Castles, forests, Catholicism. And gypsies. And Dracula.
I’m not proud of it, but these have long been the sole buzzwords I’ve always associated with Romania. Along with a lot of countries in Eastern Europe (and the continent in general), it’s been a place I’ve always vaguely wanted to visit but never really made the push to do so.
But last month, people from the land of the vampires invited me to pay them a visit – and not in any ordinary sense, either.
Instead of going solo and working out my own itinerary, I was part of a group of English, American and Romanian writers and photographers, all working together on the #PriNeamt campaign. This crew of sixty people journeyed around Neamt, a county in the north east of Romania, for a week– and in that time, our objective was to gain a better understanding of the region, experiencing as much as we could of what Neamt had to offer.
Seeing as I was armed with a collection of stereotypical preconceptions of Romania, I probably didn’t have the best concept of where I was travelling to. But after spending little more than a week in the country, I’m actually really glad I had no idea what Romania was about. Because sometimes the best trips are the ones that completely surprise you.
Hunting out Romanian traditions
If I’m honest, the main thing I was expecting to write about was the traditional elements of the country – the little glimpses of Romanian life that I started seeing from the moment we began to drive through the countryside.
My tired mind tried to swat away the too-recent memories of a twelve hour transit day as our small car zipped down an arrow straight highway, passing countless one storey houses with a shared grass verge outside. My camera lens wasn’t quick enough to catch each tiny glimpse of a story, be it the man with a giant belly, chopping an entire tree into kindling while his wife and son watched; the woman in a tight woolen jumper smoking a cigarette and pulling a dog on a leash; the little wooden table filled with fruit for sale outside a house.
And obviously I tried to take a photo of every single horse and cart that trundled past.
But I figured I’d have plenty more opportunities during the week to understand the traditions of Romanian culture. The die hard travelling romantic in me fully expected to spend hours chatting to gruff farmers about life in the countryside, probably riding in their carts and helping them out with making hay bales.
Or maybe I’d befriend a little old woman on the bench outside her equally little house and end up with my very own Romanian grandmother?
Getting to the heart of my time in Romania
Of course, the trip I was taking part in didn’t exactly leave much time for these ‘spontaneous’ (yet heavily hoped for) Romanian interactions. On our first night, we were firmly ensconced in the best hotel in Piatra Neamt, and spent the next 24 hours embroiled in conference room talks about the tourism industry, focusing specifically on how to bring more visitors to Neamt county.
I was given a headset, with the voice of a translator stoically relaying every word from each of the speakers into my ears (which made me feel pretty special, I won’t lie) – and when I looked around the room, I saw people busily taking photos and typing away on their phones, all too similar to the English speaking bloggers I know so well.
I started to realise, somewhat belatedly, that this trip wasn’t so much about me single handedly revealing the joys of Romanian traditions, complete with every horse and every haystack; it was much more about a group of people joining together to discover Romania itself.
And I was lucky enough to have forty odd Romanians to do it with.
Thanks to the opinions and perspectives of my writing and photographing contemporaries, I began to build up a more realistic picture of modern day Romania in my head. Most of these Romanians were from Bucharest, so hadn’t spent time in Neamt county either. Unlike me though, they obviously knew a lot about the country itself.
The fact that the haystacks in every front garden are built to feed that family’s cows; that seeing at least twelve wedding parties on a Saturday is totally normal because it’s the day when everyone gets married; that people kept making references to ‘Dr House’ because the country is obsessed with the Hugh Laurie drama; that the local firewater liquor is, unsurprisingly crazily strong – and that makes it all the more popular.
An obsession with religion in Romania
The more time I spent in Romania, the more my interests in the country’s details began to change. I noticed the ornate crosses at the side of the road; pictures of Mary Magdalene and Jesus, surrounded by flowers and candles; churches squeezed into every available space, springing up out of nowhere.
I watched strangers crossing themselves in the street whenever a church spire came into view, and I realised how deeply engrained religion is to Romanian culture – not just in a traditional sense, but everywhere.
Romania is a deeply Orthodox country, with ten new churches being built each month. Most of the Romanians on our trip weren’t religious, but they’d all grown up with it – a direct result of their parents and grandparents who went to church each day, or at least each week.
I listened as a few of my new friends spoke bitterly about the huge cathedral currently being built in Bucharest – second in size only to the Vatican, and which is estimated to cost over 500 million Euros – and about the poorest villages in the country which forego necessary repairs on their communities for the sake of donating yet more money to the church.
When the whole group visited a huge monastery in Neamt whose main church didn’t have any pews, a friend whispered to me that this is the same in all Romanian churches; people kneel directly on the floor when they go to church services, sometimes for hours at a time.
The decor inside the place was mind blowing, with gilt and gold everywhere, but what struck me more was the number of the Romanians in our group who crossed themselves when entering the church and covered their heads demurely; stood solemnly in front of a gilded painting of the Virgin Mary; ducked their bodies three times under a sacred portrait, said to bring luck to its visitors.
The real shocker of the visit, though, was venturing into a tiny basement attached to the monastery to find a room filled with the bones of priests past; each grinning skull marked with its owners name and the date of his birth and death.
I’ve been to plenty of churches around the world that store the relics of people they deem important (one of the worst was an actual tongue in a jar, belonging to a Peruvian martyr), but this was the first time I’d been within touching distance of so many human remains.
Particularly being that close to remains that are actually arranged into a skull and crossbones.
Maybe it was the lack of protection around those bones – the idea that anyone could have picked them up – that made me feel uncomfortable. Then again, they were presumably more accessible to anybody who wanted to visit them?…
An unexpected introduction to Romania
My expectations for Romania before arriving were stereotypical, and probably very dull as a result. What I actually gained from my week there was totally unprecedented, and though I didn’t befriend any farmers or little old women, I did leave with a group of wonderfully creative people to call friends.
I’ll be writing quite a lot more about my time in Romania over the next few months, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be going back whenever the next chance comes around.
I still need to ride in somebody’s horse and cart, after all. And attempt to make a monk like this one crack a smile.