Europe For A Romanian Traveler Of 1825

(Constantin Golescu, Notes on My Travel, drawn up in 1824, 1825, 1826. Reprinted and accompanied by an introduction by Nerva Hodos, Bucharest, 1910)excerptsWhen today a Romanian travels in all European comfort, by railway; when he can, even without changing car, get to Paris or Berlin in two days; when without leaving this desk he can contact by telephone the whole country and even foreign states; when every day he can learn what happed anywhere around the world in the last twenty-four hours; when, to put it briefly, he sees himself surrounded by all this external paraphernalia of European-style civilization, it is very difficult indeed to realize that what actually characterizes European civilization are not only such exterior trappings but the social and cultural phenomena behind them, the morals and the mentalities which give Europe a much more significant hue than all those express trains and cables compared to which civilization appears only as a crass monkey business.When the modern forms of state life, the constitution, or the parliamentary regime with its passionate adventures of party bickering are added to technological progress, the confusion gets even worse.From this vantage, the situation was much clearer in the early 19th century.For a Romanian of that period the difference between "civilization" and "barbarism," which first of all is, we can say, psychological, a difference in spiritual states, in mentalities, well, that difference could not be cloaked by the deluding splendors of "the mechanical crafts."Although Romanians in the first half of the 19th century were bent on admiring the wonders of technological progress, a trip to the West would not impress them merely from this point of view. Whereas, for many of our contemporaries, the major difference between, say Bucharest and Paris, consists only in the absence of the Eiffel tower or of some Moulin Rouge cabaret.It seems that today, when there are few of the cultivated classes not to have taken a trip or two to the West, when so many persons study for years in the big capitals of Europe, we have nearly forgotten the art of traveling, and we profit less from our stays abroad than our parents and grandparents for whom a voyage was always a daring, difficult and costly undertaking. Constantin Golescu traveled abroad in 1824, 1824, and 1826. He is a learned man, naturally, for the Romanian Principalities at the time. If need be, he could cite to us what "a Spartan woman said to her child: Go, son, take arms for the Homeland, and return either on your shield or under it!" Or about Manlius, Camillus, and Scipio, who vanquished their enemies armed only with their Roman name.But how poor, in fact, his cultural baggage is, and what worse poverty than this? Our traveler sails from Trieste to Venice, and he feels the need to give a note for the readers about "a new invention" of the times:"The ship is a boat that advances on the sea by a fire engine which sits in a room under the deck and when they put one log too many in the boiler the entire ship trembles. Nobody is allowed to peek at this mechanism but as far as I can tell it is a boiler in the belly of the ship." Then the author tries to enlighten us as to how "the craft" operates: "under a huge lid steam drops are collected."By 1825, the first ships had long crossed the ocean, and for twenty years then river navigation in the West had represented quite an ordinary means of locomotion. At that time, the steam engine proper already boasted a glorious history! And our Romanian boyar believed that the "fire craft" was a secret and that he was not allowed to the engine compartment (an elementary precaution today on passenger ships) in order to prevent him from taking a peek and understanding the secret! Most of the times, Golescu is interested by paintings only because they suggest various ideas of a general order. Like, for example, two soldiers of Vienna about whom he talks emotionally: "The son goes to war like a person deeply resolved to do his duty for the Motherland," and then "the son returns from the war"*. Or in Munich: "This is Seneca killing himself in the bath, letting off the blood in the veins on his arms and feet, for that is what Nero the Tyrant wanted him to do, no matter what death he chose." (That must have been a Rubens; I somehow do not believe Ribera's painting of the same subject that is displayed in the old gallery could have riveted his eyes) Etc…Characteristic is also the fact that the Notes mention only one landscape in the Munich Gallery: "The sun setting beyond the ruins of the imperial palace of Rome – Claude Vernet? – certainly only because of these remnants of the palace (a reflex of the Latin propensity of the TransylvanianSchool and of the teachings of Gheorghe Lazar.)Raphael is mentioned only because he is "so famous," and Rembrandt for the subject chosen, most likely.Otherwise the eyes of the grand chancellor of Golesti are not caught by any Titian, or Leonardo da Vinci, Correggio or del Sarto, Van Dyck, Velasquez, Murillo (and what a splendid collection of gamini can be admired in Munich!). To say nothing of the dii minores who, nonetheless, would deserve more attention, artistically speaking, than Hoogstraeten, Schalcken or Kraft. It is not without emotion that we imagine this "exotic" personage roaming inquisitively and attentively, heart heavy with "the scoundrelism" back home, the centers of European culture, clad in his "Turkish-style" apparel that arises the curiosity of passers-by, and for which reason he is not allowed to visit the health center of Vienna for fear he might frighten the madmen (perhaps it is for the same reason that he was not allowed to study the "fire craft" in Trieste!)And yet, this "primitive," owing to the innate delicacy of his soul, could see and feel correctly, much more proudly and deeper than so many other Romanian travelers of today who go to Europe to study or spend their time in idle amusement.Golescu travels and depicts his impressions, as he tells us from the very first lines of his Notes, "for the benefit of my nation." For this