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New Europe

Day Fifty-eight: Sapanta, Maramures

Michael Palin - New EuropePresident Ceausescu's bankrupt attempts to impose rural industrialisation lie scattered along the valleys of northern Romania. Factories and steelworks put down in the 1970s and 1980s are now reduced to hollow shells that border the main road, windows smashed, doors twisted on their hinges, creaking in the wind. The traditional rural life which Ceausescu sought to destroy still survives.

Take Sapanta for instance. There are cars here, there are tourists, there are girls with nose studs and long painted fingernails, and at one point a Hummer, windows blacked out, cruises past us, avoiding cows being led up the street. But the couple who are showing me round have never owned a car. They get around quite happily by horse and cart. He's a farmer, born in Bucharest, where their daughter now lives. He wears a patterned sweater and a straw hat. His wife sits behind me on the cart, which, apart from the rubber tyres, could have been made any time in the last thousand years. She's entirely clad in black, the same colour as her mobile phone. Their horse is nine years old and does all the work on the farm. They can't afford a tractor and don't seem to miss it.

In other words they're happy. Hopelessly out of date, the likes of Ceausescu would say, but undeniably happy.

They drop me off at Sapanta's most remarkable attraction, a churchyard that's become known as the Merry Cemetery.

Instead of gravestones, the tombs here are marked with carved wooden crosses on which are painted, in bright primary colours, scenes from the life of the deceased, together with distinctive epitaphs in verse.

Most of them are the work of a local man, Stan Ion Patras, who made his first carvings at the age of fourteen, and died, at the age of seventy-one, almost exactly thirty years ago. Everyone says he was a happy man, keen on wine, women and song. Not really interested in money, he was quite happy to be paid in brandy. The graveyard glows with his trade-mark colour, 'Sapanta Blue', which he regarded as a symbol of hope and liberty, as green meant life, yellow fertility and red passion.

These densely packed rows of crosses provide a unique portrait of local life. Here are housewives cooking, farmers ploughing, hunters shooting, doctors consulting, carpenters carving, musicians playing. Dispensing with the well-worn iconography of death - skulls, angels, Grim Reapers and the like - Patras celebrates the routine pleasures of life, meals being eaten together, hay being raked, parents holding their children's hands. This doesn't mean he shirks tragedy. There are graphic paintings of a boy of thirteen struck by lightning, an explosion at a factory that killed three women, a twenty-seven-year-old killed by a train.

His idiosyncratic epitaphs, always written in the first person, accompany the scenes.

'Two evil-minded bandits hit me on the head and took my life away at age 22.'
'An evil man shot me in the back.'

This simple, faux-naif style can be deceptively powerful.

'I was called Marie Monghi. I was only a little girl going to nursery school. I was hit by a tractor when leaving my home.'

Like the All Souls' Day mass at Ieud, this singular place is another example of how tightly death is woven into the fabric of life here. It is seen as integral and inevitable, something to be respected rather than feared, but never ignored. My last image of the Merry Cemetery is the carving above the grave of Stan Ion Patras himself. A jolly man, with a broad, lived-in face, a pug nose and a straw hat set at a jaunty angle. The only man who has ever sent me smiling from a graveyard looks just as I hoped he would.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Fifty-eight: Sapanta, Maramures
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Săpānţa
  • Book page no: 140

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