PEASANT LIFE IN ROUMANIA
A SUN as big again as in the rest of Europe the sky deep-blue overhead, shading down to white; on the horizon a shimmering curtain of golden dust-cloud; green maize and ripening wheat as far as the eye can reach; and in the vast sun-scorched solitude a single cart drawn by black buffaloes moves slowly on as though of its own accord, though on closer observation the driver will be seen stretched prone on top of his high-piled load such is Roumania. The team comes to a bridge—for since King Charles began to rule there are bridges. But the peasant rises, stands straight up in his white blouse and white breeches, broad leather belt, and felt hat, and drives his buffaloes past the bridge and almost perpendicularly down the steep bank into the water. The river bed gives proof how violent at times the stream can be. Formerly the wayfarer had to wait eight or ten days when the river was swollen by rains, so that with a reinforcement of fourteen horses and oxen he might, seated on the cover of his wagon, at peril of his life reach the other bank. In midsummer the water wearily pursues its course between the stones over which the cart goes bumping. Suddenly at the deepest place are seen to emerge from the water the dark backs of hippopotami—or what might pass for such. It is a herd of buffaloes at their siesta. Slowly they raise their shiny nozzles and lay their massive black horns back; this but seldom, however, as though loath to intercept the sun's rays beating down upon them and making the cool water seem still more grateful. So intense is the heat, one feels as though one were inhaling flame. Touch with the hand wood or iron, and it is found burning hot. Still, neither the dark-skinned man nor the beasts nor the ears of corn in the fields seem to feel discomfort. The dust raised by the team floats like a white mist over the fields, and falls to the same place again, for there is not in the air enough of motion to transport a dust particle.
For the man the shadow of his cart provides sufficiently the means of the noontide rest, and his slumber is deep. The buffaloes, too, lie down to rest under the yoke and begin the slow and weighty task of chewing the cud. A lark soars aloft from the fields, singing, and the crickets are chirping, dinning the ears. After a lengthy wait, man and beast resume their journey till the evening shadows grow long and the horizon exchanges its golden curtain for one of purple. A well-pole, resembling a ship's crane, is the first indication of the neighborhood of a village. Black and sharp it stands out from the shimmering background, for elsewhere hardly a tree breaks the monotony of the fields. A loud barking of dogs is heard. Girls returning from the maize fields, in their red gowns, white smock-frocks, and yellow or red headkerchiefs, stroll through the meadows like moving flowers. The cows are leaving the pasture and are on the way home to drink. Gigantic swine are feeding among the waste-heaps of the village, while ravens are feasting on the remains of a dog. Great flocks of geese are uttering their cries and fluttering their wings, and a little boy, with nothing on him but an abbreviated shirt and an enormous cap of lambskin, holds in his arms a goose nearly as big as himself, and defends her against the attacks of a still much bigger pig. Women in white veils lower the well-pole, and with their green-glazed amphoras on their heads go homeward, spinning wool as they walk. Ofttimes on the arm that carries the distaff rests a babe. From another quarter comes a woman on horse-back, man-fashion, wearing a felt hat over her veil, her narrow skirt pulled back, leaving the big wrinkled boots and the knees exposed. The horse goes slowly and wearily and hangs its head, the bridle lying slack upon the neck. This woman also carries a babe in her arms and is hushing it.
We are coming ever nearer to the village. The first habitations one sees are subterranean, and their green, moss-covered roofs rise barely above the surface. These are cool in summer, warm in winter, sheltered from wind and snow-storms and while the Turks were overrunning and pillaging the country the houses hid themselves from them. Now we come to dwellings of another sort (paiente), built of twigs and mud, roofed with shingles, and surrounded by a veranda supported on wooden posts. The entrance is always on one side never, even in the cities, does a house open on the street. Some householders bestow particular care upon their dwellings and whitewash them within and without. This work is done by the women, usually before Easter. By way of ornamentation, they dip their hands in colors, red and blue, and stamp them on the window and door casings, the five fingers thus taking the place of the acanthus leaf and the egg-and-dart moulding. When there is in the house a marriageable girl, flowers are painted on the wall but should the maid have made a misstep, the lads go and blot the flowers out.
