As the referendum axe falls, and Britain falls to pieces, we are in the Maramure region of Northern Romania. It's difficult not to see this as a dereliction of duty, like being out on the lash when one's house burns down, but at least we've put in our postal votes. Unfortunately they make no difference.
We're staying in the thriving village of Breb, which means beaver, though there aren't any. The village is featured in William Blacker's English-toff-meets-beautiful-gypsy-sisters-and-goes-native memoir Along The Enchanted Way. The book has encouraged a mild strain of middle class tourism in the area. A cynical person might construe this as affluent people gawping at poor peasants. Hmm, difficult to argue with that, but we're here anyway. Let's hope we're not actually gawping.
The word village doesn't do Breb justice. It's certainly not like any village in Britain. It's an extensive area of countryside forest, meadows, orchards, pasture, fields of crops - containing several hundred houses, a bar, a community centre and a couple of churches, connected by a road and an informal web of tracks. The countryside permeates the village, the village permeates the countryside. It's a place of work and a domestic realm; and there's little distinction between the two.
Most of the houses are made of wood. They look like old-school cricket pavilions. They're arranged in compounds, behind massive, elaborate gates of turned wood which look as if they're made out of bread. These wooden houses, beautiful and practical, are also, amazingly, portable. Our host at the excellent Village Hotel, Duncan, an ex-Sun paparazzo, has a penchant for buying parcels of land and wooden houses, independently, and then transporting the houses to the land, Fitzcarraldo-fashion. One of the churches is also made of wood, with a spectacular tiled spire. It's in very bad condition, and it's out of use. The other church is taking up the slack. Every week there seem to be about eight religious festivals. Everyone downs tools, gets dressed up in traditional costume and treks off to the church for an elaborate service followed by a meal in the community centre.
This is National Geographic porn horses and carts, the occasional gypsy, technicolour rows of beehives, churns of unpasteurized milk, stills producing lethal plum cognac', working wells, water-powered fulling mills where cloth is softened after being woven on manual looms. Two hundred years of technological progress might as well not have happened. Cattle and chickens wander freely. Hay is cut with scythes, turned with wooden forks and piled around posts into small ricks which look like ghosts. Then someone, usually a woman, climbs on to the top of the rick to finish it off. It's both matter-of-fact and to us anyway - heroic.
This way of life was nearly destroyed by Ceaucescu's systematisation' programme. The plan was to drag the Romanian countryside into the modern age. Villages and towns were to be demolished and reconstructed into urban industrial centres. Smaller villages were considered irrational' and listed for destruction, the villagers to be relocated. In practice, systematization was patchy, mainly due to lack of funds. The most visible result is, oddly enough, in Bucharest, where, after 40,000 people had been evicted at a day's notice, a vast swathe of demolition created space for the Ceaucescu's folie de grandeur, the Place of the People, supposedly the second biggest building in the world after the Pentagon.
You can walk everywhere in Breb. Despite the gates, there is no private space. Except that you can't walk everywhere. The problem is the dogs. Every flock of sheep is guarded by a marauding band of ferocious dogs. The shepherds say they need all these dogs to guard their flocks against bears and wolves. The hunters have complained. They say that ludicrous EU subsidies for buying pasture have threatened wildlife, and that the shepherds' dogs are attacking and killing theirs. Most of the politicians are hunters (apparently Ceaucescu was a keen hunter, but was such a lousy shot that he always had to get someone to do the shooting for him). So, not surprising that legislation was bought in last year to restrict the number of dogs per flock to one. Four thousand shepherds descended on Bucharest to protest. (Glorious thought!) The police overreacted, used tear gas to disperse them. Nevertheless the legislation was postponed.
It would be a mistake to get too dewy-eyed about all this. We're not in Breb long enough to find out what really goes on here, but, for example, the bar seems to be men-only except on Sunday mornings, and, according to Duncan, a woman who comes at any other time is considered a slut. Meanwhile, every house has a television; the village looks like an advert for the satellite dish. Some of the newer houses look as if they're built of Lego. The usual rural exodus is in progress, to the cities and now, with Romania part of the EU, abroad too. (Do you remember, though, the day when Romania joined the EU, and the journalists gathered at Heathrow, expecting a tsunami of benefit cheats, to be met by a single Romanian, a sweet studious boy?)
But the land here is green and fertile, the produce varied, excellent. After the fall of Ceaucescu, the west sent aid to Romania in the form of food and clothes. The people of Breb were baffled by the gift; they fed the food to their pigs, and cut up the clothes to make dishcloths. Self-sufficiency! It's an enticing idea, if challenging in cities. Replace supermarkets with allotments! A still in every pub! Livestock in the parks!
You'd like to like the food here, but it's not entirely easy. Pork, pork and more pork. The sheep, cattle and chickens seem to lead charmed lives, but the pigs are constantly under the cosh. Soups with cream, stews with cream, stuffed cabbage leaves with yoghurt, pancakes with cheese, doughnuts with jam and cream. All-the-year-round winter food, fatty and bland, drowning in dairy products. Though if you'd been out in the fields all day making hay by hand, it would probably taste delicious.
Words by Orlando Gough
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