In 2008 I heard a song by a band called The Maine. It goes, “We all have been degraded, we all will be the greatest”- something I’ve come to associate with Romania over the past few days of reflecting on my time there. The song, called We’ll All Be… is about coming home after a long time away and still feeling like you belong there. However, I’ve always felt that the aforementioned line spoke of a kind of collective resilience, the exact kind of spirit that abounds in Romania.
It’s always interesting to see how the reality of a place measures up to the idea of it you formulate in your head. I’m pleased to say that my image of Romania turned out to be fairly on par with what I found there, though I guess that happens when you spend several weeks researching a place for the sake of academia.
What I failed to account for was the people I would meet along my journey. From lively Romanians, to bookstore owners, artists, and other Europeans, I encountered all kinds in the streets of Bucharest, which is why, instead of regaling their life stories I will focus on the common traits I witnessed and why they are so significant.
In a previous post I mentioned that I have never felt as welcome in a place as I did in Romania. And this is because every single person I and my somewhat-more-obviously-American companion encountered seemed overjoyed to have us there, even if we were inconveniencing them. It was surreal. Though, being from the notoriously curt city of New York most overt acts of kindness to strangers mystify me (not to say that New Yorkers are rude, just that they rarely go above and beyond to help someone, especially a tourist, if they do not benefit from the exchange).
Hostel staff, tour guides, strangers, and so on all welcomed us with open arms and wanted to learn about who we were and why we were there. In turn we, of course, asked similar questions of them. The answers we received were fascinating. We met a young girl from Moldova who was living in a Bucharest hostel in search of new farm work in Romania. Despite her recent bad luck she was welcoming, talkative, and genuine- in her own words, she was happy to talk about something other than finding a job for once.
Also in Bucharest we met a Ukrainian artist who has spent years traveling Europe selling his work. He speaks roughly fifteen languages and when I asked where in Europe he had lived he simply waved his hand in the air and said, “everywhere”. My friend and I spent the first hour of my 20th birthday with him talking about the state of the world and what we are each doing, in our own ways, to make it better. A somber, yet inspiring way to kick off another year and decidedly my strangest birthday yet. So it goes.
Perhaps the most intriguing individual was an older Romanian man, traveling on business, who seemed to ooze wisdom. He was particularly impressed by our desire to travel to destinations outside of typical American tourist paths and seemed enthralled by the idea that we genuinely wanted to learn about Romania. After trading advice and sharing life stories, I left feeling like I had spent the afternoon with a favorite philosophy teacher of mine from high school, someone I haven’t thought about in years.
The next day he gave me three gifts for my birthday: a flower, a stamp, and a book. The flower, from a local market was nothing more than a symbolic gesture. The others, however, held significant meaning. The first was a set of old Romanian collector's stamps, featuring a depiction of man and woman in traditional Romanian folk dress that is often seen in Romanian artwork. He gave one each to myself and my travel mate and I intend to hold on to them for as long as I can.
The most precious is a pocket-sized Romanian prayer book that contains only a few lines of English, all of which are in the dedication he penned to me thanking me for my insights into life and appreciation for Romania’s history. As feels appropriate, I stop here for lack of adequate words and in deference to the sincerity of the gift. My heart is warm.
Understanding Romania’s history is key to grasping why these instances are so notable. After a centuries long and largely tumultuous battle to maintain their territory, Romania endured over forty years of communism. Nicolae Ceaușescu, rose to power during the 1960s and 70s, before assuming the role of President in 1974. Over time, Ceaușescu’s totalitarian state became too repressive, resulting in the famed 1989 revolution that released Romania from communism's grasp. There are monuments to the heroes of the revolution all over Bucharest, though people tend to avoid talking about it in detail due to the violent nature of the uprising; Ceaușescu and his wife were both executed publicly.
Since 1989, Romania has made every effort to restore its industries and foster a transparent democracy- and has succeeded on many accounts. Recently, the government attempted to pass an emergency ordinance (similar to an executive order) that would legalize certain corruption offenses, thus pardoning many incumbent politicians and lifting sentences imposed on many former political figures. Romanians were having none of it and began protesting in cities all over the country. The demonstrations grew exponentially each night following the release of the text, with hundreds of thousands of people gathering in Bucharest alone. They accused the government of trying to pass the law “in the night like thieves” (it was proposed in an emergency meeting just before midnight on a weekday) and called for the resignation of the current Prime Minister.
Photos of the protests, peaceful and with hints of satire, and the hashtag #Rezist popularized the events in international media. The government repealed the law, but has not resigned. You can learn more about these events here.
Knowing that I was arriving on the tail end of these massive protests, the largest since the ‘89 revolution, I was curious to see what people would have to say. Western nations and international bodies such as the European Union, to which Romania is a member, praised the protesters for their perseverance and eventual success. Within Romania, however, the appreciation was much more subtle- as though they felt that it was simply their responsibility to stop the government from backsliding into corruption. I was amazed.
This country and these people, so many of whom have lived through significant historical events and been repressed and degraded time after time, still believe in their ability to generate positive change. And somehow they believed in our ability to do the same.
After a night in Bucharest, though, I must’ve heard the phrase “we are all the same” at least a dozen times from a long list of Romanians because to them it really is just that simple. So, to sum up what I learned in Romania, I’ll leave you with this “we all have been degraded, we all will be the greatest.”