A furious barking of jackal-like dogs, with long, shaggy hair, draws the children to the doors. There is to-day a certain stir in the village. The tavern has received a considerable addition in front, an arbor supported by poles the church steps are strewn with flowers the girls are hastening home to put on their finest smocks. The smock is embroidered at the bosom, on the shoulders, and on the sleeves, in black, red, and orange, shot with threads of gold and silver. When the field work is over they sit on the ground in front of the houses with their embroidery frames in their laps, or they work in-doors weaving shirts, breeches, and cloaks for the men. Like gobelin tapestry or like bead-work, the embroideries are often on a single thread, and copy old Byzantine models or fresh flowers, which the operators keep before them and reproduce. The finest embroideries are found in the clothes-chests of ancient dames, and are yellow with age, destined ever since their weddings to deck them when they are laid in their coffins. In one such smock the ornamentation which extended along the sleeve was carried into the embroidery at the shoulder. "Why is this so?" was asked. "We call that a rill that has lost its way," answered the peasant woman. "But why is the ornamentation on the right sleeve different?" Oh, it just occurred to me so!" she replied. I knew that in painting, in writing, in musical composition, one may have the poetic inspiration, but only in Roumania have I seen poetic inspiration in embroidery.
The bustle in the village increases. The young fellows stand around in groups, looking up the street along which the bride is to come, seated on the top of a high-loaded wagon drawn by six oxen and surrounded by men on horseback. She is a rich widow. She has a house, of course that does not count for anything in a country where everybody must have his house, though the same be rickety, pervious to every blast, with but one window and no floor. You ask a beggar where he lives. "In casel mele," is the answer—"in my houses."
Besides her houses the bride possesses also land, oxen, cows, gold—a mysterious crock of gold buried in the garden. And the bridegroom is a widower. Both have children and the children stand in front of the church all washed and dressed, eyeing each other critically. They do not yet know whether love or hate will have the upper hand, hence they are comparing their relative size and strength. They descry the high-loaded wagon as it comes rolling along, with the fair dame on top in her veil, a whole dowry in big old coins around her neck, and in her hand a jug of water. Inasmuch as she is a widow, a piece is broken off the jug. As she alights from the wagon the young men press close around her, for the first draught from the jug brings good luck.
The bridegroom comes on horseback—a stately figure of a man with flowing mustachios, his raven locks falling in waves over his shoulders. He is dressed in a white blouse embroidered in red, over which is a white leathern jerkin, and then the long cloak of sheepskin worn with the wool within and the white leather without. Jerkin and cloak are richly embroidered in all colors. Over the white felt breeches are drawn high boots, and the short-stocked whip is adorned with ribbons. He springs to the ground, helps the bride from the wagon, pats his step-children on the head, and the pair vanish into the church, where they are greeted with a nasal chant by the pope and the deacon, who sings the responses. The whole village is invited. The troth-sponsors are land proprietors they stand beside the bridal pair before the altar, bearing in their hands each a tall, stout, wax candle. The bride and bridegroom must thrice eat of the same morsel and drink out of the same goblet, to signify that as long as they live they will share with each other every bit and sup. Then, led by the troth-father and troth-mother, they walk round the altar thrice that represents the path through life. During the walk the bride must pull the foot of one of the maids present, who then is sure to be married before a year is out.
The landlord's daughter finds the heat oppressive, and can no longer breathe the air made heavy by the wax candles and the multitude of people, so she slips out into the churchyard. The moon with its broad beams is risen, silvering the shingled roof of the church and casting a long shadow of the cross over the graves. The girl inhales freely the refreshing air of the still night. She now observes that she is not alone. At two of the graves there is lively commotion. On closer inspection the children of the bride and bridegroom are seen, one set pouring as industriously as ever they can jugfull after jugfull of water on their father's grave, the other set no less industriously watering the grave of their mother; and as the bell keeps ringing ever louder and the chants come borne out from the church in increased volume, the more zealously do the children continue their task. "What are you doing there?" "Our father and our mother are burning while those yonder in the church are marrying. We must cool them."
The nuptial ceremony is over. During the walk round the altar a rain of flowers is showered down and sweetmeats are scattered all about, to the end that the couple may be fruitful and increase. All the children present fall upon these and hand the flowers to the lads and lasses, for these bring luck, while they cram their own mouths and pockets full of trampled sweets. The procession now moves out of the church, headed by torches and fiddling Gypsies, here called Lautari, and repairs to the banquet and the dance. The feasting lasts, according to the wealth of the parties, for three, five, or even eight days. Each of the guests makes a contribution, sticking coins into a big loaf of bread. If the bride is a maid, the golden thread is solemnly taken off her head. It serves in the place of a veil and is like golden hair, being specially becoming when it reflects the candle-light. Her hair is then clipped a little, rolled tight under the headkerchief, and now the girl is for the first time covered with the veil, the token of matronal dignity. During this performance the bride must cry, for henceforth she must never show her hair, not even to her husband.
