We continued to come back to Văratec until around 1980. Apart from the friends we made there (sister Natalia was only one of them, I remember the museum guide who was an intelligent tiny theologian with a taste for history, the music school master, a slender nun with a remarkable voice and an authentic specialist in Byzantine music) the monastery was a great “base of operations” to start planning tens of trips. There were several memorial houses of Romanian writers at hand (Ion Creanga, Sadoveanu), medieval remains of castles, several monasteries, each renown for something else like Bistrita where other notorious (for us) Moldavian rulers lay in their tombs (Alexandru cel Bun etc.), and again and again the serene beauty of the smooth hills and their forests.
The other visitors we were meeting or just seeing were extremely various. From simple people like us to extreme poor ones like the boy resulted from the drunk rape of a villager upon his own daughter. The boy was living around the monastery during summer and sent to the orphanage during winter. There were also those coming in black Mercedes cars accompanied by slender civilians with shortly cut hair. One of these we were told was the Israeli ambassador. There were many ambassadors and state visitors, but they came, got the guided tour and left. You could always tell when one of these was expected by the sudden number of gray faced civilians, all male, dressed in suits walking aimlessly the monastery main alleys. We secretly laughed at them calling them „the hard to sell suits”. I remember the Israeli ambassador because he was lodged in the chancellery where they most never accepted anyone. He spent there about a week.
During my high school years we moved our holidays to Dragomirna, another monastery to the North of the country, close to Suceava. Sister Natalia, now mother Nazaria, had big troubles in Varatec. I am not sure of the details because such things she discussed with my mother only, so I know them only second hand. In short a family came to the chamberlain mother to be lodged. Like many visitors of the monastery center they were rich compared to the villagers or the nuns. How rich? Hard to say, even me and mom seemed rich compared to them. Who was lodged in the house and under which conditions it was chamberlain mother’s job to decide. After they spent some good time there, police came after them. Apparently they were crooks and the money they were generously spending weren’t theirs.
A whole investigation started and sister Natalia was involved because she was taking care of all guests needs. The chamberlain mother denied even knowing them saying she was working all day long in the fields and had no idea what the sisters did in her absence. Human cowardness…The police treated sister Natalia as if she was an accomplice. Nothing really bad happened to her but she was in deep shock in the autumn we went to see her. She wasn’t associated with them and the police couldn’t prove anything but her presence in a court room and the interrogations took a toll on her. I have never seen her eyes playfully smiling like in the past. As soon as she could she moved to Dragomirna where less people knew about the mishap, a monastery out of the touristic range.
Dragomirna (around 1600) was a medieval citadel abbey, with huge thick walls and stone counterforts. Local folklore said there was an underground tunnel connecting the monastery to the throne citadel in Suceava. Each corner of the defensive wall had a tower. The church is one of the most unusual ones in the country, the tallest and the narrowest. Outside it’s walls are decorated in an intricate geometrical pattern of polished stone. Inside the saints are represented as warriors. It was by far my favorite out of all monasteries I have seen and probably my taste for Gothic buildings then started to reify. The whole complex was situated right next to an always sleek small lake. The buildings reflected added to the mystery of the place. I remember the first year we reached it I had stolen a prism from a crystal chandelier we had at home and I enjoyed watching for hours all the landscape through it. It was autumn and the grass was covered in dead leaves. Every contour was accompanied by a delicate rainbow when watching through the crystal.
The monastery wasn’t by far as rich and vivid as Varatec. It was also a “life in common” monastery. Not hard to imagine why since they had only some 13-15 nuns in all. It was initially designed as monks monastery and the building reminded you of that at each step. The stairs were unnaturally high even for a 15 years healthy like myself , all the rooms felt cold being surrounded by those thick stone walls, strong streams of air were gushing over the corridors and the towers. I couldn’t find any documents about it but the nuns were saying the abbey was used as prison after the monks were chased away by the communist decrees, and only recently the Patriarch managed to take it back and transformed it into a nuns convent. The priest who was serving every day was a monk from the old days before the decrees who couldn’t make himself leave even when the monastery was empty.
One single farm was feeding everybody and the abbey was not normally receiving visitors, no male guest could stay overnight if he wasn’t from the clergy. The nuns and the monk who served as priest were working hard every day to produce the food for everyone. Among them there were nuns so old that nobody could count on them as a real help. I still remember with a smile mother Agapia, a tiny, frail 77 old one who was always ready to laugh and greet you with a nice and often funny word. One evening, when during the evening service there were some minutes when the nuns choir was singing, the priest was supposed to bless. They finished singing and silence fell over us. After some minutes one of them dared to repeat: Father bless! Nothing. Then one of the choir voices almost shouted: Father BLESS! And from the altar finally came sleepy the monk’s voice.
They had chickens, they had a couple of sheep, one or two cows, small fields with potatoes and other vegetables. All these had to be taken care of so each and every one of them toiled according to their own power and in the evening most were crushed.
