Romanian rhapsody

A UNR professor goes to Transylvania and falls in love with the country and its citizens

We are walking on a logging road in October in the countryside about an hour outside of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. The leaves are changing color in this little river valley, and the rain is making them shiny and brilliant. “I’m sorry the weather’s not so good,” says Stefan. “It’s beautiful,” I answer, and I mean it. We can look through the trees to the hillside across the narrow valley and to tree-covered hills stretching out in every direction, topped by clouds and rolling mist.

The dean of my college has invited me and my sons to join him and his family and the associate dean and her family at his sister’s vacation house. “My sister doesn’t use this place very much. Her family has a business, and they must work all the time to keep the business going.”

We arrive mid-morning, and the nine of us carry bags and boxes and baskets of casseroles and meats and breads and sweets and beer and wine and glasses and dishes up the muddy road to the house. Snuggled against the hillside, the house has a covered terrace where we eat from a dozen different dishes, prepared by Liana with the awareness that a member of our family is vegetarian. He’s well taken care of. We decide to brave the weather, and the five adults go one way and the young people go another. The rain lets up for our walk. In the dark, the men barbeque chicken and beef, and we set out yet more food on the terrace. Driving back to Cluj late at night, Liana says, “Still when I see the police, I get nervous.”

I am on a teaching exchange at Babes-Bolyai University in the heart of Transylvania. I’ve brought my college-aged sons and nine students from the University of Nevada, Reno, to study with me and with Romanian students. We also study the Romanian language. My sons and I settle into a three-room apartment with a large kitchen not far from the Somes River.

By Romanian standards, our apartment is posh. We have three terraces, and the rooms are large and bright. Mine holds a grand piano and is painted a warm gold that glows in the morning sun. Large windows overlook my neighbor’s garden where, now, in November, a winter crop has replaced the flowers, tomatoes and eggplant that proliferated there in early fall.

The students settle into the dorms across town. The dorms for international students are also above standard. We’re told by Romanian students that they must share rooms with three others and bathrooms with a whole floor. Our students live two to an apartment with a large bathroom and a small kitchen with a sink and two burners for cooking.

They meet other international students—Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Austrians. All of the Romanians we meet seem to speak English and don’t give us a chance to practice our Romanian. The students in the Faculty of Letters study two languages. We meet many Romanians who know three or four languages. We struggle with our Romanian.

Transylvania is a multi-ethnic culture. As contested territory, it has been a part of the Hapsburg Empire as well as Hungarian and Romanian. Near the end of World War II, the Romanians saw the turn of the tide and switched their support from the Germans to the Allies. At least five people have said to me that, after the war, Romanians kept looking for the Americans to come. Many add sadly, “But they never did.”

Although never occupied by the Russian army, Romania had to contend with the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu. During Communist times, speaking Russian was important. Now, even those who know the language won’t speak it.

My 76-year-old Romanian neighbor collects my payment for water and heat. I take it to her, and her son, recently graduated from college in economics and unemployed, translates for us. “We all have to live here together, because Cris can’t find a job. Our pension is only $200 a month. I’m sorry I don’t speak English; I only speak Russian. We don’t speak Russian anymore.”

Cris volunteers to pay my phone bill for me. I want to give him the money, but he tells me to wait until later. I thank him, but he just says, “I don’t have anything better to do.” I make them brownies to thank him. My neighbor tells me, “Romanians are stupid. They don’t know how to do anything right. The Hungarians are smart. Look how successful they are.”

“In Romania, geography is history,” says Mircea Goga, a poet and writer who speaks to our Romanian language class when our regular teacher must be absent. “The Romanian character has been formed by geography.” He apologizes for his English. His languages are French and Italian. He’s just returned from teaching at the Sorbonne for two years. He’s the grandson of Octavian Goga, also a poet and a member of the government that united Transylvania with Romania in 1918. The street I live on was named after his grandfather. His father died in jail at age 51, a political prisoner.

