Transylvania as Perceived by Hungary and the Rest of the World II

If anything, I associated Romania with a group of people I had nothing in common with. To them, the region we were in was the land of their ancestors, the Holy Land. To me it was a prison. I never identified as German. They couldn’t care less for America. Ironically, though, my best friend at that time was one of them. She was born in Germany, the only one of the nine girls in her family. She didn’t care for America either, but at least she didn’t hate the country as much as everyone else there did. I never asked her about Romania though, because back then, it was a country I had no attachment to. I wasn’t even into Dracula. Vampires scared me. I learned about that connection in the States, an obscure reference in one of the Sweet Valley High books we’d all pass around as kids. If I ever thought about Romania at all in terms of ethnicity, it was in connection with these ethnic Germans, who aced any math test, initially stood up to answer when whatever teacher called on them where we’d just continue slouching in our seats, rolled their Rs, frequently either had a German and an English name or a very outdated German name that seemed to have been lifted straight from Wagner, and used outdated expressions like, “ich bin erkühlt,” instead of “erkältet” when they came down with a cold (which in English would correspond to saying, “I’m down with cold” instead of, “I’m catching a cold”).

I was in my late teens when I learned more. My new best friend and clubbing buddy was tight with a pair of Romanian twins I was sure hated me, for the simple reason that I was close to their friend. She herself was local, had been for generations, with parents who hated anyone not German. At the same time we became friendly with a Hungarian couple from Budapest, at least I did. My clubbing mate thought the girl was too pretty to be her friend, as she’d always be jealous of her. Hearing them speak and watching them interact, I started remembering my own Hungarian roots. Which raised the question of where I was really from on my father’s side. Even if his heritage was so mixed, it would have made any American identify with him. And, more to the point, how my father could claim to be Hungarian when he was born in Romania.

The quick answer is, he had me extremely late in life, at an age where he practically should have been a great-grandfather, so that when he was born, the region had just ceased being Hungarian. I remembered him telling me once, when I was well in my twenties, that one of the reasons he wouldn’t go back, other than the war, was that he’d never really learned Romanian. It had never been spoken in school or at home, so what little he had learned as a child, he’d picked up on the streets. But during communism they wouldn’t believe him, they’d accuse him of pretending to be better, of putting on airs. It’s only occurring to me now, as I’m writing it down, that part of my mental block against Finnish could stem from wanting to subconsciously understand what it’s like to live in a country without speaking the official language.

Even with my new friends, the Hungarian couple, the whole thing didn’t make sense. It was only when I eventually did my degree in Hungarian, and then moved to Budapest, that I began to get a clearer understanding. And the one thing that transpired was, in Hungary, like in Germany, being from Transylvania was akin to being less than, scum of the Earth. Where Hungarians had fought valiantly and rebelled against communist forces in 1956, essentially making them heroes, Transylvania had nothing to show for its solidarity with the Motherland. Besides, the ones who did come from there were boorish peasants who spoke funny, even by Hungarian standards, and were generally considered to be dirt poor.

Now mention the fact that your father was born in Transylvania in Finland and the U.K.,as I did, and the reaction couldn’t differ more. It’s as though people forget the place is in Romania, and all they see is your association with Dracula, which, thanks to the slew of Dracula movies and revivals in the nineties, seems to have gained some (near) mythological status. I still don’t identify as having roots in Romania, but I’ve since made my peace with Dracula. But that has everything to do with Francis Ford Coppola bringing in the reincarnation angle, making it – to me at least – a story more poignant and beautiful than Romeo and Juliet. And, of course, Elizabeth Kostova’s take on it in The Historian, which to this day remains one of my favorite books, all while scaring me completely and utterly senseless.

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