Trip to Romania

It wasn’t exactly the most restful of holidays, but it was something that my soul had been begging for over the past 29 months – a trip back ‘home’ to my country of birth, to see my parents. I have shared various pictures and trips down memory lane via Twitter – and I will probably use my many, many attempts to capture Romanian architecture over the next few Friday Fun posts. Here are a few rather haphazard thoughts about my first trip abroad since the Covid outbreak – almost like an attempt at catching a few birds before they all scatter and fly off!

  1. For a country that is among the poorest in the EU and has had a somewhat troubled history with Ukraine, I was very impressed at the genuinely warm and well-organised welcome being extended to the Ukrainian refugees. Not so impressed with the news about the lone madman (and convicted criminal, and also ex-politician) who tried to ram his car into the gate of the Russian Embassy in Bucharest after dousing himself in flammable liquid. But the war seems more immediate when you’re bordering the country involved (which is why I remember the war in Yugoslavia so clearly still).
Temporary shelters set up in the main railway station in Bucharest, for late arrivals from the Ukrainian border around 483 kms to the north. (There is another Ukrainian border to the east which is much closer)

2. Romanian government, state institutions and bureaucracy are difficult to navigate, chaotic and corrupt and all too often quarreling amongst themselves. However, the Romanian population are almost resigned at seeing themselves as being at the ‘back of the class for misbehaviour’ and refuse to believe that other countries can have equally appalling public institutions or politicians.

Did I manage to complete all the paperwork required for renewing my passport? Very nearly, except it will take three months until they return them and I can then submit them to the Romanian consulate in London. Just as well I have another passport, isn’t it?

3. My parents have become frail over the past two and a half years, especially my mother. I will have to start planning more frequent trips back to Romania to see her and help support my father in caring for her. Our relationship has not been a very harmonious one over the years, but this time we managed not to quarrel. Doubtlessly, the long absence played a part. Besides, she only mentioned two of her major disappointments with me (my weight and that my career did not live up to my initial promise) instead of the habitual four. I did weakly attempt to justify my many sideways career moves and changes, but then realised that no matter how good my career might have been (and how content I might have been with it), it would not have lived up to her expectations.

4. The countryside is still filled with middle-aged people who toil in hard-core manual labour on their small pieces of land in what is essentially subsistence agriculture – and who have built or renovated quite impressive houses for their children to inherit. Yet their children have either moved to the city or abroad and have no intention of ever inhabiting those houses. It breaks my heart to see them all working so hard for nothing, and never getting a chance to enjoy their own lives or retire properly.

My grandmother’s house used to be the traditional white of the region with grapevines growing all over its facade. It is now empty for most of the year, although my father and other relatives go there occasionally to maintain it. It is NOT one of the impressive houses I mention above, but full of fond memories.

5. I was determined to focus on the positives and took lots of pictures of well-renovated buildings in both Bucharest and the small town of Curtea de Arges, which was the first capital of Wallachia in the 13th century – before regaining its royal favour in the late 19th century, when the Hohenzollern kings imported to Romania at that time decided to make the famous monastery there their official burial site. Sadly, some of the beautiful old buildings that were nationalised by the Communists and then reclaimed by the original owners are being allowed to fall into ruin deliberately, so that the land can be sold or something more lucrative (like a block of flats) built in its place.

The Writers’ Union was housed in this Monteoru Palace in Bucharest and returned to the descendents of the family in 2013, who declared their intention to turn it into a cultural centre. So far, the only change I have seen is a mobile cafe/bar in its front garden.
Luckily, the Romanian Academy was purpose-built for the organisation in the late 19th century. I used to laughingly call it ‘my future workplace’ as a child.

6. There had been a cold snap during the previous weeks in Romania (and two heavy rainstorms while I was there), so the tree blossoms and flowers were far behind their British counterparts. I still enjoyed walking through the parks where I spent so many lovely and romantic moments in my youth (I lived entirely in Bucharest – with the exception of the summer holidays – from the age of 14 to 22), but the trees did look slightly threadbare. Nevertheless, I made several trips to check out the beautiful protected magnolia tree which I walked past each morning on my way to school and where I first kissed my high-school boyfriend. Although we moved to different countries, married, had children, divorced, remarried, we have loosely kept in touch over the years (incidentally, the only one of my exes to ever ask me how I was and how my writing was going instead of boasting about his achievements), so I couldn’t resist sending him a picture of the magnolia and he wrote back at once to say: ‘So many lovely memories!’

