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10 lessons learnt after one year in Romania

By | Just my opinion, Must read | 3 Comments

I was born and raised in Romania; every day I had a picture of the real country in front of my eyes and I still didn’t see it clearly enough. It’s what happens when you have something close to your eyes and you cannot focus.

Every time a foreigner would ask me “how is Romania?”, “how are your fellow countrymen?” I had the same dry answer, almost automatically: “Romania is a beautiful country, too bad it has inhabitants.” It is the translation of a phrase I didn’t invent “Romania e o ţară frumoasă, păcat că e locuită!”, a phrase that a lot of Romanians use when they want to describe their country in 30 seconds. This generalisation is not flattering at all, it does not honour any of us. It refers to everyone, even to the one uttering the words “too bad it has inhabitants”. It says something about my mom, my dad, my grandparents.

This dry answer comes to me after years and years of being showed the flaws: my failures, my misunderstandings and what goes wrong in the country (government flaws, bureaucracy, corruption). On the other hand, my teachers and my parents would say: “the French are so elegant!, look at the British educational system!, look at the Dutch social system!” My mental path formed soon after “they are better, have prettier, cleaner countries! Let’s go there!” So I visited more and more countries, looking for a “better, greener grass than in Romania”. I did the same at a personal level – I looked for answers about myself in the neighbourhood’s courtyard. And the more I looked for them elsewhere, the lonelier and lost I would feel.

It took me almost two years and a journey of 10 000 de km to see the link between people very proud of their courtyard, their history and traditions an the smile and the energy they showed every day. Although they have more problems than Romanians do (poverty, corruption, violence – all multiplied by a 200 million population), Brazilians share beautiful stories about their country, their family, music and dancing. They take their energy from their country’s nature – beach, rivers, mountains, from music and stories of local heroes. The crisis they are going through is challenging a lot their perspective, but they are surely more inclined to look inwards then outwards.

I came back to Romania and I turned also inwards, which helped me see with different eyes my “dowry chest” – the traditions, customs and stories that my family accumulated for years. I also showed other people this inheritance and saw that we all learn from this journey inwards, back home. These are the lessons I’ve learned since I came back from Brasil:

1. the Romanian blouse is a story in itself

Discovering the Facebook page La Blouse Roumaine in 2013 and the blog semne-cusute (sewn signs) in 2014 were magic moments for me. They represent the code that I needed to be able to read a part of the riches that I inherited from my grand parents and great-grand parents. I remember all the times we moved the carpets, the rugs, the quilts and all the other woven items from the attic into the courtyard for spring cleaning. We air them, we talk about their motifs and about who made them and we put them back into a room where nobody sees them for another year.  The same happens with the traditional costumes. I knew they had a huge value, but I didn’t have the chance to acknowledge that value. I couldn’t “read” them. This year, during Easter, I discovered a ia – a Romanian blouse that I could read. It belonged to my grandmother and she had embroidered her name on the blouse. I realised that the symbols our ancestors chose for weaving and sewing their dowry tell a story. And a sewn story, like a told story, needs listeners. I will surely listen from now on!

2. nature’s lesson about peace

We reached a remote village in the Apuseni Mountains after a very tiring journey from Bucharest (7 hours of driving and some steep slopes at the end). The moment we entered our host’s courtyard, all the noise in my head seemed to quiet down. We all looked around, made friends with the sheep, the dogs, the bees and we couldn’t believe how peaceful it was. The villagers, their household and their livelihood have a deep connection with the nature that surrounds them; this, in my opinion, brings balance and tranquility.

