My hair is unruly. Always has been.
No matter how many different products or styles that I try, humidity has it beat, and it turns into a frizzy mess within minutes of being outdoors. I’ve learned to live with it, appreciate it even, holding onto a hopeful vestige that the “messy look” is still in.
I get away with it most of the time. But I’ve been seriously rethinking that since Traian, the 90+ year old grandfather on the Ittu farm, started fretting over my style.
I had it pinned back on one side but it was still a wreckage of half-bent curls, made worse by the fact that I had slept on it wet. I thought I had mustered it into something presentable, but Traian most certainly did not. His lip went up in a half snarl, his hand raised to his own head and made the gesture of trying to smooth down hair that he didn’t have. I hesitantly reached up, and as my hand found my own mane he smiled and nodded. I smoothed it a bit, tucked some more behind my ears, and he wordlessly gave me the all clear.
I sat down in the car, distraught for being scolded about my hair from someone nearly six decades older than me.
But he was right.
We were on our way to a Christian Orthodox church service, and Nicoleta slid into the backseat beside me, her own hair pulled back in a tight ponytail and tucked under a head scarf. I tried to smooth mine down even further, turned to ask Nicoleta if it was okay, and she brushed it off as being no problem at all.
I suppose we were going to stand out anyways.
We parked with another dozen cars in an unmarked spot along an otherwise deserted gravel road. We could hear chanting beyond the ditch but saw nothing except the trees that lined it. We took to a barely distinctive path that turned into planks of wood through the forest, laid to protect our Sunday best from the mud.
The path opened to a clearing and the small monastery became visible. People spilled out onto the patio outside, others on the gravel ten feet below that. We climbed the stairs and turned to stare forward, like everyone else, to the small dark room in front of us. Most women had their hair very tidy and tucked under a scarf, mine was an unruly mess in the bunch. Pete and I made our way to the back.
People came and went, cycling through the room. They went in with candles, paper and money, and came out empty handed. They stood and participated for however long it seemed to fancy them, I could discern no pattern to each individual’s decision to stay or go. Some stayed the whole time, others, just a few minutes.
Growing up Roman Catholic, I witnessed many similarities to the Sunday morning routines I could still probably recite in my sleep. I’ve long since left Catholocism on a difference of many opinions, as did the church of Christian Orthodoxy centuries prior (in a grand schism that is too deep for this blog). But many parallels remain.
Some of the chants I could recognize despite having no knowledge of Romanian – I could sense it in the rhythm and flow of the words. The sign of the cross, however, was much more deliberate as the hand swept across the entire body, touching the right shoulder first and not the left, as I was used to. And it was not as a unifying action in the crowd but appeared randomly and often at least twice in a row. At other times some people would also stoop to brush the back of their hand near the floor at their feet.
I was mesmerized. The study of different religions and their rituals is something that has always fascinated me, without having any to commit to myself.
There was one woman neither Pete nor I could take our eyes off of. She was ahead to our left, also just to the left of the door into the small room. Without a pew, she knelt on the wood floor nearly the entire time. She stared straight ahead at the white wall in front of her, not turning or wavering for a second. She was dressed all in black.
The priest (or monk, I’m not really sure), emerged from the small room at one point, wearing a long white garb stitched in red and gold, swinging incense and sleigh bells. His passing warranted more signs of the cross, and attendees reached out to sweep the back of their fingers across his frock and then brush their own. After one pass over the patio, he retreated to the small dark room.
Oh, how badly I wanted to follow him in there. Alas, Mr. Ittu motioned us off the patio and towards the car. We were headed to our second church service of the day.
The Basilica is the most impressive building in Sinca Noua, a dominating structure surrounded by a small manicured cemetery. If there were ever a time I wish I knew more of the local language, it was right then, as Mr Ittu spoke rapidly and fervently about the colorful and intricate paintings that blanketed the inside. From what we understood, it was recently refurbished with all work done by local artists.
It appeared a bit more formal affair, all women had their hair covered or slicked back, most dressed in neat and dark colors. Pete and Mr Ittu walked straight to the front and I lagged behind, thankfully, because I had suddenly noticed that the front section held men only. Just before I made my first step in there, I stopped short and retreated behind the barrier in the second section with the rest of the women.
The crowd was more elderly compared to the monastery, but that didn’t stop one sweet woman from offering me her seat, which I refused with profuse politeness, hoping not to offend her generosity. I found myself wondering about her, and the scores of older women surrounding me, many who likely stood for the entire service (there are no pews, as in Catholic churches, just seats that appear reserved along the walls, plus a few scattered chairs). I saw my own Ukrainian Grandmother in so many of them – very petite in stature with the appearance of incredible strength and great wisdom. I again began to wonder about the astounding longevity of life in this corner of the world.
As the service wound up, all patrons made their way to the front to partake in the Eucharist and receive a blessing, a cross drawn on each forehead with a fragrant rose oil. We were obvious outsiders, not permitted to partake in the Eucharist but motioned to go forward and receive a blessing. Being shy, we both refused, but then the priest came to us. Once all the regular goers had cycled through and many stopped to wish us well (Mr Ittu introduced us to so many in the congregation), the priest came forward and wordlessly applied the cross to our foreheads. If it is possible to reduce that wondrous feeling of welcome and acceptance into a single scent, then for us, it will forever be of that rose oil.
On our way out, the giving continued. Each attendee was handed a loaf of bread, candles, a small cup of a delicious porridge with chocolate, and soda for anyone still with space left to carry. As we were the last few to leave and the stock still plenty, we each came away with more than one loaf and our arms overflowed.
We placed the bread in the trunk and I collapsed into the back seat of the car. The sun was beginning to beat down and it had been an exhausting morning of standing, observing, engaging, and straining to understand. I reached up to massage the rose oil into my forehead. I brought my fingers back to my nose and inhaled the sweet scent.
“We’ve been blessed,” I beamed at Pete in the front seat as he affixed his seatbelt.
“But we already were,” he turned back to me with a smile.
How to do it
VillageLife.ro is an NGO committed to bringing sustainable development to rural Romania. They work with three other families in small towns besides Sinca Noua, and for a very affordable price, allow travelers to experience small town life in Romania.
Click through to read more about our time with the Ittu family in Sinca Noua.