It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon in the village of Mălâncrav. Once in a while, an uneasy cyclist can be seen peddling a wobbly bicycle through the winding streets, escorted by flocks of white geese.
Above the village, swallowed up by the slumber that hovers over Transylvanian settlements – a laziness so great that even dogs forget to bark – stands the Apafi Estate.
However inside the Apafi Estate, there’s a lot of commotion. The Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) selected 30 young people from the city of Sighisoara and the villages of Viscri, Archita, Mălâncrav and Alma Vii to attend an educational series on the basics of entrepreneurship. Everyone gathered today for the annual Harvard Feast celebration.
Amongst the dancers in traditional folk costumes, trays full of cakes and pastries, booths selling local honey, homemade bread, and toys made out of husks of corn, five people are standing around looking a little lost.
Then, all of a sudden, someone saves them from the chaos. “Ooo, our Americans!”, Caroline Fernolend exclaimed, welcoming the Reid Family.
The Reid’s from Salt Lake City
On the surface, Maddy Reid looks like just another American teenager. Hard to imagine how she led her family from Utah’s Salt Lake City to Romania.
Maddy explains “In 2015 we traveled to Italy, but were seeing and doing the same things that everyone else had done. We were simply tourists.
We had also been to Costa Rica, which was an adventure. But we didn’t really get to know the culture very well there.
I was looking for a European destination that integrated culture and adventure. All my Google searches brought me back to Romania. Once I chose the country, Mom took over the planning. It was not easy for her to find tourist friendly venues in Romania and more than once Mom suggested we consider Paris instead.
Shortly before the trip, someone offered to buy the tech company Dad was running, so he had to bow out of the family vacation. Now Mom was the planner, driver and navigator. None of us had any idea what lay ahead of us on the Romanian roads.
So we came to Romania in 2016 and stayed in Valea Zălanului, in Prince Charles’ guesthouse. It was a magical realm and we fell in love. We knew we had just scratched the surface of a beautiful place with great potential. We just needed to convince Dad to come back.”
Cory and Amy
Cory Reid has been running businesses since he was 17 years. As an adult, he moved his family to Silicon Valley and then to Utah, where he was the CEO of two technology companies.
One day it occurred to him to calculate how many hours a child has from the time they are born until they leave home for university. Then he estimated how many hours a day, and week and year he spends with each of his three children. The paltry statistic was a wake up call. That is when it occurred to him to take a year-long family sabbatical to make up for all the lost hours he spent at work.
“After turning 19, I moved to the Philippines for two years. I tried to emulate the local people and take on their lifestyle, learn their language and interact with them as often as I could.
By the end of my two years there, I had learned that even though I went to the Philippines with the desire to do something good and be useful to the locals, they were actually the ones who had brought meaning to my life. We wanted our children to experience this kind of thing.
Amy had also lived in Mexico where she taught English at a school in the countryside. When we first started dating, we constantly talked about our experiences living abroad and how families become closer when they embark on a positive and productive project together,” says Cory, the father of the family.
Celebrating the Golden Age of Life
By the time Cory completed the sale of his business, Maddy had moved across the country to attend Tufts University in Boston. He had missed the window to improve the statistic of total hours spent with Maddy. When Cory presented the idea of Maddy taking leave from Tufts for a year to celebrate the Golden Age of Reid family life, Maddy’s reply was “only if we go back to Romania.”
Before committing to Romania, Cory decided two pieces of due diligence were essential. An exploratory trip to Romania with Amy and secret DNA tests. The exploratory trip went just as expected. Both Cory and Amy loved the old Saxon villages and creative passion of Romanians. But the surprise was Cory’s announcement to the family that his ancestors were Romanian.
“No they are not” was the chorus of voices that are accustomed to Cory’s shenanigans.
“Here’s the proof” says Cory, pulling out his DNA test results that say he is 2% Romanian.
That made Maddy (19), Ethan (14) and Josh (12) all 1% Romanian. So the Reid family cashed in Cory’s frequent flyer miles for 5 business class tickets to Romania. The Reid’s were going home!
Caroline Fernolend is relaxed. In the Reid’s presence, the president of the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) transforms into a family member. “They know me so well they don’t take any of my comments to heart” laughs Caroline.
“Cory kept telling me that my story really left an impression on them. But it’s really not a story, it’s my life…” she begins.
She sits down on a little padded bench and Josh Reid thoughtfully brings her a mug of herbal tea. Her newfound family settles around her, as if they were sitting around a campfire, waiting for her to confirm that the American dream is possible in other places around the world.
“Their parents,” says Caroline while throwing a glance at the three Reid children, “approached me this spring looking for a place where they could make themselves useful for the upcoming year.
We met, I told them my story and the story of the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) and happily, they chose us.
We are grateful for them. They come from an entirely different planet and we have so much to learn from them. They probably feel the same way.”
Caroline Fernolend’s name is invariably linked to Viscri, a place that touched Prince Charles enough for him to buy a home in the village. Viscri is now visited by tourists from all over the world.
Fernolend comes from a family of Saxons who stubbornly refused to move to Germany after the borders opened in 1990.
“I’m a simple person. I’m from Viscri and I was raised in a traditional Saxon family where we regarded the spirit of community as something important. The fact that our language is still alive and our traditional homes still stand after 860 years of living outside of Germany is evidence that this place and culture has value. In the 1990’s, I convinced my husband to stay.
Why didn’t I want to leave? Deep down inside, I believed that I had an innate responsibility to protect my origins and traditions and carry them forward. It was extremely sad that in three months, 90 percent of our community had left. The village was empty. Our daughter became the only child in the village.”
