Suzana Monastery Retreat II, or An Anthropological ‘Field Trip’ Insights, and Communism Jokes 😃
Doamne Ajuta! I am obviously not the only pilgrim at Suzana Monastery, but I am the only pilgrim who is NOT Romanian. I am immediately spotted and ‘targeted’ , especially by a group of Romanian students who belong to an Orthodox youth organization and do volunteer work at the monastery in the summer. They are here to help with the housekeeping, farming and agriculture. And with chanting.
How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (1)
Mistake Bucharest for Budapest.
Never ask a Romanian if he lives in Budapest. That’s the capital sin, the perfect way to end a potentially interesting conversation. Yes, Budapest is a capital city, and there’s a big chance you’ll nail it with this guess — but only if you’re speaking to a Hungarian! We’re so tired of hearing, “Good evening, Budapest!” every time an international act has a concert in Bucharest. Metallica did it, Lenny Kravitz did it. And many others. But they had bodyguards. You, on the other hand, will be alone in front of an outburst of anger.
The Romanian hospitality, warmth, enthusiasm and curiosity about anything Greek, or foreign for that matter, AND Orthodox CANNOT be exaggerated! This group of students at Suzana Monastery instantly become my ready interpreters and eager translators, my willing tutors for Romanian chanting and they are so full of questions about my job, my studies, my travels, my pilgrimages, my adopted country UK, my home country Greece and its Saints, especially St. Paisios, about everything, to the point of collapse!
I may be on a pilgrimage in Romanian monasteries, but St Paisios’ the Athonite, my patron Saint‘s, presence is strongly felt all over Romania. Plenty of icons of his and books with his services and spiritual counsels in all monasteries and churches I have been so far! Esp. on the 12th of July the faithful all over in Romania were holding Vigils and praying Akathists and Supplication canons, asking for his prayers. Wherever I go, the moment Romanians realise that I am Greek and my home town is near Souroti, they start asking for my telephone number and email, so that I can make arrangements and help them go and venerate his tomb.
How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (2)
Ask us about vampires.
In 1897, the Irish writer Bram Stoker published a Gothic novel entitled Dracula. His story made Transylvania more famous than any tourism promotion campaign ever could. By using some historical facts, he linked Vlad Tepes, the Voivode of Wallachia, to his main character, Count Dracula, the vampire. Unfortunately, that means foolish tourists now come to Transylvania expecting to see garlic hanging by doors or people walking around with wooden stakes in their pockets. Transylvania is a peaceful, hilly area with many traditional houses and fortified churches. The real threat back then wasn’t exsanguination, but impalement — the Voivode Vlad’s favorite method of execution. And that isn’t fiction.
Their energy is indomitable, even when our conversation lasts for hours while standing after very long services outside the church at dusk until midnight and …! Their effusion is so contagious and there is no end to the exchange of telephone numbers, emails and addresses for the planning of future pilgrimages in Romania and Greece and exchange of Saints! These ‘buzzing bees’ with bright eyes and brighter smiles are to follow me everywhere from now on (when they are not busy with their obediences) yet their ‘buzzying’ mysteriously does not interfere with the silence that invades me. It surely has to do with their kindness, love and purity in Christ.
If you have never experienced the intensity of Romanians’ love and hospitality, you may think I exaggerate. To give you just another example, while waiting for the bus to Bucharest from Thessaloniki, I sat at a nearby café and took out my Byzantine chanting textbook to practice! Yes, one has to be very careful with these diatonic genus and Greek: A Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η, Greek: Πα Βου Γα Δι Κε Ζω Νη, English: Pa Vou Ga Di Ke Zo Ni, [Re Mi Fa Sol La Si Do], [D E F G A B C ]
Can you imagine a Romanian in love with you, if that is their normal ??!!
