Coliba life

Mid-September 2013.  I am back in the Southern Carpathians, staying with the D family at their rented coliba (a small summer farm consisting of two shacks and a corral) a couple of miles to the south-east of J.  It is my third time in this place, but the first that it has rained enough during the summer to turn the pastures green.  Since my earlier visit, things have changed in the family too.  The son, Ghiţa, has married his sweetheart, Andreea; they have a baby daughter, Georgiana, who is four months old.

Not only this but Ghiţa has become a celebrity.  He has been signed up by Vodafone for a tv advertising campaign.  Dressed in his cojoc (or sarică, another word for the long, sheepskin cloaks with the fleece turned to the outside), and his tall, black, pot hat made of stiffened lambskin, Ghiţa is shown in a series of quickly changing vignettes: sitting with a fellow shepherd by an open fire, sampling a typical but untypically well-presented supper of onions, slănină (pork belly) and mămăligă (polenta made from sweetcorn flour), dancing with sheep, and exulting in his new role as a cool, switched-on dude, with his tablet, smartphone and facebook page.

All of which has up-ended a common perception of shepherds as numbskulls.  Ghiţa’s family is a bit bemused by all this: his parents still wake at 4am to milk 700 ewes, staggering in to the cabin for a bistro breakfast at 7; at least they only have to do this twice a day since the yield has started to dry up.  (When the ewes are first separated from their lambs, in June, they have so much milk that the shepherds have to collect it three times a day.)  There are daughters to help now, too: Ionela, while she is on school holiday, Maria when she’s not at home looking after the house in J, and three or four hired shepherds, who may or may not stay from one day to the next.  At least Andrei is still there; this is his fifth year of working with the Ds.  (I have a special affection for Andrei because he was such a sympathetic companion when I spent five days following Ghiţa’s flock in April 2012.)

Changes in the climate are more abrupt than I anticipated: on the Transylvanian Plateau the temperature was much higher than here.  On my first day, on a three-hour hike down to Stănişoara from one of the higher folds with Dan and Bogdan, two of the hired men and some 300 lambs, I regret not bringing better insulation.  My rainjacket is fine for city storms (from which you can usually escape), but it isn’t much of a match for the chilly winds which were a distant rumour when I was on the levels but have suddenly become real.  As I discovered the next day, the hi-tec coat lets in water under the kind of steady, relentless downpours which I was warned about but didn’t really believe.  My trusty Swiss hiking boots, bought over 30 years ago and as comfortable as gloves, have started to leak as well.  Never mind: it’s exhilarating to be out on the mountains, 2000 metres above sea level, in scintillating light, getting whiffs of wild thyme and sage, and being part of witty, down to earth company.  And that’s only the sheep.

When she has time and is in the mood, Ghiţa’s mother, Paraschiva, tells me about her life.  I learn about her grandfather, the father of Evdochia, the ‘Dochie’ from whom Paraschiva gets her local name, Chiva lui Dochie.  Her grandfather left her grandmother and their children for a richer woman.  At first I assume he had abandoned his peasant bride without another thought but Paraschiva says he was good to his first family, gave them money for clothes and – if I heard aright – education, too.

Paraschiva is as sparkling and sharp as the quartz in these mountains; even when laughing – and her merriment is volcanic – her manner inclines towards asperity rather than softness.  Her tirades are terrifying, so it’s a surprise when she takes me into her confidence.  It feels like a privilege too.

She is seldom free to chat and I am curiously gratified when she asks, or rather tells, me to do chores: take care of the lambs for a couple of hours while the other shepherds are milking, fetch water from the spring that lies in a half-hidden pool a hundred yards down the slope, lift the milk cauldron from the fire and haul it with her into the barn.  Then I watch fascinated as she adds cheag, a commercial thickening agent, that sets the liquid (thicker now at the end of the season) into a jelly.

At a rough guess the daily milk yield contains 100 kilos.  (Is this crazy?  Writing here in a hurry, I’m not sure of my facts and will have to calculate more carefully.)   In any case, it only takes 20 minutes for the large tub of milk to solidify.  The next stage is to ladle the jelly into a stainless steel trough to drain off the whey, cut it into chunks that are roughly the same size (a kilo or two in each one) and press them together with wooden slats.

When Paraschiva is satisfied that the chunks are consistent enough, she soaks them in salty water, called saramura, and packs them into plastic tubs for transportation down to the village.  This type of sheep’s cheese is called telemea, and it’s said that Romanian shepherds learned the technique from Greeks who settled in Dobrogea, at the time when that magnetic coastal region was still under Ottoman Turkish rule.  (Most of it now belongs to Romania although a southern portion lies in Bulgaria.)  Telemea is basically the same thing as feta.  It’s the most popular type of sheep’s cheese on the Romanian market because it keeps through the winter, and for that reason sells more easily.

