Writing from Regal Romania

Reflections from the Habitat build and cultural activities in Romania


Friday, April 21, 2017

After about 28 long hours on the road to Romania – via car, Uber, and three flights – Weston and I arrived in Bucharest, alongside my Mom, Dad, and Alice Ann who had been on the same plane as us coming from Paris. The rest of the Habitat group had either arrived a day earlier or would be coming in the following day. We met Steffi, the Habitat Romania Host Coordinator, at the airport at mid-afternoon. She met us with a smile on her face and a friend from Habitat who would take us to our hotel in the city and get us situated. Despite having traveled so far, we were all eager to get outside and see about this new country.

Before landing in Romania we had seen fields and fields of hunter green, lime green, and canary yellow – all different agricultural plants the country grows. From above it looked like a bright-colored patchwork quilt. Now that we were on the ground, we drove by some of those fields: canola flowers were the bright yellow fields, growing at least waist-height!

We checked into the hotel that afternoon and were free until dinnertime when an optional group dinner was scheduled. Each of us went up to our rooms to clean up, take a nap, and relaxed before dinner. From our window, we had a great view of the Romanian Palace of the Parliament, a building that we’d tour the following day, and a great skyline of Bucharest.

That evening we met up with the rest of group downstairs and met Teresa and Jeni for the first time as well. They had both arrived the previous day and Jeni had spent time along the coast visiting relatives. Together we walked to the restaurant called City Cafe in the old town of Bucharest and ate our first Romanian meal of all sorts of meat, sausages, veggies, and other odds and ends (Even as a vegetarian in the country I was never left wanting; their vegetarian dishes are just as tasty as those with meat!). We even started our Romanian lessons that night and learned a few key phrases that would get us through the trip like,

Hello = bună (boo-na)

Thank you = mulţumesc (mool-tzoo-mesk)

You’re welcome = cu plăcere (Cu-pla-chair-ay)

Goodbye = la revedere or simply pa (le-re-ve-der-ay or pah)

Saturday, April 22

Today is our first full day in Bucharest! We are not yet a full team, however, because our last two members, Chandler and Dylan, arrive tonight. We ate breakfast at the hotel at our leisure and headed out to see the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum at 10:30 am. It was an expansive outdoor museum filled with original old buildings from all across Romania that had been physically moved to Bucharest. Each building and structure showed the traditional lifestyle and living situations of Romanians decades and centuries ago.


Following lunch in the old town again, we visited the Palace of the Parliament, the heaviest building the world and the second-largest administrative building after the Pentagon! It’s still in use today, so we were only able to see about 5% of the building, but what we were shown was quite impressive: massive halls with long corridors, high ceilings, dozens of chandeliers, and floor-to-ceiling windows.


After the tour, most of us were quite exhausted now that jet lag had set in, so we went back to the hotel to relax for a bit. My Mom and Weston and I went to the park nearby the hotel to sit in the sunshine and read our books. The group reconvened in the early evening and walked around Revolutionary Square seeing the main landmarks with Steffi as our guide.

That night we ate at a restaurant near Revolutionary Square where the national director for Habitat Romania met us. We were there for several hours socializing with one another and eating our meals as they came out in stages. One thing we learned about Romania this evening, was that Romanians eat for a long, leisurely time beginning around 8 pm or later. This became the norm for the rest of our days in Romania. Towards the middle of our meal, our last two team members, Chandler and Dylan met up with us.

Sunday, April 23

Sunday was our first day on the road to Mediaș, the medieval city where the Habitat build would take place. It was about a 5-hour drive from Bucharest to Mediaș if we had gone straight there, but luckily we had a cultural activity on the way that took us through the hill-top town of Sinaia, deep in the Carpathian Mountains, to see the famed Peleș Castle, sitting amidst fog and snow that day!

The castle was commissioned by the first Romanian king, King Carol I, in 1873 and completed in 1883. It served as the summer residence for the royal family until 1947. Now the castle is a museum and one of the largest attractions in Transylvania. We took a tour of the castle for over an hour, admiring each room and standing in awe of the sheer grandeur of the building. It was easily the most elaborately decorated castle I’d  seen, even in comparison with those in England, Scotland, and France. The outside patios and terraces were guarded by numerous gargoyles and statues.

