It is all too easy get overly romantic about Romania, which is said to have come second only to Greece in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s affections. Whilst I can agree wholeheartedly with William Blacker when he describes the Romanian people as some of the most charming and civilised he has ever met, his story of his many years living in Transylvania is likely to polarise opinion about the necessity and pace of development in the Romanian countryside, but it is unlikely to disappoint as a tremendous read.
By Tom Sawford
What can be more evocative to us than hearing the word Transylvania, and stories about a land that is still populated by wolves and bears that live in huge beech forests? Where many of the farmers still practice a form of agriculture that has changed little since the Middle Ages? A land where true Gypsies live chaotic lives dominated by music, dancing and the many local variants of clear sprit distilled from plums or pears? This is a frontier land where the kings of Hungary gave land to German Saxons in return for their promise to defend Hungary, and indeed Christendom, from the Tartars and the Ottomans, where even now the churches in the high Carpathian villages of Transylvania are also fortresses and places of refuge from deadly warbands and villains.
It was this world that William Blacker stumbled into in 1989 just at the time of the Romanian revolution, which, of all those dramatic events in that cold dark winter, was the bloodiest, ending with the summary execution of Ceausescu and his wife by firing squad after a quick trial. No drawn out Hague justice here.
After his first two relatively short visits Blacker made a decision in 1993 to move to Romania for an extended period and lived there pretty continuously until the late 2000’s. In that time he lived with a proud and hardworking peasant couple called Mihai and Maria in the fertile valleys of the Maramureş, a land that is 80% forest and is in the north of Transylvania near the border with Ukraine. It seems he was like the son they never had.
It was there that William bought his first scythe and learned to cut grass to make hay, stopping frequently during long working days to sharpen the scythe with a whetstone. Maria would carry lunch out to the fields and he enjoyed the opportunity of leisurely talk as they ate in the shade of a tree or a hayrick whilst they drank the local fiery spirit called horinca. A short nap always seemed to follow lunch and then it was back to work until sunset.
This pattern to his daily life in the Maramureş was only interrupted by the onset of the bitter cold, and the snow and ice of winter, which was a time when little work could be done, and was dominated by evening visits to neighbours, the downing of innumerable tots of horinca, and engaging somewhat self-consciously and half-heartedly in the formal courting processes of the countryside.
In the end Blacker did not find a wife in the Maramureş but further south in the Saxon lands of Transylvania. He had walked through those vast and dark forests many years before and met a young Gypsy girl called Marishka. Some years later he returned to the village and encountered Marishka again, now a young woman, and her beautiful but flirtatious sister Natalia. Blacker fell in love with, or at least was under the spell of, Natalia and eventually they lived together for a brief but chaotic period. But it was the brave , uncompromising, and superstitious Marishka that he later ‘married’. She bore him a son called Constantin who still runs with the Gypsy children chasing chickens and cuddling lambs in the village of Halma where he has a home.
This book cannot be described as a biography. Indeed, its subtitle ‘A Romanian Story’ states clearly what Blacker is trying to achieve: to tell a tale. This he does convincingly with great charm and simplicity. However, we learn little about William’s other activities beyond farming and his somewhat turbulent love-life during his time in Romania.
We do know that he was concerned about the state of the buildings in the old Saxon villages following what can only be described as a mass migration of the Saxon people when Germany offered them citizenship in 1990. After 800 years of caring for their homes, village halls and churches, many wanted to seek what they thought may be a better life for themselves in the Fatherland. The twentieth century had not been kind to them as in turn they were forced to fight for the Germans, were taken away as forced labour by the Russians, and then continued to suffer under the Communist regime. The plaster on the walls of their homes crumbled; the roofs of their fortress churches leaked; and many Gypsy families occupied these buildings but in general failed to maintain them.
In Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes this Saxon village architecture as ‘… made to last and adorned here and there with a discreet and rather daring frill of baroque.’ The churches as ‘ sturdy … squat … with a tough defensive look’. In 1996 William Blacker published a pamphlet to highlight the plight of this unique heritage. This led eventually to the creation of a charity focused on the preservation and renovation of Saxon buildings. The pamphlet attracted the attention of HRH Prince Charles who is now Patron of the Mihai Eminescu Trust which supports the maintenance of this heritage.
