My Dream House: Every Inch of Furniture Painted Like In A Fairytale

Work in Progress

If I ever hit it off with someone from the get go that was Nusi. Actually even before I set my eyes on her. I was visiting the summer home of a musician nearby Cluj, a university town in Transylvania, and during the conversation I mentioned I loved folk art. Hearing about it, his wife showed me her green kitchen cupboard, painted in folk motifs. She told me of Anna Kelemen, better known as Nusi, who lives in Méra village. I called Nusi while I was traveling thru the area and she gladly invited me to visit her immediately. In twenty minutes we were there. I was enamored with her house. She covered every inch of her furniture with traditional folk motifs but in her own choice of colors, so beautiful, that my heart was buoyant.
I regretted so much I couldn’t take her with me to America, or stay in Europe, near her. We created a series of small wooden tablets, house blessings as she calls them, so I can take them with me over the ocean. Each time I look at them I remember snippets of my time in her village. How we went to fetch a calf from the cowherd that was grazing over the summer up in the hills. We went with a wagon hitched to her husband’s tractor. Or how I woke up after sleeping in her guest room, and being enchanted by her white armoire with red tulips, her mirrors with cobalt blue frames. Or when I walked with her arm in arm around the village to places she wanted me to see: the village Water Buffalo Museum, with a collection of large cowbells hanging from the ceiling, her aunt’s house filled with old farm and household implements she’d collected and wanted to open a Folk Art Museum.
Often I imagine I could have had a different life, in which I could have gone into business with Nusi, created a space of a kind in her village, where artists could come rest their weary bones. But alas, money is tight, my hope hiccups, I labor with fits and starts, and no miracle wants to grace us.
I’ve listened to the recorded sounds of her place I once made, of cows mooing, of pigeons flying up, stirred by a honking tractor, or just in the quiet of the hot summer, or the chirpy yellow soft chicks when she fed them maize mush, or her fierce small dog barking at me.
One day, Nusi, I wish one day I were rich, and then I’ll be back.

I recorded our talks, twice, first time on June 13th, 2011:

Ella: Here we are at Nusi’s aunt’s house. Indeed it’s like a museum here. Nusi says that ever since she was small she started to collect old things.
Nusi: Yes. Once for a whole week I carried our cow milk to the village buyers to make money. My mother was angry, ‘Why do you need this old rubbish?!’ I’d gather such old things that after awhile I had to throw them away myself because they’d fallen apart. A bed spread like this one. I brought it home, we lived faraway by the end of the village. My mother just couldn’t suffer it, ‘Why do you need such old cast offs?!’ But this is what I wanted. I never liked new things.
Ella: Do you know where this inclination came from? Some old aunt, or grandma?
Nusi: Not that I know of. My great-grandfather came from Burgenland to Transylvania. My uncle, my mom’s brother, Aurel Bulbuc, a teacher in Cluj, maybe he’s retired now, I’m not sure, but he has a museum in Iclod. I don’t know… Ever since I was a child I loved painting and old things. Antiques.
Ella: When did you start painting?
Nusi: The truth is that I was a lonesome child. I was the second girl and I was supposed to be a boy, and my father couldn’t accept this. When I was born, he didn’t even look at me.
[Poor Nusi cries quietly and walks away. Then she braces up.]
Nusi: I don’t know even today how to handle this! My poor mother told me that when I was born she was crying in pain while my father was yelling why I wasn’t born a boy! He was on a large gray horse and instead of coming inside and look at me, he turned around and left. The nurse said to my mom, ‘Don’t cry dearest. This child won’t live anyway!’ [Laughs in sadness] I was prematurely born, at seven months, so they said I’d die anyway.
Ella: But you didn’t die… My sweetheart…
Nusi: [Swallowing her tears] My grandmother always said to my aunt to adopt me, but she didn’t. She said, ‘Erzsi, take away this girl! You see whenever Feri drinks we have to run away with her.’ So when my father got drank they had to run away with me and hide me from him. He would be angry, he would raise hell. Well… [Sobbing]
In the end my father loved me very much. I was his preferred child.
Indeed, when I grew older he taught me how to work with bees, I learned how to cook from him. My father was a very good cook, he learned during military service. Then we got on the train and we went to Arad, to Braşov, to sell our honey but when I was small they had to run away and hide me.
But this somehow still hurts. My older sister would push me with my cradle under the bed. She was three years older than me and she felt too that I was unwanted. Often I’d hide in the cellar, in the chicken coup, and so I had to occupy myself somehow. I painted, I drew. I sat about alone. I didn’t like socializing, having company.

