Some stories seem to unfold in a neat, chronological path. Others do not lend themselves to that form easily. And this is one of them.
While the circle of our trip arced through Marginea passing by father’s birthplace, and locating, finally, Gheorghe, Leonica, Mariaora, and Gavrila, and closed, we still had one day to return our rental car. ( We would not hear about Gheorghe’s hospitalization for another month.) So at this point in our trip, we had one day to make it to Cornel’s friend in Zalau to return the car, and then the next morning, we were meet my second cousin Geta (pronounced like the car, Jetta) who agreed to meet us and then show us around her hometown of Varviz, a village where I had photographed her as a child. She would then drive us back to Timisoara where we would take the train to Bucharest, from there were off to Bulgaria. We had all of 24 hours.
And yet, this one final circle had begun before we even arrived in Romania. This was to be a circle of new beginnings iniated when we first met Iulia Pop in Austria, a week before coming to Romania in early October to make it to the wedding in Zalau.
Iulia had a unique perspective from the other Romanians we got to know, because of her youth. She has a innocent take on life that was refreshing and an outlook on opportunities available her generation that was unlike others we met later. She is young enough that she never saw Communism first hand. She is the one person that we met and grew close to, who never knew the stifling sense of oppression that all my other relatives lived under. Iulia introduced us to her mother and family, and it set in motion a whole new circle of activity that seem hopeful, and full of new beginnings.
So let me take this in two parts, this first one to backtrack and tell about how we got to know Iulia Pop and through her, met her mother, Geta, and the rest of her family, Then Part Two will be about that final 24 hours we had crammed ourselves into to end our stay in Romania in which Geta would take us to the place where we first met Uncle John back in 1974. And that story, I believe, is remarkable, indeed.
In planning for this trip, I had asked my sister’s grandson, Drake Southwick, about people there since he had traveled to Romania about two years ago. I asked him for some contacts to help with planning our trip.
One of the contacts he gave me was Iulia Pop. She was related somehow, but I didn’t understand just exactly how. She lives in Timişoura, the University City on the west border of Romania where the revolution against the dictator, Ceauşescu ignited. But when we were to arrive in Europe, she would be just finishing her fourth year at the University in Vienna.
The best manner of communication with Iulia turned out to be Facebook messaging. I wrote her several times and established that her mother was in the small village of Varviz in 1974 when I visited there and took photos for my memoir, Pilgrim Notes. She told me that her mother was nine then and after talking with her mother about our upcoming trip to Romania she said her mother remembered me; that I had taken her photo and that it was one of the few times her photo had been taken as a child.
I wondered who, exactly, she was, and did her photo get into my book? I examined my copy of the book and imagined which of the family members’ photos I had taken that might be hers. Readers can view that book here:
Before we left the States, Facebook was not a problem to use as a way to communicate. But here in Europe, it is. Facebook sucks gigabytes of data whenever I open it, so after the first week of using my new phone, I realized that I would burn through our 10 gigs of data in another week if I continued to peek at Facebook, even briefly. So I removed it from the new phone and used it on my old phone only when we had WIFI at a B and B or restaurant.
So now we were about to meet the daughter of a girl whom I had very briefly met some 45 years ago, when she was 9, and I could not remember exactly.
Through a Facebook conversation while at our B and B in Salzburg, Iulia and I had arrived at an agreement to meet at the Landtmann Cafe near the Rathaus stop of the subway in Vienna at 4pm.
I had seen Iulia’s Facebook profile photo, but wasn’t sure we’d be able to recognize her. After checking in to a very old and dingy hotel on the north side of Vienna, we were able to take a trolly that got us to within five blocks of the cafe before four pm. We walked about 500 meters and made it to the cafe just on time and began to look around for Iulia. We spotted a tall young brunette, made eye contact, smiled, and she quickly looked away. I spotted another, and the same reaction. I began to feel a bit self conscious, making eyes at young ladies, standing there in a crowded outdoor cafe with my wife on my arm. I wondered if I had somehow gotten the time or place wrong. We began to look for a table.
Not long after we arrived, we saw her walking up to the cafe. The epitome of a cosmopolitan student–well put together from head to toe, and an air of a sophistication that surprised me in one so young.
