21 May 2013

The Simple Life

Written by Published in Eco Travel

Some consider Romania to be one of the least developed of the ex-Communist European states, and as far as some of its young are concerned, it still is – they work hard to secure jobs as migrant workers elsewhere. But as the whole of Europe becomes mired in ever-deepening economic failure, the elegantly simple, sustainable-living models still encapsulated in that country’s traditions, which have been honed over generations, are starting to come into their own   

Transylvanian shepherdRomania joined the European Union only in 2007, and in economic terms is considered to be one of the poor relations within the 27-country family of states. Even fiscal poverty is getting difficult to understand nowadays, with the bigger and stronger European economies admitting they’re in serious trouble. All that aside, being there made me think hard about that particular definition of poverty. 

Romania might be considered poor as far as GDP is concerned, but I found most Romanian villages rich with low-carbon living and biodiversity. Unfortunately, economic and social sustainability are rarely also present. The people are financially poor, and maybe not too happy – however we define that word – because they work long hours and life can be tedious. Especially when all the young people are away pulling pints on the Costa del Sol or serving Sunday lunches in England’s Home Counties, instead of helping with the milking or getting the hay in before that summer rain shower.

The ten-country Green Village project I am part of is supported by the European Union’s Leonardo da Vinci programme. The partners wrestle with various definitions of sustainability as it applies to Europe’s rural areas, and here in Romania this is no exception. It’s a complex subject because economic and environmental sustainability can often stand as two forces which are difficult to reconcile. And to make matters worse, we also need to throw social and cultural sustainability into the equation.

Trans7Green Village is all about re-injecting pride into European villages, providing training, often by older people for younger people (in 2012, the ‘Year of Intergenerational Learning’) and leading people into new jobs, ones which make the best use of natural and cultural assets. Ultimately it’s about identifying the best examples of rural sustainability – environmental, economic, social and cultural – and capturing them in a model of the ideal ‘green village’. 

By using local, renewable materials at or close to source, whether it’s pine wood from Cyprus’s Troodos Mountains or Romanian village tomatoes, the carbon footprint will be lower than if we were, say, shipping in Swedish timber or Dutch hothouse vegetables. But environmental sustainability isn’t just about carbon: one needs to consider wildlife and biodiversity. Sometimes low-carbon-generating activity and biodiversity come neatly together, as it has in a Transylvanian hay meadow in the beautiful Apuseni Mountains. These meadows are still cut with a scythe and have an amazing plant diversity, which in turn supports a rich variety of insects that feed lots of songbirds – as good an example of a self-sustaining food chain and ecosystem as you’re likely to find anywhere in Europe. 

Transylvanian anthillsTransylvanian anthillsThe ants in these hay meadows create a matrix of anthills that is like a map of villages, all with their own hinterland, giving just enough food and far enough from the neighbouring ant population to avoid strife. The dominant hay-meadow ant, Myrmica scabrinodis, not only shows us how populations are distributed in order to be sustainable, but also has a complexity of interdependencies with orchids and butterflies. 

The ants thrive because the farmer doesn’t trundle his tractor over them. Looking at the anthills, some are larger and have smaller satellite anthills. It all reminds me of my studies in human geography and learning about Christhaller’s theory of Central Place.

To go up the steep forest track above the village of Girda de Sus and drive along a ridge with views on both sides that literally stop your breath is like going back in time, and to sit watching artisans Traian and Petri patiently creating a shepherd’s horn, a sour-cream tub or wooden drinking cup is a real stress-buster. 

I examine their tools, a fantastic array of chisels, augers and drawknives, all carefully made and studiously maintained. With a feeling of shame I remember my latest electric drill, abused, burned out through my own impatience and tossed towards the back of my outhouse. Later, when the lady of the house serves up mouthwatering sheep-cheese pies, I look around the kitchen; they have a cup each, just the necessary pots and pans, a few cherished and meaningful religious bits. The clutter back home could not be greater. 

The hay meadows, the woods, the bilberry bushes, potato patch, enclosed maize rows, cherry and apple trees, the cow, pig and horse give them all they need. The pumpkin oil and wheat flour they can get by barter, and we’ve brought them oranges and walnuts. 

Leaving the Apuseni Mountains, we stay in the city of Alba Iulia, with its star-shaped Vauban-style fortress built to resist the marauding Tatars from the east. When these and other invaders came to what is today Romania, they attacked these military targets but the villages were often left alone because, then as now, they were the producers of food; and armies need food. In 2012, peasant farming in Romania is not too different to when the Tatar led their horse warriors through the valleys. The village of Garbovita near the town of Aiud is pretty typical. 

Our partnership in Romania is led by Associata Satul Verde, which means ‘Green Village Association’. Leading lights Monica and Manuela were raised in Garbovita, suffering some grim times under Communism but also loving, and linked to, the land and its stupendous natural surroundings.

In Garbovita, we are seeking the true meaning of sustainability. We find it in Grandma’s cellar – full of wine barrels, pickles, strings of onions, jars of stewed fruit and slabs of slanina, or smoked pork fat. With the local goatkeeper we have a go at milking; the Eastern Europeans from Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia are quite adept, also the Cypriots, who are not too far removed here from their ancestral herds of milk-sheep and goats. We don’t find much sustainability in the income of the family – they are financially poor, and struggle to buy the things they can’t produce themselves. 


Then it’s off to meet the village children, who gather enthusiastically to ‘draw sustainability’. Their pictures are full of flowers, trees, grazing cows and sheep. They are happy, smiling, innocent and satisfied with village life. But we fear all that will change as they come to young adulthood: Romania’s countryside is haemorrhaging its young people at breakneck speed. Not a good recipe for social sustainability.

The fourth leg of the search for an ideal of rural sustainability concerns culture. Garbovita still has lots of it – in the songs and dances of the people, the Greek Catholic church, the vineyards and hay meadows, the folk memories, the recipes for great local dishes, the traditional skills and the old tools still cherished and used (I think again of my cast-aside electric drill). Traditional culture too is under threat here – it’s lodged firmly with the old people. The youngsters are into hip hop, mobile phones, Facebook and earning cash as fast as they can, just like millions of young people the world over.

green villageMaybe we need to think carefully about which of our diverse European populations are best equipped to survive an apocalyptic banking and business collapse … even the demise of the euro. When the light on my laptop blinks out for the last time (OK, I’m being melodramatic), give me the home-fattened pig, horse-extracted wooden poles for my timber house, a cart pulled by a pair of placid oxen, tomatoes that actually taste of something and sweet-smelling Transylvanian hay meadows.

You (or the bailiff) can keep the flat-screen TV, the two cars and that latest oh-so-shiny iPod.

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