Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > This One's For Larry

This One's For Larry

21 Nov 01

This one's for Larry. I hope he won't be the only one interested.

Bucharest, Romania's capital, is also the chief city of Wallachia external 
link, the land of the people historically known as the "Vlachs". The early years of "Romanian" identity (and nationhood) embraced mainly Wallachia and Moldavia external 
link. (This all gets very confusing because the now-independent nation of Moldova external 
link includes part but not all of historic Moldavia, and the term "Bessarabia" now refers, I believe, to the historically Romanian part of Moldova. Someone else is welcome to sort me out on this.) At that time (late 19th century), Transylvania external 
link was still under Hungarian rule. Transylvania is historically an ethnic mix of Hungarians, Germans, Romanians, and G-d knows what else. Until it became part of Romania (after WWI), the Romanians were definitely on the short end of the stick there. Now they dominate, both in numbers and power, although the Hungarians are still a strong presence. And, of course, there are Gypsies mixed in and among this all.

Romanians are very conscious of their Latin identity. Romanian is definitely a Romance language. There is much controversy among scholars as to whether the Vlachs really have continuity of place clear back to the ancient Dacians. I'm not even going to get into that.

I am just past the "Check, please" ("Notă de plată, vă rog" / "Nota de plata, va rog") level of spoken Romanian, so take all my remarks on the language with a grain of salt. Romanian sounds to me a bit like Catalan spoken by a Northern Italian. This is especially true when the women speak; the male voices sound (they would hate to hear me say this) a little more Slavic.

[Note: Mon, 23 Sep 2002: I found this web page external 
link very useful to start learning Romanian, especially because of the sound clips. Also, an online dictionary external 
link is indispensable to translate individual words.]

In theory, Romanian is written phonetically. This is mostly true, but unlike Spanish, there is no clear indication in the written language as to where the accent falls. Conversely, unlike Spanish, you don't have many situations where you have to guess among (for example) a "C", an "S", and a "Z". Like English, French, and Catalan, and unlike Spanish and Italian, the vowels are a bit "muddy", with lots of diphthongs external 
link and schwas external 
link. Unlike English or French, they have very good transcription of the vowel sounds. In addition to the 5 usual vowels, they have several that are note easily represented in HTML, so not everyone will see all of the following correctly on their browser:

[Other vowel weirdness: "ea" is pronounced like the "a" in "cat", roughly as pronounced in the northeastern US. And a word can end in "ea". Also, schwas can be in the accented syllable. ]

Like most Romance langauges, "k" and "w" are mainly for foreign words. [Romanians are not consistent about whether they count "q" as a letter of their alphabet at all.]

There are also 2 unusual consonants, "ş" and "ţ", which are s" and "t" with something like cedillas ("¸"), but properly with something more like commas [and found on almost no computer anywhere as of 2003], under them, pronounced like English "sh" and "ts" (or German "sch" and "z"), respectively. My current computer system -- in Romania! -- won't even let me write these.

The the "j" is like a French "j", and "c" and "ch" work just like Italian. And a terminal "i" pretty much vanishes, merely "softening" the consonant before it.

All of this means some difficulty transcribing things on a computer. [When I was originally writing this as a series of letters home, I didn't even try to get the vowels quite right, and I used "t'" and "s'" for t-with-cedilla and s-with-cedilla respectively.]

Some very basic Romanian, or things that may look strangely familiar depending what languages you already speak:

Please: "Vă rog" ("Va rog")
Thank you: "Mulţumesc" ("Multumesc")
Hello: "Bună ziua" ("Buna ziua")
Good morning: "Bună dimineaţa" ("Buna dimineata"), often shortened to just "neaţa" ("neata")
Upstairs: "La etaj"
Downstairs: "La parter"
I speak only a little Romanian: "Vorbesc numai puţin Romaneste" ("Vorbesc numai putin Romaneste")
I can: "Pot"
You can: "Puteţi" ("Puteti")
Yes: "Da"
No: "Nu"

People here, like the French, say a lot of hellos and goodbyes. I'm told my office is comparatively casual in this respect. Nonetheless, everyone who arrives in the morning greets most of the others who are already here, certainly any who are in a room he/she enters, possibly even entering a room just to say "Bună dimineaţa" ("Buna dimineata") and to shake hands. Similarly on departure, and only a little less so before and after lunch. I had to explain at one point that no, I wasn't angry at anyone just because I only said goodbye to the people who happened to be along my path as I left. Now I'm trying to match their approach to this, but it doesn't come naturally.

The people in this city are generally attractive, although there is a relatively narrow range of physical types: hair color, for the most part, ranges only within the browns (from sandy to black), eye color is nearly all brown, hair is rarely really straight or really curly, tending toward the wavy. Interestingly, far better teeth than in the UK, though not like in orthodontically inclined America. Even with the relatively hard life most people here have experienced, even most of the older people look pretty good, surprisingly so under the circumstances. You see a good number of people who might be called "slim" or "stocky" but not many who look overly thin or fat.

They are currently redoing the sidewalk in the block where our office is, so things are very torn up. Nearly all hand labor (other than ripping up the old sidewalk). They are using one small backhoe, mostly as a tool to transport paving stones within the site. The paving stones arrive on a horsedrawn cart, the only one I've seen in the city. Some 40 laborers are laying pavement. It will probably look very good when they finish. [It did, but it also looked instantly old. You'd think it had been that way for years.] We are somewhat insulated from the chaos (except coming and going) because our building faces on a courtyard, reached from the street only by a breezeway.

Today I was taken to look at the first of the alternatives to my hotel. Same price, very near the office, much noisier setting, very clean rooms (to the point of sterility, in my view), exactly the same mod cons as where I'm staying, smaller rooms, worse beds, much more respectable lobby life. Nothing to make me want to change over; Sasha has another place he wants to show me later in the week. [He never got around to it. Hotel Capitol wins.]


<<< Prev | Next >>>


Originally written: November 21, 2001
Last modified: November 9, 2003

To index of "travel stories" | To index of "Romania letters" | Back to my home page.
jmabel@joemabel.com



All materials copyright © 2001, 2003 Joseph L. Mabel
All rights reserved.

"Copyleft": With appropriate notification and appropriate credit, non-commercial reproduction is welcome: contact me if you have any desire to reproduce these materials in whole or in part.