Romania isn’t a country that springs to mind when you think of luxurious buildings, but, I just saw some pretty spectacular palaces there. Not old, haunted vampire castles on a mountain top, but modern buildings right next to the road. These places have actually been lingering in my thoughts for months because I saw them last November and couldn’t figure out what they were. They simply made no sense.
These buildings were lining the main street through a town, and they all seemed to be only half built. The walls were cement and not usually painted. The roofs were shiny tiles (tin?), and formed all sorts of exotic shapes. There were no windows or doors – just openings where they should be. The buildings were typically 3 or 4 stories tall, and they looked as they would be very elaborate and intricate when they are finished. Overall, they looked like the unwanted child of a drunken night between a Chinese palace and Communist Bloc apartment building.
Fortunately, the mystery was solved on my second journey past them. Who would’ve known, it is beneficial to travel with tour guides!
It’s all a result of the European Union. There are a lot of Gypsies in Romania who are, among other things, skilled tin workers. When the EU opened up the borders for employment between Germany and Romania, many of them headed off in search of work. In today’s world, there aren’t many skilled tin workers (what a shock), so they were able to earn pretty hefty paychecks.
After they worked for a while, they came back to Romania with their pockets overflowing with Euros. Naturally, they wanted to show off and compete with each other. What’s one of the classic ways to do this? Build a big, awesome house that makes all of your friends feel like they’re living in a shed.
To make things more interesting, their Gypsy creativity came in to play. They realized that the Romanian government won’t tax their houses until they’re complete. I’m sure some fiddles played the night the first guy realized this! They can build these giant houses, and only finish a few rooms to live in. This leaves the rest of the building “under construction”, and the taxes are non-existant.
Pretty clever, really. I’m impressed.
The bad news is that I didn’t get to go inside any of them. The good news is that I finished out the day with a Hungarian feast and traditional folk dancing. Our group was split up between an assortment of Hungarian homes, but we had our dinner together in a barn turned meeting hall.
The food was delicious, filling, and it kept coming. It started with a vegetable soup, then moved on to Pörkölt and side dishes, and ended with a delicious desert of my beloved Kürtőskalács. Obviously, pálinka and beer flowed along with the meal.
While eating, we were being serenaded by two Gypsy musicians. For anyone who doesn’t know much about Gypsies, let me give a little background. They’re a race of people with a culture that has very strong traditions. Some of these traditions include living nomadically to never really settle in one place, and playing lots of music. They’re very well known as good musicians, so it’s always enjoyable when they’re playing for you. The down side is that they’re also well known for thievery and breaking the law.
Now that you have a one-paragraph education on all things Gypsy, their strange houses should make more sense and you can understand why I was happy to hear them play while I ate. One was playing a violin, and the other an accordion. The violinist is supposedly known around the world, and he has been invited to play in a bunch of far away countries (not just Europe, but other continents too). Even though they were both wearing traditional clothing, the violinists short sleeve shirt showed his forearm tattoo that said “DEATH”. I bet that was a big hit in a high-class Japanese concert hall.
There was another group sharing the barn with us, and they were very interesting. They arrived a few minutes after us and asked for a moment of silence so they could say a prayer before their meal. It turns out they were from a local church and a Dutch church that had formed some sort of partnership. Therefore, the Hungarians were showing the Dutch people around and giving them a taste of their culture. The funniest part was that they didn’t seem to be the type of people who drink a lot of alcohol, so the pálinka and beer was starting to take effect. They were getting more and more into the music, and they even started singing their own words along with it. I thoroughly enjoyed the comedy of it all.
Just when we thought the dinner was over, we were about to leave. I opened the door of the barn and found myself face to face with four Hungarian teenagers who looked as though they were in the year 1400. My watch confirmed it was still 2011, so I headed back in to find out why they were there.
It turns out that these kids were going to show us some traditional clothes and folk dances. Our host explained (through our tour guide translators) the different pieces of clothing that they were wearing and what the purpose was. I was very impressed to learn that some of it was over 100 years old and they work very hard to keep it in good condition. An awkward turn was taken when it started to feel like the kids were cows being sold at auction. Oh well, the clothes were very nice.
Finally, the Gypsies played and the Hungarians danced. They showed us multiple different types of dances, and they had clearly practiced them a lot.
When they asked for volunteers to try the dances with them, I couldn’t resist. My buddy took control and restricted his dance partner to a very slow pace while he practiced his Hungarian. I, on the other hand, went for the full Transylvanian dancing experience. After I didn’t understand the word for “you’re a horrible dancer”, she tried a different approach.
Here are the instructions for the dance move that nearly killed me:
1. Clutch on to your dance partner so they have no chance to escape.
2. Forget trying to dance, simply sprint in a circle for a minimum of one minute.
3. Slow to a normal dance speed and style for about 20 seconds to watch the other person try to remain standing.
4. Repeat until the Gypsy song is over.
I survived and I looked awesome doing it. I can say that because I’m pretty sure no one took any pictures of me. But, I decided not to make that girl my future wife. Although she was pretty, she seemed to have a strong desire to end my life.
Mysterious palace mystery solved, another dance move to my repertoire, and one less girl I hope to marry. I’d call that a success.
Hungarian word of the day:
Pronounced “TSEE-gaahhh-nye”, and it means Gypsy. I don’t know how to say “tax evasion”.