Life on A Romanian Monastery: The Facts

Just Feet - Volunteers at a Romanian Monastery - Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps

A month on a Monastery in Romania may seem like a strange idea. I agree wholeheartedly, and also know it was a GREAT strange idea. The first two posts explain a little about how this idea came about. If you haven’t read them yet, start with Post 1 and Post 2, and come back here for Post 3!

And so it continues. I could elaborate and write volumes about this, but for now will keep it (kind of) short. Here are the facts of our life on the monastery:

Wake up in time to get dressed in skirt, sweater and pants (under the skirt), throw up my hair, wash my face, brush my teeth and head to the main building for breakfast at nine. Breakfast is usually bread, peppers – pickled or fresh – and a spread of sorts. Coffee and a sweet and spicy ginger tea are served as well, from a large pot with a generous silver ladle. The volunteers typically sit and talk during breakfast, and the nuns usually eat standing around the small spread of food or on the go.

Lunch at one, dinner at six. A bell echoes loudly through the grounds as a five minute warning before meal times, to take the nuns away from their work and carry them to the outdoor dining room which sits on the edge of a field and is attached to two kitchens: one for more laborious cooking and the other for final preparations and serving. Lunch and dinner are more formal than breakfast and are served in courses: bread and soup, the main dish, and dessert. Little extras such as pickled vegetables, fruit compote, and rose syrup to add as flavoring to fresh yogurt are always delightful, and you learn quickly to take it if you want it… or someone else will!

A creamy mushroom soup and a side dish made of eggplants called zacusca de vinete were favorites among our band of volunteers. As was fresh bread day! Oh, seeing that bread truck pull up on Friday and Tuesday morning turned any small frown completely upside down!

It is in the kitchens that the only displayed clocks exist, so it’s important to listen carefully for those bells. The same thing is served for lunch and dinner, and at first this baffled me. Then I realized it is very much the same as  having leftovers but with a more sensible timing: Instead of eating what you had for dinner, for lunch; you eat what you had at lunch, for dinner. And this means the food is in fact much more fresh!

Deserts are plentiful. Father told us that women are more apt to eat sweet foods rather than salty or bitter. Whether or not this is true around the world, I do not know. But here in the monastery it definitely is.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday are vegan days, the other days are vegetarian (we eat dairy, egg, and fish products during those four days if we choose). Though there are certain meal times (Monday through Saturday at 9am, 1pm and 6pm; Sunday at 11am and 5pm), the kitchen is available if ever we find ourselves with a little hunger pang, though you really have to try hard to go hungry. There is just so. much. food!

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Around the generous noshing schedules, volunteers are asked to contribute five hours of work, five days a week. But the nuns are more than forgiving if we don’t fully fulfill those hours. There are slight illnesses, phone calls home, holidays, and other events that take us away from work, but typically we enjoy filling our time beyond the allotted five hours with additional tasks. (Loosely translated: we actually like to work more than they asked of us!)

The work we are asked to do relates with self sustainability of the farm and the small business which the monastery runs. We weed the garden, pick vegetables, cook meals, and prepare fresh foods for canning and storing during the winter months. We also help inside the workshop making bracelets and icons to be sold in surrounding towns. All of these are typical of monasteries in Romania, and even in larger cities, it’s common to find nuns selling their religious crafts at markets and stands.

The main source of income for the monastery is production and sales of honey. Father is extremely interested in and knowledgeable of the many benefits of bee products and is exploring the best ways to market these products nationally and internationally. They sell propolis, four types of honey, royal jelly and bee pollen. Each has health advantages beyond anything I’d ever imagined, from healing burns to curing vertigo, increasing bone density and even helping to fight off cancers. It’s incredible what those little buzzing bothers can do!

Nuns have a mixture of jobs, some that are set tasks and some that are rotating week to week. One woman is in charge of laundry, one in charge of sewing, and one is in charge of Father’s meals and general well-being. Another takes care of Father’s mother, who as I said earlier has recently become a nun and is quite frail but still a bundle of love.