Just then, a young lady with penetrating black eyes approached us, and we knew it must be Iulia. She kissed us on both cheeks and she signaled to a waiter and found a table for the three of us.
By the way she took over, she subtly let us know that this is her city and she would be our guide here, and we were willing to let her take charge. I felt as if while on this trip, we, as Tennessee Williams wrote, “have always been helped by the kindness of strangers.” Iulia, however, was no stranger, and soon to become as close as a daughter.
I showed Iulia a digital copy of Pilgrim Notes and the photo of the two girls, one of which I had guessed might be her mom turned out not to be her mother. “No, I look like my mom,” she said.
We continued through the book, and she pointed to one woman, the youngest of five, standing in the center of the photo. “That’s my grandmother!”
Iulia recognized her grandmother in the center of this photo.
“Then this must be your mom,” I said, pointing to a young girl, next to her grandmother in the large group photo with Uncle Jon. The hair and facial structure of the young girl did resemble Iulia.
“Yes, I think so,” Iulia said.
We learned that the young girl in this photo from my book is Iulia’s mother, Georgeta Sumalan at age 9 when I photographed Uncle Jon’s family in 1974. Iulia’s grandmother is on the right, her great grandfather is on the left, (Uncle Jon, to my father). Iulia’s grandfather is seen at the upper left.
Iulia is studying International Economics and speaks Romanian, Spanish, German, English, a little French, and is working on Portuguese. Hard to believe from a young woman whose mother grew up in a poor village under the Communist Ceaucşescu rule. And yet, she tells us, as we walk, that she thinks her mother had a more significant change–she came from a farm village life and eventually earned a PhD in agriculture and now teaches at a university in Timisoara.
We learned that Georgeta was my second cousin and that we had the same great grandparents. Later, Georgeta had moved from the village of Varviz to the sophisticated University city of Timisoara on the western border of Romania. There she graduated from school and then continued in the University and got her doctoral degree in Agronomy. She met Dorin Pop in 1995 and then got married. They have two children, Iulia and George.
I say that I had “met” Georgeta in 1974 in Varviz, a community of about 200 people about 40 kilometers from the city of Marghita, in the county of Bijor, northern Romania. But on that day, we met at least two or three dozen relatives as well. I was there with my father looking for Jon Bocra, the brother of my father’s mother. Georgeta was his great-granddaughter. I photographed her with her grandfather’s large family, but I don’t recall if I even exchanged words with her or learned her name at that time.
I remember driving into Varviz at the time, everyone staring at us as we entered. No one in the village at that time owned a car at that time, all travel was done by walking about 5km to take a bus or train, or by riding on a horse-drawn cart. Families raised their own vegetables, stored them in a shed for the winter, milked the cow daily for milk, and raised pigs and goats. Very few people worked outside Varviz. Children over the age of 5 drank homemade wine, and homemade “palinca” was the daily ritual at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
First trip to Timisoara
We decided to travel to Timişoura at their invitation to meet Georgeta and her family. We were interested in learning about Georgeta and the city of Timisoara, birthplace of the revolution against the Ceaușescu regime. We would go on to write a deep dive about the Revolution in a subsequent blog, but the two things that would impress us this visit, examples of overcoming overwhelming odds: the transformation of Georgeta’s life from a rural girl in a closed society to PhD in Agronomy; and her daughter’s emancipation to a sophisticated, multi-lingual, multinational economist who seems so free from the bonds of her mother’s background.
The drive to meet Georgeta Pop from Zalau took us over a branch of the foothills of the Carpathian Alps, up along a beautiful ridge of beautiful orange and red deciduous trees, still holding on to their leaves on one side of the highway, young evergreens on the other side of the highway. Sliding down into the valley that borders Hungary on the west, we passed by Oradea, which straddles the Crisul river, once a baroque jewel of the Hungarian Empire. We crossed the relatively flat plains and approached the “The Vienna of the East,” Timişoura.
As we drove on, south of Oradea, we passed through the centers of many small towns. They looked dusty and poor. Women, (usually old) sat in plastic chairs or on wooden boxes in front of many of the houses, selling small amounts of produce. I saw squash and grapes and apples. We never saw them in time to stop, but I’d like to sometime.
