Animal fair

Poiana Sibiului, 19th September.  It was my last day in Romania.  I had postponed my flight home to visit the annual animal market.  It’s said to be the largest in the country, and according to those in the know, is unmissable for anyone with the remotest interest in sheep, rural life or woollen socks.

Leaving the mountain-top village of J is like going to a fair in itself.  I had got on the 7 am bus, and as soon as we were off, the driver started spinning the steering wheel to negotiate the cumbersome vehicle round the dizzying number of kinks in the road to the north.

It was a sullen morning.  An unbroken ceiling of flat clouds hung over the landscape.  It wasn’t conducive to a holiday spirit but if I was feeling crest-fallen my companions were made of sterner stuff, and nobody from J was going to be put off by a bit of bad weather.  Otherwise the passengers were quiet; they could have been on a normal, weekday commute to Sibiu and back.  That it was Fair Day became clear when we narrowly missed a van with two donkeys in the back.  A couple were sitting next to me, dressed in smart clothes: both wore black leather jackets, the wife had a neat headscarf tied under her chin, the husband sported a pork pie hat.  Taking the jolt in their stride, they perked up at the sight of the donkeys.  He said to her: ‘How many do you think there are?’  She replied, ‘I don’t know – I can’t see: two I think.  What can you do with two donkeys?  Sell, them I suppose.’   In this shepherding area, it’s not that two donkeys are too many, but too few: for a flock of 1000 sheep travelling on foot between winter and summer pastures, you need several shepherds, and six or seven donkeys to carry their food, cooking pots and all the other gear to make life possible during a journey that can last for six weeks.  The same applies if you are travelling between your village house and one of the summer folds.

We had just cleared the forbidding fir wood that separates J – supposedly founded sometime in the late 1300s by a ravishing heroine whose name means Fairy – from the mundane world.  Far below, to the left, the Transylvanian Plateau opened before us; to the right, I recognised Mr. B-S herding 30 sheep in tight formation over the rounded hillocks beside the road.  It’s only four kilometres to Poiana Sibiului, but I have got so used to seeing sheep in vans and transporters at home in Britain, that I still did a double-take.

Poiana Sibiului, they say, is home to the wealthiest shepherds in Romania.  Instead of the humble hovels and bothies you might expect in a pastoral haven such as this, the streets are an unbroken facade of block- or brick-built houses with reflective glass windows, balconies, panelled wood doors and pretentious pillars.  Top of the range cars have replaced the horses and carts.  But I had a hunch that the people were still down to earth – in touch with their bucolic roots and practical enough not to turn their noses up at your money.

The village centre was busy already: there were stalls all over the wide square, on both sides of the main through road.  It took me a while to realise that the animals were at another location, out of sight of the square, in a properly rural setting much further down the hill.

Mesmerised by all the activity, I wandered past stands of tat: the kind of skimpy, garish clothes you can find at every street market in the world.  Gypsies were selling candyfloss, and one of them was tending a little spinning game where, if the pointer landed in the right place, kids could pick up a colourful plastic gizmo or brooch.  One or two of the traders were purveying fine, Astrakhan caciuli, the tall grey or black curly-coated, lambskin hats that shepherds wear in winter.  I carefully avoided the hat-sellers’ eyes, torn between horror because of the way the lambs are treated – killed when they are 48 hours old, before their wool loses its curls – and the desire to handle such attractive objects.

Along the street leading to the animal market, elderly women were laying out stacks of gorgeous, hand-made woollen clothes.  There were scores of these matrons, each one ready, if not desperate, to capture passing trade.  Was it because of the leaden sky that nobody was buying?  The range was limited but within it, the choice was phenomenal: socks; check-patterned wool jackets lined with real fleece; brown and white check stoles called ţoluri which shepherds use instead of raincoats, embroidered and fur fringed sheepskin jackets; piles of jerseys and cardigans in natural colours.  Feeling one of the jerseys I was taken aback: they were full of oil and as stiff as boards.  Made for real mountain men and women, not wimps, obviously.

I made a detour to the wooden church, slipping in through the curlicued metal gates.  A few people were decorating family graves; there were masses of flowers both real and artificial, on the tombs and plenty of them growing in the ground.  The graves were lavish too: black and white marble slabs, gold lettering, sculptures.  Poiana Sibiului looks after its own, or at least, its dead, I felt.

Then to the animals.  I went downhill, past another graveyard, and into a natural amphitheatre with an even more spectacular view of Transylvania than before.  On one side of the track leading onto the fairground, there were more socks, more ţoluri and more stiff jumpers.  My heart bled for the knitters and weavers but at least they had each other for company.

