| Journalists, all too commonly, are chroniclers of things gone wrong. So I wasn't prepared for the greeting that awaited me several thousand feet above Romania's Ghimes Valley.
A short muscular man appeared suddenly at the window of my 4x4 and thrust his hand into mine. He was dressed like a character from a fairy tale, in a homespun woolen tunic and peaked felt cap. "I'm Jacob Tanko," he said, "the happiest man in the world."
Jacob lived with his wife, Elizabeth, in a log cabin they'd constructed on a meadow around the road's next turn. The only pieces of furniture were a table, four wooden stools, and a simple bed. I spent the rest of the day with the Tankos, listening to their stories.
The couple had survived both Nazi and Russian invasions in World War II. Afterward, the postwar communist regime forced Jacob to work as a laborer in a bleak lowland factory. The regime fell abruptly in 1989. A year later, Jacob and Elizabeth returned to the mountain meadows of their childhood, living almost entirely on what they produced. By conventional measures, they were indescribably poor. But they were also the happiest couple in the world.
| Gyula Hochbauer is a mild-mannered teacher with a voice so soft that I had to lean forward to catch what he was saying. "That's Alarm Mountain," he said, gesturing at a nearby peak. "We had bells up there that were supposed to warn our people down below and a fort that ought to have held back our enemies, but the Mongols somehow got through."
Gyula's people are the Seven Village Csángós who reside in a string of small settlements around Brasov in south central Romania. This area is the lynchpin of the Carpathian curve, the fulcrum at which the mountains make a sudden 90-degree pivot to the west. Five passes break the curve, a weakness in Europe's natural defensive wall.
Batu Khan's Golden Horde had swept past Alarm Mountain in 1241, yet almost eight centuries later pain and agitation were still audible in Gyula's voice. In its own strange way, it was the worst passage in my assignment, the darkest and most unfathomable.
| When I arrived at Zizin, one of the Seven Village Csángó hamlets, 16 teenage dancers wearing traditional headdresses and costumes were gathered in the courtyard of the school. They began to sway in a slow circle, singing a profoundly melancholy song. In the dance, the girls of Zizin become the ghosts of Csángó maidens who had been carried off by the Mongol horsemen. And suddenly I understood the agitation of Gyula Hochbauer on the ramparts under Alarm Mountain.|
The Seven Villagers still lived in the past—but not in the restless Asian universe of their nomadic ancestors. Their backward glance, their preoccupation, was fixed instead on the moment when nomads became settlers, fearful of the eastern steppe from which their very own people have migrated. It was the moment, I believe, when this tribe of Asians became European.