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In my last blog post on this subject, I was writing about Jewish life in Romania, and finished by talking about the kosher restaurant in Braşov. Romania's not an easy country to keep kosher in if you're on holidays; there aren't many vegetarian restaurants, and most of those there are are raw food places.

This is a phenomenon I'd seen beforehand when researching veggie eateries abroad, but until now ignored in favour of more conventional restaurants. This was a luxury I wasn't able to afford in Romania.

TBH, I don't get the appeal of raw food restaurants, nor how they can succeed in a country where there's insufficient demand for vegetarian food to sustain conventional vegetarian restaurants. Of the three times I had soup in one (in two different restaurants, one of which claimed to serve both raw veggie and vegan food), two times it was served lukewarm (the final time, after I'd given up hoping otherwise, I got nice hot soup)—yet that couldn't have been on the grounds that it was "raw"; you can't prepare soup (apart from the likes of gazpacho) without cooking it, otherwise what you have is vegetables or pulses floating in water.

The main courses available at the place in Braşov we went to were nice enough; that at the place in Bucharest was a bit of an effort to get through. All the raw good places I saw advertised online showed beautiful desserts (chocolate cakes, etc), enough to make one think that raw food wasn't so bad... but when we actually tried them out, none of them lived up to their promise.

*shrug* Well, it's past now; I'm not going back to such a place until the next time I have no choice. :-S

Aside from that, I did get to try a few Romanian specialities (including at the shul meals in Bucharest). Can't remember much about them, but they were nice.

Speaking of which, one thing we were introduced to in Transylvania I haven't until now mentioned is the Kürtőskalács, a "spit bread" according to Wikipedia, which means a hollow cylinder of dough baked with sugar on the outside, to which [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m took a great shine. Wikipedia says they are "specific to Hungarian-speaking regions in Romania, more predominantly the Szekely land". You might recognise the name of the Szekelys, as I did, from Dracula, which brings me nicely onto the subject of:

Vlad Ţepeş

Of course, I couldn't write an account of holidaying in Romania without mentioning its most infamous son (I think in the long run he'll be remembered whilst Ceauşescu gets relegated to a footnote in history).

Vlad III Ţepeş ("the Impaler") was of course brought to international attention by Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula; however, if you read Dracula, you'll get a rather false impression of the man himself. For a start, Dracula was not prince of Transylvania but of Wallachia; but Wallachia is flatland, and rather boring scenery. Stoker wanted mountains and spooky forests for his novel, so he moved the location of Dracula's castle.

Today, Dracula is associated with Bran Castle, a short distance southwest from Braşov, but a long way from either Dracula's principality of Wallachia or from the Borgo Pass, where Stoker sets his novel (it is at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, but the Carpathians form a horseshoe shape, and this is on the other side of the horseshoe).

It turns out that the connection of Bran Castle with Dracula, aside from the fact he might have visited it once, was manufactured in the second half of the last century by the Americans, who noticed that Bran Castle has a circular tower and a square tower, which made it a good match for Castle Dracula in the novel, and therefore a good tourist selling point. We'll just have to ignore the fact that Castle Dracula is described as being at the edge of a long ridge high above the forest, with steep cliffs on three sides, whereas Bran Castle is on a small hill only a few metres above the Transylvanian plain.

Oh well. Well, they know in Romania that Dracula is a good tourist sell nowadays. I suspect that the natives are probably sick of the name, but the shops in Bran and at Bucharest airport are full of Dracula merchandise, with everything from kitsch T-shirts to bottles of Draquila.

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From Braşov, we went on trips into the surrounding countryside, to climb the mountain above the ski resort of Pioana Braşov, and hike on the Babele tableland nearly 2300m above sea level. On one trip we passed through a forest lapping the feet of the Carpathians; [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's father informed us that in his parents' days this used to be the haunt of highwaymen, who would chop down trees so they crossed the road, then hold up travellers when they found their way blocked and demand money to let them proceed on their way.

Fortunately, no such incident befell us on our excursion to Sibiu, or Hermannstadt, which, as the German name gives away is another of the Siebenbürgen. 2500 Saxons originally came to Hermannstadt, but only 100 survived the Magyar conquest.