We ate lunch at a restaurant about five minutes from the castle and had traditional Romanian food. Then we hopped back on the bus and drove the rest of the way, which was a couple hours longer, to Mediaș. Once there, we had enough time to check into our hotel room, shower, and then head to the restaurant for dinner. This was the first night everyone had a taste of the infamous drink we’d been hearing about: Pálinka, Romanian plum brandy!

After the meal, Steffi gave us a rundown of the work we start the following day at one of the two sites where we’d be working. The Habitat build was about to begin!

The beautiful city of Mediaș with the church clock tower in the distance.

Monday, April 24

Today was the first of five days we’d spend on the Habitat build. Of the two sites, today we were at the build site for a new workshop for the beneficiaries of the Association Phoenix Speranta. The Association works with vulnerable youth and people with disabilities to help give them a better start in life. At the workshop, they learn practical skills that can be applied to a real-world setting and enable them to find work.

Click the photo below to watch a short video clip about the Association:

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At the build site, we were met by the Romanian construction crew with whom we’d be working over the next five days. The construction site manager, Ionuț, gave us a brief introduction to the build, what we’d be doing, and a safety demonstration before putting us to work.

There were three main tasks, or workstations, for us to help with: one outside the building cutting long boards and nailing together forms; one inside the building courtyard bending rebar; and another inside the actual building on the first and second floors taking down support poles and boards after cement had been poured for the floor.

The other construction workers had additional skilled labor tasks, like nailing the forms we had helped make into place with the rebar for support, with which we did not directly help, but with whom we interacted with and supported. Two teenage boys, Alex and Victor, who were beneficiaries of the Phoenix Association also showed up to help with the construction work.

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We had several breaks to the workday to rest, get some coffee and snacks or water, and take power naps. Lunch was provided by the hotel every day on-site and was great fuel to keep us energized for the remainder of the day. Today went particularly fast as there was a lot going on and a lot of people to meet! Conversations were a bit strained at the beginning as most of the workers didn’t speak very much English and our team didn’t speak Romanian. But over the next several days we all became quite adept as conversing with our hands, mannerisms, other languages like Spanish, and eventually resorting to Romanglish! It was a fun challenge. Tonight we ate at a local pizzeria restaurant across the square from our hotel before crashing – we were all exhausted, but happily so!

Group picture at the first Habitat build site on the first day of work.

Tuesday, April 25 

Today was Weston’s (a team member and my husband) 30th birthday! Happy Birthday! What a cool thing to have a birthday in another country! We’d planned his birthday celebration to take place the same evening as our traditional Romanian evening.

The rest of the day proceeded as the day before, with breakfast in the hotel restaurant before meeting our bus to ride to the work site and working until 5 pm or so. It was a normal construction workday at the same site we had worked at the previous day – the workshop building for the Phoenix Association. Like yesterday, Alex and Victor, the two beneficiaries of the Phoenix came to work alongside us. They were both very quiet and didn’t speak any English, so we greeted them with smiles and using the few Romanian words we knew.

Most of the team enjoyed the work we had done the previous day and wanted to continue at those workstations. A few of us, however, wanted to experience other tasks, so my mom and I switched jobs: she went to the second floor of the building and continued to pull nails out of boards being taken down from the ceiling, and I spent the day bending, twisting, and tightening rebar; a rather tedious, but important task. All along we gestured, joked, and attempted to converse with one another in any way we could!

By the end of the day, everyone had made some connections with the Romanian construction workers and we all enjoyed each other’s company and the challenge of communicating. Because it was Weston’s birthday, one of the Romanian workers, Vio, brought Weston a homebrewed gift of pálinka! It was a very kind gesture and indicated to our group that we were being accepted by them. This day we also learned a few more Romanian phrases:

Good morning = Bună dimineața (boo-na dee-mee-nya-tza)

Good afternoon = Bună ziua (boo-na zee-wa)

Good evening = Bună seara (boo-na ser-ah)

See you tomorrow = ne vedem maine (ne-va-dem mu-ee-nay)

Cheers = Noroc! (na-rock)

After a full day at the worksite, a traditional dinner was planned for us in the wine cellar of the hotel. We would have experienced the traditional dinner regardless, but since it was also Weston’s birthday, Steffi had planned for it on that day. As per usual, the courses came out in stages. First, we received various bits and pieces of Romanian cuisine, ranging from smoked pork fat and fried sausages to fresh cheese and pickled vegetables. Then we had the main entree, either a meat dish with veggies or vegetarian stuffed cabbage rolls with soya (tofu). Surprise, surprise! Then came the delicious birthday cake! The hotel had baked Weston a chocolate cherry birthday cake that was basically all eaten that night.

