In despair at ever finishing my sainted book about Romanian shepherds migrating to the east, I've gone back to some previous drafts (see one of them below), hoping that will kick start another effort. And, no, dear reader (if there is one) I'm not blind or deaf to what's going on in the world right now, but holding on to a belief that other people's lives are inherently more interesting than mine is a way of surviving the torrent of propaganda that once again is trying to force us to throw our toys out of the pram and go bombing again...
One morning in mid-September, while an incandescent moon was still throwing Sibiu’s buildings into dark relief, I walked down to the lower town to catch a bus to Jina. It was just after 6am but could have been the middle of the night. On my way, I crossed a deserted Piaţa Mare, the city’s main square, looking unearthly in the silver light. It was strange to see it like that: an empty oval stage waiting for its daily performances of strolling pedestrians, of fountains which leapt up suddenly out of the pavement to soak unwary children and make them shriek, its buskers, its medieval crafts fairs, rock concerts and exhibitions. Ever since Sibiu had been voted a European City of Culture it had not looked back, and Piaţa Mare was the hub of its re-energised cultural life. Not so now: without the razzamatazz it had no identity at all. Its former shabbiness recalling the nervousness and anger of the past as well as the cruelty of medieval witch hunts and public meetings had had some magic in it. Now all that had been swept up and thrown away, along with the gardens which had been here. They too were an anachronism and had been removed to restore the square’s medieval form. My sentimentality was probably misplaced: Sibiu used to be the fiefdom of Nicu Ceauşescu, the communist dictator’s son, and I wasn’t keen to see a return to that state of affairs, or to the lynch mob. The medieval clink was still there, or at least the metal bars which had been its cage. It looked oddly out of place, but was doing useful service as a public drinking fountain.
As I turned down Strada ??, one or two ghostly people materialised out of the pre-dawn blackness and hurried past on their way to work. After the initial shock of seeing someone else abroad and a shiver of suspicion, none of them gave me a second glance. That made me too feel like a wraith, on my own weightless and speedy mission.
Jina is Romania’s highest village. It perches like a lop-sided starfish on seven rolling hilltops some three thousand feet above sea level (and 18oo feet higher than Sibiu), on the northern edge of the Cindrel Massif.
Fuck said the bus driver, waking me from my reverie.
The massif forms part of the southern Carpathians which rise like rows of camels’ humps between Transylvania and Oltenia, the western half of Wallachia, to the south. Its conical peaks, broad-backed moorlands and deeply folded and forested valleys attracted Romania’s most ambitious pastoralists and to this day, sheep folds and colibe (small wooden farmsteads built for summer use) lie scattered around its accommodating relief. They are the modest remnants of thousands of years of pastoralism, and they are thought to stand on sites where the Iron Age Dacians and their medieval descendants held out in ancient fortified communities. In English, the rolling hills and wide, sometimes terraced meadows of these mountain tops have been given the rather charming geological name of peneplains. This is because they are said to replicate in the high mountains the last stages of fluvial erosion (to you and me, that means rivers and streams wearing the land down to its bedrock) that you get in the low plains. Jina stands on a peneplain, which as I read in a learned geographical journal, is gently sloping and called the Gornoviţa surface. It didn’t look all that gently sloping to me.
At its eastern limit, the Cindrel Massif comes to an abrupt end in its high rolling path, suddenly giving way to make way for the Olt River. The Olt which gives its name to the region of Oltenia, the town of Olteniţa (which perplexingly is not anywhere near it) and the unlamented Oltcit motor car, meanders here from north-east Transylvania in a series of indecisive loops, then as a unravelling silver boa constrictor makes a sudden dash from here to the Danube, pouring through the mountain gateway in a mighty flood.
At their western side the Cindrel touch fingers with the Sureanu Range, where the Dacians made their last stand against the Romans in 105-106 AD. Decebal, the last Dacian leader had a fortress at Sarmizegetusa right in the heart of the Sureanu Mountains. This has become a symbol of Romanian resistance to foreign threats, and a place where with the right amount of imagination you can make the connections between the sheep-rearing Dacians, Romania’s myth of origin, inspired by a legend about a shepherd who gets murdered because he will not abandon his flock and modern shepherding can become delightfully entangled.
