Simona: I was alone with two children, my son, and my daughter, and my mom, two women, surrounded by shootings, we made a barricade with all the furniture in the door because we thought the terrorists would come.
Alejandro: So I begin the episode by asking Simona of her childhood memories
Simona: If I mention the word childhood I instantaneously remember the summer vacations, because my grandparents on the maternal side used to live in a very tiny village, and it was in a valley surrounded by seven hills, and each hill would have a name and a legend, and I remember my summer vacations as, I think the most magical part of my childhood because that remote village would keep the traditions intact and the authenticity not only of the beauty of nature but the authenticity of the village life, I was an urban girl and I was exposed to the roots of my civilization, because when I used to go to my grandma, the women would wash the clothes at the river, with some special tools that they had so there were no washing machines, nothing, nothing like that.
Alejandro: What did you eat when you were with your grandparents
Simona: OMG I even remember now, the pies and there is a … how could I tell you? A ragu made out of chicken but the chicken came from the backyard, so everything was so organic, you cannot find anything like that now. So the cheese was exactly from my grandmother’s sheep, the milk was from my grandmother’s cow. We would eat so healthy, God, I miss so much those times from this point of view. And we were a great bunch of cousins, all of us, 5 of us, because my mother’s sisters had also children and they were all girls, all of us were very talented musically, and also we would organize theatre performances in my grandmother’s backyard, and the price of the ticket consisted of eggs (laughs) so, in order to have all those pies and all of those goodies, we contributed to our grandma’s refrigerator.
Alejandro: So, how many eggs got you a ticket?
Simona: As many as you’d like to offer but usually, minimum, 1.
Alejandro: So 1 was almost frowned upon
Simona: We would stage fairy tales and those were the excuses to be able to put on us, the best dresses of our mothers, cause otherwise, we couldn’t touch them, so we had all sorts of excuses to get access to things that were not accesible and I remember we were pretty successful, we were very famous in that little village and one of our favourite things was also going up the hills, because in those times, the 60’s 70’s in Romania in that remote village, there was no radio, there was no television, so the announcements were made from the top of the hill, so for instance if the priest had something to allow to the village, he would go to the top of the hill because the acoustic was absolutely incredible and he would announce this service, or something important, someone’s baptism, anything from the top of the hill, so the top of the hill was very important for the community, so, for us, it was a great honour to be able to go to the top of the hill and sing from there. We were the stars of the village.
Alejandro: And wearing your gowns, this is beautiful. Where did the inspiration come from? Or was this just … from the very beginning you just loved performing and your cousins as well and…
Alejandro: In the family was there anyone who was in the arts?
Simona: No, you know, my parents where the first intellectuals in the family, all their ancestors were peasants, simple people but, this doesn’t mean that they weren’t very very talented. So, for instance, my mother’s grandma, used to speak in rhymes, she was so amazingly talented, so gifted, that she could be speaking all the time like she was reciting on poems, she was incredible. My grandfather was the greatest storyteller that I’ve ever encountered in my life, and I have encountered a lot of gifted… and he was such an amazing storyteller that once I brought him to my university at a seminar on storytelling and he charmed absolutely everyone and we were in one of the most prestigious universities in Romania. So it was just about natural talent, natural gifts, everything was authentic and coming just from the heart. We weren’t;t coming from a noble family who had a chance of getting an education in arts, it was just pure talent.
