Universul’s Alison Butler, among Biz’s extraordinary women

The following interview originally appeared in Romanian in Revista Biz

Alison Mutler, an Englishwoman who fell in love with the Romanian language in her youth and who settled in Romania immediately after the fall of communism, has managed to build an impressive career in journalism in her new country, collaborating with important media institutions such as CNN, BBC and the Associated Press. She has been leading Universul.net for five years now. 

The Romanian language radically changed Alison Mutler’s life. When she found out that a Latin language is spoken in Romania, in the heart of Eastern Europe, her curiosity pushed her to learn more about Romanian, a language used by the inhabitants of a country beyond the Iron Curtain, about which, at the time, she didn’t know too much. But from the first words she came across, she fell in love completely with the Romanian language. She was fascinated by its pronunciation, the new sounds that do not exist in English and its proximity to Vulgar Latin. Back then, Alison was an eager young Londoner preparing to sit her A-levels, after which she planned to study languages, although she admits her relationship with French „was like an arranged marriage” and it wasn’t passion that drove her towards French. However, she suddenly made a decision to study Romanian, a radical change of heart, which was only supported by two people: a teacher and her mother, who was happy that Alison had found something to interest her. 

„I went to Dennis Deletant, he was my professor. He wasn’t enthralled, because I had made my choice quite late. But what saved me was that I had studied Latin and had good grades, as it is very difficult to go from zero to a goodish level in a a single year. That was the story. After that, I went to the University of London at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies,” says Alison Mutler in perfect Romanian with a noticeable British accent.

She acutely recalls the culture shock she experienced upon her first trip to Romania. Although the first city she visited was Sighișoara, an imposing medieval fortress that deeply impressed her, people there at the time had an extremely rigid attitude, avoiding and even fearing interactions with foreigners.

“I was very impressed by the beauty of the landscape, the beauty of the medieval city, but at the same time I was not able to interact with the people as I would have liked. But that didn’t diminish my passion for Romania, somehow I found it even more interesting.”

After graduating from university, she worked as a translator at the British Council, which gave her the opportunity to meet many Romanian artists who came to Great Britain as part of cultural exchanges, such as Ion Caramitru or Marcel Iureș. In her capacity as translator, she attempted to enter Romania in August 1989, together with two British journalists, including Sue-Lloyd Roberts, who meant make a documentary film, but they did not receive a visa and were even imprisoned for a night. 

A few months later, when the Revolution had begun in the country, Sue Lloyd-Roberts phoned Alison and told her that the Independent Television News (ITN) needed a Romanian translator who would be available to board a plane to Bucharest in three hours. Alison didn’t hesitate and immediately accepted the challenge. She left a note in the window of the store where she worked, apologizing to customers who wanted to do some shopping before the holidays: „Gone to a Revolution.”

The ITN team, with Alison in tow, did not manage to land in Bucharest, but ended up in Budapest, from where they took a bus to Timișoara, a city they arrived in the evening of December 21.

„I had no idea. At the hotel where I was staying, the Timișoara hotel, there was a shooting. They must have been told that the foreign agents were there. All the foreign press was there. I remember, the cameraman was on the 11th floor, and a bullet came from below that was very close to hitting him in the head. On the 25th and 26th of December there was shooting and we hid under the beds. The hotel was a target because that’s where the foreigners were. Only after the corpses of the Ceaușescus were seen on television did it enter another phase. They were still shooting, but not like before, in the streets.”

With the fall of communism, Romania, a country not long ago closed off to Alison, suddenly opened up, and so she made the decision to stay. She continued to work with the British Council and accompanied a delegation from the Bulandra Theater in London and Dublin and further teamed up with Sue-Lloyd Roberts, with whom she went to the Republic of Moldova in 1990, when the neighboring country was still part of Soviet union. The report made there was highly appreciated by The Independent, who gave it a quarter of a page, which attracted other collaborations from publications interested in collaborating, on a freelance basis, with journalists who would know this part of Europe.

“Mum was more understanding, although she obviously missed me. Eventually they understood and visited me. Now it is more difficult, they are very old. My brother always wants to come here, but I have to be more free when he comes. I visit there quite often”, says Alison Mutler.

During all this time, she collaborated with CNN, for which she reported the infamous Miners’ incident live, she made a series of shows for the BBC, including a documentary on the Romanian Securitate, then her career steps led her to the Associated Press news agency, for which she worked for 25 years in Romania. She published a book, “Gone to the Revolution”, with themes of political, social and cultural Romania, containing 80 reports and articles written by Alison between 1994 and 2006.

Readers who browse the pages of her book will discover stories about the entire Romanian micro-universe: from King Mihai and Ion Iliescu to football, miners, security, NATO or the EU. Alison currently writes in English for Free Europe, and was working on an article for the Financial Times at the time of the interview. All this in parallel with the director’s job at Universul.net, a breaking news site in Romanian and English, covering all areas of interest, for which Dan Perry, former Associated Chief Middle East correspondent, also writes as a top contributor. 

Universul.net journalists to host Ratiu Forum webinar on reporting from totalitarian states

Articolul Universul’s Alison Butler, among Biz’s extraordinary women apare prima dată în Universul.net.

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