The dance opens with a slow, stately, circular movement At first the lads alone join hands, while the girls stand apart, not uttering a word, watching to see where they will like best to enter the dance. Then they step up by twos and threes, laughing, and join the ring. Soon the men are leaping and jumping about, shouting and stamping the floor. Or one begins a ballad, to which another responds, and a third continues it; meanwhile the leader beats time upon the floor with a staff. At the refrain the whole chorus falls in, and then they dance again till the leader, with a "ho!" at the same time bringing down his staff upon the floor, takes up the strain anew. The girls glide about grave and noiseless as though borne on air. You can hardly see their feet moving. The play of wit and rough humor is continual, and every one is ready with repartee. And so they dance on Sundays and holidays from church time till far into the night, and nothing but the quietude and uniformity of the dances can account for their being able to stand it all. The Lautari, too, keep up their fiddling; they are never still for two minutes, but are ever going round and round, at times singing ballads to give the dancers a chance to take breath. The music, in its monotony and melancholy, reminds one of Arab music. Often they content themselves with the flute or the bagpipe. Not till the wine begins its work does their mirth become very noisy. A favorite jest of the lads is to steal from the girls the long girdle they wear wound many times around their slender waists, and to wind it round their own bodies. Thus a young galliard will often have his waist and hips encircled with a girdle a yard or more in width. If after a sennight the girdle is demanded back by the parents of the maid, it is understood that he is an accepted lover otherwise, he keeps his girdle, and tricked up in it he makes a gallant display at the hora.
Still greater is the excitement of the villagers when a death occurs. Is this the interest of children in the unfamiliar, the unexplainable? Is it the counterpart of the people's strong sense of vital energy? At all events, not even the most contagious disease can deter them from flocking, adults and children, to the house where the corpse lies on the table, and later to the church where it is exhibited in the coffin, to touch it, to kiss its hands. This custom explains the fearful spread of diphtheria in the seventies, when many a village was made childless, families often losing five, six, or seven children. Sometimes three would be laid in one coffin. The disease was called by the people the "white plague." They fell helpless victims to it. Weakened by malarial fever, having never a thought of foresight, strongly averse to medical treatment, it was impossible to ward off from them diphtheria, pellagra, and small-pox. Rather than undergo vaccination, mothers fled with their children into the woods and mountains. Rather than give up the use of spoilt maize, they endured the horrible disease, pellagra, in which the body slowly and by degrees becomes coal-black, and the patient falls into the profoundest melancholy and the lowest state of physical prostration if dissolution does not come of its own accord the end is suicide. Of late years army ambulances have been sent into all the communes, so that in a protracted state of peace they might not be useless and unemployed; by this means the people have been brought to understand that physicians possess even better remedies than do the old crones, who are wont, in cases of diphtheria, to blow pulverized dogs' excrement into the patient's throat, while in other diseases they practice massage, and in all cases begin with throwing coals into water, the while muttering and making magic signs for whether it is man or beast that is sick, the cause is always the evil eye and witchcraft.
Highly characteristic of the peasant is the stoical composure with which he meets death. Calmly he makes his preparations and reverently receives the last anointing. One may learn from him the lesson of fitly dying. Should his people at dawn of day see that he is not likely to die yet a while, they set a jug of water by his side and go to the fields, for nothing but a red-letter holiday can withhold them from work. When they return, if he lies in the death agony they put a lighted candle in his hand and begin to cry aloud. After death he is dressed in his best clothes, and house and court-yard are thrown open. In the cities matrons and young women are buried in their ball costumes, the hair dressed, and all the personal adornments donned.
Very beautiful are the laments of the waileresses, much like the Gælic coronach. The most beautiful improvisations are usually those of the love-bairns—"flower-children," the people call them. Here is a lament upon the death of a young man.
On the death of a maiden:
On the death of a child:
Great is the delight of the peasants when a handsome corpse is decked in plenty of finery, and a bountiful funeral feast is spread, with a liberal distribution of copper coins and subsequently of the garments of the deceased among the poor. Innumerable are the usages to be observed. The deceased gets a wheat-cake and a jug of water, and, as among the ancient Egyptians, a small coin is placed between the lips, to be used as payment to Charon for ferriage. For several days wheat-cakes and wine are to be found upon the grave. If one would express the deepest hate, the phrase runs, "I will eat of your wheat-cakes." A woman, every time her husband beat her, would cry out, "I will dance upon your grave." She was as good as her word. The night after his interment she took four Lautari and had them to fiddle while she danced up and down over his grave.
