Category Archives: Romania

Danube Delta Border Oddities

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 235-236:

There are many strange borders around the Black Sea, but that between Romania and Ukraine is one of the stranger ones. It coincides with the most northerly branch of the Danube delta, running along its length and dividing it into a Romanian half and a Ukrainian half. Russian Old Believers live on both sides, their villages separated in some places only by 200 m of water, so close that you can count the onions growing in the gardens on the other bank. It has long been impossible to cross over from here to there, however. The external border of the Soviet Union was drawn along the northern bank after the Second World War; nowadays, the south side marks where the European Union ends. Border craft patrol the river which has kept the Lipovan villages apart for more than seventy years. A man in Mila 23 told me that almost all the Old Believers in the delta had relatives on the other side, whom they knew only from stories recounted by their grandparents. The border had torn the Lipovan families asunder.

If you want to cross from Romania to the other side, you have to leave the delta and follow the Danube upstream to Galati – the nearest border crossing, a good 100 km from the coast. It does not lead into Ukraine, however, but into the southernmost tip of Moldova. Only 2 km further on comes a second border, this one with Ukraine.

An old Moldovan by the name of Foma, who had worked as a policeman in the Soviet days, took me to Reni, the first place on the Ukrainian side, which was where he lived.

On the way to the bus station, we drove past the base of a monument with no monument standing on it. I pointed to the empty plinth.

‘Lenin?’

Foma nodded. This was not the first empty Lenin plinth I’d seen. Since the start of the war with Russia, the Ukrainians had toppled the old memorials to the Soviet leader all over the country.

‘Is it Lenin’s fault that life’s bad?’ Foma didn’t wait for my answer. ‘The goal of socialism was for everyone to have a house, a car, a dacha. What’s so bad about that?’

The main street of Reni was pitted with enormous rainfilled potholes. We dodged these craters at walking pace like cosmonauts on a lunar expedition. Rarely had the gulf between the goals and the consequences of socialism seemed wider to me.

Foma didn’t think much of Ukraine’s new-found nationalism. ‘Is it going to make our lives better if they send us hooligans who rip down monuments to Lenin? What are these nationalists even doing here? There are hardly any Ukrainians in Budjak! The villages here are Romanian, Moldovan, Bulgarian, and Gagauz. We all speak our own languages, and we communicate with one another in Russian. No one speaks Ukrainian …’

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Black Sea Neighbors

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 14-15:

The Black Sea is bounded by six states. Clockwise, in the order I visited them, they are Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine.

Six and a half, if you count Abkhazia, a renegade part of Georgia that is kept on life support by Russia to prevent Georgia from joining any Western alliances.

Seven, if you count Moldova, formerly known as Bessarabia, which lost its coastline in the Second World War when Stalin moved the border inland.

Seven and a half, if you count Transnistria, a renegade part of Moldova, which is kept on life support by Russia to prevent Moldova from joining any Western alliances.

Eight, if you count Poland – the old Poland at its point of maximum expansion when szlachta noblemen persuaded themselves that their country’s ruling class was descended from the Sarmatians, an ancient barbarian tribe.

Eight and a half, if you count the Donetsk People’s Republic, a renegade part of Ukraine, which… you can fill in the rest.

Eight and a half, if Crimea belongs to Ukraine. Eight and a half, if Crimea belongs to Russia. Nine, if you’d prefer to let Crimea stand alone.

Nine and a half, if you count the ruined empire of ancient Greece, whose vestiges I encountered on every shore in the form of weathered stones; in place names mangled by foreign tongues; in family stories of scattered Black Sea Greeks; on the menus of countless Aphrodite Restaurants, Poseidon Cafés, Olympus Hotels and Amazon Bars, written in Cyrillic, Latin, and Georgian letters; and in the deep-seated Black Sea tradition of always expecting the worst from your neighbours.

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Romania’s Anti-Hoarding Laws, 1985

From The New York Review of Books, 23 October 1986, by “a writer who frequently travels in Eastern Europe and whose name must be withheld”:

One of my friends said to understand current developments I must first consult a decree by the Council of State of the Romanian Socialist Republic issued on October 10, 1981. The exact text ran as follows:

“It shall constitute illegal trading activities and, in accordance with the terms set down in the Penal Code, shall be punishable by up to six months to five years in prison, to purchase from any state commercial center or cooperative store, either with a view to hoarding or in any quantity that exceeds the requirements of a family for a period of a month, oil, sugar, wheat or corn flour, rice, coffee and all other foodstuffs the hoarding of which might affect the interests of other consumers and proper provisioning of the population.”

