Romania: A Rootless Cosmoplitan visits Transylvania

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13 May 2002

Rootless cosmoplitan explained. 🔗

I know this was all supposed to be about Romania, but I seem to have gotten sidetracked on the French (and the merely Francophone). Last letter I asked why people like Celine Dion. I still haven't gotten an answer that really satisfies me, but there have been a few comments worth sharing:

So there we have it: well-packaged chicken fat that sounds better in French.

[KT adds: "I can't believe no one mentioned Celine Dion's fashion sense as part of her appeal. Those white jumpsuits she wears..."]

[A Romanian correspondent who has asked to be identified simply as Adrian, writes, "I would like to try and answer your question, 'can anyone explain to me the appeal of Celine Dion?' The answer is: 'Romanians like Celine Dion for the same reason Americans build her a colloseum at Las Vegas" :-)'" He goes on to add, "I don't like Celine Dion at all, probably there are other people (Romanians or Americans), who feel the same way about her and also other people who feel differently."

Quite. I didn't say there ws anything particularly Romanian about liking Celine Dion. She's a worldwide phenomenon, very like a certain shipwreck I won't bother to mention by name.]

MH adds:"R. and I honeymooned in Nova Scotia (where Dion is from), and she was all the rage (this was 1998), but we were much more interested in finding the Anne Murray museum in the northern part of the country.... which has some similarly excellent, cheesy, schmaltz appeal. Good God, the people that make it!

Speaking of France (but this all comes back to Romania, I promise), the Romanians are feeling rather smug about the recent French presidential election. Seems it was a near replay of their election 2 years ago (although in the Romanian case, it was the respectable right rather than the respectable left that didn't make it to the final round against quasi-fascist populist Vadim Todor). Pretty much as in France, everyone rallied around the small-d democrat, even if they didn't quite feel good about voting for (in the Romanian case) an only somewhat reconstructed ex-Communist or (in the French case) a mildly corrupt conservative. In both cases, many who had abstained in the first round came out to defend democracy in the second. As they said in Louisiana (also partly French-speaking, after a fashion) when David Duke ran for governor against a certainly corrupt Democrat, "Vote for the crook, it's important."

Actually, I'd say the French left (even more than the Romanian right) deserve credit for several things:

  • So many of them didn't get out and vote for Lionel Jospin in the first round. They had, I think correctly, the attitude that if this was the best the Socialists could do, there wasn't much point to voting for them.
  • So few of them were tempted at all by the partial coincidence of their program with that of Le Pen. Job creation? Sure. But not at the cost of civil liberties and an inclusive definition of the nation (issues on which, as far as I can tell, Chirac and Jospin are, pretty much interchangeably neither great nor awful).
  • They had fire in opposing Le Pen, which was totally lacking among the conservatives. It wasn't the longtime Chirac supporters out in the streets this last two weeks. It was the Jospin supporters, the fringe-left-candidate supporters, and the first-round abstainers. They may have had to hold their (long French) noses to vote for Chirac, but almost every single one of them did so.
  • Meanwhile, back in Romania, I'm definitely coming to the end of my stay (right as the weather gets good enough to make me really want to be here, and it's nearly freezing back home in Seattle). I've started giving things away. or promising them to people upon my departure: English language books to one colleague, a Tefal frying pan to another (better than my frying pan at home, but not worth transporting), a radio to a room of the office where the median age is about 23, etc. I'm giving away a little of the artwork I have done here -- one piece to large for easy transport became a gift to my Romanian teacher -- and trying to find something appropriate to do with a leather jacket and a bulky sweater that are really no longer in good enough shape to merit scarce luggage space (I suppose I can always leave them for the maid, which is certainly what will happen with any extra food in the pantry).

    I seem to be finishing out here in a good way; I'm spending my last two weeks here working with yet another team that I hadn't previously worked with, in this case a relatively young and inexperienced group (although well educated and with a good development lead) who are taking on a relatively small but by no means easy project. It's been a good, fun challenge seeing what I can do to help them be ramped up to speed before I'm out of here.

    I'm planning myself a going-away party on Wednesday evening, but other than that it should be a relatively normal work week, for a last week on a job. As I'm sure you can all gather, I doubt it will be my last time here, although who knows whether any future visits will be work-related or strictly for pleasure. I really do want to see more of Transylvania, and I never made it to the Danube Delta or the Black Sea coast.

