a blog about Carpathian shepherds on the road, and other journeys


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Tracking Romanian shepherds in Georgia

So far, without much luck: all I've got to go on is a book called 'Oieri margineni in Crimeea si Sudul Rusiei', a collection of memories, documents and photos charting some of the adventures that befell shepherds from Marginimea Sibiului, an enclave in the southern Carpathian Mountains, when they migrated east with their sheep.

One of the maps in the back of this great little publication has a big yellow stain marking the diaspora.  It began in about 1870 and lasted until Stalin put an end to any aspirations of prosperity the Romanians might have had.  Their move to the east was only one example of Carpathian shepherds' long-distance transhumant journeys, but while it lasted, they not only used the winter pastures available on the northern and eastern coasts of the Black Sea, but settled there as well, establishing farms and families in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, southern Russia and Georgia. Some of them went further afield, reaching Astrakhan, Azerbaijan and even Iran. 

I first heard about the phenomenon in 2007, and I've become rather obsessed by it, as though those particular pastoralists were heroes of some kind.  It's a tricky argument to maintain.  Shepherds are usually pragmatists: they'll go where they can find better, cheaper pastures, following economic principles not romantic ones.  There's a difference between sheep owners and hired shepherds, and nowadays the latter often live like dogs.  Yet talking to transhumant shepherds in Romania has revealed something else.  Masters and employees often relish the freedom and fellowship of the road and they have a relationship to their animals that belies mere functionality.

Over the past two and a half weeks, I've been travelling through Georgia following some of the clues in Toma's book.  There aren't that many, in fact the only concrete fact I have lighted on is that Stefan Nanu of Tilisca went to Georgia at some point, either while he was working as a hired shepherd, or afterwards, when he became some sort of fixer, or a businessman.  We know he tried to intercede on the Romanians' behalf with Kalinin, pleading the shepherds' cause so they wouldn't lose their hard-won wealth in the steely Soviet state.  We also know he wrote letters home to Tilisca, and they are still in his family's possession.  But when and for how long he went to Georgia is a mystery.   

Helping me in my quest has been Devi Asmadiredja.  Half Sundanese, half German, Devi deserves a book to herself.  She's been living in Georgia for the last three years, during which time she's learnt to speak Georgian and Chechen and has established herself as an intrepid mountain guide.  Devi loves the shepherding life, and thanks to her, we've been chasing up any leads we can find - names of people and villages mostly - to justify that yellow stain leaking into the space between the two chains of Caucasus Mountains.

Our best hope on this trip was finding out that there are two villages with names exactly or nearly the same as margineni ones.  Both are in Javakheti, south-central Georgia, near the Turkish and Armenian borders.  Hearing the word 'Tilisca' made me jump out of my skin: it was one of Devi's friends who mentioned it casually, as a place near the town of Akhalkhalaki.  Devi and I hot-footed over there by marshrutka (minibus), a journey of 15 minutes costing roughly 50p each way.  The windscreen bore the name 'Dilisca' in Cyrillic letters.  I could hardly contain myself, but everything went rather flat when we met a 70 year old farmer from the Georgian Tilisca, or Dilisca.  He was said to know everything about the place but told us he'd never heard of any Romanians there.  On the contrary, it had been an Armenian village since Armenians were expelled from eastern Turkey in 1830. Before that, it was a Georgian one, with a history leaping back to unspecified, misty past that didn't have room for Transylvanians. 

We didn't make it to Vale, the other place with an identical name in Marginimea Sibiului, but a Georgian historian agreed with my hunch that the direction of influence could just as well have gone in reverse, with Georgian names being taken to Transylvania, not the other way round.

Both countries have a strong Orthodox Christian tradition, and in the late 17th century, Bishop Antimos, a Georgian from the southern region of Samstkhe, was invited by Prince Constantin Brancoveanu to visit Wallachia.

In 1694, Antimos was installed in Snagov Monastery, in the forests near Bucharest.  He founded a printing press and commissioned a lot of other monasteries, before being exiled to Mount Sinai for fomenting trouble.  Antimos supported Wallachia's struggle for independence from Ottoman Turkey and the Greek Phanariots who had a stranglehold on Romanian politics after Brancoveanu and four of his sons were murdered by the Sultan in 1711.

If there is a wider connection between Georgia and the Romanian principalities, Antimos could well be one of the keys.  But there are other links: eastern Romania and the Caucasus were once part of Cumania, a Turkic polity that ruled a large area to the west and east of the Black Sea for several hundred years after the Roman empire ended.  Cumania gets its name from the Caucasian Kubans, whose forebears came from Syria.  There is a fortress called Cumania on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.  Coman is a well-known Romanian Christian name.  One of the Romanian sheep farming families I know in Marginimea Sibiului traditionally gives the name Coman to one of its boys in each new generation.

Why start with Georgia, when there are firmer accounts of Romanian shepherds settling in the northern Caucasus, Crimea and eastern Ukraine?

Maybe it's just a coincidence of names that made me want to start there:  St. George being the patron saint of England, who may have got his horse-riding attributes from the Sarmatian knights who careered over Caucasian pastures and sent their chivalric traditions to western Europe, Ghita the Romanian shepherd whose spring walk I followed, and whose name is short for Gheorghe, a beloved godfather whose name was George...  It comes from a Greek word for farmer, or someone who works the land.  Georgians are famous for their practicality - they are born farmers.  It had to be Georgia. 

And now it's nearly time to leave, saying goodbye not only to the first stage of what I hope will be many other Georgian journeys, but also to the other travellers I've met here: adventurous young things who have been stopping off in Tbilisi for a few days - or sometimes weeks - while crossing entire continents on cycles, motorbikes, by hitching, on horseback or in a tuktuk (that one was Romanian!).  Fearless of political or psychological propaganda that might persuade others to stay at home and cover their heads, they've made me want to get up and go even more. 

