Melancholy lady

Viorica lives in a handsome two-storey house in a quiet lane on the south side of Sălişte. In the centre, the fine old village – which became a town in 2007 – has a veneer of civic self-importance, but there are no such pretentions here. There are many such back streets in Mărgineni villages and each one is different. To my western eyes, the streets and the houses and the people who inhabit them look at ease with their identity. Even now, few of these lanes and alleyways on the edge of consciousness are asphalted. It’s amazing, or worrying, how proprietorial I feel about these places. When a jeep or a motorbike screams up and down the tracks, I feel that they are the intruders. This may have something to do with the intolerance of middle-age. Or it could be that these old-fashioned settlements and their mountainous surroundings are extraordinarily beautiful. Whatever the reason is, my short experience of the ‘slow lane’ in Romanian villages makes me want more.

This particular house is detached and has good proportions. It also has the tall boundary walls which you find almost everywhere in traditional Transylvanian homes. But here it’s said that gospodăriile were built like fortresses because the shepherds of Mărginimea Sibiului wanted their daughters to live in total seclusion while they were away with the flocks. Not even a peephole was allowed. There were certainly none in these walls.

It was around 4pm in early October. The sun was starting its leisurely descent to night. Long shadows slanted off the blond stone, plaster and stucco edifices on either side of the lane, which sloped gently down and away from us, zigzagging as it went. On the upper side, a few hundred yards away lay the village boundaries with hayfield and forest. Darkening to black, the thick trees had so far held on to their leaves in spite of the lateness of the year.

Ilie rang the bell a few times. Eventually we heard footsteps coming slowly to the gate. A woman’s voice called out, ‘Cine? – who is it?’ Fingers struggled with the catch, pulled the door open a crack. A good-looking woman stood before us. She could have been in her 70s. She wore a nondescript floral dress that fell decorously below her knees, and sensible, lace-up shoes. But what struck me most was the grief on her face.

Viorica listened patiently to Ilie’s tactful explanation as to why we were there. As he spoke, she relaxed and drew herself up; her old Mărgineni dignity kicking in. ‘I’ve already told my story’, she said, her voice crisp and pleasantly rasping. She was not rejecting us, only tired. She opened the door wider, and we slipped through the barricades.

We got her name and a page of her recollections from Toma Lupaş.  What we read was short and tragic. I was hoping that by talking to her, I’d be able to appreciate better what her memories of her family’s life in Russia meant to her.

Perhaps I was raking over old sores. But the more I delved, the more astonishing and moving these Romanians’ Russian tales became. Having struggled against oppression at home (in the sense that until the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, Transylvania was dominated by Hungarian and Saxon landowners, leaving most peasant farmers – who were mainly Romanian – out on a limb, a situation which Miklos Banffy recognised in his great trilogy about the period), the shepherds risked their lives and endured incredibly harsh conditions, first in Dobrogea and then abroad, to improve their families’ chances. Many did grow wealthy and there was a period of about 50 years when things looked rosy. In Bolshevik terms, however, the rich shepherds from Romania were kulaks, enemies of the people. From 1917 until the Second World War, and for totally different reasons, they were vilified and hounded again. Those who returned safely to Romania during this time were soon plunged into the horror of Romanian communism and most of the gold stashed away from their glory days in Russia was taken by the Securitate (Romania’s secret service).

To western sensibilities – or do I mean British? – shepherds are not supposed to be lords of mammon. The Jewish and Christian King David’s pastoral background was an indication of his meekness and concern for others, not his power. This is one reason why Gigi Becali [a flashy and vulgar Romanian politician and football club owner who claims to come from shepherding stock] looks like an aberration; his behaviour is not only offensive to polite, educated society but his vast riches get right up the noses of the old, landed, conservative ruling class [in which countries?] whose opinions about who should enjoy wealth and power and who shouldn’t go back to the 18th century at least.

In one way Becali has vindicated the rights of working men (never mind his attitude to women), but in another he insults them. People have questioned the legality of how he acquired his huge fortune. Some admire his incredible cheek and for them he is a kind of Robin Hood, but in most terms, he is not ‘decent’. Is it any wonder that Nicolae Petruţiu and Toma Lupaş wrote with such vehemence about the moral probity of the ciobani mărgineni. In Romania to be a shepherd used to mean you were a national icon but in Gigi Becali the shepherd’s image has been horribly distorted. I was starting to understood better why the Mărgineni appeared to be so closely-knit, and why they felt so beleaguered. But the question of Romanian nationalism is not even so cut and dried as that.

We walked towards the house. Viorica’s yard was actually a small orchard with low roofed, open-fronted barns enclosing its further side. There was no sign of any animals. The L-shaped area was generous for a town garden, measuring about 90 x 60 feet at its longest. It looked as though the grass had not been cut for weeks, and there was no sign of the pretty, sweet-smelling flower borders that I’d arrogantly come to expect. Large, bare patches on the walls of the house showed where the plaster had come off. The evening shadows had fallen right across the yard, leaving no trace of warmth.

