I write this in Vama Veche, that has again turned to a small village. A few weeks ago it has been crowded by humans coming from all over Romania and Europe. Its name translates into “Southern customs” and goes back to its foundation after the wars fought on the Balkans between Romania and the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. Somehow it became a famous place, no one really knows why, for tourists, hippies, writers, thinkers, musicians – all seeking an unusual experience. It is beautifully located at the coast of the Black Sea, the beach is framed by some cliffs and the water is refreshingly clear. The season now has come to an end. The beach bars are deserted, the pensions have emptied, dirty leftovers of the partying are everywhere, some of them walking on two legs, still looking for the next beer. Maybe they should leave now, before they will get lost. They are straying around in ragged pants, barefooted, like the cats and dogs that are all over the place, giving company to a few local fishermen who seem to be suspicious about the foreigners. The atmosphere is grotesque in this place, that has turned from an intellectual resort to a place for partying and wild camping. The current generation of hobos, who maybe have been students or workers before, seem to have lost something they cannot name by themselves.
The large amount of restaurants covering the seaside has reduced to only two, that are still operating. Finding food has become a difficult affair and the real rulers of the place are those owning a coffee machine on this nonetheless beautiful Monday morning. This lost place, surrounded by the sea in the front and endless wastelands in its back, is the end of a world and offers a perfect setting to write down my impressions of the last two weeks. It is nothing left to do except to write and if I’m loosing the words I can just raise my head to the very end of the horizon, where sea and sky are melting together in a foggy gray-blue and they will return back to me.
I started my journey in Budapest, a place of which I didn’t have the best opinion. I arrived with the intension to stay only for two nights, to have a short stop before moving more east, but surprised by its splendor I had to add a few more nights. I spent my time in the seventh district Erzsébetváros and at its periphery. The district has become very popular for its nightlife and attracts Yuppies and business man in their forties from all over the world who rather seek a possibility to spend some dough than to experience something unknown. It is like in all the other “underground” districts where nightlife, tourism, money and a lack of quality and soul go hand in hand. So I was more than happy to find a little restaurant run by an Hungarian couple, where traditional food was served. They welcomed me warmly and sitting outside in the street, eating a soup or a thick sauce Béchamel with pumpkin, seeing the neighbors going in and out of the restaurant gave me the feeling of luxury, a luxury that never can be bought. This contrasted to all the places recommended on the Internet, for example Café New York, where I once wanted to have breakfast. It’s an old place, very famous for its interior, with professional waiters and a live piano playing all day. After I stood in the queue together with some strange people for some minutes I decided to leave this douche joint, where you will be robbed worse than in any dark alley. It is said that this place was once a meeting point for writers and artists, just as Vama Veche, but the character has so fundamentally changed, that everyone with a real interest in literature and art will spit on the ground while passing by the building. Maybe this whole tale is just a marketing fraud to hide the monetary interests and to give the guests the impression of being smart folks, or those people back in the days where quite wealthy by themselves and enjoyed getting their balls sucked by the waiters. Or, and that would be interesting to find out, all the people going to public places for meetings, formal or informal ones, were already at the very edge of the “good society”, which would rather gather in private places. However, Café New York attracts vast amounts of guests, willing to spend a good share of their money in a sterile atmosphere and you wouldn’t dare to lick the sauce of your fingers. After the breakfast then they would leave for seeing the parliament or the synagogue. Not that they have business with politics or religion. And because “there is so much cool stuff to do in Budapest” and their time is limited, or because they think it is, they will use Google Maps to navigate to the parliament or the synagogue. Google Maps will also propose a place for lunch that is nearby, “in a beautifully renovated apartment with very friendly staff”. The whole district is a slaughterhouse for people with touristic ambitions. They arrive penned in busses and planes and for a few days they are mangled through the streets. Then they can, satisfied in their appetite and exhausted, return home again from “a beautiful city, that isn’t as cheap as you would think”. And again a season of consummation has passed without that there would have been any reflection.