And then there is Devi: her story, and her struggle, are for another time, and would be told better in her own words.  Without her help, I'd have got nowhere, without even the small progress made so far.  I wouldn't have met Kists (Chechens of Pankisi), Ossetians and Svans in their own homes, I wouldn't have shared chips and onions with the shepherds of Patara Khanchali, or met Ani, a German woman who's working with destitute villagers to give them new ways of making a living from their land and their skills.

Without Devi and her imperious subversiveness, I wouldn't have hitched lifts with Turks and Georgians, spent nights in an abandoned workmen's cabin or sleeping on a verandah with the Caucasus Mountains for my curtain.  I would have missed the protesters who want to stop a seven-storey hotel being built in Vake Park.  It's unlikely I'd have found myself under a lime tree in the dusk sipping wine with its maker who showed us the ceramic pots that he'd buried two metres in the ground, copying the ancient fermentation method in which everything is chucked into the mixture and left there over winter: grape flesh, skin, seeds, stalks and all.

Sadly we didn't make it to Tusheti this time, but I'm saving that up for cooler weather, and when my blisters have healed.

I could have done without being marched through the streets of Devi's favourite village in 40 degree heat 'to show to my friends what a tourist looks like', and I got a bit hot under the collar when she kept ordering me, with mock-Germanic severity, to 'SIT DOWN'.  Without her warnings not take photos or notes in sensitive situations, I might have more accurate records of people who've been living on the edge, caught in a no-go area which the outside world regards with suspicion - or doesn't regard at all - and whose daily lives are fraught with difficulties.  She was right: it could have been dangerous for everyone if my journalistic greed had got the better of me.  Learning about other people's lives, and understanding their points of view, is about listening patiently, not just clicking camera buttons.  As I think about buying stamps for last minute postcards and packing my gear for my early morning flight, I know that without Devi, I wouldn't have got nearly so far, and I wouldn't have had so much fun. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Protest for a free world

Look for pastoral on google, and you'll find the pages are all about religion.  There is a link between that kind of pastoral care and looking after sheep: it's all over the Bible and figures in the Koran as well, but the way priests talk about tending their human flocks can sound too lofty by half.  Of course I had it in mind when I started this quest for transhumant sheep farmers - you know, simplicity, dedication and goodness.  But the more I think about it, what I was after was examples of decent humanism.  People who really want to look after our world.  Not The Good Shepherd in a frock.  Still I think it's a shame that farming is becoming ever more impersonal and profit-driven, and when you see real shepherds, like the ones in Romania leading their grists on transhumance, it's hard not to make connections with archaic leaders of souls, many of whose names have vanished, leaving us with a few well-known ones, such as Christ and Mohammed.  It's not just their long cloaks that do it, but the patience, dogged or otherwise, to stick with the caring role.

I'm holed up in soggy Pembrokeshire, unable to join my friends in the Carpathian Mountains for the moment, but have taken heart from Romanians like Matei Budes.  He may not keep sheep, but he and his colleague, Bogdan Palici, belong to a voluntary organisation called Vira which is leading a campaign that truly cares for the world.  Vira is based in Barlad, eastern Romania, near where Chevron wants to frack.  Since February 2012, Vira has been informing the public about the true implications of having shale gas exploration on their land.  They are clear about the consequences of using the cocktail of chemicals that are needed to extract the gas.  They know that there is a danger from irreversible water, air and soil pollution, especially in a region where many people live directly from the land.

Inspired by the hardy resistance of the Salvati Rosia Montana campaign, Budes and Palici have made a documentary film about the demonstrations against the gold pit that took place last September in Bucharest.  It was a sensational turnout: thousands took to the streets to conduct a peaceful protest, and hundreds linked hands to encircle Romania's parliament house - a photo in The Guardian newspaper (23rd September 2013) caught them in a joyous moment, as though they were dancing round a May pole (for an article about the protests in The Guardian, see this page).  Here's a link to a clip from the film, Toamna Romaneasca (Romanian Autumn):


And here's a link to a recent article about Vira:


It's a chain reaction.  Here's another link in that chain, this time to Terra Mileniul III, a Romanian NGO that since 2009 has brought more than 70 non-profit organisations together, all of them working for a more environmentally friendly, less greedy, future:


This is so encouraging.  Historically, Romanians have been criticised for bending their necks before the sword, for allowing Communism to corrupt their souls, for giving way in order to survive.  Of course, it wasn't as simple as that - and the flurry of new books describing Romanians' political resistance shows how wrong that judgement is - but since 1989, the young and determined who care about their country's future are not standing idly by.  It's ages since I heard a Romanian say, 'Ce sa facem?' ('There's nothing we can do about it'), when questioned about why they put up with bad government.  We could do with more of them here.

Quiet by comparison, Pembrokeshire is certainly not free of corruption, or anti-corruption protests.  It is also famous for its environmental campaigners, its green 'shepherds'.  Satish Kumar, the editor of Resurgence, used to live here.  John Seymour wrote some of his books about sustainable living at his house in the Gwaun Valley.  The self-build housing project, Lammas, which gives plots of land to people who want to make their own eco-houses, is based in Pembrokeshire.  So are Brithdir Mawr and Fachongle, communes that help people who want to escape the rat race.  In the pretty coastal town of Newport, there are the Eco Centre Wales, which is campaigning against fuel poverty, and the Real Seed Catalogue (sourcing and selling traditional but vanishing breeds of vegetables).  Not a bad place to be, even if it isn't Romania, and even if shepherds don't lead their sheep to pasture any more.

Later: Idly grazing in cyberspace, keen to return to the nub, I found this reason for being terribly excited about the modern uses of sheep: they can eat the grass under those monotonous rows of panels in solar farms.  The piece is from an on-line magazine called Grist, or a Beacon in the Smog, but was written for the New York Times in July 2014, and, hallelujah, it's funny too.    

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

After the sheep's tails

Romania seems too far away.  The likelihood that I'll be able to make a speedy return is not great.  The winter here has felt long, cold and wet.  It has also been sad because it brought the death of one of my heroes, the travel writer, Michael Jacobs.  Michael began his writing career as an art historian but got so absorbed in the way other people live that he abandoned academe for the road.  Spain and South America were his favourites but he went more or less everywhere.  One of his first books was about artists' colonies, and that brought him to Baia Mare and the Nagybanya School in north-west Romania.  I was lucky enough to meet him in 1993, shortly after my first trip to Romania, and he not only gave me loads of contacts but put my name forward to write the Blue Guide.  Michael was a kind, generous, funny, wonderful person and his vanishing, after a short illness, came as a huge shock.  

