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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Village Life in Romania

Written by Jennifer Smith
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It’s late November and mornings are cold in Transylvania. The heat of last night’s wood fire has faded, and though the sun glints off fresh snow on the mountaintops it hasn’t yet reached the floor of the valley. I pull on a wool hat, force myself out of bed and dash across the courtyard and into the farmhouse kitchen.  A wood fire hums in the tiled oven and the radio plays traditional Romanian, all dulcimers and violins.  My host, Eugen, steps in from the cowshed with a pail of fresh milk and sets it on the stove to warm. More family members join us with a greeting and soon I’m warming my hands on a cup of thick Turkish-style coffee.

My visit to tiny Sinca Noua was arranged through Village Life, a Bucharest-based NGO.  Run by Alexandra Vasiliu, a Romanian with a Canadian connection, Village Life helps rural communities develop sustainably through an approach called community-based tourism.  


At a celebration in the village of Poeinita, her back to the heat of a soba (a tiled wood-fired furnace), Alexandra toasts the community partners who first took Village Life from idea to reality years ago. 


She explains how Village Life helps rural communities design their own projects and access a tourist market that would be otherwise beyond their reach. The goal is truly participatory economic development; the vehicle is a home stay that offers an authentic experience for visitors, a supplementary source of income for families, and a validation of the pride they take in their heritage, lifestyle and living traditions. It’s an exchange where each participant gains.   


If Village Life is about sharing, it makes perfect sense that the kitchen was the heart of my experience.  It’s where my hosts proudly held forth about the active folk traditions of their village, like the fire wheel ritual that marks the beginning of Orthodox lent. It’s where we fought the first chill of winter with polenta and melted cheese, plum brandy, and ciorba de pui (chicken soup) with hot pickled peppers – all a casa and wonderfully fresh.


Romania is becoming a more popular destination for good reason. It has cultured cities and impressive castles, monasteries and museums. But a stay with Village Life means access to a more quietly poignant set of sights: an ancient wooden church surrounded by sheep and weathered grave markers; a 200-year-old farmhouse hand-painted with intricate motifs; a working forest monastery steeped in contemplation; a silent valley of abandoned farms. 


Perhaps more meaningfully, Village Life sparks a connection between visitors and hosts.   Harvest – when the villages buzz with activity – had passed when I arrived, but I joined my hosts in feeding animals, visiting neighbors and craftspeople and even celebrating a birthday in the vine-canopied courtyard.   If you already speak French, Spanish or Italian, a few days of self-study will have you stumbling through simple Romanian niceties and verbs, easing travel logistics and allowing you to connect with the people you meet. My village hosts were the perfect teachers, patiently helping me practice new words as we sat by the kitchen stove shelling dried beans or cracking walnuts. As I came to understand more, they progressed to sharing their own experiences with the rapid pace of change in Romania since the fall of communism. 


After leaving Sinca Noua I traveled west to visit another Village Life project in the village of Poeinita. My final morning I climbed aboard a horse cart and bumped over frozen, rutted roads. A local teenager appeared and appointed himself my guide and translator as we explored crumbling, vacant summer houses in a valley full of plum, apple and cherry orchards. As the day grew warmer we sat on low stools in the sunny farmyard to drink tea sweetened with acacia honey. The orchards were bare but the honey held all the warmth and fragrance of summer. 



©Jennifer Smith