16.12.2017 – 17.12.2017
It was raining when we got to Stanciova. Everything was soaked. A cold wind was blowing. The village seemed deserted.
After 15 minutes of warming up by a stove, we decided to go out again and get ourselves lost in the village. Maybe meet some people. Maybe talk to them.
We followed the street that went gently uphill, together with Nico and Iulia. At the end of the street, a small crowd had gathered in front of a house situated on the slope of the hill. A man was standing on the corner smoking a cigarette. Somebody had died. A Serbian woman.
We stopped at the crossroad, waiting for the funeral procession that was going to come down that road, on its way to the cemetery located on a small hill at the entrance to the village, more than a kilometre away. A woman with rubber slippers and a headkerchief joined us at the crossroad. She had also come to watch the procession. Two priests and several boys dressed in white started towards the cemetery. Behind them, a van carrying the coffin and behind it, about 50 people dressed in black. The boys carried flags and crosses. They giggled and hopped around. The priests were singing in Serbian. Somberly. Gospodi pomilui.
The woman in rubber slippers explained to us that she was going to run to the Romanian church situated nearby, to tell them to ring the bells for the dead woman. There was no one left to ring the bells at the Serbian church. The funeral procession was right in front of us and we waited for it to pass. The bells had started chiming and the wind hissed between houses chilling us to the bones. The sky looked violet-gray and swollen. We joined the procession. Nico started talking to a woman.
She was from Stanciova, but she had lived in Timișoara for 38 years. Now that she had retired, she had returned home. In all those years that she’d been away, she had worked at Filty. She had a flat in Timișoara and her parents’ house in Stanciova. Her parents were dead, her father having passed away recently. She told us to talk to another man in the procession.
We were walking along the main road, approaching the Serbian church and cemetery. Silence, wind and rain. At the top of the hill, a couple of children were watching the procession advancing through the tall dry grass. We passed Teo, our host, who was near the school, surrounded by children in Santa Claus hats, distributing gifts and packages around the village. She waved at us as we passed.
Nico confidently approached the man who had been indicated to us by the woman as having worked at Filty. Milin Ilie Radoslav. The President of the Serbian Union and owner of the only shop in the village.
We left the cold and entered the warmth of Milin’s shop. Milin is a well built man, with a round face and big, brown eyes. He looks like a serious man. He says “forename” meaning “surname”, but no one contradicts him. He tells us the village was founded in 1457. He seems tired. We’re all sitting in a small room at the back of the shop, in which there is an armchair, a small table and a cupboard with leftovers – some sausages and a box of spread cheese. Milin’s daughter is serving at the counter. I run out of ink cartridges for my pen and buy some from her. She is pretty sullen. And bored. But she serves me.
Milin starts to unwind, he offers us a bottle of răchie (raki) as a present (he doesn’t drink, he likes beer), and he tells us of the village, of Banațka Crna Gora, The Montenegro of Banat, of what was, but no longer is. The village is impoverished, grown old and forgotten. The young leave, the old come back, nothing seems to work.
At one point Milin’s daughter comes in to tell us “the Englishman is passing with the goats”. Milin explains to us that a Belgian has settled in the village and bought himself two goats. For some reason, the villagers call him “the Englishman”. He goes on telling us about the Belgian’s goats, how he built himself a house, about all the foreigners who come to spend the summer at the Belgian’s house, about the fact that the Belgian seems to be doing nothing, and yet he doesn’t seem to be having any trouble with money. He shrugs. Nico and Iulia go to look for the Belgian and I stay and chat to Milin.
He tells me that there were three brothers, Stanko, Marko and George, who came and settled in the area. This is how Stanciova came to be. The three areas of Stanciova bear their names — Matița from Marko, Gogenova from George and Stanciova from Stanko. Marko was the youngest, Stanko the eldest. He tells me about the squabbles between Serbians and Hungarians during the Austro-Hungarian period. How they used to fight over music. The Hungarians have all left the village. They even took their church with them. It’s in the centre of Dumbrăvița now. They took it piece by piece. All that’s left is the parish house up on a hill, but it has fallen into ruin.
Milin doesn’t believe in the future. He says that the Serbians are going to disappear. There are 300 people in the village. Moldavians, Transylvanians and Serbians. Young people don’t speak Serbian anymore. There is no more school in the village. Stanciova is part of the town Recaș, but that doesn’t do the village any good. The only ones who prospered after the Revolution were the shepherds from Mărginime. But even they don’t seem to be doing so well now. It’s hard.
