Fugad, March 2010
I’ve told Farkas Bánffy I’ll arrive at the end of the afternoon. I take a narrow road southwards. It’s an unfamiliar route. In Transylvania the minor roads are great; they’re so full of potholes that no one who doesn’t need to get to where they lead ever takes them. Chickens and cockerels peck at the verges. Women wearing headscarves, their boots buckled with leather straps, walk along the road on bandy legs. I see gypsies in black leather jackets and flat, fur-trimmed boots. With their lined faces they make me think of Sioux women. ‘They look stunning until the age of fifteen,’ says a friend who visits the gypsies a lot.
Amid the desolation, a gypsy woman is hitching a lift. I stop. She heaves herself with difficulty into the car and smiles at me. She has several teeth missing. With a friendly nod to each other and an exchange of smiles we continue along the road. She points ahead. I understand that she needs to get to the village after next. The road winds onwards. Two villages further on she indicates that I must stop where the houses start. From under her many skirts she produces a few crumpled lei, which she tries to thrust into my hand. I refuse. She removes something from the proffered sum and pushes one lei, one of those untearable notes, into my hand. I nod my gratitude. She gets out. I wave and move off.
The gypsy district, here as almost everywhere, is on the edge of the village, a shanty town built in the mud. The houses are five by five metres with washing lines slung between them. There are no fences in tiganie since there is no property that needs demarcating and no one is worried about cattle or toddlers wandering off. A photographer friend who often takes documentary photographs of gypsies told me that local legends warn about them stealing children. The fear is based on more than mere fable, since under communism the Romanian gypsies would sometimes take surplus children from families unable to care for them. Far from theft, it was a way of helping desperate parents. In Transylvania you sometimes see gypsies with red hair and freckles.
There are more wooden horse-drawn carts than cars, sometimes seven or eight moving in convoy. I drive into a village with a sign next to the road announcing ‘Târgul de animale’, trade in animals, so I stop and walk onto the muddy terrain. This too is Europe. It has a simplicity that cheers the heart. Sacks of potatoes are on sale, sacks of grain, sacks of oats, harnesses, bells for harnesses, sausages, wooden laths, pigs, calves, cows and horses. I don’t think I’ve left anything off the list. There’s a blacksmith shoeing horses. Fat pigs lie in trailers behind them, waiting for a buyer. There are horses everywhere, most of them bags of bones. Horse-trading is in the hands of the gypsies, who no doubt still get the animals drunk to quieten them on the journey, and whiten their teeth with paint to drive up the price.
Out of curiosity I ask a horse dealer for a few of his prices. I give him a notebook and pen so he can write down the numbers, but that doesn’t work. The asking price for a little black horse is tapped into a mobile phone for me. Outrageously high. In the end the blacksmith sells me two bells and two red woollen balls to hang on the harnesses of our carriage horses. A gypsy boy tries to sell me a shiny length of stovepipe he’s wearing as an extension to his arm. I’m quoted nine thousand euro for a skinny horse, probably three or four times the real price, but even so.
Later, back in the car, I ring Anikó Bethlen and ask her what pensioners are paid in Romania. It’s difficult to say, there’s a wide range, she says. Soldiers and judges have good pensions, for example, and often Russian language teachers too, at about 1,500 lei (a little under 400 euro). Any pension above 800 lei (200 euro) is good. Many people get around 1,200 lei, but the peasants in the villages are often living on no more than 400 lei (100 euro) a month. They will be dependent for the rest of their lives on the charity of their families or simply have to keep at it, tending chickens and working the land.
Parallel to the road runs a narrow railway, and from time to time there’s an abandoned station. In Transylvania I’ve trained myself to look at the rails before crossing: if the steel is shiny then the line is still in use. This one has small trees between the rails, indicating that no train has been along for at least ten years. There’s something beautifully melancholic about it, an abandoned railway line, hinting at chances not taken. Given the current price of steel, it amazes me that the rails are still here. Next to a station platform, in a deserted cutting, are several wagons, as if the stationmaster might blow his whistle any moment and the train, cheerfully decorated with weeds and ivy, set off for an unknown destination.
Farkas Bánffy and I have arranged to meet at five in the afternoon at the MOL petrol station in Aiud, which belongs to the Hungarian oil company. A clapped-out Golf stops next to me. There are two young men in it and one of them, wearing a large hat, gets out. That must be Farkas Bánffy. I follow the swerving Golf on a journey along narrow little roads to the village of Fugad. It’s the village of Stefánia Betegh’s childhood, where she and her mother were saved from deportation by the villagers. There’s a country house here that was built by Farkas’ grandfather, who later became minister of agriculture in Hungary and was thrown into jail by both the Germans and the Russians. For a while he earned his living as a coachman.
