by Stephen McGrath
Winter nights in remote Romanian villages are seldom eventful affairs. Dusk arrives in swift transition and thick plumes of smoke from burning wood consumes the valley of the centuries-old settlement where I live. Many villagers here continue to farm – and even depend on – their small plots of land, and therefore operate using their circadian clocks. As a result, from dusk till dawn the village is silent, dormant save for the cooing and howling of local wildlife. Even the cackles in the local shop-bar are eerily quiet.
Being a natural urban-dweller in a remote rural settlement during these long frigid periods can be testing, especially when one’s home is not yet equipped with modern features like central heating, a kitchen or even an indoor toilet.
This is why we’re staying at the in-laws this winter, just around the corner — four generations living under one roof. In the evenings the matriarch of the family, my wife’s grandmother, busies herself chopping up walnuts and apples which she spent harvest season collecting. Her husband is mostly bedridden now, and condemned to a life of television watching. Adrian, my father-in-law, is a real countryman, a smallholder farmer who knows a lot about many things — in particular how to make hundreds of litres of quaffable wine. This year, his red wine yield was just short of 600 litres. Elena, my mother-in-law, cooks and looks after the house, and is periodically away working in Austria. My wife, Andreea, who has spent most of her life living in cities, spends her evenings reading thick novels.
In the evenings I often sit outside, braving the cold to drink a glass or two of ‘vin de casa’ (house wine) from the most recent batch, and contemplate the year ahead.
Rural Romania is a land far-removed from the gender-equal ambitions of Western Europe. People here do, however, appear more content in their traditional roles — no doubt due to having few options — but perhaps more importantly, when the crunch comes, during the energy-intensive harvests, for example, literally everyone, children included, get stuck in to help bring home the harvest.
There is a widely accepted assumption that rural living is naturally healthier than urban living, but this is only partly true. People here generally lead more active lifestyles, but their consumption habits could easily shock the most laid-back of heart consultants. Pork, is all its forms, is eaten almost daily, and drinking a large shot of homemade țuica daily before lunch is viewed in perhaps the same way many urbanites would view a glass of orange juice.
As I sit outside, Adrian’s dogs, who live behind the barn to protect the chickens and lambs, have stirred into a frenzied din of barking. This triggers the village’s wider canine population to follow suit, and the silence is temporarily broken, before settling back down to a stubborn silence.
I drink my second glass of wine, the temperature hovering around zero, as I consider my day job and think about the next round of work on the house. Adrian emerges from the silence, into the courtyard darkness, to add more firewood to the central heating wood burner.
A true rural Romanian experience requires a lot of toil, from the sourcing, collecting and chopping of firewood, to the planting and excavating of potatoes to feeding the animals — most things are just part of a cycle dictated by the seasons, which, naturally, seldom offers any respite.
This time of year, before our home is done at least, it’s easy to feel displaced from our natural habitat — the city. But before long, the frost will retreat, frogs will return to the stream, and everything around us will bloom. On a cold night, it’s a pleasant thought. •