It’s from Paraschiva that I hear there are more transhumant flocks in J than I thought.  According to her, some 30 sheep farming families still walk their sheep north in the autumn, and back again in the spring.  They mostly go to Salaj, a county of smaller hills, lower altitude and milder weather on the north-west edge of the Transylvanian plateau.  She rattled off a few names – far fewer than 30 – which I tried to jot down.

I want to meet the other transhumant shepherds.  Paraschiva tells me one or two of the families live quite close by; why don’t I go and talk to them?  Like the Ds, most of them rent the summer farms, the colibi or stâni as the Romanians call them, from private owners: the days when J controlled the majority of izlazuri – a huge area of common land that reached to the outer boundaries of the village, are gone.  (One of the statistics often mentioned in histories of J says that this remote mountain comuna encompasses the same area as Bucharest, Romania’s capital city.  I once made a note of what the measurement actually was but have long since lost it; Bucharest is probably a bit larger by now!)

Closest of all is the A family.  Iancu A, known, like all respected elderly males, as moşu, will be able to tell me about many of the other transhumant farmers.  ‘Can I get there in a day?’ I ask, rather naively.  Paraschiva looks baffled, as if I ought to know that they live barely a brisk half-hour hike from here.  All I need is to follow one of the many cart roads that criss cross J’s outlying pastures like the ribs of a leaf.

Taking a makeshift staff to ward off unfriendly sheepdogs – and possibly wolves – I set off past Simion and Dan, looking after the lambs which are due to be sold any day now.  Simion, Ghiţa’s father, looks happy in his environment, if a little wizened.  It is beautiful today: very calm under a half-blue sky.  Rolling hilltops bar the horizon.  There are clusters of tiny yellow and white pansies in the taller, dying grasses.  Wild boar excavations have scarified patches of the open grazing.  Someone has been cutting down invasive birch trees, probably taking advantage of the current EU grants to aid sustainable farming in mountain areas.

I sing to myself as I head into a clump of fir trees whose low-swinging branches obscure the exit, and make everything dark.  My walk brings me over the brows of several hills, into the dips between, fording streams and clambering up the other side.  The going is harder than I thought; after a summer of sitting at the computer I am unfit.  Half an hour becomes 45 minutes, and I wonder if I’m going in the right direction.  There is no-one to ask and my phone has no signal.  I feel singularly alone in the vastness and solitude of the mountains.  It all looks so peaceful, so bland, so almost-Home Counties, with the curves of the hillsides swooping down into valley bottoms, the decorous woods, the smooth grass – but that’s an illusion: here, potentially, be dragons.  Telling myself I’m an idiot, my heart-rate rises.

At last I see it: the rust-coloured corrugated iron roof of a coliba, nestling in a hollow behind some wire and palisade fencing.  Inside the perimeter, the grass has been mown to Home Counties perfection.  Nobody is playing tennis.  Mrs A is tending her cows, which have the freedom of the three or four well-groomed hectares which surround her shieling.  She is, I guess, in her 70s.  As soon as she realises I’m there, Mrs A points to the gate, round the other side of the corral.  Relief: a chance to sit and talk with other human beings.  Something I’ve taken for granted.

Mrs A and her daughter, Maria, invite me into a little timber shed, a narrow rectangle with a sloping roof.  It stands a few yards away from the main coliba.  It is surprisingly comfortable and cheerful inside the shed: instead of a window, a section of wall is missing from the top of one of its longer walls, and this lets in a lot of light.  There is a stove in one corner, next to a large table which is being used to prepare food.

Apart from seeing to the cows and their calves, they have been harvesting their cabbages, hoping to salt them for winter.  But the slugs have got there first, leaving shredded stumps instead of nice fat leaves.  Disappointing.  Mrs A sighs at the waste but is not cast down for long.  She sits me on the only chair and plies me with food: bread, slanina, telemea, tomatoes, peppers, coffee, creamy chocolate cake…  Maria comes in and out, checking on her mother, the cabbages, and her six month old baby Ioana who is in the house.

Maria is slight and wiry, with a sensitive face; physical work and winter winds have worn her lean with no extraneous flesh.  She and I have met before, at Ghiţa’s wedding.  ‘I looked a bit different then’, she jokes, pointing to her flat belly.  Both women have accepted me without reserve.  No wonder I feel so at home.

A number of interesting objects hang from nails along the back wall.  The morning sun falls on them casting sharp shadows: a patterned cloth, turquoise plastic sheeting, enamel mugs and cooking pots, a rolling pin, a radio hanging from a wooden frame.  Set against the log walls, they look like a still life composition.

