I was first in Ghimes, in the widespread villages of the Csango people, exactly 20 years ago. The train trip there took a whole day and a whole night, even though it was only a few hundred kilometres distance. We travelled in relative comfort from Budapest to Debrecen, on sweaty, sticky and torn vinyl seats but then from the Romanian border, my colleague – ethnologist Zoltán Ilyés – and I ended up standing until we reached Cluj-Napoca. The conductor had sold each seat to more than one passenger and my reservation was double booked for one of a family of four. So, leaning on a yellow toilet door, I found myself on the way to Transylvania, a place I had heard so much about from my grandparents as a child.
I pinched my nose. The countryside in Ciuc county was wonderful.
From Miercurea Ciuc, it was just another 30 kilometres by train through Moldavia. The area around Ghimes includes the districts of Harghita and Bacau and the highest part of the valley is crossed by the river Trotus. Because Ghimes is so close to the border it is strongly influenced by the culture of Moldavia and is categorised as part of the region of Vârful Pagânul. This area was never purely Hungarian, even though that was what we were taught at school and that is how the people of Hungary perceive it somewhat romantically today.
That journey, 20 years ago, was a life-altering experience. And now, in the summer of 2018, here I am again. Looking across the mountain meadows of the east Carpathians again, criss-crossed by streams, my feeling that the Ghimes region is shaped by mountains, pastures and nomadic herders rather than any sense of belonging to a certain nation, is even stronger.
The train that takes the Csango people away from Ghimes valley to work and to the market is a small one with wooden benches. Travelling on it must be much the same as it was a hundred years ago. The compartments have been constructed by hand, there are little signalmen’s houses on the way and the tracks often cross asphalt streets where horse-drawn carts now dodge trucks. We jerk and judder our way past villages, accompanied by goats and chickens. We breakfast with the locals: Bacon, polenta, cheese and eggs. At five in the morning I eat the best breakfast I’ve ever had in my life, greasy and delicious. On this trip I hear the lively Csango language for the first time ever, and it’s the Moldavian variation to boot, a mixture of Hungarian and Romanian.
As morning breaks, we arrive at our station. The animals who were driven out to pasture in the dawn greet us with their bells. It’s spring time and little by little, the flowers on the mountain slopes show themselves through the mist. The Trotus falls loudly down the mountain, the river water carrying waste downhill. On the peaks, next to the mountain huts and animal pens, the snow is still thick on the ground and the pine branches white with hoarfrost.
The smell of cooked potatoes wafts through the gardens and down the valley, as well as the aroma of polenta with cream cheese. Smoke comes out of chimneys. I suddenly think that we could actually be standing in one of the most horrible places in the world – but then the morning fog lifts and the valley shifts into sunny, shiny splendour.
The locals here start work in the dark, at four in the morning, milking, cooking, baking, making cheese. You can almost smell the labour beginning in the bitingly cold morning. The horse-drawn wagons are on their way early, the men making their way to the sawmills. The women and even the children, from around 10 years on, work hard. They clean, cook and take care of the horses and chickens.
The Csangos laugh a lot and they talk incessantly. If you’re a stranger they presume you’re innocent and they ask questions, make jokes or complain. Sometimes they even cry when they tell their earnest, often tragic stories, that usually end with death. It doesn’t take long before the people here open up to you.
Later on I better understand the reason for these rich, open-hearted conversations. Talking, sharing and reconstructing life helps get them through their long, hard days of work. Cutting wood and taking care of animals takes hard physical effort.
Yet they reflect upon every moment of their lives, every experience. They talk about the world around showing an unbelievably sophisticated view of the way things are, with humour and a bitter irony, as they discuss what’s going on around them, their interests, their worries or moral judgments.
Even the first time I visited here I learned this: If you don’t answer, or if you do not pay attention, that is seen as a great insult. And the people here are renowned for holding a grudge. As a guest, you should not reject offers of food and drink either. Even if you feel you’re about to burst because you’re so full, being appropriately grateful is an important gesture.
It really doesn’t matter who turns up in Ciuc, whether it’s a penniless beggar, a stranger, or a guest from the motherland, that person is immediately fed and accommodated. Nobody wonders around here alone – there are bears and wild dogs. Everyone helps everyone else.
