Imperious sheep and purple prose

Imperious sheep and purple prose
Maria is a farmer who lives in Sadu, one of 18 villages from the area known as Mărginimea Sibiului, the Edge of Sibiu[1].  Small of stature, plump and full of good humour, Maria is refreshingly direct.  You feel that if she didn’t like you, she wouldn’t bother with you.  To work she wears a dashing straw hat, no matter whether she is selling her cheese in the piaţa (a farmers’ market[2]) or chivvying her ewes into the strunga to be milked.  Her hat makes her look like a cross between an 18th century milkmaid and a garden party hostess.

I met her three years ago, when I was staying in Sibiu with the Pavelescu family. Amalia Pavelescu is an anthropologist with a deep love of Romanian folklore.[3] She inherited her passion from her father, Professor Gheorghe Pavelescu, who wrote books about Romanian magic, and about the soul bird, a simple, round figure of a bird you can see on wooden grave posts in certain areas of Transylvania.  The soul bird is what anthropologists call a psychopomp, in other words a being that carries dead souls to the realms of heaven.  While she teaches at Lucian Blaga University and lives in the city, Amalia’s roots are in the countryside – one of her cousins is a sheep farmer who still goes on the road – and she buys her cheese from Maria’s stall in Piaţa Vasile Aaron, a covered market on the north-eastern edge of Sibiu near her flat. Maria and I got talking then.

Yesterday Maria invited me to see one of her sheep folds (she and her husband have got two of them). It lies about five miles to the north of Sibiu, far enough from the traffic fumes to be able to look back at the city and sigh: what a magical place it is. As the sun started to set, light from the West caught the corners of towers, church spires and high-rise buildings as though singling out this nexus of people and their sophisticated, urban concerns for a special blessing.

The sky had started to cloud over as we left the city, but it was still very warm. Maria drove her old black VW Golf like a racing driver, shooting out into traffic and talking at the top of her voice. She always shouts even when you are sitting right next to her. She speaks from the back of her throat, as though ready to yell to her husband across the vast spaces that often separate them. In the past few days, her husband Martin, who is in his early 60s, has had to spend more of his time living out with the flock. Their hired man disappeared a few days’ ago, saying he was tired of the work, tired of sleeping out in a tin box built for shepherds, tired of the indignity, boredom and indecent pay[4], and goodness knows what else. He’s gone so I can’t ask him. He was a Moldovan, they told me, almost as if that explained everything: it meant that he came from the Republic of Moldova, which borders on Romania’s eastern provinces, and that in their eyes he was demanding and workshy.

Maria has a beaming smile that engages everyone she meets. It’s impossible to resist, and her husband is nearly as beamy. They are in their 60s, with no pension to look forward to, and 300 ewes to milk every day. They have no holidays either, but their three children are doing well, they say; one of the girls has started a cattle farm and she too sells her produce – cow’s cheese and milk – in Piaţa Vasile Aaron t. The stall costs them ten pounds a day. I didn’t ask how much they usually make in a day. I could tell from Maria’s face that wasn’t enough to make her feel comfortable about her future.
But Maria and her family are better off than some: they have a house in the village of Sadu and hay meadows near Cisnădioara. They rent most of their grazing land from private owners.

Maria pulled off the road to Valea Hărtibaciului with a swerve; the surface was being repaired and there was a big drop between the level of the asphalt and the verge. I thought we were going to park there, but she nosed the Golf through a gap in the ragged hedge and woah, away we went, bumping over earth which by virtue of leaving the known world (the road, connected to drudgery and stress) turned miraculously from rough, old, dry scrub of no interest whatsoever to a vast arena of free space.

After two bone-shaking minutes while the horizon veered like ocean waves, we pulled up beside a shack.  Maria parked the Golf next to a dusty maroon pick-up.  The shack was their coliba, or summer farm, and it had an annexe: a shelter used for cooking the milk to turn it into cheese.

Bustling about in her floral frock, Maria immediately produced some cas (pron. ‘cash’, fresh sheep’s curd cheese), a huge mug of warm milk, some bread hacked from a magnificent white loaf, and a couple of peppers – all for me.  A few years ago such fare would have turned my stomach.  Even now I had to get a grip, knowing that in this environment, where flies buzzed happily among scraps of slanina (pork fat) left over from a previous meal, presentation meant nothing, what mattered was the taste.  I feel bad even admitting my reservations, because Maria was so kind.  She was showing the kind of generosity which I had met so many times on my travels in Romania, and which increasingly makes me feel humble and slightly guilty – I have to ask myself if I would do the same for her if she visited me at home.

