Romanian Ramblings

Last update: 3.04.12 First posted: 13.01.12 by in

Great-Grandmother Heller was from Bessarabia; I never met her, but my mom still smiles when she tells about her Booba, she sold vegetables from a barrow in London’s east end but she never ate any. “Animal food” she called them, in Yiddish.

Some 75 years later, I am pleased to get invited to visit Romania, which once included Moldavia, Bessarabia.

As an EU funded Eco-Nomad, part of a group of related groups that IET has become included in, we go to study the potential for visitors to help save a way of life that is close to vanishing point in the mountains of Romania. The group comprises about 20 people, architects, sociologists, eco-activists and campaigners from France, Italy, UK, Germany, Hungary and Romania.

I am picked up at Sibiu airport by Mircea’s nephew Radu, a young civil engineer recently rejoined the family timber construction business, he drives me the 40 miles south into the mountains, past hayricks and ramshackle villages, to Brezoi, a town, of 7000 inhabitants in a deep three branched valley, a lot like Todmorden. I get out the car and am immediately struck by the gorgeous aroma of woodsmoke and the enclosed feeling of the town surrounded by steep rocky valley sides.

I first met Mircea In Todmorden in the Autumn. He was a participant of the last Eco Nomadic School meet, which was on the theme of Commons, organised by the Sheffield Uni Architecture students, see Incredible commons blog

Mircea is our guide, a mountain man, guardian of the 15 thousand hectares of collectively owned forest and owner of one of the last functioning Odias.

The Odia, is a tiny hillside farm, usually occupied only in the summer, in the mountains, accessable on foot or by horse and cart from the town, but often several hours trek from the modern world. The Odia way of life is nearly gone. The average Romanian income is less than £5000 p/a; we are told that the Odia can not provide enough for an acceptable lifestyle, some families are self-sufficient in food, but in the modern world that is not enough.

There were 80 working Odia in the “city” of Brezoi in communist times, food shortages and enforced low aspirations kept the Odias active, they supported extended families that have now, 20 years after the end of communism, largely found other incomes often from sons and daughters working abroad.

We tour the town, the communist-era timber mill that closed in the early 1990s leaving the town devastated with 70% unemployment, residents of the soviet-era blocks that house half the population, still considered outsiders, and essentially landless. Their “shanty piggeries” built on unclaimed land by the river bank, and home-made bridges to access the far bank for more land.

Countless, to our eyes, derelict, but occupied buildings, shingle-roofed, tin-roofed, absbestos-roofed; there is no coherent building style, every house has a garden, all used for some kind of food production, we wonder if the chicken population matches the human!

We are introduced to the mayor, clearly a good man, he’s welcoming and appreciates our interest, his town has many problems but very little money to spend.

Next morning we are driven to the fork in the river where the pathway up to Mircea’s Odia begins. It’s a steep treck, climbing up as snowflakes fall, we pass forest and clearings with collapsed wooden houses. A waterfall roars in the far distance, the air sharp and clean. After an hour and a half, the track finally levels at a small house in a clearing, Mesha’s Odia. As we recover from the treck we see there are others nearby. Each Odia has 3-5 acres of land, pasture, woodland fruit orchard and vegetable garden. We visit some of the neighbours whilst mesha builds a camp fire. We wander across paddocks and peep into barns, marvel at ancient farm equipment and horse-tack neatly hanging on verandas. Nothing is secured here, everything open, there is a sharing culture up here among the odianiks. Plum trees for brandy, potato patches and birch trees for mushrooms, conical hay ricks for the animals, everything with a purpose. I spot a dunny, just like the one I’ve just built in Walsden.
When we return to the fire, there are smoked sausages toasting on sticks and bread and salty sheep cheese with mulled wine and plumb brandy to keep us warm, I sit on my coat to stroke the dog, Mesha thinks I look tired and offers me a bed in the house, which is tiny but very cosy, a stove in the corner, a pipe on the table, instant noodles on the pantry shelf. I can easily imagine a happy few days here, but not in a “normal” winter, it’s hovering around freezing with a dusting of snow – most winters it’s more like -15c. Louis from Paris shows me herb seeds he has found and brings more fire wood. Mick eats sausages for the first time in years, Sam and Martha compete in the world Odia sausage toasting event.

All too soon we start to pack our things to leave, the days are short, Theo explains about the communally-owned forests, and shepherds/foresters huts much further up the hills, I film him being a guide. We walk down together, I tell him about my Great-Grandmother, he explains that he used to play here as a boy, and his voice catches just a little as he says that none of his friends are here now. He lives in Bucharest, and comes home when he can.

It is hard to express how the whole Odia experience effects me. The only way I can describe it is comparison with the fantasy worlds of fary tales, I expect Rumpelstilskin to be hissing in the barn, behind the wooden plough or dancing round a barrel, but that metaphor gives a sense of unreality, this is a solid world, tangible – of wood, leather, straw and mud, and I sense, a share of sweat, blood and tears. I am moved and inspired by what I’m experiencing, I guess that I am not alone with these feelings.

Later that evening, back at base camp, we discuss possible strategies to preserve the Odia way of life. Mircea’s agenda is to promote tourism to generate income. We wonder what other effects that might have.

We wonder why no members of the Brezoi public are present, even though they were invited, and Alex, an architect who grew up in Romanian “social housing” questions where those people are in all this. This is a deeply divided and layered culture, from despised gipsies at the bottom of the pecking order to the powerful elite, of whom only a few hundred, connected to the ruling party, own the lion’s share of the country’s wealth . There is deep mistrust of government and a history of enforced collectivisation that has left the people with a powerful aversion to sharing. The Odias exist in a burocratic vacuum, there are no documents or land registrations, and no wonder, when one considers the catastrophic history of property law that left many who had bought formerly collectivised property from the goverment and then found themselves legaly dispossesed and with no option but to camp on city pavements.

