– Tell us, Marko, a few things about your family history, where your parents are from, if you know about your grandparents on your mother’s side, on your father’s side. And then your background, where did you learn, where did you go to school and how did you end up in Romania, how did you learn Romanian, why?
– I was born here in Mokrin, I mean in Kikinda, I finished primary school here in Mokrin and high school in Kikinda. My father was also born here in Mokrin, my mother is from Sânnicolau Mare, Romania, and her family is from the Serbian community in Romania. My grandparents are Serbs. My father, as he was going to Romania in ’90, met her and they got married and she came here to Mokrin. Unfortunately I didn’t learn Romanian from her. When I was little I used to go to my grandparents in Sânnicolau, but because they are Serbs and my cousins are Serbs, they spoke Serbian all the time and I didn’t have a chance to learn, but I understood quite a lot, but I didn’t speak at all. After high school I decided to go to university, I enrolled in Novi Sad in Romanian Language and Literature. Then I heard about the program for foreign students at the West University of Timisoara and decided to try to enroll at the West University.
– Did you do your preparatory year?
– No, because I did a year of Romanian language in Novi Sad. I learnt some Romanian, I understood it well enough and I decided not to do the preparatory year, but to go straight to the first year of university. I enrolled in English and Russian, in applied modern languages. I got a scholarship, that’s why I decided to move to Timisoara.
– With whom did you study Romanian in Novi Sad?
– Professor Laura Spariosu must have been the dean at that time, Virginia Popovici, Marina Puia Bădescu and…
– With someone from Romania, from Timișoara?
– There was a lecturer, a teacher from Romania, but she was not from Timișoara, her name was Carmen Dărăbuș.
– When did you do it?
– In 2011. I finished university in 2016, I’ve been in Timisoara since 2012 and I came back here. First time in Novi Sad, I stayed for a year and a half and then I came back here in Mokrin, that’s it in a nutshell.
– Can we go back to the 90s? What do you know about these journeys of your dad’s in Romania or if not his, then others, if you know anything.
– I don’t know much, my parents got married in the 90s, in March and immediately after that he moved here with my father. Because Sânnicolau is quite close, thirty-five kilometres away, I used to go to my grandparents’ very often and I don’t have many memories of the ’90s. I know that in ’99 I stayed with them for a few months when there were bombings here.
– Did your parents send you?
– We were all there. I don’t know anything else.
– Your parents met when in ’90? In January or just before?
– In ’89 and they got married in ’90.
– Does your father have a passport or how did he cross into Romania?
– With a Serbian passport, yes. He is and was a Serbian citizen, my mother was a Romanian citizen and she was not a Serbian citizen until 2003-2004.
– Do you know what documents you have to prepare to get citizenship?
– Not really. I think you have to live in Serbia for some time or have parents or something.
– You have to prove that you are of Serbian descent.
– Yes, probably.
– Do you remember Romanians coming here after ’90, when there was the embargo?
– From stories. I know a story from a man in Lugoj, who told me that he first saw bananas when he was in Yugoslavia. That was in the 1980s. I understand that it was also very difficult for Romanians to leave the country before the 90s and more people went from Yugoslavia to Romania than vice versa.
– And did they take anything to sell?
– Yes. From what I understand, food.
– And during the embargo they bought something from there?
– We bought petrol. Before that, I don’t know how it was, but after ’99 it was the other way around, we bought gasoline from the Romanians. Then we were under embargo.
– What do you know about the bombing, for example? What did your parents tell you? You were little. What were you, eight or nine?
– Eight, yes. Well, it was something unknown. What I heard on TV, that’s what it was. We also watched TVR, I think that’s what we were catching here and I don’t know, it was terrible for a little kid to see that. Well, we weren’t really in this area bombed, it was more Belgrade, Novi Sad and the southern area, but still it was a panic, it wasn’t nice. We stayed with grandparents for three months, I think, and then came back when it was over, around June.
– Were your parents abroad working?
– No, never. We all stayed here in Mokrin together. I think it was also hard for Serbian citizens to go abroad. Romania joined the E.U. in 2007 and it was easier for them to leave, but for us even now it is quite difficult to leave and get a work permit.
– Do you know there are people here in Mokrin who go to the West to work?
– I know many people from Kikinda go to Zoppas to work, they commute. They go every day by bus from Kikinda to Sânnicolau. There are some families, some women who came from Romania, they are Romanian citizens and I think one or two women even went to work in Germany. And in total, apart from my mother, there are four or five women who have married here.
– And-and. Two are Serbian and two or three Romanian.
– How come your father didn’t move to Romania?
– I don’t know. It’s a conservative environment here, that’s probably what they mean when they get married, the woman moves in with the man.
– Do you know anything about your grandparents on your father’s side?
– Not much, I didn’t even know my grandfather on my father’s side, he died before I was born, my grandmother lived, I know her. She was here in Mokrin and at some point she moved to Kikinda and lived there.
– Were they born here?
– Yes, all of them. And on my mother’s side, they were all born in Sânnicolau, in Satul Nou, but not Satul Nou where the border with Hungary is, but a village here, near Arad, it’s a small village and it’s called Satul Nou. I think that’s where my grandmother’s parents are from on my mother’s side and my grandfather’s parents are from Sânnicolau.
– About where are your relatives, cousins, uncles?
– I have an uncle in Sânpetru Mare, in Variaș we have relatives, in Arad and that’s about it. I have a cousin who moved to Timisoara, but that’s recent. He stayed there after university, he’s four years older than me. Otherwise I don’t really know.
– Do you visit each other?
– Yes, yes, quite often. My grandmother still lives in Sânnicolau and we go to see her. She’s eighty-three and we visit often.
– How do you talk when you see each other?
– In Serbian all the time. That’s how we got used to it from the beginning. If we sit at the table with Romanians, then we speak Romanian, but it sounds strange if I talk in Romanian to my grandmother, because we got used to speaking Serbian all our lives.
– Does dad know Romanian?
– No, not at all. He understands a few words, but he doesn’t speak.
– And do you sometimes speak Romanian with my mother or only Serbian?
– My mother passed away in 2013, but I only spoke Serbian with her all the time, that’s why I didn’t learn Romanian from her, unfortunately.
– And how did you make this choice, to go to Novi Sad to learn Romanian?
– I wanted to become a translator, English-Romanian, I already spoke English and that’s why I chose this. Then I found out about this foreign student program and made the decision to go and try it. I got the scholarship and why not go and try something new? I didn’t know anyone in Timisoara, but there are a lot of students from Serbia, mostly from Varshets, Panskiv and Eastern Serbia.
– From Romanian communities.
– Yes, exactly.
– And how was the first part?
– Did you stay in the dorm?
– Yes, in a room with four Romanian colleagues from Serbia.
– And did you learn from them?
– Yes, I also learned Romanian, but I also learned a few words in the local dialect, like they speak.
– What was the hardest thing for you to learn in Romanian? Sounds or certain words…
– Not words, but personal pronouns and all the genders how they change, that was more complicated and the unfinished article, because we don’t have that. It helped that I knew English, it’s like with the article “the” in English, but still we don’t have it and it’s something foreign. I don’t feel when I should use it and when I shouldn’t and that comes with experience.
– You read in English, you watch channels…
– I don’t really watch TV, but I read. When I came in 2016, it’s already six years, and the language is forgotten if you don’t speak it, I still read a novel in Romanian, but unfortunately I have no one to talk to and I forget.
– In Mokrin there are no Romanians or very few.
– No, there are only those few women who got married here, but I don’t have much contact with them. Their children don’t speak Romanian, unfortunately. And in Kikinda there is a small community of Romanians and few of them speak Romanian. Many more don’t.
– Have you worked as a translator?
– Yes, for a short time, one year, but it wasn’t so much working with Romanian-Serbian, more with English and Serbian. I started working at Zoppas as a translator. When there were Romanians here, they used to give training to workers from Serbia, because part of the factory moved to Kikinda. When the Romanians left, they offered me to stay there to work in something else, but I didn’t like it and I left.
