Visiting Dracula

I was recently given the link to Dracula, which is a presentation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in blog format. The original novel is an epistolary, with every section dated, and the novel is being posted section-by-section on the appropriate dates. It’s a delightful way to read.

The first post was on May 3, which I just read and experienced the distinct pleasure of being in or very near to the places that the author describes. The first paragraph that caught my mind was this one:

Having had some time at my disposal when in London, I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a nobleman of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. (emphasis mine)

The city where I’m typing this is in the region of Bucovina (to use the modern spelling), but it’s very near the old border of Moldavia. In fact, people from other parts of the country will usually tell you that we are part of Moldavia, though the locals try to associate with Bucovina since Moldavians are stereotyped as backward hicks. It’s complicated by the fact that there are not now any official political entities with those names, and the historical regions that they represent had very flexible borders.

I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place.

That would be Bistriţa, a city not far from here that I’ve also passed through. This gives me a strange sense of dislocation while reading, because the geography that Stoker presents is meant to seem remote and exotic–but for me Bistriţa is a fairly boring city a few hours away by train.

In the population of Transylvania there are four district nationalities: Saxons in the South, and mixed with them the Wallachs, who are descendants of the Dacians; Magyars in the West, and Szekelys in the East and North.

Time for some ethnography! The Saxons are known on Romanian as saşi, and they still exist in Transylvania, though in much reduced numbers. The “Wallachs” are what we would consider the native Romanians, descended from the Romanized inhabitants of ancient Dacia after the Romans conquered the province. The Szekely are a Hungarian-speaking people known to Romanians as secui, who still exist in considerable numbers in the western parts of Romania (which the author refers to as the east, coming as he does from further west).

Linguistic aside: the etymon *walah is a fascinating one, as it has been borrowed from one language to another all over Europe, its meaning changing several times along the way, but always with the meaning “those funny people over there who don’t speak proper”. In English it provides the root for Wales and Welsh, and also Walloon (a name for some dialects of Dutch). In Germany it referred to any Romance-speaking peoples, and I believe provides the word for “Italian” in some dialects. In Slavic languages it usually refers to Romanians, but to Romanians themselves it refers to the Romanian peoples living outside of Romania, the Aromanians, Meglo-Romanians, and Istro-Romanians. Which just goes to show that everyone needs a word for “those funny people over there who don’t speak proper”.

I had for breakfast more paprika, and sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was “mamaliga,” and eggplant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call “implelata.” (Mem., get recipe for this also.)

The maize porridge is properly mămăligă, staple dish throughout Romania. I had some last night, in fact. It’s very similar to polenta as served in the American south. I can’t figure out what Romanian word “implelata” is supposed to refer to, and no one else in the house does, either. It’s not a dish that I’m familiar with, but here’s a Romanian cooking site with a recipe matching the discription. If you want to follow the author’s suggestion and get a recipe, you can probably follow just based on the pictures, and there’s always Google Translate.

At every station there were groups of people, sometimes crowds, and in all sorts of attire. Some of them were just like the peasants at home or those I saw coming through France and Germany, with short jackets and round hats and homemade trousers; but others were very picturesque. The women looked pretty; except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them.

This is actually a pretty good description of traditional Romanian dress. But this being the internet, I can just show you a picture:

Traditional Romanian Dress

This isn’t exactly a common sight on the street these days, but it would be familiar to anyone who’s spent significant time in Romania.

The moral of the story is: if you set your story in a strange, exotic place, people who actually live in that place will not find it as strange and exotic. If you care.

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6 Comments

  1. Stoker probably had no thought of anyone in Romania reading his book, he likely envisioned Englishmen reading it, hence the detailed descriptions. Note that he didn’t go into that kind of detail during the scenes when they were in London, he assumed his readers knew London. And in a couple hundred years from now, even Romanians might find his descriptions of life in 19th century Romania more exotic than they do today. Already, he mentioned a recipe that was likely well-known then, but seems to have fallen out of favor (the “implelata”). Who knows how much more may be lost or altered in the future?

    I found his descriptions of the locals absolutely fascinating when I read it, he painted a very vivid picture for those of us who have never, and likely will never, visited the area. I think the key phrase in your post, that it would be familiar to anyone who has “spent significant time in Romania” sums it up. He was writing for those who had not. Without television a journey of even a few miles could take the traveler to a completely unknown world. The detailed descriptions of the area were one of the things I enjoyed most about the book. Some of my ancestors came from Galicia, which I expect was similar to the area he described, so I was particularly interested.

    1. This is absolutely true–and I’m loving the descriptions myself, even as they describe things that I’m familiar with. One aspect that’s surprising even to me is the ethnic diversity. Even though the setting is deep in Transylvania, the author describes moving with Czechs, Slovaks, Saxons, Magyars (Szekely), etc. In the present day the only groups that you’re likely to see many of in Transylvania are the Magyars. Saxons still exist, but their numbers are much reduced, and Czech and Slovak populations are tiny. I suspect that most of these groups emigrated or assimilated during the national unification of the 19th century, but I really don’t know.

  2. Sorry, don’t know how I came across this post, tho I did find it rather interesting. I’m an American historian, writing on and living in Romania (in particular, I write about the Hungarian minorities here). Just wanted to correct you on the location of the Szekely. You wrote:

    “The Szekely are a Hungarian-speaking people known to Romanians as sacui, who still exist in considerable numbers in the western parts of Romania (which the author refers to as the east, coming as he does from further west).”

    The Szekely indeed live in eastern and north-eastern Transylvania. In today’s Romania, that is practically in the center of the country. Recall that Transylvania was only added to Romania after WWI, and so was not a part of Romania when Stoker wrote and set the novel. There are other ethnic/linguistic Hungarians (non Szekely) who still live in central and western Transylvania. Anyway, Stoker’s description was correct, and this has nothing to do with his relative location (“coming as he does from further west”).

    Sorry if this sounds pedantic. But I found your post interesting and hated to see it blemished by a geographical/historical error. Perhaps you’ll want to update it. No need to post this message.

    1. Thanks for the correction. Given that I’ve spent most of my time in Romania in Bucovina and Moldova, I think of everything west of the Carpathians as “western Romania”, which I suppose just reveals my prejudices :).

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