“Romania is the buffer between the East and the West, a Latin island in Slavic territory,” Goga says. “Romania has played an important role in Europe in protecting her from the East. But Europe has betrayed us. They haven’t kept their promises of support, military support, financial support. We don’t trust the Europeans. They have used our resources and our position, but they haven’t helped us. Romanians don’t feel they have any control over their destiny. They’ve developed the attitude that they can do nothing.”

This explains some of the passivity I’ve experienced. The Romanian saying is: “Ce se faci?"—What can you do?—said with a shrug of the shoulders.

Richard, my English colleague at Babes-Bolyai University, has lived in Romania since 1995, and my colleagues say he’s gone native. He’s bought a house on the outskirts of Cluj, a city known for its many institutions of higher education, where he plans to grow his own food. He rides his bike into town to teach.

There’s no money here. My young Hungarian-Romanian friends, a couple in their 20s, want to move to Hungary where they can actually earn a decent living. A teacher makes only $30 a month, a university professor $200. Most everyone I know has two or more jobs. Yet there are beautiful houses being built all over the city and vacation homes in the country. I ask my colleague Nick where the money comes from. He tells me that it’s people who were smart at the end of Communism and got into business or people who cheated and grabbed what they could.

But the generosity: I’m invited out to lunch, to homes for dinner, to the opera, to the philharmonic. They don’t let me pay. I return the invitations with dinner parties. My social calendar is full. We talk and talk and talk and talk—about politics, education, our families, our histories; my Romanian friends are engaged in self-definition, character study. We drink tuica, the local plum brandy, and eat a vegetable mélange called zacuska and eggplant salad called vinete, and I make pumpkin bread three times, because it’s such a surprising treat to my Romanian friends. “We don’t eat much pumpkin; we give it to the pigs,” one Romanian tells me.

I’m at a dinner party at the apartment of my friend, Launie Gardner, a Reno teacher who’s also come to teach here for a semester. There’s also a young teacher from England, our children and some of their friends and several Romanians: Maria works for an international organization on multicultural issues, Simona’s working on a Ph.D. in education, Anna Maria is a teacher, and Istvan is a computer software designer. We argue about the Roma.

I’ve already heard from many that the gypsies are dirty and thieving and manipulative. I draw on my knowledge of the treatment of African Americans, the stereotypes and the marginalization. Maria and I take the position that the circumstances of the Roma account for their inability to integrate into the society: They’ve been marginalized and stereotyped; the government has done nothing to help them. Their history is one of isolation. The counter argument is that they have a lot of money, from trading in gold and horses, but they choose not to use it well; they choose to segregate themselves. We continue to drink vodka and red wine and argue until past midnight. We won’t agree.

Soon, I will leave behind people whom I call friends. How did this happen in such a short time? Never in living abroad have I felt so connected. Mircea Goga once admonished us, “Don’t make generalizations about the Romanian people.” I’ve cautioned my students in the same way when they’ve started a sentence: “Romanians are …”

Andrei Codrescu, the National Public Radio commentator, recently revisited his homeland and made many generalizations. Reading his remarks, my students and I felt compelled to disagree. We have different experiences. But we make generalizations—about kindness, generosity, warmth.

I am at another dinner party, this time at Simona’s. Another American is visiting, and several Romanian teachers have been invited. I read this essay. Is it fair? Do I have my facts right? We launch into a discussion of Communism, of past governments, of the role of education for change, of the impact of NATO, of questions—big questions—about the future. We laugh a lot. Simona jokes about NATO: “The Americans have finally arrived!”

Romanians have another saying that defines their character. I mention it, and they all nod, yes, yes: “A face haz de necaz"—"to be cheerful through grief." I’ve stumbled into this place and into the lives of people who’ve embraced me. How can I give back? Right now I have only a hope, a toast, a wish, a prayer: a future without grief.