Screeching trumpets pierce the air on the Mall, a New Hampshire man explains the miracles of maple syrup, a South African plays a flute, and a swirl of Romanians clad in Elvis-style suits drag stumbling toddlers into a ring dance.
In a corner of this annual campy, corny, surreal circus called the Smithsonian Folklife Festival sit two young Romanian Orthodox nuns from the Carpathian Mountains, quietly painting gold-and-red-flecked icons of Jesus, Mary and Saint John the Baptist for the greater glory of their God.
They wear black pillbox hats that sit atop their heads like crowns. Their long, braided hair is covered with black scarves that form triangles on their backs. Black rayon long-sleeved shirts hang over ankle-length skirts.
Eliseea Papacioc, 29, and Silvana Ciupitu, 26, sit at a long table painting and explaining the icons to visitors. Their black outfits flow in the breeze as the Washington Monument looms behind them.
Sister Silvana, a shy woman with warm eyes and light skin, pulls out a tiny brush and dips its coarse hairs into beaten egg yolk and paint. She leans over a wooden plaque bearing the outline of Mary and Jesus and begins to paint. Nothing, not peering tourists or Transylvanian folk music in the tent next door, disturbs her.
Some in the D.C. world may find these two mysterious. In a city of career networking, happy hour and scandal, Sister Eliseea and Sister Silvana realize they don't fit in with the young women staring at them: They don't drink, take kick-boxing classes or even know much about any "intern issues." They find their happiness and peace in their icons.
This week, they certainly caused looks of curiosity and awe.
"You a nun?" asks a man wearing cowboy boots and slurping down a piece of leaking watermelon.
"Yes," says Sister Silvana, who speaks little English. She smiles modestly and returns to her icon of Mary and baby Jesus.
"I ain't never seen a nun before," says an amazed but respectful Tammy Funchess, a 27-year-old medical assistant at Andrews Air Force Base. "I think I've seen 'em on TV."
While Sister Silvana carefully strokes her brush on the plaque, women pass by with half-shirts and bellybutton rings peeking out. In-line skaters make hairpin turns, almost knocking over baby carriages.
Sometimes the nuns look concerned. But they don't like to make judgments.
"These people aren't stripped away from God," says Sister Eliseea, twisting a black wool prayer bracelet that hangs from her wrist. "If they take one step toward Him He will take 10 steps toward them."
The icons they paint are created on plaques that range from postcard-size to posters. All are stained with emotional portraits: Jesus, ribs jutting out and face filled with grief. Saint John the Baptist, beheaded, brown hair flowing, his eyes hollow.
The gold leaves in the background, which make the icons appear to glow, represent the light of God. The red on the edges: His blood. The nuns say they don't worship the actual images, but see them as symbolic conversations with God.
With their round tray of paints, worn hands and paint-smeared fingers, the two nuns will be with the festival until it ends on the Fourth of July. This is the heart of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival: crafts and items so embedded with meaning that the makers themselves can usually explain them best.
"God himself does these icons with His light," says Sister Eliseea. "When we paint, the icons become a sacred metaphor."
As Sister Silvana paints, an enraptured Richard E. Ahlborn, a curator at the National Museum of American History, wanders up to her. He quickly pulls out a pen and takes notes.
"I've never seen any icons like this in my life," he says, pulling up a chair and asking a slew of questions. "These are really unique."
The designs are indeed unique to Romanians, says Augustin Buzura, president of the Romanian Cultural Foundation in Bucharest. Buzura is here helping the Smithsonian Institution work on the Romanian part of the festival. He visits the nuns' stand to see how they are enjoying being on display. His country, which is bordered by Hungary, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and the Black Sea, has many young nuns like Eliseea and Silvana, he says.
"After 50 years of communism people in my country have returned to religion," says Buzura, a bulky man wearing a straw Romanian hat. "These two were known to be the best icon painters in our country."
At home in the Carpathian Mountains, Eliseea and Silvana paint at night, after long days of prayer, cooking and cleaning. Sometimes they paint until 3 a.m. (It takes several weeks to complete a small icon.)
Sister Eliseea is strikingly beautiful, with thick brown eyebrows and flawless olive skin.
"Many people ask me here and in Romania, 'Did you break up with your boyfriend? Did you have a jilted love? Why would you become a nun?' " she says. "I tell them it's a much more serious enterprise. It was a spiritual necessity."
When she was 17 her father died after suffering for more than eight years in communist jails. There are religious leaders in her family. But she decided on her own at 19 that she felt "the calling."
The next day, she packed her bags, took a four-hour train ride and checked into a monastery. At first, she was nervous and longed for her mother and brothers. But they were supportive and happy with her choice.
"In fact, it's a kind of insanity," says Sister Eliseea, who learned English at school, but sometimes asks for a translator when she wants to articulate her insights about God. "You have to be crazy for Christ."
Sister Silvana had a different experience in becoming a nun. At first, her family was nervous about the idea. There was stress and debate. But seeing her happy, they eventually learned to respect her decision. Today she can't imagine another lifestyle. When she paints her icons she describes it as "speaking with God."
Together with three other nuns, Silvana and Eliseea are working to rebuild a 17th-century monastery, where they will construct a church. Now it's just a cabin in the mountains. Eliseea has had her share of adventures there. She says she's been attacked by a cougar and stuck in a snowstorm, unable to carry food into the cabin.
"The idea to build this is very beautiful, but it is very hard and sometimes you want to give up," she says. "You always have to keep the goal in front of you."
They hope to sell some of the icons at the festival--they range in price from $100 to $300--to raise funds for the construction.
Many Americans seem ready to pull out their wallets when they see the glowing icons. At the table, Sister Eliseea makes sure to tell people that the money will go to God.
After about eight hours at the festival, the sun begins to set and people start to pack up their tents. The Romanian wood carvers in knee-high furry wool socks store their wares. So do the dog-sled carpenters from New Hampshire and the ostrich egg engravers from South Africa. And Sister Eliseea and Sister Silvana start to carefully wrap their icons in newspaper.
They are staying at the Key Bridge Marriott with the hundreds of others in the festival.
At night, there are jumping parties at the hotel where all cultures--New Hampshire folks, South Africans and Romanians--mingle after long sunny days on the Mall.
Eliseea and Silvana will stay for dinner. But afterward they will return to their room to polish their icons and pray.
CAPTION: Romanian Orthodox nun Eliseea Papacioc, left, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. "God himself does these icons with His light. When we paint, the icons become a sacred metaphor," she says. Above, Sister Silvana Ciupitu paints letters on a plaque.
CAPTION: Romanian Orthodox nun Eliseea Papacioc explains the technique and meaning of her icons to the curious at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
CAPTION: Sister Silvana is undisturbed by peering tourists and festival music as she paints a wooden icon.