We spent a total of 34 days in Romania. I have been referring to our time in Romania as a pilgrimage because it very much felt like one, retracing the history of my family. The greatest gift was sitting down for a meal with my relatives, hearing their accounts of the people and places my parents mentioned to us kids over the years. After each conversation I think we all felt a new sense of closeness, which we never had the luxury to develop due to the distance in between us. Each person we visited felt compelled to entertain us but we profusely reminded them we came only for the opportunity to know them. Despite our insisting they graciously drove us around, fed us, and showed us the highlights of their towns.
In my previous post I introduced Aunt Marica and Uncle Vasile. The two of them own a hotel in a tiny town called Geoagiu Bai–the drive takes approximately one hour from Sibiu. The town is known for having hotels which provide medical spa treatments, and they target retirees. People receiving a pension can apply and receive a stipend from the government to stay at one of the hotels for a total of two weeks out of the year. The government pays for their room and board, a selection of treatments, and three meals a day. Some services include laser and magnet therapy, thermal pools and paraffin wax.
I did not know what to expect when we agreed to go to Geoagiu Bai with my aunt and uncle for a week but it was memorable to say the least. We were the youngest staying at the hotel by about 40 years and it felt at times like we might “catch” getting old just from vacationing with the elderly. Geoagiu Bai is home to about 5,000 residents, and I would not describe it as the most bustling or exciting place. Despite this we found ways to stay occupied, and I really enjoyed the time I spent talking with the guests and hotel staff.
My aunt is head nurse at Hotel Vacanta (vacanta means vacation in Romanian) and oversees the treatment centers, while my uncle focuses on the business side of things. We arrived at Hotel Vacanta on intake day, when large groups of clients check-in and receive their treatment schedules for the week. Each client gets their blood pressure checked upon arrival, and I was able to help my aunt take blood pressures while she filled out their paperwork. Being a pediatric nurse it felt strange to take vitals on the elderly but I will say they are much more cooperative than kids. One of the clients was an older woman who rushed into the exam room explaining to me her blood pressure would probably be elevated because someone in the hall had terrible body odor and the smell was impacting her. Sure enough her pressure was elevated and we laughed. I read off the numbers to my aunt for each pressure, such as 133/90. She would respond with, “Okay, so 13 and 9”. I was confused by her response and learned in Romania they typically only record the first numbers of the systolic and diastolic.
We stayed in a room at the hotel while my aunt and uncle stayed at their apartment down the road. One of the days my aunt and I walked to her garden, located a mile away from her apartment. She mentioned even after a long day at work, poking around in her garden replenishes her energy. Her attitude toward gardening is foreign to me, as I am not even successful keeping our house plants alive. I loved watching her in her element and tasting the fruits she was growing. One of the fruits I had never tried before, a pawpaw. It reminded me of a mango because of its texture and and deliciously sweet taste. Eating one requires some effort due to the peel and many seeds but it is totally worth it.
Adjacent to the hotel we spotted this man smoking eggplant. Some of my favorite Romanian foods are the eggplant spreads, and smoking the eggplant gives them their signature taste. The man’s wife was helping him nearby, and mentioned they were preparing for canning season.
Other excitement for the week included a locally popular comedian, performing in the hotel dining area. The comedian was charismatic and full of energy. The morning of the show I ran into him at the hotel’s cafe, where we ended up having our coffee together. Before I sat down to chat with him he jokingly asked if my husband was a jealous man. I laughed and reassured him my husband would not feel threatened if he found us talking.
After being with Vasile and Marica for a long stretch it was emotional saying goodbye. They showered us with so much love and hospitality it was hard to leave. We left Geoagiu Bai and headed to Sebes with my dad’s youngest sister, Tinuca.
Sebes is the town where my dad grew up, and the place my grandparents lived until they passed away. The home where my grandparents spent the final years of their life is still intact in and in the family’s possession. It was surreal to see the home and to visit the cemetery where they are both buried. The two of them made a trip to America when I was a toddler but unfortunately my memories cannot be traced that far back. Being immersed in what was once their world was a difficult experience–it is hard to consider and accept I never really knew them.
