One of the many memorable scenes in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful Between the Woods and the Water involves a haystack, laughter and “those marvellous girls”.
Then without exchanging another word we struck out for the shore [of the river where he and István had been swimming naked] as fast as crocodiles and, tearing at poplar twigs and clumps of willow-herb, bounded up the bank. Gathering armfuls of the sheaves, the girls ran into the next field, then halted at the illusory bastion of a hay-rick and waved their sickles in mock defiance. The leafy disguise and our mincing gait as we danced across the stubble unloosed more hilarity. They dropped their sickles when we were almost on them, and showered us with the sheaves; then ran to the back of the rick. But, one-armed though we were, we caught them there and all four collapsed in a turmoil of hay and barley and laughter.
Once, haystacks built around a central pole were a common sight in the European countryside. Constable painted them. Van Gogh painted them. In the autumn, winter and spring of 1890 and 1891, Monet painted twenty-five canvases of haystacks in the countryside around Giverny. Today, with technological advances in farming, haystacks like these have vanished from most of Europe. But in Maramureş the old fat haystacks are still there – in abundance. As you drive through the valleys and over the hills, you see them in almost every field. They lend a magical, unreal quality to the bucolic landscape of the county.
Maramureş is a county in north-western Romania. Today, it comprises the southern part of the old Hungarian county of Máramaros that dates back to the 11th century – as well as, south of the mountains, parts of the former Hungarian counties of Szatmár (including today’s administrative capital for Maramureş, Baia Mare) and Szolnok-Doboka. The northern part of old Máramaros today lies within Ukraine.
Much of the old Máramaros County is mountainous and heavily wooded, but at its heart, along the Tisza River and its tributaries is an agricultural basin that has remained to a considerable extent isolated from the surrounding lands. Encircling mountains and forests on all sides have kept it that way. Until modern times, the mountain passes in and out of the Máramaros Basin were closed for several months each winter. This geography has no doubt contributed to the persistence of the traditional ways that are still so evident as you drive past horse carts and haystacks and the tall steeples of old wooden churches.
At the heart of the basin, on the south bank of the Tisza River (the north bank is now in Ukraine), lies its old administrative centre, the town of Sighet. In Romania, Sighet is today probably best known as the site of the notorious Securitate-run Sighet prison where political prisoners were kept in appalling conditions during Communist times. Since 1964, Sighet has been officially known in Romanian as Sighetu Marmaţiei. In Hungarian the town is Máramarossziget. In the 1910 census, Sighet was a majority (82%) Hungarian-speaking town. The 1910 census shows, however, that the outlying villages to the south of the Tisza were Romanian-speaking and those to the north Ruthenian – facts that no doubt influenced the diplomats at Trianon when they took the county away from Hungary in 1920 and divided it between Greater Romania and Czechoslovakia. Sighet is now 82% Romanian, but the large Calvinist and Roman Catholic churches in the heart of the town, with their Hungarian and German inscriptions, tell of a different ethnic and religious mix in the past.
We arrived in Breb, a sprawling Maramureş village of something over 1,000 people, some twenty-five kilometres south of Sighet, on a Saturday afternoon. William Blacker came to Maramureş shortly after the fall of Communism, and then to live here – in Breb – for several years from 1996. He recorded his years in Romania in Along the Enchanted Way:
I had thought I had been born too late to see anything like the peasant life about which Tolstoy and Hardy had written, but I was wrong. Here there was a remnant of an old, almost medieval world, cut off by the mountains and forests I had just crossed, and I had stumbled upon it quite by accident.
On the Sunday morning we awoke in our little wooden house, one of several that have been assembled by Penny and Duncan Ridgely to form their “Village Hotel”. It was a bright September morning. The low light filtered through the trees and the remnants of morning mist. The crisp air outside smelled faintly of wood smoke and farmyard.
We walked to church – past what we later learned was the suicides’ cemetery and a big, carved wooden gate from which a black flag flew. The black flag indicates a house in mourning. Either they keep the flags flying for a long time or a lot of people had died recently: we saw many black flags in Breb.
