Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Catania-Bucharest Connection

Over the Columbus Day weekend, I flew with my friend Michael to Romania, a place neither of us had ever been. It came about like this: I was looking for cheap airfares from Catania and on I found roundtrip tickets to Bucharest for less than ten euros each! In the end, with taxes and fees, each ticket came out to 69 euros, still slightly less than $100. I had always wanted to see the painted monasteries of Romania, so here was my chance!

Next, I went online and found a private tour agent who would arrange everything--airport pickup and delivery, car and driver, three nights' accommodations, and all sightseeing for a very reasonable price. This lucky find was Fernando and his wife Elena at Fernando's Hideaway.

I wondered why and how MyAir could have flights to Bucharest from Catania every day . . . it seemed very odd. Our flight was jam-packed on a Friday afternoon. We later learned from Fernando that many Italians have investments and businesses, even large factories and corporations in Romania. Why? One reason is the cheap labor; Romania is in the EU but not yet on the euro currency. Designers and producers of Italian clothing and accessories are finding it very convenient and cheap to have them made in Romania. Secondly, the Romanian language is the closest language to Italian--they are very similar. Even I could read and understand much and make myself understood pretty much! Amazing! Romanians also love all things Italian--food, clothing, shoes, furniture. Like America, if it says "Italian," it's a sure hit.

Although there was a lot of car time, Fernando did a great job of driving and his new vehicle is very comfortable. We stayed for two nights in their country home built specifically for visitors in the countryside of Moldavia. The house was built on a historic pattern of a house in their village and all built in the old, traditional ways--log structure with mud, sticks, and plaster, a wood oven/furnace and wrap-around porch. Their only concession to modern times was the installation of two large, modern bathrooms. Many of their rural neighbors do not have indoor bathrooms. We got there very late, but their elderly neighbor had come and made the fire to heat the house, and everything was immaculately clean and perfectly arranged for us. We found we were the first guests to stay in their new house!

Because of Fernando and Elena, we learned everything and more about Romania and its culture, history, geography, politics, economy, and religions. We were able to see three of the most famous painted monasteries, all UNESCO sites, and that alone was worth the trip for me! They are indeed international treasures! We met Elena's mother, who made us delicious sandwiches for lunch and pressed upon us a bottle of wine and another of Romania blueberry liqueur. We visited with an elderly but lively Romanian nun, now retired from her administrative position at her monastery, and admired the beautiful rugs she now weaves. We spent time with a pair of retired Romania teachers who have established their own award-winning ethnographic museum of Romanian artifacts and art, filling several buildings. Because of Fernando and Elena, we got a private tour complete with demonstrations and funny stories given by the wife.

I ate some of the best soup I've had anywhere in the world in Romania. Every day I tried a different one--capon with cream, vegetable-meatball, and borscht (beet)--all fabulous. The food everywhere was plentiful and comforting and cheap! The wine, both red and white, was also surprisingly good.

My own paternal grandparents came from this part of Romania about one hundred years ago. I shared what I knew of them with Fernando, who is a bit of an expert in the various groups that settled in northern Romania--Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews. He has promised to help me continue to research my grandfather's ancestry, as he was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army of Prince Ferdinand and later a farmer married to a German settler before they emigrated to the United States. I came to know how it was this all could have easily happened in this area, which was surprisingly diverse and peacefully so, so long ago.
I will return to Romania.

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