To the south, interwoven with the Cindrel, lie the Lotru Mountains, the Outlaws’ range, the Cindrel Massif’s Oltenian twin that forms the other half of the double barrier between Transylvania and Oltenia.
Crowning the Cindrel Mountains on their north-western side, Jina is also the country’s largest comuna. A comuna is the administrative centre of a group of villages, presided over by an elected mayor who represents a political party, as in a French commune.)
Jina’s population is about 4000 but its boundaries encompass a space the size of Bucharest.
(New people enter the story)
But for me Jina had another attraction: as the most important shepherding centre in Romania. On the evidence of hearsay alone, this small town or large village, I wasn’t sure which to call it so as not to offend local pride, was to shepherding what Vienna is to music, Newcastle is to coals, or Los Angeles to Valley Girls.
You could say more or less the same thing about all 18 villages of Mărginimea Sibiului, as well as about the mountains and villages around Valea Sebeşului and Valea Frumoasei to the west. All of these areas have probably thriven on sheep since long before records began. And the likelihood is that they were practising transhumance long before the 14th century, when people started takimg enough notice to write it down. But I didn’t really care because having seen choirs of Jinari pipers in their striking shepherds’ costumes - white cotton suits, black waistcoats, with brown and white woollen plaids tossed over their shoulders, and tall black clopuri (brimless pot hats), I was ready to give Jina pride of place. The pipe music alone, which had haunted me ever since I had first heard the pan pipes of the Maramureş, made me want to know more about this outpost of ancient shepherding traditions. I was impatient to test the theory for myself.
Waiting in the autogara, Sibiu’s main bus station, was a social leveller: it’s a place where down and outs collapse onto benches, where Roma men in broad-brimmed black fedora hats saunter about like Mexican bandits, bossing their women - looking as if they would boss you too given half a chance - and where prospective hired shepherds, the so-called angajaţi who have no sheep of their own and are often on their uppers, hang around for work.
If anything, during the 18 or so years that I have been visiting Romania, the gap between rich and poor has grown, or at least it has become more glaring since the Revolution when just about everyone looked etiolated from years of deprivation. As I sat facing a wretched-looking man who was sleeping off last night’s binge slantwise across two chairs with loud snorts and nose riffs, and a couple of anxious-looking old people wrapped in dingy clothes, I felt as though I could easily become one of the underclass. But either because I was a visitor who could escape or because an income-based class-system is something new in Romania, the expected despondency, inspired by the aggressive British Toryism of the Thatcherite years, didn’t fall. Instead, I exchanged sympathetic glances with the old couple and looked ahead to the day.
It was 6.50 as I lugged my rucksack on board the Transmixt bus. The 20 or so passengers who were already ensconced in the musty old seats regarded me with scepticism or like zombies, their eyes not registering anything at all. Either it was too early for them to take much notice or they were simply exhausted by a life of unremitting toil. We had all seen better days, including the bus. It was a disappointing start to a journey but I was thrilled to be going back to spend several days in a sheep fold at last.
I had been to Jina several times since my first visit in 2007. The first time it had been late in the day on a cold and foggy at the end of October. There had been hardly any other people around. Because of that, my memories of Jina were rather bleak. A Romanian acquaintance had brought me and a British friend of mine up in his car and we had pulled up on a concrete apron, supposedly in the centre of the village, but looking to me like the world’s end. The fog was so low and thick that it was hard to tell that there was anything else here at all. There had only been time to garner a fleeting impression of stark white buildings looming out from the damp, invading gloom before we had to turn round and get back to Sibiu.
