Student Reflections from Transylvania

2 May 2023

Mariam Zewdu ’24 Language in Transl(ation)/vania

This past trip to Transylvania (a region within Romania) has been impactful on so many levels. One of the features that impacted me most was the way that Transylvania is very diverse not only in terms of its population, but also its cultural heritage. It is a region that has been shaped by a long history of conflict and migration, with various ethnic groups leaving their mark on the region over the centuries. The region is home to several minority communities, particularly Hungarians and Germans. Throughout our travels, we learned about the various challenges faced by these groups related to language and identity.

Language plays a significant role in shaping identity and shaping social dynamics. In Transylvania, the use of language has been a tool both to legitimize and disempower minority groups. For example, the Hungarian minority in Transylvania has faced challenges in maintaining their language and cultural identity, which has been historically viewed as a threat to the dominant Romanian culture. As many of these cities such as Cluj and Timișoara used to once belong to Austro-Hungarian state of the Habsburg Empire, the ethnic Hungarians present, at times, seemed to represent a sort of opposition to the Romanian state which had just acquired the land that was known as Transylvania. As such, there were provisions taken by the Romanian government to marginalize the use of Hungarian in official contexts. However, the Hungarian minority has fought for their right to use their language in education and public life, and these struggles have become a focal point of identity and cultural pride. As the Hungarian minority in Transylvania has a strong sense of cultural identity, which is closely tied to their language, letting go of the Hungarian language is not something that can be done so easily. Many ethnic Hungarians have fought to not only have classes in university taught in Hungarian but also signs in Romanian. One of the biggest messages that his has sent to me, is not that that they reject their Romanian nationality, but rather they want to embrace both their national and ethnic heritage as one. This issue of wanting representation in the sense of language has not been a big issue amongst the everyday people before the government started pushing these ethnic minorities and majorities against one another. 

In a similar vein, German minorities in Transylvania have faced many challenges related to the concepts of language and identity. The German population in Transylvania has experienced significant displacement over the centuries, with many being forced to leave the region due to conflicts and political upheavals. As a result, the German minority in Transylvania has a complex relationship with the region. On the one hand, the German language is seen as a symbol of cultural identity and pride whereas on the other hand, the use of German has historically been associated with political power and privilege (though this was not always the case as we learned in our miniature seminars), which has resulted in the marginalization of the German minority in Transylvania. This same trend of not wanting to use the German language in official settings was used. Otherwise there would be a trend of using MULTIPLE languages to make the use of German (or Hungarian, etc) seem less important than it was. 

This way of taking the power away from the people really speaks to the idea of “otherness” and more importantly how the Romanian state was so afraid of this “otherness”. Just like most states, Romania wants the national language (in this case Romanian) to be critically used by the people, but in a multicultural/multiethnic state that is not always possible. Through this, one is able to understand the fear the that state itself has towards these ethnic minorities if they were to give them autonomy or allow them to use their language in official contexts, because it would start first with signage, but then what after, secession? Joining another state? These fears held on tightly to the Romanian state as they went down this path of not translating anything or translating things into this multitude of languages. In conclusion, language has been both a source of pride and a tool of marginalization, reflecting the complex history and social dynamics of the region. The struggle for language rights and cultural identity continues to be an important issue in Transylvania and throughout Romania (and Eastern Europe).

Mia Strubel Iram ’25 Jewish communities in Transylvania: the never ending scavenger hunt

Sitting in a classroom in Cluj, I listened to four different lectures on history and narratives that were new to me. Not only were these narratives new to me, most of them were stories of minorities within Romania. I learned about Roma, Saxon history in Transylvania, Hungarian minorities and the Lipoveni; communities who are not part of the dominant discourse in Romanian society. 

As the day went on I began to notice similar themes between the lectures. Ideas of community, integration, exclusion, nationalism, forgetting and embracing, these themes resonated with me on a more personal level because I was interested in learning more about the Jewish presence in Romania. Jews in Romania are also considered a minority and as we learned about Hungarians, the Lipoveni and Romas I couldn’t help but make connections with the experiences of Jewish Romanians.  

 Throughout our travels of Transylvania Becky and I had unofficially decided we were going to visit all the former (or current) Jewish spaces of the cities we were seeing. This was all done very informally with the help of our not so trusty google maps, outdated websites and phone numbers that never seemed to connect. 

We started in Brașov where we quickly located the synagogue and decided to rush before its website claimed it closed. When we arrived it was already closed and the number listed on the gate proved to be not helpful. 

