We drove out of busy, crazy Cluj, a place you could not pay me enough to sit behind a steering wheel, and followed the main road north, out to the bare hills and cooler temperatures. When we turned onto a side road, I noticed a derelict bus stop spray-painted with words that said no bus came there anymore. The road was a return to the rutted bounciness of Ukraine. Saci told me that long ago all these hills had been forested, but now they were barren and empty, or almost empty. We did spot a shepherd, his flock, and his dog making their way down the steep side of a hill. The lambs ran all the way down, just like children.
There are few places in Ukraine, and even fewer in the US, where cleared land is not put to some farming purpose. There are some pastures by the Tisza river, it’s true, but nothing like this endless expanse of grass and shrub, wave upon wave of bare hills. I asked Saci why the hills remained uncultivated, and she said that there simply weren’t enough people, and there wasn’t enough time and energy, to farm all this land. “And sometimes it’s very rocky,” she said. Later on, I wondered why the trees didn’t grow back. But I forgot to ask.
We arrived in Mânâstireni, a village folded between the hills and laced with confusing, winding roads. This village, Saci explained, was notable for the good relationships that existed between the ethnic Hungarians and the ethnic Romanians. The cultural clashes in Transylvania are usually more pronounced than those in Transcarpathia, and I’m not entirely sure why. There is certainly a greater history of ethnic conflict in Transylvania, but again, I don’t know what has caused that. The Viskys live out a deep reconciliation every day in the way they choose to interact with Romanians and Hungarians alike. The Hungarian National Theatre where András works has Romanian “subtitles” for all of the plays. The play I saw, in fact, was directed by a Romanian man who did not speak the Hungarian in which the play was performed.
But I digress. Our main purpose for coming to the village was this: the Viskys owned a small house in the village which they hoped to fix up soon, and Saci needed to take care of some electricity contract matters. While she talked with the Mayor in the small village office, I sat in the van and ate a tofu and arugula sandwich on whole wheat bread. My stomach was loving Romania’s supermarket offerings very much.
Before we could visit the house, we had to stop by and get the keys from the previous owners, and elderly Romanian couple who until five years ago had still been farming extensively. Saci brought them some groceries and assured me that the hour she had set aside for their visit was wholly necessary. “She won’t let us get away.”
We came inside the low-ceilinged house and the elderly women immediately bade us sit down. She and Saci kept up a steady flow of conversation, most of it coming at Saci and not from her. I noticed that the lady kept referring to Saci as Juliadraga (Julia dear), and when I questioned Saci about it later, she told me laughingly that the lady could never remember Saci’s name and made up a new one every time. (So it’s sort of funny that my memory is failing, and I can’t share with you the Romanian lady’s name.)
Saci informed the lady and her husband that I couldn’t speak Romanian, but the elderly gentleman was either very deaf or very forgetful, and as soon as Saci and the woman left the room to check on something, he began addressing me in Romanian. I did the typical smile and nod, and I even added a mmm-hmm now and then. Now that I’m getting more confident in my Hungarian skills, I suppose it’s helpful now and then to find myself in a situation where I do not understand one word. I’m getting very good at International Body Language.
The conversation between the lady and “Julia” did last quite a while, but I wasn’t bored. The elderly woman had such bright, expressive eyes, and the cloudy-day light filtering through the lace curtains lit up her whole face. Her deep wrinkles moved against green and white walls, and her dark clothes were a contrast to the old, flowery, paper on the Soviet-era cupboard (but a perfect match with the woven rug covering the bed).
The above is the barn outside the Romanian couple’s house. The below is the barn behind the Visky’s village house.
I especially liked the blue enamel cup hanging on a nail.
Actually, I especially liked everything about the place.
Yes, those are grape vines covering the porch. Inside it was cold and white and simple. The long garden ended with an old orchard. There was so much “scope for the imagination” as Anne of Green Gables would have said. The fact that it needed a lot of fixing up just added to the scope. I felt an itch to put on some gloves and get to work.
Saci talked with me about her dreams for the house – a weekend retreat for family friends, or a quiet place for Andras to write, or a L’Abri style house open to young people who want to read and talk and learn and ask questions … some mix of the three … I got caught up in her dreams and started mixing them in with my own. You know that feeling you got as a teenager (or a twenty-something, or a thirty-something, or whatever) when you meet a person that sets your insides whirling and puts stars in your eyes … of course you know that feeling. I had it meeting this house. Saci and I discussed dreams and ideas for the rest of the week, never making anything solid, but still opening whole hallways full of doors of opportunities.
We wound our way out of village and back through the lonely hills.
I can’t wait to go back.