Ethnicity And Imagination In The Danube Delta

The Danube Delta is a land inhabited by Romanians coming from Transylvania, Moldavia and Oltenia (Little Walachia), as well as by people who came here from Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. There seem to be two causes that led to this ethnic mosaic: a political one – the successive occupation of the Dobruja province by different political regimes, and the consecutive remains of "dominant population" that were left behind; and an economic one – the position of the Danube, an important link between the East and West, which contributed to the settlement of tradesmen and merchants at its mouth (the Delta)[1]. Thus, the resulting villages are in fact a complex mixture of Romanian, Lipovan, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Tatar, and Turkish culture and spiritual beliefs. The things that unite these communities are the uprooting process as the first step towards appropriating a new territory and the insular way of living in the community. Usually, the islands were populated by groups of individuals who had left their countries of origin at a time of crisis and chosen to settle in a new "promised land". The uprooting process, therefore, leads to the concept of the island as a utopian space in the collective imagination of the people. Each island appears as a world of its own, limited and at the same time open to every beginning. An overview of the islands reflects a complete array of social and moral structures, ranging between two extremes: promiscuity and spiritual opening. The island neighborhood assumes the juxtaposition of stable places (central, organized, limited) which allow for both individualization and neighborhood. Therefore, in order to be a good neighbor, first of all you need an island-space of community dwellings. From a geographical point of view, the Danube Delta is a sort of archipelago, consisting of earthen formations surrounded mainly by water, difficult to reach, and sometimes reachable only by boat. The image of this territory, as shown by the Romanian media since the beginning of the 1950s, is that of a natural Paradise inhabited by rare birds and rich in fish and animals, all sheltered by a fabulous landscape. The syntagmas refer to The birds' paradise, The fish paradise, The tourist paradise. There is no need for environmental projects in Paradise. Still, after 1900, the paradise perfection of the Delta proves itself to be nothing than a fake image covering the dangerous and destructive fishing activity, the disappearance of certain species of birds, an individual freedom that starts to interfere with the environmental equilibrium. The transitional ecological projects have as a first result a paradise which is rather lost, which doesn't take into account the human being; on the contrary, it prides itself on the auroral wilderness of the land. In an effort to keep pace with the (misunderstood) European mentalities, the people of the Delta (either local people or tourists) are censored, surveyed, fined and even denied access to the heart of the so-called Paradise. The Ecologists (generic name given by the villagers to everyone working for the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve) use a conservation and environmental policy which is very different from the traditional habits in exploiting nature's resources. The exclusively coercive methods and the lack of communication with the villagers lead nowadays to a sort of impoverishing cultural uniformity that produces a self-victimized mentality of the local community which does nothing but register failures, frustrations and subversive techniques to avoid the laws. The lack of understanding on the part of peasants and the lack of traditional knowledge of the ecologists has generated fear, nostalgia for good old communist times, and led to real conflicts, projected by the local fishermen onto a mythical universe in terms of terrorists and beyond the reach of hyperbolized laws. Under these circumstances, a group of ethnologists from the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, in collaboration with European environmental organizations, decided to undertake some field research in social ecology in the Danube Delta. For two years (1997-1998), they talked to fishermen and their families, chosen according to their ethnicity, age, level of studies and social status in the middle of the rural community that was being studied. When they returned the next year to the same villages, they had the surprise of dealing with two types of different discourses: the first one – addressed to an official and distant stranger, and the second one – addressed to the familiar and already close stranger, who could finally understand local conflicts (more or less secret), without fear of treason. 1. The discourse prepared for the outsider focused on a community life deprived of problems or conflicts: everyone in the village spoke Romanian, and a little Russian, Macedo-Romanian, or Turkish; the entire village stood as proof of faithful religious belief, tolerating the various religions of the inhabitants of the islands; non-Romanians (which, in fact, often constitute the majority of the population living in the Delta villages) did not campaign for education in their own mother tongue, being content with the freedom to speak their language freely in their families; they claimed mixed marriages were frequent enough and represented no problem; sometimes the wedding ceremony was held twice, according to the two different rituals to which the bride and groom belonged, and everybody took part in it.2. If the ethnologist has the chance to go beyond the borders that separate the inner and the outer worlds, the reality and its official image, then there is a virtual possibility that the discourse becomes more selective and down-to-earth, revealing the cases that contradict the euphemizing efforts in the first place. To understand this stratification of discourses and the superimposed imaginary projections, I decided to use the fragments from a single life story, put together after several encounters with a fisherman's wife[2]. The direct observation sheets mention a flower and vegetable garden, more beautiful and better taken care of than the ones of the neighbors'; a little Pekinese dog moving around freely, all washed and combed, named Dolly, guards the garden – something which is pretty unusual for a village dog; the animal receives candies for having performed a short circus number. The architecture