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When Rosemary Sheel (rosemarysheel.com) contacted me in 2012 for a photo tour of Romania I was not aware of the experience I was about to have during the tour with her. Rosemary is the only tourist I had in more than 10 year of guiding who traveled twice in the communist years. The first time she did this I was not even born. Definitely Rosemary had many interesting stories about her experiences in Romania. That’s why I asked her to share them on my blog.
I’ve long had a fascination with Romania but I can’t pinpoint the reason. Was it seeing the film of Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Was it listening and dancing to the wild melodies of Romanian folk music? Was it reading the works of authors like Sadoveanu and Rebreanu or Gregor Von Rezzori?
When my husband and I traveled to Romania in 1975, I was ecstatic…
Ceausescu was in power but he hadn’t yet planted his foot on the throat of the Romanian people. Yet, as I think back, maybe there were sinister undercurrents that a tourist couldn’t see; at the Village Museum in Bucharest, an old woman took my arm, pointed out Ceausescu’s (ubiquitous) portrait and insisted repeatedly that Ceausescu was a “bonne homme”. I don’t know how I understood her as I knew no French but she got her point across and I’ve never forgotten the urgency in her voice. Was there a member of the secret service nearby? Or had the Ceausescu cult of personality brainwashed her?
There was no sign on the streets of Bucharest, nor in the small villages, of the hardships yet to come. Romania seemed a sunny country filled with strikingly handsome people. Women then, as now, swept the streets with twig brooms. (But progress has been made: now the brooms are tied with plastic strips instead of a piece of vine.) Men played chess in the park with chess pieces the size of a Great Dane. Gypsies lived in hovels and traveled the roads in wagons pulled by oxen or horses (whose bridle sported a red tassel). Nuns canned tomatoes, harvested from the fertile land, in the convent’s garden. Peasant women trundled huge jugs on small wagons to the village water spout. Handsome men wearing berets stood in front of our hotel and held out hand carved spoons and forks hoping to sell them. (I still have mine!)
We arrived in Romania few days after Ceausescu was killed. Of course, we didn’t plan it that way, but there we were in the basement of the Frankfurt airport lining up to get on the plane for Bucharest. We were the only non-Romanians getting on the flight. The German ticket agent told me he felt sorry for us because we were going to Romania. I felt sorry for myself. I sat next to a young girl on the plane and she wondered why we were going to visit her country during the ‘unruhe’ or unrest. I didn’t have an answer for her. And I wanted more than anything to tell her that it was all a big mistake, that we shouldn’t be going and we certainly weren’t staying, we would just take a quick look and we’d be leaving on the next flight back.
We arrived at the Bucharest airport just at dark. It was dark inside the airport as well as outside. A few scattered 40 watt bulbs gave a weak yellow gleam to the sweaty, swarthy, and rather fearful looking faces of the passengers crowded into the waiting room to get through customs. One of those fearful faces was mine. I looked around for some other tourists. Nope. There was no one who looked as it they were on a tour of colorful, delightful Romania.
We spotted a young woman waving at us and relief flooded through my veins. Our guide! Doina ushered us out to our waiting taxi and chattered brightly as we drove through the rain lashed city. There were other elements lashing the city as well: the miners had come from where ever they normally stay and had rampaged through the city smashing windows, cars and whatever else their sledgehammers could reach.
Young soldiers, unarmed, wandered the streets of the city…were they there to stop the miner’s rampage?
Our hotel lobby was filled with cigarette smoke. Empty wine bottles cluttered the floor. Noisy, dark-haired, mustachioed miners played cards, drank and smoked as if they were in the corner tavern.
The elevator quivered its way to the 6th floor where we stumbled down a pitch black hallway, feeling the numbers on the doors as if reading Braille. We locked ourselves in our room and I stared disconsolately out at the rainy streets below wishing we had a car so we could drive back to Germany immediately. Later, after eating dinner with some young people from Siberia who thought Bucharest was heaven compared to their home, I decided to look on the bright side. What choice did I have?
Although the Romanians had been under communist rule for 40 years, they couldn’t wait to be capitalists as soon as Ceausescu was pronounced dead. Overnight little huts appeared on the streets selling pancakes or sausages. There was always a line of hungry customers. Our guide wanted to eat at every stand and so we did. I think it was the novelty of it that appealed to her but she did have a hearty appetite. Food was still in short supply. When we returned from the Danube Delta, by air, she held a fresh fish wrapped in newspaper in her lap, a surprise for her parents and the man who sat beside her on the plane.
The people in the countryside seemed better fed than the Bucharest denizens. The communists had been unable to collectivize the independent mountaineers. Their homes were spacious and attractive sometimes set on a hill overlooking forests and fields. When we visited the home of our guide in Bucharest, it was a tiny apartment where the living room, dining room and bedroom were one and the same depending on the time of day. I remember a hole in the bath tube the size of a baseball. (And her parents were university professors.)
As we sat in the (for the moment) living room sipping tea and eating jam with a spoon, the guide’s father told a Ceausescu joke.
It’s winter time. The family is sitting inside and notices a man passing by. The man of the house admonishes his wife: “Don’t open the window. You don’t want that man to catch a cold.”
Daniel, you may not think this is funny so leave it out…I love it.
Our tour included hired car and we drove to Bukovina to see the painted monasteries. And it was in Bukovina that I glimpsed a remnant of old Romania. Grandmothers and grandfathers wore peasant costume, black dirndls, kerchiefs, sheepskin coats and feathers in their fedoras. When we came across a group whose bus had broken down, they greeted us with happy cries and offered us palinka and homemade delicacies that they had brought for just such emergencies.
We visited nuns in the monastery, people stacking hay in those gumdrop shaped haystacks, and wandered into farmyards where the woman of the house stared as if I were an apparition.
In the Danube delta we were rowed through the labyrinth of reeds by a young, handsome Romanian. I didn’t get any shots of the bird life, but I have several good shots of him!!
Daniel Gheorghita, my photo-tour guide from Covinnus and I became “photography friends”. Once he knew the type of photo I liked, he was on the lookout for me. Storks nesting, horses and wagons, old churches, gypsies…we shot them all! He insisted we get out our tripods for our landscape shots, a chore, but a guarantee that our photos would be sharp. We got up early for dawn light and stayed out for the “blue hour” at dusk. We learned from each other.
When it was time to eat, I always waited until he ordered and then ordered the same. That way I was sure to be satisfied. We ordered papanash, a cross between a doughnut and a cream-puff at every opportunity. I can still remember the restaurant in Sibiu. It was in a medieval building, down the stairs into a vaulted room where we were served delicious and hearty Romanian specialties.