Scenes from another Europe

Published in Swedish in the Helsinki daily Hufvudstadsbladet November 16, 2003. In Finnish in the magazine Kodin Kuvalehti, May 5, 2004.

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We are driving along a winding mountain road in the middle of the night. The mist is as thick and impenetrable as pea soup. But have no fear. We have a lifeline; there’s a newly painted centre line on the fresh tarmac, the only discernible thing in the pitch-black and foggy ooze.

The translucent line is in actual fact much more than our saviour; it’s also symbolic of the fact that the most inaccessible corner of an inaccessible country has opened its doors slightly for the outside world. For centuries the region in northern Romania known as Maramures has isolated itself, letting life in the valleys go on as usual, while proudly defending its unique cultural traditions.

Something which they still do.

But at least now there’s a line on the road that leads visitors towards their destination.

The next day we have left the tarmac behind us and are repatriated to the original road surface in Maramures, i.e. mud. We’re on our way to the neighbouring village on the shoulder of the main road. In Maramures, change is disseminated along the tarmac-coated roads. The tarmac road signifies roughcast tile houses and even cafÈs and boutiques, while the mud road signifies tradition, old-fashioned ways and the past. So when we walk in the mud and step aside to let the horse-led carts pass us, admire the mighty, decorated wooden portals, which every self-respecting homestead seems to boast, and see the old men stroll by with their cows, and gaze with wonder at the enormous hay poles, and never see a tractor, it feels as if we don’t even have time to blink. It’s a kind of sensory overload and a cultural shock. One day you’re in the IT world of Scandinavia and the next you’re in the 1920s or maybe even the nineteenth century.

There’s a sense of time being suspended. The entry in the encyclopaedic work Nordic Family Book from 1916 is as follows: ’The farmlands of Romania are cultivated with primitive methods and only the larger estates possess modern agricultural machinery.’

Geographically we’re in the middle of Europe. There’s even a point on the map, not many kilometres from here, which has been calculated to be the epicentre of continental Europe. What do we usually associate with the term Europe?

Is it Brussels? Prosperity? Fashion? Technology?

Perhaps. But the core of Europe displays none of this.

In the centre of Europe it suddenly starts to rain as unpainted and sturdy houses file past us. We seek shelter in the sole, modest establishment in the village. It’s Sunday afternoon, the only day of rest and all the young are there, still dressed in their church finery. They flirt with each other and drink 30-cent pints. The village tough guys piss on the ground, while the old geezers play a kind of backgammon. The teenagers are already kissing, the kids are throwing crisps at each other, and since the rain won’t stop and darkness has descended, the girl behind the bar drives us through the mud.

The question is only for whom it is more exciting and exotic, for them or us?

And as proof that nothing in the world is how it seems, we receive the same night a Romanian text message, which if we’ve understood correctly runs something like this:

The two most important things in life are to love and be loved. Those whose lives are enriched by both, those who can love and be loved; they possess something greater than Time, greater than life itself, yes, perhaps even greater than….Death.

We are living in Nicu’s place. He works as an engineer, but also runs a bed and breakfast in the relatively large village of Vadu Izeii. Nicu is proud of the wood fuelled heating system in his house, which he planned himself. The sizeable tiled stove heats up the water that surges to the radiators in each room. The wood is expensive, however, he says, and a substantial part of his yearly income goes towards heating expenses.

Nicu takes us to the village of Sap‚nta. In Romania, where religion plays an important role, there are active Eastern-Orthodox and Protestant minorities, although most people are Orthodox. Thus, it isn’t so peculiar that the newest building to take pride of place is an Orthodox Church which will be an approximate copy of the original grand church in Maramures (which is currently situated on the Ukrainian side of the border). There’s only one way to build this kind of structure, e.g. in oak log and with spruce shingles as roofing.

There the old men sit at their workbenches sawing and planing the shingles by hand. We’re not talking about any old church here. We’re standing in front of one of the tallest wooden structures in Europe. But something is amiss for everyone ’knows’ that Romania is synonymous with misery, deprivation, and street children, and not with optimistic construction projects undertaken in the name of religion and culture.

But why should there be only one side to Romania?

The walls inside are still bare, which means that the noble project isn’t completed yet. According to tradition the church is to be painted so that the entire interior becomes an illustrated bible consisting of long suites of pictures. In this way the message of the Church became accessible to those who couldn’t read.

Copyright: Magnus LondenThe man who is in charge of the construction work on the church proudly tells us of the hundreds of thousands of shingles that have been made, how many hectares of oak forest the church has exhausted, as well as the sturdy stocks that constitute the foundation of the tower and how few nails were used.

However, he becomes even more animated when I start to whimper about my own, meagre building efforts, which include a spruce roof for the outhouse of a cottage in Finland.

He immediately raises his gaze towards me and says, ’Uh huh. How thick are the chips? How did you make them?’ I pity the man as he actually thinks I sawed and whittled them myself. I wince, as I’m well and truly out of my depth here. At the same time as he places the wood shavings on top of each other in various patterns, he wonders how we do it up north in Finland, like this or that?