Each week a different nun will be the head chef, preparing meals mainly on her own but with the assistance of volunteers or another nun if needed. Nuns who cook will miss prayer time, but we learned through one of thousands of questions we asked that cooking nuns are chosen based on their menstrual cycle, because those currently menstruating aren’t allowed within the church itself. So to the kitchen she goes! I find this very interesting and looked into it a bit more. You can find more information here – it is very much a religious-based site, but written clearly with many views on the topic. 

One of the jobs is caring for the cows and chickens. On one particular day, two of the nuns went missing for hours. When they returned, we found out why: They’d taken a cow for a walk, 16 kilometers in all. It’s mating season and the nearest bull is 8 kilometers away.

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Speaking of walks, we’ve been going on many a hike lately. Nearly every day we’ll go for a walk along the road or a hike in the rolling hills and forests surrounding the monastery grounds. The nearest town is roughly two kilometers away by road, and sometimes I take a book or my camera and set out to breathe in the fresh air and watch the leaves turn colors. After several trips to the fork in the road where I typically turn around or turn right to walk toward a small lake bordered by several farms, I turned left and walked into town.

Two other volunteers were with and we casually walked down the street, past a few houses, one small market, the school which has an axe in its entryway for protection, a church, and various locals. There are just two streets in the whole town, intersecting at a church and from there leading toward more fields and farms.

Because of the way we’re dressed and the idea that we’re staying on the monastery, visitors and locals mistake us for visiting nuns who’ve come from America (or Costa Rica, or Japan) and are staying at the monastery for a short time as a sort of spiritual retreat. While on our walk through town, some tried to speak with us and ended up walking away after realizing we can say just a handful of words in Romanian. We did make a good friend, one who I will truly always remember because she looks exactly like my pup back home, and greeted us not once but twice on our walk, welcoming us to the town and also saying goodbye. She walked with us down the main stretch and was such a charmer. After a good bath, she could easily become my new sidekick!

Walks also include impromptu photo shoots and mushroom scavenging. One of the volunteers is particularly interested and has enlisted the help on a nun to determine which are poisonous and which are okay to cook up for dinner. I never knew how many varieties you can find in one small patch of forested land!

Taking a moment to reflect on the nuns, it’s been a delight to hear their stories and to grow closer and closer with them. Some are more shy and quiet and rarely talk with us, while others are always at our side, ceaselessly cracking jokes and helping us with tasks. The majority have learned English (or Russian or German or Spanish) from the volunteers who have passed through. They’re not afraid to ask questions about grammar and help us make connections between all the languages. Our brains are constantly engaged with this cacophony of dialects and speech patterns, and as always, conversations are typically had in two or more languages simultaneously.

Some days we sit during breaks and have language lessons. One time I even tried to teach math to one of the young teenage girls who comes every weekend with her mom, but soon realized that Romanian curriculum is advanced far beyond those of Texas or Kuwait, so she ended up teaching me instead!

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Yes, there are teenagers in the monastery! One lives here full time, and two attend school an hour away, living in that city during the week and coming to the monastery on weekends. They are intelligent young ladies and don’t necessarily dream of future lives on the monastery, but they’re part of the family.

In fact, two of them really are part of the family. There is a group of four (biological) sisters – two who are nuns and two who are still in school. There is another set of biological sisters who are both nuns at this monastery and whose other siblings are grown with families of their own.

The rest of the nuns have varying stories, and some receive occasional visits from their families while others seem more distant. Some are open to talking about the lives which led them to where they are today, and others do not. But if they do not offer, our inquisitive sides try to take a break and not pry too hard.

It seems silly, this farming, crafting, mushroom picking, walking for hours on end lifestyle. But it’s really a gift, for everyone involved.

So did we ever leave the monastery, besides walks to the two-street town?

We did, twice! One involved an announcement of our presence in front of hundreds of onlookers in a cave concert! But that story’s for another day.

Here’s Hali, Jr (my sweet pup’s lookalike) in action:

My own sweet pup back in Minnesota
My own sweet pup back in Minnesota
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