Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > Seeing in the Spring with Zdob & Zdub

Seeing in the Spring with Zdob & Zdub

4 March 2002

Romania begins spring three weeks before the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, with the minor holiday of Marţişor (Martisor; that's pronounced, approximately, "Martzishor"; it's a diminutive of the Romanian name for the month of March.) Besides welcoming in the spring, it's sort of an extra round of Valentine's Day, with men giving inexpensive little presents to any number of women, typically a single flower or a pin (often with a ribbon) to go on her blouse. By the end of the day, a pretty girl is liable to be as decorated as an admiral.

Unlike Valentine's Day, Martisor doesn't seem particularly couples-centric. Giving something seems not to express intentions: for example, it is totally acceptable to give a pin or a flower to a married woman.

Like most holidays, major or minor, Martisor is a good excuse for a party. I saw in the spring at a concert by Zdob şi Zdub external link (Zdob and Zdub), probably the leading contemporary band from Moldova. I know that sounds like a joke. Moldova external link, for those who don't know, is the landlocked, largely Romanian-speaking former Soviet republic between Romania and the Ukraine. It may well be the poorest country in Europe, with a per capita income only a third that of Romania. Its neo-Stalinist government appears to be in the process of banning the Christian Democratic party. Oh, and part of it, the Russian-speaking self-declared Republic of Transdniester, has been more or less in rebellion almost since Moldova became a country. I hear that its capital, Chişinau (Chisinau, a.k.a. Kishinev), is actually a rather attractive city, but getting into Moldova as a tourist is only slightly easier than it used to be to get into Albania.

Anyway, about two thousand mostly young people were in the courtyard of the 200-year-old wooden-beamed Hanul lui Manuc external link to welcome in the spring with Moldova's finest band. A slightly older crowd, myself included, arrayed ourselves on the staircases and galleries. Drums, electric guitar, electric bass, horn section, and a vocalist whose style oscillates between Balkan peasant and North African rai vocalist.

The Hanul lui Manuc is roughly city-block-sized and three stories high; the courtyard is large enough to contain eight large trees, plus this crowd, and still not be particularly cramped. There are several restaurants and bars, including one with elderly waiters in embroidered vests, white tablecloths and overpriced Romanian haute cuisine, and female kitchen staff dressed in what look like a cross between peasant garb and nun's habits. For the concert, there were reasonably priced sausages and savory pastries for sale in the courtyard, and a few improvised spots selling beer from courtyard tables supplemented the three permanently installed bars of different styles. Part of the Han is still an active hotel, one of Bucharest's few accomodation bargains (as long as you don't mind having things like this happen on your doorstep; the concert ended at nine and I'm sure it was all duly quiet by any reasonable bedtime). [Nov 2003: I later found out that the service is pretty uniformly lousy. Not recommended. By the way, "hanul" is specifically a definitive article form; the root word is "han," so in mixing languages, one should properly say, "the han,", not "the hanul.")

The music was certainly louder than it would have been 200 years ago, the lights were presumably brighter and certainly safer, but in some ways the scene probably resembled a rowdy Friday night in the spring back when this was a caravanserai next door to the voivodal court. Although unmistakably contemporary, Zdob & Zdub are firmly rooted in the traditional music of the region, and some of the tunes (though not the arrangements) could be from that era.

Zdob & Zdub's live performance is a bit less contemporary-sounding than their album Agroromantica, which uses quite a bit of sampling, an element that was entirely missing in concert, probably a good thing.

Dancing styles ranged from hora circles to a mosh pit down front; the latter grew dramatically on the more energetic songs, with the occasional fool stage diving or even leaping into the courtyard from the first gallery. Fortunately, no one was foolish enough or drunk enough to try leaping from the second.

Saturday I ducked out of Bucharest and took a train (about three hours each way) to Braşov (Brasov), an old red-roofed Saxon town three hours away in Southern Transylvania, which grew in the Communist era with an unsightly sprawl of concrete monstrosities, fortunately all outside of the historic city instead of replacing it. There is a very dramatic Gothic Lutheran church, a spacious town square surrounded by 400-year-old buildings, and an aerial cable car to a nearby mountain ridge several hundred meters higher than the town itself. Sections of the old town walls remain, including several rather dramatic gates.

My colleague Matt P., who was recently over here in Romania (and who also took a weekend day to visit Brasov), has put some of his photos of Bucharest and Brasov external link on line. He gave me permission to share the link with you. Among the Bucharest photos, The tall, somewhat dramatic white building on a corner is the Hotel Capitol, where he and I both stayed. Clothing store "Emma" gets a photo because "Emma" is his daughter's name.

Matt also adds (with reference to the woman I mentioned in the last letter taking home a live chicken in her purse) that chickens "are actually very calm when you stick them in a bag - it's kind of odd, but they sort of give up. Same thing if you catch one and hold it securely - it will just relax in your arms," and adds "Did I mention I raise chickens?" No, Matt, you never mentioned that you raise chickens (not a typical sideline for a software developer, but Matt does live on rural Vashon Island, a ferry-ride away from Seattle).


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Originally written: March 4, 2002
Last modified: November 9, 2003

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