My dream was to be an actress and singer, and I actually won all the competitions for reciting pop music, folk music, I was in a dance. At the university I was called “miss voice’ because I was in a program on student radio, I was in the theatre group on the university, in the rock band of the university, it was crazy. So, before university my dream was to be an actress and singer, I had won all the possible awards, so it was not the normal dream of a child to be an actress, I really had results and passion. But at that time, in communist Romania, there was only 1 drama school in the country and there were 7 slots per country, 7 slots per year. Unfortunately the main criteria for getting into that university was social origin, if you belonged to the working class, that was a clear advantage, well, I belong to a family of modest intellectuals, but still, intellectuals, not working class, so, my parents so panicked that I would be exposed to a failure, that they tried to convince me not to go to the drama school, and because I told them very clearly that this is the only thing I want to do, they plotted against my dreams and I found out 15 years after. They plotted in the sense that they talked to my mentor, the main actor in our local theatre, to convince me that I don’t have any chance and that I am not talented enough and he did that, and I gave up, very easy I think, too easily. I forgave my parents because I know that they did absolutely everything out of love for me, they wanted to protect me, they wanted too badly to protect me. It was the pure fear of a parent not to see his child disappointment. at the time of the society I was living in, but they were the ones exposed to those fears, not me, I was protected, I was in a bubble, in a beautiful bubble full of love, and as I said, that gave me the balance that made me resist at all sorts of challenges over the years
Alejandro: I’m very curious, when Romania’s revolution, when communism fell in 89, what were you up to an can you share a little bit about was was happening
Simona: it’s very hard to tell in a few words because this encompasses tenths of years of history, very hard history actually, but the catastrophe started to shape up in the 70’s when Ceau?escu made an official visit to China and then North Korea and there he got very inspired by the North Korea model of dictatorship, so he started to build sort of a South Korea in the southeastern part of Europe, in our country, he followed every characteristic of the North Korea dictatorship, xx(12:00), deprivation of the population but absolutely all elementary needs, especially in the last 10 years, so in the late 80 actually it was the worst because there was no freedom whatsoever, everybody was monitored by the political police. There was no freedom, there was no food, there was no power, there ’s no heat, there’s nothing, there was no hope. So, at a certain point in 1989 on the 21st of December when he made the huge mistake to generate a mass meeting in order to commemorate some anniversary, something magic happened, or something premeditated happened, we’ll never know, we don’t know yet, there are a lot of question marks, was there some influence that stimulated the spark, did the spark come from the Romanians, or did the spark come from the intelligence from other countries right? What I can tell you is that I saw that, on TV, because I was a young mother at the time, I had just given birth to my second child, so I was a home in a maternity leave, my daughter was exactly 2 months old on the 22 of December and I watched everything live on the television also because my husband, who used to be a director of photography at the time with the national studio for documentaries was the one that was filming Ceau?escu
Simona: Because the documentary studio was documenting everything Ceau?escu did
Alejandro: Promotion, propaganda.
Simona: It was a sort of propaganda, I will tell you something about this, later on, if I remember, there are so many things that I want to … So, during that mass meeting, the population started to protest against Ceau?escu. Ceau?escu didn’t understand what happened at that moment, he was just surprised, and then the surprised became fear and then panic, and then he just left and he left in a helicopter to a safe base, but he was caught in the way, he met his wife and then he was trialled and then killed on Christmas day.
Alejandro: What was your feeling, I mean, that happened, you just had your second daughter, you are on your maternity leave… by the way, your husband was capturing a lot of … interestingly enough, being there to record what was happening, without knowing what was gonna happen. How was that experience?
Simona: I remember only the fear, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember any joy, because, to tell you the truth, I didn’t see my husband for two weeks, because we have with his colleagues in the streets, filming, documenting absolutely everything for that studio. Unfortunately, all his work and his colleagues work was monopolized by a guy who took the rolls and sold everything abroad and he became very rich, so my husband doesn’t have the work, for weeks, he risked his life, they were filming from under the tanks and in incredible conditions they were sleeping in the basement of the studios, so I didn’t see him in two weeks, I was alone with two children, my son and my daughter and my mom, two women, surrounded by shootings, we made a barricade we put all the furniture on the door because we thought the terrorists would come, because the media was full of fake news regarding terrorists, “the water is poisoned” and I was breastfeeding and I didn’t have anything in the house because the shops were closed obviously, there was no food or water, and when you hear that the water is poisoned, it’s the responsibility of the mother who doesn’t know what to do for her children, and during the night it was particularly terrorizing because there were shootings, and all the time I was so naive, I was sleeping with my body between the window and my children thinking, in my naivete, that if the bullets are coming they would stop in my body and they won’t get my children, so it was such a confusing horrible time. I didn’t have the time to feel that we gained our liberty and to enjoy it, I couldn’t go on the streets, I had the responsibility of my kids and I’m not a hero. I’m not a hero.
Alejandro: Did people know what the collapse meant or there was a lot of uncertainty, “so ok, he’s falling and now, what’s gonna happen, who is gonna take his place”
Simona: Like in every revolution there is ecstasy that prevails, people are “oh that we got rid of the dictator the gates of heaven will open and we’ll be rich with no worries” and then, after ecstasy, agony comes because you don’t know what to do with your newly gained freedom, it’s like coming from a black hole, and you come to the sun and you’re blinded by to much light and you don’t know where to go, that’s exactly the feeling that you have. Of course, there were a lot of people in the streets but also, apparently people loyal to Ceau?escu who were killed, there were 1000 people who were killed, shot at during those days, until the 25th of December when Ceau?escu was executed. After that, there were no killings anymore, and I happened to work over the years for the president who was actually leading the country at the time and I asked him, for Romania it was striking that that execution took place on Christmas day, they were very religious people, you don’t kill … first of all, Romanians don’t kill, Romanians are one if the most peaceful nations that you can know, Romania never attacked anyone during history, and suddenly we execute someone on Christmas day
Alejandro: Intentionally, it had to be, I mean, that day was chosen. And what did he say?
