By Stephen McGrath
Last summer my wife and I bought a house. It was a large Saxon peasant house in a dilapidated state after being unlived in for 18 years. Its last owners had moved to Germany in the early ’90s, as part of the Saxon mass migration following the downfall of communism, and rarely returned. We’d thrown our limited resources into buying the property, and now had the task of bringing it back to life. With little experience in doing up houses, from electrics to plumbing to drainage systems – not to mention a huge garden to manage – the task ahead was both exciting and daunting. A shoestring budget, a busy work schedule and an active small child wouldn’t help. But the house possessed some irresistible features: immaculate ceiling beams and wooden floors throughout, a large summer kitchen that would be perfect for hosting guests, and stone-walled cellars that could make for a perfect double bedroom and adjacent reading room.
The village of Criș, where we bought our home, is a short drive from Sighișoara, but it could be another world. Many of the houses are empty, and those that aren’t are mostly occupied by old residents who’ve lived in the village for decades. It’s not exactly an obvious place for a young, multinational family to base itself. Still, it drew us in.
Aspirations aside, the first leg of the project was clear enough: to cut back the garden overgrowth – including the previous owners’ enthusiasm for wire fencing – and to clear out the junk that had accumulated over several generations of apparent hoarders. The sheer volume of blankets, sheets and furniture the family kept was startling in the extreme. Of course, we kept anything of historic value. My favourite find was the land deeds, dated 1906 and written beautifully in Hungarian. I still need to get them translated, but with
no running water and 30-cubic-metres of damp soil to excavate from the cellars, there are more pressing tasks at hand.
Like most sizeable home restoration projects, and especially in a country like Romania, there are moments of joy and despair, and the key is reaching a point where you can live comfortably with the basic amenities. Currently, it’s a lot like luxury camping, which always becomes a drag on the third day when the novelty wears off. We converted the future living room into a large bedroom, stripped some old furniture and had a bed made by a young carpenter in Cluj; we keep that space immaculate to ensure we have a restful place at the end of a hard day of manual labour.
This type of old architecture is not ideal when it comes to installing modern water and heating, but we must enter the 21st century.
As a journalist, I’ve written much about Romania’s migration problem, and the resulting skilled-labour shortage, but only when I tried to find builders (at least around these parts), did I truly feel the impact. Finding workers – not to mention quality, trustworthy builders – for smallish one-off jobs is difficult when larger contracts await them. However, I have two arms and legs and I enjoy physical work – so I’ve resigned myself to any jobs that merely requires hard labour. Slowly, we are making progress.
It’s hard to believe that just two months ago a thick snowfall covered the courtyard white, and the wood burners were crackling, occasionally filling the room with acrid-smelling smoke. This week I found myself planting flowers in the stone bases of our decades-old vines, to add some colour and a sense of optimism to what is slowly becoming a family home.
Next door’s old chained-up dog is barking, roosters are crowing, village tractors are rumbling by and the male frogs are croaking in the stream, competing for female attention. As the sun casts shadows across the spacious courtyard and the moody clouds gather for some afternoon rain, Tommy, my son, is searching for snails to put in his little plastic wheelbarrow. I can think of worse places to sit and write.
Stephen McGrath is a Romania-based correspondent. His work appears regularly in the international press, for publications including The Times, BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Spectator, New Statesman, Forbes, and others.