February 26, 2020

Borat, Ceausescu, a Holocaust Contest and 1918 — Impressions from our Romanian Trip

Our recent vacation in Romania to celebrate our daughter’s first birthday was spent observing the birth of eight piglets, chasing chickens around the yard, debating Ceausescu’s legacy, and spending lots of time with my wife’s family. In short, just what the doctor ordered for a couple needing a break from their hectic LA routine.

My wife’s family lives in a village in Dambovita County, northwest of Bucharest. It’s so rural that a village in the county (Glod) was used to represent Kazakhstan in the movie Borat. The hardworking villagers have everything but money: They build their own homes, grow most of their own food, worship together in a quaint Orthodox church (where I was the guest of honor at their Sunday liturgical service), and greet everyone they meet on the street. A park was just two blocks away, as was the elementary school, where my daughter was the featured attraction for a group of curious kindergartners.

This was my third visit to Romania, and I took the opportunity to interview more people over 45 for my (admittedly unscientific) survey of memories of the Ceausescu regime. Until this trip, everyone had said that life was better under Ceausescu. At my daughter’s birthday party I finally found someone, a university lecturer, who vehemently disagreed. According to him, only lazy isolationists could not see that things are much better now. Not having lived in Romania during the Ceausescu years, I can’t offer an opinion. However, I do think that we would do well to implement his policy of jailing those who refuse to work.

In a country that currently has only 3,000 Jews, I was pleasantly surprised to see a poster for an essay contest on the Holocaust during our tour of a large castle in Targoviste, the former capital of Romania. Schoolkids were invited to share their thoughts on why learning about the Holocaust was still important for Romanians. I would have given a great deal to be one of the contest judges.

Soccer on the international level is always about more than 22 players kicking a ball around, and when Romania and Hungary play – as they did in Bucharest during our stay – historical wrongs, real or imagined, are front and center. It started with the intense booing of the Hungarian national anthem, and continued with the waving of banners with the words “Romania” and “1918” (the year in which the union of Transylvania with Romania was declared). The Hungarian fans, in turn, wore black shirts with the name of their country in Hungarian spelled out in white letters. Their team was given the level of security normally reserved for heads of state. My outsider’s view is that both countries’ governments probably have more important things on their plate than worrying about which country has the historical right to occupy Transylvania, but it remains a very emotional issue for many Romanians and Magyars.

When we attended Mormon services in Bucharest on our last Sunday in the country, we learned that the church is still struggling to retain recent converts, many of whom emigrate to other EU countries now that there are no more residency or employment restrictions for Romanian citizens. If the church is ever going to grow in Romania, this problem needs to be resolved.

I thoroughly enjoyed my third trip to Romania, and am already looking forward to my fourth. It’s the country where my wife was born and raised, where our faith is struggling to gain a foothold, and where we may live someday. In the presidential race that will be decided in the next two weeks, the two front runners are the current prime minister and an ethnic German mayor (universally called “The German”). Interestingly enough, one of the major criticisms of both candidates is that they are rich (the prime minister has three apartments, while The German has three apartments and three homes). When I asked my wife why everyone was so critical of rich people who run for office, she explained that in Romania it’s impossible to become rich unless you’re corrupt and dishonest. Until this reality and perception change, Romania will still have a long way to go to realize its potential. However, it remains a beautiful country to visit — and a perfect place for wife-hunting.