Austria, Part Three: Vienna and Iulia

One delightful discovery along the way, was Iulia Pop.

In this photo, taken in the small Romanian Village of Varviz in 1974, my father, in front with sun glasses, discovers his oldest remaining relative, the brother of his mother, Jon Bocra. Uncle Jon is surrounded by his family. Was Iulia’s relatives among them?

In planning for this trip, I had asked my sister’s grandson, Drake Southwick, about people there since he had traveled to Romania about two years ago. I asked him for some contacts to help with planning our trip.

One of the contacts he gave me was Iulia Pop. She is related somehow, but I didn’t understand how. She lives in Timisaura, the University City on the west border of Romania where the revolution against the dictator, Ceauşescu ignited. But now she is just finishing her fourth year at the University in Vienna.

The best manner of communication turned out to be Facebook messaging. I wrote her several times and established that her mother was in the small village of Varviz in 1974 when I visited there and took photos for my memoir, Pilgrim Notes.  She told me that her mother was nine then and remembered me, that I had taken her photo and that it was one of the few times her photo had been taken as a child.

I wondered who, exactly, she was, and did her photo get into my book? I examined my copy of the book and imagined which of the family members’ photos I had taken that might be hers.  Readers can view that book here:

Before we left, Facebook was not a problem to use as a way to communicate.  But here in Europe, it is.  Facebook sucks gigabites of data whenever I open it, so after the first week of using my new phone, I realized that I would burn through our 10 gigs of data in another week if I continued to peek at Facebook, even briefly. So I removed it from the new phone and used it on my old phone only when we had WIFI at a B and B or restaurant.

So now we were about to meet the daughter of a girl (who was only nine at the time) that I had very briefly met 45 years ago and could not remember exactly. Through a Facebook conversation while at our B and B in Salzburg, Iulia and I had arrived at an agreement to meet at the Landtmann Cafe near the Rathaus stop of the subway in Vienna at 4pm.

I had seen her Facebook profile photo, but wasn’t sure we’d be able to recognize her. After checking in to a very old and dingy hotel on the north side of Vienna, we were able to take a trolly that got us to within five blocks of the cafe before four pm. We walked about 500 meters and made it to the cafe just on time and began to look around for Iulia. We spotted a tall young brunette, made eye contact smiled, and she quickly looked away. I spotted another, and the same reaction. I began to feel a bit self conscious, making eyes at young ladies, standing there in a crowded outdoor cafe with my wife on my arm. I wondered if I had somehow gotten the time or place wrong. We began to look for a table.

Not long after we arrived, we saw her walking up to the cafe.  The epitome of a cosmopolitan student–well put together from head to toe, and an air of a sophistication that surprised me in one so young.  

Just then, a young lady with penetrating black eyes approached us, and we knew it must be Iulia. She kissed us on both cheeks and she signaled to a waiter and found a table for the three of us.

By the way she took over, she subtlely let us know that this is her city and she would be our guide here, and we were willing to let her take charge. I felt as if we, as Tennessee Williams wrote, “have always been helped by the kindness of strangers.” Iulia, however, was no stranger, and soon to become as close as a daughter.


I showed Iulia a digital copy of Pilgrim Notes and the photo of the two girls, one of which I had guessed might be her mom turned out not to be her mother. “No, I look like my mom,” she said.

We continued through the book, and she pointed to one woman, the youngest of five, standing in the center of the photo. “That’s my grandmother!”

Iulia recognized her grandmother in the center of this photo.


“Then this must be your mom,” I said,  pointing to a young girl, next to her grandmother in the large group photo with Uncle Jon. The hair and facial structure of the young girl did resemble Iulia.

“Yes, I think so,” Iulia said.

So this young girl is Iulia’s mother, Georgeta Sumalan at age 9 when I photographed Uncle Jon’s family in 1974.  Iulia’s grandmother is on the right, her great grandfather is on the left, (Uncle Jon, to my father). Iulia’s grandfather is seen at the upper left.

Iulia is studying International Economics and speaks Romanian, Spanish, German, English, a little French, and is working on Portuguese.  Hard to believe from a young woman whose mother grew up in a poor village under the Communist Ceaucşescu rule.  And yet, she tells us, as we walk, that she thinks her mother had a more significant change–she came from a farm village life and eventually earned a PhD in agriculture and now teaches at a university in Timisoara.

We chatted about the family and how her mother made the transition from Varviz, a small, provincial village in the northern county of Bijor, to the third-largest city in Romania, Timişoara. While doing that, Romania was moving toward the end of Communism. And where would that movement start? Timişoara. This amazing juxtaposition was intreaguing. So many writing ideas to follow up!  But that would have to wait for a week when we would travel to Timişoara. Iulia would meet us there  and we would get to meet the little girl in that photo, Georgeta, Iulia’s mother.

For now, Iulia would walk us around Austria’s capital.

Iulia’s confidence as she showed us a compact, 90 minute walking tour of Vinna’s old town, the Opera House, the Old Theater, the State Library and old shops and cafes was impressive.  Her facility walking around the city astounded Rebecca and me. While walking, Iulia tantalized us with stories of her family. Her mother made such a huge transition from a small Communist era village to become a professor and department head of research lab in a large, modern, progressive Romanian city. Now, Iulia’s own transition from that city to a worldly, cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, sophisticated, student of economics, seekng a position next year in a masters program in Vienna–that transition is also a book-worthy idea of its own. But, again, that theme would have to wait. Our time with Iulia was about to end. She had a friend to meet, a late evening rendesvous with a former classmate, driving on her way to Munich, stopping in Vienna for a quick chat with Iulia and a coffee before she makes the remaining three-hour drive to into Germany. How things have changed since my trip to Eastern Europe 44 years ago!

We said our goodbyes, the kisses on each cheek, and Rebecca and I were back in the trolly, heading back to the hotel.  There is much more to this story, I sense, when we meet Gheorgetta, Iulia’s mom; and Dorin Pop, her dad, in about a week.

Still early, we had a chance to regroup our suitcases and get ready for travel tomorrow, up at 5:30, leave the hotel by 6:15, reach the Moxy airport hotel by 7:00 am, and meet our ride by 8:00am.  We have a big travel day tomorrow to Romania.

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