Back in the mid-eighties, I read a magazine article about the plight of Romanians under Ceaușescu. I remember being shocked by the state control over the most personal aspects of people’s lives. In reality families couldn’t afford or find available food for all the babies they were expected to bring into the world, many women died having illegal abortions, and everyone can remember the horrific stories of the Romanian orphanages. The bleakness of life under this regime coupled with the attempts to eradicate the rich folk history of the country, deeply saddened me. With a population under such repression, it seemed impossible that things could ever change.
In 1989, when the Eastern Bloc began to crumble, I hoped and prayed that Romania would be free too and was overjoyed when the Ceaușescus were finally ousted. It’s been 23 years since those events, and we’ve finally been to see Romania. So stark were the reports of the time that I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be a desolate post-industrial wasteland? Were there still historical sights left to see or was everything concreted over? Were there any pretty villages and churches left at all? Romania’s an EU member, but there seems to be a feeling that it wasn’t ready to join when it did. Is it benefiting from its membership? People told us that the roads were bad. Would it be similar to Albania then?
The month we’ve spent in the country has been incredibly rich in experiences and impressions. There’s plenty we didn’t get a chance to see, we eschewed the busy Black Sea coast for more inland wanderings, and in spite of zigzagging our way around, there are places we had to miss out. The villages are well kept, with very few neglected or abandoned buildings, we’ve seen so many of elsewhere. We’ve spotted the granny mafia litter picking, and there is much pride in keeping houses and gardens up, even if the hens and geese scatter everywhere.
It is more than two decades since systemization plans threatened to wipe out not only this way of life, but the very villages themselves. This programme did start though and some villages were razed, their precious ancient cottages, churches and cemeteries lost forever. The people’s history removed while they were forced to live in flats in towns, with little land to cultivate the much needed food that the country was dependent on. Nowhere to keep their dogs, which became strays. Descendants of these dogs roam far and wide in the greatest numbers we’ve seen in any country so far, with many seen dead by the side of the road.
Thankfully the revolution stopped this damage and many villages remain largely unchanged. Or do they? It turns out that EU membership is one of the factors affecting rural life adversely, local small food producers cannot meet the demands of the new rules and regulations and the big buyers that are used to dealing with the large commercial farms can’t depend on small suppliers, where local herds may only be a handful of cows among several farmers. Local agriculture is declining rapidly, there is unemployment and surely depopulation will follow. Some are calling it economic genocide.
Is it backward though? Isn’t a simpler greener life what so many people in the supposedly highly developed Western world are striving for? Use of horses must be the most environmentally friendly way, and it’s food metres not kilometres. The number of Dutch campsite owners we met have come to Romania for a chance of a simpler but richer life. The Romania of towns and cities, and the Romania of the countryside are two very different countries, with little crossover. The urban sophistication of über fashionable young things with the latest gadgets, and the wide margins between those with money and those with little.
During our first few days we travelled between small towns and villages. Shops here are harder to navigate, you have to ask for things from behind the counter with no common language. There is little fresh food other than dairy and deli products on display. They sell a little of absolutely everything you can imagine though, if you look hard enough. Many items can be bought loose, an indicator of low incomes, from biscuits to loo rolls and disposable nappies. Grey crêpe paper toilet rolls wrapped tightly without an inner tube – ultra scratchy, or the slightly more expensive pink ones with tube offering just a little bit more comfort. (You can of course buy top quality brands in large supermarkets.)
Another indicator is the amounts you can withdraw from a cashpoint – the lowest being 10 Lei – about £2. The first Romanian supermarket we entered in Targu-Jui, felt dark and dingy and you still had to buy a lot of stuff from over the counter. Anything imported was at Western European prices. Local goods were cheap… to us, but were they cheap to the locals? The average salary here is still only 350 Euros a month, with many trying to survive on much less – up to a quarter of the population only earning 100 Euros a month. But somehow all the international chains that have moved in big-time with their large shiny impersonal aircraft-hangar stores must be selling to someone.
The far-reaching effects of living under a brutal Communist dictatorship for four and a half decades leaves its scars. Suspicion of foreigners, for example, is understandable. Contact with foreigners was forbidden, and old mind sets die hard. The roads are bad in places, but not as bad as some of those in Albania, and there is a huge programme of road repairs and rebuilding going on. They don’t have cones here though – to stop traffic using a carriage way, equally spaced tree branches had been carefully laid on the fresh tarmac. We managed to avoid places which are likely to show signs of industrial wasteland – although parts of Suceava came close. Some ‘Communist tourism’ is inevitable, but it’s the faded grandeur hinting of past glories in Bucharest and other cities that captures the imagination.
The influences of old empires are evident, the Ottomans were here, and it was part of Austro-Hungary too. Hungary still mourns the loss of Transylvania, which in spite of the Communists’ best efforts, still shows Hungarian influence, as well as German from its Saxon past. It’s proud too of its Latin heritage, in its language, and the statues of Romulus and Remus in so many town centres. It’s the cross-over point between central and southern Europe and like so many countries in the region the borders don’t always make sense.
Romania has survived, and with all its flaws it’s beguiled us. A fairytale land with its slow pace of country life, its rich traditions and its friendly people – the rewards of waves and smiles. It leaves us wanting more. We have promised to return, but for now our time is getting short, autumn chills and drizzles are already making their presence felt, and reluctantly we are turning westwards and slowly northwards again. Slowly homeward bound.