Contrasts of the Romanian Landscape
We have made our home in Lupeni for the semester, a town once caught up in the spotlight of Communist industrialization when coal-mining was a booming industry. Now Lupeni is a victim of history, a town floundering in memories of the glory days while trying to keep its head above water as part of the now-forgotten Jiu Valley. There are only two nice restaurants in town, Valahia and Mamma Mia, both specializing in pizza, and if you want to sit down in a cafe for coffee it means putting money into a machine in exchange for a kiddie-size, flimsy, plastic cup filled with instant cappuccino mix. The local fast food is a langosi, a long piece of greasy, fried dough filled with your choice of chocolate, cheese and ham or jam. There are a few game rooms interspersed along the main boulevard but they are no place for young American women to be seen, and they seem to only attract men looking for a fight. The local cinema looks dark and abandoned, but the local parks are full of kids playing and people chatting on benches from morning til after sundown. Oh, and it's normal to see a horse-drawn wagon carrying a mountain of hay trotting down the main road beside the cars.
You can understand our wide-eyed wonder and amazement when we were introduced to Cluj-Napoca, one of the biggest cities in Romania and a true university town, where we spent a week having lectures at the Center for Democracy of Babes Bolyai University. We were plopped into this melting pot of culture, beautiful buildings looming over crowded piatas and historical churches at every block, and eccentric coffee shops in every nook and cranny, the hot cappuccinos and inviting atmosphere calling our names. We were overwhelmed with the abundance of restaurants offering Indian, Japanese, French, Middle Eastern and German food, and finally, real fluffy, French croissants! There was an opera house, book stores, a mall, exclusive discos and lounges, and shops displaying everything from French wines, fair trade goods, gourmet tea and coffee, chic fashions and beautiful hats. There were posters advertising film showings hosted by the French Cultural Center, a musical performance by a local ensemble, and a ballet performance of Coppelia. A botanical garden happened to be right up the street from our hotel! I found myself wishing the whole semester in Romania could take place in Cluj, so we could be a part of this larger sea of university students pursuing their unique interests while probably absorbing all the cultural opportunities around the city. But that's the beauty of this semester and exactly what sets the Romania semester apart from other programs: we are cut off from many luxuries of Western society and forced to really be immersed in a completely different culture, to a limited extent of course.
Following our time in Cluj-Napoca, we headed even further north where the contrasts of Romania stretch even still, in the town of Sighet, just five minutes from the Ukrainian border. This is a town with a very dark past, once the location of a significant communist prison, which went by the code name "the Danube Work Colony," and where anti-Jewish pogroms, spontaneous mass outbreaks of violence against Jews, took place. Sighet was once the hometown of Nobel Peace Prize winner and author of "Night," Elie Weisel. This region of Romania, Maramures, is where many Romanian traditions originated and it is the pride of the Romanian people; wood carving is unique to this region and there are whole churches made of wood, with wood shingled-roofs and meticulously-carved supporting beams underneath.
The dark past of this town can still be felt, and it is even heavier walking through the Victims of Communism Museum, which is in the former communist prison. Upon entering the museum we saw the quote before us, "When justice ceases to be a part of the memory, memory becomes a form of justice." There was an abundance of artifacts, descriptions, charts, etc. to give us a limited picture of the extent to which the Communist government infiltrated people's lives and destroyed every possible threat to their regime. We saw the unchanged cells where two Romanian defenders of freedom and democracy, one being Iuliu, Maniu, died, pictures of the countless intellectuals, peasants and all types of Romanians who were persecuted in this prison, letters written by prisoners, a bar of soap carved with the words "I love you," and cells designated for torture, which were completely enclosed with one set of chains in the middle of the room, where the victim would stand, isolated, for hours, maybe days, on end without food or water. As I walked through this museum I was overcome with awe and emotion reading about these people who so strongly believed in the right to freedom that they would go through this kind of persecution. Over the course of this semester, I have felt this yearning to know what the suffering of the people was like under Communism but the stories I heard never sufficed, and walking through this museum was the closest I will ever get to knowing I think, unless the time comes when I myself might suffer under such oppression and evil. However, I would not wish this kind of suffering on anyone ever. But even in the suffering of the victims of Communism, I can only imagine how many cries went up to the Lord, how many hands were outstretched to Him in agony because I don't know how else they could have survived each and every day in such a hopeless, hell-like place.