We gathered on September 27th for the world premiere of HORA’s documentary, “A Thousand Dollars and Back,” exploring the experiences of early Romanian immigrants to Minnesota. Mr. Don Shelby, narrator.
The hidden valley of Maramures stretches for sixty miles through a fold in the rugged Carpathian Mountains of Romania along the Ukrainian border. Nestled among its rolling hills the village of Ieud spreads out along a mountain stream for nearly four miles. Population in the village is reckoned by counting the columns of smoke rising in the icy winter air. With five or six people huddled around each warm hearth, five hundred columns suggests that the village numbers around 3000 people.
When I first visited this village some ten years ago I drove past pecking chickens and playing children. I drove around horse drawn wagons, loaded with logs, hay, or persons. I wove between individuals and groups of people walking. Every house has horses and wagons. There are some twelve to fifteen hundred of them but in the whole village there are only seventeen autos. Most people walk. After about two miles the houses clustered along the way thicken to surround the center of the village with its enormous new cement Church, the village hall, the school, a bar, and a single store. When I reached where I was going, I had driven maybe four miles and arrived one hundred and fifty years ago.
On the one hand village life exists to this day at a level of endless hard labor. Exhausting hours of daily chores return with every dawn: milk the cow, feed the stock, clean the stalls, chop the wood, cook the meals. It is a life rooted in an eternal struggle with nature. In one of his novels Joseph Roth describes conditions in a poor village with these words: “Living became dearer from year to year. The crops were always poorer and poorer. The carrots diminished, the eggs were hollow, the potatoes froze, the soup was watery, the carp thin, the pike short, the ducks lean, the geese tough, and the chickens amounted to nothing.”
And yet in another sense the villagers are rich. For the most part they have everything they need for the only way of life they know. They raise their own food, build their own houses, and make their own clothes. Their life is rich with festivals and celebrations. It is rich with families, caring, and faith. It is rich with traditional costumes, customs, music and dance.
Most of all, the village is rich in faith. The villagers have found in their faith the triumph over their remorseless cycle of labor. Farming is their way of life and faith is their way of understanding life.
The old wooden Church high on the hill dates back to 1364. People passing on the road greet each other with: “Jesus be praised”, to which is responded, “Unto ages of ages”. When the priest walks by women curtsy and men tip their hats.
Astonished and fascinated by this fervent faith, my wife and I seized an opportunity that allowed us a winter visit in 1998. On Christmas day we arrived early at the great cement Church in the center of the village. The Church was without any heat. Inside it was around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, (minus 5 Celsius). The cold crept up from the concrete, right into our bones. One could watch the breath of the priest emerge in clouds as he chanted the liturgy. By the middle of the service when around 2000 people crowded in and around the Church, we were so cold that my wife didn’t want to stand back up after kneeling for the great entrance. She had decided that if she had to die sooner or later, freezing to death in a Church would be a rather blessed way to go. Later she was often to say that she had never been so spiritually warm and so physically cold. Our host sensed her pain and led her out of the Church. I found her later cuddled in a cozy room warmed by a massive tile oven and liberal shots of Schnapps.
Later over the years we were to discover that the heart of the Christmas feast isn’t in the services but it is in the carols. The services form the frame. Everything is readied as the sun sinks lower on the eve of the feast. I was told that in some homes straw is scattered on the floor so that on this Holy Night we will all remember that it was in a stall, that our Lord was born. As night falls Vespers is sung in the Church. Following Vespers the first table of the feast is visited, but it is a Lenten meal. Christmas is preceded by a strict Advent fast and this fast isn’t broken until after the liturgy of Christmas day.
As the Holy Night deepens and darkens the villagers don their finest and most ornate costumes and head out into the night to sing in the Christ child. All night long singers in little clusters, criss-cross the snow covered villages and valleys laying the sound of ancient carols to echo in the frozen air and haunt the soul. The Romanian poet, George Tarnea says this of these songs:
“Romanian carols are not merely simple songs of religious origin, but wide windows through which we are allowed, once a year, to pass the immaculate snow – towards the evergreen Heaven and to glimpse God, at least for an instant.
Carols put people in the mood for a perfect communion with the simple and healing greatness of Jesus’ Birth. The carol singers bring the music of annunciation to every house. Romanian carols have a special metaphysical dimension which distinguishes them from the Christmas songs of all other peoples. Primeval sounds, primeval words, primeval rhythms: all these create – both for the singer and the listener – the cosmic image of Birth, Ascension and Purification by Faith.”
It was said of one carol singer: “It is no chance that we sinners, when only caressed by his voice, can imagine the angels singing until the rocks themselves weep.”