Since then, he said, the situation has changed drastically. Coffee can no longer be bought by private citizens and has been replaced by an ersatz substance disapproved of by physicians, which the public, guessing at the ingredients, has nicknamed “henna.” Meat, buttermilk, and bread are rationed in most districts, sugar and cooking oil throughout the country—and the ration is much more generous than the shops charged with distributing them can supply.

Since 1968, it should be explained, Romania has been divided into more than forty districts, each with a Party secretary, who is its supreme head. He is responsible for delivering a quota of food from his district to the central government—a task that must give him bad dreams. For it poses an insoluble problem: if he distributes locally less food than is called for by the plan—as he is virtually obliged to do—he will be popular with the authorities but held in contempt by the people of the district; and if he tries to help the population get more food, he will be unpopular with the authorities. Everyone has a different approach to the same dilemma—for even in the CP no district secretary is quite like another—and this psychological diversity makes for diversity in the distribution of food shortages throughout the country. In Cluj or Pitesti the situation, I was told, is frankly horrible; in Sibiu or Vilcea it is merely wretched. Thousands go from district to district on shopping excursions from which they often return empty-handed.

Romania seems unique in many ways. It is the only European country in which one can be sentenced to five years in prison for buying excessive quantities of food that is generally unavailable to the public. It is also, in my experience, the only such country in which the legal work week is forty-six hours and the urban population often spends three to four hours a day shopping for groceries. In Romania, President Ceausescu takes upon himself to compose lyrics for a new national anthem, rather than entrusting the task to a poet. And in spite of a republican form of government of which he is the constitutional head, the president carries a scepter and is grooming his son as his successor.

Workers often spend entire days waiting for raw materials that their factory cannot obtain. If they leave the premises without permission or bring alcoholic beverages, or cigarettes, or lighters, or matches onto the shop floor, they are regarded as having broken the law and can receive prison sentences from three months up to two years (Decree 400 of December 29, 1981, Article 18).

The average wage, according to experts I talked to, is less than one fifth of the average Common Market wage, while the minimum wage is ignored. The state each month withholds a percentage of wages that can be returned at the end of the year only if the government’s economic goals have been met—something that rarely happens.

Virtually every business establishment has (in addition to spies) a member of the Secret Police with a permanent desk, who reports to his superiors on the proper running of the business. All typewriters must be registered and presented for inspection at the police station every year to show that the keys have not been tampered with.

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Romania’s Energy Crisis, 1984-85

From The New York Review of Books, 23 October 1986, by “a writer who frequently travels in Eastern Europe and whose name must be withheld”:

When it comes to political independence, the Romanians find out about it through rumors. They can judge the country’s energy independence from what they see. When darkness falls, the cities are plunged into shadow—paradise for burglars—and in the daytime, in some cities, buses run only between 6-8 AM and 3-5 PM. Electric energy and water services are interrupted daily, at irregular intervals and for periods that can exceed four hours. As a result, refrigerators defrost in the summer and in every season residents of Bucharest avoid using elevators so they won’t be caught between floors: elderly people laden with packages old grandmothers crying babies prepare for the return to their homes on the tenth or eleventh floors as though for a mountain climb. The strongest light bulb is forty watts, and it is illegal to use more than one lamp per room; television programming has been cut back to two hours during the working day; each official organization is allowed to use only a limited number of the cars assigned to it (of course, there are exceptions, but not in favor of emergency hospital ambulances).

The private use of cars is now banned for the winter months and during the remaining nine months the lines to buy limited amounts of gasoline can last from twenty-four to forty-eight hours. The procession that crosses the city four times a day as the president moves between the presidential palace and the one in which he works is made up of nine cars, not to mention the unknown number of automobiles not officially part of the retinue but assigned to protect it. (A doctor I talked to said that if the presidential cortege were to be cut back to four automobiles and the gasoline thereby saved turned over to ambulances, dozens of people might be spared death each week.)

