Interview with NICOLAE RATIU
Chairman of The Ratiu Foundation
by Ramona Mitrica
Q1. This is a peculiar situation: me interviewing my boss for public consumption. I would like to say that it is a pleasure for me working with you because you seem to enjoy all the things you do. Have I got it wrong? Are you deeply truly miserable?
Well, if I am deeply miserable, then I obviously hide it very well. I do enjoy very much the things that I do. And I’m always looking for new things to do, to add to what I’m already doing. I’ve always had a motto: ‘No need to suffer unnecessarily’. So I apply that to the things that I do. And I carry on with the things that I enjoy doing. And there are plenty of them.
Q2. Here you are: a perfect English gentleman, with a Romanian heritage and you’ve lost your heart to a Russian woman. If someone had to say what your own identity is, what would that be? How would you see your own identity?
I think that I’ve always been a mixture of two characters. My parents were both two strong personalities. And here I am. My father never gave up his Romanian identity and made sure that we never forgot that we were a Romanian family. On the other side there was my mother. She comes from an old English family, a very large English family, always around. So I was very conscious of being a member of an English family as well. But to me there was never a conflict. Although at school, my English school, people would say that I was a foreigner. But that didn’t bother me at all. I found it rather interesting. In England I am a kind of Romanian and in Romania I am an Englishman with a famous Romanian name. So it’s a bit strange. But it’s never been a problem for me. It adds a double dimension, if you like. It’s like when you learn languages. Unfortunately I speak Romanian badly. I speak French and German. But if you speak other languages you get into other dimensions in life, in character, in emotions. So I thi nk it’s a positive point. It’s enriching in life to have different nationalities.
Before 1990 my Romanian part was a bit puzzling because I’d never actually been in Romania before 1990. Basically what I knew about Romania was mostly old men arguing late into the night about Romanian exile politics. Really the difference was that when I actually went to Romania first in 1990 I suddenly was able to see that there were actually young people in Romania. Like me. They were enthusiastic and wanted to change things and change their lives… that was different.
Q3. Why did you learn Romanian? When?
When I first went to Romania, in 1990, I hardly spoke any Romanian. The only Romanian I’d learned before was when I was 16. My father and brother were going to go on a skiing holiday, ski trekking, and I wanted to go too. My father said ‘you can’t come unless you learn Romanian’. So, for the next term at school, I used to get up one hour earlier and learn Romanian, every morning, from a teach-yourself Romanian book. And then we all went on a ski trek together. We went to the Romanche part of Switzerland where they speak Romanche which is very near to Romanian. Then in 1990 I really had to learn Romanian, because there I was in the thick of an electoral campaign, doing all sorts of things that I’d never expected to do. And then with the start of the ‘Cotidianul’ newspaper obviously I had to learn Romanian.
Q4. Do you have any personal political ambitions?
No. Which is the same answer I gave back in 1990. I was on a live BBC telephone call-in show, with President Iliescu in 1990. And the interviewer asked me if I had any political ambitions. I said no.
But, who knows, maybe I am a late developer like my father. He entered Romanian politics at the age of 73. So I still have a long way to go.
I would prefer to make an influence. I think to try to do so through the political parties of today in Romania, including the so-called democratic parties, would in practice be useless right now. I think I make a greater effect by ensuring that our newspaper ‘Cotidianul’ is a kind of opposition in itself, to whoever is in government. It’s a platform of objective criticism of what is going on in the country, pointing out faults and errors and nonsense; funny as well as very serious and important aspects of daily life. And so my mission, if you like, with the newspaper is to ensure that it maintains that standard of objective commentary on the performance of the Government and what is actually happening around the nation. I think that is far more powerful than being allied to some or any of the other parties which play the political game in Romania today.
Q5. Your father was considered gentle, kind, tolerant, a very ambitious man, extremely sociable, a man of the salons, a political leader. What qualities do you share with your father?
I certainly share political ambition in a different way than he did. I am very conscious of our family history, ancestry, and what the family has done to contribute to Romania through generations. And I try to carry that on myself through what I’m doing. So there is a likeness in that. I like to think that he was capable of objective and dispassionate judgment of what was going on around him. Even though being part of a particular political argument he was capable of detaching himself and judging whether what he himself thought was right. I would like to think that I have a similar capacity to do that.