The wooden houses that look like huts, with their high roofs, are usually built by a husband after he marries and the family’s animal pens are up on the mountains. Every year, between Saint George's Day in spring and Saint Catherine's Day in autumn, the families move to the mountain huts with their animals and help one another out. They use horse-drawn carts to travel between their homes below and the mountain pastures. The path is steep and the trip, several dozen kilometres long, takes several hours. Up here, the families tend to sheep, goats and cows. All year long, they make a living from churning a special kind of cream cheese and from the production of wool. And because of the wolves and bears that have multiplied in Romania recently, the families usually also keep between eight and 10 wild sheep dogs.
As we made our way up to the mountain huts, I could hear the melodic whistles of the shepherds that they use to steer the dogs and several hundred animals. These dulcet whistles can often be found as part of Romanian melodies because herding work was also a traditional job in the historic Romanian Old Kingdom, or Regat.
In the summer of 2018, we stop at a pension in Valea Rece. I had come with the intention of taking part in a funeral and finding out more about how funeral songs are used here. But there was no funeral while we were here. I did get to know Aunty Kata though. When we ran out of eggs at our house, I went across the road with the woman from our pension to Aunty Kata’s house to get some more.
She is over 80 and lives right next to the graveyard. She had buried her husband 10 years ago. Her husband, Kálmán, had just put some wood on the fire one frosty morning when he fell over, while she was still in bed. “A few hours later he was dead. He never went to the doctor once. His heart simply gave up,” she said. “And since then I have been mourning him.”
Aunty Kata showed me the good bedroom and the other large room where the couple had once slept together. That bed is empty now. Outside in the barn, there is her loom, more than a century old, which her husband fixed for her. Today Aunty Kata weaves patchwork rugs. She gets paid 15 Romanian leu for a metre, around €3. The rooms are really only there for the memories now, for the pictures of the grandchildren, the clothes of her deceased husband, his walking stick, his hat and his worn-out old jumper. Aunty Kata actually spends almost all of her time in the kitchen, which is where her bed is now along with a small radio and a Catholic wall calendar. She told me that I wouldn’t find the woman who used to be the professional mourner here. She was driven away after the new preacher insulted her.
After this, we went to the cemetery. It was up on a hill, with a wooden church and graves around it. When a child dies, the mourners wear a red cross. When an adult dies, it’s a black cross and when somebody who was honoured by the community passes away, they wear a white cross. At the foot of the hill are the graves of children, a lot of them. On the way up to the chapel the deceased minors are mostly under six years old. To this day, many people here believe you shouldn’t take a sick child to the doctor; there are thousands of superstitions and fear abounds about medical professionals.
Aunty Kata tells me that the professional mourners, the women who were paid to cry loudly about the death of her husband, have all gone now. Their work was important, you paid for it and even just a year ago you could still find them in the houses where people had just died. They would sing songs about the virtues of the deceased, they would memorialise them and support the dead person’s way to the afterlife. But for Hungary’s Catholic church it was all a bit much, this emotional outpouring by women who recited prayers so loudly. The women who were paid to mourn adjusted to the circumstances and began to feel ashamed of their work, then eventually took no more jobs.
On the next day we took a stroll through Iavardi, a part of Lunca de Jos, up the waterfall and to the church there. There we discovered that a church fair would be held on the weekend, for the feast day of Mary Magdalene, and that as part of this, a cross would be carried through the village. So I did not miss out completely on the laments and recitations because the festival on this day included prayers recited by the women of Ghimes, several hundred Ave Marias.
Today a Catholic church fair here is one of the most important attractions. Tourism has made an impact in Ghimes: while it helps to secure income for the locals it also impinges on the unique identity of the Csango people, forcing them to role-play their own lives and preventing them from doing things that don’t please tourists, such as burials with professional mourners, and taking animals to the mountain during the summer. Because of tourism, certain archaic customs are either concealed, expropriated or mocked. Then they are only ever presented in a cleaned-up way, made part of the unique national identity that Western Europe, and also the rest of the European Union, expects to see. These traditions become part of an argument for classifying the people here as “oppressed”, demonstrating their disadvantages: That’s a typical way for certain political movements to think in Hungary.
The children in Ghimes are not sent to school so that they can eventually go to the West. It’s actually the opposite, they go back to the remote, countryside world of today’s Romania or to Ukraine. School isn’t considered important here and even today it can be difficult to convince the families of the virtues of education because every able body is much needed up on the mountain.
The Romanian villages in Moldavia or Wallachia, those Transylvanian-Saxon and typically “Hungarian” (the Csangos around Székely also describe them as “Hungarian”) hamlets are unique, hidden away in the valleys and preserved there. But currently they are being forced to uphold this idea of “the pure, authentic Magyar people” while, simultaneously, global tourism is killing off what made them unique in the first place.
translated from the German by Jess Smee