I arrived in the pretty village of Mălâncrav in the early afternoon of an Indian summer day, after a slow drive along the 12-mile gravel road that leads to this ancient and isolated place. I was curious to visit Mălâncrav, because it has a larger surviving population of Saxons than any other Transylvanian village. And I also wanted to see its 14th-century fortified church.
I’d read in my guidebook that keys to the church were available at Casa Parohială — which I guessed meant Parish House — or at House 307, but I wasn’t sure where either of them was located. Signage was nonexistent in the village, no shops were open and I was beginning to fear I’d never get to see the famous Gothic murals. Then I noticed three children, two boys and a girl, sitting on a hewn log bench under a chestnut tree.
I got out of the car and approached them with a greeting of “Bună ziua,” or “Good day.” They giggled. I then continued in Italian, hoping that maybe there would be enough overlap between the two Latin languages for them to understand that I was trying to find a key for the church. One of them stood up and pointed to my notebook. I handed it to him, and he drew a little map. I thanked him: “Mulțumesc.” The kids dissolved into laughter. Then one of them said, “Where are you from?” in English. I told him, and he went wide-eyed. Another asked me my name and how old I was, also in English. They made space for me on their bench, and I learned that they’d been studying English for two years, which was surprising, because they spoke it exceedingly well. A gust of wind shook the tree and a chestnut fell and hit me on the head, which provoked much hilarity.