Cluj synagogue and memorial

Still optimistic and in good spirits we decided that Cluj-Napoca might bring more luck. The first free moment we had we walked to the synagogue. Although the website claimed it was open we knew that this might not be the case. When we got there we realized that even though the building had been restored it was not an operational space, but it had been commemorated to the Jewish community in Cluj that was lost during the Holocaust (photo of the plack in Hebrew is included). We tried calling the number given on the website and we were not surprised when nobody answered. As we continued to explore the website we noticed that there was a functioning synagogue and Jewish community center. We even found a Facebook page that had been recently active which made me hopeful that we’d finally have success. When we walked to the community center, it was closed but through a glimpse from the window it was clear that it was an active Jewish space. Although I was frustrated Becky and I were not able to interact with anyone this did not deter us from making sure to stop at the Jewish history museum. At the museum we learned more about the once thriving Jewish community in Cluj-Napoca that in 1941 made up 15% of the city’s population. The museum was very new and used virtual reality to share four stories of Jews who grew up in Cluj and their experiences during the Holocaust. The museum was a good culmination to our time exploring Jewish history in Cluj and provided a more complete narrative of Jewish life. 

The final stop of our trip was Sibiu, at this point I had little hope of actually interacting with Jews living in the community but did want to at least get a glimpse of the synagogue. The synagogue was lovely, and I was satisfied to have just been able to see it. Constantly running into dead-ends when searching for Jewish spaces allowed me to reflect more on the Jewish narrative and as the trip went on I began to realize that even though most of the synagogues had been restored the actual communities had understandably not been. 

Cluj synagogue and memorial

When I got back to Bucharest and returned to class I was able to continue to reflect on my experiences seeking out Jewish spaces. Many times in order to learn about certain minorities and marginalized groups you have to go out of your way to learn about them. In the case of the lectures we were lucky to hear from people who work closely with minority communities. But when it came to Jewish communities in Transylvania it was evident that Becky and I had to go out of our way if we wanted to learn more (although some of our tour guides showed us Jewish spaces such as when we were in Târgu Mureș). While the Jewish community was once thriving in Transylvania, the spaces they inhabited have been left in bad shape and the desire to continue to learn stories from the past on the Jewish minority feels practically nonexistent. Overall, Becky and I did not have much success interacting with Jewish people living in Transylvania but I was still able to experience different sites that in the past played an important role in Jewish life. All of our adventures helped paint a picture of what Jewish communities were like and I am eager to continue learning about the community. 

Amelia Watt ’25 Perceiving the other as a tourist and as a local

Having grown up in a tourist town on the coast of Maine the relationship between tourists and locals is one that I understand on a personal level. Every summer my sister and I watch as thousands of tourists come flooding into our town bringing both money and chaos. Despite the inconvenience that tourists can cause, we know that we are reliant on them to ensure economic stability. Throughout our week in Transylvania, I found myself thinking about what it meant to be a tourist and the perceptions that locals across Romanian have about foreigners who come into their communities for a day. As tourists, we come into small villages and communities looking for “an authentic experience.” But at the end of the day, does our pursuit to try and understand a culture and a community just end up isolating us from them even further?

On our tour of Sibiu and some surrounding villages, we visited Rasinari. Located in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, Rasinari is beautiful with a small river running through the village and green foliage around every corner. As we explored Rasinari, we came upon an Orthodox church that was in the midst of conducting a funeral service for a member of the community. The village was nearly silent that day, as most members were in the church saying goodbye to a community member. The silence of the village, almost like a ghost town, reminded me of my place as an outsider while traveling through Romania. As we drove throughout the countryside and visited numerous cities, it became easier to feel incorporated into the ecosystems of the places that we visited. However in Rasinari, I felt as though I was trespassing. As the funeral procession left the church, with the bells ringing loudly, I began to feel a sense of panic. Here I was in a small town, with my camera and backpack, walking around taking photos of the beautiful scenery, too occupied with capturing the perfect image of the mountains to consider the vulnerability of the village as its community members said goodbye to one of their own. Had I become one of the ignorant tourists that I so deeply resented back home in Maine? 

As I sat in the bus on the way back to Sibiu, I reflected on my experience witnessing the funeral procession. In the moment all I felt was a sense of uncomfortability, however, as we began to enter Sibiu and passed the houses with the eyes, I felt a sense of awe. One of the most incredible things about being a tourist exploring local communities is being able to gain a sense of understanding of the ways in which ordinary people live. In many ways, the funeral procession in Rasinari reminded me of how my town says goodbye to members of our community. Though Rasinari and Yarmouth couldn’t be more different in many ways, they both share the same interwoven connections between its inhabitants that only living in a small town can foster. Instead of feeling like a trespasser as I originally had, I began to feel a connection to Rasinari and privileged to have witnessed the funeral procession from a distance. In perceiving the other, it can be easy to separate locals and tourists into us vs. them categories. The insiders versus the outsiders. In trying to understand a culture through a scientific or analytical lens it can be easy to feel detached, however on a more emotional level it is easy to find the commonalities that we all share, At the end of the day, whether in Maine or Romania, we all come together to say goodbye to those we love, and had I not bore witness to the funeral procession in Rasinari, I would have never come to such an understanding.

