Woollen socks everywhere. Women, walking on the streets and knitting. Buying bread while knitting. Women, sitting on benches – knitting. A story about foreign aid and its impacts on the Romanian village Viscri.
A big, one-coloured sock is hanging in the air outlining the movements of an invisible pendulum. One could get the feeling of sitting in front of two invisible knitting hands moved by a higher being, maybe by the great Hypnotist himself. But then suddenly you are rescued by one of the 162 knitting women of Viscri who is sitting on a bench in front of her house – knitting. Virginia, your saviour, is giving you a toothless smile: "No. No pictures. You can buy me as a postcard in the sock shop, if you want to!"
Viscri, a small village in the middle of Romanian nowhere. A long drive on a stony dirt road leads to the 450 villagers of whom 90 percent are unemployed. It is quiet on the five streets of Viscri. On the benches in front of the houses you can see old men reading the paper, children dangling their feet and – most importantly – women knitting socks. Walking down one of the streets to the end, passing ducks, turkeys and chickens there is a local bar, a carciuma. Men are sitting inside, drinking and laughing at their own jokes. One woman is coming in, talking loudly, while knitting a brown woollen sock. Another woman is walking out, her husband behind her, knitting in silence.
How it all started
"I did not start this sock thing. I just reacted." When Harald, the happy one, came to Viscri from Germany in 1994 he and his family found nothing but poverty, saracie cu ciucuri (nicely decorated poverty as the Romanian saying translates). Almost everybody in the village was unemployed. The villagers owned a collective farm during socialism, but after 1990 they lost everything: their jobs, their cows and fields, their perspective. When the Germans arrived, it seemed that they were the only ones who could be asked for help. Harald and his family were only looking for a small island. However, they were right in the middle of a conflict.
Lena is 60 years old, almost toothless, her hair covered with a scarf. She was the first knitting woman. "Write it down!" Her voice is soft, but consequent. "I didn’t know how to feed my children, so I did this sock experiment." Ripping an old woollen sweater apart, she made a pair of socks and brought them to Harald and his wife Maria. Harald’s response was to give Lena a loaf of bread for the socks. This small exchange between the two persons started a chain reaction. The opportunity to earn some extra money came right at the time the village was in a depression. Within a few weeks every woman in Viscri was knitting socks. A sock chaos. Suddenly loads of socks were brought to the German couple. "What were we supposed to do with all of them? The most important thing in Romania is rabdare – patience, if you don’t posses it, you’re lost!" Harald likes to tell this story. His voice is soft and slow. He emphasises every word and likes to pause. He is smiling, straightening his beard. His yard, a perfect island. Flowers and wind chimes. A peaceful quietness. Harald drinks self-grown peppermint tea. Harald eats homemade bread, homemade marmalade, home-made butter. No fridge, no washing machine. His family is the only one in Viscri who denies these material things. "Then we had this saving idea. Couldn’t there be better, nicer socks knitted – ones we would be able to sell in Germany? Of course there could be."
"Viscri – the sock town in Transylvania."
Socks – the way they should be. Woollen, back to nature. Perfect foot wear for alternative Germans – the only extra money for the women of Viscri. The villagers do not have much. What they need for a living they grow in their yards. "Nu cresc carnati pe gard!" There are no sausages on trees. Rodica is shouting. Her arms are wildly gesticulating. She is sitting on a bench in the village’s Strada tziganilor, Gypsy street, as the 20 Saxons left call it. She has seven children, her house is falling apart, but yet her eyes are smiling. She laughs a lot. "I am happy to earn extra money!" Some buttons of her washed out flower dress are unbuttoned. She poses with one arm to her hip. "What I think of the Germans? Pah! They just want to become rich with the socks!" "Harald has a big heart", says Lena. "They help us a lot."
Every heart of a stressed out Westerner beats a little higher. This peace, this quietness, no cars, no noise, no asphalt, just dirt roads. The ducks and horses calmly eat the grass in front of the run down houses. The sun sets surrounded by fluffy hills, so beautiful. And then these women. Silently knitting socks on the benches in front of their houses. What a peaceful place. This must be why Harald and his family came. This must be why they are staying.
"Even my husband knits socks. Secretly, at home, because the Germans only accept socks from women." For Rodica knitting is not a female hobby, it is existence. "I told my husband: No socks, no cigarettes." It is summer time. Not a good season for warm woollen socks. The women knit, but cannot sell: Harald and his wife Maria have not enough orders from Germany for "socks as they should be". But the women still keep knitting and knitting. Knitting for a better season. For winter times, when it gets freshly cold outside in Germany. When Germans are warming their feet in woollen socks from Romania. When it becomes cold in Viscri, too, so that everybody is freezing and no woman is sitting outside on a bench. When the dirt roads turn into muddy lakes and the fire is never warm enough to get the dampness out of the wet clothes. "I have 30 pairs of socks left over at home. And what can I do with them? I can wipe my ass with them. Pot sa ma sterg la cur cu ele, asta pot face! That is what I can do." Rodica’s words are strong. But yet she keeps laughing. The needs of the villagers are bigger than the sock project is able to cover. And yet it is the only help the people of Viscri have.
Taking a left on Viscri’s main road into a small street there is a little sock shop. That makes a total of two shops in Viscri: One for the basic needs of the villagers and one selling socks. Of course the sock shop is not meant for the villagers: Tourists. Socks and postcards of sock knitting women such as Virginia.
As good as it gets!
Somewhere between sock-capitalism and soft-tourism Viscri is struggling through the perioada de tranzitie. It may not look like a just development, but it’s a way, wrong or right.