Thursday, 16 April 2015

Wild Boar, Wolves and Faded Splendour

I have just come back from Romania. What a fascinating country to travel in. Despite the pot holes and the lunatic drivers, (of which we decided there were two groups - 1) The Romaniacs, those who habitually overtook on unbroken lines while going round hairpin bends; 2) The Slowmanians, the one in every ten who, perhaps to compensate for the recklessness of their brethren, travelled at a consistent 30 kilometres per hour), what an experience.

Interior of Saxon church at Viscri

Interior of Saxon church at Viscri

Interior of Saxon church at Viscri

Interior of Saxon church at Viscri

Saxon church at Viscri

Interior of Saxon church at Viscri

Saxon church at Viscri

Saxon church at Viscri

Carving in church at Sigisoara

The country is beautiful. The people are still amongst the poorest in Europe. The dilemma for the traveller is that sometimes what makes the country so beautiful and picturesque is its poverty. Thus, you never catch a glimpse of a combine harvester. Instead, you see someone using a scythe to make hay. The cut hay is then carried away, either heaped so thickly onto a home-made cart arrangement that it looks like some kind of grassy powder puff as it is transported off by a weary looking horse or two, or borne on a trestle by hand between two men, so that one cannot help thinking that it must be a particularly noble form of hay, deserving to be borne through the land on a latter day sedan chair.

People still drive horses to get to wherever they want to go, sitting on the same sort of home-made cart arrangement that sometimes carries the hay. Occasionally they drive cattle instead of horses. Sometimes they even drive a single weary donkey.

 Those without access to even a home made cart or the means to drive it, bicycle - (and we are not talking about lycra-clad, helmeted, all-the-latest-equipment kind of bicycling) - or trudge. Many, of all ages, hitchhike, even old ladies in headscarves and aprons and elderly gents in cone hats and sleeveless sheepskin jerkins.

Although the country has some of the fastest broadband in Europe, I don't think it has reached many of the villages - or rather the inhabitants have not yet got the means (or the inclination?) to have it put on. Thus, everywhere you look kids are playing outside, climbing trees, swinging, playing football, just mucking about aimlessly, as we used to.

There are shepherds everywhere too, still in traditional clothing, their flocks spreading like white moss across the unenclosed landscape. The shepherds are out in all weathers. They move the sheep up to the high country in the warmer months and bring them back down onto the plains when it becomes too cold. A beautiful sight - but what kind of life is the life of a shepherd? A lonely one, I'm guessing.

We visited a friend's family. When we arrived, the husband was out the back cutting up a sheep he'd killed. As soon as she saw us, his wife began laying out home-made ham, home-made sausage, radish picked from the garden that morning, cucumbers pickled from the garden when they were in season, wild boar that her husband had killed in the winter and that she had preserved. They plied us with food and were disappointed that we didn't wash it down with buckets of alcohol, home brewed by them. Their hospitality was incredibly warm.
Only the tomatoes were shop-bought

A couple of animal skins were hanging on hooks. They looked about the size of the sheepskins people in Australia sometimes lay their babies on or put beside their beds so that they have something nice to put their feet on when they get up in the morning, but in place of wool they were covered in a pale, surprisingly silky, soft fur. I asked what they were and they were brought down to show me. They were the skins of a couple of wolves that had been shot near the village in the winter.

Our hosts, I realised, really barely need money. They must be the nightmare of all big retailing chains. They presumably purchase soap powder and lavatory paper and a few things like that, but they could probably manage to be practically self-sufficient, if they had to. They make their own spirits - very strong: one apple flavoured, the other, (for the ladies, apparently), cherry.

We went back to Apatalek and to Bulci, a beautiful house that is still for sale and still delapidated. It was satisfying to see that the only things that were really rapidly decaying there were the horrid concrete benches that had been placed in the Bulci park in the dark days of Communism. Badly made, I presume, like almost everything else from that era. We also went back to the house a friend had inherited and found it in a much better state than it had been last time we were there:

We passed lots of really bizarre looking buildings - many half-finished - with strange multiple pagodaed silvery rooves. These are what are known as gypsy palaces and they are invariably enormous, mainly, we were told, because, to avoid tax, their builders seek planning permission to build churches - and therefore they have to make something that is big enough to hold a congregation.

A lot of what I've described is the kind of stuff that we in the more affluent parts of the world regard as somewhat aspirational. We sigh for the days when kids played outside. Many of us want to emulate Tom Good and be self-sufficient. It's one thing though to make choices about how one leads one's life. It is quite another to have no options.

In one village, I saw a couple and a child come out of their house carrying a huge milk urn. I wondered where they kept their cow. They trudged up to the village pump and filled the urn with water and lugged it back to the house and I realised that they didn't have a cow. They also didn't have running water.

But things are, slowly, getting a little bit better. And Romanians are a brilliant race.

If you want an example of their brilliance, there is the government's new scheme to try to erase under the counter cash transactions. In every cafe you go into, there are laminated cards on the table exhorting you to ensure you get a properly printed till receipt that shows the sales tax has been paid for what you buy. Much more clever though is the government's cunning scheme to encourage consumers in this endeavour. All receipts are duplicated and the government receives the duplicates. These are all pooled and the government operates a lottery with them, pulling out random receipts and awarding the holders of those selected a large cash prize. If I stood the chance of winning a large sum, I might be more careful to insist on dockets for every transaction I make.

Possibly slightly less brilliant - but intriguing nevertheless - is a system whereby it is possible to buy time off your jail sentence if you write a book whilst you are banged up. The more books you write, the sooner you get out. According to a friend, a person involved in the world of football who had been put inside for some kind of match fixing or similar fraud managed to "write" five books while under lock and key, despite being far from an intellectual. These were "published" and all copies immediately bought by all his friends, so that the quality of the texts cannot be judged by anyone outside his circle. He had been sentenced to seven years, but, thanks to his "hard work", was out in the twinkling of an eye.

Finally, given the legacy of Communism, eg these buildings, (not to mention a wrecked economy and a population many of whom remain psychologically scarred by years of oppression):

[and compare them to the architectural legacy of the system the Communists smashed]:
Opera house in Oradea

Gurasada where Patrick Leigh Fermor spent many happy days

it was very nice to see monuments to those who fought and died to rid the country of the Ceausescu regime, including this nice little broken hammer and sickle symbol on a memorial in Deva:

Marxism appears to have smashed up all sorts of good things without effectively improving anyone's lot. So what on earth was the point?

PS - there were storks:


  1. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing your photos.

    1. Oh dear - I rather feared it was the blog equivalent of a what-I-did-on-my-holidays slide evening.