Romanian culture and food

6 05 2009

Since we only were in the Transylvanian part of Romania, it would be more accurate to call this entry “Transylvanian culture and food”, but then people might assume it is just about vampires and drinking blood. We had heard that Romania was still culturally somewhat mired in the age of communism, and that we should expect minimal customer service, if any.  Fortunately, this was not the case.

One unexpected familiarity in Romania was the language.  Romanian is in the Romance family of languages, based in Latin.  Therefore, it is similar to Spanish (which Jason speaks reasonably well) in that words for the numbers, colors and days of the week are very similar to the Spanish words.  Other words were recognizable as well, which is very different than neighboring Hungary.  In Hungary, they speak Magyar, which is a Finno-Urgic language and is more similar to Estonian or Finnish, which we cannot understand in any way.

The customer service in eastern Europe is certainly cool, people are not peppy or super friendly, but the service is not downright bad by any means.  The train station attendants we have dealt with have all been helpful and many speak English well enough for us to quickly and confidently get tickets for where we want to go, and we even know when the trains leave.  Waiters at restaurants are not warm and welcoming like we would expect at a nice restaurant in the United States, but they are not rude and the food comes quick enough.

The restaurants here even offer non-smoking, which is nice.  Another interesting thing is that most people bring their own bags to the grocery store.  If you need one of their bags to take your groceries home, it costs about 40 cents.  You get a sturdy bag, and we soon caught on that we need to bring our own bags or it would drain our money to keep paying for shopping bags every time we went to the store.  It makes sense and helps cut down on the trash that is otherwise visible in all too many places in the country.

Roasted red pepper salad (left), chicken (above), and tomato salad (right)

Roasted red pepper salad (left), chicken Schnitzel (above), and tomato salad (right)

In addition to eating out, we buy a good amount of our food from grocery stores: good bread, salami, cheese, and peppers, both raw and roasted and/or pickled. We made some soup with basic vegetables, canned white beans and some soup packets that was pretty tasty.  Beer comes in plastic 2 liter bottles that cost about $1.50 in a  grocery store.  The quality?  Mmm, it comes in a plastic 2 liter bottle, enough said.

Saxons in Transylvania

Most of the main towns that travelers typically go to in Romania are in Transylvania, to see the castles, mountains and the medieval historic towns.  After visiting many museums, we have learned a good deal about Transylvania: it is much more than mountains, dark forests and vampires in Gothic castles.

Weavers guild symbol, Brasov

Weavers guild symbol, Brasov

Most of the castles and original towns in Transylvania were built by Saxon colonists (from Germany and Luxemburg) .  In 1123, the Hungarian King Geza II (at that time, Hungary controlled the regions of Slovakia, Croatia, and the northwest corner of Romania) invited colonists from Germany to settle in Transylvania to provide a buffer from the Mongols and Genghis Khan who kept raiding them from the east.  The Saxon German emigrants settled in the Siebenburgen region (seven villages) region of what we now call Transylvania.  They created the towns of what are currently called Bistra, Brasov, Cluj Nacopa, Sebes, Sibiu,  Sighisoara and Medias.  Originally, the names were German: Brasov was Kronstadt, Sibiu was Hermmanstadt, Sighisoara was Schassburg, etc. In addition to their role as guards on the east of the Hungarian kingdom, the Germans also brought mining skills and trading skills, and craft guilds (weaving, metalwork, locksmithing, etc.) to the region.

Weavers guild bastion, Brasov

Weavers guild bastion, Brasov

The Saxons built villages surrounded by walls, with tall church towers that could double as lookout towers and defensive positions and were semi-autonomous.  Within these walls, the Saxon traders, craftsmen and burgers had their own community, speaking their own language, living by their own customs, working in their guilds, and building their cities in their own Germanic style.  In the old cemeteries, many, if not most ,of the headstones are in German with German names.  Romanians were not allowed to live within the walls and settled outside of the walls in clusters near the entrances.  Smaller settlements sprang up outside of these main seven cities, and the entire region is still dotted with fortified Saxon churches.

Symbol for Brasov

Symbol for Brasov

Many of these well built Saxon communities form the historic urban cores which we visited in the region.  In his book Danube, Claudio Magris writes that these settlements became “images of German tradition that may well no longer exist in Germany itself and they became emigrants with images of country that has changed since they left and no longer exists”.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottoman Turks began to invade eastern Europe.   The Hungarians lost control of Transylvania, and the Saxon towns came under the control of the Turkish Sultan.  The efficient Ottoman bureaucracy managed its empire well because it allowed conquered people to continue to practice their own religions and generally maintain their own governmental systems, as long as they paid tribute to the central Ottoman state and did not rebel against the Ottomans.  The Saxon towns continued to rule themselves as semi-autonomous units and continued their trading.  They served as a traders between the Turkish east and Christian west, in the Black Church of Brasov and the museums of Sighisoara, one can still see many Turkish rugs that were collected by these successful traders during this time.

With similar languages and culture, the Reformation spread from Germany to these Saxon settlements and most of the Catholic churches were changed to embrace the new Lutheran form of Christianity. Johannes Honterus was a Reformation scholar and humanist, who set up an early printing press in Brasov and published maps of the stars and of eastern Europe, which can be seen in the Black Church of Brasov.  The domed Orthodox Churches of the Romanians are rarely found within the walled old cities of the Saxons, and are mostly located where the Romanians lived, outside of the walled medieval cites.

Ironically, the extreme nationalism (Magyarization) fostered by the right-wing Hungarian Arrow Cross Party called for the racial purification of Hungary, and sought to stamp out the use of German, in addition to stamping out Jews, Gypsies,  and anyone else who they saw as un-Hungarian.  When Hitler sought to use the Arrow Cross as puppet rulers of Hungary, they had to change or somehow rectify their anti-German Magyarization to allow for two “master races”, or something idiotic like that.

After WWII, many of the Saxons who remained in Transylvania were deported to Siberia by the Soviets to punish them for collaboration with the Nazis.  After the Cold War ended and people in Romanian were allowed to freely travel, many migrated back to Germany, and today, only 10 percent of the original 200,000 to 300,000 Saxons still live in Transylvania.  Left behind are their well made, walkable urban cores with elaborately detailed building facades  and medieval street layouts, which form the core of the cities they started many years ago.


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