I went out – back into the cold – lit myself a cigarette and bumped into Teo, who took me to see the newly rehabilitated building of the school, and the community projects: a free-shop, a library, the kindergarten rooms. We got into the car and, on our way home, we picked up an old man leaning on a stick, heading home with a small bag of pomană. Gigea is very old and pretty tipsy. He talks to Teo the whole time. He thanks Teo for taking him. He is wearing rubber flip-flops and thick woollen socks. His hat is crooked. We stop. When we arrive, he struggles to get up from the back seat, all the while continuing to thank us.
– Your man is a good man. Tomas is a good man, Gigea says to Teo and disappears inside a run-down courtyard. Teo tells me they’re neighbours.
Nico and Iulia showed up at dusk. They had spoken to Joos, the Belgian who settled in Stanciova, a 30 year old Western-European who came to Romania to find himself. Joos’s parents are bankers in Bruxelles. His mother came to see how he lives. Maybe it’s better for him this way. He has had some problems with substance addiction of all kinds. Here, in Stanciova, he is away from temptation. He got himself goats to keep him company. They’re like dogs to him. He keeps them on a leash. Nico asked him is he feels like part of the community. A bit, maybe. He doesn’t know. They don’t come and visit him, he doesn’t visit them either. He learned the language and he manages.
We sit and chat to Teo. We find out her story and how she got to Stanciova. Her kitchen smells pleasantly of cake and smoke from the stove.
We reach Margina, the Touristic Info Centre. Damaris and Mirela, the two women in charge of the Centre, welcome us enthusiastically. Damaris talks a lot, knows what she’s talking about, and seems very involved. Mirela is not as chatty in the beginning, but she is equally excited to be working at the Centre. The two of them organize touristic activities in Margina. There are many touristic activities happening in Margina, from carriage rides to lunch at the sheepfold or at Mrs. Emilia’s place in Coșteiu-de-Sus. The two women get the people in the community involved. And the tourists come.
I set out with Flaviu to meet Sever, a carpenter from Bistrița-Năsăud who has settled in Margina. Sever is a a man of short stature, with big hands, a congenial moustache and merry eyes. Sly eyes. He tells us how he got to Margina, immediately after his compulsory army training. He has always worked wood. He went to a crafts school in Reghin and worked all sorts of jobs, from making furniture to making violins. He married a girl from Margina. They met at the vinegar factory in the village. Sever is 48 and a real workaholic. He has never been on holiday. He works all the time. At one point, he even went to Denmark to work, but he didn’t like it. It was too far away.
He shows us his workshop. Most of his tools, he has either reconditioned them himself, built them from scratch or took them from the scrapheap. He’s a modest man, but a good craftsman. He’s always working on orders.
We thank Sever for having us and head towards Anca and Ale who are visiting the Ceaușescu family. We pass through Colonia Margina along an abandoned railway line. Everything seems forgotten and left to the whim of the elements. The factory’s silhouette, with its narrow chimneys, looms on the horizon worn out by rains, a husk from which everything that could be stolen has been stolen.
We get to the Ceaușescu’s, Napoleon and Mărioara, a couple of teachers who have been retired for a long time. In the room there’s Flaviu, Ale, Anca and myself. Mrs. Ceaușescu is sitting on a couch next to Anca. Mr. Ceaușescu is sitting on a chair in the corner. The room is warm, full of books and nostalgia. Mărioara and Napoleon talk in turns, or over each other, or completing each other. About their life as children in the interwar period, about the King, the war, Communism. About how Communism had made them someone. About what it was like being a teacher in the village at that time. About camp holidays and theatre shows. About how they tried to keep Margina’s history alive by writing several monographies. About how they wish people wouldn’t be forgotten. Many have already been forgotten, but they tried to keep their memory alive, as well as they could, in the pages of their monographies. We eat cake, drink beer and say goodbye to the Ceaușescu family.
Darkness is setting. We get into the cars and drive to Coșteiu-de-Sus, to pick up Nico, Iulia and Ana, who have probably frozen to death waiting for us.
We set out early in the morning in a carriage drawn by two mares – Mura and Carina. We cross a bridge rising over the highway which is still under construction near Margina. We’re going to Sintești. Woods, hills and silence. Along the road we see trees knocked down by the storm which hit Timiș county in September, which has also caused damages in this part of the county. Behind a wired fence, a herd of Mangalița pigs watch us while chewing steadily. We also pass an apiary.
Sintești is small, orderly and deserted. We reach the village museum where Emil Mert is waiting for us together with his son Ciprian and Ionică Beșchiu, shepherd and singer of folk music.
