One of our New Year resolutions was to learn more about communities. What are they? How to build them? How do they make decisions? How to handle conflicts? Although we had previous experiences with different communities, usually they were built around the place of living or limited to one family only. Dreaming about our own community in the future, we want to discover different models and ways of functioning also in intentional communities, opened as a result of a conscious decision of their members. Casa de Cultura Permanenta in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, occurred to be a perfect place for learning. Firstly, in its rich library we found a book which describes in depth the community-creation process and all the challenges connected with it. Secondly, Casa itself went through different stages of community building before it became what it is today.
Casa de Cultura Permanenta started when we got fed up with the usual way of doing business – says Dan, co-founder. We were slowly evolving from being young employees to young entrepreneurs, then socially and environmentally conscious people. We realized something is wrong with the system. We started to be activists, and as activists we learned more about how the society is built, how the democratic system doesn’t actually serve everybody, but serves only part of the society. We also realized that part of the problem we have as society is that we isolate ourselves as individuals and species from everything else and we tend to externalize what we don’t want to deal with. Somebody else should care about it. That time we were already local consumers, second-hand shops buyers, trying to not use anything new and recycle as much as we could. We started to question the way we were doing business, we were running our own hostel. Is this making anybody happy? Is this helping anybody, society? We also realized how schizophrenic are some of our actions: we were protesting against Coca Cola, Pepsi, some beers which destroyed the last brewery in the city and then we were coming back to our hostel and selling them to the clients. What’s the point? Are we consistent in what we believe and act upon it? Or we just shout and wait for somebody to make a change?
They decided to be the change themselves. In a few months they closed the hostel, staying alone in the big house. The evening after the official closing, Dan and Adele sat together thinking what they should do next.
Starting from August 2013 we were here, in a huge, empty house. We didn’t need so much space ourselves. We started to consider it in terms of permaculture philosophy: we have resources. What can we do with it? We could open the place but change the paradigm. Instead of selling a service, we offer it. We offer what we have to other people, with no expectation. We will allow everybody to sleep here, if there are free beds, and we will offer everything in the house, just asking people to replicate the Gift Economy. We offer this space also for events, with the same demand: don’t ask participants for a fee, be inclusive, accept everybody and you can stay here as much as you want.
The beginning was not easy. Dan and Adele, wanting to keep the previous standard of the place, set up a lot of rules, how to clean, how to wash dishes to save water, how to vacuum the staircase, how to use heating. They had a lot of people coming from couchsurfing, woofing, workaway, sometimes more than 10 people at the same time. Most of them came just for a short while, never even having a look on all those rules.
We gradually relaxed and gave up realizing nobody read rules. Finally we have only two of them: leave things as you found them and don’t do things unless you really love them. This was the result of experimenting. We wanted to encourage taking responsibility and being proactive.
Creating a community had its strong and weak moments. On one hand, trust shown to others was worth and brought many beautiful stories. On the other hand, a lot of people were not ready to engage in community building, most of the responsibility was still on Dan and Adela, who tried to organize a common meeting, initiate talks. With time they became more and more concentrated on outside activities, Repair Café, events in the city, they had less and less time for hosting, so they decided to change the concept.
We closed couchsurfing and started to accept as volunteers only people who want to contribute to the project, have useful skills. Or they want to do something specific in the city. Since then, we have had very few volunteers. We also got Raluca to take care of them. Diana started to help us with events. Ovidiu showed up in April, he came specifically to volunteer at the Repair Café. Then we’ve got Andrei and Ian coming later on and they also seem to be involved in what we are trying to do: developing different models and documenting them within our NGOs.
All people mentioned above have their own changemaking stories. Diana leads Society for Responsible Consumption in Aiud, a nearby village, Andrei works for the Peace ActionTraining and Research Institute of Romania, while Ian founded Priceless Vitality, a website which connects people who need medical care with those who can provide it. All of them also bring something special to Casa’s community. It can be workshops, work in a Repair Café, walking with dogs and taking care of cats, collecting food thrown away by supermarkets. And what’s more important, all of them head the same direction.