Some bolder citizens, I was told, began to complain and to say that the vaunted energy independence had gone far enough. They were wrong. The proof came with the polar temperatures of the winter of 1984-1985, when heat was virtually cut off in every city. At twenty below zero people were freezing at home and in theaters, and, most of all, in hospitals. Schools were closed; women who had to go to work in the morning learned to do their cooking after midnight, when the power would occasionally be turned back on for one or two hours, on forbidden electric plates: the fine for doing so is five thousand lei, equivalent to the average salary for two months.

The regime tried to alleviate the situation. By the late 1970s it had become clear that the replacement of the easygoing Shah by the inflexible Ayatollah in Iran would require, in Romania, the replacement of the easy flow of Iranian oil by something more dependable. Here the president’s philosophy—that history cannot really be changed without also changing geography—came into play. Ceausescu had earlier ordered construction of the canal from the Danube to the Black Sea, which soaked up immense sums of money but which foreign ships still refuse to use. He ordered the demolition of a third of Bucharest in order to build a new presidential palace flanked by a triumphal boulevard cutting across the entire city (2.5 million inhabitants). Now, in the same intrepid spirit, he issued the order that Romania was to become a great coal producer. In the country’s principal coal-producing region more than thirty thousand miners went on strike.

A new decree announced that henceforth the principal coal-producing regions would be elsewhere, nearer the president’s native village, where the local coal, according to experts I talked to, had a caloric-energy content below the economically or technologically tolerable limits. Although they did not go out on strike, the new miners did not prove to be up to the tasks assigned them. Thus the first version of the plan had called for a production level of 86 million tons of coal by 1985, its second version set a goal of 64 million, whereas the reported actual production was 44 million. In the end, energy independence based on Romanian coal turned out to be not all that different from energy independence based on Iranian oil.

One might think that the Romanian energy shortage is the worst on the Continent. Nothing could be more erroneous. During the late 1970s, when they were still obtainable, official statistical data showed that at that time Romania’s electrical energy output—2,764 kilowatt hours—was nearly equal to that of Italy, greater than that of Hungary (2,196 kilowatt hours), Spain, and Yugoslavia, twice that of Portugal, etc. If, notwithstanding, such signs of extreme energy shortage were not being observed in Lisbon, but were all-too-evident in Bucharest, this is because Romania, instead of squandering its electrical energy on the needs of its people, was allocating it to industries that consume large amounts of energy.

Given its mineral resources, Romania’s iron and steel industry had never been very efficient. ln 1965, when Ceausescu came to power, it already had the remarkable steel-production rate of 180 kilos per capita, each year. Under the new leader, that figure in fifteen years took a jump that few economies have ever managed to duplicate: over 600 kilos of steel per capita in 1980—in other words, more than France, Great Britain, East Germany, or the United States.

Unfortunately, however, the rapid expansion of the Romanian steel industry occurred at a time when established Western iron and steel industries were sharply cutting their production and the international steel market was collapsing. As a result, today Romania is suffering from an imbalance between its capacity to produce steel and its ability to make use of it. A newcomer has a hard time finding out a place for itself on the market when even old-timers are overproducing. To do so successfully, there is not much choice: one either relies on technology to improve the quality of the product or one relies on economic measures to bring about a substantial reduction in price. Thus it was hardly surprising to see Romanian producers being accused of dumping steel on the market, and the American market at that. The Romanian iron and steel industry went right on producing mountains of steel that its domestic industries were unable to digest and that the international market did not seem keen to acquire.

The Far Outliers spent the grim winter of 1983-84 in Romania, and that was bad enough. We had a 4-burner gas stove that only supplied enough gas to keep one burner lit at a time. Hot water hours were limited to two in the evening and one in the morning. And our radiators were barely warm. Romania seems only to have gotten worse after we left.

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Fate of Romania’s Cantacuzenes, 1965

From Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper (New York Review Books, 2013), Kindle locs. 5580ff & 6120ff.

Rumania in 1965 was just beginning to open up to the non-Communist world, although a meeting with the Cantacuzene sisters would involve considerable risks. As Paddy put it, ‘Mixing with foreigners incurred severe punishment, but harbouring them indoors was much worse . . .’ But it was too good an opportunity to miss, and Balasha and her family felt it was a risk worth taking.