Nate Ellis ’24 Expanding cultural understanding of Romania

During our trip through Transylvania we came across many wonderful sights and visited different monuments, museums and monasteries that captured and embodied the region’s history beautifully. For me, this trip truly served as a period of enlightenment on the history of culture and the  everlasting diversity of the region. Prior to this trip I had an idea of an extremely nationalist country with a few different identities that didn’t stray too far from each other but I came to notice during our time in Bucharest that it was much more complicated than this and visiting many different Transylvanian cities gave these complications more context.

We learnt of the heavy Hungarian presence in the region that was represented not only through the Hungarian translations of road signs and things of the sort but the manner in which their culture is also embodied by their people. In the city of Cluj-Napoca, the hometown of our esteemed tour guide, the presence of the Hungarian peoples is so heavy that most people in the city are able to speak both Romanian and Hungarian. As populations from diverse cultures increase it is not uncommon for cultural traditions and language to die out along with the process of assimilation so it was quite interesting to see that aspect of assimilation being resisted to the point where most in the region are capable of speaking both languages. We also learnt of the Saxon presence in Transylvania who are a people of mainly German ethnicity. Many of the Saxons in the region still speak their native tongue and proudly practice tradition that has been passed down from previous generations. Another identity we learnt of are the Lipovians who are an ethnic group of Russian origin. What intrigued me the most about their presence in Transylvania is the way they are able to practice their faith separate from the more popular practice of Orthodox Christianity. They also still retain their sense of self that is separate from the Romanian identity and it was enjoyable learning the different ways in which they do. 

All of these different identities are also encouraged to have political representations so their presence goes far beyond just living in the region but they are also gaining political influence over the decisions that directly affect their communities. 

This trip was simply wonder after wonder and was truly enlightening about its diversity and how different identities existed within the region.

Brandon Moore ’24 Churches in Transylvania: Power and Belonging

As you, dear reader, have no doubt seen from my peers’ entries to this distinguished blog, the Carleton Romania OCS program spent the last week traveling through Transylvania: the land through the forest. Separated (or joined) by the Carpathian Mountains from the two other Romanian component regions of Wallachia and Moldavia, Transylvania is a space that can be explained as a generative meeting point between disparate peoples. 
Throughout our week-long trip we visited some of the region’s largest cities such as Brasov, Târgu Mureș, Cluj, and Sibiu and a handful of the region’s many villages. In all these places, I first noticed, then tried to see and even enter many of the churches and religious spaces I encountered, totaling eighteen visits over the course of the week with countless more observed from the outside. Traveling through Transylvania during the Orthodox Easter holidays, faith and religion are particularly emphasized.

Fortified Church at Viscri dating to the 12th Century

Furthermore, these religious spaces are irremovable from the historical and social context of Transylvania. Saxon settlers, invited to settle in the region to protect and develop the regional economy by the Hungarian monarchy in the 12th-14th centuries, centered their fortified frontier communities around a church (originally Catholic then reconsecrated as Lutheran during the Reformation). Orthodox churches, to this day, are located on the periphery of these city’s old towns, reflecting the historical hierarchy and segregation between ethnic Romanians and the Saxon and Hungarian urbanites. In the 18th century, the Habsburg Empire demonstrated its influence through the construction of new Catholic churches, sometimes literally in the middle of town squares, such as in Sibiu. Even today, after the anti-communist 1989 revolution, there are new Orthodox churches being built to reassert religion, particularly the Romanian Orthodox Church in cities that once had a prominent Catholic-Hungarian population, such as Cluj.

Sf. Iosif Orthodox Cathedral under construction

My curiosity for exploring these spaces has its origins in family too. When I was little, my Lola (Filipino for grandmother) incentivized me to visit every Catholic church I saw. She promised that whenever I entered a church for the first time, if I prayed three Hail Marys, God would grant me a wish. As I’ve grown up, especially when traveling, I make it a point to try to step into as many churches/ places of worship as I can, understanding that each of these spaces are centers for community, spirituality, and cultural expression. 

When visiting these many churches throughout the week, I experienced a vast scale of belongingness and anxiety about intruding. I grappled with my roles and identities as a tourist, as a learner, and as a religious person. I still don’t fully understand why I felt out of place when I did, and I hope that through this blog post, dear reader, we can both gleam some insight.

As a Catholic, I at first assumed I would be the most familiar in these spaces. And perhaps I did. In Brasov, noting that the front doors were locked(!) at Saints’ Peter and Paul Church, I bravely led my compatriots through the convent’s gated courtyard and through a side entrance. Still, however, there were moments, particularly when older parishioners were present, that I felt like my gazing and viewing was a disruption, like my way of viewing their quotidian church as unique and once-in-a-lifetime was in conflict with their habitual prayer. Rationally, this doesn’t make sense, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I could pray and experience my self peacefully, but I couldn’t experience the entirety of the place.

