In the shoes of a shepherd’s apprentice

Last year we decided to offer a special opportunity to the real lovers of adventure: a cultural exchange program as a shepherds apprentice. We organized this program to help our local shepherd and the growth of the local economy, as well as to offer a chance to learn, a very unique experience that cannot be found elsewhere else at the moment.

We received a lot of applications; it seems like trying the shepherd life for a while is enticing for many. At the end we chose Guillhem, who seemed the most suitable for this unique exchange. You can read about his experiences in this journal written by him, and see some of the photos he has taken during this cultural exchange program. If you would like to know more about this exchange program, write to us at info@organicartranch.org

Now enjoy the story of a French young man in the Transylvanian mountains, a life of seclusion and adventure!

In the shoes of a shepherd’s apprentice 

In March 2016 Roger & Zsuzsi invited me to meet Cristi, one of the shepherds of the village with whom they maintain a cordial and conciliatory relationship because, beyond his human qualities, he is also one of the few professionals in the neighborhood to defend a certain pastoral ethic. In order to consolidate their collaboration, they had the idea of ​​involving among the volunteers of the Ranch those who would be interested and motivated by the conduct of the flock and the sharing of the tasks to the sheepfold. I confess that their proposal immediately seduced me, I who had long wanted to be involved in a simple way in the Romanian bucolic universe. As the owner of a herd of more than 200 head (sheep, lambs, rams), a donkey and a few dogs, Cristi, or “Rapidu'” as we call him here, assumes with dynamism the daily responsibilities, not without difficulties being actually alone most of the time. When the workload becomes too heavy, his parents, loved ones and neighbors are never far away to help. At first sight this big and sturdy fellow is imposing although the natural smile that he displays testifies to his jovial and generous character. The man inspired me immediately and we agreed to team up until May.

Spring is barely settled in the Apuseni massif, the weather is forecasting new snowfall as I prepare to make my first steps as a shepherd helper, there on the opposite slope of the valley. The facilities are situated above the village, among the last houses nestled on the heights, accessed by a winding track that is relatively well maintained. My pleasant guide presents me the premises under the temporary threat of guard dogs who quickly accept the presence of the newcomer after sniffing him methodically. Perhaps they instinctively know that this bearded individual will be their partner for weeks to come. The main sheepfold shelters the majority of the flock, and juxtaposed at the entrance is the hut where one takes refuge and strength at the sound of the hour of rest. Called “colibă” in Romanian, the abode of the shepherd is very spartan and rudimentary, I would not have imagined otherwise: a “box” of 7 square metres consisting of boards, sheet metal and polystyrene, equipped with two beds arranged in an L for the reception of a possible colleague, mattresses and blankets bearing the signs of prolonged use, an old wood-burning stove for heating and cooking, a shelf housing some containers and utensils, a radio tuned and blocked on a single frequency (to my great relief it is a musical program). Finally a suspended bulb swings from the ceiling. The lack of running water and toilets is not a surprise to me. The spring is a hundred meters higher and for bodily needs you have to adapt to the circumstances. After staying a week at the “all comfort” Ranch, the contrast is still more marked. The visit continues with the complicity of the canine escort; a few steps away you discover a traditional shed in which the remaining ewes of the flock are parked, those that have just given birth watching over their offspring as well as the pregnant females whose gestation is nearing completion. The need for this isolation is because we are in the middle of the lambing season and therefore newborns should be raised in the best conditions, away from the herd. The very picturesque architecture of the building separates the partitioned ground floor from the upper storey which serves as a hay barn.

