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!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

village tradition and solidarity

Last Saturday I found myself, as an agnostic, in an initially embarrassing situation – being invited (as I thought) to lunch at a village neighbour’s house and landing at a religious ceremony marking 6 months since the death of a grandparent. The penny (and my heart) dropped as I approached the house and saw the older village women in black dresses and headscarves sitting in a row at table. Fortunately the men were in more informal attire - and one of the grand-daughters even in a long, colourful and sexy skirt. And, when the young priest realised who I was, he was very friendly and understanding. Even so, I found the half-hour chanting and reading difficult – particularly when people crossed themselves (something which causes my Protestant and agnostic hands to freeze whenever I attempt an anthropological pretence). And I beat a fast retreat from the room when a couple of women dropped on their knees under the priest’s embroidered scarf right in front of me - and started kissing it.
In between times, however, I was appreciating the way members of the Orthodox Church do celebrate the dead with these rituals at intermittent dates from the death. I’ve mentioned before how bad we Brits are at this. The scale, however, of the subsequent food and drink was a bit excessive – and hardly conducive to proper commemoration (no toasts). Ditto the differentiation between the men and the women – the latter not only sitting separately but also acting as the servants while the men got loud.

The main subject of their conversation at table was the local elections taking place the next day – the last week or so has been highly amusing with long-overdue road repairs being undertaken all over the place including the potholed track (more like a dried-out river bed) which connects our village to the main road.  Here perhaps is a measure of elite attitudes in different countries – the political class everywhere engages in such vote-buying but here they seem to assume that people’s memories are so short that they have to carry out such public works in the days (not months) before the election itself?

One of the important themes in Geert Mak’s biography of a village (see yesterday’s post) is the encroachment of the outside world on tradition and solidarity – initially through roads; then labour-saving devices; money replacing mutuality; then television; european legal requirements for livestock; and, finally, urbanites buying and/or building houses in the village. Other books also cover this theme - eg Blacker's Along the Enchanted Way (Transylvania); Alastair McIntosh's Soil and Soul; and Robin Jenkins' Road to Alto - an account of peasants, capitalists and the soil in the mountains of souther portugal (1979)Alto in Portugal was a self-sufficient economy, with a stable, sustainable agricultural pattern practiced for centuries. There were no major disparities, and people helped each other during the occasional drought. The community didn’t need many external inputs. This utopia could have gone on forever, but for the coming of a six-kilometre tarred road. The farmers moved to cash crops and the cash economy; soon, the village was not producing enough food for itself and became dependent on external seeds, fertilisers, finance. The middlemen gained the most from this conversion.
The old socio-economic structure, where everyone had their place and nothing much ever changed, no longer exists. In its place there is a system in which any land becomes increasingly seen as a potential source of profit. The old stability and predictability has gone forever, to be replaced by the competitiveness and the mentality of a gold rush. All because of six kilometres of tarred road
The pace of change has been slower in this village where I stay; few outsiders like me - although my old neighbour pointed out yesterday (as we were returning with 4 hens he had bought in a nearby town of Rasnov) a house which a Frenchman is apparently restoring. 
And the photo which heads this post is of the embellished track at the bottom of my garden which now allows me to take my car there. 
My acceptance in the village is helped, I’m sure, by my friendship with old Viciu; and by the fact that I live without ostentation (having kept the traditional features of the house – and driving a 15 year-old locally-produced car!!) But you have to get used to a lot of questions – about where you are going; what you are doing; how much things cost you – and comments about your sneezing and nocturnal movements! That’s why I laughed out loud at certain sections of Mak's book which cover these exactly similar features – “people usually proffered  unasked explanations for any action that was out of the ordinary, for anything that could appear not quite normal. You explained why you were walking round behind your neighbour’s meadow – “it’s more out of the wind there”     

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