My aunt Tinuca, her husband and one of their three children live in Sebes. Just like Marica, Tinuca has a green thumb. While strolling through her garden, my uncle told me he was going to let me try the best apple of my life. I thought he was likely overreaching with his comment but he proved me wrong, and I bit into what was in fact the best apple of my life. In the photo below you will see the apple is red inside! It was such a fun surprise. My uncle received the tree as a gift from his friend in Switzerland who engineered the apple.
You don’t have to drive far outside of the Sebes city center to find the more rural areas. We did a short hike with my aunt and uncle in the countryside to see their friend’s rustic home. When we reached the home my aunt immediately pointed out he was not there, evidenced by the stick left in the front door. She explained people living in the country do this when they leave to signal their absence.
The property is perched up on a hill, and lacks running water and electricity.
My aunt and uncle described the owner as a man who lives very simply, and he primarily survives off the resources from his garden and animals.
We spent a long weekend in Sebes then headed north toward our final destination in Romania, Cluj.
My cousin Andy and his sister Anna both live in Cluj (they are Aunt Tinuca’s kids). Anna was born a few months after me, and we both happened to be born in Germany. I always assumed my life would look dramatically different than the lives of my cousins who grew up in Romania. I guess I had no reason to believe this, other than knowing they had some disadvantages growing up in the aftermath of a communist revolution. Tuns out we are quite similar. Anna made the same observation before I mentioned my thoughts to her. We were born in the same country, raised on separate continents, and yet the result is two lives which mirror one another.
Anna and I did not spend as much time together as I had hoped because soon after we arrived in Cluj she took off for Cyprus. I had not really heard of Cyprus before nor did I know where it was located. We had not solidified any plans to follow Cluj, so after hearing Anna rave about Cyprus we decided to make it our next stop. Even if maintaining flexible travel plans is stressful at times, this was a good example of why it can be beneficial. More on Cyprus during my next post.
Cluj is a really great city and it has all the amenities you need. It is the second largest in Romania, following Bucharest. While we were there we experienced a free concert in downtown and the Cluj street food fair. The fair was a collection of food carts surrounding the arena, doing their best to showcase bites from all over the world. I would avoid ordering nachos in Romania because they do not taste anything like the nachos we eat in North America. The “tortilla” chips tasted like a bad Dorito, and red bell peppers were used in place of salsa. I probably should have seen that one coming.
Overall the city has an extremely youthful vibe, and it can be attributed to the many universities in Cluj. Everyone we encountered was significantly more warm and friendly than those in Bucharest.
Close to our apartment I found a gym which offered cycle classes, and I was happy to be back on a spin bike. The pedals required some getting used to since they do not use clip-ins. The first time I attended the class I walked right in with the Nikes I wore into the gym. The second time I attended I was stopped by the front desk gal who asked if I brought gym shoes. I lifted up my foot to her and showed her my running shoes. She said, “Yes, I see you have shoes on but you cannot wear the same shoes inside the gym you wore outside. We just cleaned the floors so I cannot allow you to go inside.” I stared at her, offered to wipe the soles of my shoes, and she still would not let me in. Finally, she came up with a solution… All I wanted was to blend in, and blending in was not going to be an option that day.
Below are a few photos and glimpses into what we did over the two weeks in Cluj.
Just 45 minutes out of Cluj is Turda, where we did a hike in the gorge. It was a relatively easy hike with rewarding views.
The hiking trail did not have mile or kilometer markers. Instead, it had painted targets outlining the path.
When the two weeks was up I was ready to leave Cluj. During part of our time there the temperature dropped into the high 30s, and I was not pleased with the sudden shift in weather. I had to put on every layer of clothing I packed, and even wore the emergency beanie I brought thinking it would be unlikely I would need it.
As a whole, Romania was an incredible and unforgettable experience. I feel it was a huge success, as we connected with almost every single relative. Although many of my family members felt like strangers in the beginning, I still had the sense of being at home when I was with them. It was really helpful in getting me through the first few weeks of this trip as I was transitioning into our new adventure.
I am guessing you might be ready to see something else besides Romania. Next post I will share about Cyprus!