Debbie Stowe is an author, freelance journalist and English teacher. Born in the UK, she moved to Bucharest in 2002. Her around-20 published books include Travellers Romania (Thomas Cook Publishing) and Culture Smart! Romania (Kuperard) as well as various other travel guides on European and Asian destinations. She founded and runs Baby Bounce Bucharest, an early-years education projec
1. Please tell us about who you are and what you do.
I am an author, journalist and accidental English teacher, and now also a singer as part of my own project, Baby Bounce Bucharest [https://www.facebook.com/BabyBounceBucharest ]. In my past (pre-kids) life, I was a travel writer, writing guidebooks on various countries for Thomas Cook Publishing. After becoming a mum, I founded Baby Bounce, which started as twice-weekly sessions of songs, rhymes and stories to introduce babies and toddlers to English, and has since expanded to related products.
2. Share your backstory with us. How did your business or organisation come about and what was it that switched you on to this area in the first place?
I came to Bucharest to work for a newspaper directly after gaining my post-graduate degree in London. I’d gone backpacking round the world and then round the US as a student, and I wanted to spend more time abroad before I went back to London and got a “proper” job. I was going to stay here for one year, maximum two. A Romanian partner and two kids later and here I am!
I’ve always loved being a writer, but after I became a mum I wanted to do something more family-friendly than journalism. I gave birth to my sons in the UK, where I found so many activities to do with them, which helped me through the challenging and isolating time of new parenthood. Although I’m not a teacher by training and education, since moving to Romania I’ve ended up doing a lot of English teaching, because Romanians really value a native-speaker teacher. I thought: if they want to learn English from me, maybe they want their kids to learn English from me.
So I had the idea of starting a group that would give Romanian children a head start in learning English from a native speaker, while also helping expat families keep the connection to their home culture, and just generally bringing parents and children together. Thus Baby Bounce was born.
I started recording the music with Emil Viciu, the guitarist from Sarmalele Reci, and we produced an album of children’s songs. (It’s a privilege for me to work with someone of his talent and renown, and that’s one of the things I love about Romania: the access to these opportunities). Then I began holding sessions, in those days at a play centre called Ludotech, and mums and dads started to bring their kids.
3, How has lockdown been for you and for your business and what have you done that has helped you personally and professionally?
My project involved bringing up to 30 people (half of whom were babies/toddlers) into a small room and singing together – obviously this presented challenges in the social distancing era! In October I had moved venues to a lovely play cafe called Mom O’clock; my group was going well and I was very pleased with the numbers. Then – bam! Lockdown. I had also launched a separate project, Baby Disco Bucharest [https://www.facebook.com/BabyDiscoBucharest ], with another mum from London who lives here. We were due to hold a big event at Control Club in March. Obviously that didn’t happen either!
So I have tried to pivot (I believe that’s the correct buzzword!) and do more online. I continued to do my Baby Bounce sessions via Facebook Live. They were free – there has been so much financial uncertainty and I know how hard and isolating being home with little ones all day can be, so I wanted to provide something for the community to allow the children to continue learning and the parents to connect every Friday, like before.
At the same time I put together an album, Learn English with Baby Bounce, which I have just launched. It features songs from Baby Bounce (old classics and new material) along with poems (again, classics, by Christina Rosetti and Robert Louis Stevenson, plus original works) and around 370 words and phrases with Romanian translations. With families spending more time at home these days, I hope this will be a useful way for children to learn. It also helps that most Romanians love a British accent!
The main challenge personally was trying to educate and entertain a three-year-old and a four-year-old while still finding time to work on all of this and keep up with my freelance journalism and English teaching. I usually like to keep busy, rushing from place to place and packing my kids’ schedules with extracurricular activities, so it made a change to move down a gear and spend time at home as a family.
4. What do you think or hope the future has in store for you and your business? Where do you see yourself or your organisation five years from now?
I’d like to be able to resume face-to-face sessions at Mom O’clock (the cafe where I was holding my group before lockdown). I’m currently running classes in Herastrau, and it’s going very well, but it’s not the same as the cafe environment, having coffee, food, toys and facilities for the children, etc. But I also want to expand my online offering, maybe moving into live Zoom sessions, and re-record my Learn English album with translations in other languages for foreign markets.
As travel opens up again and my children get older, I would also like to return to travel journalism. When you’ve been paid to stay at five-star resorts in the Maldives and Goa and write books about it (which is my favourite thing to do), nothing else seems quite as glamorous!
5. What’s your take on Bucharest and Romania. What are the highs and the lows in your opinion?
I love living in Bucharest. It’s a beautiful city (with a shabby chic vibe), it’s small enough to get around easily (I find the sheer size of London overwhelming these days), it’s quirky, people are friendly, there are good cafes and restaurants. There is so much opportunity for expats (si nu numai!) in this country. Yes, it has its problems – bureaucracy, poorly funded infrastructure and public services, the lingering communist mentality – but what country doesn’t?
I admire the energy, openness and entrepreneurial spirit here. It feels like Romania is moving in the right direction – in stark contrast to the UK at the moment, sad to say.
6. What is your must do/must visit/favorite thing to do or show off to visitors here in Bucharest and Romania at large?
Cismigiu. It’s my local park and I find it so varied, atmospheric and beautiful. In summer, people and families are there until late (which would never happen in the UK because after dark most parks are the preserve of teenagers drinking and smoking!), and it has a lovely, relaxed vibe. Continental living at its finest. Romanians are keenly aware that their country doesn’t enjoy a great reputation in Western Europe, and I love showing my visitors all the pretty parks, glorious art deco buildings and hipster cafes here and sending them away with an entirely different impression of where I live.
7. If you could eat in any restaurant in all of Romania and have dinner with anyone in the world (not a husband/wife/relative) which restaurant would that be and with which person?
Great question! Does it have to be a living person? If not, I choose Charles Dickens and Tom Wolfe, my favourite all-time and contemporary writers, because they are both hilarious, with pinpoint observations on humanity and society. They’d be great company. If the person has to be living, I’ll be unoriginal and go with Barack Obama. My knowledge of top Bucharest restaurants is probably about five years out of date, but the last time I had a really posh meal here it was at The Artist. Wolfe would probably like it but I think Dickens would feel more comfortable on a terrace in Lipscani.
8. What is your number 1 recommendation now for a book/film/series/app/ or gadget?
Not especially now, but I’ll stick with Dickens, for books. I also got into Netflix during lockdown – I can’t get enough of things with spies, maverick detectives, CIA moles, conspiracies, people saying “this goes all the way to the White House”, the hero being followed by a black SUV, that sort of thing. If you like that, try Line of Duty or Homeland.
I saw the German film The Lives of Others a few years ago and was gripped: it conveys the oppression and terror behind the Iron Curtain so tensely.
I wouldn’t presume to suggest a gadget – I was still using a Nokia 3310 until three years ago! And my favourite app, the Scrabble app, has recently been discontinued, to my chagrin.
Of course, if you’d like your young children to learn English, I recommend you buy the Learn English with Baby Bounce album (purchase information on the BB Facebook page)!
9. Sum up your business in one sentence, what it is and why should people engage with it.
Give your kids a head start, learning native-speaker English direct from a British mum through the joy of songs and stories, while you have fun, meet like-minded parents and enjoy quality parent-child bonding.
10. Describe your Romania in one word.