Yesterday I sent a text to Ghita wishing him well on the spring road.  The shepherds should have left their winter quarters on the 1st of April.  But I'm out of touch: my last news was that Ghita had opened a cheese shop in Bucharest, and who knows but he is travelling the world in his new-found guise as Ghita Ciobanul.  I can't believe that fame will change his character: he won't let it go to his head, and if he does, his friends will tease him to bits. 

Living without a regular fix of Romania is hard, but I have spent the last six months writing - and rewriting - an article for Pastoralism Journal.   It's called Dupa coada oilor (After the sheep's tails), and is an analysis of the way transhumance has developed in Romania and a look at its contribution to cultural and agricultural life.  You can find it here:   


After submitting the piece, I found some of George Monbiot's articles on rewilding the countryside, and his comments on overgrazing by sheep.  He says that the people who say that grazing animals help preserve biodiversity are only interested in 'flowers and butterflies'.  I don't think they are that simple, but George Monbiot claims that there are too many sheep on our British hills.  There are never fewer than 20 million, I heard the other day - in a radio broadcast about Philip Walling's new book, Counting Sheep - making our national flock the largest in the EU.  So do 80 million-plus high-heeled trotters compact the ground and cause flooding, as George Monbiot says?  Somehow I can't help feeling that concrete does more harm, but the prospect he brings of reawakening people's appreciation of nature, and fighting the commodification of the natural world is a great one.  

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Ghita Ciobanul on the BBC

This is the text of my piece about Ghita and the shepherds broadcast on 13th January 2014 on the BBC radio programme, From Our Own Correspondent:

On a dank Monday evening some weeks ago, a Romanian shepherd called Ghita left home with his sheep. He wasn't in a lorry but on foot, accompanied by several angajati, or hired men, some shaggy dogs, and seven donkeys loaded with gear. Ghita was off on his autumn transhumance, heading north for his winter pastures. It would take him six weeks.
Ghita the shepherd
For a country whose defining myth revolves around shepherds, Romania isn't all that keen on its pastoralists. The Ballad of the Little Sheep (Miorita) tells of a herdsman who lets himself be murdered by two rival shepherds even though one of his lambs, who has miraculously acquired the power of speech, warns him in advance. Miorita is sometimes taken as a metaphor for Christianity, another way of showing Christ's courage in turning the other cheek. It's also said to mirror the experience of the Romanian people who have endured numerous invasions, occupations and humiliations without, it is claimed, ever losing their identity.
When Romanians were agitating for independence in the 19th Century, Transylvanian shepherds were seen as the rugged pioneers of the nationalist movement. Long before then, they had established shortcuts over the Carpathian Mountains to seasonal grazing in what is now Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Caucasus, southern Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Poland and the Czech Republic. Having crossed from Hungarian and Habsburg lands into Ottoman Turkey and Russia, they returned home to their more isolated communities with information, ideas and ambitions fired by the world outside.
Shepherd driving sheep
A shepherd's CV has to offer some crucial USPs: caringness, self-reliance and dedication. He - and it's almost always a he, although in real life women did the same job - is synonymous with the kindly ideals of Christianity and for that matter Islam - but for all that, he is a humble, often solitary, sometimes rootless figure.
During Communism, certain Romanian sheep farmers did rather well. People still talk about Mr B from Poiana Sibiului who asked Ceausescu's permission to buy a helicopter. Mr B's flocks were hefted over several mountains, and he argued that being able to fly would let him keep track of them more easily. His request was refused, but Poiana is famous for other reasons - many of its shepherds built luxurious mansions at a time when most people had to stand in queues to buy food and lit their homes with 40 watt bulbs. Inaccessible to big machinery, many mountain farms escaped collectivisation, and the men and women who commuted there from the less exclusive plains, spoke of "going to America".
Like farmers worldwide, Romanian flock masters enjoy a good grumble. But things have got tough for them since 1989. Once guaranteed, prices for wool have plummeted. Although there is an international market for Romanian lamb, and sheep's cheese sells well, "slow food" has not made enough of a difference to the shepherds who find it healthier - and cheaper - to walk their sheep to far away winter pastures rather than keep their animals inside.
Shepherds resting
With its origins in the Bronze Age, if not earlier, transhumance is a form of semi-nomadism. It sounds romantic but in the past, Romanian shepherds occasionally resorted to transporting their animals by train, something they could never afford to do now.

Romanian shepherds still look archaic. They wear a long sheepskin cloak called a cojoc or sarica. With the shaggy fleece on the outside, it's also their bed, so when shepherds call the cloak their house, they aren't joking. When they sleep at all, it's outside, in all weathers. The hired men earn between 200 or 300 euros a month. They also receive daily meals, work clothing, and a cigarette allowance.
Romanians are generally learning more about their shepherds thanks to television.
In August this year, a well-known phone company* began an advertising campaign that highlighted real people doing real jobs. One of them was Ghita.
Dressed in his cojoc and rimless pot hat (another must-have piece of shepherding rig), sitting by a campfire and dancing with sheep, Ghita Ciobanul, or Ghita the Shepherd, has taken Romania by storm. Ten days after the phone company put him on Facebook, his page had clocked more than 200,000 likes. A month later, they had doubled.
In the past, Ghita has had to move his sheep illegally, during the night. Given the hazards of crossing Romania's rapidly urbanising, motorised countryside, it's the only way. Accidents and shootings have cost him scores of sheep and many dogs. Maybe this year, thanks to his new-found celebrity, Ghita will be luckier.

