When the Light Doesn’t …

Published in my favorite hipster rag – – Decat o Revista

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To call it a hamlet may be a stretch.  English might not have a word small enough for the handful of homes and house of worship that define the village.  The road it anchors is dirt and hard to navigate by car – – easier if one has a horse cart or tractor. On the one unnamed street there stands one proud streetlight.

Each night the one full-time citizen, let’s call him Janos, goes out as the light fails and turns on the one light.  After a while, when he feels like it, he goes back out and turns off the light.  Every night.

Janos doesn’t do this because he is paid to.  He doesn’t do it because he thinks he is the only one to be trusted with the responsibility. He does it because he’s the only one. And the act gives him a sense of purpose.  Providing a point of life as the darkness rolls in.

When the daylight returns it paints an idyllic scene.  Sunlight illuminates red-tile roofs and a short, squat church tower nestled amongst ancient orchards and darkly forested slopes.  The name means ‘Abraham’s Village.’  Like its’ namesake, the village is in some ways prophetic.  It shares a story of what is to come for many of those wandering on the rural fringes of Eastern European modernity, or as it has recently been dubbed in political circles, ‘New Europe.’

You can see the village as you approach up the valley from Odorhei.  Odorhei is geographically smack in the center of Romania and the local big city while simultaneously being a small town of 37,000-ish.  Odorhei is itself kind of in the middle of nowhere (but don’t bring that up when you are there), placing the hamlet at the end of a road – – just outside the middle of nowhere.

There are other villages between the village and Odorhei.  The asphalt goddess already blessed some of those during a recent campaign cycle. Those villages have a future. Those villages are coming back to life.  A short commute into Odorhei and cheaper housing make them the place to start a family.  Rather than buying a flat in town, young couples commute.  With them comes a renaissance.  Schools and shops reopen.

Asphalt doesn’t do much for farming though.  As farmers get old and die, a way of life goes with them.  The smoke from spring burning which has shaped this landscape for a thousand years into incredibly bio-diverse high meadows is less dense every season.  Invasive and scrub species creep down the hillsides and choke out the wildflowers that paint the landscape from snow melt until well after the first frosts.  The few young farmers there are, receive encouragement and rewards for low impact farming and no-burning because Brussels doesn’t like carbon, loves biodiversity and doesn’t see the hypocrisy.

Janos is like many who remain.  Farms a bit.  Makes a potent palinka (twice-distilled fruit brandy that I have seen used to light fires and remove paint).  Gives a strong, gaping handshake (missing a few digits is just good form in places with lots of lumber).  He’s about 60 though it is hard to tell.  Has a few dry jokes on hand, refers in oblique and vaguely sunny ways to communism, and doesn’t believe you know how to do anything particularly useful, stepping in to gruffly show you he does.  Janos is around on the weekend when a couple folks stop by because they are lost, or their friends are barbequing, or to open the church for some great-grandchild who has come back to visit and wonder how that many people could have both been from the village and died during the great wars.  The church is a simple Unitarian white and blue, crisp and dusty.  It incongruously glows like a new bride in fresh plaster (Janos does that bit of spiritual maintenance cum meditation himself).  The priest doesn’t come by anymore and if anyone wants to hear the good word they have to go into the next village where he stops by once a month.  The doctor stops there sometimes too.

Janos isn’t much concerned about diminishing things.  He has kids in Hungary and the UK who help him with the occasional remittance.  Between that and the garden he gets by.  There is a little pension from when he worked as a driver for the State forest service but it couldn’t keep him fed.  He feels lucky to have that much and mentions how recently there has been a spate of guys his age, people he knew from childhood, hanging themselves in the woods.  They didn’t know how to cope and didn’t want to be a burden.  Without them, and with his wife long-gone, he get’s lonely sometimes.  Especially in the winter.  But there is always something to fix.  And if not, he has satellite tv with all sorts of channels.  Did you know one of the Hungarian X Factor contestants is from this area?  Admittedly not much of a singer but if he could vote for her he would.

Here in the village and the neighborhood, children are not the future.  They are leaving or have left for the town, cities and West.  Sometimes a clever farmer, like that eco-guy over the hill, will buy up land with EU subsidies and take a shot at being landed gentry.   That guy is clever and gets a lot of grants.  He plays with words like organic, which Janos thinks is funny since no one he knows has ever been able to afford chemical pesticides or fertilizer.  There is an NGO taking a shot at the ‘rural economy,’ too.  It sets up canneries so villages with a few more folks can preserve their orchard’s riches and sell what they couldn’t possibly eat themselves.  But still age creeps on the villages.  One veterinarian asks about job opportunities because his salary is tied to the number of cows, which has fallen 70% in the last 2 years as folks get too old to keep milking.  No one is blamed.  It’s a hard life for not much money.

And so what?  Janos gets by and may for a good few years yet.  He is happy enough.  Some of those NGO types worry about the decline in biodiversity.   Some worry about the loss of culture and identity.  Some worry about how Roma, sometimes, take over empty villages.  Some worry about Janos and hope to ease his passing.  They propose rural tourism and jam.  Occasionally a more creative combination of the two.  Rural tourism in which people make jam.  More creative types suggest the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach – why not make a retirement community?  Buy a whole village like it, fix up the houses, bring out a doctor and keep up the gardens to feed everyone.  It just might work.  A village for the dying would arguably be more alive than a ghost town.

In some of the bigger villages there are traffic jams as cows clop home along the newly lain asphalt each night, lowing softly as they split off to their respective gates.  As the sun sets in these larger villages, children run around doing children things in orchards that keep blooming.  Some have set up an elaborate fort in a barn where they defend against the invading Turks and Tatars.  They go inside to eat a mix of food from the garden and from the hypermarket and the gloom deepens.  The lights from the big town down the valley slow the unveiling of the night sky as just over the hill, Janos turns on the light.

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