It’s Pronounced Like ‚Yash,‘ Actually, chapter 5: Ruginoasa
Vlad laughed to himself as my eyes remained glued to the horse and wagon, tracking it until it vanished down the street. The animal had clopped along at a crisp pace, hardly minding the cars that whizzed past on the road mere feet away. The sole rider in the wagon seemed entirely undisturbed, holding the lines lazily and resting his chin in one hand as the trundled on.
This was at least the third, maybe the fourth, horse-and-wagon we had seen, and Vlad found my fascination with them simultaneously amusing as well as bemusing. “You know that’s a normal thing around here, right? That’s how a lot of people in villages get around,” he told me, shaking his head with a slight smile as craned my head to peer after the wagon. Turning back to him and Monica, I shrugged and reached for another of the odd, powder-textured chips we had bought. Popping one into my mouth, I waved a hand about me in an attempt to encompass the entire village.
“It’s just new to me, is all,” I answered him, then paused. “Mmm, no, it’s not new, not like new-new, more like I just haven’t seen that in a residential area before. Where I’m from, you only see that if you go to more rural areas. I know this is a smaller village, but enough people live here that I wouldn’t have expected something like that.”
“Only the Amish do that in the States, right?” I couldn’t tell if Vlad was joking, and before I could laugh, it also occurred to me that I wasn’t sure where else in the United States people might regularly ride with a horse and wagon, so I shrugged again, almost took a chip, then thought better of it.
“Ug!” Monica exclaimed out of nowhere, causing both Vlad and I to startle. She tilted her head back and flicked her hand in a gesture of frustration. “I can’t understand what they’re talking about!”
We both stared at her, but after a second, Vlad’s eyebrows furrowed over his glasses and her frowned. “…Me neither. I have no idea what it is they’re saying.” I grasped the picture—my two friends were both trying to eavesdrop on the trio of older village men behind us, in the midst of some loud, passionate discussion that involved much talking over each other and interrupting. At first, I assumed that my companions were having trouble understanding what was going on because of the rural accent the men might be speaking with, but Vlad shook his head again, the same look of bewilderment on his face as earlier. “No,” he corrected me, “it’s not the accent—“
“It just makes no sense!” Monica’s eyes were incredulous, and her lips were curved up as if she could have burst out laughing there on the spot. “What on earth are they talking about? Watermelons? Seven-karat gold? What?”
My eyes drifted from the scene to fix on the two boys throwing paper airplanes back and forth, who probably couldn’t care less about either horse-drawn-wagons or bizarre conversations between locals. “Sounds like a drug deal,” I muttered, and Vlad laughed.
“I don’t think Ruginoasa is that exciting. You already heard the story about the yearly fight. That’s about as exciting as it gets here.”
Monica’s eyes lit up at the mention of the tale—part of the reason we had ventured to this village, about an hour from Iasi, with its name that meant “rust,” was to learn what we could about the local legend of New Year’s Eve fights. Vlad, a student in Monica’s travel literature class, had joined us as a chance to “play tourist” in his own country, and the three of us had made a day of it: after visiting the big destination of the again village, the grandiose former summer palace of Alexandru Ioan Cuza when he had lived and been prince of the region, we briefly watched an Orthodox church ceremony as the bell tolled above our heads.
We had picked a road at random to scope out and come across four bunici, grandma-type old women, all with weathered hands and deeply-wrinkled sunkissed faces. Their heads were covered in neatly-knotted scarves, a sign of the devout Orthodoxy they were raised with in years past, and while they were missing some teeth and seemed to speak no English, they were more than happy to regale Monica and Vlad with the local legend of the fights, which, apparently, were no legend.
One of the women patted my hand as she spoke in Romanian, detailing how groups of men from different rural areas surrounding the conglomerate of Ruginoasa had been meeting to duke out all their differences on New Year’s Even for the past many, many years. Very little had changed about the showdown through the course of time, except that the local police now enforced a stricter set of rules regarding what weapons the brawlers could use.
“Weapons?” I had said, disbelieving. Somehow, I had imagined the fight as a fists-only-affair, but the bunici went on to explain that people had died in years past and could be badly wounded even in recent times, so the police limited any weapons to plain sticks and staffs instead of “more dangerous” items. Why didn’t the police stop the fighting? Oh, well, it was a long-respected tradition, the backlash would have been enormous. The police wouldn’t have been able to stop the fighters from meeting even if they had wanted to.
The entire tale astounded me. Framed in the light of cleansing bad feelings from the year past, the men would meet, duke it out, and then return home. It was a ritual as closely wound with the fabric of the village as the farming cycles that had sustained so many of its inhabitants. After a lengthy discussion with the dear old women, who had invited us to their homes for the holidays (and to watch the fight), we departed. Monica was on cloud nine, pleased with the findings our adventure had reaped, and now here we were, waiting for our train back to Iasi, half-drunken bottles of beer and tasteless chips in front of us as the three men discussed their mysteries nearby.
It had indeed been a fruitful day: I had left Iasi but discovered new roots of Romania that I might not have otherwise noticed, here in this semi-rural, ever-shrinking village. Crows crowded the sky here, like in Iasi, cawing and wheeling about in waves through the air as our train arrived. The ride back saw the sun begin to peek through the layer of thick grey clouds and shed some yellow light on the Romanian countryside as we sped through it. I wondered what other special stories the small country homes and rolling hills held, and hoped I would learn a few more, too.