Nestled in the mountains of Northern Romania, not far from the Ukraine border, Maramures is a magic real entity, a wonderland harbouring green hamlets with ethnocultural nuances. The region though sprawled across 6682 sq. miles is sparsely populated with some villages huddled sporadically in pockets. While the rest of Romania still shudders at the afterthought of the darkest regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, Maramures could somehow manage to escape his evil clutches. But following that dark age of autocracy, while the rest of the country bounced back to modernity, Maramures remained as it was before - a strangely cloistered place, estranged and engaging at the same time with a cinematic blend of fantasy and reality.
I was accompanied by my Romanian friend Vlad, who has quit his banking profession to pursue his passion for photography and for the last few years has been a quite regular visitor in Breb. He has grown an emotional connect with the common villagers and his acquaintance with the families in Maramures helped me to strike up an instant bond with the people of an alien land. Vlad and his wife Georgiana (also a banker) drove us for seven hours from their hometown of Brasov to reach Breb. I was simply overwhelmed how the locals made me their friend and soon I found myself ensconced amidst them happily forgetting my alien identity. I was traversing into a sorcerer's land across seven seas and every single experience only reaffirmed my thought that time stood still in this magical world.
The hamlets of Maramures in December were snow white with downy flakes falling in profusion over the cypress, poplar, spruce and the orchards of plum, apple and cherry. Wading in brief steps through the drizzles of snow my gaze was transfixed in wonder when a horse-drawn wooden carriage hoofed past. No matter whether the weather was sunny or rough, whether the air was sombre or sublime, an exuberance of spring paints the hospitality and humility of the innocent folks who pass their lives in a seemingly eternal stasis. Cultivating crops and grazing cattle in the plots of various shades of green, carrying timbers on the cart to hone their craftsmanship, threshing hay, burning dry leaves and stacking the harvest and old grannies keeping alive the flavour of traditional dishes make a picturesque tapestry of pastureland peopled with colourfully garbed peasants. It is a village lulled in pastoral bliss. The colossus wooden gateway at the entrance of the simple yet aesthetically decked up timber houses attracted me the most. Wood seemed to be the chief medium of their art as well as philosophic expression. Getting through that wooden doorway, I came into a wide premise of a farmhouse of cattle and an elegant wooden hut at the other end of it. I was told that those old gates were erected with a belief that the families will be protected by Almighty. Getting inside the cosy hut I saw how the tell-tale signs of poverty were so poetically concealed under artistry. The interior walls were decorated with simple kitchen utensils, ceramic dishes and embroidered scarfs in absolute neatness. Here you will meet a septuagenarian or even an octogenarian lady spinning wool or doing some domestic chores in a lazy wound up motion making you feel at home with a cordial smile and warmth.
Tradition rules Maramures. It was a Christmas time when I went there. I could feel how sensitive they were to their traditions. It's not that the technology has not made any inroads to the people of successive generations. After all, many of them are brought up in western countries and many of them own flashy cars and love to put on western wears. But Christmas is the time for home coming even these impetuous and brave-hearted young generations do not defy tradition when they come and meet the elders of their families. So behind the traditional dresses, blue denim often peeps out but the entire household or the church gathering is uniformly landscaped with traditional dresses. Men are dressed in thick felt trousers, wide belts and funnel-shaped huts while the ladies drape themselves in a traditional gathered skirt, thick woollen blouses and heads scarves-- again the array of colours seemed to have come out of the pages of folklore.
Talking of the churches, the impressive wooden structure of the Greek Orthodox church with tall spires were standing mighty as if from time immemorial, a time that denies ticking along. Because of the feud with Catholic churches, the Greek Orthodox Church was closed down but the Christmas service was nevertheless held outside. The vast snow-covered cemetery with the wooden crosses jutting out at the backdrop of the imposing wooden church reminded me of that mystic, the fictional Chekhovian world once again.
Account of this magical town remains incomplete without remembering the people I came across in that three-day visit. Meeting the old people and listening to the tales of their woe, I felt that reaching the winters of their lives how they still cling on to their past. I met an old lady who lives alone in her home. She has only her neighbours to look after her and the only companions to her waking hours are the memories of her nuptial life now frozen in the photo frames. Truly memories have no language and the language of sorrow is universal. I didn't need a translator to interpret the reminiscing of her halcyon days.
I went to the wooden cottage of a 90-year-old lady. A strange semblance with my own grandmother makes me strike an instant connection with her. When I told that to Vlad, god knows how she could feel the emotional void in my voice when she hugged me close to her heart and l felt her warm teardrops trickling down my cheeks. She has only a 60-year-old son deserted by his wife. The lady was going on making Christmas delicacies with her slow and unsteady fingers without knowing whose kind footsteps would cross the threshold of her home. Still, a Christmas time without homemade cheese and cakes cannot pass by. So maybe one last time the old lady pulled up her fragile body and faithfully followed the rituals she had been maintaining for ages.
Maramures remains memorable also for these homemade foods. Where ever we went, we were greeted with a delicious dish of Sarmale, a food made out of cabbage leaves and minced meat. In lunch and dinner, they use Polenta as their staple food made of cornmeal. Added to these, there will be the traditional double-distilled plum brandy, Horinka. We met the family of a priest of a Greek Orthodox church. They were excited and delighted to have guests from a far away India sharing their Christmas table. The priest has two daughters. The older one is studying to be a doctor and the younger one is already a computer programmer.
The young generation comes to Christmas parties driving flashy cars, often going beyond their means to show off their luxury. Maybe in days to come, they will demolish the wooden structures of age-old homes to pave the way for something jazzy. Yet in the family gathering, they follow the same line that their ancestors kept following for ages. I felt not only the houses and the horse-drawn carts, but the people as well are from a different era. They have time for their neighbours, time to entertain their guests and they are the people with essential courtesies and warmth.They still regard the essence of a physical hug over tech-savvy communications through emojis and apps in mobile phones.
Such is the charm of the place. Images of an old book kept flapping in my eyes as I was returning by a train chugging along the ethereal landscape. I remembered the bunch of kids on the street who literally surprised me with their mischiefs. But later on, I realized that it was a part of their street play on the eve of Christmas. The image of two cute darlings visiting every household on the Christmas day to fill their pretty little bags with candies and toffees kept coming back. As the sun would rise across the Carpathian range, your morning would assure you a blissful beginning, with the leaves rustling in the woods, with the birds chirping, the cowbells jingling and the herds lowing, keeping pleasing trails in the mind. The chiming of the church bells make the air all the more dreamy and dreams seep seamlessly in my sense of reality turning the real itself into nothing but a fantasy.