I spot the two nuns through the packed crowd on the train platform, and after brief introductions, we head towards the car. I’m a little nervous, wondering what these Romanian sisters will be like. Maica (Sister) Antonia and Maica Demetria quickly put me at ease, joking, laughing, and asking me questions as we speed through the Romanian countryside.
The rolling hills, forest, and fields of corn and sunflowers makes me think of the last time I was in Transylvania, in March. I am happy to be back, watching familiar images whip quickly past my window. My first lesson: being a nun does not stop Maica Antonia from driving like a getaway driver.
“So…” I ask, tightening my seatbelt, “What kind of work are you doing at the monastery right now?”
Maica Antonia and Maica Demetria look at each other knowingly and burst out laughing.
“We are preparing for a special event. It is… a lot of work. You will see.” Maica Antonia says, ending with a mischievous smile. “We are happy you are here to help us.”
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I am spending a month at the Fardea Monastery, located 100 kilometers from Timisiora, in northwestern Romania. This Christian Orthodox monastery was founded in 2001. It is home to fourteen nuns, the church father, some workers from the village, and other Romanians who spend parts of the year at the monastery.
This monastery also welcomes women from around the world to stay and work with them, which is unique in Romania. We help them with the enormous amount of work that goes into running a monastery. Without prior knowledge, I had arrived just in time to help the monastery prepare for their biggest celebration of the year. August 15th is the feast for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and this is the holiday with which this monastery is associated. On this day, the bishop, regional priests, and busloads of local worshippers will arrive for a 16 hour service. And at the end of it, we’ll feed them all.
There is a lot of work to do, indeed.
The weeks before the celebration, we are kept busy tidying the grounds, cleaning buildings, moving furniture, and arranging rooms. The monastery is thoroughly polished and shined, inside and out. But the few days before the 15th of August, there is only one large task left: cooking the food.
Preparing food in large quantities is an enormous logistical task. Feeding hundreds of people requires careful planning, large pots, and many hands. Luckily, the nuns are experts, experienced with these types of feasts. The menu is already worked out in advance, and all we have left to do is to face the mountains of uncut, unwashed, unprepared food.
Gutting a hundred kilos of fish with two of the nuns, I keep thinking of the summer I worked in a catering kitchen in Wisconsin. It was the first time I thought about food in terms of weight. Instead of talking about the number, or cups, of potatoes, suddenly you are measuring what you need in terms of fifty kilo bags.
We spend the days peeling potatoes, de-scaling fish, and picking through beans. The kitchens are full, people coming in and out, jokes being passed back and forth. The nuns are busy before I wake up and continue after I go to my room to sleep. I am, obviously, not responsible for any of the logistics, but I feed off of the tangible energy in the air: the stress, and excitement, that a big holiday brings.
Finally, the 15th of August arrives. A stage has been built outside, near the monastery’s church, as the church itself is not big enough for this special service. Threatening rain clouds menace us in the afternoon, but they clear up by evening, bringing in a refreshing breeze. The buses arrive and unload locals from the surrounding regions, families and friends convening and reuniting. The service starts on Friday evening and will continue through the night, until Saturday afternoon. Those who can will fast during the entire service, and I join them.
I do not follow all of the service, despite the English explanations from helpful friends. But I sit, stand, and kneel in the grass, mesmerized by the beautiful singing of the church fathers and the nuns. Later in the night, everyone holds candles, and the cool evening air brings us energy. Some people nap on blankets, drifting in and out of the prayers.
I eventually retire to my room, falling asleep to the sounds of the continuing service. I dream of candle flames and the sound of bells.
The next morning, I attend part of the service again, but I soon make my way to the kitchen to help the nuns with the final preparations for the lunchtime feast. We set the tables, and I help to carefully carry full pots and plates from the kitchen.
We soon run out of space to put new dishes on the tables. There are the Romanian classics: bread, onions, cabbage, and of course, ciorba, the Romanian sour soup. Heaping plates of sarmale, steamed stuffed cabbage leaves, line the center of each table. We add two different types of stuffed and roasted fish, different cheeses, olives, tomatoes, creamy fish eggs, and buttery mashed potatoes. The tables groan under the weight, but there is dessert too- piles of juicy Romanian grapes, plums, and pears, cookies, and finally, layered cake.
When the service ends, sometime around 1pm, the benches and chairs are filled, and we feast. Relieved of my responsibilities, I watch as the nuns continue to work, making sure there is enough food in front of everyone. Of course, with all their careful planning, there is an abundance of everything, and we all enjoy the end of the celebration by stuffing our stomachs.
There is a beautiful, tired air that descends after a holiday. Saturday night was quiet at the monastery, the nuns taking naps that, for some, lasted until Sunday morning. I found myself at ease, and grateful to be here.
As I helped wash and dry a truly enormous amount of dishes, I reflected on the holiday. We put so much effort into a single celebration, preparing for weeks for one single day. And yet, afterwards, I felt nothing but contentedness, a great exhale from the nuns. One of my favorite parts of a holiday is the release after it is finished, when the work and celebration are over. This is when you can pause, see the arc of the seasons, mark the passage of time. It is when you can reflect on the holiday, and why we celebrate these traditions to begin with.
But as I stared at the mountain of plates and silverware, my stomach full and happy, I admitted to myself the true reason I love to celebrate these holidays: people never seem to come together without someone suggesting that there be food.
(Note: out of a general respect for the nuns’ privacy and their services, I limit my photos of the monastery and the activities there, so they will rarely include people besides myself.)