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Paynesville Press - June 28, 2006

Guest Column

Peace Corps Volunteer writes from Romania

By Frank Ziegler Jr., a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania and the son of Frank and Kathy Ziegler of Paynesville

Buna ziua from Romania!

"A Latin island in a Slavic Sea" is an apt title to describe the country of Romania. Located in Eastern Europe, bordering Hungary, the Ukraine, the Black Sea, and a few other countries, Romania is a unique land, likened to the Wild West. It has a unique cultural heritage and a turbulent recent history.

The casual visitor to large cities, such as Bucharest, the capital, may notice that the landscape is often covered by large concrete block apartment buildings, a legacy left by the former communist government, though charming ornate older buildings, spired Orthodox churches, or parks with odd geometric concrete statues can usually be found nestled in various nooks in the cold squareness of the dense housing.

Newer glass and steel buildings are becoming increasingly common.

Though block apartments are equally prevalent in small cities, most of the rest of the country is still rural, with horse-drawn wagons a common sight, using the same stretches of highway taken by semi-trucks. Life in the countryside - though permeated by modernity in the form of cell phones, Internet access and cable TV - still retains many traditions passed down through the generations.

Traditional dress can be seen, mostly visible during weddings and annual community festivals, often accompanied with folk music, dancing, lots of food, and traditional homemade beverages like wine or tsuica, akin to schnapps, usually made from prunes in backyard stills. Traditional dishes include sarmale (cabbage rolls), meech (uncased grilled sausage), and mamaliga (a sort of polenta).

Weddings are all-night affairs, with plenty of dancing, which commonly involves everybody getting in a circle, arm on each other's shoulders, and hopping furiously to the rhythm of the music. By far, the most popular automobile here is the Dacia, originally based on a car by Renault. Small, stripped down, and simple, many of the machines on the road today are about 20 years old, but are faithfully maintained by many. There are some variants, including a wagon and a four-wheel-drive version with a truck bed and two or four doors. But the standard sedans often assume the roles of a car or a truck. They seem to be tough little things, braving the seldom-smooth roads of the country, being taken on roads usually reserved for Range Rovers.

I even was in one when we forded a river. (My friend told me to pick up my feet. She was joking about having to do soŠbut not about us taking the plunge.)

The newest Dacia, designed by Renault, is actually starting to gain appeal outside of Romania. New plants are being built to satisfy demand in France, and even Iran.

Most of the ethnic Romanians are descendants of the ancient Dacians and the invading Romans, who made it as far as the Black Sea. The Roman Empire's biggest visible contribution is the language, which came from a dialect of Roman, which does resemble Italian and Spanish in structure and vocabulary. Despite this, there is plenty of influence from other ethnic groups. v There is a large Hungarian population, some towns and villages even use it as the predominant language, which live within what has been a historically fluctuating border. Sometimes this still is a point of contention.

There are also the Roma, or gypsies, who also live in their own communities. This group is arguably the most persecuted. Most of their exposure to the rest of the population usually occurs while begging in the street. However, they too have their traditions, which are kept alive, most visibly during an annual festival which occurs just north of my current hometown. There is also a German minority, who originally arrived during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The country is divided into several different regions. The largest, and most famous, is Transylvania, which is where the majority of the Hungarian and German cities were built. This area is home to some of the most beautiful sights and cities in the region, such as Brasov, and Sibiu. A must see between Brasov and Bucharest is Peles Castle, in the popular ski resort town of Sinaia.

The region to the east, touching the coast and bordering Moldova is known as Moldavia and is home to such sites as the famed monasteries around Suceava. To the south is Wallachia, which includes Bucharest and most of the country's share of the Danube River. The borders of these regions roughly follow the converging path of the Carpathian Mountains.

There are other unique areas too, such as Maramures in the north, the Danube Delta, the Romanian Everglades (a rest stop for many species of migrating birds), and the coastal region, with its various towns, big and small, some tailored to attract various types of travelers.

The region is mostly known for being the haunt of Dracula, who was likely based on an actual figure, Vlad Basarab, or "Tsepesh," a nickname given for his particularly horrific method of punishing prisoners by impaling them on pikes.

Also having the title "Draculea," meaning son of the Dragon (it can also mean demon), a reference to a secret society in which his father was a leading member, Vlad was actually a prince in Wallachia, the area to the south, and is viewed by some people with pride in his effective leadership. While he liked to dine in a virtual forest of criminals, or prisoners from Turkey, who were skewered on wooden poles alive, it was said that crime was so scarce, a sack of gold coins could sit in the middle of the street untouched.

The fact that he had actually been imprisoned at a young age by the Turks, and likely subject to torture too, may also provide some insight into these facts.

More recently, the country was subject to the rule of a communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, who starved his people, while pursuing grandiose projects such as the Parliamentary Palace in Bucharest, for which an entire section of the old and historical downtown district was leveled. Though never actually part of the USSR, the leader gave most of the food and resources of the country to the Soviet authorities. Meanwhile, he pursued large-scale projects like the Transfagarasan Road and the Danube-Black Sea canal.

Eventually, a revolution flared up, and despite initial violence by the elite military units and a campaign of terror by mysterious snipers, the police, army, and media sided with the public unrest. The day after Christmas in 1989, Nicolae and his equally despotic wife were swiftly tried and executed on live TV.

All in all, Romania is a unique place, in some ways resisting time, in some ways embracing modernity, and hard to compare to any other place in the world.

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