The Road to a Stone House

/ September 2, 2016
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To reach La Origini in the village of Tecsesti, located in the Apuseni Mountains of Alba County, you need to take a right at the house with carved eagles on the gate. Then a rutted forest road opens up and you can drive for as long as fate will allow. We drove for a few kilometers and then chose to walk the rest. Actually, our car’s limited ground clearance made the decision for us.

We walked for forty minutes before encountering our first human. He told us we had another two hours of walking to Tecsesti, if we were brisk.

A white, linen handkerchief on the muddy road.

After another ninety minutes we come upon an ancient, white Dacia 1300 parked in a bend. We said to each other, “This is it, we’ve reached civilization!”

From the Dacia of Hope it was another twenty minutes until we reached the first house.

The first house was locked up. The second was deserted. The third, surrounded by a tall fence, didn’t respond to our friendly, inquisitive hollering. We kept walking into a brutal wind as the road thinned out on the side of a cliff. Not a soul in sight. It’s a feeling that can feed the fear of abandonment, especially for those of us accustomed to the big city and technology.

We finally saw a human-looking silhouette on a hilltop. We wiggled through a crack in the fence and climbed the hill. The wind swooshed in grave accords.

Apparently they DO leave a car on the road like that.

We closed in on the summit as two giant shepherd dogs and a small pup approached. They were straight out of a children’s book with their pretzel tails. The pup barked the loudest.

Three hours into our countryside stroll, we crested the top of the hill and ran into an old granny and asked, “Is this Tecsesti?”

“No, dear, this is Raicani. Tecsesti is farther down,” she gestured wildly towards a massive boulder, “past the rock. But what do you want to do there? Come by our place…”

So we went with her.

If there’s an angel that keeps an eye over journalists in search of a scoop, we’d have to thank him for guiding us to the most beautiful of stories, as simple as it is.

Ion and Elisabeta Tacsa (photo) were born in the same village. They’ve known each other since childhood. After 58 years of marriage they still live in her parents’ ancestral home and make do on a pension of 130 euros a month.

Elisabeta is in her 74th year of life and Ion is ten years her senior. That’s how people married in the old days. The bride was a girl who already knew her way around the house and the groom was someone who could make ends meet.

They never owned a TV and the news rarely travels this far. I asked them if they knew who was President, and Elisabeta replied with another question. “A man by the name of… Janus?”

Prime Ministers aren’t even worth mentioning. “They always change, I can’t remember ‘em.”

Elisabeta and Ion are part of a Romania we hardly think about and rarely reach. It’s as if the people of Raicani wanted to be history-proof.

No one has ever visited from the Mayor’s office. Their pension is delivered by their nephew, who travels from another village.

Ion and Elisabeta Tacsa

“We have a postman, but she’s a woman, and the poor thing can’t make it up here.”

Elisabeta is well guarded by two white shepherd dogs with little strings tied into knots for collars. Who, as all country dogs, “won’t hurt you.” When she heard how loudly they were barking on our approach she thought we might be wolves. She came out and saved us.

Ion and Elisabeta have seven other families as neighbors, spread around the nearby hills where wild boars eat apples and plums during the summertime. During winter, a great freeze blocks any access to the city for months.

Using two walking sticks, Elisabeta shows us tracks in the muddy road.

“Look, you know what these are? Wild boars. They passed through last night, maybe even today.”

Boars don’t bother people during winter, but when summer comes around they wreak havoc.

“They come for fruit at night, eat the ripe ones on the ground, climb the trees, and steal everything they can reach with their hooves,” the woman tells us.

Elisabeta married early. At 16 she was mother to a girl, and three years later, a boy.

In his youth, her husband worked at the train station in Cugir. The 600 lei pension, on which they manage month after month is in his name.

Money’s split between the electricity bill – the only public utility that reaches this place – flour for bread, and whatever’s needed around the house: oil, sugar, rice, semolina.

“What about medication?” we ask.

“Meds are expensive. We’re lucky that we don’t buy ‘em,” Elisabeta responds ironically. They don’t take any medication at all. Not a single pill. I had a cough for two weeks last winter. My daughter bought me meds – I can show you, I put them in the closet, I didn’t take ‘em,” she adds.

While she tells us all of this, she fiddles inside a winter kitchen, small and warm. On the windowsill, there’s an alarm clock, prayer books and salt. There are clean sheets hung out to dry in the yard. You can hear the wind and a particularly boisterous cockerel.

Their two children produced nine grandchildren. They’re spread out all over the world and have in turn begotten… she doesn’t recall how many great- grandkids. They come to visit during the summer.

“They bring the young ones,” Ion says. His palms are as wide as shovels as he wipes his brow with them. He’s funny and likable. She says it’s because he’s had an easy job – not like the young people today who leave their country.

“What kind of life is it, when you can’t find a job in your own country?”

With very little socializing to do, the couple focus on housework: laying out the hay, caring for the orchard and gardening during summer. They have potatoes, carrots, onions and lettuce patches. Wheat and corn aren’t worth it now that the people have left and boars roam free.

The Tacsas also have two bulls, a few cows, and a chicken coop. The pig passed away around Christmas, in a very traditional manner.

Elisabeta also reveals the secret to a lasting marriage: no cursing between man and woman. Of course they can argue, like all families do, but no cursing. Winter’s calmer. Ion gets out of bed at 5 AM and feeds the animals. He comes back inside and reads the Bible or sleeps.

“What do you do for fun?”

“Ha, fun! It’s not something we look for anymore. Back when we were young, we’d go dancing in Tecsesti… scraped by all the branches in the forest on our rush to the party….” Both their eyes are smiling, gazing once again upon their youth.

“Now kids, I should really give you something to eat. Come, I think it’s only right, I rarely have guests.” She dives into the pantry and comes out with an apron full of fresh eggs.

Plates dress the table. They’re made of cream porcelain, the kind I’ve only seen in my grandparents’ house on the mountainside. She also brings out cutlery with bone and wood handles.

Before we eat, our host gives thanks and says the Lord’s Prayer.

If you’re into a healthy lifestyle and think the organic, free-range eggs in the city are the real thing – then come to Elisabeta’s in Raicani.

She explains things while we gobble the eggs sunny- side-up along with home-baked bread. “Out here, hens eat everything; worms, beetles, even the grass is good. Fat, meat, and vitamins, that’s how a good egg is made, from carnivorous hens.”

Only eight homesteads are still occupied in Raicani. Neighbors see each other at Sunday mass, or when they need to borrow a bit of sugar, cooking oil, or whatever’s missing before the next trip down the hill.

As for death, it’s in God’s hands – who is more present in the life of the villagers than any celebrity.