[This post refers to events that occurred between 26th and 28th September 2012]
It is sometimes hard not to stamp your feet when people are surprised by Romania’s loveliness, as though the country were such a sink that it could not possibly be awe-inspiringly beautiful, too. Standing bleary-eyed at Sibiu airport at four one September morning, I suppressed such an urge as I said goodbye to another group of British visitors who had come, seen, and been delighted by Romania’s people and landscapes. Probably I am not cut out to be a tour guide, because you need nerves of steel and a hide like an ox, but I have to remember that not everyone has been as lucky as me, with twenty years of experience to go on, and the benefit of the most wonderful Romanian friendships to guide me around the country through most of those years. To pass some of my love, enthusiasm – and gratitude – on is the aim of this blog, if I don’t always manage the same courtesy while on the road as a guide!
As soon as the visitors had left, I high-tailed it back to the hotel for a few more hours of sleep, and then caught a bus to the mountain top village which is home to my friends who are shepherds. I had not seen any of them since May, at the end of the eight days I had spent following the sheep on a kind of preliminary transhumance, and I was eager to get back there, to people I had grown to respect and love.
The Transmixt coach leaves from the autogara next to the railway station, about as brutal a contrast in travelling comfort as you can imagine: the Austro-Hungarian period train station has been done up and looks splendid; the bus station is an asphalt apron with a cold, dark, blue-painted ticket hall and a waiting area that usually offers interesting scope for sociological observation, if nothing else. Like the railway station, it is also a place where prospective hired shepherds gather when looking for work.
If the old bus that serves the Margineni villages leaves a lot to be desired in terms of elegance, it is the place where you get the first whiff of homecoming: usually, the passengers regard each other with suspicion until they are sure they are friends and neighbours. Then the floodgates open. It is one of the joys of journeying around Romania that these country buses still exist, and are still needed. If you want to take the temperature of this nation, go by bus.
Having successfully asked the driver to leave me at the brutaria (the first bakery) so I could reach my friends’ house quicker, I felt that lightness of step that accompanies the shearing off of responsibility and the anticipation of pleasure. My job was done, whether well or badly I could not tell, but I was free again, and boy, it felt good!
My aim was to find Ghita and the shepherds before they descended to the village. I did not know where they were, and, my phone conversations with Ghita always being a little stilted, was not sure I would find out. At his home, his mother, Paraschiva, greeted me as though I had never left, gave me one of her quizzical smiles as much as to say, “You may be a crazy dreamer, but I’m damned if I’m going to admit it!”, and as usual, instructed Nicoleta, one of her bonny grand-children, to lay the table so I could eat, while Paraschiva vanished back to one of the myriad tasks she had to accomplish every day in order to keep the household afloat. Nicoleta was ten and lived with her grandparents so she could attend the local school while her mother worked in a faraway town.
Rule 1, in this – and most rural Romanian households – all visitors share in the board, and as the battery-powered kitchen clock ticked its inexorable, jerky rhythm and the flies buzzed lazily in the window, I noshed on the home-grown fare which I had come to relish: delicious meat, slanina (cold pork fat), sheep’s cheese of varying descriptions, onions, peppers and white bread from the nearby bakery, washed down with water.
‘Where is Ghita?’, I asked, once these formalities had been accomplished and during one of Paraschiva’s brief apotheoses.
‘Sus’, Paraschiva jerked her head upwards to indicate somewhere in the vast expanses of the mountains to the south.
‘Is he at Stanisoara?’ – the name of a coliba (summer farm or shieling) and grazing area where I had been the previous autumn.
‘No, Domnilor’. It was a lucky coincidence: Stana Domnilor was about the only other sheep fold I had heard of, and having found it on a clever little map bought from the Erasmus Bookshop in Sibiu twelve months beforehand, could remember the name and location pretty well. It was the highest if not the most remote of all the folds belonging to the village, and my senses quickened: could I get there?
‘Can I go there?’ I asked, following thought with question, which meant, of course, is anyone else going there and can I get a lift?
It turned out that Ghita’s father, Simion, was planning to drive up there the next morning. I could go, if I could get up in time. He would be leaving at 3am.
I had learnt not to ask too many questions, and did not want to annoy Paraschiva by bombarding her: there is a time for everything, and she looked more than usually harrassed. I wondered why, then realised it might have something to do with Ghita’s impending departure. Paraschiva and her family were used to transhumance; they had grown up doing it, and she herself had been on the road, to and fro from winter and summer pastures, for many years.
