Showered with kisses, adorned with clothing, fed like a king — I was like the lost son from the Gospel of Luke. I did nothing to earn the love of my relatives; I just called to say I was coming to visit their small village in a couple of days. They defined for me the meaning of true love and genuine hospitality.
The people of Cotofeni, Romania, are the definition of humility. By American standards, they live in poverty, but by their standards, they have more than they need, and they want to share it with everyone. Nothing is store-bought, and everything is the fruit of their labors. It is their pride and joy to have guests with whom to share their livelihood.
A few days before Christmas, I was staying in a major city in the northern part of Romania when I decided to make the five-hour train ride south to see my family. It wasn’t the first time I met them, but I had grown in both perception and stature since my last visit.
As the train pulled into the station, about a 45-minute drive from their village, I saw my uncles Alin and Marian waiting on the platform. If meeting me as the train doors opened wasn’t enough of a hospitable greeting, before I had my arms through my coat and my scarf around my neck, Marian was on the train grabbing my last suitcase. I stepped off the train empty-handed to see their backs walking away from me and their arms wide with bags underneath. I caught up to them on our way to their car and offered to carry my own bags, only to be dismissed with a smile that said: “Don’t be ridiculous.”
I arrived at the gates of their home to be greeted by everyone from the grandmother to the 8‑month-old baby in her arms. Everyone was kissed. No one was left unhugged.
I was escorted to the main room which was full of the same smiling faces. Every inch of the table was covered with food, and every hand held a beer (the only item that came from the store). We ate, we drank, and we laughed like I never left all those years ago.
Communicating with them is an enjoyable challenge with a deeply powerful message.
Between my broken Romanian, their few English phrases, and a lot of hand movements, we understood one another like we were in each other’s minds.
We communicated on a deeply human level: We spoke the language of love because their genuine kindness needed no translation, and it called for emulation.
We moved outside where the air was brisk, the beer was fresh, and the music was loud. The best pig was killed, prepared, and enjoyed.
I was wearing my heavy ski jacket that I had only worn once before because it was never cold enough to justify its excessive weight. Marian’s wife was concerned I’d still be cold in temperatures a little above freezing, so she draped me in a jacket of their own while Marian crowned me with his own beanie in the same effort to assure I was well cared for and comfortable. Anytime I was seen throughout the next couple of days without the extra coat and hat, I was quickly reminded that I was improperly dressed.
Celebrating with family is nothing new, especially growing up in an ethnic house. From birthdays to holidays to everything in between, being with family to celebrate is routine, but I’ve never been celebrated simply for the sake of showing up. I’ve never been given so much, so freely. I’ve never been treated like a lost son returning home.
The next day we drove down the gravel road in Marian’s manual car which assured every pebble and shift of the gear was felt in the back of the seat. He gave us a tour of the village, including where he worked at the water tower and where my great-grandfather grew up.
Marian was hesitant to drive through the village with us in the car because Americans stick out like a sore thumb, and news travels fast in a village where you can walk from one end to the other in under an hour. He explained to me that having guests gives him a sense of pride and is a sign of prosperity, so parading them through the village could be seen as showing off and would make everyone else jealous.
So, much to Marian’s disdain, when we got out to look at my great-grandfather’s now-abandoned childhood home, the whole street came out to see us.
“Oh, Marian always has the guests,” they said as he rolled his eyes at me and laughed.
Driving back up the dirt road, another resident who wasn’t fast enough walking up the street signaled for Marian to stop the car and roll down the window.
“Don’t be upset, Marian,” the neighbor said. “I just want to say hello to your guests and wish them a happy new year.”
The older gentleman walked to every car window, leaning in to give each of us the traditional greeting of a kiss on both cheeks, and he even kissed my hand. He then offered an individual greeting of health and happiness in the new year.
The celebration didn’t stop until Alin and Marian had me back on the train two days later and we waved goodbye, only separated by a foggy train window.
I didn’t speak the same language as anyone in the village, but I knew I was family because of the way they treated me. We didn’t share the same culture, but I knew I was welcome because their hospitality was even reflected in the actions of their neighbors.
Marian told me to come back whenever I want and that I didn’t even need to call ahead of time. In my broken tongue, I tried to clarify: “So I can just knock on the door and you’ll be ready for me?” I asked with a smirk.
“No,” he replied, shaking his head and wagging his finger.
“The door is always open,” he told me, mostly with his hands. “Just walk in.”