By Paul Page
Having arrived in Cluj-Napoca in the oh-so-hot month of July, 2017, for my new Headship post at the Royal School in Transylvania, I was utterly confused by the immensely rich dichotomy which was presenting itself: the historical research, the brief understanding of the economic situation of Romania (admittedly outdated) contrasted with the vision of development, café culture, vibrant city and architecture which was presented before me. Previously – like many expats – Romania had never even emerged as a blip on the life-radar. This was mainly attributable to not knowing too much about the place, aside, of course from the Vampiric legend of Stoker and the TV show Top Gear’s attempt to find the best road in the world (Transfăgărăşan Highway)!
The dichotomy became more apparent as I was driven up to my new school. Thankfully my exposure, over two decades, to Cambridge international schools, meant that the academic programme of the school – English National Curriculum and Cambridge International – was not overwhelming but was, indeed, a comfort blanket which, after less than two minutes, was flung off in favour of exposure and wonderment. The children were not pale with dark circles and hunger in their eyes from malnutrition (remember the harrowing 20/20 documentary of 1990 – ‘Shame of a Nation’?) but were, in every aspect, the same as every other child I had met on my journey in education, so far. The school, housed in an official “Green” building was as advanced as any seen in Europe – interactive whiteboards in every room, two teachers in every room, an IT lab, air-conditioned with a maximum of twenty students per class and a distinctly British theme – there’s even a red telephone box and a mural of a London bus on the wall.
This was a somewhat of a change from what I had been used to. Since 2011 I had been Academic Head at both the International School of South Africa and at Trident College, Zambia – on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and had been beset by snakes (Black Mambas in my office, Black-necked Spitting Cobra by the dustbin outside my office, Forest Cobras meandering through the school field and a couple of Gaboon Vipers in my garden) as well as a double dose of Malaria in 2016, to boot. So to emerge from living within a game reserve (yep, Zebras walked past my fence every morning) to what was now a city with traffic, concrete buildings and a population of about 350,000 was a bit of a culture shock, to say the least.
Having experienced non-city life for the last twenty-odd years, I steeled myself into the journey of discovery. I remember standing in the huge Auchan supermarket thinking, ‘What do I buy?’ and stood like Livingstone experiencing the majesty of Victoria Falls for the first time. There was nothing that was not available. Even Heinz Baked Beans! I have to admit that I filled a basket with the most dreadfully unhealthy items, some of which still reside in the darkest recesses of my cupboards to this day.
Once settled, it was time to explore the sights and sounds of Cluj. Along with my 11-year-old daughter, I experienced the festivals that abound over the summer months (Untold is not to be missed) as well as becoming enamoured with the multitudinous green spaces which complement the bustling city. I was intrigued by the use of hammocks in the parks which seemed to appear at every opportunity; by the Romanian and Hungarian Opera houses; by the wonderful cafes and restaurants which line the centre of the city, the statues – and was overwhelmed with the sheer modernity of it all. Again the dichotomy: why does Romania get such a bad “rap” if Cluj is a marker for the direction of Romania? I don’t have the answer yet.
As with every city, in every country in the world, there is a mixture of wealth, class and poverty. The difference here is that you can see it and walk it and feel it, smell it and sense it – all while feeling relatively safe whilst doing so. Crime rates are incredibly low and it is well worth walking the city and exploring the labyrinthine markets and side streets to find the little gems hidden away. For my wife and I this has become a Saturday morning ritual – discovering new areas. In seven months we still haven’t covered a quarter of the city!
So, come and visit Cluj, enjoy the pace of life here, imbibe the ever-present history, walk the parks, chat awhile in the cafes and, if you feel like it, come and visit the Royal School in Transylvania – I will make you a cracking cup of tea!