By early June he was in Bucharest, now stripped of its pre-war gaiety, and made contact with Pomme’s daughter Ina who was then working as a draughtswoman in an architect’s office. She met him after work on a borrowed motorbike, and with Paddy riding pillion, they began the eighty-mile journey to the town of Pucioasa in the foothills of the Carpathians. It was a long ride over rutted roads, and by the time Ina let him into the house it was well after dark. They climbed upstairs as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the neighbours, but it was hard to stifle the cries of welcome that greeted his arrival at the top of the house.

Pomme, Constantin and Balasha had been sharing an attic studio since their eviction from Băleni on the night of 2–3 March 1949. On that evening, a small posse of Communist apparatchiks and police had arrived in a truck. Pomme and Constantin were forced to sign a document surrendering ownership of the house, and the family was told to pack a small suitcase each. They were advised to take warm clothes, and told they would be leaving in fifteen minutes. They were taken to Bucharest, where they lived until orders came through that they were to be transferred to Pucioasa.

‘In spite of the interval,’ wrote Paddy, ‘the good looks of my friends, the thoughtful clear glance and the humour were all intact; it was as though we had parted a few months ago, not twenty-six years.’ Hidden behind that carefully worded sentence was the shock of finding Balasha ‘a broken ruin’ of her former self. Though only in her early sixties, she was shrunken by hardship and anxiety; her black hair was grey, her face lined, and she was very deaf. She and Pomme managed to survive by teaching English and French. Constantin, already ill with the heart disease that would kill him two years later, was too frail to work.

‘Their horrible vicissitudes were narrated with detachment and speed,’ he continued. ‘Time was short and there were only brief pauses for sleep on a couple of chairs. The rest of our forty-eight hours – we dared risk no more – were filled with pre-war memories, the lives of all our friends, and a great deal of laughter.’ He had brought new watches for Pomme and Balasha, and later he set up an account for her at the Heywood Hill bookshop so she would never be short of books. He also knew that Balasha had a present for him. On her last night at Băleni, in the fifteen minutes she had been given to pack, she had seized a battered green notebook. It was Paddy’s last journal, the one he had begun in Bratislava in 1934; she now put it into his hands.

He was back home in December, elated and relieved, having been given the all-clear – and then he heard that Balasha was dying of breast cancer. Had she had it treated earlier, she might well have survived; but she had kept the symptoms to herself, refusing to see a doctor until it was too late to operate. It was a decade since Paddy had been to see her in Pucioasa and now he wanted to rush to her bedside, but Balasha forbade him to come: ‘nothing would upset me more,’ she told Pomme to write on her behalf. Her letters to Paddy, and Joan to whom she wrote separately, reveal that she had made a decision to live in books and her memories and expected nothing more from life. She died in March 1976. Seven months later her niece, Ina Catargi, who had taken him to Pucioasa on the back of a motorcycle, was also dead – of lung cancer. Of that generous family which had been such a part of his life only Pomme Donici remained, now bereft of husband, sister and daughter. She arranged for Balasha and Constantin’s remains to be buried in the Cantacuzene family crypt in the cemetery at Băleni, where she eventually joined them in 1983.

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Byzantine Proustians of Bucharest, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 184-188:

Historians have been united in execrating the Phanariots. They have inherited the opprobrium that used to load the word ‘Byzantine’ with suggestions of flexibility, deviousness, lack of scruple, greed and tyranny. But there are signs that the Phanariots, too, are gradually being reassessed. It may be argued that their greed and corruption were laced by zeal for the Orthodox faith and that their share in the foreign affairs of the Ottomans, which the later sultans largely and most unwisely entrusted to them, was dictated as much, or almost as much, by anxiety for the Christian cause as it was by private ambition. It is possible that without their flexibility and genius for compromise, the principalities would have sunk into total subjection to the Ottoman yoke: that all the old national institutions, instead of degeneration, would have been obliterated completely, as they had been in the rest of south-eastern Europe. In nearly every family there was a prince with virtues to offset, in some measure, the vices of his kinsmen. Since the end of their long regime, many of their descendants have been prominent and devoted figures in Rumanian life, both in conservation and reform. But whatever their drawbacks may have been, in the period of their great ascendancy, the eighteenth century, in one thing they were pre-eminent: they were the only civilized people in south-eastern Europe. The Phanar itself was the last surviving fragment of lost Byzantium, and the courts of Bucharest and Jassy the last, faint, scarcely audible echo of the empire’s death rattle.

