Marina walks down the path with a steady pace. She knows the place well; she has spent her childhood in the hills north of Bucharest. It is not a very nice day; a sticky rain falls without respite, the sharp wind of the Carpathians creeps beneath our jackets. The path continues uphill, disappearing behind the hilltops, our destination is not visible yet. It is not easy to keep up with Marina; the smooth sole of my shoes slides on the damp, moss-covered boulders, grassy patches are turning into swamps. A thick fog is bathing the hills with a sinister light. The shining eye of a crow observes us, menacing, behind willow branches. Suddenly, we hear the unmistakable clop of hooves on stone. A boy on his way back from the mill stops to rescue us, offering a lift to Auntie Alina’s house.
Marina is a friend from Bucharest. She lives in a Soviet building with her sister, in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. She has been living in town for years, but she comes from Petricaua, a village in the countryside two hours north of Bucharest. After having spent several days in the city, I was growing tired of the wide boulevards, incessant traffic and Soviet architecture, looming Metropolis-like behind each corner. Marina had planned to visit her aunt, in her home village, and invited me to go along. I was happy to accept.
Shortly after leaving Bucharest, on the road, Dacia cars give way to tractors and horse carts, potholes become deeper and more frequent the closer we get to our destination. Then the car gives up, the road is too bad, we have to keep walking. Auntie Alina is expecting us at midday, but thanks to traffic and several deviations we are nearly an hour late.
After trekking for another hour up the hills in the unforgiving weather, we are wet and cold: the cart looks like a godsend. The driver’s name is Mircea; he’s a 15 years old high school student, helping his family during the Easter holidays. We climb on board, and sit on top of the plastic sheets covering hessian bags bulging with flour. We proceed with jerks and bumps; the wooden wheels are hard on our backs. At one point, crossing the muddy path in the cart becomes impossible. We are bogged. Mircea laughs as we get off to help him push the cart, with mud squelching beneath our trainers and the horses’ hooves. Following his directions, we break free, and lead the cart towards a smaller path, little more than a track, leading towards a house on the top of a hill.
“We are nearly there, that is Auntie Alina’s house” says Marina, gazing towards a small wooden house with a painted cross in the courtyard.
“Guys, take off your shoes” whispers Marina, pointing to my dirty trainers, still bearing the signs of our battle to wrestle the cart free of the mud. Dozens of shoes are outside the door. There are heavy work boots, coloured plastic flip-flops, trainers in various sizes, fluffy animal slippers and even a pair of leather sandals, with chunky stiletto heels. From the house we can hear singing, chatter, laughter. “We are lucky! This is șezătoare” Marina informs us, with pride. Sezătoare is a local tradition, exclusively for women. The literal meaning is ‘gathering’. Women meet to work, but at the same time they enjoy themselves, sing, gossip and tell each other jokes. In the room, a dozen women are sitting around a long table; they are singing a cheerful song, while their skilled hands deftly move the spinning wheel, embroider, mend socks, spin wool and wrap it into balls. The fireplace warms the house gently; the room smells like straw, the bodies close to one another have the sharp and pungent smell of people who work with animals.
Alina sits in the centre, singing with a steady voice; the glances of other women reveal her authority. She must be about seventy; her face is browned by a lifetime working in the fields, lined by the wind that whips the Carpathians all year long. “They always have șezătoare at Alina’s house” reveals Marina “people in the village, especially the women, holds her in high esteem. She is like an unofficial leader, the village matriarch; everybody goes to her when that have a problem”.
Marina introduces her to her aunt; her handshake is firm, confident. She asks me about where I am from, about my family. Many women she knows have moved to Italy, my home country. They work as nurses and maids, she says, away from their own families. Her gaze pierces me, for an instant. I notice Alina has the habit of pursing her lips when making a point, making them look like a flower. She wears a daffodil behind her ear; she holds my hand and leads me towards a picture of herself fifty years ago. She was a beautiful woman, with a flower behind her ear. She loves flowers, she says.
Meanwhile, șezătoare continues. Two women play with a five-year old named Geanina: they brush her hair and dress her, chatting animatedly.
“They are exchanging recipes for Lent” Marina says. There are young women, one with a pierced nose, and older ladies; most of them wear colourfully embroidered shirts with geometrical cross-stitch patterns, heavy black skirts and a kerchief on their heads. They start singing another song; this time following a plaintive, mournful rhythm. The hushed tones bounce on the walls of the small room.
“They wrote many of these songs themselves, they are written on that book” explains Marina, pointing towards a blackened handwritten book on the table. “This is Elisaveta’s song. She died two months ago.”
