Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Visiting Dracula.  Sort of.

I don’t know where to start in telling you about my weekend in Transylvania.  It was amazing, for one thing, and very informative.  I learned so much from Janos, our guide. 

He was most knowledgeable about all things church-related, and he knew a lot about the cultural life of Romanians (and those who live in Romania - they are not necessarily the same). 

Our excursion began at 6:30 Thursday morning when we piled into three 25-year-old vans.

I rode with Janos, Professor Fetzer, Kyla, Mary, Christy, Rachel, and Aron.

We had some good times in the van, singing, telling riddles, playing MASH (that elementary school game that foretells ones life), and appreciating the gorgeous countryside.  We loved that van so much we gave it a name: Farkas, which means “wolf” in Hungarian.  I’m not sure where the name came from, but a van with such character as this one deserved a name.  Our van had a “choir screen” seperating the front seat from the back two benches, a wooden floor and panels, and the handle to the sliding door was removeable.

In fact, it had to be taken off and brought into the van whenever we drove because it would fall out.  So we were basically stuck in the back with no way out.  Good and safe.
It took a lot of effort to get that sliding door open once the handle was put in, too, and if you opened it too far, the door would just fall off.  Haha, the first time that happened Professor Fetzer had done the opening, and we were all so shocked when the door simply fell off that we could not stop laughing.

But enough about the van.  Farkas, that is.  Almost as soon as we crossed the border into Romania, we noticed differences.  The Romanian people look very different from the Hungarians.  They have finer features, and look almost Greek or Italian because they have dark complexions.  After passing through the first line of hills in Romania, we entered Transylvania, and that’s when the scenery became almost unbearably beautiful.  We saw many haystacks all along the road, which curved around the hills and through tiny towns where we passed peasants driving their wagons drawn by mules or horses.

Many of them wore traditional clothing, too.  In some ways it was sad because the poverty in the region was so obvious.  One town (Dunbrava) we were in had a population of 10,000, and Janos told us that there were two factories where people who lived there were employed, but one factory employed 20 people, and the other employed 30.  So out of the 10,000 people living in Dunbrava, 50 had steady work. 
There were also Roma, or Gypsy communities along the way.  I had pictured this people group living in even greater poverty than those around them, and in some cases this was true, but there were also Gypsy groups who lived in houses that looked like this. 
These palaces had tin roofs, and stood out most obviously among all the one story red-roofed homes around them.  The reason the Gypsies were able to build such grand houses was because years ago half of their families moved to Germany under refugee status, and were given money by the German government, which they then sent back to the rest of the family, who was off traveling around selling their wares.  So they had two sources of income, and build these huge mansions for their families (which were quite large), and put tin roofs on them, because they dealt mostly in tin, so were quite skilled in working with it.
That first night we visited a reformed church in a tiny town.  It was absolutely beautiful.  It was a fortress church, which means that it was inside a fortress wall and served as watchtower and safe place for the townsfolk to go in case of invasion.  So it was up on a hill, surrounded by a graveyard, and hundreds of years old.  There was a crown-shaped object made of wheat hanging from the ceiling, and upon asking Janos what it was we were told that it was the first fruit offering of the townsfolk.  Traditionally, a new one is made every year, but nowadays they sometimes do it every other year or every third year.  Their income is not high enough to support making one every year in many cases.
After leaving the church, we headed into Magyarlona, where we met our host families for the night.  Mary, Kyla, Christy and I were placed with a middle-aged couple, Marton and Julia, who were the nicest people.

They didn’t speak English, and we have a very limited knowledge of Hungarian, and no knowledge of Romanian, but we were still able to communicate a little bit.  Enough that we knew they wished their son was there to meet us, Mama Julia didn’t think I ate enough, and we were expected to down shots of Palinka, a traditional Romanian liquor.  We thought it was quite strong, and told them so, to which they laughed and told us that we were drinking the weak kind - only 30 proof.  Usually it is 50% alcohol.  I’m not sure what I would have done if had been full strength!  We had a good night’s sleep, and were priviledged enough to stay in a home with indoor plumbing.  In the morning, after hearing the rooster crow starting at 5 a.m., there was more Palinka for breakfast, and Papa Marton toasted me within five minutes of waking me up.  I’ve never taken a shot before breakfast before (or any other time of day for that matter), and it was quite a memorable experience.  He laughed at my expression and my orange juice chaser.  After breakfast he walked us (just like his next door neighbor walked his cows) down the street to the church where we met up with our group again.  We said goodbye, and got on our way.
That day (Friday) we visited another Reformed church, an Orthodox Church, and a Catholic church, and the Reformed Seminary in Koloszvar.  The Orthodox Church was amazing, all decorated with mosaics.
The other churches weren’t quite as impressive, as all church property but that belonging to the Orthodox church was taken away by the Romanian government in the 1940s.  The Catholic church still had some lovely things, and was a very impressive building:

The red, yellow, and blue poles in front of the church are simply declarations of Romanian pride.  They are painted with the Romanian national colors (similar to the the red, white and blue of the US).  They’re just for show I think.
It was interesting to go into the Reformed church, because it was so different from the Catholic church, just as the Catholic church was very different from the Orthodox church.  The Reformed church wasn’t as “fun.”  There were no frescoes decorating the walls, no mosaics depicting the lives of the saints, and no altars.  Things were much more austere.  It was interesting to see the differences in worship styles as represented in architecture and decoration.  Here is the Reformed church.

