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Maramures Region, Romania 
 
May 20

Morning mist hugged the ground, the not yet risen sun backlit distant hills with a rosy glow, tiny farm houses some with thatch roofs, most with tidy garden plots, dotted the landscape beside fields of haystacks, hay racks and orchard borders. A rooster crowed.

It is morning and within the moving train we prepare for another day of learning more about the world we live in.  

Life is good.

It was still early Sunday morning when we arrived in Sighet. Only a few people were on one of the two main streets. A horse still attached to a rubber wheeled wagon was munching the lawn of a yellow brick church.

From a hotel in town we phoned Muntean’s Guesthouse in the village of Vadu Izei, a tiny hamlet 6km south of Sighet and Florin came and picked us up. At the guest house we tried to stay out of the way while their previous night’s Polish student guests departed. They sat us down at a picnic table and brought us a breakfast of eggs, meatballs, cheese, bread and non-cholesterol tomatoes and cucumbers.

We talked to Florin about a local tour, perhaps tomorrow. He said that he had planned to go on a trip starting today, but that could be put off until tomorrow if we were prepared to see the villages of Maramures today. We agreed to leave right after our bags were in our room and we had a quick wash.

We had read about the villages of Maramures with their people still literally living off the land while wearing traditional dress everyday and using horse power for transportation and farming. Our first glimpse confirmed what we had read. As we stood out on the street waiting for Florin a gentleman when by on a bicycle and two ladies (one middle-aged and one old with a cane) walked by wearing skirts and headscarves.

Only a few minutes into our drive with Florin we asked him to stop for photos. Horses in a field. This was common grazing ground, Florin explained as we saw one fellow walk up to a horse in the open field and effortlessly put on a bridle and lead the horse away. The countryside was green and lush with little villages tucked in the hills. Many of the farm entrances have high gates, some more elaborate than others. There are tall double doors on one side, big enough for horse and wagon, and on the other side a small pedestrian door. There are common symbols, Florin pointed out. The rope-looking circles are rounds of bread which is popular with the people. The other round symbols represent the sun. The centre stem which "Y"s out at the top represents the tree of life. "The high gates are to keep the evil spirits from entering," Florin told us.

Church yard entrances also have them. We noticed that, because Florin took us to many churches made of wood. Old ones and small ones, large ones and new ones. Some who have competed to have the tallest spires and a new one that does, but controversially so because the foundation is too tall and made of stone instead of wood. Most had wood shingles which have been split by hand with blunt pointed ends and bevelled edges. He also took us to two monasteries. One looking most attractive and appearing more like a tourist facility then a religious retreat and the second which is just now being constructed around the controversial highest steeple (no religious significance ... just bragging rights) which we are told will mimic the first.

At one of the first churches, Florin showed us a board hanging horizontally and free from the building. In times of war and occupation when they could not use the bells, for fear of attracting the enemy, a mallet was used to tap out a rhythm on the board. The sound would travel up to a kilometre and local people would know if there was a fire, a need to gather for a message or a church service depending on the tapping. When we reached the controversial highest steeple church we saw the board in action. A nun took a handheld board and with a rhythmic beat walked around the church, then went over to a board similar to the one Terry had tapped with his hand, and with two mallets generated a clear pleasant sound with great resonance.

We stopped at a local mill. Being Sunday it was not in use, except for a rug being cleaned. This in such an ingenious way to use water power. The water is directed into a downward narrowing wooden chute which then produces more water power as it comes out the other end into a wooden slated barrel into which a heavy rug has been placed. The force turns the rug and churns the water which spills out of the tilted barrel on the other side. A most difficult job made easy. The heavy woollen rugs are then hung on fences to dry.

At the same mill water power runs the corn grinder. The miller takes 10% of the corn in trade for his services. Behind a closed door, Florin also showed us a water powered wool carder and a still for making plum and apple brandy ... local favourites. Also under the roof of the mill was an old wooden horse drawn threshing wagon which still has a few weeks of rest before it is called into service.

Although it was interesting to see the churches, the rich green landscapes and the mill, it was the people which held our fascination.

Romanian faces are most intriguing beyond the character filled shapes and definitions . There is something special, particularly behind the wrinkles ... a youthful resilience which seems to defy age and hardships.

We asked Florin if people minded having their pictures taken and did they expect some payment if we did. He laughed and told us, "no".

To our delight it opened up an opportunity to communicate with these hospitable people of the Maramures who, on Sundays and after hard days of work in the fields, sit upon benches outside their tall gates and visit. Next to seeing in person, photos show best.  

We saw some teens in traditional costume (many also in western wear) and asked if they put them on for church on Sundays. "No. They are too brightly coloured for church. They wear them to parties."

 

"Do the parents tell them to wear them?"

"Oh, no," Florin said with an expression which indicated parents have difficulty dictating to teens here, just as anywhere else in the world, "it is because they want to."

"And the head scarves the girls and ladies wear; are those for religious reasons."

"No," he said with a shrug of his shoulders, "it’s what they like to wear. Like the men and their hats."

Oh, yes, the men in their hats. What a wonderful picture they make. Each village has it’s own hat style for men, just as women’s skirts and blouses help to identify in which village they live. These pieces of clothing seem to be worn with the same pride one might associate with team or university logos. The hats, to our eyes, seemed to be a little small perched upon their heads, but they manage to stay on even while working in the fields.

