We’ve been back in Bucharest for a few days now. After a minor change in plans, we bused down to Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria on Wednesday instead of Saturday because hotels were full this weekend. Although we only stayed one night, it was a truly amazing place to visit. The countryside is stunning, and the city has an unforgettable charm to it. Being the medieval capital of Bulgaria, there is everything from a large, spectacular castle to small, endless, old town homes lined up and down the hill with the very-European grapes hanging from the walls. We hiked through and around the castle, and saw numerous old churches and monasteries with impressive art and architecture in nearby villages. The houses haven’t seemed to change in 400 years, and neither has the charm, although the salespeople can be pushy and trick tourists (I learned my lesson about checking their currency “conversion”). Crossing the border was interesting as well, because the differences are instant: the vegetation, language, landscape, roads… In general it was a bumpy, very hot bus ride, but a memorable experience all around. Veliko Tărnovo was definitely more of a tourist city than Bucharest, but although the culture seemed very similar, it seemed to be more “defined”. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a smaller town (we met one resident who was able to tell us a bit about her and her neighbors), but I think the strong Russian influence countered the anti-Russian sentiment apparent in Romania. The idea of identity became relevant in a discussion two of us had with our Romanian friends and guides on Saturday, which I’ll get to later.
After the bonding experience that was the five hour bus ride, the next few days have involved lectures from Romanian professors at the University of Bucharest Center for Image Studies, and museum/landmark visits. The first lecture was an eye-opening presentation on the Roma/Gypsy community and their persecution during WWII. Arriving in Romania starting in the 13th century from India, they both integrated Romanian culture and retained their nomadic practices. In WWII, they were treated just as bad as the Jews; forced into concentration camps, worked to death and essentially forgotten, left to die. The few survivors remain terrified of anyone who asks about it, afraid they’ll be taken back to Russia. The footage in a documentary we were shown was truly horrifying. Nonetheless, a community remains and it was only recently that anyone bothered to do research into the horror that occurred. This is something no one learns about in the US; instead, Gypsies are usually equated with Romanians, when in fact their histories and cultural practices are literally separated.
Our next lecture was on religion, and the following one today was on Black Sea politics. In the larger picture, religion, mainly Orthodox but also Catholic, has been the source of relief after communism for a huge majority of the Romanian population. This could potentially be the source of national identity that Romanians are searching for, but it hasn’t seemed to satisfy. I wish I could capture the lecture we received today in a few sentences, but I’m still trying to comprehend the amount he was able to tell us. The main thing is the importance of the region for commerce and the increased participation from the West that he believes is required. Russia has been an expansionist nation from it’s beginning, and still has the goals of obtaining the South Caucasus (which we’ll be visiting), Baltic states, and Ukraine, which it was especially pained to lose; however, it’s tactic is not purely militaristic, instead Russia influences the area it wants politically and economically until it can take it. The Black Sea states are caught in the middle: unable to support or defend themselves, they rely on Russia only because they are more scared of the Turks. But if Russia were to control the areas feeding the Black Sea, including the Danube Delta in Romania, commerce would hardly be free anymore.
An interesting point made was that values may be what define a nation, but they also define who can talk to who. For example, Western values may be able to have a discussion with communist expansion values because the differences are understood (private property, etc), but the West has a much harder time talking to Islamic State extremists, as the differences are not so understood. From what I can tell, Romanians are very scared of the threats in the Middle East, and are desperate for help from the US. Russia will never give them autonomy. The only trouble is that Romania also desires acceptance to the EU, which has specific institution and value requirements, which Romania is not sure it wants to accept. Without the inherent desire for democracy, the institutions mean nothing. Romania’s 1989 revolution was the only violent revolution against communism, and there is no desire for that to happen again. But can democracy be passively set up without the passion of a revolution?
We took a tour of the People’s House today, the second largest building in the world, built in the 1980’s under Ceausescu’s rule. 20,000 people were displaced to make room. The interior rooms are ridiculously glamorous, large, and many. Still in use by Parliament, it puts into question whether such a building can actually be a symbol of Romania. Most people assume the communist block apartment buildings, which we walked through on our own one day, and the structures such as Parliament cannot be torn down, and that the few houses that have somehow lasted, hidden behind and between the Blocks, will forever be the only remnant of pre-communist culture.
This brings me to my experience with the street culture of Bucharest. One of our UW professors introduced us to a previous student of hers at the University of Bucharest, an Image Studies student with a focus on education, who showed us around the city on the weekend when we didn’t have lectures, and we’ve gone out exploring every night after class/touring, to anywhere from a gigantic farmer’s market to two squatter houses where some of his friends live. Trust me, they are much more than you may think. We were introduced to some guys (who we’ve since run into every day) who essentially pay minimal rent on these very old, run down ex-palaces, and work on fixing the buildings into works of art. Being in Bucharest, I’ve gained a whole new understanding of street art, as it is everywhere, skilled, amazing to look at, and contains messages, but also meeting a part of the community has shown a whole new story to street life. We’ve since been taken to everything from the National Museum of Art to a small, private art gallery on some street corner. One place forbade pictures (although definitely contained some fascinating history), one place had people who we talked about life with for hours.
After seeing the art they can do in and with these houses, one of them came to dinner with our group and guides-turned-friends. As mentioned earlier, two of us from the group had a long discussion about identity with him. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a heartfelt and mind-altering discussion before. It is true that Romanians are searching for identity but don’t know where it is. He also felt strongly that America needed to help out. I have heard from others as well the opinion that isolationism is deadly. But we also talked about the obsession with efficiency in America; the lack of taking every five minute break to get something done here is both noticeable and such a relief. We compared our experiences in our home countries and discussed what each needed to do, and it became clear just how biased most Americans are, including myself, and yet how much the rest of the world looks to our position of power. Many want to visit, and many want our help, but it also isn’t that simple: who we are cannot be what we make those we help, and at first I defended the position that historically, our help has made failed nations, on purpose or not. But in many ways Russia is way more of a threat to the people here. When it comes down to it, there are artists, philosophers, and friends living and working and having fun on the streets of Bucharest, in a place so stuck and threatened that it can’t define itself – how can the traditional clothing I see women still wear mix with the communist leftovers and try to fit in the corporate Western democracy? – meanwhile in the West we debate what makes a utopian society. Perhaps it is technologically feasible, but is it even possible for the world to move ahead yet?
In the end, there can never be a universal value system. There may not even be a universal way to communicate those values, although we will certainly try. But the fact is that everyone needs those values, and the journey without them is a bumpy road. I, for one, am significantly redefining my values right now. In just a week, I have seen so many new things and met so many new people, the world is far from the same place it was before. I can only imagine what the next three weeks will bring.
I already know I wouldn’t ever undo this experience. For someone who’s never traveled before it can be unnerving, but we’ve gotten to places normal tourists can’t and made friends I wouldn’t otherwise know, and am enjoying it immensely. We joke that our hotel almost feels like home. Traveling is something I definitely never want to give up, and this question of values and foreign relations is becoming something I’m more and more interested in working on. For now, although our schedule is quite busy, I’ll be trying to not order too much food for once, endlessly tiring my feet out from walking everywhere (although having a metro/subway is nice), and enjoying all the Black Sea has to offer.