The church congregation, sparse when we arrived but growing steadily, welcomed us. We stood when our neighbours stood, knelt when they knelt and, when the knees gave out, sat on the benches along the walls. Pauline was at the back, in the extended narthex, with the women; I towards the front with the men, in the nave, closer to the iconostasis. The women were all dressed in their traditional finery – colourful headscarves, brightly embroidered white blouses, flower-patterned skirts. The men, in dark trousers and white shirts, had arrived with their hats on their heads – some of them in the little straw hat with a flowing ribbon (a clop in Romanian) that is traditional in these valleys. But once in the church, they stood and knelt and crossed themselves reverently bareheaded. The priest in golden vestments came through the door in the iconostasis, returned to the sanctuary, re-appeared, disappeared – in rhythm with the liturgy sung by two confident male voices.
The Romanian Orthodox church building – tall, grey and white and sparkling silver – is new, a post-Communist construction. Its towers dominate the village of Breb when you see it from the main road on the hill to the east. Within, the décor is bright. Almost every square inch of wall space is lavishly painted with scenes from the Bible and the history of the Church. Apart from the brightness of the colour, the style of the painting is old. The Orthodox Church prides itself on its timelessness.
Farther down the hill from the big Orthodox church, peacefully set in the shade of old trees, amidst an over-grown cemetery where the thick grass is knee deep, is Breb’s old wooden church. It is not as impressive a building as the high-spired wooden churches in neighbouring villages such as Budeşti or Deseşti (both of which buildings have been adopted by UNESCO), and during the days we were in Breb the old church was always locked. Until very recently, Breb’s Greek Catholic community met in the wooden church on Sunday mornings. But litigation concluded in 2016 awarded the old wooden building and the land on which it stands to the Romanian Orthodox Church. Padlocks have been on the door ever since.
The Greek Catholic Church in Romania came into being after the Habsburgs, with their Jesuit friends in tow, took over the Hungarian-dominated Principality of Transylvania in the late 17th century. Just as the Habsburgs tried to bring the Protestant Hungarian and Saxon populations of Transylvania back into the Roman Catholic fold, so they tried to foist allegiance to the Roman Pope onto the Orthodox Romanian population. The method was to employ a compromise similar to that which had been used earlier to create the Uniate churches in the Orthodox parts of Polish and Hungarian domains farther north: basically, the Romanian churches would recognise the Pope as the supreme leader of the entire Christian Church and accept certain Catholic doctrinal points such as the existence of purgatory, and in return they could keep their own traditional Byzantine liturgy. The so-called Greek Catholic Church that emerged from this compromise conducted its services in Romanian from its inception in 1698, with unexpected consequences for the later rise of Romanian nationalism. The liturgical language of the Romanian Orthodox Church remained Old Church Slavonic until 1863.
There was official pressure to convert to the new denomination and various hostile acts were directed at the Orthodox Church. By way of example, the venerable Orthodox monastery at Bârsana, a few kilometres to the east of Breb, was confiscated by the Austrian authorities. The monks were given their marching orders and the buildings were given to the Greek Catholics. By the time of the 1910 census, Greek Catholics vastly outnumbered the Orthodox in the old Máramaros County – 71.1% and 0.4%, respectively.
But purgatory comes and goes in these parts. Since 1920, when Transylvania was awarded to Romania, the persecution shoe has been on the other foot. Successive Romanian governments have supported the Orthodox Church at the expense of the Greek Catholics. Indeed, in 1948 the newly installed Communist régime celebrated the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Romanian Greek Catholic Church by confiscating all its property, transferring its cathedrals to the officially tolerated Romanian Orthodox Church and imprisoning those Greek Catholic priests who refused to renounce their faith or convert to Orthodoxy. Among those arrested in 1948 was the Greek Catholic Bishop of Cluj, Iuliu Hossu, later made a Cardinal in pectore (i.e. in secret, because of fears for his safety) of the Roman Catholic Church. He spent the years 1950 to 1955 as a political prisoner in the notorious Sighet Prison, and remained under house arrest until his death in 1970. There were probably still some 1.5 million Greek Catholics in Romania before the Second World War. Today the figure is disputed. The 2011 Romanian census put the figure at around 150,000. The Vatican prefers a figure in the order of 650,000. Even on the evidence of the disputed number of adherents alone one can see that relations have not yet entirely healed.