reason he wonders "since I had eyes how could I not see, and seeing how could I not mind and make comparisons, and making such comparisons not judge what is good, and yearn to show it to my fellow-countrymen?"What interests and moves him the most in the West is the spiritual culture, the consciousness of human dignity, the self-respect accompanied by respect of one's fellow-beings, inculcated in the heart of the citizens irrespective of class, all this guaranteed by institutions, by laws and "good order!" From the very first, he admires, for instance, "the peaceful life of the Viennese for here one's first and foremost duty is not to cause another the least discomfort. The common people lead a merry and happy life that derives from the just spirit of the laws that compels to obeisance not only the unimportant folks but also the influential men, not only poor people but also the affluent…"In connection with Bavaria, a constitutional country since 1818, the roaming chancellor remarks "the just and happy governance, the contentment and natural freedom of the people, assertive but not impudently so, just as it ought be." And he expands: "And if you address them any question they will reply boldly but so politely and sweetly that the inquirer will be extremely content. And by this you realize that every single man is polite and enlightened by education, each knowing his duty and therefore behaving well to the others as his heart tells him to.""The good order insured by wise laws of just and happy governance, the spirit of legality, the actual equality before the law that binds not only the petty but also the upper classes, underlain by a state of spirit characteristic for a polite person whose first and foremost duty is not to cause any discomfort to anyone, to behave well towards all, to respect oneself while respecting the others in their dignity and rights, with natural ease but no impudence, humility or arrogance;" in a word consummate awareness and respect of human dignity in every one alike, or, in even fewer words, spiritual culture. This is the indispensable prerequisite and the source of true civilization, as there cannot be any other demarcation line between civilization and barbarism."A featherless biped" who lacks spiritual culture can ape the technological progress of advanced countries, can erect no matter how many Eiffel towers that reach to the sky but will still remain a savage. A sort of builder-orangutan, devoid of moral strength, of creative genius. He cannot generate a civilization, he cannot create "peaceful, merry and happy life" around.Golescu is aware that there cannot exist a sounder criterion to gauge how these elements of genuine civilization are rooted in real life than the moral and material condition of the people. Indifference to the poor, oppression, humiliation and degrading "the lesser brothers" are not compatible with a true spiritual culture, with deep respect of human dignity.That is why he makes diligent notes about those people, the peasantry first of all.In Baden (where, we repeat, a constitutional system was already in place, just like in Bavaria) he talks about ploughmen: "And if someone sees how well and properly dressed they go to work one will judge them happy; the worst and most otiose worker has everything necessary, a decent abode, nice clothing for him, his wife and children. You will never see anyone bare-footed here even if he has ten children; they all wear boots." Then he goes on describing the life of a coal worker from Baden, "so that everybody may learn how coal miners live in a place where the laws help every man to make a decent living provided he is industrious."The most enthusiastic words are generated by the old peasant democracies of Switzerland, and here we shall give a longer quote:"It is doubtless that the one Wilhelm Tell who freed this nation and first put it on the line of fair governance, was no saint but must anyway be numbered among the benefactors of the world. In the smallest village possible, called Grihdorf, we were reposing in an inn. A villager walked in and asked if he could linger a while and converse with us. After having asked him numberless questions about their customs and laws, he let us know that he spoke French, German and Italian; he also had a spattering of Greek for he quoted three or four lines from Xenophon, and a couple from Homer. When we asked where he had learnt Greek he replied that all their villages there had a national school, and pupils who showed a propensity for learning would further go to study in cities where they learnt several languages. In those schools everyone could gain as much knowledge as they endeavored. Then came the innkeeper's daughter, some ten years of age, and played the clavier for us, accompanying herself by her voice. And there were others too, who did their best to entertain and repose us. Such things you seldom see in our towns but in that hamlet that was so small that the map did not feature it, we did encounter."From there, we went to the village of Alsteten where another thing worth writing about happened. I went to the pub and a man asked me where I came from. I said Kronstadt, and he replied: Kronstadt in Transylvania at the border of Wallachia? For there is also a Kronstadt in Russia, so he wanted me to specify. Seeing he was cognizant in geography, I asked the pub-keeper what kind of man he was. He explained he was a ploughman and that on that day of the week folks gathered to read the newspapers. So, we walked into the reading room where we found three, four others besides our man, with journals in their hands. Seeing those peasants of Switzerland, so keen to know how the world fared, all gathered to read newspapers, it made me wonder. Just like the man who had asked me about my place, and who either had a considerable knowledge of geography, or he had looked at a map several times."1910Minerva, 1979
* Apparently the two paintings with these topics are by Johan P. Krafft, a Viennese painter of the early 19th century, although I have not checked the date of their acquisition by the Imperial Gallery. (a. n.) 

by Constantin Stere