    "I been to Sibiu. I said I been to Sibiu. Hey, Mister, I been to Sibiu" -- *dw*rd Alb**. OK, so it was "the zoo". But it rhymes.

    Sibiu is this totally great little city in Transylvania, about 6 hours from here by rail. Sasha told me that if I had time to visit one more place in Romania (which was exactly the case) it should be Sibiu. Having been there I can certainly see why.

    Although the town was the historically Saxon city of Hermannstadt, and still has that as an alternate name, it actually reminded me in all ways other than architecture of the city of Cáceres in Extremadura, Spain (which I wrote about six years ago, but not too extensively, I'm afraid). I know one wouldn't normally associate Transylvania with Extremadura, but both Cáceres and Sibiu are historic, fortified hill towns that have grown into pleasant, moderately sized modern cities. Both have universities. Both have good bars and decent restaurants. Life in both centers around the plaza mayor / piaţa mare. Both are definitely tourist destinations. Both are favorite haunts of the medieval-re-creation crowd (the local equivalents of the American SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism). I'd already been thinking along these lines when I saw a stork fly by: they are ubiquitous in Cáceres, so I was particularly amused to see one here.

    Once I got thinking along these lines I realized that without stretching too far, I could also throw in the Hapsburg associations of both cities, and that Sibiu was once (briefly) conquered by Turks and that Cáceres was (for a few centuries) ruled by the Moors. Also, just before he became Roman emperor, the Sevilla-born Trajan ruled Lusitania (which included where Cáceres now sits, though I don't know if Cáceres is that old; Trajan left a triumphal arch in the capital, Mérida) and later conquered Dacia, roughly modern Romania, the only trans-Danubian Roman province.

    Oddly, historically Catholic Cáceres is a rather severe-looking city, with imposing, fortress-like conquistador palaces, while historically Protestant Sibiu is exuberant in its use of ornament and color: some buildings are even horizontally striped. Go figure.

    The historic Saxon presence in Sibiu is still very much in evidence, although since '89 the Saxons are mostly gone back to Germany. Many signs are still bilingual Romanian/German; the art museum, which predates the Louvre Museum by three years, is named the Brukenthal, after its founder (a very fine museum for a small city, but mainly major works of minor artists and minor works of major artists -- this is not where you will find a particularly interesting Lukas Cranach, but there are some very good Palladys); the Piata Mare looks absolutely like the town square of a German city, and, indeed most of the old town looks very German (if you'll allow for one Romanian Orthodox Cathedral in your German town); the town's Gothic main church is Envangelical Protestant; reversion of the town to Romanian control has resulted in such unlikely building names as "Casa Frankenstein".

    Interestingly, despite all these Saxon associations, Sibiu has also long been the center of Romanian culture in Transylvania: the local administration was historically far more tolerant than in Brasov, which I'd visited earlier, and actually encouraged the first Romanian licee (roughly, high school, like the French lycée) in Transylvania and the growth of ASTRA, a mid-nineteenth-century organization with an early grasp of the value of a good acronym; its rather convoluted name means, roughly, the Association for the Support of Romanian Culture in Transylvania.

    I stayed a few kilometers outside of town in a former han (inn) now dubiously renamed as the Palace Dumbrava, instead of the more honest name "Han Dumbrava", which is what all the locals still call it. It was a reasonably pleasant place, but it could have been better: the exterior and lobby were duly evocative, but the rooms had been modernized in a way that removes character without actually achieving modernity. My room looked like an uninspired Fifties motel room, and although the bathroom was more luxuriously appointed, I would rather have had a reliable supply of hot water than a reliable supply of marble tile. Not to mention that a room over a loud bar just doesn't really merit three stars.

    From the hotel, I had an easy bus connection to the center (although with a taxi ride costing a mere US$1.25 I used the bus only about half the time) and a tram line connecting me to the nearby village of Raşinari (Rasinari), which I decided to check out.