As we approached Timisoara, the city seemed quite different from other cities we’ve seen in Romania, so far. Lots of character here. Old buildings that are romantically decaying. You can see that this city has had a glorious past. We found a place to park in the center near a large park. We were to meet Iulia and her mother Geta (Georgeta) here at 5:30 in front of the large Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral, the iconic centerpiece that would be easy to find.
Photo of the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral taken later that night in all its imposing grandeur.
This church didn’t look like others we had seen. it was made of brick and stone and was all sharp corners and towers. The effect is that the church is strong and stolid–no-nonsense. Iulia and Geta were waiting for us as we approached the church.
Geta comes across as a typical, gregarious mother who is out to welcome a family member to visit her hometown. Little did I realize that this woman was not only a professor at the University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, but she is the head of the Department of Agronomy. Her mannerisms belie her professional accomplishments. I looked at her and tried to see the 9-year old girl I photographed 44 years ago.
Geta looks sweet–she has dark hair, and I am guessing is about 50 to 55. She is Woody’s second cousin. Her mom and Woody’s dad were first cousins. She was very happy to see Woody again. You could tell–she just beamed at him.
She is a professor at the University in herbal plants and medicine. How cool is that?
We took a selfie after meeting “Geta.” Iulia on the left, then I am next and Geta in the middle and Rebecca to the right.
Geta immediately began to tell us in Romanian and translated through Iulia much of the history of the city of Timisoara. She also began to make a great connection to Rebecca’s interest in herbs and flowers when we went through one of the parks that featured a collection of roses. Rebecca knows the English names and some botanical names, and Geta knew both the Romanian and all the botanical names. So between the two of them and Iulia’s translation, they were able to conduct a “rosaphilian” discussion in Romanian and English.
To stretch our legs a bit before having dinner, we walked around a bit. We saw a lovely rose garden–in its autumn phase. We walked along the river that has been engineered to more of a canal here called the Bega. Kayakers were paddling down it and cafes were open along the banks.
Opera Square is where the Romanian Revolution began. When we passed it, there was a protest going on. The ability to legally criticize the government, which began here, is still alive and well.
We walked into the evening along the canal, and up to the street level, and then to the squares by the church. There are three main squares, Liberty, Unity, and Revolution. They are as lovely as any we have seen. Some have been renovated and look prosperous, but my favorite were the ones that needed love. One has a fountain that had lights that changed color. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a couple of million and be able to buy one of these beauties and fix it up? We could live in it part time and be in Winters part time.
They led us to an Italian restaurant called Del Corso where we sat outside. In Romania, you can’t even have drink and then drive, so we stuck with water. It made me wonder, how did all those people get home after the wedding.
I had eggplant Parmesan and a tomato salad–it was small, but full of flavor. Lots of good conversation about her memories of Woody’s visit and his memories of his trip in 74 as well. Geta speaks some English and when she doesn’t understand, she asks Iulia to translate.
Geta and Iulia seem to live in conditions so distant the conditions I remember when I was here in 1974. There is not a hint of the paranoia and privations that I witnessed then. When I had visited Geta’s village of Varviz in 1974 with my parents, we were taken out into the field to talk about living conditions. “The light bulbs have ears,” they had told us. When electricity was installed in the 60’s in their village, most people were convinced that they had also somehow installed listening devices along with it. Whether that was true or not, people who complained about government rationing of fuel, water and energy did sometimes disappear.
Now, the confidence demonstrated by both Geta and Iulia is astonishing. Part of this, I assume, is the fact that Romania is virtually crime free. No one seems to worry at all about walking at night throughout this city with regard to safety or strangers approaching.
At dinner, I asked Geta to tell me about her personnel Odyssey, coming from Varviz, a village of a little more than 200 with little possibility of going further than eighth grade in her education, to where she is now, a department head at the University. Most children tended to go to work in the fields or in coal mines after eighth grade. Geta had taken a test to get into a high school after the eighth grade, succeeded with highest honors, and then moved near in a town near Zalau called Simleul Silvaniei to go to high school. Back then, the competition to get into college was very stiff. There was only one chance, she felt, “either to fail or to perform.” So, naturally, she had to perform! She was only one of two people from her entire town to continue on to the university in 1985. She got an appointment to the University of Timisoura. Her brother had gone there before her, and had been “number three” at the Polytechnic College there. He encouraged her, and was a big influence on her to keep pursuing her education, she told us.
