Matt Richardson ’12 is six months through a year-long sabbatical from CMC. He shares his stories with The Forum.
This year I have been invited to stay in the homes of transport truckers, dairy farmers, suffering artists, fishermen, masseurs, IT specialists, paragliders– you name it– but no person has impacted me quite like Danute, an unemployed folklore clothing street vendor.
I hitched a ride with a French couple up to one of the most famous monasteries in the world, the fully ornate and intricately frescoed Monastery Voroneț. My plan was to stay amongst the monks for a few nights, deep in Dracula country: the smoky Northeastern Carpathians of Romania.
I showed up late to the fortified entry and was greeted by a nun. She made it clear that travelers weren’t allowed to stay in the monastery, and that her conscience in no way prevented her from telling me to pitch a tent in the snowy Sierras. After futile pleading, I headed for the hills.
Only a few steps later, I was stopped by a sturdy square-jawed villager who asked me, through broken English, where I was going. I pointed to the mountains and slowly explained that I would be hammock camping in the woods for the night. He frowned, and then he grinned.
“No,” he said. “You stay with me tonight.”
He packed up a few things at his vending stand, locked up, and walked me to his motorcycle. We squeezed on and rode to his cottage where his mother was cooking a pig. He summoned his friends and his family. We had a feast. He brought out a bottle of inconceivably strong plum brandy, or țuica, infused with syrupy wild blueberries from the surrounding forest. As we drank, my Romanian got a lot worse, his English got a little better, and we made up for missing words through ad-lib body language and drawings.
We joked by the fireplace well into the night, when he finally showed me the guest room. I was prepared to leave the next morning, ready to try my luck at another monastery.
“No,” he said, “you stay here another night.”
I stayed another night. We had another farm fresh feast. We hiked through the woods together in the afternoon. He shared some more tuica and a story with me by the fireplace that night.
“I allow one other person to stay in my house before. Matt. It is two years ago. He is a Hungarian, about your age.”
He continued:” I see him walking by the monastery, and I ask if he is needing a place to stay the night. He says yes, then he is staying at my house two weeks and a half. We feed him every day. At the end he says: ‘I go back to Hungary now, if you come with me I give you color TV in my guestroom to repay you. I drive you to my home in Budapest, I pay for you to take the train back home with the TV.’ I was so happy, so I drove two days with him. We arrive to Budapest, huge city, in the middle of the night and he drive into Supermarket for gas. He says ‘do you have to go to the bathroom?’ So I get out and go. I come back after two minutes; he is gone. I wait at station four hours in middle of night but he is never returning– nobody speak Romanian, the Hungarians hate Romanians. I have only ten lei in my pocket. Two weeks I begging for money and help and I live on the street, and I am yelled at by train officials. Finally I am sneaking in luggage compartment and ride three days home, I almost starve everyday, I eat nothing. No phone. I thought I will die many times, but I finally made it home.”
A lump filled my throat as it hit me how special this encounter was. It is still difficult for me to understand what made Danute tick.I had never experienced anything remotely close to the selfless hospitality and genuine empathy that he possessed.
How could a man, after falling victim to such a disturbing act of ingratitude and betrayal, trust another stranger to stay with him and share his home? Why was he willing to do this? For a twenty-something foreigner with nothing to offer except company: why?
The next morning, I packed up again and prepared to leave. I was asked to stay for another week, or at least for one more day, but I decided that another day would make it even more difficult to part later. We parted rather sentimentally, I hugged his mother and niece goodbye, and I took to the road again.
It was a thirty minute walk back to civilization. Autumn had set the mountains on fire while icy puddles in the dirt path cracked in the morning sun and leaked streamlets downpike. I was overwhelmed by the joy found in such unexpected hospitality. After twenty minutes, I heard an engine buzz behind me and swiveled around to find Danute chasing me down in his motorcycle.
I assumed he would take me the remaining few kilometers through passing traffic and send me on my way. But when he pulled up, he took his helmet off to reveal a tear-soaked face.
“I will missing you. Please write to me when you get home, to let me know that you made it safely.”
He dismounted, walked to the back of his motorcycle, and opened a small storage compartment.
“I have something for you.”
He handed me a rolled up shirt. “Take this, it is longsleeve. It is getting cold, you never knowing if you will need it.”
He reached deeper into the compartment, and handed me a bulging plastic bag.
“These are apples and pears from my yard. I am just picking them, you never knowing if you will be hungry. Take them.”
Speechless, I hugged him one last time, trying to express my thanks adequately. I took to the road again.
I got lost hiking that night, twenty kilometers over a mountain between two monasteries. I was alone in unfamiliar woods; spooky animal footsteps kept me awake and alert well into the night. It was freezing, but I put on a new longsleeve shirt. I hadn’t eaten all day, and had walked 13 kilometers and hitched thirty. My stomach ached.
I opened the plastic grocery bag, ate a dozen apples and freshly bruised pears, and said a prayer of thanks for Danute.