A professional economist, Caroline was an accountant at CAP before the Revolution. After 1990, she taught first to fourth grade for nine years because all the teachers left the village. She taught the new generation of children in Viscri to read and write.
For the past 20 years, she has also served on the local City Council.
“Our common goal has been to build a better life. One day, Jessica Douglas-Home, the president of the MET organization, told me that she would bring Prince Charles here. She said we would then start working very intensively with the objective of preserving the patrimony.
I was very agreeable, but I had my share of doubts because more than a dozen people had already come by and made this kind of promise.
Later on, we were featured in the Guide du Routard and I was told to begin organizing English and French lessons in the village to host tourists. In 1996, we began with six guesthouses and that’s how tourism was founded in Viscri.”
There is not a single Saxon left in Alma Vii. But there is one important site – just like in all the other Saxon villages – a fortified church. A fortified church that the locals wanted to restore.
Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET)
Since 2005, Caroline has been the Executive Director of the MET. The primary objective has been to train local residents, the vast majority of them being Roma, to be skilled craftsmen and to care for the architectural heritage of the region.
Having developed a trade, many are now able to earn a small salary and lead more comfortable lives.
“We have facilitated large training sessions and workshops with over 500 people. Citizens have learned a variety of skills. We started off by renovating the facades of all the buildings. The houses looked beautiful when they were finished and the Roma tradesman felt very proud of their work.
Immediately, their experience living in the village became very different. Instead of being blamed for ruining property, they were thanked for restoring property. They now feel like they belong here.
104 villages in the area have contracted or are currently contracting skilled labourers that have been trained by the MET. Many laborers have become local entrepreneurs and transformed their own homes into guesthouses. The MET has also helped locals navigate the bureaucratic procedures that are necessary for proper certification.
This social experiment worked particularly well in the village of Mălancra. Under the leadership of an engineer who specializes in building restoration, 25 men came together to repair the Apfi Estate. Afterwards, the members of this team started a company and have now become the most solicited contractors specializing in architectural heritage restoration.”
“I asked them why they wanted to go through with the restoration project and they said because the fortress has always been there. I told them that’s not a good enough reason. What are you going to do with this restored fortress?” Caroline asks.
“We want to earn our daily bread from the tourism this will bring. We have a special traditional cake and want to sell this to the tourists,” was the villagers response.
Caroline carries on. “And that’s why we began working with them. We connected them with sponsors, architects and engineers and it took us five years to gather the necessary funds.
We thought about what we could do to make the local people feel like the fortified church belonged to them. We went from home to home and asked each family to donate an item which would later be transferred into the new building.
We also built a small restaurant near the fortress. It has an oven used for culinary demonstrations, along with three rooms where guests can stay.
After hundreds of discussions we managed to form a Saxon Association and put together a group of craftsmen, farmers and people who are interested in tourism.”
The Saxon Association choose an appropriate name: Alma Viitor (The motherland of the future).
From CEO to an NGO
Cory Reid has something in him that is typically American: a fascination for new beginnings and the desire to build something from nothing. To build something that will last.
“Everything started with the restoration of buildings, which is important. But the focus needs to remain on people. For this reason, the MET became involved in education. If you manage to do something that impacts the life of a human being, even to increase the willingness to learn by two percent, the result will be significant.
The ability to help someone build his or her skill set, will help them support their family and their community. This investment will impact many future generations,” Cory says.
Before taking this sabbatical year, Cory ran a technology company focused on education. He collaborated with organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael Susan Dell Foundation in Texas.
Since August 2017, the Reid family has been living in Alma Vii. The family is taking Romanian lessons. At this point, their favorite sentence that they repeat with an almost perfect Romanian accent is: “We take Romanian lessons three times a week!” Until they reach a level where they can maintain a conversation, they’ll be speaking through their hands until they hurt, as Romanians would say.
Maddy, Ethan and Josh had gathered some money together before leaving the United States to purchase traditional folk costumes for children in the village of Alma Vii. The goal is to create a new folkloric ensemble. The traditional clothing was purchased from a local family who have mastered this artisanal skill. In exchange for the costumes, the three American teenagers are being taught traditional dancing.
The Reids offer computer and English classes to any interested villages. But it is the reciprocity of learning that makes the experience so special.
Maddy is extremely passionate about the subject.
“As human beings, what we have in common is so much more than our differences. I can honestly say we have not once said we miss home or regret this. We are learning so much about how things are made and where our food comes from.
The villagers have their own local culture and a lot of knowledge that they can share with us. So being able to learn from each other is the best way of establishing a relationship,” says Maddy.
Will this sabbatical year in Romania be of any use?
“This is probably a very standard response but it’s reflective of the truth: it opens the mind. I’ve already begun making plans about other places where it would be great to live. After my family returns home to the United States, I’m going back to Europe. I would like to spend some time with farmers and work alongside them before returning home to go to university,” says Maddy decidedly.
Cory adds. “One of the things that we find absolutely fascinating here, coming from a capitalist country, is to see the impact that communism still has on people’s lives. Going from being told what to do to learning to believe in yourself is a major cultural shift.
But we also feel a deep hope. There is so much potential in Romania. So many young and intelligent people in Romania. So many foreigners discovering and investing in Romania. It’s a great time to be living in Romania.
Despite the struggles, I sense that people are pushing forward, not falling into hopelessness. Innately, people are becoming more confident that major change is around the corner.”
The village of Alma Vii (located in the region of Sibiu), is undergoing a major transformation. This is where Caroline sent the Reid family to live.