Monday, March 25, 2013

Vlădeni Pulls Out All the Stops

This all started months ago when I had the idea that I would like to try to dye Easter eggs in the Moldovan style. I knew a fellow volunteer, Grant, had friends who were experts at this, and I hoped that they would enjoy sharing their heritage and tradition. It turns out that his village, Vlădeni, Botoșani, wanted to share much more than just egg painting with eight Americans.

An army of Americans invade Vlădeni!

As we walked through the door, each of us broke off a piece of traditional bread, called a colac. It was beautifully made, braided with care into a circle, symbolizing the infinity of God or the shape of the sun. We were warmly welcomed guests in this place. As I looked around, I could immediately see that they had pulled out all the stops for us.

Welcomed with Colac

In the center of the room I saw a table piled high with fresh fruit, cakes, bread and pitchers of wine and țuică (homemade brandy). Under this bounty was a hand stitched and embroidered tablecloth. The more I looked around, the more I saw small items that had been brought in especially for us to see, including beautiful pottery, traditional wall hangings, and an antique telephone.

Prepared Just for Us

We were given traditional, colorful bags, which contained a program in both Romanian and English that described our plan for the day and the tradition of dying Easter eggs. Then we were ushered to sit down and relax for a few minutes. There was a round of introductions and speeches, and we realized that our hosts included the mayor, vice mayor, school director, a priest, and even guests from Ukraine. There is an old saying here in Romania that the Americans would come and rescue them from the Soviet influence. The joke was that on this particular day both the Soviets and the Americans had invaded Vlădeni. Thankfully we both came in peace.

As I looked around the room more carefully, I started to discover the full extent of our options for the day. Over the past weeks, the town of Vlădeni had put together five different traditional activities for us to enjoy for the day. Set up in stations, we could choose from egg painting, opinci (shoe) making, weaving a traditional covor (rug) on an ancient stativă (loom), baking mucenici (a special type of bread), and last but definitely not least tasting the plăcinte (cakes) and băuturi (drinks) available on the main table.

When we were given the word, we all scattered. I went straight to the baking station and was immediately put to work cracking eggs. There were two women from Vlădeni who began to relate the story of the 40 Martyrs (sometimes called the 40 Saints). The holiday occurs every year on this day, March 9, and we were baking a special bread called mucenici (which means martyrs) to celebrate their life and sacrifice. The bread is rolled into long thin cylinders, braided, and made into an eight (some say infinity). Mine turned out quite plump and one of the women joked with me. She said “Oh! We’ve got a fat American, but it will work.”

After some time baking, I went to see what was happening at the egg painting station. I would have to be careful not to crack eggs here! I found here that Grant’s knowledgeable friends were four 5th grade girls, and they were dying up a storm. They had even prepared a cheat sheet of patterns for us. The secret to dying eggs in the Moldovan style is that you paint wax onto an emptied eggshell. The wax acts as a barrier to the dye, so you paint the wax over the color you want to keep. In other words, the first layer of wax will stay eggshell white. You can repeat this process as many times as you like, for incredibly detailed and colorful patterns. The girls, who have been practicing for more than half their
lives, have hands as steady as a surgeon’s. We Americans have years to go before we can make anything close to their amazing creations, but we gave it our best.

Egg Painting

Once I put my egg in for its first round of yellow dye, I went over to the loom. As I sat down, a wonderfully animated woman rapidly described all of the parts and their purpose. After all of it, I was able to remember one word – stativă, the word for loom in Romanian. I had previously learned the word război for a loom, but she assured me that a război was something else entirely. I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about! The loom was made of wood and held together with twine, and seemed about ready to fall apart. But when we got working, my guide insisted that I put my back into it. Thankfully the apparatus held up with no problem. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since most of the women present were stronger than me from a life of incredibly hard work on their farms. I never did figured out how the loom fit together; there were just too many moving parts, pedals, and threads. With her help, I did a few rows and headed back to check on my egg.

Jennifer Spins Yarn

Anthony Weaves a Rug

After another round of painting, I dropped my egg in the red dye and went to see what was happening at the opinci making station. Opinci are traditional leather shoes, and I found Jenn showing off her completed pair. With the pointed toes on her shoes, she looked a little elfin to my eyes, but beaming with pride all the same. I did not have time to make my own shoes, but I watched for a while as holes were made in the leather with a hammer and a large nail, and then they were sewn together with a coarse leather thread.

Finally, I made my way back to dye my egg one last shade of blue, causing the exposed red to turn purple! And then it was time to relax and sample the various foods and drinks available to me. Many of the cakes and drinks are very commonly found here in Romania, such as sarmale (cabbage rolls), plăcinta (a traditional cake), colivă (a wheat dish with the consistency of oatmeal), and homemade wine. Țuică is a brandy normally made from plums, but I tried two new kinds: one made from beets that smelled and tasted very much like its source, and another made from the leftovers of the winemaking process that was much more neutral.

Theron's Egg

Of all the amazing things that I was privileged to learn in Vlădeni, what I will remember forever is the pride the community has in the traditions which they have passed from generation to generation. As our world becomes ever more modern and fast paced, we are tempted to forget the importance of culture and tradition. How easy it would be to replace hand painted eggs with paste-on decals. It is such a beautiful thing to see a place that not only keeps their traditions alive but thrills at the chance to share them. I am confident to say that we would be welcome back to Vlădeni as soon as we can return. They are waiting for us.

1 comment:

  1. That sounds like one of the coolest days ever! It also sounds a little like the parties we throw at the preschool with different stations set up. And I mean that in the nicest way.