“Shall I make you some coffee?” he asks as he takes off his stole with quick movements and lays it carefully, as one would with a holy object, on the back of the chair that stands like a barrier between him and the coffee machine.
On feast days, the people of Uzdin dress up in their best clothes and humbly walk through the gate of the village church, whose steeple has been soaring towards the sky for over two centuries, dominating the crowns of the mulberry trees and mirabelle trees that line the village streets. Father Moise says he is the 35th priest from Uzdin to serve in this church; over the years, the faithful have been guided in deciphering the mysteries of the holy Scriptures only by priests from the village. There was a time when there were over 5,000 souls in Uzdin, and such a large parish required two priests, one of whom was mandatorily from the village.
“I was born here, in Uzdin. I finished primary school, eight grades, here, then I enrolled at the Theological Seminary in Caransebeș, Romania, then at the Faculty of Letters, Theology and History, at the Western University of Timișoara.” Father Moise tells his story as he puts the steaming cup of coffee on the table, next to a bag in which we can see pastries handed out by the faithful for the souls of the departed.
After Sunday Mass, he invited us into the building across the street from the church, a cultural and events centre built through the efforts of the entire community. Before leading us to his office, he gave us a quick tour, lingering in the main hall, flooded by the soothing darkness of pulled down blinds. “This is the stage. A band can come and play here if there’s a wedding. People also use it for christenings and pomeni [commemorations for the dead].”
He sips his coffee and sinks into his chair. He brings his hands to his heart, with the fingers splayed, the tips pushing into each other, the same gesture he used earlier when delivering his sermon to the parishioners.
“What do you want me to tell you?”
“You have studied in Romania. Have you ever thought about staying there and being a priest there?”
The answer comes promptly, without any hesitation: “The thought was always that I was going to come back home. I didn’t know whether I would come back to be a priest in Uzdin or in another village, but in any case, I was always going to come back, naturally, back to Serbia.”
THE CALL OF THE HEART
He remembers well the moment when he felt it was his destiny to put on the cassock. He was only a year old when the local ex-priest selected a few boys from the school to recite “The Apostle”. “From that moment on, when they asked me what I wanted to be, I said ‘I want to be a priest’. I don’t know why, I mean I know, God’s ministry, His calling, but I can’t explain that feeling. They even laughed at me.”
In his family, priesthood was not passed on from generation to generation, as is usually the practice. Nor was his family very religious, apart from a great-grandfather who would take him by the hand and bring him to mass on every great holiday. But he had grown up with stories about another great-grandfather on his mother’s side, who had died before Father Moise was born, and who had been an Orthodox priest in America, for the Romanian community in Texas, which included people from Uzdin.
“There is not one person in Uzdin who doesn’t have relatives in America. Everybody has a relative in America and someone [in the family] who left after the 50s; some also in the 20s. But during the communist period there were plenty who left. Many left because their houses were confiscated, taken away from them.”
In Tito’s Yugoslavia, there was the same witch-hunt of “chiaburi” [wealthy peasants] as in Romania, and people found themselves homeless overnight. They were forced to leave their homes and land with only the clothes on their backs. Some, like Father Moise’s other great-grandfather, the one on his father’s side, weren’t even allowed to take his dog. But unlike in the communist regime in Romania, people were not shot at if they tried to cross the border and make a living in another country. On the contrary! They were encouraged to do so, because the money sent home to relatives helped the economy gravely weakened by the Second World War.
“We could travel, they could come and go. They sent money home, they built houses, even during communism.”
My great-grandfather on my father’s side left the country in the 60s. First to Austria, then to Sweden, and from Sweden he went to America. But in the 80s he returned to Uzdin. For two decades he worked in the West and with the money he saved he built a new house in Uzdin and bought land. “He had left with the intention of coming back. That was the first generation who went to America, and they had the hope of coming back.”
But few have returned home. They started from scratch in other places, they made a life, their children were born there, and their first words were in the the language of their adopted country, not in Romanian. At home, the “home” from which they were chased away, the windows of the houses have not been lit for decades, the lime on the walls is flaking, and the roofs are crumbling more and more each day.
“My great-grandfather’s daughter, my grandfather’s sister, is still there, in America, with her whole family, they never came back. Only my grandfather. Maybe he missed it too much… “
THE CALL OF THE LAND
“They call me from Belgrade, from the Hyatt hotel, I think. ‘Hello. We have two guests. They say they want to visit your village, they say they are from your village.’ ‘Where are they from?’ I ask. ‘From America?’ ‘From Texas.’ ‘What are their names?’ They tell me their last names. I say we have no such family here. ‘They say they’re from Uzdin. Check, please. We’ll send them over with our car, they just want to visit Uzdin.’
