Monday, December 14, 2009

Romania: The 'Paris of the East'

Writers reveal their impressions of the nation of Ceausescu and Dracula

By Dave Rosenthal

Baltimore Sun reporter

December 11, 2009

"Dracula is Dead," a new travel literature book by Sheilah Kast and James C. Rosapepe, provides an updated look at post-Communist Romania. It draws on their experience in the Eastern European country: From 1998 to 2001, Rosapepe served as the U.S. ambassador to Romania (he now is a Maryland state senator); Kast is the host of "Maryland Morning" on WYPR (88.1 FM). We asked the husband-wife duo about their travels:

Question: What was your first memorable impression of Romania, and did it match what you had heard and read about the country?

Kast and Rosapepe: Like most Americans, our major impressions of Romania before we went there were related to [Nicolae] Ceausescu, Dracula and abandoned children. Almost as soon as we arrived, we were struck by - how much more there is to Romania - high levels of education and culture, major natural resources from the Black Sea and the Danube River to the mountains and the oil and gas reserves, and manufacturing, business and government structures that were pretty well developed - much more like Western Europe or Russia than like a third-world country. Even the architecture in Bucharest surprised us. It's a mix of modern, art nouveau, turn-of-the-19th century and Communist era. It all underlines that Romania is a modern, developed country and why, between the wars, Bucharest was called the "Paris of the East."

Question: What do you enjoy most about countries (Romania included) that you visit: arts, museums, food, etc.?

Rosapepe: I enjoy getting to know people and trying to understand how the countries work - what are their interests, how do they really govern themselves, how do they relate to their neighboring countries. I like to try the food, too!

Kast: I'm a bit more likely to get lost in whatever history I can see. Old churches, old homes, museums - I love all that. And I like cemeteries. I find great peace in them, as well as the history you can decipher from tombstones. Jim says I should develop "necrotourism" tours. At any rate, I was entranced by the Merry Cemetery in northern Romania - where the grave markers are carved with lighthearted reflections about or by the departed.

Question: When you travel, do you plan meticulously or improvise?

Rosapepe: Meticulously. I like to know where I'm going to sleep and be sure I can talk with a good range of people to get different perspectives. Kast: I agree. A little flexibility in the schedule is great - so you can take an extra detour, or linger in a museum. And I like to pick out restaurants on the spot. But I can enjoy myself much more if I know there's a bed waiting for me - and a seat on a plane or a train.

Question: What is your favorite memory of your time in Romania?

Rosapepe: How smart and hardworking so many of the people are. In "Dracula Is Dead," we tell the story of visiting an engineering company in Brasov which was working for clients in the U.S. I asked one of the young engineers, "What's the most difficult part of working with your American colleagues?" I expected him to say it was the language or the seven-hour time difference.

"Truthfully," he replied, "it's that the Americans take off the weekends."

"Because we're operating seven days a week, they get behind us.'

So much for the question of whether Romanians, raised in a Communist system without incentives to work, can compete with the good old American work ethic. Kast: Your question sends a hundreds of pictures across my mind. How to pick a favorite memory? One of the favorites was a Sunday afternoon at the Village Museum in Sibiu, an old city in Transylvania. It was a few months before Romania participated in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington in 1999, and the musicians gathered to rehearse. I was just observing, but we all ended up dancing, and that evening we shared a great dinner. ... There was such a sense of optimism and excitement, fueled by their fabulous music.

Question: If I were traveling to Romania today, what sights should I see?- and why?

Kast and Rosapepe: Odds are you'll start or end (or both) your visit in the capital, Bucharest. Whatever else you do, plan on spending a few hours around the Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei). You'll learn something about the 1989 Revolution, because the dictator Ceausescu made his last, fateful speech from the balcony of the Communist Party headquarters overlooking this plaza, and some of the buildings are still pocked with bullet holes from the shooting.

But this area is also a chance to look deeper into Romania's past: North of the square is the Romanian Athenaeum, a beautiful, circular 19th-century concert hall that shows Romanians' reverence for music and culture. Just next to it is the luxurious Athenee Palace hotel, now operated by Hilton - it's the place where all the spies from various countries hung out in the years leading to World War II (as deliciously detailed by Countess R.G. Waldeck in her book "Athene Palace"). And across the street is the sprawling building that was the king's royal palace. It was turned into an art museum during Communist times, and inexplicably was badly damaged by fighting and fires during the revolution. Repaired, it is once again the National Museum of Art of Romania.

The other experience you should not miss is visiting a monastery. There are lots of them, all over the country - from the famous Painted Monasteries in the northeast, where there are frescoes on the outer walls, as well as inside .... to wooden monasteries with arrowlike spires in the far north ... to beautifully preserved stone monasteries in the south. There are ancient monasteries, and monasteries built since the revolution. There are monasteries of monks, and monasteries of nuns. Many have guesthouses, spare but comfortable, and welcome overnight visitors.

Obviously, the specifics of what guests see varies with the history of the particular monastery. But in every one you see the deep faith and experience a profound peace. Nearly all the monasteries in Romania are Orthodox Christian, but the prime minister said he thinks their value transcends a particular institution ... to preserving Romania's history. He said, "they are the keepers of Romanian life in culture, dreams and hopes," and that's what we feel when we visit.

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