My first Romanian experience consisted of eight hours of gallivanting around Bucharest’s Old Town. My husband and I had arrived in Romania a week before our Romanian language program was to start in Brasov and were staying one short night in the capital before we jetted off to Istanbul for a 5-day trip, a mini-vacation before we immersed ourselves in a language in which we had no previous knowledge. My first experience in Romania was also my first experience in Eastern Europe, as I continuously reminded myself while we took in the sights and sounds of the city. “You’re really in Eastern Europe, this is really Eastern Europe,” I thought to myself repeatedly in disbelief that we had actually made it there, fulfilling a lifelong goal of mine. We lost ourselves in the bustle of the popular downtown district – the street violinists, fashionable women, and lack of English speakers. We did our best to soak in the surroundings in an attempt to understand the new culture we would soon find ourselves studying intensely. It wasn’t long before wandering the streets led us to the steps of the National History Museum and we were faced with a, somewhat disturbing, tangible example of Romanian nationalism.
The only appropriate reaction seemed to be laughter. We had no idea what we were looking at and for what reason it would possibly exist, especially in such a prominent location. Of course I had seen many statues in the nude, yet this nude seemed to be out of place. The nursing dog with a tail protruding from its head, that the nude man cradled, completed the absurdity of the monument. At the time, we were unaware that the nursing dog, in actuality a representation of a wolf, would be a theme celebrated throughout the country. The image of the statue was disjointed from all of my perceptions of Eastern Europe. It just did not seem to belong.
After snapping a few photos, we were on our way – off to explore all that we could in our few available hours. But I knew that once I had Wi-Fi, I would have to investigate the background of the peculiar statue. We embarked on our whirlwind adventure to Istanbul early the next morning, and, unfortunately, my inquiry into the statue did not commence until we had reached Brasov and a reliable internet connection six days later.
Foremost, I was pleased to discover that native Romanians had reactions to the statue similar to my own (it is often referred to as a “monument to Romania’s stray dogs,” and there is, indeed, an immense stray dog population). I would have been appalled to learn that I had chuckled over a symbol of great Romanian cultural significance during my first few hours on the ground. To be clear, what the statue represents is extremely significant to Romanian identity and nationalism, but the way in which it was portrayed by the artist, Vasile Gorduz, has become the butt of many jokes in Romania.
As I learned in an editorial by the BBC, the statue, quite literally, honors the ancestors in which Romanians are the most proud: the Romans and the Dacians. The man in the nude depicts the Roman emperor Trajan, hence the reason he appeared so out of place in Eastern Europe – his features are severely Roman. He carries the she-wolf which birthed the mythological founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. The tail extending from the head of the she-wolf is a serpent’s tail symbolic of the ancient Dacian people.
This statue was an important introduction to Romanian identity and nationalism. After 6-weeks of study in Romania, Romanian decent from both the Romans and Dacians was addressed and discussed on numerous occasions. This part of Romanian history is very much a part of the culture of Romania. The knowledge that we gained from examining this statue prompted us to make an enlightening, yet treacherous, journey (which makes for a humorous story on its own) to one of several ancient Dacian ruins in the Carpathian mountains.
So why was it important to recognize how the Romanians choose to identify themselves in history? I think the realization that Romanians relate so greatly to Roman heritage, yet equally honor their Dacian roots, contextualizes Romanian history and may even provide insight into the
separation that Romania experienced from the Soviet Union, despite its rigid Communist government. Understanding the origins of the Romanian people also provides explanation into the linguistic differences in Romania, a country with a national language that has Latin, rather than Slavic, roots; effectively, a Latin island in a Slavic sea.
Trajan and the she-wolf may be a grotesque and awkward monument to Romania’s colorful past, but it is nevertheless an embodiment of the sense of identity that currently prevails throughout the nation.