So my last article about Romania was perhaps overly negative, being as it was all Racism! Poverty! Thieves! Swindlers! I ended with a note that Romania is still a great place to visit, but my wife pointed out that this was somewhat underwhelming following the cascade of negativity in the rest of the article.
So here’s a list of things that I think you’ll enjoy in Romanian culture, things which should persuade you, the American or British traveler, to come and visit. I’m not going to list things that you’ll find in any tourist’s guide, so don’t expect me to go on about the gorgeous monasteries, or the wildness of the Carpathian mountains, or the medieval charm of Brașov. Rather, here’s a few things about Romanian culture that may surprise and delight you.
When you go to Romania, try to make some Romanian friends. Get invited to their house. Then be amazed at how kind and generous they are. When you are a guest in Romania, they will always offer you coffee, and tea, and possibly also wine, beer, and țuica. It would be unthinkable to do otherwise. Furthermore, I’ve never found Romanian hospitality to be begrudging or forced. Romanians seem to truly enjoy having guests, and they are happiest when their visitors are well-fed and slightly drunk.
While you’re at your Romanian friends’ house, they will very likely serve you excellent Romanian food. If you are very lucky, they’ll break out the grill and make some mici (pronounced “meech”), which are traditional grilled sausages made from a mixture of beef and lamb infused with garlic and other spices. Let me say this without exaggeration: Mici are some of the best grilled meat you will ever have. I’ve never had any kind of American sausage that approaches a good plate of mici for succulence, flavor, and aroma. You will go home and tell your friends about the awesome mici that you had in Romania, and they will all be jealous.
If you happen to attend a wedding, or any other major life celebration such as funerals, baptisms, or a parastas (about which more below), you’ll also be feted with sarmale. Sarmale are cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meat, onions, carrots, and spices, then boiled in a pressure cooker for several hours. There are also vegetarian variants made with almonds or mushrooms, which are equally delicious—unlike mici, this is one Romanian dish which can be vegetarian-friendly. Sarmale are savory and slightly greasy, and are best eaten dollopped with sour cream, which transports them from the realm of the merely tasty to the heavens of deliciousness.
(A separate word needs to be put in here for smântâna or “sour cream”, which is nothing like the sour cream you’re probably familiar with. It is runnier, richer, and has a flavor which makes American dairy products hang their heads in shame. But beware! Western-style grocery stores have begun to infest Romania, and they often sell sub-standard Western-style “sour cream” erroneously labeled as smântâna. Skip the grocery stores and go to the local outdoor market to find the good stuff.)
Now that you’re nice and full, go outside for a walk with your friends. You may notice that the young women in your company are holding hands, and that the young men put their arms around each other, and talk with their faces close together. Despite what you think, none of these people are gay, and their behavior does not carry any romantic signals. Romanians are comfortable with a much higher level of casual, friendly touch between people of the same sex than Americans are. You may initially find this off-putting or uncomfortable, but try to give it a shot. After a while you may find that you appreciate the fact that your friends have a lower wall of personal space around them, and may think of American friendships as relatively cold and sterile in comparison.
Conversely, touching between members of the opposite sex is more strictly regulated than in America, and gestures which would be purely friendly over here may be interpreted as romantic come-ons over there. Beware of the signals you are sending.
If you attempt to learn Romanian and are of a non-confrontational disposition (like myself), you may be initally surprised by the fact that Romanians seem to always be yelling at each other. Sometimes they seem perpetually angry. This is a mistaken impression. The fact is that Romanians just like to speak in strong voices, and their typical, normal intonation is one which may seem harsh or rude to an American. You’ll get used to this. After a while you’ll think that it’s fun, and you’ll be amused when your English-speaking parents think that you’re fighting with your wife after you’ve had a perfectly civil Romanian discussion about what to eat for dinner.
Finally, you’ll find that Romanians are on average far more spiritual and pious than Americans. This varies from person to person, of course, but it’s hard not to notice that Romanian spirituality is both more public and less demonstrative than American religion. There are churches everywhere, and people cross themselves consistently when they pass by one. The churches are open from dawn to dusk, and no matter when you go in you’re likely to find one or two people quietly praying or lighting candles. Priests in long black cassocks are a common sight on the streets. The countryside is thick with monasteries. When you take a train trip, you may see a priest or hieromonk going from car to car offering to bless people for their journey, and accepting small donations in return. Yet within this context of greater religiosity, you’ll also find that Romanians are less strident and fractious about their faith than Americans. The culture war overtones that attend to your choice of church (or your decision not to attend church) in America is largely absent. Romanians are content to attend to their spiritual lives without being so noisy about it.
I clearly remember an event from one of my first trips to Romania that illustrates all of these points beautifully. I had wandered into the back of a church on a Saturday afternoon, not expecting to find much of anything there, but to my surprise some kind of family service was getting underway. I tried to quietly duck out, but to my consternation a Romanian grandmother grabbed me by the hands and physically dragged me to the front of the church, insisting loudly that I stay as their guest. I had never seen these people before, but they were determined that I join them.
The woman parked me near the front of the church, in a crowd of older Romanian men standing around sombrely. A big table covered with food and candles lay in front of the iconostaz, and soon after the family (and me) had settled, a pair of priests began a long, chanted prayer. My Romanian wasn’t nearly good enough at that time to follow the archaic, liturgical language, especially not when it was being chanted in a droning, echoey church. I remember that they seemed to say Doamne miluiește an awful lot. This went on for probably thirty fascinating, fidgety minutes. Then all of the men moved forward, pushing me with them, and we lifted up the food-laden table and waved it in the air. To this day, I have no idea what that particular aspect of the ritual meant, though I later found out that the service I was at is called a parastas, a service of remembrance that’s held at certain anniversaries of a person’s death.
And then it was done, and the feasting began. Right outside the church the family broke out bottles of țuica, fresh-baked bread, and big trays of sarmale, sharing them copiously with me and all of the rest of their guests. Bewildered and flabbergasted, I ate my fill, all the time thanking my hosts for their generosity. After about fifteen more minutes the party broke up, and I wandered happily back to my apartment, unsure of what I had seen but delirious with the experience.
Hopefully your trip to Romania will be just as memorable.