9 Things I Learned Tracing My Roots in Romania

Last Summer my parents, my sister and I embarked on a trip we’d been talking about for years; a family roots trip to Romania.

Our road-trip route took us from Vienna through Hungary and Transylvania.

My parents were both born in Romania and spent some of their childhood there. Both families waited for years for their laissez-passers, and the chance to leave Communist Romania for Israel.

My mother is from a small town in Transylvania called Reghin (emigrated at 9), and my father (emigrated at 13), from a city called Timişoara. Here are some of the things I learned from my trip:

1) My Family Has a History

The Jewish cemetery in Timişoara. It had clearly not seen many visitors in the past 60 years. Photo by Emmanuel Dyan.

By the ages of 28, my parents had lived in three different continents.

Growing up in Toronto, a multicultural city where each of my friends’ parents came from a different place, I always thought this was the norm.

In Timişoara, we went to visit the only family my father had left in Romania – the tombstones of my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandparents.

Stories that I had heard for years finally got a frame of reference.

These people, who were such important parts of who I am, became real, even just as faded and cracked stones.

2) Just Because You Leave, it Doesn’t Mean Time Stops

My mother’s childhood kitchen.

When visiting Reghin, we stopped to ask for directions from a local. It turned out that this woman was part of the group of kids that my mother used to play with as a child.

She invited us in for coffee and a catch-up with my mother on the years that had gone by.

When we arrived at my mother’s childhood home, the gentleman living there was kind enough to let us in.

I saw the tiny bedroom where my mother and aunt slept, the yard where my grandparents kept their chickens, and the cellar that my grandmother locked my mother in once to teach her a lesson.

3) You Can Draw a Timeline Using the Architecture

Streets in Timişoara are lined with tall apartments, heavily ornamented facades and colorful bricks. Those that have been restored are truly breathtaking.

In contrast, turn a corner and you’re surrounded by ugly Communist blocks.

Medieval castles dot the countryside. From Vienna – East the influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the architecture is evident; however there are many buildings that were left decrepit after years of Communist era neglect.

4) People Still Live off the Land

The shepherds make their living selling sheep’s milk products on the side of this impossible, Ceauşescu constructed road. It’s a highway that reaches 2,043 meters in altitude.

Driving through the countryside of Romania was an eye-opener. There were many people standing on the sides of the highways selling all kinds of thing.

One couple had us pulling over on the Transfăgărăşan. They were ciobanii – shepherds, selling their cheese in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.

My parents tried to speak with them but their mountain dialect was difficult to understand.

They explained that they lived close by and made their special cheese, burduf from sheep’s milk, cured in a sheep’s stomach.

5) Jewish Life is a Relic in Romania

The closed, Great Synagogue in Tărgu Mureş, Romania.

We passed by synagogues in most of the localities we visited.

From the famous Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest to the synagogues in each Romanian town we visited, we found only museums or closed buildings – remnants of a once vibrant community.

6) Horse and Buggy is Still a Legitimate Form of Transport

Common sighting along the highways, in the cities and always on their cell phones.

7) Eastern Europe is a Great Budget Destination

Medieval and touristy Sibiu, Romania. Photo by Schumis.

Food and lodging is very inexpensive in Romania.

We ate hearty dinners for four complete with drinks for under 22€.

The majority of tourists in the country are domestic, and although they are a part of the EU, they have not adopted the Euro, both of which help keep the prices low for foreigners.

8) You Can Eat Really Good Food in Eastern Europe

The staples in the area are mămăligă (polenta/corn bread) and mititei (grilled minced-meat rolls), and the deserts and cakes are abundant.

Watch out for the fried food extravaganzas in Hungary.

My preconceptions of the food on this trip was boiled potatoes and hunks of meat.

Whilst the boiled potatoes weren’t far off, there turned out to be a good variety in Romania. There were even vegetarian options.

9) My Parents are Real People

My parents, sister and I.

It seems like a pretty ridiculous statement; however a trip like this, if you are a child of immigrants, can change your whole perspective on the people that raised you.

I gained a clearer understanding of why my parents are who they are, and was actually able to imagine their childhoods in concrete places.

Have you been on a family roots trip? Do you plan on going on one in the future? Tell me about it in the comments.

If you liked this, you might also like: My Favorite Spiritual Places in the World.

Main image: local shepherds dressed in traditional clothing, they looked as if they had toiled in the sun every day of their lives – their faces so weather-beaten; they were probably no more than 40 years old.

Unless specified, all images are the author’s own.

9 thoughts on “9 Things I Learned Tracing My Roots in Romania”

  1. What a great post! I really enjoyed reading about your trip, especially because last September I was in Romania and traveled through Tansylvania and the province of Moldavia. (I am a Dutch expat living in the Republic of Moldova, the country east of Romania.) It is a beautiful, peaceful place.

    It must have been wonderful to get a real picture now of your parents’ childhood in Romania.

  2. Enjoyed reading this :) Great to be able understand what makes your parents who they are. Not done anything this drastic but recently attended a family wedding with my dad and my children and this was where he was brought up. Was great to see the river he learnt to swim in, walk along the practically unchanged country lanes and to wander into the oast house we used to play hide and seek in as kids. The farm has stayed in the same family, only is now run by one of the boys I last saw when we were playing these games. This time it was my children running in and out of the barns and hiding in the straw.

  3. This trip’s description is not just informative but also emotionally interesting.
    It is important to see yourself as a continuation and an extension of the past generations. People that were never uprooted have a hard time understanding the difficulties that some others go through adapting to a different countries. Families will be well advised to embark on this kind of trips to strengthen their bonds. Well done!

  4. Greatly enjoyed reading this! I especially loved reading about your visit to your mother’s childhood home – must have been very nostalgic.

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