There are 28 of us coming together for a third choir tour to Eastern Europe starting June 4th. It will be my husband’s and my tenth trip to our partner Unitarian church in Arkos, Romania, a sweet spot! The first time we saw Arkos, a village in Transylvania, 38 of us drove in on a tour bus on our first choir tour. It was like coming home to the Promised Land. The very idea of an entire community welcoming all of us, complete strangers into their village, their homes, their lives, was a completely alien notion to all of us from the USA. Certainly this was not something we could have arranged for them in Houston, if the tables had been turned. We were there for four days during which they hosted a huge picnic for us out in the meadow behind the manse. The first night they had a bonfire and folk dancers and a local band and lots of a homemade white lightening brew they call “szilva palinka,” which they make from plums. At the end of our stay we took our hosts to the nearby city hotel and ate and danced some more. It was great fun and we made fast friends.
Romania seems an unlikely place for the Edict of Religious Tolerance written in the 16th Century. Thereafter religious innovation was officially sealed. Nevertheless, the edict allowed Unitarian churches to flourish in small villages in a Hungarian enclave surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. This area is called Transylvania which means “the land beyond the forest” (from early Latin texts). It is an ancient place with records of civilization dating to the 2nd C. BCE. At the end of the 9th Century, they were conquered by the Magyars (Hungarian) tribes, and subsequently by Tatars, Turks, Austrians, the Nazis in the Second World War, and finally veiled behind the Iron Curtain.
Unlike Poland and other Eastern European countries which moved toward de-Stalinization in the 1950s, the Romanian Communist Party centralized its control under the dictatorship of the infamous Nicolae Ceauşescu. He raped the country for nearly 25 years until the people finally revolted and overthrew his regime in 1989, after which, they tracked down the hated tyrant and his wife Elena, hastily tried them, and immediately thereafter executed them by firing squad. When the country opened up to outside travelers, they found orphanages full of unwanted children from Ceauşescu’s attempt to increase the population by making birth control and abortions illegal; libraries with all of the books removed; and extreme poverty and hunger in a nation where the dictator had taken and then sold for export the food people needed to survive.
It’s a testament to the human spirit that Eniko and Rev. Janos Szekely had not only survived the Communist era, but brought such warmth, enthusiasm and general fun to anything they undertook. This included finding home hospitality for us travelers in 2003. We bonded with the families with whom we stayed in the village, which at that time had a population of about 1,000, and got to talking with them about their needs and wishes. We went back two years later to host a community-wide planning meeting where they specified that the most pressing needs in the village were for fresh water, quality education for the children, and jobs. Janos and Eniko both led in these initiatives and today the village is thriving in no small part due to their leadership and determination. They have two grown sons who, since we’ve known them, have both married and now have children of their own, and live in the village where they have built their homes.
I feel that I have a very special bond with Eniko. First because she has been a mother to my own daughter both times she visited Arkos. The first time, an initial visit, led Eniko and Janos to ask her to return for a longer stay and to teach English in the village. Also I feel a bond because we have always worked together closely to organize visits over the years which included a wedding that took place in 2006 between our then choir director and a Unitarian woman he met on the first choir tour. They now live half the time in Romania and half the time in Houston and lead international tours, including our upcoming choir tour.
While we are visiting, Eniko and I usually spend a good deal of time in the summer kitchen together with her friends and women church members, cooking the meals and then cleaning up afterward. When you are cooking for 150 people, this can be quite a job. I should say too that the women do not do it alone. The men do a lot of the cooking as well. They make stews in huge cauldrons hung over a flame and barbecues over open pits in the ground. They even cook a fantastic bread dessert outside called kürtőskalács, which means chimney cake. It’s a sweet yeast bread that is rolled around a large wooden spool with a handle, coated in sugar which caramelizes as the cake cooks as it is turned over the coals of an open fire. There are so many interesting and wonderful foods they make.
Eniko has dark wavy hair that used to fall to her shoulders. She has it cut short now. And she has a fulsome laugh. She throws her head back and laughs heartily, it’s almost a song, like a bird, it starts with a hearty hahahaha, ends on a high note that slowly flies away on a wisp of air. When she laughs her face crinkles up so you can no longer see her dark, quick eyes. She recently retired from the bank, in the city, where she has worked as a cashier for all of the time we’ve known her. The entire family are all very hard workers. And, after working at the bank all day, she would still cook for us at night the most wonderful dinners, which she has been working to prepare days before we arrive. She has many friends at the church too who come to help, but the summer kitchen, where she cooks when we are there, is a beehive brimming with food from the fields, the markets, and other nearby kitchens.
Agriculture is still a third of the nation’s economy, which has been booming since their entry into the European Union in 2007. One of the reasons the Nazi’s invaded in the Second World War was not just for the oil fields of Ploesti outside Bucharest, but because Romania is such a fertile land with its wheat fields in the southeast, and fishing in the Black Sea, its bounty was able to provision German troops throughout much of the war. There is hardly a food they do not grow and much that we enjoy is still grown in small household gardens. My husband has even been on a hunt in the forest for “gumba,” Hungarian for mushrooms, which are cooked into a hearty stew.
The Unitarians are almost all Hungarian speakers and live in Transylvania which was ceded to Romania after the First World War. This left them the second largest minority in Europe, after the Basque,s and they have not fared well, many of them having left the country and with good reason. (The Hungarian population has declined by 15% since 1989.) For example, the use of Hungarian was forbidden by the Romanianization Program begun after World War I and continued in the 1960s under Ceauşescu. While relations between Hungary and Romania have improved since both are now part of the European Union, there is still tension, and a movement by Hungarians in Romania for greater autonomy.
People frequently ask why we continue to go back when there are so many interesting places in the world we might visit. It has been the draw of our partner church and the larger partner church community and the chance to get to know people there on a more intimate level and to understand more deeply another culture. It seems there are always new areas to explore, new history to understand, new places to see. It helps that it is also a beautiful country, and the more we go the more comfortable we are at getting ourselves around. In the weeks ahead I hope to send photos of this beautiful country in the Balkans, with its rich history, complex culture, and warm and welcoming people.