Reflections on the way to Sibiu

Today Cluj is the coldest place in the country, about 1° C, if the meteo report is right, and the sky is a flat white, so I whiled an hour or two away in the Retro Hostel and then walked a couple of miles to the bus station to catch another coach run by Fany, a company I first heard of about 15 years ago when it had a few beaten up minibuses and operated out of a tin shed. Now Fany buses are sleek and comfortable and drive right across Europe. Now there is a welcome fug in the waiting room and it’s alive with bawling babies. I’ve got a ticket for the 12.30 and have 45 minutes before it leaves.

What can I make of the past two days in Cluj and Maramureș? I spent some of them talking to Alina, an archaeologist and staunch royalist whom I met first at a protest meeting about Roșia Montana. Alina’s take on politics is always entertaining and often hair-raising: there is the endless corruption which has reached everywhere including her own professional life – ever since I’ve known her she has spoken out against institutional fraud and has been punished by jeering, ostracisation and losing her job. Now her ambition is to map, and so save, Romania’s cultural patrimony. Or what’s left of it after the scandalous leaking of priceless, national heritage to antique shops around the world. Alina is never too depressed for humour and was laughing at the ingenious ways in which Romania’s supposed cultural elite has betrayed the country and its treasures. Apparently, the latest ploy is to hide behind ‘the British model’, i.e. to be restrained, considered, and if you can credit it, ‘elegant’ – and of course to evade pertinent questions whenever possible. She loses me there because Ioana favours the current president, Klaus Iohannes, and his ‘technocrat’ Prime Minister, Dacian Cioloș (who replaced premier Ponta when the latter was accused of “forgery, tax evasion, money laundering and conflicts of interest” – see ), and I don’t know enough about the other individuals or parties involved: Social Democrat, Liberal, and the new Save Romania Party founded by Nicușor Dan (for whom Alina has a lot of respect because he tried to prevent the demolition of one of Bucharest’s finest old districts to make way for a hugely expensive and unnecessary road widening scheme). **

When it comes to elegance, I’m reminded of Alina’s tales about her father, a noted dandy and army officer who used to wear suits of the finest, Romanian wool. He sounds almost mythical in this day and age: a man who rode his mare back from the Battle of Stalingrad, the horse picking her way safely over the land mines because some sense told her where they were. And while we’re talking about wool, Alina’s sister Thea threw in a piece of information that turned one of my received opinions on its head: she said that fleeces from the Ţurcana, that trusty all-rounder with dreadlocks, which are now considered so coarse as to be useless for clothes, was used to make wonderful chiffon in Romania. ‘Au destrus pe tot’, said Thea, ‘They have destroyed everything’. She was echoing Alina’s oft-repeated accusations about the wholesale dismantling of the country’s industrial assets and state farms after the 1989 Revolution. ‘We had fabulous technology but those hoţi și ţicaloși (thieves and bandits) in the regime stole the lot.’

Before we set off on the 170km journey south to Sibiu, the driver makes an announcement. He tells us politely to keep our tickets because there may be an inspection, and not to bring hot food or alcohol into the bus. This is a first – both the politeness and the warning!

Now we are sliding out of Cluj again, through the centre this time, with the radio discreetly dimmed. We pass Ioana’s flat in its Art Deco corner block, but most of the other passengers are subdued like me, heads down and intent on our smart phones, tablets and laptops, or snoozing as well as we can. I look up to appreciate the Habsburg architecture which really is elegant even if rundown, and the impressive yellow- and red-brick municipal buildings on Unirii Square, which quickly give way to the gigantic but still unfinished Orthodox Cathedral, which seems so pompous in its aspirations snow tinges everyhing but seems a bit sad and old hat now. And up we go, past the glinty facades of the car showrooms, and stores selling granite and marble tiles, the engine straining a bit to cope with the long pull to the south towards Alba Iulia and Sibiu. Then suddenly we are in open country, where rows of fruit trees cover the hillsides like frizzy hair, bronze and orange against the white scalp of the snow.