He had a capacity to compartmentalize problems. And I certainly have that. So when things are bad in some particular aspect of life, some particular aspect of business, or personal life or whatever – big problems – I can put them into a compartment and then get on with the rest of the compartments. So I don’t let one particular bad thing get me down. I am actually better at it than him. He could be very depressed. I am very rarely depressed in my life. He could be, and in fact after what happened to him on his return to Romania, I think he had every reason to be depressed considering how some people treated him.
Otherwise I like to think that I am generous. I am certainly not the person that wanders around the salons as you put it. He was certainly much more sociable, gregarious than I am. That was his character. I suppose I am a mixture of my mother and father as he was a mixture of his mother and father.
Q6. Your family played and important role in Romanian history. Would you have looked at Romania in the same way as you do now if you didn’t have this position given by your family history? Can you be objective?
No. I don’t think it is possible to be objective. I am inextricably linked to my ancestors. My father was always going to go back to Romania – if he could. When I was born that was the plan. But then with the advent of the communist regime it was impossible. In fact he was asked specifically in a letter from Iuliu Maniu to stay outside Romania and to do what he could to help Romania and lobby for a free and democratic Romania outside. And this was in ‘47. It’s impossible to ignore my heritage.
If I was 100% English I dare say I would have a very different view of Romania, like English people do. I spend more time explaining Romania to English people.
Q7. The readers of this newsletter know about your great support for the Romanian culture. Could you tell us what other activities related to Romania you have?
I have as my responsibility the Ratiu Foundation, funded by our ongoing business interests as well as being endowed by my father from his private fortune. Its objective is to assist Romanian students studying or doing research principally in the UK, as well as supporting projects of all kinds – educational, the performing arts, literary, economic – anything. It’s a very wide brief as to what projects we support. We’re getting applications and ideas that come across our desk all the time. There are two sides to it: UK, USA, and elsewhere – outside Romania; and inside Romania – we support many activities to do with the humanitarian and civic society side through the Ratiu Foundation in Bucharest. In addition there is for example a theatre project in Bucharest, DramAcum, supporting the translation of plays into the Romanian language and putting the best on. We are open to all other possibilities in Romania.
I am also Trustee of The Relief Fund for Romania which is very active in Romania especially through the Romanian end of it, FSC (Fondul pentru Sprijin Comunitar), based in Bacau. The Relief Fund has achieved an enormous amount. It raises through charity shops and donations between 300.000 – 400.000 pounds a year. All of it goes to support different projects in Romania: a mobile health center program, a mobile play therapy system for kids, traveling doctors, traveling clinics for the villages, a street children centre, and many more. I am very proud of that achievement. It doesn’t make a lot of high PR, publicity noise. It just gets on with the job. It’s why I like it so much.
Fundatia Ratiu is another separate Romanian foundation which started by concentrating on children with Leukemia before expanding to other projects principally concerning the elderly and with addressing the shortages in Romanian social services. I am also on its board.
One of the main objectives of the Foundation, my father ‘s special wish, is to found a center for social and political studies in our family home town of Turda – in Transylvania, near Cluj. The idea there is to reconstruct our ancestral family house, by no means a huge country mansion, which we have now recovered. It’s a large town house with a courtyard on the main street in Turda which we want to turn into a center, with the three Ratiu characters best known in the Romanian social-political history as a focus. The first being Dr Ioan Ratiu, the memorandist. The second being Viorel Tilea who was my father’s uncle and the grandson of Dr Ioan Ratiu. He was in the foreign office before the war and came to London as the Romanian ambassador. And then of course, my father. That goes back to my heritage – I have learned a great deal more about my other ancestors. There was for example Vasile Ratiu – bishop of Blaj. But the catalyst of the centre will be the 3 characters mentioned- their contribution to the ar ea, for Transylvania, and for the nation itself.
This center will be a place for research, study, for resident and visiting academics. There will be a library. It will be a centre of Interactive learning. We will work with the local academic authorities. We have already set up links with the college in Turda – Colegiul Dr Ioan Ratiu (named after the Memorandist). We’ll turn our study centre into something very exciting and unusual, focused for Romanian and foreign students of Romanian history. Not particularly Transylvanian history but Romanian history.
Q8. In the context of the EU integration – how do you see the changes in the cultural field? Do you regret them?