It was not only on their wealth but on their knowledge of languages and their wider European horizons, in a world of fanatic barbarism, that their oligarchy was based. From the first, when they became Grand Dragomans of the Porte, they were friends of literature and art; the first Rumanian bible was translated by the orders of Sherban Cantacuzene of Wallachia, and with all his faults, a figure as polished as Alexander Mavrocordato, Byron’s and Shelley’s friend and a leader in the Greek revolt, could have sprung from no other East European soil. They studied in Venice, Padua, Vienna, Paris and St Petersburg and it was mainly due to their civilized and cosmopolitan influence that Western ideas penetrated Rumania. The influence of French ideas, and the total linguistic hegemony of France among the elite, may have gone too far; there were certainly regrettable social side effects; but it did bring a vivifying blast of the Western world, a sort of belated renaissance, into the stifling isolation of the Middle Ages which Rumania was only just sloughing off.

All these different influences, it occurred to me later on (for I knew little or nothing of such matters then), had evolved into a society which was a mixture of late Byzantium and Proustian France. The architectural mood of Bucharest, after it had arisen from its oriental beginnings, was an amalgam of Second Empire and the fin-de-siècle, with a dash of early twentieth-century opulence. The modern buildings were irrelevant postscripts. A strong whiff of the earlier period hung unmistakeably in the social air: a climate which had also been subtly modified, during the last few generations, by a stern army of English nannies and governesses. But it left the bedrock of French influence among the boyars undisturbed, the result of a hundred years of study in the lycées of France and the Sorbonne, and of inhabiting Paris as an alternative capital.

The same life, in miniature, thrived in Bucharest; the most convincing relic of it was the plush, the brass and the chandeliers of Capșa’s restaurant. I could never tire of hearing tales of this not yet wholly evaporated epoch. Although it is the last period in history I would have liked to inhabit, there is an absorbing attraction about the robust, undoubting vulgarity and glitter which held Europe in its grip for these decades. The duels, too, which had played a large part in Rumanian, as well as the rest of European life, outside England – and, to a much lesser extent, still did – exercised a morbid, Dumas-bred fascination. Frequently fatal, they were fought with pistols or rapiers which made encounters with sabres in Austria and Hungary – where only slashing was allowed, but no lunging – sound much more innocuous. It was all frantically alien.

What distinguished these people then, and later, from the rest of pleasure-loving aristocratic Europe was their anti-philistinism: a fastidious passion for erudition for its own sake, for literature, painting, music, sculpture and the movement of ideas, that turned their houses into the haunts of Academicians. (Rather like France, again, Rumania has always been a country where a few women, through their brilliance, wit, beauty or hospitality, have played a more important role than in other countries.) The devotion to writing, in particular, went far beyond literary dilettantism and emerged, in many cases, in works of great distinction. Not alas, in Rumanian, a chauvinist might sigh. But at least these extra-territorial exploits released them from the wheel of patriotic nationalism, to which the poetic and literary genius of resurgent nations is indissolubly bound. Paris after all is no mean arena in which to shine. No wonder that Proust should have been so deeply intrigued by Rumanians in Paris and sought them out as friends.

I have gone on rather a long time about this because it was so different to anything I had come across in similar circumstances in the Danubian capitals further upstream. In Hungary the candlelit talk at the end of dinner would be more inclined to concern shooting or horses, a serious weighing of the comparative merits of bootmakers and saddlers in London or long discussions about mediatization, morganatic marriages, primogenitive quarterings, Hoffähigkeit, the exact degree of cousinage between the Festitich and Fürstenberg families and how many yokes of land the Esterházys owned. So it might, mutatis mutandis, in Bucharest, but not for long.

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Worldly Diseases in Romanian

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle p. 206:

At this point, to cheer [Bulgarian] Gatcho up, I told him of the Rumanian name for these fell diseases which had first caught my eye on a doctor’s plate in Arad: Boale Lumetși (the first word is a dissyllable, the second, Loomeshti: literally, ‘ailments of the world’ – ‘world’ is lume in Rumanian) – rather lyrical-sounding words for a thought to send a shudder down young spines. ‘Boale lumetși . . . boale lumetși!’ We uttered the syllables in slow, elevated and almost dreamy tones, as though they were a charm or an exorcism. Weltliche Krankheiten . . . the ills of the world . . .