While I was making my way through what this rich and delicious snack, a small, friendly dog peered at me, hoping for scraps.  Its coat was brindled and shaggy, its nose black and wet, its teeth gleamed from a lifetime of gnawing.  I hoped not on people.

Nu musta! (He doesn’t bite) shouted Maria although I was only two feet away from her. The dog’s name was Tibi. He was supposed to be the herding, barking dog in the family’s canine team but at that moment, he seemed more interested in a) food, and b) sniffing my legs.

There was no sign of the large, ragged animals that are kept for protecting the sheep against wolves and other marauders. There wasn’t much sign of the sheep either, except for far away on the other side of the gentle valley, to the left of the old collective farm, where a distant splodge of lighter brown distinguished itself from the darker brown grass of the dry pasture. It looked a long way away. Grown lazy from my city life, I hoped I wouldn’t have to walk there.

Maria had brought me here to watch the milking, and to tell me about the day to day problems she and her husband have to face to keep their farm afloat.

They are lucky: they have received money from Subvenţia 141, one of the current support packages which the EU has been handing out to small Romanian farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy.  But they’ve missed out on another chance; shepherds who keep their flocks in the mountains can benefit from a scheme that gives money for keeping the pastures grazed. It’s part of a new initiative linked to Natura 2000, a project designed to aid areas of High Nature Value Grassland, on the margins of agriculture, where pastures and wild mountains merge.  Like all such projects, they look good on paper, and one of my reasons for wanting to meet farmers was to find out if the subventions made any difference.  The answer usually was a guarded yes, or a shrug of the shoulders.  The money helps but it’s not enough to live on, and the way the subventions are doled out often benefits landowners rather than farmers who rent their land and who may spend more time looking after it.  As always, the situation on the ground is not as simple or as easy as it looks.

I said that the grazing had looked miserable from the road.  When I had eaten my fill, we walked over the rolling land to the strunga, the sheep’s milking parlour. On the way I looked at the grass. It was very dry – you could lose your fist in the cracks in the soil – but contained an astonishing number and variety of flowers, herbs and grasses. I brushed my hand over some of them, releasing the scent of mint.

The strunga lay tucked a few hundred yards away over the brow of a low hill that descended to a stream. About 150 ewes, lambs and rams had been gathered outside the turla (small corral), waiting to be driven inside its fences and in the ewes’ cases, to be milked. The rest of their flock was at the other stâna.

The sky lowered in the distance; I thought a storm would soon be breaking over our heads, soaking us to the skin. Looking south, the view to left and right was brought to a beautiful, irrevocable and very final finishing point by the Southern Carpathian Mountains. In the Middle Ages, the Carpathian chain (Eastern and Southern) formed a border between Hungary and the Romanian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (to the North lay Poland and earlier, the Lithuanian empire). People still talk about the differences between Romanians on either side of these magnificent natural barriers: the Wallachians say that the Transylvanians are slow-thinking, cold and orderly, while the Transylvanians accuse the Wallachians of being sharp and unprincipled, and both of them look with exasperated – but indulgent – pity on the Moldavians as children who are unruly, fanciful, impractical and probably unreliable, but charming too.

The Carpathians aren’t big by global standards – the highest is Mt. Moldoveanu. Its name means The Moldavian, for some reason, even though it stands between Transylvania and Wallachia, and rises to 2544m, about half the height of Mt. Blanc. But although the Carpathians are dwarfed by the Alps and even more so by the Himalayas and the Andes, they have a presence that not only commands respect but which also gives plenty of scope to the poetic imagination. It is not for nothing that these hills have attracted so many travel writers, including hordes of British whose famous reserve has been blown away by the mountains’ splendour. The Carpathians have peaks that zigzag along the horizon, tall enough for snow in summer, and wild enough to be home to bears, wolves, lynxes and wild boars. They are a conservationist’s dream but a shepherd’s nightmare.

We were about 30 miles away from them, and Maria’s stana was a wonderful viewing point. Before me, shutting off the rest of the world but also protecting us from it, the mountains were a concentration of dark blues rising to paler tones as the peaks receded and met the sky, rows of blunted shark’s teeth as far as the eye could see. When you focussed on them, the hard, finality of the mountains as national frontiers melted away, and you could see that each one had its own unique shape. It was immensely soothing to have all this space around you and the mountains as a guard. But they weren’t rigid but soft-edged and changeable. Their outline was basically the same but within that limit, it was always shifting; everything depended on your position and the sharpness of your vision. Concentrate on one place and you discovered new summits and valleys, folds and gulleys. Everything intersected, making the picture flow. Unquestionably ‘there’ as a geographical, geophysical, geological, metereological fact, the magnificent ridges made patterns that were only as real as my perception allowed. They were also a perfect lesson in aerial perspective. Where was my art history class now?

