Seattle Times, October 2004
Logically, Halloween should be huge in Romania.
Or so I thought before I came here a year ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. After all, it does contain Dracula’s native Transylvania. Last Halloween however, I discovered there’s little interest here in our day of movie monster dress up and tired ghost stories. In Romania, where superstitions are abundant and spirits are evil and invisible, every day brings something to be afraid of.
It was halfway through October, at the local high school where I work as an English teacher, when I first mentioned All Hallows Eve to a class of Romanian students. “What are you planning to do for Halloween?” I asked, expecting enthusiasm. “I don’t know, nothing,” they responded. I was confused. “But what about the whole Dracula thing?” I asked. They shook their heads, incredulous. “Is that all Americans know about Romania?”
Well, yes. I didn’t have the guts to tell them that I knew nothing else about their country when I was assigned here. I decided I also shouldn’t mention that I always imagined the real Dracula looked and acted like a cross between Bela Lugosi and Count Chocula.
The historical Dracula wasn’t much of a bloodsucker, it turns out, though he was truly bloodthirsty. Dracula writer Bram Stoker based the character on 15th-Century Romanian Prince Vlad Tepes, a brutal leader known for ruthless punishments. He gained the name Tepes (“Impaler”) from his favorite form of punishment. Far from being a seductive super monster, Tepes is considered a national hero in Romania because of his defeat of fierce Ottoman armies and brief uniting of the country. At best Romanians are amused (and at worse very annoyed) by the misinformation spread about Prince Tepes. The building of a Dracula theme park outside of Bucharest has done little to create enthusiasm for Halloween and its role in misconstruing Romanian history.
When the week before Halloween arrived however, I decided to prepare a series of related classroom activities, undeterred by my student’s clear lack of interest in the holiday. I created a lesson wherein I would brilliantly connect current superstitions with the Pagan roots of Halloween. I decided I would decorate my classroom with candles, pumpkins and fake spider webbing. Then I’d pass out candy.
But on the way home from a large Western-style grocery store where I’d purchased my supplies, there was an incident that was to have terrible consequences for my festivities.
In Romania, there is a phenomenon known as the curent. The curent can be best described as an evil wind that is created when two pathways are made to the outside in a room. For example, the curent is apt to appear when two windows are left open on opposite sides. According to many Romanians, the result is a wind current of terrible power, invading the ears of the unfortunate within and causing them to drop dead, or at least get the sniffles.
To the annoyance of skeptical Westerners (myself included), keeping the curent tamed often means having to keep windows closed on buses, trains and classrooms, no matter how hot the summer afternoon or how foul the air within.
Unlike many of my American colleagues, I had been patient with the curent to that point, shrugging it off as a quaint cultural difference. But the bus from the store that late October day was particularly crowded, hot and unbearable. I decided I’d open a window.
An old woman that looked like a dried apple wearing a handkerchief standing next to me immediately closed it. I re-opened it. She yelled at me and closed it again. After a few more attempts and more yelling, I gave up. I had had it with Romania. How could a people be so unreasonable?
Trying to forget that episode, I went to school the next Monday and decorated my room. When my first class came, I began my lesson by opening the discussion comparing American and Romanian superstitions. Apparently our countries share certain superstitions. It seems a black cat crossing your path in Romania is just as much trouble here as it is in Missouri. Broken mirrors, Friday the 13th, spilling salt, and opening an umbrella or whistling indoors are also all bad, we concluded.
Then things started getting a little strange. Simona in the front row told me that if a pot of milk boils over on your stove that your cow will get sick. “What if I don’t have a cow?” I asked. She seemed puzzled by the question. “Then maybe it will be your mother,” she said.
Raluca next to her then told me that a baby walking on its knees is good luck, which seems reasonable. Catalina said that it’s necessary for the bride to be kidnapped during the wedding and held for ransom by an unspecified man. Simona said something about how a woman must dance with a dead chicken smoking a cigarette. Bogdan in the back row spoke of the godfather riding a donkey into a field to meet the new couple the day after the wedding, though the class was unable to agree on the details and significance of this practice.
It was then that I made a mistake. Feeling too comfortable with my students, I decided I would bring up what had been bothering me for days. “What about the curent? I asked. “Some people think that’s a superstition.” It was as if an evil wind blew threw the room. “It’s not a superstition,” scolded Catalina. “It’s real.” I pressed on. “But it doesn’t effect me or my American friends. Are we a race of supermen?” “You haven’t been here long enough,” was the stern reply. “It’s real.” I had gone too far. I needed an exit. “Who wants some candy!” I said.
After class, with my students alienated and my room covered in Halloween paraphernalia, I began to feel a little silly. Here I had come all this way to a country I knew nothing about, imposed my customs and logic, and expected them to listen. My students had shown me Romania was a fascinating place, albeit one where a pot of milk or an open window could kill you. Maybe it was time to learn more than teach, and be grateful I lived in a place with distinct customs. Sitting down to fill out my grade book a few minutes later, a breeze came through the window. My papers fluttered, and the classroom door slammed shut violently. “Close your window!” yelled someone in the hall outside.
That was enough for me. This Halloween, I plan to celebrate as Romanians do, near a fire, with friends, telling true scary stories, and with all the windows and doors safely locked.