Winter wedding

A wedding
Ghita and his shepherds reached the winter grazing grounds in November, after many of the usual alarms and excursions.  How hard it was, I will never know, because Ghita is reticent about disasters: he has to save his energies for the present.  Apart from the two dogs which the hunters killed near Cluj, wolves took 30 of his sheep sometime in December or January.

Just after Christmas, I got a phone call from Ghita’s mother.  I was at home, thinking of anything but, and when she rang, I couldn’t understand who it was:

Drrrn-drrn, drrn-drrn, drrn-drrn.

Me: Hello?

Other end: (Silence)

Me: (slightly sharper) Hello?

Other end: ALO!!!!!!!

Me: (startled, then incredulous)  Paraschiva?

Other end: DA!  Ce mai faceti?

Me:  (still incredulous, Paraschiva never wastes time on the phone, and to
receive a call from her in Wales is unheard of)  Bine, si Dumneavoastra?

Paraschiva: Bine!  Asteptam o nunta, si daca sunteti in tara pe 20 ianuarie, veti fi bineprimiti.

Me: (bowled over)  Da?  Extraordinar!  Sper sa vin.  Doamne ajuta!

Other end: (click)

So Ghita and Andreea were getting married!  It was wonderful, glorious, heart-warming news.  I was recovering from an eye operation and hoped I’d be well enough to get out to Romania in time.

Thanks to providence, the good surgeons of Swansea, and my kind, supportive cohabitee I arrived in the village of J three days before-hand, in time to help with the wedding preparations.  These consisted of making vast quantities of food in the old Camin Cultural, one of J’s two community halls.  This building, made of concrete and painted a thankfully fading acidic green, was freezing as regards temperature but blazing with good will and laughter.

Inside the hall, the main chamber was a lofty, cavernous space whose walls were clad with brown-painted wood-pannelling to above head height, and whose floor was a well-worn parquet, stained to a discreet, muddy colour from years of good use – ranging from formal public meetings to carefree celebrations such as the one that was about to begin.  Ghita’s wedding was an occasion for everyone to revel in, and that it had brought them an unexpected relief from post-New Year dreariness.

It was bustling with activity: it seemed that the whole village was involved in one way or another.  Friends, neighbours and relations – people often combined all three categories – rushed about merrily, chopping freshly-killed, home-grown pork and mutton to be served as steaks or minced into long sausages on an industrial mincer, dicing cooked carrots and parsnips for beef salad, arranging vast saucepans of delicately folded sarmale (stuffed cabbage leaves) into beautiful whirlpool patterns, singing and joking as the steam rose from red faces, necks and fingers.  After an hour or so, one of Ghita’s five sisters laid food out on long trestles for the helpers and we were regaled with delicious meat stew, cake, plum brandy and the dreaded orange drink that begins with F.

There was a lump in my throat because all these near-strangers had brought me into their hearts as though I was one of their own.  It felt like a colossal privilege.  I hardly saw Paraschiva: she was like a flash of black lighting, here, there and everywhere, directing operations with a sure mind trained by years of bringing up six children, one husband and numerous quadrupeds all of whom needed guiding in one way or another.

Paraschiva is one of J’s true matriarchs.  She is capable of flashing anger and if it breaks over your head, you’d better watch out because her words can be sharp and penetrating as daggers, but if you’re prepared to stand and take your medicine, nobody is more forgiving and sunny in the afterwards.  In his book on the Margineni shepherds who led their flocks to southern Russia and the Caucasus, Toma Lupas wrote in praise of Margineni women, whom he says are the most wonderful combination of feminity and strength.  In Paraschiva, you see one such personified.

On Sunday, the wedding day, I arrived at 10.30am, as requested: the day was cold and snow lay in wet solid banks, and where it had compacted the ice was treacherous.  Like everyone else, I was wrapped up in overcoat, scarf, and about twenty base layers on top of my elegant wedding gear, and I wore my trusty old Swiss hiking boots instead of court shoes: hardly elegant, but it was more important to be there.  Dragos Lumpan had arrived too, with his state of the art cameras: Ghita was his friend before mine, and Dragos is in the final stages of making his film, The Last Transhumance, in which Ghita and his men feature several times.

