Around 1972 we’ve got tempted to spend our holiday in Moldavia, the Romanian not the Russian part. My mother had heard dr. H., a good friend of my grandparents, being extremely happy to spend some weeks in a village not far from Bicaz, where the state just finished building a large dam in the hope to produce more power for the ever increasing industry. He had been lodged in the local priest’s house and felt happy there. Still there was a little problem with the priest’s mentally ill son who was taken care at home. Mom tried to find out some more detail and, in the end, dr. H. acknowledged that one particular time the young man chased them (his family and the doctor) around the house with a knife. Mom didn’t give up entirely. She had this obsession that I should visit and know all my country not only Transylvania and Bucharest. However she kindly asked the doctor to recommend us to a different host in the same Tarcau village.
It was a typical farmer house. Clean, freshly whitewashed, wooden floor, wooden doors, a little altar in a corner with a candle and some cheap icons. The main difference from Hălmagiu was that actually there were two houses on an imaginary diameter of a rectangle that was their courtyard. One house was made only of bedrooms, the other was the kitchen and a porch where we were eating. The courtyard didn’t have so much grass as in Hălmagiu, most of it was rammed earth, a middle stature dog would have been king there, but he was always chained. The family acquired us very warmly and was extremely kind for all the duration of our stay. However the food was funny. At least to us. It was not bad, or dirty or distasteful but for a long time after that we couldn’t bring ourselves to touch dill anymore. You could have a great soup with dill, a chicken dish seasoned with dill and a triumphal end consisting of a dill sweet pie. Variations were sour soup with dill, pork with a dill sauce and again the sweet dill pie.
We tried our first adventure there planning to travel from Tarcau to Neamț Monastery (1407), then Secu (around 1500) then Sihastria (1655). To Neamt we got some bus. IRTA we called them and I still have no idea what the abbreviation meant. Years after the revolution the mere uttering of the „IRTA” word still made Romanians laugh in a mysterious, totally untranslatable way.
They were pretty robust buses for the time, produced in Bucharest using various licenses and imported engines. People would climb in by the front door and get out by the back one (vice versa compared to urban ones in Bucharest). Their worst technical feature was the overheating of a certain transmission belt. We all knew the special burnt smell and most drivers had some reserve belts at hand. Then sometimes the power of the engine in ramp didn’t cover for the weight of the vehicle. It isn’t an unusual memory for the passengers to get out of the bus and push it up until the engine could again cope with the load. But this last problem was probably connected more to the administrative deficiency.
Between 1950 and 1960 most vehicles and draught animals were nationalized. People were proud of their horses, oxen and carriages. Most of the animals were also family friends who knew them since they were still some shivering wet foals and calves. They were taken care as one of the most treasurable values of the household, they were the work partners of the adults and the pets of the kids, leave alone they had an important role in many of the folkloric traditions. A lad who would want to marry a girl should take his friends and all, mounted on their best horses, would go to the girl’s parents to ask her, for one example.
It was such a psychological loss for the villagers that one Romanian novelist made his hero ask his son. “Look, you are telling me that the state will give us tractors, and that my horses are not fashionable anymore. Let me see what will you say when I’ll send you as a groom driving a tractor to meet your bride at the church.“ The quote is by memory but can easily be found in the second volume of “Morometii”.
All in all there was no personal means of transportation on small distances anymore except for your own two feet or the state owned busses which weren’t designed to carry villagers. At their best they were planned to transport workers from one urban district to the other. A farmer though would have a pair of living chicken, another would have pounds of bags filled with still dripping cheese, and not once they would carry a pig. The luggage compartment of such busses was bursting with smelling bags and the nets above the passengers heads contained everything from demijohns with homemade wine and brandy to geese, chickens or turkeys all alive and kicking. On top of that the buses were too rare and people inside would sit 3 on places for two and another thick double row standing. People were sweating heavily and chatting loud voice. We felt grateful when we finally escaped our unintended sauna.
The Neamț abbey is impressive with its combination of Byzantine and Gothic style. Not white like most of the churches we’ve visited but covered in a mosaic of enameled warm coloured disks. Mom was reading the explanatory guides then proceeded to explain me what Gothic was, what Byzantine and so on. About Stefan, the king who founded the abbey, I already knew from the children books I had at home. He was the Romanian leader closest to the Renaissance values and one of the last defenders against the Ottoman Empire. 500 years old buildings, objects, tombs were overwhelming.
But maybe most overwhelming proved to be the charnel house. In 2014 and in the USA a charnel house might seem a traumatizing experience for a child but in those times at least in my family we had a pretty serene relation with the notion of death and decay. Leave alone that it was pretty normal to see pet chicken cut and then consumed on the family table, but the very notion of death was considered normal and a constant possibility that we should take into account in all our plans. My grandmother would call me to the kitchen “Come see how I do things, that’s the only way you will remember after I won’t be around”. It wasn’t scary, it was only natural that we calmly assumed the death for each and every one of us. Death was certain, only bad thing about it was to be unprepared and I don’t only mean spiritual preparation here, I mean the social, economic, human decent preparedness. Someone who didn’t prepare for death at all would have been, in the eyes of our small community, careless, selfish and not loving. Without being an obsession it was a presumption.
