This blog catalogues the final two years of my life in Transylvania and the immediate aftermath. It is a curious complex tale and best read as a whole. Some posts are joyful, many informative, a number reflective, several cynical or even angry. Most of the latter occur towards the end. But, as you will read, I have moved on from the disappointments that caused these few.
My time in Romania included eight years running a riding holiday centre, living in a remote village, getting hay and firewood with horses, travelling through high mountains and deep forests, an exploration of the culture and heritage of that land, marriage and divorce, struggling with bureaucracy and the facinating process of watching a country in metamorphosis.
I had been searching for an idyll. Such a place was a source of childhood imagination. I dreamt of an idyll during early years in a dull urban job. Then I sought an idyll in Transylvania and initially found what I thought to be one.
I was looking for something tranquil, beautiful, simple and, the realist will point out, fundamentally unsustainable. Perhaps I sought a lifestyle more akin to Tolkien’s fictitious world - the Hobbits' Shire for instance - that that which reality offered? Stepping well back in time it was understandable to desire an idyllic childhood (though I hadn't read Tolkien back then) not least when growing up in the banality of a 1970s suburb. As a young adult I lived in some ugly places, the broken society of a cheap part of northwest London being the worst. No wonder I sought an escape. From beneath the dark cloak of depression I looked out desiring light and beauty which seemed frustratingly unattainable. Then I experienced Transylvania.
In 1990 I was supposed to be visiting to help alleviate poverty. However what I saw in rural areas was scenic beauty and a simple way of life that appealed deeply to me. Poverty existed of course but was neatly boxed in discrete distant towns. People in villages were not well off financially however they had the land and expertise to grow food and raise livestock. I loved driving through that countryside and longed to dwell there. In the meantime I moved from London to a small town in the countryside just beyond. However my move involved an expensive rented apartment (for the town was a desirable place to live) and a surprisingly time consuming journey to work too. It began as an idyll in a small town surrounded by hills and woods but soon became a prison tying me to a long commute, costly living and smug church congregations. From there I moved to rural Oxfordshire as a precursor to exile in Transylvania.
In the interim I had made a two month journey across Romania on horseback and crossed the country from corner to corner by bicycle. I had seen the country in detail before moving there - or rather scraped a great deal of its surface and imagined that I knew and understood the place and its people.
My Transylvanian idyll was not based upon idleness. Indeed I assumed that hard work would be needed and planned, through running a tourist business, to share my discovery. It was personal, then, but not selfish. I built a business, planned riding trails and took guests out to experience the scenic beauty and archaic nature of the Romanian Carpathian mountains.
The vision came to be shattered as such inventions are wont to be. There had been chips taken out of the enamelled picture, of course. Rubbish-choked rivers, occasional thefts, hillsides denuded of trees and incidents of corruption all spoiled the image. However it was the hidden history of Romania that shattered my dream. The doings of history are lodged in the past however in the national unconscious they live on. The Romanian collective unconscious strove to blot out misdeeds large and small. Genocide of the Jews, persecution of the Gypsies, collusion in Communist repression and killing, the recent razing of their own historic towns and endemic corruption over centuries were all whitewashed. Guilt and shame were nearly absent. Educated people denied what had happened and the peasants simply did not know. But were it not for the collective unconscious of that nation I might have stayed. That unconscious warped the national psyche, introduced neuroses and sustained pathological behaviour. When exposed to the collective unconscious the Romanian character mixed pride with self loathing. Too often one could not tell the closed mind of an ‘educated’ Romanian what to think. They resented deeply the implication that they may be wrong. However the same person unashamedly would tell the most deprecating jokes about Romanians in general.
My peasant neighbours exhibited few of these neuroses and pathologies. Indeed they could be stubborn and viewed this as a virtue. Some were coarse in word and deed, a proportion was prone to steal, and rarely were the implications of their actions carefully considered. But very many of the rural people with whom I rubbed shoulders were hospitable and most were surprisingly tolerant of a foreigner living in their midst, indeed ready to forgive occasional indiscretions and ignorance from one new to their society. They were simple people unburdened by too much knowledge. There was a fundamental hard-working decency about the mountain peasants. They possessed a strength and versatility which had long ensured their survival. I had a lot of fun living and working amongst them. But modernisation and EU accession thrust urban mentality and officials into our unwilling faces.
There is much that I miss. I worked with some good people in a beautiful place. We made some wonderful journeys through wild places. The opportunity to work with draught horses was unforgettable and deeply satisfying. I experienced a vanishing lifestyle about which there was much good. Challenges sometimes brought out the best in me. And there I met my wife who is still with me.
Now I have gone full circle in my thinking. Or rather, like a bird soaring in a thermal current, I've described a circle and risen higher in the process. So I look back fondly upon the good memories of which I have many. As to the blows I can look upon them philosophically. What does not kill makes one stronger. Indeed I have emerged tougher and wiser, more ready to understand and forgive.....and no longer believing in idylls.