 Franciscan Temple, Cluj

I was most keenly aware and at peace with my status as an outsider when I attended a midnight Easter vigil in Sighisoara. During this service, there were throngs of people from children no older than five, young adults (who at first glance I assumed were going out drinking, but instead were heading to church), and the elderly. The service was beautiful, with singing, candle lighting, and a march around the church. However, it was obvious I didn’t or couldn’t belong: acceptance. I didn’t know the traditions, their meanings, or what was being said with the service being in Romanian. I still did feel like a malignant outsider, an intruder, however. I felt in the way, like I was taking the space of someone who would receive more spiritual fulfillment. Even when I stepped out of the main procession circling the church or a space on the outskirts of the surrounding courtyard, I was aware that I might be blocking someone’s view. 

Crowd of faithful after the Easter Village at the Holy Trinity Church, Sighisoara

My experiences in the four Saxon-built Lutheran churches I visited were perhaps the clearest initially. My visits to all four churches were approached from a touristic perspective. We were given tours or informational pamphlets and, more importantly, I had to pay for admission. The ambiguity is removed, the relationship between the church-space and myself becomes defined by the transaction. It creates an almost relieving clarity and comfort; I’m cemented into my role as an expected and welcome tourist, safe that I am not the gawking, intruding non-believer. However, even then, I ask myself whether I’m participating in the commodification of a religious space. Especially given the fact that in the last century, the Saxon population has declined from the once founding populations of these cities to under one percent of the population of Transylvania. Maybe, just maybe, I’m helping sustain these beautiful, historical buildings. 

Church on the Hill, Sighisoara built in the 15th Century

And here is where I am in the process, stewing in my own discomfort and questioning whether the notion of feeling comfortable is something I should even be seeking, never mind expecting. The long short of it all is that I am an outsider, even in a place as diverse as modern day Transylvania turns out to be. Discomfort and outsiderness means that I’m not at home, and isn’t that the point of a Carleton OCS? Even though it’s cliché and cheesy, every moment is indeed a chance to learn something new about others, about faith, and through my reaction, about myself. As long as I am respectful and open and appreciative, a touristic visit to a Lutheran church, a quiet prayer in a Catholic church, and attending part of a service in an Orthodox church can all be windows into the beautiful unfamiliar. 

Becky Reinhold ’25 How a store in Sighisoara changed my understanding of the influence of foreign perspectives

In Sighisoara, as a few friends and I were walking towards a hill, we passed by a few little stores next to an alley with an archway. One of my first thoughts was that it looked like a town from a fairytale because the buildings were pretty colors and the archway was welcoming and the street just looked happy. The store at the corner was selling items marketed as being traditional Romanian things – clothing and painted wooden eggs and other artistic objects. Next to these objects were Dracula themed shirts and other merchandise. These different types of merchandise were not differentiated in any way, although the Dracula merchandise was less colorfully decorated and less pretty than the other items the store was selling. 

Nearby, down the narrow street with the pretty archway, a sign advertised a Dracula related tourist attraction. I believe it was a museum based on a historical location in Vlad Dracul’s life, although it might’ve been a tour. I didn’t look closely because I had already decided I was interested in seeing the pretty and historical sites of Sighisoara rather than the Dracula related ones because Dracula was a work of fiction and I was there to see the history of the place.

Strada la Sighisoara by Pericle Capidan

Looking back, that was an incredibly narrow mindset to start with, which I should’ve realized at the time. While it’s true that Count Dracula in the modern characterization is not part of the factual history of Sighisoara, the store that included Dracula merchandise with other items meant to give the tourist a sense of understanding Romanian culture was writing Dracula into that history, as were the other Dracula-related tourist attractions. It seems reasonable to assume this is a new addition to the history of Sighisoara — a painting I saw later in the week of an archway in Sighisoara’s old town showed neither stores nor tourist attractions nor any mention of Dracula. That painting, Strada la Sighisoara by Pericle Capidan, which I stumbled upon by chance, was painted in the late 1800s and showed the colors and light of Sighisoara. Aside from buildings, it showed no sign of people, and without knowing, it would be nearly impossible for someone without extensive knowledge of art history or Sighisoara to guess when it was painted. The buildings in it seem timeless. Capidan depicted Sighisoara as I had expected it to be based on what I had read about it – pretty in a timeless way. And Sighisoara was pretty, but it does not exist in the timeless way that it had in the painting and in my imagination.           

