This past weekend, I had the privilege of being invited to a village about an hour south of Chisinau. According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, all of the villages in Moldova have their own patron saints, and each saint has its own special day. On that day, as well as the days immediately preceding and following it, there is a celebration. This Saturday was St. Nicolai's Day in the village of Cenac.
Celebration, village style, involves church, food, dancing and of course, wine. Nearly everyone I met in Cenac had his own beci, pronounced "bitch" (and yes, the jokes to us English speakers are nearly endless). A beci is where they keep canned fruits, pickled vegetables and barrels of homemade wine, where men often go to escape from their wives and consume large quantities of alcohol.
Moldovan villagers, I have learned, do not drink wine the way that most people do. Despite the fact that it actually does taste quite good, the tradition is to throw back a whole glass in one drink, as if it were a massive shot. They also pass around one glass between them, and everyone calls "noroc" ("cheers" in Romanian) to family, health, good wine, or whatever. I should also add that Moldovan village wine is a bit stronger than what most of us are probably used to. I don't know what the exact alcohol content is - and frankly, I doubt anyone does - but let's just say that if you happen to be sitting while you're passing around the glass, you may be in for a bit of a surprise when you try to stand up.
The day of celebration started at the church in the center of town, where the priest led the congregation around the outside of the structure, pausing periodically to offer blessings and throw holy water on the people and on the walls of the church. From there, they went inside, where the ceremony continued. One at a time, people would step forward and light a candle while the priest led the sermon. All of the women were dressed in head scarves, all over to one side and to the back of the church, while the men were on the other side and closer to the front.
In fairness, I think that this was largely because it was an important day of celebration, but a good many people were very drunk by mid-afternoon. Luckily, my host, a Peace Corps volunteer, had let me in on a secret: if you keep a little bit of wine in your glass, they are less likely to insist that it be refilled. But when they insist, they are persistent. It almost seemed like they were offended if you don't want to keep up with them drink for drink.
Later in the afternoon, there was a talent show in the local "cultural center." It doubled as a discotheque on Friday nights, but today, it was where the locals gathered to watch plays and hear poetry and music that celebrated life in the village of Cenac. There were performances that ranged from a family of flute playing children, led by their father on accordion, to some good old-fashioned breakdancing. Seriously.
In many Moldovan villages, including this one, the population primarily consists of young, school-age children and old, retirement-age people. All of the people that are able to work usually have to go elsewhere to do so. Many of them seek employment in Chisinau, and an even larger percentage leave Moldova in search of work. Because of the difficulties inherent in their absentee voting system, this means that people who are not in the country generally have no voice in Moldovan elections, which is how the Communist party has maintained control here significantly more than they have in many other former Soviet states. The outcomes of the elections are basically determined by the older generation who still live here.
On more than one occasion during my time in Cenac, I was approached by old men, who spoke to me through the translation provided by my host, who is much more fluent than I am. They told me how hard life is in the villages, and within a few minutes, they had broken into tears. As a fan of Dostoyevsky and other classical Russian authors, I thought that the open weeping of otherwise callused men could be attributed to the author's artistic flourish, but here I learned otherwise. Granted, it may also have something to do with the excessive consumption of homemade wine, but the point that these men were trying to make was clear: theirs was a difficult existence.
Despite the smiles on the faces of those who participated in jubilant song and dance, or the kind words offered by everyone who called a toast that day, I walked away from this experience with the understanding that a simple life is not always easy.