'A Prolific Nation'
Updated: May 1, 2020
An imagined farming village called Cucu Deal somewhere in southern Transylvania was once dominated by German-speaking Lutherans. Since they all left in the late 1980s, the place has become less orderly and poorer. But it is more relaxed and full of surprises, particularly when it comes to buying farmland.
The Lutheran Saxons were a disciplined lot, above all when it came to boys and girls. The sexes were kept apart until marriage and once bound together they were not allowed to separate. Bickering couples were thrown into a dungeon under the church walls to sort it out and only released when they had. Divorce there was not.
Nowadays, with a much weakened and in some villages, entirely absent Lutheran influence, things are very different. The Romanian Orthodox Church allows members of its congregation a generous three divorces each provided the unhappy couple consent. There are mostly Mr and Mrs Beaver-types in the village, lifelong partners that have only ever worked and slept with each other. But there are a handful who seem to practice a barely annual monogamy, changing their sexual partner perhaps as much as every third winter.
This kind of behaviour was quite unheard of among the segregated, self-controlling Saxons in whose abandoned houses we all now live. It is the result, one must assume, of a welling frustration caused by the combination of having to sleep in very close proximity to other family members and the frequent, long absences of husbands. With their men away working abroad for months at a time, some women are tempted to wander.
The consequences are felt most acutely in the complications that arise over the distribution and sale of property. Between the wars, King Ferdinand of Greater Romania, which celebrated its centenary in 2018, redistributed, peacefully, vast amounts of agricultural land to the Romanian peasantry, who lacked the means and the desire to exploit it other than for their own subsistence.
Romanians are a ‘prolific nation’ as the recently deceased gentleman historian Neagu Djuvara puts it, and this, combined with the rejection of the principle of primogeniture in inheritance in favour of equality between all siblings of either sex, meant that what started out as small properties became rapidly smaller as land lots were divided up among numerous offspring.
The economic impact of this fragmentation of land ownership was, of course, stagnation. Before the First World War, Romania was a big exporter of grain. After the agrarian reforms of 1918–1922, which broke up large estates and gave the land to hundreds of thousands of poor peasants, output plummeted.
The sale of agricultural land, both for the owners and for the would-be buyers, is a torturous affair. Deeds of ownership are rarely formalised before a public notary. Instead, they remain as hand scribbled notes passed down the generations. These hand contracts are recognised by the local townhall, which collects taxes on them. But villagers are reluctant to formalise their title deeds because it is such a laborious matter and can cost more than the land itself is worth. If eventually the property is sold before a notary, it is usually because the buyer has offered to pay all the back taxes and penalties accumulated by the sellers over many years. In exchange for settlement of the debts on the property, a notary provides the owners with clear deeds, which they can then sell.
An acquaintance had decided to buy some land from a certain Victor and his six siblings. He described what followed in glorious, gruesome detail.
"I managed to find Victor sober one morning in his two roomed brick house. His love of the hard stuff may be forgiven: He shares his little home with his wife, his son and his son’s wife and their new born baby girl, and his daughter, her husband and their new born baby boy. Both young fathers are away most of the year in Germany.
I suggested that we might be interested in a small plot of land, barely more than two hectares. He said he must talk to his sister who lives in a nearby town. He talked to her and it seemed promising as she had all the ‘paperwork’. So Victor and I drove into town to meet his sister, Tanti Brandusa.
Looking at the two siblings standing before each other, I was reminded of the fight between Carnival and Lent. Victor is an emaciated fellow with tired, glazed eyes and a long grey face ingrained with dirt. He gave up regular meals long ago in favour of tobacco and drink. His sister Brandusa is large and heavy, her face the picture of a damson plum, plump and ovoid in shape, slightly pointed at the chin end, with purplish skin spattered in glaucous grey blotches.
Brandusa had moved to town as a young woman, been married to a teacher, was widowed early and generally preferred not to be reminded of her peasant upbringing and poor relations. But like her brother, she had a peasant’s love of brandy and the sweet, fatty Transylvanian pork. She was suffering from advanced diabetes. Brandusa showed us the paperwork, three sides of yellowing paper on which was handwritten, in various hands and at various times, a long essay about the small plot of land, describing all the exchanges and agreements between the owners over half a century or more. At the bottom were seven signatures, all of which were identical squiggles apart from one which was legible and well formed and clearly belonged to Brandusa.
