Before visiting Romania, I never really thought about traveling there. It wasn’t at the top of my bucket list (although very few places aren’t somewhere on the list). I knew very little about the country and its culture.
I’m always up for an adventure, though, so when our friends, Peter and Estzer, invited us to visit their home country of Romania with them in 2019, we weren’t about to pass up the opportunity to travel with locals.
Here’s what I knew about Romania before our visit:
- Dracula’s castle is there.
- It was farther east than I had ever traveled in Europe before (but I still didn’t know where it was on the map.)
- It used to be under communist rule.
Here’s what I know about Romania now:
- It’s beautiful and full of history.
- Harsh effects and reminders of communism remain, even as the country’s resilient people build a future for themselves.
- The food is fantastic. (Looking at my pictures, you’d think all we did was eat!)
- The people are generous and kind—perhaps because they know hardship well.
- Romania is right next door to Ukraine and uniquely positioned to help those in need.
Romania Is Beautiful & Full of History
Peter and Estzer took us to Cluj-Napoca. The city is home to a number of universities. Its population is diverse, and a number of people speak (or at least understand) English, in addition to Romanian, Hungarian, and a number of other languages.
Bran Castle, the inspiration for the castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is a real place for a fictional setting. It was too far away for us to travel in the few days we had in the country. I’d still like to visit it someday.
In lieu of visiting the fictional vampire’s castle, my son and I took a quick selfie in front of Hotel Transylvania in Cluj. It, too, has a rich history (and rates around $50USD a night).
We drove through the countryside to visit a 2000-year-old salt mine, Salina Turda. (I just heard some of you giggle.) Again, this wasn’t a place I would have ever thought about going, but I’m so glad we did. The cavernous space deep underground is truly special.
Pro tip: If you visit Salina Turda with local who dares you to lick the wall, don’t take the bait.
Reminders of Communism Remain
Row after row of tall, blocky apartment buildings in varying conditions stand as a reminder of the country’s harsh time spent behind the iron curtain. Some have been remodeled and turned into cute, if tiny, apartments. Others serve as they did before, as small, sad housing that was part of the communist party’s systemization and urbanization of the country that began in 1974.
The communist party’s plan was to get rid of rural villages and hamlets and move everyone into urban areas. The rural land was then used for the government’s purposes. Meanwhile, family homes and beautiful architecture, including historic church buildings and monasteries, were demolished to make way for efficient, equal, government-controlled housing.
Destroying a people’s culture is one powerful way to control them.
Banning means of self-sufficiency (like family farms) and forcing dependency on the government—for food, housing, heat, electricity, and medicine—cements that control.
On our trip, we talked with people who remember what it was like to not have heat or enough food. We heard stories from people who gathered to worship in secret while the communist party ruled. Church meetings were banned by a government that sought to create an atheistic society.
That kind of control and forced assimilation can wipe out a culture, or it can embolden a people and make them stronger than their oppressors dared imagine.
Throughout history, in Romania and elsewhere around the world, it’s gone both ways.
The Food Is Delicious
If you’ve read anything else here on TheRoamingTexan.com, I know you’re not surprised to see food mentioned here. Food isn’t the only reason I travel, but it’s a serious perk.
As I was writing this post, I asked my son what his favorite part of our trip to Romania was.
“Lángos,” he said.
All three of us loved this simple fry bread topped with creamy cheese. It’s a Hungarian recipe, sold by vendors on the streets or at the farmer’s market, and it is tasty. Lángos reminds me a bit of the Navajo fry bread I made with my oldest son when he was little (maybe for Cub Scouts or a school project?). So, so good.
Our friends took us to Café Mozart for amazing desserts. We enjoyed roasted chestnuts and kolaches from vendors at the park. (They are entirely different from Czech kolaches.)
But my very favorite foods were prepared in people’s homes—from scratch, with love.
Estzer’s parents welcomed us to the country and fed us until we thought we’d burst. Every meal her mother made was from real ingredients—and many of them came from their very own garden.
She made cabbage rolls our first night. I took a small serving to be polite and then asked for seconds and thirds.
At another meal, she served chicken soup with the tiniest noodles—perfectly shaped, and made, you guessed it, from scratch. I was impressed again by the multi-layer cake she served for dessert.