Very touching is the custom of having, for forty days after a death, pots of water carried into the houses of the poor by innocent little girls, usually under twelve years of age. Here, as in all Oriental lands, water plays an important part. To fetch water against one's coming, to pour out water before one's feet, to give one a draught of water, these are the first offices of hospitality. Hence the fetching of water in memory of the dead.
When a girl is at the point of death, her mother is taken out of the chamber, for it is believed that the soul of the child cannot depart so long as the mother's anguish holds it fast. The mother then utters one terrible long-drawn cry, and thus is the whole village notified that Death is entering a household. The silence that follows this heartrending cry is profoundly impressive. At the funeral of a maiden, a fir-tree is borne at the head of the procession, decorated with the "golden-threads" of the deceased, as though wrapt in a glittering mantle. At the funeral of a young man, his hat is carried in advance, decorated with ears of corn, and with flowers and ribbons. To die unwedded seems to the peasants to be the greatest misfortune—going out of life without ever a taste of its joy and happiness. To die on Maundy Thursday is a special favor from God, for on that day heaven is open and the soul forthwith enters.
A Roumanian is very loath to have the funeral expenses defrayed by charity. It must not be said that his dead have been buried as paupers. A widow came to her landlady and asked for boards to make her husband's coffin. The lady wished to give them gratis. God forbid! The widow wanted to pay for them. "Then give me twenty bani?" The widow shook her head. "Fifty bani?" That would not do. "Eighty bani?" Not enough! After much deliberation she consented to take the boards for about twenty cents. She now felt that her husband would be fittingly buried.
A child is baptized a few days after birth, but the mother must never be present at the ceremony. And when one knows what that ceremony is, one sees the reason of the wise prohibition. A large pail of cold water having been fetched from the brook, the babe is taken out of the quilt in which it is enwrapped and tied up like a cocoon. The pope now takes it up with his thumbs under the arms, while with his other fingers he closes the eyes, nostrils, ears, and mouth, and then dips it thrice under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. If the result is that the babe dies of pulmonary or intestinal inflammation, then it is a little angel in heaven and does not take the bread out of the others' mouths.
Life is extremely simple among the peasants of Roumania. The principal dish at every meal is the maize cake (mamaliga). With great composure, without haste or greed, each person in his turn stretches out his right hand and breaks off a small portion for himself. Besides this each takes a couple of onions, a small bowl of beans, a slice of watermelon, a few unripe plums, and a draught of water. And to this frugal meal is bidden the laborer or the wayfarer who may look as though he had no dinner. "Come I have two onions, here is one for you." Roumanian hospitality has no limits. "I have not even a bite left for a guest," is the bitterest complaint of the poor housewife.
Since the abolition of serfdom these people, having few wants and content with little, can hardly be induced to labor. A dollar and a quarter or a dollar and a half a month is enough for them. In Moldavia they are day-laborers. In Wallachia the landlord divides his estate among them, and they have to pay him one-fifth, one-fourth, one-third, often one-half of the produce, as may be agreed. When bad years occur, the peasants have nothing, and the proprietors, though they get no returns, have to give them seed-corn and maize, and hay for the cattle, that they may not starve. But rich peasants are the harshest landlords.
Of all European states Roumania has the largest public domain. A beginning has been made to ward parceling it out among newly-married peasants. Hence several large new villages have already arisen, but even here difficulties are encountered. The mountaineers will not go into the plains, nor will the men of the plains go into the mountain country.
The people are very subject to home-sickness. In the Roumanian military barracks and among the Transylvanian regiments in the Austrian service the shepherd's pipe is not permitted, for as soon as the men hear it they desert. Often they have to be allowed to go home, else they would die of home-sickness. During the war, while they were for five months on the other side of the Danube, the bravest men—bearing decorations of honor—at times deserted, but came back after they had breathed the air of home and embraced their mothers. They long more for their mothers than for their wives and children. I have heard that the wounded always call their mothers in their suffering. Often I said that I was to them in the mother's stead, and as mother they would with dying lips address me. If a wife came she would be greeted by her lord and master with a lofty nod; but when the mother came her boy would kiss her hands and her garments.