Volume 3 in this series of books was published posthumously, and the editors did not have Fermor’s facility with languages. The acknowledgements credit someone for checking the Romanian, but this passage contains an egregious error: every instance of lumetși should be lumești. The singular form (now archaic) is boală-lumească. The palatalization in the plural is the same thing you see in, for instance, citesc ‘I read’, citești ‘you read’, citește ‘s/he reads’, and in the name of the national capital, București.

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Status of Jews in Moldavia, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 149-151:

These hostile feelings were much more deeply rooted in the north, where the Jewish population had increased from about two thousand families to close on a million in a hundred and thirty years, most of them in flight from the appalling conditions in Poland and the Russian Pale, until in several large Moldavian towns, including Yassy, the Moldavian capital, they now outnumbered the Rumanian inhabitants and monopolized the commerce of the province. Small wonder that this indigestible explosion of people caused dismay, resentment and hostility among the inhabitants; there was nothing comparable here to the harmonious and long established position of the polished and much less numerous Sephardim of the Ottoman world; small wonder, too, that the Jews, denied full citizenship and with nearly every route to advancement or honour denied to them, should expand and excel in the only field that was not barred by prejudice. The remote principality in which they suddenly began to proliferate had no middle class; rural society knew nothing between the mediaeval feudalism of landowners – the great and the lesser boyars, many of whom seldom set foot on their accumulations of acres – and a vast and callously exploited peasantry. There was no urban middle class, and, in Moldavia especially, as the country expanded, the Jewish population became a semi-alien bourgeoisie of middlemen and retailers.

Everyone reluctantly admitted that the Jews were honest in their dealings, however ruthless, and faithful to their agreements. I also noticed that nearly everyone, however ill-disposed in general, had one Jewish friend who ‘was not like the others’, an array of exemptions that must have added up to an imposing total. It was only on later travels in Moldavia and Bukovina that I got to know, talk to and even make friends with Jews not isolated in a Gentile majority. Lack of any need to conform to alien ways had left their way of life absolutely intact: the long black kaftans, broad-brimmed black velvet hats, skullcaps, black, red and blond beards, corkscrew side-whiskers (like those of my host and his son in the woods of the Banat), and a Yiddish largely unalloyed by Rumanian, but embedded with Polish and Russian words as well as the Hebrew studied by the rabbis and divinity students.

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Meeting a Transylvanian Rabbi, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 210-213:

My interlocutors looked bewildered when I tried to explain my reasons for not staying at home. Why was I travelling? To see the world, to study, to learn languages? I wasn’t quite clear myself. Yes, some of these things, but mostly—I couldn’t think of the word at first—and when I found it—“for fun”—it didn’t sound right and their brows were still puckered. “Also, Sie treiben so herum aus Vergnügen?” The foreman shrugged his shoulders and smiled and said something in Yiddish to the others; they all laughed and I asked what it was. “Es ist a goyim naches!” they said. ‘A goyim naches,’ they explained, is something that the goyim like but which leaves Jews unmoved; any irrational or outlandish craze, a goy’s delight or gentile’s relish. It seemed to hit the nail on the head.

The initial reserve of the other dwellers in these mountains had not lasted long; nor did it here: but the Jews had other grounds for wariness. Their centuries of persecution were not ended; there had been trials for ritual murder late in the last century in Hungary and more recently in the Ukraine, and fierce deeds in Rumania and pogroms in Bessarabia and throughout the Russian Pale. Slanderous myths abounded and the dark rumours of the Elders of Zion had only been set in motion fifteen years earlier. In Germany, meanwhile, terrible omens were gathering, though how terrible none of us knew. They came into the conversation and—it seems utterly incredible now—we talked of Hitler and the Nazis as though they merely represented a dire phase of history, a sort of transitory aberration or a nightmare that might suddenly vanish, like a cloud evaporating or a bad dream. The Jews in England—a happier theme—came next: they knew much more than I, which was not hard; and Palestine. Sighs and fatalistic humour spaced out the conversation.

