We arrived safe and well after our 48 hour trip to be greeted by my good Romanian freinds Beatrice and Radu who gave us a great place to stay, good food, beer, catching up on life etc. etc. This was great preparation for what was to come over the next few days.
As I mentioned previously, me and my sister Michaela were on a mission to meet up with her long lost sister Maria. As children and teenagers, Michaela and I got on really well and we had always said to each other that 'one day', we'd go to visit her birthplace of Romania.
If you don't already know, Michaela was adopted from an orphanage in Romania when we were both around the age of 3 years. Until 1989 Romania was a communist country ruled by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. During his rule he imposed harsh economic restrictions on his people causing mass poverty.
Ceausescu’s policies — including outlawing abortion and birth control and dictating that every woman bear a minimum of five children — had created a generation of children thousands of which had to be cared for in state orphanages.
Thankfully, this long time communist dictator was executed on Christmas day 1989, when Michaela was 2 years old. How festive. The outside world now began to see the first images of tens of thousands of abandoned children living in cramped, filthy institutions across the country.
Inpsired by the plight of these neglected children, my parents, along with many other parents from the UK, US and other developed countries, took to adoption to give some of these kids a new chance at life. Michaela was lucky enough to be one of those kids and to end up in a great family home with four obviously awesome brothers!
Fast forward more than 20 years, my Michaela and my Dad began making efforts to make contact with any remaining family members. Now they had only very limited information to go on, really just the name of the town and a few photographs taken at the time. So my Dad wrote a few letters and sent them off to the town, initially written in English so really we didn't hold out much hope of a reply. Later, after making some Romanian freinds, they were able to help translate some of these letters.
Eventually, we did a get a response back...a letter had found its way to a hotel owner who had heard of the family and may be able to help. Unfortunately though, communication seemed to cease up at this point, and further letters went unanswered...
It wasn't until 2013, after we'd actually decided to make the trip back to Romania that we had a massively lucky break. Maria, Michaela's living sister was connected to the internet and was able to add both of us on Facebook.
Although she spoke no English, through by using Google translate, etc. we were able to use this critical strand of communication to organise a visit to Maria and her family, with my freind Radu acting as a translator.
First thing next morning, we set off by car to make the 8 hour trip up to Campulung Moldovonesc, Northern Romania, where we had an address for Maria. The trip took a very nice scenic route through the mountains. We stopped off in a few places, including a place where we could get a good lunch of goulash and pizza, including beer and coffee for the equivalent of around £5 per person, great deal!
We also stopped off in the spring water town of Borsec. This is a really beautiful place in the mountains, but with a strangely high number of abandoned buildings. There must have been 15-20 huge abandoned buildings. If you know me, you know I love to explore abandoned places and this was too good of an opportunity to miss so we spent some time going through these old falling apart buildings.
It seems that this was an old spa town. People would come here to get healed by the fresh spring water that originates here, and these buildings were initially built up to accomodate patients and tourists coming to visit the area. I guess that demand for this eventually dried up for reasons I'm not sure, but it resulted in the whole area basically being abandoned...
However, it is still the source of Borsec bottled water which you will find in shops and service stations around Romania.
On the subject of abandoned places, during our trip we also came across an old abandoned uranium mine which covered a vast area, again with several huge empty buildings and expanses of the rubble remains of the old industrial site. Of particular interest was this old mine shaft tunnel. The inscription above the tunnel read "Good Luck" and indicated that it was some kind of training mine.
After having made a large part of the journey to Maria's, we made a surprise stop at Radu's family freind Tina, who lived in a nice peaceful place in rural Romania. They were certainly very shocked to see us arrive, especially with Michaela in tow with her own surprising story about what we were up to!
We muddled through despite not knowing any Romanian and with Radu helping to translate we managed to have some good discussions. She also fed us well and gave us a place to stay which was much appreciated.
Notably, once it had got dark, we were sitting outside and we heard a tremendous screeching of tyres and a huge bang and smash...I told Radu to call the police as obviously somebody had come off the road in what sounded like a pretty serious crash...
So we rushed out over to have a look and it turned out that a car had come off the road, smashed through various fences, spun 180 degrees and landed smack bang in the middle of a big river! As we arrived, a couple of other people had also gathered and there was a guy knee deep in water, presumably the driver obviously pissed, and evidently pissed off, asking about if anybody had called anybody, who had called whom etc...
Well it turns out Radu had called the police, probably only because I asked him too, but apparantly the Romanians don't really take drink driving too seriously and this was no big issue, shouldn't meddle in these things, its just the way it is in the country etc...
Not that it made much difference in the end! Because the drunk driver (and his 3 passengers!) had been whisked away by accomplices before the police had worked up the courage to dip their toe in the water to go and inspect the wreckage! They even had the audacity to call Radu back and ask if he could check if there was anybody still in the car!
We got talking to a local that spoke some english, who asked us what we saw...he basically advised us that he should tell the police on our behalf (who were now going round interrogating people) that we have not seen or heard anything...as otherwise we could be stuck there for a few days as potential witnesses!
It turned out the driver of the car that crashed was a nephew of Tina, the person's place we were staying at! Typical country-side interrelationship situation I guess!
