Language tells us what a culture values. While living and working in Romania in August, I continually heard words related to family, religion, formality, and good health. I discovered a way of life that is as simple in style as it is rich in relationships. Here are a few words that I consider keys to unlocking an understanding of Romanian culture.
This can mean table or meal, as both together are a central gathering place for families. Lunch is the main masă of the day, always consisting of a soup followed by a main course. Dinner is usually late – around 8 p.m. – so a late afternoon snack is typical. A short prayer is said while standing around the table before meals at home. When I worked at the school, the children also followed this custom as though they were at home while gathering around long lunch tables. We ate from clay bowls that had been formed on the pottery wheel and painted by the children during previous school years.
Amen. Religion is also a focal point in the lives of Romanian people, the majority of whom are Eastern Orthodox. Families and neighbors gather at churches for regular Sunday masses, visit churches on Saturdays to pray for departed loved ones, fast during numerous times of the year, and celebrate life events together. I was invited to attend part of a church service (regular Sunday services are around three hours in their entirety) and found it very interesting. During parts of the mass, the priest disappears behind a partition covering an area behind the altar. There are a few chairs lining the walls but the majority of the congregation stands for the entire mass. Dress is very modest and most women cover their heads with a scarf.
A while after I had found a spot to stand, off to the side and not too close to the front, a gentleman nudged me to move because I was standing in front of an area the priest was about to walk to. I moved over accordingly and then, as I looked around, realized that all of the other women were standing on the other side of the aisle and I had been standing the whole time on a side with only men. Not all Romanian churches are divided by gender, but it appeared to be an unspoken rule in this one. I sidled across the aisle when the priest was passing back up again.
Mrs. or Ma’am/Mr. or Sir. Titles are used regularly as a sign of respect, often with first names. I noticed even people who had known each other a long time tended to use titles and formal language, particularly those who worked together. Children always used titles with adults outside of their families. For the time that I taught English, I became known as Doamna Nina by children and adults alike. Sometimes the children referred to me in English as “Miss.” I felt a little like an old schoolmarm with these titles, fitting perfectly in my classroom filled with old-fashioned long wooden desks and benches.
Polenta (cooked cornmeal, if you’re not familiar with it) is a very typical side dish or dinner in Romania, where it is often flavored with butter or goat’s or sheep’s cheese. In general, Romanian food tends to be very simple and made from fresh ingredients: stewed meats, tomatoes, peppers, olives and lemons, honey, bread, etc. One of my favorite typical dishes was Ardei Umpluti: bell peppers stuffed with a mixture of rice, ground pork, onions and seasonings baked in the oven.
Cheers, good luck or good health. You can say it when you toast before having a drink, when someone sneezes, or just to wish someone well. Some time after explaining to someone that we say “bless you” in English after a sneeze, I clinked glasses with “Noroc!” and heard the same person proudly remember “Bless you!” I laughed and explained that we instead say “Cheers” as a toast. Noroc conveys good wishes in a variety of contexts, and for its multipurpose use, I consider it one of the most important Romanian words.