Balkania - Our Eternal Return

I think I would never have come to love Balkania so much, had I not met Marina Marinescu in Munich several years back. We had been acquainted since we met for the first time in Athens. Florin Marinescu, the specialist in Byzantine history to whom I was talking one day in his house on Kipseli, told me his sister had just flown in from Munich for a couple of days. So I could now meet Marina in the apartment downstairs. The apartment that used to belong to their mother, Mrs. Himu, teacher of neo-Greek, almost a legend in our Romanian-Greek world in Bucharest. So there she was, Mariana. I had heard about her back in Romania. Although we had never met, it seemed we moved in the same circles. Later, when she came to Greece, we were to frequent the same circles once again. "You absolutely must meet Marina," Victor Ivanovici said to me. "I think the two of you have got a lot of things to say to each other." And then Mitel Nastase, the other specialist in Byzantine studies of our Romanian-Hellenistic world: "When are you leaving for the Netherlands? Aren't you, by any chance, staying here until August? Because that's when Mariana is due from Munich. You two simply have to meet." And there she was. I went downstairs to the other apartment. Her son greeted me, a red-haired boy with sky-blue eyes. He spoke to me in Greek. Then, back in the living room, he told his mother in Romanian that someone was there to see her. And he added in German, seizing the opportunity, that he was going upstairs to play with his cousins. I find it difficult to describe Marina. What's more important than her appearance is the fact that she generates a certain feeling around her. I couldn't say why, but in my mind I associate her with a line from one of Chekhov's plays. Or rather with the way Clody Bertola uttered that line, in a performance Lucian Pintilie once directed at the Bulandra Theatre. "It seems to me I can hear something," Ranevskaia said in The Cherry Orchard. "A strange sound. Like a chord snapping." Marina's voice sounded like Clody Bertola's when she read that line. Composed, heedless, transcendental, amazed, detached and yet deeply lyrical, choked with lyricism. That night, to my surprise, I discovered there was someone who had done the same things in life that I had, and yet we had never met. At any rate, at that point in life we had both reached we had come, broadly, to the same conclusions. We parted several hours later, bound together by the strong threads typical of friendships that come late in life. She walked me to trolley-bus number 4. We were waiting in the bus stop on that August evening, under our indescribably magnetic Balkan moon; two women who came from here and there, each with our own countries, our own books, our own children. And once again, without anyone actually uttering it, I seemed to hear Chekhov's line, the line most capable of creating feelings I have ever come across: "I hear a strange sound. Like a chord snapping." In the railway station in Munich, where she came to greet me several years later, I no longer heard this sentence around her. Frau Marinescu was a composed, somewhat tense person, correctly dressed, obviously meaning to express correctness. Correctness one cannot live without. Correctness whose absence makes you redundant. Frau Marinescu was a person who had internalized the fact that one stands on the right when climbing the escalator, so that those who want can pass one by; who accepted the fact that one does not raise one's voice on the bus and waits in a queue at the ticket office. The blue-eyed boy she was holding by the hand had every chance to receive the education of a genuine little German. This impression lasted until we were alone in her home, in the apartment she had rented in one of the good neighbourhoods. Marina's home preserved, as few immigrants' homes manage to in Western Europe, a Byzantine luxury. A residence that had been thought up, conceived along aesthetic lines. The dwelling of a person who loved beauty. A person who knew what beauty was. Beauty that cannot be reduced to utility. That includes a certain sense of gratuitousness. That aesthetic gratuitousness that generates a feeling of wellbeing. And whose cult we have always fostered here, in the Balkans. The objects that decorated Marina's home came from different countries: Romania, Greece, Germany and other places she had visited. And where she had been diligently collecting them in order to give an aesthetic dimension to her vital surroundings. For several years now this is how I've been meeting Marina: among objects of impeccable artistic taste and bank credits. Shipping some piece of furniture, some painting or decorative vase from Greece to Germany and again to Greece, from her beautiful apartment on Kipseli to the apartment on Aghiou Meletiou, another place where beauty envelops you as soon as you set foot inside. And where there are still paintings hanging backwards, wherever they come from. The lady of the welcoming home on Aghiou Meletiou, however, is no longer the same Frau Marinescu – neither when inside nor when outside the house. It seems the atmosphere here becomes her. She is calm, younger looking in her clothes typical of warm climates, amusing, voluble. Above all voluble, so much so it's difficult to keep pace with her. Intelligent, composed, with clear principles and... For all this rigour, out of a sudden she will catch you at unawares with some confession of heavy emotional sincerity; difficult to cope with, no matter how spontaneous you might be yourself. And when she is silent, you seem to hear again that sentence generating unutterable feelings, the mysterious and acute sentence about the music of stars and of existences. Out of this universe which is solely hers she has written books on ethnology, on ethnography, on sociology in Romania, in Greece, in Germany. Her scientific books have the greatest quality any author could wish