I’m still reading Dracula, and I’ve gotten to the most recent post, in which Dracula discusses his ancestry. This is a very interesting section, but as I read it I’m pretty sure that ol’ Bram didn’t actually know his history very well. Either that or he’s repeating historical theories that have since been discredited. The relevant passage is this:

We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, aye, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the werewolves themselves had come. Here, too, when they came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of those old witches, who, expelled from Scythia had mated with the devils in the desert. Fools, fools! What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” He held up his arms. “Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race, that we were proud, that when the Magyar, the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar, or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers, we drove them back?

A couple of points:

  • Dracula calls himself a Szekely (Romanian secui), who are a Hungarian-speaking minority in Romania. Bram, of course, is free to make Dracula whatever he wants, but the historical “Dracula” Vlad Ţepeş was completely Romanian.
  • Dracula seems to state that the “Ugric race” came from Iceland. What?
  • He also claims to have been instrumental in protecting Hungary and Transylvania from invasion by various barbarians, especially the Turks. This part is true, both of the Szekely and, later, of the historical Vlad Dracula.

My feeling is that this passage contains a few other historical infelicities, but I’m not actually knowledgeable enough about the history of the region to say for sure.

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.

My wife and I arrived last night in Romania, where we’ll be spending the next month (minus a week when we’ll be in Italy). We’re glad to be here, but getting here… is a little more difficult. Especially because my wife gets terribly nauseous on the plane. And that 16 hours of flying are followed by 8 hours of driving, all to reach my in-laws.

Some thoughts on travel:

  • Airplane food isn’t good, exactly, but it’s free, and it also breaks up the monotony of sitting in that chair. Therefore I find that I look for much more than its quality deserves.
  • Ciprian was a wonderful baby to fly with. He slept most of the time and happily played in his car-seat the rest of the time. And he flirted with the flight attendants to get whatever he wanted from them.
  • Romania has potato chips flavored with Baked Chicken, Paprika, and Wild Mushrooms and Sour Cream. The mushroom flavored chips are delicious.

Here’s a popular Romanian joke:

A gypsy and his neighbor set out to build their houses. They spared no expense, and they succeeded in building two identical houses, brick for brick. When they were done, they both stepped back to admire their work. “What a great house!” the one said. “I’ll bet that I can sell it for a million dollars.” “What a great house!” the gypsy said. “I’ll bet that I can sell mine for two million dollars.” “What?” the neighbor said. “Our houses are identical. Why would yours sell for twice what mine sells for?” “Easy,” the gyspy said. “I don’t live next to a gyspy.”

And here’s a true story that happened to me while I was living in Romania: I lived outside of town and had to take a bus into work. I lived near a gypsy enclave, and my bus was often filled with people bringing their wares into town. One day the bus was very crowded (as usual), and I offered my seat to a youngish gypsy woman who looked tired and weary. She took it without a word. Then, about halfway through the trip, she started harassing me to give her money. I politely ignored her, but she became increasingly strident, offering to tell me my fortune in exchange for whatever money I was willing to give her. As she grew more insistent I grew more impatient, until the bus finally arrived downtown and I hurriedly disembarked to escape. No luck. She followed me, pulling on my sleeve and almost physically attempting to keep me from leaving. In exasperation I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out the first thing that I found: a 1000 lei coin (a tiny pittance, since a loaf of bread cost 10,000 lei at the time). I tried to push it into her hand, but it slipped out and fell into the muck and snow at the edge of the bus stop. She dashed after it, then looked at me in disgust when she realized that she had dirtied her hands for such a pathetic sum. A cop was standing nearby, and he started laughing. He winked at me in camaraderie–he naturally assumed that I had done this on purpose to humiliate the woman. Horrified and embarrassed, I fled from the bus stop and towards downtown. I say these two things to illustrate the following points:

  • Romani (gypsies) are subjected to immense, pervasive prejudice in Romania. One simply assumes that gypsies are dirty, irresponsible, rapacious, abusive, fortune-tellers, thieves, and swindlers. Anti-Romani racism is nearly universal and almost never questioned. In this sense Romania is quite different from the US, where racism is usually covert and subtle. Romanian bias is overt, obvious, and most of all considered normal.
  • At the same time, the prejudice is not really racial. It’s cultural. Romani who adopt mainstream dress, language, and lifestyle are pretty easily integrated. My wife descends from such a family: her paternal grandparents were gypsies who settled and entered Romanian mainstream, and this heritage has had close to zero impact on her and the rest of her family. She and all of her sisters are darker-skinned than the average Romanian, but no-one cares. I knew other people who were obviously Romani, but who had no trouble integrating into normal economic life once they took up Romanian dress, religion, etc. This also contrasts with historical attitudes in the US, where one-drop rules meant that people with mixed ancestry felt the full weight of segregation.
  • Partly for this reason, official attempts to redress this situation have been entirely ineffective, from what I can see. Officially, the Romani are not țigani but romi, and public-service advertisements against racism are visible in all major cities. The result? People now tell racist jokes using the word rom instead of țigan. Progress, eh? Additionally, there’s very little political consciousness among the gypsies themselves (that I know of). This dooms any attempts to address the problem through official channels, and makes the gestures that have been undertaken seem like condescension.
  • The story of what happened to me on the bus illustrates a problem with many of the accepted narratives about why racial stereotypes exist. In this feel-good just-so story, stereotypes are a means for the privileged to keep the underclass down, and closer interaction with the oppressed shows the stereotype to be false, and so racism disappears. My experience was just the opposite. Most interactions that most people have with gypsies in Romania serve to reinforce the stereotype. Indeed, the most horrific stories of spousal and child abuse I’ve ever heard have come from my sister-in-law and her husband, who do social work in an impoverished gypsy village. Their experience working closely with the Romani has not served to create the comfortable illusion that the gypsies are “just like us” beneath their skin, but rather has deepened the impression that there are terrible dysfunctions in Romani culture and mores.
  • Since the real divide between gypsies and Romanians in Romania is cultural, some people would counsel tolerance and mutual respect. Tolerance might be possible, but it will never lead to respect, because the differences between mainstream and Romani culture are imbued with moral significance. For example, it is not uncommon for Romani women to be married in their teens, and to have a few children by the time they reach their twenties. This is combined with widespread domestic abuse and general misogyny. Is this something that should be tolerated and respected? And this is just one example that I picked as congenial to Westerners–there are many other examples of cultural differences imbued with moral significance that separate the gypsy minority from the Romanian mainstream.
  • There is a conflict between the desire to preserve and respect Romani culture and the desire to eliminate prejudice against the Romani, because the culture is largely the cause of the prejudice. Okay, we say, we’ll keep the good (or neutral) aspects of the culture and get rid of the bad ones. Keep the bright dresses and lose the child marriage. Okay, but which cultural aspects are good and which are bad? And who gets to decide? The Romani themselves, or well-meaning liberal bureaucrats in Bucharest and Brussels? I have a hunch who’s actually going to set the policies that determine the future of Romani in Romania, and I’m suspicious that it’s just another form of racism, masquerading as multiculturalism.

And yet… I don’t think that we should be complacent about the treatment of gypsies in Romania (or anywhere else). I just think that we should be realistic about the content and the causes of prejudice. If you like this, you may be interested in A visitor’s guide to Romanian racism.

Update: Here’s another article about gypsy demographics, culture, and history which is relevant to this discussion.