One night in Braşov, I was sitting in the Auld Scots Pub, a theme pub of sorts where guys in Celtic and Scotland football shirts and girls in tartan miniskirts serve you London Pride, Strongbow and Wembley Gin. (Wembley Gin?! I love Brent but really! It reminds me of seeing t-shirts with ‘Hammersmith’ across northern Greece, the hot new label. Mind you, half the Romanian kids here seem to be wearing Arsenal and Chelsea shirts, ugh…)
In many ways, the Auld Scots is like a genuine pub back home: there were two Romanian boys sat staring open-mouthed at the football on the TV while their girlfriends feigned interest but otherwise looked bored; some posh girls from the English Home Counties were using all their charms to try and get free drinks – “It’s our last day,” they were pleading; and a bunch of older, drunker British men were sat behind me moaning about the weather and watching the Shanghai Masters snooker on the other telly.
These were among the very few Brits I have seen anywhere in Romania. The previous night, I sat next to a table of very upper crust, horsey types at a pizza joint – a maiden aunt, a couple of men and five or so young women dressed in floppy hats and ethnic print skirts, like a modern EM Forster. But that’s about it. Every other European nationality seems to be here, and more. Lots of French, Swedish, Aussie and Flemish backpackers, coachloads of Catalans, Spanish and Israelis, Germans and Italians in their hire cars and plenty of Romanian tourists too.
So why no Brits? Or is it that they are here, but on a completely different kind of trip? Those that I have seen only come out at night for the cheap beer and life on the square. Perhaps they have their villas in the country, or aren’t interested in doing the museums and castles. It can’t be the image of Romania shown over there, can it? Dracula, Cheeky Girls, the location used for the village in Borat, Ceacescu and the orphans… Well I’ll fly the flag over here, don’t you worry…
Much of Southeastern Europe has always struck me as medieval in feel as well as look. The old men silently drinking Turkish coffee and thumbing beads in the cafes in Crete, the old women dressed in black in the height of summer, the old Turkish woman I saw from the bus in northern Greece hanging tobacco leaves up one by one to dry by a tin mosque. Romania has that feel too. From the train, villages rush past of wooden shacks with terracotta rooves, an old woman in a shawl in the garden, a rooster and geese in the garden, an ancient church or castle at the centre. The roads of dirt run through pastures with handmade haystacks and fields of corn, with the occasional roughly made cart pulled by a sad looking horse. There are Communist era apartment blocks and factories every so often – they look so crumbling that they are practically medieval in feel too.
Like Greece and Turkey too, I see the history of the Balkans in the faces of the people. There’s no Romanian type – you see tall and short, dark and fair, Slavic and Mediterranean and Germanic. People wear odd hats, especially in the markets. Even Bucharest Cathedral was like a scene from Durer, many old women and nuns gathered together in every corner chatting, with young Orthodox priests swishing through in their robes and wispy beards. The nuns have veils pulled over a pillarbox hat and tight round their faces. One woman had a pale blue shawl loosely covering the large amount of pale blue hair piled on top of her head.
Where I am now, the heart of Transylvania, is made up of grand old medieval cities built by the Saxons and Hungarians. The Orthodox Romanian-speaking people were the peasant class, not even allowed inside the walls. The Germans and Hungarians – Catholics, later Lutherans – were the merchants bringing wealth but over the centuries resentment too. In the amazing Lutheran church in Braşov, the largest Gothic church in South East Europe, brightly coloured Turkish carpets cover everything, evidence of the area’s trading links between the great cities of Central and Southern Europe, and Istanbul.
You still feel the differences between the communities, after all the years. In Bucharest I visited the Jewish museum – almost 400,000 Romanian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Half of Europe’s Roma community was wiped out as well: there are many thousands in Romania today, but I have not yet come across them in the bigger towns. In Braşov, there are Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox churches all close to each other, with the Synagogue right next to them. Each is well attended and well looked after. However, the German community largely left after the World Wars and the unification of Romania, and the Hungarian minority, like the Roma, is targeted by far right groups and nationalist politicians (meanwhile Hungary still claims, unofficially these days, much of Romania as its own).
Yesterday, I took a maxitaxi to Prejmer, a Unesco listed fortified Saxon village. The maxitaxi is basically a minibus, which filled up quickly and hence bumped about all the more in the potholes. To find the ‘bus station’ in the back streets of modern Braşov was quite difficult, and I was nervous I would miss the museum times. A gypsy woman in bright layered clothes sat in front of me, people got off the minibus in the middle of nowhere.
The fort of Prejmer was unexpectedly magnificent – medieval of course. It’s basically a ring of fortified cells for livestock and grains during a siege, around a tall church. Here the town still felt Saxon, particularly hearing them speak a German dialect among themselves. There are still 65,000 or so German speakers apparently.
Romania has its Mcdonalds and Vodafone and shiny cars, but these age-old boundaries still seem important, and it is all the more interesting and textured and hard to fathom and complex for it.