Ella: But now you seem to like it, don’t you?
Nusi: Yes, I like it, of course, but during childhood I stayed alone a lot. The others played together, but I didn’t like going among youth. Often I’d go with my older sister, so my parents would let her go out, but then I’d come home. Once we went to a village dance, it was Christmas. I sat next to an auntie. She gave me an apple, sweets, to go dance with her son. I ate the apple and the candy, then I ran back home. My mother, poor thing, was searching for me at the dance. When she arrived home my father scolded her, ‘Where were you? This child came alone home!’ I didn’t like socializing, gatherings. I felt as if…
Ella: I see it’s still painful for you…
Nusi: It doesn’t feel good. That’s why I probably tried to work it off through painting. My mother is gone, so is my father… [Crying quietly] I just have to look for a handkerchief. [She does so.]
Ella: So you started drawing out of loneliness.
Nusi: Yes. Also in Méra the custom was that girls had to have ornamented painted furniture as part of their dowry, so I painted my own, then I painted my cousins’ too, my sister’s too. The tradition was that every house had to have decorated furniture.
At that time they didn’t paint on blue background, but on white background. My mother didn’t allow me blue because it was not done in the village anymore, everybody had white. But later on I did it anyway, I followed the old tradition, and many asked me to paint blue over white.
They took away so many of them from our village. They sold them abroad. The youth doesn’t like it anymore. You have to clean it carefully every year, keep it fresh. If a moth gets into the feather pillows it’s a disaster. My pillows are filled with straw.
My mother-in-law painted too, but she accurately copied the traditional motifs, in detail, and so there are at least ten others with the same motifs in the village. First she drew after her pattern in pencil, then painted it. So it’s very precise. But mine, look at it! [Laughs] On the right side it has a rose, on the left a tulip! I don’t even look at patterns any longer, I just follow my whim. If I think it’s beautiful, then I paint it. But my mother-in-law copies the pattern very precisely.
Still, if you look at this very old chest, they weren’t that precise either in the old days. I looked closely at old furniture. It’s not perfect. Just imagine if any little leaf would be first drawn in pencil then painted over it! That would be a lot of time. Also I’d get bored. I paint only what I feel like it. If I like it, then I paint quickly. When I’m in the mood I paint more beautiful. There are days when I can’t paint, if they’d force me to paint, I couldn’t.
Ella: When you don’t paint what do you make?
Nusi: I make beads. Or I work in the field, gather the hay, weeding, so on.
Ella: You told me how you moved back to Méra.
Nusi: Well, Marika had to go to school. I divorced from my first husband, but I retained the Kolozsvár city resident ID. At that time it was a big thing to be able to live in Kolozsvár. My parents also helped us. I sold my jewelry. I loved my jewelry very much, and still do, but I sold it, so I have nothing left now.
My earrings, bracelets, about four of them, two necklaces, or five, I don’t even know how many rings. I sold them all. They were made of gold. So we bought the apartment so Marika could attend a good school. I hadn’t been a good pupil, myself. Even if I wanted, I’d never got a 10/A neither in arithmetic, nor in… If I saw a drawing, I could remember all its details even after three days, but figures, I can’t keep in my head. I wasn’t a good pupil. My older sister always was the first in her class. It’s true she didn’t go to Kolozsvár to further educate herself, but got married instead. Later she went back to school and graduated from university. I wanted to study folk art, but they didn’t allow me, saying I was a poor learner. So I went to work and finished high school at evening school. For six years I gave sewing and weaving lessons at the Folk Art School. But when I got married my city husband didn’t allow me to teach. My first marriage was not successful, so we divorced. Well, after five years, I married Gyuszi and we moved to Kolozsvár. Then Marika graduated from high school, got married, and then we moved back to Méra.
During those years I don’t think we’ve been here in Méra for an entire week. We’d come here on Friday evening and on Sunday we went back because we had to go to work on Monday. I felt claustrophobic in Kolozsvár, as if I was locked up. When we got back to Méra, I already had a few antiques, like those little chairs, and I painted them. I’d help others, but I didn’t paint a lot yet. Then in ’99 my aunt died. She also owned furniture, so I started painting steadily. By then I switched to blue background. After my aunt died, I said, ‘That’s it, I’ll do something in her house. I’ll start my tourism business, and I’ll paint the furniture in the old style.’ Gyuszi was upset on me, especially when at times I’d come here and paint at my furniture, and I’m painting and painting and painting and when I look at the clock, midnight, one, one and a half in the night! I’d go home for dinner, then I’d come back here, forgetful of time, paining in the wee hours. Otherwise Gyuszi loves me very much. I’ve always felt happy with him.