Suddenly a Romanian interrupts me and ‘blurts’ out how excited she is for meeting me, and that she is returning back to Bucharest together with 4 Romanian musicologists, who were on a Byzantine chanting conference in Thasos, and pretty soon I am surrounded by 4 (even) more effusive, enthusiastic Romanians, reciting to me Homer in ancient Greek, hugging me and chanting Ti Ipermaho / Τῆ Ὺπερμάχῳ/ To Thee the Champion Leader, in Greek again with stunning voices right in the middle of the street (!) with tears in their eyes. What a people! Can you imagine a Romanian in love with you, if that is their normal ??!!
How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (3)
Leave food on your plate.
Mark my words: If invited to a Romanian’s home for lunch or dinner, fast for a day or two before the visit. We are known for being a welcoming nation, and one of our favorite ways of showing it is through food. Here are a few appetizers so you don’t starve before the first course is ready. Some eggplant salad, salted roe, homemade smoked bacon with onions, and stuffed boiled eggs with mayo. Come on, try them all! Do you like the smell of our meatball soup? Here comes the clay pot full of sarmale, next to a steaming polenta and a jar of cream. You have to taste this! It’s our traditional course. You’ve finished everything? Don’t worry, there’s plenty more! The pork roast seasoned with garlic is almost ready.
Doamne Ajuta! Nothing best encapsulates the warmth of the Romanian heart, the warmth of their love, politeness, gentleness and hospitality, other than this greeting of theirs, ready to be offered at any time of the day, and on any occasion. So, rather than wishing someone ‘Good Morning’, or a ‘Safe Journey’, lay people and priests bless each other continuously, “Doamne Ajuta”, for surely where He is present, the journey or the job is bound to be blessed too. Such fresh and pure, innocent, child-like faith, feels refreshingly ‘simple’ compared to the Russian anguish, sinfulness and repentance.
Such warmth and hospitality, even when very poor, even when they want to share with you, their ‘raw’ cottage cheese, natural sour cream and bizarre non-homogenized boiled water-milk concoction straight from the monastery’s cows (!), their mamaliga, their beans puree and their boiled cabbage. (Can you imagine, again the Romanians’ soaring child-like enthusiasm when steaks or ice-cream show up in a surprise at our monastic (!) dinner?) Here, at a monastery, we have to boil water at the wood stove so that we can have hot water to wash the dishes. No hot bath to be sure. We have to sleep under kilimia, rough peasants’ rugs, becoming prey to very hungry fleas. And still, the poorer you are, the eager to share, and especially the more hospitable especially when it comes to basic human needs, such as sleep, company, food.
How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (4)
Confuse Romanians with Gypsies.
The official name of the Gypsy ethnic group is Romani, and even though Wikipedia states they are “not to be confused with Romanians, an unrelated ethnic group and nation,” misplaced associations are still often made. There are Gypsies all over the world — one million in the United States, 800,000 in Brazil, and many others in Europe, including Romania. They originated in India and left sometime between the sixth and eleventh centuries. Confusing Romanians with Romanis only makes you sound ignorant.
All Romanians I have encountered so far, be it at the UK, be it in Romania or in Greece, anywhere, are true cosmopolitans, intelligentsia and artists, men and women of culture and refinement, often very poor but with a wealth of education, so eager to contribute to the whole world community of Arts and Sciences, so enthusiastic to learn and to connect, curious yet so courteous, well-mannered and pious (in the good sense of the world).
Sometimes this poverty of theirs may surface in a certain ‘ugliness’, dirtiness, slovenliness, chaos, and carelessness in their kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms and common areas. We have to surround ourselves with beauty—that is a Christian virtue., but not one that I have encountered in Romania, with the exception of their churches and monasteries. Yet one feels so privileged, honoured and blessed to just be with them! Romanian homes are often less than orderly and clean according to a western European standard, their appearance follows a pretty weird and slovenly fashion (if one may call such an ‘invention’ fashion), completely lacking any finesse and style, but just a look at their bright smiles and sparkling eyes and a companionship with their fascinating personalities ‘compensates’ immensely. Who cares about clothes and looks, when in company of such kind and refined people, refined in all tastes that truly matter, refined in spirit and soul and heart, in the company ultimately of true aristocrats? Besides, none of us would have been any the better, after such an aggressive Communist regime and persecution, followed by a ruthless dictatorship, just in recent times.
