What is there to see and learn in Romania?
In so many ways Romania surprised us. We had no idea we would see such gorgeous scenery, like the northern region of Maramures, which felt like we had stepped back in time. Until I read the Romania guidebook, I didn't know I would see four exquisitely painted monasteries dating back to the 15th Century, and intricately carved wooden gates that served as entryways to both modest farmhouses and more comfortable homes. Who would have ever thought one could spend hours wandering through a cemetery, but this cemetery wasn't just an ordinary place. It was incredibly different. Located in the small village of Sapanta, the Merry Cemetery is filled with hundreds of painted blue crosses, on which one artist, a wood sculptor named Ioan Stan Patras, ornately illustrated with a colorful drawing some aspect of the deceased's past life, including a very witty epitaph translated by our guide. We also saw cottages with fairytale turrets and villages with cobbled-stone streets, a stunning summer palace for the longest-serving Romanian King, and the Bran Castle near Brasov, a popular attraction for Dracula aficionados.
|A BEAUTIFUL PASTORAL SETTING IN MARAMURES|
|THE MERRY CEMETERY|
|16th CENTURY SUCAVITA MONASTERY, BUCOVINA|
|THE CITY OF SIGHISOARA, A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE|
While touring the famous region called Transylvania, we heard stories about Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century prince, who inspired author Bram Stoker to create a blood-sucking character named Dracula. And yet, at the same time we were reminded about the struggles Romania experienced during the Ottoman empire, the relinquishing and annexing of various parts of Romania during WW I, the Nazi alliance during WW II, when pograms were instituted and hundreds of thousands of Jews were condemned to death. Almost like yesterday, I remember the 25-year communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausecu and his wife Elena, who committed unspeakable atrocities and denied political freedom and free speech. And then finally the 1989 Revolution, when the world watched the collapse of communism, where one regime after another fell apart before our eyes on national TV. And finally Romania's attempts at Democracy, when they joined NATO and became a member of the European Union.
|MEMORIAL TO THE VICTIMS OF COMMUNISM AND TO THE RESISTANCE|
My experiences in Romania will be stored in a very special place we call memories. Memories are what we all hold on to and savor, hoping the good outweigh the bad. Some travelers keep their memories vivid through photographs and written journals. I keep my memories alive by telling stories.
Background to my story about Romania
Religion was not a factor in my growing up years. My family never talked about God or Jesus, except to take their names in vain when appropriate. Unlike most of my Greek cousins, I was never baptized in the Greek Orthodox church. I was never baptized at all. Even though my mother sent me to Catholic school, that was purely for practical reasons, and not surprisingly, she yanked me out after second grade when she discovered I envied my classmates' spiritual awakenings. (I wrote more about this in an earlier post entitled Hail Mary, Full of Grace)
When I was in junior high, my mother had second thoughts and urged me to join a church group for teens called pilgrim fellowship. Again, I don't think her reasons had anything to do with religion. I'm pretty sure she hoped pilgrim fellowship would help keep me out of the backseat of some boy's souped-up Chevy, but it never did. I stopped going after a few times because I thought the talk bordered on the ridiculous. I vaguely remember my mother going to church services, but only a few times. And yet, I have vivid memories of being with her when she stopped at Catholic and Christian Orthodox churches when we were visiting friends and relatives in other parts of our state. I'm not sure the reasons why, but she often had me, as a little kid, in tow. I remember asking her why we were there, and she would answer something like, it's a way to seek some kind of blessing. What that meant to her at the time, I wish I knew. But for me, a pretty young kid with no religious background, it meant nothing at all. I recall her whispering a short prayer, lighting a few candles, and crossing herself like the Orthodox do. "Why do you light candles," I would ask, but she never elaborated. All she would say is, for my family. Unfortunately I was too young to ask any more questions except, can we go home now?
Since I figured my mother was not religious, I always wondered why she wore a gold cross on a gold chain around her neck. If I asked her, I don't remember any more details except I think she bought it on a trip to Greece. In the 90s, before dementia set in, she took the cross from around her neck and handed it to me, saying she hoped I would wear it. I never did. Upon my return from Romania last week, I searched for her cross among my array of jewelry, and finally found it tucked in a tiny silk bag in the back of my top drawer. The chain slipped easily around my neck, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, the person staring back at me was my mother. I am wearing the cross now as I write this, hoping it will inspire me to construct a story that will give deeper meaning and a better understanding about why the tears in Romania.
My Story about September 8th
|L-R PAM, NIKKI, BRUCE, AMY|
There were four of us traveling together in Romania: my husband Bruce, myself, and two of his three adult daughters, Nikki and Amy (ages 34 & 32). Each of us experienced the event I'm about to tell you in different ways, but a personal experience is what brought on my tears, and why I am wearing my mother's cross today.