3. life at the countryside is not easy

In December 2015 the garden of the House of Parliament was taken over by shepherds who were on strike because the legislators thought they might know better how many dogs they need to guard their flocks. One of the photographers at the event wrote that he couldn’t keep up running after one of the men that were protesting. He was in his sixties, he wore a huge sheepskin and when he decided to sprint, he outrun everybody. My mom is also in her sixties and I cannot compete with her for a simple day at the household. Waking up at 6:30, feeding the livestock (cow, chicken, pig, rabbits), cooking breakfast for the family, cleaning the house, making cheese, cooking lunch, doing the dishes, cutting the fresh cheese, milking the cow, feeding the animals and sending them to bed, dinner again. During a day like this, I feel the need for a break or a nap every 2 hours. My parents don’t take breaks and they also have a fulltime job.

Yes, the countryside is a lot more peaceful. Yes, you can have a comfortable dream house. But the miracle of peace and tranquility comes with hard work, sometimes physical hard work.

4. every horse is an unicorn

The majority of our trips happened this year in the southern part of the country, in a village called Odăi, in Lotrului Mountains. Our instructors taught people that were afraid of horses to mount and unmount; they also taught 5 years old kids, misses, misters, respectable ladies and gents. The horses feel so well the fear of their rider that they won’t follow an hesitant command. If you say “gallop” on a soft tone, they will never run with you.

There were two moments this year when I entrusted our faith to the horses. I trusted them more than I trusted myself in those situations. In one of the trips a storm was approaching. The thunders and the lightning were pretty close and the path was engulfed by small bushes. I was riding Fulger (Lightning) and our guide, Mariuca, was telling me to let the horse find its way through the bushes. I accepted the fact that he knows better and I let him climb a slope that I would have never climbed on foot. We reached our shelter exactly when the storm passed and the sky regained a clear blue color.

Odai nomade

The second moment happened in October, in our autumn trip, when we came back from a tour at sunset. Our eyes got first accustomed with the dusk and then with the darkness. I could see only a bit of white (the rear of the horse in front) and we would call each other to see if we are all in formation. Those 20 minutes were the best teambuilding exercise ever. And our horses transformed themselves into unicorns, the horses of princes and fairies.

5. you can also clean off dust from history

Aferim!, a film made by the director Radu Jude, is a good example of how to clean off the dust from the history of a country and to bring in onto the screen. Set in early 19th century Romania, the film is (virtually) the first film ever to depict the enslavement of gipsies that occurred for some five hundred years in the present day territories of Romania.

The restoration of the saxon houses from Cincu, Cincşor, Viscri is another good example. Like digging up in your grandmother’s attic and finding shuttles, spindles, combs from her old loom.

I needed a lot of dusting on my personal history and one of the moments when I did this was the Christmas trip for baking cozonac (a Romanian traditional cake made for holidays). I asked my mom to search in the attic for the old kneading-trough, the oven utensils, the pans and we’ve restored the journey of baking these cakes like grandmother would have. Although we worked for almost 8 hours (kneading, fermenting, putting in pans, raising, put in the oven, baking), I felt that everything had a meaning. That “nothing compares with home baked bread and cozonac” had a taste, a smell and a touch connected to it.

6. that other people cherish their inheritance

It is important not to be the only one looking in the dowry chest, so I tried to find people that share the same passions and values.

We heard and loved the story of Muzeul de Pânze şi Poveşti (The Museum of woven fabrics and stories) from the village Mândra, in Transilvania. Alina Zară-Prunean built an “oasis of Romanian spirit with 0 budget, pride, ownership and meaning!” They looked for pieces of old fabrics in attics, they promoted their value, they taught children to preserve and cherish the national symbols and treasures. They celebrate 7 years of  creating workshops, handicraft evening sittings, social enterprises and projects. Their brand MândraChic is an online shop that sells “contemporary dowry” and their new partnership Colţul Românesc is an online shop that pleads for local consumption and for sustaining the small Romanian producers from High Natural Value areas.

We also like Kraftmade – a networked from from craftsmen and designers that wish to integrate in our daily life traditional techniques and skills. They are the connection between the craftsmen, the designers and the market and they help the owners of the craft to create new products with old techniques (a belt made like a traditional whip, a purse made like a woven rug, a handmade banner), to expose them and to sell them in Romania or abroad.

