Transylvanian Harvest Season, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 139-142:

The summer solstice was past, peonies and lilac had both vanished, cuckoos had changed their tune and were making ready to fly. Roast corn-cobs came and trout from the mountains; cherries, then strawberries, apricots and peaches, and, finally, wonderful melons and raspberries. The scarlet blaze of paprika—there were two kinds on the table, one of them fierce as gunpowder—was cooled by cucumber cut thin as muslin and by soda splashed into glasses of wine already afloat with ice; this had been fetched from an igloo-like undercroft among the trees where prudent hands had stacked it six months before, when—it was impossible to imagine it!—snow covered all. Waggons creaked under loads of apricots, yet the trees were still laden; they scattered the dust, wasps tunnelled them and wheels and foot-falls flattened them to a yellow pulp; tall wooden vats bubbled among the dusty sunflowers, filling the yards with the sweet and heady smell of their fermentation; and soon, even at midday, the newly distilled spirit began to bowl the peasants over like a sniper, flinging the harvesters prostrate and prone in every fragment of shadow. They snored among sheaves and hay-cocks and a mantle of flies covered them while the flocks crammed together under every spread of branches, and not a leaf moved.

Behind the thick walls and the closed afternoon shutters of the kastély [manor house], sleep reigned fitfully too, but resurrection came soon. The barley was already in and István was busy with his reapers and the last of the wheat. (In Hungary, the harvest began on the 29th of June, the feast of SS. Peter and Paul, but it was a bit earlier hereabouts.) … After the long weeks of sickles and scythes and whetstones, it was threshing time. Old machines were toiling away and filling the valleys with their throbbing, driven by engines with flapping belts and tall Puffing Billy chimneys expanding in a zigzag at the top. Up in the mountains, horses harnessed to wooden sledges and rollers for shelling the grain trotted round and round on circles of cobble. Winnowing followed, when clouds of skied grain sparkled and fell and then sparkled again as the next wooden shovelful transfigured the afternoon with chaff. The sacks, carried off in ox-carts, were safe in the barns at last. If the waggoners were Rumanians, instead of crying “stânga!” or “dreaptă!” in their native tongue when they wanted their oxen to turn left or right (or “jobb!” or “bal!” in Magyar if they were Hungarians) they would shout “heiss!” [hăis] and “tcha!” [cea].  I had first noticed these arcane cries when buffaloes were being coaxed or goaded along. István thought that the Turks had first brought these animals here, probably from Egypt, though they must originally have come from India. But the words are neither Turkish, Arabic, Romany, Hindi nor Urdu.

July brought a scattering of younger Transylvanians and their relations in search of refuge along the river valley from the heat of Budapest, which summer had turned into one of the great tropical cities of the world. There were parties and picnics and bathing, and tennis at István’s till it was too dark to see the ball, on a court sunk among thick trees like a shady well; and feasting and singing round pianos in those long disintegrating drawing-rooms, and sometimes dancing to a gramophone. A few of the records were only a year or two out of date, many much older: Night and Day, Stormy Weather, Blue Skies, Lazybones, Love for Sale, Saint Louis Blues, Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Louise. In case of need, István was revealed as a proficient pianist—“but only for this sort of stuff,” he said, vamping, syncopating, honky-tonking and glissandoing away like mad; then, spinning completely round on the piano-stool, he ended with a lightning thumbnail sweep of the whole keyboard from bass to treble.

The village calendar was starred with feasts and saints’ days and weddings. Gypsies throve, the sound of their instruments was always within earshot and the village squares were suddenly ringed with great circular wreaths of dancers in wonderful clothes with their hands on each others’ shoulders, a couple of hundred or more: and the triple punctuating stamp of the horă and the sârbă, falling all together, would veil all their bravery for a moment in dust-clouds. (I learnt all these dances later on.) It was at night that they impinged most insistently, especially on the eve of a wedding, when the groom and his paranymphs went through the slow stages of a mock abduction. If the rhythms of High Hat, The Continental or Get Along, Little Dogie flagged for a moment among the faded looking-glasses and sconces and portraits in the kastély, staccato cries, high-pitched and muted by distance, as the bride was hoisted aloft, would come sailing up from the village below and through the long windows. “Hai! Hai! Hai! Hai!” The dancing was spurred on late into the night by the new apricot brandy, and the fiddles and zithers and clarinets and double-basses were heckled by the distant yelping of wild rustic epithalamia; then strings, hammers and the shrill reeds would be drowned once more by Dinah, and our own hullabaloo under the chandeliers.

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Filed under Britain, economics, food, Hungary, labor, language, music, nationalism, Romania

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