The appointed day and hour on which we were all to gather in front of the notary’s office came and I got there early. I did not have to wait long before what resembled a press gang from the Napoleonic Wars hove into sight, with a breathless, hobbling Tanti Brandusa wielding her handbag as a recruiting sergeant wields his heavy sword. They had joined up on Tanti Brandusa’s exaggerated promises of spoils, a part of which they had already commuted into a generous ration of brandy that very morning judging by the sickly scent that hung over them all.
We shuffled into the notary’s office, a tiny corridor in which were placed three desks piled high with papers behind which sat three large ladies working at computers. Directly above the ladies, attached to the wall by the flimsiest of brackets, was a long shelf heaving with more files at any moment ready to come tumbling down into the laps of the three good ladies below. Beyond the tiny corridor was a door from behind which we could hear an agitated, nasal voice. The press gang waited in silence, their sergeant watching over them while the ladies tapped on their keyboards. After a short while, the door opened and there emerged a little man in a suit and oversized black rectangular glasses sitting on a polished beak. He was clutching a mobile telephone in each hand into which he was variously speaking. At some point, he would put one of the phones, from which emerged a strangulated voice, into his jacket pocket, only to take it out a minute or two later to resume the interrupted conversation.
‘’Domnul Notar is ready to deal with you now,’’ announced one good lady, and we all trooped into the little office, which was piled high with yet more files and heavy volumes of law. “Who is the owner of the land being offered for sale and what is the price agreed?”, he asked without looking up. In unison, six tarry voices answered, “I am.” A seventh, deeper voice added that the land was jointly owned by herself and her six siblings, and that the sales price agreed with my good self, at which point I was identified, was 3500 lei. She placed the paperwork in front of the notary, who glanced over it, sighed and asked the owners to provide proof of their identity.
I expected this to take some time but not at all. As quick as a flash, Tanti Brandusa, who had obviously gone to some great trouble to get the gang ready for this moment, pulled out seven spotlessly clean identity cards each in cellophane, removed each from its wrapper, and placed them in front of the notary, who checked the cards against the names on the paperwork, reading out aloud each name as he did so. But the males all had different family names! "Siblings, eh?" muttered the notary. The siblings looked at each other nervously, then at the notary and then at Tanti Brandusa, who embarked upon an explanation that the notary had neither requested nor desired.
The notary interrupted her. “Thank you, Doamna Popa,” and softly groaned. He then called the town hall and asked them if there were any outstanding debts on the plot of land. Twenty minutes later, the town hall called back and there followed a long silence while the notary scribbled down numbers. “I understand. Thank you”, said the notary to his interlocutor at last and put the phone down. He turned to the eight siblings and in a matter of fact voice laid out the astonishing facts before them: “So, in summary, there are unpaid property taxes since 1991 to recover. These come to 500 lei….” and at this point the gang let out a collective sigh of relief. Happiness! 3000 lei remained from the sale price of 3500 lei and none of them had spent anything like all their promised share of the spoils since Tanti Brandusa had pressed them into the sale.
But before they could enjoy the moment, the notary went on: “And then there are P..E..N..A..L..T..I..E..S”, lovingly elongating the word as if it was a homemade sausage, “for non payment over the same period. These come to a further 3000 lei, making a grand total to be settled before I can proceed with the transfer of the land of 3500 lei.”
At this point, the press gang panicked, with half of them saying that the signature on the paperwork was not theirs and the other half saying that they had never wanted to sell the family land. Tanti Brandusa looked pleadingly at me. Was there nothing I could do to rescue the situation? What could I do? Here were six angry recruits who had joined up in good faith on the promise of the King’s Shilling and were to receive not even a farthing for their troubles. I quickly settled the full amount with the notary and together we went off to celebrate the sale, a sale from which they had made nothing. The drinks were on me."