Farkas (‘wolf’ in Hungarian) does indeed rather resemble a wolf. He’s tall, bony and coarsely shaven. He’s a good singer and dancer and he now lives in a farmhouse close to the empty family seat. He renovated the farmhouse himself – the floors, the water pipes – working on it for four months. It feels comfy, even though you can see at once that it’s occupied by a bachelor. The building is warmed by a tiled stove and from time to time Farkas walks outside to fetch hunks of wood in a homemade crate.
Farkas: ‘The village is a hundred per cent Romanian except for me and my assistant. The villagers are the first generation to live here. The neighbouring village of Magyarlapád is a hundred per cent Hungarian. The locals regard me as a UFO that landed here for incomprehensible reasons. They probably think I’m stinking rich. When I came to live here I wanted to do something for the community, so I started a folk-dancing group in Magyarlapád. I already had a lot of contacts there. People said: “The baron’s son is back!” Everyone in Magyarlapád is eager to help me. My mother asks whether I’m eating enough, but I can’t walk along the village street in Magyarlapád without being invited for a meal. I’ve got twenty-five children at the folk dancing, from around twenty families. I take them to Hungary by bus, to festivals. They’re aged between fourteen and twenty. I tell them: “Listen, I’m pretty easygoing, but no one’s getting back on the bus drunk or pregnant!”’
When I asked Miklós Bánffy, Farkas’ father, whether his son’s talent for dancing came from him, he answered: ‘Oh God no, I can dance the way a stone can swim.’
Farkas: ‘I grew up in Leányvár, a village not far from Budapest. As a child you knew everything about the old days: how many horses each family had, how many people would come to a ball, how my grandmother’s brother pinched food from the kitchen with a fishing rod. My grandparents were always talking about Transylvania. It was where they all came from. Everyone talked about that fairytale.
I ask Farkas why he moved to Transylvania. ‘I love to resolve problems. Did you see the movie Pulp Fiction? When they go to the problem solver and he introduces himself, he says “I’m Mr Wolf, the problem solver.” Well that’s me. A problem solver called Wolf. There were seven of us kids, I’m number five. I was always the naughtiest. I was kicked out of school. Romania is perfect for me. You have to be a bit of a rogue here; if you’re too nice to the Romanians they’ll walk all over you. I knew how much property we had and I knew you could build a life for yourself here. I like it. It’s about my family, my family history. For the first six months I lived in an empty room. That was fine. My mother says: “He could live on an ice floe.”
‘When there were floods this year I helped organize relief. Everything had been washed away: chickens, fences, cars, parts of houses – all taken by the flood. We received aid supplies from the US, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary and Romania because my family has so many contacts. This is our village. There’s a big difference between how things work nowadays and how it used to be. Before, when somebody’s pig died my grandfather would arrange for the owner to get a new one. Do you think any of the big companies care nowadays whether someone’s pig has died or not? In those days you had a responsibility. I think when you help people they’re grateful and they’ll repay you in some other way. I supervise our own forests and do the same for a number of other families that have got their woodlands back: 400 hectares for us, 230 for other people and another 170 hectares at Bánffyhunyad. I’m doing a two-year forestry course in Sopron. Every month I have to go there for a week. The most important thing is to prevent illegal felling. You have to walk through the woods and check whether you can see the sky, because that’s a sign that trees have been taken. If the branches are growing upwards even though there’s space between them, you can bet that a tree has been felled. Usually the illegal loggers don’t clear away the branches anyhow, so that’s another sign.’
When I ask Farkas how he’s related to Anikó Bethlen he starts to laugh. His grandfather, Dániel Bánffy, was a brother of Marianne Bánffy, Anikó’s grandmother. It makes him laugh because everyone is related to everyone else. Béla Bánffy in Kolozsvár is a second cousin, Gergely and Sándor Chowdhury are third cousins, Zsolna Ugron is a fifth cousin once removed. Clementine, the daughter of Gergely and Zsolna, isn’t just his goddaughter but a fifth cousin once removed, and Zsigmond Mikes is a third cousin. Farkas rattles through them and says, laughing: ‘If you want the full picture you’ll have to ask my father or mother. They’ll know. By the way, my mother isn’t just my mother, she’s also my fifth cousin once removed!’
Meet the author
Jaap Scholten speaks about Comrade Baron at the First Transylvanian Book Festival in Biertan, Romania, on 8 September.
See www.transylvanianbookfestival.co.uk for details.
Comrade Baron. A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy
by Jaap Scholten
Corvina Kiadó, 2013
404 pages, HUF 3990
The book is available at Bestsellers (District V, Október 6 u. 1’) and at Massolit (District VII, Nagy Diófa u. 30).