Monday, January 16, 2012


I thanked the Goeres family for the excellent food and opportunity to finally do some scythe-wielding and made plans to head on over to the nearby town of Saschiz. I had learned of the Fundatia Adept organization and wanted to find out more about the scope of their work, but their website actually does a very good job of explaining what they're about. But first I should give a little background info about the region in which they work and which I had been traveling in for the past couple of weeks.

Transylvania, which is basically the entire hilly central part of the country ringed by the Carpathian mountains, has a very complex history that has been complicated even more by the recent fall of communism and migration patterns resulting from that. Starting around the 1200s, a mix of Saxon (Germanic), Hungarian, and Romanian peoples lived here and it changed hands several times between different empires, though it was probably part of Hungary for the longest time. After World War I the current Romanian border lines were drawn and many of the Hungarians and Saxons who stayed felt disenfranchised by the new power structures. As communism set in after World War II, there was a steady migration of Saxons back to Germany which greatly increased after the fall of the eastern bloc in 1989. Now they are a very small minority, and the distinctive houses and villages they left behind have now been inhabited by Romanians and Moldovians seeking to establish independent property ownership and farmsteads in the wake of decades of communal ownership. The Hungarians are still around in much greater numbers but many of them refuse to speak Romanian!

Fundatia Adept was founded to preserve the very eco-friendly forms of agriculture that had developed in these rolling hills over centuries, and which is now in danger because of European Union policies that favor large-scale farming over the small-scale "peasant" approach. Romania is home to some of the most traditional (i.e. straight from the Middle Ages) forms of farming that can still be found in Europe, but practices like local butcher shops, village-level milk distribution, and even horse-drawn carts are in danger because of the EU's drive to sanitize and modernize the Romanian countryside. Personally I think the traditional ways are much better and deeply rooted in culture, and I strongly wish that we had preserved more of this in my homeland of Eastern Kentucky. Fundatia Adept has established various ways to make small-scale farming both legal and economically viable by setting up centers for milking, value-added production (jams, pickles, etc), and marketing assistance so that peasant farmers can meet EU codes and survive financially in the 21st century. All in all it seemed to be a good model for something similar I'd like to set up back home.

Back on the bus to the next locale, this time crossing through to the other side of the Carpathians to a monastery in Suceava county. I didn't expect to be farming with friars but the description of this place on the WWOOF site made it seem pretty interesting as it was sort of a nursing home that grew a lot of its own food on site. The bus journey was yet again breathtaking, and I really enjoyed seeing the local architecture style of the houses and churches change so dramatically from one region to the next. Eventually I made it to Targu Neamt and was given a ride to the monastery some 45 minutes away by a veterinarian who is friends with the friars. One thing that I didn't expect or realize is that monastic friars in Romania both make homemade liquor and drink it. A LOT. In fact my first experience upon arriving at the monastery was to be led down into a brick dungeon and be given glass after glass of very potent ţuică (lovely moonshine made from plums), and for some reason it seemed like a good idea to serve dinner right afterward!

Myself and a random WWOOFer from Seattle (Aaron) spent the next several days working with a team of local dudes harvesting hay that had already been cut. It was a bit of a weird experience as the locals seemed a bit resentful toward us since we were working for free whereas they were doing this for income; they also seemed a bit impatient with our lack of knowledge of how to be Romanian farmers, and the intense language barrier didn't help. Aaron and I left before too long as there didn't seem to be very much to learn here and to my aggravation it turned out that they didn't even use scythes to cut grass and instead had a big ol' tractor.

Suceava county is famed for its very old painted monasteries, so we spent a couple of days hanging out and checking out the medieval murals. Definitely amazing in that sylistically creepy sort of way. I decided to head west for Maramures where I had learned of some interesting farming country and Aaron split off for Bulgaria or somewhere. I made a brief stopover in Sighetu Marmație to check out the "Merry Cemetery" in Săpânţa, one of the weirdest and most endearing places I visited in Europe. This place is filled with sweetly decorated wooden epitaphs that depict people either doing something normal in their lives or sometimes actually getting killed, and apparently the inscription below is funny and poetic. Some of the illustrations were truly bizarre, with everything from somebody getting their head chopped off to drunken angels partying with moonshine-making musicians. The same small town on the Ukrainian border is also home to a church that I was told is the tallest wooden structure in Europe.

Before heading back into farming country, I spent some time at a very sobering museum about the secret police (Securitate) during Romania's communist era, housed in a former prison for political dissidents. The period of communist rule from 1947-1989 and especially the rule of Ceaușescu from 1965-1989 left a very deep mark on this country, especially the last 10 or so years of the regime which saw ordinary Romanians struggling for survival in a terribly mismanaged communal agriculture system. The Securitate had a reputation for being very brutal and routinely killing any and all dissidents, and throughout my time in this country I could still feel the sense of suspicion and paranoia present in the minds of most people over 30.