Chilled to the bone, my friend and I had taken refuge for five minutes in the wood-floored magazin mixt, a general shop where we saw a few other Jinari browsing over meagrely stocked shelves. The people looked as though they had battened down their hatches for the winter and were not inclined to talk. Or was I hoping that the villagers would fall at our feet, as exotic and precious visitors – or even worse did I in some snobbish corner expect them to touch their forelocks? Whatever I expected it was clear that Jina had a pragmatic community well used to tourists and we were of no interest whatsoever, unless perhaps we wanted to buy land or sheep. I found this discouraging but my friend, who was married to an Orcadian sheep farmer, was in her element. To keep us going on the way down, she bought half a kilo of sickly-sweet biscuits that she found loose in a cardboard box, and a plastic bag full of pale yellow potato croquettes, Romania’s version of crisps. The shop-keeper beamed at her, showing that Jina was human after all.
That had been five years ago. My next trip to Jina had been at the end of August, when I went with Amalia, my anthropologist friend, to the launch of a folk life museum. Armed with names and mobile phone numbers of at least three shepherds and their families, I was determined to use the chance to make contact with one or other of them.
We got to Jina just after mid-day on a Sunday, and it was nothing like I remembered. The weather was exceptionally hot, and the sky was entirely blue; there had been no rain for a month, and the roadsides were so dusty that a white film covered the verges. The village looked resplendent in the sunshine: the light danced on the terraced Habsburg-period farmsteads and their terracotta roofs, picking out the faded stripes and patterned stucco on 18th century facades and on the sharper edges of ostentatious new villas, too, with their burnt orange, puce or lemon yellow hues. The light had a clarity that you only get in exceptionally pure air. It shone with special fervor on Jina’s white walled churches. The older of Jina’s two Orthodox churches was being restored and its row of retouched frescoes showing Biblical stories which ran right around its body, just below the gutters, glowed warmly against the clean, white walls. Amalia turned off the main road, drove a few hundreds down a lane and parked her Citroen on the edge of a precipice. Below us, on the steep sides of a valley and along its bottom about 100 feet down, freshly dug earthworks traced abstract designs on the land – it wasn’t an artistic installation though, but the preparations for a ski run. Right here, in the middle of Jina? I was impressed.
The folk museum was housed in a farmstead of the type that you can find all over Transylvania – and across the eastern European part of the former Habsburg Empire. Built cheek by jowl to its neighbours which were all more or less the same, it was like a mini fortress, hidden from the road behind massive wooden gates. The museum was the brain child of a retired teacher called Ileana and she had been collecting its contents for years, hoarding anything she could find that could be of interest to future generations curious about the history and customs of the village.
Her friends and neighbours had donated a lot of the objects too. The museum occupied several rooms, barns and outhouses, and each of these spaces was crammed with every kind of household and agricultural implement, as well as furniture, clothes, toys and linen. There was no rigid theme to each space, although things from the house were kept in the house and farming tools stayed in the barns, but the displays weren’t random either. Their prolixity was charming.
It was lovely to be invited to the launch, to be part of an eager, heaving, friendly, back-slapping crowd in its Sunday best
and, if possible, to make contact with shepherds who still practised transhumance. Amalia was Romanian and had grown up in the area. Her father had written learned books on Romanian folk beliefs and the history of Romanian shepherding and transhumance had been one of his passions. Amalia had her own ideas about how I could find my way into a fold and together we were collecting shepherds, she as material for research and conference papers, and me because five in the hand are worth thousands in the bush.
I had made the bus trip but had left Sibiu at mid-day. I had visited a couple who owned a thousand or so sheep which they kept at two separate folds higher up in the mountains. Their son Ghiţa still practised long-distance transhumance on foot, in company with a couple of hired shepherds, and I wanted to meet him in case I could go along too.
My introduction to the Danuleţ family had been promising but vague: I found them through a Romanian colleague who had been taking photos of transhumant shepherds across Europe and had himself become good friends with Ghiţa Danulet. My colleague had given me Ghiţa’s number, and as I stumbled over my request in halting Romanian, he asked me to talk to his mother, Paraschiva. Clinging to this hope like a limpet, I had explained to Paraschiva that I too was interested in transhumance and asked if they would mind if I came to stay at their sheep folds with a view to getting to know them and joining the seasonal sheep walk. It was a lot to ask and I was half expecting a brusque refusal.
