‘Look out for the pig’, she said.
Directly in our path a two-tone porcine, pink and brown separated by a distinct line across its solid stomach, was rooting about in the wet grass. Not in a pen, not fenced off from the world, but on the side of the narrow muddy street of a Romanian village.
‘What a beautiful animal’, she said, as it carried on oblivious to the world. She stopped to stroke its back and beckoned that I should do so as well.
We were in the village of Dănești, in the mountains of Transylvania, walking along the village street in an autumn drizzle. I had come into this entrancing part of the world via slow and bumpy trains, along tracks that had been allowed to settle into a distinctly natural state. As was my custom, I had avoided flying, but even then only one plane, a propeller-driven affair, arrived per day in the regional centre. And a car journey was a patient business, negotiating twisting and potholed roads full of horses and carts, rusty riders on equally rusty bicycles, ancient mini-buses and daredevil drivers. All of which passed through mountains bedecked with the reds and golds and mists of autumn.
My walking companion was stately woman originally from a village further in the mountains. Solid, somewhat regal, with gravitas in town, she was descended from an ancient noble family that had suffered as part of the former ruling class during the communist revolution in Romania. With the end of communism, they felt truly liberated – for a few moments. As I wrapped my coat more tightly about me as the first real chill of winter came with the wind, our con asked her about politics and life.
‘After the “revolution” happened’, she said, ‘we were asked if we would go into politics’.
‘“Revolution?”’ I asked.
‘Yes, the revolution of 1989’, she replied. ‘When we overthrew Ceausescu’.
‘Ah yes’, I said. ‘Less are alive now who witnessed the revolution of 1945’.
‘That wasn’t a revolution!’ She said. ‘Stalin imposed communism on us here in Romania. The real revolution was when we got rid of communism’.
‘Why didn’t you go into politics in ‘89?’ I said.
‘We had been asked because we were “clean”’, she replied. ‘And we thought about it for a while. But then, we saw soon enough what was happening?’
‘What do you mean?’ I said.
‘The politicians simply changed their spots’, she said. ‘They became proponents of capitalism, of the free market, and of liberal democracy. They simply became even more corrupt than before’.
‘But every place is corrupt’, I said. ‘The north-western Europeans like to characterise the southerners as lazy and corrupt – the Greeks, the Italians, the Spaniards. In their eyes, the Eastern Europeans are even worse. But they are just as corrupt, only they manage to conceal it a bit more’.
‘Yes’, she said. ‘But there are different levels of corruption. There they may siphon off money for themselves, distribute it among their cronies, but at least the roads and hospitals get built. Those things might be ridiculously expensive, but they get them. Here the roads, schools and hospitals are not built’.
‘What about communism?’ I asked.
‘It’s evil to the core’, she said. ‘It gives expression to basest parts of human beings. It is a naked exercise of power, one over another. And all for self-interest’.
‘And what about Romania joining the EU?’ I asked. ‘Has that been a blessing or a curse?’
‘Both’, she said. ‘At least there are some things the politicians must do to keep the EU happy, so that funds come in to build a few roads. But really, it’s a disaster. Wages have been pushed down, prices have gone up with new taxes, public services and welfare cut, “free” enterprise is to reign everywhere, and more and more people have to work outside Romania in other parts of the EU and send money home. The EU is interested only in cheap labour for Western European industry, or maybe branches that they occasionally establish here’.
‘But what’s the worst part of the EU?’ I asked.
‘The destruction of communal life in the villages’, she said.
I looked around the village through which we were walking. It’s main street – the only road in fact – wound between traditional farm houses, lanes occasionally meandering off to fields, chickens and dogs and the odd pig out and about, along with an old man on a bicycle or an even more ancient woman in shawl and black dress. An ox-cart passed by at its own measured pace.
‘It looks pretty traditional to me’, I said.
‘It’s actually changing rapidly’, she said. ‘There are virtually no young people here anymore, since they have to work in other countries while their parents take care of their homes. More and more of the communal networks and occasions are breaking down – the festivals, the dances, the weddings and funerals, but above all the daily life that is the lifeblood of a village. Speculators carve up the land and the only ones who seem to want to move here are foreigners who are sick of the commercialised life they lead. We can’t even find a local person to replace our 87 year-old village shepherd’.
‘Yes, I noticed the herd of sheep and goats earlier’, I said. ‘Browns and blacks and whites, with them mingling together as though it were the most normal thing in the world. But tell me, is that herd about two-thirds sheep and one-third goats?’
‘Yes, it is’, she said. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Ah’, I said. ‘That ratio is a very ancient and well-tried combination, going back millennia. It minimises risk from disease, since the part of the herd not affected provides resources while the affected part recovers. The animals are culled at all ages and all parts of the body are used – apart from the wool and fibre and milk they produce. They are nurtured and consumed locally rather than produced in great numbers for export. And the herding is geared to optimal use of pasturage and water, rather than maximal use for profit’.
‘Of course’, she said, looking at me bemusedly. ‘All that’s obvious. The village herd when I was a child was like that, although we didn’t need to calculate it in those terms. It was just the way it was done’.
‘So what’s the response to all that is happening’, I said.
‘We’ve bought a home here in Dănești. It’s run down and needs lots of work, but my husband is a retired priest so we live here now. Simple things take up our time. My vegetable garden is expanding, using permaculture – you know of that, since it was invented in Australia?’
‘Ah yes,’ I said, ‘It’s very common at home’.
‘And since my husband is a priest’, she said, ‘people leave the house alone. It’s bad luck for anyone, even gypsies, to help themselves to things at the house. You know, disaster might strike, an incurable disease, an accident, a misfortune may follow’.
‘But what else do you propose to do?’ I asked.
‘I want to re-establish a spinning and weaving network with the women in town. I would like to reassert the old tradition of woman being the decision-makers in the village. I hope to encourage younger people to stay and see the value of the life here. Above all, it’s the collective nature of village life that is the key’.
‘You know’, I said. ‘You are more communist than you care to think, precisely in and through your anti-communism’.
‘What do you mean?’ she said.
‘Maybe I should rephrase that’, I said. ‘You have seen the bad side of communism and now want to foster one of its better sides. It’s that old tradition of rural socialism, in which communal interaction is vital for the life of the village, of the countryside. Everyone knows everyone else, in intimate detail, for good and ill. The down side is that you have no privacy at all and it can be mean and vicious. But it also means that you don’t sink on your own, for everyone gets together to help out’.
Later, after we had ended our walk through the village and I had a moment to myself, I wondered whether even bad communism – of the sort that many in Romania saw in the last days of the communist government in Romania – enabled the preservation and confirmation of local, communal ways of life that people now find so appealing, that people feel called upon to revisit. Of course, it becomes mixed up with all sorts of rural nostalgia, with efforts to recover a disappearing way of life. But that is unavoidable to some extent.
So the question is, how does one harness the communal, socialist dimensions of ‘the way it has always been’ without seeking to destroy it all in the name of modern progress? That applies especially to unexpected elements, such as the low-level matriarchy, the proud and ancient noble families, drawing on the experience of lived communism and thereby being able to discern what is worth leaving behind and what is worth retaining about it. That is, how can what is traditional be seen nor as regressive but as forward-looking, as a source not of oppression but of human flourishing?