The man in question was in his 70s, he was born in America. His father was young when he left, in the 1900s. I found a family with that family name that no longer exists, it died out. He came here to find some relatives. What was interesting here… He did find some relatives, but that’s not important, what’s important is the wish he had: to be allowed to take some dirt from the churchyard so he could put it on the graves of his father and grandfather in Texas.”
Over the years, Father Moise has collected dozens of such stories. As in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Everything is Illuminated,” in which a young American Jew sets off on an adventure through Ukraine following in the footsteps of his grandfather, many American-born Uzdinians seek their roots at some point.
“It was interesting what happened with a teacher from The Hague. She came and taught cello at the Faculty of Music in Belgrade. And she comes here and says her ancestors came from this village. We start looking, it was difficult to find anything. But then it turns out her great-grandfather was one of the founders of the first village orchestra. She had no idea about that. We also found her great-grandfather’s house, it’s made of mud. We also found out who bought the house. She asked permission and she brough a sleeping bag and for a week she slept in that house with no electricity, no water, no nothing, to feel the atmosphere.”
But they always leave. The “foreigners” who park their cars in the dust of Uzdin, driven by unfulfilled duty or by the desire to know their past, or simply by curiosity, they stay for a few days at most, then go back to their lives, to another “home”.
“They all come here either because they have something they need to do, to fulfil a call of the earth, others may have promised their great-grandfather they would bury him in Uzdin and they didn’t do it, and they consider that bringing some dirt is like a trade-off, a fulfilment of their last wish.”
But not everyone is like that. Father Moise went to study in Romania with the clear purpose of returning to the only “home” he knows and recognizes, Uzdin.
The priest in Uzdin came to Romania to study after discussing it with the local bishop. At the age of 15, after telling his father in no uncertain terms: “Either I go there, or I don’t go anywhere, I stay at home and work in agriculture!”, he prepared for school in Romania. But things weren’t as easy as he imagined.
– The first week after I got there, I wanted to come back home.
– It seemed unusual.
– Did it seem like a different world?
– Yes, that too. But it was also hard for me because I didn’t understand certain Romanian words. Here we speak as they do in Banat, we try to only use Romanian words, but we also include some Serbian ones. And then you don’t understand certain words and you feel somehow… I don’t know. It’s your motherland, but at a certain point you feel like a foreigner. That bothers me. There, in Caransebeș, I was “The Serb”.
– Is that what they called you?
– When I crossed the border into Romania, they called me Serb, when I crossed back into Serbia, they called me Romanian… And you don’t know what you are anymore. That was a bit… Maybe I felt it as an offense at first.
After a while, things began to settle just like the river Bega in its bed. In the school courtyard of Caransebeș and later at university in Timișoara, the young man from Uzin made lifelong friendships. And, slowly by slowly, he began to look forward to the end of his holidays and to crossing the border into Romania, without worrying about the Romanian customs officers calling him Serb.
– Even today, if you were to go with me to the customs, when you cross the border into the motherland, Romania, the first impression comes from the customs officers calling you Serb. They used to say it every time: “Hey, Serb, are you going back to school?”
– Did you feel like a foreigner only because of the language barrier or were there other reasons?
– The first time I felt foreign because of the language. I was sure that I spoke Romanian properly.
– Until you got there…
– Yes. That’s when I realized that I don’t speak Romanian that well. Even today I don’t speak it… My wife is from Romania. To this day she corrects me when I speak.
He met Adina in Romania during his university years in Timișoara. They got married after he finished his studies and she decided to leave Romania and follow him to Uzdin. She learned Serbian, but “she doesn’t speak Serbian in front of me”, says the priest.
– Lest you correct her.
– Yes… Lest I laugh. I heard her many times speaking to other people she met. I had a classmate in Timișoara who later went to America. He married a Serbian girl, and I married Adina from Romania. We translated for them non-stop. His didn’t know Romanian, mine didn’t know Serbian… OK. At one point we said: “let’s go outside, let’s leave them and see what happens.” When we got back, they were both on their phones, using Translate.
He laughs and, for the first time since we’ve sat down to talk, his eyes light up. The coffee in the mug has gone cold, the July sun falls obliquely on the low table. Father Moise is due for a home consecration, as he warned us from the beginning, from the threshold of the church when we approached him. He is consecrating the home of some “Americans” who came back. Probably some of those, few in number, for whom the call of the land and the call of the heart are one and the same.
Photo credit: Răzvan Popa