Moving from urban to rural areas is a trend that is becoming increasingly popular and has been addressed in many studies. This trend has become even more pronounced during the 2020 pandemic and is now fuelled by the new energy crisis. But Banat is not the most popular destination in Romania. Transylvania is by far the favourite region, where outsiders create their own enclaves.
The Czech villages in Banat are a special case study. Abandoned houses in increasingly depopulated villages are often bought by people from the Czech Republic. Some want to move here, others exploit the area’s tourist potential by starting businesses, other want a holiday home. Some come often, others leave the houses unopened for years. A few families have been living in the area for several years now, with Nataša and Robin among the pioneers. In 2012 they moved to Ravensca, in Caraș-Severin county, because they were sick of city life.
We talked with Nataša in her courtyard, where chores lurk around at every corner; she showed us her modest garden which suffers from lack of water in the summer; we enjoyed the coolness of the kitchen of the stone house she lives in. The conversation with Nataša is marked by an intense search for self, deep inner reflection and the issues of living in the countryside of Banat. During our walks, she showed me the near-by hills, fields and meadows, as well as plants, trees and forests that bring her the long-desired peace. Yet Nataša remains aware that she is a city child and often laughs at her sometimes futile attempts to live in nature.
In her case, the exhaustion brought by city life has not turned into an idyllic life in the countryside. But despite all the hardships brought by the change in lifestyle, she tries to see meaning in it. Her story is not about a dream come true, but about the search for balance – both physical and spiritual.
Nataša doesn’t believe in idyllic stories about a romantic life achieved after moving from the city to the village.
LIFE BEFORE MOVING TO BANAT
I was born in Trnava, in western Slovakia. I lived in a block of flats with my parents and my brother. Both my parents worked in the nearby nuclear power plant. After high school I went to study in Bratislava. From there, like many people in my generation, I moved to Prague, where I met my future husband. I had everything I wanted, and I had also set up my own business, fulfilling my dream of being a successful businesswoman.
Before coming to Ravensca, I was living a classical city life, the life of a capital dweller. I was the director of my own company. I spent a lot of time at work, and every evening, after work, I would hang out with friends. Basically, all I was interested in was my career, fun, how I looked, shopping, relationships.
Going out, having fun and travelling were my whole life. Constant contact with people, socializing, business. Success and money.
BURNOUT AND THE NEED FOR RADICAL CHANGE
Then something happened when I reached my thirties. I was no longer feeling well, both physically and mentally. I was burned out. I began to suffer from depression, and I kept asking myself where it all came from. I left work, then my husband. I was trying hard to find the cause of all of this, but the situation wasn’t improving. It was during that period that I met Robin, my current partner. After half a year living in Prague together, we moved to a small cottage in the north of Czechia.
That’s when I started spending more time alone in nature. Robin was still going away to work. I had always been very outgoing and finding myself alone, I started to see things in a completely different light. I really hadn’t suspected that there was any other kind of life except the one I had.
Besides the not-so-great mental state, I also started having serios health problems. At the time, information began to reach me about how lifestyle influences state of mind and health. Gradually, Robin and I came to the conclusion we needed to live in the middle of nature.
BANAT – ESCAPE TO NATURE
We didn’t have enough money to buy something in the Czech Republic like we wanted. Initially we looked for something in Ecuador. But it was too far away to visit our families.
Robin had known the Czech villages in Banat since the 90s and this was the closest place with lots of nature that we liked. It wasn’t a mainstream tourist destination. I had visited Ravensca with Robin and we had even joked about living in Romania. We didn’t think at the time that after a year or two we would be moving here.
Before we left, we gave all our things away. We ended everything, we burned all the bridges. A month or two before we left, we both got a very good job offer, but we were already determined to leave. We started life from scratch.
EXPECTATIONS VERSUS REALITY
Before we left, we studied permaculture and self-sufficiency. We were excited. Robin in particular was extremely excited to have freedom and a different life schedule. He saw everything through rosy glasses. Me, a little less so. I was exhausted. For me, the first few years were pretty exhausting. I underestimated my health. I thought I was better, both physically and mentally. I didn’t realize how much stress our move would bring. Every day, we hit a lot of obstacles. We realized how far Ravensca is from absolutely everything – shops, medical services. Plus, you realize that physical work is very hard, and you’re not used to it. You don’t know anything, nothing works, you constantly get your ass kicked.
After we arrived, we stayed with locals for half a year. The next year and a half we lived with a Czech in exchange for the work we did on his house. About two years after we got here, we found an old trailer. Robin repaired it over winter and, as soon as the snow melted, we brought it to the hut we had bought outside the village. We moved there.
It was gorgeous, even if it was in many ways difficult. It’s not so bad without electricity and you can fetch water. We felt relieved, we were finally in the midst of the much dreamed of nature. It helped that it was quiet, and just the two of us together. The first months we just rested.
That was when we hit rock bottom. We were arguing over toilet paper! Completely absurd. We wanted to build something there. I for one, started farming a bit, but realized how physically weak I was. Life in the trailer is quite demanding as it is. It rained all the time. The hay we used to line the outside and the roof of the trailer were always wet, so we had to lay the hay out to dry every day in the clearing and put it back on at night. The trailer would get mouldy, we had to take things outside in the sun.