– Do you also use Russian? Did you learn it?
– Not really, Russian was my second language and I didn’t really learn it. I mean Romanian was the first, English was the B language and Russian was the C language. I still understand Russian because it’s similar to Serbian, it’s very similar and it was much easier for me than for the Romanians. I started Russian from scratch. For Romanians it was much harder, because Russian and Serbian grammar is very similar.
– Did you know how to write Latin?
– Is that what you learned in school?
– Yes. Both. In first grade we wrote with cyrillic alphabet and in second grade we started with the Latin alphabet.
– Isn’t that difficult for a young child?
– Well, I don’t know, it was something that was self-understood at school, no one asks you if you want to or can, you just learn and that’s it. I don’t think it’s hard. I have a toddler now, three and a half years old and now everybody is with phones and stuff and there are Latin letters, normally, and for example, p is r in the Cyrillic alphabet and then he gets confused. Well, isn’t that p? No, that’s r. And then I explain.
– Have you taught him Romanian?
– No, I haven’t. He learns English in kindergarten and we’ll see, maybe. I don’t want to confuse him too much.
– Would you say it’s an advantage that you speak Romanian?
– Of course I do. Any language you know is an advantage and it’s been very useful, especially since I went to college there. There are students who take courses in English and they don’t speak Romanian at all, but of course it’s an advantage to know any language.
– Did you have holidays in Romania?
– Yes, I did. I think I even went there for a Romanian Christmas. It’s just like back home. People go to church, have lunch at home with the family, it’s pretty much the same story.
– Do you have Romanian friends?
– I do, but the connections are slowly being lost, because I don’t really go either. There was also the pandemic, for two years the border was closed. I don’t really go to Timisoara, I only go to Sânnicolau, that’s all. The connection is lost. We still talk on the phone, on Skype, Zoom, but less and less. Some of them, colleagues from university, have gone to Austria, Germany, America, others have stayed in Timisoara to work.
– Have you thought about leaving?
– Yes. We thought of leaving before the pandemic and we didn’t get the chance, now we see. We stayed at home for two years while it lasted. Now my wife is pregnant too, she’s due to have her second baby and we’ll see after that.
– Where did you want to go?
– Canada. Far away, but since we know English… She doesn’t know Romanian and that’s why.
– Is there a Serbian community there?
– It’s in Toronto and Vancouver, but more in Toronto. Many even from Mokrin are there. And we would also have help if we want to go, a friend of my father’s has been there for forty years and we talked to him and he said, “When you want to come, I’ll help you.” Now we have to decide when to go.
– But why did you think of leaving?
– I don’t know. It’s better than living here. Since we’re not even in the E.U., I think the quality of life is better there, so we thought we’d at least give it a try. If we don’t like it, we come back.
– Do you feel that Serbia has risen or has fallen in living standards? Do you pay attention to these things?
– Yes, I am. I think it has decreased. Until the ’90s, Yugoslavia was at a good level compared to Romania, for example. Then came the 90s and Serbia has decreased since then, and Romania joined the E.U. I was there from 2012 to 2016 and I can say that life is better, at least in the Western area. Timisoara is better than Novi Sad, for example, which is about the same.
– After what do you realize that it’s better in Timisoara?
– People seem more relaxed, I don’t know. I think the salaries are better and maybe that’s where it all starts from, quality of life, I think that’s a basis for starting a family, if you want to live somewhere you have to think about these material things. I don’t see Serbia joining the EU in ten years.
– Have you thought about staying in Timisoara in 2016?
– Yes, but when I finished university, my wife, who was my friend at the time, hadn’t finished yet and she was in Novi Sad. So I moved to Novi Sad. Just the other way around like it was with my parents.
– And you have Romanian citizenship?
– I do.
– You also have a Romanian passport.
– It’s very easy for you to go to Canada with your Romanian passport.
