Barbu is one of those people you hear about years before you meet them. A renowned caricaturist and artist, always working on the next few projects. His house is a clutter of art, some finished, others still in progress. He can’t even sleep there anymore, he doesn’t have the space, every surface is lined with his work. He has another small apartment that he says better suit the worldly needs of sleep. ‘’Valea Jiului is hardly a place where people can live’’ he tells me over cigarettes and coffee ‘’it’s only a place fit for survival’’.
The Jiu Valley, a small area of Romania has built it’s economy almost entirely off the coal industry, with villages spawned at the beginning of the industrial revolution by migrant workers that came in to feed the recently opened pits in the ground, and to fuel the science that was raging in Europe’s heart.
When you enter the valley you do it either by train or by car, on a winding mountain pass, the road is new and fresh, but as you go down into the valley it starts getting worst. As it crosses the main city of Petrosani it;s broken up into more of a continuous pothole that shakes you even in the most stable of busses. The buss stop overlooks the old miners colony, the oldest part of town. Over it, in the winter and early spring a dark fog hangs from the coal fires that are used to heat the houses.
In the distance are ever present mining towers, the sound of rumbling can still be heard, and mining symbols are present in all the statues and all the public works of the area. Most of the valley is lined with old russian designed prefabricated projects, some worst than others but none very far from the concept of a ruin waiting to happen.
It is morning as I walk through the Miners Colony in Petrosani, Romania, i skirt the puddles on the old, cobbled road I watch children hacking off the exposed metal of a recently collapsed warehouse with saws and hammers, chipping away at the concrete lazily. The kids are dubbed ‘magnets’ by the locals. There are many like them, even out of work adults, since selling the metal for scrap is relatively easy money in an area where jobs are scarce.
On the other side of town, in a lazy bar that opens at 9 in the morning even on a sunday, A drink of hard liquor in one of these bars costs one to one and a half Lei, about 20-30 eurocents. Miners, agricultural workers and people who are out of work spend their time getting a constant buzz in these places filled with smoke, wood panelling and chipping paint. At 9AM the usuals are already there, sitting at their tables covered with cheap tablecloths covered in cigarette burns, the half empty glass next to the half full ashtray. I sit down opposite an old man at one of the three tables. He’s a retired miner, and already well on his way to being drunk. I ask him if I can take his picture, and we start talking.
The ‘Genius Loci’, the spirit of the valley, is gone, he says. It used to be everywhere when the mines were running strong, the whole area had a purpose, something to build on. The people knew who they were, and where they were going. Things were looking up, and the community was held together by the knowledge that the hard work they do was well worth it. This started a whole culture for the valley. The powerful miners unions would fund various successful side projects, like football teams, or marching bands.
The cities in the Jiu Valley had several very strong teams, the best of them, ‘Jiul Petrosani’ was winning Romania’s Cup in the 70s. It was a strong team funded by the unions, every miner knew that a couple of ‘Lei’ from his monthly union fees would be going to the team and they were very proud of it. The players in the team were all miners.It was a hard battle to get on the team, since it was an escape from the hot and dangerous coal mines for any who would make the selection. The footballers would be logged as miners at the excavation head during their time in the team, this put them on par with the most dangerous jobs in the underground as far as rewards go, plus the prestige of playing in one of the best teams. Now, the team is only in the Hunedoara County Championship, barely worth a mention. It’s funding cut, it’s stands mostly empty, and the fans left dreaming of the good old days that seem to be a pervasive fantasy for the retired.
Travel West a bit from Petrosani and you’ll end up in a town called Vulcan. It has hardly live long and prospered. Tall 10 storey apartment blocks in communist designs line it’s streets, a few of them slightly askew on their upward search for the sky. Mountains brood in the distance, and the area known as Dallas, social projects of greyed out blocks squad malevolently on a hillside, overlooking the town and it’s mine. Dallas is a land of idle people (for lack of choice) and bored chickens from the houses around it. People look out the windows and hang around on stairwell entrances all day, bored, past the point of looking for a job. One of the buildings is newly renovated, with a tall and solid looking fence lined with barbed wire.