We started going there after my grandmother’s death when mom also changed jobs and now she had to travel all around the country checking new buildings’ concrete. Past were the long holidays when we had the proper time for complex trips. She would have spent some days at Dragomirna, then leave me alone for some weeks, then come back and have one more week at the sea side with me. My school holiday was long though so I would spend there at least a month, taking part in nuns work, chatting with mother Nazaria and others, even going in some trips with them but mostly reading and listening to my small cassette recorder either in the sun near the lake, or in one of the towers where nobody would disturb me. I even tried to learn a bit of the Byzantine music notation especially as I was sharing a room with mother Nazaria who was teaching the others. She was increasingly ill at that time, her heart was failing and the medical care was precarious at most.
At some point I offered helping them with some of the kitchen chores. It was fun and you could always have a nice chat while peeling potatoes or chopping cabbage. Of course mother was paying for lodging and was careful to always bring some rarities: coffee, oil and so on, but I was doing it for pure pleasure. It was then when I started to wear their long gray aprons. They were so used to my presence that they started to call me “sister”. At some point mom became worried I might want to join the convent. It was funny to see her searching for the right words. She wouldn’t stand in my way if I really had such a vocation but, all in all, she wouldn’t like me to give up having a normal family and kids either. I had understood the message. However, while I liked the nuns a lot and loved the monastery life even when knowing it by inside with all the little gossip and what not, I didn’t feel my journey had to stop there.
You would ask – and not only ask but accuse, as far as I know – why would I spend my time in a monastery as a teenager when I could have friends and go together in camps and trips with them. Basically it was because of me. I never even ask let alone insist that I went to a camp with kids my age. I am sure mom would have been worried (being worried was her strongest lifelong trait) but nevertheless if I asked I could have gone. Still there didn’t seem anything attractive to me there. I could see more if going with mom or on my own, after all no child my age visited so many places. And who to talk to? The little meaningless chit chat didn’t fascinate me. I had my good friend Diana, then a boy who was reading as much as me, but both of them also spent their holidays with their families. Of much importance was also my total dislike of physical activities. In that I was totally the opposite of my mother. At my age she was biking, playing tennis, skating, ice skating and later loved mountaineering. To me all these were amusing… for a day at maximum.
At 14 I was reading “Romeo and Juliet” in translation, I would make Diana climb on top of a radiator at school and recite her while laughing like crazy big chunks of Romeo’s monologue. The others had not much to communicate in my eyes. They didn’t know most of the things we knew, they didn’t read most of the things we did, and they would hate half of the teachers we liked. Besides I had a constant propensity to befriend older people. My last good friend at 13 was after all an 83 years old neighbor, daughter of an Italian architect who following a cliché pattern had fallen in love for a beautiful Romanian at the beginning of the century and remained for the rest of his days in Bucharest.
Mrs Soare was a microbiologist which by itself meant something fascinating for me as a new domain nobody was talking about. She had a studio at the last floor of our building filled with 50 years old Italian photo albums and a cat. As soon as the tiny lady moved in I fell in love with her. There was finally someone I could talk to. And there wasn’t only the talking. Mom and me were going from time to time to listen to symphonic concerts but Mrs Soare had a real subscription there and was going every Thursday. Mom agreed to buy me one as well and we would together cross the two parks toward the main boulevard, then on the small streets to the Athenaeum. For some 3-4 years that was a constant pleasure. And it wasn’t only the music, it also was the people’s faces, attitudes and not seldom their clothes.
At the Athenaeum Bucharest dressed in their best clothes. You could see evening dresses and gauntlets, you could see monoculars and lorgnons, and, when the building ceased to be properly heated, you could see worn, once precious furs. Mom was lending me pieces of her own clothes to dress properly, some of them inherited from my grandmother’s sister.
Sometimes my grandfather came with us too even if he was more likely to enjoy opera rather than symphonic concerts. Mrs. Soare also brought in our little company another old lady, Mrs. Creanga, a highly cultivated 80 something lady living also in the neighborhood. At times we would take our dinner at the “University House”. That was a mansion built around 1870 which belonged to a marshal of the royal court, later nationalized and transformed into a sort of University club. Since Mrs. Creanga had a permit she brought us as guests several times there. It wasn’t too expensive and the food wasn’t bad, but what made it a really agreeable experience was the shaded back yard, cool during the hot summers of Bucharest and the old uncommon architecture of the building. The only one who didn’t feel at ease there was my grandfather, now a widower, who had the impression Mrs. Creanga would have some matrimonial illusions about him. Both of them being around 80 it made me and Mrs. Soare to laugh hysterically when we were alone and gossiping.
