Friday, November 14, 2008
Local lives enriched by ties to Transylvania
Mention Transylvania and most people look puzzled. Is it a country? Does it really exist outside of Halloween lore? (Think Dracula.) If it does, where is it?
Transylvania is an ancient and beautiful land once part of Hungary, now a region in Romania, about the size of Ohio, in central Europe. If it seems somewhat remote, it is – except to a number of families in Concord and Carlisle who have, through international visits, forged strong bonds with the Transylvanian people through First Parish of Concord’s partner church program.
The most recent visit was by nine Transylvanians who came to Concord and Carlisle for two weeks in September and stayed with host
families in both towns. Dana and Kathy Booth, Val and Biff Holt and Barry and Carolyn Copp served as Carlisle host families. In a recent interview at his River Road home, Dana Booth shared the story of his family’s special bond with Transylvania.
The foundation of Unitarianism
For the Booths, the connection began in 2001. They are members of First Parish, a Unitarian church, which has a sister church in Székelykeresztúr (say-kay-CARE-es-tour), a small village in Transylvania. In fact, Transylvania is the “cradle” of Unitarianism, founded there in the sixteenth century. Today most Transylvania Unitarians are ethnic Hungarians, which makes them a minority in Romania since almost all ethnic Romanians are Orthodox. There are approximately 170 Unitarian congregations in Transylvania today, mainly in small Hungarian-speaking villages like Székelykeresztúr.
“Gary Smith, the minister at First Parish, has been back and forth since the late ’90s,” says Booth. Zsuzsanna Szombatfalvi, the daughter of the Székelykeresztúr minister, came to Concord for the 1997-98 school year. During her stay, she was a patient at Booth’s dental office in Concord. “I had absolutely no idea where Transylvania was,” he confesses, but he soon found out, first-hand.
In 2002 the First Parish choir was planning a concert tour to Transylvania – they would sing there and in Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Booth says, “Neither Kathy nor I sing, but we volunteered to fill two spaces on the tour. I had no idea what I was getting into, but both Kathy and I are adventuresome.” So they went.
A warm Transylvania welcome
“When we got into Székelykeresztúr, people greeted us with open arms like long-lost friends,” says Booth. “I wasn’t normally a warm, fuzzy person – this goodness comes around, it softened me up and also made an indelible mark on Kathy.” Booth describes the extraordinary generosity of their Transylvanian hosts, the family of Jozsef Csáka: “They had virtually nothing – a family of four living in a small apartment, four of them sleeping in one bedroom, a little kitchen, and a very small dining area on the third floor of a Russian-built apartment building. They didn’t have room for us. Jozsef, at that time, was assistant mayor; he had connections and arranged for us to stay in some Russian housing.”
When the Booths returned with the choir in August 2007 and again stayed with the Czákas, Jozsef had taken a job in the Romanian government as Minister of Tourism, and had built “a huge house, by local standards.” This time the Booths had their own bedroom.
Booth reflects on leaving one’s “comfort zone” and being confronted by several unfamiliar situations – foremost among them, food. “On our first night with the Csákas, we had chicken feet for dinner,” he says with a smile. “On the second night we drove in Jozsef’s car into the countryside to get fresh sheep’s cheese. We found the farmer in a field with 400 sheep, four shepherds who live outside and dogs that keep the bears and wolves away. We followed the farmer back to his farm and bought our sheep’s cheese.” Among other local delicacies the Booths sampled were pigs’ feet and carp. Booth recounts another food story: “We took some coffee with us. I like a big cup of coffee and Giselle [Jozsef’s wife] came out with a pot of coffee. We took their day’s ration of coffee and didn’t realize it.”
Finding a new family in Transylvania
Val Holt of School Street and her daughter Rachel stayed with the Gagyi family on their several visits to Transylvania. “The parents, Piroska and Attila, and daughters Andrea and Annabella, quickly became family to us,” says Valerie Holt. “My husband Biff went on the last choir trip in 2007 and the Gagyis were so happy finally to get to know him. When Rachel taught English in Székelykeresztúr in 2005 and 2007, she lived in a small apartment owned by the Unitarian Church, but she spent most of her spare time with the Gagyis.”
Last June Valerie and Rachel Holt represented First Parish at the graduation at the Berde Mózes High School, the Unitarian High School in Székelykeresztúr, where many students are sponsored by First Parish members. The Holts spoke at the graduation and were able to spend time with the Gagyis.
Holt struggles to put her feelings about her Transylvanian family into a few words: “We are so grateful to have come to know and love so many new friends in a town so far away. We have danced with them, worked with them, laughed and cried with them. They are family.”
Booth summarizes both of his visits as “transformative experiences.” He explains, “I had a serious automobile accident in 1976 and almost died. I was given a second chance at life, and that has made a huge impact on my life. Material things are not that important – it’s people. The older I get, the more important people are. The experience of going over there is transforming – the total acceptance by the people of total strangers. Anything you looked at they would give you, so you didn’t point at anything.” Adds his wife Kathy, “On our first visit we arrived as strangers, yet ‘honored guests.’ Now we have the joy of family. The connections are now and will remain strong. Love shared gives birth to more.”