Prior to our dinner, we had been greeted by, entertained by, and danced with traditional Romanian dancers. A group of about 12 men and women dressed in traditional colorfully embroidered garments sang and danced to several Romanian songs. There were leg kicks, spinning circles, staccato jumps, and high-pitched calls. Then we were all taken by the hand and led to the floor where we held hands in a big circle and spun to the music until the end of the song.

LISTEN to Romanian folk songs.

WATCH a Romanian folk dance.

Wednesday, April 26 

Today was the third day of the build and we had three special activities: 1) visiting the Association Phoenix Speranta to meet some of the beneficiaries, 2) working at the second build site, which would be an apartment complex for some of the beneficiaries, and 3) going to the indoor pool at another hotel and having dinner there. We were basically free in the morning to eat breakfast at our leisure and relax. The bus met us at around 10:30 am to head to the Phoenix where we were introduced to the staff and given a brief overview of what the facility does and how their work helps the people who come there (watch the video above to learn more about the Association).

We saw several of the workshop areas where the beneficiaries learned skills that would either enable them to find future work or help them develop physical and mental skills that would enhance their lives. There was a carpentry shop, a crafts shop, a sewing shop, and a candle-making shop each led by a Phoenix staff member. The items made here are also sold to help support the Association, so many of us ended up buying bars of handmade soap, embroidered garments and bag, cards, and other little trinkets.

Eventually, we all got to spend some time with the folks there and help them make the items they were working on. Some of the group went to the carpentry shop, while the rest of us stayed in the craft area and helped make fabric butterflies.

After our visit to the Phoenix, we ate a quick lunch at the hotel restaurant and then had a bit more time to explore the town. A group of us walked to the old church and clock tower to see the building and admire the ancient baroque-style artwork and architecture. We learned there would be a choir concert the following evening, so we made a mental note to return.

At 2:30 pm, we piled on our bus and headed to the new apartment building site. It is where some the beneficiaries will live when the project is complete. It was still in its earliest stages of development since the rainy weather prevented them from laying the concrete floor and continuing the build. Now that it was drier, we’d be shoveling gravel into the floor foundations before the concrete would be poured.

We shoveled the gravel into wheelbarrows, rolled them along boards and dumped them in the quadrants, then spread the gravel out evenly in each. It was tough work, but a nice change from the work we’d been doing the past two days. In one afternoon, we basically filled the entire floor with gravel – a big success!

The second worksite that will become an apartment complex for the Phoenix beneficiaries. The bottom photo shows some of the process since the group has left.

That evening after work, the group headed to the Binder Bubi hotel. Some of us enjoyed swimming in the indoor pool, while others of us visited the hotel’s farm where they had various animals, historic buildings, and gardens where they grew a lot of their produce. We met up for dinner downstairs and enjoyed a lengthy, but tasty three-course meal – as is usual in Romania.

Thursday, April 27 

Today was the fourth day at the first worksite: the workshop for the Phoenix Association. By this point in the build everyone was switching around and doing different tasks; the rebar people helped nail together forms, the form people helped take down support poles, and the support pole people helped twist together rebar. Along the way, other odd-end jobs also appeared, so whenever someone became tired of the job they were doing they found something else to do.

We had managed to take down most of the support poles and boards from the second and first floors of the building, so now we had amassed a pile of 2 x 4s! These boards were literally tossed out of the open windows on the second floor and neatly piled together outside the building on the first. Since these boards were only used to support the weight of the concrete ceiling as it was being poured, now that the ceiling was dry and they’d been removed, they’d be reused and nailed together as forms. Recycling at its finest!

The church with the clock tower in Medias where the choir concert was held.

After the workday ended, we went back to the hotel to clean up. Some of us stayed at the hotel to relax, read, or catch up with family members, while another group of us headed back to the church we’d visited two days earlier for the choir concert. The church was bone-chilling cold inside although it was warm outside. The lights were dimmed and the whole place made us feel like we had jumped back in time several centuries. The music was performed by a Dutch choir group touring around Romania, so they sang mostly in French, German, or Dutch. But the music was beautiful to hear in such an elegant space.

