Learning about Romania…

Getting ready for The Capitol School’s International dinner tomorrow, we are setting up a table on Romania. It’s always difficult for me to decide what to present at this table, since Romania has such a rich history and culture. Max and I purchased some poster board, which we’ll use to make a little map tour of the country, focusing on regional specialties and famous landmarks. Unfortunately, Romania is not served well by a strictly visual tour– in order to really get a sense for the country, you need a taste of its storytelling tradition, as practiced for thousands of years in the mountains and villages.

  • “In film, the Romanian new wave has arrived” (from the International Herald Tribune) – The Romanian film renaissance is amazing; so many wonderful movies in such an original style. You can get a number of them on Netflix, though Train de Vie and Filantropica (the apex of the Romanian new wave style) are still not available.
  • Prince Nicolae of Romania, a cousin of Prince Charles who has managed to keep his royal record a little less sullied than your average European noble.
  • The Romanian monarchy inaugurated “Romania Mare” (or Big Romania) as a nation. At the time, it included Bessarabia, which was given to the Soviets following the second World War. It remains in Russian hands to this day. Interestingly enough, Queen Marie chose to live at the Castle in Peles, located in Transylvania, home to a large Hungarian minority. The Austrian style of this castle reflects the monarchy’s Hapsburg roots.
  • “National Revival in Romania: 1848-1856”, a lecture by Steven W. Sowards, provides an insightful look at the Romanian “nation” formation period.

Castles are one route to exploring the history of European countries, and Romania has a number of beautiful castles.

A Romanian folk tale called “The Educated Man and the Peasant” reveals a scorn for education as contrasted with the common sense wisdom of the peasant:

An educated man made a wager with a peasant; if the peasant couldn’t answer the man’s questions he would have to give up three Lei for each question. The educated man asked the first question and the peasant answered, “I don’t know. I will give you three Lei.” The same thing happened with the next two questions so the educated man took from the peasant nine Lei. At his turn the peasant wished to ask the educated man a question but if he could not answer it he would have to give up five thousand Lei to the peasant. The educated man agreed. “What goes in the morning with two legs, at noon with four and in the evening with six legs?” The educated man did not know the answer and so give up five thousand Lei to the peasant. Afterwards, the educated man was curious and so asked the peasant what the answer was. The peasant said, “I don’t know. I will give you three Lei.”

You can read more Romanian folk tales, including priests, gypsies, thieves, and, of course, peasants at Romanian Tales.

Orthodox monasteries have a long tradition in Romania. (You can appreciate the large number of monasteries by looking at this Romanian monasteries map.) My mother tells stories of her youth in which her gang of friends would stay for free at monasteries while exploring the mountains. During the communist period, the monasteries continued to function as a place of solace and respite for Christian pilgrims. Unlike the Orthodox clergy, which often became involved in local politics, the monastic tradition, which required removal and distance from the “city of Man” (to use Augustine’s distinction), remained true to the Christian tradition. In fact, many monks played the role of dissidents in that they refused to acknowledge the preeminence of the Communist government.

The painted monasteries of Bukovina educated a largely illiterate peasant population about the life and glories of Christ at a time in history when literacy was still the provenance of a leisured, fortunate few. The churches were founded as burial places for nobles, who commissioned painters to share the Gospel on the church walls. Painters brought their own visions to bear on the canonical iconographic program. Voronet is known for its spectacular blues; Sucevita’s tones are mainly green-red; Moldovita’s yellow becomes a gold in the summer evenings, and so on. At first, the paintings were limited to the interior walls and then expanded to include the outer walls as well. The frescoes of Florence seem humble in comparison to the extraordinary colors of the Romanian monastery frescoes…. I will never forget them.