Mrs Danulet had a voice that would have stopped the Golden Horde in its tracks. In my mind’s ear I could hear it ringing out from an Amazon’s chariot. It was a voice designed for yelling across wide, deep valleys - full of goodwill but standing no nonsense. Paraschiva could have bawled out a delinquent rugger team and kept the British House of Commons in order, and she inspired confidence in me from the first.
She reminded me of a woman I had encountered running a bar in Medicine Hat. It was the only place to keep warm in the middle of the night while waiting for my onward Greyhound connection, and she made sure I was not pestered by the men who were lurching in and out of the place, stone drunk and potentially violent. I had had some misgivings about launching myself into a clutch of male shepherds, and, although I hadn’t even met her, it was reassuring to feel that there was someone like Paraschiva around.
Paraschiva accepted my request without demur and told me they would meet me at the town hall, where the bus ended its panting journey, 600 metres above Sibiu, on top of the world. But on that first afternoon, no-one was waiting for me when I got down, and I took the chance to look around. I was in the same place where my friend had parked his car in 2007 – there was the magazin mixt on the opposite side of the square. But otherwise there was no resemblance. Now it was early September, we were at the end of an unusually dry summer, and the sun was blazing out of a brilliant, cloudless sky. People were everywhere, scurrying about in a purposeful manner, stopping to chat with each other or zooming up and down the street in cars, vans, on motorbikes and cycles, chugging along in tractors or whipping up their carthorses to a spanking pace. Next to the shop was a modern bank, and on my side of the road, there was a large, modern, chalet style building housing not only the town hall, but also the police station and the headquarters of the regional forestry authority. Next to the town hall was a smart-looking pensiune cum restaurant, which was obviously doing a roaring trade. What had happened to Jina seemed to have one particular explanation: the EU had perked things up no end.
When they saw I was hanging around, the bus driver and two or three other people asked me if I was alright, but after ten minutes a young woman dressed in a trendy low cut turquoise blouse and tight jeans crossed the street and came over to me. She was tanned and healthy looking with glossy raven black hair that bounced around her shoulders. She came up to me with a ready smile and introduced herself as Ionela (Daniela) – she had no doubt who I was because among the short, sturdy, dark-haired people of Jina, I stood out like a sore thumb. Feeling less like a stray dog and more like a welcome guest I set off with Ionela, who walked briskly back up the street whence the bus had come. As we rounded the bend at the top, I could see right out onto the Transylvanian Plateau, which was hazy and very, very far below.
Jina lies on seven hills and straight ahead of us, cresting one of them, was the ‘new’ quarter. It was known as Bordeaua, and had been built by the Băieşi who came to the village in the late 18th century. The Baiesi were miners (hence their name) from the Apuseni Mountains to the north and they had turned their hands to crafts and tree-felling. Some ran small cattle farms, but they rarely became shepherds like most of the rest of the population. Baiesi became the village’s artisans and the quarter was still thought of as separate enclave. But today that was for a different reason: Bordeaua housed most of Jina’s Gypsy population.
The village was shaped like a sprawling star-fish, and Bordeaua stood on a leg of its own. As we looked at its bright roofs gleaming in the sunshine, a group of Roma women came out of the lane that linked the quarter to the main through road. Laughing loudly, they gave us a cursory glance with a hint of challenge in it. Ionela said, they don’t work but they receive a lot of help... The old, old problem. When I pushed her to say a bit more, she told me, We get on alright with them, most of the time.
Ionela was telling me some of this as we went along, pointing out interesting places like a helpful guide. Our walk only lasted five minutes but it seemed much longer – there was so much to take in. Then we turned to the right and up hill again onto a wide, dirt track with concrete paving in the middle. On either side were sturdy farmsteads whose facade walls were built flush with each other so that there was no chink between the properties. Each household had a pair of formidable wooden gates, wide and tall enough for a tractor to pass through although they had been designed for horses and carts. This architectural arrangement was due to Maria Theresa’s influence; before the Habsburgs regulated Transylvania’s mountain villages, Jina’s homes had been scattered far and wide over the mountains. The Empress’s officials demolished the scattered farms and forced the inhabitants to cluster together in tight enclaves where they could be more easily controlled.
