Interview with PETER RILEY
Poet, Cambridge, UK
“If Bucharest does not consider preserving Romania’s rural tradition as a treasure of humankind, you may say good-bye to the Romanian specificity within the European Union”
After having travelled to Maramureş once, many foreigners’ lives change unawares. They become “addicted” to the villages of Hoteni, Bogdan Vodă, Breb or Vadu Izei. Nothing is the same as before. Much more sensitive than the Romanians when faced with values that they themselves have lost forever at home, these foreigners believe that they have found “the meaning of the universe” on the Iza or the Vişeu rivers. While the Japanese, with their kamikaze spirit, buy themselves graves in the Cemetery of Săpânţa, the Americans, the French or the English go out of their way to buy “signs of life” or not miss celebrations that take place throughout the year, such as weddings, nedei [traditional festivities], and Sunday dances. More than once, due to their direct impact, traditional dances have resumed in some villages, traditional dress and customs have been preserved, old wooden houses (otherwise threatened by bad-taste, through the offensive tide of the little gypsum pillars and coloured ceramics) have been left standing. Without any exaggeration, if Maramureş is still the dreamland of a strong traditional lifestyle, this is partly due to the foreigners who love this unique area. Almost every Maramureş family is linked, by invisible threads, to one or more families abroad. When someone is born, gets married or dies in Maramureş, no one could care less in Bucharest, Timişoara or Constanţa. But they are sure to care in Paris, London or Washington. In a way, what happens in Maramureş today will happen tomorrow to the entire Romania, when it gets to be really discovered by Westerners. At least this is what a British poet and his wife, Peter and Beryl Riley, from Cambridge, believe.
“We cannot conceive spending our holidays outside Maramureş any more”
– How has a remarkable English poet as yourself come to spend his holidays in Romania, particularly in Maramureş?
– To us, 1993 may be considered as the year of our discovery of the Romanian music, and 1998, the year of our first visit to this country. We were in a pub one evening, in Cambridge, when strange sounds of celestial beauty resounded next to us. We immediately inquired about the magicians who were interpreting those unheard-of tunes. “Romanians from Soporu de Câmpie”, said the bartender. It was an evening unlike any others we had had. As a pianist who had benefited from musical education since childhood, I realised that those “Soporenians” of all ages, dressed in stunning costumes, were producing the most interesting kind of music in Europe. Something that does not resemble anything we know, but which at the same time is somehow representative for the entire human race. Sadly we had to wait for five years before we were able to travel to Cluj, and from there, to Soporu de Câmpie. Ever since then, year after year, we have been visiting folk regions; but with the exception of Soporu, our favourite place is Popicu’s miraculous couryard, in Hoteni. I do not hesitate to say that I have become “addicted” to this area; we cannot conceive spending our holidays outside Maramureş any more. August 15 is the season’s opening for village dances, which take place in renovated kiosks, a crucial idea for revitalising tradition.
– Do you think that we have anything left to revitalise, or is it that Romania, too, finds itself longing for its lost traditions, which have been swallowed up by the Western ersatz?
– There are “islands” which still have a powerful folklore life, such as in Maramureş, Cluj, Banat, Bukovina, etc., but also in regions – especially in the south – where everything seems to be lost. Television channels should play an important role in promoting these treasures. Most Romanian television channels are broadcast by satellite and can be received anywhere in the world. I cannot understand why they do not broadcast live or recorded folk shows. Their non-Romanian audience would rise spectacularly and they would have nothing but gaining out of it. For example, in Cambridge, if we were to find a Romanian television channel presenting daily folk programmes – but programmes in good-taste, hosting authentic peasants, not operetta-type “shows” – we would find it easier to deal with the fact that we miss these things, we would take better to our separation from the wondrous Romanian realm. We have been among the fortunate ones who have taken part in weddings, baptisms, nedei, funerals, and religious festivities in various parts of Romania. These are spectacles which are unique in the world, which any English, French, American or German would be interested in seeing at least on a screen, if not on site. Maybe you Romanians, being used to them, do not realise how much they are valuable in our eyes – the eyes of people who have lost, as in the aftermath of a cataclysm, all the traditions that marked our identity. The West of Europe is sad in its quest for modernism and this is the reason why you should come to us and alleviate the pain arising from the major losses we have experienced over the past 50 to 60 years. But you should come with your things as they are, old and “primitive”, and not mimetically show us everything we see anyway on our screens and in our shop windows. We are reaching out to you desperately and we beg you to be careful and not lose what has land-marked you since times immemorial. You do not have the right to ignore the call of conscious people in Europe, who see Romania as a dreamland of natural beauty and traditions that are still well preserved in places.