‘My nephews have promised to cut the grass’, Viorica told us. It was embarrassing that she felt the need to apologise. ‘They cut wood for me when I can get them to come here; I can’t do it for myself any more – I have to rely on others for everything.’ She heaved a deep sigh at this sign of failing energy and turned away, beckoning us inside. We climbed a few concrete steps to the first floor of her house; underneath was a cellar, following the layout of many traditional Romanian homes. On one side of the first floor was a verandah that was enclosed with windows. Outside the windows there was a long, flat cill wide enough to carry some red geraniums and one or two vigorous house plants in pots. They brightened the gathering gloom and Viorica smiled when I praised them.

Her kitchen had pistachio green walls and felt chill. There was no fire. Viorica had not been expecting us and I imagined she was saving her fuel for a rainy day. I decided to leave everything to Ilie who had sensed the delicacy of the situation and seemed keen to take the lead. While Viorica began her narrative, I pulled out my recorder and switched it on. In my haste I forgot to double click the record button which made me lose a minute of her introduction during which she told us that her family was from Vale, a mile or so away to the east of Sălişte. It means the same in English but you pronounce it the Latin way, as in Ave atque Vale. I was lucky to have Ilie to refer to, and it was another bonus that Mrs Popîrţan spoke so clearly (although even then I didn’t always understand her). Her articulacy showed me once more that the ‘peasants’ of Mărginimea Sibiului’s war-time generation were well-educated and proud of it.

‘My grandad on my mother’s side was with the sheep in the Crimea…’, said the voice, husky now, though whether from emotion I couldn’t tell. She held herself with dignity and I reminded myself that we were asking her to revisit memories that were probably painful and which she had already written down recently for someone else. ‘…and my bunicu (grandad) on my father’s side was in Bessarabia.’

‘My mother’s father came home just before the (1917) Revolution – he and my uncle got together with some other Romanians, two brothers who were also from Vale.’

In her statement, she said that good pasture was plentiful in Crimea, so her grandfather rented his land instead of buying it. Because the climate was also mild, they didn’t have to do transhumanţa any more.
‘They took it in turns to return to Vale once a year. After the Bolsheviks came to power, the borders closed and grandad couldn’t go back to Crimea. But his oldest son was still there; he was married.’

That was Ioan Stirimin, whose unfocussed gaze stared so intensely from the sepia photo Toma had shown us. We looked at my copy of it, and I noticed how formal it seemed as he faced the camera together with his melancholy, dark-haired, beautiful Russian wife and serious little boy. In the photo, Ioan had a strong nose, a broad forehead, slightly receding hair brushed down flat to his head and a splendid handlebar moustache. He wore a shirt buttoned tight up to his neck and a rumpled suit that looked as though it had seen better days. His wife – we still don’t know her name – wore a coat or tunic with a wide collar; this too was buttoned high. Knowing what we did of their lives, the picture made them seem defensive.

‘We didn’t hear anything from him at all until the Second World War started. I think it was in 1942. Mamica (mummy) had a letter from him. It said he was a translator in the Romanian army.’  Toma had a photo from this period too: there was Ioan in a suit next to three Romanians in uniform. His hair is grey and his moustache has gone but the shirt and suit could be the same ones.

‘He said he wanted to be repatriated. So my mother helped to get his papers and he returned. He was with his Russian wife; they had a little girl of four. That was in ’44, before the Armistice. My uncle was very ill; after six months he died, and when the Russians came – Săliste was evacuated in ’44 for about a month – his wife took herself and the child off with Russians. She didn’t speak Romanian and I didn’t know anything about her…’ Viorica explained that Ioan had married twice; she didn’t know what had happened to the beautiful girl with the soulful face or to the little boy from that first marriage.

The evacuation was news to me but not to Ilie, ‘Da, da, da’, he replies, understanding, fascinated. ‘And your uncle and grandfather, beforehand, did they have many sheep?’

‘Da, au avut multe oi, foarte multe – many, many sheep.’ Her emphasis reminded me of a conversation I’d had a couple of weeks before in Timişoara with a Romanian professor who was obsessed by the derivations of words. He told me that the ancient Latin word pecus, a flock, used to be an indication of a person’s wealth as in the English pecunious. The 19th and early 20th century flocks of Crimea would have been too.

‘And when did your grandfather first go to the Crimea?’

‘I don’t remember; the girls (my mother and aunts) were young… He was one of seven children; the oldest ones took themselves off to Russia, to the Crimea.’

‘You don’t know the name of the place?’

‘I don’t know; it will be on the stamp on that photo that I gave to Tomiţa (Toma Lupaş)… I don’t know because I was too young, all I remember is that my granddad had problems with his stomach. I’m not sure how he got home but maybe he had to swim across the Nistru (River Dniestr); perhaps he swallowed the freezing water and the cold went to his stomach.’