Still, since the Revolution (and the restitution of farmlands to their private owners) the practice was getting trickier each year, and something else she said, something about Ghita and Andreea, his girlfriend, something seemed to have gone wrong… but I could not make out everything Paraschiva said, and did not want to pry. There were other problems too: the family did not know if their leases on the grazing land would be renewed when they came to an end the following March. Added to which, because of the drought, the grass had made the milk less abundant, and that in turn had changed the taste of the cheese from which this family derived at least a half of its income.
Simion appeared from somewhere, looking weary but undaunted: both Ghita’s parents have an indomitable air combined with a sense of humour that always makes me feel welcome. They may have wondered what on earth I was doing by turning up so often, but had been well-briefed by Dragos Lumpan, the photographer who was making a film about transhumance (and with whom I had collaborated in Wales), and they accepted me without any awkwardness.
Well, I had made it there, and they had offered me the kitchen sofabed for my rest, so at somewhere around nine pm, I set my alarm and settled down to the most restful sleep I had had in weeks. Fresh mountain air, frank people, good food: what more could anyone want?
Three am came, and I was hovering like a nervous fly. On the previous evening, Simion had loaded a trailer with all kinds of provisions, heavy tubs, batteries, cords, churns and what have you, while I looked on, wanting to help. While I hovered, he walked steadily back and forth, making the arrangements, cracking odd joke, just getting on with things. Stars sparkled overhead. A warm wind whispered sweet nothings. Hens burbled in their sleep; the pigs did the same in theirs, only in a lower key.
Hai, la masa! Simion waved me back into the kitchen. Eat something at this hour? You must be joking! I stuffed some cheese and bread down my reluctant throat. Simion checked his watch. Were we expecting someone else?
At half past four, someone else arrived. To my shame I did not recognise him until the afternoon, but it was Tica, Aurica’s son. (Aurica was another sheep farmer with whom I had stayed the previous summer.) Tica was going to be our driver. We clambered into the old jeep with its battered fabric hood and were off. With Tica at the wheel, the leisurely drive I had anticipated evaporated with one palmed swing of the steering wheel. Tica was young, very young – early twenties, and full of glamour. And then I realised, we were taking the Transalpina road, the new alpine highway that drew all the boy racers from Bucharest in the summer. It is a wonderful road, or rather it goes through wonderful scenery, and it links the Transylvanian Plateau with the other side of the Carpathian Mountains, the region called Oltenia, to the south. The Transalpina is an old sheep road; ‘discovered’ by King Carol II of Romania, it then became known as the King’s Road (Drumul Regelui), but its present manifestation, a hard-surfaced switch back that soars over the mountain tops makes it fast and dangerous and terribly exciting.
Tica thought it was exciting too, and once we had filled up with fuel in Sugag, and the cassette player was blaring (to do him credit, it was a tape of traditional Romanian folk music – by the time we had got to the fold, three hours later, I knew at least one of the songs by heart), we were truly on the road, with the trailer bouncing along hysterically at our rear.
It was magical to be abroad at that hour; the mountains were in total blackness and only a very few other drivers – one or two trucks labouring up the inclines – shattered the illusion that we had the whole world to ourselves.
We mislaid the turning onto the forest road and stopped to get out once in the eerie stillness, then bumped up narrow logging tracks between tall pines, and out onto the summit, and over the grass towards the flock.
Everything was still in darkness; a royal blue light in the east was the only sign of dawn. As the sun rose, a vapour trail crossed the sky, but below, it felt as though we were the only people alive.
The sense of grandness and isolation was intoxicating. We were in a heathland and forest paradise. I made myself scarce, taking pictures, while Simion, Tica and the others unloaded the trailer – I would have helped but they did not want me to. Two Carpatin pups played round the fire. A couple of donkeys wandered about, looking purposeful. A small, green and white towing caravan showed where the shepherds slept and kept their food. There was a wooden hut, put up by them as a temporary store. The turla, the sheep pen, was surrounded by six-foot high mesh fencing – some measure of protection against the gadina, the predators, the bears and wolves that habitually threatened the sheep’s lives. Around this, their camp, lay a vast wilderness, grander by far than any I had seen on my Romanian travels until now.
Of the aforesaid Stana Domnilor, there was no sign. I asked Simion where it was.
“Vedeti acolo”, he said pointing to the west. In the far distance I could see the grey-beige outlines of a wooden cabin, the deserted building of a once-thriving coliba (the same as a shieling or hafod if you speak Welsh. A summer farmstead). Ghita and his shepherds might have used it earlier in the summer, but now it looked forlorn, like so many of his village’s colibe: the old days when whole families would take up residence for the milking season were vanishing along with the nedei, the wonderful mountain top parties when people danced and sang, and young people got together, and became engaged. Maria Sterp, the village’s most famous poet, had shown me some of the verses she had written in praise of shepherding life, and the life of the coliba came across as the most profoundly satisfying of all.
