Well, now. How to best describe my weekend in the mountains...
Arriving back at the homestead, preparations for the barbecue were now well under way. The barbecue was not built along the lines we are used to seeing at home. None of your B&Q £5.99 specials in an overgrown metal dish, or cut from an oil drum with a flimsy grill, or built from bricks left over from a loft conversion... This was a creation hewn from the living rock, standing nearly six foot high and easily eight foot wide and four foot deep and with THREE separate functions! The barbecue grill itself measured about a metre square and was filled not with grubby bits of charcoal, but with demi-logs... not twigs, or kindling, or sticks, but great brutish bits of wood chopped with an axe measuring about 18" to 2' long and about 8" thick, wearing a mantle of pine leaves and pine cones. To be fair, the pine leaves and pine cones were a bit of overkill and people were seen diving for cover once they ignited and started spitting and flaming and ricocheting around the place. However, once the aerial bombardment was over, the logs settled down to burn fiercely and quickly into a lovely scented pile of embers on which to begin cooking.
To the right of the grill and slightly raised above it stood a warming oven, into which the plates of cooked meat could be placed to keep them sheltered from the cool night air and, placed between the barbecue and the spit, they were kept nice and succulent long after their British counterparts would have been cold, congealed and uninteresting. The spit? Ah, yes, the spit. This was no little metal rod stuck across the top of the grill, taking only two breasts of chicken at best; This was a Spit, the like of which we haven't seen in a British kitchen since Elizabethan times. A huge cast iron spit large enough to take a complete lamb, an entire boar, or a side of venison. To the left of the entire edifice, for such it was, was the hearth, apparatus and hook for the hanging pot. Standing about four foot high and capable of taking a pot the size of a small bath, one could only imagine the delicious smells that could emanate from this side of the barbecue as fresh tomatoes, garlic, spices, wine and chunks of beef began to infuse and meld their flavours into a rich stew...
As for 'helping' either with food preparation or anything else – that was definitely NOT on the agenda. Romanian hospitality is boundless and our hosts wanted to make sure that the foreign visitors received the Platinum variety. Palinka was dispensed like water, home made wine was decanted with amazing regularity into glasses and, for those so inclined, the beer flowed like the adjacent mountain stream.
Having already sampled the potency of the Palinka, I was being slightly more circumspect that some of the others. By the time the appetisers were carried out of the homestead, borne like victors' laurels above heads, a feeling of warmth, comradeship and international détente had already consumed those outside.
Appetisers consisted of a variety of local cheeses, bread, shallots, and bacon. Not back bacon or streaky bacon mind, but a rind of bacon. The trick here, I learned, was to cut cubes from the rind, skewer them on one of the available skewers and place it and a slice of bread on the barbecue grill such that the bottom of the bread became toasted and the fat from the bacon dripped off and into the bread below. When sufficiently infused with bacon fat, the lump of semi-grilled fat was then popped into a waiting mouth and the toasted, bacon fat saturated toast was eaten with a cube of cheese and a shallot. The hard outer rind of the fat was then tossed, casually, in the direction of the waiting Alsatian guard dog.
As alcohol went down, warming the blood against the descending temperature, the barbecue hotted up to the correct heat and local sausages, red and spicy, were thrown on to suffer their fate, followed by a small population of chicken neatly quartered into their component parts.
A seemingly limitless supply of meat of all shapes and sizes made its ceaseless way from the homestead kitchen to the barbecue as the alcohol went down, the conversation level went up and then, the lights went out!! Faces, caught mid-mouthful or mid-sentence were illuminated only by the infernal red glow from the barbecue.
Nothing daunted, someone quickly leapt into a car, turning both the headlights and the stereo on full blast. Once again, we had light and our music was an upbeat Romanian song which soon had feet tapping and bodies bouncing. I realised, with little surprise, that the provider of this full bodied music was my trusty little Dacia... No wonder the boot had appeared so small! It wasn't small at all! Just that half its depth had been taken up with a sound system that would have done justice to Robbie Williams at Knebworth.
For a second, my British suburban tendencies flooded to the surface and I guiltily looked around, expecting to see irate neighbours waving fists from windows, or the imminent arrival of the police with a firm but polite request to 'keep the noise down'. I soon realised that the only things likely to be disturbed in this remote outpost were the wolves, the bears and the mountains, off which the music was echoing hauntingly. Putting suburbia back into my sub-conscious, I threw my head back and stared at the sky. Dark blue and velvety, studded with stars of a brightness that only a privileged few can witness in today's electric age, I saw The Plough and Orion, Polaris and Leo and a host of other stars, and constellations, whose names are now only a dim memory or a dim view through city lighting and pollution. And thus, I stood, transfixed for a long time while around me people danced and laughed, the barbecue gave off it warmth to add to that generated by good will, and the stars and the mountains looked down on us benevolently and timelessly.