And why Agronomy, I asked Geta? How did you become interested in that field? “I was always surrounded by nature and farming all around Varviz. I liked biology. I always dreamed about becoming a biology teacher and applying that knowledge to the farming.”
Possibilities were very limited, she explained. Marghita, the nearest larger city to Varviz, had only jobs like cooking or cleaning available for young people. “Having a job that involved ‘intellectual work’ was, for my mother, a dream, and that that dream became mine.”
I asked if her parents had helped her or influenced her in any way. “My parents gave me what little money they had and we worked together and they encouraged me to go,” she said. Her sister, Dia, also studied agronomy. But Dia ended up going another direction. Now she (Dia) has bakery here in Timisoara.
After graduating, she began working at the University, and she met her husband, Dorin, on her first day of work as assistant professor and PhD candidate. He had just come back from an eight month engineering program in Germany. He had come to inquire about the programs at the university and took one look at Geta and said “it was love at first sight,” he would tell me, later. Dorin is now in the upper management of a chemical company and while we were eating there in Timisoara, he was in, ironically, Londerzeel (the same small city where our exchange student, Kevin and his wife Greet live, see earlier posts from Belgium).
We looked through the book I wrote in 1974 on my phone, and Geta pointed to the photo of two girls, the two I had initially guessed (one of which) might have been Geta. “Those are Dorina and Zorita.” Dorina, she explained, had died when she was about 25 from diabetes, she thought. But she is still friends with Zorita, she said. We talked about the possibility of traveling with us together to Varviz to see Zorita. She was willing to meet us there, but it would have to be later, after the graduation of two of Geta’s doctorate students. So we decided to put it at the end of our “Big Circle” tour around the country in the rental car. That would have to wait until later.
Geta went on to explain that after becoming a professor, was able to go to teach about advanced farming techniques in farming back near her home village of Varviz. She had even appeared on national television a few year ago representing her university about the European Union programs to advance farming techniques in Romania. But of all the things that Geta has accomplished, she told us that seeing the success of her students that will succeed her is the thing in which she has the most pride. We talked about the possibility of staying long enough to see the ceremony of these two doctoral students.
I had assumed that during the Communist Era, women’s opportunities would have been suppressed. Well, it was and it wasn’t. Geta told me that the percentage of women to men as professors in actually very high. There are approximately 60% women professors in the university nowadays. I asked how that happened. During the communist times, she told me, men were often invited to have more lucrative jobs in production. Geta is, however, only one of two women who hold department chair positions.
I said that what both Geta and Iulia have done amazed me. Iulia told me that she felt that her mother’s accomplishments out-shined her own. “But your path is just starting” I said to 21 year-old Iulia.
Ironically, the square where the Revolution had started was the venue this night for a small protest against the corruption of the current government. I asked a young man what the protest was all about. He explained that the current government is now trying to pass some laws that will excuse (the people now in power) their past transgressions. Although not in the same league as those atrocities committed by Ceaușescu, if not kept in check, they could lead to a consolidated of power and the same totalitarian tenancies. Public protest and freedom of speech are still alive and well in Timisoara, I guess.
I want to investigate this story more. I did not realize that in the next few days we would have a chance to get an inside story from someone who knew a little known aspect of the Revolution, and Rebecca and I would discover a little known, almost forgotten museum of the Revolution about a hundred meters from here. That story would unfold in our piece about the Romanian Revolution.
Protesters decried a proposed law that would exonerate politicians from convictions.
After dinner we walked through more of the old town.
Geta and Dorin used to live in an apartment in the old part of town. Iulia showed us where she went to primary school, a beautifully preserved historic on Liberty Square. Wow, I thought. THIS is where Iulia walked from their old apartment in a big, sophisticated, historic city to her primary school? This is so different from the environment in which Geta grew up. Then we headed for their new home they built about a dozen years ago, some ten minutes from downtown.
Full of admiration for my cousin, her family and this brave city, I wondered what the next day would bring.
Their home is a modern house, roomy and light. We were given a guest room downstairs that has a corner sofa that pulls out into a large bed.
The next morning we saw that Geta had fixed us breakfast before she went to work–cheese, meats, dark bread, and homemade jams.