*Vodafone: but I think Vodafone should pay its taxes, and if you agree, see this link: http://action.sumofus.org/a/vodafone-tax-dodging/?akid=5701.863102.vCD__-&rd=1&sub=fwd&t=2

You can hear the audio version via this link; it should work for over a year from 13th Jan 2014:

Another airing on the World Service, 7th March 2014: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01t399s 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Piping shepherds

August 15th is a huge day in the Romanian Orthodox calendar.  It marks the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Feast of the Assumption, celebrating the belief that after she died, Christ's mother was assumed straight away into Heaven before her body had a chance to decay.   Other names for it are Assumption Day or Mary's Day and it's not only a national holiday, but also the occasion for pilgrimages and solemn parades at many Romanian monasteries, including the famous ones of Moisei in eastern Maramures, Nicula near Cluj in Transylvania, and Putna, one of the magnificent churches that the 15th century prince, soldier and saint, Stephen the Great, founded in Moldavia.   As with many Christian feasts, the Dormition replaced a pagan festival, in this case, one that was associated with the harvest.  In Tilişca, a village in the Cindrel range of the Southern Carpathian Mountains, they reserve Assumption Day for the annual sheep breeders’ festival.  A couple of years ago, I went to see what it was like.  

Celebrating saints is something Romanians excel at.  Religion is worn on the sleeve and often mixed with a vigorous dose of pagan mythology.  Folk beliefs and folk music are closely intertwined, so adding the practical side of pastoralism to this holy event doesn't strike the wrong note.   

Up in the mountains south of Sibiu, and other regions where transhumant shepherding continues, raising sheep is regarded as an art as well as a vocation, and sheep farmers still play pipes.  It's a way of whiling lonely hours away.  True, you’ll probably see more young shepherds listening to their mp3 players than tuning up their panflutes or their single pipes but come festival time – and most festivals are linked to a saint’s day, because here every day of the year has a saint attached - young and old alike delight in showing off how well they can tootle a pretty tune.  Musical competitions – singing, dancing and playing an instrument – come naturally to the Romanians.  Their folk music was bowdlerised under the Communists – especially under the forced homage to Ceauşescu called Cântărea al României – but the simple beauty of shepherds’ impromptu piping survives.   Clad in their sheepskin cloaks the shepherds resemble the god Pan himself.  

Shepherds who kept their flocks on the high mountains sometimes need to call to neighbouring farmers: to do this, they used an alphorn called a bucium, or just shouted, as they do today, hollering across the valleys to make themselves heard. 

Romanians are intensely proud of their Dacian heritage, especially here, so close to the Dacians’ strongholds.

Back to St. Mary's Day in
Tilişca.  To start the proceedings, there was a meeting in the town hall.  After the protocol speeches, voices were raised in anger: what’s going to happen to our small-holdings if nobody will collect the milk from one or two cows, or a handful of sheep and goats?  It didn’t matter that this was a shepherds’ gathering, the points were valid: the cooperative and state farm systems had destroyed some feudal estates along with a lot of what was good, but the European Union’s farming model was not designed for purpose either.  Nor was it proof against local perversion.  

Some peasants country folk still took a few litres of milk by hand to Bucharest, where city dwellers were hungry for real-tasting food and happy to pay for it.  But they couldn’t go on making these long journeys indefinitely.  ‘What happens when we get too old to work?’  ‘How will we maintain our meadows?’  Since the 1989 Revolution when some land was given back to its pre-Communist owners, Romania has become a nation of tiny farms.  Most of them are under a hectare in size, and while they provide inestimable benefits to the environment, they are deemed too small to count in the so-called ‘free’ market.  Reforms to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy which come into effect in 2014 are supposed to take account of this. 

But at the shepherds' annual meeting, the questions went unanswered.  It was easy to feel that the assembled authorities, the mayor and president of the sheep-breeders’ association who sat in a jolly row facing the audience, didn’t really care.  They were here for the party: and so after sending a few blandishments in the protestors’ direction, they led the company to the church.  

It wasn't a long service, and afterwards, there was a parade.  Teams of folk dancers and musicians had come from far and wide.  They were of all ages too, from tots to totterers.  One behind the other, the folk groups processed down one street, over a river bridge, along the main road, and back into the village centre along another street.  Their flutes and pipes played plaintive rhythms that were out of sync with each other and changed key with the Doppler effect as they passed.  They were rousing though; a wake-up call that rang against the rock walls of this tight little valley, asking for a response that didn’t come.  

Then we all went up the road to the caminul cultural (the community centre) for a slap up meal. 

People bowed their heads for grace, but after those few seconds of silence, the noise was devastating: raucous chatter and laughter reverberated around 30 trestle tables where red paper napkins adorned snowy cloths and a wealth of food met our eyes.  Now and again, you could hear the shepherds playing their pipes for fun.  We ate loads of soup, meat and bread, and drank each other’s health in plum brandy.  We gorged ourselves on local specialities such as bulz and balmos, milky, cheesy dishes based on the bright yellow sweet-corn flour that makes one of Romania’s most famous dishes, a spongy staple of every peasant home, that polenta or porridge they call mămăliga.  And then there was dessert: sweat, creamy layer cakes so squidgy they are almost obscene.    

With sated stomachs, the company drifted out.  Before we left, my friend and I thanked one of the beaming, bustling middle-aged women who had provided the feast.  We asked her if she had her own farm, and how she survived.  Her face crumpled.  ‘We get nothing’, she said; ‘less and less each year for more and more work. And we are growing too old.’  

The sheep-breeders’ party reconvened in a natural, grassy amphitheatre on a hillside overlooking the village.  At the bottom was a high wooden stage replete with amplifiers.  On this, the folk troupes sang, twirled and strutted to the jerky rhythms of time-honoured dances.  The rest of us lolled on a carpet of grasses so varied in shape, colour and smell and so riddled with cornflowers, bugloss, tiny pinks, sage and thyme that we were drunk with the abundance of it all as well as the alcohol we’d consumed.  The only solution was to doze in the shade of the willows, with only half an ear on the proceedings. 

Above us in the beech woods lay the remains of Tilişca’s own Dacian fort.  It was only a ten-minute walk away, but nobody went to look at the few remaining stones, the beautifully engineered, square-cut blocks which are one of the Dacians’ hallmarks.  