With that little drama over, the next morning it was time to make the remaining 1-2 hours drive or so to Maria's house in Campulung Moldovensc. We really didn't know what to expect. Our interactions up to this point had been very breif and mostly very badly translated. In addition, we had been strongly warned that this could potentially be some kind of scam, set up to try and draw in some rich westerners into paying money to a poor Romanian family that are actually of no relation at all...
Tina's house in the country. Lots of flowers and vegetables grow here
The car span off the road and landed in the middle of this river
Michaela's look of trepidation before an imminent reunion, a long time coming...
Michaela's and Maria - reunited after 23 years!
Approaching Michaela's parents old house...
Massive surprise reunion with many other long lost relatives!
Undeterred by the warnings, we continued with our mission. And thank god we did! Michaela and Maria met with an extremely emotional embrace after we'd pulled up into the courtyard of their lovely house. They welcomed us into the house and gave us some great food, as well as beer and polinka (strong romanian spirit made from plums, etc.)
We spent an hour or so catching up in general, with Radu facilitating the translation. We learnt a lot about Maria's family, exchanged some photographs that my parents had taken at the time of adoption, and generally went through everybody's background, including Vali who is Maria's husband, and their two lovely children (Michaela's niece and nephew).
Next, we were told we were going to visit Michaela's parents old house, and that we would be meeting some other people there. Now this turned out to be a monumental surprise for us...although Maria had apparantly indicated this through facebook, something must have got lost in translation as we had absolutely no idea what was about to happen!
We drove to the parents house, about 30 mins drive away from Maria's house, getting deeper and deeper into properly rural Romania. We arrived at the house, and it was extremely reassuring to see that it matched exactly some of the photographs that my mum had taken when she came to visit the family.
Interestingly, Maria also did recount to us that when my mum came to the village when she was very young, it was a fairly big event for the village, and that my mum had brought a truck load of clothes etc. to offer the family and village. My mum had previously asked us to enquire about if they had remembered this event, and it was also reassuing to know that Maria did remember it clearly, and also interesting that Maria was also nearly adopted herself.
The next thing we know, we enter the house only to meet the eldest sister, eldest brother, a sister, a nephew and his girlfreind. A big WTF moment. This was a massive shock for us as we had only actually expected to meet Maria during our trip, and it was a seriously emotional moment for everybody involved...particularly for Vasili, the eldest brother, as he was the only one that actually clearly remembered Michaela and actually visiting her while she was in the orphanage. I've had my fair share of out-there experiences, but I will never forget this moment as long as I live.
We spent a good few hours meeting and greeting everybody, and got into some really interesting discussions about Michaela's family history. A lot of this stuff is of a very personal nature so I won't go into the full details here...but it turned out that Michaela was one of 11 children in total. Her father became disabled through arthiritis, and the family were simply unable to cope with the amount of children in the conditions of poverty they were living in.
In addition to this however, before Michaela was born there were two children both of which died shortly after birth. The local social services department suggested this could potentially draw suspicion that somebody may have had a hand in their deaths, and recommended that Michaela be put into an orphanage as a result.
We also visited their parents grave, where they were both buried together. It was here we heard about a further brother who had committed suicide on finding out he was to be conscripted to the army. Because of the nature of Christianity and the crazy ways in which religion can sometimes work against humanity, this brother was not given a proper burial (suicide is a sin...). instead, he was buried on the edge of the graveyard with no gravestone and essentially disowned by the family for many years.
After a long and very emotional day, we went back to Maria and Vali's house where we were treated to an awesome dinner, including Vali's own caught fish and smoked pork. Again with Radu doing the translation, we discussed a wide range of topics, from politics, education and inequality, to hunting and trucking.
In general, I found it really interesting to see how this supposedly 'poor' family had so much good about it. They lived out in beautiful countryside, with a large house comprised of several buildings and a stables. They had lots of their own animals, for food plus dogs and cats running around, grew their own vegetables, and were able to offer amazing hospitality and great food. Their two kids (related to Michaela) seemed really well brought up and polite, were helping to get the table laid and cleared away, sitting in on our conversations etc...and to me they genuinely looked happy with their lives, not like a lot of the scoundrel kids you get in the UK!
Obviously it's not all sunshine and roses, Vali does have to work very hard in his job working for a logging company. Also, the lack of disposable income and the expense of teaching English to the kids properly is going to make it very difficult for this family to get very far out of their own town, let alone Romania.
However, the point i'm trying to make is that these people appeared overall to have more happiness and freedom than say, somebody that while earning his £50k, works 9-5 (+ endless overtime!) in a dreary office workplace, in a noisy, polluted, unfreindly city...gradually losing his freinds and his passions for anything other than money, while never even knowing who his next door neighbour is...a slave to his fancy cars and mortgage...Okay so its an extreme example, but I think I know which type of lifestyle I'd rather choose!
THE BIG REUNION!
Michaela on horseback - notice the lack of a saddle!
Radu and Michaela in front of Vali's PROPER babeque. The rack can be lowered and raised using a pulley mechanism.
Final BBQ together...lots of great food, drinks and discussion