    Rasinari is a very well kept up rural Romanian town of about 3000 people, 12 kilometers from Sibiu. The tram line that gets you there apparently died off (with its old rolling stock) in the Communist era, but has now been revived with two cast-off trams from Geneva, which still have their French-language signage ("Par prudence tenez-vous aux barres ou poignees de securite", etc. Some teenage Romanian tourists were having fun deciphering the signs. Gosh, it's those darned French again.) Despite these French Swiss signs, Rasinari is a very Romanian town, the kind of town where peasants live in town and go out by horsecart to work their fields, where houses have a solid carved and painted wooden gate leading to a yard with outbuildings and a house, where everyone keeps chickens, where there are probably more horses than cars, where commerce consists of a few general stores and the fact that you are allowed to set up a table in the street and sell things, where people wash their shutters in the stream and hang out carpets on a bridge railing to wash and beat them.

    Although it was small enough that living there would give me, personally, the small-town jitters, Rasinari looked, on the whole, like a pleasant enough place to live, especially because for about 20 US cents each way you could get on a tram and go to Sibiu (and the way things work here, I bet there was an even cheaper pass for the locals). I'm sure there is very little money, but, as I said, the place is well kept up and prices are low even by Romanian standards (many things -- housing, certain kinds of food -- cost half as much in Sibiu as in Bucharest, and even less in Rasinari). It is the kind of place that is easy to romanticize, and a sane regime would use places like this as a model of what to do with the countryside: the opposite of Ceausist "systematization". The present regime at least is not at all hostile to places like this. However, in the inevitable twists of Romanian politics, romantic ruralism is heavily associated with the quasi-fascist (and even outright fascist) right. This is intensified in the case of Rasinari by its being the birthplace of Emil Cioran, a generally respected, rather gloomy, philosopher, who however, like Heidegger (and like his fellow Romanian Mircea Eliade), was tempted by the overlap of fascism with his worldview and managed, in the words of my onetime professor Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, to mistake gutter rats for übermenschen. Also like both Heidegger and Eliade, he never really recanted, although he certainly mellowed.

    Anyway, given that, it was very startling when, having entered a small general store to get a beverage (there were no small bottles of mineral water available, but there was a locally made orange soda, about 6 US cents for a half-liter glass bottle and really rather tasty), and having struck up a conversation in Romanian with the old man behind the counter who was presumably the owner, about three minutes into the conversation he asks if I'm a Jew. I answer honestly, and as it happens, the question was asked in an entirely positive spirit (and one well beyond "some of my best friends are Jewish"): in the early Fifties, this man was a political prisoner for being the wrong kind of leftist, many of his fellow prisoners were Jewish, and I reminded him of them (coloring, especially in the beard, and general manner). I ended up hanging out with him in the store for about half an hour; another man dropped by partly to get a loaf of bread but mainly to talk, they let me know when the tram would be headed back towards Sibiu so I would have enough time to catch it; a pleasant noontime at a smalltown general store.

    [Here's his picture:]

    Store-owner, Rasinari

    Sibiu itself is a lot livelier than that. Three cinemas, one live theater, a concert hall, but most of all the Piaţa Mare, the central square, beautiful and busy (especially in the evening), with half a dozen places serving beer, a few others serving sausages and soft drinks, a memorial sculpture in the middle which I believe was originally dedicated to the fallen of World War I but is now re-dedicated to the fallen of '89 (some of them right in that Square), and some of the most physically beautiful human beings it has ever been my pleasure to see. I used to say I could fall in love three times an hour in Amsterdam, but here it's more like "did this entire town just come down from central casting?" Romanians, in general, are good-looking people. An admixture of Germans and Hungarians only improves the breed. Unlike Bucharest, no one in Sibiu looked like you particularly need to put a few meals into them.

    Add to that dramatic churches, a remaining section of two of the old town walls (there were apparently four rings of wall around this place at one time), winding streets and staircases connecting the upper town to the lower; then add a quite sophisticated contemporary culture. In Sibiu I noticed several things suggesting, if anything, a more cosmopolitan culture than Bucharest: an amazing number of memorial plaques for genuinely noteworty events that have happened there (the start of the abortive 1848 revolution, the seat of the independent Transylvanian government in the months between the end of World War I and the union of Greater Romania at Alba Iulia, the founding of the aforementioned ASTRA); a recent memorial plaque for, of all people, Rabindrath Tagore; an (apparently active) sister-city relationship with Valencia, Spain (their US sister city is Columbia, Missouri, which in any but an economic sense is probably more to Columbia's benefit than Sibiu's); a constant circuit of chamber music that tours Transylvania; a steady stream of German and Austrian (and, of course, Romanian) tourists; the first indication I've seen in Romania of things like pacifist organizations (and just about the first indication I've seen of an independent left).