My last real stop on the entire year long trip would be the sleepy little town of Groşii Ţibleşului deep in the Maramures hinterlands. I had randomly made contact with Ryan, a Peace Corps fellow teaching English in this village, and he had assured me that I could once again get my scything fix if I came. I certainly got that and much more. I knew I was in the right place when my hitchhiking driver and I had to dodge through a herd of water buffalo as we were coming into the town, and I was very enthused by the beautiful hilly farm country and handbuilt traditional houses. My biggest regret about this place is that I didn't know about it sooner, because I probably would've spent the vast majority of my time in Romania here. Unfortunately I had less than a week til my flight back to the US.

The week was filled with copious amounts of ţuică (the villagers would make me drink it before breakfast and right in the middle of hard field work!), a couple of full days of scything and other hay work, lots of visits to extremely generous and friendly villagers' homes, and a foray out to a goat and sheep milking and cheese-making operation deep in the forested hills. This last bit was especially wild as it was a pretty treacherous road to get out there, the Romanian sheep dogs were very intimidating, and only one person could speak limited English, but it was a great time nonetheless. These folks milked the animals by hand and boiled the milk over an open fire in a cauldron, and used hand-harvested stomach enzymes to get the cheese to separate. The first piece they gave me to try was shaped just like Kentucky and tasted great! One of the Gypsy youth working as a shepherd completely whooped me in arm wrestling, and my sort of English speaking guide later took me to see her father's homemade ţuică (moonshine) still and let me hear the very awesome traditional Romanian folk music group she sings with. Despite the really bad Eastern European techno that everyone there listens to, I had a really, really good time hanging out in this village for almost a week and wished I could've stayed a bit longer.

Other than a brief stopover in yet another pretty old Romanian city (Cluj Napoca) on my way back to the Bucharest airport, my time in Romania and the rest of the wide world was done. There's really no way to sum it up concisely or effectively; there was just too much variety and intensity across the spectrum of places and people I spent time with. From the former colliery towns of South Wales to the very active strip mines of Jharkhand, India, from the highly efficient bioenergy villages of rural Germany to the somewhat less efficient bioenergy plants in rural Karnataka, from the peaks of Poland's highest mountains to the foothills of the tallest mountains in the world, I have been extremely blessed with an incredible diversity of experience over this year. There were many ups and downs as I haphazardly blundered my way through 12 countries, 3 continents, and hundreds of people, organizations, hostels, couches, and tent spots, and while I'll always wish I had done some things differently I can only be deeply thankful to everyone and every place that shared some time and knowledge with me.

As I write this from a cabin in Knott County, Kentucky, I'm still struggling with how to translate these experiences into something meaningful for my homeland. We live with an economy and environment dominated by a dying industry desperately clinging to what profits remain in its last days, and it has successfully brainwashed the people into thinking that without it they will die and that any destruction is justified based on the few temporary jobs it provides. This, combined with a general suspicion of most things "green," "progressive," or generated from some outside influence creates a challenging environment for starting projects that could create a healthier and more sustainable Appalachia. But this is the place that my family has called home for the past 200+ years and it is thoroughly a part of my psyche and being; I feel a strong sense of responsibility to try to do something that improves or at least preserves this place.

The truth is that I don't know how or if this journey will be of benefit to me in any obvious way. In fact part of me wonders if I've seen too much, if I've been spoiled by experiences and understandings that make it more difficult to return to a fairly mundane life in East KY. There's no way to relay any of this in a way that comes close to capturing the true experience to anyone who has never been to the places in question, which is the vast majority of Eastern Kentuckians (and Americans for that matter). This doesn't make me feel superior to anyone else, just somewhat alien and in possession of an unexplainable and uniquely personal load. But at the same time, I treasure the vast majority of the moments that make up that load and wouldn't trade them for anything in the world. Thanks for reading,

Nathan D. Hall

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Romania Part 1

If I trace back through the thought process that led me to choose Romania as my final destination country, I find that I was chock full of presumptions and expectations that remind me now of what people who have heard about but never been to Appalachia must think. I was fairly convinced that I would be going to the medieval slums of Eastern Europe where everyone still uses a horse and buggy and the houses all look like the opening scene in Borat, and then there's the whole notion of being the haven of Gypsies and all the stereotypes that go along with that. Of course what I found was quite a bit different, as generally is the case whenever you expect something to be a certain way.

Although I'd mainly come because of my interests in traditional agriculture and coal mining regions, I spent a couple of days in the capitol city of Bucharest just to see what it's like. To anyone planning to travel to Romania, I would say spend as little time as possible here. Not that it was bad or dangerous or anything of the sort, just that there wasn't anything very standout about it compared to the rest of the country. I did enjoy the "village museum" where original examples of "peasant architecture" from all over the country had been brought here and reconstructed. It was beautiful, ingenious, and very diverse as far as the difference in styles between different regions. I especially liked seeing the old-timey ways to use wood for pretty serious machinery; the standout was an oilseed press that had a big wooden screw built into a post.