It was easy to imagine the Dacians lounging about here too, in more or less identical black and white get up.  They would have been shepherds, miners, builders and metal-workers.  Thanks to the Communist propaganda, we have been taught to think of them as proto-socialists, ordinary folk with no pretentions but their courage.  Their farmers might have had the same kind of shielings that Romanian shepherds use today. 

Lying there among the grasshoppers, I couldn’t help feeling the Dacians would have made a stand against the corruption that’s bringing Romania to its knees.  And that their true heirs were not the demogogues who love to call themselves simple shepherds, but the querulous pensioners who had had the courage to pipe up in the town hall. 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Animal fair

Poiana Sibiului, 19th September.  It was my last day in Romania.  I had postponed my flight home to visit the annual animal market.  It's said to be the largest in the country, and according to those in the know, is unmissable for anyone with the remotest interest in sheep, rural life or woollen socks.  

Leaving the mountain-top village of J is like going to a fair in itself.  I had got on the 7 am bus, and as soon as we were off, the driver started spinning the steering wheel to negotiate the cumbersome vehicle round the dizzying number of kinks in the road to the north. 

It was a sullen morning.  An unbroken ceiling of flat clouds hung over the landscape.  It wasn't conducive to a holiday spirit but if I was feeling crest-fallen my companions were made of sterner stuff, and nobody from J was going to be put off by a bit of bad weather.  Otherwise the passengers were quiet; they could have been on a normal, weekday commute to Sibiu and back.  That it was Fair Day became clear when we narrowly missed a van with two donkeys in the back.  A couple were sitting next to me, dressed in smart clothes: both wore black leather jackets, the wife had a neat headscarf tied under her chin, the husband sported a pork pie hat.  Taking the jolt in their stride, they perked up at the sight of the donkeys.  He said to her: 'How many do you think there are?'  She replied, 'I don't know - I can't see: two I think.  What can you do with two donkeys?  Sell, them I suppose.'   In this shepherding area, it's not that two donkeys are too many, but too few: for a flock of 1000 sheep travelling on foot between winter and summer pastures, you need several shepherds, and six or seven donkeys to carry their food, cooking pots and all the other gear to make life possible during a journey that can last for six weeks.  The same applies if you are travelling between your village house and one of the summer folds. 

We had just cleared the forbidding fir wood that separates J - supposedly founded sometime in the late 1300s by a ravishing heroine whose name means Fairy - from the mundane world.  Far below, to the left, the Transylvanian Plateau opened before us; to the right, I recognised Mr. B-S herding 30 sheep in tight formation over the rounded hillocks beside the road.  It's only four kilometres to Poiana Sibiului, but I have got so used to seeing sheep in vans and transporters at home in Britain, that I still did a double-take.  

Poiana Sibiului, they say, is home to the wealthiest shepherds in Romania.  Instead of the humble hovels and bothies you might expect in a pastoral haven such as this, the streets are an unbroken facade of block- or brick-built houses with reflective glass windows, balconies, panelled wood doors and pretentious pillars.  Top of the range cars have replaced the horses and carts.  But I had a hunch that the people were still down to earth - in touch with their bucolic roots and practical enough not to turn their noses up at your money.

The village centre was busy already: there were stalls all over the wide square, on both sides of the main through road.  It took me a while to realise that the animals were at another location, out of sight of the square, in a properly rural setting much further down the hill. 

Mesmerised by all the activity, I wandered past stands of tat: the kind of skimpy, garish clothes you can find at every street market in the world.  Gypsies were selling candyfloss, and one of them was tending a little spinning game where, if the pointer landed in the right place, kids could pick up a colourful plastic gizmo or brooch.  One or two of the traders were purveying fine, Astrakhan caciuli, the tall grey or black curly-coated, lambskin hats that shepherds wear in winter.  I carefully avoided the hat-sellers' eyes, torn between horror because of the way the lambs are treated - killed when they are 48 hours old, before their wool loses its curls - and the desire to handle such attractive objects.    

Along the street leading to the animal market, elderly women were laying out stacks of gorgeous, hand-made woollen clothes.  There were scores of these matrons, each one ready, if not desperate, to capture passing trade.  Was it because of the leaden sky that nobody was buying?  The range was limited but within it, the choice was phenomenal: socks; check-patterned wool jackets lined with real fleece; brown and white check stoles called ţoluri which shepherds use instead of raincoats, embroidered and fur fringed sheepskin jackets; piles of jerseys and cardigans in natural colours.  Feeling one of the jerseys I was taken aback: they were full of oil and as stiff as boards.  Made for real mountain men and women, not wimps, obviously.  

I made a detour to the wooden church, slipping in through the curlicued metal gates.  A few people were decorating family graves; there were masses of flowers both real and artificial, on the tombs and plenty of them growing in the ground.  The graves were lavish too: black and white marble slabs, gold lettering, sculptures.  Poiana Sibiului looks after its own, or at least, its dead, I felt.

Then to the animals.  I went downhill, past another graveyard, and into a natural amphitheatre with an even more spectacular view of Transylvania than before.  On one side of the track leading onto the fairground, there were more socks, more ţoluri and more stiff jumpers.  My heart bled for the knitters and weavers but at least they had each other for company.  

I stopped to get my bearings.  There was so much going on, and more people were coming all the time, in cars, vans, lorries, or on foot.  There were stalls selling all kinds of farming gear, sheep's bells in at least ten different sizes, decorated leather horse harnesses, nylon headcollars made in China, sheepskin cloaks, ropes, stainless steel buckets.   Everywhere I looked there were small groups of sheep, mainly the long-fleeced Turcana breed (but one of an Austrian variety, bred for its meat, whose heads were too large for their bodies).  

The sheep were clustered in pens or herded by shepherds on the tussocky banks that surrounded the fair ground.  There was atmosphere of bustle and excitement and, as the hours went by, of increasing joviality.  Beady-eyed, ruddy-cheeked men and women assessed their own and other people's animals.  Deals were struck, hands slapped noisily in agreement.  It seemed a far cry from the world of banking and international lonas, and of constricting EU legislation for that matter.  Was I getting a glimpse of Transylvania's counter culture, its alternative economy, of its only true democracy, even? 