She grew up in a village called Varviz and lived the peasant lifestyle, so she knows how to preserve foods. We wrote in our journals/blogs until Iulia got up. Then we went to the Orange store where Woody had them put a SIM card in my phone. Iulia and I went to the pharmacy so I could get some ear drops for my ear that had been hurting for several days. Then we went to the bake shop and also walked through the vegetable market–fun to see and a good vocabulary lesson for me. Back home, Iulia and I went out on the back porch where we each did our own work, I wrote and she studied and took notes.
The next morning, Geta was off to wrap up some things at the college. We were to meet her at noon to go wine tasting. Her husband had called from the Ukraine and insisted that we go to a very nice winery about 30km outside of Timisoara. He had planned to take us there the next day, but the winery would be closed for a private event, so he had suggested that Geta take us that day.
When we arrived at the University parking lot, a young man, Vuki, short for Vukaşin Bukur, was there to meet us. He would be driving so that the rest of us could drink. Vuki took time out of his busy schedule to drive us so that the rest of us could taste the wine.
Vuki is an amazing grad student–his dissertation is in a couple of weeks. He is of Serbian background, but his family has been here for 200 years, though they keep their language and culture. Hi is amazingly with it–He knows of UC Davis, who Bernie Sanders is, what cities are in which states in the US. His vocabulary is extensive in English–just amazing! His accent is thick, though, and was hard to understand, sometimes. We were able to carry on deep conversations, and he translated for us and Gety when we didn’t understand each other. We passed through several towns and they told us about these fancy houses that were being built by the Romani people. They earn money by various means overseas, then come back and build these huge houses and buy fancy furniture for the front rooms, but they live in the back rooms in squalor. Vuki told us he was friends with gypsies and that’s just how they are–the kids don’t attend school and they take care of their own justice and stick with themselves. He said they have no papers and yet they travel across borders. They bribe and act, he said, like the American Mafia.
On the way, Vuki gave us some very interesting insights into politics here, which we later would use in the post about the Revolution that began in Timisoara.
The country got more hilly and vineyards started to appear as we turned off the main road andup a huge winter road. A woman was waiting for us and gave us a tour and lead us in tasting inside a fancy underground room. It was very good wine. They export more of it than they sell in Romania.
I liked their Cuveé best. They had bread and cheese to nibble on, and I needed to eat something so I ate much of it. But then, after the tasting, they brought in food, three courses! I wish I hadn’t eaten so much bread! I was concerned how much all of this was costing. Woody tried to pay, but our hostess would not hear of it and paid for it all.
After the wine tasting, we stopped at Geta’s University and she showed us around. She is rightly proud of her work. She said something like “I have one heart at home and one heart at work.”
She showed us a displays about grains and legumes and other seeds that she had designed and written. She showed us her classroom, her office, a meeting room, and a laboratory where they extract essential oils and germinate seedlings. It was all very interesting and I’m glad she took us there. We headed home where Vuki took an Uber back to the University. We left our car at the university and Dorin, (Geta’s husband) will take us there tomorrow to retrieve it.
Later, Vuki, was able to take us out to a big farm that the University consults with and show us some of their operation.
I looked around the hallways of the campus and noticed a plaque devoted to Geta. I asked her to explain what the plaque was about. She said it was an acknowledgment of her work to transform the department into a real, functioning body that advises real farmers and act as an advisory body to help the industry in this region. I asked her to stand in front of the plaque and I took her picture.
We talked, shared pictures and waited for Dorine to return from Belgium. He works for a chemical company that is based, of all places, Londerzeel! His plane landed while we were coming back from the winery, so he showed up shortly after. He is a wiry man in his 50’s with graying hair and a keen eye. You feel he misses little of what in important to him.
That evening, Dorin came home from a week traveling by air for his corporate position with Belchem. We spent the evening getting to know him and continuing to learn about the family. We showed photos from our phones and talked about the old times before the Revolution.
Tomorrow, Geta would be off to do a presentation in Serbia for the next week, but Dorin insisted that we stay a few more days in Timisoara to learn about the city and for him to get to know us, so there was a changing of the guard, so to speak.
