By Stephen McGrath
The early evening sun is casting an auburn glow over the village and industrious swallows swoop in and out of our front cellar to build their nest on the side of a wooden beam. I’m sitting under the summer kitchen covered in dirt, watching the swallows in their fast-twitch flight on their own season-pressured mission to prepare a family abode. Tomorrow, my parents arrive from the UK on their first visit to our new family home. We’ve not seen them since Christmas. With no running water, no kitchen or bathroom — I rejoice in the knowledge that my parents are a non-complaining get-on-with-it type of couple.
The plan is for their two-week stay to be a working holiday as well as a recreational break. My dad, who worked for years as a builder, wants to help us get some key jobs done on the house.
As they pull up in their hire car at 8pm, it is perfectly timed to enjoy the fairytale-like scene of the village cows coming home at sunset — a testament as to why anyone, let alone a young multinational family, would want to move to the Transylvanian countryside. The house is much bigger than it looks in photographs, they say. Indeed, during the mandatory tour of the house, I can see the scale of our project becoming apparent to them. The fresh table flowers are clearly failing to trick them into thinking otherwise.
However, with a fridge well-stocked with alcohol and fresh food for a barbecue — it is time to catch up and play host. As always with my parents, the night is long and full of laughter as they marvel at the volume of the male frogs calling desperately for female attention in the stream next to us. It is well past midnight when we retire for the evening.
The morning after, my dad wastes no time in getting to work. His main focus — his go-to obsession — is ‘having a good clear out’. He is uprooting 2-metre tall weeds and he’s started a job that I had few ideas on how to tackle: levelling a part of the garden that is subsiding into the stream. Hardcore is being laid down in the low-ground parts and a combination of sheet metal, old wooden posts and vegetation are being built up to stabilise the new ground against the wire fence. Despite its hideous, uneven appearance, my dad insists that the ground will eventually level out and be ready to host a row of conifer trees. The root system will bind the soil and offer some privacy from the road that overlooks a part of the courtyard.
Almost every day during my parents’ visit, the afternoon brings a humid stormy rain, during which we take shelter, drink coffee and snack on whatever foods require little preparation — often fresh bread with ham and a salad. With no running water, we quickly find a use for a stack of paper plates.
Washing at the house is no easy task. Each night we collect a bucket of water from the well, warm up it up on a small wood burner, strip down in the courtyard and economically wash off the day’s dirt. My parents do not complain. The evenings consist mostly of eating, drinking and chatting until the early hours in the summer kitchen – surely life’s greatest pleasure. It reminds me of my childhood spent caravanning and of why we’ve chosen this location to create our home.
The courtyard is beginning to look much better; hay piles from an earlier grass cutting are moved; the exterior of the barn is no longer suffocating with weeds, while lumpy old furniture — mostly wardrobes of no historic value — is broken up for firewood, creating additional space inside the barn.
The ground-levelling job takes almost a week to finish, in part because of my dad’s meticulously organised way of working. It feels good to get an important, labour-intensive job done. When doing up an old house, it’s important to frequently feel a sense of progress, a sort of triumph over a shoe-string budget and in our case over Romania’s labour shortage too.
The whole family stands in the drizzling rain, measuring out an even distance between each of the eight conifer trees on the perimeter of the newly even ground. “You’ll be amazed at how much they’ll grow by next year,” mom says. Hopefully, by then, I think, the paper plates will be long gone and we can shower indoors.