Located in the middle of Romania along the border of Transylvania, is the statistically unassuming but surprisingly artful city of Sibiu. Considering it was originally the fortified home of vagabond German settlers – then later 1980s playground for the psychopathic son of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (who destroyed part of Bucharest to build this) – Sibiu’s history suggests it shouldn’t be the vibrant creative center you voted The Best City To Visit in 2013.
Practical pessimists often call themselves realists and while I would say Romanians are characterized by a warm, energetic, and beautifully nerdy nature, they’re generally apathetic about their domestic prospects. In a global satisfaction with life index Romania ranks in the lower 25th percentile and 83% say government is ineffective; resulting in a serious brain drain problem.
At some level most of us can agree that politicians are dishonest to varying degrees and any legislative process is far from perfect. Enthusiasm for government is a hard feeling to cultivate and even more difficult to maintain. It takes a delicate blend of ingredients and the recipe for Sibiu’s bright outlook couldn’t seem less intuitive.
From Nomads To Nicu
Sibiu was founded somewhere in the 12th century by Germanic nomads who named the settlement Hermannstadt. Until World War II, Germans were the ethnic majority in Sibiu; which is fairly odd considering it’s located right in the middle of Romania, nearly 1,000 kilometers away from Munich or Berlin. Germans were a large part of the population right through Romania’s 1989 revolution, which ousted dictator Nicolae Ceausescu – and his horny, alcoholic son Nicu – who lived in Sibiu as the appointed head of the Communist Party there.
But mostly, he spent his time drinking, raping, and terrorizing the local population who eventually convicted Nicu of shooting civilians during anti-government protests in his final days in power. Ironically, all of those distractions may have preserved the distinct look of Sibiu. As aesthetics were under attack in the rest of the country, locals tell me aside from his many other indulgences, Nicu was given free architectural reign. Whether by apathy or choice, it might be why Sibiu still looks a lot like it did 300 years ago.
German Old School
Although I wasn’t surprised many of the people I met were engineers or computer scientists as Romania has the world’s second fastest Internet speeds, I was taken a back at how obvious their optimism was for the future of Sibiu. (Us engineers tend to be especially “practical”.) And roughly 25 years after ousting a dictator, the source of their momentum was a shock.
There should be a saying that you can take a German anywhere, but you can’t take organization out of a German. Although there are only 2,000 ethnic Saxons living among Sibiu’s population of 170,000, one of them, Klaus Werner Iohannis, was elected mayor in 2000. And he’s popular. Very popular. In a country where a politician would seem the least likely catalyst for change nearly everyone I met in Sibiu had good things to say about their mayor. Nationally, it’s been proposed he run for Prime Minister or President on multiple occasions.
Iohannis has brought in foreign investments but much of Sibiu’s success comes from focusing on its artistic roots. Between May and September there are theater festivals such as Sibfest, Red Bull’s Romaniacs Rally is held here – not to mention over 10 parks and museums like ASTRA open year round. All of this means double tourism revenue over the past 10 years [PDF], money for the local economy, and an infectious cycle of hope.
The Common Thread To Spread
As I write this it’s hard for me not to feel giddy about Sibiu, where things seem to be clicking enough that one can’t help but leave with that impression. An effect that may be spreading in nearby cities Brasov, Cluj-Napoca and beyond to Bucharest, where Sibiu’s mayor was just appointed interior minister and deputy premier. Whether or not he can make clocks and New Year’s Eve run on time in Bucharest is to be seen; but the city he comes from couldn’t have a stranger path to success, which should make us all hopeful for tomorrow, no matter where we are today. Thanks Sibiu.