The few Greek Catholic congregations that remain in Romania are found almost entirely in the areas of the country that were once part of the Austrian Empire, in particular Maramureş. Even now however, only some ten per cent of the population of Breb would today identify as Greek Catholic.
Until 1944 there was yet another community in Breb. Today, the only reminder in Breb of its former Jewish population is the overgrown Jewish cemetery. The broken tombstones lie outside the village, beyond the haystacks, on a once-terraced hillside to the east. In the 1910 census, however, there were 203 Jews in Breb. Indeed, every village around here had its Jewish population. Of the 34,579 Jews recorded in 1910 in the now-Romanian part of Maramureş (65,694 – 18.4% – for the whole of old Máramaros) only 7,981 lived in the main town, Sighet. Forty per cent of the Maramureş Jews were recorded as being farmers in 1910. Seventy per cent were illiterate. Eighty-six per cent gave their native language as Yiddish, while only fourteen per cent were native Hungarian speakers. We have, then, a picture here of a largely poor, largely rural, largely unassimilated Jewish population – far from the demonised, cigar-chomping, cosmopolitan capitalists of later Nazi propaganda. Sighet itself, the once Hungarian-speaking urban centre, was more than forty per cent Jewish before the Second World War.
In 1940, Sighet and the rest of Maramureş was awarded back to Hungary. In return for Hitler’s support in regaining some of the lands lost to Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia at the much-hated 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Hungary passed a series of anti-Jewish laws from 1938 onwards. But Hungary showed little enthusiasm for Hitler’s broader wars and racial aims. Foreign Jews were expelled in 1941, many going to their deaths in German-occupied territory. But the majority of Hungarian-born Jews continued to go about their business as normally as was possible in those times of general European war. But by March 1944 the Red Army was at the gates and the Germans feared that Hungary was on the point of abandoning the Axis cause. They forced the appointment of a pro-Nazi government in Hungary and occupied the country – Hitler’s “Operation Margarethe”. The wholesale extermination of the country’s Jews began soon afterwards.
In the spring of 1944, the Jews of Sighet were confined to two ghettos in the town and some 3,000 Jews from Maramureş villages near Sighet were taken there. Jews from other villages were imprisoned in ghettos elsewhere in the county. Those from Breb were taken to the ghetto in Dragomirești. In May and June, the Jews held in the various Maramureş ghettos were loaded onto sealed trains and transported to Auschwitz. The events of that spring, the days of waiting, blithely assuming that all would be well in the end, and of the horrific months in Auschwitz that followed, are graphically recounted in Elie Wiesel’s Night:
The next morning, we walked toward the station, where a convoy of cattle cars was waiting. The Hungarian police made us climb into the cars, eighty persons in each one. They handed us some bread, a few pails of water. They checked the bars on the windows to make sure they would not come loose. The cars were sealed. One person was placed in charge of every car: if someone managed to escape that person would be shot.
Two Gestapo officers strolled down the length of the platform. They were all smiles; all things considered, it had gone very smoothly.
A prolonged whistle pierced the air. The wheels began to grind. We were on our way.
Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and human rights activist, went on to write numerous books and to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He maintained throughout his life that to understand his life and his work you had to read his first book, Night:
If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one. Just as the past lingers in the present, all my writings after Night, including those that deal with biblical, Talmudic, or Hasidic themes, profoundly bear its stamp, and cannot be understood if one has not read this very first of my works.
It is estimated that a third of the Jews killed at Auschwitz came from Hungary. Elie Wiesel’s mother and younger sister died in Auschwitz. His father died as he and his son were being marched westwards from Auschwitz in front of the Red Army advance.
