When speaking with some Poles one night, they began tracing their family’s identity back centuries to explain how they weren’t even one hundred percent Polish — they had traces of such-and-such tribe in them. All of that meant little to me, being relatively uninformed about the ancient history of Central European people, and I wondered at what point do you stop going back in time, before you conclude that we all really just came from Africa? Americans, white Americans at least, tend to like tracing their origin to an existing nation — the “old country.”
Now, this is slightly embarrassing to admit, but I hadn’t really put it together that my German-speaking great-grandmother wasn’t actually ethnically Romanian. She was a Transylvania-born Saxon.
Like the Hungarians, Saxons in Transylvania have retained a distinct identity. In the region, signs are often written in Romanian, German and Hungarian, and the groups have their own names for towns and cities. Unsurprisingly, there has sometimes been tension between the groups as the region bounced from one empire to another.
I decided to spend over a month in Romania because I considered my great-grandmother “Romanian,” simply by virtue of her being born within the country’s current borders. But here, I can’t tell people she was Romanian; that would be a lie. And of course, when she was born before World War I, the region was part of Austria-Hungary. But I don’t think that makes me “Austrian,” whatever that actually means. Ethnicity and nationality are a funny thing.
Neutral Milk Hotel – Where You’ll Find Me Now