So, what more can I tell you about living in Romania ? I’ve never lived here before, but I have been professionally and emotionally involved with this beautiful country for the last five years, fallen in love with its food, culture, music and history, and made life long and much adored friends.
There’s very little in history that has given the majority of Romanians much to smile about – and yet smile, they do. They are, on the whole, a happy people, despite the Slavic melancholia and the proclamations of ‘nu mai pot’! They suffered more than just frequently at the hands of a constant succession of invaders and lived for long periods under foreign rule – Roman, Turkish, Hungarian, German and Russian to name but a few – the Romanian language bears witness to this – for over 800 years.
More recent history isn’t any more cheerful. After the first world war, Romania expanded and developed under the rules of Ferdinand, Carol II and Mihai. Despite economic developments and a thorough modernisation though, life in the villages remained pretty much unchanged. Before the Second World War exploded, 80% of Romania’s 18 million people lived off the land.
In June 1940, Romania lost a great deal of territory to Hungary and Russia, and was forced to give up even more to Germany. Communism began in 1945 under the Soviet occupation. All institutions were abolished and those who opposed this ‘progress’ were arrested. The absolute subjugation of Romania was marked by the forced abdication of King Mihai in December 1947 – and there begins the history of the people that we see here in the streets of Bucharest on our way to work, in the restaurants and buses, in the parks and shops. I can’t help thinking that anyone over 50 years old in this country should be congratulated on surviving the terrible years of fear and oppression that followed.
I’m not going to go into any further historical detail – if you’d like to know more, I can suggest books and films that give you info. But I think its important to know what happened before, in order to understand the country in which we live and the people with whom we work and share a pavement or a tram. Despite all they have suffered, and believe me, the persecution and oppression that took place during our lifetimes in this very country surpass even the most vivid of imaginations, the Romanian people in general are warm, very friendly, largely cultured, entire, very creative, have a fabulous sense of humour (where would they be without that?) and know how to have a good time!
Family is of the utmost importance and friendship counts for something here. There is a huge sense of undivided loyalty for friends and family in Romania that I yearn for when I’m back in France.
They are proud of their history, whether it be an inheritance of the Communist Regime or not, and are happy to share it with anyone who is prepared to listen. The vast majority know their culture, their literature, their painters, musicians and historians. Even children know Enescu, Eminescu and Caragiale. This national pride gives colour and passion, a desire to express feelings and opinions, which was forbidden under the old regime for so very long. Art, theatre and music are thus immensely popular and the distributions of actors and musicians here extremely talented.
Do explore during your time here. Bucharest isn’t Romania and like all capital cities, it betrays its country. The Carpathian mountains, rugged, with high mountain roads, lakes, waterfalls and some of the most stunning scenery you’ll ever find – even in summer over 2000m up, the mountain tops are peaked with snow. The Transfagasian highway over the Fagaras mountains is breath taking and one of the highest roads in the world. Brasov is only 2.5h away by train, and perhaps a little more by car. Not all roads are up to standard (though the road to Brasov is good), and in the remote areas, at very best, they can be described as crap!
I’ve been asked at this point to mention ‘kitchism’, the new bourgeoisie which today exists in the countryside of Romania – an inheritance of the post-1989 revolution - that shocks the intelligent Romanian and humours the tourist who doesn’t know any better. Pink, orange, raspberry and indigo houses with painful architecture set against the natural backdrop of an otherwise beautiful landscape, conjures up a vision of the nouveau riche, becoming more and more evident as time passes, perhaps frighteningly so.
Maramures is a fabulously beautiful, green region, with rolling hills and dramatic mountains that seem spooky at night. This is where you find the wooden churches, so commonly seen on postcards. It’s crammed between Hungary and the Ukraine and depending on where you are, you could make the mistake of thinking you’d fallen back into the Middle Ages. A 19th century traveller compared it to an arcadian vision of England pervaded with a ‘feeling of remoteness’ – it hasn’t changed much. Maramures, unlike the rest of Romania, was never conquered by the Romans, and so hasn’t changed an awful lot since Dacian times. The villages are the main reasons for visiting Maramures. Most of the buildings are made of wood by very skilled craftsmen, and almost everything worn, eaten and drunk is produced by the people themselves. If they can’t make it, then they simply do without. National costume is still worn by the old generation in these sleepy though hard working villages dotted around the countryside with sheep, cows and chickens scattered any old how. Villagers have kept their traditional religion ( a mixture of pagan and unirite beliefs), their myths, legends and stories and their codes of behaviour.