What can I make of other recent conversations, like those I had with Ana, a retired farmer and primary school teacher, whom I stayed with in Maramureș. Ana is quite different from Alina. She has brought up two children (Alina is childless), slogged away in her orchard and farmyard for 30 years and set hundreds of village kids on their educational paths. I’ve never seen her teaching, but as a mother know her to be firm but loving. Quick to smile and fond of a good joke, Ana embodies what my anthropologist friend Georgeta says about the best Maramureș people – that they are wholesome, just and very special. But Geta, who was also a museum curator and has collected a huge database of Maramureș craftspeople, assiduously promoting their work, told me the real people from this region no longer exist. Or rather their values have evaporated. That Maramureș is no longer what it was is a sad fact that the most enthusiastic tour guide can’t deny. Geta was my first mentor in the ways of Maramureș, back in 1995, and her commitment and passion were extraordinary. And I know what she meant: the exodus of (mainly) young people to find better paid jobs northern and western Europe has diluted their pride in their own culture. Among those who have returbed, many have lost their love for the traditional wooden buildings and the hand-woven clothes, seeing them as dreadfully unfashionable, impractical, and expensive too. I’ve heard this and been sad about it so many times that I can’t react much any more. A few individuals like Geta, and the British campaigners, Jessica Douglas Home and William Blacker, have really understood the value of Romania’s rural heritage andvtried to save it. But they are often derided for being too conservative or privileged, and their messages have often got lost in the race to modernise and profit from anything that can be sold. Symbolic of this loss is the disappearance of the tall and wonderfully stately rustic wooden gates that used to stand at the entrances to the village farmsteads. Most have been replaced with totally anonymous plastic or sometimes metal gates that have absolutely no individuality at all. Who or what is to blame? Surely not Ana the farmer, whose husband Ioan replaced their wooden house with a two-storey block home 20 years ago. He did it so the family could live in greater comfort, with an indoor bathroom and separate bedrooms for themselves and their girls, so they could add to their hard won salaries by offering bed and breakfast to travellers. When once I gently teased Ioan about it, he said they had no other choice because the fabric of the old house had been rotten. He pointed to his mother’s traditional timber farmhouse next door. Blackened with age and entwined with vines, it looked as if it had grown out of the soil ‘She won’t give it up’, he said, ‘even though she has to cook on a wood stove, go to the lavatory outside, and wash herself with water in an enamel basin because there is no running water in the house.’

After the 1989 revolution, when she was in her forties, Ana went to university. Of course she had her teaching qualifications but she had not been able to study anything else because she was raising her family, running the small holding and teaching had taken all her time. She chose theology. Her eyes lit up a few days ago when she recalled how much pleasure she had got from being a student. We were sitting in her kitchen, the wood-fired generator humming away so the whole house was hot, a wonderful refuge from the icy weather. Through the double-glazed window (it has two opening casements, in the continental style), the light was dazzling from the previous night’s snowfall, and picked out the pinks and reds of Ana’s geraniums which she has put between the panes in a bid to save them through the winter.

Ana told me how going to university had opened her mind. ‘I’m open to anything – I think that’s important, so you can form your own opinions.’ Her preferred reading is philosophy and especially new approaches to religion and spirituality. So it was a shock when Ana mentioned a preoccupation which has recently caught the public imagination: gay marriage. In Romania’s still very conventional society, there is a move to make it illegal. And Ana’s stance was firmly on the conservative side. The moment quickly passed and we moved on to other subjects. I tried to explain The Selfish Gene and Richard Dawkins’s perfectly respectful but total rejection of religious belief. I had always thought of her as fairly devout but to my surprise Ana wasn’t fazed. But she reiterated something she had been reading herself. Four years after her beloved Ioan had died, and in these days of reaction and war, it was like a piece of solid ground when you are surrounded by earrhquakes. ‘There is no such thing as the past or future, only the present.’


** Romania has its own ecology party too, Partidul Ecologic Român. I wonder how it will fare in this month’s parliamentary elections.

And Dragoș Lumpan’s new film, Matache, charts the development/destruction of that beautiful Bucharest district, Berzei-Buzești. The film was commissioned by Pro Patrimonio.

Matache. Berzei – Buzești, un documentar despre schimbările prin care a trecut zona Matache)

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