– For me, yes. But she can’t and we have to apply for a visa officially. They have good programs there for these visas. My wife is a physics teacher, I think she has more opportunities there than me. But at the moment we are here, I work here, she is a high school teacher in Kikinda and that’s pretty much the story.
– You said you got a job here (at Mokrin House) a year ago.
– A year and a half ago, yeah.
– Can you tell us the story of this place? How it started, who made it?
– We can go for a tour, if you want, inside, show you the house.
– We’ll go.
– Our landlord bought this in 2008. He was born in Kikinda, his parents are from Nakovo, it’s a village near Kikinda and he’s been living in Slovenia for many years, he’s sixty now and he’s been away for thirty years, he has a business there and he bought this house to have some oasis in the village, to come in the summer or two or three times a year. In 2008 he bought it, renovated it as much as possible and in 2010 he built this black house, in 2013 he built this object and in 2014 that object. It became a complex and he thought with his son to do something, because they also made rooms upstairs, initially for his guests, but he thought to make a business out of it. The first guests that came here to us were… I don’t know how to say it in Romanian, digital nomads.
– Where were they from?
– From countries in the region and from Germany, America, Russia, Great Britain, Spain, France, Italy, but many were from America.
– And how do they find out about you, from the net?
– On the net, yes, and then they come for a tour, come back, tell their friends about it and others come.
– How long do they stay?
– They used to stay longer, because we had two rooms with six beds in that house, it was like a hostel, it was cheaper and they stayed for two or three months, they worked from here. There, in that object, there is working space and people who work remotely came.
– Since before the pandemic.
– Yes, yes. They started coming in around 2014-2015. After that companies started coming with team building, retreats and stuff like that.
– What companies, from where?
– From Serbia, national companies and some are also global, for example Coca-Cola will come now, Ikea.
– And do you offer them any activities?
– Yes, we do. Activities, sports of all kinds, from football, volleyball, badminton, table tennis, even today we have to make for people who come, we have to make open cinema, in the middle we put the screen and with projector, with speakers, with lazy bags here in the yard.
– What are you screening today?
– I don’t know, they choose, they bring.
– Where do they come from?
– The company is called The Unit, I don’t know what they do, I haven’t asked yet, I ask when they come and half of them are Serbian and from what I’ve seen, half of them are from abroad, I don’t know where from, from what I can tell they are from Germany, by name, UK, I think, but we see today.
– What do you do here?
– Community manager. I talk to them from the beginning, when the mail comes or when they call, I prepare everything for them… I don’t know how to say it. And when they come, I sit with them, I talk to them, I’m the contact person if they need anything. I have another colleague who works this, but he’s on leave now and I’m in charge.
– How many employees do you have?
– Eleven, but if we had a need at an event, it was three weeks ago, with three hundred people, then we needed to hire more people, waiters, for example.
– Did you accommodate them here?
– Some of it. Just people from the organisation, from the people who organised the event, five or six people stayed.
– Do you also make food here?
– Yes, we have a professional kitchen.
– What do you do?
– It’s mixed cuisine, home cooking and something modern, new trends, we try to mix the two.
– For example, what’s homemade?
– Sarmale (cabage rolls), stuffed peppers.
– You eat sarmale?
– Yes, yes, but more in winter when there’s cabbage. We have goulash, well, goulash is Hungarian. What else do we do traditionally? Barbecue, that’s eaten a lot in Serbia, pork, chicken, beef, pljeskavica.
– And where do you get your raw material?
– From Kikinda, mostly from producers. We also have a garden back here, a bio-garden, and we use what we need from the garden.
– And make it seasonal.
– Yes, we do. Lettuce greens have been, gone, done with it, now we have aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, we see together if you like, we take a walk.
– And international, besides goulash?
– For example risotto, but I don’t get it now, only if I look at the menu.
– Is the chef from here?
– Yes, yes.
– A gentleman, a lady?
– A lady. She has help from other women, but she’s the chef.
– And dessert?
