Expat Life: What’s a Nice Protestant Girl Doing in this Place?

by missfootloose on October 29, 2011 · 18 comments

in Culture and Customs, Expat life, foreign places, Romania

Has the expat life ever given you surprises you most likely wouldn’t have had if you’d stayed home? Of course you have. I had plenty, like almost ending up in a bush jail in Africa. Most recently I found myself surprised again, but fortunately in a more congenial setting with no threat to my physical being, but possibly to my spiritual convictions.

Neamt Monastery, Romania

Now, I grew up in Holland in the sober Protestant tradition. So to find myself dining and drinking holy wine at an Orthodox Catholic monastery probably wasn’t on the books had I stayed in Holland.

This happened a couple of weeks ago while on a freebie cultural, food and wine tour through Romania and Moldova (where I now live). Perhaps after visiting Dracula’s birth town in Transylvania and eating and dancing at the home of a Gypsy family, something of a more spiritual nature was in order. Such as dinner at the 15th Century Neamt Monastery, prepared by the monks from organic food and accompanied by mentioned holy wine, which had been blessed by . . . I’m not sure who had blessed it.

Golden holy wine

The dinner was delicious. The holy wine not so much. Apparently the blessing had not transformed it into divine elixir, but you can’t have everything. The menu included meat and vegetables, artfully presented. Accompanying them was a luscious and potent garlic sauce that was enjoyed in copious amounts by all ten of us and was sure to stay with us for a day or two. We hoped that when we arrived at the Moldovan border in a cloud of garlic fumes, they’d let us into the country.

While we enjoyed our food, we were serenaded by a group of young talented students from the Music Conservatory in the town of Lasi which added to the spiritual ambiance. We spent the night at a hostel belonging to the monastery. It was a modest place with non-posturepedic mattresses, which was good to keep us humble after having spent several nights in 4 and 5 star hotels. Some of us (I, Miss Footloose included) were also humbled by not having hot water coming out of the taps. This resulted in my not taking a shower, but resorting to more modest ablutions, for which I hoped I’d be forgiven by God and tour mates.

Next morning after a healthy organic breakfast, we had a tour of the monastery. It is an impressive place with an impressive history, but I shall not elaborate here. You can find it all on the Internet if you are interested.

Neamt Monastery church

Along with a lot of art, gold and glitter, the Neamt Monastery also contains a large ossuary displaying the bones and skulls of countless numbers of monks. Strolling around in this place was not a spiritual experience for me.

Some of the skulls are engraved with names and dates. I must admit to finding this a tad creepy, as well as not very polite toward the people who had once walked the earth with the bones and skulls now on display for all and sundry to gawk at. But then I’m a lapsed Protestant, so I probably don’t get it.

There’s a lot I don’t get in this life, but I’ll keep working at it.

* * *

Now it’s your turn: Tell me about a surprising experience you had, possibly involving holy wine, skulls or things religious.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

MaryWitzl October 29, 2011 at 12:42 pm

I grew up Protestant too, and while those skulls absolutely creep me out, if I’m ever bothered by Catholic or Orthodox excesses, I just whisper ‘Oliver Cromwell’ to myself and I’m all over it.

When we lived in North Cyprus, electricity was so expensive we couldn’t afford to run it throughout winter (what with three teenage girls whose need for hot water was like Dracula’s for fresh blood). It was surprisingly cold in the winter, and for the first time in my life I learned how to go without my nightly shower. During February, I managed a whole week once just on sponge baths. My friends swore to me they never noticed.

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missfootloose October 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Thank you for the laugh. Cleanliness may be close to Godliness, but the need for daily showers is overrated ;) For part of the time that I lived in Kenya (long ago), we lived in a village and had no running water. We hauled it in by the jerrycan load from a nearby river and got some from a rain barrel. (Ah, the good old times!) I’m sure it’s possible to stay clean only using sponge baths. Not that it’s my preferred way ;)

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Doris Gallan October 29, 2011 at 11:35 pm

This is great. I always love your stories. Posted it to Facebook to share with my friends.

Doris

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missfootloose October 31, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Thanks, Doris! Happy travels.

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Davis October 30, 2011 at 9:52 pm

I have liked almost everyplace I have been when I have been abroad, and often wondered if I would enjoy living there, though I wonder how much of my pleasant assessment of a place comes from the realization that I don’t really have to live there. Were I to put down roots, what surprises might I find under the soil?

Apropos your visit with the Brothers, I was writing a few days ago about an incident in a church in Mexico where I had noticed some visiting Americans who seemed ill at ease and thought it odd that they should be so, as it seemed to me that in a strange city a Christian church, surrounded by familiar images and associations, ought be the most comfortable and home-like place to them.

