Gorj – A Ruthless Memory of Wood and Stone

Hiraeth! It is a Welsh word that has no direct synonym in English and I found it online while searching for a way to express a feeling. It’s a kind of homesickness that goes beyond the usual sense. It is a kind of longing for a place that no longer exists, that you can only feel inside your soul. It might not be your home per se; it might just be a memory of childhood, of a better and simple time, or relatives long gone and days of happiness. One definition of Hiraeth that is not entirely compelling of its sense is the “the longing to be where your spirit lives” and I completely fell in love with the deep meaning of this. This is exactly how I feel about the village of my grandfathers and the warm days and nights I spent there as a child.

Those days have long gone and the village itself, with all its memories and people is also gone. It was destroyed to make way for a coal mine… I understand industry and progress and everything… What I will never come to terms with is why it has to come at the expense of the most enchanting woods and the small pastures filled with all the flowers of the universe… and all the shattered dreams and hopes, and all the spilled tears and sorrow, the destinies it changed along the way. Why do we have to let progress eat everything that is beautiful about the past? I spent many summers in that tiny village with just a few houses and no other kinds. I had it all to myself and most of my childhood dreams are tied to that place…and although I cannot remember things I did there, I do remember it more as a feeling of peace, its image deeply imprinted into my heart…

More and more villages throughout my home region of Gorj are losing their authentic feel and atmosphere, entering the amalgam of modernity that is almost never looking behind. Gorj County, this mythical and magical land, offers the opportunity for an extraordinary journey, often real and sometimes imaginary, along and across of the charming villages hurdled among the hills and under the mountains, of the mountain paths that get lost underneath the majestic pines and along the cold creeks. From the path of the heroes that cuts the city of Targu Jiu in half like an axis from beyong time and space, up to the highest peaks of Parang Mountains, from where civilization seems insignifiant, one travels through this land of legends, among the old wooden churches scattered over valleys and hills, through the woods and pastures where life seems endless, and across time itself, from the oldest remnants of history to the modernity that started with Brancusi, forming a unique and authentic space that invites travelers to dream and be inspired…

The wet scent of fresh hay was flooding my nostrils, as the buzz of several bee hives behind the wooden fence and the thrills of nightingales were breaking the silence. As I briefly opened my eyes, the atmosphere started to change. A constant humming of human voices, animal callings and other everyday sounds was growing closer and closer, like a storm slowly breaking the peace of a sunny summer day. “May is my favorite month of the year”, I thought to myself as I looked towards the peaks of the Carpathians that were melting slowly to the north. I started walking back to the village to see what all the fuss was about. First I encountered several barefoot kids playing in the dusty road. Although they were barely dressed in some brown and gray cloths, with strings instead of belts, they looked healthy and joyful. I continued on my way, arriving before a small wooden house…

The house had only two rooms, visible from the road as the doors were wide open. Inside, a small bed of planks with red and white linens, while the floor was most likely hardened dirt. The tall pyramid like roof was covered in tiled wooden shingles, some of them almost broken off. In the yard, a vivid old woman that seemed to be in her eighties but still looking nippy was preaching to a small girl about not washing the clothes properly. They had a big wooden bowl with a board that served as a washer, while a rope in the backyard had several white shirts and black aprons.Gorj County

I continued towards the main lane of the village, flanked with blooming apple and plum trees that incited a sweet smell. I crossed the road and stopped in front of a bigger house. The bottom part, half dug into the ground, had river boulder walls and served as a cellar, while the top part could be reached by a narrow ladder. The white plaster walls had a large wooden veranda. A young girl with eyes and hair as black as coal was dusting some old carpets that had barely any color left. She was humming something that seemed familiar somehow, maybe from my scarce folklore knowledge. I tried to wave at her, but she had already disappeared inside the house.

Towards the center of the village, the noise intensified, with more people and animals crossing my path at every step. I stopped in front of what seemed like an inn, with half a dozen men well over their youth, talking around a square wooden table. The innkeeper appeared from within the cellar carrying a big ceramic jug. He poured on, filling every cup on the table, and sat on a tiny stool at the entrance. “Nobody will check their license!” I thought, as I noticed the two horses tied up by the side fence. I left the inn to reach the several stalls in what must have been the village market. Nested right on the other side of the inn, next to a tall white building that seemed like a palace compared to the tiny wooden shacks surrounding it.Gorj County 3

In front of the wooden stalls, filled with cabbage, cucumbers, potatoes, but also apples and cherries, people were going about their everyday life. A white bearded old man in long black cloths, who must have been the priest, was talking with two women dressed in black, probably about a funeral. A chubby boy with rose cheeks was trying to get an apple for free and several smaller kids were chasing a cat across the road, raising dusty clouds behind. As I noticed the church tower rising above the trees to the west, I started heading towards it. I crossed a small bridge over a clear stream and followed the path towards the trees. In front, a girl was leading a grey cow by a rope tied to the horns. She seemed to be in a hurry, as she kept begging the cow to move faster. As I caught a glimpse of her face, I recognized her from before, the same coal eyed girl, only in different clothes.Gorj County 2

In front of the last house, a wooden shack with a small workshop on the side, rhythmic hammer bangs could be heard, so I stopped for a moment. I leaned over the fence to have a look, touching the rugged intertwined branches. An old man with just a few strands of grey hair on his shiny head, was hammering a wooden wheel. Behind him, a dozen other wheels in different stages were hanging from the wall. He had probably been crafting cart and carriage wheels all his life. As I was leaving, I had the brief feeling that I had seen this scene before, probably in a picture or a drawing. As I was grasping sight of the church in a small forest clearing, all the voices and characters behind me started dimming, slowly disappearing into the abyss of time. In front of the church, several decrepit stone crosses marked some century old tombs and an unsettling feeling that some of the people back in the village were buried there gave me chills…

…There I was, before the old church in the village museum of Curtișoara, deep in rural southwestern Romania. The museum is a vivid reminder of the way villages used to be, various authentic old houses being moved here along the years to be saved from disappearance. As I kept thinking about all the stories that each house could tell, all the cries of birth and all the last sighs of life they must have heard, all the joyful dinners by the candlelight and all the love they must have seen, all those generations that bestowed their trust and hopes in their rotten trunks and rusty nails, I left this small Neverland with more sorrow than peace…

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