Maramures 2007: Ileana's wedding.
Ileana’s wedding: a ceremonial interlude from summer hay.
"Ileana Berci's wedding was one of the most spectacular sights I've ever had the privilege to witness in Romania." -- Caroline Juler, author of the Blue Guide to Romania, Searching for Sarmizegetusa , and the newly published National Geographic Traveler Guide to Romania.
Petru cuts grass and his face before Ileana’s wedding.
Half-an-hour before his only daughter’s wedding was due to begin, Petru Berci was in the orchard, cutting grass for the animals. Later that night, he would leave the celebrations to feed them and milk the cows. During most of the ceremonies he would play a supporting role, serving tuica to the male guests, virtually invisible during the bridal procession and excluded, by tradition, from the inner, primarily god-parents’, circle in the biserica. Even at the night-long feasting and dancing at the community center, he seemed neither to eat nor dance, helping instead to wash some of the literally thousands of dishes in preparation for the long series of courses. He complained only once. Shaving with what appeared to be a dull razor, he cut himself repeatedly. Irritated more by the inconveniently messy blood than by the discomfort, he muttered untranslatable annoyance into the still quiet courtyard.
The bride and her relatives in the yard.
Decorating the cars.
Ileana came from the Sighetu hairdressers a few minutes before the ceremony was alleged to begin. Fortunately, since she was informally dressed at the time, the actual ceremony was several hours away. The tradition keeps the bride waiting with her entourage for at least three hours in the formal “best rooms,” that part of the house upstairs which is used only by very special guests or for very special occasions. Maria, Ileana’s grandmother, works as hard as her son-in-law Petru and almost never appears in fine clothes. She looks beautiful in her best scarf, seeming older but more striking than her sister who raised her daughters to be sophisticated urbanites. One of them here is smiling, a rare expression for any member of this wealthy but sullen branch of the family.
While members of the bridal party gradually filtered into the yard through the big wooden gateway, young boys decorated the cars parked outside with ribbons and balloons. Even the PT Cruiser rented by a guest from California had its share of paper ribbons, which would drift beside the car for the length of the ceremony and celebration, until shredded by a violent hailstorm the following evening. The street itself was not yet crowded enough to impede the progress of a horse-drawn hay-wagon, as some villagers took advantage of the fine afternoon to bring home some hay before the festivities.
Boys in the band.
Bride’s friends and family wait in the yard.
The bride’s band consisted of a few young and musically inexperienced boys, trained and led by Petru’s brother, the principal of the local high school and a very competent fiddler. The boys came early and Maria gave them some encouragement in the yard.
Most of the women were dressed in traditional costume, some, especially the young ones, with intricate hair-arrangements that could not be covered, and many, especially among the older group, with head-scarves.
Guests sat on the benches that ran along one side of the farmyard in front of the car with Virginia plates given to the family by my friend the photographer, Kathleen.. Among them was Kathleen herself, who as one of Ileana’s several official god-parents would have a formal role in the procession, the ceremony, and the giving of monetary gifts. Here she is listening to another god-parent, a college professor from Cluj, who is advising her on what other god-parents would be expecting to give. From time to time, Ileana would come from the upstairs room onto the balcony from which she would greet her family and friends.
Preparations in the best room.
In one of the best rooms, surrounded by the family’s finest textiles and furnishings and helped by her closest friends, Ileana was having the final touches applied to her face and her dress. Next door, a table of drinks and cakes was laid out, in preparation for the bridal party who would wait with her during the nervous hours before the groom’s arrival. Pictures of Ileana looked down from the walls and from a laptop computer in the corner of the room.
Bride’s party waiting in the best room.
The first people to settle in the best seats in the best room were male members of the god-parent family from Baia Mare. Their hostile expressions were startling in the context of rural Maramures where friendliness to strangers and hospitality to the camera are taken for granted. Other, younger friends of the bride sat around the next room.
Band in the best room.
In the room closest to the balcony, a trio of young musicians, led by Petru’s brother, entertained the guests with simple folk melodies. A small girl stood close to the noisy drummer with her hands over her ears.
