Last week I went by bus from Sibiu to the village of Vaideeni. It meant travelling south from Transylvania, along the pass which the mighty Olt River cuts through the Carpathian Mountains, to the province of Oltenia, in south-west Romania. Vaideeni lies in the forested foothills, 40 km or so to the west of the county town of Râmnicu Vâlcea, and is part of a network of shepherding communities that has linked southern Transylvania with Oltenia, crossing national and cultural boundaries, for more than 200 years.
Having jumped from winter to summer in a fortnight, the weather had turned thunderous; going through Râmnicu, the skies clouded over again, prompting the poem which you’ll find at the end of this post.
Vaideeni has blood ties to the Marginimea Sibiului, a cluster of 18 settlements in the Cindrel Mountains, whose income has traditionally from sheep breeding. In the late 18th century, people ran away from Marginimea Sibiului to Oltenia, which was then part of an Ottoman Turkish buffer state. In the west we called it Wallachia; the Romanian name is Ţara Româneasca, The Romanian Land. Vaideeni was one of several villages that received an influx of Ardeleni, those Transylvanians who fled from Marginimea Sibiului, bringing their sheep and their folklore with them. They were escaping from the tyranny – as they saw it – of Habsburg rule, which included conscription into regiments of border guards, from Hungarian feudalism, and from the persecution by the Roman Catholics of their own Orthodox rites (viz. General von Bukow’s raids of 1761-62).
From Râmnicu Vâlcea, the road passed the struggling Oltchim plant, a state-owned chemical factory which has been facing closure because of huge debts. Oltchim is one of the largest producers of chemicals in South East Europe; it employs around 3500 people. Its specialities include pvc, propylenes, caustic soda and construction materials. The IMF has decreed that Oltchim must be privatised or close, raising fears about job losses. I had no idea how big Oltchim was physically till I saw it last Tuesday: it stretches for a mile along the River Olt, I guess.
Seeing it for real made me ask why I dislike of this kind of industry, where real people work, which gives them a foundation for life, without – bits of – which (plastic?) I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog. Is it an indulgence that only the privileged can afford? What kind of life? Surely there cannot be anyone left on the planet who denies the role of manmade CO2 emissions in global warming; this and the loss of forests and of other natural habitats is terrifying, but maybe universal gloom is not the answer. Having had conversations with the likes of ecotourism consultant, Gavin Bell, and Jim Turnbull, the founder of the Transylvanian Food Company, I found them upbeat, although not exactly gung-ho, about the future of Romania, if not of the planet. Encouraged by their positive attitudes, I plunged back into David MacKay’s ‘Sustainable energy without the hot air’ – free download, folks – which I have tried to read before. As its title implies, the book tries to put the arguments for and against fossil fuels on clear, flat ground. Second time around, it was a lot less hard-going: what has changed: the world or my head?
Musing on the minefields thereof, I stayed in Vaideeni for two days. I received a gracious, generous, easy welcome which reminded me of earlier visits to this part of western Romania, when I had spent time in Targu Jiu, where Brancusi’s war memorials, The Table of Silence, The Gate of the Kiss, and the Infinite Column, testify to the city’s stand against German troops in the Second World War. It is a beautiful area, at least to the north, where you can still see the mountains. Although its villages are always interesting and there are striking, towered manor houses called cula to visit, Oltenia’s undulations become wider and less interesting the closer they get to the Danube.
Vaideeni, first mentioned in the 1400s, was populated by Wallachians who had their own problems – often with the local monastery of Bistrita which owned the village even under the Turkish regime, and wanted its dues in labour and tithes. The bastinasi (original inhabitants) left their homes in droves, before the Transylvanians arrived, highlighting the fact that Romanians have become used to the kind of instability that the British on their isolated islands know little about, and find hard to appreciate. Come the Ardeleni, and transhumance: local historian Vartolomei Todeci has traced the routes of the crescatori de oi (sheep breeders) across what is now Romania’s frontiers, and across the Danube, hundreds of miles to the south and east but also to the Banat (in the west). As always when I see these route maps, charting walks on foot over mountains paths as well as near well-established trade routes, it underlines the shepherds’ practicality as well as their courage, because they were driven by necessity rather than adventurousness.
