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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
I oblige and he ambles away without a word.
Yvette laughs. “I told you Moldovans love to have their photo taken.”
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.