Memorial

Straseni05

Strășeni, Moldova – April 2014

“If anyone asks me to toast, could you please tell them that I’m pregnant?” I ask Yvette as we approach the cemetery. “I don’t want to offend anyone, but I also don’t want to be buzzed riding back to Chisinau in a packed minibus.” A steady stream of people dressed in their best attire pass us going in the other direction. The holiday starts early in the day and people usually have a few cemeteries to visit.

In the Orthodox religion, Easter is more important than Christmas. One week after Orthodox Easter is Paștile Blajinilor, Memorial Easter. It’s the day when the living visit the graves of their relatives and have a little party. I’ve experienced a similar holiday in Poland and Slovakia, but it’s done on November 1st in the evening. The ambiance is eerie and mystical. Whispering shadows illuminated by candlelight.

Straseni10

Here, in Moldova, the atmosphere is boisterous. There are smiles and laughter. The crosses over the graves are painted in bright blues and greens. The dirt mounds are meticulously tended. Photographs of the departed are on many of the headstones. Lilac trees are in full bloom. It is a time of resurrection.

Straseni01

I snap furtive photos as we walk down the narrow aisles. Yvette has told me that Moldovans love to have their photos taken. She speaks Romanian, so she asks a family if I can take some photos. They offer us cognac to toast. When Yvette tells them I’m pregnant, they offer me some meat and cheese. I take some cheese, but shake my head at the meat. “Vegetarian,” I say. Feeling like a party pooper. The blonde lady shrugs and offers me some sheep cheese.

Straseni06

As we move deeper into the cemetery, I become bolder with the camera. It is true indeed that no one seems camera shy.

When I booked this trip back in January, I was unaware of this holiday. Before recent events, you didn’t hear much about Moldova. Moldova is the least visited country in Europe, and one of the least visited in the world. While I was waiting to board the flight from Vienna to Chisinau, I looked around and realized that I was the only tourist, the only person who didn’t have a reason to go. I suddenly felt very ridiculous. What the hell was I doing? Why couldn’t I go to Greece or Italy like normal people? The feeling passed when I took my first walk around Chisinau. While not posh or picturesque, Moldova is a place like no other. A people watcher’s dream. This stroll around a village cemetery is a reaffirmation of why I travel to offbeat places.

Straseni02

Yvette and I get looks of curiosity. Some of the people know her as the American in town. Amid the revelry, a lone woman sits in a plot of two graves. She has a soft, contemplative smile on her face and her hands are folded in her lap. She tells Yvette that she’s with her husband and her brother. She points at the graves as if making introductions.

Straseni08

“I see this guy everywhere,” Yvette says as we move on down the row. “It’s amazing how far he gets with those crutches.”

I flick my camera to the right and take a clandestine photo. He’s an interesting character, but I hesitate to take photos of handicapped people. He inches along, stopping when he comes to me.

Straseni03

He looks down at my camera and says something. Then I realize that he wants me to take his photo. He’s not going to let me pass until I do.

Straseni04

I oblige and he ambles away without a word.

Yvette laughs. “I told you Moldovans love to have their photo taken.”

Straseni07

Some of the graves are neglected and lonely. Guilt washes over me as I think of my father’s grave. He’s been gone over twenty years and I’ve only visited once or twice. Before I moved to Eastern Europe, I never thought that visiting a grave was important. My father was not in that small rectangle of earth below a stone slab. He was no longer of the Earth. I now realize the power in having one spot, one focal point for people to gather and remember. And if you can’t go there, at least you have one day when everyone agrees to remember and celebrate. Light candles, build a shrine, party.

I feel a pang of sadness that there isn’t such a holiday in America and other Western countries. One doesn’t need to be religious, or even believe in a soul, to take one day to remember those who have had an impact on one’s life. As I sweep my eyes over the faces of the departed, I think of my father, my maternal grandfather, my paternal grandmother, my friends Breezy and Deanna, and all of the beloved animals who have kept me company along the way.

Straseni09

*Massive thanks to fellow WP blogger Yvette who informed me about the holiday and offered to take me to the cemetery in her village.

43 thoughts on “Memorial

  1. And here I thought you were really pregnant! I confess this place was never on my list – yet there is something so appealing about it and familiar reminds me of Serbia.

    • Hahaha. I’ve found it’s the best excuse for getting out of drinking wihtout offending people. I’m not sure they believed me, though. Moldova will probably have a more developed tourism industry in the near future, given that it’s suddenly so interesting to the EU.