Sighisoara is shaped by the tourism that aids its economy, bringing foreigners to the town to see, in addition to other things, the sites of Dracula. The character of Dracula is a fiction created by Bram Stoker, a foreigner who knew little of Romania aside from the stereotypes constructed by Westerners. Here I use Westerners to mean people who were not from that area and understood Romania only as part of the being part of the “other.” That narrative of Dracula was imposed on Sighisoara, but presumably for economic reasons, the store owners seem to have embraced it as an advertising method. And although Dracula did not exist as Bram Stoker wrote him, the effects that story had on Sighisoara have come to exist as part of Sighisoara’s history. Now, looking at tourism guides and at tourist destinations in Sighisoara, the history of Dracula cannot be ignored.

I had been naïve in writing off Dracula’s story as irrelevant to understanding the history of Sighisoara because of the way that narrative seems to have been embraced by some of the people there. I had gone in wanting to see Sighisoara and its history rather than what it is said to be in Dracula, an outsider’s conception of it. But by focusing on that, I was ignoring the way that I, too, am an outsider, and thus needed to change my image of the place based on how people there portrayed it. The painting in Cluj may have made Sighisoara seem timeless, but it is not, and thus it is not possible to look only at internal constructions of Sighisoara because it is a real place that has been changed by history. How residents of Sighisoara portray it is relevant to understanding it, even if that portrayal is based on a story told by outsiders. It may be possible to go to Sighisoara and intentionally ignore references to Dracula, but to do so is to ignore reality in favor of affirming preconceptions of the place because the history of Sighisoara cannot be separated from the history as constructed by outsiders.

I don’t know how different that store in Sighisoara would be now if Bram Stoker hadn’t written Dracula, or if that narrative hadn’t become intertwined with both internal and external narratives of its history. To visit Sighisoara is to see how history is mixed with stories, and how the perceptions of outsiders influence how people portray a place to outsiders. Without recognizing that, without seeing how Dracula has become a part of Sighisoara’s tourism industry and economy, it would not be possible to try to understand Sighisoara as it is now.

Reagan Wills ’24 The Arbitrary Nature of the National Identity

Orthodox church displaying Romanian flag in Târgu Mureș

During our tour of Târgu Mureș our tour guide, Zultan, described a story in which a group of Hungarians residing in Transylvania decided to peacefully protest the alienation of Hungarian existence within the Romanian state. At the time, as our guide described, no bad blood existed between Romanians and Hungarians in the area; as a matter of fact, the opposite was the case and the communities lived in harmony despite the nationalistic attitude perpetuated by the government at that time. During the protest, a narrative was spread that Hungarian protesters were beating the local Romanians, which of course, led to an uprising on behalf of the Romanians in the city of Târgu Mureș. This led to an all-out brawl between Hungarians and Romanians that led to a few deaths and many injuries. Zoltan, as a native of the city, informed us that many locals strongly believe that the fight was instigated by the Romanian government, as the desire of Hungarians and their culture to be recognized by the state posed a threat to the operations of the government. This story not only reminded me of the vast and expansive nature of Romania’s ethnic diversity, but it also informed me on the treatment of perceived “others” within Romania, in relation to the Romanian national identity. 

In comparison, we were told a beautiful story that takes place in the transylvanian city of Brașov, during which the Romanian government had sided with Germany in World War II. There was a generous Jewish community in Brașov at this time, from what I can remember, and so the city became a target for the locating, gathering and extermination of the Jewish population. In an amazing turn of events, the city and their people protected their Jewish neighbors. This would be done by altering birth certificates to eliminate any indication of Jewish origin, as well as telling the government that the city already had their own concentration camp, so the Jews residing there did not need to be removed. It warmed my heart to hear that the city and its people banded together on a set of intrinsic human values and refused to allow their neighbors and fellow citizens to become subjected to the inhumanity that would have otherwise ensued. 

Fortified view of Viscri

These stories and their descriptions of the ways others can be perceived leaves me to question less of the individual, and more of the powers that be, in any national context. From my experiences in Transylvania, as well as discussions we have had in class, I have been led to question the merit of a national identity and what/who the existence of this identity serves. In an attempt to create a national identity, there is an inherent and oftentimes extreme inclination to find a minority that can be turned into the stranger. Acting as a way to define oneself, as now one knows what they are not and, furthermore, what they cannot and shall not be. While reflecting on these ideas, I can’t help but beg the question; what would our world look like without the existence of a national identity? Without some greater power that defines our very existence within the guideline of some sort of acquired “citizenship”. If we lived with a greater conception of what we deserve as human beings living on this earth. Is perceiving others as either “lesser” or “greater” inherent to human nature, or is it an aspect of survival perpetuated by the territorial confines of our very existence? The necessity of something/someone to fear. I suppose that within the ambiguous differences between human beings living on this earth (not members of a state or some form of national identity, but as humans) the one thing we all have in common is our differences and the ambiguity that surrounds them. I begin to think the only way to dismantle the need to perceive others and their “otherness”, is to truly understand them, and bask in the ambiguity of what we understand to be otherness.  

