Peste Hotare, Fara Gaj

Once upon a time there was a moment when I asked myself why I was learning Romanian.

After all, where I lived (Cluj-Napoca), almost everyone spoke English. And everyone knows that, with the exception of Romania and the Republic of Moldova, the Romanian language is useless.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Since stepping across the Romanian border into Hungary, I have spoken far more Romanian than English.

Everywhere I went, I wore my “Dat Afara din Romania” (kicked out of Romania) T-shirt and I met Romanians all along the way. It’s true that very few foreigners (non-Romanians) are learning the Romanian language but there are Romanian people frickin’ everywhere in Europe.

I surfed on a crowd of Romanians who helped me all the road. As dawn broke over the Hungarian capital on my first morning in exile, I found myself at the main bus terminal, my new Romanian friend buying me a “cappuccino” from a machine. Indeed, standing as I was in Budapest, technically I would’ve never have left Hungary all since Cluj-Napoca (aka Koloszvar) had been inside the Kingdom of Hungary’s domain less than a hundred years ago. Interesting to think about as I gratefully sipped on my coffee.

I stayed at a Romanian friend’s house in Budapest where he asked me to speak Romanian (and not English!) to his children so they would remain conversant with their father’s native language. It was me “DJing” for the children with YouTube, once again laughing as it was me (supposedly an American!) once again queuing up Multi Ani, Traiasca!

I made my way up through Austria and into Germany, asking directions, prices, advice and help from the hundreds of Romanians I met along the way. Even in the small towns I never came to the end of the Romanians. Sometimes I’d begin in English but the person would see my shirt and switch to Romanian. Ahh, so nice.

In a small German town, I came across an old granny happily basting a kurtos kalacs (traditional Hungarian “cake” that I’ve eaten 1 billion times in Romania) on the grill. What? A half ethnic “Saxon”, half Hungarian from Romania, a woman who escaped the Communist regime almost 40 years ago. I speak no German and my Hungarian is abysmal but together we got along quite well, she and I, entirely using the Romanian language.

Can it be? Is Romanian a more useful language throughout western Europe than English? I’d say it’s a close call so it is a good thing that I speak both :)

70 years since the defeat of fascism? Let's have a concert to celebrate!
70 years since the defeat of fascism? Let’s have a concert to celebrate!

If you start at Croatia and draw a line bearing roughly northeast, everything to the right of that line is Russian-speaking country.

Nations like Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the three Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are de facto bilingual. Russian is understood and useful in the former Yugoslavia (Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Croatia) and welcomed in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And while they much prefer English in Poland, I got by with a little Russian there as well.

Strangely enough, in Hungary I found that Russian was the go-to language (when I wasn’t speaking to ethnic Romanians). My English failed me every single time I tried it, even at the main international bus station, while Russian was useful even with younger people.

The odd man out, here, geographically speaking is, of course, Romania, where Russian is hardly spoken by anyone under the age of 70 (with the exception of the Lipoveni) and is universally hated. A friend of mine told me years ago that Romanians believe their that country is located somewhere between Italy and France, and I’m inclined to believe that’s true.

Here in Moldova, I’ve been constantly surprised by how almost all Romanian speakers are fluent in Russian but that the opposite isn’t true – many Russian speakers are monolingual.

And yet despite the fact that Romanian is the official language, I’ve had to conduct a lot of business in my pitiful Russian. It’s one thing to buy some tomatoes from an old lady at the market in Russian, it’s quite another to deal with a representative from the gas company or my landlord in that difficult (for me) language. Still though, it’s been a lot of fun, expanding my linguistic “wings” a bit.

Quem enim auctorem de illo locupletiorem Platone laudare possumus?

Almost all of the signs and labels are bilingual, which is perfect for anyone (like me!) who speaks Romanian and is trying to learn Russian. Probably the strangest find so far is just how closely many Russian words hew to Latin, sometimes far more so than Romanian (ostensibly the “most Latin” of all languages).

Any lawyer or political scholar worth his/her salt knows the Latin phrase res publica, often translated as Commonwealth or the more familiar term “republic” in English. It’s interesting that while Romanian (and other Latin languages) stick to a similar spelling (republica), it’s actually Russian that keeps the original “s” – respublika (the letter “c” doesn’t exist per se in Russian).

And an escalator is an escalator even in Russian (albeit a bit harder to decipher when it’s written ескалатор in the Cyrillic) while in Romanian it’s scara rulanta or “rolling stairs”. The Romanian term is a lot more colorful and my personal favorite, even if it is a mouthful to say.

I’ve also enjoyed some toast with honey, the latter being made from bees who gathered pollen from acacia trees. That’s salcam in Romanian but in Russian it’s akatsiya, the English and Russian coming from a Latin root for a sharp or thorny plant.

I haven’t had a chance yet to travel to every country in Europe but it seems clear to me that Russian will serve you best in the east, English in the west, and Romanian everywhere in between. Here in Moldova though, you’re better off speaking Russian than Romanian, which is about the last thing I expected.

As for using English in Moldova? Well I haven’t even tried. I’m having far too much fun without it :)

6 thoughts on “Peste Hotare, Fara Gaj

  1. It is nothing strange that the Russians are monolingual. Within CCCP/USSR, there was a law which said that the Russian-speakers do NOT have to learn the local language(Romanian, Ukrainean…etc), but the locals should speak the language of the USSR empire, meaning Russian.
    That’s why you can speak fluently Russian in the capital of Moldavia, but you can also speak Romanian, because, on the street, they speak Romanian(at least from my experience this year-2014). I listened to them chatting in Chişinău and they all spoke Romanian, but, at the same time, in a shop downtown, I met a russian-speaking client who bought what he needed in Russian(although he was Romanan, probably) and then it was me(the next client) who spoke a perfect Romanian and the vendor there switched instantly to Romanian.
    Romanian is spoken everywhere in Moldavia(not just on the streets of Chişinău), but everywhere, and even better outside of main cities, but I can say this, because I crossed the country from North to South, to Găgăuzia and more :D, every place is fascinating, therefore go to explore it on your own :D


  2. You will have fun knowing Romanian and learning Russian in Moldova. We lived there for two years and learned Romanian. We didn’t think we were doing well with the language until we traveled to Romania and could have perfect conversations! You’ve probably seen this already, but much of Moldova’s colloquial Romanian is a mix of Romanian verbs with Russian endings (or vise versa), or using words from each language in the same sentences.

    We also found it to be true about Romanian speakers being bi- or tri-lingual and Russian speakers being more likely to be mono-lingual. Strange, I think.


  3. Actually, the salcam tree is also called acat (acatz – sorry no romanian keyboard), which I’m pretty sure is related to the word agat (agatz – to hook) for obvious reasons, or maybe is the other way around? Hmmm…


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