It feels like a joke, a feeble attempt to raise the prices of flats to middle class levels in an area no middle class family would be caught dead.
A few kilometers from Vulcan along the same road takes you to the city of Lupeni. A place with a strange air of retro futuristic charm. It’s in a better state, with strange brutalistic architecture in it’s buss stops and buildings. With the old ‘morally uplifting’ art still at the entrances to the apartment blocks that line it’s main street and it’s larger than life statues of stoic miners, looking bravely all the way to the horizons of humanity, it’s charm is exotic, a combination of childhood memories and newscasts about North Korea.
Sad, militaristic music could be heard in the air when I got there, a funeral procession, headed by the Miner’s Union Marching Band was headed slowly to the church with their flags waving and solemn people dressed in black looking sad. I stood there for a while to listen to the music, which had quite a bit of appeal. Later, I was sitting with them in their headquarters, old photos of members on the walls, a large sign, handpainted and surprisingly new, reminded visitors that the band was formed in 1892, making it over 100 years old. The room was illuminated by a couple of very lonely and insufficient light bulbs in the corners of the room. A red velvet couch slouched next to a wall, and a long, very long, and very old table filled most of the rest of the space in the room. It looked ready for a meeting or a large party. Back in the day it would’ve probably seated around 100 people, the members of the band, once playing full time in restaurants, at public functions and, of course, miner’s funerals. Now, the union cut off most of their funding, around 25 people remain in the band as part time members, and they mostly just do funerals.
Outside the Miner’s Union Band Headquarters I met a man named Gheorghe just as he was coming out of a convenience store in Lupeni. The left side of his face was obviously covered with a face tattoo, and his eyes looked haunted. He moved in a gitterry manner, in much the same way a man on meth would, or an long time alcoholic looking for his fix.He saw me with the camera and motioned for me to approach. Telling me to take a picture of him he drank a bottle of Unirea (cheap liquor) right in front of me, and poured it on his tattoos. After 10 years spent in jail he can’t get a job. He drinks heavily and tries to stay out of trouble, he says, for the sake of his mother.
The Valley has a mean streak: As a child I had seen the ‘Mineriade’ in the 90s, violent miners protests that were used to quench dissent in Bucharest’s students. The Jiu Valley Miners are for many the bogeyman of the neo-communist leaders we had in the 90s.
The miners thought they were merely helping their own survival, trying to convince the political class of their importance and to guarantee safer working conditions, better gear and higher pay, but in fact were only tools to be used and discarded. In this environment I had no doubt that such things could happen, people would feel the need to get implicated in politics one stick and one helmet at a time. Its desperation grows on you from the first day, The Petrosani Blues, as I at this point like to call it.
Everyone who has lived there knows what it’s like. The people who still live there think of it as a way of life, and the people who have never left the valley (they do exist) just deal with it. It’s a horrible feeling, that you are much smaller than everything around you, that you can’t change anything, and that people might laugh at you for trying. It is, I suspect, the main reason that people try so hard to leave. The people that don’t either work in the mines, with the monotony and exhaustion that such things entail, or do nothing at all seem to be a minority, though I doubt that’s the case, they just aren’t as obvious.
The work in the mines is gruelling, and dangerous though still stable, some mines aren’t set to close yet: The Lonea mine just announced it’s hiring another 70 people. People from all over have come into the area in the last 150 years to be part of the growing mining industry before it all went downhill. During all this time, the native population, named ‘Momarlani’ has been pretty consistent in it’s denial of the newcomers. Most people can’t think of miners that worked on the excavation teams in the mines, just in more comfortable support positions. This has caused some historic friction, since the newcomers thought the momarlani were scared of the hard, honest work. The Momarlan was sometimes used to scare kids, that if they go steal their apples they’ll get killed, or stolen away to be eaten, or other such Grimm like fates.
The sheep and horses of the momarlani have indeed started grazing on where the mines were, the cycle of industry is almost at it’s end, and it seems the sheep shall inherit the earth.