Etta Humes ’25 Reflections On Religion in Transylvania

During our 8 day tour of Romania we, as a group and individually, visited many churches, cathedrals, and monasteries. Something that our tour guide, Zultan, emphasized was that Romania was unique in the prevalence of religion within the country. While most Western European countries are seeing a decline in religion, with it being more prominent among older generations than younger ones, all ages of Romanians still practice their Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity. On our trip, we were able to go into a church in Targu Mures on Eastern Orthodox Easter. Completely underdressed, we looked in awe at the painted walls and ceiling of this church. I was struck watching small children held up by their parents kissing images of the virgin Mary and Jesus. Five days later we were in Sibiu at yet another church while services went on. Equally beautiful and equally packed, the church had us walking around dumbfounded at the artistry of the building.

Eastern Orthodox is the most prominent religion in Romania, making up more than 80% of the Romanian population. It is the only religion that the government directly monetarily supports, so Eastern Orthodox in Romania do not have to pay church dues as other sects of christianity do throughout the country. 
Coming from Eastern Sunday services, we made our way to the synagogue of the city. There were many synagogues around the cities that we visited, most of which were not holding services anymore due to the lack of a Jewish populace. Judaism was not the only minority religion in Transylvania that had lost numbers. Many churches on different sects whose practicing population had died out had been taken over multiple times by different religious denominations. The history of religion in Romania is a rich tapestry that parallels ethnic diversity that defines the Transylvanian plateau, but like many other dimensions of diversity, it has homogenized in the modern era. 

Still, the rich history is fascinating. For a program that centers on xenophobia in Eastern Europe, it was amazing to hear stories of communities that fought and lied to protect their Jewish population, minority rights that allowed old believers in Romania to speak Russian in the courtroom, of Saxon influence on early government systems. This history coexists with modern prejudices against minorities and exclusive national identity. 

I left the church that Friday with tears in my eyes. Seeing those families together, I really felt a community that was still alive and well. In a world with the “loneliness epidemic,” how many people could benefit from a community like this one? But, I had to remind myself, this community wasn’t for everyone. 

Graci Huff ’25 Moments of Awe

View from fortified church in Viscri

This recent trip to Transylvania led me to moments where I felt the breath draw from my lungs. I was struck by the beauty of the landscape: the rolling hills, the silhouette of mountains, the communities of trees scattered about. I wish I could have stayed atop the watchtower of the Fortified Church in Viscri for the whole day. I believe I could never grow tired of that sight, of the life I could see–the cows grazing in their pasture; the sheep galavanting around the hills, herded by the shepherd and the sheepdog; the horses galloping the fields, allowing their riders to traverse the hills and explore the terrain; the villagers performing daily tasks; the people, both familiar and unfamiliar, wandering the grounds of the church directly below me. The wind billowed around me, carrying with it sounds and smells from afar. A smile came to my face as I heard the lowing of the cows, the bleating of the sheep, and the distant, spaced out crowing of a rooster. I rested my head on the ledge and took it all in. There’s this specific feeling I get when I witness such intense beauty. I feel my chest tighten, suddenly lacking in air; my feet glue to the ground, afraid that if I move, something will change; my senses calibrate, trying to take everything in. While up there, I uttered aloud, “This is so perfect. I could cry.” A friend responded simply, “Then cry.” 

Awe. That is the best word I could use to describe this experience. I was in utter awe of Romania in this instance and in many more instances as we have made our way around the country. Prior to coming to Romania, I knew very little of it. I had not even known I had perceptions of Romania until applying to this program. The images that came to mind consisted of the very rolling hills I observed in Viscri, women in embroidered shirts, paired with long, flowing skirts and headscarves, and a multitude of impressive castles. To be clear, these images are not false, they are just incomplete. I have seen all of these things in Romania, but this is not all there is to Romania. This image—this stunning, breathtaking image—was all I knew of Romania, so when I first encountered things other than this, I felt surprised. I quickly realized that I had no idea what was in store for me, so I had to let go of all my expectations and just take it all in. So, here I am, taking things in. 

Sandy Ramirez ’24 Romania: Viewing History Through Architecture

I knew very little about Romania when I came, and even less about Transylvania when I traveled the region. Luckily, before traveling to Transylvania, our classes taught us many things concerning Balkanism, Orientalism and the Us vs. Them dichotomy between Eastern and Western Europe. Specifically, we learned that Western Europe influenced the majority of what the world knew about Eastern Europe, and as a result, Eastern Europe strove to create a common national identity that would be acceptable to Western European standards. Romania iItself adopted this strategy, alienating many of its peoples who did not fit these standards. 

Traveling Romania gave me great insight into its rich history. Upon arriving to Brasov,  we visited the Black Church, which was built from Hungarian and German influences. Interestingly enough, many churches in Romania (including the Black Church) were originally founded to practice different religions. The Black Church began as a Catholic Church, but it has now become a Protestant church. 