Like Braşov, Sibiu has a picturesque old centre, but we were lucky still to be able to visit it today: Ceauşescu planned to raze the lot, and only the fact the revolution happened first saved it.

As a cohen, I can't go into churches where there are people buried; kudos to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's parents for doing the research first to discover whether this was actually the case before taking me into any. As a result of this research, I learned two interesting things: Firstly, burying people in churches is a western Christian thing; they don't do it in Orthodox churches. (Romania is split between Orthodoxy, Catholicism and (in Saxon areas) Lutheranism.) And secondly, like Britain, Romania passed legislation in the nineteenth century prohibiting burial indoors; however, unlike Britain it seems they actually exhumed all bodies that were already buried in churches. In some cases, the tombstones were left in place in the church floor; in other cases, they were subsequently mounted on the walls. In one case, the bodies were reinterred beneath a flowerbed outside the church. ("So that's why the roses are growing so well," I commented.)

After Sibiu, we had planned to see Sighișoara (Schäßburg), another pretty Saxon town, but [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m preferred to go hiking in the mountains instead. Her parents asked my opinion, but I said this holiday was all about her family, and I was just tagging along, so I would go with whatever she preferred.

Jewish life

As Jews travelling abroad, [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and I are always on the lookout for sites of Jewish interest and synagogues. Romania was unusual for a communist country in that it let Jews who wanted to emigrate (such as [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's parents) go, provided they went to Israel. Of course; once they did so, there was nothing keeping them there; [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's father stuck it out for a few years, her mother headed instead for Germany, where, thanks to her education in Braşov, she already spoke the language.

As a result, the community is considerably shrunken today. We found the shul in Tulcea in the Danube delta; I believe it's still functioning, but we didn't get to meet the community.

In Constanţa the small community was still meeting in the synagogue as recently as 1996 according to Wikipedia, but maintenance was paid for by the state, and after the revolution in 1990, the money dried up, and now the roof has fallen in (and Wikipedia says anything not nailed to the floor has been looted). I went to have a look from the outside; [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m said it was too depressing and chose not to join me.

What was surprising was the number of Israelis we met all over Romania: it's a cheap and not too distant holiday destination for them. Our tour guide in Bucharest told us he frequently has Jewish clients exploring their family roots in Romania. As it happens, the other two people on [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and my tour, a young American couple, turned out also to be Jewish; and went ended up spending a half-hour break at a café entirely schmoozing and playing Jewish geography.

As a result of the small Jewish population but prevalence of Israelis, non-Jewish Romanians seem to have a worse problem than in other countries of keeping the concepts of Jewish and Israeli separate.

In Bucharest, there are several synagogues, but only one still functioning, the cathedral synagogue Templul Coral (the name means "choral", not "coral"). Furthermore, while in the rest of the Jewish world, only progressive denominations call their synagogues temples, because for Orthodoxy and Masorti/Conservative Judaism, the only Temples were the two in Jerusalem, Romania seems to be like Italy in that even Orthodox synagogues are called temples. At least one of the other synagogues has been converted to use as a museum, but we didn't go there.

When we wrote asking about Shabbos meals, the community in Bucharest (which was Ashkenazi but דרפס חסונ in rite) invited us to join us for both Friday night and Shabbos lunch. At the end of the Friday night service, a boy of about twelve called Joseph went up to the bimah to drink the kiddush wine, following which the congregation sang "siman tov umazal tov" to him, so we assumed he was about to be barmitzvahed. It turned out, however, that he had rather just had his bris (circumcision, which is normally done at the age of eight days amongst Jews): ulp! The community made a bit of a fuss over him over the course of Shabbos, and I'm not surprised!

In Braşov there were according to two synagogues according to Wikipedia, one Neolog and one Orthodox. (Neolog is an indigenous Hungarian denomination (Transylvania used to be part of Hungary until the end of the First World War) just to the left of Orthodoxy, but which affiliates with Masorti Olami.) The Orthodox one had closed (we looked for it but couldn't find it) and the Neolog one is now Orthodox in practice. We davened there on Shabbos morning, but they didn't have a Friday night service that week. There's also a kosher restaurant in Braşov, but it's only open on weekdays, and until four o'clock, so we didn't eat there.