Ella: Will you tell me about your friend's hotel that you painted?
Nusi: They came on an excursion from Hungary to Kolozsvár. When they came visiting Méra, of course they ended up at my house, and she loved what I painted. I became friends with Zsuzsa, I remember we went to see the Viştea/Vista Reformed Church, and she took my hand, she’s also a lonesome person, and I had a good feeling about her. She told me in July there would be a fair, a festival in her village, wouldn’t I want to come too? I said I surely would.
When I went there, I was very surprised that though the day before she had buried her mother, she didn’t cancel her invitation, she still hosted me. The first night I slept in the new house she had just bought, now is a small hotel for tourists. Then her next door neighbor died and she bought that house too. I painted them both, in one house on a blue background, in the other on green.
There was such a thing that Zsuzsa had her birthday and I’d call her that very day, though I didn’t know when she was born. She grew close to my heart. And Őrség region is just like Transylvania. She lives by the woods edge. The Őrség. Near the Austrian border.

Ella: So her friendship encouraged your talents?
Nusi: Yes, because then I painted at Agape Restaurant too…
Ella: How did that come about?
Nusi: Well, Tötszegi Tekla, who’s from Méra, teaches folklore at the university I think, and she had planned to follow the Viştea/Vista Reformed Church ceiling that is covered in wooden panels painted in very old folk designs. She took pictures of the motifs on those small squares so that we should follow them at Agape. I made large, scaled up drawings, and we started painting at Agape about 11, 12 women from the village but gradually they dropped out, so that in the end I was alone. The small room, no one helped me, I did it alone. Many people asked me then why didn’t I paint more? But where?
Ella: How did you feel at the Agape opening ceremony?
Nusi: Both nice and bad. Well, Tekla recommended me, and I made as I said large squares. Often they’d look at them. Tekla, being a folklorist, didn’t want the restaurant owner to put a tile floor, and on the walls should be this and that kind of wood paneling. Then the owner didn’t like large, traditional drawings, but asked for small tulips, detailed, like real flowers. So that’s how I made them. They quarreled. Still, a lot of them are traditional motifs.
Ella: But it’s beautiful, in the end.
Nusi: Well, yes. So after Agape... Well, I had a few dowry chests that I wanted to paint just for myself.
Ella: What is your hardship now? Do you have a plan, a dream? What are your obstacles?
Nusi: Well, my dream is that by the time I’m utterly old these old things should have a museum space in this house, or in the barn attached to it, since I collected them and took care of them. I’d like to show our tradition.
I could open a museum through one of the local associations but then it shall not be owned by me, whereas I invested quite a bit of money in it. But if I manage to sell one of my land plots then I’ll have money for my museum. Unfortunately everybody is tight with money nowadays.
Ella: You were featured on BBC. How did the word get out?
Nusi: Well, through my acquaintances, and through Tekla. She brought them here. She’s a relative of my mother-in-law. When tourists visit our Méra village they inquire where they can go to see traditional things, and people tell them to go to Nusi, and so they come to see Nusi. But my mother-in-law is right, when she says what do I gain from it besides always cleaning after them?! Thank you so very much! [Laughs]
Well, yes, they waste my time, and nothing else comes out of it. Once twenty of them showed up. It was raining. Such a muddy day! They covered in mud all my floors. My mother-in-law showed them my paintings. They could have at least brought me a chocolate. But nothing. She rightly complained, “It’s not enough that they wasted your time, now I should waste mine too? Clean the entire house after them? They wore such muddy shoes, they carried it all in! It was unbelievable!”
Meanwhile people in the village sizzle that God knows how much the visitors pay me. Some bring a coffee package, and my mother-in-law loves coffee, but I don’t.
That’s why it would be good to open a museum because I could charge membership fees, and tickets, couldn’t I? Just showing up, bring in the mud, then I have to clean after them, all for a thank you very much…
Ella: But who brought those 20 here?
Nusi: A man from Suceagu/Szucság brought them. My mother-in-law got very bitter. Those who come from Kolozsvár, they give a bit. Every bit helps, because I do have to clean after them, and time is dear for all of us.