While all the young Romanians were enjoying themselves and celebrating their temporary release from parents, homes, city and cares, another change was being wrought in my Australian colleague. True, he had been imbibing of the hospitality like any good guest should, but I suddenly noticed how quiet and withdrawn he was in comparison to the rest of the crowd. Standing a little aside and in the shadow, he had a look of such sorrow on his face that I wondered what disaster could have befallen him in the midst of such gaiety.
I moved over and suggested we take a walk.
'Can’t Sal... I'm too p***ed'
was the laconic reply.
'Course you can'
'I thought Aussies could do anything! Especially when they are under the influence!.'
We ambled away down the drive, him leaning heavily on my shoulder, carefully putting one foot in front of the other. Suddenly, his head went back and he stared at the same stars I had been looking at only moments before.
'Beautiful, aren't they?'
'They're not the same as we have at home.'
was his reply
I don't recognise them.'
This last sentence was too much for him. As he again said in anguished tones
'I don't recognise them!'
I realised he wasn't talking about the stars as I was.
'What don't you recognise?'
I asked him gently.
'Them, these people... They're not the same as we have at home. They die – they don't see. It doesn't mean anything. They are hard and brusque and rude and they're not the same.'
Suddenly, it all came tumbling out. The pent up frustrations and anguish and loneliness of an Australian far from his family and friends. A couple of weeks ago, it transpired, on his way to lunch with other Romanian colleagues, their minibus had passed a man lying by the side of the road who had obviously only seconds before been hit by a truck and was now, most patently dead. The small crowd gathered by the corpse were not, apparently, affected distressed or otherwise by the demise of someone in their midst. One observation made as the minibus went past was that the man's feet were bound with rags... he was obviously a gypsy. Brendan, for that is the young Australian's name, had met the open dead eyes of this poor unfortunate and found the apparent indifference of the Romanians, coupled with their ability only moments later to have lunch, laughing and joking as if without a care in the world, rather alien. We have had three people on this film who have had close family or friends die (two of them tragically young in a road accident). The Romanian attitude, to Brendan's eyes, is 'they're dead, life goes on' – a concept which he finds hard to bear. He has also missed his 16 year old daughter's birthday being out here, plus that of her Mother and it is his Birthday on 30th March. Instead of sharing these milestones with his loved ones, he is almost as far away from home as it is possible to get without coming back on yourself and his sense of isolation is tangible.
He finds the grim, unremitting greyness of the buildings in Bucharest and the poverty manifest in the villages through which we pass on our way to work, hard to comprehend. He is an artist and an Australian and is used to a life emboldened by colours. The monochromatic drabness of everyday life in Romania has affected his soul. He wants to share these feelings with his family, but is scared by the intensity of his emotions and wonders how much they will understand. He thinks they will comprehend nothing at all because they have not seen it or experienced it for themselves. He is scared to communicate his feelings to them in case they start to worry about him.
For us Europeans, the sense of isolation we feel at being in a strange land and surrounded by a strange tongue, is not so pronounced. We are, after all, only about three hours away from home and hearth. He is over a day away. Most European countries have seen the aftermath of war and the affect this can have on a people and a nation. We have also witnessed years of pollution discolouring our buildings until they are merely an extension of a grey sky or a grey pavement. Not so this man of Australia, brought up under blue skies and empty spaces and full of colour. A telling comment from him –
'I shall never again think of places in Australia as "desolate". Empty, yes. Desolate, never...'
We chatted; I tried to explain to him the legacy of a communist regime and how people must have had to deal with death and sudden disappearances; how one cannot just shrug off the past and that it sometimes takes more than half a generation to alter people's beliefs and perceptions; how, sometimes, it'll never happen; how corruption and poverty cannot just be washed away with a shower of rain, leaving roads smooth, buildings clean and people well dressed and prosperous... but I'm not sure he believed me.
The barbecue was beginning to wane; the chill mountain air was even getting to our hardy Romanian friends; we decided to call it a night. The children were getting tired and fractious, the food had gone and the effort of keeping such jollity going when everyone was in hats, gloves and thick jackets was proving a tad tiresome. It was time for the 'singles' to retire to our little bunk beds in our little mountain hostelry. For surely, the sun would shine again tomorrow... heads might ache, eyes might squint with the pain of hangover, but there was no better cocktail than the champagne of the mountain air and we were going to do it all over again... Later in the morning!!!