More than once, I put a scoop or serving of something I didn’t recognize on my plate, and I was never disappointed with the flavor—even if I couldn’t pronounce the dish’s name.
Seriously, every bite was good!
The People We Met Were Generous
Romania is a relatively poor country, so the people there have learned to work with and around the struggle. Many are happy to share their country and culture with others.
Rather than staying in a castle or a movie’s namesake, we stayed in an apartment that belonged to some church friends of our friends. The owners didn’t know us, but they generously offered us a place to stay. They lived across the street and welcomed us to their home for breakfast (deli meats, sliced cheese, jam and fresh bread). They made sure we had everything we needed while we were there.
Perhaps in response to having lived under communist rule, some people, like our friends’ parents and many others, have found ways to increase their independence, like growing much of their own food. Many of the people we met on our trip also strive to live like Jesus, and as a result, they willingly share what they have with others.
Romania Is Right Next Door to Ukraine
Bordering Ukraine, Romania is uniquely positioned to help those fleeing Putin’s attack. As women evacuate with children in tow to find safety, the men stay to fight. Remember, it is winter in Ukraine. Many people don’t have cars, so they are relying on public transportation or even having to walk to escape the bombs. Now, though, even some agreed-upon evacuation routes are under fire.
My heart breaks for the people of Ukraine, for the lives lost and the people displaced because their homes have been destroyed.
At the same time, my heart takes courage in seeing God at work through His people in Ukraine and places like Romania, Poland, and other neighboring countries—as well as here at home.
Watch to see where God is working and join Him in His work.— Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God
Here’s one interesting way God has worked recently: While we were in Romania, my husband preached at a church there (with the help of a translator). Later, we went to the minister’s house and had dinner with his beautiful family. They put out a simple but abundant spread of food, and we sat around a table in one of those block apartments and learned more about life in Romania. That meal is one of my favorite memories from our visit.
The Sunday after Russia’s military began its attack, I was in a class with a board member of Program for Humanitarian Aid (PHA) who shared updates about what was going on in Ukraine.
A little background: Our church here in Texas has close ties to Ukraine because of a long-standing relationship with this organization that provides care for orphans and at-risk youth. They also provide transitional housing and teach life skills to teens who have aged out of orphanages (which happens at age 16). Do you know anyone who is ready for life on their own at 16? Me neither.
Sitting there in that class, I pulled up Ukraine on Google Maps and then looked at it’s proximity to Cluj-Napoca. Cluj is about a 5-hour drive from the Ukrainian border.
I thought about the generosity of the people from the church we had visited. From what I knew about the people there—our friends, their families, their church family—I felt certain they would be willing to help and were probably already preparing to do so. They have a history with and are not forgetful about what communist rule is like. They are generous and not afraid to share.
Long story short, we were able to connect our friends here with our friends in Romania who made introductions and arrangements in partnership with Irish churches, to deliver food and medical supplies to refugees.
There is more work to do, and there are many opportunities to serve and to give to support the relief efforts. What I have seen this week is that God connects us for His purposes to see His work done. God is working in Ukraine and Romania and around the world to bring His people together to serve those who are hurting and homeless.
The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.—Proverbs 16:9
When we met our friends years ago in Ireland and later traveled with them to their home country of Romania, it never would have crossed my mind that someday we would be talking about war relief.
But here we are.
I’d love to eat lángos and hug our friends again and explore new places with them. I believe those times will come. And in the meantime, as we pray for the attacks on Ukraine to end, we will do what we can to help those in need.
Want to get involved with the Ukraine war relief efforts?
Here are two ways you can help:
A&M Church of Christ is collecting funds for relief aid. You can click here to make a tax-deductible donation and designate funds specifically for Aid for Ukraine.
Program for Humanitarian Aid continues to serve orphans and at-risk youth in Ukraine in the midst of war. PHA’s staff is providing humanitarian aid and helping with war relief efforts through churches while caring for the children and teens. They are serving the internally displaced refugee population by supplying food, fuel, blankets, medical supplies and relocation expenses.
If you would like to donate to these efforts, you can do so through PHA’s website, https://www.programforhumanitarianaid.com, or Via Venmo: @ProgramForHumanitarianAid.