When William Blacker first crossed the snowbound passes of northern Romania, he stumbled upon an almost medieval world.
There, for many years, side by side with the country people, he lived a life ruled by the slow cycle of the seasons, far from the frantic rush of the modern world. In spring, as the pear trees blossomed, he ploughed with horses, in summer he scythed the hay fields, and in the freezing winters he gathered wood by sleigh from the forest. From sheepfolds harried by wolves, to courting expeditions through the snow, he experienced the traditional way of life to the full, and became accepted into a community which treated him as one of its own.
But Blacker was also intrigued by the Gypsies, those dark, footloose strangers of spellbinding allure who he saw passing through the village. Locals warned him to stay clear, but he fell in love and there followed a bitter struggle.
Change is now coming to rural Romania, and William Blacker's adventures will soon be part of its history. From his early carefree days tramping the hills of Transylvania, to the book's poignant ending, Along the Enchanted Way transports us back to a magical, though often bizarre, country world most of us thought had vanished long ago.
|William Blacker lived in Romania from 1996 to 2004. He now divides his time between England, Italy and Romania. He has contributed articles and photographs to the Daily Telegraph, Ecologist, Art Newspaper and The Times.|
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the
Scampering about the dusty tracks of a village in the Transylvanian hills is a small Gypsy boy who seems, among the other darker-skinned children, to be a little out of place. He has blue eyes and light-coloured hair and people often refer to him as Neamțul, the German boy. Amongst his greatest pleasures are watching the horses and carts clattering down the road and the cows making their way slowly back into the village in the twilight. During the day he tirelessly pursues, much to their consternation, the ducks and ducklings which waddle about on the banks of the stream, and in the evenings he lingers outside the crîșma dancing, after a fashion, moving his feet and clicking his fingers in time to the Gypsy music.
10 January 2008
As the train wound its way along wooded valleys my mind .was awash with memories. It was a slow train, with its blue but now rusting carriages still in service since Communist times. I had missed the flash new express and so had taken the old-fashioned option which stopped at every village station. Doors hung open and rattled, even a few windows were broken, and in places snow was settling on the floors. I pulled my coat around my body, and my hat down upon my head to preserve the last warmth left in me, and my neighbours, with a smile and a look of sympathy, offered me a swig of țuică, their home-made brandy. There was a companionship among us such as one rarely finds on the new express trains which flew by us through the night, a rush of air coming in through the broken windows as they passed, leaving the snow swirling in the corridors.
I was travelling to the very north of Romania, near the border with the Ukraine, in order to keep a promise I had made to an old friend. It was by no means an easy journey in midwinter. It would take another day to reach the isolated village in the northern Carpathian mountains, but I had promised.
The train hooted as we pulled up at a little station. An assortment of villagers, some Romanian, some Gypsy, clambered down on to the platform. The old man and woman who had given me the țuică climbed down too and waved me a merry wave as they headed off beside the train laden with their heavy bags.
Peering out of the window through the snow I could make out a dance going on in the hall in the village square. I remembered back to my first visit to Romania, also in the snow. In a village in northern Moldavia I had been taken to the Saturday evening dance. I remembered how the villagers had all paid a small entrance fee for the musicians, but from me the doorman resolutely refused to take any money. I tried to insist. 'No, no!' he said. 'You are a foreigner. You are our guest. We would not dream of asking you to pay'
In the hall on one side of the room on benches along the wall sat the boys, and the village girls sat opposite them on the other side. I remembered it as though it had been the day before. When the moustachioed Gypsies took up their instruments to play, the boys walked across the room, took the girls by the hand and led them into the dances. They danced traditional dances, intermixed with waltzes and polkas, which they all knew perfectly. From the benches soft-faced mothers and grandmothers sat and watched, nodded and commented contentedly. Outside horses pulling sleighs rushed past snorting steam from their nostrils, the moon glittered on the snow and even then, right from the start, I knew there was no other place I wanted to be.
As the old blue train trundled on through the night, to forget the cold my mind drifted off to warmer occasions, and to musings about life in Romania. When eighteen years ago, in my mid-twenties, I had first headed towards this country I had had no idea what I would find. From reading Western newspapers I had expected to discover a drab Communist world of depressed workers whose spirits had been crushed by decades of conformity. But I had found something quite different. The villages and the countryside were awash with colour and brimming with cheerful, fresh-faced people. I had had no idea such a place was hidden away in this corner of Europe.
I remembered particularly a festival among the trees on the edge of the forest where fiddlers played in competition with the birds in the branches. The villagers dressed in white embroidered smocks—the girls in brightly coloured skirts and headscarves—joined arms, making a circle, stamping their feet rhythmically on the grass and singing the shepherds' songs at the tops of their voices. The dancing and singing went on all afternoon and evening in dappled shade, like some ancient bucolic festival. What, I thought to myself, could have been more colourful and full of life than this idyllic scene? Lying on the grassy bank of a stream, in the shade of flickering beech leaves, listening to the sound of trickling water and watching these smiling and laughing people, I scribbled in my notebook: How could we possibly have been persuaded that our modern way of living is any improvement on this? Was there something of a sham about the modern world? Were we, in Western Europe, for all our wealth and washing machines, any happier than these people? The answer was, to me at least, a clear and decisive 'No'.
I remembered how on my early journeys the people in Romania, almost everywhere I went, had welcomed me amongst them. Wherever I travelled, when night fell I was offered food and the best bed in the house; sometimes it might have had a straw mattress, sometimes it had a box of chicks or a lamb sleeping underneath it, but always it was warm and comfortable and I had a roof over my head. In the morning when I left, my hosts would be appalled if offered any form of payment, and instead would fill my bag with food. In those days there were few shops and food was almost impossible to buy along the way. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the villagers and their old-fashioned courtesy. And now in the train I had once again been reminded of their simple kindness by the offer of țuică to take my mind off the cold.
Among the many hospitable and courteous individuals I had been lucky to meet on my travels was the friend to whom I had made the promise. He was one of those old country people of Romania who, although not book-learned, was wiser and more knowledgeable than most of us, and most important of all, knew the great secret of being happy on little. I remembered the times we had spent together in the fields and forests, how with unswerving humour he had taught me all about country life in Romania, and had looked after me and protected me against the gossip and the occasional envy of others. It was now my turn to do something for him.
The train heaved and rattled its way over the hills. My mind returned to the present journey. Soon I would be crossing the snow-covered passes and descending slowly, always more slowly, down into the valleys of the old Maramureș.