All songs begin with a reference to Nature. “Willow leaf, when I was young, I married a poor man. My parents said to me, if you believe in God and work hard, you will be happy. Now I am old, but I have a horse and a cart, with them I see the world”. Elisabeta observes us from a framed picture on the wall, looking pleased. A life in a song.
The sound of a bagpipe comes from outside; the women stand up together, Catalin has arrived. Alina introduces him to us: “He is Eugenia’s husband, my cousin. He is the village musician. He would like to meet our guests”. Catalin plays the bagpipes with passion, then changes to a handmade wooden flute; he plays a jolly tune, while the women dance on the grass, first in a circle then in pairs, holding hands, skipping and beating their heels on the grass. The weather has improved. The sun peeks shyly behind the clouds, the flute plays along birds singing, and the bleats of lambs that will live only another week, until Easter. Joyful cries accompany the dance, a game of questions and answers between Alina and her cousin Maria. Listening carefully, it is possible to hear words; it is strigături, a traditional chant from the Romanian Carpathians.
“Villages here are scattered on the hills” Marina explains “Strigături means ‘shouting’, it developed because people used to scream to communicate from one hill to another. They are merry songs, talking about life in the village”.
After a little while, Auntie Alina leads us back into her home. She very proud of her ‘museum’; a couple of rooms on the back of her house where she has gathered the memories of a lifetime. Carpets, vases, musical instruments; there are also two small frames with a collage made using bark, moss and dried flowers. And most important of all, a collection of embroidered shirts; hanging on the walls, draped over the divans, some are over one hundred years old, made by Alina’s grandmother. A school photo is hanging on the wall; Ceausescu’s emotionless face observes the group of children, who look as if they were about to burst out laughing. Alina points to the teacher; the same face, beautiful yet stern, the same flower behind the ear that greeted us at our arrival. She moves to another room, sits at the loom and starts to work, and reminisce.
“We have been so lucky. We did not have to leave. Many had to go to Bucharest, to Ploiesti, to work in the factories. They used to come and take them, but they never came to Petricaua”. Some women are spinning wool. The freshly sheared wool is tied to wonderfully carved wooden sticks, which the women keep tucked into their belts. Their hands turn tufts into yarn with apparent ease. The click of the loom accompanies Alina’s memories.
“Girls nowadays are too outspoken. They were a lot quieter when I was young. But I was a tomboy! I was the first born and I had no brothers, so I was raised with the ‘needle and the whip’. I had to help my mother with sewing, but I also used to ride and hunt with my father. And I loved playing football, but the boys always wanted me to play as goalkeeper. One day there was this boy I fancied, trying to catch the ball I slipped and caught his belt, his trousers dropped and he was left stark naked!” Alina laughs remembering the episode, the yellow daffodil falls on the loom.
Back to Alina’s living room: it is nearly six, people eat early around here. It is the last week of Lent, a time of fasting for the Christian Orthodox community, forty days without meat or dairy products. “That just makes Easter lunch taste better!” Marina jokes. The table is laden; we eat from communal plates, bean puree covered in tomato sauce, vegetable soup, a corn and nut mix, another soup made with prunes in lukewarm water. We drink elderflower juice and warm brandy poured generously by Catalin, who does not part from his bagpipes. More than thirty people sit in the same room, shoulder to shoulder on the wooden benches.
“Most people from the village eat together, during Lent. Especially during the last week” explains Marina. Children chase ginger cats under the table, women chat and help each other in the kitchen, men down glasses of brandy; the atmosphere is familiar, joyous, festive. Many families are like one, eating together, sharing. A pang of envy hits me, I have never experienced this feeling of community, of people being there for one another.
Alina wants to talk to me a little more.
“Are there villages like ours, in your country?” I must admit I do not know. Then I remember my grandmother, and her tales of growing up in the countryside, several families under the same roof. I remember her stories of Sunday lunches; of growing up with animals and dozens other children, of the wide horizons, of her sadness when she moved to the city after the war destroyed her home and family.
“There may be some villages like this one, still. My grandmother grew up in a place like this” I answer. “But she lives in a city now”.
Alina wants us to stay, but we have to get back to the car before it is dark. Little Geanina returns home with her grandmother, pulling her toy truck. Another woman goes back home from the fields, carrying a haystack on her shoulders. The end of a day of work in the fields. She enters Alina’s house; the other women offer her a bowl of soup. Alina comes to us, to say goodbye: “My parents used to say that before we go, we all have to leave something for the village. My father left the cross in front of the house, my uncle dug the well, my grandfather built the mill. I created the museum. I would like to open it to visitors, friends, I would like to tell people about our life here, in Petricaua. We have been so lucky. We have always had each other”.