Major changes in five years
In the five years between visits to Transylvania, Booth noticed major changes. “The country had suffered in multiple ways under Ceausescu [the Romanian dictator who was deposed in 1989]. When we were there in 2002, probably 50% of the people were traveling by horse- or oxen-drawn vehicles. But five years later, big changes – cell phones are there and more people have [Russian-made] cars.” He does point out that even in 2007, a visitor can see (and wait for) 50 head of cattle walking through a Székelykeresztúr street, moving home from their pasture at the end of the day.
Asked about a language barrier, Booth shrugged off any problems, even though most Transylvanians’ English was sketchy. In the 2007 visit with the Csákas, daughter Julia spoke English, and Giselle, her mother, spoke some English. Jozsef speaks Hungarian and German, and fortunately Booth’s German was adequate to carry on a conversation with him. “Usually there were enough people willing and able to translate as needed,” Booth says.
Transylvanians come to town
Because of the Booths’ intense relationship with the Csáka family, 14-year-old István Csáka came for a visit in the summer of 2006. He stayed for three months. “What do you do with someone for three months?” asks Booth rhetorically. “I got him a job as a counselor-in-training at Concord Academy. With Kathy, he traveled from Maine to Georgia and every state in between. He went tuna fishing on Martha’s Vineyard, significantly improved his English while he was here and spoke at First Parish on the last Sunday” of his visit. He was interested in everything, but was quite skeptical about American food. Booth estimates that, conservatively, István took 10,000 pictures. The Booths stay in touch by email with István, who, like most American teens, has his own Facebook page.
Nine Transylvanian visitors came to Concord/Carlisle in September 2008 and stayed with local host families. The group consisted of five youths who belong to a church youth group in Székelykeresztúr, the young minister and his wife, the assistant minister, and 61-year-old Lajos Cézár, a pensioner who had worked at a metallurgical company before retirement. He was hosted by Dana and Kathy Booth. In Székelykeresztúr, he lives in a four-room house with five other family members. “When he came here,” says Booth, he had a bedroom suite with his own bathroom. After he toured the Booths’ spacious house, Lajos asked, “How many families live here?” He speaks Hungarian and German, no English. Two of the young women stayed with the Holt and Cobb families in Carlisle.
During their two-week stay, the group did a lot of sightseeing (Boston, Cambridge, Concord and Lincoln), met with Unitarian church groups in Concord and Bedford. (First Parish in Bedford also has a partner church in Transylvania), and shared potluck dinners with host families. Carlisle-based activities included a potluck at the First Religious Society, a CCHS football game and a barn dance at the Booths’. A highlight for the five young Transylvanians was a trip to Six Flags Amusement Park, while the others had free time with their hosts.
When it was time to leave, what mementoes did the guests take back with them? Booth was cautious about buying too many gifts, since they might be confiscated by Romanian customs or assessed a heavy fine. Instead, he took photographs of Lajos in various places for the family members back home – in the pulpit at First Parish; eating clam chowder, steamers and lobsters in Gloucester; ice cream at Kimball’s; and a traffic jam on 128 (“look at the cars, all the cars!”). Small gifts included crayons for his grandchildren, nice jewelry for his wife and some local souvenirs from Concord.
Helping educate students
In addition to helping their Transylvanian family in numerous ways, the Booths are sponsoring a woman student in pharmacy school in Romania. The state pays for tuition, but living expenses – about $500 a year – are up to the family. The Booths will pay the student’s living expenses for five years, with the proviso that she help two more Romanians to the extent she can when she leaves school. Like many of their fellow parishioners, they also support a high school student by paying for her living expenses at the Unitarian High School. Booth explains that some students from small, surrounding towns commute to Székelykeresztúr and stay in dormitories during the school week at the high school and grammar school. “Giving people an educational opportunity is incredible,” Booth points out. He adds that once Transylvanian students are educated, they tend to leave the country because of high unemployment.
Church-sponsored youth programs
The first youth group pilgrimage from Concord to Székelykeresztúr took place in the summer of 2003, followed by trips in 2005 and 2007, with the next visit scheduled for 2009. According to Val Holt, the goals are to expand the world view of First Parish youths by observing and experiencing life in a very different culture and knowing that their counterparts in Székelykeresztúr share their same hopes and fears. On the youth trips, the participants and chaperones stay in the town for almost two weeks, working, playing and touring the Transylvanian countryside. They stay in the high school dormitory and spend two days with host families.
In a report on their August 2007 trip, the youths were unanimous in their praise for the extraordinary generosity and kindness of their Transylvania hosts. Said one boy, “The people that we met in Transylvania were just incredibly kind to us, offering us so much even though they had very little.” As an example, a girl wrote about working in the hay fields with farmers on an afternoon that was “hot and sweaty. We worked hard for hours, but it was well worth it as we watched the faces of the Hungarian adults around us and saw their gratitude. With true Transylvanian hospitality, one of the women who had packed food for the adults gave us all of it.” She concludes, “. . . A place where your heart resides is your home. And one of my homes will forever be in Székelykeresztúr.” ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito