FEATURE: Staying home for Easter – how Eastern Europeans in Erdington celebrate Easter during the coronavirus crisis

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics courtesy of individuals featured

We were not guaranteed a future in this country,” Laszlo Molnars tells Erdington Local, via an international a phone call.

It has been several weeks since Laszlo left the UK, making the decision to take his family back to Hungary as countries across mainland Europe were taking themselves into lockdown – with Britain being one of the last on the list. “It was a big decision for us to leave the UK so soon…” sighs Lazlo, “but we are happy to be somewhere we feel safe.”

Erdington is home to many Eastern Europeans, a vibrant Diaspora who have built families, businesses, and lives in the North East Birmingham constituency. Predominately Christian by faith, Easter would normally see with many returning to their countries of origin – celebrating the festive period with their wider families and communities.

But due to the coronavirus global pandemic, and the restrictions of travel – both domestic and international – that have been enforced across the world, this Spring’s festive repatriation has raised difficult questions for many families. Laszlo and his family are now back in Hungary, but what about those who stayed in the UK?

I planned to go to Poland for Easter with my daughter,” explains Anna Fijałkowska, 34, who was unable to see her family or do the things she would normally do at Easter, “I would go to Poland and spend Easter with my family, mother, sister and grandmother.” Like many of the over 800,00 Polish people living in the UK, Anna desired to return – preferring the quicker response by the Polish government to the original ‘herd immunity’ promulgated by the UK administration.

But it is still Easter. And Wielki Post (Holy Week) is still a big deal, especially in a predominantly Catholic country like Poland. “I could not go to church for Palm Sunday,” continues Anna, “I could not go to get my basket blessed.” With all the religious rituals on hold in the UK, this time of year would seem very alien for people like Anna.

But despite all these complications Anna remains positive, finding delight at spending so much quality time with her daughter – even in the shadow of something so nasty: “I think the time of this virus is a very special time for us which shows us that we should focus more on building family relationships. I still prepared all the foods that I would at Easter.” Biała kiełbasa [smoked meats], Mazurek [Easter cakes] and of course, pisanki [Easter eggs] all take centre stage in Polish households, although this year without being taken to church for a blessing.

With an established Polish community in Erdington and across Birmingham, St Michael’s Church and the Polish Millennium Centre serving as focal points, for some Eastern Europeans their whole life is here already. Atanas Slavchev or ‘Nasko’, 34, moved to Erdington from Bulgaria six years ago.

Happy Easter!” he exclaims over the phone. Most Bulgarians would celebrate Easter on 19th April – like with most other Orthodox countries, Eastern European Christianity follows the Julian calendar, meaning common religious festivals can be held at different times in different countries.

Every day is Easter,” explains Nasko, “as Christ is risen. But we celebrate it especially today, like the Orthodox.” Nasko’s family are not orthodox, but rather part of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) church in Erdington – home to a lively evangelical band, called El Shaddai. Somewhat unlike the Orthodox style a capella chants, it’s not your typical Bulgarian affair; this time of year would still have been a time of jubilation.

Similar themes of religious celebration, gathering of families and unique cuisine, rise from Nasko’s conversation: Kozunak [Easter bread], Lamb dishes [reflecting the ‘lamb of God’], and, eggs [which they paint] define the taste and style of Easter for Bulgarians.

But there is disappointment, “our kids were rehearsing hard for the Easter play, but they can’t do that now.” Another cancelled event for Nasko’s family.

He and his wife run Sofia, a Bulgarian food and convenience store on Tyburn Road. Their wider family in Erdington numbers around 70 – uncles, aunties and cousins included – and they’ve kept Sofia open, catering to the Bu;garian community but also for non-Bulgarians who have caught on that these shops still have pasta and flour during the coronavirus crisis – only the writing is in another language.

It’s still important to Nasko and his family to visit their home country, but he predicts they won’t get time this year due to complications from the global pandemic, “we wanted to go to Bulgaria but we may end up just going to Cornwall for our holiday.”

Ramona Petrescu, 26, is not with any family this Easter. She moved to the UK about five years ago to improve her English and meet new people – working in factory jobs, alongside some translation work, and selling her wares as an artist and crafter.

Lamb dishes, Pască [Romanian Easter bread] and ‘ouă incondeiate’ [decorated eggs] also define this time for Romanians, which, like Bulgaria, is a mostly orthodox country. But it has been hard for Ramona to get into the Easter spirit at all – even whist not being religious, this time is still a marked celebration in her year.

The usual excitement for the day has definitely gone”, explains Ramona, “I am definitely less upbeat and more into introspection and peace of heart and mind, while I find myself far away from what I ‘ve known to be comfortable in Romania”. Ramona wanted to paint eggs but didn’t finds she have the will or the time this year.

Although on Easter Sunday, Ramona treated herself to ‘ouă umplute’ (devilled eggs) which she assures was a “great Romanian invention.”

With thanks to Magdalena and Oksana from the Polish Expats Association for assistance with research. For more on the Polish Expats Association, visit www.facebook.com/polish.expats

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