(No. 2 of the Romanian Series)
After a dull June morning at the Immigration Office in Brasov, I head to Piata Sfatului. I go in and out of local banks asking them if I’d be allowed to open a bank account to support my visa extension. At BRD I’m a tourist, at Raiffeisen (where I eventually get an account) I’m from a high risk country, at CEC I’m invisible. At Piraeus, I hand out a copy of my passport and they tell me it’s pretty simple.
I buy a hotdog and sit near the fountain clutching my insufficient documents. Now that Piraeus was going to fix my account, there was only one more thing left to do – go to a local doctor and get a medical certificate. The rest would be taken care of. Raluca, my hostess at Viscri speaks to me on the phone, guiding me to Regina Maria where I could get the tests done. I respond mechanically, body tired and soul uneasy. If I don’t set this right, I’d have to leave Romania sooner than planned.
Raluca’s voice fades. I stare at the Biscerica Neagră or the Black church, the lower body visible between two buildings and the upper rising to the clouds. Pigeons border my vision and fly in between. I hear their flapping along with the noise of children in toy cars and bikes, of vendors and musicians. I whet my ears to the new noise of Brasov, different from that of my morning – summons, papers shuffling, echoes in government buildings and whispers in queues.
I walk around the Black Church (90 mts in length and 25-37 mts in width) before going in. At no step can I take it in fully. One or the other corner is obstructed from view. There is no long courtyard leading to the gate or a compound wall surrounding it. The front is the most difficult to take in. It’s on my face even when I back off to lean against the wall that obstructs the space here. For a church of such proportion and majesty, it seems to stand on the wrong place.
The Gothic exterior is coloured in uneven patches of black and brown.
Ebony, crow, charcoal, pitch, onyx, soot.
Cedar, umber, peanut, coffee, walnut, tortilla, forest, ferret.
It begins before I step in. The name, the bullet marks and scratches on the outer lower wall and a statue of a small boy crouching on a pillar near the terrace come with me into the church.
The outside and the inside don’t match. The battered Gothic black of the outside contains within it a light creamish Baroque. Anatolian and double-niche Transylvanian rugs hang on the walls. John the Baptist along with priests and Saints are here and there. A 4000 pipe golden organ, a Buchholz still untampered, stands threatening, behind me. If the seats were removed, with all the rugs, this may look like a monastery. This church asks me to quieten.
To be honest, this is the one thing that’s been in my mind since I heard about the Black Church. Why name a church – not a congregation but a church – the Black Church? I try to not associate the colour black with death or anything sombre. But it’s difficult to not conform. It’s just the name. By appearance, there is no extraordinary mournfulness that the façade of the building carries. But the name.
Built on a site of destruction – an earlier church destroyed by Mongol invasions in 1242 – the Black church was damaged heavily by Turkish raids in 1421 even before completion. What was then finished in 1477 was burned in the Great Fire which consumed more than half the city. After nearly a century of restoration – the interior was completely damaged – and a few centuries of functioning, the Black Church once again saw a raid – not as bad as the earlier ones – at the start of the Romanian Revolution against the Communist regime on 23rd December 1989.
I enquire about the statue of the boy on the pillar outside the church. The volunteer smiles at me. So you noticed, she says. There are different versions to the story. A naughty little boy – the son of a priest – was locked in an attic as punishment when the Great Fire started burning him to his death; a little boy who helped very well with the construction so much so that one of the workers pushed him down out of jealousy; and the version I digest better – that he fell down when he was asked to go up to check if the wall was being built in a straight line.
I sit down to pray, near a dull red rug whose smell I believe will later become the smell of my hair. I knew why I was away from home. To undo some things in my head, to remember some things from my own childhood and maybe, if time allows, maybe, become stronger, in my feminine. When the bare foot touches the slush of the earth, when a baby laughs at the sight of her brother and when the gravel of the road is crunched by the hooves of horses, just be one with it.
Even on the inside, I couldn’t help but think about its outside. About the blackness of its friable grit that burned easily during the fire and yet stood somehow; keeps standing. About how one exterior can contain an interior so different and yet become one coherent whole. About how the Gothic and the Baroque kiss at the fringes to make a church.
Polarities and opposites often become signifiers of moral binaries, arrogantly ignoring the eons of fluid greyness in between, where they mix. The last few seconds in prayer, in the Black church, all colour codes, moralities and signification is lost for me. It seems right, that undoing should begin in – not any church – but the Black church.
My reverie is broken by a call from Piraeus. It cannot be done, they are sorry. I leave to see them but nothing changes; then head to Regina Maria where I’m asked to come another day. Thinking about it now, I know it’s one of the things I loved the most about Romania. The indecisiveness; that nothing could be said for sure. It, just like its people, possessed a calm rhetoric of life which overrode any pressure to complete or be completed/whole.
At this point, even though it’s only my 2nd time in Brasov, I don’t feel an outsider. I’m part of its system; it doesn’t allow me any leeway. I, along with its people will have to wait in queues, run up and down its government buildings and more importantly, be snubbed at CEC.
Days later, after yet another visit to the Immigration Office, I make my way up the Tâmpa mountain to Promenada de Sus/The Upper Promenade. It is a wet, rainy day with dark clouds and dense fog looming around. From afar, on a higher plane, I saw the Black church in its entirety – a blue tarpaulin on top of the roof – surrounded by buildings so tightly knit that you’d think the people of Brasov fell on the doorstep of the church if they stepped outside their homes.
I stood there, the greyness of rain no longer a device I’d use to represent sorrow or impending threat. Nor black for death. Instead, for a kind of phoenix battle against what time might throw. And there, in the heart of Transylvania in Romania, the journey of an ‘insignification’ began.
Location: The Black Church / Biscerica Neagră, Brasov, Romania.