Despite Szekelyudvarhely’s clean swept streets, neatly kept public spaces, soaring churches and quaint beauty, it was far from being the standard bearer of Szekelyland. Though it was tiny compared to other Romanian cities, Szekelyudvarhely was an urban metropolis by the standards of the region. It ran counter to the popular image of the Szekely as a prototypically village people, their past and present shaped by those tiny tumbling wonderlands that so many of them call home. Villages are the hub of community, where the heart of Szekely culture beats slower, but stronger. If I was going to gain insight into Szekely culture, heritage and traditions than an exploration of their villages was a must. Szekelyudvarhely had been an inspiration, but Szekely villages might offer revelations as to how these people subsisted in one of Europe’s remotest areas.
Beautifully Rugged – A People Like Their Land
The villages were not difficult to reach as they could be found in any direction throughout the region. It did not take long for me to see just how different Szekely villages were from the small city of Szekelyudvarhely. Everything looked original with an indigenous quality of craftsmanship. The structures, whether homes, gates, or fences looked both vigorous and worn, much like the rough hewn people I saw plying the streets. Villages reflected the Szekely and the Szekely reflected the surrounding landscape. One that was beautiful in a deeply rugged sort of way. The weather was harsh, the terrain by turns hilly and mountainous. Life in Szekelyland was the opposite of easy. Luxury and creature comforts from the modern world looked to be in short supply. Many villagers earned their living in activities that could be classified as little more than subsistence level.
The structures in Szekely villages, rustically colorful homes, tip wells and wood carved gates were symbolic of the people. Many of the villages looked on the verge of collapse, but somehow kept standing. I got the sense that these people were rich in a way that outsiders such as me would never really understand. Money was no match for tradition and culture in these villages. The rhythm of life was still based on the seasons, of which winter was the longest and most pervasive. I assumed that outside of automobiles (which were in short supply), electricity and modern forms of communication, very little had changed in Szekely villages over the past several centuries. The Szekely had lived so long in trying circumstances, physical, political and economic that getting by was an accepted way of life. The faces of Szekely men and women were etched with stoicism. Physically they looked strong and stout, the kind of strength both mental and physical that comes from a lifetime spent trying to subdue less than hospitable terrain. Szekely stubbornness could overcome almost anything.
Life In The Village – Gates, Hooves & Horsepower
The most notable symbol of these villages was the ubiquitous wooden Szekely gate. Many of these were decorated with an amazing array of folk motifs carved into the wood with careful precision. Though many were decorated with carvings, they were not decorative like those to be found in Hungary. There was nothing new or polished about these gates. Szekely gates were made to be used and re-used thousands of times. Their antiquated, semi-decrepit rusticism as much a hallmark as their two doors, a large one for wagons and a smaller one for people. Many were faded from weathering, dusty and hard-bitten like the villages they stood within. The gates were original, historical and quite useful. There was no better place to look at these gates then the village of Marefalva (Satu Mare, Harghita), a few kilometers east of Szekelyudvarhely. By one count, more than eighty Szekely gates fronted on the main highway cutting through the town. The majority of these could be seen from the main highway winding its way through the village. The gates were the pride and joy of Marefalva, a nod to collective individualism, a paradoxical pride on display for public viewing. A fine example of this was when my wife wanted to take a photo of one, a villager was standing on a ladder doing some minor repair work. He asked if she would like him to move, which he soon did. His face was an expression of pride as she snapped several photos. Then he placed his ladder back in the same place and continued with the repairs.
The same quiet sense of duty could be seen in the faces of those who plied the village thoroughfares and rural byways in horse drawn wagon carts. Wagon drivers, almost always accompanied by a stocky accomplice, could be seen driving a couple of horses along at a ponderous pace. Unblinking, indifferent to those on foot or the dull whine of automobile traffic, they trotted on towards greener pastures or back towards home. The wagoneers seemed to exist outside the present, spirits of a former age that mysteriously arrived and departed with little regard to time. They were not in a hurry, there was no reason to be. Time was elastic, it expanded at the speed they set each day. The same speed decided centuries ago by hooves and horsepower. The wagons, drivers and passengers bore an uncanny resemblance to etchings in 19th century ethnographic tomes. They had been summoned forth from parched pages as an anecdote to modernity.
The Difference Between Want & Need – A Szekely State Of Mind
The beauty of Szekely villages came from their time worn look. The homes, many of them little more than brightly painted cubes covered in a sheen of summer dust, were the humble dwellings of people who had learned to survive with a graceful indifference to the vicissitudes of life. In the villages I suddenly became aware of a class system inherent to Szekelyland. Survivors lived in the villages, thrivers in Szekelyudvarhely and a few other larger towns. There were many more survivors than thrivers, but no one looked like they had missed a meal. These were a people, like their land, richly endowed with everything they needed. They knew what the more populated outside world had yet to comprehend. Specifically, that getting what you need is more important than getting what you want. And what did these people need. Food, water, a roof over their heads, wood and livestock. Everything and nothing had changed in these villages over the years. Kingdoms, empires and dictators came and went, perhaps next would be the fall of nation-states, yet the Szekely always managed to remain.