The first thing that strikes you about Romania is that it’s stunningly beautiful. The second is that like many beauties, it’s complicated and has a troubled past.
Caught for centuries between the possessive affections of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Russia, Romania spent 50 long post-war years in an abusive relationship under repressive and autocratic communist rule. From 1965 – 1989, dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s policies almost bankrupted the country and kept its people dependent and impoverished until it emerged blinking into the blaze of modern Europe a mere 20 years ago.
Think about that. Virtually every Romanian over the age of 30 has a vivid memory of empty shelves, food rationing, security police “visiting” their homes at night, the collectivization of their land, and 22 hours a day of state television dedicated to poems about their fearless leader. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And nowhere is that more apparent than in Romania, where the majority of urbanites live in the loathed, butt-ugly Soviet bloc apartments that ring the outside of every city, even the lovely historic towns of Transylvania.
Meanwhile, the majority of rural people struggle to farm productively without a state Big Brother monitoring their every move. “We’ll pretend to work and they’ll pretend to pay us” was the ironic farming catch phrase under communism, yet under democratic rule, agricultural productivity dropped 90% in a decade. Unlearning communist stagnation seems to be harder than you might think.
Indeed, there are really two Romanias. A member of the EU community since 2007, Romania is a country of 19 million people: 50% living in sophisticated, developed urban areas and 50% living as subsistence farmers on land they just recently reclaimed from the state, clawing out a meager living on long, narrow plots of fertile land, driving horse-drawn carts, and herding their animals on communal pastures.
Gypsies (or Roma people) and Hungarians, shepherds and dairy farmers, the rural half of Romania seems centuries removed from the urban half– a fact that is both lovely and confounding.
Rural life in Romania is so challenging that millions of young people have moved to other EU countries, leaving older people behind to do the hard work of farming. It is in these rural areas that Heifer is working to improve nutrition and increase income through livestock projects and community development … and where I happily spent most of my time.
Now for the question that’s been on everyone’s mind: Yes, I did spend all my time in Transylvania. No, I did not see any vampires. And obviously, I will now be living for thousands of years in my own personal coffin.
I always think of rough living conditions as being in Africa or Latin America. But look at this, Europe has some places like that, too!