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Making Sense of Romania?

31 March 2011

Visiting a country with a different history and culture you find that while some things are similar other things are well … different. For example in French cars the lever that should enable you to indicate turning right turns the windscreen wipers on instead.
When you go to Romania you will find that Romanian ladies often greet you by kissing. You will discover that Romanians have a different way of kissing by kissing once on each cheek which can cause confusion when they try to swap cheeks if you’re not aware of this.

I have travelled on many trains in Romania and Romanian trains have compartments with 8 seats. It is necessary to book a seat in advance. Being English I assumed that seats 5 and 6 would be either adjacent or opposite. Not so on Romanian trains – I have never been able to discern a pattern to the seat numbers. It is as though the person who fixed them deliberately jumbled them up (perhaps as an act of rebellion that he could get away with in communist times?) It doesn’t matter, I have a seat and the train is going where I want to go (although not as quickly as I might like), but I’m English and I want to know why!
Once when staying in Stejeris we visited a remote village on the other side of the valley which had no proper road to it. We were invited into the house of an elderly widower who generously plied us with quantities of his home made schnapps (I have since been told that there is a tradition that the guest’s glass is never empty!). He touched his chest, I presumed to indicate that he had heart trouble, and then shrugging his shoulders took a large drink of the schnapps. Unexpectedly he reached into a box and unfurled a large Hungarian flag (this is Romania) which I could see contained the name of a town in southern Hungary. Hungary was on the wrong side in the war – what did he do in the war I wondered?

We English are known for often talking about the weather. There is reason for this as the English weather is so changeable but perhaps it has become a national obsession. In Romania people often talk about how many months’ salary something costs or complain about corruption. It is true that costs are very high compared to incomes but listening to them one wonders how they manage to survive, but somehow they do – like us with the weather perhaps they overdo it. Once when returning to England from Bucharest we ordered a taxi in the hotel to take us to the airport. We were surprised by the large Mercedes that arrived to take us as well as by the size of the fare. On the way to the airport we were stopped by the police and the driver complained about the police being corrupt. When I got back to England I read an article saying that a mafia-like cartel had taken over the airport taxis and that the police were trying to break it. Who was on our side? Apart from this, I have been to Romania many times and have received much generosity from Romanians (both Christian and non-Christian) but personally I have never had any problem with dishonesty. My conclusion? – as in all countries there are both honest and dishonest people in Romania.
Romania was of course a communist country until the revolution in 1989. We tend to think about Eastern European counties as being similar but they actually have very different cultures and histories. Even in communist times they didn’t have much contact with each other – despite having a long border along the Danube there was only one bridge between Romania and Bulgaria, and the border between Romania and Hungary was similarly fortified to that between Hungary and Austria. There were two notable differences to the Romanian version of communism. One was called Nicolae Ceaucescu, the communist party leader (Romanians never refer to him by name calling him simply ‘our former leader’), and the other difference was his wife, Elena Ceaucescu. (Almost all Romanian ladies names end in ‘a’.) If you would like to find out more about Romania in communist times albeit from a secular perspective (and have an hour to spare) there is a good documentary available free on the internet called The “King of Communism“. Whilst most Eastern European countries shrugged off communism without bloodshed, 1,000 people were killed in the December revolution in Romania. Apart from Ceaucescu and his wife’s summary execution nobody has been brought to justice for this. There are all sorts of stories in Romania as to who was responsible and what happened behind the scenes in the revolution and I suspect that nobody will ever make full sense of this let alone me.

On some occasions I have found Romanians to be very self-critical and say in a depressed tone that the country will not progress for a very long time because of people’s state of mind. Under communism they argue that things happened (or didn’t happen) for people so they are not used to taking the initiative to change things for themselves. I beg to differ – I been impressed with how innovative Romanians often are and how much they achieve with what is available to them. One only has to look at the remarkable Manastur church building which they constructed, or some of the stylish new developments and renovations in Cluj to see this.
Cluj Old And New How to say ‘no’ to a determined Romanian! The hospitality of our Christian friends in Romania has become legendary. On some occasions when I’ve been to Romania people at Moortown have asked if I have found it difficult not having much to eat when I’ve been there. How wrong could they be! Our Romanian friends have always sought to give us their best. Often when I’ve had a really large meal my Romanian hosts will insist that I have more despite my protestations that I am so full that I couldn’t possibly eat anything else. Strangely their English doesn’t seem to stretch to understanding this and eventually not wanting to cause offence I somehow find room for more. I have been told that in Romania it is polite to decline an offer of seconds when first asked, the host will then ask you a second time at which stage you may accept. This may go some way to explaining their persistence – of course declining the offer of seconds when first asked carries the obvious risk on the occasion that you do actually want more that they might adopt the English custom and accept this. A cautionary tale – some friends in Cluj once told me that they had had someone to stay and in the few days he had been with them he had eaten the meat that they had available for a month! He had then told people back home (in a country that I won’t name) that these Romanians were not too well off but they do have plenty of food to eat!

Howard Dews

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