The Wiesel family had run a corner grocery store in Sighet and lived in the house attached. Today the shop has been incorporated into the house itself and the pale-blue house on the corner is a museum to the memory of Elie Wiesel and the Jews who once lived and worked and worshipped their God in Maramureş. Among the photos of the old Jewish community on the museum’s walls are some taken by Herbert Seligman when he visited Sighet in 1937 on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish relief agency based in New York – particularly poignant because we now know what was to happen to the people in the pictures not many years later.
Beyond the modern grey sprawl of Sighet, on a plain of stones and weeds and animal shit, near where old cars go to be dismembered and die, the Maramureş Animal and Feed Fair is held on the first Monday of each month. A stony, dusty track leads you the two kilometres from the paved road to the site. On the day of the fair the track is clogged with cars and vans, pick-up trucks and horse-drawn carts. Travel is slow. At the fair itself there are sheep and goats, pigs, cattle and horses for sale – but mostly horses. Men, and a few women, wander among the animals and the stalls that sell leather harnesses and bits of metal of uncertain purpose. The men are most dressed in barely distinguishable shades of dark grey, dark hat pulled low onto the brow to conceal shrewd eyes that know a thing or two about horses. Young horses run wild, certain to return to their tethered mothers. Horses pull lumps of concrete to demonstrate their strength. Many have red fancy-dress tassels on their harnesses. Some remain attached to the carts that brought their owners here and that will take them home again.
Behind one homeward-bound cart a newly purchased horse and cow trotted along. On the bed of the cart lay a calf. Its four legs were tied together and to the side of the wooden cart. But it was the calf’s big, brown, frightened eyes that caught my attention. They immediately called to mind a song that was popular around campfires in the sixties – a Yiddish folksong that, though written in New York in the 1940s, draws deeply on a more ancient way of life:
On a wagon bound for market There’s a calf with a mournful eye High above him there’s a swallow Winging swiftly through the sky
How the winds are laughing They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night
Donna Donna Donna Donna Donna Donna Donna Don Donna Donna Donna Donna Donna Donna Donna Don
Was it from the experience of going to animal fairs such as that at Sighet that the Jewish singers drew their inspiration? Forty per cent of the Jews in Maramureş were, after all, farmers.
That was Monday morning. Sunday in Breb was altogether different. No-one worked. No-one traded. Not even the horses moved. After the long church service was finished, men sat under the umbrellas outside the pub playing cards with a deck of colourful cards that I did not recognise. By the big carved wooden gates, along the woven willow fences that surround the farmyards, women in headscarves sat gossiping on their “chattering benches”.
In a land where physical hard work is the rule six days a week, the weekly day of rest is important and welcome. In Breb it is not only enjoyed but taken to a superstitious extreme. If something unfortunate happens to you, if your car breaks down or you fall ill with pneumonia, it is quite possibly because you worked on the Sabbath. If your cow dies? “Well, what did you expect? You worked on Sunday.”
On Monday the work begins again. In early September the meadows are full of flowers and rich with lucerne. You pass men and women with scythes and long-handled wooden rakes and two-pronged pitchforks going out to harvest the hay – to cut it, to gather the cut grass into little piles to dry in the sun, and then to add it to the haystacks. There are no hay barns here, and the grass will stay, in stacks out in the fields, sometimes for as long as three years, until it is needed in the winter. Then the men will take their horse-drawn sledges out across the snow and bring the hay back as food for the animals. In summer you see the wooden sledges hanging on the outside walls of the barns.
Others you pass on a bright September morning are going to dig potatoes or gather plums. On the porches of houses, beside the pots and pans hanging from a pole, others are stringing up yellow runner beans to dry. Traditionally, if the pot at the top of the pole is a red one there is a girl in the house of marriageable age.
Every household in Breb is largely self-sufficient. We had dinner at Veorica’s house. She had grown the beans in the soup she served us and the cabbage for the cabbage rolls. The meat inside the cabbage rolls and the smoked sausages that accompanied them had come from her pig. The cream that covered them was from the cow we could see in its stall across the courtyard. Veorica had baked the bread from wheat grown in nearby fields and milled locally. The horincă in the litre flask on the table was made from her plums at one of the thirty distilleries in the village. The eggs we ate for breakfast the next morning had been laid by a hen less than a hundred yards away.