I found Dorin to be just the opposite of my previous perceptions of what a typical Romanian businessmen. I tended to think of Romanians in the post-Revolution as people who had risen up from local enterprises to take over a regional business and become successful, but in a limited way. Dorin is a top-level manager for a chemical company. The business supplies chemical solutions for farmers and agricultural distributers around the world. Dorin is the representative for the part of Europe that we are exploring, southeast, central Europe, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia.
Dorin is, unlike many we have seen, very mobile, often visiting offices in two or three countries in a week. He will often be away from home for two weeks or more, but is generally out of the country at least once a week. The headquarters is in the tiny town of Londerzeel, Belgium. (There is a plan afoot to try to meet up in Belgium when we visit on our way back to the US.)
While Woody was talking to Dorin, I went in to talk to Geta. She had set up a light supper of bread and spreads she had learned to make from her village background. She had an eggplant/pepper tapenade, a sweet, spicy pepper relish, and a black currant jam. Just a light dinner after our big luncheon to fill us up.
She proudly showed off her cupboard filled with all the preserves she had made. Amazing. The thing is, I bet neither of her children knows how to make or even appreciates these preserves. Knowledge from one generation to the next can be lost so quickly. Iulia came in and her dad greeted her fondly. You can see he is proud of her and lists her accomplishments freely. We talked some more, then said our goodnights, and gave our thanks and goodbyes to Geta who will leave early in the morning to Serbia for a conference.
That morning, after Geta left for her presentation in Serbia, Dorin took us to tag along with him in his worldwind lifestyle for the morning, even though he was off duty for the weekend. We let him drive our rental car (which, I supposed was against the contract I signed but had not understood) so that he could pick up his Audi that was in the shop across town. Then he wanted us to accompany him for a coffee at a local, very posh spot. So, we sped across town, again, all the while, he was on the speakerphone with a business partner from the Ukraine. We got to a nice spot, sat outdoors, ordered drinks. Within minutes, another business client showed up and Dorin excused himself to go to another table while Rebecca and I enjoyed our coffee and tea.
After Dorin had finished his dealings, he insisted that we leave our car in a paid parking spot so it would be safe, and then we could meet him later after another meeting downtown. Dorin dropped us off to tour the old part of Timisoara on our own and he would meet us later at a very nice restaurant for dinner.
Dorin’s English is articulate and he has such a wide range of interests and experiences that it was engaging to talk to him. That night the conversation, naturally, turned to politics, both United States and International. I have been trying to get a sense of how this President is seen on the International stage, being so remarkably unlike any previous one of either major party.
Surprisingly, Dorin had a different view than most people I have interviewed. He said that Trump was actually right on a few points.
“I have to tell you, I think that Trump was right in two aspects. First, when he said that the European Union had to pay its fair share, I think that is right. If we want to have protection from Russia, we all have to pay our fair share.”
“Second, there is truth to what he says about immigration. For example, when Romania first got out from Ceausescu, then we had for the fist time in 40 years the ability to leave the country. We had many people who just left. They did not have skills, they did not have any financial support. So what did they do? They went to other countries and became a drain on that country’s resources.”
“But what I cannot understand is, how a country like the United states would elect a man like Donald Trump, a person who tells a reporter, you are a bad person, shut up, sit down. Never in my life have I seen anything like that.”
“Another example, I have been the a top level of corporate management for 15 years now, and I have to sign an affidavit every year that when I am doing management that I cannot do anything that will benefit my family, I cannot give a job to my family, my wife, my son or daughter, anyone in my family. Now you have a president that gives his daughter a high level job, his son-in-law, his wife, now he is talking. What kind of leadership is this? The whole world used to look up to the United States for moral leadership, but not now. How is this possible?”
Obviously, these are questions I could not answer, but it was interesting to see this level of analysis from someone with such an international perspective. He did not seem partisan in his judgement. In fact, most of what we know of Dorin seems to be the right of Georgeta’s left. He is conservative in most of his judgements and his previous employment with DOW Chemical seem to be in striking conflict with Geta’s environmental goals espoused by her in what we have been able to learn so far.
Dorin’s concern about immigration into Europe seemed to be valid. It made me rethink some of the things that are happening all over the world now. This phenomenon of migration is nothing new, but it is something that is becoming more of an issue recently with political destabilization in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. The issue has become, I think, “how do we block others from taking what we have staked out as our own, or how do we share the world’s resources?” For many, it has boiled down into this dichotomy of choice.