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After Bucharest, we headed north to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's mother's hometown of Braşov. This is one of the Siebenbürgen (Seven Castles) built by Saxon colonists in Transylvania early last millennium as defence against the Magyars and Tatars.

It's only since I started going out with [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m that I became aware German traders founded colonies right the way across Europe in the Middle Ages, deep into Russia. As well as the Saxons, there was also a later settlement of Swabians in Transylvania. Today as well as the Siebenbürgen, there are a string of villages with traditional Saxon architecture across Transylvania.

Following World War II, in which most of the countries with German colonies had suffered under Nazi invasion and occupation, the Germans were expelled from most of them (into a homeland and culture their ancestors had generally not lived in for centuries—one of the less known stories of the immediately postwar period).

Romania, however, escaped German invasion, and the Germans were allowed to remain. Most fled following the revolution after the fall of communism, though; there (are 1000 according to our tour guide and according to Wikipedia there) were 36,884 in 2011, down from 300,000 before the revolution (and a high of 745k in 1930). Unlike other countries I've visited like the Czech Republic, where German was once the prestige language but since the War, it's been entirely displaced by Czech, in Transylvania they are not only au fait but indeed proud of their German heritage; there were lots of signs and shops referring to Braşov by its German name of Kronstadt (not to be confused with the fortress of the same name off the coast of St Petersburgx).

However, between 1950 and 1960 the city was known as Stalin City. I was astonished to discover the name lasted so long after Krushchev's denouncement of Stalin, but a quick check reveals the name Stalingrad also lasted until then.

The city has a picturesque centre, and a spur of the Carpathian mountains extends into the middle of the city, heavily forested and adorned with a light-up sign reading BRASOV. (We thought the city had delusions of being the new Hollywood, but when we visited a hilltop fortress Râşnov, we found it was similarly adorned.)

In the city centre, we found a café done up as an old pharmacy named Doctor Jekelius, after the chemist who set up Braşov's first pharmacy on the site. Hang on a tic, I thought: Jekelius... I wonder whether Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll (or the real-life Jekyll he was named after) had Romanian roots...

To be still further continued...

The Black Sea

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016 06:50 pm
lethargic_man: (beardy)
So that's why they call it the Black Sea.


lethargic_man: (Default)

The Black Sea

From the Danube delta we travelled south to Mamaia for a few days on the beach at the Black Sea. In the evenings we would pass a stall selling Turkish icecream, where they were mixing it with a long and stout metal pole and lots of elbow grease; the stuff appeared to have more the consistency of a thick paste than what one expects of icecream. [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m declared she had to try it. Apparently the taste was unexceptional, but it was worth it for the entertainment vale of the way the seller handed it over to us, repeatedly leaving [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m unexpectedly empty-handed whilst the icecream instead hung upside down from the metal pole, or had been deftly transferred in a second cone leaving the one [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m was holding empty.

Mamaia is just north of the city of Constanţa, which is where the Roman poet Ovid was exiled in the first century. (I remember learning in Latin class in school about how he complained about being sent to a half-barbaric place at the edge of the empire, where the natives were so un-Roman as to wear trousers.) Constanţa is proud of the connection with him; there's a statue of him in the big square in the centre of the old town, which is now named Ovid Square, and the town outside Constanţa where Ovid died has been renamed Ovidiu. I myself met an Ovidiu whilst I was there; presumably it's a popular name in the area.

Actually, Ovid's not the only Roman connection that Romania has; when Romania was created as a country in the nineteenth century it took, on account of the Romance language spoken there, the name by which what we now call the Roman Empire was known in antiquity. In central Bucharest there's a reproduction of the famous statue of the Capitoline wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (which Wikipedia tells me was a gift from Italy to Romania a century ago), and I also saw other representations of the statue in Bucharest.


From the Black Sea, we travelled to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's father's old stomping grounds in Bucharest. Bucharest is barely on the radar at all today when one thinks of great European capitals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but apparently there was a time when it was known as the Paris of the east, and there's a lot of grandiose architecture dating from that time there.

