Just finished my 100th trip to Romania. During the first 50 trips, Romanians usually greeted me as if I was an overdue dinner guest by saying “my grandpa promised that one day the Americans will come”.
But now the reaction is different. I am asked “Why do you love Romania so much?”
The simple answer is that I love standing on the hills, with a breeze in my face, and looking out at the endless horizon of green hills and small farms.
I love the humility of Romanians.
I love the struggle for human dignity in Romania, promised by the Constitution, but denied by the Government.
Above all, my 100 trips are about people. People that have made me a better person. Romanians’ have a saying – “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are”. My Romanian friends are the people I aspire to be.
On my first visit in 2003 I met a friend who was tortured in Communism and freely forgave his prison guards.
For years I slept in an orphanage and was moved by an orphan girl that never smiled. In her blank stare I heard the words “I saw the face of God on a little orphan girl on the other side of the world …what are you going to do now?”
I spent years watching two brothers grow up. They taught me that joy does not come from the world around you, but rather from the spirit inside you.
I befriended a man that had faith and courage so strong, that every Sunday he wheeled himself 3 kilometers to church down a busy road with no sidewalk (even in heavy rain). We built a church together, even though I could never speak to him.
I discovered that wisdom and identity comes the simple places.
There is core group of friends that have been with me from the beginning. Their homes have been my home. We have set our sights on impossible dreams. We have suffered through illness and death. No matter the obstacles, joy has always been at the heart of our work.
Quitting has never been an option for us (although it is always a temptation in Romania)
In 2010 I met a leader that reminded me that real change comes slowly and quietly from the most unexpected places.
And I met a friend who is every thing I was not. He is an artist. He prefers to read and think, more than talk. Over the years he taught me that everything is grace. Everything I have is more than I deserve. And only when we appreciate all the little things in life do we begin to grasp the bigger picture.
He has traveled the world, more by foot, than plane. I pleaded to join him on a five week trek through Krygyzstan, but he quietly smiled and promised to send me a photo. He keeps his promises.
He suggested the best way to decide if we really like each other is get completely bored with one another in the middle of nowhere. I accepted the challenge and we spent long weekends at his little hut in the mountains.
As our friendship grew, he built a loft in his closet – which also served as his office. From my bed, I can look down at his quiet sanctuary of creation.
In my typical American brashness, I suggested we do something to change the country. He responded by writing a book and publishing just one copy – for me. He wanted me to know the evil we needed to overcome.
He explained the mental trauma of communism through the experience of watching his home get bulldozed and living in a block. These photos with his mother are in the exact same spot -his childhood backyard and later, a communist block.
In the end, we became best friends. When we formed RomaniaOne he told me “Donny boy – Ours must be a Revolution of Grace. It is the only way forward in Romania.”
My most memorable moment over the past 12 years was on a Sunday afternoon in a village so forgotten, it does not appear on Google Maps. We stumbled upon a barbeque in an orchard.
For three hours my translator was a young girl that reminded me of my 10 year old daughter. I wanted this girl to have the same opportunities as my daughter, so I asked for her contact information.
Our final goodbye was captured in a photo. To my left is a woman I will never forget. She was so sweet; I hugged her and said, “I love you.”
She quickly replied “We will know if you love us …. if you come back.”
She was right. Love hopes, love protects, love trusts and above all, love perseveres. It never quits. This is the love that never fails. I will never know her name, but her loving eyes and gentle words are with me always.
If I learned one thing as a venture capitalist, it is that the first decade in any new endeavor is about learning. Profound impact begins in the second decade.
After 100 trips, I feel like I am just getting started.