One autumn, after not seeing her for several days, we went upstairs to check what is it happening. She was barely breathing and semi conscious. We took her to the nearest hospital and they told us she needed urgent surgery. After my grandmother’s death mom knew there most of the doctors and even part of the nurses. If you wanted any attention in a hospital you would pay at least the main surgeon, the anesthetist and most of the nurses. Black money of course, they all had a state salary. Mrs. Soare’s savings were blocked in a check that she alone could access so mom paid for the surgery and we waited. When she was brought back the young surgeon, doctor Radulescu, came to mom and gave her back all her money. He said: She has generalized cancer, I just opened and closed her, there is nothing much to do and I can’t take your money. Mrs. Soare lived for some more hours. Her niece appeared that night closed her studio, later she liquidated everything, but offered me as a gift the Italian albums.
The second year to Dragomirna I brought with me my dearest friend, Diana. Her mother didn’t have the time to go with her anywhere that year and she agreed that she could come with us. Since Suceava had an airport we would go there by plane which was in itself a little adventure and only slightly more expensive than train. She enjoyed the place I think and felt at ease. Still she had much less connection with religion than me. Mother Nazaria was friendly and was talking to her as much as with me. However during these talks it came to her attention that maybe Diana wasn’t baptized after all. Diana asked her mother and it was true, her parents were too intimidated to risk baptizing their child. Later they divorced and the issue was never brought up anymore. That’s how I became a godmother.
Mother Nazaria devised her an all white simple dress and the priest used a small plastic pink basin to “immerse” her. Since it was cold we used the small chappel they just finished inside the monastery walls, the majestic old church in the middle was too chilly. It was then I heard first about my elder brother who, born prematurely and obviously not viable but formed was still baptized by the gynecologist on the spot with tap water. Mother Nazaria was nodding at mom’s story, indeed baptism can be done in extremis by anyone and even with all sort of substances. She told us in exchange a story about a child born in the desert and baptized with sand. I think Diana enjoyed her stay but she couldn’t repeat her experience in the years to come. She has gotten a horrible hepatitis then a second one several months later, she lost her place in the Chemistry high school and I believe this marked her destiny forever later. We lost connection slowly.
As long as mom was around we would take trips around Suceava. There was a tiny steam train that led from Suceava to Putna. I hadn’t seen one in some 9 years because even the old Halmagiu train was now replaced with a Diesel engine. Putna has a special resonance in Romanian’s memory and especially in Moldavian’s one. In the monastery among other more or less famous princes and clerics, there is the tomb of the most loved prince of Moldavia: Stefan the Great. It’s hard to explain what Stefan still means to Romanians. There still are families that keep sacred documents attesting that one of their ancestors got land and recognition from the prince for his warrior skills. And recently the Orthodox church declared him as a saint even if his reign wasn’t a peaceful one and the prince had one after the other three wives. For us, Transylvanians through and through, Stefan was a great national symbol and a great piece of history.
In the abbey yard we found a guide monk surrounded by people. He was a bony, young man certainly not lacking charisma. I can still remember his straight back and keen dark eyes. He was walking slowly around the church explaining each corner of the building in great detail. We followed the crowd happy to have a guide, especially in the monks monasteries this wasn’t such an easy thing, they were way less talkative than nuns. The man seemed to know a lot of history. At some point we stopped in front of a huge, cracked metal bell. He stopped and he told us that bell was a gift from Stefan the Great, it was nicknamed Buga and it will never ring again until Moldavia will be whole like Stefan left it. There followed a moment of silence. Some sifted uncomfortably. We moved ahead and continued as if nothing happened.
Of course we knew Moldavia wasn’t whole. That wasn’t anything to discuss about it, not in public at least. Stefan’s Moldavia included Bucovina and Basarabia, two territories inhabited in majority by Romanian speaking people. To make a very long history lesson short, in June 1940, the Russian state, otherwise neutral and in no war with anyone, gave Romania an ultimatum to give them part of the territory. At that point France was freshly occupied by the Nazi, England was under siege and the Germans had just signed a non-aggression pact with the Russians (the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact). Romania’s boundaries were guaranteed by France and England, there was no point in comparing the military power of Romania to that of the Russian state, and both Germany and Italy “advised” the Romanian government to give up in front of the Soviet claims.
Romania then lost half of Bucovina and all Basarabia which were never to come back after the WWII. More than that the Russian state probably learned the lesson that Europeans love the self-determination right of people so, after the war, forcibly moved a large part of the population of the two regions in Siberia. Most of them died either on their way or at destination. In exchange the same state encouraged Russian population to move in. That was a copious subject for Radio Free Europe, not for us, and especially not in front of some 50 unknown people. The monk either was a brave man or an agent provocateur.
We finished our visit at the prince’s tomb. Here was the tombstone covered by a delicate marble baldaquin in floral sculpture. Mom was reading the Slavonic alphabet inscription. Romanian language until 1840 or so used the Slavonic signs in written form so anyone who has an idea of the Russian alphabet could read the Romanian texts. The prince had reigned for 47 years which is amazing both for those troubled times and for the Renaissance age when little efficient medical attention one could get even a prince. He had prepared this tomb for himself, next to his wives and relatives. He had its inscription carved with his birth and coronation dates remaining for his followers to fill the ending ones. Interestingly enough they didn’t fill the blanks.