Friday evening on the way to our hostel we drove through a gypsy town.  This was a bit of a harrowing experience, and one that I’m not sure I agreed with.  First of all, it felt like we were treating these people as animals at a zoo, there to fascinate us.  We didn’t stop, and Janos had us roll up all the car windows because the gypsies, he said, would reach in and take anything they could get their hands on - sunglasses, cameras, etc.  They did come right up to the car trying to sell us things, and we were a bit nervous while driving through.  We returned to a less pushy section of this same gypsy town the next night and got out to mingle with the people.  That was a less awkward situation I felt, because we were actually interacting with the people. It was still a bit on the uncomfortable side because it felt like the gypsies were a novelty to show off to the American students.  However, the people were very friendly, and even though we couldn’t communicate very well, the women and children were most welcoming.  The men were all drunk by the time we visited - 6 pm - the women told us, so we couldn’t go into the village because there was no telling what would happen.  The kids were eager to have their pictures taken, though, and wanted to show us tricks on their bicycles and followed us to our cars when we left, saying “bye!”  This is Elisabeth with three of the kids we met.  The girl looking at the camera was named Joita, and she was one of the friendliest ones.

We finally got to our hostel a little before 8 on Friday night.  It was in the walls of an old fortified church, which was pretty neat in and of itself.  We had to walk up into the fortress to get to our rooms, and take along a key to get through the gate if we went out at night, which we did.  We went down to a little restaurant for drinks and chatting both nights we were there.  It was fun to have some down time with the group to get to know each other better in a really relaxed setting.  We had nice six-person bedrooms, but we all had to share two bathrooms.  I thought it would be trickier than it was, actually.  We did just fine having 24 people use two bathrooms.  The first picture is Christine inside the fortress wall.  The second is the view from inside the fortress, and the third is one of the watchtowers of the fortress walls.  The last picture is Christy in our hostel room.
On Saturday we visited an Armenian Catholic church in Dunbrava (the same Dunbrava I mentioned above, with the very high unemployment). 

We met with a woman who cleans and cares for the church, and she told us that there were only a handful of Armenians left in the town.  To be honest, I didn’t catch much more of her talk because I was so cold.  It was a very chilly, damp day, and none of us had the clothing to combat the weather.  We spent almost the whole day in un-heated places though.  Here’s a picture of me, Julia, Chandra, and Annaliese snuggling to keep warm before our tour of the Saxon church at the fortress where we stayed.

There were some interesting stories at that church.  First of all, they had a dungeon that was called the “Divorce Dungeon.”  If a married couple in the town (the town was Biertan) wanted to get divorced, they first had to spend two weeks locked together in this dungeon.  They had one bed, one plate, one spoon, and two weeks.  If they couldn’t work out their differences, and still wanted to get divorced at the end of this time, they could.  There was one divorce in Biertan in 300 years.  I guess it worked. 
There was also a lock on the treasury door in the church that had been exhibited in the World’s Fair in Paris.  It was actually 15 locks in one.  Pretty impressive.  No one was breaking into their treasury.

After visiting that church, we headed to Sighisoara, which I’m sure you know is the birthplace of Vlad Dracul, about whom the story of Dracula comes.  To be honest, it wasn’t all that amazing.  I had thought we were going to his castle, but alas, no such luck.  That was 200 km away.  Christy and I were a bit disappointed.

It was still a neat place to visit though, and we got an amazing view of the city from the top of the clocktower. 
We also visited yet another church while there.  This one had a really neat fresco with a famous image of the Trinity as a three-faced figure.  It was fascinating, but we were not allowed to take pictures, so you can’t see it.  Sorry.
On our way back to the hostel we had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being caught in the road at the time the cows head home for the night.  Maybe this sounds silly to you.  Let me explain.  Most of the villagers own a cow, but there is just one cowherd for the town.  Each morning he drives the cows out to the field, and at night he brings them back into town.  Then they all go home.  They just know the way!  Once in town they walk down the street until they get to their house, and then they turn and go into the gate.  It was amazing to see them all walking down the street, one turning down this sidestreet, another going into that yard, thinning out as they went.  What a rural marvel.

Sunday morning we drove for awhile until we were going through a town just as a Reformed church was starting it’s service.  Janos spoke with the pastor and okayed it for us to come in for the first few songs and then leave.  A sermon in Hungarian wouldn’t have meant much to us anyway (why was the sermon in Hungarian?  all the Reformed churches in Romania are Hungarian reformed churches and still use the Hungarian language).  So we went in and sat down.  On the men’s side.  That’s right, the church was segregated by sex.  The women sat on one side, and then men sat on the other.  I guess technically we were on the youth side, and there was a whole row of pre-pubescent boys sitting behind us.  It was an interesting experience, although I felt a little bit out of place.  We weren’t really dressed for the service, we didn’t speak the language, and 24 outsiders are rather conspicuous in any small town church.  I’m glad we went though.  After church we basically just drove home, arriving back at our dorm a little bit after midnight.  What a full weekend, and then lots of class and homework and laundry and shopping to do on Monday and Tuesday, and tomorrow I have to get ready for our next excursion.  This time we’re going to Poland, taking a charter bus (we have yet to see what exactly that entails), and staying in a hostel all together.  I hope I have the strength to appreciate Auschwitz. 
In conclusion, here are some more pictures to give you an idea of the weekend we had, in case I haven’t already posted enough.  Picture 1: Me, Kyla, and Mary in front of an old castle we stopped at randomly.  It was basically falling down around us, but you could tell it used to be amazing.  Picture 2: Me and Mary exploring around an old fortified church.  Picture 3: My Romanian black bear face.  Picture 4:  Christy’s Romanian black bear face.  Not quite as fierce as mine, eh? 

Posted by Emily MacLeod on 09/26 at 02:35 PM
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