World’s Next Door: A Week With Romanasul

‘Buna Ziua’, ‘La revedere’, ‘Multumesc’, ‘Ce faci’; I was mentally rehearsing the few Romanian words I knew from a friend who was living there. My colleague guide and I, seated in an overheated car at the entrance of the town, were waiting for the bus and the 30 artists it would be bringing from Romania. It was a very sunny Monday evening and the international folklore festival of Montignac was about to start.

 

During a week, this 3000-inhabitant little town of the Périgord, in the southwest of France, would be filled by tourists and artists from all over the world. Every year, dancers, singers and musicians from ten different countries come to Montignac to share their traditions and delight the audience. Every time, this week would be full of great meetings, cultural exchanges, happiness and hope through seeing what this ‘youth of the world’, perpetuating customs and arts from before globalization even was a word, was capable of.

 

Ever since the age of eight, I have been coming to the festival every year: first, as a tourist; then, as a volunteer. I can still remember melodies I had heard years ago, and this little town, which I have also explored for an internship, had become as familiar to me as if I had always lived there. In 2015, the festival’s organizers had asked me to write the event’s newspaper, and I have been doing that, assisting a team, ever since. But this year, now that I was – officially at least – an adult, I wanted to have another challenge. I wanted to become a guide.

 

To make it simple, during the whole festival, the guide is the group’s Mommy or Daddy. They are in charge of establishing a link between the organizers and the artists, who often do not speak French. They have to make sure that their stay goes well and they also are, to me, an ambassador of the French legendary sense of hospitality – more or less supposed to prove that it’s not because we are often depicted as the least welcoming people in the world, that we actually are.

 

A few months before the festival, I was first given an orchestra from Brittany; and then, one from Spain; to finally end up with a Romanian band called Romanasul. My guiding buddy would be the most experienced guide of the festival; for nearly 30 years he had been there, taking care of a different group every year, most often from Eastern Europe; and here I was, the youngest one, over-enthusiastic and jumping all over the place at the idea of meeting new people and trying out my brand-new knowledge of Romanian – ‘I should have asked my friend how to pronounce this’.

 

From the first minutes with those who would become my closest friends for a week, I remember a firework of faces, colors, new sounds, new feelings, and too many names to memorize them all. Very kindly, my colleague had proposed that I would go in the bus with them for the end of their trip; and so did I, greeted by dozens of ‘Hi’s’ and smiles as soon as I came in. The week with Romanasul had started.

 

I had two fears before I met them. The first one was that we would not get along – I already knew we would manage to communicate, as they all spoke English and some of them a bit of French. The second one was that I wouldn’t like what they were doing – and besides being forced to see all their shows for a week, I would also have to lie and tell them I liked it. Before the festival, I had decided I did not want any kind of spoiler; I did not know what to expect, and did not do any research to know what kind of music and dances they would present. The pressure was even greater, knowing that it was the sixth time this group was coming to the Festival of Montignac.

 

They performed for the first time the day after, and I realized immediately how fortunate I was.

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The group consisted of two parts: an orchestra, and the dancers. The eleven musicians of the orchestra were accompanied by two singers. They played the violin, a typical Romanian clarinette called the taragot, the guitar, a range of saxophones and flutes, the double bass, drums, and a unique and wonderful instrument that looked like a piano without any keyboard: the cymbalum. They also used little ceramic birds filled with water that sounded like a cuckoo. I was enthralled by their dynamic and lively music the first time I heard it, and two weeks after, I still find myself whistling my favorite ones in the street.

 

During that week, I went from one surprise to another. Every evening, ‘my’ Romanians, as I had fondly start to call them, would gather in our dormitory’s courtyard, sing a type of Gypsy-Romanian music, manele, for hours and dance on it. Some of my happiest memories of this week lie in the way they would welcome me within their group, tell me about this custom and about the night-long parties they would spend like this in Romania, or dance with me as I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. At this occasion, I learnt that the main violin player was also playing accordion ‘and everything that has cords or a keyboard’, as one of my Romanian friends told me, and that the double bass player was also a singer – and what a singer! – and that the cymbalum player, besides also playing guitar, used to be a dancer.

 

And the dancers! I am glad I didn’t try to watch any videos of them before, so I could open my eyes widely when I saw them for the first time. Dancing and singing go together in Romania, which means that not only were they jumping everywhere; they were simultaneously talking and singing casually about men and women relationships or life in their country. One other thing men and women had in common was tap dancing, men in their boots and women in their heels, which I loved as the absolute fan of Irish dancing that I am. The boys would also throw their legs in the air on the rhythm of hand clapping and body percussions, while women would turn again and again in their flowery dresses. It looked like a colony of incredibly dynamic and gracious elves had suddenly invade Montignac.

 

While discovering them as artists, I was also meeting them as friends. They told me about their country and we talked about the stereotypes our people had of the other. One of them told me a joke that said ‘one shouldn’t bend down to tie their shoelaces in Paris, in case they might be thought to ask someone to marry them’. I told them the reason why French people are often confused between Romanians and Gypsies: in French, we call the latter ‘romanichels’, which means ‘nomades’, and often shorten it into ‘Roms’, which can make people think it’s the abbreviation of Romanians. A few days after, I would also learn that our two countries have been friends for centuries, and the French embassy in Romania is part of the sixteen first embassies my country opened before World War II.

 

I also quickly learnt to never accept a bottle of water given by a Romanian with an innocent look; it may well contain their terribly strong (56%) homemade alcohol, the ‘palinka’, that they made me try out on the very first day – and all the days that followed. The very first word they taught me was ‘cheers’: ‘noroc!’. After the numbers from one to ten and a few other expressions, two of them, laughing so hard they were crying, taught me their favorite swears- that I won’t repeat here. I also learnt about a custom of theirs to give a child a nickname that would follow him until the end of his life, making a Mihai become a Titi, a Vasile become a Tica…

 

In a week, we had loads of adventures together. A dancer’s heel broke in the middle of a dance on the stage, but she continued to dance up until the end. When we visited the internationally well-known cave of Lascaux, only a French-speaking guide was available and I had to translate to English everything she was saying. The very last day, my colleague guide and I organized a small aperitif with French wine, foie gras and pralines, to help them avoid the shame of going back home without having tried those finest samples of French food. Finally, the very last day, they gave us Romanian clothes and arranged my hair for the final parade – that also made me realize how courageous they had been to continue to perform in those under the heat wave.

 

Sunday evening had come too fast. They were staying in France up until the upcoming Tuesday, but I would be the one leaving to go on holidays with my parents. Right after the last show and the closing fireworks, as they were gathering just outside the stage, I went to say goodbye. Before I could understand what was happening to me, two guys had lifted me from the ground and they were throwing me in the air like the French coach after the World Cup victory. When I turned back, leaving to join my parents, I was half-laughing half-crying, and had Romanian music in my earphones.

 

A week later, I still feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to meet and befriend these kind and talented people. It was even more moving, considering that many of them had met their wife or husband in the group and no less than four couples were dancing together. Thanks to them, this week – that I mostly spent bringing water bottles to three dozens of dehydrated artists! – has been like traveling without leaving home. Discovering their culture and gaining an interest in their unique style and language had been fantastic. So if you ever have an opportunity to go and see Romanasul, or to become a guide in a folklore festival, seize it! I am very much looking forward to experiencing this again – but before, I want to go and visit some people in Romania…

To discover more: https://romanasul.utcluj.ro (not entirely up to date, notably on the names of the singers/choreographers/…, but still enjoyable!!)

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