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

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