I certainly don’t believe that the EU will turn us all into a single amorphous lump, a kind of super-state with similar characters. Just because of the separate languages we will remain different, and thank God for that! That’s what makes Europe so much more interesting than America, for instance. I think it would be difficult for Romania to avoid becoming cocacolarized or macdonaldized because it’s very easy. It’s the easy way. Probably most people are naturally lazy. So they take the easy route. And the easy route is to go the consumer way rather than retaining what is historically important and precious. This is the reason why I helped found Pro Patrimonio, based on the English National Trust. Its purpose is the preservation and restoration of Romanian historic monuments, villages and countryside. This is all about restoring the pride of the Romanian people in their country. That is what’s missing in Romania. We were talking earlier about the difference between Romanian people and English people. En glish people are proud of Britain. Romanian people are very rarely proud of Romania. My father, exceptionally, was very proud of Romania. I think it is because Romanians had such a bitter experience and there is so much blackness in their total image of Romania. There are lots of lovely bright spots and interesting shiny parts. But the blackness makes it very difficult for Romanians to be wholly proud of their nation. And that’s what Pro Patrimonio is all about. It’s not just to repair a few buildings; it’s also about trying to restore people’s pride in what their country was, and is and can be again.
Q9. If you weren’t what you are now, would you like to be a peasant?
I’d be quite happy being a peasant. I’ve had three different careers: in shipping, in the oil business and now in property, real estate, media, newspapers, and I’d be quite happy being a peasant. I suppose it goes back to what I always remember were the last words in Voltaire’s ‘’Candide’’: ’Il faut cultiver son jardin’. It doesn’t mean just look after your garden. It means you have to take care of yourself. Nobody else is going to do it for you – live your life for you. You have to make your own garden and look after it. But I’m very happy looking after my own garden, both metaphorically and figuratively. From the moment that I could afford a house I’ve always had as large a garden as possible and worked in it myself. I get enormous pleasure doing it. Planting, seeing things growing and watching the change of the seasons. I always say to myself when I feel a bit miserable: remember, spring always follows winter.
For me when things are difficult, many times in my life I’ve found peace and encouragement just by fiddling around in my garden.
Q10. Is this your biggest indulgence then?
Yes, probably. I spend a lot more money on the garden than I do on most other things.
Q11. Speaking about indulgence. What cooking is worst: English or Romanian?
Basically typical English cooking is abysmal; But there are now plenty of wonderful restaurants in England that didn’t use to be around when I was growing up. Now you can have almost anything you want. And the so-called new English cooking I think is actually very interesting. But it’s only been available for the last 10 – 15 years. Before English cooking had disgusting things like cottage pie, bubble and squeak, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Awful.
Whenever I go to Romania I always eat Romanian food. My friends ask me which restaurant I would like to go to. I always say Romanian. Not again!
My mother tried very hard but she couldn’t cook. My father got very furious with that. He told her that his cousins always cooked far better. These were the daughters of Tilea and they cooked Romanian food better than she did. So you can imagine how much she liked being told that. Actually she went off to learn how to cook and she even ended up with her own cookery school, teaching other people to cook. That’s how she learned how to cook Romanian food. There was always a certain amount of Romanian food that we had at home. Not so much now, but my Russian wife cooks Ukrainian sarmale and all sorts of delicious things her grandmother taught her.
You like sports. Football and rugby. If Romania would play against England who would you support?
The last time I remember England played Romania football was in the European cup, Euro2000. I actually went to the match with my brother. It was in Belgium. I was a bit torn. So just to be absolutely sure I bet on Romania to win and I supported England. And Romania won. So I won money and England lost. I was very happy.
With rugby that’s slightly difficult. I put a party together of people in 2001 for a rugby match and unfortunately Romania suffered the greatest ever defeat in history. But it was great fun. I was supporting Romania in that case. They needed it. They didn’t have any.
I remember I went once to a Moldova against England football match about 7 years ago in Wembley stadium. And the entire Moldovan support was the Moldovan government official delegation. About 10 of them, all in grey suits. And there was four of us. And we couldn’t make very much noise. But anyway Moldova lost. They always were better at opera.
Businessman and Philanthropist.; Born Davos, Switzerland 1948; Currently Managing Director of Regent House Properties Ltd and 6 other companies including ‘Cotidianul’ newspaper; Chairman of The Ratiu Foundation; Treasurer of The Romanian Cultural Centre London; Trustee of Pro Patrimonio (The National Trust of Romania); Trustee of The Relief Fund for Romania; Board Member of Fundatia Ratiu, Romania.
The Ratiu Foundation
8th floor, 54 – 62 Regent Street, London W1B 5RE
Phone: + 44 (0)20 7439 4052, Fax: + 44 (0)20 7437 5908
Web page: www.ratiufamilyfoundation.com/