How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (5)
Tell us a breeze can’t make you sick.
We Romanians are so convinced that a cool breeze or draft of air can make you sick that we even have an expression for it: Te trage curentul. (“You’ll be pulled by the draft.”) Take the bus on a hot summer day, and you’ll probably see the windows open on only one side of the vehicle, or not at all. Craving a breath of fresh air, you move your hand in the direction of the window. But even before you touch the handle, you’ll hear a panicked voice say, “Are you trying to get us all sick?” To anyone else, this doesn’t make sense, but the logic behind this Romanian belief goes like this: The current of cool air will make your ears hurt and your nose run. Don’t even try to argue about this. You’ll only make yourself hotter.
Romanians laugh a lot , especially at the face of danger, and can always appreciate a good joke. Like when I peppered sugar on my steak! Yet, I am not the only one in trouble with a foreign language. The residing priest told us that while at the States, he was invited at Arizona monasteries, and he made a homily there how Jesus was carried by a monkey (!), not donkey 😃
“Humor was a way of rebellion and survival at the same time; an escape of the mind and soul, a way of coping with all those absurd and restrictions imposed by a communist regime who did not care about its own people. Humor was a way of standing up or fighting back, a form of active resistance against a criminal regime; at that time the political jokes served as a catalyst of the constant state of discontent Romanians felt towards the things they did not agree or even hated… towards what was happening with our country. ”
Have you noticed that at every petrol station there is now a doctor and a policeman on duty? The doctor gives the first aid to those who faint when they see the price, and the policeman interrogates the ones who fill up about where they got the money from.
A patient is hospitalized at the Insane Asylum. ‘Why are you here?’, another patient asks. ‘I wanted to cross the Romanian boarder’, says the first. ‘But for something like this they do not send you to an asylum!’, replies the other. ‘Yes, but I wanted to escape to Soviet Union!’
A citizen said the chief of the Communist Party is an idiot. For saying this, the citizen was sentenced to spend 25 years and 3 months in prison. Everybody was wondering why 25 years and 3 months. In the end, they old find out the answer: 3 months for insulting a citizen of the Socialist Republic of Romania; 25 years for revealing a state secret.
For those who lived in Romanian during communism time, this system is very different from anything you could read in the some idealistic books. Some of the quotes show extremely well how people really felt about such an oppressing system:
Is communism a science? No, if it were a science, they would have tested it on animals first.
An old gypsy man on his dying bad. Instead of sending after the priest, he asks for the local chief of communist party. ‘I would like to join the Party’, says the dying man. ‘Why would you do this?’, asks the communist. ‘You lived your whole life free as the wind and now you want to join the Party?’. ‘Well, you see, if somebody has to die, I would be much happier if that guy were a communist’, answers back the dying man.
Last but not least, Romanians are not just ‘special’, but unique! (in their own opinion of course) Stereotypes, ethnophyleticism, ethnic superiority/ inferiority complexes and xenophobia deeply vex my spirit.Sadly, even here, in a monastery, I have to ‘defend’ English people and ‘their’ Orthodoxy from some Romanians. I do not know how good an ‘ambassador’ I am, but I am trying my best. And all of Romanians I have encountered think that St Philothei, the Righteous Martyr of Athens (sic!) is Romanian! Not that Greeks are any better. We consider St Efraim the Syrian (sic!) to be Greek! Of course!
How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (6)
Refuse homemade beverages.
Romania has one of the oldest winemaking traditions in the world. The country once had so many vineyards it’s believed Dionysus, the god of wine, was born in southeast Romania in a region then called Thracia. As proud successors of the Thracians, Romanians practice winemaking as a popular hobby, so you’ll probably be offered some garage-made wine. Or tuica, a strong fruity beverage. Even if you have reason for concern, do not ask about hygienic conditions or quality control. We take great pride in everything made with our own hands, so turning it down would be a serious insult. Take a sip, two, three, and worry not. We all drink homemade alcohol, and no one has died of it. So far.
Go here for Part I
Go here for Part III
To Be Continued …