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.
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.
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.
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.
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.