Tanti Baba and the 40 Bottles

by Steven van Groningen on 10 July, 2010

When I first moved to Romania for my work in 1993, the youngest of our two sons was less than one year old. In those days there was no good quality fresh milk in the shops and the import of long life milk was irregular. This problem was solved in the person of Salomnia, an old lady who did some cleaning at one of our neighbors. She lived at the outskirts of Bucharest and one of her neighbours had a cow. Every other day Salomnia would bring us a cola bottle with fresh raw milk and that solved the problem.

It didn’t take long and Salomnia became part of our household. We learned she was born in Bessarabia (now Moldova) and had come on foot to Romania during the 1932/1933 famine. Here she had met Vasile whom she had convinced to marry her after lying to him about her age (he was years younger than she was). Vasile had worked for 40 years at a hydraulic press machine in a shoe factory and had become rather deaf.

They lived on the outskirts of Bucharest in a very small house, on a small plot of land. They sold tomatoes they grew themselves and eggs from their chickens and both of them would do errands for others to complement his small pension. They had no children and only a few remote relatives.

Our kids loved Salomnia. They called her Tanti Baba (Tanti means “aunt” and Baba means “old woman” in Romanian). She played with the children, made them their favorite food (coltonasi cu branza) and helped in the household where she broke more glasses, cups and plates than I imagined possible. This probably explains the amount of luck in our happy family.


Vasile made some wine every year. Now I like to make things and he was proud to show me how to make wine. And so it happened that we set off on a wine making joint venture in which we would make wine for both households. Additional grapes were procured at Obor market, a wine press was borrowed by Vasile from a neighbour and a big plastic barrel was found. In the end my most important contribution to the production process was to drink 40 bottles of mineral water so that we would have enough empty bottles for the wine. No PET in those days. I also bought a little wooden device in the Netherlands to drive corks in bottles as well as the necessary corks. This made Vasile very happy, real wine needs a cork, not plastic caps. The bottles were filled using a hose and a few blows of a hammer drove the cork into the bottle and that was it.

The Mystery of the Chickens

It is all memories now. We moved to another part of the city and later left the country. When we returned in 2001 we visited them and contact was re established for a short time. Salomnia died in her sleep one night in December 2002,  she must have been close to 90 years old. She was buried in the village where Vasile was born, 40 km from Bucharest where they had purchased a grave in the graveyard next to the church. After Salomnia’s  death, Vasile would come to our house once a week to sell eggs. His chickens had become remarkable productive after the death of Salomnia and laid eggs in large quantities all year round. This biological mystery was solved one day when we found a date stamp on one of the eggs. A piece of sanding paper with the eggs made us realize he was buying them in the supermarket and used the sanding paper to remover the date stamp. He died not much later and was laid to rest next to Salomnia.

Important Was The Journey, Not The Destination

And the wine? I remember making the wine and I remember that our share was 40 bottles of 1 liter. I don’t remember the quality of the wine and cannot even remember drinking it.

Like more often in life, it was about the process more than the end product. Important was the journey, not the destination. It brought us was an unlikely relationship with an elderly couple. We keep fond memories of them.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Juan Huitz July 11, 2010 at 00:14

I’ve lived in C. Europe since 1997, in Bucharest for the last year. Openly, I don’t particuarly care for Romania. Slovakia in ’97 is wholly different place then it is today. But Bucharest doesn’t seem to have changed one bit. I don’t have the perspective that you have. I appreciate your blog, it helps me keep things balanced. Please keep it coming.


SvG July 11, 2010 at 08:27

Thanks for your comment, Juan. A cynical person would say that Bucharest has not changed except for the ugly buildings in the wrong places and traffic jams. My frustration is that things move so slow. It is clear what needs to be done to make the city a better place to live in but …..
I try not to complain too much and to look at the positive side which, I admit, is difficult at times.


shellfish July 21, 2010 at 21:00

I would actually like to comment on your comment. You said that it’s very frustrating to see things moving so slow, development wise. I just graduated and frankly I don’t want to experience this frustration.
So how can things get accelerated? Mind you, I don’t expect instant miracles, just a non-frustrating pace of (positive) change. Generally speaking, when I look around at people my age or who are 30-ish/40-ish (those “productive adults”), they don’t seem that disappointing. So where does everything break down? How can it get unbroken? ( Somewhat informed) opinions are very welcome.
Thank you