Two days in Vaideeni gave me the chance to meet and interview four people: Vartolomei Todeci himself (now in his 80s, he has to have kidney dialysis but is a mine of information and manages to play a mean flute), Adam Banciu, a retired sheep farmer, and Mr and Mrs Ghencea – who seemed much younger than their probable age (70s?) – and were full of enthusiasm, he for the ancient craft of shepherding, and she for weaving, which she does at a wooden loom that almost filled her small sitting room. My lasting impression is how energetic they were, how passionate they were about their nation, and how nostalgic they felt about – the undoubtedly tough – shepherding life.
Mild-mannered, eager Mr Ghencea told me he had had to leave Oltchim because of an accident. Farming was his only option, but he said, ‘I was not ashamed to become a shepherd, not at all’. Which suggests that he was aware, at least a little, of the stigma involved in taking to the outdoor life, in some social circles at least.
They were great. For me Vartolomei Todeci, known as Vicu, was the most interesting: his depth of knowledge, enthusiasm and modesty caught my imagination – I could have happily talked to him and his Moldavian wife for the rest of the day.
Vicu has written several books including a weighty history of Vaideeni and a collection of poetry by local shepherds; like the other two men he plays the fluier, and for many years, he was musical director of the village folk choir. On the walls of the family dining room there are photos of the group in which everyone looks resplendent in their traditional dress – white clothes embroidered in black for the women, white shirts, trousers and black waistcoats for the men – and are posing stiffly in that unsmiling, unmistakeably communist, style at one or other of the annual folk music festivals, or at Căntarea a României, the biennial competition that Ceauşescu founded in the early 1980s to encourage traditional Romanian culture.
Rândunica (The Swallow)
Pe-o frumoasă rândunică
Dorul am trimis în ţări
Şi să-i treacă fără frică,
Peste codrii, peste mări.
Şi pe iarnă să-l ierneze
În ţînutul cald, frumos,
Când veni-va-n primăvară,
Vie şi ei sănătos.
În frumoasă primăvară
Când s-o-ntoarce iar la noi,
Rândunica vreau să-i poarte
Şi pe deal, şi pe zăvoi.
Şi-n bordee, şi-n palate
Până-n sănul tuturor.
This poem was written in 1937 by Dumitru Vartolomei Tărtăreanu (born 1891), and comes from the collection, Păstori poeţi, Vaideeni, Vâlcea, edited by Vartolomei Todeci (Râmnicu Vâlcea, 2009).
Vicu says that Dumitru Tărtăreanu ‘attended the first five classes at Vaideeni school, then became a shepherd. He was an intelligent man, but, his father having died when Dumitru was a child, his family had few chances to get an education. However, Dumitru liked writing, and during the First World War, he wrote a poem to Queen Marie. She gave him a prize which could have opened the doors to university, but he chose to go back to the shepherding life… His poems appeared in county newspapers and in Stâna (The Fold), a magazine published by the Romanian Sheep Farmers’ Union in Poiana Sibiului’. Poiana Sibiului, a name to conjure with in shepherding circles: a village that perches high above Sibiu, is famous for its enormous houses, and hosts the largest annual stock market in Romania. It was a man from Poiana Sibiului who asked Ceauşescu for permission to buy a helicopter – to keep an eye on his flocks which were so large that they grazed over several mountains.
This trip has underlined what a fascinating, attractive, talented, conflicted country Romania is: so many wheels within wheels, so many bruised egos, so many insecurities, so much pain to heal, and so much simple faith and common sense whiich could do it, if anyone would listen, would believe in themselves a bit more. My head is spinning from listening to so many contradictory opinions in Romania: politicians, journalists, church leaders. I heard so many expressions of doom, frustration, anger and their polar opposites: the genius of the people, their talent, their enthusiasm. Just one example: the teenage soap Lala Band on Pro tv. I found it while channel surfing during an idle moment, and was captivated. Lala Band tells the everyday stories of the mixed-up youngsters who play in a band together – soppy stuff you might think but rather than looking and acting like human Barbie dolls, the characters are realistic, the angst that they portray is understandable, their problems are sympathetic, and, given that they are fictional and limited by time, the way their stories are resolved is convincing. If these are some of the advantages of coming from a ‘backward’, ‘isolated’ country (not my opinion!), then bring them on.
Raining in Râmnicu
An umbrella opens like a flower
On a patent leather street:
Râmnicu Vâlcea in a thunder storm.
Liquid mirrors the city’s harder architectural past
Dripping subversion into concrete ears;
Then someone tells a joke.
Humour is rainproof against the official clattering:
A sun-yellow, spring action coverall
Smelling of roses.