Simona: It was not chosen for its significance, it was chosen because they were aware of the fact that once Ceau?escu is dead, there’s a huge possibility to stop the killings, and this is what happened. So the president told me, “that’s why we took that sudden decision, it didn’t take enough time for the trial, because some people criticized the leaders at that time because maybe we would have deserved a long trial in order to understand how responsible he was of the catastrophe that he generated in the country” but he said “we didn’t have a choice because we had to stop the killings somehow and this was our chance, and this is precisely what happened, after Ceau?escu died, there were no more terrorists.
Alejandro: So, by this time you mentioned you were already working with, was he already the president or he was a leader and set to become the president.
Simona: No no no, I worked for the president in 2000, much later.
Alejandro: but he was a leader, at these stages he was one of the leaders …
Simona: No, he was THE leader, he was the one who assumed responsibility of taking the driving wheel in a complete chaos and of course, he actually paid the price because his image was very controversial, I think that still now, he doesn’t have the image he deserves, I hope that history will put him in the place he really deserves, but there’s so much hate, so many toxic memories that have to clear up and to disappear until we will manage to judge everything in an objective manner.
Alejandro: was there a critical moment where there was a shift?
Simona: Before 1989 women weren’t allowed to be diplomats in Romania, so as a woman, I didn’t have access to diplomacy before the revolution. After the revolution, there were contests for admission in the Ministry and one year after the revolution and when my child was old enough I was admitted by a contest in the Ministry of Foreign affairs and then everything started. There was a Minister of Foreign Affairs who was, I think one of the most remarkable Ministers of Foreign Affairs that we had, who recruited a lot of newcomers in the Ministry and he immediately sent them abroad to study diplomacy, and I was one of the lucky ones, and that meant a lot to me because also, even if I was a student in French and English, I wasn’t allowed to study abroad when I was a student, we weren’t allowed to travel and study abroad during the communist dictatorship, so for me, attending a diplomatic training in Great Britain was for me something I hadn’t thought of for many years
Alejandro: Who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, what’s his name
Simona: His name was Adrian N?stase, between 2000 and 2004 I was the foreign policy advisor to the president, he used to be the Prime Minister at the time, so he used to be a very sophisticated intellectual and I think he was one of the greatest Ministers of Foreign Affairs. I also had the chance to work in his office as an advisor after the diplomatic training, so he gave me a lot of chances.
Alejandro: Was he a Mentor? Was he someone that you felt that along the way was there and you felt like reaching out or…
Simona: Absolutely yes, after that his life got a little bit complicated because of the political battles there were some juridical consequences, but I will never forget the chances that he gave me and what I learned from him especially, I learned a lot especially when I worked in his office, I learned a lot about diplomacy, about being constantly curious form the intellectual point of view, I feel that intellectual curiosity is absolutely essential in the personal development of absolutely anyone, so I learned a lot from him
Alejandro: Do you have a certain way of defining what success means to you?
Simona: To me, personally, success means a job well done, because my only ambition in life was not targeting a specific position or a specific profession, the only thing that I was taught when I was a child was the fact that my top priority was to get the job done and to get the job done impeccably and I personally think that this is the key to my success. I’m a very tenacious Cancer, I never give up until I get the job done, and when the job is done I can have my success. That’s my personal perception, I think that each of us have his own perception and understanding of success, for me this is the essence, it’s true, that in order to get the job done I made a lot of sacrifices, and what I want all the youngsters who might listen to us and all those who listen to me whenever I have a speaking engagement I would always tell them, “There is no great victory without great sacrifices, sacrifices are part of success, easy success is not the real success. For instance, I had in my team absolutely brilliant young diplomats in New York, and sometimes, unfortunately for some political intrusion in my Ministry there would be some people parachuted in the Ministry with absolutely no diplomatic experience, getting into important positions, not at the top, because that’s kind of normal, directors, suddenly directors without being career diplomats and of course this would be frustrating for a career diplomat, that someone can go up the stairs, while someone jumps and someone is going stair by stair, which is another key to success, not burning any stage, just climbing stairs step by step, not two or three steps at once right? And I would tell them, look, they might get that position, they might get even that diplomatic rank that you have been passing through contests, but they will never be able to experience the joy of something you accomplish with hard work, They cannot have that! That’s unique, that’s only observed for those who really work and has accomplished something. because this is a special joy, of the achievement.
