My summer, for a number of reasons, was hectic. But earlier this month, my boyfriend and I finally hopped on a plane, vacation-bound...sort of. You see, my boyfriend grew up in Romania and hadn't been back to see his extended family in fourteen years. So, he decided that it was about time to pay all of those great aunts, first cousins once removed, and grandmothers a visit, and he thought that I should come along to meet them all. So, with bags packed, off we went.
I wasn't sure what to expect. My only preparation for the trip came in the form of my boyfriend's occasional anecdotes about his childhood and a couple of Romanian films set in the pre-revolution era, all of which led me to believe that it wouldn't be much of a vacation. I was wrong. It was a great trip--one I imagine that might even have made Tony Bourdain proud (there is a No Reservations Romania episode, but it isn't terribly good). We ate a lot and well. We drank far more than we should have, encouraged as we were by our generous hosts. We caught a few good glimpses of Romanian life. It was all very satisfying.
Now, you couldn't mistake Romania for one of its western European neighbours, but that's part of its charm. It has that distinctive post-communist feel to it (think East Berlin or urban China)--the drab, utilitarian apartment complexes whose concrete faces have not weathered the decades well, the old government buildings with their hulking, megalomaniacal grandeur--but step inside and most of it (at least in Bucharest, the capital) has been transformed. Part of the old House of the People (a seriously hulking monument to communism--the only building bigger in the world, apparently, is the Pentagon), for example, is now a contemporary art museum. All of Romania, it seemed to me, was like this, a hodgepodge of the old and new, a place with serious history now starting to find its modern identity--Roman ruins alongside 20th century war memorials, a once-opulent seaside casino looking out on today's beach-goers.
The best food, however, was straight-up peasant fare--tripe soup, cabbage rolls, pickles of all sorts, sausage, grilled meat, fresh cheese, fish just pulled out of the Black Sea. (Yes, we put our vegetarianism on hold for the trip--its status now is a bit up in the air.) We ate at a fair number of good restaurants in a couple of different cities--Bucharest, the lively, very urban capital, and Constanța, a smaller, coastal city in the southeast--but my favourite meals were definitely the ones we had at home with family and friends, serious multi-course meals, presided over by one or another of my boyfriend's grandmothers. As I said, a great trip.
Now, I was only there for about ten days, so I'm hardly an authority on all things Romanian. Our trip was limited to a few cities in the east, where my boyfriend's friends and family are scattered--Bucharest and Constanța, which I've mentioned, as well as Iași, a city in the northeast. But here's a list of ten highlights from my trip, in no particular order.
The people: everyone I met on my trip was incredibly welcoming and generous. Old friends of my boyfriend opened their homes to us and took us around for glimpses of their cities and tastes of Romanian life (and food, of course). We were taken to markets, to the seaside, and even to an old, decrepit factory in Bucharest whose rooms were being rented out as inexpensive artist's studios. In turn, both my boyfriend's grandmothers fed us only as grandmothers can--think warm bowls of comforting, stewy goodness and three kinds of dessert at the end of every meal. And, towards the end of the trip, one of my boyfriend's uncles hosted a ridiculously good barbecue. There was so much great food and drink that I needed a nap between the main course and dessert. Luckily, there was a hammock on the rooftop terrace just waiting for me.
Sarmale: now, cabbages rolls are hardly anything exotic. Even my grandmother used to make them for Christmas dinners, and my family isn't at all Eastern European. The cabbage rolls (or sarmale) that I had in Romania, however, were something else--basically, elegant little cigar-sized packets of fatty, meaty, flavourful goodness (the ones we had in Iași especially so). Eaten with a little sour cream and a side of polenta and fresh farmer's cheese, there are few things better.
Mici: When we decided that we were going to eat whatever my boyfriend's family put on our plates in Romania--animal or vegetable--he got especially excited about one thing, mici. There isn't quite anything like them that most North Americans would be familiar with--the closest thing might be Turkish kebabs. But all you really need to know about mici is that they're an amazing blend of fatty ground lamb, beef, and pork marinated in beef stock and heavily punctuated with garlic that are shaped into generous oblong parcels and grilled over charcoal--in other words, delicious meat in tube form. We had these a couple of times at restaurants (they're more of a restaurant thing than an at-home thing), but the best were definitely the ones that my boyfriend's uncle grilled up at the barbecue. They lived up to my boyfriend's childhood memory.
The Black Sea: where my boyfriend grew up, he was just a short walk from the Black Sea. He would spend his summers swimming in it, and his grandfather would take him fishing on the weekends. We didn't have a chance to take a dip, but we walked along the beach and got our fill of the tiny fish he used to catch at a nearby restaurant.
Eating outdoors: a Berlin-based philosophy professor complained to us recently with his usual wryness that Americans didn't seem to enjoy spending time outdoors, that there weren't any places in and around the university, for instance, where you could sit outside and enjoy a beer or a coffee. I tried to defend our neighbourhood at the time, but having spent some time in Romania, I think he might be right...at least about Chicago. Apart from some family meals, we pretty much only ate outside in Romania, and it was great. Even the heart of Bucharest, restaurants managed to make room for good-sized patios, little havens from the bustle of the city out in the open air.
Driving through the mountains: I was a little sceptical when my boyfriend's uncle in Iași announced that we were going to spend the day visiting the many Orthodox churches and monasteries in the region. But, when I stepped out of the car after a couple hours of driving and found myself in a small village, I was struck by the stillness and serenity there. When you live in a city, you forget what silence is really like. Visiting the churches, which were rather beautiful, by the way, (the walls of Orthodox churches are always covered with gorgeous murals depicting biblical scenes and the lives of saints), was restorative. One of my favourite bits of that day was driving from one particular church to another--we took an old, narrow, densely wooded trail that took us from one side of a mountain to the other. It was bumpy, precarious, and thrilling. The air was thick with the scent of evergreens.
Ţuică: every culture, it seems, has its own clear, distilled, and fiery liquor. The Romanians' is ţuică, a sweet but hair-raising spirit made from plums. I'm sure that were it not for the supervision of one grandmotherly figure or another, the rest of the family would have insisted that we drink more of it. But, after too much wine and whisky already, one shot was definitely enough.
Roman ruins: the Romans annexed the territory on which present-day Romania sits before the 1st century AD and held it for a couple hundred years. As a result, broken columns and bits of Roman masonry are pretty common all over the place. I didn't get to run around a playground with two-thousand-year-old ruins just lying around when I was a kid. Did you?
Nicolae Comanescu: when we headed to the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, I didn't really feel up to contemplating much art. I was happy to nurse cappuccinos on the warm, sunny terrace outside. But I'm glad that we went in. I'm not usually one for contemporary art, but I love Comanescu's work. Some of his pieces that we saw were bold, vivid, and playful collisions of beach scenes and familiar cityscapes. Others were sombre and atmospheric glimpses of Berceni, a neighbourhood in Bucharest. I would love to have one of his pieces hanging my living room.
The produce: pretty much all of the produce we ate in Romania was really fantastic, and the Romanians were nonchalant about it. There was no hype about heirloom varieties of peppers or tomatoes--a pepper was a pepper, and you ate them now, just as they were coming into the markets, or you roasted them and brined them by the bushel for the rest of the year. Everyone we met seemed to have something pickled or preserved for us to try. My favourite of the lot was definitely my boyfriend's aunt's raspberry preserves. After my much needed hammock nap at the barbecue, she brought me a little bowl of them made from raspberries she had picked in the mountains earlier this summer. They were incredible. (I suspect that the recipe my friend Oana posted here would make something just like them, if you could find yourself some wild raspberries.)