Nusi: On the other hand you have to welcome everybody. My aunt said in the old times even if Gábor Gypsies came she always let them sleep in her house. Though on her death bed she told me, ‘Nusi, if you have to sell the house, don’t sell it to Gypsy people!’ That’s what she said. [Laughs] ‘Nusi, I don’t force you to keep this house, but if one day you have to sell it, don’t give it to Gypsies!’
Lately in Méra we have this kind of Gypsies who steal. Once they stole her hens. After my brother-in-law died in ’78, four or five times they stole all her hens, and that’s what she told me, ‘Don’t try to sell it to the Gypsies!’ I’ve had such an experience too. They picked my grapes and they stole our scrap iron, my old washing machine and an old tractor engine! Even our front gate! [Laughs]
Ella: [Dazed] Alright. So let’s get back. Alright, so let’s… You said how lovely it would be to come to America.
Nusi: Yes, but only during winter! I can’t in the summer. I have to make hay, I have to hoe, I have to help Gyuszi. But during winter there isn’t so much work. During winter I do my handwork, embroidery and beads. During summer it would be trouble if I’d go away. Even now, I go way too often to visit my daughter.
At times he gets upset.
For example this dowry chest, it was not him who brought it home! I took the money and bought it. And he said, ‘Don’t you think we have enough rubbish?’ If I count them all I have about 20 bench chests. What’s the use of so many of them? For sure something is off in my head. They often said about me in the village that, ‘Nusi is crazy!’ When they saw me picking stuff out of garbage. It might be true, Ella! Because everybody wants the new, the new, the new, while I want only the old cast offs.
They are beautiful, no doubt beautiful, but as my mother-in-law says, ‘Now stop it! We have enough of them! Soon we won’t be able to move around! Everything is full to the brim now! [They both laugh] I can’t squeeze in anything new, but look, you add more and more rubbish!’ So he said, ‘That’s it, your hand won’t touch the family money anymore!’ Indeed we have separate cash boxes.
We help each other when in need, but I don’t give him my money, and neither does he give me his. [Laughs] We have separate cash boxes.
Ella: Nevertheless I talked to him while he drove me here and he told me quite wistfully, ‘Oh, Nusi paints so beautifully. Oh, how much she paints!’ He loves it!
Nusi: Sure, he loves it by now. When I painted for the Agape Restaurant I worked in this house and so we slept together in this tiny bed, so that we were together. It was a rush job, so he’d bring me lunch, he went back home, then in the evening he brought me dinner, and he went to bed here, then he woke up with half an hour earlier so he could go home and milk the cows. He backed me up, shouldered things with me, gave me his support, but probably pretty often I’m pushing the envelope. I go to the fair, I see a flaking rusty lamp, I bring it home. I brought I don’t know how many spinning wheel and skein winders. After I mounted them, I don’t know how many I threw away because their wood was rotted.
So should I be allowed to spend the family money on such stuff?! [Laughs]
In early spring I get everything out of the house, I clean, I freshly paint the rooms, then I put them back in, but for what? So that people come and look at them, and then I have to clean after them for three days in a row?
Well, nowadays we can’t do such things, we don’t live in such a world anymore. One has to make money. For awhile they came around villages with trucks and gathered furniture, sold it abroad, but now they stopped coming. My friend said she paid 2,000 Forints for two armoires! But that’s nothing! Here you can’t buy even one for that money! And beds, too, 2,000 Forints for 2 beds! So many people don’t want them anymore. Look, they chop up beautiful bench chests like mine for firewood. [Sad pause]
Ella: So, when the BBC showed up, what did they want?
Nusi: Well, they took pictures of our rooms. But they didn’t like what my mother-in-law painted, but mine, with the white background, which actually is not that valuable because it’s not in the old traditional style…
Ella: But such beauty! Do dream a bit, Nusi!
Nusi: I do dream all the time, and some of it comes true. Here we have two, three, four rooms, downstairs five rooms, in the other part two rooms, beneath is the kitchen, in the back also more space, so you see I dream it would be really nice to have a bed and breakfast, to welcome paying guests. Tourism would be very good!
We could host several families, serve a communal meal, then put to bed everybody, everybody taken care of, comfortable. I’m sure they’d come.
Ella: I’d put a billboard at the train station, on the main road! 
Nusi: I don’t know what the B&B name would be, I didn’t dare go that far. The emergency now is to fix the water that runs downhill from my neighbors, hitting the walls. It ruins the house foundation!
Then guests need amenities. If they don’t have a separate bathroom, clean and orderly, they say, ‘Yuck, I won’t come here.’
