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Ciobotin Blagoie from Gelu

There are two kinds of villages in Banat. The first are the ones you drive through on your way to some destination, crossed by a European road, in fact small settlements covered with an urban and contemporary glut: supermarkets, firms, shops of all kinds. The only worry is not to exceed the speed limit and to watch out for the pedestrian crossing in front of the newly renovated town hall.

Then there are the other villages, away from the main roads, on meandering, winding roads that cut through the low hills of the lowland Banat, the old, multi-ethnic Banat, which still bears the sparkle of the Habsburg crown. Quiet, orderly, sleepy settlements.

From time to time, an old collective farm sprouts out of a bend, its bricks twisted by time, a sign that in unsettled times, people gather with one hand and squander with the other. But time is kind to them.

The old ethnic division, a Habsburg legacy from the time of colonisation, is still carried from place to place. It is a sign of the roots that people have taken in the fertile soil, and that could never be torn out completely, even if the shortcomings of the last century have left deep grooves.

To get to Gelu (Serbian-Ketvelj; German-Ketfel; Hungarian-Kétfél), you have to head towards the border with Arad county, turn off onto the road leading to Sânandrei, pass the ornithological sanctuary at Satchinez, and then, when you feel the road starting to climb, pull over because you’ve arrived. In the past, according to a 1910 census, of the village’s 1,672 inhabitants, 1,290 were Serbs, and the rest were Germans, Armenians and Romanians, just in that order. Today the proportions are reversed and there are just over 130 Serbs. Times were hard: communism, deportation, collectivisation, transition and then migration to the immediate opportunities of the city.

Those who remain are looked after by Ciobotin Blagoie, a mild-mannered and kindly priest whom I met near the Serbian Orthodox church, built in 1746 in a new building, where he has been serving for over thirty years. The priest is from Gelu, where he went to primary school, then enrolled at the High School of Fine Arts in Timișoara. He was preparing to go to university, also in Arts, but in the meantime, another thought began to give him a boost, an impulse that came from the family elders-his great-grandfather played the pew, and his father was a bishop at the very church he now pastors. So he enrolled in theology, but his artistic talent was not wasted – he wrote poems, which he published in several volumes.

He stayed in Gelu to take care of the Serbs and the traditions of the place, which he tries to preserve exactly as they were handed down, because they are a heritage, he told us, one that must be cherished – the most significant feature of any community, whether it belongs to the Serbs, Germans or Romanians, or whether they were borrowed from and brought into the present day thanks to the good understanding that characterizes the multi-ethnic Banat.

He told us about the Christmas songs and services, about the willow procession on Good Friday and about the wreath that stands at the entrance to the church, which remains there all year round, like a guard; about the Serbian prayer, about the poems and songs that children sing at play, as old as the Serbs’ roots in those places.

The Serbs of Gelu settled in the area around the 15th century, coming from the Balkan peninsula, from where they left to escape the Turks. In the meantime, they moved to a new site, where they built a church and later, around 1800, a Serbian school.

The priest also led us into the church and walked us through every nook and cranny, happy and enthusiastic, prepared with a story or a skit for each place he showed us. Unlike many other churches in Banat, the one in Gelu has just been renovated, also thanks to the efforts of Father Blagoie, who mobilized the local authorities. Behind it there is also a renovated house where events can be held. On the walls are paintings and portraits of generations of people who sang in the church choir, those who sing now, and the families of wealthy Serbs who contributed money for the bells and the purchase of land. But also a painting of the Lazarus, who defeated the Turks on the Blackbird Field. It’s like a museum of the Serbs who were, but also of those who carry on the tradition of the centuries-old community.

When we left, Mr Blagoie thanked us, hugged us, blessed us and stayed in the church gate, where he waved to us. We returned home smiling and happy, because even though time is chasing everything, there are still people who help us not to waste away and who gather around them the most precious objects and traditions, always ready to give them back to us.