We went for a walk around the village one morning with Iulia. There is only one paved road through Breb. There was no paved road to or in the village when William Blacker arrived to live here in the 1990s and the one that was built then is now, twenty years later, deteriorating. The rest of the roads are stony cart tracks. And everywhere, between the widely scattered houses, are well-used paths through the meadows and alongside the fields.
We called in at a distillery in a farmyard shed. But the still was not working and there were only ashes where the wood fire had been the day before. Today everyone had gone out to the fields to dig potatoes. There was a dearth of plums and apples this year. It would be a problem. Horincă would be in short supply. Iulia was appalled when I told her that in our village in France each household that had fruit trees on its land was entitled to distil, through the itinerant alambic, ten litres of eau-de-vie each season. “Here”, she said, “nobody makes less than a hundred litres a year.” Romania is the European Union’s largest producer of plums, with an annual tonnage more than double that of the next largest producer, France. Seventy-five per cent of Romania’s plums end up being distilled. The new horincă that we tasted from a battered copper mug was excellent.
We met, too, Petru Pop, a bright-eyed, 85-year-old wood carver. There is a loom in his shed as well as his wood-carving tools and a rusting German Army helmet that he keeps as a souvenir of times gone by. “My museum”, he said. There is also, on his wall, a picture of the priests who died as political prisoners in Sighet Prison in the Communist days. “Communism”, the woodcarver said, “was a cancer.” The Communists took away half his land. (He got it back after 1989.) And much of what his little farm produced on the land that remained to it had to be given to the government.
Yet, Maramureş largely escaped the effects of Ceauşescu’s policies of “standardisation” and “systematisation”. Unlike the broad agricultural lands of Moldavia, Wallachia and those parts of the Hungarian Plain that belong to Romania, where you can still see the effects of these policies in the wide-open treeless landscape, the isolated hills of Maramureş lacked the potential for large-scale agriculture. The Communist authorities focussed their attentions in this area on mining.
It was perhaps because of this relatively light touch from the authorities then, Petru Pop said, that some people in Breb say they preferred the Communist times to the present day. We had heard of the same nostalgia a couple of days earlier through another villager, Ion Pop, and were to hear of it again in the coming days. There was plenty of land – possibly, we heard it whispered – because the Jewish farmers “were gone”. The village and its land were more productive then. More people worked it and they grew a greater range of crops. The orchards had not yet begun to be cut down. Breb was even more self-sufficient than it is today. Because there were restrictions on travel, people stayed at home. There were more young people in the village. More energy. There was a far stronger sense of family and of community. All this is changing now.
Some blame the supermarkets – Kaufland, Lidl, Profi, Carrefour – and pricing policies that are said to lure in shoppers with low prices, which they then raise when the customers are used to frequenting the shiny new supermarket and have abandoned their traditional suppliers. I have heard the same accusations levelled against Tesco in the UK from as long ago as the 1960s. Moreover, cheap products – flour, pasta, oil, petrol, blankets, clothes – are available in Ukraine just across the bridge from Sighet. Though the quality is poor, the goods are cheap and some families make the journey across the border once a month to stock up. And Ukrainians bring their goods to sell in the markets of Sighet.
Another factor mentioned is the increasing burden of regulation. To sell more than a tiny amount of home-produced food requires so much bureaucratic effort that it is only worthwhile for large producers. “And regulated milk ends up being so processed that it tastes like supermarket milk anyway”, said Iulia. A heating crisis was looming for the 2016–17 winter. Until last year, the villagers of Breb would go into the woods and gather their firewood. Going forward, a licence will be necessary. Prison beckons for those who do not have one. And where a licence is involved, corruption follows.