In the hall lobby, a three-man Gypsy band played their socks off – jinking and bouncing with their saxophone, accordion and drum, the guys had come from Bordeaua, J’s Gypsy district, and in the chill blast that came in from outside, they certainly helped to keep everyone feeling cheerful.  (When I went to visit Bordeaua, the people I met there told me they are not Roma but Baiesi, that is, descendants of the poor, 18th century miners who came to J from the Apuseni Mountains in search of a new start in life.)  More guests arrived every minute: with an inward yelp of delight I recognised Andreea’s pretty mother and sister, and her sister’s husband, but embarrassingly not her father, who did recognise me, and was – naturally – quite offended that I could not remember him. The bride’s party had driven up that day from Salaj in a minibus because unusually the wedding was being arranged – and presumably paid for – by Ghita’s parents, and I felt a pang of sorrow for them because they really should have been the hosts and they looked a little shy and uncomfortable.  After a five-hour journey, it was not surprising.  But like everyone else, they soon radiated happiness.

The hall itself looked immaculate: instead of the two trestles I’d seen on the Friday, they were covered in swathes and flounces of red and white net and satin, and arranged in diagonal rows, herringbone fashion, one row along each of the two side walls, leaving a decent space for processions in the middle.  A large red and white heart fixed on the wall at the back of one other table, placed parallel to the wall, showed where the bridal party would sit.  There were more tables on the stage and at the opposite end, near the door, a smaller stage was cluttered with electronic gadgets and cables ready for the musicians to take their stand there. To the other side of the door into the hall, a step led down into a two-room kitchen from which steam floated aromatically: the four or five volunteer cooks were there again, hair plastered to their scalps, bending over the huge vats of bubbling liquids in which I thought I could see sausages, dumplings, soup, stew.  Here too were a new group of people, dressed in smart black and white waitering gear: this is certainly going to be a serious, no holds barred affair, I can see, I told myself.

Ghita was (thanksbetogoodness) in evidence, in a very smart white waistcoat and shirt, black jacket, trousers, and dickie bow – an Adonis in person.  He looked absolutely joyous.  He must have come from the winter farm in the past couple of days as well; he only has a couple of hands to look after the flocks (split as last year into two halves, one for lambing ewes, the other for rams and non-breeding ewes).  Immediately after the wedding, he had to return to work – no romantic honeymoon for this dedicated couple.

At 11, Andreea herself arrived, looking more regal and lovely than I had ever seen her, and completely different to the diffident slip of a girl who had greeted me in Paraschiva’s kitchen on the Friday morning.  At that moment, I had not clapped eyes on her since the previous April and was not sure if it were she.  Andreea had broken the ice for both of us by stating, quite truthfully, that it was hard for strangers to know where to put themselves at a time like this!  I guess she was talking about herself as well as me, and felt for her.  It has not exactly been a whirlwind romance but Andreea’s people live a long way from J and she has not had time to get to know his family well.  I was sure they would treat her well, but could understand her nervousness.  Not to speak of the momentousness of getting hitched in the traditional Romanian style.  An option such as mine – to live with someone else without being officially married – would not be open to her and Ghita, and I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted it, but this was a daunting occasion nevertheless.

What the bride wore: a full white dress embroidered with tiny, shiny silvery-white beads and a fluffy white jacket to keep out the cold.  She had white flowers in her hair which is dark blonde, and which she wore up.  She came into the lobby with a basket on her arm.  In the basket were little flowery tokens for each guest: she went around each of us pinning the tokens to our chests.  Boy it was packed in there!  Everyone wanted a picture.  The kids who were nasi, that is godparents, to the bride and groom, stood out by their special costumes, that sober and extremely elegant combination of clothing which is confined to black and white, but the little girls wore fine veils of cream coloured material as thin as gossamer which made them look a bit like Dutch milkmaids.  How beautiful and dignified all this was is hard to describe.

And so, the day began: after the giving of posies, the couple went to the Primaria (town hall) for their civil wedding.  In J, the primaria is next to the old camin (and to the new one, but you don’t need to know that just yet).  Urged by Ghita’s sisters, I followed the procession into the building, up the white marble stairs to the first floor, and into another lobby, where standing as far back as I could, I heard rather than saw, my two friends tie the knot.  The deputy mayor conducted the service in a serious but relaxed manner.  After his kindly speech – the deputy mayor was amongst friends, you could tell from the briskness and not infrequent joshing which he allowed himself – we had glasses of champagne and bonnes bouches which helped to keep out the cold a little, and mildly tiddly, I followed the procession back down the stairs and outside again, where a crowd of villagers was waiting in a dutiful phalanx to enjoy the spectacle of one of J’s favourite sons getting married to this little-known girl from outside the county.

