This week we are highlighting the novel, From the Rooftops by V M Karren, which is set mainly in the eastern European country of Romania. We thought you might enjoy taking a brief glimpse at what everyday life looks like in Romania as an introduction to the book. Although the book is set in the 1990s, directly following the fall of communism in Romania, and much has changed since then, what is truly Romanian still lives on through the ages.
City and Country
If you were to travel to Romania today, and visit various cities and regions, you would notice a big difference between city life and life in the countryside. Romania is about the size of the state of Oregon in the US, so it is a mid-sized European country, with enough room for citizens (who want to) to spread out. While Bucharest is modern and globally-connected with remaining vestiges of the old communist regime. Smaller cities, outlying villages and the countryside are generally quite traditional in terms of architecture, transportation options, and public life. Time seems to have stood still in these areas. You’ll definitely find more of the traditional and uniquely Romanian sights in the countryside, and a more modern, international feel in the big cities like Bucharest.
The first thing you’d probably notice upon arrival in Bucharest are the houses and public buildings. Most city-dwellers live in large apartment blocks like the ones pictured above, many of which are left over from the Communist era that ended in 1989. Some newer apartments/flats are being built, but the vast majority of those standing were built in the the 70s and 80s. This is the case in most large cities.
A few wealthier Romanians in Bucharest live in large and beautiful villas, like those found in Cotroceni. This is the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Bucharest, located near the royal palace. Other cities also have some beautiful examples of classic Romanian villas.
In the countryside, and sometimes on the outskirts of larger cities like Bucharest, you’ll find free-standing homes with a small garden, many of which are uniquely Romanian in appearance. Arches, colonades, broad eaves and roofs made of tin or copper are characteristic of houses in these places.
Work & Transportation
A big difference also exists between city and country life regarding work and transportation. Larger businesses are better established in larger cities, leaving only small businesses, workshops, and farms in rural areas. Romanians in the cities work in a wide range of goods and service sectors from banking to retail and hospitality.
You’ll find Romanians rushing to and from work via the vast offering of public transportation: buses, trams (called ‘tramvai’), and metro trains; and also travelling between cities by train.
During the communist area, few Romanians owned cars, but in recent decades the car market in Romania has grown dramatically, and cars are now found lining every street in the large cities. One can also easily hail a taxi or Uber in major cities. They are inexpensive and easy to use, and Uber is very popular among locals and visitors alike.
Vehicle types and driving styles in the country differ dramatically between cities and countryside. It’s a common occurrence on the highways to encounter horse-drawn carts, herds of unprotected goats or cattle, and people walking or biking along the roadside. These are the traditional modes of transportation; it’s the modernization in the big cities that has made the difference. Watch out for fast and fearless drivers here! It’s a bit of a wild-west experience on the Romanian country road.
Traditional Romanian food is delicious and generally well-liked by visitors, and Romanians themselves love the food of their forefathers. Their cuisine is mainly heavy, meat-rich, and similar to German food with its generous use of cabbage, potatoes, and sausages. But Romanians also really know how use vegetables superbly in warm dishes and salads, many of which resemble Turkish cuisine. Think Turkish-style pureed roasted aubergine, roasted peppers, as well as Turkish bread and pretzels, and white soft cheeses. Romania was, at different times, part of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman (Turkish) Empires, and the food here shows its history.
You can find wonderful locally grown, fresh produce and other delicacies at one of the local outdoor markets–they are everywhere–or you can opt for a mega-supermarket like this Kaufland (a German chain, found mainly in large cities) below to find everything you could expect in a global supermarket chain.
While a lot of Romanians are quick to try international food trends, their traditional meals certainly haven’t disappeared. Probably their most famous dish is sarmale (pickled cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice), pictured below, served with a dollop of mamaliga (a cornmeal mash like polenta).
Anyone in a hurry need not fear. Fast food IS a thing here, and even in the little villages it’s usually easy to find a street seller peddling berries, sunflower seeds, mushrooms straight from the forest, or Hungarian cakes.
Subway, Pizza Hut and McDonalds are here too, in the big cities of course, as well as many other global restaurant chains. This Romanian burger-joint ‘Springtime’ has been here since the 1990s. Springtime Burgers used to consist of a chicken or pork patty with cole slaw, a fried egg, french fries (yes, on the burger), and sweet orange Hungarian ketchup; but they’ve internationalized too. Now they look and taste like a burger you’d find in McDonald’s or Burger King. I think many Romanians, especially the younger generation, like to go out for fast food, but most people prefer a well-cooked traditional meal at home.
A simple slice of bread with a yummy traditional vegetable spread (with aubergine, sweet peppers, and tomatoes) called Zacusca, was all I needed for an impromptu lunch at my rental flat.
Don’t forget dessert! Romanian patisseries (called ‘cofetarie’s) can rival any bakery in Paris or Vienna!
Religion & Tradition
Romania is, by western standards, an extremely religious place. Orthodox churches are everywhere, and many are still in use. The multitude of traditions accompanying the traditional Orthodox faith weave through the everyday lives of Romanians in every part of the country.
Whether it’s a christening, a baptism, a marriage or a funeral, it is always done by a priest with all the necessary rituals. Ceremonial foods called ‘pomana’ are prepared at specific intervals after the passing of a relative, and are brought to the graveside with flowers. Many other pleasant traditions intertwine public life.
Holidays also call for specific foods and customs, and everything here is done according to tradition. For example, hard-boiled eggs and lamb are eaten at Easter, a major holiday in Romania. Cabbage rolls (sarmale) made from a pig (sometimes slaughtered at home!) is traditional for Christmas, and homemade sausages (carnati) from the same pork are eaten with the New Year.
Traditional Romanian clothing is beautiful, but not extremely practical. While I think most Romanians own some article of traditional clothing, it’s usually reserved for festivals and dances, or just kept as an heirloom.
The embroidered peasant blouses and shirts might be an exception. They are light and comfortable in the summer time, and women frequently wear them. In some regions, such as Maramureș, traditional culture is highly valued, and many residents wear the traditional dress as they have through the centuries.
But in Bucharest, globalization marches on, bringing world-renowned brands and international trends. Good for some, maybe, but no longer Romanian!
The country has changed a lot since the 1990s, where the novel is set, but really only in the big cities. The difference is mainly visible in the commercial aspects of the culture. More goods from other places are now available. But the rest of the culture, I would say, remains largely untouched. People here still value their unique history, their traditions, their families, their language, and their country; at least those who stay.
Learn more about Romania and its people in From the Rooftops by V M Karren.