Having greeted her husband and delivered the beer he had asked for, Maria chatted away energetically while I took in my surroundings. Vasile was a sunburnt, work-hardened little whippet of a man whose grin split his face. He was as quiet as Maria was voluble. Their partnership had grown its own patterns, reliable and resistant as the mountains.

I realised that this was a perfect chance to record the authentic voice of contemporary Romanian pastoralism. Slightly shrill, insistent with the force of emotion (this is a hard life), but also alert and mirthful, the voice, as represented by Maria, came loud and clear across the strunga. For all I knew it could be heard in Sibiu, resounding off the glinting edifices that shone in their own pool of light like a lost kingdom. The dazzling sunburst and the gathering clouds mimicked Maria and the drama she unfurled.

I held out the Zoom and Maria talked, fluently, grandly, and to perfect purpose, like an actress who is living her lines. Her theatre was the Transylvanian plateau, a vast expanse of grass-covered plain and low, rolling hills which from a distance looks smooth as a lawn[5]. She was the matriarch of the hour, and Her colourful monologue rolled over me like a river in and out of which I dipped at will. Here is something of what she said: she had grown up working with sheep (although she had never got the hang of milking them which made me feel less inadequate), her grandparents and her strabunici (great grandparents) kept sheep, this  had always been one of the most important sheep-raising areas in Romania (‘always’ being a relative term, but it was certainly true since the late 18th century), they worked from dawn till dusk, year in and year out, they went to buy rams in Moldova (Botoşani) and Sasciori, which has one of the best sheep sales in Romania (twice a year); under the communist regime they had to give a tithe of sheep or lambs to the collecctive, but in Sadu (in the foothills) they weren’t collectivised, their food has always been natural, chemical-free, they use lamb’s cheag (rennet) to thicken the cheese, and in the past their cheese used to be allowed to mature much longer than it is now; now they have to sell it as soon as they’ve made it. They have never worked for anyone else, not even under the communists.

Maria walked around the strunga as she talked, breaking off every few seconds to shout, urging, pushing and smacking the sheep with a long pole like a tightrope walker’s balance, only hers had a squashed tin can attached to one end by a wire. She cajoled and harried the panting Ţurcanas but I wouldn’t call what she did cruelty. But by then I was getting inured to some of the realities of life on a small farm. Tibi, the small dog who was supposed to be helping round up the sheep her wasn’t much use; he seemed more interested in playing or snuffling about.

Sheep are supposed to be stupid animals but I had begun to admire the Ţurcanas. They are bigger and have longer fleeces than most of our British breeds, and their aristocratic faces with Roman noses seemed to express disdain for weaker types. These hardy animals are strong enough to resist Romania’s harsh winter climate, although some farmers are starting to mate them with mild-tempered, fatter German rams. My eyes latched onto a magnificent Ţurcana ram with horns that coiled two and a half times from root to tip. They were like prehistoric springs. His horns were so large it must have been hard for him to see through them. The tips had grown forwards and threatened to poke his eyes out. I imagined him as though painted by Landseer, the Monarch of the Bends. Unimpressed by my concerns, Maria grabbed the ram by a spiralling horn, making mincemeat of his macho image; ‘he’s alright; he’s a prize winner’, she said changing conversational tack as though afraid I might bog her down in animal welfare issues. I asked how old the ram was. ‘Two’, she replied. It seemed young to be carrying such heavy weapons. I didn’t fancy a German ram’s chances in single combat.

It was a homely scene set against an extraordinary landscape – but then I wasn’t doing the work. I moved around the turla and the strunga taking pictures with a camera one hand and recording with the Zoom in the other, trying not to confuse them. Two or three Carpathian sheepdogs, the policemen of the fold, lazed about, scratching themselves and rolling in the scratchy grass.  I was half expecting them to tear me to shreds but they took no notice. I came close to the open end of the strunga to get more detailed images, but Martin raised his head momentarily to ask me to move further off.  My unfamiliar presence was unsettling the sheep. ‘Se strica de ei’, he said, meaning they were scattering and he was afraid of losing them. But although the pasture was huge and unfenced, they wouldn’t have gone very far, and he wasn’t cross.