Mr A is away down in the gully, chopping wood.  Would I like them to call him?  He is the only one who is supposed to know the other transhumant shepherds.  Of course I would, if it’s not too much trouble…

It never is: the clear atmosphere of the mountains makes its people clear and uncluttered too.  If you ask, they will say yes or no.  There is hardly ever any shilly-shallying.  (Later the same week, after I returned to J, Ileana told me that ‘people here are hard, but they are sociable and communicative too.  When you live like us, sometimes never seeing another person for days on end, meeting someone is a real event.’)

Maria and I walk down a steep slope into trees, climbing over fences.  Iancu, her father, is moving logs.  Like her, he is lithe and quick but when we get closer, I see with a shock how old he looks.  Would he be any better off sitting in an old folks’ home?  I doubt it.  Bearded and bristly, he is at one with the timber.  Maria explains why I’ve come, and without complaint, her dad shoulders some branches and we clamber up the hill again.  I take photos of Iancu, who sits on a log beside the shed.  Mrs A kindly arranges a tol for me – this is a type of brown and white checker-patterned woven wool rug which shepherds from the Cindrel range of the Carpathian Mountains use as a rain coat – but I am afraid of missing anything, and squat on the ground as close as I can get to Iancu’s face.  I ask him about transhumance.  His voice is fragile and hoarse with fatigue.  I can hardly make out what he says.   Dismayed, I ask if he’d mind if I make a recording.

Iancu says that when he was growing up, in the 1930s, most of the villagers had animals, and transhumance was a normal way of life.  He had looked after sheep in Cluj county with someone called Nicolae, some forty years ago, but the words are so difficult for me to understand that I can’t really make out what he’s saying.  Odd bits do get through my language barrier.

‘How long have you had this land?’  At first I mishear him: ‘Forty six years?’  ‘One hundred and forty six!’ Iancu puts me right.

I could insist on his repeating every sentence so that its meaning is clear to me, but I haven’t got the heart.  Iancu is tired and this is not a good moment.  The conversation wanders.  We veer off course to the Second World War and the injustices which he and his family suffered under Ceauşescu.  He is vehement about this, and Mrs A chips in to smooth the waters, telling me, ‘for some, they were better’.  I had heard, read, or assumed somehow that life was easier for the people of J and the neighbouring village of PS in the 1980s, because of their remoteness, and the advantages that some shepherds had in a system that guaranteed fixed prices for meat, milk and wool.  It is well known that some people in Marginimea Sibiului did do well: the tales of four-storey mansions with lifts, and marble-lined stables were not false.  But it seems the As were not so fortunate, and they do not agree with the opinion that is repeated often in these uncertain times that things were better for Romanians under Ceauşescu than they are now.  ‘They were hoţi (crooks)’, says Iancu A, but he is more exercised by current inequalities, adding, ‘Lady, the people who raise animals are not well paid; others (I assume he means middlemen) get the money; we are just the slaves.  What we have now is not democracy; it’s daylight robbery’.  Tears fill his eyes.

Maria shows me her baby.  She has been married before and has older children; this relatively late arrival is bonny, cheerful and cherished, surrounded by warmth and plastic toys.  Maria and her mother tell me I could stay with them overnight, but, although reluctant to leave their cheerful company, I’m also embarrassed by their generosity and decline.  At around 3pm, I take my leave, anxious to get back before dark.  I say I will send them copies of the photos, and keep in touch.  Outside the As corral, a sheep dog bounds up to me: another flock is moving ground; I see it in tight formation a quarter of a mile away, too far for me to yell.

I keep my cool and the dog hesitates, but Mrs A sees what’s happening and runs to the fence with a stick for me.  It’s one that she made for herself.  ‘Take it, don’t worry’, she says when I hesitate.  ‘Go that way, turn right by the tree over there, it’s quicker’.  She points to the left of a memorial cross, and I see a direct line across one deep valley to Stănişoara, the Ds’ fold.  The growling dog has retreated.  I would have liked to look at the memorial, wondering if it’s the one that Mrs B had put up after her eldest son was struck by lightening in August 2010.  But discretion wins the day, and I head off into the wide expanse of grass where there are no signposts to direct my way.

Half way down the hill, I meet yet another flock, outridden by five hairy Carpathian sheep dogs.  I stay very still and hold out a hand.  The leader sidles up and licks it.  The others follow, half cringeing, their back ends wagging, teeth bared in ingratiating grins.  Two shepherds are making their steady way up towards me, one middle-aged with an open friendly face, one young, hooded and startlingly handsome.  They walk steadily forwards, poles in hand, like pilgrims.  ‘Where are you going?’ I ask.  To Alba, says the older shepherd.  ‘Are they your sheep?’  ‘No, they belong to a priest in…’ and he mentions a village in the next county that I haven’t heard of.  For all I know it could be several days’ walk away.  They have been summering the sheep in the Cindrel’s high pastures.  ‘How many have you got there?’  Five hundred head.  They move off with the same deliberate, unhurried, tread, like apparitions of antiquity.

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