These carols are Christmas in the Orthodox villages of Romania. This also explains why the congregation is so slow to gather in the blinding light of the snow bright day for the service in the Church. They have been up all night. The Church is never able to contain all the Christmas congregation so sometimes hundreds end up standing around the outside of the Church in the snow to attend the service. Following the Liturgy the villagers vanish to enjoy the festive meal and finally break the fast (even if they didn’t strictly keep the fast).
After the meal, groggily, the villagers again make their way toward the Church. In the slanting sun of the afternoon it is time for the “Nativity Pageant.” For its performance a special platform has been built onto the outside front of the Church. The presentation is called, “the Bethlehem.” Such pageants are found over much of Eastern Europe. Although the roots of this custom lay hidden in the history of the Church they are clearly related to the mystery plays found in the medieval Western Church. It is a village honor to be allowed to play one of the parts. The story line is roughly that of the Christmas story with the addition of some wild frightening fur covered forest spirits who dash around, on and off stage, terrorizing the young boys and girls much to the delight of the crowd. Every afternoon for the first three days of Christmas most of the villagers gather to watch the play. The priest, mayor, and honored guests, sit on chairs at the back of the platform against the wall of the Church. Everyone seems to know the script, and each waits excitedly to react to the performance of their favorite parts. The audience is as much a part of the play as the actors and essentially the same crowd returns day after day to enjoy the celebration.
When I was four years old, I discovered a taste for telling stories to an empty room. Back then, when we still lived in Bucharest, in the Drumul Taberei district, all I needed was a bit of open space, somewhere where no one could see me, where I could run endlessly in circles and leave behind little mists of spit –my lips trying tirelessly to mimic the sound of spinning helicopter blades and airplane propellers. For some reason, my stories could only be told in this way, because only in this way could they materialize, like films, inside my mind. Plotlines, characters, and intricate action scenes were always clearest to me as I jumped over toys and furniture, or as I dove, head-first, into a couch –enacting some catastrophic explosion that marked the climax of an epic melodrama. Three years later, when we moved to Minnesota, I learned to tell my stories in English (or at least what I felt sounded like English). Suddenly, they seemed more important when told in this other language. I almost felt responsible for them. I felt the need to improve them, to make them better and this brought along a new kind of pleasure, one I hadn’t experienced before. “Boy,” I’d say, pausing in the middle of a big scene to catch my breath, “I could totally do this for the rest of my life.”
It’s still embarrassing to say, but it wasn’t until turning sixteen that I finally stopped telling stories in this way. I was more or less shamed into quitting by my parents. “You’re too old to still prance about the house like that,” they’d said and I hung my head low, my face flushed red like a radish, realizing they were probably right. So I stopped. It was now time to be serious, I thought, to be a grown up. When I went to college, I told myself I’d study only something very serious, something very hard, and so settled on Mathematics. I trudged through as best I could. I worked hard –I can’t say I wasn’t serious– but there were still many nights when I put off doing a problem set to read a book instead, watch a film (maybe two), or sketch a few scenes and characters.
The day I submitted my application for an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing at Cornell University I was working as a business analyst in Chicago, a job I didn’t particularly enjoy. Of course, I never thought I’d be accepted into this extremely selective program. Only four people are extended an offer each year, four lucky people out of hundreds of applicants. “It’s just like any other lottery,” I thought, “I might as well give it a try.” So when I woke up one Saturday to the sound of my phone buzzing eagerly atop the nightstand –that long awaited call letting me know I’d made it in– you can bet I was beside myself with joy. I stayed up three whole nights afterwards, without a wink of sleep (I’m not exaggerating) imagining all the things I would write about, all the things I wanted to say.
It’s an absolute privilege to be at Cornell University now, in my first year. I’m surrounded by a wonderful community of writers, who feel the same way I do about crafting their stories and poems. The place is also steeped in a fantastic literary tradition; just a block up the street from my house, for instance, Vladimir Nabokov wrote his famous Lolita. Several times, the legend goes, he almost set it on fire atop his backyard-grill because he was plagued by doubts and insecurities. Lucky for us, Vera, his wife, was always around to rescue the manuscript from the flames. There are also many brilliant writers (the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney for one) who come to give readings here on campus and as an MFA student I have the great privilege of meeting them. Well, even if I’m too shy to actually speak to them directly, I at least get to drink wine in the same room and bask a bit in their aura. Of course, an MFA degree certainly doesn’t offer any guarantee of success later on. But it does offer four solid and funded years of time to sit down at my desk each day and do the one thing I love most. It’s funny, but after twenty years I still somehow ended right back where I started, telling stories to an empty room.