Iavorca Iorgovan from Gelu

People say that the natives of Banat are stingy, or that they are too frugal. That if they offer you something to eat or drink, you’d better say yes, because the second time they won’t ask you and you’ll go hungry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Iavorca Iorgovan, a Serbian from Gelu, a Romanian language teacher – now retired – a keeper of Serbian culinary traditions, cooks deliciously and does it so well that you can’t get up from the table before you’ve stuffed yourself.

Mrs. Iorgovan was born in Gelu, where she also taught Romanian for over four decades. And though she’s retired, she’s as energetic and fiery as ever. She collects Serbian traditions, proverbs and sayings and publishes them, hoping that they will not be forgotten and lost. She has a book on childhood games, another on folk sewing, another on the old and now forgotten crafts of Banat. What’s more, she has set up a museum in an old Serbian house, where the traveler can enter, refresh himself and see how life was lived at the beginning of the last century.

Her preoccupations are deeply rooted in the nostalgia of a life lived in the heart of a mixed community, with Serbs, Germans, Hungarians and Romanians, who used to go together at the kirchweih, or who, in order to greet each other more easily, learned at least a few words of all the languages spoken in the village.

As a child, she remembers the deportations, all those who were taken away to the Bărăgan, in the middle of that wilderness so different from the place the Serbs knew and cherished. She knows the stories of those who survived and managed to return home and draws strength from hard and burdensome testimonies. And she remembers how the Germans encouraged the Serbs.

She also remembers the illicit smuggling of goods the Serbs did across the Danube. The people of Gelu didn’t participate, but they still bought their soup condiments, chewing gum, jeans, vinyl, coffee and cigarettes there. And it was also where they watched RT Beograd, Treci Kanal or Novi Sad channel on their Diamant TVs.
There is no more reliable ambassador than food. Gastronomy in the region is a cuisine on loan. The snack is Romanian, the soup Serbian, the paprika Hungarian and the strudel is German. Mrs. Iorgovan comes with the trays she piles on the table from the old Serbian house: potatoes with pumpkin and sausage, and homemade cherry strudel. All fresh out of the oven, 100 percent organic.

She urges us to eat and tells us about her childhood in the Serbian village. About the games and songs they used to sing in the streets, about Kirchweih, about the German brass ensemble, about the Serbian drummers. We can’t refuse the food. It’s delicious.
We ask her what it means to be a Serb, a Serb from Banat, a Serb of any kind. She laughs and replies “It might be music, but not only music. Serbs are a people who do everything to the very end. They work to the bone, they fight fiercely, they dance and sing till they’re hoarse, they party till dawn. Nothing is done by half measures.”

Mrs. Iorgovan’s quest, together with the priest Ciobotin Blagoie, is one of survival. The Serbs of Gelu have been uprooted, young people have emigrated to the big cities, parents have stayed, and old people have died. There are still 130 Serbs in the village, and their struggle is against, they told us, the “savage globalisation” that is uprooting communities and hunting them down. Identities are being lost, as is the minor history of local traditions, the everyday, the ordinary.
We listen to it carefully and think that eternity was born in the village, as Blaga said, and it will die there too. But we cheer up, because Iavorca Iorgovan’s energy is a saving decoction. We trust her, for we know that for the time being Serbian traditions are safe, guarded with sanctity in the books of proverbs and sayings, in the house-museum, in the delicious food on the table.

Ilia Grubacichi from Sânmartinu Sârbesc

In Sânmartinu Sârbesc, a village in the Peciu Nou commune, Timiș county, the population is predominantly Serbian, and the tamburitza band has been and remains very important for the community and Serbian identity in the area.

Mr. Ilia, a musician from generation to generation, told us about his passion for traditional Serbian music and the formation of the tamburitza band, which, for several decades, has gathered awards and performed at all major festivals in Eastern Europe.

However, he tells us, and he insists on this fact, the most important thing is the connection with the community you are in, the roots of the place where you were born, and the good understanding among everyone, regardless of ethnicity.

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