Perhaps the biggest change, though, is the freedom to travel and to work abroad. The wages available in Britain, France or Germany are enormous by Romanian standards. Many families in Breb have at least one of their members working abroad. Ion Pop works five months of the year delivering bread for a boulangerie in Courchevel. Iulia lived for ten years in Santander. A couple we met had come home from England to show their two-month-old baby to their families. In a pattern typical of many Eastern European immigrants in Britain, the wife spoke good English, while the husband, a construction worker, struggled. “Where in England”, I asked, “do you live?” The wife answered, “Zone Four”. I must have seemed rather puzzled by this rather Communistic response, for she promptly clarified her Transport-for-London fare-zone reply with “Stanmore”. Maybe she had acquired Cockney rhyming slang during her three years in London.
The most immediately obvious change in Breb and elsewhere in Romania resulting from young people working abroad is what they spend their money on in their homeland. While Ion Pop has educated his children – one now a doctor and the other a lawyer – with the money he has earned in France, a more typical expenditure is on a fast car and a big house.
When William Blacker came to Breb, almost every house was made of wood, dark wood seasoned and mellowed by the passage of time. But that soon began to change. The wooden houses were traditionally built in such a way that they could be conveniently dismantled, moved and re-erected on another platform of stones elsewhere. Soon the old oak houses, some of them 400 years old, were being sold, often to Spanish and Italian buyers who took them away and turned them into “antique” furniture. There are few old oak houses left in Breb now. Two of those that are still there belong to the Mihai Eminescu Trust of which Prince Charles was patron until 2013. Today the Trust’s houses are locked up and look, behind their tall gates and woven willow fences, forlorn and unloved. (Most of the wonderful work of the Mihai Eminescu Trust – named for Romania’s most famous poet – is focussed on preserving the sturdy Saxon villages and towns of Transylvania. The vast majority of the Transylvanian Saxons – descendants of people from the Rhineland and Luxembourg who were settled in Transylvania in the 12th century by the Hungarian King Géza II – “returned” to Germany in the 1990s when Romania’s Communist-era travel restrictions were lifted and Germany granted them visas.)
More recently, Romanians from elsewhere in the country, who value the wooden houses more than those who have long lived in them, have bought them, dismantled them, carted them away on trailers and re-erected them in other parts of Romania. Duncan and Penny have moved old wooden houses, of pine rather than oak, to their Breb property to form their “Village Hotel”. But their houses remain in Breb, in their natural environment. And they provide wonderful accommodation to visitors both foreign and Romanian.
The old houses of Breb are being replaced with oversized modern blocks made of lightweight breeze blocks and glass. We saw two enormous houses under construction adjacent to each other. The owners were two brothers, both single and without a family, who work in the building trade in Germany. Once prestige was indicated by the size and intricacy of the carved wooden gate in front of the farmyard. Gates such as these still adorn Breb and other Maramureş villages, but wealth is now more often displayed by a large modern house that shows no evidence of wood anywhere in its construction. Even the old wooden house in which William Blacker lived in Breb – Mihai’s house – is now gone, replaced by a white concrete-and-glass box. It is only slowly dawning on people that the new, quick-build houses are too hot in summer and difficult to heat in winter. In those new houses that are inhabited year round, the cold Maramureş winters often see the inhabitants confined to one or two rooms.
If you want to see a vision of the future, cross over the mountains to the west to the village of Certeze. There, along several dismal kilometres, the main road is lined by three- and four-storey box houses with enormous windows. Most seem uninhabited. They stand cheek by jowl, looking out empty-eyed on similar constructions across the road. Only an occasional undeveloped plot between them, with a forlorn row of plum trees and a single bedraggled haystack, survives. Along the road shiny four-by-fours, with foreign registration plates and driven by young men who have made their fortunes abroad, recklessly overtake the remnants of a slower bygone day, the horses sedately pulling their carts and the older couples with their axes and haymaking tools resting on their shoulders.
It does not have to be like this. If you go to the village of Sârbi, your attention will no doubt be focussed on the remarkable water mill by the roadside. It is a working, water-powered fulling mill. I had heard of fulling mills before, and seen their ruins, but this was the first time I had ever seen the big wooden hammers of one in action, rhythmically pounding a cloth of wet wool to soften it and make it useable as a winter garment. But do also spare a moment to look at the modern wooden house next to the mill to see what can be built today.