While being guided by Google and the desire to spend some coins, most visitors will not realize that the 7th district used to be a jewish ghetto for the very last months of the war. The story behind is quite interesting so I will allow myself to tell it in a few sentences. Miklós Horthy was a national conservative military man and politician, restoring monarchy after the declaration of the Republic of Councils in Hungary, terrorizing communists, socialists and jews. But the royalty was not able to return to Hungary and so Horthy was elected as guarding regent. Later he remained as the head of state in a monarchy without monarchist. His biggest concern when it came to foreign policy was the loss of Transylvania and other areas and their populations that had belonged to Hungary before the first world war and that were now in the hands of other powers. The areas were cut off from Hungary by the Trianon treaty. It is very similar with the development in Germany during that time, where the Versailles treaty was subject of diverse political ambitions. This made Horthy naturally a close collaborate with the Third Reich, considering it as the most powerful restorative power in Central Europe. Horthy’s hope was not disappointed, as it was already in 1938 that Hungary could reintegrate certain areas around its boarders on behalf of Germany and Italy. The collaboration with Germany continued, Hungary entered the war as an ally, but a shadow was thrown on the good relationship when Horthy refused to expel the Jewish population of Hungary. Neither did the Germans like his military indifference. Rumors circulated that he was about to sign a separate peace treaty with the Soviet Union, so Germany had to interfere two times, firstly in March 1944 and then in October the same year. Ultimately Horthy and his son were expelled from the country and the whole government was exchanged by loyal marionettes, following the will of the Reich. The first intervention had as consequence the inauguration of Döme Sztójay has prime minister and it was under him, that, together with the infamous Adolf Eichmann, the Holocaust arrived in Hungary. The 7th district was transformed into a ghetto and in only ten weeks over 430 000 jews where deported to Auschwitz. Between March and October Horthy was still in office, although being quite inactive, but when he was informed over the inhumane activities in his country he was still able to stop the deportations. Finally he was removed from office in October and deportations started again.
Today there is quite a big Jewish community left. The synagogues in the quarter are surrounded by several kosher restaurants and shops. Finally I managed to get rid of this shiver running through me when answering the question “Where are you from?” – “From the country that managed to mass murdered jews all over Europe. Nice to meet you!” Now I realized that there is really nothing to do about it at all. What is important, still, is to be aware of the past and how it is remembered.
In Budapest I paid a visit to the Kunsthalle, where the Salon of Photography was held. Unexpectedly I ran into the works of Hungary’s most ambitious photographers. Every style of photography could be found – abstract, documentary or experimental. The salon takes place every five years and displays not only the artistic development but also the state of the country. The richness of the selection was impressive and the documentary section gave me an impression of the Hungarian society outside of Budapest. Rural neighborhoods, farmers, shepherds, poverty, beauty of nature, tradition, christianity – all those motives were reflected in the works. It seems to me now that many countries in the European East are struggling about national narratives and the ideas that define the country. Or at least the struggle is more visible, more present, than in the Western countries. It’s not that in Germany there is a fix idea how the country should develop. But the discussion wether it should be a diverse country, welcoming immigrants from all over the world, completely abolishing the “German tradition” and thus focus on economical development or wether it should try to preserve regional and national habits, languages and traditions and focus on families, education and quality of life, this discussion is not held publicly and in the few cases it appears in the media it is strongly biased and thus of no use. In the East the questions of economic development, westernization, tradition, life models, European integration and religion are addressed more explicitly, though they are heavily separating the societies.
When I left I felt somehow uneasy about it. It was the feeling of leaving something perfect, as far as we can speak of perfection, behind to head out for unknown lands. It was more an abstract idea of following my travel schedule that made me leave the city than an actual physical desire. Nonetheless I took a train to Timisoara, or Temeswar, to see what was waiting there for me. When I stepped out of the train station the streets were already covered in darkness, but there was something in the air, something that made me promptly realize that I’m in Romania now. There was a harmonious disorder, enabling all the principles I had learned during my life and asking heavy questions. Things work differently here. I don’t use Uber and did not possess any Lei yet, so transferring to the hostel could be a bit tricky. I decided to take things smoothly and smoked a cigarette. First things first. After some puffs a car stopped in front of me and it was obvious that it was delivering an Uber client. I asked the driver if he could take me with him for five Euros and he was more than happy for a tax free earning. Timisoara is a picturesque place with many historical buildings in pastel color and a river flowing through, it really is a “small Vienna”. On every square one will stumble into a huge church, buildings that are, in contrast to the old palais, in good shape. The morbid appearance of the palais spread all over the place, giving everything a touch of decay, as though as a disease just had passed by. A fever was in the streets, a panic, plants are growing everywhere and mosquitos pile from the soaked ground. The city will be, together with Novi Sad in Serbia and Elefsina in Greece, the European cultural capital in 2023. I had a very friendly host in the hostel and spend a lot of time discussing with her the current state of the city and Romania. The whole country is torn apart by its dreams, by its ambitions and the political system, the peoples minds, the limited capacities for change and the brain drain. The corruption is perceived as one of the biggest challenges to be overcome. This is partly due to the territorial and administrative fragmentation, the weak judiciary and the overlapping of the economical and political sphere. During the process of privatization, started in the 90’s, a tight network emerged, connecting economical interests to public offices. There is a high volatility in offices, the loyalty towards political parties, for voters as also for politicians, is generally really low and thus a system of clientelism was created, introducing at least some stability into the general instability of the political realm. The touch of not being finished, a work in progress attitude can be found everywhere in the country and the churches may be the only exception. To open a shop or to start an enterprise is accompanied by many legal regulations which can be reduced by bribing. In this setting, where development is nearly impossible, it is more than understandable that especially the younger generation seeks to leave the country. The West of Europe is appealing to them not only because of the financial prospects and the higher quality of material goods, but also because there is a relationship between effort and reward.