Prince Charles has since purchased two properties which have been renovated, which when not being used by the Prince on his annual visits to Transylvania, are available for rent as holiday homes. Whilst Blacker makes some mention of his campaign, and tells us about one or two specific projects that he undertook in the village of Halma, he could have mentioned more about his work in this field. Clearly Blacker was leading a double life at the time; living and working amongst the country people, but also writing regularly to friends in England about this issue and most probably traveling backwards and forwards. However, he fails to tell us about this in any detail, and perhaps gives a slightly false impression of the Romanian focused continuity of his life at that time. It was and remains an important part of his life and the story.
What Blacker does not shy away from is some aspects of the darker side of life in Romania. Whilst his time in the village of Breb in the Maramureş was perhaps the most idyllic, village life was frequently punctuated by tragedy. Death was not far away, whether by lightning strike, freezing to death in the long winter or drowning; tragedies that were often attributed by the deeply religious but also superstitious local people to magic and curses.
The rapid change in the lives of these villagers as economic development advanced is viewed negatively by Blacker. In his opinion they exchanged the hard work and seasonal cycles of their simple but ‘happy’ lives on the land for the unceasing demands and bondage of paid employment, and new forms of tragedy as tarmacked roads brought their own forms of death to the village.
Is it quite as simple as that? He fails to mention the crude outside toilets, the domestic abuse which is common in Romania, and the inability of the people to access medical facilities quickly in an emergency. He mentions a visit to a local vet where he obtains some penicillin for Mihai citing that the absence of a doctor, but the availability of a vet, demonstrated the priorities of the local people. Was that really the case?
His descriptions of the outright racism, exploitation, crude violence and corruption of the ex-communist police towards the Gypsies dominates the last period of his life in Halma (a name he has created to preserve the anonymity of his Transylvanian village). This is not unlike Miklos Bánffy’s descriptions of how some educated Romanian magistrates, tax collectors, and estate managers exploited the Romanian peasantry in his Transylvanian Trilogy. In the end Blacker is forced to make a stand resorting to the courts and a new generation of Romanian lawyers who fought for better rights and equality for peasants and Gypsies.
‘A Romanian Story’ is a love story: of Blacker’s own loves, his love of Romania, and, with the exception of the corrupt, its people. It is full of romance and beautifully woven images of a way of life that is quite unknown to us in the West: one that has enormous attractions for us as many seek a simpler way of life. However, he also describes a country that is undergoing huge and increasingly rapid change.
Blacker is convinced this is to the detriment of the people of the Romanian countryside. My own limited experience makes me unsure. What I do know is that even those of my friends who are highly educated, and have what we might describe as good if still lowly paid jobs by Western standards, look upon their own country with enormous disdain and frustration as they experience widespread corruption, and poor standards in the delivery of public services. My answer to them is always that it is their generation that must remain in Romania and work for change. This may not come as rapidly as they would like, but they may be able to gift a better country to the next generation.
William Blacker has lived, loved and worked for change in Romania. ‘Along the Enchanted Way’ is a hugely enjoyable book that I highly recommend. In that I am in good company; Paddy described it as ‘a book close to my heart’. He was very supportive of William’s work which helps us to understand some of the many attractions of Romania and the challenges that remain. Read the book but remain aware that this is one man’s view, and that of someone who was able to make the choice to leave in the end.
For all that has changed the fact is that many of the agricultural practices that Blacker describes are still utilised; bears, wolves and lynx still roam in the vast forests; and the people are indeed charming, cultured and civilised. Perhaps we can all help Romania by visiting the country to marvel at its beautiful countryside, the unique flora and fauna, the mix of Baroque and Saxon architecture in Transylvania, and the famous painted monasteries? By supporting these rural communities we may enable enough people to remain in the countryside in improved circumstances to help preserve what remains of one truly unique part of Europe’s cultural heritage.