If you attended the Agora in Bucharest you saw a bustling city in a country with a fast-growing economy. You might wonder how Romania was like after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the former Eastern Bloc almost collapsed economically – and when AEGEE was spreading all over the continent. Fortunately, there are documents that can give you insight. Like this article from a local bulletin of AEGEE-Freiburg. One of their members attended the Summer University of AEGEE-Cluj-Napoca and AEGEE-Bucuresti in 1992. Here is his report.

Mititei, Tuica and canned beer – Impressions from the (still) unknown country Romania

What makes you spend the two weeks of an AEGEE Summer University in Romania, of all places? A country marked by the Kafkaesque dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, where Old Communists are still in charge – the election results of 27 September have only just proved this again? A place where minorities are suppressed – see for example the anti-Hungarian riots in Tirgu Mures in March 1990. A country where hunger strikers students are beaten up by marauding miners – as in June 1990 in Bucharest. A country where orphans live in unspeakable conditions, where economic reform is not progressing, where almost everything is lacking and – last but not least – where almost every month ten thousands of Romanians are going to Germany as asylum seekers in the hope of better living conditions?

First of all curiosity. Curiosity about how people actually live in this country, about which usually – if any – only negative headlines come to us. And certainly also the interest to get to know a country of extraordinary scenic beauty, a rich historical heritage shaped by different peoples and cultures, and an impressive hospitality despite the difficult living conditions.

The cathedral of Cluj today. Unfortunately there is no photo of 1992 available.

At home with the AEGEE families

This year’s Summer University was organized jointly by AEGEE antennas in Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest. On arrival we were already expected by a whole group of AEGEE members at the train station and were taken by car to Adrian, the president of AEGEE-Cluj-Napoca, where we were greeted with wine and sparkling wine. The next few days we lived with AEGEE members and their families who made all kinds of efforts to make our stay enjoyable.

Among the participants were eight Italians and five Germans. In the mornings we learned a little bit Romanian with Camelia, who had just passed her exam in Romanian and English, in the afternoon and in the evening we got to know Cluj-Napoca and surroundings in a group or on our own.

Only for sugar you have to queue for hours

Unlike a year ago, the city center is now populated with small shops. There are almost all popular consumer goods from the West available, from cigarettes and shoes to hi-fi equipment. But also the prices are the same as ours, and that with the average salaries of less than 100 DM (50 Euro) per month! However, the queues in front of the shops are almost gone; only for sugar you have to wait for hours. For us “Westerners”, of course, most of the non-imported goods are incredibly cheap, especially going to restaurants and cafes. Above all, we benefitted from the adjustment of the official exchange rates to the black market price: If you got around 100 Lei for a D-Mark on the black market a year ago, now it is 240 Lei in the currency exchange office!

Our hosts also showed us the “terase” (beer gardens), which students like to visit – although they are less and less able to afford the higher prices. Again, the not bad Romanian beer is increasingly replaced by imported canned beer, which is three or four times as expensive. I almost have the impression that the beer can in Romania is the quintessence of Western lifestyle.

In the restaurants there is a lot of meat and French fries and always coleslaw. Especially popular are “mititei”, small, oblong, well-spiced meatballs. Also, the “ciorba” (sour soup) is pretty tasty. After “tuica”, the Romanian national drink praised by our hosts, one usually asks in vain in the restaurant. Between the two Summer University weeks in Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest we got to know Transylvania on a three-day bus ride.

The parliament building in Bucharest.

No beds for the organisers

We spent the nights in campsites and in small wooden huts. In the first night there was a problem: our Romanian hosts did not consider in the calculation that we as a foreigner would have to pay almost ten times as much for the night as they. Since their pride apparently forbade them to ask us for an additional payment, they only rented sleeping places for us and spent the night on the bus. I did not feel very comfortable with this situation…

In Brasov, the last stop, we said goodbye to our new friends from Cluj and took the train to Bucharest. After the luxury of staying with our hosts in Cluj-Napoca, the completely rundown, at night dark dormitory, in the midst of a faceless high-rise housing estate, is initially a small shock. But here, too, our hosts from AEGEE-Bucuresti touchingly took care of us, and with some ‘terase’ in the environment and parties until the early morning, it was fine. The language classes planned for the mornings of course suffered from it…

Mr. Grigorescu, writer and Secretary of the City Council, received us in the city hall of Bucharest. He had just come back from a meeting with President Iliescu to discuss scholarships for highly talented young people. Why, Mr. Grigorescu asked us, reproachfully, does the West only cares about the fate of the children in the Romanian orphanages, but not for the many extraordinary talents among the youth of this country? He pointed out that the Romanians are the only “Latin” people in the midst of neighboring Slavic peoples.

The old nomenklatura still in power

I had encountered this way of self-determination with the emphasis on their Latinity on several occasions in Romania. The emphasis on the bond with French or Italian civilization may also have something to do with the disappointment of being neglected by the West. The concomitant distancing itself from the neighboring peoples, however, makes me concerned in view of the bloody ethical conflicts of recent times in Europe.

Our program also included a meeting with representatives of youth organizations of political parties. We had some difficulty figuring out what the programmes of the ruling National Salvation Front (FSN) and the three main opposition parties are, because they are all in favour of a social market economy and privatization. Perhaps the reason for the seeming harmony was that the Democratic Front of the National Salvation of President Iliescu, which had split off from the FSN, was not present at the meeting. It is regarded as a nomenklatura reservoir and became later surprisingly successful in the elections…

On the way back, after two weeks in Romania, a strange feeling overcame me when I got off the train. One minute ago, I was still in a quasi “Romanian” environment, and suddenly I was back in prosperous, bustling Germany again. I am now full of many impressions and acquaintances, and I have decided to go back to Romania and to get to know this equally fascinating and contradictory country better.