That’s when I realised that how I had imagined things and how they worked in reality were two completely different things. Maybe that romantic image comes true for some people, but if you’re a sickly kid growing up in a block of flats, it’s not exactly easy.
ATTEMPTS TO SECURE A STABLE INCOME
We wanted to earn our money from local sources, but without competing with the locals. We are both entrepreneurial people. Where we saw demand, we thought of how we could come up with an offer. For example, when we were working for accommodation, we found out that some building materials were cheaper in the Czech Republic, and we could import them. I don’t even remember how many of these ideas we had. But nothing was applicable.
And then Robin accidentally found a truffle. At first, he didn’t know what it was, but after a few days, he came across a picture of truffles on the internet. We found out that there are a few truffle hunters in Romania and that there is a large collection and sales centre in Brasov. We started asking around about truffles – what they are, what they are used for. We got ourselves a dog specially trained to look for truffles. But they’re not easy to find. Searchers already have their own places, some even buy the entire forest where truffles grow. It pays off. They don’t go in blindly. The first year, I would stay at the trailer while Robin would go looking for truffles. We’d experiment with them to see what we could make.
We realised that sterilising truffles is very difficult and that you need a professional processing space. We were living with our dog in a musty two-square-metre trailer. And no income. Robin was always bringing 20 euros worth of truffles and using 200 euros worth of diesel. We were always making a loss. Our parents were supporting us financially.
Then the opportunity arose to buy a house in the village. We didn’t have any money and, besides, we wanted to be in the middle of nature. But we knew we had to get a special space for processing truffles. We couldn’t support ourselves from finding them, we had to start processing them professionally. The house was cheap, but it was in a very bad shape. We started renovating it bit by bit.
Construction, clutter, dust, everything in boxes. We couldn’t process truffles, so I stayed with my parents in Slovakia, while Robin would look for truffles and send them to me through tourists or locals. I would go to the border to pick them up and then process them with my parents. When we didn’t have anything to process, we would make web pages, create packaging and so on. Our products were looking good, the things were set into motion. Journalists from the Czech Republic started coming to the Czech villages in Banat to write about tourism in the area, and they also wrote about us. Some people came looking for us especially for the truffles. In the first years, everything was going well. We renovated the kitchen through crowdfunding, we officially turned it into a processing workshop. We were no longer losing money, but it still wasn’t a steady income.
On top of that, my health was giving me trouble, there were no doctors around and I had to learn to work with myself. I became interested in nutrition, plants, the connection between physical and mental. I started a long-distance learning program at the Institute of Integrative Medicine in Boston.
Then came COVID. We stopped the truffle business, which was coming to an end anyway. That year, we started experimenting more with permaculture. We returned to the original image of the life we wanted here. After everything we had been through, we perceived self-sufficiency differently. We knew that imagination is one thing and reality is another. I realised that I can either resist and struggle, or I can take things as they are and arrange my life to cope with them.
After ten years here, we need an income not just for basic needs, but also for some repairs. Big investments, for which we can’t make enough from truffles. Robin went to the Czech Republic to temporarily work in the field he had left. I have stayed here on my own. I offer online food consultations, but this is not an ideal activity. I don’t want to get sucked into the online world, because that would mean losing the point of my life in Banat.
THE POINT OF LIFE IN NATURE
There were times when we were both watching Czech real estate websites without telling each other. But then there are times when we are convinced that it’s better to be here than anywhere else.
We both have elderly parents. If either of them is left alone, they won’t come live with us. There are various reasons, but mostly because of the health care system here. So the amount of time we can spend here will also be determined by their condition. We’re also not that strict in our belief that this is the only place we can live in. And if we have to return to the city long term, we are at peace with that and we will be grateful for every year we have spent here.
I’m currently alone at Ravensca. I am very grateful for the people who help me. Otherwise, I feel fine on my own. But it takes me three times longer to do the work I was doing with Robin. So far, I’ve managed. And it’s important that I’m not completely alone.
Banat offers me a life in the middle of nature. It helps me to overcome the hardships associated with life here. Nature gives you harmony. You don’t have to do anything except be there. You don’t have to study, meditate, but the mere fact that you are here is healing of itself. Your body adjusts to going to bed at sunset and waking up at sunrise. You live quietly, without smog and electromagnetic radiation.
It’s incredibly quiet here. Everywhere you look in the distance, there is no industrial activity. Cars are rare here. In winter, when nature reduces its sounds to a minimum, all you hear is silence. I often go swimming in nature, not only in summer but also in winter. I use very few artificial substances. I have begun to have a sensitive perception of plants, animals, water, earth, and treat them with respect, as part of the endless cycle of life. By contemplating harmony in nature and through moments of silence and solitude, my perception of myself and the world has fundamentally changed.
Ravensca is the most beautiful when, after a while, I come back and know that I am coming home. It’s gorgeous when you’re on top of a mountain and you see everything around you, this untamed nature. When I’ve been here for a few months and I’m going through all kinds of hardships, it doesn’t seem so rosy anymore. But whatever is on the other tray of the scale, I will choose Ravensca. Despite the hardships.
Photo credit: Petra Dobruská