“What types of agricultural goods does your country export?” is not a typical ice breaker you’d use in conversation. But in rural Romania, where every square metre of land has been tilled for some purpose, it’s a serious question.
And they expect an answer.
The relationship between people and land is more evident in Romania than any European country I’ve visited. Transylvanian roads are dotted with locals selling essentials such as eggs, turnips, faggots (bundles of sticks), homemade wines and cheeses, baskets and a products from every exploitable environmental resource. The land is their livelihood, their playground and (sadly) their rubbish tip. While conservative with their consumption, Romanians seemed liberal with their wastage and indeed, the entire countryside has a neglected air about it: along the roadside, fields are littered with enough plastic bags and bottles to choke an industrial waste incinerator; rusted pipes snake through forests towards giant cooling towers and even the buildings appear exhausted as they queue beside abandoned factories, apparently waiting to collapse in order to make way for the next generation. Spurts of EU funding are already visible: the centre of Bucharest, the capital, has a certain nouveau sheen about it, with clean and useful signage and roads; dual carriageways even connect major centres, although, it is still common to share them with donkey-drawn carts carrying manure.
By European standards, Romania is insanely cheap. You can feast on a local dish of grilled chicken with ham and garlic potatoes, polenta and mountains of fresh bread, a few litres of Ursu (the local beer, whose name means ‘bear’) for around 9€ or 30 RON (Lei). Yet for the locals, it’s a different matter —the average Romanian wage for a worker in a city company we were told is somewhere in the vicinity of 500 Euros. The rest of the country receives a lot less. They can survive because of low inflation and the affordable housing. Just how long this will last as the country modernises, nobody knows. People are already nervous about the shift to the Euro which they say will drive up prices “like it did everywhere else”.
The meagre wages explain why Romania is so jammed with domestic tourists: it’s just too expensive to travel elsewhere. The castle of Bran where the Royal family once lived and, allegedly, the blood-sucking Vlad Dracul, teems with Romanian travellers and their families, with the odd Spanish or French and even Australian (!) making up the minority of gawking, photo-carrying pilgrims. Yet, locals or foreigners, it doesn’t seem to bother the rows of market owners, who push their tacky t-shirts and vampire teeth onto everyone that passes by.
Doing business in Romania is an informal affair—something which may come as a surprise to unsuspecting westerners, who expect contracts, offices or even business names. In Romania, such commercial excesses are optional. The rental car dealer from which we hired our 4WDs (one of which wasn’t a 4WD) consisted of two gentlemen clad in full denim, sporting the classic Joe Dirt mullet. They were loitering in the car park as we exited the airport terminal and, if they hadn’t been holding cardboard signs with our names scribbled on them, we would have avoided them altogether. The hostel in Bucharest, which we found by luck since there were no street signs, numbers or driveways, was a converted nunnery with three rooms. Space was so scant that even the girl working at reception was forced to sleep behind the desk. I wished her a good night before heading to my mixed dormitory.
“Hopefully tonight I’ll be able to get some sleep”, she replied, before proceeding to lay bed sheets on a banana chair.
Our attempts at speaking the local language were met with good humour. In Brasov, our linguistic repertoire was tested on numerous occasions—our local corner store consisted of a half-metre square hole in the wall, run by a friendly lady in a grey apron. The fact that we couldn’t see what we wanted to buy thwarted our usual method of pointing and thrusting money, however our pronunciation of lapte (milk) and pâinea (bread) must have been half close as both products were handed to us with remarkable efficiency.At a remote petrol station, a taxi driver (who thought it would be a riot to hear four foreigners stammering instructions in Romanian for quarter of an hour before revealing he understood English), assured us that half the country spoke English to some degree. He’d learned by watching McLeod’s Daughters—an Australian drama set on a cattle station. His lack of ‘Aussie twang’ made me suspicious at first, but to his credit, his command of English was excellent. I tried watching Romanian television but failed to experience this osmotic effect myself; with the exception of learning that the word ‘crap’ means ‘carp’, and that fried crap is an infinitely entertaining item to read on a menu.
Speaking of local fauna, Romania is also known to have the largest population of wild bears in Europe. While we did our best to track one down, none crossed our path. Only after did we realise that they were, like us, probably too busy avoiding the hoards of stray dogs that roam the towns and cities. Our guidebook reported that there are 200,000 stray dogs in the country—a figure which seemed, by our estimates, a little conservative. There are dogs rummaging through bins for food, sleeping dogs, dogs just sitting in a field, and dogs in marauding packs. There are dogs of all breeds and sizes (although mostly of the mongrel variety) and most of them looked well fed and content with their existence; some even seemed to be doing better than many of the humans we encountered.
I’d go back to Romania in a second. The people were pleasant and fun and constantly went out of their way to show us a good time; even the policemen, who pulled us over for going 70 mph in a 30 zone (though we were driving at the same speed as the lorry filled with turnips in front of us) and gave us a only warning, despite our licences not being valid. And the countryside, when one ventures beyond the rubbish, is in some areas untouched and pure. What really impressed me though is the air of optimism: it’s a country that has shrugged off its ‘impoverished Eastern block country’ label and is growing fast. The recent entry into the EU has sparked something… what it is, no one yet knows. But you can’t help but get the feeling that Romanians have realised they’ve become part of something bigger: something that, for so long, was passing them by.