A Day Driving in Romania

Today was a day of missed photographs, passing too quickly outside the window of my rental car. Tradition seems mostly held by women in this world, and Romania has so many moments of it, where just before midday every town has four or five dignified matrons standing under a tree after the market, deep in conversation, wrapped in colorful clothing that I’d find less surprising in an ethnographic museum than on the street. There in the dappled shade, wrapped in hand-embroidered shawls and long skirts just like their great grandparents did, they are reinforcing their community before heading home to make lunch for the men.

One of those men is riding in the back of a horse drawn cart in front of me. He wears one of the many hats Romanian men wear, and every time I see one I get a little closer to thinking it would look good on me too. His eyes are unfocused as he waits to arrive home, and even from here I can see that they measure time in seasons, while I am stuck in the meagerness of minutes and days. But I know realigning would be the hardest thing I’d ever done.

We cross bridges over boggy rivers where Alexander the Great sank to his knees. How did he swear? I’m learning my Romanian curses, even when I don’t understand them. “Onion mother!” I say, not knowing if I’m referring to the mother of the onion or implying a vegetal nature to the listener’s childhood.

The road bisects village after town after village. In each rises at least one architectural statement of faith, indicating the enduring presence of history’s most pivotal institution. Their crosses seem more to hang from the sky than sit on top of a roof. Each construction places its vote for steeple, two steeples, or dome. Now and then one is so covered in gold that I wonder how far I really am from the temples of Southeast Asia, here on the edge of Central Europe, where Ottomans marched and Habsburgs countered.

Such forces are more than political, and the crosses remind me of the difference between the Russian Orthodox Church, imperialist and expansionist, versus the Romanian Orthodox focus on preserving their own identity in the shadow of looming empires. I have mentioned this to several Romanians, and whether they went to church or not they all nodded their heads at the truth of it. Again I marvel at this country’s ability to preserve itself, with a character both intricate and intimate, despite all the outsiders who have tried to eat it.

Romania, like Hungary, remembers when the USSR put a logo in the middle of their flag, and they celebrate their independence with depictions of their flag once the outsider was removed. The plaque above commemorates martyrs of the 1989 revolution.

In Europe you usually only see flags on the national day or when the futbol team plays, but as I drive past long lines of streetlights hung with the tricolor banner of Romania, I see this country as a muscle just waiting to flex, filled with a patriotic power that could resist tyranny. Any nation invading this country might find it had bitten into a rock. But this muscle could also be exploited by modern nationalism, with its perversion of the search for freedom into vulgar oppression. Romania cares nothing for conquest, but if the wider world doesn’t give Romania ongoing reason to join and love it, I fear what could happen here.

“United under the tricolor” says the train station graffiti

But those concerns were distant. First I needed to finish the drive to the next beautiful town of medieval lanes and belle epoque houses, and pick a restaurant. I knew I’d probably take a photo of the plate when it arrives, knowing I’ll never use it, since they never look as good as it tasted, but that’s okay. I wish I could capture the flavors, textures, and character of this country to the extent it deserves, but I’ll content myself with the pale slivers I manage. Because even on a day of missed photographs, I am full of captured memories, and if I had to choose one, I’m happy with the one I got.