One of the strongest sources of historical information can be found by studying various religions within Romania. In Viscri, we visited the Fortified Church built by German Transylvanian Saxons during the time Transylvania was still a part of Hungary. The church, which is surrounded by defense walls, was constructed for German populations to practice their religions and protect themselves in times of war. Although knowing little to nothing about the German minority in Romania in the beginning of my OCS, I’ve since learned that they have been incredibly impactful to the nation’s history. 

Upon visiting Sibiu, I was completely taken away by the structure of all the buildings. Sibiu is known as the “City with Eyes” due to the fact most buildings have elongated and narrow windows on the rooftops, which give off the impression you’re being watched every time you pass by. In Sibiu, it was so easy to be enamored by the architecture and nature that I nearly ignored the history of the city. Germans had a huge impact toward the construction of Sibiu. In places like the Great Square (Piata Mare), the cobblestones show where former fortress walls held markets, fairs, and former executions. Much of the architecture in Sibiu is representative of Medieval times.

Thus far, I’ve learned that Romania has a multitude of international influences. Upon touring Cluj, I was able to see the University of Babes and its many architectural inspirations. The University of Babes is one of the largest in Romania (if not the largest). Much of its construction was based on neo-Renaissance architecture. What’s even more interesting is the university’s educational system: courses are taught in a multitude of languages included Romanian, Hungarian, and German. It’s been absolutely incredible seeing the impact many European nations have had on Romania. I have much left to explore and am looking forward to learning more about the history, architecture, and the many regions of Romania. 

Wesley Rosenberg ’25 The Other Side of the Coin

Church in Tagru Mares

Neither of my parents grew up with much religion in their households, but both got confirmed in middle school. My mom was born in Minnesota and was confirmed because of family tradition. My dad, on the other hand, was born in Sweden and moved to Minnesota while in high school. Neither of his parents were especially religious, but when they moved to the united states, they happened to move into a very catholic town. I remember my dad telling me stories about how his family would hear whispers throughout the town: whispers and rumors of the townspeople wondering whether my dad’s family was a group of devil worshippers because they were foreign, unknown, and weren’t formally practicing Christianity. My grandparents put my dad into confirmation as a means to dispel the rumors going around, to fit into the norms of the town, and not be seen as so “other”. Both my parents went through the confirmation process and enjoyed it for various reasons but didn’t go on to continue formally practicing Christianity.

In my time, I grew up without my parent neither advising or imposing any sort of religious beliefs onto me. I remember being in early elementary school when I asked my parents individually what their religious beliefs were and to what spiritual beliefs they subscribed to. I was mostly answered with a shrug and a lot of uncertainty. I heard neither a yes nor a no in response to the question of religion I proposed to my parents. Nonetheless, when I reached 7th grade, my parents insisted I get confirmed. I remember being a bit confused as to why I was required to do this since neither of my parents practiced Christianity and because it was never a topic of conversation within our household. Still, I was respectful of their wishes and willingly joined confirmation. 

I joined a Lutheran church not far from my house called Mt. Olivet. I went through the process of confirmation for two years. I made many friends in my age group there, participated in fun activities, and found a community there. After those two years were up, I decided to continue going to church and attending youth events throughout high school. At this church, it wasn’t geared so much toward a traditional understanding of Christianity or devotion to its historical practices. Most Sunday services were focused on the community, empathy, mutual care, love, and understanding of one another. Given my background that lacked faith in religion, it was a good fit for me. At this church, I felt like I could fit in and remain there because it wasn’t a church too focused on the fundamental religious texts, acts, or beliefs of Christianity. Those sorts of things just weren’t the main topic of conversation. I was always appreciative to be a part of a community and engage in something I thought had a good impact on the world without feeling inauthentic to my beliefs at the time rather than being a part of a less reformed church that focussed more on the traditional practices and beliefs of Christianity.

Photo of Mt. Olivet

Since the end of high school, I’d say that my spiritual convictions have shifted and grown a bit. I’ve become more willing to allow and be receptive to what is religious. I’ll now finally get to my experience visiting an Orthodox Cathedral in Târgu Mureș on Easter. As soon as I entered the cathedral, I remember being struck by the incredible artistry and colors covering every square inch of the walls. It was in stark contrast to my church at home which only contained biblical or historical imagery on its stained glass windows and was otherwise a grey concrete shaped in gothic style. I remember seeing people sign the cross over their head and chest in a silent prayer, something not performed at my home church. I saw parents carry their infant children near the front of the altar so they could kiss the beautiful icons and say a prayer. Throughout the whole of my observations, I listened to a man and a woman simply and beautifully harmonize together and fill the whole church with music. There’s music at my church too, but it always occurred in the setting of a larger choir accompanied by other instruments or at least a piano. I felt as though I could understand how strongly and personally the words and melodies of their song meant to these two singers. In witnessing the amazing art, all the people devoted in silent prayer, the two singers harmonizing and filling the world with music, and parents bringing their children into their sacred traditions, I felt an immense flow of emotions and was almost brought to tears. I was so appreciative to see and know that something like this existed so powerfully. I wondered what it might have been like to be one of those infants being held up to kiss the icons at the front of the room. I wondered what it may have been like if I had been brought up with religion like this.