The museum has three big rooms and a hallway connecting them. It’s full of objects, from weapons and bayonets to traditional household items, looms, watches, bakelite radios, stoves, furniture and books. An edition from 1915 of The Psalms (“Psaltire Bogată”) published at Sibiu, ”in the days of his Highness the Emperor and King Joseph Francis I”. In the last room there are musical instruments — an old organ, trombones, trumpets, a mandolin. On an old cymbal one can still read: “Erstes und grösstes Musikinstrumenthaus im Banat, Timișoara Cetate, A. Braun”.
On a small table there are service records from the Second World War, and a war widow certificate with the name of the hero – Petru Ianculescu, gone missing at Klinski. The paper is yellow, with blue and yellow patterns on the edges. An image of soldiers charging a pillbox against de rising sun. In a term of the year 1943, the widow Ianculescu receives from the Ministry of War 3.372 lei.
In the Museum in Sinești, there is also a corner dedicated to heroes. Boys with thin moustaches posing with revolvers in the uniform of the Austro-Hungarian army from the First World War. Faces, both grave and smiling, stare straight into the camera, with pipes in the corner of their mouths. They look like children playing at war. In other pictures, older men in uniforms of Mountain Huntsmen (Infantry) prepare to depart for the Eastern front during the Second World War.
Ciprian Mert tells me that during the First World War, 42 people left for the front from Sinești. Only 12 came back. In the Second World War, 84 left. Only 3 came back.
We get back in the carriage and leave the village on an unpaved road that passes Peșii hill. Here, people have built makeshift observation platforms in the trees. They use them to guard the corn fields from wild boars in summer. We enter Margina and pass by the cemetery. In the distance, the silhouette of the old vinegar factory dominates the horizon.
We visit the Codrea family, a retired couple. Nicu is from Brașov, Rodica is born in Zorani. They met at the wood processing factory in Mănăștur, Cluj county. They live in Timișoara, but they’re thinking of moving back to Zorani. They’ve reconditioned the house here, which used to belong to Rodica’s uncle.
The two of them recount for us the history of Zorani, the good and the bad parts of a history that washed over Zorani in waves, leaving behind the village as it is now. Rodica is collecting papers and documents, photos and memorabilia. She has a different view on Communism and the forced collective farms than other people we’ve talked to, as her family was on the side of those who had nothing to gain from the change in the country’s political system after the Second World War.
Nicu and Rodica want to leave something behind for future generations. A heritage based on solid, healthy principles. And hard work. Lots of hard work. They tell us about how they were in Timișoara when the Revolution started and how they lived through those days. They dream of a different Romania and, as far as they’re concerned, they’ve started building it in their own courtyard.
CHARLOTTENBURG and THE BOGDA CAMP
We reach Charlottenburg before 10 o’clock in the morning. Some people are gathered in front of the Post Office, which is in the same building as the School. We start talking to Viorica. She’s not originally from the village, she’s Ukrainian, and in the beginning she didn’t really speak Romanian. But she learned in time. Now she’s fluent, you can’t even tell she’s not from Banat.
The village is quiet, maybe too quiet. There aren’t many people left in it, Viorica had told us. It looks clean, it smells nice and a couple of children are playing not far from us, shrieking, but apart from that, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the streets. Or in the houses. We knock on a couple of gates, but no one answers. I don’t know if it’s because the houses are empty, or the people inside don’t want to come out and talk to us.
We go to Bogda to look for the summer camp. We reach Bogda at the end of an unpaved, bumpy road, very appropriate for tractors. With a bit of luck, we find the camp area situated between two hillocks in the middle of a forest. The place is beautiful, but in toal ruin, worn out by time and nature, and cleaned up by thieves.
Towards evening, we go back to Charlottenburg. We climb up towards the cemetery, we knock at a couple more gates, but no one answers. Eventually we come across Ciprian, who was sitting by the side of the road eating sunflower seeds and watching us. We talk to him about the village. He says “Șarlota” or “Carlotenburg” at best, but not Charlottenburg. He doesn’t really know the history of the village. Ana, his mother, comes out of the courtyard and we talk to her too. She remembers the Germans, how it used to be. How people used to meet, visit each other and be welcoming hosts. Before we leave, we receive from her cheese and eggs as a present.
We go back to the village and have a beer at the village bar. It’s Ana, Andu and I. And Ramona, the owner. All the rest are men. A beer costs 2,5 lei. Before it was a bar, the building used to be a restaurant, “The Stag”, but no one remembers it anymore. Part of the building is now occupied by the bar/general store; the other part is occupied by the Pentecostal church, but no one really goes there.