It wasn't a good day for taking photographs but as if that gloom weren't enough, I was troubled by the issue of cruelty.  Not because I saw any glaring examples, if you exclude the legless man who was begging in the village square, but because most of the animals I was looking at were there because one way or another they were going to slaughter.  Many of Romania's lambs get sent by ship to the Near East while they are still alive.  Well, you will say, farming animals is cruel, and what did you expect if you visit an animal market?  Most of the Romanian farmers of my acquaintance are caring people, but they can't afford to be sentimental.  So, apart from all of us becoming vegetarians (which may be the only answer), how can we make the killing kinder?

Farmers - and for the sake of simplicity, I'm not including or even trying to define agribusiness here - are Romania's backbone.  There are still such things as 'farming villages' where people support each other, where there is inter-dependence, mutual reliance and trust.  The Romanians call it tovarășire, or comradeship - a word that came into use long before the Communist period.  It is the same sort of phenomenon that inspired George Ewart Evans's books about rural Suffolk in the early 20th century.  These clusters of kinship, of mutual friendship and practical back-up have no commercial value.  Break them up and what are you left with? 

Hairy Carpathian sheep dogs were chained in the backs of vans, or on the ground, cowering, snarling, or looking lost.  I had to pinch myself to leave them alone.  There were horses - a magnificent strawberry roan stallion built like a tank, a glossy black mare with a cergă (a stripy, loose-weave, woollen blanket) over her back; cows with calves, cows tied up to acacia trees which stood in little spinneys on the edge of the fairground, pigs in carts.  A couple of huge animal transporters, lots of small trailers.  I made the rounds, glad to say hello to people I knew, to feel I belonged, by proxy if nothing else, before going to my own home, several thousand miles away. 

Dinu B was there, with a penful of handsome rams with spotless, bouffant fleeces.  (You couldn't say the same for all the animals.)  I met Gheorghe Căţean, who had just returned from his epic, international transhumant walk from Rotbav to Koniakow in southern Poland.  

And there was Mr B-S, who had arrived safely with his little flock.  After hailing me with conspiratorial glee, he was quickly distracted, looking around keenly for buyers.  Many soon materialised, although they all affected indifference: animal trading involves the same stand-off between sellers and potential takers the world over.  Mr B-S is a natural salesman, nothing daunts him, which is lucky because as we were talking, his sheep disappeared over a bank.  When he had rounded them up, I asked him how much he was asking for his ewes.   '200.' he told me.  200 lei a head - RON, that is, roughly equivalent to £40.  Mr B-S was too busy to chat, so I moved on.  As he waved me off, he hissed, 'Aduceţi clienţi!'.  I said I'd be sure to drive people to his threshhold in their thousands.  Even if I'd been able to, it was an empty promise, because, mesmerised by the brooding view and the curious sights, I promptly forgot all about it. 

An hour went by in pleasant wanderings, enjoying the Romanian version of Irish craic.  The sun came out, in parts.  It helped to anaesthetise some of my frankly hypocritical angst - I'm a meat eater. 

I had another bus to catch.  Before turning my back on the animal fair, I saw an old woman walking through the crowd, hawking wooden donkey saddles.  They were just bent frames, made of I'm not sure what type of wood, but with absolutely no padding.  The saddles were like the ones you see in medieval illustrations.  They were meant for carrying sacks, not people, and if you were going to ride on one, you'd have a sheepskin or two to cushion your backside.  The old lady had two of the saddles slung on her back: hardly enough, I thought, remembering the conversation I'd overheard on the way to Poiana. 

On my way back to the village centre, I bought a pair of socks.  They were knitted in two different kinds of brown, both of them natural - beautiful, soft colours.  They cost 10 lei, the same as the rather nasty sandwich I'd bought to stave off my hunger.  £2: hardly enough to keep a body, let alone a household, going for long, even in Romania.  



Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Coliba life

Mid-September 2013.  I am back in the Southern Carpathians, staying with the D family at a coliba a couple of miles to the south-east of J.  It is my third time in this place, but the first that it has rained enough during the summer to turn the pastures green.  Since my earlier visit, things have changed in the family too.  The son, Ghiţa, has married his sweetheart, Andreea; they have a baby daughter, Georgiana, who is four months old.  

Not only this but Ghiţa has become a celebrity.  He has been signed up by Vodafone for a tv advertising campaign.  Dressed in his cojoc (or sarică, another word for the long, sheepskin cloaks with the fleece turned to the outside), and his tall, black, pot hat made of stiffened lambskin, Ghiţa is shown in a series of quickly changing vignettes: sitting with a fellow shepherd by an open fire, sampling a typical but untypically well-presented supper of onions, slănină (pork belly) and mămăligă (polenta made from sweetcorn flour), dancing with sheep, and exulting in his new role as a cool, switched-on dude, with his tablet, smartphone and facebook page.  

All of which has up-ended a common perception of shepherds as numbskulls.  Ghiţa's family is a bit bemused by all this: his parents still wake at 4am to milk 700 ewes, staggering in to the cabin for a bistro breakfast at 7; at least they only have to do this twice a day since the yield has started to dry up.  (When the ewes are first separated from their lambs, in June, they have so much milk that the shepherds have to collect it three times a day.)  There are daughters to help now, too: Ionela, while she is on school holiday, Maria when she's not at home looking after the house in J, and three or four hired shepherds, who may or may not stay from one day to the next.  At least Andrei is still there; this is his fifth year of working with the Ds.  (I have a special affection for Andrei because he was such a sympathetic companion when I spent five days following Ghiţa's flock in April 2012.) 

