Țară means country (as in the country of Romania), and also country as in "let's go out to the country."
I find this a very appropriate coincidence as about 11 million Romanians (over half the population) live in rural areas in a country slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. And according to recent figures, 40% of the nation's population rely on subsistence farming to put soup and veg on the table. This means that it doesn't take much in terms of time or distance to leave 21st century urban Bucharest and travel deep into țara, quickly rolling back time through the centuries.
I've been waiting to see the heart of Romania since we first got our assignment 18 months ago. We've been here nine months now and have begun to make inroads, literally and figuratively, into the country to understand our temporary home and its people a bit more and particularly to see just how the rest of the folks live. This map (and the pink highlighted routes) shows how far we've gotten so far. Except for our train trip to the Black Sea city of Constanța and my flight to the city of Iași - all of our travels have been in our car.
A few weeks ago, we headed into the center of the country to Transylvania, probably the region people think of first when they hear "Romania." We drove along the Olt River valley, with the Southern Carpathian Mountains (aka Transylvanian Alps) rising steeply on either side of the two-lane highway. We'd heard that Romanian highways are horrible, but thus far I have zero complaints. But what does make distance driving difficult is not so much the roads themselves, as what's on them. Recent experience has taught us that there is a 100% chance of becoming wedged between a truck picking its way slowly through a mountain pass, and a mob of aggressive drivers in $75K cars, revving and flashing and trying to pass the whole convoy of equally-frustrated drivers in front of them. It freaks me out just a little as I wait for the inevitable head-on, and just hope that it's not my head they on. The highway planners pop in a passing lane here or there for these situations, but they're almost always on the steep uphill grades, which makes it all the more difficult to zip up to passing speed for those of us driving less expensive engines. Therefore a short distance can still take a relatively long time, even on perfect pavement.
However, when I can relax and look out the window, I love what I see. Small towns are separated by pure greens: the yellow-green of rolling cropland, the rich dark green of conifer forests or the bright spring green of deciduous forests still carpeted in last-year's autumn. Instead of billboards, strip malls, and hotel chains, I see chalet-style mom-and-pop guest houses, small restaurants with grills full of sausages and chicken alongside patios of umbrella'd tables. We pass stand after stand of folks selling goods along the shoulder of the road, which, depending on the season, can be fresh fruit, vegetables, massive bags of potatoes or onions, copper pots, sheepskin anythings, honey, wheels of cheese or potted plants. Sadly (and it took us passing a few to figure it out), we also saw about a dozen individual young women in shorts and tank-tops. My husband and I debated over whether or not they were just waiting for the mini-bus to go to their friends' houses in the next town (my hope) or if they were, well, going to work. All doubt was erased when we saw two of them get out of said mini-bus wearing nuttin' but lingerie. Oh dear.
|Windshield tour of town along the Olt River Valley|
|Relying on one or two HP just 30 minutes outside of Bucharest.|
|Selling cheese alongside the road (with satellite TV)|
|Orthodox priest oversees the reconstruction of his church.|
|View from the top of the bell tower of Sibiu's skyline|
|Tangled lanes and steep-gabled rooves|
|A waiter keeps an eye on his breakfast tables in the plaza.|
|What stories are behind each window?|
|An irresistible alley.|
|Snowy peaks in May!|
|Why does anyone leave this country?|
Situated on a nob of a hill, the grounds gave us an incredible view over the valley and town. Utterly peaceful, the only sounds from this purview were the chattering birds and the single horse occasionally stomping at flies. I'm surprised I'm not still there, it was that lovely.
|First view of the ruined church.|
|The "garage" with horse and cart.|
|Now THERE'S a job for you!|
|Springtime in Transylvania.|
|Village of Slimnic.|
|Oops, I guess someone does live here! We quickly backed out the door.|
Something I always struggle with is balancing the urge to photograph the people I see as we pass through their towns, with the fear of being the ugly tourist and having my subjects feel self-conscious, or like freaks. I remember once in Mozambique having someone who declined my request to photograph him saying something to the effect of, "You want pictures so you can show Americans how poor we Africans are?" His words have resonated in my head since then, but I still can't resist wanting to capture lives that are so different from what I see everyday. I'm left with the compromise of taking quick shots from the moving car, or while pretending to shoot something behind the subject, as unobtrusively as I can. And only sometimes does this result in a savable picture:
|Roma guy, ahead of him were three friends all wearing the same hats.|
|Roma women along the road near Sighisoara.|
|Workin' man with the classic Romanian hat.|
|14th Century Clock Tower presides over the upper town.|
|If you want a wedding in a UNESCO World Heritage Site - book ahead.|
|"In this house lived between the years 1431-1435 ruler of the Romanian Country Vlad Dracul, son of Mircea the Old."|
|Typical antique Romanian pottery styles.|
|Building corner gets a 3D sign.|
|How could I NOT take a picture of this lane?|
In the center of town was a muddy round-about around a fountain. Alongside the fountain was parked a regular car with what appeared to be the whole town gathering around a man at the hood of the car. We quickly realized that it was the mail delivery as the man was reading off names from red-and-blue striped air mail envelopes which were quickly snatched up by a hand in the crowd. Ah yes, the remittances. Now my mind jumped to Italy, Spain, England and even the U.S. and how many families were supporting these folks back home la țara as they made-do in their centuries-old pastel-colored, postcard-worthy houses, running water and electricity optional. A large government-made sign in the center instructed residents on the dos and don'ts of living in what should probably also be a Unesco World Heritage Site village. Things like, "Don't attach satellite dishes to the 14th century plaster" written with an optimistic/please God don't ruin this town tone.
|Fortified church we couldn't visit.|
|Typical architecture, this house dated late 1800s.|
|Mail delivery saves the day.|
|The village store in the background no doubt does good business on mail day.|
We stopped at yet another citadel, this one well-maintained and with a tour bus unloading high schoolers into the parking lot. Like kids anywhere, they were flirting with classmates, taking selfies and generally being happy to be out of the classroom and on a field trip.
|The well-preserved citadel at Rupea.|
Finally, we arrived back to our modern apartment in Bucharest, satisfied with having had a good look into the heart of Romania, into the faces of people living regular lives in street-side cafes, behind lace curtains, in muddy, stray-dog towns and in bucolic farm houses. It's a country still trying to recover its rightful reputation as an intellectual, artistic and scientific European center with roots reaching into the dawn of western civilization. Romania carries the heavy burden of trying to live up to its potential, incredible potential, which hangs over its head just out of reach as politicians are arrested for corruption, as doctors earn $1000/month and have to accept "tips" to treat patients and as its well-educated youth head to EU neighbors for better salaries. But it's also the safest country I've ever lived in (even in the center of Bucharest), with amazing natural beauty where one can live in two or three different centuries simultaneously. Yes, Romanians are cool and distant on the outside, perhaps still carrying the defensive habit of suspicion from its Communist days, but as soon as the shell is cracked, there is țuică to go around for everyone and bunches of flowers picked from the garden for a stranger. Everyday Romania makes me laugh at its quirky ways, its utter Romanian-ness, and it makes me sad when I see its people putting themselves down and asking me honestly "Why do you like it HERE?" while idolizing superficial brand-names and American style commercialism. This country has so much to be proud of and I look forward to seeing this realization come true, even if it means we have to come back in 15 years to see it happen.
(In Romanian Ț = a tz sound, so it is pronounced "Tzara")