Before my parents bought their car we went each summer first with a fast train to my grandparents’ village located exactly in the middle of Romania. Then we were taking another slow train to reach our destination. Lord, how much I loved traveling by train! I was in admiration with the scenery all the way, but I preferred talking with people on the train. They were so kind and welcoming, asking me many things and giving me sweets or trifles. And when I grew up a little I was so happy to talk with other people telling me their life stories and I began to dream that I could help others in the future. The return to Bucharest was easier and cheaper, I was coming back with a slow train. I remember one winter when my grandmother brought me back to the city, and we were snowbound spending almost the whole night in train (such a delay never happened again in my life). I never liked to learn by heart the names of the stations because I wanted that journey to remain like a dream. Our small village station was closed after 1989. There was also a window for tickets and toilet and a well like in many stations, where I used to taste water before taking the train on our road back to Bucharest.
Stepping down from the train we were walking on the long and dusty road lined with poplars. Passing over the green river’s meadow, over a small creek where I played as a child, (even now I almost feel slippery stones under my feet), where water was clear, women were washing clothes or wool there, little fish were swimming inside. We were passing over the river on a small suspended bridge and if it was broken (damaged by storms or snow) on the cable ferry gliding slowly, which was named “ship” by the villagers. Usually a gypsy held the job of transporting wagons or cars on the cable ferry, he had a hut on the other shore and we were calling after him. That suspension bridge was an opportunity for dangerous childhood games (boys annoying girls, rocking the flimsy bridge to scare them or jumping directly in the water from up there) and it was swinging even at small weights, certainly fascinating for a child. Then we had to walk for a while until we reached the other end of the village where my grandparents’ house was the only house in the village with a crucifix in front of it with Christ hand painted.
The village was built between hills, in fact between the river and a long hill named “The Rib” guarding all village houses. Sometimes its waters were flooding the lower houses and the meadow. My grandfather was taking me across the water on his back and I was very happy, a child fascinated by the natural world, so rich in beauty and wonders. But I must admit that I started to discover the beauty of wild places only when I was twelve years old or so, because until then I was too small to understand and I was missing my other grandmother living in Bucharest. It was boring to spend the entire summer holidays in the village. Usually my parents were leaving me there.
Village houses were built along the main street, side by side. There were two drinking water sources, but the one near our house had gone dry before I got there as a child, so I was going frequently after drinking water with a one or three liter pitcher in my hand. In the center of the village was a crucifix (cross) covered with a roof, where people gathered in earlier times for ring dances, games and story telling. There was also a scale for hay carts. Almost all village houses had crosses printed in their walls under the eaves and benches at every porch where people were sitting on Sundays to talk and watch others go by, old women waiting for the herd to return in the evening from the pasture. It seems that even pigs were taken out in the old days to graze grass near the village boundaries. The village had once a flourishing period, there were many other houses and two churches above the main street (where only ruins remained), because the young ones (my mother’s generation) left to find their fortune elsewhere. When I was little I had been with my grandfather to the farrier workshop and I was allowed to heat up the bellows, watching how our horse was shoed.
There was also a primary school and the village local store (with a mailbox nearby) where a seller came on bike and where I was staring, buying sometimes a few things I liked: sweets, notebooks, stockings. Gradually I was received in many houses in the village, where I found ornaments resembling those in our home (towels, woven carpets, icons) and people were also very kind towards me, but I remained too shy and it was hard for me to yell from the street their names when I was sent by my grandparents to someone else with different tasks (in those times door bells were rare). One of my grandma’s cousins gave me beautiful flowers, other women did the same. The peasants had beautiful old names with Latin origin. A shoemaker of German origin was living near our house, where I asked once for much too many cookies or candies prepared by his wife. I think I was a greedy for sweets, but I quickly learned the rules of conduct.
Our house was isolated from other houses, we had a garden and a large courtyard paved with stones. The household was thriving, with daily hard work, with many cattle and sheep. I loved to stay in the barn at milking hour, we had buffaloes and sometimes I was singing little improvised songs, perched on the opposite manger, where some brooding hen was ruffling furiously her feathers. I was wondering why the buffaloes had no names. It was so sad for me when the calf was slaughtered usually in secret (because the law did not allow that) and I was praying in vain for his life, but the meat was tasty, one of the best. I suffered a lot when I saw it whipped to enter its enclosure before my grandma was milking for us. Sometimes I gave it sugar, feeling its rough tongue scratching my palm, caressing it between the small horns. I was also approaching the horse with some fruit or grass, but very carefully. I never was allowed to milk, because buffaloes are by nature dangerous animals, even grandma suffered because of them. And the horse was big and unmanageable, my grandparents did not let me ride it (other village girls went riding on the street and I envied them a little). Once grandma was in the hospital after a hoof kick and suffered a long time. But I have a picture with me on horseback, of course under strict control. When the herd came back in the evening I was waiting at the gate, armed with a stick (useless of course). I had to hide in the yard, especially when I was wearing red cloth.
