Monday, December 21, 2009

Cutting the pig

In concert with my last blog post "A trip to the countryside" I am again writing about the countryside with this post. In the last post I was in a small village in the foothills of the Retezat Mountains in Southern Transylvania, this time I ventured into the cold, flat, south of Romania to a part of the country better known as Oltenia. In the last post I went to the countryside seeking the traditional experience of making tuica. Once again I went out seeking another traditional experience practiced in villages all over the country just before Christmas, cutting the pig. I had been in Petroşani less than 24 hours after being gone for 10 days when I left for the village. Though I was tired of traveling with Romania's sometimes uncertain train system I jumped back on a personnel and headed south. It was an experience that I really did not want to miss.
Site-mate had invited me to the countryside with his Director and her husband. It was a chance for me not only to witness one of Romania's traditions(something I wouldn't be able to see anywhere else), but also to meet some new people and spend time with friends. I arrived on a Tuesday and the main event was on Thursday, giving me a day to relax and get accustomed to my new, temporary environment. That day was mostly spent watching TV and eating delicious food. The extreme weather was the topic of discussion on all of the news stations as Romania was getting hit pretty hard with snow that week. Site-mate and I did get to spend some time out in the cold splitting some wood. In the evening we talked about events to come the following day and our emotions about it. We were both pretty nervous. For me, it was the first time that I would actually take part in the killing of an animal. We had seen the pig. It was a large, strong animal and we were worried about what it would take to hold it down when it was being cut. An early morning awaited us.
It was still dark when we woke up and had our coffee. Before I was done with it we were herded out of the kitchen toward the backyard where the pigpen was. Pisto was the conductor. He had done this sort of thing many times before during holidays and special events. The day before, we had watched him sharpen the knives and at that moment we were to watch him put them to use. The neighbor entered the pen with a rope. Still dark outside I couldn't tell what he was doing in the pitch black pen but I began to hear the pigs reaction. I noticed what was happening when he emerged tugging on the rope. We all put a hand in to help pull the pig out of the pen and drag it to a post nearby. After the rope was securely tied to the post our task was to flip the pig over. I grabbed at one of the hind legs and in unison with the others we managed to get the pig on to its back. It was hard to secure the hind legs. The pig was strong and kicking, and the legs were wet and slippery. I also had some trouble getting my footing in the snow. It took both of us, site-mate and I, to get a good hold on the back legs when Pisto cut the pig. From that point on it got easier, though a good hold was needed for the last strong kicks. It was 6 or 7 minutes after the neck was cut when we saw the final spasm and a pool of blood stained the snow around its head. The sun had risen.
The slaughtering of the pig took the entire rest of the day. First we moved the pig closer to the house and positioned it on its belly so that it could be torched. The first time around with the torch burnt the hair off and the next couple of times were meant to clean the skin. I was able to lend a hand in during this part, scraping the skin with a knife. After the entire pig was clean, the slaughtering began. First the hooves came off, and then the head came off. A stench rose out of the body when it was cut open and the intestines were exposed. The intestines were cleaned out and used later as casing for the meat. Pisto knew exactly what to do and when. He knew where each organ was, were to put it, how to cut the pig, what to do with each section, I just sat back and watched. Before long, all the meat was separated and ready for the next step. After dinner Pisto mixed up the meat and put it through the processor that he had hooked a motor up to. Next he mixed the correct spices into the different processed meats, and finally we all worked together to put the meat into the casings(intestines). It was a long day and I simply watched through most of it, but I gladly lent a hand when I could. With some things, the best way to learn is to participate.
I spent the next three days doing what I did on the first, relaxing and eating delicious food. We also did some shoveling as the snow continued to fall and the wind continued to blow. My newly learned Romanian phrase from the week was bate vântul (strong wind). In Petroşani the mountains shield us from strong winds but in the south where it is flat there is nothing there to stop the wind from blowing you over, or at least piling snow up against your gate.
I understand that to many people the idea of killing a pig sounds horrible and maybe a bit barbaric. In Romania it is a widely accepted tradition that takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It is not a form of sacrifice, or pleasure, it is simply what it is. In about a year's time the pig is raised to be killed and eaten. It is fresh and healthy. Many Romanians that I have talked to since coming to this country take pride in their food. They have welcomed me into their homes and fed me some of the best food that I have ever eaten. They talk about how their food is fresh and made at home. Everything that I have eaten over the past week has been either made there at that small home in the village or made by a neighbor, from the wine in the basement to the fresh pork in the backyard. Being able to get to the countryside to observe, learn, and participate has already made PC Romania a very valuable cross-cultural experience for me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A trip to the countryside.

