“Friends still ask how one
gets here almost as if they
expect the answer ‘by bat’
or ‘magic carpet’.”
Arabella McIntyre-Brown is an award-winning writer who decided to move to the rural part of the mythical land of Transylvania, after 30 years spent within crowded urban areas of London and Liverpool. She has written a book about this dramatic change between the two geographical areas and it provides a truly magical perspective of the rural Transylvania “that will melt the heart of every Romanian". Apart from that, she is now preparing to launch her newest children’s book in November, called “Floss, the lost puppy”.
We invite you to read this next article and get inspired by the way in which such a talented artist not only interacts, but plays an active role in the development of the local Transylvanian community. Her writing style is incredibly humble and genuine and it could make even the coldest person smile.
When did you come up with the idea of living in Transylvania?
I came here on holiday in 2003, just for a week. Little did I imagine that I’d end up as a permanent resident. It wasn’t till 2008 that I realised that living here was my best option.
What were the stereotypes about Transylvania that you knew before coming here?
I knew very little about the region. Romania wasn’t well-known in Britain, and Transylvania was almost mythical. Friends still ask how one gets here almost as if they expect the answer ‘by bat’ or ‘magic carpet’.
What is a myth about your adopted Transylvania that goes beyond the Dracula one?
Transylvania and Central Europe have always been fantastically romantic names conjuring up images that lie somewhere between Ruritania and Fairyland, with a heavy dusting of Austro-Hungarian military uniforms covered in gold braid and medals. Ornate royal families and aristocracy, with crowds of peasants beneath the yoke or rising up in fruitless rebellion. Images fuelled by a dozen films and a hundred books.
How would you summarize your first impression about Transylvania?
Beech forests, limestone roads, the striking similarity to rural West Sussex where I grew up. Higher mountains, of course, and different hats. But remarkably familiar flora and fauna, and underneath the skin, very similar people to those I grew up with.
How did the Transylvanian community welcome you?
With enormous curiosity beneath princely courtesy. I was charmed by the greeting from men in the village of ‘Sărut-mâna’, followed by a kiss of the hand. In England this would be false and rather creepy. Here, it’s naturally delightful.
What were your goals when you first arrived here?
For the first week’s holiday, just to experience a place I didn’t know. When I arrived to stay (in 2010) my only goal was to make a life here, recover from my illness and soak up the peace of the village. There is a magic to Măgura that is healing and restorative. All my visitors notice it, especially if they stay for more than a day or so. It took me some time to have any goals other than making the house watertight and warm, and keep the cat in catfood. Now I am back to my old self in terms of ideas, work, and ambitions – although I’ve changed in some fundamental ways, for the better.
Did Transylvania help you towards attaining your goals? How?
To have the luxury of time and peace was an immense boon. I could observe life as it had been lived for centuries, slowly evolving under 21st century pressures but still resisting the worst of urban craziness. My neighbours have been immensely kind, and I appreciate more than I can say the whole culture of being a neighbour and a fellow villager: the deep obligation to make sure that your neighbour is okay, to solve problems – and to accept what they see as my English eccentricities.
What did you give in return to the community?
Very little, compared to what I receive. I give people lifts up and down between Zărnești and Măgura, I taught English at the village school for a while, I spread the good word about the village and the country, and bring visitors to the village. Other than that, I’m pretty useless, having few useful skills and these days not much strength or stamina for practical tasks. Perhaps an intangible asset I provide is regular entertainment, with tales of my latest mistakes providing a bit of bârfă in the piață on Sunday mornings.
What habits do you find most appealing about your adopted culture?
Aside from the ingrained hospitality – a culture shared with many other places, including Liverpool – I suppose the most appealing aspects are the diversity of natural life, and the peace. There is never complete silence, even early on a Sunday morning in summer when the village is still asleep. There is always a bird singing, a donkey wailing, sheep bells ringing, a cock crowing or dogs barking. But there is no human noise. No traffic, no people crashing around, no machines clattering or squealing. And the diversity – apart from the renowned wildflower meadows, the variety of insects I see is astonishing. Insects I couldn’t have imagined, lost to industralised Britain. More birds than the usual British assortment; large carnivores long gone from Britain. So much is familiar – beech and hazel trees, bluetits and wagtails, goosefoot and dandelion – but there’s so much more. That local traditions continue here, from traditional dress to traditional skills such as scything hay, making wooden roof shingles and leather horse harnesses: not museum pieces but part of daily life.
What habits do you find most frustrating about your adopted culture?
Romania is far from perfect – what country can boast of perfection? Anything I dislike in Romania I will find in Britain and USA and anywhere in the world, so none of these flaws is unique to Romania. But although the list of positives is far longer than the negatives, there are things that grate. The corruption endemic in public life drives Romanians as mad as it does foreigners. Attitudes about animals sadden me – in the countryside animals exist only to work or to provide food. Few people have pets and many are puzzled by my attitude: feeding wild birds, giving treats to the horses, having cats in the house and feeding them with expensive cat food, spending money on veterinary treatment when the animals do nothing to earn their keep. Some people not understanding that animals feel pain, feel loneliness, fear, happiness and affection…
And there’s something else which you don’t find so much in the UK: the unwritten rules of building stairs. Stairs and steps are very often of startlingly uneven height and depth, which for someone who has a problem with balance is a challenge. In winter when you add ice to the equation, the Romanian Law of Uneven Steps is guaranteed to make me let loose a few expletives…
What do you think is the main point of difference that Transylvania possess in relation to the other countries that you have visited or lived in?
There’s still something of the Lost World about the region – at least the rural areas. It’s like being back in the Sussex of the 1960s. Transylvanian cities are fast becoming European, with all the big retail names you’d find anywhere in the EU; café culture is growing fast, food culture is evolving from the traditional to the multicultural. You can find raw vegan eateries in most cities which is a big step forward for such a carnivorous nation… But beyond the cities, Transylvania still has strong links to the past, with traditions holding fast and values of a slower, simpler existence still in place. It’s something of a time warp which is unique in 21st century Europe – although change is coming all too fast.
What is one thing that you will take with you from Transylvania, in case you decide to relocate somewhere else?
I have no plans to move again, unless Brexit or some unseen political force boots me out of my peaceful eyrie. If that ever happens, what I will take won’t be objects but experience, memories, and values.
What is your favorite thing about being an expat in Transylvania?
I really like living in Central Europe with the greater perspective it offers. Living on an island for 50 years is limiting; the great value of being in the EU is being part of a bigger picture and a broader vision. Peace and lack of nationalistic aggression is beyond price, which is why I am so upset by the UK’s eagerness to leave.
What is something that you would like to do in Transylvania, but haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?
I should explore the region more, but I am so happy here in the village that I don’t really need anything or anywhere else. For someone who used to love travelling, this is quite a change. Măgura is my Ithaka.
Share your most memorable experience in Transylvania.
More than any one moment, it’s the annual coming of Spring after the long harsh winter. Britain doesn’t have decisive markers between seasons any more, and urban living damps down whatever differences there are. But after a five-month winter of snow, ice and bitter cold, the sudden growth of new grass, blossom and a carpet of dandelions as the spring arrives is a miracle. Friends ask ‘Aveți urzici?’ (‘Have you got nettles?’) as we all pick the first green vegetable of the year. The road to Zărnești runs through a tunnel of blazing green light as the beech leaves unfurl, the buzz of bees is a constant hum in the garden, and new life is everywhere. For 30 years I lived in London and Liverpool and mostly forgot the joys of spring. I’ve rediscovered them here in Transylvania.