Road Tripping Romania: Part I
The Johnsons Go Abroad
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the line, “you boys are spoiled as shit. Your mom/dad and I have never gotten to travel further than Canada. Never gotten to see anything.” This is because neither of my parents started out with the money or opportunity to travel abroad, while having children and my mom’s illness kept it that way.
I wasn’t surprised when the idea was floated that they might come visit me at some point along my tour, but I was surprised when this idea became a matter of serious speculation. After months of debate, they starting preparing to meet me in Romania for two and a half weeks before my brother starts the fall term.
It was great to be able to share the memories of a road trip around Romania with my family, but more than that, I am immensely proud of my parents for finally chosing to take the opportunity to fulfill a dream which they had ensured their children would experience, but had not before endeavored to actualize for themselves.
Why Are You Here?
Almost every local Romanian we talked to for any length expressed befuddlement as to why we were there? Why would we want to go to Romania, of all places? The true answer includes visas and closing timeframes but in addition, Romania has lots to offer a tourist even if the name tends to conjure images of communist dictators and concrete high rises.
Romania has these things, but it also has large preserved natural areas, beautiful mountains, wooden churches with incredible frescoes, insulated and distinct regional cultures, and a lifestyle that is still very much connected to the land they live on.
During these two weeks, we ate at restaurants almost every meal. Having sampled google’s best rated cuisine all over the country, we agreed that the best meals we had were from Hungarian restaurants.
The Romanian diet appears to consist primarily of meat, chunks of fat, and potato. They must never be awake before 10:00, as we struggled every day to find so much as a single cafe serving breakfast at a reasonable hour. On the occasions when we did locate one, eggs in one form or another were about the only choice.
This being said, I’m sure that traditional Romanian home cuisine is fairly different from what you get in the restaurants. We did stay at one guesthouse that provided traditional, homemade meals that were quite excellent and more diverse than what we typically saw in restaurants.
The best thing about eating in Romania is that you never have to think about how much it’s going to cost because nearly everything is dirt cheap. The best meal we had included appetizers, tons of seafood, drinks, and dessert and it cost us about the same as going out for Chinese food back home.
Geographically Separated Cultures
Romania is the first country I’ve ridden through where separate and unique cultures exist in small geographical areas and as close as from one valley to the next. The change in local culture could be seen between villages by the decoration of their houses and churches, the peoples’ garb, the wealth of the region, even the language on the road signs, and many smaller factors.
This was most obvious in the mountainous regions where even now,traveling from village to village is not particularly swift or convenient. Driving through these regions was almost like sensory overload with so many new things to look at and notice.
Economics and Lifestyles
Romania (like most countries) is a land of extremes. Not that you see the multimillion dollar mansions of California, but that the economic disparity of peoples is very evident and often this can be clearly seen just driving from one village or city to the next. However, we heard and observed that the economy is rapidly picking up pace, perhaps even booming with efforts to re-industrialize the country and clean up the infrastructure for the growing business of tourism which has only grown significantly here in the last four years.
One result of an economy which has until quite recently remained somewhere in the mid twentieth century is that much of the population continues to live with a tangible and functional connection to the land they inhabit. In towns and villages, yards are not a place for manicured, water guzzling grass. Instead, every yard is overflowing with fruit trees, great trellises of grapes, and verdant gardens full of vegetables, greens, and flowers. What grass there is, most villagers still cut with large scythes and make hay stacks with the clippings, so even they does not go to waste.
In the cities and many smaller towns, the external state of buildings (particularly shared buildings like apartment blocks) is curiously that of neglectful disrepair. From what we could tell, the interiors of people’s homes and businesses are well maintained, clean, and tastefully decorated, all while the outsides fall into disrepair. One local we spoke to believes this is because there is not so much a culture of pulling together to maintain common property and nobody wants to pay more than their share for maintenance. I would suspect that once this pattern is established and the majority of buildings look far from pristine, there is little pressure to make one’s own abode appealing from the outside.
In addition, many houses and buildings were confiscated from the people by the government during the communist era then left to rot without tenants. We heard one particularly sad story of the neighbor to a guesthouse we stayed at. A Syrian woman immigrating to Romania had purchased a totally unlivable ruin of a building from an online government listing for a house and land. The listing had not provided images of the “house”.
You’d have to be blind and deaf to miss the deep racism in Romania and Bulgaria. The Roma people are an ethnic minority all over Eastern Europe. They typically live in tight communities of their own,and passing through these, the economic oppression of this group is consistent and undeniable.
Racism in Eastern Europe different from in the United States. At home, it slithers beneath the surface; nobody wants to be called a racist. Here, people make no attempt to hide it.
Over coffee, one local said to us (paraphrased), “Why are people in the United States racist against black people? They are normal people. Here in Romania, we have reason to be racist against the gypsies. Many of them are bad people, and they cannot live in harmony with other Romanians.”
My first night in Bulgaria, I was having some drinks with my (otherwise) very kind and generous host and his neighbor. She was a school teacher who didn’t speak English. At one point, she shows the man a picture on her phone and they laugh. He shows me the picture of two young, dark skinned children. He says, “Have you seen these yet? These are gypsy children” as if showing me a video of a pet or a crude meme.
For road trip style travel, I was very pleased with our time in Romania. It was more off the beaten tourist trail than the countries of Western Europe and I was glad that my family was able to see some unique and traditional cultures during their time here. Even the more touristy destinations we visited were well worth our time, and everyday was full of seeing as many of the places and sights from their travel wish-list as possible.
For myself, it was excellent to spend time with my family. Additionally, it felt good to change up my travel routine and to be among people who already know everything about me.
This post is part 1 of two. Part two will focus more on the places went and some of their history.