The good mutual understanding between Cristi and myself allowed us to get to the heart of the matter from the first day. My linguistic skills were certainly an asset when Cristi explained his instructions because Romanian was our only means of communication. Besides, in spite of my status as a neophyte, I found myself entrusted with various missions without any pedagogical approach, he seemed to have a spontaneous confidence in me and I tried to act the same with him as best I could. During this first episode I was not alone in the fold; an eccentric man known to the villagers and shepherds in particular had volunteered to remove the straw soiled by animals. My new partner was called Teo. In his late twenties, skin and bones in physical terms, impetuous and resistant in temperament, he invested himself body and soul in his work to such an extent that he would have systematically neglected the lunch break if we had not taken care to intervene. Cristi knew him well and knew what he was dealing with. So Teo and I had some difficulty in conversing when we found ourselves in the evening in the rustic space of our dormitory, for despite our cramped confines, a world separated us. His allusions, so mysterious and so confused, were amusing and strange all at once; his words floated in the confined air of the room and I could listen to them with only half an ear. Finally domestic arrangements such as wood chopping, washing dishes, preparation of fire and meals underpinned of our relationship. Then suddenly, after a dozen days, this curious person disappeared without word or warning; I found myself immersed in my thoughts…

Apusenian time beats the measure, in slow motion. The days flow and resemble each other so much so that the routine framework of rural activities reveals its full dimension. Rather than keeping a diary, I preferred to note here a few events and anecdotes that punctuated my stay, hoping thereby to avoid the traps of repetition. What memory could I mention as an introduction? Perhaps one of the challenges of initiation, which was to identify and memorize the herd’s characteristic families. Cristi made a rough inventory of it : there are Ţurcană sheep with black and white faces, the Ţurcană breed being predominant in Romania. On the other hand various varieties of Ţigaie, a species also known but less represented, which in my opinion is distinguished above all by its muddy look; without forgetting of course the two or three females (I do not have the exact number in mind) belonging to the Organic Ranch. Among the rams, we have a magnificent slender Suffolk with black head and legs; then a specimen of Ţigaie Sârbească or Cărăbaşă, according to the opinion of the specialist, and two thickly padded Merinos de Palas. Finally a hundred noisy and brazen lambs complete the list. So my first real outing below the snowy ridges, alone at the controls with my stick and the now protective barking of the dogs, was a funny adventure because not only did my management of the group prove very chaotic, but imagine my dismay when a sheep gave birth while I was least expecting it, namely during the descent to the sheepfold at sunset. Everything seems so simple as soon as the professional takes charge. After the few hesitant trials of the beginning, I gradually found the right rhythm and better reflexes. Cristi accompanied me from time to time when his schedule permitted him to come, and showed me then the various possible itineraries, the longest of which occupied the entire day. As soon as the snow melted, the flock was rushing on the great circuit that led us to the hilltop pastures. The animals found the place to their liking to devote themselves to the siesta, which provided us with the opportunity to taste some sausages on a wood fire and to wallow in the grass; the silence of altitude, the bleating stifled by the light breeze, the caresses of the sun, all the elements contributed to the felicity of the moment.

One day in April, whilst I waltzed in front of the herd on one of those long circuits, without warning one of the elders at the back of the flock fell down, probably from exhaustion. The incident escaped my inattentive and novice eye. It was not until the evening count that the shepherd spotted the missing one. We found her the next day lying on the ground head down, she was still alive. After bringing her piggy-back and introducing her to the lactating ewes, she quickly recovered and stood on her legs in just a few days. Experience has shown me that you should never underestimate a sheep.

The change of season is palpable but still fragile. Despite the unexpected effect of some late snowflakes, nature continues its work of watercolor, to which is added the incessant ballet of the herds in search of fresh grass and other nourishing plants. It is not uncommon for several shepherds to find themselves sharing the same sector, and in this case the convergence of efforts becomes inevitably a vector of human encounter. I exchange pleasant words and jokes with “Bombonaru'” the candy merchant, or Ion, a native of Cluj, two breeders of Răchiţele who regularly walk their cattle on this slope…