SvG July 21, 2010 at 22:49

Thank you for your comment. There is no easy answer to your question. Indeed there seem to be plenty of capable people around. At least one of the problems seems to be that not enough of them work in the public sector, where hiring is done more on the basis of political affinity and personal loyalty than on competence. ( I am not saying everyone in the public sector is incompetent). What we need is the best people for the job and continuity. In more mature systems you would only see a change on the level of minister or state secretary in case of political changes, all the others in a ministry keep their jobs and make sure the engines keep running. In Romania we see far going changes from top to bottom which slows down everything and makes continuity of long term projects very difficult.


Cristina Marin July 11, 2010 at 12:18

I would like to say the happiness is a journey not a destination. But how many people can see the truth beyond everything that is happening. God has been generous with you and therefore will be allowed to permitting.


Corina Vasile July 12, 2010 at 12:24

Your story perfectly illustrates the saying that the beauty is in the viewer’s eyes.


beholder July 14, 2010 at 17:57

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is the correct version. Just FYI, for future PR purposes…


Corina Vasile July 16, 2010 at 10:39

thanks, point taken. for PR purposes, we double check.


Roby May 17, 2011 at 14:28

To me it sounded more like “imperfection is (could be?) romantic in the eye of the beholder”.

And since there cannot be romance without frustration, SvG’s apparent infatuation with Romania becomes understandable, in spite or rather because of his observation and analysis of its macro and micro blemishes, not from the position of a detached critic but from that of someone who cares enough to want to contribute to change.


oana July 13, 2010 at 20:38

Thank you for the story.
Actually, both your story and photos capture the same – authenticity and beauty of simple things.
This is what I miss most when I am away from home.


George July 13, 2010 at 21:53

You enjoy to live in Romania more than a local citizen,…


physical therapist July 15, 2010 at 11:33

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!


Diana July 20, 2010 at 12:55

beautiful post, I really enjoyed it !
who said that “it’s not where you end up, but what you do along the way”…?


marguerite luminita iliescu July 23, 2010 at 12:51

Imi cer scuze ca va las acest comentariu in limba romana, dar spre rusinea mea inca nu stapanesc foarte bine limba engleza! imi plac enorm comentariile dumneavoastra si imi pare rau ca le citesc cu atata intarziere! am descoperit ca sunteti un om ca si mine, intelegeti ce vreau sa spun? aveti aceleasi probleme ca si noi, oamenii obisnuiti, dar un singur lucru nu inteleg! de ce ati ales Romania? nu vreau sa ma intelegeti gresit, imi iubesc tara foarte mult, dar nu pot sa inteleg de ce nu putem fi uniti. Cineva spunea in gluma ca “sa traiti, asa cum ati votat!” Tare, nu? eu cred ca noi nu mai avem vreo sansa sa ne trezim! Dumneavoastra, ce credeti? cum putem noi, romanii sa intelegem, macar pentru viitor, ca daca suntem asa de rai unii cu ceilalti, tara noastra nu mai are nicio sansa? Cum priviti dumneavoastra sansa acestei tari, credeti ca mai exista speranta? sa nu incercati sa-mi raspundeti cu filizofii de doi bani, de genul “speranta moare ultima”! Si inca o intrebare, ce sanse dati romanilor trecuti de varsta de 35 de ani? Cineva, care lucreaza in RZB, mi-a spus (evident neoficial), ca la angajarea in aceasta institutie se prefera tinerii!!!!!! stati linistit, eu personal nu doresc sa ma angajez la RZB, dar as fi vrut sa cunosc parerea unui CEO, asa cum sunteti dumneavoastra, despre o problema stringenta a societatii si anume S O M A J U L SI SANSELE CELOR CARE AU VARSTA DE PESTE 35 DE ANI IN ROMANIA! Cum e tratata in Olanda, sau in Austria aceasta problema?
Va multumesc ca ati avut rabdare sa parcurgeti acest mesaj!