‘Right, so was he avoiding the borders so as not to get caught?’

‘Yes; and my uncle stayed behind with the sheep; I don’t know if they were taken by the Whites or the Reds; we knew nothing about him, but grandad couldn’t go back’. Her story was full of broken shards. In the statement she gave to Toma, Viorica said that the Bolsheviks or some of his hired hands had stolen the sheep – she used the word jecmanit which my dictionary translated as ‘fleeced’ – and legal documents which proved his ownership of them as well. I had to piece the bits together like a conservator mending a shattered antique vase. [Sometimes the pieces didn’t quite fit.]

‘Grandad brought mummy home because he wanted to die in his own country. He’s buried in Vale.’

‘Da’, Ilie sympathised grimly. His own family had left Russia much earlier than Viorica’s and had avoided these horrors. He looked down, reflecting on life’s tragedies.

In a statement that Viorica published two years later, she said that Ioan Stirimin had married for the first time in 1925, and his son had died at the age of six or seven. He remarried in 1938, had a daughter with his second wife, and it was this family that Ioan brought home to Romania just before he died.

The story kept taking different turns.

‘The brothers Suciu from Vale; after the Revolution, they went to America’. This was another strand of the Transylvanian shepherds’ exodus: a lot of them went to the United States (some went after escaping from the Soviet Union) and introduced brânza to the people of Montana.

‘After two years, they came home. There were four people from Vale in Crimea. One of the Suciu brothers married a cousin of my mother.’ [Was that Paraschiva Roşca?]. Her precision helped to bring the reality home but tantalisingly I still couldn’t patch the bits together.

Paraschiva had taken advantage of her generosity towards the bookish Dumitru to help Ioan Stirimin get home during the Second World War, that war which Romania waged for personal reasons with the Soviet Union and then changed sides. (?) When Ioan told his family in Vale that he wanted to get out of Crimea, she went to beat on the vice-governor’s door. That’s how in the spring of 1944 the Stirimins from Vale and Sadu were waiting for him on the platform at Sibiu’s railway station. But he was very ill from the terrible conditions he’d suffered, and in the autumn of the same year, aged 54, he died.

‘My father was from Sălişte but granddad was from Vale’. Again that sense of pride in where you come from: many of the older generations of Mărgineni still have it and Viorica was no exception.

Interested for his own sake as well as mine, Ilie got back on the shepherding case, ‘So what did they do in Crimea? Did they concentrate on sheep?’

‘Yes, yes, sheep. Before the Revolution, many Romanians had a very good situation in Crimea, each person had about a thousand head.’ Less than the 20,000 recorded in mid-19th century Mărginimea but still a sizeable flock by anyone’s standards.

‘What kind of sheep were they? Merinos?’ Pronouncing it the Latin way, Ilie guessed well: it was from their life among the Russians that Romanians learnt that the old Spanish breed produced better wool than the sturdier, dread-locked Ţurcana.

‘Who knows…’ Viorica is not a shepherd and anyway it was before her time. But the probing brings results.

‘One of dad’s sisters stayed in Bessarabia. She married a Săliştean out there. We knew nothing about what happened to her for many, many years. Then we had a letter from them; a grandson came here, and we went to Bessarabia to see matushka. We got out at the Gara Basarabeasca and they were waiting for us with a horse-drawn carriage. And even there, there was a Săliştean; he had a restaurant’ she laughs at the irony and Ilie joins in – these Mărgineni get everywhere.

At this point Viorica Popîrţan pulled out yet another strand of the tale.

‘His sister/cousin? Paraschiva and her husband [Dumitru Şandru] were shopkeepers in Sadu (another Mărgineni village). In the same comuna (district) lived a poor family with 12 children. Their father was a furrier. One of the kids, called Dumitru, had an agile mind and he loved reading. Paraschiva and her husband helped him get through school and my father prepared him for university [so what did her father do?].

In 1944 Dumitru was a university lecturer in Bucharest and during the war, he was vice-governor of Transnistria. He used to visit Sadu from time to time. Paraschiva and my mother were good friends and used to see each other a lot. Knowing that her brother was desperate to leave Crimea, mummy begged Paraschiva to ask Dumitru to intercede on his behalf. He arranged everything and a month later, Ioan came home by train. But he was very sick by that time, and he died the following autumn.’

Visibly upset by confronting so many sad stories at once, Viorica changed the subject: ‘You are from Sibiu?’ she asked Ilie.

‘Yes’.

‘Retired?’

‘Yes, I’ve been retired since I was 50’.

‘What pension do you get? 50%?’

‘I wish’, bridled Ilie, thrown onto the defensive, ‘Poveşti – That’s just lies!’

He stretches a little and looks at me.  It’s time to go.

‘Na bine – OK’.

(For more information about Romanian shepherds who migrated to Russia, please visit these pages on my website.)

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