Despite all this there is a strong feeling in the room that there just MUST be some form of shared community involvement. Tourism, we think must not be just about money, tourists who want to spend time on a remote hillside will want to be part of the community during their stay, they will have skills to share, and will want to learn.
We suggest that income from tourists should be spread by selling services other than pay to stay.

Our experience in Todmorden with Incredible Edible is that the media is a wonderful tool for getting support and permissions, and that you simply can not inform too often or too much, it just does not pay to be shy. We try to pass on these lessons, leaving Mircea and the Brezoi team huge ammounts to mull over, and of course it was all translated back and fourth by the linguists in the room. It must have been hard to hear some of the things that were said, and it’s a credit to the Brezoi team that they stayed engaged with us despite possibly feeling critised at times, a genuine, radical clash of culture and experiences.

Monday morning came and it was time to leave Brezoi. Mick and I, from Tod, were off to spend two days in Sibiu, it’s a big change from Brezoi but Sibiu feels safe and sort of homely, unusually so for a city. People smile and tolerate my silly jokes and we feel welcome and enjoy exploring cronkly back streets painted pastel colours where you can get your plasma screen TV fixed or your shoes fettled or hair frizzed, we hang out and chat in the market, I spot a live carp, Mick rolls a cigarette for a new friend, I buy apples and notice the regions where veg are from are on the price labels. Spuds 20p/Kg, or cheaper, from Albania.
We watch skaters then take a bus 5km out to the ASTRA open air folk museum, and are gobsmacked by scores of reconstructed wooden buildings, watermills that float, huge windmills and building size agri’ gadgets and gizmos I thought were long lost, This place is massively important for a world of declining energy supplies, I will return.

Impressions of the country as a whole? This is not a neat tidy place (except Sibui city centre, that is spotless) this is a battle-weary country with lots to recover from both in terms of infrastructure and emotional/political trauma. The feeling is a country with one foot placed firmly in western Europe, and the other in a less ordered contrived world. Somehow the messiness, randomness, is refreshing, human, lots to do but lots of possibilities.

And what is the message for IET? what did we bring home? I felt very reassured from looking around Brezoi town that we are on the right track, everybody with land is using it to grow food, or raise animals, and although there is clearly a “rush to wealth” there is also some sadness at the imminent passing of a way of life that gives rise to an intangable inner wealth, and our support, can help them, to add value and status to the push to retain community thru working on the land together. Brainstorming with our colleges from across Europe was just Fab, Fab to realise how much we have learned through doing IET, Fab to exchange ideas, Fab to see the willingness to work hard and really address the issues, and Fab to be with such a like-minded group who wanted to help and to share across borders.
So, Yay EU peeps, you dun good and Yay to Mr Grundtvig wot invented the scheme!

About the people of Romania: The recieved wisdom about Romania is that it’s full of criminals and thieves, we NEVER felt remotely threatened, even in unlit city streets at night. People even in the crumbling social housing estates, were smiley open faced and ready to share a joke. Heartwarming.
The Romanians we got to know, Theo, Alex, Uncle Mircea, George the hotelier and others, were thoughtful, funny, delightful people who we hope we will meet again be it as Eco Nomads or friends.

What next? Another visit in August is planned to set to and build a structure to welcome visitors to the Odia.

Oh, and my Great-Grandmother? She probably still wouldn’t eat vegetables, but I feel happy and proud that I have a little Romanian in me.

Arrival
Arrival romainia

Another slower mode of transport,The long steep treck up to Mesha’s Odia
Walking up to Odia
A collapsed odia, that’s Alex on the right
Derilict Odia
A working Odia, nobody home but all the kit out.
Odia Equipment
A house/barn
Odia barn/house
Hayricks
Hayricks
Wooden Shingle roof
Wooden shingle roof
Hunting hound gets a serious stroking
Hunting dawwg
Camp fire
odia campfire

Mick left, Sam Right – sausage toasting
Sausageology
Inside Mesha’s odia House
inside cottage

Meshas Odia kitchen
Beautiful birch trees
beautiful trees
Theo explains about the forest,

theo explains

Brainstorm
Brainstorm
Gipsy family
Gipsies

Brezoi Social housing, sort of.
Bresoi
Brezoi, town hall.
Bresoi town hall
Garden pig Brezoi
Backyard pig bresoi
Lovely Brezoi Lady
Bresoi lady
View from Vultereasa Pensione
View from pensione Vulturasa

Chickens at vultureasa

George is the man, here he is explaining his smokehouse
George vultureasa explaining his smokehouse
Brezoi street scene
Bresoi streetscene

Brezoi Gardens
bresoi houses
Brezoi dogs
dogs bresoi
Faded glory Brezoi
faded glory bresoi

Brezoi Piggeries
piggeries bresoi
Homemade bridge Brezoi
home made bridge bresoi
Homemade Bridge Brezoi
home made bridge bresoi

Another Improvised bridge further downstream

Piggeries
piggeries bresoi
Piggeries
piggeries bresoi
Timber truck Brezoi
lumber truck bresoi
Cute house Brezoi
cute house bresoi
Peltom wheel carved in wood ASTRA, Sibiu
wooden pelton wheels ASTRA
Windmill Astra Outdoor Folk Museum Sibiu
Windmill ASTRA

Gina the ASTRA Outdoor Folk Museum horse Sibiu

Sibiu skaters, Just Beautiful

And finaly, Mircea shows that he is both Proud and Generous, allowing his top chicken to fraternise with foreigners. Pieces of Eight Pieces of Eight……..
meshas chicken just roosting on nicks shoulder

Want to help?

There are loads of ways you can help us in our work. For more information click here. Or email Estelle.