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Saturday, 11 August, 2001, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
Romania struggles to escape past
Romanian women
Romania faces a difficult and uncertain future
By Jonathan Fryer in northern Romania

Firmly at the back of the queue of the dozen or so countries aspiring to join the European Union, Romania is undergoing considerable economic and social upheaval as it makes the often painful transition to a Westernised, market economy.

In the remote region of Southern Bucovina, on the border of Ukraine, the ladies wear black.

Squat widows in mourning, with haunches as wide as snowploughs, stand in the road, hands on hips, defying any passing vehicle to knock them over.

Tall, slim nuns in pillbox hats, headscarves and floor-length robes silently tend the monasteries that have in recent years been allowed to reopen for normal business.

'A plethora of youngsters'

In the main street of the sleepy town of Campulung Moldovenesc, teenage girls in micro-skirts and hot-pants, that stop just millimetres short of indecency, sashay along on platform heels - a few of them holding mobile phones aloft like trophies.

Former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu
Nicolae Ceaucescu ruled Romania with an iron fist

Unlike many rural areas of Europe, this remote area of northern Romania has not been drained of its young people.

As the late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu urged every Romanian woman to have at least five children, there's now a plethora of youngsters, looking for something to do.

Not that Campulung has much to offer. The town's main claim to fame is its wooden spoon museum, a modest villa where all the walls and even the upstairs windows are festooned with thousands of wooden spoons: kitchen spoons, love-spoons, even jewellery made out of spoons.

But once one has seen it, there's not much incentive to go back. The custodian tends to lock up and disappear for hours - and one can't really blame him.

The hub of activity in this little community is the internet cafe on the main square, a tiny establishment in what looks like a converted cake-shop.

Internet age

Inside, hunched over the six or seven computer terminals that are plugged in 24 hours a day, sits the more affluent section of the town's teenagers, who can afford the 30 US cents an hour charge.

Romanian man smoking
Smoking: A national pastime in Romania

I was heartened to think that even in this backwater, globalisation has meant that people can have access to information from the outside world.

But when I looked sneakily at which sites people had logged on to, they were all hooked up to a local chat-line, swapping daring suggestions with strangers.

Every so often, there would be an explosion of mirth from one of the girls, as she shrieked at the audacity of her online beau.

Then she would stagger outside, still giggling, and light up a cigarette. Seemingly, Romanians have to smoke at least one every 10 minutes, otherwise they can't breathe.

Monasteries opened

In fact, the celebrated painted churches in the monasteries around Campulung are about the only smoke-free zone in Southern Bukovina.

During the worst period of the Ceaucescu years political and religious activists were subjected to modern forms of barbarity

A decade ago, they were usually empty, save for the odd courageous tourist. But now big groups of locals go to stare in wonder at the cartoon-like fresco illustrations of biblical stories.

At Humor Monastery, a short drive from Campulung, the paintings graphically depict the travails of Christian martyrs: hung, drawn, quartered, burnt, butchered, blinded - a blood-curdling litany of suffering.

Numbed, today's visitors gawp. And for some of them, the scenes awaken horrible memories.

For during the worst period of the Ceaucescu years, in several remote towns in Romania, political and religious activists were subjected to modern forms of barbarity.

In one notorious prison, students were tortured for days on end, the only way of winning a reprieve being to agree to torture others.

Modern suffering

By comparison, today's suffering is much more banal. But it's not hard to find.

Many people are too proud to seek handouts, and trudge the streets trying to sell their meagre possessions

You see it most in the faces of old people, who haven't got children amongst the small number of successful new entrepreneurs and criminals.

The pension they are meant to live on - often about $15 a month - is nowhere near enough. Some sit, zombie-like, at the doorways of churches, hands out, begging for alms.

But many others are too proud to seek handouts, and trudge the streets trying to sell their meagre possessions, or produce from their gardens.

One evening, as I sat with a friend on the terrace of a local cafe, an old woman sidled up to our table with a large plastic bag. She opened it and pushed it to my face, my nostrils suddenly filled with the aroma of fresh mint.

"It's wonderful in tea," she said, with the forced enthusiasm of a freelance saleswoman.

"So refreshing on a hot evening." Neither my companion nor I had any use for the mint, but he was moved by her situation and handed over a small note as a gift.

For a moment, she stared at it, without smiling. Then she muttered: "I wanted to sell the mint!"

She shuffled away, her shoulders slumped, any pretence of hope dispelled.

See also:

09 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Romania
14 Jun 01 | Europe
The candidate countries
22 Dec 99 | Europe
Romania's bloody revolution
03 Nov 99 | Iron Curtain
Wounds that refuse to heal
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