As one of the leading English language journalists Alison Mutler has enjoyed a ring-side seat watching history unfold and subsequently her insight is as valuable as it is incomparable. Here, she talks with OZB about her Romania
By Douglas Williams (cover photo by Andreea Alexandru)
Sometimes people tell Alison Mutler that she’s practically Romanian and, after close to 30 years of living here, you’d think she would take that. Afterall she speaks, reads and writes Romanian pretty much at native level; as a journalist she covered the Revolution and all Romania’s myriad twists and turns since; every day Alison produces a minimum of four stories about Romania and she’s been doing this for the last 30 odd years non-stop and she’s met literally all of the great and the good. But… and yet… Alison is resolutely not a Romanian.
“I’m not Romanian. Even after all this time, I don’t feel Romanian. Romania has given me a lot, I’ve been very lucky here and I know and love Romania but I’m still English, I always will be. Here I’m an observer, an outsider forever looking in,” Alison tells, adding, in typically modest fashion, that though her Romanian is pretty good she still has an accent. According to Dan Turturica, her colleague at Universul.net, “her Romanian is better than a lot of Romanians.”
A natural linguist at school in Kent, England, Alison was also intrigued by the Iron Curtain and what lay beyond. As a teen there was the fluttering of an idea that journalism would be a cool gig – it was to become the truest of vocations. On learning that Romanian was a Latin language her interest was further piqued – she’d studied Latin at school. And so, eschewing the more traditional languages, Alison embarked on a degree in Romanian in London and the journey was begun, the die cast.
Fast forward a couple of years and Alison was working with the British Council helping with some Romanian translating work. During this time, with her interest in journalism growing, she’d befriended and done some work with the renowned journalist the late great Sue Lloyd Roberts. Then, on a fateful day in December ‘89, Alison got a call. It was Sue, she needed a translator. There was a media crew flying to Romania, a bloody revolution was unfolding, it looked like Ceaucescu would be toppled. World news simply doesn’t get more dramatic. The trouble was they were leaving in 3 hours time, could she come? It was a golden opportunity for the rookie journo and Alison, early 20s, seized it with both hands. Their pilot was a Romanian, excited and with skin in the game unfolding below but there was shooting in Bucharest at the time, it was unsafe to land so they had to divert to Budapest.
You can read Alison’s own fascinating and funny account of that exciting chapter here from last December’s OZB: https://ozb.ro/2019/12/17/gone-to-a-revolution-back-soon/
So Alison was back and forth between the UK and here reporting until she moved here full time in ‘91. “I thought i’d give it three months and see.” By ‘93 she had a full time position with Associated Press, there was no looking back.
I talk with Alison on a blustery afternoon in an outside cafe in Pipera. “There have been lot of the changes of course, the biggest changes to my mind, happened after Romania joined the EU because that allowed Romanians to travel, to see the world and of course people have got richer and people are a lot more open than they were. There were a lot of conspiratorial, closed-mind attitudes back in the ‘90s but change is gathering momentum now again.
“Romania is changing fast, it’s modernising. Look at (Dominic) Fritz in Timisoara (recently elected mayor and German national), that would not have been possible 4 years ago. Things happen in stages but there is a seachange underway, look at the PSD, it has lost swathes of support.”
So what are the things that keep Alison here, what’s her Romania, what does she like? “Romanians have a wonderful theatricality that they don’t even realise and you see it everywhere you go. It’s innate. People screaming at each other in the street in a way they never would in the UK? A car full of cabbages, wires everywhere, a broken down car on a trailer pulled by a horse, it’s everywhere! I like the terraces, I like that you can practically live outside for 5 months of the year. The country is stunningly beautiful… to me the eclectic architecture is endearing and I like that there’s a strong respect for the family here too.”
What does she like to do in her very limited freetime? “I like to go down by the river, the Danube, the Teleorman area, it’s got this interesting vibe, it’s like from a movie – marshes, birds, epic horizons, Bulgarian radio – it’s like stepping back in time and it’s accessible, you can avoid wasting hours on the DN1.”
Things that annoy Alison about Romania? “Patriarchy,” the answer comes swift and sure. “Senior older men who cling on and cling on to positions of power until well into their 70s and they won’t and they don’t prepare the younger generation, they should delegate. Also excessive bureaucracy… drivers’ lack of manners… but one of the saddest things is the lack of a community spirit – which bugs a good Protestant girl like me. Here it is very individualistic, they often have beautiful houses but around their neighbourhood it’s a mess, sometimes it seems that seeing poverty affects them less, I don’t know. Also the worship of big black cars, I just don’t get it. They see trains as for poor people, I really wish we had good public transport. A good train system is a hallmark of a properly civilised country – you just need to look how it is for our European cousins.”
“The election of Emile Constantinescu as president was, for me, one of the most important moments for modern Romania,” says Alison pondering some of the highs and lows that she’s covered. “It was the first time Romanians changed their leader at the ballot box. Romania joining the EU and Nato was amazing of course, when Iohannis won was superb but Colectiv was awful.” None other than Toekes, the Hungarian priest credited with sparking the revolution in ‘89, sued Alison and her then employer Associated Press for libel claiming a cool $1 million. Sadly for him, he lost. Such are the joys of journalism and the ring-side seat on history that the profession affords.
Of the people she’s met that have impressed her, and there have been a few, she choses two that have passed – Ion Ratiu and Princess Marina Sturdza. The former was a symbol of democracy, the greatest president who never was, the latter, a telling selection, poured her heart and soul into this country. An aristocratic she worked tirelessly for the poor.
Alison is now working for the Ratiu Foundation helping train the next generation of quality Romanian journalists. She also writes for the news site Universul.net producing many useful and important news stories each day and the site can be invaluable to non-Romanian speakers seeking local news. We at OZB highly recommend Universul and we share Alison’s stories on our Facebook page. We are hoping Alison will write another book. Alison’s book “Plecata la Revolutie” chronicles her entanglement with Romania starting from school days in Tunbridge Wells when she first picked up a book about Romania in the local library through to the revolution and then to the moment when Romania joined the EU. The book is part autobiography and partly a selection of stories Alison wrote for the AP. It’s available in all good bookstores.