Denise Baldwin – “I thought I’d stay in Cluj for 1 year, 4 years later I’m still here because I’m in love with the city”

Denise is from England, she's been living in Cluj-Napoca for 4 years and she's not planning to leave yet because she is in love with the city. Denise has traveled the world and worked as volunteer in Guatemala. She is passionate about people and the saxophone.

I met Denise 2 years ago during an event organized at Reactor – an independent theater designed to promote young artists. The purpose of the project was to bring on stage ordinary people from Cluj-Napoca who had a talent besides their work.

That is when I learned that Denise was from England and that she played the saxophone. One of the things you notice immediately at Denise is that she’s always smiling. I have rarely met such a positive person. I was curious why. Last week I met her and took the opportunity to talk about her life and the things she is passionate about.

Denise, please tell us more about your home and your life in England

I was born in England on the outskirts of west London but I spent most of my childhood further west, in a place called Farnham Common. I have a twin sister and 3 brothers, 2 of which are twins, but none of us are identical.

My father used to be a drummer in a jazz band. One day he brought a piano home. That was my first contact with music, apart from at school where everybody had to learn to play the recorder or the violin. Years later a good friend of mine bought me a saxophone as a present.

I did not know much about it then but I learned and I became very passionate about it. Before I knew it, I was doing gigs with my brother who played the piano and his wife who was a singer. We played mostly blues and jazz, some covers but also we wrote music of our own.

Over the years I played in several bands mostly as a hobby. For about 3 years I focused on music full time. I spent them playing in different bands and teaching children to play the saxophone. Then, for some reason, I switched to IT where I built a career for about 10 years.

“I’ve always wanted to see the world and discover exotic places. One day I sold everything and went off travelling to Central and South America”

How did you decide to leave everything behind and travel the world?

At some point I realized I wasn’t getting any younger. I’ve always wanted to travel to another part of the world and discover exotic places. So I sold everything I had, including my house, and I went off travelling. I spent 7 months visiting the west coast of Central and South America.

I started with Guatemala, me and my then partner, we travelled around the country. Then we went all the way south: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. We finished the trip with Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina. I was really privileged to see all those extraordinary places. When I returned to UK, I decided to go back to Guatemala to volunteer.

“When I returned, I decided it was time to give something back. I felt extremely fortunate So I went to work as a voluteer in Guatemala”

Why did you decide to do that? What was the reason?

When I was young, I wanted to become a nurse; I even got into a nursing school, but then I kind of fell into IT and I started working in a software company in the technical support department. But I always felt the need to care for other people.

When I returned to England, I decided it was time to give something back. I felt extremely fortunate: fortunate to have been born in England in a good family, fortunate to receive a good education, fortunate to be able to travel the world. So I went to work in Guatemala for an association called Nuevos Horizontes (which means new horizons).

They have a shelter in Quetzaltenango for abused women and children and a day care center. The world that I discovered there was a totally different reality and most of the cases we had to deal with were absolutely horrible. Dealing with those people and learning their stories helps you put things in perspective and realize how lucky most of us are.

“Buying stuff all the time: new clothes, new electronics, the latest iPhone – it’s all a quick fix. You can get more joy out of giving than out of receiving”

What was the most important lesson you learned in Guatemala?

An important lesson that always sticks in my mind was delivered to me by an American lady I met there. She used to say: people think they can be happy just by buying things, but that is quick fix. Buying stuff all the time: new clothes, new electronics, the latest iPhone – it’s all a quick fix. You can get more joy out of giving than out of receiving.

I stayed in Guatemala for 3 years, doing activities with women and children: reading, writing, making things etc. It was hard work, but it was worth it. There were a lot of moments when I felt exhausted, but there were also magical moments. You gave some child an orange and he was over the moon… for an orange. Seeing the joy on those children’s faces, that was absolutely amazing. Volunteering in Guatemala was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

So what did you do after you returned home?

I had to return to Europe because my health wasn’t as good as it should have been. I was running out of money and I needed a job. So I called my former employer and they offered me a job in Cluj-Napoca. I did not know much about Romania at that time. I didn’t do much research about the country either.

But I’d lived for 3 years in Guatemala dealing with bad infrastructure, contaminated water and high altitudes. Romania could not be any worse than that!  Before accepting the job, I asked my employer: do they have clean water and washing machines? She said “yes”, so I accepted. I thought I’d be in Cluj for 1 year. 4 years later I’m still here!

What was your first impression about Cluj-Napoca?

I had a cultural shock. In Guatemala the sun was always shining and everything was so colorful, although people were extremely poor. I arrived in Cluj-Napoca at the end of October. It was a rainy day and the buildings near the airport were dull and gray. I was thinking to myself: “oh my God, what have I done?”

Then I met my team at the office, I started to discover the city, the old center and the people. And I realized that coming here was a very good decision. Then the spring came and everything was green and beautiful. There were concerts and festivals all summer long.

“There is so much to do in cluj, there is always something going on. So I always want to stay another year”

One night I went to see a movie in the open air at the Transylvania International Film Festival and I was so excited because I’ve never done that before. In England you cannot plan such an event because you never know how the weather is going to be. That was when I realized that Cluj-Napoca is the place to be.

There is so much to do here, there is always something going on. So I always want to stay another year. I also like the fact that I can work on my music here. I played a couple of times in different pubs. I’m also writing my own music. You can listen to some of them on my YouTube channel.

What do you like best about Cluj? Would you recommend other people to move here?

I like the nature and the weather. You can get out of the city and in less than half an hour you are in the countryside. I like the people because they seem to be calm and very friendly. I like everything that goes on in the summer. Having all those activities in the warm season is fantastic.

I like the fact that people still seem to have traditions and are very family oriented. Overall Cluj-Napoca has a very good quality of life and things don’t get as busy and stressed here as they do in UK. This is why I call this place a ‘hidden gem’. I don’t want everybody to know about it and come here 🙂


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