My Japanese friend, Harumi said she can bathe at home as much as she wants, but to wash in a tin basin was quite an experience! Her friend poured water on her. [Laughs] So many things could be done…
For example city folks can see how villagers make their living, how hard their life is. This is how life was for our grandparents, not easy at all. They made everything, from clothing to food, they cultivated everything. The only thing they needed money for was to buy land, so they could work it. Alas, we nowadays want to sell it away.
Well, I think Puci Telek/Court after my aunt Puci. Méra sounds good too. I don’t know yet… My friend’s guest house is called ‘Multidező’. Multidező! Bygone Times.

Ella: I’ll think about. Méra is such a lovely sounding name.
It would be good to include Transylvania. Foreigners love everything about Transylvania.
You’ve mentioned you are part Romanian.
Nusi: Yes. My mother was from Baciu/Bács, nearby Turda/Torda, Victoria Bulbuc was her maiden name. My grandpa was Vasile Bulbuc. He worked in Budapest but he died when with the typhus epidemic. My mother has a step-brother, Bulbuc Aurel, he has his own museum…
My father’s parents were Hungarian, but his great-grandparents came from Burgenland region, it’s in Austria now.
My grandma lived in Méra, they were a Romanian family, and somehow my parents met and married. Then mother converted, became a Reformed Christian, and by the time she was old, poor thing couldn’t even speak Romanian well anymore. She entirely followed Hungarian customs. But we celebrated both religious holidays. We had two Easters, two Pentecosts, we always celebrated the more important holidays. But she didn’t have with whom to speak Romanian, so then she used just Hungarian. So being raised as a Hungarian you paint Hungarian folk motifs? I’d gladly paint Romanian ones too, but I don’t know them.
My aunt was Romanian as well, but she hated Romanians and Gypsies very much. Though she was Romanian, and her mom was pure Romanian. Maria Petrişor was her mother, but she went on saying she was absolutely not Romanian! Not Romanian! She hated Romanians because they too did some stupid things in the old times, same as Hungarians did too. But she thought of herself as Hungarian. As I say she hated Romanians and Gypsies with all her heart.
Ella: Well, now! That’s the end of how communists called it, ‘Our peaceful ethnic cohabitation’. [They both laugh] But what kind of ethnic groups live here? It’s mainly a Hungarian village. It has 1,400, 1,500 population/heads, but many Gypsies moved here, and none of them move out, they bring their relatives too. There are very decent people among Gypsies but quite a few steal, and no one likes those. You have to work to stay alive, not just raid gardens and steal.
My grandpa came from a Romanian village, Sânpaul. He came as a son-in-law to Méra. My mother became an orphan when she was five years old, and so maybe it was an arranged marriage. But she loved my dad very much, though my dad was a heavy drinker. She always forgave that to him. We were two sisters. My mom was so strict, I remember how she didn’t let us get out of bed until she came with the honey jar and we ate a spoonful. We had a lot of bee hives, and we weren’t allowed to eat anything until we swallowed a spoonful of honey, with bits of pollen and honeycombs in it. Indeed we never got sick back then.
She sang very beautifully. Whistled. She had a Romanian boyfriend, Cătană, from Szucság/Suceagu, but his father died and he became impoverished. My father was rich, so they preferred to give her away to my father. He was a singer at the Romanian Opera Theater in Kolozsvár. He’s dead. I know this because once I went to the medical center and a gentleman told me that I looked so very much like someone he knew. I told this to my mom and she said for sure he was Cătană.
In the past the parents’ word was law. If they said no, then that was no. But I’m sure she loved my father because my father often got drunk, or when I was born, though my mother was not guilty, she always forgave him. If we don’t forgive each other, then from high above no one will forgive us either.

The second time we talked was on June 23rd, 2011. We sat on stools in front of her gate.
[Sounds of a dog barking and birds chirping.]

Ella: Here we are with Nusi shackling peas. [Laughs]
Nusi: They dried out. It’s not raining enough.
Ella: So, would you tell me again Nusi how did village life use to be?
Nusi: Well, I remember when my grandma took me to Kolozsvár, we walked across the Kis Erdők/Little Woods up to Bács and there we took the bus. That’s how people went to Kolozsvár. Twice a week. They carried on their backs knapsacks loaded with milk, buttermilk, cottage cheese, sour cream, they took to the market. They came home the same way! Took the bus to Bács, then they walked home.
That’s why people weren’t as fat as nowadays, they walked a lot. Isn’t it?
They worked hard, hoed in such heat. You wouldn’t see one fat man in the old days.
