The experiences I had in Romania left a substantial impression on me. My time in Brasov allowed me a glimpse into the far reaching history of the Transylvanian region. The diverse cultural heritage - which at times can cause fractured relations amongst its citizens - struck me as familiar to so many other places I have been.
There was one day in particular, where by mere chance and circumstance these clashing cultures and deep historical divides impressed themselves upon me. It was not evident throughout the day, but illuminated itself under the Christmas tree in the town square towards the end of the night. As I shared hot wine with a newly acquired friend, I realized the contrasting differences in the company I had kept that day.
Lunch was taken at a favorite Brasov expat haven (at least that's what I am told). The company included my host who is English, a Hungarian Székely Count, a former government official from one of the Romanian Ministries and another British expat to round things off. All the company was pleasant, but the charming Count Tibor Kálnoky was the one who drew my attention the most. I found myself drawn into his grave and dutiful elegance with every gesture and composed response to inquiries.
He told of his Hungarian background and how, at times, it impeded his acceptance into Romanian society. Given the historical grievances of the two countries this seems understandable. I sat in utter amazement at his tale of an incident where he was accosted by a large mob and dragged through the streets. His life had been endangered because of mistaken identity and the simple act of stepping in to save his friend from the wrath of the mob. This was not his only harrowing tale.
During the switch to Communism in Romania all the family estates and property of the Hungarian nobility were repossessed and re-purposed. The Székely nobility were 'encouraged' to leave the country. Because of these events the Count was never allowed to visit the land of this ancestry til later on in his life. This eventually lead to an unauthorized visit to view what remained of his family's former estate. While visiting a village his family had founded hundreds of years before, he was recognized by locals, who warned that authorities had been contacted and he should leave immediately least he be taken captive. The bravery of the Kalnoky family is evident in the family crest, which depicts an arrow through the head of a bear, set upon the kings crown. I was informed that this is to honor the Kalnoky, who saved the life of a Hungarian king by shooting an arrow through the bear's head, while he was attacking the king.
These tales were thrown in amongst casual conversation over business and the current state and direction of Romanian society. There was discussion of the historical conflicts and ever resolving differences between Romanian and Hungarian society. What struck me was the continued resistance to anyone claiming Hungarian heritage being accepted into society.
The long lunch came to an end as I reflected on these ideas and soon found myself parting ways with the Count and my other company. Back out on the street I found that I had several long hours to fill before I would leave to go back home. As I wandered against the chill of a damp Romanian evening, the bright lights of the town square warmly welcomed me.
I stood for awhile amongst the huddled crowd, who were enjoying roasted chestnuts, sweet sugared candies and hot Romanian wine. While remembering my New Years Eve a few short days ago in the same square I was approached by a curious looking character. As so often the case, I expected that he wanted a cigarette. I was surprised to find my self being led over to a small vendor's booth where they were preparing shawarma.
Without speaking a word since I had met him my curious looking friend offered me some strong form of homemade drink and began to converse in a rather broken and mixed dialect. I learned from the shawarma vendors that he was speaking a mixed dialect of German, Italian, Romanian and English. This, as I have been told is often the case of traveling Roma people, so frequently referred to as gypsies.
Whatever title that might be attributed to this kindly though pugnacious odd fellow, he seemed to sense that I desired a drink and some company to go along with it. And so the night went, the next few hours fading along as I was drawn through the street and alleys of winter festivities in Brasov, Romania.
It is not that I would never had seen what I saw of Brashov during my evening with my new friend. The fact is that I would never had experienced a flip side to events and people about the town. I stopped to listen to the musicians in the street, but not to only linger for a minute, possibly tossing in a coin before I left. Instead we stood for 20 minutes lingering across the street immersed in the simple pleasure of warming music on a bitter cold night. Afterwards, I was introduced to the band and talked for a spell, about what they were doing in Brashov and where they were playing the coming nights.
The rest of the evening was spent following his movements from acquaintance to acquaintance and milling about the square chatting with the different Roma vendors. Though his spoken English was very rough I was able to come to an understanding of this long life of travel and sick father back in Hungary. It soon became apparent that his life at this point in time was on the streets.
In fact he seemed to be of the streets. He held himself with that sense of edgy caution that is an afront to prepared confidence - prepared to pick up and flee if the general tone of our encounter change to his disliking. My time with him found me at complete ease. Maybe this is his gift or learned skill, to ease strangers into a false sense of security in order to prolong his meager existence on the edges of society. In my time with him I found no ill will or crafty ploy to relieve me of my possessions.
Interestingly enough, our time together melted away as smoothly as he had joined me with invitation. Quite gradually and deftly he drifted from my presence over the course of a half an hour, as I enjoyed the company of the street vendors.
It is these experiences that I seek in my travels. Ambivalent and captivating. The simple happen chance that allows a glimpse into the undercurrent of a society.
Perhaps I merely make things out to be more than they truly are. Maybe this day was just a fine lunch with stately company and an evening of casual vagabonding with a simple tramp. Even if this is the case, it is reassuring to know that whatever a person's place in society, we all have our obstacles to overcome and are capable of reaching out to share the greatness we know of our little corner of the world.