Then comes the Orthodox Easter period, around May 1st. Cristi has received about twenty orders of fresh lamb meat, one specially intended for the delicate taste buds of our friends Zsuzsi & Roger as well as the pack of hungry volunteers. But it’s no joke, because before the altar of sacrifice it is very difficult to remain insensitive to the sinister spectacle of the killings. First I am quite distraught by the silent and passive nature of this animal which, it seems, does not suspect what is coming. My emotion is at its height when I learn that my favorite adorable little lamb is waiting in the box for convicted. Containing my distress, I observe the executioner at work: he seizes his penknife, and with a sure and quick movement slashes the throat of the unfortunate animal. The poor beast, hanging backwards, struggles brutally; blood squirts out of the already inert body of the victim. The dogs, witnessing the scene, enter a kind of wild excitement. Once the cruel ordeal has been accomplished, we proceed together to butcher the animal. The blood collected, the offal and other remains are given to our agitated admirers for food…

My authority over the last two weeks was starting to falter, to the delight of the cheeky rams which, at the slightest sign of weakness on my part, acted according to their own devices. As a result, I quickly abandoned the idea of spanking them, which was ridiculous in these circumstances, and just let these bad pupils escape, not without bitterness while knowing precisely their stratagem: to go to the sheepfold to chew their favorite snack and wait there lazily until the bell for the end of classes.

Later, Cristi spoke to me of the inaugural day of the summer. In other words, every year when the end of spring is near and the conditions are favorable, the herds are moved to the so-called “summer pastures”, a regulated grassland area reserved for a particular type of sheep during the whole of the summer. That day I would have the honor of shaking hands with Nicuşor, Teo’s elder brother. Their resemblance is striking, although the attitude of Nicuşor seems less disconcerting than that of our vanished partner, which in no way detracts from their common natural enthusiasm. Nicuşor also belongs to the great community of shepherds and works on the other slope of the hill. A gathering place had been agreed upon, higher up towards the summit which he was to cross. He was waiting for us, where the animals usually cross, with a cheerful expression, proudly resting on his stick. He was surrounded by some 450 sheeps. Cristi counted on him to integrate 3/4 of our flock with his, and to guide the whole flock towards the valley. The migration of the sheep is a major event in the life of the village, because the animals that come down from all sides and pass through the center always create a sense of animation. This time it was a matter of regrouping the flocks of different owners in the same enclosure, which was located at the periphery along the road to Huedin.

My comparatively long peasant interlude was to end more or less in this way. Meanwhile I stayed a few more days on the hill to watch our flock radically reduced, since it now stood at just 60 head, a change which I fully appreciated, given my modest experience. Finally, before taking leave of my amiable host, I had asked him to grant me one last favor, to make a trip together, at least once, to the summer pen. They had gathered in the 1000 head in total, of which 600 would be given daily manual milking. This is the typical day: wake up at 5 am, morning milking from 6 to 9 am, transfer to upper pastures, return at dusk, second 3 hours milking, which ends in general around 10 pm, without interruption until end of the season. Given the small size of the team, only then do I realize the intensity of the work that these brave people have to endure. As leader of the operation, Cristi heads the project with two other well-known partners in the field: Nicuşor, whom I met, and Valentin, known as “Ciocovel”, who is the third brother and the youngest of the family. In short, everyone is at his post, each one controlling a sorting door, sitting on a stool with a bucket wedged between his boots to collect the milk. The demonstration begins; the selected ewes are organized in three rows in a corridor, which they leave one by one, by crossing the corresponding opening. In its passage, the fleeing animal falls inevitably into the respective expert hands of the team. The three men perform their tasks with disconcerting ease and, despite the biting cold, the two brothers are very prone to chatter and joke. As for me, I wait immobilized and shivering in a corner, I analyze their gestures without a word and then announce that I will try my luck on the last sheep to warm up my numb fingers. And this is the last stage of initiation, which in this rigorous morning is very inconclusive. I admit that it has taught me a lesson for beginners: “Groping hand, fumbling fingers and an impatient ewe do not mix”.

 

By way of conclusion, I would like to point out that my narrative is not at all that of a solitary apprentice who renounced civilization. Due to the social isolation that was partly imposed on me, every weekend I crossed the valley to visit my colleagues at the Organic Ranch and to reactivate the kinds of relationship that were more familiar to me. From one week to the next, some of the volunteers had to leave, and new faces appeared. In spite of the turnover of the workers, the atmosphere always breathed the same gaiety and tranquility; in unison we all savoured those moments full of joy. The Easter feast was to be the crowning moment, although I had mixed feelings when I recalled the role I had been obliged to play in the sacrifice. The fact remains that those crazy reunion weekends, even occasionally those of Tuesday morning at the market place of Huedin, provided a welcome counterbalance to my adventures with the shepherds on the hills.

