A Danish man in Romania

It sounds like the title of a novel or a song. It is neither or these. It is just the story of Robin Wildt Hansen, a great admirer of our country and language, which he speaks very well. And it is something else. It is a short story about how Romania has changed the life of a man with all of his prejudices, fears and habits.

What determined you to learn the Romanian language?
I was doing linguistics and I signed up for an additional Romanian language course at the University in Lund, in Sweden. I never thought that I would do it so… fully. It was a fantastic course, held by an extremely charismatic teacher, Coralia Ditvall, who truly put her heart and soul into promoting Romania and the Romanian language in Northern countries.

After a few months months in this course, a colleague told me that Mrs. Ditvall received a scholarship at a summer school in Timisoara. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to go and recommended that I should go. I never thought that I would be able to come to Romania. I didn’t know anything about this country, but I took the unexpected offer as a sign of fate. It wasn’t just that. It became a great adventure.

How did your first contact with our country go?
I can say that my first trip perfectly illustrates the way foreigners typically imagine Romania to be.
It was in 1999. I landed on the Budapest airport and the took a train to Timisoara, with transfer in Arad.
At the border, an officer came in to check our passports. When he saw that mine is Danish, he looked at me surprised and then looked the way the train was headed. “Romania?!” he said doubtfully. I nodded my head yes, he raised his shoulders as if I was crazy and he can’t help me. After he left, I started to worry. “What was this strange country I was about to enter?!” I had only heard once something about Romania, from a Romanian man in Copenhagen. He somehow suggested that it is a crazy and dangerous place. And then, how was I going to cope, only knowing how to say “Yes”, “No” and “Thank you”.
After I calmed down, a pair of Romanians wearing something similar to military uniforms came in. They looked at me and smiled. That’s it.

“Do you want to see my passport?” I asked, as I was taking it out. They nodded their heads no.
“Would you like to exchange money?” one of them asked.
More and more such border officers came in the compartment, until it was full. Some stayed outside, on the hallway. One of them told me that I might miss the connection for Timisoara and that I would need to wait in Arad until the next morning.
“Is it dangerous? I asked.
“No” he replied. “But it’s better to take a cab from a company we know.”

To keep the story short, I almost spent all my money on the taxi. And it wasn’t little. But they charmingly took them and I didn’t feel threatened for a second. In a way, it was my mistake: I was the victim of my own prejudices on Romania.

Have these prejudices gone away?
Very fast.
When I arrived at the University of Timișoara. I was amazed by the hospitality and kindness of the people there. In the end, I began to realize how high the cultural and educational level of these people is. It is something I admire in Romanian people. During my many trips to Romania, I realized that there are broad segments of the population that have a, let’s say, classical education, which is extremely rare in my native country, Danemark. There, people specialize in a domain, but know very little about anything else. This tendency starts to manifest in Romania as well, now, but there are still many people who have a general knowledge and still read books!

It is this traditional education system that helped me to quickly learn how to speak and write in Romanian.
The beginners course in Timisoara was held by a very severe, but also charming teacher, Domnita Alexandru. She asked a lot from us. I remember doing my homework in bars, drinking beer with many of my colleagues. They were English and were very surprised seeing how studious I was; they had a different teacher and didn’t understand how scared I was by Mrs. Alexandru! But I never wished for something different. I learned very much in those two weeks and I adored the refined, even elitist style of teaching, with high hopes and demands. After finishing the course, the people at the University took us on a trip to see the surrounding areas. We visited Brasov, Hunedoara, Sibiu, the Bran castle, Sighisoara and other places with names I can’t remember. There was always something new, there was always something happening that surprised us. And the people’s hospitality was fantastic. I never seen anything like it before!

Every contact with a new culture enriches you. What does Romania and Romanian people offer you?
The hospitality of Romanian people lead me to one of my existential crises. I was in Cluj, one year after the summer school. I lived in the apartment of the friends of a friend. Their amiability, care towards me have shaped my life. They took me with them everywhere, they always asked me what I want, it was enough to give a small hint and they acted accordingly.
I come from a country where people are only concerned with their own things, where we are taught not to say what we want or get involved in anybody else’s life, even if we only want to help. Therefore, the way those people treated me was a big shock for me. It was very hard for me to get used to it. I was trying not to show them what I want, because the thought of them changing their plans because of me was uncomfortable. At the same time, I didn’t do anything for them, because I wasn’t used to it and I simply didn’t know how to act.
I remember telling them at some point: “You don’t need to be so fussy about me.” And they replied: “But if we came to Danemark, you would do the same for us.” They read the denial in my eyes and asked doubtfully: “You would, wouldn’t you?” That moment I felt like dying because I realized that I am about to become a better man.

I don’t know how much I managed to achieve this, but a few months late, the amiability of these people, the influence they had on me, determined me to receive some Romanians coming to visit Copenhagen at my place. The next year I did it again, with other people. When they had to go to the authorities with the residence papers I told them I want to go with them.If I hadn’t had the experience in Romania, I would have never done that. It was great luck that I went with them, otherwise they risked being kicked out of the country.

What came next after this first trip?
Another longer one. I was truly charmed with what I saw in Maramures: people wearing folk clothing on a normal day. The Merry Cemetery, the Village Museum in Sighetul Marmatiei, the Museum of the victims of communism. Everywhere I went I hitchhiked. People would stop right away and were happy to chat on the road. The next year I came to Bucharest, with an Erasmus scholarship. I only planned to stay for three months and I stayed nine. When I was close to leaving, I felt sorry about doing it. When I came back to Copenhagen, I had a cultural shock opposite to the one I had experienced when I first came to Romania. This made me write my first novel, which is about the Danish culture. It was published there, a few years later.

In a nutshell, knowing Romania influenced my life and my current view on the world. I stayed in touch with Romania all the years that went by and I keep perfecting and speaking the language. I often listen to Radio Romania Cultural, on my mobile phone, wherever I am in the world.

Does Romania have a place in your future?
Since 1999 I have tried to come back here. I constantly feel a challenge, I feel like I am living and my Romanian language skills are getting better and better. To me it is clear that Romania has a special place in my life.

location: Infinitea Tea House
photos source: Andreea Rau-Neacsu

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