Similarly, do not be put off visiting the monastery at Bârsana by the fact that the buildings, which attract pilgrims from all over Romania, have been built only in the past twenty-five years. The buildings at Bârsana Monastery represent a modern expression of traditional Maramureş wooden architecture on a grand scale. In the remote village of Glod, there is a modern pension that has made good use of wood in its construction. It can be done.
When you pass through Budeşti, only a few kilometres from Breb, you will see many wooden houses and big Maramureş gates and fewer concrete block houses. The mayor of Budeşti has adopted a policy of encouraging new houses to be built of wood, giving free architectural plans to those who do use wood and a small subsidy for the construction itself. Breb’s built environment benefits from no such policy.
For our last evening in Breb, we went with Penny and Sasha (Penny and Duncan’s daughter) up to a sheep station on the open pastures above Budeşti. To get there we walked up a rutted cart track, ascending some 200 metres, to an altitude of about 850 metres. Also with us were a Dutch couple from Utrecht and a younger Romanian couple from Iaşi. The Dutch woman had been born in Java and had spent several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The Romanian woman walked up the hill in sparkling golden sandals. She had lived for twenty years in the United States, in a suburb of Detroit, before returning to Romania in 2015.
The sheep of Breb are taken up to mountain pasture in April and come back to the village in November before the heavy snows come. But this flock above Budeşti is on the mountain, with its shepherds and dogs, all year round. On a patch of level ground we found a windowless makeshift house built of wood and plastic sheeting. Here the shepherds sleep and the tools are stored. Over a wood fire that never seems to go out, the sheep cheese is made and the meals are cooked. A colourful array of cooking pots hung from severed branches protruding from an upright tree trunk and from poles sunk into the adjacent ground. Four horses roamed. A horse cart, the family’s only means of transport to and from the valley below, stood idle. Pigs wallowed in a makeshift sty. Two of Maramureş’s ubiquitous haystacks stood sentinel on the hillside above. Seven guard dogs lay on the ground awaiting their meal of maize cooked in the whey left behind when the cheese is made. The job of these big dogs is to keep the wolves away from the flock at night. The little ones, the proper sheepdogs, were out on the hills with the sheep and the shepherds.
In 2015, the Romanian government, many of whose members have carried on Ceauşescu’s enthusiasm for shooting wild game, sought to pass a law banning sheep grazing during the winter hunting season and restricting to three the number of dogs that might accompany a flock of sheep on the mountain pastures. The dogs stood accused, on scant evidence, of attacking and killing the hunters’ prey, mostly deer and wild boar. The shepherds of Romania were aghast. They needed, they said, a minimum of five – and preferably seven – dogs to guard each flock from the wolves. On 15 December 2015, more than four thousand of them travelled to Bucharest to protest, many in traditional shepherd’s garb. They were beaten back. Tear gas was turned on them. But they won. The legislation did not proceed. At least for the time being.
There are more than 10 million sheep in Romania, more than in any other European country except the United Kingdom and Spain. The chief source of income from them here is the cheese made from their milk. Wool has declined in value with the increased use of synthetic materials, putting pressure on the shepherds’ precarious well-being. Lamb and mutton have never been much eaten in Romania. When we sat down to eat at a table between the makeshift house and the fire where the dogs’ dinner was being cooked, it was to pork (rather than lamb) goulash – accompanied by bread, tomatoes, smoked pig fat and cheese that had been made less than five metres from where we sat.
As the sun set over the ridges across the valley to the west, the sheep, with a few goats among them, came in. They approached us with curiosity and growing confidence, before they were led down to the pen where, in the gathering night, the shepherds would milk them by hand and where they would spend the hours of dark under the guard of the seven dogs.
We too left our hosts to the evening milking and cheese making and bade them good-bye. Torches in hand, we made our way down the rough cart track in the dark. The woman in golden sandals said, “In the United States you just work like a robot. In Romania you can live.”