There are few Romanian travel agencies that really want to show authentic Romania to foreign countries. Dan Chitila is the founder of such an agency – OutdoorActivities.ro. He started in 2012 with an idea, then he became a guide and showed tourists from Europe, USA, Thailand, Japan, Australia, Canada, Israel parts of Romania that are not shown in the touristic guides: haymaking in the villages Peştera and Măgura, traditional lunch with villagers in Zărneşti, along with highlights like Sinaia and Peleş Castle. Every tour is customised for the tourists that contacted him and includes at least a hike, because Dan is a passionate mountaineer and he loves all the corners of the Carpathian Mountains. In 2015 he received a Certificate of Excellence from tripadvisor.com and he is decided to keep his rank!

7. crafts are fascinating

If you already saw this documentary by Mihai Pleşa and his team from Fascinaţia Meşteşugului you will take my word for it. o să mă credeţi pe cuvânt. If not, please book a session in a workshop and try to do something with your own hands: a dish at the potter’s wheel, a model painted on ceramics, a start with a Romanian sandal (opinca), a start with a woven rug or carpet, anything. Any type of such endeavour teaches you that every object requires, time, attention, art and a lot of dedication. It is very hard to craft, so paying attention to the objects made by craftsmen and artisans is a step for showing appreciation. Buying is another step.

8. the Romanian “mioriţa – sheep” should learn foreign languages

We saw the short film The last Transhumance, a preview of the documentary directed by Dragoş Lumpan. He started following the last Romanian families that walk with the sheep thousands of km every year and he ended up creating an artistic, etnografic and sociologic project that sums 8 years, 6 countries, more than 50.000 of km, 100.000 photographs, 70 hours of filmed material and 100 hours of audio records. Being born in a shepherds family, I understand about the lifestyle at a sheepfold, about taking care of the sheep “from morning until tomorrow morning, 360 days per year”. As a daughter of the present, I also understand that shepherding, in its Romanian format, is not lucrative. The wool, the meat, the milk are cheaper in other countries because of state subventions.

romania-secreta-cum-se-mulg-oile-la-stana-lui-nea-sandu-in-muntii-lotrului

To save itself, the Romanian sheep should start convincing fellow Romanian to buy from local producers (like the social enterprise Made in Rosia Montana does) or to convince foreigners to visit. If she would learn foreign languages, she could invite tourists at the sheepfold, to prepare a traditional meal (with meet or vegetarian), to serve cheese, curd, cottage cheese. To ask the shepherds to sing for the tourists or to teach them to milk the sheep.

9. it is hard to grow if you have no roots

My recipe for moving into a new place is creating a network. People that I already know, friends of friends, acquaintances that can help me. When you are new to a place you will cherish a recommendation, a piece of advice, a kind word. This year I realised that a network is not enough when you are trying to build something. It’s like a floating spider web. The roots I (re)discovered were the stories that my mom and my grandparents always told me, the grandparents house from the mountains in Nucsoara village, the Romanian blouses and the dowry chest, the way you make wine and bread at the country side, the way people gather around the fire (the heart of the house).

10. Romania is so beautiful that people from abroad fall in love

The Bucharest Lounge is a project started in 2011 as a Rebrand Romania Movement, by Yvette Larsson from Sweden. She visited Romania in 1985 with her parents and then, when she returned in 2011, she felt inspired to “spread the word about funky Bucharest and beautiful Romania”. Her blog saw the light of the day because of pure enthusiasm to get the crowds back to Romania!!! Her 2016 campaign is called #letsgotoRomania2016 and here you can find the YouTube playlist with the reasons we love Romania and why you should come visit. Thank you for your love and inspiration, Yvette!

Some of the lessons I’ve learnt in one year of really seeing Romania have meaning also for others. Some don’t, but I assure you of the process – if we look attentively in our courtyard (be it family, town, country) we are going to find the projects and the people that have meaning for us!