So the Romanian people is divided into three groups: the emigrants, the ones wishing to emigrate and the ones not wasting a thought about emigration. In the last group there is sometimes a fatalistic attitude towards the country and the ways how things are working. But it is not that people are unhappy about it, they are enjoying the Romanian way of life, which offers them a freedom one can only dream of in the West. They don’t have to take care, because there is nothing to be taken care of. They don’t have to worry, because there is nothing to be worried about. The only thing to do is to enjoy life as it as.
From Timisoara I took a car to Sibiu. Founded as a Roman city nearly two thousand years ago, it was refounded by Saxon settlers in the midst of 12th century. One can directly observe the German heritage from the appearance of the old town, which could also be in Nuremberg or Görlitz. The facades are yellowish, green, blue or pink and the cobblestoned squares are connected by narrow streets and alleys. It would be no surprise, if all of the population would be blond and blue-eyed. In contrast to Timisoara all the buildings are in perfect shape, there is no stucco falling down on crooked sideways. This makes the city an attraction for tourists from all over the world. This was mainly made possible by the political skills of Klaus Iohannis, nowadays Prime Minister of Romania. In 2000 he was elected as major of Sibiu and remained in office for fourteen years. Sibiu became European cultural capital in 2007 and EU delegations resided there. After that Forbes magazine elected the town as number eight in the most beautiful places in Europe to live in.
In the hosel I shared a room with an American guy with whom I quickly entered discussions about the cultural differences between Europe and the US. He was amazed by the complexity of Europe, a complexity that can be found in every aspect of life. Not only the languages, the people, the political systems, economic models and currencies is what constitutes this complexity. First and foremost it is the long history in every region that itself is not yet fixed in the present. Different identities emerge from the past when people see themselves in line with a certain tradition. By grouping together collective identities are created. The region of Sibiu is one of the most popular examples, how history affects the present. Throughout history it belonged to the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Romania, Austria and Hungary, Hungary and now again to Romania. There is a large minority of Hungarians living in Transylvania, where they have their own schools and remain outsiders in the Romanian state. This adds another notion if one wants to understand current political phenomena in Romania, Hungary and Europe. Compared to the US, it was for my American buddy a monstrosity, impossible to understand, and he seemed to be impressed that it is possible for Europeans to live inside of this overwhelming network without (completely) loosing their minds. He added that Europe would be ahead of the US when it comes to sustainable living and the satisfaction of basic social needs, such as nutrition, healthcare, work and leisure. I told him that Europeans mostly consider the US as a modern country, the most modern country in fact, an admirable place where all the problems existing in Europe seem to be solved. This contributes to a lack of self esteem and of an independent vision of the old continent.
Together we visited the Astra museum in Sibiu, a vast open air space where different forms of rural living are presented. They took houses, interiors and tools from all over Romania from the last centuries and presented them to the interested public. It was fascinating to imagine how life had to be back in the days, when you would wake up in the morning by the rising sun or the screaming cock and not by your buzzing smartphone alarm, to work in the fields, to collect fruits, to take care of the animals and when you would spend the evening sitting with your family around a candle, surrounded by darkness creeping out of the woods, with father or mother reading from an old book to the rest of the pack. We both imagined this kind of life, although less comfortable, as more satisfying and healthier than the modern life. Work, leisure and family were united in one small space and you did not have to care about things happening thousands of kilometers away, you had to work as much as you needed to and not as much as someone expected you to work. And most important you could directly see the results of your work whereas today we have to perform abstract activities in order to receive abstract benefit, money, which we then can transfer into concrete goods. This process of abstraction of work is probably one of the most difficult things for the human mind to understand and to accept. It diminishes individual and social responsibility and the account of psychological sicknesses, even the creation of a psychological science itself, displays how much it cuts into the nature of humans. The transformation of labor is widely recognized, but more when it comes to compensate its negative effects. In itself it is an indisputable development and if one wants to criticize it profoundly one will need to refer to Marx, which means to Lenin and Stalin, and since our society sees everything related to communism as a crime against humanity there is no public debate about labor itself, even though it is strongly needed.
