The foreigner in Romania is immediately struck by the country’s hybrid culture. This is obvious from the first words one learns to garble:  piața (very close pronunciation to craig-willy_avatar-96x96Italian’s piazza), mersi (from the French merci, though the “r” is a little more rolled), da (yes…), or even bacşiş (baksheesh). We then have a mysterious mélange of Western and Eastern Europe, the Romanian roots are decidedly mixed. Like in any country, the stages of Romanian history form layers which are always visible, as with sedimentary rocks accumulated by water. But perhaps this is more visible in Romania, for reasons which will become apparent. These layers are often very beautiful. Around the Danube delta, in the east of the country, we find ruins of settlements built by the Greeks, Romans, and later the Genovese (who, seeking Black Sea trade, ended up remarkably far from their native Italy). In the north, there is the blue monastery of Voroneț, built during the Middle Ages by Stephen the Great, Prince of Moldova, whose wall paintings show and glorify the saints’ innumerable heroic martyrdoms. Stephen was declared Athleta Christi (“champion of Christ”) by the Pope in recognition of his military resistance to the Turks. In the center of the country, there is Bran castle, linked to another enemy of the Turks: Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, whose legendary cruelty endowed him with a dark glory even during his lifetime. Vlad’s story inspired Bram Stoker to write his famous novel on the vampire prince Dracula, making his region, Transylvania, world famous. Transylvania is actually a beautiful place of forests and mountains, who this year topped Lonely Planet‘s list of the best regions to visit in the world. Here too once sees layers, above all the lovely cities founded by the Saxon settlers such as Brașov (Kronstadt) and Sibiu (Hermannstadt). But the Saxons are no longer there… That’s just one of the scars left by old wounds. Like a palimpsest, the Romanians, and often their governments to be exact, try to erase certain things and superimpose something more convenient on top. Many of the most beautiful buildings date the from the Kingdom of Romania, the belle époque between the country’s unification and independence in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the Second World War. Many are now in ruins, like the impressive Art Nouveau-style casino of Constanța on the Black Sea coast, the bittersweet proof of a prosperous era long gone. Under the communist regime, the obsession with erasing the past became genuine madness, the State embracing superhuman efforts to reshape society in line with its perverse ideology. Countless neighborhoods, villages, and churches were destroyed in the name of “systematization,” replacing them with dreadful concrete blocks which today still make up the greater part of the urban landscape in the big cities. Thus Romanian parliamentarians sit in the imposing and monstrous House of the People, built by order of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, which is said to be the second-biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington. The Romanians however were ingenious in saving what they could of their cultural heritage: Buildings like the Good Friday Church in Bucharest were saved by moving them in toto to a different part of the city, which at least left it standing. A new layer is currently forming. The tourist can enjoy accommodation in modern pensinea and frequent brand new pubs and restaurants. The style is often a self-consciously nostalgic “neo-folk” with traditional Romanian cuisine and costumes.

The old hotel in Brașov, where Emil Cioran lived a year, shows a similar trend, with a very classy interwar, even Mitteleuropäisch style, recalling the cosmopolitan cities of the Habsburg empire (of which Brașov was often a part). It was in Brașov that I was kindly hosted by Virgil Onita at the Libris bookstore, who presented the history of the city.

Among Romanians there is then both a will to project themselves into a modern future and to commemorate a past, at once happy and authentically Romanian. Thus when you go through the small villages and mid-sized towns in the east of the country, the finest and newest building is quite often… the Orthodox church. And if you continue your journey in the night, there’s a strong chance you will see a vast field of blinking little red lights far in the distance: The Dobrudja wind park, which with its 240 turbines is the largest in central and eastern Europe.

The contradictions between these historical layers are also visible among Romanians themselves. On the one hand, there is the older generation which generally still lives in the countryside, in the way of their forefathers, often without running water. They trust the Church concerning societal questions (with strong opposition to gay marriage, Islamic immigration, and other very strange practices the Westerners have recently adopted…).

The Romanians, and in particular the peasants, are used to having to rely only on themselves. Home-made food is very popular, such as mămăligă (a kind of palenta, reputed to be healthier than pasta or rice) and afinată (a delicious sweet liquor made from blueberries). (By the way, if your car breaks down during a particularly harsh winter — perhaps because your diesel froze — you can’t find better than Romanians to volunteer to help you and patiently brave the cold.)

On the other hand, there is the new generation, the first to have grown up free from communist fetters. It was raised on American television, generally in the original English with subtitles, hence the excellent English of many young Romanians and their rapport with Anglo-American culture (the average Romanian expat is far more likely to enjoy, say, Last Week Tonight than a French expat). Romanians speak French less than they used to, a language they speak with a charming accent which the Frenchman thinks is probably Italian.

Young Romanians are frustrated by the relative corruption and poverty of their society, especially as compared with Western Europe. Hundreds of thousands of them leave for France, Germany, or Britain, and are indeed the fastest-growing group in my adoptive city of Brussels. The young expats are often self-consciously European and are proud, and perhaps a little surprised, that their country was able to join the European Union in 2007 (which, if nothing else, has given them personally a huge expansion in economic prospects through secure immigration rights). They quickly grow weary of the superstition and chauvinism of their compatriots, and strongly supported the election of the two very pro-EU leaders of the country, President Klaus Iohannis, from the ethnic German minority, and Prime Minister Dacian Cioloș, the former European Commissioner for Agriculture.

Every nation renews itself with each generation. In Romania, the harsh laws of geopolitics — the coming and going of great powers –seems to have made this renewal more striking and painful. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the old boyars (members of the nobility), still dressed in the Oriental style with big kalpak hats, bitterly attacked the young generation of “bonjouristes” (so-called because they greeted each other saying “bonjour” in French) wearing bourgeois clothes from the latest Parisian fashions. Thus were the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the lights of French Revolution reflected in Romania.

It was even more brutal in the Twentieth Century, the country being violently torn between empires and ideologies. During the war, the dictator Marshal Ioan Antonescu proudly wore the the Iron Cross, whereas after the defeat, great intellectuals like Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade quietly hoped their nationalist sympathies would be forgotten. And that also seems very European (recalling, for example, the ambiguities of a François Mitterrand). The Romanians suffer yet remain faithful, as Cioran wrote of his friend and colleague: “We are all, Eliade in the lead, former believers, we are all religious spirits without religion.”

Everyone would like to rewrite parts of their past, but the latter needs to be embraced to build one’s future. Today, that is European Romania.

The original French version of this article will be published in Le Courrier international.

The Romanian Palimpsest


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