On Saint George's Day With The Hahols*

A white fur cap walks its way boldly above the fences, turns left all of a sudden and appears in front of me, before the gate of the church. The churchyard is full of people but the old man walks determined, bold, with his chest pushed out front, straight to the target: the small bench at the entrance of the church, on which two men with white hair sit and talk. He takes off his fur cap, grabs one of the men by the head with his palms and kisses him on the forehead with infinite tenderness: "Happy Easter, dear Dimitri!" "Happy Easter to you too, dear Gheorghe!"I never thought that I would find here so much affection, friendship and good will, at the end of the country, where the Danube flows into the Black Sea. These people of the water are thought to be rather grumpy and harsh, just like the heavy work that they have to do. But today, on the 6th of May, on Saint George's Day, the village in the Delta with its sandy roads is celebrating. Hahols are celebrating their patron, after their old calendar, two weeks after the orthodox date. This is the day of the village, it is the festival of the church and the entire community has gathered around it. "Some time ago we'd celebrate the festival of the church for three days. If you looked at the Danube you didn't see any boat out there, only seagulls would fly above the water. After the sermon and after lunch, we'd have a ring dance on a waste land. Now there are houses there. We'd bring musicians from Chilia or from around Tulcea because we didn't have any of our own. There were two or three harmonicas, a clarinet and a drum, there was no singing then. They would all dance and children would swing in that merry-go-round, like at fairs. And in the evening we'd go to the ball, at Costea's pub. But that doesn't exist any longer. Those were the days!"The man who is telling me all this is looking enviously over the fence. He isn't looking at the spire. Today he won't make it to the festival because of a health problem that he has. But in his heart he's there, next to the rest of them. Maybe it won't last for three days like it used to, maybe people have changed in time, but the festival still manages to bring all the people from the village together. You can feel a mild bustle on the streets of the village, from the first hours of the day. It's been a month since Easter but people still greet each other happily either in Romanian, or in Ukrainian, saying "Hristos a inviat!", "Hristos es crest!", "Iste nost crest!" – Christ has risen! I walk next to an old lady on the road that leads to the church and out of the blue she starts to sing praises on the young priest. On how well he has settled here, on how much people like him, on how he drives around all day in his blue Trabant and visits the locals, on how he always finds something to fix at the church and on how he goes fishing. "Yes, he does go fishing and this season with all the herrings, he is quite naughty, like a child. A golden child I mean."In the churchyard there are seven or eight very long tables on which some girls lay plates and dishes. The stripes of plastic foil that cover them are fluttering in a threatening manner. It is a cold cloudy day. But we'll get away with a few raindrops. "Last year the raindrops would jump out of the plate and all around the table." I look up and see far away long lines of birds flying ahead in a V, without a sound. The swallows down here, among us, don't rest for a second and the sound of the birds mingles with the hymns sung by beautiful voices in the choir. It's the great group of women singers from Sfantu Gheorghe. The sermon of the young priest is now over and an older priest from Tulcea is talking, who was also invited. The church is full to the brim and I look around at the people: their faces are radiant, their eyes are smiling. Then they stay in line for the Eucharist, women cut a few huge sponge cakes and start sharing them. People laugh, hug and kiss each other on the cheeks. Their gestures are simple, everything comes from the heart. They get a glass of red wine. "In honor of Saint George, may he keep protecting us!" I sip it slowly and it gets warmer. It's my kind of wine, harsh, a bit sour, a bit bubbly, a house wine, made in the yards of the locals. A woman puts a yellow apple in my palm and a slice of sponge cake and says: "It's for my son, Cristian. May he be healthy!" The bustle ceases when people come out of the church. I can look at and admire the old icons, many of them donated by the locals, and also the new iconostasis. Then I climb up in the steeple out of curiosity. All morning I listened in astonishment to the sound of the bells that were ringing with rhythm and on different tones, and this I have never heard before. The "sound master" is up there, in the steeple, a young man called Rares Ivoncea, who would be in the spotlight all day long. I saw him rowing hard in order to be the first in the rowing competition. Then I saw him pulling and shouting his lungs out at the tug of war. In the evening he was spinning with a young lady on the dance floor, dressed in a suit. But right now he climbs up on a table, binds a few strings around the joints of his hands and prepares for a new solo. He knows that there is no place like Sfantu Gheorghe when it comes to the ringing of the bells. He learned from an old bell ringer but didn't copy him. Every one has his own style and rhythm. He starts and I have to stick my fingers in my ears and open my mouth. Rares has no problem with the deafening noise that he makes by pulling short, jerky showers wit a few small bells and even managing to ring the big one as well. Down there people raise their eyes to the sound of the bells. They sit at the tables that are aligned like in a drawing and around them women rush to bring pots full of food. All the village people are invited.As a stranger I feel spoiled here in Sfantu Gheorghe, in the Delta. No one knows who I am, what I am doing and how I "landed" here, in my red anorak, in a village to which the ship comes twice a week. Yet everybody is smiling at me, telling me stuff or offering me something. A man with a huge back, with green eyes and a smile on his face grabs my arm hard, almost lifts me up and has me seated at one of the long tables in the churchyard. A steaming bowl of fish soup is being brought in front of me. It's delicious, so I have another one as well. "What is it?" "Turkey soup," someone answers. As a main course I get a fried fish, just as delicious. "And what is this?" "What is this? What is this? I tell you what this is. This fish is called: 'shut up and eat'!" a woman answers and everybody starts to laugh. Nothing is said in a mean way, I haven't heard any gossip, nor a bad name, everything is told as a joke. "I have a hearing problem," says one of the women who have laid the table. "That's right, I'm hearing what I shouldn't hear."I had hovered about the mini-factory behind the church from the early morning. That's where many tasty things were boiling in five huge boilers but I only got evasive answers about their content. Every year the same women prepare the feast. "When we aren't able to do this any more, the younger women will take our place." Now, in the afternoon, they finally have a break and sit down at the table next to the ones who are still there.Later on I witness the arrival of the rowers in encouraging shouts, after having rowed for three kilometers and the end of the horse race, in a cloud of dust and sand. But it is still at the table that I hear the greatest comments and stories. Dumitru Avramov tells me how things are with the horses. There was a time when people here had Cossack horses, quick and agile. When they stretched, they'd touch the ground with their bellies. In the army the young men were enlisted together with their horses. Then the war came, then communism and the race went bad. Now the field is full of horses and no one knows which one belongs to whom. They stay there all winter, in half-wilderness. People keep a horse or two because they are good to work with but what should they do with the others?From the house next to the church I hear through wide open windows sweet hahol songs, sung by women. The hoses are beautiful and white, sometimes also painted in blue. There is a peaceful atmosphere, of holiday. This time around in Sfantu Gheorghe the lilac is still blossoming. Formula AS, May 2007
 * Hahols are originally Ukrainian soldiers from Zaporozhe who took refuge in the Danube Delta after their defeat in 1775 by the army of Catherine II (the Great), the Russian czarina (see www.sfantu-gheorghe.ro).

by Iulian Ignat