By Stephen McGrath
In the vast green orchard behind the barn, our apple, pear and peach trees are sagging under the weight of ripe fruit as myriad species of butterfly flutter calmly in the overgrowth. It’s a scenic view from here: the Lutheran hilltop church stands proud in spite of its semi-redundancy; the Hungarian renaissance castle peers through a fortification of tall trees that hosts a sporadic knocking of woodpeckers and horses strut serenely across the high pastures. It is a moment in which it’s easy to forget about the work ahead, but I’m standing in metre-tall vegetation that needs cutting and my brand new petrol strimmer is not fit for the job. Neither am I.
It is time to utilise the skills of local villagers, men and women — but mostly men — prolific in the art of scything great swathes of grass and who are up to the task, as I get on with other labour-intensive jobs, which, of course, are in no short supply.
Eugen is a lean moustachioed man of indistinguishable age, dressed in baggy belted corduroy trousers and a checkered shirt. He is often seen around the village with a scythe slung over his shoulder, an old farming tool which he uses with the ease of a natural limb. After few roadside words, Eugen agrees to the job and he begins cutting a sizeable patch in front of the house — before money is even discussed — and says that he’ll return at 9am tomorrow to get to work in the orchard. As Eugen scythes in smooth rhythmic motion in the strong evening sun, Tommy, our son, is playing with a group of children nearby. Tomorrow we are having a team of workers to dig a new well, as the old stone well is too difficult to clean to use as our main water source.
Finally, things feel as though they are heading in the right direction, with important jobs getting done.
The well workers arrive at 7.30am sharp. As I open the large courtyard gates to allow access for their truck, I realise how many mornings I miss as the sun ascends; the valley trapped with mist, the early birdsong and the low morning temperatures which improves the first coffee of the day — it is like waking up with the world. The workers wasted no time at all; after scant deliberation on where the new well should go, the team of five guys begin digging their way beneath the courtyard with their shovels. Digging is exhausting work, so they take it in turns as the excavated soil quickly becomes a large heap in the courtyard. The large courtyard is clean and organised, so watching the heap grow is painful, so I get my wheelbarrow for the workers to deposit the soil in, and then rush to keep pace as I dump it next to the barn to level more ground adjacent to the stream. It is not yet 9am, and my forehead is covered in beads of sweat which quickly becomes a stream and soon my t-shirt too is saturated.
Then I realise it is 9.40am and there is no sign of Eugen, who we paid in advance, which is seldom advisable whichever way we try to look at it.
Andreea and I, although furious, laugh in the wisdom of hindsight. “He’s probably got his first hangover in years,” I say; “we should have known better,” we agree. His absence makes me think about his life and of life more generally for many in rural Romania. Many villagers appear to live in the spirit of the short-term; it is not hard to imagine a booze-soaked evening at the village bar, or cârciuma — a chorus of grumbles and the constant clattering of beer bottles.
Yet, as the well workers lower the concrete rings down into the 5-metre hole, Eugen walks through the gate with his scythe slung over his shoulder, clearly slightly worse for wear from the night before. Rotating in smooth rhythmic motion, he makes light work of the orchard, before pausing for a cold beer. “I don’t drink water when I work,” he says. “it makes me sweat.”