We were curious about what Geta was doing in Serbia, and wished that we could have joined her to see her in her element, but it didn’t quite fit into our plans.
As it turned out, weeks later, we would be able to see Geta in her consulting work out in the field toward the end of our tour of Romania. We were on our way back toward the west side of Romania when we got a call from Dorin. This was one of those mornings that we would end up in a totally different place than we had imagined at the onset of the day.
This was a day that we were travelling through Deva and the neighboring city, Hunedoara, to see the spectacular Corvin Castle. We got a phone call from the Ukraine. It was Dorin. He insisted that rather than come back to Timisoara that night that we “must drive to the small town of Vata de Jos and see Geta.” She was just finishing up with some lectures there with farmers and she wanted us to join her. So off we headed up some fairly narrow roads to find the small village.
Dorin told us that we should meet Geta in a small town where she has been staying, giving lectures to farmers. We would see another part of Romania, so we decided to go and meet her in the town of Vata de Jos, which has no mention of anything in any guidebook. It took us a little over an hour to get there. Woody called her on the phone to get directions.
By the time we had parked in the small square of the city center where our GPS had directed us, we had no idea where her presentation would be taking place. Soon, we heard her voice and looked around. Here she was, coming out of a small building that looked like a storefront. We noticed the words written “Centru Comunitar” on the placard above the door. “Community Center,” I guessed.
Geta greeted us on with kisses on both cheeks and then ushered us into the building. We followed her into an old room with a raised stage. We watched several men in jeans and plaid shirts standing in line to get boxed lunches and observed her in her consultant role while Geta took her laptop and video projector apart and prepared to leave. Soon were greeted by what seemed to be dignitaries of the town. One of them had a title of something to do with regional tourism. He was going to take us on a sort of”field trip” around Vata de Jos.
She had arranged for us to stay at the hotel where she was booked in a very nice suite of the newest building at the edge of the village. After dropping off our bags, she told us that it was time to go on an adventure, but so far, we had no idea of just what the adventure was going to be.
Her colleague, Jenel Bulz, is the one who was in charge of the touristic information for this part of the county. He showed up at the hotel in a Toyota Land Cruiser with three other people from his office, and he told us to get in our car and follow him.
Geta got into our car with us and we followed the bigger car full of her colleagues. The man driving was a tourism coordinator for the town of Vata de Jos. We followed him onto a small road that got even smaller and rockier. We surprised some cows and a horse, and the cow herder surprised me as she was an old, old woman.
We were going to go to a monastery, Geta told us, as we got off the pavement and were now going up some serious Jeep trails. This was not one of those huge stone structures that had been built centuries ago, but one that two women live in that was just recently built in honor of a recent monk that was up for beatification. I kind of enjoy challenging roads with our little ALF, it has a lot of power and is pretty compact to go between narrow passages. But this road was a bit more challenging than I bargained for I realized when the undercarriage begin to touch stones, high center, as I carefully tried to slowly negotiate the high and low spots while trying to keep up with the tourist guy in the 4X4 going up the hill.
Finally, we signaled to our guide that we could go no farther. So we found a little wide spot on the trail, and Rebecca, Geta and I all piled into his four-wheel drive Toyota and all seven of us rode the remaining, Rebecca on my lap and another woman on her friend’s lap. Squeezed in like that, we rode the final two kilometers up the steep, rocky path.
On we went, rocky and steep and bumpy. I wondered if it would be worth it. Up we went to the top where he parked and we all climbed out. The chapel is newly built and in honor of a fairly new saint. (Actually he has not been cannonized yet.) But they all said he would be. His name is Alfonsie Buchra.
The chapel is only a year old; new wood and a shiny copper roof. Inside, icons have been painted on the walls just like in ancient chapels. The church sits on top of the mountain and behind it is a small farm house and yard where a couple of cows and donkeys graze. Only the donkey shows any curiosity towards us.
Above the farm house, high on a hill is Buchra’s gravesite. There is another gazebo-shaped building. Below the chapel and to one side is a smaller house that is still being built, and a few out-buildings. A dozen white goats in a small fenced-in field bleat at us.
