Lipovan villages of Dobruja

Ioana Calinescu
The Romanian villages of Dobruja left me with a taste of dust and a feeling of human despair, with barefoot children raised by whoever can, people staring vacantly through cheap alcohol vapours in a fatalistic indifference to the poverty which came upon them like a curse. Romanian villages in Dobruja look like sick animals awaiting their death. On the same motorway, under the same ‘curse’, Lipovan villages mock poverty with their freshly whitewashed houses, whose window sills are painted in a breathtaking blue and their streets filled with flowers.




The atmosphere of Lipovan villages is best defined by order and cleanliness. Not that big of a deal. It’s something natural; however, when your eyes are used to fences with missing planks, yards decorated with broken tyres, broken refrigerators, sofas with busted springs, seeing tidy yards, laundry laid out on ropes to dry and piles of wood neatly stacked feels like waking up from one heavy, depressing slumber.

The second we entered Jurilovca, an infusion of colours invigorated us. From one end to the other, the village is replete with small, delicate, mild, neat and wonderfully preserved flowers. A good farmer does make a good farm, we thought. And went on thinking it for the few days spent there, as the people of Jurilovca opened up to us, opened their yards, proof that everybody got up early in the morning... Jurilovca came as a surprise to us. Located at the edge of the sea, towards, Gura Portiței, we had expected to find a village under the rule of real estate developers, smothered by pensions with stainless steel balcony railing and pontoons for speedboats. We were deeply wrong. Jurilovca proved to be a traditional, honest village with the type of community that go about their business even when tourists come by.

We met Cătălin at the fishery. We were walking among the boats lifted on stilts waiting to get either painted or welded here and there where the joints had cracked and we could smell the tar used to oil the fishermen’s wooden boats. The little harbor was humming with life, the atmosphere was great; it almost looked like a place frozen in time, a place where engineers wore caps and blue overalls, where they smoked at the lathe and the workday ended at four. Did Jurilovca experience the revolution or not? It did as the channel hasn’t been cleared since then, so navigation has been restricted to small fishermen’s boats. It did experience the revolution because poaching and abusive leasing has halved the number of the village fishermen. Otherwise, in the background, a radio was playing Romanian music, though the signal got weaker and weaker at times, and the people working at the shops had that relaxed mien of the ‘80s. Somehow they had nothing to lose and nothing to gain.

Cătălin Balaban was our ticket into the community of Lipovan fishermen, the vote of confidence that we were alright and had come in peace. Cătălin is the head of one of the fishermen’s associations in Jurilovca and we were guided towards him as he was the authority to whom we had to request permission to take pictures. We went to him terror-stricken. In 90 % of the scenarios imagined we would be asked to leave the private property. The opposite happened. Not only did we receive permission to do whatever we wanted, but he took it as a personal challenge: opening the door to the most authentic scrap of the daily life of Lipovans.

So, at six a.m. the next day we were in Victor’s boat advancing quietly on Lake Razelm as if through a photo wallpaper of fishermen’s figures hidden in the reed and a sky of such intense pink hues as only Photoshop could achieve (or so I thought). I will tell you more about Victor in the next post dedicated exclusively to the fishermen on Lake Razelm. However, this image is burnt into my brain: tens of fishermen screaming and hysterically spinning around our boat while Victor was striving to pull the wire nets where the fish had been caught. Victor would remove the dead ones and throw them to the sea gulls: ‘These are my hens. I feed them every morning’, he said laughing.

Around 12 p.m. we had reached the shore, feeling the ground floating under our feet and a net (we couldn’t refuse) in our hands. The net contained the following: zander, carp, catfish, pickerel and bream. We hardly snapped out of it that Cătălin took charge of us and said: ‘Now you are gonna see what fish borsch really tastes like’. And so we did. A delicious borsch prepared by Hari and his wife on a warm autumn afternoon under their vine arbour. After having removed the scales in a couple of minutes, Hari told us that: ‘The secret is to let the water cover the fish completely. Listen to me. Fish borsch is one of the few things that really matter in life. It was what brought me back home.’

And that is because, disappointed by the evolution of his country, humiliated by the lease of waters, disgusted by poachers and the lack of perspective, Hari has spent the last ten years working abroad. He worked mainly in constructions, but didn’t refuse any other type of work. He ended up carrying volcanic rocks in Tenerife or working as a day labourer in Italy, although he loves fishing. He bore everything, got used to the hard work and the loneliness, homesickness, but one thing left him defenceless: the fish borsch back home. So, when he couldn’t take it anymore, he left everything and returned home.