and interior conception of the house betray the Lipovan origins of its owners: a single, L-shaped level, covered by a low roof made of reed; white walls, with red and blue flowers painted around the windows and doors; a "prispa" – a sort of balcony at the ground level – surrounded by wooden pillars painted in blue; in the corner formed by the L shape, there's a water filer made of rocks, used to purify the water coming from the Danube, which is used as drinking water in the village, although few families have such a filtering device. There's a bathroom for the traditional sauna inside the house, a bedroom with a "lijanca" – a bed made of clay and attached to a stove, to capture its heat – and the kitchen used during winter. The furniture is made of varnished wood and bought cheap from the store in Tulcea, the carpets and bedcovers are bought on the black market, from sailors bringing them all the way from Turkey; the presence of some obviously western-looking objects will be explained during the visit; there are no traditional Romanian objects among the things in the house. At first sight, we seem to have entered a privileged house in the neighborhood. The woman speaks simple Romanian, seasoned with some Russian words and a strong Slavonic accent, which is an indication that she uses mostly her Lipovan dialect for daily communication. We are Slavonic people, just as it is written in our books. But the Slavonic language was gradually forgotten, and we started speaking differently and therefore they called us Lipovans. In the Soviet Union, they gave a law for how to cross oneself. The Emperor said we should cross ourselves like this, and not as Jesus Christ taught us to do. Some of us accepted to cross themselves as you do it today; the others kept making the sign of the cross as Jesus had shown us to do, and had to seek refuge into a forest of lime trees. In Russian, the lime tree is called "lipa". The people living in the cities named them Lipovans, but we are not Lipovans, we are Slavonic people, just as it is written in our book. We follow the ancient calendar, and so does our priest…   After the myth of creation, there follows the discourse about the perfect understanding between them, how they tolerate their differences and how rich and nourishing the land is. This place used to be rich in fish; they just jumped right into your net. There also used to be pastures, we could raise cattle, and then we could fish for frogs and crayfish. We could grow maize to feed our chicken. All the Romanians speak perfect Russian here, even if Lipovans go to primary school in Romanian. This way, we don't need different schools in the village. Nowadays, Lipovans may marry Romanians or Ukrainians, and they do this quite often. There are no gypsies in our community, they are the only ones who steal from the villages; gypsies are human beings, too, but we do not want them to live here with us. We are all very religious, the women, both Lipovan and Romanian, are obedient and hard-working. When people marry they receive their parent's blessing, no matter if they are Romanians, Russians or Ukrainians. Their children will usually be baptized in the ancient ritual, but only if the two families agree. Every effort to go beyond the surface of this discourse on the perfect understanding and irreproachable moral conduct of the local people proved itself useless during the first round of research. But in the second year we were already close friends, we had been tamed, and therefore we were considered capable of understanding particular situations. When we were young girls, our parents didn't let us go out with Ukrainian boys, we weren't allowed to fall in love with them, or marry them, because it was considered to be a major sin. All my children left. My daughters work as dressmakers in Tulcea, one of my boys works on a drilling platform out on the sea, and the other one is in Canada. He went there as a rower, he got married and settled there. Usually, young people can no longer leave the village. There is no place left for them to go, they finish high school and since there's no place for them in the town, they come back here to become fishermen. There's no place for them there, and after all, what could they possibly do in town? Everybody is unemployed there. At Christmas, children sang carols on the streets and they received apples and cookies; I don't know exactly how this happened, because my mother never let me join them, it was a Romanian tradition. And we were part of the rich then. Nowadays, after the Revolution, they started printing the image of Christ and Virgin Mary in the newspapers. How could we throw that paper to the dustbin? I asked our priest about it and he told us to burn them. But Romanians and Ukrainians use those newspapers to wrap up the garbage, or as toilet paper. They have no belief in God. They mock at Him. I don't tell them anything because they tell me off, I just watch them. Our young people are religious, theirs are workers; the others only dream about having fun, staying at home and doing nothing, they no longer go to church. Romanian and Ukrainian girls smoke, they dress in such a way that their underwear is showing. Women got into the habit of drinking, they are so dirty and lazy that not even the chickens look at them, but they go on drinking their alcohol.   Nowadays there are only two major solutions if the inhabitants of the Danube Delta are to survive: getting a job as a more or less qualified worker in one of the factories in Tulcea[3] – which is a two-way road, taking into account the fact that the unemployment rate is increasing continuously, and that after a few years of working and saving money, the young are tempted to return to their village and become fishermen – or get back to professional canoeing. The latter gives them the opportunity to travel abroad and to settle there, virtually starting a new island community. What is interesting about these islanders is that the place they colonize doesn't matter, they always set up a community based on island experience. The rowers who went to Canada settled in Ottawa, by the river bank, and the image of their families left in the Delta projects them onto a fantastic universe, in a perfect auroral time. We have to notice the fact that inter-ethnic conflicts also settle in the newly-colonized territory, and seem to be the cause of more trouble than in their country of origin. My son left as a rower, back there they paid for their studies, and now he is an electronics