To forget about the miserable situation we are actually facing, the German – American duo in Sibiu hammered a few beers into its heads and went to sleep. The next morning our ways separated and I took a ride to Bucharest.
Again in Vama Veche, where the weather is still great and dogs are still looking for food. Looking for someone to talk to, you can easily get in touch with people hanging out at the beach. Yesterday evening I ran into a group of campers from Poland and shortly after another group joined the circle around the fireplace. The latter group was doing a tour from Estonia to Bulgaria in old beat cars and not only their route seemed interesting but also the fact that they didn’t know each other before they started. The whole trip was organized under the label of Global Convoy. Originally it was a small group of friends who wanted to do a tour around the globe and somehow other people joined them and formed a Convoy. Vama Veche seems to have a hangover now. Or is it just the life on the countryside that is slowly taking over again? Jimmy Hendrix and Nirvana are still the most popular artists, but now Jeff Beck is coming out of the speakers. The place is falling asleep, probably until next spring when the season has to be prepared. Everything is locked away, stores are empty, beach bars are covered with wooden planks and it is definitely time to leave.
I arrived in Bucharest on a Sunday evening, the last gasp of summer was in the streets and long cues of waiting people lined up in front of the gelato joints. In this city all the chaos of Romania seems to culminate and you will have difficulties to find any kind of order. Apparently the city heavily grew in the second half of the last century. It’s population doubled and it’s size tripled, while Ceausescu decided it was time for Romania to have a modern metropole. So many older districts were torn down, new apartment buildings were erected and filled up with people from the countryside. With the renewal of the infrastructure and the growth of the city’s countrywide importance Bucharest became a place for international committees. But until today people inhabiting the city have a rural lifestyle and the cities actual size can hardly be observed. I met a guy there who told me that for him Bucharest resembles his image of the early New York. This got stuck in my head. It is for sure the city of freedom and the city of capital. This creates a cleavage within the population. One part favors a post industrial development and the other part wants to preserve recent forms of living. This cleavage makes Bucharest an interesting place to go to, because the atmosphere there is incomparable to any other place in Europe. It is not a metropole like Paris, but it has for sure the capacities to turn itself into one. But it will never perform this transition. So on the one hand people are pursuing modernization with a hopelessness and on the other hand modernization is accepted in a certain way, because ultimately it will fail. Poverty and wealth, solidarity and individualism here share the same areas. Between older buildings constructed in the 1960’s slowly loosing their grey facades you will find splendid villas or modern high rises made of glass and steel. One of the main streets, Calea Victoriei, runs across the old town and if you turn left or right you will find heavily damaged sidewalks on which old women are selling flowers or iconographies. After all Romania is a very religious country. People will casually cross themselves if they pass by a church.
During my stay I developed a specific interest for the country’s communist past and how it is remembered. Although Bucharest seems to be an ultra capitalist city there is no museum of communism or such. Only a small area with a fountain remembers of the revolution in 1989. In its course more than 1000 Romanians were killed by the security forces, the Securitatie, Ceausescu’s private army with the purpose to secure his power. I’m still not sure wether he is implicitly rejected or celebrated. Of course his methods of governing the country were questionable but then he followed a progressive policy, underlining the country’s national independence. When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 he heavily protested against the intervention. He welcomed Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon in Bucharest. His villa, which can still be visited, has of course a lot of luxury, but compared to the chateaus and palais in Western Europe it is still a humble place.
Now the question arising for Romania will be how to use it’s freedom in the absence of a strong, direction-giving leadership and how to remember national history. This is for sure a difficult and big question to be discussed in under the difficulties of everyday life, so naturally little answer is expressed. People will rather live their life the usual way, meeting up in the evenings to have a few beers and joyfully sit around a table. Compared to that freedom has a rather bitter taste.