SvG July 27, 2010 at 22:20

Va multumesc pentru comentariu Dvs. De ce am ales Romania ? Romania, in persoana sotiei mele Valeria, m-a ales pe mine! Adevarul este ca am locuit in Olanda, Rusia si Ungaria dar ne simtim bine in Romania, cu problemele ei cu tot. Nu este deloc usor din punct de verdere profesional, dar avem resultate bune si acest lucru ajute mult.
Parerea mea este ca avem sanse mari in Romania daca reusim sa ne unim. Parca este mai important sa piarda altcineva dacat sa castigam cu totii. Cand este vorba de sport de performanta toate lumea intelege ca trebuie sa lucram impreuna ca sa avem succes. Fara antrenament si lucru in echipa nu merge, si nici nu merge daca avem o echipa plina de rude si prieteni care nu sa pricep la ce trebuie facut dar aplaud foarte tare antrenorul. Ce contreaza sint abilitatile si performanta, nu loialitate personala.
Si asta ne aduce la sansa celor cu varsta peste 35 de ani. Pentru mine varsta nu este cea mai importanta. Ce conteaza cel mai mult este atitudinea omului, valorile personale. Daca cineva are un comportament corect dar nu stie ceva sau nu are experienta, atunci merita investit in el fiinca ce nu se stie poate fi invatat si expereinta vine in timp. Comportamentul sa schimba foarte greu. Cei care au mai mult de 35 de ani se cunosc mai bine pe ei insusi si inteleg mai bine punctele tari si slabe. Trebuie cautat de lucru intro zona in care cineva are abilitati si aptitudine. Merita si investitie in training. Stiu ca in alte tari exista suport pentru asa ceva, nu stiu cum este in Romania.
Cel mai important este sa nu credeti ca oameni de peste 35 de ani nu au sanse.


marguerite August 6, 2010 at 13:39

Multumesc pentru incurajari! Mai adaug un comentariu referitor la sansa celor de peste 35 de ani, si va dau un singur exemplu! mi-am postat CV-ul pe multe site-uri de specialitate, se intampla in 2008! pana la data cand va scriu niciun angajator nu m-a contactat! ce vina am eu ca mi-a placut sa invat? la ce mi-a folosit, oare? este extrem de frustrant sa stii ca nimeni nu are nevoie de tine! ati fost pus vreodata in aceasta postura? nu v-o doresc! mi-am luat viata in propriile maini, am devenit antreprenor, sau ma rog daca poate fi numit antreprenor un expert contabil! imi merge bine, recunosc, dar am fost invatata sa lucrez in echipa si nu de una singura! mi-e greu sa stau in fata calculatorului toata ziua si sa nu am cu cine sa schimb o vorba! in plus de asta, trece timpul prea repede; am invatat sa-mi calculez timpul dupa datele limita pe care ni le fixeaza Codul Fiscal. Muncesc mult si imi place ceea ce fac, dar imi lipsesc discutiile de rutina din birou! trecea timpul mai usor si invatam foarte multe lucruri…….! Ce vremuri!


Karin Hickman July 27, 2010 at 08:48

In the current climate, I particularly relate to this sentence: “Sometimes people try to make things look worse than they are. Doom sayers, former bankers that like to be quoted again and politicians come to mind”
I love your story about Salomnia and the journey vs the destination. Something I’ve been pondering much of late.


Alina Otelea August 2, 2010 at 19:47

I liked your story about Salomnia, but, even more than that, the way you managed to capture portraits and images in words.

What is (still) a pleasant but somewhat bitter surprise for me is that people who were born in other countries and live here manage to pay more attention to small, local details and appreciate them more than Romanians do. You talk about Salomnia and Vasile in kind words, you have vivid memories about them and took the time to write their story.
I wish we could all stop from the daily rush and …”smell the roses”, once in a while.

Thank you for a post that brought nice memories to me.


SvG August 2, 2010 at 20:52

Thank you Alina, glad you liked it.


Amala Mararu September 23, 2010 at 17:51

A nice story, with bitter and sweet flavor.


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