An everyday tale of rural folk brings EU to Romania

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It is a tiny village in the depths of the countryside that manages to entice hundreds of thousands of people every week. From its love affairs in cowsheds to family feuds among the haystacks, its agricultural adventures are played into living rooms across the country to a devoted audience, bracing for the next twist in the story of the farmers and their wives.

But, familiar though the concept may sound, it is not Ambridge and the characters are a long way from the hills of Middle England and the Archers. Instead, with its oxen-drawn carts and its penchant for goulash at tea-time it is a snapshot of life in rural Romania.

Decades after BBC producers teamed up with the Ministry of Agriculture to create an educational drama for farmers in Britain, which went on to become the most successful radio series of all time, Romanian television is tackling the same problem in the run-up of the country's accession to the European Union in January.

Entitled Ulita spre Europa, or The Winding Road to Europe, it is a light-hearted soap opera that introduces Romania's rural population to the morass of new legislation being introduced by Brussels. With its colourful characters - from Marinela, the peroxide blonde barmaid who dreams of travelling the world, to Umelu, the conservative farmer - it is aimed at presenting Brussels-imposed farming methods in a more palatable form.

"It is both educational and entertaining. We want to combat ignorance about Europe but be funny about it at the same time," said Gabriel Giurgiu, executive producer at Romanian Television, which airs the twice-weekly programme. "We're trying to tell people what to expect. We show the bitter reality of the EU; that it is not some sort of heaven on earth. It's all presented on a very rational, realistic level."

The show, set in a fictional village where life revolves around the local pub - called, fittingly, L'Europa - leaves no stone unturned in its bid to make sense of Brussels bureaucracy. Cattle breeding habits, pig slaughtering methods, the precise size of cucumbers: nothing is too obscure, or absurd, for the scriptwriters.

"It's quite simple," announces the town crier in one of the early episodes. "A young bull in its first year on the job can do 30 to 40 females. In the second year, being more experienced, he can do 60 to 80 sweethearts. But in all cases, no more than one a day."

Reaction to the news is predictably cynical. "Uh, I see, from now on animal sex life is standardised," remarks the local drunkard.

Romania has a huge rural population for whom EU accession will bring many changes. New rules will be introduced in all areas of agricultural production. As of January, animals will have to be slaughtered in designated abattoirs, only vets will be allowed to perform castrations, and cows will have to be milked in hygienic conditions.

But getting the message across to those in the countryside that people must change their habits has been difficult, said Roxana Morea of the European Commission delegation in Bucharest.

"We say to them: if you carry on killing your pig in your courtyard or making your own alcohol in your home, very well - but you cannot sell it to anyone else."

Expectations of the EU are high among Romania's rural communities. Although the country has undergone rapid transformation since the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and European investment is flooding in, the countryside remains largely poverty-stricken and people are keen for change.

But the producers fear their hopes could come crashing down. "There is a real danger that people will be disappointed with the reality and will then turn to xenophobia. That is why informing people clearly is crucial," said Mr Giurgiu.

Spreading the message

The professor is the village's fount of all knowledge. A city dweller who has moved to the country, he starts his own business and takes advantage of EU schemes in order to boost productivity

Marinela, a teenage wannabe with ambitions to leave the village and walk, talk and act like girls from the big city, is keen to leave behind her troubled parents and dead-end job at the family business

Suspicious and sceptical of everything that comes from Brussels, Umelu is set in his ways and isn't going to change them. His conservative attitude holds him back from making the most of modern farming methods

Matriarch of the village, Bongutza is well educated and well liked and views the changes with a stoic acceptance. The owner of the local pub, she is a strong, enterprising woman with intellect and ambition