It was early in the morning on September 8th, our fourth day in Romania. We were leaving Maramures and driving to Bucovina, another northern region. That's when we saw people hitchhiking and biking along the road. Some were men. Some were women with children, but they all had their thumbs out, wanting to go somewhere, but as we saw the numbers grow, we assumed they were heading for the same place. "Hey Cristian," I said to our guide and driver, "let's stop and offer them a ride." I should have known he would scowl because picking up hitchhikers was not on our very tight itinerary, but neither was the sight we were about to see.
As more and more people lined the sides of the road, I noticed most were in their traditional dress: men in heavy dark jackets and white shirts. The women wore colorful skirts of various patterns, but all had the ubiquitous cotton black kerchief tied beneath their chins. I also noticed that the younger girls also covered their heads with kerchiefs, but theirs were trimmed with bright colors like red and blue, and most of the younger boys wore traditional straw hats, unlike the adult men who wore no hats at all.
"Whoa! Stop the car," the four of us yelled almost simultaneously. "We want to take pictures." That's because we saw two men riding horses decorated like old-fashioned Christmas trees. Covered, in fact, with so much tinsel and sparkles, we questioned whether the horses could even see. The horses pranced around as if they were in a parade. The riders were more oblivious as they chatted and puffed on their cigarettes. After taking photos of the horses and the riders, we returned to the van and moved on slowly until we came to the village of Rozavela. That's when the three of us -- Nikki, Amy, and I -- screamed at Cristian to pull the van over and let us out. While we were screaming, let us out, Bruce was quietly preparing his camera, so he would be ready to video what was to come. These are the times I envy my husband and his skill with the video camera. Still images are great, but when you come upon a crowd of people singing, horses prancing, and then a parade, that's when you wish you had a video camera so you could record it.
"Today is September 8th," Cristian said, as if we were supposed to know what that meant. "Today is when the Orthodox celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary at churches around the world." I listened to the singing, which was more like chanting, or as Nikki described it, a call and response, I watched and I watched. That's when the memories of my mother lighting candles in church slowly emerged. I could feel myself choking up inside, but I swallowed hard and held back the tears which were welling up. Most of the people were dressed in black, so I knew I stood out like a sore thumb with my white pants and a camera hanging around my neck. But I wanted to take photos, so I kept a stiff upper lip struggling to hold my emotions at bay until I could capture the event. Everything moved fast, and there were so many people standing in the way, there was no time to check ISO, shutter speed or F-stop. I just snapped pictures as fast as I could, stopping only long enough to wipe the tears from my cheeks and make the sign of the Orthodox cross, just like I remembered how my mother did.
That's when I broke down and cried. I stopped taking pictures because I knew they would be awful anyway. I just wanted to feel what was going on deep down inside -- in my heart, in my gut, in my legs that were shaking. I was trying to relate. The emotions I felt were coming deep from within a place I don't often explore in my conscious mind. This level of emotion, the one that relates to my parents, is in my subconscious and in my dreams, times when I have no control. I walked slowly among the crowd smiling all the time at the old ladies, who were looking at me, studying me, seeing the tears, and noticing I was crossing myself over and over. I don't think I've ever crossed myself like this before, but I found myself doing it, just like my mother used to do and it felt natural. One old lady looked deep into my eyes and I stared back at her. I'm pretty sure she knew why I was crying, and I think she could see what I saw. There, in my mind's eye, was my mother, Lucia Perkins, plain as day, crossing herself and praying as she entered the inside of a church, lighting candles, and as she said, doing it for my family. How could something so simple and so spontaneous bring up memories charged with so much emotion? What will Bruce and his girls think when they see me crying and my nose all stuffed up? These were questions racing through my mind. Fortunately, the three of them were in their own worlds too, engaged in what they were seeing, taking pictures, and definitely not looking at me. "The Archbishop is coming," Cristian said. "I need to move the van, otherwise we'll be stuck here for hours."
That's when I saw the Archbishop. He wore a long black frock and a kalimavkion, a typical stiff cylindrical hat resembling a stovepipe. He was surrounded by children dressed traditionally and holding banners displaying Christian symbols and pictures of the Virgin Mary. Besides us there were a few paparazzi, but no Americans or other tourists in sight. As he walked along, the Archbishop chatted to the priest walking beside him, and he stopped long enough to listen to the villagers sing their call and response. As he got closer to the church, the crowd grew thicker, and as an outsider, I felt funny pushing my way through the crowd just to get a picture. I tried to blend in, but that was ridiculously impossible. Since I didn't want to lose the complicated emotion I was feeling and because the procession was coming closer and closer, I just settled for a place in the crowd from which to take photos.
If you would like to feel the excitement and emotion that took place that morning in Rozavela, please click on this 2 minute video that Bruce created with remarkable footage from the event. September 8th, the celebration of the birth of the Virgin Mary.
After the religious procession moved into the church, we returned to the van, and all Bruce and the girls could say was WOW! Feeling like I'd been struck by lightening, I said WOW too, but knew that it would take some time for me to process the emotion I felt, then write about my experience, and share it with you.
After laying my soul bare, I realize that this emotion was about missing my mother.