It had been my intention to stay a few days, but one of the shepherds, Nicu S, showed signs of being fractious. He had been on the booze, and there was nothing anyone could do with him. He was nice enough while I was there, although his jokes became more suggestive with every minute, but I did not want to risk calamity.
Nicu S was helping the others to harry and shuffle the ewes towards the comarnic for milking: it was very late in the season for this, and I understood it was the last time they would milk them that year. Apart from Nicu S, there were two other hired ciobani (shepherds), Nicu R and Ilie.
Nicu R I had heard of by repute: he had been in prison when I went on the April transhumance. I did not know why, and it had seemed rude to ask. Nicu R was very short and much younger than I expected – he looked barely old enough to wear long trousers, but turned out to be 21. When he went to collect water from a stream in the forest, I went along too, and asked him about himself.
“How long have you worked for Ghita?”
“Five, six years”.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes”. He looked determined, efficient, and although I thought my questions might seem nosey, he did not show any animosity towards them.
“I’ve been doing this for eight or nine years. Straight after I left school. It’s my life.” Nicu fed water from a mossy spring into the plastic can and I followed him thoughtfully as he banged it awkwardly homewards, to the camp, springing over the soft ground between afine (blueberry) shrubs whose leaves were bright red, and overshadowed by stately spruces whose branches rustled in the early morning breeze. I thought of bears and shuddered a little: it was beautiful in the forest, the pale and dark greens of the mosses, reeds and grasses, shafts of golden light alternating with cool shadows, the damp, rich, aromatic smells of early autumn would make anyone frisky, let alone bears.
Ghita and Nicu R milked the sheep while Ilie kept an eye on the sterpe (literally, the dry sheep, ie, those who had not bred lambs, either because they were too old or too young, and had no milk, and the rams). I justified my existence by taking photos, to the shepherds’ amusement:
“Dragos has never taken photos of me milking!”, laughed Ghita.
“Will you put us on the telly?”, “Send us copies”, but nobody objected: there was too much else to do, and they get lonely in their sheep folds, so any new company is a pleasure.
“Are you going to stay here, and sleep with us?” queried Nicu S. Unaware that he was steaming, I parried.
“I’m not sure… I’m not very well prepared”. (Again, I had not planned this venture, having had one chance to live as a shepherd in April, but just wanted to see if I could.)
The milking over, it was time for some food. To my shock, I realised that it was already 12 noon. And I was famished. Nicu S emerged from the caravan, his cheeks stuffed like a hamster’s; Simion beckoned me inside, “Mancati!” (“Eat!”). I entered, and made myself a sandwich.
Outside, Nicu kicked the pups off his cojoc, which in his absence, they had been using as a blanket:
“Get off it, you’re making it smell worse than a Gypsy!”. A common curse even though I knew, as does anyone who has spent any time with the Roma, that they are scrupulous about cleanliness.
“Doamna! Stati, sau nu stati?” Are you staying or going?
The milk loaded, Ghita was impatient to leave. He was swapping places with Simion, and I could stay, for an undefined period, or until the next time someone took the jeep to Stana Domnilor, or I could go. He was indifferent; it was up to me.
Choosing discretion over valour, I decided to hop it. Who knows how long I could be stuck up there with an inebriated and probably very powerful Nicu S, and it would be stupid to put myself and the others into a difficult position.
Driving down the mountain again, Ghita scoured off the severe trappings of boss-hood: like me 24 hours previously, he was suddenly, exultantly, free, and he revelled in it. As Tica drove, gunning the engine at every opportunity, Ghita let himself breathe again.
We stopped on the way to collect mushrooms, clambering over branches and through great curtains of branches, sucking in the fragrant, musky smells of resin and pine needles, moulds and mosses, our voices echoing through another part of the forest which seemed so pretty, timeless and full of promise. Where else on earth could you find such places? How long would they survive? Why did people have to ruin every natural thing? It was only I muttering to myself about such things: the two boys were far too happy, looking forward to life, not regretting it.
Back on the habited roads, we pulled up at a cafe. Ghita bought me a coffee and sweets because I had left my change at home (unintentionally!). I asked him about Andreea. His face became softer and more inward-looking.
“She is well,” was all he said.
For those of you with access to Romania’s tv channels, and especially Protv, you can see Ghita in the new Vodafone ads, which went out from September 2013. He has become a star. Proof of this is his facebook page, Ghita Ciobanul, which attracted more than 200,000 Likes in little over a week.