I was probably the least prepared for this country of any that I had been to, and all I really knew was that I would try to work on a few farms through the WWOOF system (I was kind of obsessed with learning to use a scythe to cut hay) and that I should hang out for a bit in the coal mining region of the Jiu Valley. Geographically it made the most sense to head to the coalfields first, and with very little in the way of contacts I got on a bus headed toward Targu Jiu. No sooner had I sat down than a girl with coal black hair and not-so-good English started talking to me. Turned out she was half Gypsy and her dad was a former coal miner. According to her the town I was planning to go to was boring and I wouldn't find much of interest there, so I should just come to her hometown of Petrosani in the mountains instead. To make a long story short I ended up taking that advice, and in fact when we passed through Targu Jiu it looked very bland and the ride to Petrosani was very beautiful. She convinced me to stay at the hotel where her boyfriend worked (that was a bit of a surprise), and then vanished to never be seen again. Ah, Gypsies.

The hotel was fine, I guess it cost me $30 which isn't bad by US standards but of course I was still in India mode and anything over $5 still seemed ridiculous. Anyway I took off the next day toward what I learned was the biggest nearby actively producing coal mine in the town of Lupine and it was again very gorgeous mountainous country. I walked all over the place there, taking pictures of the huge Soviet-era mine complex itself (including a shift of miners about to go underground wearing caps that looked like they were from the 1920s), got a tour of a tiny holler village by a very nice woman who spoke no English, took a dip in the public pool (conveniently right next to the mine complex!), and made my way back over to a little restaurant pub place. I was beginning to think that no one in this town spoke any English at all, and then I met Christian. He was a former underground mine electrician who now did electrical work on the surface, and I was able to have a very good conversation with him about the realities of mining and coal in modern day Romania.

According to him, the industry has been in gradual decline since the collapse of communism (prior to that all coal burned in Romania was mined in Romania) and most miners had already been laid off. As I heard from other countries when I was in Europe almost a year ago, they just couldn't compete on the free market with cheaper imported coal, though he wasn't sure exactly where it was coming from. His description of working conditions sounded pretty archaic, with quite a bit of extraction still done by hand with big pneumatic hammers and hand shoveling. A continuous miner was apparently a rarity and only existed in a few mines. This area was also somewhat touristy because of the beautiful mountains and a couple of nearby ski resorts, but this could only provide part time seasonal employment at best and could never reemploy even a fraction of the miners who were constantly being laid off. He guessed that all of the mines in this area (and maybe all of Romania) would be shut down within 10 years. Some people had attempted to return to old family land to take up small farming, but many were unable because of the myriad of issues around the communist appropriation of private land into "communal ownership" and the corruption involved with trying to lay claim to ancestral ownership. Apparently these and other reasons are why Romanians can be found throughout Europe doing the low-pay manual labor jobs that other people don't want to do; they've had no choice but to migrate.

I bought him a beer for taking the time to explain things so clearly to me, and I marveled at how just the right people have so often popped up at just the right time throughout this trip. I spent some more time taking pictures of weird stuff in this oddly charming little town that was half ugly communist apartments and half sweet old farm houses, and then ended up back in Petrosani for another night. From there I went to Sibiu, a completely gorgeous small city with a center that looks like it hasn't changed in 400 years. It was kind of a weird day to end up there as a big fashion show with fullsize runway and huge projector screens was happening right in the main square. I had been noticing that Romanians seemed more preoccupied with fashion and looks in general than a lot of other places I'd been in Europe, but it was overall a pretty tacky and cheap version of it. More than once I would see a woman walking down the street and think she might be a prostitute, only to realize that in fact she was simply a trendy Romanian lady.

And then from Sibiu to Brasov, yet another beautiful old touristy city, except this one was a bit more obnoxiously geared toward catering to foreigners. I guess it's the launching point for most visitors who come for the one thing that Romania is actually famous for: Dracula. I have to admit that a small part of me was into the idea of being right in the area where the Dracula legend came from, but talking to locals quickly dispelled that interest. Apparently there had never been any local legends about vampires, and Bram Stoker just completely made up the entire story from his head. In fact he had never even been to Romania and based everything on second-hand accounts. The real "Dracula" (Vlad Tepes) was a local baron/prince/overlord sort of fellow who had a particularly brutal method of intimidating his enemies. The Turks were trying to invade this part of Romania (Transylvania or Wallachia) back in the late 1400s and he would always try to capture as many of them alive as possible and impale them on stakes so that any incoming armies would see their fellow soldiers dying a slow and painful death as a form of psychological warfare.