Of course, since then it spent a time as the capital of a communist period, which left its own mark on the city. For example, as Bucharest grew (it's much bigger nowadays than it was at the end of the war), the sewerage system was unable to deal with the growth in population, and the river became effectively an open sewer running through the city. The communist authorities didn't have the technology to clean up the water properly before discharging it into the river, so they instead split the river into two layers: the lower layer, hidden from sight, is still little more than a sewer, but sitting on top of that is a nice clean waterway of only a fraction of the depth of the original.

Speaking of communist management, we learned of a couple of mind-boggling incidents during our tour of the city, whilst viewing the outside of the Palace of the People (the second largest administrative building in the world, second only to the Pentagon, commissioned by Ceauşescu but not finished until after his fall—and which Rupert Murdoch tried, unsuccessfully, to buy after the revolution to turn into a casino)... but unfortunately I've forgotten the details. :-(

One was that upon an occasion, perhaps marking some anniversary, a famous American said something about Romania which the communist authorities took great liking to; they printed it on the byline of the most prestigious newspaper in Romania for two weeks... and then they worked out he was being sarcastic; so they managed (under pain of criminal punishment) to recall all issues of the newspaper, nation-wide, that had been issued during that fortnight, to destroy the evidence of their culpability.

(The other story was similar, but I can't remember any of it.)

To be further continued...

lethargic_man: (Default)

I'm not in the habit of blogging about my holidays, but because I was a little off the beaten track this year, and I want to record my feelings whilst they're still fresh, I am going to make this an exception.

[livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's parents have been wanting to take her to their native Romania for years, and I've been interested in seeing the places they and, in some cases, their ancestors, came from. (I've never yet been to any of the places my ancestors hailed from, though [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and I might before long go for a weekend in Hanover—the only place in western Europe from which I have any ancestry (my father's mother's mother's father)).

Romania seems largely to be at present a holiday destination mostly for its own nationals; I only heard two British voices the whole time I was there (and not that many other English-speaking ones).

The country was, of course, part of the communist bloc until 1990, and only joined the EU relatively recently, and it shows signs of being a little backwards in attitudes and developments compared to other European countries. For example, from time to time when driving between cities, we would pass horses and carts on the road, and one time also a man transporting firewood by bicycle. There's also no motorway, and not even any bypasses, on the road leading north from Bucharest towards Braşov.

(It was also an unusual sight for us, but commonplace in Wallachia, to see large storks' nests perched on top of lamp-posts in the countryside.)

Regarding attitudes, we were slightly shocked to see a heavily pregnant woman smoking, and just about every taxi driver we used spoke on, or consulted the satnav of, his handheld mobile whilst driving; at least one taxi driver also had put the fold-forward rear seat of his car back into place in such a way as to prevent his passengers putting on seatbelts.

We got the impression corruption is endemic in Romania, and the EU struggles to stamp it out.

Politically, we noticed graffitti everywhere reading "Basarabia e România" (Bessarabia is Romania), Bessarabia being a region formerly part of Romania and currently constituting most of Moldavia and a small part of the Ukraine. I have no idea what Bessarabians feel how this; at any rate, I strongly suspect it ain't going to happen.

The Danube Delta

We started off our holiday with a boat trip in the Danube delta. This reminded me very much of the Florida Everglades, which I visited twenty-six years ago... but without the alligators. At places in the delta there are pelican colonies; it was astonishing to see flocks of birds in the sky and then realise they're much larger, and much further off, than one might have thought, and that all the distant dots are pelicans.

Also in the delta were Lipovan villages: the descendants of Russian religious refugees who came to the area in the eighteenth century. <gets distracted reading about Old Believers>

To be continued...

High German

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016 12:40 pm
lethargic_man: (beardy)
The dialects which together are grouped as German divide into Low German and High German; those in the latter group have undergone what's called the High German Consonant Shift, exemplified by High German words such as Wasser, Pflanze, Straße versus Low German Water, Plante, Straat.

For decades I thought this "low" versus "high" was a value judgement, like in "High Elvish" or "the High King of Ireland". Then I read that it corresponded to the elevation of where these dialects were spoken: High German in the uplands of southern Germany, Low German in the coastal plains.

Today I realised what it actually refers to: Obviously for a period of at least a generation the High Germans must have been too stoned to pronounce their plosives properly. ;^)


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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