Ionela’s house was no different to the rest except that its walls were salmon pink. We entered through the large gates and found a cobbled T-shaped yard, enclosed on all sides by the house and its outbuildings. Through a barn which had two sets of doors facing each other, I could see a patch of grass. Ionela led me into the house and proceeded to ply me with food – the Romanian way. She put a large uneven loaf of bread on the table, hacking off several slices iwth a wicked looking knife. She gave me bean soup and sheep’s cheese and tomatoes and peppers and brewed fresh coffee which I drank in a tiny cup, Turkish style. I wasn’t really sure what was happening, whether I should stay here or go back to Sibiu (although the last bus would leave in five minutes) . I hoped it would be OK to stay, and I began asking Ionela all kinds of questions about the farm, how it worked, whether it was going OK, what she did and so on. She answered me with limpid openness, courteous to a fault, and when she smiled which was often, the corners of her mouth turned upwards. Her lower jaw was slightly protruding, whether from a fault of birth or an accident was hard to say, but it only made her seem more likeable and more real. She had the kind of frankness that made it easy to talk to her, and her lack of reserve soon made me relax. Ionela was 16 and had just started a four year ocurse at an agricultural school in Sibiu. She told me she hoped to go into accounting or something similar having no desire to follow her mother into the hardships of shepherding life. They didn’t have internet access, but Ionela showed me photos of the farm and the mountains on her laptop. When she noticed that the one I had was full, she gave me a new exercise book.
What was I to do now, I wondered, having eaten lavishly and feeling that glow that you get from the feeling you are among friends after the worries of being a stray. It’s up to you said Ionela, we can stay here for the night or we can go to the stâna. To the stâna, I decided, thinking ‘at last’ and kicking myself for not bringing a sleeping bag or even a warm coat.
Not sure about this Stâna is the word which Romanians use for the buildings, the milking station and corrals which together comprise a sheep fold. It originally meant just the barns and comes from the Latin stabulum for a stable or stall, which became staul and then stâna.
After showing me the narrow strip of garden with its spreading plum and walnut trees and its modest vegetable patch, Ionela got ready to go. First she went down into a cellar, unlocking the door with reverence. I could see why: the cellar was as wide and long as the house, a serious space that stored the family’s main source of income. Row upon row of wooden barrels stood in the cold, damp air. Each barrel was full to the brim with plastic packets of telemeaua, salted sheep’s cheese. The Danuletses sold their cheese in various ways but mainly to a middle-man who passed it on to shops and markets in Bucharest, Timişoara and Craiova, and other big cities. People could also buy their cheese at the farm gate.
Ionela collected some big plastic cartons and heaved them into a sun-bleached, weather-worn caruţa (horse-drawn cart). She put my gear alongside, covered the load with a blanket and manoeuvred the cart outside, no mean feat because it was heavy and cumbersome. Not for the first time in Romania, I marvelled at the physical strength of the country women. And I wasn’t alone: as a joke, a Bucharest newspaper had recently printed a photograph showing a ţăranca (country woman) single-handedly lifting a log the size of a telegraph pole, alongside another image in which twelve sweating men were struggling to heft a trunk that was two thirds of its size.
Hovering uncertainly, I had offered to help but Ionela waved me aside - and barely puffed. She went to fetch the horse.
In their stable which overlooked the courtyard, a strawberry roan mare was tied up to a long wooden feeding trough. She stood disconsolately, her lower lip dangling, side by side with her large, gangling colt. The stable was low-ceilinged and dark, but when they had modernised the house earlier that year, the Danulets had enlarged the stable window, so that now it was the size of a large flat screen telly, and the horses could look out into the yard. Ionela pointed this out to me, proud that they had made the animals’ lives happier.
