William Blacker spent years of his life in Romania from the early 90’s onwards. Longing for a simpler life, like that he’d experienced during his idyllic rural English childhood, he found the perfect match in rural Romania. People there still seldom watched TV and spent most of their lives at work in the countryside, harvesting and living off the land as their ancestors had done for generation after generation. It’s an image of not only the Romanians themselves, but the gypsies that live with them, and the disappearing other segments of the population as the steady march of modernisation takes yet another corner of the unspoiled world.
I bought this book on a whim over a year ago and finally got around to reading it – I’ve recently become interested in the little pockets of Europe outside of my own knowledge, generally sticking to eastern Europe, and so this seemed like a perfect match. I found it even more interesting than I’d suspected, not only for Blacker’s experience, but for the comparisons he makes with medieval Europe, a topic with which I am very well acquainted.
First of all, the Romania he portrays is very much a rural idyll, so much so that I couldn’t help but feel some of the rougher areas were a little bit glossed over. It calls to the ideal of the rural peasant, happy to work, happy with life in general, free of superficial trappings of modern life like telephones, televisions, possessions, and so on. He also quotes from Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, which is an old piece of scholarship that has been discredited in many ways by current medieval historians, a lot of which I read, and which put me on edge. I couldn’t help but feel that some of the problems of rural life, like bad harvests and lack of leisure time, were glossed over. Maybe the people did seem happier and more welcoming to him, and maybe they were, but he focused on other problems instead. It made for a very engaging read, and certainly I’d love to visit Romania now, but I questioned a lot of this as I read.
Blacker also spends a considerable amount of time with the gypsies, as the “love” in the subtitle alludes to, somewhat flabbergasted by their complete lack of preparation for life. The women, for instance, exist to do seemingly nothing but dance and charm foreign men, as Blacker discovers, and the gypsies almost always found themselves begging over the course of the winter as they failed to preserve enough food to last the whole season. Contrasted with the rural farmers, their lives seem confusing. He also meets some Germans, who even speak German, but return to the motherland over the course of the novel and find city life a difficult adjustment.
I think this review has already made it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, which just isn’t true; I loved the descriptions of Romanian culture and people and Blacker’s experiences integrating into their society and trying to understand how things might have been. The book also has pictures in the middle, which helped, and I was outright fascinated by the idea that these people have been living the same way for centuries. They might have paved roads now, but the “good old days” such as they were do make for an excellent book.
I’d recommend Along the Enchanted Way if you, too, are interested in how life might be in the corners of forgotten Europe, but I’d take it with a little pinch of salt.