Tonight we ate at another hotel in the area that was supposed to have very good food. While we did enjoy our food once it got to us, we waited around two hours before the food was served! For some reason, the service was so painfully slow this night that it made the other meals in Romania seem fast!

Friday, April 28 

It was our last Habitat work day today. We made some incredible progress from the first day – it looks entirely different than when we arrived. Ionuț said we replaced at least five professional constructions workers in terms of how much we accomplished 😉

By this point, we’d really connected with each other and the Romanians. We all enjoyed each other’s company and our group was indebted to the generosity, patience, and hospitality of the Romanian staff. Each person had instructed our work at the beginning and then gave us enough freedom to learn along the way and enjoy what we were doing. It was bittersweet to end the build before the project was complete, but Ionuț and Steffi said they’d send us updates on how the progress was going so eventually we could see the finished product.

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At around 4:30 pm, we had a cookout together. It was a great way to end the work week and simply visit with the people with whom we’d made connections. Even some of the men we had barely spoken with during the build started to converse with us as best they could. After dinner, Steffi handed out certificates of appreciation to everyone including the construction staff. We spent some time signing the back of each other’s certificate so we could remember the names of those we’d worked with. Before we left, a meeting time was set up to go out that evening together and socialize!

The whole gang, our American and Romanian crew! From left to right, top to bottom: Ionuț, Weston, Vio, Haley, Jeni, Jeff, Teresa, Alice Ann, Dylan, Vasile, Andre, Marinel, Toby, Bogdan, Oly, Chandler, Gala, and Bebe.

At around 10 pm, our group met up with most of the men from the construction site at a cafe for drinks and to hang out. We found a club in town where retro music was playing that night, so a group of us decided to go for the music and dancing. There weren’t many people at the club when we arrived. We learned that most Romanians go out around 1 or 2 am and then stay out until 5 or 6 in the morning! So I guess we were a little early… But we enjoyed ourselves and were glad to have the opportunity to bond with some of the men from the site in a casual, non-work setting.

Saturday, April 29 

Today we leave Mediaș and head to the big city of Brașov, a populous city with a big cultural center in heart of the Transylvania. After breakfast at the hotel, we headed out and stopped along the way at three historic sites before arriving in Brașov: Biertan fortified church, Rupea citadel, and Sighisoara citadel.

The first was Biertan, a colorful UNESCO World Heritage Site with an impressive fortified church. The village was on the outside of the church rather than on the inside as it is for citadels. It sat up high on a hill overlooking the village and surrounding area. We walked up a long covered wooden-staired passageway to get inside the church walls and came out into a green yard in front of the church and several other small buildings. The church dates from the 1300s. We were also able to get a great view of the surrounding village from the church walls.


Rupea citadel, overlooking the town of Rupea below.

Next was Rupea citadel, which was built sometime around 1324 AD. We spotted it at least a couple of miles away, high on the hilltop in the village of Rupea. The main road curved around the citadel so you could essentially see it from all sides. This was the only citadel we saw that lay in ruins. It reminded me of the stone castle ruins of Scotland and England. There were only a few places where you could go inside some of the rooms, the rest of the citadel was wide open. Once at the top, we peered over the stone walls to the town below. It was raining during this visit, so it felt like a mysterious site.

From Rupea it was a relatively short drive to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sighisoara, a beautifully maintained medieval citadel from the 12th century that looks like something out of a Disney movie! Most of the buildings are over 300 hundred years old and have been maintained in their original shapes and sizes. The city is also the birthplace of Vlad Țepeș the Impaler, who inspired the Count Dracula stories. 

After a quick lunch in the town, we had an hour-long tour of the city on foot and got see all the old historic buildings inside the citadel walls, as well as hear stories from centuries past about life in the citadel. My favorite story was about the Pied Piper: the legend goes that when the Pied Piper took the children away from the German town because of their failure to repay him for ridding the city of mice, they disappeared into a cave only to magically reappear in Romania! One of the buildings in Sighisoara had a weather vane in the shape of the Pied Piper, a tribute to that story.

The city of Sighisoara. Clockwise from top left: clocktower and original citadel wall; the Pied Piper weather vane on top of a historic building; our group tour in the cemetery; sculpture of Vlad Țepeș the Impaler, AKA Dracula, who apparently was born in Sighisoara and was the ruler of the province from 1456 to 1462; panoramic view of the city outside the citadel walls.