[The dog stopped barking. All thru the rest of the talk pigeons coo and fly about.]
Ella: Nowadays they have such huge bellies they can barely walk.
Nusi: That’s the truth.
Ella: Would you tell me Nusi again, how you draw in your head when you can’t sleep?
Nusi: I see before my eyes what I want to do. My grandpa told me that two hours of sleep is enough. But it’s not. One needs at least five, six. But it wasn’t even dawn yet and he’d go mow the grass.
Ella: Would you tell me how your year work cycle is?
Nusi: Well, yesterday I went hoeing, behind the house, I hired another man to do the hoeing with me, I waited, waited, waited till 5:30 a.m. but he didn’t come. He came only after six, by then I went on my own. This was on Saturday. Gyuszi ploughed the plot with the horse, so I had to hoe just the areas where he couldn’t reach. Now it’s time to gather hay for animals, so if I don’t help Gyuszi, then he’ll give me away. [They both laugh]
So I apply myself. Now he went to milk the cows in the hills, in the summer grazing camp. When he comes back we head by the bridge and gather the hay from that plot of land. Last evening we brought home a wagon of hay, and today we’ll bring the rest of it.
Haymaking happens once a year. If there will be rain then we’ll also have a second grass mowing. You have to gather for the animals because if you don’t gather now… You can’t go on excursions now, you have to gather hay for the cattle. Fodder. Then after haymaking we have a bit of free time, until the second grass growth, then soon enough comes harvest time. Did you ever work at harvest time?
Ella: Like what?
Nusi: Corn gathering? Potatoes digging? We have to grow everything. We have to produce everything like in the old times, like our ancestors, don’t we? So we can be self-reliant. So we don’t need to buy from the store.
Ella: I’ve seen you had to buy fruits, bread.
Nusi: That’s true. We bake our own bread, but when he goes to Kolozsvár he always brings a few loaves. When I was a child my father had all kinds of fruit trees, so I got used with fruit. First cherries, then sour cherries, no, actually first wax cherries were ripe, then summer apples came next, in July when they harvested the wheat, they were so big, yellow, so tasty…
Ella: What about jam preserves, do you still make?
Nusi: Of course we do! Last year we made rosehip jam, we made plum jam, apricot jam, we buy the apricots. Two years ago I made watermelon jam.
Ella: I’ve never heard of such jam.
Nusi: It’s delicious.
Ella: How do you make the plum jam?
Nusi: We boil it down, then we can it and boil it again, so it’s sterile and we don’t need to put sugar to preserve it.
Ella: When I was small they’d make it in a copper cauldron, all night long…
Nusi: Yes, indeed. There is a kind of plums we take out the pits, and another one that we boil it with pits and then we strain it.
Ella: So after all this is done?
Nusi: Well, in the summer we need to hoe, then we have a bit of time for hand sewing, but you can’t sew as much as during winter. One has to work in the garden, in the field, outside the house.
Ella: In the winter?
Nusi: In the winter we just eat what we produced, rest, and then we can sew. Embroider, make beads, weave.
Ella: The days are short.
Nusi: They are shorter but we don’t go to bed before 11 p.m. anyhow. My mother-in-law embroidered two aprons last winter.
Ella: And what do men do?
Nusi: [Yells to a neighbor.] I picked my peas. Well, they’re alright. They were altogether dried up, so I thought I’d gather them. [To Ella] Well, in the old times men whittled but nowadays they just fix their farming implements and go to the stable to feed the animals, they have to clean the manure out of the stable, and if the earth is frozen they carry it out in the field.
Ella: But they don’t whittle anymore.
Nusi: Not now, but in the old days, yes.
Ella: Then the winter holidays come.
Nusi: Yes, indeed. We prepare for the holidays. Comes Advent, we prepare for holidays. In the old days they cultivated hemp so we’d weave homespun cloth. Everything had its due time. By Easter everything had to be already woven. Before Christmas they spun it and after the holiday they installed the loom and started weaving. On January 6th, when Farsang/Carnival season starts the spinning had to be finished. Now everything is made by machines. Do you remember if they soaked hemp in water in your village?
Ella: Yes.
Nusi: That was so much fun. I loved it so much. I loved it when my mother and my aunt and neighbors got in the water, their skirts floated above the water like flowers.
It was good in the old times. They worked much more, but I think it was much better than now.
Ella: Well, when spring comes what happens then?
Nusi: In spring we put seeds in the garden, all kinds. [Faraway a dog barks]
Ella: Then you get to worry about it.
