So far Away, yet so Close to Home
Photo : Constantin Barbu / Wikimedia Commons
When I first started telling my family and friends that my next travels would take me to Romania, many did not understand. To them Romania was just another country in Eastern Europe and as for many westerners, the word “Romania” brings up pictures, and for some, memories of communism and poverty. Except for the vast tourism impetus that has brought us Dracula and stories of Transylvania’s vampires, is there not more to this overlooked and forgotten country in the east?
With these prejudges in mind two months ago, I boarded a plane in Copenhagen bound for Bucharest, determined to re- or de-confirm this impression. My first thought when getting off the plane was the similarity of that small little airport in Bucharest to Kastrup airport in Copenhagen. After only an hour and a half on a plane, I was still in Europe, and I have been reminded of that fact every day so far.
My first realization when arriving in Brasov was that this city is so much like the Western Europe I know from home. Everywhere you look you will see billboards, malls, McDonnalds, KFC, H&M and plenty of other food chains and clothes stores. Even the nightlife is similar to home, with Strada Republicii’s never-ending choices of smaller and bigger bars, cafes and clubs.
However. during my time here, I have been lucky enough to experience pockets of the real Romania, hidden under all the western bits of culture you first notice when first arriving.
Place yourself in the center of the old German part of the city, once called Kronstadt, on Piata Sfatului and you will see the gigantic Black Church or Biserica Neagra towering over everything. Right there in the midst of that enormous square and its numerous cafes and restaurants, the church stands tall above all else. Faith I feel is reflected in everything I experience in Romania. Everywhere you go on the road, you will see small crosses on the road or graves. After every corner you turn there might be a chapel for the local people, beautifully decorated, with gold, carpets and various drawings. Even when on the bus, on your way to work, you might notice your fellow passengers making the sign of the cross when passing a church on the road.
During the year, several festival and parades can be observed right from your bedroom window as the many parades, like in during Easter, take place on the bigger roads and in the center.
In addition, not only the strong sense of religion hooks your attention, when travelling in the city and beyond. On the street, a horse driven cart might trot by, right before you reach the local shepherd with his flock of sheep. Go a little further and you might run into a pack of dogs, or just a single one, roaming the streets for food and shelter.
Already after these small seemingly unimportant differences in the everyday life in Brasov, we are so far from what you might experience in the west. There you would never pass a trotting horse on the main road and think nothing of it.
Paint yourself a picture. The town of Brasov, divided into three sections, with the old Schei-quarter on one side, with its snaking streets and roads going up and down the hillside, reaching the gate and wall of the old German part of town, once called Kronstadt. Here the red-roofed houses cramp together in the small space, still finding room for tiny gardens and terraces. On the opposite side, the city melts into the new modern era, with its big apartment blogs and factories dominating the scene. All around this lays the mountain Tampa. A mountain surrounding the city, with its small white dots, scattered around on the mountainside, representing the remains of the old towers, placed all around the original city. Here you can experience what I have discovered to be the biggest beauty of Romania. Its nature and wildlife.
The first week I was here, the most frequent story I heard was the story of a man being eaten by a bear who had decided to take a stroll through the city and then eat the man lying on a bench, sleeping. In addition, I was told of wolves roaming between the trees!
Life in Brasov has, so far, definitely been different than what I had first imagined.
This city is at first sight just another city in Romania, but get to know the people and you will discover a hidden and, to the west, completely forgotten issue: the place of Brasov and of Romania in general in the rest of the world. Many of the local people here lack that sense of nationality that I for instance know from my own country. Overwhelmed by the rushing development into the modern age, the old culture and traditions vanish between billboards, McDonalds and international clothing stores, thus creating the picture of a country with no real identity.
However, look closer and you will discover what I have seen so far. The rich culture, the religion, the traditions, the nature and the wildlife, and most of all, the people who still believe in a country known, not only for Dracula and Transylvania, but for its rich and flaming culture, still burning after the flood of the 21st century.