Everything took a different turn when scripture cropped up. The book in front of the Rabbi was the Torah, or part of it, printed in dense Hebrew black-letter that was irresistible to someone with a passion for alphabets; especially these particular letters, with their aura of magic. Laboriously I could phonetically decipher the sounds of some of the simpler words, without a glimmer of their meanings, of course, and this sign of interest gave pleasure. I showed them some of the words I had copied down in Bratislava from shops and Jewish newspapers in cafés, and the meanings, which I had forgotten, made them laugh; those biblical symbols recommended a stall for repairing umbrellas, or ‘Daniel Kisch, Koscher Würste und Salami.’ How did the Song of Miriam sound in the original, and the Song of Deborah; David’s lament for Absolom; and the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley? The moment it became clear, through my clumsy translations into German, which passage I was trying to convey, the Rabbi at once began to recite, often accompanied by his sons. Our eyes were alight; it was like a marvellous game. Next came the rivers of Babylon, and the harps hanging on the willows: this they uttered in unfaltering unison, and when they came to ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ the moment was extremely solemn.

By this time the other-worldly Rabbi and his sons and I were excited. Enthusiasm ran high. These passages, so famous in England, were doubly charged with meaning for them, and their emotion was infectious. They seemed astonished—touched, too—that their tribal poetry enjoyed such glory and affection in the outside world; utterly cut off, I think they had no inkling of this. A feeling of great warmth and delight had sprung up and the Rabbi kept polishing his glasses, not for use, but out of enjoyment and nervous energy, and his brother surveyed us with benevolent amusement. It got dark while we sat at the table, and when he took off the glass chimney to light the paraffin lamp, three pairs of spectacles flashed. If it had been Friday night, the Rabbi said, they would have asked me to light it; he explained about the shabbas goy. This was the Sabbath-gentile whom well-off Jews—“not like us”—employed in their houses to light fires and lamps and tie and untie knots or perform the many tasks the Law forbids on the Seventh Day. I said I was sorry it was only Thursday (the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday) as I could have made myself useful for a change. We said good-night with laughter.

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Emblematic Attire in Transylvania, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 156-158:

But all along my itinerary the chief difference between country Hungarians and Rumanians had been the wide-skirted tunic or shirt, caught in by a wide belt, which the Rumanians wore outside their trousers. Both dressed in white homespun linen, but the Hungarians’ shirts always buttoned tightly at the throat; their trousers were unusually wide from the waist down and sometimes pleated, which almost gave them the look of long skirts. Gatya Hosen, István called them; these were often replaced by loose black breeches and shiny knee-boots. But here the peasants, almost to a man, wore narrow white homespun trews like tights stitched together out of felt. Across the Hungarian plain and in Transylvania, the women’s clothes had been varying all the time. Each village and valley enjoined a different assembly of colours and styles: braids, tunics, lace, ribands, goffering, ruffs, sashes, caps, kerchiefs, coifs and plaits free or coiled: a whole array of details announced whether they were betrothed, brides, married, spinsters or widows. Sometimes coifs framed these heads like spathe and spadix; among Saxons, they shot up in stiff scarlet cylinders. There were bodices, flowing or panelled sleeves, embroidery, gold coins at brow or throat or both, aprons front and back, a varying number of petticoats and skirts jutting at the hips like farthingales, and occasionally these were accompanied by coloured Russian boots. This village finery gave all gatherings a festal air, especially as the level of beauty among Hungarian and Rumanian girls was very high. Populations were inclined to remain aloof; but the more they overlapped and mingled—Magyar, Rumanian, Serb, Slovak, Saxon, Swabian and sometimes Armenian and perhaps some Ruthenes in the north—the more striking they looked. Their everyday dress was a sober version of their gala outfits; but these exploded on feast-days and at weddings in ravishing displays. Clothes were still emblematic, and not only among peasants: an expert in Rumanian and Hungarian symbols, looking at the passers-by in a market-place—a couple of soldiers, a captain in the Ros, iori [= Roșiori], an Ursuline prioress, a sister of St. Vincent de Paul, a Poor Clare, an Hasidic rabbi, an Armenian deacon, an Orthodox nun, a Uniat archimandrite, a Calvinist pastor, an Augustinian canon, a Benedictine, a Minorite friar, a Magyar nobleman, an ostrich-feathered coachman, a shrill-voiced Russian cab-driver, a bear-leading Gypsy with his spoon-carving fellow-tribesmen, a wool-carder, a blacksmith, a drover, a chimney-sweep, a woodman or a waggoner, and above all, women from a dozen villages and ploughmen and shepherds from widely scattered valleys and highlands—would have been able to reel off their provenances as swiftly as a herald glancing along the flags and surcoats of a fourteenth-century battle.

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