We asked Florin about some of the area customs. For example, next door to his house is a tree without leaves, but it has pots hanging from its cropped limbs. "That is for drying pots. If the top pot is white it is a signal to the boys that there in a girl of marrying age in the house." When we returned to Florin’s guesthouse we noticed the tree next door did indeed have a white pot on the top. He also told us that in traditional homes there is a beam in the main room. Over the beam hangs the girl’s dowery ... blankets, carpets, garments. "So the boys can see what is being offered along with the daughter."

When he took us to the Maramures Ethnographical Museum – a folk museum showing a gathering of buildings from earlier times (homes, barns and storage), fences (different styles built by different ethnic peoples who inhabited the area - Hungarians, Romania, Czech) and tools, he pointed out such a beam draped with handmade textiles.

 

The joyful attitude towards living is carried on in a famous Maramures graveyard ... The Merry Cemetery. A genuine open-air museum, the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta, dating back to 1935, lies near the village church and includes over 800 folk art monuments (graves) of stunning appearance and meaning. These are the lifetime work of Stan Patras, a skilled wood carver. He was a simple man who was dedicated to his work of making wooden crosses but in a very original and personal manner; managing to lay aside the sadness and dark aspects of death.

The unique crosses are an explosion of bright colours with blue being predominant, representing the sky to which the soul rises after death. He succeeded in turning despair into hope; bantering death with realism and humour with emphasis on life’s triumphs. The crosses are in fact a chronicle of a small community. Made of painted oak, the crosses have folk rhymes carved into wood immortalizing the deceased’s life, occupations and family problems.

 Above each epitaph is a carved caricature of the deceased depicting an important time in their lives. Epitaphs are written in the first-person and are ironic or humorous ... which explains the place’s name – the Merry Cemetery. Stan himself is buried here. His grave not only has a head board like the others, but a foot board as well. His work has been carried on by Dumitru Pop, one of Stan’s apprentices.

It had been a full day. We were not the only ones heading back "home". Cows were leaving their common pastures and heading along the roadways. Only the young ones needed some guidance. The older animals with full udders sauntered along the road, oblivious to car and bike traffic which stopped or veered out of the way, until they reached the gate to their owner’s home and barn where they would leave the rest of the cows and head into their own barn ready for milking.

On our return to the Muntean’s Guesthouse, Florin’s mom laid out a most delicious three course homemade dinner served by his dad who introduced us to their own plum brandy ... a brew which could take the needles off a porcupine’s back.

We hadn’t stopped grinning since our first look out the train window this morning. It had been a most wonderful day.

May 21

After a hearty breakfast made by Florin’s mom and designed for farmers burning off calories with heavy field labour, we walked to the highway (2 lane) crossroads. We waved good morning to those in horsedrawn wagons and those with hoes over their shoulders heading for a hot day tending their row upon row of vegetables.

We caught the bus into town which was much busier than our yesterday arrival. We had some chores of our own to do. Whenever we needed directions, the locals were not satisfied to point us in the right direction but left their shops and personally escorted us (in one case a couple of blocks) and explain to the other shop owner what our needs were. It was incredible and yet another example of the outstanding hospitality offered by the warm and gracious people of the Maramures.

We have only had minor difficulties with language. During those few times, it was us who did not speak "the" language – not expecting they should know ours. But so many do speak some English. Not being understood, should never be a cause not to travel. There are so many things you can do without conversation.

For example, today Terry got his hair cut at a barber shop on main street. There were seven barbers working – four men and three women. All chairs were full and there was a waiting line sitting on a long green padded bench. We waited and when it was his turn the oldest of the men motioned to Terry to come and sit in his chair. No conversation needed. Terry wasn’t asking to compare a set of new automobile tires; everyone in the place knew he was there for a hair cut. The barber could see the kind of style he wore and reasoned correctly that he just wanted it shorter. Even though a number of twenty-somethings were getting their already short hair shorn down to the skin, no fear came across Terry when his barber pulled out the shears. Terry enjoys European barbers – they take their time to do it right and spend some time pampering with massages and comb outs.

The day was a very relaxed one as we walked the streets with the locals and had a drink at a sidewalk café and did some people watching.

Before heading back by bus (though Florin said it was okay to hitchhike), we stopped into one of the big grocery stores to pick up supplies for tomorrow’s long day of travel. We didn’t hitchhike, but a car did pull up and ask where it was we were going. When we told them, they apologized that they weren’t going that way and drove off. Picking up rides for the equivalent of bus fare helps towards the cost of gas.

Walking from the highway junction back to Mutean’s Guesthouse we ran into a convoy of two wagons (rush hour).

Again Florin’s mom dished up a great meal and his dad served. This time there was another house guest, a young backpacker from Sweden, to share conversation and plum brandy.

We took a picture of Florin’s mom and dad ... truly delightful people ... and said our good-byes. We packed for an early departure.

May 22

Florin had arranged for a friend to pick us up and take us to the train (for the same price as a commercial taxi). We hope he is saving the money up for a newer car because we don’t think this one will last much longer; the back seat had no springs left, the shocks were but a faded memory – one gets a derriere massage from the drive shaft and the tires are balder than the clean shaven heads we saw yesterday at the barbers.

  

     

 

click here to continue May 22 and trip to Suceava, Romania ...


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