One night Nicu’s rooster goes berserk and starts to crow far too early in the morning. A member of the same species a few houses away answers his call. A sheep throws in a sleepy baa, while the pigs don’t even bother to wake up. The roosters go at it for a few minutes until they pass out. Then we’re once again enveloped in darkness, and a silence ensues, which is neither ominous nor frightening, signifying only rest. It isn’t the media that shrieks out its message, the cars that speed by, nor the electronic appliances that hum when they’re on stand-by. It is silent, despite the fact that we’re not in the natural stillness of the wilderness, but in the midst of a community of 3,000 inhabitants.

And it strikes me for the first time that it must have been really quiet

Market Day! Everything is in full swing in the little town of Sighetui Marmatiei on the border with the Ukraine. Here pigs, horses, chickens and other animals change owners. Here one can shop for horseshoes, sickles, scythes and carts in order to make one’s life more comfortable.

A man has arrived in a car and is soon showing us why. He triumphantly opens the boot and expectantly reveals his merchandise: six piglets or to be more precise six steaming piglets as it is cold and rainy outside. Furthermore, when an animal is bought the owner threads a thick iron wire through its nose in order to prevent its instinctual drive to dig in the ground. Sighetu Marmatiei is engulfed in the shrill screams of the pig. No one raises an eyebrow.

We’re a long way from the supervising eyes of EU agricultural policy.

We also realise that the people here won’t accept all the bureaucracy and various directives in silence.

’Precisely,’ says Nicu. The farmers in Maramures will shoot anyone who tries to interfere with the running of their little homesteads. They’ve managed for centuries upon centuries without outside interference. ’So why should Brussels suddenly have all the right answers?’wonders Nicu.

Romania has nonetheless applied for EU membership with a view towards accession in 2007. But no one should think that this is the last word on the adjustment of Romania and the Maramures region to the EU.

The primitive lifestyle, the villages, the lack of technical means in agriculture, and the sense of a bygone time, everything reminds me of places such as Albania and Siberia. But while Albania especially is characterised by a complete feeling of apathy and lawlessness, we see absolutely no signs of fatigue in Maramures. Each tiny village has its own school as well as age-old, timbered, and often UNESCO protected churches. The survival of each village is based on the family and the fact that everyone knows each other. The villages do have electricity, but the men and women work hard, and even the withered old ladies stand outside in the evenings beating the grass. Everyone is constantly working, working, working.

It is equally striking that no one would dream of begging from strangers; we’re not met by a single hostile glance, which is astounding given the economic divide -Gore-Tex as opposed to worn out woollen clothes- which exists between us.

Of course one should the resist the temptation to romanticise, life in the villages of Maramures is impoverished, strenuous and physically extremely hard, nothing that we could manage or even strive to emulate. The contrasts become utterly apparent as we turn on the TV in the evening. The channels in Bucharest spew forth their messages of beautiful and dubbed western people who talk of beauty and prosperity: ‘Have your eyelashes done! Eat this yoghurt from France! Buy beef stock powder from the USA!’ Absolutely none of the products that are foisted on the Romanians come from Romania and absolutely nothing that flickers on the tube has any relevance to the everyday life of subsistence agriculture in Maramures.

The question that nearly everyone in Maramures is struggling with is the following: Is our culture and traditional way of life really nearing its end? Is it to no avail that we fended off foreign invaders, everyone from the Romans to the Hungarians, Germans and Russians, not to mention the ’Carpathian Genius’, Communist dictator Ceaucescu, and his utter contempt for the countryside and religion? The final issue really is whether consumer culture and the EU are going to deal the final blow.

Now we’re truly on our way up into the mountains. The bus takes us in about three hours and at a speed of forty kilometres an hour to a ’tourist centre’ and ’ski resort’ near the town of Borsa. We soon realise that ’tourist complex’ and ’centre’ are somewhat grandiose terms of description. There are certainly a few mountain hotels and boarding houses, but nothing that a western tourist would associate with a skiing holiday. On the contrary, the harsh life is just around the corner in the neighbouring wooden houses, where the inhabitants are as usual preparing their houses for the winter and taking care of their animals, completely oblivious of the people known as tourists.

Inside the Stalinist court hotel the terrified staff hide as they see us coming. It’s as silent as a grave.

It’s the beginning of October and the first snow has fallen a few hundred metres higher up. We want to throw snowballs, the first snowballs of the year, so we hike onwards. When we reach the treeline, we gaze down upon the small villages, the sheep, the barking sheep dogs, and the white mountain peaks on the other side of the valley. We soon realise that this is what St Anton and St Chamonix must have looked like a hundred years or so ago.

Then we ponder what it’s going look like in ten or twenty year’s time? Is there going to be ruthless exploitation? Are tourism and local culture going to be able to co-exist? When I throw the precious snowball down the slope and it falls for a long, long time, I remember the words of the tourism director in Borsa who said that everything had been dragged through the mud after the revolution in 1989 and that the fate of the ski centre was in the hands of the creator.

’Everything depends on God,’ she said and raised her hands towards the heavens.

I have a feeling that she wasn’t just talking about the tourist centre.