Aging in Oas

“And when you die, your memory dies from the earth, for want of an epitaph”  (Philip Sydney)

Oas, a historical region located in the North-West of Romania, is first mentioned in the 13th century when the Hungarian king donates some border villages of Terra Awas (Ţara Oaşului in Romanian) to one of his vassals.
The geographical characteristic of the region is its insulation in some valleys and depressions of the Carpathians. Not being a fertile land, agriculture is not very diversified. The two most wide spread cultures in Oas are strawberries (more than 50% of the national production) and plum trees. The first culture is a source of income; the second is a source of making  palinca, a strong spirit (more than 50% of alcohol).

Surroundings of Valea Seaca.

Surroundings of Valea Seaca.

As agriculture is limited in scope and time, the other occupation of the people inhabiting Oas is leaving Oas. During winter, they go out and do hard work – construction and any other business that requires a lot of physical labour – in other parts of Romania or abroad. This is why, for at least one quarter of the year, the only inhabitants of Osan villages are children and old persons. The migratory pattern usually involves returning to the native village and building  a house.

For many years, traditional blue-violet houses were characteristic for the villages of Oas. Nowadays Osans earning money abroad tend to build their new homes in a “modern european” style. The blue houses become rare. They are old and degrading, an endangered species. One of them pertained to Gregory.

Gregory was 73 years old when he died. He was a sort of village drunkard in Valea Seaca/ The Dessicated Valley (a village of Oas). The label of ‘drunkard’ (drojder in the local jargon) is really surprising given the fact that according to medical standards almost every person of older then 14 years is an alcoholic here. It is quite common that at the end of the day a person from Oas have drunk 1 liter of palinca.

House from the Valea Seaca with Gregory’s great-grandson

House from the Valea Seaca with Gregory’s great-grandson

When Gregory was 60, he felt that he could not manage his estate anymore. He sold his horse, his cow, his pigs, most of his land and he dived in a life of sound sleeping and epic drinking. His only work was collecting plums during autumn in his backyard orchard. And he was aging like palinca ages: he was becoming paler and better. Lately, he was sleeping even when he was awake: at 70 he was half blind and rarely did he leave his dormitory. He had an axe and lived with it his entire life underneath his bed (for protection). He had a wife and lived with her his entire life because she was virtuous according to local standards (she didn’t use to bicker).

He was a Christian. He was even member of the choir. When he died, this did not impede the treasurer of the church, the priest’s tacit spokesman, to signal that the last two years Gregory had not paid the regular church tax (also known as “donation”). In these conditions a proper Christian burial was out of the question. So Gregory’s few relatives gathered the sum of money and donated to the priest’s vicar.

The night before interring him, his body was laid in an open coffin, in his beloved dormitory. His closest relatives were not aloud to touch him. It was strangers and distant acquaintances that washed Gregory’s face and hands. They closed his eyelids, adjusted his position and dressed him in his finest cloths. The cloths Gregory used to wear only when he went to church. Money was put between his stiff hands so that he could pay his journey to the other world.  At a table near the coffin, two peasants were reading and singing some unintelligible psalms. In the next room, other peasants were discussing politics. This was his death watch.

View from backyard plum orchard. Summer kitchen in front.

View from backyard plum orchard. Summer kitchen in front.

The next day, his coffin was moved outside, in the yard. The priest came; he sang and pricked through a kind of sermon. When the priest stopped and sat down, tears were shed. Professionally. As usual with a funeral in Oas, there were two or three women who were employed by the family in order to circulate around the coffin and cry: when one was tired of crying, there was another one waiting in line to replace her.

Then Gregory was escorted to the graveyard and interred. In the evening, the funeral dinner was given at Gregory’s home. While relatives, friends and absolute strangers ate, a local Ganymede was charged with pouring palinca in the guests’ glasses: for each glass he filled, he personally drank another glass in order to properly clink it. Finally, everybody was in accord: Gregory was a good person, but he drank too much.

On Gregory’s tomb there was no epitaph. Anyway he could not have read it. He was illiterate.

Text and pictures by Alex Virastau

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