– Dessert’s normal, with dinner. At lunch we serve soup or soup or something and dessert after dinner. But if people want it after lunch, we do that. We have lava cake with ice cream, choco mousse, poppy or cherry strudel, but that’s what we ask if they want, because not everybody likes it or knows about it. We also make… it’s not cake, we call it apple bread, for example. In Serbian we call it pita s jabukama.
– Yes, apple pie.
– And other activities we do, we have collaborators from Kikinda, and if the group wants yoga, we do yoga, the instructor comes and they do yoga in the morning, for example. We do archery class. We make fire here, there we put a big metal plate and light a fire. We do cocktail workshop, a cocktail maistor from Belgrade comes and the idea is that the guests make the cocktails themselves. He explains how, what, how much and they make it themselves.
– And how do you find them, the yoga teacher, the cocktail maistor, even the suppliers?
– That’s a long time ago, before I came, I don’t know. People who have worked here have made these connections and we continue.
– And people from the village can come here for coffee?
– No, it’s not open. If someone really wants to come and visit and see, yes. For example open cinema we do in the summer for locals, too. Then it’s open to everyone.
– And how do you advertise?
– On Facebook and Instagram.
– In the press?
– No, because we don’t have a budget for that. This is a festival in Belgrade that gives us films, mostly documentaries, and they don’t have a budget for press or TV either.
– And people come?
– Now and then. Last year more came, this year not so much.
– When is it?
– This year it was two weeks in May and two in June, one film a week. Four films.
– What are your customers like, younger, middle-aged?
– Twenty to forty, mostly. Mostly from the IT sector.
– Have you had companies from Romania?
– I had, but before the pandemic, I didn’t catch it. For example Ikea is coming now and they are nineteen in total, some from Serbia and I think they have four or five colleagues from Romania and we have to go and get them there at the Continental, at the hotel. We are going by our own car. There was another company from Germany that has people in the IT sector all over the world, outsource, they take people from certain companies, for example from Romania, from Serbia and they will do some work for them. Basically they pay this company for what those people do for them and they are basically, how to say, hired from this company. They did a team building here in November last year and there was a man from Romania and they stayed for five days. That was the last time I spoke Romanian.
– When they come to stay here, do they have a price per night and activities are included or…?
– The activities that we organise, for example sports, films, campfire, they don’t pay. What we organise with people we collaborate with, that is paid for. Cocktails, yoga, archery class, massage, that’s paid for. And when companies come, if there are more than fifteen or twelve, they rent the whole complex. If they come individually, then a room or two.
– Can you come individually?
– Can you book on Booking?
– Not through Booking, but by email with us, yes. We are a little bit more expensive than a normal hotel, because we offer space, first of all, with accommodation option and meal option, fullboard, as they say, three meals a day and that’s why it’s much better for companies. It’s more advantageous if they come and rent the whole complex rather than individually. It was cheaper before the pandemic when we had these two six-bed rooms where you could only rent one bed. It can happen that you’re single, maybe six in a room. But when the pandemic started we closed those two rooms and made them two-bed rooms. If we have to house forty people, than we can make the rooms back to six beds
– Do you know what architects they worked with?
– Architects from the University of Belgrade, they were students. This black house was a project for a master degree, for example.
– So they did the design.
– Yes. Our owner went to the university in Belgrade and said there, “I want to do a competition for your students, if it’s possible.” They agreed, the competition was opened, they presented their ideas, he chose what he liked and they came to do it, he paid and that was pretty much it. And it was a very good portfolio for the students who did that. Now they’re very successful at what they do.
– This gentleman is very knowledgeable about different things.
– He is.
– He seems very cosmopolitan. Is he Serbian?
– Yes, he is.
– What does he do?
– Marketing. If you’ve heard of Top Shop…
– Yeah, sure.
– He founded Top Shop. He sold it, but he’s in other businesses.
– And he comes in from time to time, right?
– Yeah, yeah. It was last week.
– It would have been interesting to catch him for a chat. Shall we go see the sites?
– Yeah, let’s go.
Photo credit: Răzvan Popa