 

(Many thanks to my friend Bob for his valuable contribution to the translation of this text from French into English!)

 

 

Repertory of words (in regional and official language) and some interesting expressions for those who would be looking for a pastoral adventure in the Apuseni massif. Enjoy!

 

Vocabulary
Regional language Romanian official English French
x bălegar (n.n) mixture manure/straw fumier
x balegă (n.f) manure crottin, bouse
x banc (n.n) joke blague
? băț (n.n) stick bâton
(a) beli (vb) (a) tăia (vb) to slaughter sacrifier
x berbec (n.m) ram bélier
beteag (adj) bolnav (adj) ill malade
bolund (adj) nebun (adj) crazy fou
brișcă (n.f) briceag (n.n) penknife canif
x câine (n.m) / cățea (n.f) dog male/female chien/chienne
x cheag (n.n) rennet présure
clisă (n.f) slănină (n.f) bacon fat lard
x colibă (n.f) hut hutte
curățală (n.f) placentă (n.f) placenta placenta
darab (n.n) bucată (n.f) piece morceau
x doștină (n.f) / față (n.f) shady slope/sunny sl. ubac/adret
fărcitură (n.f) claie (n.f) haystack meule de foin
x (a) făta (vb) to give birth mettre bas
x fân (n.n) hay foin
fiteu (n.n) sobă (n.f) stove poêle
x furcă (n.f) fork fourche
goz (n.n) gunoi (n.n) waste déchet
groștior (n.n) smântână (n.f) cream crème fraîche
lipideu (n.n) pătură (n.f) , cearșaf (n.n) blanket , bed sheet couverture , drap
x mascul (n.m) / femelă (n.f) male/female mâle/femelle
x mieluț (n.m) / mieluță (n.f) young lamb/ewe lamb jeune agneau/agnelle
x (a) mulge (vb) to milk traire
x oaie (n.f) ewe brebis
x pășune (n.f) pasture pâturage
poiată (n.f) grajd (n.n) cowshed with hayloft étable avec fenil
x rasă (n.f) breed race
saivan (n.n) adăpost (n.n) [pentru oi] sheepfold bergerie
x saramură (n.f) brine saumure
staul (n.n) ocol (n.n) pen enclos
șteamp (n.n) par (n.m) post piquet
(a) știopa (vb) (a) merge (vb) știop to limp boiter
straiță (n.f) sacoşă (n.f) bag sacoche
x (a) suge (vb) to suckle téter
Expressions
“O bălega în pășune, o bucată friptură în farfurie” Means: “Where there’s muck, there’s brass”
“ţarca!” (interj.) “corral!”
“hei oaie/berbec, la dealu’!” (interj.) “move ’em up!”
“nea la vale!” (interj.) “bring ’em down!”
“pișcă-o!” (interj.) “bite it!”
Places frequented according to their local name
“Vârvuţ” (n.n) [grajd deasupra saivanului] 2nd “sheepfold” above the main one
“Gunoiște” (n.f) [pășune de vară] summer pasture area
“Valău” (n.n) [pășune numită “Troacă”] pasture called “Water trough”
“Ghițălar” (n.m) [pășune de mai jos, sub saivan] pasture named after its house, Ghițălar’s, below the main sheepfold
“Podeiu (n.n) pufii (n.m)” [poiană de sub “Valău”] forest glade called like “storage loft with wool scraps” (below “Valău”)
“Căprăreață” (n.f) [poiană dincolo de “Gunoiște”] another forest glade beyond “Gunoiște”

 

Source : Cristi, Cristi’s family and after some research I discovered the following fabulous work:

https://luciansin.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/dictionar-complet2.pdf

 

 

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