In front of the bar, standing around a huge mulberry tree stub that serves as a table, men look at me strangely as I roll a cigarette. Some whisper “marijuana” and guffaw. I strike a conversation and in less than 5 minutes, we’re best buddies. Some are Romanian, some are Ukrainians from Romania’s Ukrainian community. There are no more Germans, except Peder, but Peder is old and sick and is not in the village at the moment. He’s in Timișoara doing physiotherapy. But if “Peder dies, the village dies”. It looks like the people around me have come to terms with the thought, or they don’t care.
There are 7 young men under 30, and one that is past 50, a “gypsy” as Doru describes himself. He’s already drunk and asking everyone to lend him a cigarette, or money for another beer. Every now and then he takes out a bottle of Unirea from his chest pocket and takes a small sip.
The guys tell me they work in Timișoara, some in agriculture, others in factories, on the assembly line. The ones who were good at computer games ended up driving combines. They say that the village is dead. A man joins us, the former vice-mayor, a shepherd who came from Moldavia in the 60s, when he was young. We all sit in a circle and laugh at jokes, some more, other less subtle. The former vice-mayor is still offended by the way he was contested during his mandate. I start talking to Andrei and Ionuț, Viorica’ son. They tell me of a place called the Thieves’ Hole. The others join in and tell stories of a tunnel in the forest at Charlottenburg, close to the summer camp at Bogda, leading all the way to Lipova or Timișoara. Legends.
A guy appears in rubber boots, sweat pants and a pullover. He’s well built, with Samoan traits. He looks at me and shakes hands with everyone. Including myself. His hand is huge. But his eyes give him away as being a bit slow. I’m told he is the twin of one of the men in our group. It’s not a joke. The two men don’t look at all alike.
Ana and Andu join the conversation. The circle breaks up into smaller groups. We’re laughing and having fun. Doru explains to me the method used to check if you’ve really voted with who you’ve promised in the elections. He keeps laughing and taking sips from his Unirea bottle.
Andrei seems the most irritated by the political situation in the village, which, according to him, is strangling the village’s development. He says that nothing is as it seems, and that the people treat each other very badly. There’s a lot of gossip and envy.
The next day we meet Andrei so he can take us to the Thieves’ Hole. We pass by one of the gates of the hunting grounds and he tells me how much hunting is going on. It’s a massacre. It’s all about money. He’s disgusted and disappointed. We walk through the forest and he tells us of his childhood in Charlottenburg. Andrei came from Târgu Frumos, near Iași, in 2000. But he speaks in the accent of the area. He loves the surroundings of Charlottenburg. He wouldn’t give them up for anything in the world. He works in Timișoara, but lives in the village. He commutes. He’s about to go to France. He’s found some work in Montpellier. But he’d like to come back and live in the village. If he can. Andei is 22.
I don’t know if we found Florin, or he found us. He had come out of the house with an axe to break some wood, when he saw us in front of his gate. We started talking. After 5 minutes, he invited us in.
Florin is 64, in early retirement because of an illness. He left Timișoara in 2004 and came to Bogda to die. He had salivary gland cancer, he weighed 50 kilograms, and he had only been given a couple of weeks to live. But the fresh air, fresh milk, beer and optimism have helped him survive for another 14 years. And the optimism hasn’t deserted him yet. He’s got a dog called Chițchimiț and two cats.
He’s a cheerful, easy-going guy, a former engineer talking in the slow manner of those who lived through the bohemia, the terraces and joie-de-vivre of Timișoara in olden times. He says he is called Öcsi and he is originally from Fratelia, and he tells us in English that he is a “retired engineer”. A protestant Jew and man of the world, he exchanged his Honda Civic bought from Germany for a truckload of potatoes for the reformed community in Fratelia.
He is friends with the Orthodox priest in the village, who has also moved from Timișoara and who was a neighbour of his from Fratelia. He raises chicken for his three nephews, goes fishing and in summer he plays the host, organizing barbecues watered with wine on the terrace on top of his garage.
For him, Bogda is a community of expats from the city, who in summer run away from the heat and exhaust fumes, and come there to enjoy some coolness and quietude.
He’s glad we talked to him. He’s a lonely man, but cheerful, and we spent a story-filled Saturday together, which I for one won’t forget too soon.
This study was originally published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2017-2018 book.
Photo credit: Flavius Neamciuc