A Remarkable Lady in Romania

Readers, this blog posting contains nothing technical and very little to do with the mechanics of photography.  But it does relate to travel photography.  It is a travel photography experience that has stayed with me (us) as much an any image I’ve made.

Looking through the wall of one of the fortified churches.

Looking through the wall of one of the fortified churches.

A few years back The Bride and I tracked down — to photograph — many of the ancient, fortified churches in the villages of the Transylvania region of Romania. 

A bit of history:  These churches (possibly 160 of them) were built in the 12th and 13th centuries by the Saxons; settlers who emigrated from what is now Germany. 

The villagers soon built fortifications around the churches — the only stone building in town — to defend against the Tartars and Mongols who periodically swept through from the north and the Ottoman Empire which harassed from the south. The unfortunate circumstances surrounding World War II in that area of the world caused most of the inhabitants to abandon the Transylvania area in the 20th century.  Today the German Saxons are only about four percent of the population in 1930 — and the churches (with a few exceptions) are falling to ruin.  We wanted to document some of them before it was too late.

Often a village will be home to only three or four people who are descendents of the original Saxons…but one of them will have the key to the old church.

The Bride and Katharina walking near the church.

The Bride and Katharina walking near the church.

Enter Katharina. 

Through some improvised sign language I asked a shopkeeper if she would tell us who had the key to the fortified church.  She pointed along the main street and said “green door”.  That was enough to bring us to Katharina’s house.  She seemed to know what we wanted when I pointed to the church.  After disappearing into her house for a few minutes she came back with her cane, a blue hat, and a large key.  A little way along the road we noticed the bandage on her leg and it became obvious that she wasn’t up to the long walk.  I trekked back and retrieved the car.

I was able to make some nice, documentary images of the church — which isn’t the important part of this tale.  We were very appreciative and tried to convey that to her. 

Katharina leaving her barn.

Katharina leaving her barn.

When we thanked her (as best we could without the language) she indicated that we should go back to her house for tea.  And, of course, we did.

Katharina –  who lived alone — hosted us for almost two hours.  With not one word of language in common, she told us about her life style, the history of the village, her family, and her farmstead.  All the while speaking in what, I think, was the old Saxon, she squired us through every room of her house and barn.  She showed us each of her hogs (2), horses (2), chickens (many) and dog (1).  She flagged down a person walking by and asked her to summon her daughter from next door to come meet us.  And, finally, she (with great ceremony) pulled down a large book which turned out to be the hand written genealogical record of all the Saxon families in her village.  It was a privilege to see and touch such an important artifact.

Katharina points to her family in the town record of genealogy.

Katharina points to her family in the town record of genealogy.

What a remarkable woman.  And what a remarkable show of hospitality.

Incidentally, although Katharina was exceptional, experiences like this were not uncommon as we sought out the old churches in Romania.

Is there a message in this for travel photographers?  I think so.  People are gracious the world over.  As travelers/photographers we benefit from that attitude.  Flip the coin.  Can’t we make the world a bit better through 1) being thoughtful and considerate as we travel and 2) showing hospitality to others that visit our homeland?

Note:  Considering Katharina’s health I’ve left out the name of her village. 

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Daniel Joder - John, I thoroughly enjoyed this post–what a great story. Photography, as you have shown, can literally open doors and serve as a way to connect with people. It sounds like you have the makings of a very serious and worthwhile project–documenting these churches and their human survivors before time and the modern world begins to erase their memory. Any plans to go back?

skeeter - “…these churches and their human survivors…” What a nice turn of phrase, Daniel. Regarding the connection of peoples, I’m reminded that Katharina did the reaching out. She had friends (as a sort of matriarch of the village) and she had family living next door. So accommodating the pilgrims was not out of a need for companionship — she did it for something greater. And The Bride and I were the lucky recipients.

No, we’ll not be able to go back but I am going to give all my images to the proper authorities in Romania who, through public awareness, hope to make the plight of the churches a bit more positive.

Thanks for your comment.

J. E. Bark - What an inspiring story, on many levels. Too often travel photographers “snap and run” without making any connection. I often believe that somehow the photo “victims” feel cheapened by the experience. Better to take the time (yes, it does take time) to connect whenever possible, learn something new and become a better person for the experience. Speaking for myself, the images I have of normal people that I have met and connected with while taking their picture during my travels are much more meaningful to me than those where, for whatever reason, I “snapped and ran”. Congrats on your insights!

skeeter - Thanks for the comment, J.E. In my opinion, travelers who fail to connect may get the great landscape photo but they are failing to bring home the culture and the personality of a place. And isn’t that most of why we travel?

Leif Petersen - What a great story, John. During a trip to my original home, a small village on an island off the coast of northern Norway, I failed to make a connection &, in fact, failed to even get a shot, both of which I’ve kicked myself over & over. Many Somalian refugees fled to Norway over the past few years. Although they seemed very much out of place in that setting, with bright their bright clothing partially covered with ‘puffy coats’, they also seemed very much at home. What I kick myself for is not approaching them on the street to talk about their experience of moving from the scorching sun of Somalia to this fairly remote island in northern Norway & the adjustments they’ve made. Next time….& there definitely will be a next time.

skeeter - I hadn’t thought, Leif, about cultures being transplanted from home to another land. This might make a very interesting photographic (not to mention sociological) study. I’ve been to the Lofoten Islands. It is almost impossible for me to imagine Somalians there.

Sonja - I always find your photos and especially the accompanying comments very interesting and informative. (I always seem to learn something new that had not occurred to me before).

skeeter - What a nice compliment, Sonja. Thank you.

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