and Findus, mother and son, who complete the picture of our story. The last actor is the village itself. They are all part of a story that is worth telling and writing.
Alma Vii is located in a cul-de-sac. It has old houses, most of them looking beautifully and very well taken care of. Alma Vii also has an imposing fortified church with towers and thick walls. Here you can even come across a skeleton that became famous and is now exhibited in the museum. Then there are the quiet hills and the charming woods, the colorful gardens and the alleys looking as if they are out of those very beautifully made documentaries. And then there are the people: with wide and warm smiles and the most expressive eyes speaking louder than words. There is peace and silence, hidden by the old Saxon cabinets or in the bright guest rooms that are still telling a forgotten story. This is where Mike and Marion, friends and partners of our Foundation, have come to live. They have recently opened a guest house just across the citadel and have integrated well into the community. They constantly get involved in our projects as volunteers and aim for people in the village to live better.
Marion is telling us how it all started: “We have had no roots in Romania. None of our ancestors ever lived here. I first contacted Romania ten years ago, when Mike was sent by his employer to Bucharest for a few weeks for a media project. Finally, we ended staying there for two years. Every weekend we were driving to different places: Maramures, Bucovina, Transylvania, Danube Delta… We liked what we saw. Probably otherwise we would have never come to Romania.” They were fascinated by the beauty of the places, but disappointed in the options for accommodation. “It was hard for us to find a beautiful accommodation.”
After completing the project in Bucharest, they moved to Budapest, where they lived for about 5-6 years. However, they continued to visit Romania, especially the rural areas of Transylvania. After the birth of their son, they realised that none of them wanted to work in an office for large companies. Although they had no experience in tourism, they made the decision to buy a house in Romania and start their own business here. The search itself started in 2014, the year when luckily the law changed and it was easier for them to buy a property as foreign citizens.
Then they found Jan Hülsemann, an architect who already worked with MET. Only the formalities for joining the two properties lasted a whole year. Although always used as one, the property has never been registered as such. They had some problems with the land and the properties and with the fact that they had to combine them. They were told: “You can not have both of them.” “Well, we actually do have both of them.” they answered.
Rehabilitation works began in September 2015, when the builders and the excavators came. “That’s when we moved here from Budapest. We moved on a Sunday and the construction site started on Monday.” Until everything was ready, the German family had many sacrifices to make. They lived in Richiș for two years in a rented house without heating. Marion: “It is true that we had a small wood stove in the room and we enjoy a very authentic lifestyle. But I remember the winter mornings, the overnight fire gone off, the 10 degrees in the room and the question: “OK … What am I going to do now? Do I get up or stay in bed and try to stay warm?“All of the sacrifices made and the obstacles encountered deserve to finally say: Now we live in a very beautiful house, which is exactly what we wanted to be. And now we have heating. Good things take time. Although we had a lot of problems, everything worked out as we wanted.
They opened the guest house in the summer of 2018 and ever since the beginning things looked promising. They enjoyed working with the Trust and receiving nice groups from the very beginning: for example Mircea Cărtărescu, accompanied by a group of writers who stayed there for a week. Then they remember the group of young volunteers from Liechtenstein, who rebuilt the carpentry workshop in the village. Last summer they set up an ingenious program for German families with children: for 7 days they had the chance to attend workshops organised with craftsmen from the area, especially brought to the guest house for them. Tourists were learning how to do traditional mowing, how to knit baskets and many more other things. The program will also continue this year, as Mike and Marion say they already have firm demands and reservations for this type of tourism. Nothing to be surprised about, their idea is wonderful.
Before moving to Romania, they were both responsible for marketing in top companies in Germany. Now they are doing the opposite. Mike even tells us amused how his mother asked him “Why did you go to the university, what have you studied for ?!” More or less joking, Marion adds: “I think the studies help us now in some respects.”
What did they know about our country before arriving here? “Not too much. If we were not sent to Bucharest, we would have never come to Romania. I remember when Mike told me he would go there. The first thing I did was look at the map, see where it is. But I knew it was in the southeastern part of Europe.” says Marion. Mike adds: “At first, Romania was a white spot for us on the map. We visited many continents and countries, but we never thought to come to Romania.”
Now they like living here, but they can not hold back to compare what’s happening here with the situation in Germany. From the very beginning, all the Alma Via project was a very „official” one, in which they did things by the book, much like it’s being done in Germany . They realised that this was not the case for Romania, and that wanting to do things by the book was only slowing the whole construction process down. “There was no doubt about us, it was supposed to be so. It took us three years to get everything up and running and get all the papers. Maybe otherwise we would have finished it faster but we are happy things have gone this way. We will always act in this manner.” Because foreigners have not struck the issue of corruption, they have been treated differently, with more goodwill, they say. Mike: “Yes, it was a bonus that we are foreigners. Everyone asks us if we are sure that we want to live in Romania because many Romanians are moving to Germany, where we came from”.
They were also surprised by the way some Romanians understand the fulfillment of a commitment. They encountered some difficulties, especially with the working schedule, including the team of builders. Although they had a strict contract and terms, they were leaving the site without announcing for several weeks. Marion: “Everybody works in Germany after a well-established program. This week is working on something and the next week at something else. You can not be late. But here is quite different.”
For Mike and Marion, not everything was as difficult as it sounds. There are many positive aspects: “We love Romanians and living in Romania. We feel we are well received, well-seen. In Alma Vii we have the same feeling: people are very open, they help us and they are friendly, otherwise we could not stay here.” Even if there is a language barrier, Romanian proves to be a test stone for all family members, including for their son Tim, aged 7. This way Marion and Mike are determined to go all the way in overcoming this barrier by taking Romanian lessons. “Although communication with community members is not very intense, we feel that there is no one against us and does not ask What are these strangers looking for here too?! They are open to what we do and want to support us”.
We now get to some more sensitive subjects: their current challenges. We are talking about the touristic infrastructure in the area and how it can be improved. Marion: „When asking: Do we make paths through the forest for tourists or cut the forest and sell it? Always the second option will be chosen. There is no real interest in improvements. There are many interesting things near Alma Vii, but you can not get there because there is not a good way of access: for example, it is a UNESCO monument in Valea Viilor, just 10 km distance from Alma Vii. A bicycle route could be set up there. Unfortunately, there is not one, and I do not think that in the next 20 years there will be one because no one cares.”
They also told us about the road to Alma Vii, although forbidden for the transit of large-scale auto-vehicles, year-round more than 30 tons trucks full of logs cross over and destroy the road every time. In the same time, authorities would want buses full of tourists to visit the village but there is not enough interest in the necessary infrastructure for coaches to get to the village. Although they have had to overcome many obstacles, now the difficulty is already behind.
Mike: „One positive thing I noticed is that when you want to do everything by the book, people try to help you and give you much of their time. It’s a lot of work, but people are friendly and they want to help. Here I refer to the authorities. We do not have to be so pessimistic. They were trying to do everything in their power to help us. We usually have a good lawyer from Sibiu who helps us. This whole bureaucratic process is a good process in itself, but the problem is that it takes a lot of time. But now we have everything ready, everything is super-legal. Everything is legal and authorised.”
Although we are talking about a village whose inhabitants still go to work abroad, things are changing and are going in the good direction. In Alma Vii new guest houses appeared, the citadel was restored and is now attracting tourists. Some villagers have come back here and created a purpose. Marion: “Alma Vii is different from other villages, it has its own personality. No one looks at you thinking you are a stranger.”
Alma Via is a delight: a traditional Saxon house built in 1871, unusually large, made of two generous bodies that functioned together over time. Five rooms are for guests and three are used by the German family. Mike and Marion are excited to tell us the story of the barn, that today is a welcoming restaurant with a conference room. The original barn was sold a few years before they found out about the property. So, they bought a similar one near Braşov and rebuilt it from the old wooden structure. The elements have been merged in a modern way, with large, light-loving windows. They insisted, however, that the works should be made with traditional and natural materials, all isolated with clay and straw. They did not use industrial foam around the windows, for example, and those who helped build it were local craftsmen and people from Germany.
As a guest, here you have a traditional experience but, at the same time, great comfort as Mike paid great attention to beds and baths in particular: “We wanted the bathrooms to be very spacious. They have underfloor heating and large showers. Other attractions are our barn, the very tasty traditional food, the generous courtyard where football can be played and where guests feel good, the meeting with the craftsmen, the wonderful view of the fortified church.” he adds.
Marion: “We are trying to take advantage of the wonderful view, to make campfire on the land above the property, we will have a natural swimming pool for summer, in which the water will be filtered by the plants. The garden is the place where our guests can relax, where they can enjoy the fresh air and the view of the citadel.”
Small events, even weddings can be organized at Alma Via if they are not very crowded but also corporate events. Hosts provide a conference room with a capacity of 50 seats and a high performance projector. They also organise brunches or traditional lunches cooked by them for groups of cyclists or tourists. Soon they will also have a system for online reservations, but those interested can find details about them on their website: https://alma-via.ro/
Mike: „In an article for mountain bike enthusiasts, Lonely Planet recommends for accommodation the old Saxon houses of Viscri and Alma Vii. We liked that paragraph and put it over to our website.”
Mike and Marion feel that their village and community need support. The fastest help can come from volunteers, as it happened two years ago, with the Rogers family from America have lived here for half a year. The children from the village are waiting for new volunteers to come to the village and are eager to enjoy with them the facilities of the learning center: the library, computers, piano and games, or the activities that can be organised here.
Mike and Marion love to talk about the family of Americans and the things that they have done for the village: „They were very involved. They had a piano they donated to the children from Alma Vii. Each of the five members of the family had something to offer: some were offering guitar and piano lessons, others were singing English songs with children. They were the perfect volunteers. They gathered money to buy costumes for the children’s dance group here in the village, which is a fantastic thing. The kids now look wonderful and can dance at festivals and touristic events in the village. The little ones enjoyed most of all the musical activities and small artistic and creative projects: clay constructions, drawings.”
”We always need people, not just during the summer. We would most like them to come to the learning center, to the library, to take care of the young generation of Alma Vii. Children need someone to guide them, show them and teach them. School itself is not enough. It would be great for someone to organise activities with them in the afternoons after school. We can provide dinner for future volunteers.” adds Mike.
For Mike and Marion, having someone who speaks Romanian near them would help them greatly. They plan on taking Romanian language lessons a couple of times a week in exchange for free meals. „The most important is the character of the volunteer and if he or she loves working with the children. If he or she can teach us Romanian, it would be great.” says Mike adds. ”As for the volunteers, I wanted to add that twice a day we are making our way to Medias anyway. If volunteers want to shop in the city, we offer transport.”
In Alma Vii there is always something to do but it all depends very much on the volunteers’ wishes. Some people like to work with children, others want to do more physical work and such an example would be the marking of the bike tracks in the woods. Computer literacy lessons could be taught, because someone needs to show them how to do research or complete homework for school with the help of the internet.
Mike: „In an ideal world, the volunteer would help young people in the village learn to write a resume and find a job. At the learning center there is a printer, there are computers, it is a shame that no one is using them. During the winter, the volunteers can live at our place and in the summer MET can offer accommodation.
You can find out about the volunteer projects that Mihai Eminescu Trust organizes in Alma Vii by writing a message at firstname.lastname@example.org
They first came into contact with the Trust thanks to Mr. Jan Hülsemann, architect and consultant for MET projects, who also helped with the Alma Via project. “We had not built anything until then, and we did not know anything about it, but he wrote a book on how to restore houses in Transylvania. He brought me here and introduced me to the team, we used the same builders as MET did. With the foundation we are neighbors even in the village, we share the same wall. It was a pleasant surprise when I bought the house and learned that there are plans to renovate the citadel. We started the rehabilitation works at the same time. The works at the fortified church were completed in about a year. After a year, we didn’t even have a new roof, “says Mike with a smile. “I then met Caroline, Cristian and Sandel and we were invited to the inauguration of a new guest house in the Richis village, I can say we have a beautiful relationship. We are doing different projects together and we hope to have this relationship in the future too.”
For the end but not the least important are the words of the two Alma Via employees. Before that, Mike tells us what is the impact his offer has on the life of the two. “Ioan used to go to work abroad. He did not need to leave for two years and he managed to stay with the family thanks to us. They like us not just because they’re our employees and they get salary from us, but because we’ve changed their lives, we’re close to them, they get health insurance for the family.”
Mike is willing to help by using his own resources in contributing towards the welfare of the community by sending Mrs. Sanda to work at the learning center for an afternoon a week. We asked the two trusted people at Alma Via to tell us what these jobs meant to them:
Mrs. Sanda: „I’ve been working at Mike’s place for three years, I’ve been here almost since the beginning. It’s good for me because we’re neighbours. Before I was employed here, I was sitting at home with my little ones. I initially helped them as neighbours and then they asked me if I wanted to work for them. I worked in Germany for a while so it helps me a lot that I know German and so we can communicate. There’s a lot of work here, but I’m happy to work in such a beautiful place. I’m in charge of preparing meals for tourists, arranging the rooms and getting involved wherever there is anything to do. It’s good for me. “
Mr Ioan: „For us it is a heavenly gift, because we are neighbours here, we are living nearby. I’m good at this job, we are in the village, along with our families. I’m lucky because I’m hired, but they’re lucky too to have us, I’m doing everything from installations to… all that’s needed. Before they came to the village, I was travelling abroad and back, I was making money and coming back home. It was hard with four children. I’ve been to Spain, Italy, I’ve gone even to Finland, everywhere. Who does not like to sleep in his own bed at night?! Wherever it is, but home is best. You see your kids growing up. I am satisfied. They’re wonderful people”.
Mihai Eminescu Trust Foundation, May 2019
Photo credits: https://alma-via.ro/ and Mihai Eminescu Trust