Yes, Virginia, there is still a fairy-tale Europe, a land where beaming peasants, violet-eyed and apple-cheeked, live in picturesque cottages, wear embroidered clothing and drive wagons drawn by horses with ribbons in their manes and scarlet tassels on their bridles.
There is a place where beautiful golden-brown cows and cumulus flocks of fluffy sheep graze in emerald pastures and soft, green land slants up, up, up to dark spruce forests on misty mountainsides.The place is called Moldavia - even the name sounds imaginary - and it may be the last piece of storybook Europe. Unscarred, by outward appearances, anyway, by nearly half a century of communism and bearing few marks of the centuries of feudalism and oppression that preceded it, Moldavia looks, if not affluent, lovely, green, comfortable and happy.
The coal-black soil, called chernozem (from the Russian for black earth), the same type found in the Ukraine and the Dakotas, is among the richest on the planet.
About the only thing missing from the fairy-tale picture in Moldavia is castles. When the Turks ruled the area, they taxed it so heavily there wasn't enough left for the Moldavian puppet aristocracy to build any.
In a sense, Moldavia is an imaginary land. It is not a political entity, but part of an imprecisely defined region, more a state of mind, like the Old South. It can only be described in general geographic terms as the territory between the crest of the Carpathian Mountains on the west and the Dniester River on the east and split down the middle by the Soviet-Romanian frontier.
But, historically, Moldavia has a distinct identity. It is one of the three ancient principalities of which modern Romania is composed. When the Middle Ages finally came to a close with the freeing of the serfs in the last century, Moldavia joined with Walachia, a sister principality lying between the Carpathians and the Danube, to form the Kingdom of Romania, united by their common Latinate language.
After World War I, Transylvania, a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire embraced in the crook of the Carpathians, joined the Moldavia-Walachia amalgamation and Romania assumed its approximately current shape.
At the close of World War II, when the victorious powers were again redrawing the map of Europe, the eastern slice of Moldavia, also known as Bessarabia, was handed over to Stalin and incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Today, Soviet Moldavians are growing restless like ethnic groups throughout the Soviet Union and beginning to demand unification with their brethren in Romania.
Picture-book Moldavia ends at the city limits of the major towns, however. Suceava (pronounced Soo-chava), the medieval capital of Moldavia, is a commonplace provincial market town. It is the principal town of the district in northern Moldavia called Bukovina.
Bukovina's greatest cultural attractions are late-medieval monastery chapels with comic-striplike frescoes covering their exterior walls. Like the carvings on the medieval churches of Western Europe, the frescoes were meant to illustrate the stories of the Bible for the illiterate peasantry. Six of the frescoed chapels survive: St. George in Suceava, Humor (pronounced Hoo-more), Moldevitsa, Vornets, Arbore and Sucevitsa, all situated within 40 miles of each other. Though they were built in the late 15th century, the frescoes were painted in 70 years ending about 1600.
One could spend days studying the Bukovina frescoes - which, of course, was exactly the intent of the anonymous artists. Though the colors have faded and in some instances flaked off altogether, the frescoes have retained a vigorous and naive charm that is delightful.
Everyone who sees them has his favorite fresco. Mine is a scene of the Last Judgment on the wall of the chapel at Sucevitsa, a scene of pageantry and horror that would do credit to Cecil B. DeMille.
Rank upon rank of angels sound their trumpets in encouragement as human souls, represented as frail, pathetic old men with long white beards, struggle up a ladder to paradise. Harassing the poor old men and trying to dislodge them from the ladder by tugging at their beards and garments is a mob of hideous demons with goat's horns, bat's wings, bear's feet and - an unusual touch - human faces on their abdomens. Several of the poor old souls have lost their grip and are tumbling into the clutches of the demons below.
It's interesting theology: The heavenly host is attractive and supportive, but purely passive. The forces of evil take direct, aggressive action. The human soul is frail and weak - too frail, in many cases, to climb ladders.
For imagery and imagination and, yes, for spontaneity and even a touch of whimsy, the frescoes of Bukovina have more to offer than Byzantine mosaics and icons with which they share an obvious common artistic ancestry. Nothing like them has ever been done anywhere else, and they must rank among the great works of vernacular religious art in all Christendom. They stand as Romania's most precious cultural treasure.
Almost as intriguing as the pictures themselves are the inscriptions (evidently included as accommodation to the few visitors who could read) in marvelous Cyrillic calligraphy, all curlicues and sharp angles, like ornamental wrought iron.
Although Romanian is a Romance language, the residue of the Latin brought to the land by Trajan's legions early in the second century, the Cyrillic alphabet was in general use in the country until the 1830s when the Roman alphabet was formally adopted.
The cause of the change was the effort by the Hapsburgs, who then ruled Transylvania, to convert the Romanians from their traditional Orthodox faith to Roman Catholicism. Young seminarians by the hundreds were packed off to Rome for years of study. They inspected Trajan's column and came to realize that their native tongue, previously regarded as a peasant dialect without literary utility, had a noble past.
The Hapsburg campaign was partly, though temporarily, successful. Some of the Romanian Orthodox churches joined the church of Rome, acknowledging the primacy of the pope while retaining their traditional liturgy, much in the manner of the Maronite Rite of Lebanon. Most Romanian churches have since returned to the Orthodox fold.
In the 19th century, devotion to the culture of Western Europe took on the character of an "ism" among privileged Romanians. They sent their sons and daughters to the Sorbonne and French became the language of cultivation. Among Bucureshteni, whose early education preceded World War II, it still is.
For educated young people, however, it is English, the language of technology, transportation and television the world around. When Romanians tune in to the nation's lone TV channel in the evening, they see "Columbo" reruns with Romanian subtitles but English sound. When protesters demonstrate in University Square in Bucharest, they carry placards in English.
As often is the case when people of one nation try to communicate in the language of another, the English of Romanians can be startling. The 23-year-old engineering student who served as my guide-interpreter-chauffeur had all the qualifications for the job: He was cheerful, courteous, intelligent, resourceful, tireless, knowledgeable, a skillful, if somewhat macho driver, and in possession of a car that, despite its antiquity, ran like a watch. (It was a Dacia, the Yugo of Romania.)
But somewhere, somehow, he had picked up the habit, common in Europe, of using "of course" as a kind of one-fits-all answer to questions, even when it was not altogether appropriate:
"That building looks more like a museum than a government office, Adrian?"
Or, "Did Ceaucescu require writers to register their typewriters?"
Adrian had other quirks of usage, such as referring to earthquakes as "tectonic disturbances," and knives and swords as "white weapons," evidently a derivation from the French expression "armes blanches."
All of which did nothing, really, but add to the pleasure of Adrian's enthusiastic, ebullient, indefatigable society. Even after 14 hours a day for six days in frustrating and sometimes dangerous situations during the disturbances in Bucharest, his company never wore thin.
I last saw Adrian at Bucharest's somewhat grungy airport. He stayed with me until he was blocked by a security checkpoint and stood there grinning and waving until I was swallowed up in the crowd.
Except that I was the one leaving, it was like seeing a kid off to college.