Though I was always appreciative of my home church for giving me a space to be a part of a special space and community, I never really realized how, from another point of view, it may be lacking in another aspect of the religious experience. Through this perception was something so other to my own experiences, I feel that I was given a window of opportunity to see and understand what it may look like and feel like to have and participate in a larger sense of faith, tradition, and strong belief/faith in religion. I was greatly appreciative of this opportunity. 

Mike Kombate ’23 Class and Belonging: Contrasting Civilian Approaches to the Homeless in Bucharest and Transylvania

King Carol I’s Statue in Bucharest

We had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Bucharest before we departed for our week-long tour of Transylvania. It is perhaps only natural then that we would utilize Bucharest as a measure of comparison for our Transylvanian experiences. For me, what was immediately evident were differences in the presence and treatment of homeless people. This program, having its primary base in Bucharest, has been my first time residing in a city for an extended period of time, beyond five days. The most salient aspect of that experience for me, has been the notable population of homeless people spread across the city. As someone who primarily lives and was raised in the suburbs, my first experience with the homeless wasn’t until mid-way through high school, and has since then been both extremely irregular and dependent on both my visit to larger cities and treks through specific neighborhoods. 

In many ways, because of this, the homeless are still in many ways ‘new’ in my perceptions of the world, and I very much struggle with their existence and the questions they raise regarding civil societies that accept and allow for the possibility of being in such a position. When I do encounter the homeless, they tend to monopolize my thoughts for the day as I struggle with the inability to meaningfully assist the people who are going through the most difficult times of their lives and in many ways an incredibly dehumanizing experience. Something that has been extremely obvious about the homeless in Bucharest is their invisibility. As people walk past them, they avoid looking at them and listening to them, and in many ways the refusal to acknowledge them is an attempt at erasure, from their minds and worlds.

A building surrounding the Great Square (Piata Mare) in Sibiu

My experiences with the homeless in Transylvania were different in the sense that they were treated far better by the local population than they are in Bucharest. I did not have the opportunity to explore any of the cities that we visited in Transylvania to the extent that I’ve had to explore Bucharest, and accept that the treatment of the homeless I observed could’ve been a result of pure chance. But there was a world of a difference between the content of those observations. The homeless people that I observed in Transylvania were always acknowledged through at least some exchange of words and people frequently gave something. For example, in Sibiu alone, I observed fifteen different homeless persons and everyone that passed them at least acknowledged them with a greeting, and the vast majority of people offered something, both usually without any prompting. In the weeks I’ve spent in Bucharest, I’ve never seen a single person give something, and can count the number of acknowledgements I’ve seen given to a homeless person on a single hand. This dichotomy of observations was rather startling. 

An Eastern Orthodox Church in Târgu Mureș

I had the opportunity to speak to one of our Romanian classmates in Bucharest on why that approach of erasure was so common in Bucharest. She shared with me that it was a  phenomenon of perception, that while she can’t speak for other places, in Bucharest the perception is that the homeless are dangerous, criminals, drug-addicts, or in one of many ways that their situation is directly their fault. When we first arrived in Bucharest one of the things that we were told several times was that in many ways we were walking through a city and nation of contradictions. To me, what is most startling, and a major contradiction, is how a nation with such incredibly large and wealthy churches, and one in which a majority of the population is of faith, are willing to disregard society’s most needy. The goal of this program is to discuss alienation and belonging in Romania and the region, as a result most of our conversations have been centered around ethnic conflicts. However, the Romanians I’ve observed seem to primarily be ethnic romanians as well. One of the ideas we’ve covered in our classes has been the idea that nation-states in the region like Romania want to extend their borders to encapsulate their diaspora of peoples, ethnic Romanians, in a sense ‘to bring them home.’ 

However, when being housed cannot be ensured and people attempt to erase the homeless and the struggles from their experienced world, the ultimate alienation, it becomes rather clear that belonging – even in an ethnic sense – has a class component. Where does that leave the homeless who in their alienation are no longer claimed as part of ‘our people,’ and who are continuously dehumanized in attempts at erasure? I wonder then, if the common charity, and ‘the belonging’ of the homeless, I witnessed in Transylvania is a result of the ethnic plurality of the region, with Germans, Hungarians, and Romanians sharing the region. If what constitutes ‘our people’ is naturally many different kinds of people for those from Transylvania then belonging naturally becomes less exclusionary, and more welcoming, enough to perhaps overcome class qualifiers that would exclude the homeless.