Banat and St. Helena in Rumania – notes on islands of otherness in the sea of nationalism
In the sub-Carpathian mountain chain along the Donau river there are pockets or rather ponds of populations of Czech populations established from the 1820s as border settlements along the borders of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Most of them have historically been rather isolated being culturally and linguistic apart from the Romanian population.
The Czech, Slovak and earlier also German settlements were mostly Roman Catholics or protestants a different faith than the dominating Orthodox Rumanian or on the other side of the river Donau Orthodox Serbian.
Travelling from Vienna (Wien) to Brno (Brünn) and by road south to Banat is a long drive, still we follow the ancient route and we come like most visitors and participate in traveling the traditional way of culture and language. We travel with Czechs, some of them visiting relatives, others just visiting being artists, tourists and scholars. A drive through the night – a long control of passports on the Rumanian border to Hungary. The two countries being ambivalent to each other. Hungary claiming parts of northern Rumania having Hungarian nationals – the Hungarians in those regions want to be part of Hungary.
St. Helena is like moving back a century. People live traditional lives – tending their fields, milking their cows and sheep, having a few pigs, hens and growing traditional crops. The fields are small and life is hard-work and dedication to the land of the ancestors. People are hospitable, used to sharing and serving meals made from what they have from their gardens and farms. Food of a quality and sharing of a quality that is highly appreciated by us coming as visitors. We live in the home of an old couple, they prepare meals and share their warmth across language differences. Brynjar speaks Rumanian, which helps. Yet still, locals speak mostly Czech living in a world apart from Rumania. Many have been to the Czech Republic, but never to the big centres of Rumania.
We walk from one Czech settlement to another, we lost our way somewhere along the trail. Walking through the forests we come to another world of isolated Rumanian farms with no electricity living in a world of their own with their animals – pigs, dogs, hens, cows and horses. Always sharing and giving us directions to our destination – the Czech village in a distance somewhere down the trial – some hours on- the next place, the same answer – some hours on – the next place – the same answer – some hours on – just a short distance – enormous pigs – ancient wells dug by someone a long time ago – we see rare orchids, beautiful flowers, toads, frogs and a single snake. We never saw the bears and wolves, but we are sure they saw us.
“In the forest there are witches” we were told when we returned. We met an old and very helpful lady living alone far away from others. She sure did bewitched us by her personality and helpfulness. We met a young lady herding a cow with her father, some young children hiding in a doorway and middle-aged female giving us water from her well and showing us the way towards St. Helena. She lives across a valley from the Czech settlements, but there were no trails to walk. Most of the way just forest and a small stream.
In St. Helena they do not know their Rumanian nieghbors in the next settlement and neither do they know them. They are a world apart, still very close as the crows fly and as the deer run.
Big wind turbines up in the hills. Amanda and Brynjar danced by the turbines , following in the shadow of the huge propeller blades on the ground. ( ⇐ 🎥)
The Donau river includes big islands, at times of flood all covered by water – midway the Serbia – and as water flow and the river change the terrain with flooding the islands might change in shape and perhaps even nationality. A world of birds, butterflies, insects and fish. People living along the river are mostly Rumanians on the eastern side and mostly Serbians with pockets of Hungarians and Slovaks on the other side. Fishing, smuggling and subsistence farming along the river. During Communism, huge industries and mining operations that collapsed with the fall of Communism. Still, people remain – they have no choice and no alternatives – and the river Donau gives at least some possibilities. After all, there are fish and birds and the occasional job.
We all moved and filmed on an island in Donau, we were there and we were together – the few others were a Rumanian family taking a dip – we skinny dipped when alone – and we saw the tiny fish collecting in small backwater places, the frogs in a pond, swans and ducks
The return was the same – we drove through the night. Passport control on the border to Hungary – no refugees allowed in Hungary – a short time afterwards we took a toilet break at a gasoline station. On the road side by the stopping place there were young Asian ladies of the night smiling to the male passengers and ignoring the females. There are rules and they are practiced selectively – passport control is only for those poor and needy.