I stopped to get my bearings.  There was so much going on, and more people were coming all the time, in cars, vans, lorries, or on foot.  There were stalls selling all kinds of farming gear, sheep’s bells in at least ten different sizes, decorated leather horse harnesses, nylon headcollars made in China, sheepskin cloaks, ropes, stainless steel buckets.   Everywhere I looked there were small groups of sheep, mainly the long-fleeced Turcana breed (but one of an Austrian variety, bred for its meat, whose heads were too large for their bodies).

The sheep were clustered in pens or herded by shepherds on the tussocky banks that surrounded the fair ground.  There was atmosphere of bustle and excitement and, as the hours went by, of increasing joviality.  Beady-eyed, ruddy-cheeked men and women assessed their own and other people’s animals.  Deals were struck, hands slapped noisily in agreement.  It seemed a far cry from the world of banking and international lonas, and of constricting EU legislation for that matter.  Was I getting a glimpse of Transylvania’s counter culture, its alternative economy, of its only true democracy, even?

It wasn’t a good day for taking photographs but as if that gloom weren’t enough, I was troubled by the issue of cruelty.  Not because I saw any glaring examples, if you exclude the legless man who was begging in the village square, but because most of the animals I was looking at were there because one way or another they were going to slaughter.  Many of Romania’s lambs get sent by ship to the Near East while they are still alive.  Well, you will say, farming animals is cruel, and what did you expect if you visit an animal market?  Most of the Romanian farmers of my acquaintance are caring people, but they can’t afford to be sentimental.  So, apart from all of us becoming vegetarians (which may be the only answer), how can we make the killing kinder?
Farmers – and for the sake of simplicity, I’m not including or even trying to define agribusiness here – are Romania’s backbone.  There are still such things as ‘farming villages’ where people support each other, where there is inter-dependence, mutual reliance and trust.  The Romanians call it tovarășire, or comradeship – a word that came into use long before the Communist period.  It is the same sort of phenomenon that inspired George Ewart Evans’s books about rural Suffolk in the early 20th century.  These clusters of kinship, of mutual friendship and practical back-up have no commercial value.  Break them up and what are you left with?

Hairy Carpathian sheep dogs were chained in the backs of vans, or on the ground, cowering, snarling, or looking lost.  I had to pinch myself to leave them alone.  There were horses – a magnificent strawberry roan stallion built like a tank, a glossy black mare with a cergă (a stripy, loose-weave, woollen blanket) over her back; cows with calves, cows tied up to acacia trees which stood in little spinneys on the edge of the fairground, pigs in carts.  A couple of huge animal transporters, lots of small trailers.  I made the rounds, glad to say hello to people I knew, to feel I belonged, by proxy if nothing else, before going to my own home, several thousand miles away.

Dinu B was there, with a penful of handsome rams with spotless, bouffant fleeces.  (You couldn’t say the same for all the animals.)  I met Gheorghe Căţean, who had just returned from his epic, international transhumant walk from Rotbav to Koniakow in southern Poland.

And there was Mr B-S, who had arrived safely with his little flock.  After hailing me with conspiratorial glee, he was quickly distracted, looking around keenly for buyers.  Many soon materialised, although they all affected indifference: animal trading involves the same stand-off between sellers and potential takers the world over.  Mr B-S is a natural salesman, nothing daunts him, which is lucky because as we were talking, his sheep disappeared over a bank.  When he had rounded them up, I asked him how much he was asking for his ewes.   ‘200.’ he told me.  200 lei a head – RON, that is, roughly equivalent to £40.  Mr B-S was too busy to chat, so I moved on.  As he waved me off, he hissed, ‘Aduceţi clienţi!’.  I said I’d be sure to drive people to his threshhold in their thousands.  Even if I’d been able to, it was an empty promise, because, mesmerised by the brooding view and the curious sights, I promptly forgot all about it.

An hour went by in pleasant wanderings, enjoying the Romanian version of Irish craic.  The sun came out, in parts.  It helped to anaesthetise some of my frankly hypocritical angst – I’m a meat eater.

I had another bus to catch.  Before turning my back on the animal fair, I saw an old woman walking through the crowd, hawking wooden donkey saddles.  They were just bent frames, made of I’m not sure what type of wood, but with absolutely no padding.  The saddles were like the ones you see in medieval illustrations.  They were meant for carrying sacks, not people, and if you were going to ride on one, you’d have a sheepskin or two to cushion your backside.  The old lady had two of the saddles slung on her back: hardly enough, I thought, remembering the conversation I’d overheard on the way to Poiana.

On my way back to the village centre, I bought a pair of socks.  They were knitted in two different kinds of brown, both of them natural – beautiful, soft colours.  They cost 10 lei, the same as the rather nasty sandwich I’d bought to stave off my hunger.  £2: hardly enough to keep a body, let alone a household, going for long, even in Romania.

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