Nusi: Well, it’s in vain to worry. If the good God gives rain, then we’ll have good crops. Who starts work early will have, who doesn’t, won’t.
Ella: Are there years which you remember better?
Nusi: There was such a year the corn was very small on the plot by the railway tracks. The weeds were taller than the corn. Last year our corn was beautiful. We ploughed and sowed it in time. But others weren’t so lucky. It’s very little hay this year. The grass burnt down from the heat. Gyuszi says even in the grazing camp the animals don’t have what to graze.
Ella: So what do they feed them? Bran?
Nusi: They have to, otherwise they die of hunger.
Ella: What will you be making out of these peas?
Nusi: Pea soup. I also love pea stew. On Sunday when we make chicken soup, I take out the meat and mix it with vegetables. It’ very tasty that way. I pick the meat from the bony chicken parts, from its neck and back.
[Pigeons fly about. The sound of their wings in motion]
Ella: Could you tell me a childhood fairytale? My mother told me a story about a man with a flower beard. But he shows up only at the beginning of the story, his beard made of flowers, and then he disappears for the rest of the story, though the title is The Man With A Flower Beard. I kept on thinking, how did he get such a beard? Did the flowers spring out of his flesh? Did he shave the flowers off or not? I’ve never understood this fairytale. Do you have a preferred fairytale?
Nusi: Not really. I always hid away from people when I was small. Only when I grew up I became more sociable. I liked old people then. When I was small I used to drink eggs. I was so pudgy. I’d climb in the coop and waited for them to lay an egg, I made a hole and drank it. My mother, my grandma, ‘Look! Again something drank the eggs!’ They didn’t know it was me.
Once the egg shell was so hard that I couldn’t poke it, so I took it to them and they asked me what for, and I said, ‘So I can drink it!’ Only then they realized that I was the egg thief. I’d sit in the cellar. I’d draw.
Ella: But were there dances here?
Nusi: Sure. But when we were small my mother made us sew and embroider every day. After we finished our daily task we could do whatever we wanted. Some days we could barely finish it, so much she’d give us to do. Every girl did that. There wasn’t such a thing as saying ‘No.’ We had to sew. We started with small things, with bags. Then we made clothing. We had to make fine little pleats. As we grew up we had to make harder and harder patterns. We had to sew. When we were done, then… During summer we usually didn’t keep a pig, but if we did it was free in the field, so we made ourselves a room out of the pigsty. We decorated it with rugs made of torn rags, and that was our doll house.
That’s where we played.
Ella: Was then a movie theater?
Nusi: There was, but they projected only once a week. The village teacher was in charge of it. He brought films from Kolozsvár and on Saturday evening he projected a movie. They didn’t allow it more than that. The boys too had to go work in the field.
Ella: And what kind of village is this one, Nusi?
Nusi: The most beautiful. Méra is the center of the world.I always loved Méra. 
Ella: It always seemed like that to you?
Nusi: Always. When we lived in the city I barely waited to come back here.

Ella: When did you go the first time to Hungary?
Nusi: Well, when the borders opened my father took me. He took me to Germany too. We were invited officially by one of his friends. He took me to see a museum and that was an exciting experience. I was a small village girl. I’ve never been anywhere but here.
Ella: What was in that museum?
Nusi: Everything. From pottery to all kinds of antiques, various old things.
Ella: That’s what made you want your own museum?
Nusi: No, it was before that. I barely was 7, 8 years old and I already collected things. It didn’t matter what, they only had to be old. All my little money I spent on that. I could have spent them on some delicious sweets, but I didn’t. [Laughs]
Ella: How was it when you went to Hungary?
Nusi: I didn’t go on vacation, I went because we needed beads, Kashmir, so I can make clothing. We had to shop, we didn’t go for pleasure.
[Birds chirp out loud.]
Ella: How are you with your faith in God? Were you raised in it, or you came to it later, was it something that turned you towards faith?
Nusi: Well, I did believe to a certain degree. My grandparents were Baptists, they always took me to the Prayer House. There came also those from Rona, a band came, sang, so I liked it more than the Reformed Church. Every Sunday I went with them. But I confirmed in the Reformed Church. I’ve always believed in God, but I think now I’m much stronger in my faith. I know there’s always someone with me, who always gets me out of trouble.
Ella: Could you tell me when you had a miracle?