Boys and girls on separate benches.
Petru walked along the benches plying the young men with the family’s best plum brandy, tuica. Nearby the young women sat on their own benches and seemed not to be drinking.
As the boys became more flushed from the tuica, some stood near the gate, where groups of young girls, flushed with shyness, approached them. Girls from the city, dressed in fancy modern dresses, understandably seemed more sure of themselves, while the girls in traditional dress engaged in more formal rituals of courtship, for example, pinning lace flowers on the shirts of boys they liked.
Villagers waiting at the gate.
In the shadow of the great wooden gateway, women and girls of all ages, evidently most of the village of Sarbi, stood and watched with growing excitement as the crowd of guests grew more impressive.
Suddenly a rider trotted through the gateway, his horse so covered in ribbons and flowers that only ears and hooves were visible. The appearance was startling and reminiscent of traditional Indian weddings, but here no fewer than four equestrians rode up and down the street and into and out from the farmyard to everyone’s pleasure and occasional alarm. Those men and women who were most experienced with managing horses, helped the riders deal with the inevitable skittishness.
Bridegroom’s procession and arrival.
After at least three hours, we heard the sound of music drifting along the road from the direction of Budesti. The bridegroom’s party was coming at last, led by a band of fine professional musicians, playing and singing boisterous traditional wedding music. At one point the group sat down in the street and sang even more loudly than ever. Petru stood by the gate and welcomed his future son-in-law into the household.
Bridegroom’s party waiting in the yard.
The groom having climbed up to the best rooms to meet his intended, his entourage stood in groups around the yard, chatting informally with friends of the bride.
Children from the bridegroom’s party.
Chubby little children from the bridegroom’s party alternately posed with earnest seriousness or giggled at minor mishaps with the traditional headwear.
Children from the bridal party.
Two small girls from the bride’s party finally persuaded a third to join them in a wonderfully cute portrait, spoiled only by the middle elf’s last-second wrinkle.
Vasilyi dances in the courtyard.
The occasion, the music, and possibly the tuica, stimulated Vasilyi (next-door neighbor and related by marriage to the Berci family), to do a wild song and dance in the courtyard, infectious entertainment during the lull while the groom paying his ritual respects upstairs.
The groom and bride begin their separate processions to the biserica.
Kathleen, holding the candle and flowers of her official role, stood talking to her dear old friend Matusha, sister of Maria, and next-door neighbor of the Bercis. While they talked the groom came down from the best rooms and soon after led his entourage back to the street and off towards the biserica (wooden church). Then Ileana, more lovely than ever, descended with her party, which Kathleen joined as they followed the horses out through the gateway to the road.
Beginning the bride’s procession.
The main street, indeed the only street, of Sarbi, is the primary road between Sighetu and the larger village of Budesti, was filled from one side to the other with people following the bride towards the biserica.
Musician’s lead the bride’s procession.
At the head of the bride’s party was Petru’s brother and his small band of musicians, with Vasilyi still skipping and singing with irrepressible glee.
The bride’s procession.
In the middle of the commotion, Ileana looked serene and confident.
Horsemen ride between the two processions.
Evidently the riders’ role was to weave between the two processions both clearing a path and keeping them separate. The horses seemed to glow with color in the twilight.
A moving digression.
After the joyful journey along the road and up the steep path to the biserica, there was an abrupt change of mood. A woman in black stood weeping next to a gleaming new grave-stone close to the church-porch. Ileana and her mother, another Ileana, stepped out of the wedding group to the grave. The name Ileana was also on the stone. I had heard of the young woman who lived only three houses from the Bercis, only two years older than the bride and one of her closest friends, a victim of cancer earlier this year. There is a powerful connection between weddings and death in this region. Young women who die before marriage are dressed in white bridal gowns for their funerals. So this digression, though brief, was deeply moving. After a few minutes, much crying and several words of comfort, two surviving Ileanas, the bride’s make-up now marred a little by her tears were reunited with the larger wedding party at the church-door and greeted solemnly by the young priest whose orthodox service we had attended here last year.
The long, hot ceremony.
