Ruth: For a moment I was dazzled by all those glowing faces carrying flowers to their teachers on the first day of school, after all, who doesn’t like flowers? Well many in Romania apparently. As our Romanian guide in Brasov explained, the practice is very controversial. Graft is a huge problem in Romania and the health care and education systems are still crippled by corruption. Education is supposed to be free in Romania and yet parents are under pressure to offer gifts to their children’s teachers to ensure their success. One teacher was fired two years ago when he was caught on video asking a parent how they could think that coffee and chocolates were enough. In some cases gifts are very grand, including renovations to schools and classrooms. Families that cannot afford the gifts and flowers fear that their children’s grades and success will be adversely affected.
On the same morning that we saw all these children going to school with flowers, we also saw a young boy, perhaps around 13, dressed in a new set of overalls and heading off to work with his Dad. It wasn’t back to school for him, or as it turns out, for one in four Romanian children who never attend school. The numbers get even scarier when you add in early departure rates, particularly in the rural areas.
So I will sheepishly retract my request for flowers and ask for only smiles and filled classrooms instead.
Gordon: After a pleasant two night stay in Brasov, we cycled deeper into the Carpathians today. In the morning we stopped in Rasnov to visit a 13th century citadel that was constructed by the Teutonic Knights in response to the raiding by the Tatars.
Later in the morning we passed Bran castle. This is one of the most visited sites in the country. While the tourist season is winding down, it was still a circus of tacky gift shops.
Bran castle is associated with Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for Dracula. Tepes was a 15th century ruler of Wallachia, the southern portion of modern Romania. In conflicts with the nobility in Transylvania, as well as the Ottomans, he earned a reputation for excessive cruelty. In particular, he is associated with execution by impalement. While most of the accounts of his atrocities were written by the groups he victimized, and may therefore be exaggerated, he probably did have more than 20,000 people impaled. A famous woodcut shows him enjoying an al fresco meal in a forest of impaled victims. While Tepes is something of a national hero in Romania for his military success against the Ottomans, as well as the harsh but impartial justice he meted out to his subjects, it has been too tempting to capitalize upon his association with vampires. As a result, the country is awash in vampire t-shirts, and any locale with a connection to Tepes trumpets it loudly. So Bran castle, which has a fantastical Gothic profile, and would be an appropriate home for Dracula, is described as the castle of Tepes. In fact, he probably only spent a couple of nights there.
From Bran we started climbing into an area the Lonely Planet likens to the Hobbit Shire. I recall seeing pictures of Romania and wondering what sort of photographic trickery was being used to produce images of a landscape that was so preternaturally green, as well as being simultaneously wild and cultivated. Now we are in that landscape, and it looks just like the pictures.