– You say “in places”, which means that, overall, we are facing an imminent danger in the future…
– Indeed, the equation does include the urban culture in Romania, which is different from the rural one. I have occasionally noticed a certain animosity between villages and cities. Many city dwellers look at us almost compassionately: “You go to the countryside? To see what? There is nothing to see there”. If, initially, we came here for the country’s music, today we are interested in more than that. We have learnt a little bit of the language, too, we have understood how a post-communist society works. In England, the recent history is completely uninteresting; to find something spectacular, one has to go back several decades, or even centuries. Which is why, to us, it is easy to romance what we see here, maybe partly because we do not understand everything and we float over it all a little. Yet what is certain is that what is visible from the outside is beautiful, attractive, exciting. We see something that appears to be working well, even if people do not really agree with us and they complain all the time – probably rightfully so – of the inefficiency of the government. But Popicu from Hoteni and his folks, for example, fare well; they play their old instruments like gods; they travel, they are proud of their music, dances, and dress. They hold the balance right between genuine art and the need to get foreigners to join in the ancient dances and customs. They make no concession to commercial aspects or serial production; not even when it comes to the architecture of their houses. Such peasantry members should be encouraged by the government and through European programmes, as this is about preserving a common heritage, without which Europe above all would be poorer.
“We don’t want to live in a place where cows, chickens, and sheep have been replaced by plaster dwarves”
– I assume you have noticed the changes that take place, especially in villages, when travelling through the country. How do you see the situation in the mountain villages – a traditionalist area by excellence?
– Yes, indeed, in the mountains, one finds more imprints of tradition. There are still many old wooden houses around, dowry cases, loom-woven carpets, and rooms decorated like a hundred years ago. On Sundays, old people go to church in their traditional attire and the youth get together for the village dance, not only for the disco. To us, sophisticated British people come from a famous university centre, all of this is heaven. We live ecstatic moments, sometimes we cry with emotion. Unfortunately, even up there in the mountains, after you encounter a world which you thought was lost forever, some building here and there pops up, standing out by its unnatural size, made of concrete and finished with metal window framing, which reads “Pensiune” on its façade. And to make the intrusion perfect, the owners will play house, rap, disco or manele music. When you see and hear something like that, you feel revolted, because these people do not understand how important it is to offer tourists what is yours and not what is borrowed. Any authentic peasant house could be a “pensiune”. The important thing is to provide it with bathroom and kitchen. The country should have clear regulations regarding the buildings destined for tourists in villages and developers should observe local specificity and traditional sizes and materials. Wood is sacrosanct; lime and rough “boulder-like” rendering and shingled roofs can create the rustic atmosphere that foreigners look for. We do not want to live in a place where dogs, cows, chickens, horses, and sheep have been taken out of the landscape and replaced with plaster dwarves. Let others go and sleep in such cemeteries. We like peasant households full of life, with simple and hospitable people, rooms smelling of basil, linen bed sheets, and hay-stuffed pillows. We don’t want onion and water melons imported from Turkey, which are sold along the side of the motorway between Bucharest and Ploieşti; we want to pluck garlic and carrots with our own hands from the host’s garden, and pick apples and apricots straight from the tree behind the barn. You do not find anything like that in England. Over there, fruit grow in orchards, vegetables grow in greenhouses, and livestock is raised in production complexes. The farmer who rears cows buys milk, just as the one rearing chickens buys eggs from the supermarket.
– Traditionalists are worried by the wave of tourists possibly leading to the destruction of the specificity of Romanian villages, by turning them into mere “stop-over places”. Should one be worried about such things?
– If one allows for the proliferation of “pensiuni” built as each deems best, yes. You would end up with a situation that would be similar to the one in France. Mountain villages in France have turned into an agglomeration of boutiques, where one buys souvenirs, wine, and food. Each house is a shop. As countryside holiday houses multiply against a background of massive depopulation and loss of rural traditional crafts, one can get to an absurd situation, which is again often found in France: villages have turned into dead universes, where no one lives on a daily basis any more. The status of being a peasant gets to be a job like any other: you put on your frock and straw hat in the morning and take them off in the evening, when you get into your Megane and return to your city home. Such is the situation in England, where most villages are nothing more than bedrooms for city people. During daytime, these villages are dead. Is this what you want here? Be careful, your houses are incredibly cheap for Westerners; before long, they will start buying them in bulk, changing them into holiday houses. The scenario is simple. Real estate purchasing in Romania, at ridiculously low prices, has already started. At least this is what we read in the British newspapers. If prices were to rise – and they certainly will –, young Romanians will not be able to buy anything in the countryside. They will move to the city, into flats, thus contributing to the depopulation of villages – hence to their death, just as it happened in our country five decades ago.
– What do you think should be done?
– As foreigners, we cannot afford to tell you what to do. However, we believe that the solution of modernisation – which is inevitable – must allow for the preservation of the specificity in each region that has strong traditions. In a splendid old wooden house, carefully renovated and equipped with all the sanitary and electrical facilities, one can very well work on the computer, surf the internet, and watch satellite TV. But at the back of the house one would have the stable, the vegetable garden, the fruit trees, the vineyard, the raspberry or gooseberry shrubs. To lose all that would be a great shame. If the Romanian government does not think about preserving the country’s rural tradition in terms of it being a treasure of humankind, then, in 20 to 30 years’ time, you may say good-bye to the Romanian specificity within the European Union.
– But how will the Romanians find the energy and wisdom to preserve their identity, under the overcoming wave of globalisation?
– Get them to look more carefully at their own country, visit it more often, see how beautiful it is.
Interview by Ion Longin Popescu
Formula AS magazine
Year XIII, No. 581, September 2003