Nusi: Well, my mother was in the hospital, and they also hit Marika in a car accident. Her arm was broken and crooked and I was so very scared, I turned gray that night. My mother was in one hospital, my daughter in another one. In the end everything was alright, but ever since I’m closer to God, and I know He’s always with me. [Pigeon flies about]
Ella: How was life under communism here?
Nusi: I can’t complain. We had everything in the village, but when my daughter got married and moved away from our village, that was very bad. My only child. I thought she would be near me. That’s when I started painting again. I was lost in thoughts. I cried, so much a cried. Little Zsofi sings that mothers don’t raise their daughters for themselves. This is the life’s order.
[Tractor noise passing by on the road]
Under communism we worked hard, but we bought a house in Kolozsvár. Now it would be impossible. We work much harder, but that would be impossible. Were we to buy clothing and shop like in the past, we’d have nothing left to buy bread with. [Laughs] It was better then. You worked but… I don’t know. There weren’t so many sundry things to buy. But then we always came down here over the weekend to work. Then too we cultivated the land, we kept animals…
Ella: How did the Water Buffalo Museum come into being?
Nusi: Well, the director, Gyuri Varga, did it. I contributed from my own collection of wagons and whatnot, but I never thought about water buffaloes. One day I’ll have my own museum. Really traditional, with adobe walls, the floor made of dry mud, that’s the real thing, with a porch too. You have to keep old things so young people can see how it used to be in the past.
Ella: Everybody agreed that they want the Water Buffalo Museum?
Nusi: We have an association, Asociaţia Primula Méra - Merai Kankalin Egyesulet, Méra Primrose Association and a few members founded the museum. It was a good idea, this way everybody can see what is gathered there. Isn’t it beautiful?
Ella: Indeed, I think it’s the only water buffalo museum in the world, isn’t it?
Nusi: Indeed. And what’s even more interesting is that here we also have living buffaloes. But their milk is so hard to sell, and they require so much work, I don’t know if the young ones would take upon them this tradition. We have one water buffalo so crazy, we can’t even milk her! And a calf that also suffers.
Ella: What happened to the calf?
Nusi: We took her from her mother and then she refused to eat. She just won’t eat. When she was 6 weeks old we separated her from her mom, her mom gives a lot of milk, and she being a female calf we wanted to raise her. But she barely eats. A bit of bran, a bit of water, she’s very stubborn. And we have this other buffalo that we can’t milk, so wild she is she won’t let us touch her!
Ella: What’s the name of the calf?
Nusi: Virág/Flower.
Ella: And the wild one’s?
Nusi: Miska. [Laughs] Miska doesn’t let us milk her. She kicked Gyuszi’s hand that for a few days now he didn’t even try to milk her again. Luckily she lets the calf suck from her. You can see by her eyes she’s wild. You saw her when we brought her home from the grazing camp.
Ella: And where is the buffalo bull?
Nusi: In the neighbors’, at my uncle Feri. In his stable. There is a young bull at the herd now too.
Ella: So you always had animals here?
Nusi: Always.
Ella: My mother too always had chicken, pigs, but she lives in a town and there is a new law saying raising animals is forbidden in towns.
Nusi: Yes, but it doesn’t touch us. We have about 100 chickens. We give 60 to our children, so they have what to slaughter. We keep about 20 hens, so they make eggs. What they sell in stores it’s no good. I don’t buy it. When we don’t have eggs we don’t eat with eggs. With these chickens we have so much trouble, joj. We have to feed them. We had two hatching hens and the rest we put in the incubator.
Ella: What about pigs?
Nusi: Last year we had three, this year none. We slaughtered them. We didn’t buy another one. We have few corn grain.
Ella: And no sheep?
Nusi: We sold them. We make our cheese from buffalo milk.
Ella: Well, we’re done with pea shacking, we’re done with the chatter.
Nusi: I was just thinking how good it be to have some help, and see, the kind God sent me you. [Laughs]
Ella: I’m glad I could help a bit. Where are all these hundreds of pigeons from? Do they raise them to eat them?
Nusi: The neighbor keeps them. Even in winter they were that many, even more.
Ella: He doesn’t eat them?
Nusi: No, he just loves them. He buys corn for them.
Ella: They live in the attic?
Nusi: Yes, it’s all theirs.
Ella: They coo like this in winter too?
Nusi: Of course.
Ella: He doesn’t need radio music. He was always like this with pigeons?
Nusi: Yes, for atmosphere.

I checked the internet to get in touch with dear Nusi. She’s about to open her museum! The Ana Kelemen Collection hosted in the Puci Museum!

New York

May 21st, 2013