I wanted to talk to him and he motioned me towards his other side, taking the chance of a break in the production line to put a tiny wooden stool on the ground for me to sit on. A stool for milking sheep? I couldn’t catch the answer. From my privileged position I watched him at work. He caught hold of each ewe as it stepped, jumped or was pushed through the opening in the strunga, shooing and kicking away the rams, lambs and shearlings who didn’t have milk, and yanking would-be escapees back by their tails, clenching the ewes firmly between his knees and milking them vigorously so that it took him no more than two or three minutes to finish each one. I didn’t ask how much each one gave; it can’t have been much, especially as it was late in the season. The white, frothy milk spurted into an enamel mug that was strapped at the top of a zinc bucket. The mug stopped was there to stop the milk from splashing all over the place, and when it was full, Martin twisted the cords holding it in place so that it upended and the milk poured into the bucket. Simple. All the while he chatted away, wanting to know what crops we grow in Britain, what types of sheep we have, whether they are bred for meat or milk…

Overhead the grey sky turned purple-black and in the next valley we heard thunder. I jumped when two or three lightning flashes forked like God’s revenge, and I clung to the wooden fence and hoped I wouldn’t be struck. Maria laughed at me and went on moving the reluctant sheep, many of whom had sat down (thank you very much) and were dozing, their sides heaving in the muggy atmosphere.

The storm passed without raining on us, much to Maria’s disgust. The drought had lasted for two months. Blue sky peered through at us to the west, as if to say ‘only joking’. So near and yet so far, Sibiu looked entrancing, a city of the plains with thin plumes of smoke rising from it.

Back at the coliba, I took pictures of Maria straining the milk, squeezing it in calico or nylon sheets, and of her husband in his cojoc. smart as a model on a Milanese catwalk, his bandy legs hidden by the grubby sheep’s wool and a large hole which had been torn in the back, he had the ageless, puckish face of a Dacian, straight from Trajan’s Column.

In the coliba there was a straw picture of one of the painted monasteries Voroneţ or Moldoviţa perhaps, judging by its roofline – and a rickety looking bench made of a very thin plank supported on equally thin legs. Plastic sheeting decorated with jolly roses did for a table cloth and wall coverings. The floor was beaten earth and there was a couch for Martin to rest on after his work was done. But tonight he’d have to sleep in the metal box.

The hairy sheepdogs materialised out of nowhere when he called them to supper. Belying their fierce reputations they didn’t look dangerous at all, and Tibi started tormenting them, like an irritating younger brother pestering his elders and betters.

Then it was over: Maria packed the milk churns, some caş and me into her car, and we bumped up to the road and back to Sibiu. She promised to give me a traista (a woven wool and cotton shoulder bag patterned with black and white stripes in the regional style), invited me to Sadu for a weekend and waved me off at the edge of Vasile Aaron district where the high-rise flats built during the communist period brought my country idyll to an abrupt end for the day. I felt as though I’d been turfed out from a personal audience with the Queen.


The name has acquired a political edge as well, since historically this place on the

northern slopes of the Cindrel Massif is where the Blachi, Vlachs or ethnic Romanians
withdrew to raise sheep after the Hungarian rulers of Transylvaniainvited northern
Europeans to colonise Sibiu, and these diligent interlopers, who were mostly Germanics
and became known collectively as Saxons, gradually pushed the Romanians back into the
hills. The villages of Mărginimea Sibiului are held to be exclusively Romanian in origin but,
like many such sweeping claims, the closer you look the less certain they become. In some cases it isn’t easy to say whether the founders of the villages were Romanians or Saxons but given the marginalisation of Romanians in Transylvaniaunder Austro-Hungarian rule, the tradition holds up. Mihai Bánffy says as much in his novels about the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Many of the markets are survivors from pre-communist times. After the 1989 Revolution they continued to flourish, being not only a source of fresh, locally-produced fruit, veg, milk, cheese and meat but vivid splashes of colour which contrasted with the shops which echoed with emptiness in the drab streets of Romania’s towns and cities. Today hundreds of small-scale farms which have been the country’s backbone are struggling to compete with foreign supermarket chains which import food that is already produced in Romania, and with middle-men and women who buy produce from elsewhere and sell it cheaper than the farmers can. All of the people I talked to in Romania said the supermarket food tasted of nothing compared with their own, home-grown produce. They also complained of the high chemical content of imported and processed foods.

[3] The Romanian term for Amalia’s profession is etnolog. She explained the differences between anthropology, ethnology and ethnography with great care but I have entirely forgotten them and in any case we were told by an up to date anthropologist that, in English, what she does is now called social history.
[4] Rates for working as a hired shepherd vary and usually come as a package with food, clothes and cigarettes. The clothes they get may include a cojoc which at August 2011 prices cost between 100 and 120 Euros. The daily rate at this time for scything a hayfield or other similar farm labour was 50 lei, about £10 in sterling.
[5] Sheep have a single row of teeth so that they crop plants short rather than tugging them from their roots.

Sibiu, 1 Sept 2011

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