for: they are beautiful. You read them in one breath. You cannot put them aside before you've read them through. And when you have finished reading them, you regret. After reading her study on past centuries' travellers through the Balkans I will never again pass through certain places in this world without saying to myself: look, this is where Marina's characters lived. The same way you say, look, this is the land of García Márquez or look, it's Faulkner's world. Only the author in question deals with science: the world of the Pasha of Vidin really existed, it is not just beautiful fiction. Marina Marinescu was born in Bucharest. Mrs. Himu's family spoke Romanian. Her mother only used Greek when speaking with her sisters; so, for the children, Greek was a passive language. Marina was a good student of the Iulia Hasdeu high school; she studied Russian, she once told me, as was the custom at the time, conscientiously, she was even passionate about Russian literature. The blue sky of Hellas her mother used to tell her about, was miles away for her. Nonetheless she attended the classes of the Faculty of Classical Languages, Greek and Latin. "I was timid and nice," she says. "I used to live in a world that was mine alone." On graduating from university she found a job with the Arts History Institute. She joined the Folk Art department. A study on decorative woven fabrics dates back to that period. As do, naturally, numerous articles in specialized publications. It was also during that period that she obtained her Ph.D. with a paper on terminology in plastic arts. A research project on villages in Dobruja is the most beautiful period she can think of. She roamed the villages on foot, an unknown world whose wealth we are not even aware of: 10-15 different populations live in Dobruja, a true gold mine to any ethnologist. Articles on these populations, signed by her, came out in two prestigious journals published by the Romanian Academy: Studies on Art History and Ethnography and Folklore Magazine. At the same time, she was translating novels from Old Greek, a literary genre few of us even knew dated back to such remote times. Following a restructuring of the old institute, between 1975-78 Marina worked with the Institute for Ethnography and Folklore in Bucharest. In 1978 she emigrated to Greece with the rest of her family. She started to preoccupy herself ardently with Neo-Greek; she was accepted as museographer at the Plaka museum. It is actually during this period that she began to take Balkania out into Western Europe. She worked on this for years. While making index cards for the objects in the museum, she compared them to similar creations throughout Europe. She managed to obtain a Humboldt scholarship and left for Germany. She got the idea while spending her summer holidays in the 2 Mai seaside resort, in Romania, where she still returned for vacations with her old friends and colleagues. She knew no one in Germany, she didn't have a good command of the language. She went through some difficult years. As part of this research scholarship she wrote a paper she later published in Romania, a study of the colour schemes in Romanian folk woven fabrics. She worked selflessly and with the feeling she was on the edge of a great breakthrough. Her German colleagues asked her: "Why are you doing this?" "I was speechless," she later confessed. When the scholarship ended she could no longer stay in Germany. The only solution was to register, as a simple student, with the Faculty of Ethnography, non-European Ethnology and Sociology. A research programme on folk literature in the Balkans made her very happy, while also providing her with an opportunity to gather a large quantity of materials which she would later use in various publications. She wrote, together with a colleague, a volume in German on folk books. The volume compares Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian and Albanese texts. During the same period, she published another volume, again in German, on folk books in Romania. For two years she worked with the Ethnography Museum in Munich. She was, in the best meaning of the word, the person who ensured the connection between the West and the South-East. The project she was hired to work on focused on Albania. She travelled to Moshopolis in 1990: "a Mecca of the Balkans, a great Greek centre in Albania," she says. She wrote articles on folk art and is one of the authors of the superb ethnographic volume Albania. There followed a period during which she concentrated on translations: American socio-psychology into German, contemporary Greek novels into Romanian. At the same time she was preparing for re-emigration to Greece, to Athens. Where the apartment on Aghiou Meletiou was waiting for her, laden with beautiful things, with paintings still hanging backwards. Myself, I think our Romanian-Hellenistic world stood to gain most of this re-emigration. There arrived for Marina Marinescu the moment when she was to accomplish many projects. She intends to embark again on studies she felt had remained incomplete. She moves freely through ample realms of understanding and knowledge. She has accumulated plenty of experience, as a human being and as a researcher. And, above all, God gave her talent. And something else, which is not to be found easily even with great researchers: Marina thinks rigorously, systematically. She raised Balkania to the statute of concept: a world where, if you are patient, you discover that people have been moving freely and had economic and cultural links for hundreds of years; a world that is currently seeking itself and will, most likely, find itself in traditions. "The merchant in the Balkans has his small connections everywhere," Marina evokes a cosmos, as if day-dreaming about it. "Bookshops in Bucharest were full of books from all over the world. Greek communities filled the world. With no need for globalization..." 

by Monica Săvulescu Voudouri