Changes in the climate are more abrupt than I anticipated: on the Transylvanian Plateau the temperature was much higher than here.  On my first day, on a three-hour hike down to Stănişoara from one of the higher folds with
Dan and Bogdan, two of the hired men and some 300 lambs, I regret not bringing better insulation.  My rainjacket is fine for city storms (from which you can usually escape), but it isn't much of a match for the chilly winds which were a distant rumour when I was on the levels but have suddenly become real.  As I discovered the next day, the hi-tec coat lets in water under the kind of steady, relentless downpours which I was warned about but didn't really believe.  My trusty Swiss hiking boots, bought over 30 years ago and as comfortable as gloves, have started to leak as well.  Never mind: it's exhilarating to be out on the mountains, 2000 metres above sea level, in scintillating light, getting whiffs of wild thyme and sage, and being part of witty, down to earth company.  And that's only the sheep. 

When she has time and is in the mood, Ghiţa's mother, Paraschiva, tells me about her life.  I learn about her grandfather, the father of Evdochia, the 'Dochie' from whom Paraschiva gets her local name, Chiva lui Dochie.  Her grandfather left her grandmother and their children for a richer woman.  At first I assume he had abandoned his peasant bride without another thought but Paraschiva says he was good to his first family, gave them money for clothes and - if I heard aright - education, too.  

Paraschiva is as sparkling and sharp as the quartz in these mountains; even when laughing - and her merriment is volcanic - her manner inclines towards asperity rather than softness.  Her tirades are terrifying, so it's a surprise when she takes me into her confidence.  It feels like a privilege too. 

She is seldom free to chat and I am curiously gratified when she asks, or rather tells, me to do chores: take care of the lambs for a couple of hours while the other shepherds are milking, fetch water from the spring that lies in a half-hidden pool a hundred yards down the slope, lift the milk cauldron from the fire and haul it with her into the barn.  Then I watch fascinated as she adds cheag, a commercial thickening agent, that sets the liquid (thicker now at the end of the season) into a jelly.  

At a rough guess the daily milk yield contains 100 kilos.  (Is this crazy?  Writing here in a hurry, I'm not sure of my facts and will have to calculate more carefully.)   In any case, it only takes 20 minutes for the large tub of milk to solidify.  The next stage is to ladle the jelly into a stainless steel trough to drain off the whey, cut it into chunks that are roughly the same size (a kilo or two in each one) and press them together with wooden slats.  

When Paraschiva is satisfied that the chunks are consistent enough, she soaks them in salty water, called saramura, and packs them into plastic tubs for transportation down to the village.  This type of sheep's cheese is called telemea, and it's said that Romanian shepherds learned the technique from Greeks who settled in Dobrogea, at the time when that magnetic coastal region was still under Ottoman Turkish rule.  (Most of it now belongs to Romania although a southern portion lies in Bulgaria.)  Telemea is basically the same thing as feta.  It's the most popular type of sheep's cheese on the Romanian market because it keeps through the winter, and for that reason sells more easily.    

It's from Paraschiva that I hear there are more transhumant flocks in J than I thought.  According to her, some 30 sheep farming families still walk their sheep north in the autumn, and back again in the spring.  They mostly go to Salaj, a county of smaller hills, lower altitude and milder weather on the north-west edge of the Transylvanian plateau.  She rattled off a few names - far fewer than 30 - which I tried to jot down.     

I want to meet the other transhumant shepherds.  Paraschiva tells me one or two of the families live quite close by; why don't I go and talk to them?  Like the Ds, most of them rent the summer farms, the colibi or stâni as the Romanians call them, from private owners: the days when J controlled the majority of izlazuri - a huge area of common land that reached to the outer boundaries of the village, are gone.  (One of the statistics often mentioned in histories of J says that this remote mountain comuna encompasses the same area as Bucharest, Romania's capital city.  I once made a note of what the measurement actually was but have long since lost it; Bucharest is probably a bit larger by now!)

Closest of all is the A family.  Iancu A, known, like all respected elderly males, as moşu, will be able to tell me about many of the other transhumant farmers.  'Can I get there in a day?' I ask, rather naively.  Paraschiva looks baffled, as if I ought to know that they live barely a brisk half-hour hike from here.  All I need is to follow one of the many cart roads that criss cross J's outlying pastures like the ribs of a leaf.  

Taking a makeshift staff to ward off unfriendly sheepdogs - and possibly wolves - I set off past Simion and Dan, looking after the lambs which are due to be sold any day now.  Simion, Ghiţa's father, looks happy in his environment, if a little wizened.  It is beautiful today: very calm under a half-blue sky.  Rolling hilltops bar the horizon.  There are clusters of tiny yellow and white pansies in the taller, dying grasses.  Wild boar excavations have scarified patches of the open grazing.  Someone has been cutting down invasive birch trees, probably taking advantage of the current EU grants to aid sustainable farming in mountain areas.  

I sing to myself as I head into a clump of fir trees whose low-swinging branches obscure the exit, and make everything dark.  My walk brings me over the brows of several hills, into the dips between, fording streams and clambering up the other side.  The going is harder than I thought; after a summer of sitting at the computer I am unfit.  Half an hour becomes 45 minutes, and I wonder if I'm going in the right direction.  There is no-one to ask and my phone has no signal.  I feel singularly alone in the vastness and solitude of the mountains.  It all looks so peaceful, so bland, so almost-Home Counties, with the curves of the hillsides swooping down into valley bottoms, the decorous woods, the smooth grass - but that's an illusion: here, potentially, be dragons.  Telling myself I'm an idiot, my heart-rate rises.  

At last I see it: the rust-coloured corrugated iron roof of a coliba, nestling in a hollow behind some wire and palisade fencing.  Inside the perimeter, the grass has been mown to Home Counties perfection.  Nobody is playing tennis.  Mrs A is tending her cows, which have the freedom of the three or four well-groomed hectares which surround her shieling.  She is, I guess, in her 70s.  As soon as she realises I'm there, Mrs A points to the gate, round the other side of the corral.  Relief: a chance to sit and talk with other human beings.  Something I've taken for granted.  

Mrs A and her daughter, Maria, invite me into a little timber shed, a narrow rectangle with a sloping roof.  It stands a few yards away from the main coliba.  It is surprisingly comfortable and cheerful inside the shed: instead of a window, a section of wall is missing from the top of one of its longer walls, and this lets in a lot of light.  There is a stove in one corner, next to a large table which is being used to prepare food.  