engineer, married to a Ukrainian girl; the parents of the girl had been there for a long time, so they accepted him. They have two children. I went to visit them. Canada is a beautiful place, there's a lot of discipline there, and everything is clean. They always eat their fill, there is no queuing in the stores, and they have a good life. Everything is green, they have these big gardens, but they don't grow anything, there is only grass. They have a tractor, an engine, but they don't use it to work the land. I asked my son why they don't grow any vegetables. He told me that 8 hours of work per day is enough for him, and he doesn't need to grow vegetables when he can buy them cheap from the corner shop, without even queuing. It's very quiet back there; the houses are beautiful and spacious, not like here. People are nice and kind, but you don't really see them. Neighbors are a long way from each other. The church is full on Sundays; it's the only way to see each other during the week. In fact, nobody works the land back there; they get home from work, they take the book and start preparing the food according to written recipes. Then they entertain themselves, they go to the swimming pool, to the cinema, take their children to the museum. In Canada, children have to go to the museum to see a cow, a sheep, a pig. They don't need to do the laundry, they have machines that wash, dry and iron the clothes. They also have a dishwasher. There is absolutely no need for them to do any housework back there. They receive a lot of money for the 8 hours spent at the workplace. That's why sometimes they even work on Saturdays and Sundays: they have nothing to do at home and they are very well paid. People don't even die there. I was in Canada for three months and I haven't seen any funerals. From the window of my son's house you have a view of the cemetery, and I've never seen a funeral procession, mourners, or any big religious service. The cemetery is not there to bury people; it's just another place to keep clean: as soon as a dead leaf falls on the ground, it is immediately picked up. I don't know how come they have no dead people, but I think they don't get sick at all; the food is good, the water they drink is not muddy, they don't eat salty food. They sit down at the table and drink still water, everything else "is not recommended". Russians are not very popular in their community. If there's a Russian movie at the cinema, nobody goes to see it. They say that the Russians are a sort of Ogres, they swallow everything.   The first cycle of islanders – the ones from the Delta, or the second cycle of islanders – the ones in Canada, react in the same way, sticking together in the face of ecological approaches, without taking into account their different ethnic background. At the heart of the Delta, the Ecologists are the enemies, while in Canada, they are the saviors; this difference in roles seems insignificant if we consider the same social outcome – the same solidarity for or against them.   Our parents lived to be 80 and didn't die because of the water they drank. Nowadays the water is polluted because of the dragnets the Ecologists ordered. We used to grow maize, but now they destroyed the fields to build fisheries. They spoil everything, only God knows what they want from us. I understand that Ecologists have to deal with the forests, the wood and reed plots, but what do they have against fish? I understand we're not supposed to cut down the fruit trees, the reed plots, we're not supposed to take wood from just anywhere, or cut down the acacia trees. But handing over the fish to the fish factory, offering at least 10 kilos of fish every day to the Ecologists if you don't want to be chased by their fast boats and sometimes being shot at… all this just means you're no longer capable of feeding your family. And then, the mayor steals, the public notary does the same; everyone steals in order to survive. We have to help each other and hide the fish underneath the boat owner's clothes and afterwards we share the capture. In Canada, the Ecologists are held in great respect. They are considered the saviors of the world. Whenever there's a call, everyone in the neighborhood, even the Russians come out to help clean the place, to save an animal or something like that.  Preliminary conclusions  1. The "fragments of discourse" quotes presented above reveal an island mentality which is very protective when faced with strangers and novelty. This mentality worked as a perfect filter for a community which has been displaced many times, rebuilt, and mixed together from an ethnic point of view, but it may very well become harmful nowadays, when coming into contact with the new, badly-explained and misunderstood ecologist policies. 2. The ethno-social research that took place in the villages of the Danube Delta stands as proof of the fact that each period of crisis in an island community leads to a new process of displacement, and voyage towards an imaginary island which will reproduce the intra- and inter-community relations and hierarchy of the country of origin. 3. Each time the community of origin produces a new island, the ethnic differences transgress once again the visible level and turn into an essential cause of conflicts. The local perspective builds judgments based on daily experience and depending on proximity and tradition, with different behaviors and moral norms. 4. In the case of the Danube Delta, the chance for the production of a new community identity may seem nowadays as a positive, unintentional secondary effect of the dictatorial approaches of the recent environmental policies. Museum of the Romanian Peasant Bibliography 1. European River-Ocean System Project EROS 2000 – Danube Delta Research Programme; Final Report for 1955 (PHARE, Bucharest, July, 1996)2. Dumitracel, Stelian, Sate disparute – Sate amenintate (Lost Villages – Threatened Villages), Institutul European, Iasi, 19953. Malita, M., Gomoiu, M.T., Panin, T. (editors), Danube Delta – Black Sea System under Global Changes Impact, Bucuresti-Constanta, 19964. Babeti, Adriana, Ungureanu, Cornel (coord.), A treia Europa (The Third Europe), Ed. Polirom, Iasi, 1998.
[1] Dobruja has been a part of Romania since 1877, as a result of the Independence War.[2] Haralambie, Eugenia, from Mila 23 village, Lipovan, born in 1920, primary school. Cas. 217, 221, Archives of present time, Museum of the Romanian Peasant, Bucharest, 1997, 1998.[3] The capital town of the homonymous county.

by Ioana Popescu