Paddy reviews William Blacker’s book about his eight years living in rural Romania and is so inspired he let’s himself go “sends (my) thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions.”
First published in the Sunday Telegraph 30 August 2009
Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story
By William Blacker
‘Transylvania, the Banat of Temesvar, the Tatra mountains, Bukovina, Moravia, Bohemia, Wallachia, Moldavia, Bessarabia, the Carpathian range, the Maramures …’ these were the place-names in East Europe where William Blacker, a young, civilised and erudite traveller, hoped to settle and take root. The last of the names (pronounced Maramooresh) is a precipitous and ravishing Romanian region, where Blacker made his life-determining plunge into Europe, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The moment it fell, he headed for Dresden and then Prague, then further east still; he was in search of an older and wilder Europe. Soon he was hobnobbing with the descendants of Saxon families, brought there eight centuries earlier by Bela of Hungary to guard his eastern frontier from the Tartars, a transplanting which had changed everything. Seven western medieval cities had sprung up, monasteries and churches had followed, and the whole apparatus of the Middle Ages had come into being in the Carpathians.
An elderly Saxon couple took Blacker under their wing on sight, so did many others. The story teems with odd characters. One of them is an engaging, dissolute descendant of a Hungarian family who is the father of two fascinatingly beautiful girls, with a Romanian gipsy mother, with both of whom in succession William fell in love. Apart from their spirits and fine looks, these girls brought with them the whole geist of the gipsy world – its dialects, its manifold skills, its amazing singing and dancing and magic and, of course, as a tribe, its challenging knack of being forever at odds with the civic authorities. The wandering of their ancestors had brought the gipsies all the way from north-west India, through Persia and Egypt and the Levant, and scattered them over the West.
It was not just the Saxons and the gipsies that fascinated the new arrival. The Romanian influence proved equally strong. With the Magyar language to the west and Slavonic to the north and the south, and the Black Sea to the east, the Romanians speak the only Latin language in Eastern Europe, and they are proud of this linguistic heirloom. In AD 103 Trajan led his legions over his great Danube bridge, defeated King Decebalus and added the Dacian kingdom to the Roman Empire and the bas-relief of his victory was sent spiralling above his Forum in Rome and stands there still.
Romania is an extraordinary country. I remember it with great clarity, when I was 19, trudging from Holland to the Bosporus, those unending beech forests where the brooks fell from ledge to ledge, gathered in pools, or tumbled in waterfalls, where one could sleep in clearings among hollowed tree-trunks or ‘swing wells’ and scores of lambs, and be woken up by an old shepherd blowing down a bronze horn three yards long, a half-muffled and half- echo sound, like the trumpets of Tibetan shepherds. It was a world of icicles, birds calling, hayricks and scythes.
Perhaps to balance the complexities of his two love affairs, Blacker threw himself into raising funds for the upkeep and repair of the ancient buildings he had settled among. Like his friends, he was outfitted in rough white homespun and the padded and cross- gartered cowhide moccasins – opinci – which the upland shepherds wear all year.
William, who grew up on the South Downs and the north country and Ireland, brings all the skills of his unfettered upbringing to bear on Romania – horse-breaking, tree felling, haymaking and rick building – which, with a passion for the classics and literature and history, seem to have been a perfect run-in to this strange chapter of his life.
The rigours of snow covered the whole of his first winter. It was a time of rugging up soon after the early sunset and diving straight under the blankets and into The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina by lamplight; in a later season the day would end with rowdy evenings at the Krcma – drinking tavern – of amazing dancing and song. I wonder if some of the evenings revolved, as in my young days, around a klaka of a hundred crones in a barn, all with spindles and distaffs and an endless gift for storytelling? One had to look out for the prints of wolves and bears on the way home.
This is a wild and captivating story, ending in great thanks to his neighbours in Maramures and Sighisoara – we are spared Vlad the Impaler – and also to his parents, who gave him such free reign in childhood. William Blacker has written a book close to this reviewer’s heart, and sends thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions. With a change of pace these are followed by the author and his swarm of friends in a cantering troop of near-Lippizaners through the autumn beech woods. Nowadays it looks as though he might branch out much further south – down, down into Italy where, historically speaking, his nearest apposite neighbour might be Lars Porsenna of Clusium.