Apart from seeing to the cows and their calves, they have been harvesting their cabbages, hoping to salt them for winter.  But the slugs have got there first, leaving shredded stumps instead of nice fat leaves.  Disappointing.  Mrs A sighs at the waste but is not cast down for long.  She sits me on the only chair and plies me with food: bread, slanina, telemea, tomatoes, peppers, coffee, creamy chocolate cake...  Maria comes in and out, checking on her mother, the cabbages, and her six month old baby Ioana who is in the house.  

Maria is slight and wiry, with a sensitive face; physical work and winter winds have worn her lean with no extraneous flesh.  She and I have met before, at Ghiţa's wedding.  'I looked a bit different then', she jokes, pointing to her flat belly.  Both women have accepted me without reserve.  No wonder I feel so at home.  

A number of interesting objects hang from nails along the back wall.  The morning sun falls on them casting sharp shadows: a patterned cloth, turquoise plastic sheeting, enamel mugs and cooking pots, a rolling pin, a radio hanging from a wooden frame.  Set against the log walls, they look like a still life composition.  

Mr A is away down in the gully, chopping wood.  Would I like them to call him?  He is the only one who is supposed to know the other transhumant shepherds.  Of course I would, if it's not too much trouble...  

It never is: the clear atmosphere of the mountains makes its people clear and uncluttered too.  If you ask, they will say yes or no.  There is hardly ever any shilly-shallying.  (Later the same week, after I returned to J, Ileana told me that 'people here are hard, but they are sociable and communicative too.  When you live like us, sometimes never seeing another person for days on end, meeting someone is a real event.')

Maria and I walk down a steep slope into trees, climbing over fences.  Iancu, her father, is moving logs.  Like her, he is lithe and quick but when we get closer, I see with a shock how old he looks.  Would he be any better off sitting in an old folks' home?  I doubt it.  Bearded and bristly, he is at one with the timber.  Maria explains why I've come, and without complaint, her dad shoulders some branches and we clamber up the hill again.  I take photos of Iancu, who sits on a log beside the shed.  Mrs A kindly arranges a tol for me - this is a type of brown and white checker-patterned woven wool rug which shepherds from the Cindrel range of the Carpathian Mountains use as a rain coat - but I am afraid of missing anything, and squat on the ground as close as I can get to Iancu's face.  I ask him about transhumance.  His voice is fragile and hoarse with fatigue.  I can hardly make out what he says.   Dismayed, I ask if he'd mind if I make a recording.  

Iancu says that when he was growing up, in the 1930s, most of the villagers had animals, and transhumance was a normal way of life.  He had looked after sheep in Cluj county with someone called Nicolae, some forty years ago, but the words are so difficult for me to understand that I can't really make out what he's saying.  Odd bits do get through my language barrier.  

'How long have you had this land?'  At first I mishear him: 'Forty six years?'  'One hundred and forty six!' Iancu puts me right.   

I could insist on his repeating every sentence so that its meaning is clear to me, but I haven't got the heart.  Iancu is tired and this is not a good moment.  The conversation wanders.  We veer off course to the Second World War and the injustices which he and his family suffered under Ceauşescu.  He is vehement about this, and Mrs A chips in to smooth the waters, telling me, 'for some, they were better'.  I had heard, read, or assumed somehow that life was easier for the people of J and the neighbouring village of PS in the 1980s, because of their remoteness, and the advantages that some shepherds had in a system that guaranteed fixed prices for meat, milk and wool.  It is well known that some people in Marginimea Sibiului did do well: the tales of four-storey mansions with lifts, and marble-lined stables were not false.  But it seems the As were not so fortunate, and they do not agree with the opinion that is repeated often in these uncertain times that things were better for Romanians under Ceauşescu than they are now.  'They were hoţi (crooks)', says Iancu A, but he is more exercised by current inequalities, adding, 'Lady, the people who raise animals are not well paid; others (I assume he means middlemen) get the money; we are just the slaves.  What we have now is not democracy; it's daylight robbery'.  Tears fill his eyes.  

Maria shows me her baby.  She has been married before and has older children; this relatively late arrival is bonny, cheerful and cherished, surrounded by warmth and plastic toys.  Maria and her mother tell me I could stay with them overnight, but, although reluctant to leave their cheerful company, I'm also embarrassed by their generosity and decline.  At around 3pm, I take my leave, anxious to get back before dark.  I say I will send them copies of the photos, and keep in touch.  Outside the As corral, a sheep dog bounds up to me: another flock is moving ground; I see it in tight formation a quarter of a mile away, too far for me to yell.  

I keep my cool and the dog hesitates, but Mrs A sees what's happening and runs to the fence with a stick for me.  It's one that she made for herself.  'Take it, don't worry', she says when I hesitate.  'Go that way, turn right by the tree over there, it's quicker'.  She points to the left of a memorial cross, and I see a direct line across one deep valley to Stănişoara, the Ds' fold.  The growling dog has retreated.  I would have liked to look at the memorial, wondering if it's the one that Mrs B had put up after her eldest son was struck by lightening in August 2010.  But discretion wins the day, and I head off into the wide expanse of grass where there are no signposts to direct my way.  

Half way down the hill, I meet yet another flock, outridden by five hairy Carpathian sheep dogs.  I stay very still and hold out a hand.  The leader sidles up and licks it.  The others follow, half cringeing, their back ends wagging, teeth bared in ridiculous, ingratiating grins.  Two shepherds are making their steady way up towards me, one middle-aged with an open friendly face, one young, hooded and startlingly handsome.  They walk steadily forwards, poles in hand, like pilgrims.  'Where are you going?' I ask.  To Alba, says the older shepherd.  'Are they your sheep?'  'No, they belong to a priest in...' and he mentions a village in the next county that I haven't heard of.  For all I know it could be several days' walk away.  They have been summering the sheep in the Cindrel's high pastures.  'How many have you got there?'  Five hundred head.  They move off with the same deliberate, unhurried, tread, like apparitions of antiquity.