Dobruja is on its uppers

Ioana Calinescu
Despite being as poor as a church mouse, Dobruja seems to be the most dignified region of Romania. Poor, rough, remote, its ground full of deep ridges caused by drought, breathtakingly beautiful wilderness where pheasants, rabbits, Romanians, Bulgarians, hedgehogs, Lipovans, Italians, Greeks, does, Ruthenians, boars, Aromanians, Turks, Tatars live together in harmony, without any prejudices or conflicts whatsoever. Dobruja is an interethnic kneader of an overwhelming tolerance force.

There’s an exotic tinge to the names of the villages of Dobruja which sound like blank verse-poetry in an unknown tongue Turcoaia, Peceneaga, Hamcearca, Cogealac, Cerna, Atmagea, Ciucurova.

Aromanians live in Ceamurlia. In Greci live Italians, in Izvoarele greci, in Slava Cercheza there are Lipovans and in Cerchez1 you’ll find anyone, but Circassians as they left Dobruja at the beginning of the 20th century, in Babadag live the Tatars, in Medgidia Turks and Bulgarians everywhere, though their numbers were much higher before the 1940 population exchange. Actually, the more I try to put the nations of Dobruja in order, the unfairer I am. The cultural mix of Dobruja goes so deep that you cannot find a village with just one ethnic community.

Aromanians have sheep and stone houses and some of them young wives married off by their parents according to the old customs. The Tatars stormed in, but nowadays they’re becoming fewer and fewer. They built blue, sharp-topped mosques and gradually took to speaking the Osman language, a Western version of Turkish. They became allies with their brothers, the Turks, both on a political and culinary level as each party has a representative in the Romanian parliament and their contribution to the cuisine of Dobruja has been phenomenal. The Italians from Greci imposed themselves as stonemasons. To cure themselves from diseases they use sage and castor oil extensively. The pork dishes are made exactly like those of Rovigo, Italy: dry salami and prosciutto – the back of the pork is dried up in the attic by means of a special technique. Concerning the Greeks from Izvoarele, the only compact, rural community of Greeks in Romania, you’ve got a different story. And it goes something like this: around 1828 the refugees from Thessaloniki who had reached Bessarabia following the Russian-Turkish war of 1820-1821 stopped in Dobruja to catch their breath. Meanwhile, a baby was born in their camp and, as tradition says neither child, nor mother are allowed to leave that place, they remained there temporarily until they settled for good, especially after having seen how well the wood trade (most of all in Tulcea, where wooden boats were made) was going.

The old histories of Dobruja’s people are deeply moving and full of unfinished stories. Maia2’s (the Aromanian) story still haunts me. She was born in Balchik and left it at seventeen. The evacuation order took them all by surprise, turning their lives upside down: they had to get everything they had (pillows, dishes, animals, wardrobes, old people, children) in their carts and, overnight, they were filed in a convoy and sent to Romania. The Bulgarians and Aromanians helplessly looked into their eyes as they passed one another. Seventy years have passed since Romanian-Bulgarian population exchange.

Today, Dobruja constitutes one huge paradox from one end to the other: it can boast of a rich history, but it is on its uppers, it has the highest density of ethnic communities, but it’s close to becoming a ghost town since it has tens of abandoned villages, left prey to creepers, it has the oldest mountains in Europe and the newest sources of energy; as far as the eye can see, Dobruja’s mountain tops, more and more ground, resembling prehistoric animals with each passing day, are dominated by a myriad of windmills, as if they were part of a futuristic movie; Dobruja has probably the most valuable fauna and flora of Romania and yet, the number of tourists is alarmingly low; while the sails of the windmills are spinning deals of thousands of Euros, in the yards of adobe houses one can see clay ovens where pita is baked, not for the sake of green living, but because many people here cannot afford to buy bread.

To me, Dobruja is braga3 and mutton pie, it’s got a special light and its window sills are painted in the most wonderful blue, its people (or, at least, those who still live there) are simply awesome and its atmosphere is unique. And it’s got something more: bad luck. Or maybe a penchant for depression inherited by the many wretched histories that have converged here. Anyway, today’s Dobruja looks like a ‘no man’s land’ with nobody on its side, a land I’d like to make right again. But how?



1 Cerchez: the Romanian term for Circassian

2 Maia: the Aromanian term for grandmother (from the mother’s side).

3 Braga: the Romanian variety of Boza, a Balkanic malt drink.