There were stories about each of our relatives deaths. My grand grandmother was paralyzed for almost ten years before finally passing away. Her death was recounted almost with pride. The old authoritarian lady couldn’t speak anymore and was communicating with her two daughters only by eye signs. At some point she signaled she wanted something. For hours they tried to find out what: water, cleaning, turn around in bed, nothing worked. Then her elder daughter guessed: mom, you want a priest? And the old lady finally breathed at ease. As soon as the priest gave her the Eucharist she expired. Her death was sad but somehow redeemed by decency; her husband’s was tragic. He was caught by Hungarian forces that were retreating from Transylvania, at the end of the WWI. He was summarily judged and condemned to death. He was shot on the grave he himself dug and interred while not yet killed by the soldiers shots. His death though left the family undefended, right in the aftermath of war, and his life surely wasn’t spent completely or so they seemed to think.
To my amazement in Bucharest death was not conceived this way at all. Most people around me lived as if convinced of their immortality. Surely there were many exceptions but in general a priest next to a moribund bed was seen more as a way to speed up death. Even today in Bucharest people would consider they would scare a sick by bringing a priest in the house as if he would, by his presence alone, determine his cessation of life. While people adored discussing illnesses in the smallest detail they didn’t like to talk about death and certainly nobody mentioned death as even a remote probability.
Apart from considerations about their relation to the transcendent, this almost superstitious lack of care to prepare in front of the inevitable to me today also signals the death of the bourgeoisie in its most etymological sense. The very idea that death should be decent and not disrupt violently the life of the family is tightly connected to the idea or possession and wealth. If there aren’t any possessions, if the property is not guaranteed, any attempt to make your family life better after your physical disappearance is futile, then better not worry at all. Mutatis mutandi it reminds me of the special frame of mind of the homeless all over the world. Basic personal care is abandoned there where no hope resides.
At Neamț monastery though, death was present in a more abrupt way. I am not sure how contemporary monks were interred but for sure the ancient ones had an original way to conceive their bodily afterlife. We knew that the secret lover of a prominent Russian poet ended her days at the monastery. The story was quite sensational. Apparently she joined the monastery disguised as a young boy, lived there and ended her life as a monk without anyone suspecting she might be a woman. Only after her death the monks discovered the truth both about her sex and her identity. Her name was Calypso, the poet was Pushkin.
As you circled the monastery center you could see a small door in the reinforced medieval wall and a small hand note saying: To Calypso. We followed it, passed through a small yard and found ourselves in front of another door leading to a small building. This time the note said: “Please keep the door closed. To Calypso”. For years to come any mention to this note made both of us laugh with tears. Inside though our laugh stopped short.
In front of us was a huge vault full of skeletal remains. Tens maybe hundreds of monks from immemorial times laid there. On the shelves there were skulls. On each of them was painted in amazing detail and vivid colors the portrait of the monk whose skull we were examining. Abbots, prestigious theologians or historians, all who represented in their days something important for the monastery had their miniature portrait executed on their very skull. Somewhere in the vault there was Calypso’s skull as well, without any miniature: she was for them just a sinful woman who deceived the whole monastery. Later I found out this way of burying the dead was a wide-spread habit in all sorts of monasteries, both Orthodox and Catholic. It was no doubt a humility exercise, spiritually thinking, but, since the abbeys tended to live for hundreds if not thousands of years, a practical way to avoid covering the lands in ever extending cemeteries.
Then we tried to go forward to Sihastria. We took a bus but the only free seats were at the back where the engine also was situated. After a while mom decided I looked suspiciously red and checked. My seat was hot. She moved me instantly but I was already feeling sick. The bus didn’t drive us to the abbey but to the closest village so we had to walk the remaining 1-2 kilometers. The hot seat, the days’ emotions and probably the dill abuse proved a little too much and I got rid of everything I had eaten that day. Mom started to carry me on her back while I was happily using her holiday-new beads strings as harnesses. We arrived to Sihastria and we managed to visit it a little but I don’t remember much apart the white church and that I’ve lost there my best spring coat. The monks weren’t too eager to chat with any intruder so we left pretty soon. Poor mom never had another chance to see Secu.
We somehow managed to get back to Tarcau but this time it became clear I was already ill. There was no doctor in the village, mom had little experience with what a pain can be 7 years old kids in excursions, and I had a thoroughly upset tummy. In the end Margareta, our host, found some neighbor who gave her a spoon of contraband olive oil for me and mom decided I can, after all, have her precious East German deodorant that she bought on the black market for this holiday. I swallowed the oil and sprayed all of Margareta’s house with the rose spray. Both treatments seemed to work well and I was back on my feet again.
However since the dill abuse was under heavy suspicion we moved into a hotel not far from there, new, and right next to the Bicaz reservoir. Mom was desperate to not upset Margareta who had a serious heart disease so she told her all the best, embraced her, gave her the money for all the time we were supposed to stay, and of course never mentioned the dill.