Invisible People

Yesterday upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh, how I wish he’d go away (from Antigonish, by William Hughes Mearns )

In this case it was children I met who weren’t there. As well as women and men. In fact a whole village. But officially they didn’t exist. “Never heard of them.” Or so I was told by the authorities. I got them to check just in case. “No such people,” I was told. I sought official confirmation. And got it. Definitely no such people in this country. And by now the man they wished would go away was me.

So naturally, I decided to have a look for myself. And there they were. The country is Romania. The people are Csango – Csángók in Hungarian or Ceangăi in Romanian. The village I stayed in was on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, above Bacău (about 300km north of Bucharest) and the region of Romanian Moldavia.

The Csangos are ethnically Hungarian, though they live outside even the further flung pre-Trianon Treaty historical Hungarian borders. So not just separated from the current state of Hungary, but with a mountain range between them and Transylvania too. Their language is an older version of mainstream Hungarian, cut off from the rest of the diaspora.

I learned that the Csango villages tended to be poor in infrastructure and education. A bridge had recently been washed away when I was there. The suspicion was that they suffered official neglect because they were deemed insufficiently Romanian.

Life is a bowl of soya beans

They looked different too. Much more likely to be fair haired than the majority Romanian population. (There are more of my pictures of them on flickr.)

They were also very hospitable and distilled smooth wicked schnapps. Just one of the by products of the lush well-tended agricultural land. It was characteristic to see brightly patterned scarves wrapped round the heads of sunflowers to protect from birds.

Like many rural areas in Romania after the revolution, what they lacked in paved roads compared to the cities, they more than made up in fresh food, a sunnier demeanour and an absence of paranoia.


It was a fair few years ago that I visited the Csango, as part of a freelance aid mission. Someone pointed me to a National Geographic article on the Csango published since. Which meant I wasn’t imagining it all. And now they’ve made it to Wikipedia, which details forced assimilation and attempts to eradicate their language. It also gives a translation for a Csango anthem, which includes the lines:

Bird fallen down from the tree
Abandoned, forgotten

I wonder how things are there with the Csango now? Do they still exist as a distinct group? Or have they been dispersed by poverty or standardised by modernity? Have they finally become invisible?

And is the schnapps still so smooth?

(P.S. Off to Belfast for the weekend if anyone is about.)


Filed under history, life

8 responses to “Invisible People

  1. Michael T

    Lovely pic & piece, Paul. Let me know if you get the schnapps.

  2. My knowledge of eastern Europe is sketchy, and I had never heard of this population. I’ll have to do some reading now that you’ve caught my attention. Wonderful post, and lovely photos. Thanks for sharing.

  3. My guess is they are still about.I hope so.
    Europe teems with invisible people.For example, where my family come from in Eastern Poland, although the population is supposed to be 99% Catholic, there are 2 wee villages in the back-of-beyond that are Muslim….the local Poles say they are remnants of Gengis Khans Invasions ….

    • blackwatertown

      Ta to all.
      @ Tony – I worked in Kielce one summer. Never heard of Muslim villages in Poland before. Where are they? Do you recall the village names?

  4. I suspect there are many of these little forgotten enclaves within particularly the Eastern Bloc. Apart from the lack of infrastructure, there is some benefit to being isolated I guess. Rather sad that they are simply not recognised though. Interesting post.

  5. Thanks Paul, great post and lovely photos. It’s very interesting to see the true complexity of European identities emerge from beneath the old and new blocks.

  6. One of the delicious ironies of racism is that groups that are oppressed by it have no problem with dishing it out to others. One of the far-right EU grouplets fell apart when the Italians announced they wanted to kick all the Romanian immigrants out of their country. “You mean Roma,” said their Romanian colleagues. “Er… no we don’t, actually” said the mini-Mussolinis.

    Presumably to salve their wounded pride, the Romanians went home and beat up a few Csangos.

    • blackwatertown

      Which reminds me of when I was working (without adequate documentation – does that work as a euphemism?) in the United States. It was just after the powers-that-be decided they should enforce immigration laws against migrant Irish as well as everyone else (the cheek!). Previously we’d benefited from a blind eye turned our way.

      I was staying in New York with some other hospitable and friendly Irish illegals (oops) who were moaning about Hispanics stealing their jobs. There was no suggestion that these job-stealing Hispanics were themselves illegals either.

      Two things then happened.
      1. I challenged this way of looking at things.
      2. I found somewhere else to stay.

      I was able to console myself with the thought that, unlike my erstwhile hosts, at least I wasn’t too chicken to use the New York subway. Couldn’t afford to take taxis everywhere either.

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