The Benefits of Being Romanian

Part of my ethnic background is a small group closely related to Romanians.  Our language is considered a dialect of Romanian, but our clothing, food, music, and most of our culture doesn’t really align with that of the Romanians from Romania.  My ancestors were transhumant shepherds, from a place in the Balkans that is decidedly not Romania; our days as shepherds ended when my great-grandfather left his flock and came here to work on the railroad.   (My husband is also descended from transhumant people, and it is on that rock that our relationship is built.)

If you asked me what I am, I would say “Romanian,” though that’s not really what I consider myself.  (I will note that my father does consider himself to be Romanian, and he and I disagree on whether our ethnic background includes us in the larger Romanian umbrella.)  If I felt like you might be interested, I might try to explain my ethnic background further.  At that point, you’d say, “Oh! You’re a gypsy.”  But I’m not, and that’s why I usually stick with calling myself Romanian.

There are limited benefits to being part of an ethnic group no one has heard of.  Sure, it’s exotic to say things like, “Researchers think that there are less than 300,000 of us worldwide!” or “My native language is almost extinct!”  But then I read an article in a British newspaper that says that my culture is essentially dead, barring the occasional festival in a country I’ve never been to, and I wonder if all of us get miscounted because we refer to ourselves as “Romanian” to get out of a long explanation. 

When people think of Romanians, if they do at all, it’s usually in the context of a late night when you’ve turned on the History Channel and they’ve got a documentary on about the Real Dracula.  I get a strange thrill akin to ethnic pride when shows like that come on.  I love movies like The Prisoner of Zenda and The Merry Widow, featuring Ruritania or Marshovia as stand-ins for Romania (or a country immediately bordering it).  This is not to say that the Romanians have no flaws — they have a tendency to scheme and are (in my opinion) a touch duplicitous, and are way too fond of sauerkraut for my taste — but there are definite benefits to being Romanian.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I took a trip to Italy with some of my friends.  We’d made reservations at a cheap hotel in Florence, but when we got there, the gentleman at the desk showed me the reservation book.  Someone (probably with a last name similar to mine) had called and first changed the number of people in our party and then cancelled our reservation altogether.  The notes were right there in the book, so it didn’t look like he was scamming me.  He had no rooms available for us at one of the busiest parts of the Italian tourist season.

Then I took a look at the side of his desk.  There were some pictures that looked suspiciously like Romanian countryside.  “Are you Romanian?”  I asked.  “Because I’m Romanian!”

“I’m not Romanian,” he replied excitedly, “but I love Romania!  I go there three times a year.”

The next thing we knew, we had a room at his sister’s (nicer, better-situated) hotel, for the same rate at we would have paid at his place.  Ah, the benefits of being Romanian.

The best part of being Romanian (or, at least, claiming to be Romanian) is that the Romanians are the most musical people I have ever encountered.  Any occasion can cause them to burst out into four-part harmony, there’s a song for everything, and I believe everyone in that country claims to be a poet as well.  Perhaps it’s natural for a people who have been overrun by so many foreign empires and dictators to turn their sorrows into song, but my experience has been that many of the songs come out of a real joie de vivre and not sadness. 

Naturally, the Romanians have a lot of Christmas carols, and those carols are what I grew up with.  I don’t always know the words or tunes of some English and American carols, but it doesn’t bother me because the Romanian carols are the best in the world.  (I always like to say that the Romanians love singing so much they have carols about caroling, and here is the proof.)

If you only hear two Romanian Christmas carols in your whole life, you should listen to this clip, which includes my two favorites.  The second one (about the 2.45 mark) is the one that we have to listen to over and over again in the car, because it’s our sons’ favorite.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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