The Delta is breath taking. A huge region of shifting lands and reeds, and full to the brim with incredible nature reserves, flamingos, pelicans, swans – you name it, it’s there –a great place to discover. If you really want to appreciate the wildlife, you’ll have to find a nice fisherman to take you out in his boat into the backwaters. My guidebooks say that negotiating the price can be time consuming, but I find a box of cigarettes or a bottle of whisky work wonders anywhere! Braila (in Moldavia) and Tulcea are the two main towns where hotels are easy to find. The road between these two destinations are littered with the most beautiful monasteries (Cocos, Saun…) and gorgeous views.
Moldavia, my very favourite region, has suffered more tumultuous invasions, occupations, corruption and oppression than other parts of Romania and the people seem naturally and unsurprisingly more fatalistic. Through bloody uprisings and their suppressions, Fascist and Communist terror and a revolution, the lamps in front of the icons of the monasteries burn ever brightly. To really feel the history, go to Iasi and Suceava. I prefer the north of Moldavia, and the harder the roads become, the more rewards you get. The painted monasteries of South Bucovina are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. They bring a lump to your throat, secluded in their little valleys – Voronet, Sucevita, Moldovita (the most famous), Humor and Putna. There are bed and breakfasts (Pensiun) everywhere, friendly family homes open to tourists, mostly clean and very good value for money.
At risk of boring you any further, I will close, but with one last word… Romania is what you make of it. You can either love it or not. The people are the warmest and kindest of people, and after having lived through so much, they’re still here to tell the tale, to share their country and history with a generosity that will make your head spin. There are the odd exceptions as there are anywhere, but my advice is, be curious and embrace it!
Recommended Books re: Romania
‘Looking for Gheorghe’ (Picador, UK) – Helena Drysdale
‘A History of Romania’ (Back Matter) – Ioan Bolovan
‘Stealing from a Deep Place’ (Mineva/Hill and Wang) – Brian Hall
‘In Another Europe’ (Sceptre, UK&US) – Georgina Harding
‘20th Century Romania’ (Back Matter) – S. A. Fischer-Galati
‘The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s Crimes, Lifestyle and Corruption’ (Red Horizons) – Ion Mihai Pacepa
‘Stalin’s Nose’ (Flamingo/Little Brown) – Rory MacLean
‘The Wall Between’ – Annie Samueli
‘Sophie’s Journey’ (Warner/Little Brown) – Sophie Thurnham
‘The 25th Hour’ – Virgil Georghiu
‘Athene Palace’ ( Centre for Roanian Studies) – Rosa Waldeck
‘Romanian Cassandra’ – (Back Matter) – Larry L. Watts
‘Out of Romania’ ( Faber, UK&US) – Dan Antal
‘The Romanians – a History’ ( Tauris/Ohio State UP) – Vlad Georgescu
‘In God’s Underground’ (Living Sacrifice Books, USA) – Richard Wurmbrand
‘The Balkan Trilogy’ (Mandarin/Penguin) – Olivia Manning
‘Zoli’ – Colin McCollum
‘Bury Me Standing’ – Isabel Fonseca
Recommended Romanian Litterature
‘They were Counted’ and ‘They were Found Wanting’ (Arcadia) – Miklos Banffy
‘On The Heights of Despair’ (Chicago UP, US) – Emil Cioran
‘On Clowns – The Dictator and the Artist’ (Faber/Grove Weidenfeld) – Norman Manea
‘The Land of Green Plums’ ( Granta/Holt) – Herta Müller
‘The Royal Hunt’ ( Quartet/Ohio State UP) – Dumitru Popescu
‘Night’, ‘Death of a Jewish Poet’, ‘The Beggar of Jerusalem’, ‘Dawn’
(Penguin/Discus) – Elie Wiesel
‘Kyra Kyralina’ – Panait Istrati
‘Tsili’ – Aaron Appelfeld