I asked an old dame, over whose singularly fine features was drawn a net-work veil that fell in graceful folds, whether she had any sons. "I had two firs," she answered, "but the tempest laid them low." The Roumanian peasant woman has a proud and imposing presence. Beyond the Olto she is at once respected and feared. The Olteanca, as the saying goes, has twenty-four molar teeth. There the women wear around the head the royal diadem to hold the veil, and this lends an expression of force to the strong features, to the black eyebrows (often coming together over the nose), and to the thin lips, under which two faultless rows of teeth gleam forth. They seldom laugh, and in their eyes flashes a fire which in the eyes of the children reappears as a beaming light. One day I visited seven schools in three different places in Little Wallachia (called in Roumanic, Oltenia), and never have I seen at once so many strikingly beautiful eyes. The most incompetent schoolmaster surely never could spoil what the good God made so perfect. The faces were alive with intelligence and interest. Nor is the son of the peasant woman in any respect inferior to the son of gentlefolk. But in this thinly-peopled land, where out of a family of fourteen children but one or two survive, there is no struggle for existence, and the necessity of labor does not occur to them at all. The man who in summer sleeps in the open air and in winter at the hearth, and who knows no bed; who in the morning drinks a glass of spirits, and through the day takes just two meals, consisting of mamaliga and onions—for such a man daily striving is unnecessary, probably also it is unbearable. Hence, except in the utterly poverty-stricken valleys of the highlands, manufactures cannot be carried on with Roumanian labor. In two days men earn enough for a week, and they do not return to work till their money is spent.
For a Roumanian to go out to service is a thing hardly to be thought of. For menial service, there are the pariahs—the Gypsies and the neighboring Hungarians. The women and girls work industriously in their homes and in the fields they do spinning, weaving, embroidery, often overtaxing their strength but never will they learn to cook or to do laundry work. Oh, no leave that for the Gypsy women! In Bucharest upward of 1000 women make underwear for the army, and are content with from twenty to forty cents a week, but they would rather starve than go out to service. On the other hand, they throng the schools. The men all want to be government officials, the women to be school-teachers, and principals of schools if possible. In the great orphanage are 400 girls, but there are four times as many requests for admission. In the Bucharest military school there are 80 places, but 800 applicants. Not in vain has the Roumanian aquiline features. He wants to be rising ever—often higher than is good for him. The landlord's daughter is kissed on both cheeks by the peasant woman and never dreams of being offended thereat. A Roumanian stands proud and erect before his king, and when preferring a petition has the air of making a demand. Like the ancient Romans, the people are gifted with great eloquence; the peasant thrusts the advocate aside and pleads his own suit in a well-arranged speech. Once the King, having learned that on one of his estates a manager had taken from the peasant's bricks to build a stable, forthwith dispatched thither a gentleman, who discharged the offender and who inquired of the peasants what their wishes were with regard to indemnity. One of them stepped up before him, barefooted, and said "We have no other wish save that the King might deliver us from this dishonest man. What belongs to us is the King's, and we take no indemnity." An estate manager adopted a boy of eleven years that could neither read nor write in six months' time the lad was keeping his accounts.
The most pleasing picture of life in Roumania is presented at the harvest and at the vintage. During the grain-harvest every thoughtful proprietor keeps always a band of Lautari in the fields, and provides plenty of wine, so that song and dance may make the toil joyous. Girls ride atop of the harvest-wagons and dance upon the sheaves. Lautari march in advance, fiddling and piping, while round the wagon dance lads and lasses garlanded—a veritable dance of Bacchantes. At the threshing-machine there is a coruscation of wit and humor, not always suited to the drawing-room indeed, but perfectly sound and wholesome.
At the vintage the pretty little daughter of the pope is solemnly borne upon the shoulders of the lads to the first wine-cellar. Her mother must take off the shoes of the girl, who then dances to the singing and fiddling, upon a sack of sweet red grapes. Her lover has then to kiss the soles of her feet.
When, quitting the railway, we traverse the country by coach, we are surrounded by hundreds of peasants on horseback, who, bearing little banners in their hands, ride in the wildest tempo of our postilions. Such is the flash of colors, the commotion, and the cloud of dust rising beneath the broad sunlight, in the verdant landscape, that one's head fairly reels. In the flower-strewn cities and towns, one knows not on which side to bow his acknowledgment of courtesies as he makes his way accompanied by running children. Having entered a house, I looked, myself unseen, through the curtain into the courtyard, where the peasants with whom we had en route held a lively conversation were gathered in hundreds. One said: "Long may they be spared to us!" "Yes," was the answer; "may they long be spared, for neither can we live without them nor they without us."