Churches and Fainting Americans

“By the time we get to the monastery, we’re going to smell so bad they won’t want to let us in.”

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I glanced back over my cushioned seat at my Language Training Instructor as I joked  – what do the Peace Corps staff remind us at training? All hail the eternal requisite: a good sense of humor! Ten of us were stuck in a rutiera en-route to visit three Moldovan monasteries. It was the first “real” summer day since we’ve arrived (we’re beginning to refer to many things as “real” these days… Is that a “real” dog? A dachshund! Not like one of those scabied Moldovan mutts… And where can I get a “real” hamburger?! That beef/pork mixture at Draft just wasn’t right). Cotton sticking to thighs and moist hands wicking sweat from skin, we were caught in an impromptu sauna as our rutiera driver awaited police inspection. He had been pulled over to show his papers – standard practice in Moldova, we were told. Of course, as soon as the police officer walked away, the rutiera refused to start. It took several of the men hopping off and pushing the vehicle before the driver could jump-start our journey onward.

The Corps had organized a Saturday retreat for our group. The ten of us met up with the rest of our pack at a curbside site on one of the country’s main highways and boarded one of four private vans idling in wait. We visited three monasteries that day, each a monument to the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

A garden of vibrant flowers surrounded the first, pistils covered by honey bees whose homes were nestled atop an adjacent hill.

The next was a less-tended location. Though the exterior of the church was flawless, the frescoes beneath the cupola had crumbled away to reveal the original stone brick-lay, testament to its age. At the edge of the grounds, a dilapidated structure some hundred-feet-long evoked the image of a forgotten warehouse.

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I witnessed a nun leaving through the front door, and a large dog rested in good temperament at its furthest reach. Perhaps the quarters of the devotees?

The final location was certainly the most expansive and impressive (if you believe bigger really is better), featuring two impressive basilica. The fresco of St. George and his seething dragon stood out, to me, as the most intriguing image. As I gazed at the serpent sneering upwards at his aggressor, I grinned… a basilisk in a basilica! More wordplay for the books.

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Sunday was another day for church-visits. June 19th was “Big Sunday,” or in Romanian, “Duminica Mare.” My host mother Nadea and I had planned to attend an Orthodox service in our village the week before, but since we were not “clean” (and here menstruation comes into play), we couldn’t attend. The night before our rescheduled trip, I asked Nadea to explain the holiday’s traditions. We sat at the dinner table and took advantage of “the Google” – she read that the tradition of placing tree branches along front gates and over the entrances of homes served “to ward off evil spirits.”

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Such decorations were not sparse as we entered the church at 8:30 the next morning. Foliage was tied generously at the entrance and among the basilica’s interior pillars. Three of my colleagues were also attending the service, and we would spend the next three and a half hours shuffling our feet in the fragrant grass covering the floors.

Could I call our experience at the church service an American debacle? Almost certainly.

Our satire began with the smallest offense, as my scarf slipped repeatedly from my head. As Nadea insisted, it may have been one of the most beautiful in the room, but it was concomitant blasphemy! As I glanced at one embellished icon of the Virgin Mary, I could imagine her disdain as my uncovered hair disturbed the sanctity of the service.

Nadea would push and prod me as the grandmothers rushed to place food on a table close by, to light candles and kiss icons. She scolded me lightly as I stifled a yawn. When the priest came by to bless each of us individually, I was instructed to hand him a one-lei note, utter my name and kiss his hand – but he mistook me for my host sister Ana! Nadea corrected him, of course. At one point she handed me a thin candle and pointed at the table of snacks where grandmothers were lighting other candles stuck at odd angles in the offerings. What else could I do but follow their lead? I joined in and… my candle’s wick was buried in wax, which meant that each attempted light ended in a sputter and fizz to black. When Nadea noticed my blunder, she grabbed the candle from me and handed it to another passing grandmother, shaking her head.

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And then the silly Americans dropped from the service, one-by-one. None of us had eaten before the service, none of us were used to standing for such long periods of time, we couldn’t take the heat, it was the incense that did us in! I was the second to rush from the basilica, sheet-white and gasping for air.

When I returned, I made the mistake of scooting in next to one of the standing candelabras. It took only thirty seconds before the grandmother with the singing voice like a screaming pot of tea prodded my butt with her cane. Get out of the way! I was grateful, though – she may have saved me from a fiery demise. (I’ve never had my butt poked, shoved and patted so many times in my life – those grandmothers don’t hesitate to let you know when they’re passing.)

I suspect the grandmothers will be gossiping about us for days. Our final offense? Taking a seat with a fellow volunteer on a bench reserved for “old, old women,” as Nadea put it. We hopped up almost as soon as we sat down, laughing with a hint of chagrin.

At the end of the service, my friend’s host mother reassured us that we shouldn’t worry – everyone there knew it wasn’t our religion.

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