A nun named Sister Irina comes from the small house below to greet us. She knows our guide well and they hug in greeting. She talks with the group explaining things, but no one translates. She speaks some English and welcomes us, then she invites us down to our house.
Then she is joined by Sister Benedicta who brings out well water to a small table on the porch. I look around wonder at their lives. They told us that they took their vows about ten years ago and have been living up here for a little less than two years. They have goats that they milk and they make cheese. They have a small vegetable garden that is finished for the year. I could see a large wood pile and I wondered if they did all the chopping and stacking. There were strong women, I could see. But what is their life like? They don’t have much to do now that their garden is done, except pray. And keep the chapel clean. How do they survive the winters? A different world, as Geta said.
Sister Benedicta told me that she went to college. I asked her what her major was. “Accounting,” she told me.
That was surprising. I had assumed Theology or Philosophy. So I said, “You probably don’t use your accounting skills her much, do you?” After I said it, I realized that I had been sort of amused by it, and I hoped that I had not appeared to be critical or belittling.
Her answer surprised me. Very thoughtfully, said in very good English, “You’d be surprised. We have various funds that I manage for the church and farm activities.” Don”t mess with these nuns!
We said goodbye and decided to walk down the steepest, bumpiest part of the hill, and our gude would pick us up. It was a lovely walk, much better than the ride up. The afternoon light and shadows made a peaceful scene. Geta and I talked in our broken languages. She pointed out plants and gave me their Romanian names, of course I won’t remember them. But one part of the forrest had wild sour cherry trees. Their bark looked the same as the trees in my yard. These grew in a different shape, these grew straight and tall, 40 feet high, or more.
Back at the lower part of the hill, our driver picked us up and we had a short, crowded drive back to our car. ALF was waiting for us patiently. The three of us got in and followed the bigger car to the next adventure, which Geta said was dinner, and that was good, because Woody and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
We ended up at a pension of the father of Janel, who had taken us around. His name is Pera Bulz. We met Jenel’s wife, both his parents, and her parents; quite a family affair. We sat at one long table. There were 12 or 15 people to feed. Jenel’s wife and his mother started to bring out food and palinca. There were four kinds of palinca and we were expected to try each one. Woody and I liked the cherry one best.
Then we ate. cheese, bread, chicken schnitzel, two kinds of pork soup, cabbage salad, eggplant spread, red bell pepper spread, more cheeses, cheese in pastry and a sweet pastry for dessert. There was so much food it looked like they had planned for 30 people. Near the end, his father, Pera, got out his clarinet-cousin instrument and started to play. After two or three songs, I was done, because it was loud. But he was just warming up and enjoyed having an audience. Another boy came in and played a drum. Eventually the eventing ended. It was fun to be a part of it all, but with no one really able to translate, it was also tiring and trying. Woody drove us back to the pension, after the host gave us three different bottles of palinca and the cheese breads. We excused ourselves, and Geta stayed up to talk with her colleagues late into the night.
Geta called Dorin on her cell phone at the end of the day to check in. He was in Germany, she told us. She invited us to join her later at the Hotel bar to talk with her colleagues from the University. We thanked her, but Rebecca and I had experienced another amazing day, but we were tired and ready for bed.
Geta and her family represent such a big part of what is changing about Romania. They have one foot in its deep wonderful and terrible history. The other foot is firmly planted in a progressive, high tech, modern future. They are both part of what is shaping Romania today.
These were the days that gave us an insight into a part of my family that I had only learned about a couple of weeks earlier. Geta had promised to take us back to visit Varviz, the town of her birth. Because of her work with doctoral students, that day would be squeezed into that final 24 hours in Romania. Would we be able to meet any of the people in Varviz I had seen in 1974? Would we meet the one surviving subject of the photo I had taken that so thoroughly gotten my attention, Zarita? Would we be able to find any evidence of Uncle John, my grandmother’s brother, that we met them? I felt that our visit to Varviz was an important element to our trip, if nothing else, to make contact with the last one who was there when I took those photos in 1974.
But was there another, less tangible quest for me: How did this small town fit into Romanian life now? Are the customs, the business of the town, and the friends and family still connected in the way they seemed to be when I was there in 1974? And frankly, would there be anything worth writing about in our final portion of our trip?
As it turned out, we would have only 24 hours left to see.