An American in Cluj

“Bucura-te, Tara scumpa, imbracata de parada,
Ca, din alte tari straine, vin prieteni sa te vada!
– Vasile Militaru, 1936

Darius Roby Our paths have crossed years ago at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, a residential school in Columbus, dedicated to gifted students from around the state who wanted to be challenged by an enhanced curriculum and by the combined expertise of teachers with doctorates in their respective fields.
His interest was not necessarily math and science, Darius Roby loved foreign languages and the wonderful programs offered there by two foreign women, who taught five different languages. His mentor was my colleague, a very inspiring and entertaining teacher from Venezuela, who supplied their fantasies with stories of world travel, especially France, and mysterious places. Her enthusiasm was contagious!
Darius was born in a town close to the Mississippi Delta, a poor region left behind by its own making but rich in culture and music; it is “dotted by antebellum homes and destitute black communities,” as Darius wrote. He described the poverty as self-inflicted by people who “live hopelessly chasing the Pie in the Sky that democrat candidates always promise them and never deliver.”
But his ancestors lived over the past two hundred years in the “Red Clay Hills” area where “Appalachia begins, more ethnically mixed,” where great cotton plantations give way to more forested and hilly regions where small farmers grow crops like corn.
Darius pursued International Studies (Social and Cultural Identity) at Ole Miss and, after graduation in 2010, decided to make good on the promise to see the places that he had spent years reading about in his history books. Europe to him was not just France, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, or Germany; it was Eastern Europe as well with its long history dating back to the Roman Empire. He wanted to see where the “backwoods gravel roads led to and what was on the other side of the hill,” so he chose Romania to study at Babes-Bolyai in Cluj, the Faculty of European Studies.
It did not take long for Darius to fall in love with Romania – discovering her beauty was curiosity, enchantment, and serendipity. On his semester abroad in France in 2009, he decided to visit Moldova but had to spend one day in Bucharest because his connecting flight to Chisinau was canceled. A year later he found himself in Bucharest and, instead of hopping on a flight to Cluj, he decided to take the long route by train, the trip of a lifetime.
“The grey, rather depressing communist architecture around Bucharest’s Gara de Nord [northern railway station], the farms of the Wallachian Plain, the smell of petroleum and heavy industry in Ploiesti, seeing the Carpathian Mountains for the first time and instantly falling in love; passing Brasov and getting my first glimpse of Transylvania was a special moment – seeing little villages that would do any postcard justice, shepherds in cojocs standing on the hills watching over their flock, and familiarizing myself with the new names whenever the train would stop: Sighisoara, Medias, and Campia Turzii.”
Arriving in Cluj by taxi, passing by the old synagogue, the Roman Catholic cathedral, Darius marveled at the Hapsburg architecture, so different from the Wallachian architecture, Darius knew he was in for a fascinating adventure.
Learning Romanian seemed easy to Darius after having spent seven years studying French and two years Russian, but remained a “source of grief.” While the French congratulated him when he spoke French to them, even though he made mistakes, punctilious Romanians made sure to correct him or switched to English every time he made errors. Darius understood first hand that education socialist style was not the feel good, let-me-give-you-a-trophy-for-trying American style education, but it was based strictly on merit and achievement, impatient, you can either do it or you don’t, and much too harsh for westerners.
He met Romanians who lectured him on how Romanian is a Latin language and he should not make certain mistakes. There was so much pride in their language that a Westerner could easily mistake good intentions of perfection for arrogance.
But Romanians are friendly, warm, and kind, ready to offer comfort to someone in need, and very forgiving. Darius discovered that “Romanians truly appreciated the small things in life because they were not spoiled by them. They might go about their business with frowns on their faces but they will go to the moon and back for you once you become a part of their circle of loved ones.”
Small things in life were lived and appreciated more, Darius discovered. After four to five months of cold winter, when most fruits were hard to find, it was a special treat to find new potatoes in spring, cartofi noi, or late summer plums, prune.
When the snow has barely melted on the ground, it is heart-warming to celebrate “Martisor” on March 1, pinning a symbol of spring tied with a red and white string on a favorite girl’s lapel.
He quickly discovered that Romania is a “bureaucratic paradise” and cultural rules of etiquette are quite different. While filling out paperwork for residence permit, for school, and other documents, carrying bags and books, Darius used his foot to shut the door to the health clinic. That simple act of necessity in America earned him a rebuke from the doctor who yelled at him that he disrespected her by closing the door improperly.
Upon finishing his M.A. in July 2012, Darius was offered a job as Chief Editor for the English and French pages of “Clujul Vazut Altfel,” an NGO that promotes the cultural, historic, and touristic attractions in the region as well as the ethnographic value of Cluj County and Transylvania. The salary is nothing compared to what he could make in the United States, but his work brings him a sense of contentment not unlike the Romanian joie de vivre.
“Clujul Vazut Altfel” organizes excursions to villages and cultural sights in the surrounding areas, a wonderful educational experience worth far more than many boring days in the classroom.
Romania is a gem of history, its cultural, historical, and natural wonders are truly breathtaking. “Almost every village has its own treasures – from Roman castra found in the middle of a cow pasture and fortresses that once defended medieval Moldova from the Turks, to waterfalls with stories that have long ago passed into legend. Six years have not been long enough to discover them all – I do not think that a lifetime would suffice.”
Darius Roby’s travel blogs can be found at the following links:

Roșia Montana – Where History and Industry meet Progress and Conservation

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