I wrote this piece for SoloRoam a couple of days ago about my trip to Romania so far:
Hey fellow solo travellers!
This is going to be a piece focused on culture as opposed to a guide of touristy things to do because I think it’s important to address some of the common misconceptions that surround Romania.
We’ve all heard reports about ‘gypsies’ pickpocketing tourists or seen Romania on the news being depicted as a rural, underdeveloped country left in tatters after communism, but I feel like most of the time, even if we know these reports aren’t true, we’re unsure what exactly to believe.
These stereotypes are perpetuated through biased media representation or even simple hearsay, and most Romanians are actually highly frustrated by how their country is perceived. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect before I came here. As much as I hate to admit it, I did used to have a vague image in my head of a country where the only sense of modern, urban life was in Bucharest. I spent three days in Cluj and two days in Brașov before I began teaching at a summer school in Baia Mare and during that time, I can honestly say that all my ridiculously uninformed views were challenged.
Now, I’m not going to claim that there are no rural, underdeveloped places. Like most of the world, it is a country with vast inequities between the privileged and the underprivileged. Like most of the world, there are places that are traditional/rural and places with modern, urban influences.
When I told my friends and family that I was going to Romania, a few of them said: ‘Will we be able to contact you?’ ‘Do they have internet there?; ‘Are you going to be completely off the grid?’. The short answer is: yes, they do have internet. In fact, I recently found out that of the 15 cities in the world with the fastest broadband speeds, nine of them are in Romania. A week or so ago, another one of my friends asked me: ‘Is it as poor as it’s represented on TV?’. It was only then that I realised that in the UK, we really are led to believe that Romania is an impoverished European country where everyone is struggling to afford basic necessities. Evidently, there are poor people, but to issue a blanket statement which covers the whole country is just wrong and ignorant of us.
In Cluj, I saw Porsches parked along the side of the road but equally, whilst my taxi was stopped at a traffic light, a man tried to sell us tissues through the driver’s side window. I found out later from the staff at my hostel that he actually used to be homeless until the inhabitants of Cluj organised a city-wide donation for him, which raised enough that he managed to afford a small flat. He even gave some of the money to another homeless person so that they could also have a shot at building a new life.
Another hackneyed stereotype about Romania is that everyone is a “gypsy”; I can’t even count the number of times people told me to be careful with my belongings because “gypsies” might steal them. The thing is, theft is always a danger for tourists and I honestly think there’s no heightened threat in Romania compared with any other country. More importantly, there’s already a huge amount of social tension within Romania itself in regards to the relationship between Roma and Romanians so we really aren’t helping the issue by branding people with a pejorative term.
If we move away from Romanian stereotypes and towards how their culture affects me as a traveller, there are also points to be made. From a practical perspective, it’s true that even though we’re in Europe, a lot of Romanians don’t speak English very well. However, this is mainly an issue with the older generation since they were taught Russian in school rather than English. We should also take into consideration the fact that language barriers often exist when we travel and they shouldn’t act as a deterrent for a country.
I’d say a more pressing issue is the lack of racial diversity in most of Romania. I was told that PoC tend to live in larger cities like Bucharest or Timișoara and that during the school year, there are also some international students in Cluj. The problem with this lack of diversity is that as a Chinese traveller, I’ve sometimes felt slightly self-conscious. Adwoa, a teacher in my summer school who is of Ghanaian heritage has also felt the repercussions of this. There are often two different reactions to our race. The children that we taught were often intrigued and curious. They asked me a multitude of questions about Asian food and were enthralled with Adwoa’s hair. We honestly didn’t mind their behaviour because they were young and hadn’t been exposed to people of different races and cultures yet. The times it became uncomfortable were when we began to feel like a zoo exhibit. There were occasions when we walked down the street and adults openly stared at us. After this happens for three weeks on end, it quickly loses its novelty and just becomes anger-inducing. Clearly, this isn’t an occurrence unique to Romania. We’re all guilty of being ignorant towards other cultures and perhaps mine and Adwoa’s experiences are reflective of how Romanians feel when faced with the UK’s perceptions of their culture.
I’ll end on a positive note and say that despite its few shortcomings, Romania is honestly a wonderful travel destination. In addition to the cultural stereotypes being untrue, it’s also a country with sights to rival those of Budapest, Venice or other more popular European travel destinations. The stunning views from Mount Tâmpa, the intricate architecture of Peleș Castle and the serene scenery of Firiza Lake are only a few of the places I visited, which, when added together, help make up the never-ending beauty of Romania.