We walked up the hill to the second of J’s two Orthodox churches, which is Ghita’s parish church but looks like a miniature cathedral.  It is an early 20th century building, very white with a tall circular arcaded tower – not as charming as the older one but it is an imposing landmark and lives up to its nickname of the Cathedral of the Mountains.  Inside, Dragos and the other official photographer performed gymnastics with their cameras, taking pictures from all angles, back, front, sideways, from above in the balconies, and from down below, nipping about all over the sacred spaces, while the priest got on with the solemn business in hand, and while Ghita and Andreea stood, knelt and stood again, exchanged vows and rings, and then eventually tender smiles and a kiss (sure I could write for Mills and Boon…).  And we all trooped out again, down the slippery paths and steps to the icy road, and back to the hall.

Where chaos broke out.  The well-behaved procession of nasi, little ones and larger, suddenly descended upon bride and groom and an unseemly rough and tumble ensued in which Andreea seemed to be given away for a bar of chocolate and Ghita for, well, I couldn’t make it out, it all happened too fast, and my Romanian, pretty serviceable at a steady trot, gave out under this gallop.  As I heard later from my friend Ileana who keeps the Pastoral Museum, the nasi pretend to sell off the mireasa and mirelul (bride and groom) before the wedding feast begins.

And feast it was, for the eye, the ear, the nose and the stomach: the hall was decked with red and white satin bows and streamers, and there were gadroons of food and drink, not only what you could see at the start, laid out decorously on the trestle tables, but course after course which issued out of the steaming kitchen, to delight the carnivores, herbivores, cake gluttons and drunkards among us to the point of unbelievable satiety.  There were hot soups, grilled meats, rice and potato dishes, and cold collations with (a recent innovation this) plenty of fruit and salads – including the salata de boeuf which I’d helped to dice – to offset the traditional hunkiness of Romanian cuisine.

And of course there was music, non-stop, mostly live and definitely boisterous.  It was pop-folk music, and apart from the digital recordings, it came from two bands (one a Baiesi Gypsy group from Bordeaua, an upwardly mobile ghetto attached to the northern side of J), and from two glamorous female singers who sang raunchy solos on the floor of the hall, and from Dinu B, one of Ghita’s closest friends, who gave a virtuoso fluier performance of such melancholy and longing that it set my spine on fire.

And of course there was dancing – I wish I could remember the differences between the Jiana, the Hategana and the Invartita but we had all of these rounds or horas as people call them, linking the dances to the brandy, the double-distilled horinca which of course flowed like rivers).  And there were spectacles such as fireworks which sprang out of the floor in silver flares (one of them practically under Andreea’s feet), and dramatic, candle-lit entrances by the waiters and waitresses, dressed in black trousers, white shirts and elegant waistcoats, bearing the next course.  Of course.

Andreea and Ghita’s wedding went on all day, and all night, until 5am.  There was a short break around 5pm, when the guests went home to feed their livestock.  When they came back they had changed out of their warm, day clothes, emerging like butterflies out of chrysalises in silk and satin and velvet, the women in high heels, with their hair piled in shining coifs that defied gravity, the men in smart suits that made them hard to recognise as the tough guys in all-purpose khaki who I was used to, stomping around the village and charging about in their 4x4s.  Some of the younger kids stayed at home after this watershed, but others came back to the hall, to run around amongst our legs until very late.  At one point I noticed the floor: soft wood planks stained black with decades of drink and the other inconsequential things that we chuck away when we are very happy.  People treated the floor like a friend, and lay on it for rest.  Or maybe I was enjoying myself so much that the floor looked like the deck of a ship in a rolling sea, rising up to greet me.

As for me, I held out until 3am; by that time Dragos had long since disappeared.  Walking home to Ileana’s by night, I realised that all my inhibitions: fearing I wouldn’t fit in, would be seen as an interloper, an awkward presence in the midst of all the celebration, had evaporated.  The air smelt icy and sharp, ready for anything.  I knew that after a few hours’ rest, I would be too.

Update: Thanks to Vodafone and Protv, Ghita has become a star – you can visit his facebook page, Ghita Ciobanul.  We wish him and his family every success.

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