In our house I found many old things and mysteries. Everything was left there as before – iron stoves giving heat for a short time (in the morning it was very cold), many ceramic plates hung on slats or walls, ceiling beams and thick planks on the ground, covered with mats. In the room where my grandparents were sleeping was a protective nylon where I choked once a mouse. But I stayed a long time on the floor with my hand pressing the poor creature, because I was afraid to take it out – finally my great grandmother came and threw it to the cat. In the table drawer there was an old wooden pencil case with pencils and pens, from which I was taking drawing tools for my princesses and fairies. Simple icons were hung on the walls, copies printed on paper. I was fascinated by small niche-cupboards in the walls. My granny kept inside her glasses, prayer books and candles for storm, because she was praying when it was thunder and lightning. Grandpa kept in old photos and documents. I was fascinated by an old pepper grinder with a crank. I do not remember if the grandparents had TV, but the refrigerator was not available a long time, the whole household was in a prosperous state, but obsolete, maintaining traditions, without any sign of modernization, as if time stood still there, but in a pleasant way. In the bedroom we had a cuckoo clock and a mechanical sewing machine. Really there were so many things to discover in every corner … and they did not change until today.
Grandfather was an expert when it was the time for slicing pork in winter, teaching me the anatomical parts of the slaughtered animal. Grandma was so kind to me. Apart from cooking delicious food, home-made bread, gorgeous cakes, incredibly delicious pies, she used to sing beautiful Christmas carols and she also taught me some prayers. In the winter holidays season it was so nice to hear the carolers singing. Once I even had a Christmas tree, although there such trees are rare, grandpa found it somewhere. In the evenings my grandparents were playing with me, we were tickling each other joking. My grandfather brought once a horse foot tightening rope and he tied my legs saying I was too unruly. We all laughed and everything was so magical. Grandma was weaving in winter on the old wooden loom. Those times women gathered in each other’s house to spin wool. I learned by heart the cycle of wool gathering, from shearing sheep to carpet weaving. Grandma was also knitting, but not too much, especially wool jackets and thick socks or mittens. Grandpa was bringing from the city bottled juice and sweets. I sat next to the table and it was fun to watch him put in the bottle for soda those small gas bombs, then combining soda with sour wine from the cellar, sweetened with a pinch of sugar. I loved to watch him sharpening the scythe and usually I was going with my grandma to the fields bringing lunch to the workers around 10 a.m., because they had been mowing since dawn hours.
They were working daily the whole week and Sunday was really beautiful, holy and Christian. The priest came in every home with baptism in January, when he was consecrating water in people’s jugs. Near the priest’s house it happened to me once a funny story with a turkey. I was returning home bringing fresh water (the priest used to say smiling that the pitcher is bigger than me) and a turkey attacked me, fidgeting around me. I decided to stand still. I was like a statue in the middle of street until the priest or someone else came and chased the monster. That happened because children were saying that when a bear attacks, you should better fake death.
The moments I liked the most were the hay working days, but I was spared of work although I liked it and I was able to do my part of work there. I had to force doors locked for me and then my grandparents seemed so amazed about my skills. I was coming back home on top of fragrant hay, holding that pole that was above hay in order to maintain my equilibrium. It was also beautiful in the forest where trees of different varieties were growing together. My grandfather knew all their names.
At home I liked to collect eggs from our hen nests, climbing on ladders, and I was feeding chickens in the yard calling them with a special sound to gather before dusk. I watched the hierarchical relationships between winged creatures and their habits. Tiny yellow or black hatchlings were so nice. When it was cold in autumn (the last series of chickens), they were gathering close to the stove in our courtyard kitchen and I kept them in my palms. Once again I broke the rules around me (because I was supposed only to read or to play around), and I cooked the first meal of my life there when I was twelve years old: rice and tomatoes with marrows. We had a small garden inside the big garden where flowers grew every summer (hawthorn, dahlias, basil) and we had also beans, carrots or other vegetables and spices. What a scent! Nearby there was a well were I had my fish, once caught by my father, a fish who lived in cold waters a few years. When it was sunny grandma was rinsing laundry there, bluing it with small chemical cubes.
Only when I grew up I began to discover there the charm of nights filled with stars, which were fantastically bright and so many there that I felt like floating on unseen wings, as if they were pulling me gently up from the earth. I grew there as a child in slow motion cradle of emotion.