‘What are you doing over summer?’ people asked me.
‘Oh, just excavating human remains in Transylvania,’ I replied.
‘Right, well, I must be going now.’
So went far too many of my conversations before I set off from Luton (which, I have to admit, was a very foreign land to me in itself) in mid-July. Stuffed on a ‘WizzAir’ flight amongst the strangers I would spend the next five weeks with, I began to seriously question my decision. Who are these people? Where am I even going? Does this airline have an in-flight food bar?
Though the latter query was sadly and swiftly denied, my mind continued to whirl. A fully-funded experience had to have a catch. You see, Erasmus+ and Grampus Heritage were literally banking on an unskilled amateur – all the other participants were archaeology students – to somehow assist in the excavation of really ancient artefacts. I didn’t even know what the city we were landing in was called.
All the more joy for me when I discovered that it was called Cluj. Childish sniggering aside, its Bohemian pop pastels and gaping squares provided some much-needed respite from the communist-era apartment blocks standing sentinel on the way in. The delicious ice-cream I manged on didn’t hurt either.
A two-hour journey and an oh-my-god-I’ve-lost-every-single-earthly-possession-I-own-including-my-passport scare later, we arrived in Alba Iulia, a small-town city radiating out from an imposing Habsburgian star fortress. Recent renovations, we were told, had really glammed the place up – warm reds and yellows paying homage to its ancient Roman roots – and we ambled our way through various ‘must-do’s, such as the cathedral, Catholic church, and absolutely labyrinthine museum. Eventually, we arrived at ‘Universitatea “1 Decembrie 1918”’, somewhere I would no doubt be very well acquainted with by the end of August. Ah, the happy memories endlessly cleaning sherds of Stone Age pottery.
Apart from our early-starting, labour-intensive work days, on weekends we were left largely to our own devices. Saturday excursions involved a jolly to the medieval festival at the hillside old town of Sighișoara, exploring Bran Castle (known as ‘the Dracula castle’ to some, with whom I choose not to associate on the basis that they are not aware Dracula is a fictional character), taking in the criminally underrated sights of Sibiu, and, I kid you not, rowing a boat and riding a Ferris wheel underground in the Turda salt mine. Pics or it didn’t happen? Here ya go.
Though trundling up and down Transylvania was delightful, it was through the everyday trials and tribulations of my Romanian career that I began to really appreciate my time there. Dancing until 4am at an open-air club outside the fortress walls; finding a 4500-year-old Neolithic stone-carved face; growing to love the local stray dog, Alba, who found her home with us on the dig; I even began to see the humour in being kept up by the dins and ditties of the neighbouring Romani community.
I started to realise that was not despite, but because of Alba Iulia’s strange charm – the kind that makes you smile at the delirious comments of heat stroked archaeologists and chuckle at the sight of wild pigs eating out of bins – that the experience I was having was so unique and unforgettable. Multumesc, Romania, and god bless.
Images taken by Daisy Treloar.