In bed with granny
I wake with a start from a sweat-drenched dream. It can’t be more than an hour past sunset. But it is as quiet and dark as a grave in the house of the old woman. Next to the bed I feel a candlestick and matches. After some rummaging I manage to play a ray of candlelight across the room and I feel as if I am still trapped in my confused feverish dream. I see grotesque, hairy masks with red-rimmed eyes and mouth…pots full of herbs…the worn elbows of a weaving loom…long white shirts hanging from the ceiling like a line of hanged men…and then, ludicrously, the reflecting stripes of my green backpack.
I am back in the reality of the 21st century and remember how I got here. The trip over the Hungarian Puszta doused me in a suffocating heat for days. Then I arrived in Romania where spring had just sprung. And this afternoon when I started ascending the slope of the northern Carpathians by foot, the snowflakes suddenly whirled about my ears. Shivering with fever I sank down upon a tree trunk before the house of an old woman. Without a word she led me inside, pushed me on a bed and buried me under a mountain of blankets.
The candlelight must have wakened her. From the next room my hunchbacked Samaritan steps into the light and beckons me to follow her. Clothed in a sleeping cap and shirt, she makes me a meal of bean soup, bacon and raw onions.
The next morning she insists on washing my sweaty clothes in the mountain stream that runs by her wooden house. Shaking her head she waves as I continue my walk. >>>
The village has been full of excited talk of the Stîna for the past week. It is a village festival where different families combine their sheep into one big herd, called a Stîna. The Stîna herd will trek through the mountains with one shepherd throughout the summer. He will make cheese from the sheep’s milk and divide the cheeses among the various families at the end of the summer. The key for the distribution is going to be determined at the Stîna today, by measuring the total daily milk production of each family’s herd. >>>
<<< Slowly the wagon makes its way up the mountain. The violin player has succumbed to the rocking motion of the ox wagon and is having a snooze. I can see people clambering up the steep mountain meadows everywhere I look. Shepherds with their herds, singing children, horse carts. Enormous baskets of food, carried by women so short and squat that they seem to be dwarf folk. Everyone climbs, ploddingly, up the mountain, like the sea turtles who for millions of years have been climbing up the same beach to lay their eggs every year. With a lump in my throat I realise how intensely happy these people must be. How fantastic it is to be able to gather on a high meadow for a century-old ritual on this beautiful spring morning.
Having arrived at the Stîna meadow, simple corals are built from birch trunks, one pen for each family. The family elders drive their sheep into the coral and take up their post at the pen doors with their milk buckets. After a short communal prayer service the Great Milking begins. >>>
The next day I run into an English anthropologist in the next village. William has been living here for a year, and has become fascinated by the old magic customs of the village. “The small and peculiar occurrences in the everyday routine strike me in particular,” he confides in me, “For example, there is one day in the year when the shepherds bind shut the ‘mouth’ of their shears. This is meant to, symbolically, close the jaws of the wolves, and so protect their sheep. Wolves are also given positive meaning in their symbolism though, for example, they make a whistle out of the animal’s windpipe and use it to undo a hex by blowing through the whistle on the affected person.“ >>>
<<< One afternoon I drive into the Carpathian village Ciocanesti, under the shadow of a heavily thunderous sky. In the cherry blossom tunnel that frames the main street, a funereal procession marches towards me. Three children bearing a mourning wreath lead the way. Behind them follow the wise men of the village with banners and crosses. Then a flat horse cart with a pine tree standing on each of the four corners. Between them an open coffin stands and the yellow grimace of the dead man stares up at heaven. The fluttering petals are slowly covering his dead eyes. The procession that follows seems to include the whole village. Every twenty metres or so the entire procession freezes momentarily. A wail rises up that makes my hair stand on end. The animal-like shriek turns out to come from a grotesque looking instrument: some kind of alp horn that looks like a makeshift construction of welded gas and water pipes. At the same time a church bell in the village is seized by a hysterical bout of ringing, like an alarm, and heightens the cataclysmic atmosphere. Fascinated I watch the procession as it slowly disappears around the bend of the road. The first gusts of stormy wind chase a cloud of pink blossoms after it. >>>
<<< At the end of the fifteenth century the greatest threat came from the Turks, who were advancing further and further North. In those hazardous times a number of fortress-like monasteries were built in northern Moldavia. Within thick fortified walls, high monastery churches arose, their outer walls covered with a series of breathtaking frescoes. They are like divine cartoons, intended to keep the hope of a Christian victory alive in the illiterate congregation. >>>
<<< The mass continues throughout the morning but the nuns do not all stay inside for the whole service. Some sit under a tree, half hidden in the long grass, meditating for hours. Others kneel between the buttresses of the church, their face pressed against the stones, as if they have sent to the naughty corner by the mother superior. Above them, against a heavenly blue background, the pious of the earth climb a shaky ladder to paradise. A perilous enterprise, it would seem, as one of the climbers, nearly at the top, is torn down from above by a horned devil. Be warned, sisters! >>>
After a few days of rest it is time to travel back to Hungary. I decide to go through Transylvania, a district where Germans have been settling for centuries. Since the revolution of 1989 most of them returned to Germany, however, and the handful of stragglers feel abandoned to the gypsies who are gradually taking over the villages. >>>
<<< The rain is pouring down when I knock on the doors of the Miercurea. After a long wait, a wrinkled face appears behind a barred window and gives me a suspicious look. My greeting in German, however, works miracles and a moment later I am being guided around the church fortress by Herr Roth. An unexpectedly picturesque courtyard with miniscule vegetable gardens lies between the church building and the high fortification. Strawberry patches heavy with rain fill the enclosed space with a sweet perfume. A stack of chests stand against the outer wall, which generations of Saxons used to store their corn in. Now they are empty. Herr Roth runs his hands lovingly over the rough planks. “Chests like these, dear sir, have withstood many a barbarian over the centuries. The axes of the Tartars, the curved scimitar of the Turks, the Securitate of Ceausescu…but now, dear sir, now our great community is beyond saving. The craftsmen, the young people, the minister, the bell-ringer, the organ player, they have all gone to Germany. Only us old and infirm people have stayed here, behind thick walls and bars.”
Herr Roth visited Germany last year for the first time. It didn’t suit him at all, he assures me: too fast, too smooth. The sun suddenly breaks through the clouds. The fortress courtyard steams and sparkles in the bright light. Roth dabs at a tear in the corner of his eye. “Dear sir, there is no place as beautiful as here. You tell them that, when you get home.”