The mare was called Stela (Star). She was six years old and could have been handsome. Today, after a long summer’s haulage, though, her spine and hips stood out and you could have played a little, muffled tune on her ribs. On her chest and rump there were one or two harness sores, barely scabbed over from the last time she had worked.
Ionela knew that the mare needed help; when I tactfully asked if she had anything to soothe Stela’s sores, she said they had tried but nothing worked – the problem was with the harness which needed padding, and that was one step too far.
She yanked the bridle over Stela’s submissive head and eased the stiff harness over her back, expertly pulling into line the straps that crossed diagonally over her back. She led Stela out into the lane, where the cart was waiting, facing the wrong way, and backed her into the shafts. Ionela worked quickly and efficiently: she did up the girth, tied the straps and traces that gave the horse extra braking power around her chest and quarters, and checked again to see that everything was in place. Then she got the mare to back and fill, hauling the cart round to face the right direction.
Ionela tied the colt to Stela’s neck collar by his head collar rope, and we set off down the dirt track, turning right and right again out onto the concrete and then the asphalt road. As soon as we moved, Stela became a different animal. Her head came up and she arched her neck impatiently, jiggling her bit at every sign of restraint and pulling at the reins: Ionela had her hands full. After a few minutes clattering down the spiralling hill road towards Sibiu, we turned down a grassy track. Ionela had to check the mare every few seconds, ‘Ho, Stela, ho, ho,’ she called in melodious tones, an Amazon in her chariot.
We sat side by side on a plank which rested on the cart’s sides. It relied on us sitting still enough to keep it in place. This was hard when one side was tilted several feet higher than the other, as became the rule. I tried to reassure myself that the vehicle’s flexibility was its safety net: if everything were rigid and fixed, it would be smashed to smithereens on the ruts and gulleys that were laughably called the road to the fold. It was easier to believe that when looking at it from a safe, analytical distance.
Once I had got used to the see-sawing motion, I enjoyed the drive very much. It was wonderful to be flying along with the warm wind in your face, inhaling fresh mountain air and going deeper and deeper into the folds of the mountains where the intrusive signs, smells and sounds of ‘civilisation’ did not follow. I noticed the odd buzzard overhead, the sky was as blue as the Virgin’s mantle and the willows bent their weeping branches to let us pass. We sploshed through reedbeds and crashed across streams; we bob-sleighed along the sides of narrow gulleys and careened into mud hollows. As the cart tumbled along, yanked out of potholes the size of small caves by the willing Stela, I remarked what a good horse she was. ‘She didn’t know how to do anything when we bought her,’ said her driver, ‘We had to teach her everything... but she is learning’.
Although it was wet in the stream beds and marshes, the soil had not seen rain for two months. It was mostly pure sand. Desiccation lay all around us: in the stone-coloured grass that covered the rounded, sheep-trodden hills, and in the surface of the paths we had to negotiate.
The tracks we were following belonged to a network that led to all the outlying farms in Jina’s landholdings. Like yellow arteries, they connected the scattered and isolated small holders to the heart of the town/village. But in many places the once level roadways had been eviscerated by carts and tractors ploughing through them in torrential spring rain. Nobody had mended the holes or smoothed out the ruts and now with the terrible seceta (drought) they had been cast like cement.
Ionela was a good driver and did not push Stela beyond her limits. Still, the mare was sweating hard by the time we arrived, at the little shack which the Danulet’s used as their summer home, 40 minutes after we had left Jina.
Dusk was falling and we had missed the evening milking but I did not mind. The scene was fascinating enough: the farm consisted of a wooden shack, called a coliba, a couple of timber sheds and a corral. They clustered together on the side of a steep hill looking over a valley several hundred yards below. It had timber walls and a tin roof, pitched high on the lower side. Inside were three rooms, one open to the elements like a vestibule, with an inner sanctum leading off it where the family did their cooking, eating and sleeping, and a separate room for making cheese. The river was narrow and ran in a curvaceous line along the valley floor. Half of the sheep flock were feeding there, with a solitary figure in a clop looking after them and keeping them from straying.