We value collaboration, social and environmental awareness in doing business and we try to develop some models not necessarily focused on profit in order to challenge the current paradigm: you cannot have business without profit. We also have a strong focus on local resources. We try to apply the Circular Economy in terms of using resources and energy, from our region, not importing from far away. The same goes for services: we provide them for the local community, not to export. We are creating a network of resilience in our region: people who are making shoes, people who are making food, people who are making clothes, who can support each other if global trade stops or it is not possible anymore, for various reasons. We shifted into the Circular Economy in 2015. If we have resources taken from the system, we try to use them as much as possible and give back to the system, instead of a linear way of thinking in which we take something, use and throw away in another place. Resources are limited and if we take something from the system we should put effort to put it back into the system. Right now we are active with the Repair Café project, which is going quite well. We started with random events in the city, wherever people could accommodate us. Now we have three places that we need to set up. One is already full of stuff.
People bring broken materials, objects, things, and the Repair Café fixes them, gives them back, sometimes sells, sometimes builds something new, sometimes recycles. Working with local partners they are raising awareness and promoting Circular Economy as well as Gift Economy.
Exchange most of the time is about yourself. I get something and value how much I have to give back for it. It’s not about the others, it’s about my exchange, what I give, what I get. With the Gift Economy the attention changes from what I want to what other people need. From what I have to what I can do for you? It’s not about exchanges, but giving. You can give what you have, go and be interested in others and see how you can be helpful. In the Gift Economy, where nothing is required back, attention is not on self, not on balance: I’m losing or gaining. What is also important, you cannot give what you don’t have. You give only what you feel you don’t lose. Skill, trade, whatever you don’t need, something you can give away. It changes the way people relate to each other.
It requires, thought, to recognize what is your real need, and what is just a desire.
Voluntary Simplicity is a concept in which it’s important to distinguish what are needs and what are wants. Wants can be given up, needs cannot. The aim is to cover everybody’s needs and not focus on wants: faster car, latest computer, etc. Sometimes wants are possible, sometimes not, and we don’t have to suffer for that.
This attitude is similar to Buddhism and other philosophies concentrated on mindfulness and being here and now, which are present in Casa, both in form of regular workshops of yoga or meditation and in daily discussions and actions.
Buddhism says everything is suffering, you need to detach. It’s again about wants and needs. Be satisfied with your needs. Just be happy and content, why not? Being able to practice Gift Economy comes from having your needs fulfilled, as long as they are basic: I buy things in second hand shops, I eat local food, I don’t want bananas, mandarins, coffee which have to be imported, I’m good without. In that sense I don’t need too much so I can afford to give. And giving, as always, pays back. In three years we are functioning, we’ve never run out of money to pay bills. But most of the time I did something because I wanted and people gave us donations or information about grants available also because they wanted, not because they had to.
People appreciate the concept of Casa, they want to come back, be here. From the first moment you feel here like at home. Rules are easy: if there is no name on a thing - and we’ve never seen any in the 10 days we spent there - it belongs to everybody. Today there are no strict regulations in Casa, no regular scheduled meetings; but rituals, which keep the community together, remain in the form of Sunday pancake breakfast, Saturday trip to the Flea Market or cooking for others. We were there in winter, in this part of the year the living room is the coldest part of the house, so not always we were able to meet there somebody, but if we did, it finished up with interesting, important conversations. Every day brought new thoughts. Even if physically there was not much to do, change was happening.
Do. Be. It’s so simple. We are always living in this illusion that something is not possible. Allow yourself to be wrong. You are not a bad person if you make mistakes. Just don’t make the same mistakes, do new one. You can apologize, be sorry, repair things. Of course it will be nice to observe before interacting, but sometimes you make mistakes anyway. We are the best people we can be. And we can be happy about that.
More information about Casa de Cultura Permanenta