We also hiked up 170 or so stairs through another covered wooden passageway up to the citadel’s fortified church. There we saw the exterior of the church, the rope-makers guild building, and a large ancient cemetery built on hillsides and terraces. We walked down through the cemetery and back around the citadel from another side, completing our tour. Of all the cultural sites we saw, Sighisoara was my favorite. The city itself was clean, brightly colored, elaborated decorated, and surrounded by green rolling hills. The clock tower in the city could be seen from anywhere in town and from out on the road as well.

On to Brașov! It was bustling when we arrived. It was a festival weekend, so there were tourists from all corners of Romania and Europe, in addition to the locals. Our hotel was right in council square surrounded by quaint cafes and boutique shops. There was no access for cars, so we had to roll our bags along the cobblestone roads to get there. The view of the hotel looked out over the car-less streets and we could observe the people below enjoying their food and wine on the outside patios. In the distance, the lush green and foggy Carpathian mountains rose up. Giant letters that spelled out “BRASOV” were lit at night at the top of the mountain overlooking the city.

The city of Brașov. Clockwise from top left: the Black Church, the largest church in Romania and named so for the 1689 fire it survived; a main street in Brașov; enjoying wine in council square; panoramic view of council square during the festival weekend.

In all the bustle, we found one cafe with an open table in the main square and grabbed it. After ordering, however, it started to rain so once we got our food we took it inside the hotel to eat. The festival was going on for the whole weekend so vendor stalls were set up around the perimeter of council square and a stage was set up where local music artists were playing. That night we walked around the area and listened to the music while eating ice cream and enjoyed the cool evening breeze.

Sunday, April 30 

Today is our final day with the group! It’s hard to believe that 10 days have gone so quickly. Chandler and Dylan left early this morning to head back to Bucharest and fly home, so we’re two-down for today’s activities of watching the “Youth of Brașov” (Junii Brasovului) parade and visiting Bran Castle, AKA Dracula’s Castle.

The youth parade is a very old tradition with roots in the pre-Christian era. It has been celebrated in Brașov every year on the first Sunday after Easter since 1910. Groups of riders parade through the center of the city, celebrating the arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature. The parade symbolizes the right earned by the young men in the Middle Ages to enter the Brașov Fortress on horseback once a year.

The parade came through the main square of Brașov, right outside our hotel, so we lined up along with hundreds of other people to watch. The military came through first sounding trumpets followed by a whole entourage of colorfully dressed men on horseback. The horses and their riders were wearing traditional costumes from various points in history. Every so often the riders would shout out “Hristos a înviat!”, meaning “Jesus has resurrected!” The crowd answered with “Adevărat a înviat!”, which meant “Indeed He has resurrected!” 


Next, it was on to the town of Bran to see Bran Castle also known as Dracula’s castle. There is no evidence that Dracula, a man actually named Vlad Țepeș the Impaler, ever lived there. Historically, he was never even considered a vampire until the book Dracula by Bram Stoker was published in 1897, which was inspired by both Vlad and the castle. The fortress was built in 1211 AD by Teutonic Knights as a gift to the then Hungarian King, King Andrew II, to act the defensive southern border of Transylvania. The castle as it stands today was built in 1377 AD. It eventually became the summer residence of Romania Queen Maria. 

When we arrived, the streets were filled with people because it was a holiday weekend. We explored a little town, looked at some of the shops and bought cheese rounds, and eventually got in line for the ticket office. People kept cutting in line from every direction to avoid waiting. Our group tried to hold our ground, but it was difficult when the hoards pushed through in packs. We waited in line for over an hour before we got our tickets and made it up to the castle, but I still think it was worth the wait.

The chilly, foggy day created the perfect ambiance to see Dracula’s castle! The castle was beautiful: up high on a rocky peak overlooking the small village of Bran. It had ornately decorated rooms, small twisting passageways, spiral stone staircases, a large courtyard in the middle, and a dungeon on the northern side of the castle.

After the tour, we had to say goodbye to Jeni, Alice Ann, and Steffi. They’d be heading back to Bucharest later that day, while the rest of us would head back to Brașov. Dinner that night was our last night together before parting ways and continuing with our trip either further around Romania or back home. 


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