Ionela’s parents, Paraschiva and Vasile, greeted me warmly but with expressions that showed they found it hilarious that I should want to visit them in such a humble setting, let alone share their food and sleeping quarters. Paraschiva had a ready smile which showed she would be equal to most crises, but she could be fierce, too, and I realised that when it came to cheese-making and domestic chores at any rate, she was the boss.
I could see that she would give short shrift to anyone who made a fuss. Not that I was remotely dismayed; I felt as though I were in Pan’s own country, and was quite happy to share whatever they could offer me. Two or three shaggy Carpathian sheepdogs, the older of them with half-moulted fur hanging off it in rags, came up to me, unsure whether to snarl or grovel. A sharp word from Vasile and they accepted me without a grumble. Some turkeys, hens and cockerels scuffed about outside the coliba. They spoke to each other in encouraging, conversational chirps, and occasionally shrieked in outrage at some social misdemeanour. A couple of portly pigs snuffed and poked about in the outer circle, and two dogs hung around asking for attention, ready to skedaddle as soon as their masters’ boots came within kicking distance. I went to look at the dark wood of conifers that grew a few yards higher up the slope. But as soon as I moved the pigs rushed at me menacingly, squealing, as though they were going to demand to see my credentials; one of them had quite an officious look and I had to threaten it back before it would leave me alone. I had heard of domestic pigs devouring human beings and did not want my visit to end so soon. The pigs were probably hoping I would toss them some food scraps but I am still not convinced of their innocent intent.
There was a wolf scare
I met Andrei in the twilight,
Vasile played his pipe
Paraschiva cooked fried eggs and mamaliga for supper. And we had tuica.
Nicu the Mouth brightened the meal. His banter as sharp as a skinner’s knife.
Night fell, and I had no bed clothes.
It seems I was sharing a bed in the kitchen cum bedroom with Ionela while her parents slept next to us, at 90 degrees. It was very cold. I couldn’t move for fear of bumping into Ionela. I woke with a chest cold but missed the 4 am reveille for milking. Oh, dear.
I ate breakfast alone: fried eggs swimming in fat again, and very hard bits of mutton or pork, like bullets, also fried. Fresh sheep’s milk.
Paraschiva was making cheese next door. Cas before telemea; cutting it into cubes a foot square and then pressing it again. Jintita pours out, ready to make... branza de burduf or urda (can’t remember which, even now!).
No-one was watching the cauldron and it got too hot and burnt the milk. Oh, dear.
Vasile mended the cheese room door which had fallen off its hinges.
Paraschiva and Ionela packed the cheese that was ready into the plastic cartons. We all heaved them into the cart.
Vasile caught Stela from the valley floor as the sun started to turn the opposite hillsides pink.
Nicu and Andrei had gone way up out of sight with the sheep. Two plus two makes 1500: there were this lot of sheep but what about the ones higher up? You forgot this lot when you were up there, how are the mighty fallen.
Ionela drove us back to Jina – didn’t Paraschiva come too, and you had to sit in the back? Another startling drive: were the cart rides the most enjoyable part of all this?
In Jina, I helped them unload the cheese and womanhandle it into the cellar.
There was a bus to Sibiu at 3.30. I stood on the corner near the Brutăria (the other one!) and got into a spat with some Romany boys while an old man who was waiting for the bus with me stayed calm but was visibly shaken. It was because the boys thought I was a soft touch foreigner and demanded money, and I told them to shove it. One of them said how are you going to make me. And made a comment that I smelt badly (Puté, a useful word), and finally they slunk off. And the bus ride home and feeling ill and being told I’d got pneumonia and having to stay longer with Amalia and Cornelia, which was very uncomfortable for all of us. This was before Helen and Les had left, because I got cross with Les after that, when we were eating together in Piata Mica.
And then there is another pause while you waited to get well, and then you returned to Jina to stay at the higher fold for four days.
After that there was the three-day episode with the rather terrifying (don’t mess me about or I’ll attack you with my yardstick) Aurica at her small-holding, meeting Bade (Mihai, the hired shepherd-hand from Tecuci north of Galaţi. And he was a Pentecostalist and on my last night in the coliba, when Aurica wasn’t there, we had a conversation that moved me a great deal.
