Wallachia (an expedition diary)

Wallachia (up to 1917 - Expedition diary, by Johannes Franze)


Johannes Franze's diary
(January 6, 1917)

  Romania is the land of geographical, economic, regional, historical and ethnological contrasts: the snow-covered Carpathians and the vast, infinite plains of Wallachia, the wealth of the Bucharest magnates and the oppressive poverty of the peasants, large landowners on the one hand and serfdom on the other hand, the swift, almost American-looking smear of the country next to the ancient primitiveness of the business, the most diverse peoples, characters, opinions side by side, these are the characteristic features of the country between the Danube and Transylvania.

Romanian shepherd on the Jiu (river)Romanian shepherd on the Jiu (river)
Copyright by the Leipzig press office, Expedition 1916

The traveler, who takes the train from the Transylvanian highlands down to the sun-drenched Wallachian plain and hurries past endless corn and grain fields for hours, senses the wealth that wells up from the soil of Romania, but he only really sees it when he sees that splendid palaces of the rich Boiars, the ostentatious luxury of the grain brokers in Bucharest.

The peasants who came into town in their lousy sheepskins gaze with open mouths at the wealth of the "noble" world, the luxury in clothing and wellbeing, the cutting edge of the fast vehicles that drive through the streets in endless numbers. Contemptuous looks, foul language and kicks make their curiosity worthwhile. This gives the stranger the social image of the country at first glance. On the one hand there are the rich boyars, whose money flows into their pockets by themselves, on the other hand the caste of the possessed helots without rights, who hardly call the doublet on their body their property. These opposites stand side by side with cruel severity, the real middle class is missing.

Romania's land is almost entirely divided between a few lineage who run the government control in an almost oligarchic form. They themselves form the majority in Parliament and made the law that forbids anyone else, especially the Jews, to acquire property.

The farmer sits as a dependent slave with no freedom of movement on the clod that belongs to the foreign master. He rarely gets to see him; he appears to him like a god who is angry and frightening, demanding his interest. Because everything the farmer harvests on the land allotted to him, goes to the master, he does nothing for himself. No meat for his table; he feeds poorly on „mămăligă‟ (corn porridge), bread, cheese, and onions. No benefit of his own promotes his love for the ground on which his hut stands; as soon as the seed is in the furrow, he lazily lounges around in the sun, because the pure, only roughly plowed soil gives rich blessings by itself year after year, without fertilizer, without work, without care; it is pure overexploitation on the American model. Therefore, the farmer hardly ever plants any vegetables, few fruit, for which the most brilliant conditions would be given, at most wine in some areas; he does not make sufficient use of the land for cattle and horse breeding; yes, huge areas lie boggy and fallow, from which millions could be won. So it happened that in this land of the most excellent soil conditions, the conceivably favorable climate during the war, the vegetables became increasingly scarce and expensive, because the hard-working Serbs and Bulgarians who had hitherto cultivated it remained away; even the meat was running out in the capital!

Apart from the lack of a share in their own land, it is probably the sinister illiteracy that makes such neglect explainable: 60 to 80 percent of the illiterate in the country do not know what to do with modern forms of cultivation.

This strengthens the power of the lord before whom the peasant trembles; it receives every stranger with dog-like submission.

His life is monotonous; In the summer he sits lazily in front of his self-made hut, which usually consists of a wooden frame interwoven with willow, which is then smeared with clay and whitened; The decayed wood in front of the front wall, which supports the maize straw roof, is characteristic. The cold Romanian winter often buries the house up to the roof in snow. The interior is very poorly furnished but mostly clean: an furnace, a sleeping bench, some pillows with national embroidery for wealthy farmers. The farmer keeps the maize in barns and wicker braided baskets, his cattle in the meager, muddy stable.

One of the characteristic corn silos in WallachiaOne of the characteristic corn silos in Wallachia
Recordings from the Leipzig press office, Expedition 1916

On Sundays he goes to the „cârciumă‟ (tavern), drinks his wine and lets the gypsies play him on „țambal‟ (cimbalom) and violin; the youth dance the „hora‟, the national dance. In winter he stay in his hut and wintering falling asleep. Only in certain areas can you still see the old Romanian costume still pure and unalterated, white, colorfully embroidered shirt, tight-fitting pants, ribbon shoes („opinci‟) and the men's pointed Wallachian lambskin hats, women's beaded skirts and brightly colored blouses. Just as the old Romanian thatched roof is being repressed more and more today by sheet iron, so the ancient costumes are gradually giving way to modern kitsch.

Romanian boy in the old folk costumeRomanian boy in the old folk costume

Romanian men and women in the old folk costumeRomanian men and women in the old folk costume
Recordings of the author

The whole wide plain of Wallachia has been a transit country for the peoples of Asia and Europe since ancient times. Even today the population is colorful enough. The national core of the people, who have best preserved Romanian character, sits in the mountains; In the Wallachian Plain, rows of neighboring peoples and remnants of all the tribes that once passed here have merged with the Romanians.

So you come across villages south of Bucharest, that show Bulgarian influences in their strikingly clean construction, their more careful cultivation of the fields and in the stature and face of the residents.

And everywhere there is an element which seems to encompass all races of Europe and yet stands out as a unified, closed class: the gypsies. So far I have only managed to classify them according to their type of occupation, not according to their race and language. The most advanced have become completely sedate and have merged into the class of the Romanian peasants, they have adapted themselves to agriculture, house building, clothing, but their strangeness is clearly evident in the brown-black face, which often reminded me of Fellachians. Another class are the artisan gypsies, who are still semi-nomadic and roam the towns and villages as locksmiths, tinkers, wire weavers and so on; The wandering gypsies, who still live completely without a permanent home, reflect the adventurous nature of their tribe in the purest way: homeless and restless. The origin of all three classes is utterly obscure, perhaps they are remnants of various races and peoples; probably part of the proletariat, the decrepit ones, absorbed in it. There are still real nomads too.

Gypsy camp in WallachiaGypsy camp in Wallachia

Every now and then you meet a „cioban‟ (shepherd) who goes with his flock from the Carpathians through Wallachia to sell the wool of his sheeps in the cities. He belongs to a class that is dying out, pointing back to the distant past, when the masses were still in the rate of flow.

Buffalo herd in the wallowBuffalo herd in the wallow
Recordings from the Leipzig press office, Expedition 1916

There are other stone witnesses to this displacement of peoples on the Wallachian plain: the monasteries. They too show the most diverse styles and national characteristics. Near Bucharest is the baroque ruined monastery of Plumbuita, to the northwest, close to Chitila, the peculiar, dilapidated rotunda of the monastery church of Doamna Chiajna, reminiscent of the grave of Caecilia Metella. The current Romanian monasteries have their own style, especially the majestic male monastery Cernica, which is enthroned on a hill east of Bucharest and consists of two parts with strange bell towers, the long stretched out women's convent Pasărea, the lovely Țigănești, where the nuns make the famous Romanian embroidery and the crescent moon still flashes on the towers under the cross, as the remainder of the long Turkish rule; the famous Snagov and in the midst of these Romanian foundations the Bălteni (18th century), built in the purest Serbian style, today an abandoned ruin.

Here, too, the opposite is characteristic; even the present makes a contribution; because today eight nations are fighting on the old battlefields of Romania for a new Europe: Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Turks, Romanians, Russians and Serbs. This is also a symbol of the peculiar importance of Wallachia.

What's Your Reaction?