And I am sure the Brothers regard as loving familiarity their treatment of the physical remains left behind by spiritual beings who have passed on to a better world, which they have left for us as a reminder of our common mortality and the transience of physical things.

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missfootloose October 31, 2011 at 2:44 pm

It was not strange that the Americans seemed ill at ease in a church in Mexico, “a Christian church, surrounded by familiar images and associations,” as you described it. Protestant churches are devoid of the type of icons, statues, religious artifacts and so on that often are part of the decor of Roman and Orthodox Catholic churches, and very much so in Southern Europe and S. America. To sober Protestants, even though fellow Christians, this does not feel “familiar” and actually feels rather foreign and exotic.

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Davis November 13, 2011 at 5:56 pm

My point was not that it was strange — as it was surely not — but that seeing it in a foreign context that I should realize that it seemed odd that it should be so. In other words, the foreign context enabled me to see something familiar — the response of these American tourists to Catholic images — as something odd. Not unlike when I noticed an Indian from the cold Altiplano pour hot milk on his cornflakes, something that had never occurred to me, though there I realized his odd behavior was in fact quite reasonable.

If a Westerner is to be educated in their own culture they must have at least a superficial familiarity with Catholic imagery. Otherwise, what in the world are they to think when they go into an art museum? What are all those people doing and why was it worthwhile painting a picture of them doing it? Much like the imagery of classical paganism: if you are not familiar with it you have missed something in your education and won’t understand part of your own culture.

And though I am a Broad-Church Episcopalian, I spent my childhood among Pentecostals and heard stories of snake-handling and such like — though always taking place somewhere else — so I appreciate the varieties of religious experience, even in America. But if you are going to go to a deeply Catholic country, you really need to open your mind to that dimension of their world.

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Claire October 31, 2011 at 3:58 pm

There was the time in Thailand where I found myself on some sort of “tour” (I use that word loosely, b/c I am pretty sure we fell prey to a street scammer!). Anyway, on said tour, we were led to numerous sites and shops. At one site in particular, I believe it was a reclining Buddha, we were requested to pray to Buddha. I giggled and then realized the man was serious. Seeing as how I didn’t what would happen if I didn’t, this nice Christian girl elected to pray to Buddha.

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Anja Sonnenberg November 1, 2011 at 5:18 am

Strange request. You know that Buddha never wanted to have any followers?

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missfootloose November 4, 2011 at 12:44 pm

I once read that if Buddha and Jesus had lived at the same time in the same place they’d be big friends. Interestingly enough, Buddha is not considered a deity, but a teacher.

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Anja Sonnenberg November 1, 2011 at 5:15 am

Really love the “so probably don’t get it” part. Hope you really mean the “but keep working on it”. Not that I am orthodox, catholic or protestant, but isn’t it all a matter of perspective? If it’s in the name of unconditional love, who cares about weird customs? I say freedom of choice plus don’t hurt anyone. Pray whatever you want to, to whoever you want to. Just don’t demand anyone to do the same.

I found your blog through your comments on Annabelle Candy’s

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missfootloose November 4, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Hi Anja. You are right, of course. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to see the rituals and practices of other religions in the world. It is fascinating. At the core of most, they really aren’t all that different.

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GutsyLiving November 1, 2011 at 5:37 am

Yes that golden wine does not look much like a Merlot or a Cabernet, I must say. I can imagine it was very sweet. Am I right? Also how sad to make the skulls look like the remains of a pirate ship, not a monastery.

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Nancy November 1, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Travel takes us to the most unfamiliar places sometimes, yes? My surprising travel experience happened on my first trip abroad. I had left for a teaching assignment in Cairo where our planners had tempted us with visions of living in an exotic resort. It was exotic all right. When we arrived late that first night, we were taken to our dormitory where we discovered our bathroom had no hot water, our toilets had no seats and there was no toilet paper. Not exactly what we were expecting, but our hosts were warm and hospitable – and we were in the land of the Pharaohs.

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missfootloose November 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm

For a first trip abroad, this wasn’t too bad! Now of course you know to travel with tissues, Valium, duct tape and a stun gun(kidding)!

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Welshcakes Limoncello November 2, 2011 at 1:55 am

Gosh, that was creepy!

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Balanced Melting Pot November 2, 2011 at 11:02 pm

The more I learn about other religions/cultures, the more I find similarities, as well as some bizarre rituals. When you grow up with certain norms you never question them until other cultures make you. It’s good emotional exercise :-)

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missfootloose November 4, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Absolutely! I’ve had the opportunity to observe the practices and rituals of a variety of religions. If you look behind and beyond, they often have very similar values and beliefs.

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