Brasov was mainly just a brief stopover on my way to Moeciu, a nearby town in the mountains where I would be starting my first WWOOF engagement. Willing Workers On Organic Farms is a worldwide network of farms and volunteers whereby farms get "free" labor and travelers or people who want to learn about farming get free room and board in exchange for doing whatever the farm owner wants them to do. It's definitely not perfect and I've heard a few horror stories of sketchy "farmers" and freaked out volunteers, but I've probably heard of more good experiences overall. My stay with Joseph Duicu and his mother up on the little mountaintop village of Magura was nice but a bit briefer than expected due to really bad weather (it was constantly drizzling and almost freezing in June!). I had to walk a good 3 miles straight up a mountain with my heavy backpack just to get to his place, but the amazing food was definitely worth it. Although I didn't get to cut huge fields of hay with a scythe like I'd wanted, I did get to hang out with an awesome local old dude for a day and learn the basic technique.

It is actually really difficult to cut grass with a scythe properly. There's much more technique to it than I realized, and you can wear yourself out and barely cut anything if you're not careful. This old feller was a master at it and also very good at sharpening the blade with a hammer, an art unto itself. We talked for a little while with Joseph as a translator and I learned that he used to wake up and cut grass for 2-3 hours in the morning, walk 3-4 miles in all weather to his job at a nearby factory, work 8-10 hours, then walk home and feed animals and such. People can be really tough when they have to be, and I was glad to have met this relic of a bygone age.

Since the taciturn Carpathian weather wouldn't be clearing up for another week or so, I decided to take off for the next WWOOF farm that I had made contact with out in the central part of Transylvania. I tried to pay the Duicus something since I had basically just eaten their food and not been able to do any real work, but they were too gracious to let me. I spent a day in the town of Sighisoara before going to the farm, and even though I had seen quite a few pretty old European cities by this point, I think this one was the best. More of a big town than a city, it looks more medieval than anywhere else I've ever been and it seems to be the best maintained. Oh, and it's the birthplace of the real Dracula!

I decided to hitchhike out to the remote village of Roandola, and luckily I was able to get a ride without too much effort. I soon found the home of the family I'd be staying with in this very strange but awesome-looking old Saxon-style village. They were actually German but had moved here to go "back to the land" and were doing a very good job of it, raising several acres of vegetables, hay, and keeping a small herd of cattle and goats. I was thankfully finally able to get my scything fix here; I spent an entire 8+ hour day cutting alfalfa my second day there and thought I was going to die the next morning! But I got up anyway and we all raked the hay onto their horse-drawn wagon and put it up in the barn behind their house. All in all that week or so of hard farm work was very gratifying, especially at the end of a long day when we would eat the food that was entirely produced there on their own farm (homemade bread from their wheat, milk and yogurt from their cows, meat from their goats, jams from their berries, etc etc).

I had asked them when I first got there if they knew of any good musicians around since I had been hoping to find awesome traditional Romanian fiddlers and such. They did know a fellow named Florin, a Gypsy that lived on the rundown outskirts. They said that if I referred to them that no one would mess with me, so I made plans to try to track this fellow down and hear some Gypsy fiddling. First I went on a walk over the mountain to the nearby village of Valchid where they had told me I had to see a huge old fortified church with a belltower that you can still walk up into and see all of the surrounding countryside from. Absolutely no one in this village spoke English and it was an entertaining exchange getting them to understand what I wanted to do! It was quite breathtaking though. I ended up being befriended by a family in the town who fed me some awesome homemade liquor, took me on a horse-drawn buggy ride to meet (and drink beer with) their relatives in the next village, and then dropped me back off at the trail to go back over the mountain, all without speaking a word of English.

It was almost dark and I was more than a bit tipsy when I finally made it to the Gypsy part of town where Florin lived. In contrast to the brightly painted and well-maintained Saxon-style houses in the rest of the village, most of the houses here were in various states of cobbled together and/or disrepair. I saw a young fellow and asked "Viora? Florin?" and made a fiddle-playing gesture, and he enthusiastically brought me into the next house over. Florin and his family were watching TV when I walked in, and despite almost no language in common we were somehow able to communicate that we both play music and it would be fun if we could play together. The next couple of hours were some of the most surreal of my life, and I probably wouldn't think it actually happened if Florin's wife hadn't taken this video with my camera. I ended up playing a bunch of old time Appalachian ballad songs for them, and Florin played some amazing music on accordion that he sang to as well as some truly bizarre duets featuring him on a homemade electric fiddle and his son playing a Casio keyboard through a PA system. I thought he might ask me for money but such was not the case; he did however want a DVD of the videos I took, and I promised to figure out how to do that and send it to him somehow. I actually still need to do that...

So, stay tuned for the rest of Romania and the LAST BLOG POST OF THE TRIP