And Aurica churned milk and made cheese twice while I was taking pictures, and recited strigaturi which I recorded digitally on Zoom.
And the clear sunlight making everything sharp.
And we walked back into the village a second time, my ordeal past...
And on the way, that time, we passed a fantastically elegant man in a cart, spreading dung on his section of unfenced land. He sped past me without a word but later I saw him in the village and he was a lot friendlier. How dashing these people can be in their archaic contraptions, as long as horses are involved.
And while waiting for a bus, I walked out of Jina on the other side, explored a wide ridge where birch brush had been cut, perhaps with an EU grant (subventia pentru teren) and followed a path along the ridge into a stand of young birch, and stopped short when I saw something hanging from a bar of an electricity stalp (pylon). Horrified in case it was someone who had committed suicide or worse. Going closer the body turned out to be a dead goat. I couldn’t bring myself to go right up to it, but the smell reached me from 20 yards away. There were goats’ skulls lying on the ground, near the remains of a bonfire. And scattered rubbish as there is all over the place in Jina and most Romanian villages (which should know better). I told Aurica about it later, over a meal, and she shrugged her shoulders and grimaced: it might be someone with a grudge against goats because they can be very destructive.
The village, its star fish sprawls over ridges and into deep valleys, strange mixture of rural and urban. The busy celebration going on in the town hall while I was waiting for a bus that never went (no 3.30 on Saturdays, remember!), and the photographer who waived me out of the way, and the comings and goings of carts and cars, and no lifts because nobody was going down to the city that afternoon. And then, a miracle: a man stopped in a good car and offered me a lift all the way, but did a detour into Bordeaua to leave a message with someone about a building project, or something. He was from Agnita? Anyhow he was great and it was a relief to be able to get home to Turnisor and the Martins’ house.
This isn’t complete without the sheepish interludes with the Dordea brothers and their mother at Crinţ, all thanks to Amalia’s bold approach in Jina after the museum opening. And your return to the Dordeas’ to see if there was news of their going on the road, and how their mother fed you and their younger sister with her huge eyes played on her roller blades. Or with Maria Barb, or Gheorghe Hanzu. Quickly, quickly, sketch them in, if you think they are not a drag on your drift.
And there the story stops for the present,
The next part should be about the road.
Travelling by public transport is a great way of meeting oameni de rând (ordinary people) and Romanians are by and large talkative, curious and friendly. Not so this morning, but after reaching the ‘base camp’ of Sălişte, a market town at the foot of the Părâul Negru Valley, a lot of the passengers got off, leaving the rest of us to breathe more easily and hunker down for the steep climb ahead.
It took an hour and a half to cover the 42 km to Jina. We went slower than normal because the primăria (town hall) in Tilişca, two thirds of the way up the valley, had won an EU grant to connect every household to mains drainage, and the road through the village was like an obstacle course – so narrow in places that the bus threatened to get wedged between opposite walls. The driver was obviously a local and he steered the old coach like a demon, spinning the wheel with one finger and cheerfully crashing the gears which screamed like a stricken animal as we bent around ever tighter corners, and pointing the front out over sheer precipices in a way that would have made me finger my rosary, if I’d had one. The other passengers didn’t turn a hair – they were used to the ride; but they and the driver crossed themselves every time we passed a church, a gesture of gentle respect that I found moving.
And now for a little scientific input. For a discussion of how MSib or Jina shepherds kept going during the communist period, see Geographica Pannonica article: "However it seems that under communism the tradition of wintering sheep in the lowlands became restricted to Jina, Poiana Sibiului and Tilişca as all the other settlements restricted their pastoral activities during this period. Much rested on the skills of the shepherds (‘ciobani’) who not only looked after the sheep owned by private farmers but also the animals belonging to state farms (just as they had previously served the feudal landowners)..... p 147-8 This is also where the helicopter story is mentioned, with the real background".