    I was there only for two nights, but shot probably half the film I've shot since arriving in Romania, and filled 30 pages of a sketchbook (plus I talked to a lot of people: my Romanian is really getting pretty solid). Also, there was a lot happening on the Piata Mare besides just beer and sausages.

    Friday night there was an excellent, if somewhat narratively confusing, modern dance performance with generally medieval subject matter utilizing an odd mixture of images I would relate to paganism and images I would relate to the church militant (to put it on another axis, think halfway between Richard Wagner and the aforementioned SCA), involving a goodly amount of fire, to the point where flame was a significant part of the illumination. I would not want to roll half-dressed on rough blacktop, but these dancers moved on it as if it were polished wood. The dancers themselves were mostly college-aged, probably from the local university, costumed in the simple clothing typical for modern dance. The supporting cast members were even younger and dressed in generally SCA-dian medieval garb.

    Saturday night I passed up a chance to see pop-rockers Hi-Q, who were in town on a tour sponsored by Piaggio, and who I rather like, but who were playing at an undoubtedly smoky club. I opted instead for a multi-band concert on the Piata Mare. Quite a musical range, from folkie solo acoustic to (indifferent) hip-hop, to energetically sloppy alternative rock, to glitzy techno-y we-are-so-ready-to-make-a-video Eurorock, and headlined by a band called Riff who are apparently the grand old men (well, three of them. The keyboard player is a woman) of rock in Sibiu, a local institution dating back well into communist times. Definitely on the dinosaur side of the dinosaur vs. punk divide, but more like Bob Seger than Keith Emerson, respectable dinosaurs, a bit inclined to the long guitar solo, but mercifully free of self-indulgent drum solos or ill-digested bits of classical music, perfectly capable of going over to the blues-y side of rock for a few numbers.

    Sunday noon, just before I headed back to Bucharest, a troupe of about ten puppeteers performed an elaborate puppet show, probably originally German to judge by its style, but performed in Romanian for an audience mostly (but not exclusively) of children. [24 May 2002: Based on some photos I took, my friend Celeste has identified the puppet show -- undoubtedly correctly -- as The Musicians of Bremen (a.k.a Brementown Musicians). I was so focused on taking photos & making sketches that I didn't consciously pay enough attention to follow the plot, but now that she mentions it, that's why it was sort of familiar and obviously German. I knew the story from childhood, but probably hadn't thought about it in about 40 years.]

    The train ride to Sibiu was pleasantly uneventful: most of the way there, I had a first class compartment with reclining seats entirely to myself. On the way back, the train ran into some delays, which was OK because I was in a compartment with reasonably interesting people. Lots of conversation about religion, life, the current Romanian generation gap (the one younger person in the compartment was a yuppie-ish looking young woman who was ignoring us all and listening to music on her headphones while text-messaging on her mobile phone), and whether it is good or bad that Romania is "headed toward Europe". (My feeling is that it is not so much good or bad as almost inevitable that Romania is headed toward Europe, as the only other viable alternatives seem to be either neo-Stalinist or neo-Fascist isolationism.)

    While we were talking politics on a stopped train, two young men jumped off the train, ran into nearby field, captured a nanny-goat and filled their water bottles with her milk. They seemed to be having a great time, but the goat didn't look particularly amused.

    Speaking of politics, as my Romanian improves, I begin to have some grasp of this country's Byzantine politics. [No claim to originality in the following, these ideas are pretty much lifted from Observator Cultural.] One interesting aspect I hadn't thought of until recently is the role of the former king, Mihai (Michael), who since the death of Hirohito is the last surviving World-War-II era head of state. Apparently, shortly after the revolution, some Romanians wanted to re-establish the monarchy, but there wasn't much support for that idea. Slightly later, one of the neo-liberal parties wanted to run him for president; he probably would have won, but he nixed the notion. He has now ended up in the role of a "special envoy", handling some aspects of Romania's relations with constitutional monarchies (Spain, the UK, the Netherlands, etc.). He's apparently a pretty good diplomat and is credited with smoothing Romania's probable acceptance into NATO this autumn, but it must feel odd for an ex-king to be an envoy for a republic.

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    Originally written: May 13, 2002

    Last modified: 25 February 2021

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