Romania and its People
Romania – the first thing you think of when you hear the name of this Eastern European country is probably Transylvania and Dracula, but not Romania and its people. You may think of hiking in the Carpathian Mountains. You might also associate Romania with abject poverty and poor infrastructure.
While some of these clichés are true, Romania and its people are much more diverse than you might think. In fact, every tenth Romanian belongs to a minority group. In total, there are 18 state-recognized minorities in Romania. By law, each of these minorities is guaranteed a seat in parliament. In addition, there are special laws to protect their rights. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case. In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about the natives of Romania and what makes them so special.
The generic term for the Hungarian minority in Romania is Szekler. Their share of the total population is about 6.5%, making them the largest minority group in Romania with about 1.2 million people. They settled on the territory of today’s Romania more than 800 years ago. They came to Romania to secure the borders of the empire, for which the soldiers and border guards received certain privileges in return. The Szekler mainly live in the region of Transylvania, which became part of Romania as recently as 1920. In the course of history, there have always been conflicts and tensions between Romanians and the Hungarian minority. This was mainly due to laws that promoted the systematic oppression of the latter. Today, there are still conflicts, but they are no longer of a violent nature.
One characteristic of the Szekler culture is its desire to clearly distinguish itself from the Romanian majority. Although they live in Romania, very few of them deny their Hungarian heritage. That is why you will see the Hungarian national flag more often than the Romanian one in areas inhabited by a majority of Szeklers. The separation of the Szekler from the Romanian inhabitants is also palpable in other places: should you drive through Transylvania, you will encounter intricately decorated driveways with huge wooden gates. The people of Szekler like to decorate their properties. Their gardens in particular are often more ornate and lavish than those of the Romanians. In addition, they are also great at carving. Their unique furniture stands out from the rest of the Szekler interior.
Despite their extensively decorated properties, the people of Szekler are down-to-earth. Regardless of their at times difficult living conditions, most of them would never think of leaving their homeland. Their stubbornness is what makes the Szekler so special. After all, that is how they have developed their distinctive culture. Their way of life and their traditions differ both from the Hungarian and from the Romanian ones.
There is no specific name for the German minority in Romania because there are several groups of German minorities in the country. The most common are Banat Swabians and Danube Swabians as well as Transylvanian Saxons. They have also lived in Romania for over 800 years and settled around the same time as the Szeklers in the 13th century. Similar to the Szeklers, they were subordinate to the Hungarian king. Their task, in addition to military protection, was to establish a functioning economy in the area. However, the German minority in Romania has declined sharply in number, mainly due to forced resettlement after the end of the Second World War. Many Germans were either deported to the Soviet Union or fled to Germany because they were afraid of such a fate. Nowadays around 37,000 descendants of German minorities still live in Romania.
Nevertheless, they occupy a major space in Romanian society. A member of the German minority has even managed to become Romania’s president. There are German television programs and daily newspapers, as well as German-language courses at Romanian universities. However, most of the students enrolled in these courses are Romanians who hope to work in Germany.
Lipovans is the name of a small Russian-speaking minority consisting of nearly 30,000 people. They fled to southeastern Romania in the middle of the 17th century, settling mainly around the Danube delta because of a reform of the Orthodox Church in Russia at the time. The Lipovan community opposed this reform because they did not want to give up their beliefs. Due to their defiance, they were persecuted in their homeland, until a large number of them decided to flee Russia.
To this day, they have not joined the Reformed Orthodox faith and have remained loyal to their beliefs. Therefore, people also refer to them as “Old Orthodox” or “Old Believers”. Next to their faith, the language of the Lipovans is also quite unique. They do speak Russian, but it’s similar to the Russian from the 17th century. Since the Lipovans kept to themselves for centuries, they never had to adapt their language. As a result, Lipovans speak an old form of Russian, which is very different from modern Russian. Today, only the older generation still speak the old Russian language, whereas younger people speak Romanian.
Sinti and Roma
The exact number of Sinti and Roma living in Romania is unknown. We can only make a guess as to their number. Sadly, many clichés regarding high unemployment and poor living conditions are true to some extent. The Sinti and Roma originally came from India and were brought to Romania as slaves in the 19th century. At the time of National Socialism, they were murdered en masse similarly to the Jews. Large parts of the Romanian population still discriminate against them.
Despite, or perhaps because of their historical persecution, they have a rich culture, as demonstrated by their music: on the one hand, there are a great many sad songs about suffering and pain, but on the other hand, joyful dance music is just as abundant. The latter essentially serves as a distraction from their own suffering. In addition, the music of the Sinti and Roma has even inspired great composers such as Franz Liszt. Discrimination at the hands of outsiders has led to the growing importance of the Sinti and Roma’s own families. Traditionally, it is the only real place of retreat for many of them. Additionally, the passing down of stories, customs, and values from one generation to the next is an important aspect of the Sinti and Roma families.
The many ethnic groups in the country have had a great effect on traditional Romanian cuisine. Nevertheless, assigning individual dishes to specific minorities makes little sense. Over the last few years, too many influences have intermingled, and the cuisine differs little between the ethnic groups.
Eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers make up this popular Romanian spread. It is quite amazing how these simple ingredients can be used to prepare a dish for any meal of the day. Zacuscă is not only an integral part of the breakfast table, but Romanians also season their lunch with it. This spread is both simple and delicious!
Cabbage Roll (“Sarmale”)
This is the national dish of Romania. Whether it is Christmas, a funeral service, or a family celebration, this dish is served on special occasions of all kinds. Sarmale are cabbage rolls. To be more precise, they are pickled cabbage leaves filled with minced meat, rice, and dill. You can eat them with basically any side dish. They taste hearty and delicious!
Baumstriezel (“Colac Secuiesc”)
This cake is a delicacy among Romanian desserts. Its preparation is the most distinctive feature. Traditionally, the yeast dough is placed around a round wooden skewer and baked over a fireplace. The dough is repeatedly brushed with melted butter during the baking process. It is rotated over the hearth until it turns a golden brown, after which it is sprinkled with coarse sugar. Depending on taste, you can add nuts, almonds, or other flavorings. Consequently, there are many variations of the Baumstriezel. Throughout Romania, you can find the people of Szekler preparing and selling Baumstriezel at street sales in their villages.
You may be familiar with stereotypes about Romanians. First, you should know that Romanians as a national group do not exist. Romania is the “melting pot” of Europe, so to say. The many different cultures found in Romania have an impact on the lifestyle of all Romanian citizens, which is why it is difficult to generalize Romanians. Due to the difficult living conditions, many have learned to make ends meet. They try to find a solution to their problem with the tools at their disposal. This has nothing to do with laziness; on the contrary, Romanians are characterized as notoriously resourceful. For example, if your car breaks down and you ask a Romanian for help, they’ll keep tinkering until it’s up and running again. There is no other solution for a Romanian because no one usually has money for spare parts.
Romania and its people are very diverse. Many of the people here belong to one of the 18 state-recognized minorities. Hungarians form the largest minority, called the Szekler, and are proud of their Hungarian identity and flaunt it. In addition, there is the German minority, which is divided into several groups. There are also the Lipovans, a small Russian-speaking minority that refused to abandon their faith and for a long time communicated only in the old Russian language. The number of Sinti and Roma in Romania can only be estimated. This minority used to be persecuted, consequently putting a lot of emphasis on their own family and traditions. Romanian cuisine reflects the Romania and its people. Be sure to try Sarmale or Colac Secuiesc during your visit. No matter if you want to visit the capital or go hiking in the Carpathians, you will always encounter helpful and open-minded locals.