Friday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. In the United States, I can’t remember this holiday making much of a bang. (Perhaps it was noted on my desk calendar, but with the advent of Outlook, smart phones, and virtual reminders, who looks at those anymore?)
As Americans, we tend toward holidays that commemorate war, politicians (or other male figureheads,) or successful conquest. We cede women Mother’s Day (isn’t every woman a mother?) and Valentine’s – neither of which are days of rest from work, I should point out (Mother’s Day being officially confined to a Sunday in the US.) Both these holidays have a very specific focus and audience – thanks mom for bearing/raising/putting up with me and come on honey, give me give me some love…
In Moldova, conversely, International Women’s Day is a BIG deal with a wide open vista of possibilities. Everyone gets the day off – women, men, children, politicians and bankers. Women are feted, toasted, and gifted, by their husbands, their co-workers, their neighbors, and each other. Coming just a week after Marțișor – the beginning of spring – there is a general feeling of sunshine and fecundity impregnating the air. It not just women in particular but the female principle in general – the yin, if you will – Hera, Athena, Hestia, and Artemis all rolled into one. So what better way to celebrate than spending the day in the forest dancing midst the trees with wine, women, and song?
All week long the mayor’s office had been abuzz with preparations for the pending party. My partner kept assuring me that I was in for a genuine cultural experience, Moldovan style. And the weather itself toed the line, dawning clear and brilliant, topaz sun ablaze in sapphire skies.
Arriving at work at a leisurely 10am, I found out I had missed the morning champagne toast (?!!) and the presentation of flowers to all the women. But never fear! Within minutes, I was ushered into the mayor’s office and presented with a flowering plant, decorative salad dishes, and a genuine crystal vase made in the Czech Republic. These were accompanied by ornate speeches from two of my male co-workers, who then repeatedly kissed me on alternating cheeks so Doamna Valentina could properly capture the moment on camera for the historic record. (Apparently, as both an American and a mature female, I am accorded an inordinate degree of respect. American males – take note!)
By 1:00 all the women from the office were piling into a hired rutiera for the ride up into the forest just outside the city limits. Up, up, up (past the city dump, deserving of its own blog post at some point in the future) to a 10-12 acre plot of trees on a secluded hill. And there were all the men, fires burning under huge metal discs sprouting spindly legs, skewers of meat and buckets of potatoes, onions and carrots readied for the flames. Jugs of wine squat and mellow lined up on wooden tables. Vagabond dogs, still sporting the bristling, dense coats of winter, lingering at the periphery, anticipating the feast to come. Air clear and mild, the sun a thin blanket of warmth over the crisp chill of glittering frost. It was almost medieval in its raw, unadorned simplicity.
The first order of business began with the photographs –meticulously posed group and individual shots that are de rigueur for Moldovans whenever they gather for celebrations. No matter how old, wrinkled, tired, messy, fat, windblown, or unattractive one might be feeling, there is no reason a Moldovan could fathom for not wanting your portrait captured in any given circumstance where someone is wielding a camera. I am generally considered a slightly daft anomaly in these situations – not only for my unwillingness to continually stand and smile for up to 35 pictures in a row, but even more so for my propensity to wander about snapping unlikely shots of buildings, trees, food and fire with no apparent concern for lining up people in my cross hairs. What in the world could that be about? I have quit trying to offer any explanation beyond an inexplicable infatuation with the captivating Moldovan countryside. That seems to mollify them a bit.
After that, the games. All those not actively involved in the preparation of the food enthusiastically joined rousing games of badminton or volleyball. And I mean everybody. A few women, arms linked, drifted off to pick violets and craft cunning little bouquets of tender new greenery, but there was none of that cracking open a beer and parking your butt in a lawn chair that Americans have perfected to an art form. Apparently, enough sitting on one’s behind is accomplished at the office; picnics are about shaking things loose and getting one’s blood pumping again.
And when it came time to dine, there was no thought of sequestering off into little cliques of age-, gender- or interest-mates: the women were set at one long table, jugs of wine, buckets of meat and platters of fire-roasted root veggies set before us, while the men stood in a ring behind eating on their feet, ready to replenish the fixings should any particular dish get low.
Of course, after one eats until the stomach is ready to burst, it is them time to dance the hora to combat the stultifying effects of all that food. And dance the hora we did – old, young, male, female, mayor, driver, attorney, secretary, janitor, and volunteer. There was no acceptable reason beyond keeling over and dying right there in the fallen leaves to not dance the hora.
It is quite refreshing to see that there is no inhibition on anyone’s part to get up and dance. Some of the males in this video are barely 20 years old….an age cohort that would most likely not know the first step of a waltz in the USA, much less being caught on the dance floor partaking. And they all dance well – it must be the natural result of being included in every dance on every occasion since you could walk.
And this is one particular cultural quirk of Moldovans to which it has been most challenging for me to acquiesce – the impermissibility of playing wallflower. One cannot float on the periphery and merely observe; there is no motive they can comprehend for not participating – fully, joyfully, and energetically – with all forms of active celebration. If you are there, you participate; “no” is not heard, accepted, or tolerated. They will wear you down. You will dance. And dance. And dance. And dance. (And actually end up enjoying it in spite of yourself.)
And if you get tired of dancing, if your feet are about to trip over themselves in a stupor and your knees are weak and cracking with the effort of propelling your leaden legs into the air, then you are permitted a wee break to embrace a tree and re-energize. What? Yeah, that’s what I said.
As the evening sun began to slip into the naked branches proffered arms, bathing them in a golden glow, I caught glimpses of shadowy forms engaged in locked embrace with some of the more substantial members of our little forest. Arms and legs wrapped around trunks, leaning in with head lying flat against bark, it seemed as if they were listening carefully for the thrum of a heartbeat, or perhaps the pulsing of sap coursing up through the roots to bring sunlight and energy to the higher branches, and the human partner so lovingly appended.
There was nothing “weird” about this – neither drugs nor excessive alcohol was to blame. Tree hugging, apparently, is not so much an environmental catch phrase here as it is a reverent commentary on the relationship that Moldovans still actively hold with nature and the land, especially after hours of dancing leaves one spent and limp and in need of jolt of energy. I was charmed, and humbled. And I refrained from taking pictures, as it was a too solemn, personal and seemingly sacred activity to demean by turning it into a voyeuristic photo opportunity. (If Moldovans aren’t taken pictures, you know it must be anathema…)
My first celebration with my new partners was definitely a mind-expanding journey, though. I was welcomed and integrated into the proceedings with no hesitancy or awkwardness. After so many weeks of solitary confinement in a small bedroom, it felt good to be dancing.