Alejandro: The word sacrifice and success is really unique in that, in my perspective, in my case, because everyone has their own experiences, building a company and you go through so many different phases where you’re trying out so many different things and with my second company that I had I remember working so hard that at some point I literally burned out, my back gave away back then, and it was a big message like: ok, the lack of sleep, the more hours that doesn’t really mean that you’re gonna get closer to accomplishing a certain mission, you have to figure out what’s the most productive method that works your you and also what are the things that you care about most because time is so precious, and that’s why I’m super grateful that you’re here with me but, time is so precious and you’re constantly, as you’re growing up, you’re constantly figuring out where to allocate time what’s important to you, and as you mentioned everything is a trade off, for one thing, there’s usually a tradeoff for something, you can’t just bring back time
Simona: You’re so young and so wise already
Alejandro: (thank you) yeah
Simona: That’s exactly because you went through different experiences, that’s precisely why
Alejandro: Was there a clear one that comes to mind, that you say “yeah, to get here I had to spend less time doing this”
Simona: Of course! I didn’t have the chance to live all those moments that mothers live with their children, I didn’t have the chance to live as much as I had wanted in 31 years of marriage with my hubby. Don’t forget that we were apart, I was in New York he was in Bucharest, we saw each other 4 times a year. There were a lot of personal sacrifices of course, some diplomats are maybe luckier because husbands can come with them, children are with them but, in our case we longed for each other and we had been longing for each other for many many years so this is the biggest personal sacrifice that I made for this. But I knew on the other hand that they know that this is important to me also because this way, I could be their role model, I would inspire them and they told me that I inspired them and I found out many years later that my performance, my success, and my husbands success put a lot of pressure on my kids, but for them it was actually a pressure and actually they chose to work in other countries just to escape from the name, the family name, because otherwise what they would accomplish would be attributed to the fact that they are part of our family, so this is also another price that we pay for our success. My children, I am very proud of them chose to be challenged in the toughest cities of the world, in London, my son, and in New York, my daughter, so, you can imagine that for a mom, this is very difficult. Look at our family, I’m Belgrade, my son in London and my daughter in New York and my mother is exactly in the opposite corner of Romania, from Bucharest, not even my mom and my husband are together, so we pay the price every day, but we know what quality time means, because we really cherish those moments
Alejandro: And when you get together! Is there anything that you are looking for in the next 10 years, that is in your sight, and you say “that’s the next to be done”?
Simona: This is a message that I want the listeners to remember, even if you don’t follow your heart, you will end up by following your heart, so I restarted singing after 24 years of keeping silent, I restarted singing in Irak, when I was working in Irak 2006 – 2007, and singing was my escape from here, because I wasn’t used to mortars, to bombs every day, and I lived on the edge between life and death, and I think when you are living in that type of environment you really start to cherish life and you realize that the greatest gift in life is life itself. We take it too easily for granted, its amazing, and in that environment I came back to music and I promised myself that I would never give up my love and I until I die, I will also perform on a theatre stage, even if it’s a monodrama for 1 or 10 members of the audience, but I will be an actress on a stage, not only an actress on the world stage as I am now. So I went back to singing and I promised myself that I would never give up again. When I came to the UN began pursuing this dream, so that’s how I managed to record the first ever music album with 12 peace-themed songs performed by 5 ambassadors, from 5 different continents, it was called “Ambassadors sing for peace” and then, 1 year after, I founded the first ambassadorial rock band in the UN ever. The band’s name is UNRocks, and it is a project that still continues despite the temporary terms of the ambassadors. So it’s another way to spread the message of peace and I am also working on a little project in Belgrade, a CD with the Balcan youth orchestra and with some talented ambassadors, I think I will leave behind a music album and.
Alejandro: The fact that you connect your path from diplomacy with your passion for arts and music it’s amazing.
Simona: I think there is a red thread, one day I will write about the similarity between diplomacy, theatre and jazz, which is my greatest passion. In diplomacy you have a mandate, but it depends on your personal abilities and politics how you implement that mandate, that gives nobility to your performance, in theatre is exactly the same, you have the play but it depends on the vision of the director, and on the performance of the actors how the entire play looks like eventually. In jazz, you have the music theme but it’s the improvisation that gives that unique flavour of the music so, it’s so similar! And I think that’s why I love all these three things so much! That’s my journey! Each of us has a journey!