what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rural life in the early part of the century

One of my great fortunes in life is to have a mountain house which had stood empty for more than a decade when we first clapped eyes on it in summer 2000 and bought on a whim (and for a song). It needed a lot of work – it had no running water, electricity or insulation.
Indeed it was little more than a shell – its lower (stone) level hewn into the hillside having served as a shelter for family cows and the maturing of cheese; the wooden floor above as accommodation – kept warm in the winter by the heat of the animals below – and the attic as storage for the hay.   
It is part of a collection of houses which form one of the scattered villages which cling to the mountain valleys which stretch up from Brasov and Campulung and whose stories deserve to be told.

For the next few years, Daniela (living 200 kilometres south in Bucharest) would hitchhike almost every weekend; find the workmen and materials; lug the materials from nearby villages and manage the work of digging (water and sewage), building (bathroom, kitchen and stoves) and insulation. My excuse was that I was a few thousand kilometres further east and therefore managed to take in only a bit of the insulation; the construction of the subsequent central heating; back terrace; and loft conversion……   During that last bit of work we were delighted to find not only beer bottles from the 1930s but carefully-kept accounts of the sales of the cheeses – a real glimpse into village life….
The house may be legally (and emotionally) mine – but it is Daniela’s creation – down to the furniture, bookshelves, arrangement of the paintings and the Rene McIntosh stained glass-like designs…..

Only since summer 2008 have I been able to spend substantial time here (from May through to October) and get a sense of the sorts of lives people lived here in the twentieth century….centred around the church and its frequent saintdays whose piped incantations echo around the valley…..
I am a city boy but have grown to appreciate the superb air and silences here.

One small section of my library is devoted to books which try to give voice to this (dying) way of life – the titles include -
Road to Alto - an account of peasants, capitalists and the soil in the mountains of southern Portugal; Robin Jenkins (1979)
- House by the Shore – twelve years in the Hebrides; Alison Johnson (1986)
- A Wild Herb Soup – the life of a French countrywoman; Emilie Carles (1991)
 - "A Year's Turning"; Michael Viney (1996) about life in a remote Irish location to which they moved in the late 1970s
-  Celestine – voices from a French village; Gillian Tindall (1996)
- "Mourjou - the life and food of an auvergne village"; Peter Graham (1998);
 - Harry Clifton's poetic "On the Spine of Italy - a year in the Abruzzi" (1999)
War in Val D'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944; Iris Ortigo (2000)
-  Love and War in the Pyrenees; a story of courage, fear and hope 1939-1944 – Rosemary Bailey (2008)
 - Notes from Walnut Tree Farm; Roger Deakin (2008)
 - An Island in Time – the biography of a village; Geert Mak (2010)

Recently I have been reading -
- The Stronghold – four seasons in the white mountains of Crete; Xan Fielding (1953)
- Thin Paths – journeys in and around an Italian mountain village; Julia Blackburn (2012)

All of such books make for gripping reading – but the last two I have found particularly powerful – perhaps because I am now spending more time with my 89-year old neighbor who was widowed earlier in the year. For many years in the 50s and 60s he delivered the post in the valleys here – on horseback! He must have some tales to tell!

Blackburn's book has touches of WG Sebald - poetic with small unfocused black and white photos...she befriended the old people in her village and gradually got them to talk about their lives....first time I had heard of the feudal system still prevailing there in the early part of the 20th century with the residents calling themselves "mezzadri" (half people) and being at the beck and call of "il padro"....    

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