The small, exquisite wooden church, like the best of all best rooms, is beautifully decorated with hanging textiles and icons. The floor is thickly carpeted, every inch of which was quickly covered by the soles of the combined entourages. The balcony seemed dangerously loaded with people. The couple stood in front of the priest at the altar, with an inner circle of god-parents close behind them. Ileana’s immediate family struggled behind this ring to try to catch a glimpse of their daughter and follow the long, hot ceremony which would take her from them. Ileana the mother and Maria the grandmother could see nothing but the broad backs of the Baia Mare god-parents, although tall Petru seemed to have a marginally better view. The explanation, given later, was that such exclusion was traditional. Less traditional was the throng of intrusive photographers, mostly Italian for some obscure reason (yes, Ileana has Italian god-parents, too!), who virtually crawled around the back of the altar to find good angles. Evidently this is a common and accepted practice, hence, the popularity of wedding videos as ceaseless entertainment on so many Maramures televisions. Pressed against a side window and eager for a good angle too, I could hardly complain, especially since I felt somewhat pushy for even being inside the church. Kathleen herself carried her ceremonial candle in one hand and her professional camera in the other. The details of the service were difficult to follow, although there were recognizable moments: the bride and groom were crowned, gave their vows, and then led a circular procession in the small space before the altar. When it was over, the priest and several others signed what appeared to be the official registry, and then we all moved at last into the cool fresh air of evening.
Leaving the biserica.
Outside the church in the darkness was a large crowd of villagers who had chosen not to compete for a place inside. There were no cheers, no hugs, no verbal greetings, simply a mood of quiet exhilaration,.
Arriving back at the street.
An even larger crowd, but not much noisier than the one near the biserica, lined the street at the bottom of the church path. Ileana and her husband walked among them, poised and smiling quietly.
The celebration begins.
It is only a mile or so from Sarbi to the center of Budesti, where the wedding feast was to be held. Since Kathleen had to be there promptly, I offered to drive her there and soon regretted the decision. A long line of cars and several busses crawled up the hill at a slower than walking pace. So we parked at the edge of Budesti and walked the rest of the way to the community center, a large hall already occupied by hundreds of people sitting at endless rows of tables. Each table was loaded with dozens of bottles of various drinks, and each place was neatly set with two plates, one of cold cuts, the other of cookies, apparently an adequate meal, since the whole population of two villages had evidently to be fed. These plates proved to be merely appetizers. Every hour or two throughout the night, a large and busy team of boys and girls served one hot entrée after another to every guest: pork roast; beef brisket; chicken stew; and so on. All were eagerly consumed, even by those too old to be burning off the calories in brilliantly athletic traditional dances which everyone from the age of eight or so seemed to know.
Music and dance at Budesti community center.
The giddy dances were too daunting to invite the participation of an ancient foreigner, but enjoyable enough to watch for hours. The music was equally brilliant, a haunting mixture of regional, gypsy and popular refrains, played with breathless skill on electronically enhanced fiddle, keyboard, accordion and sax. The volume was deafening but agreeable enough when conversations were no longer attempted.
Above the instruments soared the voice of a truly impressive female vocalist. She was apparently a popular recording artiste whose songs were a staple of the Maramures airways, and she kept me entertained until it was almost dawn. Later I learned that the music and dancing went on until well into the morning. Kathleen told me later the band had cost over 5,000 euros, a bargain considering their skill and energy, but astonishing when added to the cost of half a dozen complete meals multiplied by at least five hundred people, and all the usual expenses of an uninhibitedly extravagant wedding. Ileana’s parents were too busy washing dishes at the back of the hall to contemplate the cost and consider what labor-saving alternatives the money might have purchased. Perhaps Petru’s beautifully constructed haystacks will continue to be made without tractors, mechanical mowers and balers for a few more years. Before the dance was over, Kathleen drove Petru back to the house for the morning milking. Undoubtedly, having attempted unsuccessfully to fatten all his fellow villagers, he fed his animals the priceless grass he’d cut the day before.
Posted by Alan Ritch at September 27, 2007 07:01 PM