  2. Your photos are fabulous. It gives me a whole new appreciation for the place I live, getting to experience it through your eyes and words. And thanks so much for the valuable tips on tagging and the shout out – I am getting 50% more hits per day! Glad to have you in my corner 🙂

    • Thanks, Yvette. When you live someplace for a while, you stop seeing certain things about it. Glad to hear the new tagging strategy is working.

  3. Delightful adventure/travel piece. I love the warmth and engagement the people have with the cemetery. It is how I would like things to be. I have just been reading a little about the repatriation of the remains of US soldiers after WW2. No matter how small the remains, everyone was given a standard casket because “space was homage to the absent beloved”. I can empathize with that. A place, a space, is important to me.

  4. I have often wondered why we keep distance between the living and dead. Our memories, both the good and bad, are the links that give relevance to lives that have passed. It seems to me that the best way to honour our time, is to live generously with joyful courage. Thank you for your introduction to Yvette – have signed up and will be tagging along on her adventures.

    “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Thornton Wilder

    • Maybe we keep a distance because it’s scary to think that one day we also won’t be here. Good to hear that you’re following Yvette. She’s a fantastic writer.

      • A very good point! Let us then seek the best in our days….

        “My candle burns at both ends;
        It will not last the night;
        But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
        It gives a lovely light!”
        Edna St. Vincent Millay, A Few Figs from Thistles

  5. Glad you go to unvisited places, it is one of the reasons your blog is so interesting. The parts of Eastern Europe I visited were never on my list but so glad I have I did even if they were very often visited places. I met some very interesting, friendly people.
    It also helped fill in the gaps on my poor knowledge of the Ottoman Empire also because so many people emigrated to Australia after WW2.

    • Eastern Europe is slowly being discovered by mainstream tourists. Croatia, Budapest, Prague, parts of Poland are ON-the-beaten-path nowadays. These countries are also losing the authenticity of their traditions in exchange for becoming modern. That’s why I found Moldova to be so refreshingly real.

  6. Such an interesting post! Back when I lived in Krakow, I remember going to the cemetery on November 1st and entering another world with the hundreds of lanterns illuminating the graves. I wish we had a similar celebration in the US to commemorate the dead.

    • People need to experience this type of holiday (Nov 1st/Easter Memorial) for themselves to understand how beautiful and joyous it is. I was going to add that it’s not commercialized like other holidays, but if it ever took off in the US, you know they’d find a way to market it. 😉

  7. Fascinating Julie – seems like they have a far more healthy relationship with the departed. I have the same problem, no place to go to be with either mum or dad – very sad.

    • I totally agree, and I bet they have less fear of passing on than those of us in the West do. Your parents aren’t buried in the UK? I’m going to start observing November 1st, no matter where I am. I’ll build a little shrine in my house with photos, mementos, and candles. I think the intention is what counts the most.

  8. I didn’t know the relationship that Moldovans have with their departed, but it seems really serene.This is just a so great and enriching trip.. i’ve appreciate the alternation of photos of people/graves.

  9. Hey J! first this Prem and now blogging back in my original one. Yay!
    2nd, glad to be back and lastly happy to be reading your posts once again. Great photos and post as always. I have a lot to catch up with so bear with me. 😀

    Namaste,
    P

    • Prem! I have been wondering where you disappeared to. So happy to see you back after all these months. Thanks a lot for stopping by and letting me know that you’re back.

  10. I like the gentle ambiance of this place. Perhaps it is because Moldova is not visited that its people are so overt in their openness and their desire to be seen and photographed. Lovely portraits Julie.

  11. I absolutely love Nov.1 here, and after my parents saw it they started doing it in Canada too. But I also love the festive take the Moldovans have, like a celebration of the lives that were lived (although graves of children always tug at the heart strings). And I think off the beaten path places are the best places to visit – I’ll have to live vicariously through you 🙂

    • Me, too. Halloween used to be my favorite holiday, but now I like Nov. 1st better. I usually go to the cemeteries every year and just walk around and feel the ambiance, but this year I’m going to light candles for my loved ones, too.

  12. You really got the point of our tradition, we celebrate death… as we do with life. Before reading your post, I thought that visiting a grave of our beloved (each everytime we can) is something ordinary, a habbit or a moral obligation but you showed me that is not only ordinary. Amazing interpretation!

    • Hi Dana – this is a huge compliment. Thank you. I was so happy to have experienced it. Sometimes “banal” things in our own cultures are, in fact, fascinating to outsiders.

  13. Great reading. I think sometimes the best travel writing is when the writer really zooms in on a specific event or place and you did this very well.

  14. you are the “vagabonde” I am from Poland and I have never ventured to Moldovia or Belarus or Transdniestria. Freedom is a road seldom travelled by the multitude. Great blog, great……..

Comments are closed.