Where They Live - Steve Willis '89
Picturesque Brasov, Romania, left to right: Biserica Neagra, (Black Church) built in 1477; Council Square in the center of the city; side street where life moves slowly
Snowboarding down a mountainside in Brasov, Romania, Steve Willis ’89 knew he was right where he wanted to be. The town, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, “looked like the movie set for Saving Private Ryan,” Willis says. Worn, historic buildings lined unlit cobblestone streets, a bottle of beer cost 15 cents, and he could buy a house for the price of a used car in the U.S. Here, Willis has built a life in which adventure, work and relaxation exist in a state of perfect balance. But an initial adventure preceded the snowboarding epiphany.
On the advice of an SLC classmate, in 1998 Willis took off on a “last hurrah” backpacking trip through Eastern Europe, intending to settle down afterward in his native New York. His visit became more or less permanent when he answered an ad for a “business English trainer” for a British firm in Bucharest. Willis figured he’d spend a year at the job and then “rejoin the straphangers on the subway.” Instead, he founded his own company and stayed on. Five years later, while learning Russian, Willis fell for his instructor, Natasha Bicbaiev, a social work student from the Republic of Moldova.
Willis travels throughout Eastern Europe and Russia for his work, and he and Bicbaiev share an apartment in Bucharest. But Willis’s heart is in Brasov (pronounced Brashov). In contrast to fast-paced, noisy Bucharest, here life moves slowly. Willis and Bicbaiev awaken to the sounds of roosters crowing and horses’ hooves clopping up the cobblestone street outside, a wooden cart rattling behind. Willis recently bought a 50-year-old house with its own vineyard, so now he’s learning winemaking.
A gateway to Transylvania, Brasov was founded by Saxons in the 13th Century; the area was later settled by Germans and Hungarians. Willis resides in Brasov’s old quarter, known as the Schei district. The quaint, red-tile-roofed homes of this tidy suburb were built during the 17th century; Saxon law prevented Romanians from owning property inside the city walls, so they developed the valley outside. Years later, in 1945, Soviet factories were kept at bay by residents who boycotted May Day celebrations, destroyed the road leading to their town and erected a barricade with a sign reading, “Up to here, Communism. From here on, The Schei.”
The quintessential Brashov experience is the annual Junii (yoo’-nee-a) festival or “Feast of Youth” held just after Easter and believed to date back two millennia. Squads of Junii-young men in colorful antique costumes-ride throughout the Schei on horseback, carrying scepters and flags designating their neighborhood of origin. Towns-people partake in traditional dances, and the young men’s coming-of-age is celebrated in a scepter-throwing ritual.
In summer, Willis and Bicbaiev relax with locals at barbeques, where people play music, eat hamburgers called mic and drink palinca, a fruit brandy. Peaceful bike rides down winding, dirt roads reveal farmers tending fields the old way, with scythes.
But music is Willis’s favorite entry point into the community; he plays banjo with the Shukar Collective, a group of local musicians whose work he describes as “Gypsy-music-electronic-multimedia performance, actually very SLC.” In his college days, he played with the Cross County Ramblers, a large, student bluegrass band whom he credits with laying his musical foundations. Now, he plays with musicians who mix traditional Romanian folk music with modern influences, putting a new spin on an old form.
Although he sometimes pines for San Francisco burritos and falafel from Mamoun’s on MacDougal, Willis says his rounded, balanced lifestyle keeps him in Romania: he has good friends, music, outdoor adventure, a comfortable way of living and, of course, someone with whom to share it all. Here, Willis says he can “live a rich life on a shoestring. Romania recharged my batteries and gave me a fresh perspective.”