And now I am still floating around in that state of limbo, in which my mind has been scrambled and shaken out of its routine and habits. I have been confronted with a culture that is still so familiar to me but so different from my everyday life here in Britain. I became immersed in my past and that of my family, talking almost non-stop with my parents about all the friends and relatives, about family secrets and my own childhood as well as theirs. But actually, what I find most confusing and tiring is that the country, culture and language has moved on without me while I have been living abroad. It’s not just the change in street names or orthography, or the new bars and restaurants that have opened up, the Americanised vocabulary… It’s the fact that those young people who have known no other political and economic system than the current one (those born after 1990) are now approaching their thirties and finding our tales of life under Communism quaint and ever so slightly unbelievable.

22 thoughts on “Trip to Romania”

    1. And yet there were many things that have improved, there is still a lot that is more livable and pleasant than elsewhere (alongside the infuriating and less livable). Which is why I am always so discombobulated after such a trip.

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your trip to Romania Marina. Very moving and as I read now I hear your voice that I’ve got to know on Twitter. Love the magnolia bit. Sue and I have one in our garden that I bought and planted for our steel anniversary (10). It is now our silver (25). Life can bloom unexpectedly. From Peterx

    1. What a lovely idea to have a magnolia memento! The owner of the house with the magnolia tree was telling me that this year it was a particularly brief season, unfortunately, because it was cold so it bloomed late, and then the flowers scattered rapidly because of the rain.

  2. This is a very moving post, and I can see why your mind feels scrambled and perhaps numb from what you’ve seen. I was very impressed by the tents at the train station, which warmed my heart.

    1. I’ve also just read an article about a Ukrainian school organised in Bucharest, with interviews with some of the teachers, mothers and children involved.

  3. Pleased to hear that you were finally able to see your parents. It must have been a constant worry throughout Covid for you. I’ve followed your trip on Twitter and enjoyed seeing so many photos. Thank you for posting them!

    1. I was really worried they would catch Covid, especially since my mother has respiratory problems anyway, and my father has diabetes. It was good to see them in better spirits than I expected, and not quite as isolated anymore either. We just never stopped talking, to be honest!

  4. I feel so much of this so deeply with you. Living abroad and far from family creates such an odd consciousness split, and returning to your country of birth only to find that it has moved on can be really disorienting. (My British mother, who moved to America in 1984, is now surprised by things ranging from the queues in Costa Coffee to the radical concept of mobile banking, which the US still mostly lacks.) Seeing your parents or parent figures age is also such a challenge, and raises all sorts of emotions. (I have had similar conversations with my grandmother about my weight and fashion choices; I went to see her last month and she recoiled from my churchgoing outfit in horror. I think at sixteen this would have upset me; at twenty-nine, I calmly told her it looked absolutely fine and I would happily stay at home if she would be embarrassed to be seen with me. Immediate back-pedaling. Result!) So glad you got to visit again, though. Those buildings and blossoms are stunning!

    1. I am often deeply unsettled after a trip to my home country, as it brings all sorts of feelings about home and belonging and identity to the fore. But overall it was a joyous occasion, as it had been far, far too long since my last visit!

  5. That’s definitely a ‘mixed bag’ sort of trip, Marina Sofia. I’m glad to hear that Romanians are doing what they can to help Ukrainians at this time. More than that, I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve had to listen to the list of disappointments; even if you’ve heard them before, it’s disheartening, and for some reasons, parent voice resonate, even if what they say is wrong. Still, you had a chance to visit, which was lovely, and I can’t wait to see those ‘photos!

    1. The bite had gone out of my mother’s remarks, for some reason: whether it was the long absence, or the wisdom of my older years, or simply her frailty making her less hurtful. As for pictures, I have so many, I may have to do 3 posts!

  6. Ah, families and their expectations of where we may in our life trajectories! You are amazing, that’s for certain, a brilliant woman. It was a pleasure to read your account of a long-desired trip back, and it seems it has left you with plenty to chew on as you add to its flavours.

  7. I’ve been seeing your postings on Twitter and it sounds like your visit was an extremely nostalgic one with many things that were good about it. I’m glad you were able to make it! As for your relationship with your mother, mine is mostly on the same level (when the dementia is not at its worst) and so I totally get the mixed emotions about that. And it’s such a shame that some of those beautiful buildings aren’t being preserved. But I will look forward to your Friday posts!

    1. I was so determined that nothing would spoil my pleasure during this long-awaited trip that I managed to shrug off remarks that would have had me grinding my teeth a while back. It’s nice to be reminded of one’s heritage, even if I have spent most of my life abroad by now.

  8. Yes, it’s good that a whole generation have no experience of life under communism, but it’s always discombobulating to realise that your life has become someone else’s history lesson. Glad you found some things were still as you remember them!

  9. I’m so glad you were able to get to Romania in the end, Marina, after various postponements and frustrations…and you’re right to try to focus on the positives, however disheartening some of the downsides might be. That’s a really lovely vignette about the magnolia tree.

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