Some of you may know that originally during this time I was supposed to be in Madagascar. Very sadly, for me and mostly for them, they had a coup a couple of months back and the country descended into some measure of chaos, so at the last minute I changed my plans and quite randomly ended up in Romania. Since I wasn't expecting to be here, I had no idea what to expect or where I would go, and although it started off a little slow, it's turned out to be quite more of an interesting destination than I expected.
The first few days of my trip I actually spent in Bulgaria, which immediately impressed me with its post-communist crimped hairstyles and neon outfits straight out of the American '80s. I got a chance to practice reading Cyrillic, but otherwise I was surprised at how much Bulgaria resembled western Europe, and I was at first a bit disappointed. I visited several churches and monasteries and found the styles of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to be quite different from those at home, but otherwise the attractive old towns and castles reminded me a lot of Belgium and France.
I entered Romania via Bucharest, a fairly unattractive city, and met up with an old friend. We spent some time in Transylvania learning about the "real" Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, who has been touted by some Romanians as a great defender of the country, but unfortunately did so using unspeakably horrific tactics. Actually I knew virtually nothing about the history of Romania before coming here - it's quite a bloody history, with various groups invading, killing, impaling and deporting other groups for centuries. It's only been one united country since the 1920s, and it only joined the EU in 2007. It remains the least-developed country in the EU today. But it is evolving fast, with the younger generation learning English and taking on western European habits and styles (though they, too, are largely stuck in the '80s). In Transylvania we did see various relics of "Dracula," but mainly we were impressed with the gorgeous medieval towns and fortified churches - churches that were built with fortress-like defenses, so that the town could hole up in them in case of an attack. Interestingly, the area was settled by Saxons from Germany many centuries ago, so we found many people who spoke German, but few who spoke English.
However, the highlight by far of Romania was when we rented a car and went up to Maramures, the northernmost province of the country, where - believe it or not - people still live the way they did centuries ago. It is dotted with tiny little villages, each of which has an ancient wooden church (and several newer churches), and the people, or at least the older people, still dress in traditional clothing. Horse carts are more common than cars, and cows and chickens are far more common than tourists, of which we were the only ones we saw. The interior of the wooden churches is usually completely covered in paintings, often quite graphic descriptions of the various torments you will face in hell for earthly offenses (for instance, a woman is forced to eat her aborted baby - they were more grotesquely imaginative than you would think in the 1700s).
We also visited the "Merry Cemetery" at Sapanta, where a particularly creative artist made very colorful gravestones with painted portraits of the dead (often in the act of dying being run over by a tractor or some such) and carved cheeky poems about them on the wooden tombstones. On the eastern side of the northern portion of the country are the painted monasteries of Bucovina, a collection of monasteries from the same period that are fully covered in detailed paintings both inside and outside. Amazingly, on the non-windward side, much of the painting has survived, and they are quite unique to behold (in fact, they've even inspired a color that is now part of the international palette: "Voronets blue"). We also did some hiking in the Bicaz Gorges and rode the last remaining steam-powered logging train in the world (or something like that) at Viseu de Sus.
But I think what most endeared Romanians to us was their kindness and hospitality. Even though most of the time we couldn't speak more than a few words to anyone, they are probably the warmest, kindest people I have met in Europe. It's been a linguistic challenge, and I've had a chance to use pretty much every language I've ever studied except Mandarin, but mostly the lingua franca here has been a big smile and an even bigger thank you. We have felt incredibly welcome, and everyone has gone out of their way to help us out, from German-speaking cowherds to one-toothed church keepers to folk-dancing school teachers. I truly hope that this character doesn't disappear as Romania is assimilated into the European Union and moves into the 21st century for real. Get here while you can...