When I decided to join the Peace Corps I had in mind what I think many applicants have in mind, rural life. I had that mental image of me having to leave my grass hut in sub-Saharan Africa to fetch water 3 km away. Two months into service I would finally learn the secret to getting it back on my head without spilling a drop. Well I did not get sent to Africa and I did not get sent to a rural site. After my first week in Targoviste I realized that those images of Peace Corps that I had had been squashed. The dream of living in the countryside was revived during my IST when I saw the site of a fellow volunteer in a comuna. When I found out that I was going to be sent to a city, a little part of me was bummed. I thought that I’d never get to experience those neat traditions that they have in the countryside, cutting the pig, making stacks of hay, making cheese, making tuica, raising animals, the list can go on and on. I expressed my concerns to my PCVL’s and they assured me that it is still possible to experience many of those things if you live in a city. Their advice was to ask, and to be persistent.

I have been at site for three months and I have been asking my landlord to take me with him to the countryside for 2 and a half of those months. Last weekend I finally had the chance to go with him. Luckily for me the plums had been setting, rotting since early September and it was time to make them into ţuica.

We went to a little village called Nucşoara at the foothills of the Retezat Mountains about 30 minutes from Petroşani by car. The first thing I noticed when we were inside the gate was the animals. My landlord’s parents have roosters, hens, chickens, pigs, dogs, cows, geese, horses, and cats. The roosters and hens walk around freely while most of the other animals are kept in their gated areas. Christi worked with a friend on building a railing. I just watched and ate pumpkin seeds that his mother gave me, shoving handfuls into my pockets. I would occasionally lend a hand when it was needed until Christi’s dad started splitting wood. I adopted the job of stacking the wood. At that point I realized that it had been a very long time since I had done some actual work. Stacking wood never felt so good. The gorgeous day and beautiful scenery helped.

After the porch railing was finished and we ate lunch, the caruţa was backed up to the opening of the shed. We started loading on the rotten plums. These plums had been sitting in barrels for 2 and a half months and we were passing them in small buckets, transferring them and all their juices into large barrels on the caruţa. I admit that all their juices didn’t make it to the barrels. My clothes soaked up quite a bit. After the caruţa was loaded the horses were brought out and hooked up. My first caruţa ride was about to begin. I sat on some of the many logs piled in the back as we made our way down the road. We didn’t have to travel too far when we arrived at a small shack inside a gate. This small shack was the ţuica shed. It had a large area where the fire was made and the wood was loaded. Above the fire was the container that the fruit went in which had a crank nearby so that the fruit could always be turned as it boiled. A long tube connected the main section to a large container of cold water. Finally at the bottom of the cold water container was an opening at which a pot was set to collect the ţuica.

It took a while to get the fire hot and the fruit boiling but once it began to spit out ţuica it didn’t stop. Once it starts to yield product the testing begins. As the taste started to get bad, less strong, it was time to wash out the container and put in another batch of fruit. This cycle repeated until all the fruit was gone and we came out with several liters of ţuica.

I had the great opportunity to catch a glimpse of a tradition that’s practiced every year in the Romanian countryside. I could have never pictured myself sitting in a shack making alcohol with mostly strangers in the countryside of Romania. I’m sure it was strange for them to see an American, maybe their first, hanging out in the shack with them, but everybody was welcoming to me despite the fact that I didn’t understand a lot of what they were saying. I hope that this was one of many traditional Romanian experiences that I am able write about.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

ne daţi sau nu ne daţi

This is what my students said to me when I started the Halloween unit in school about a week and a half before the holiday. It is also what they said to me when they came knocking at the door the night before Halloween. The Romanian version of "Trick or Treat" actually translates to "give to us or don't give to us." It's not exactly the same, but I got the point. Halloween is considered an "American" holiday here. It is mostly known about from TV, films, and volunteer English teachers from the USA.

My counterpart has been doing a good job in bringing a cultural element to her English classes by celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving, and St. Valentines day in previous years. She also happens to be the one that applied to get an American volunteer in her school. My job in the Romanian Halloween party business was to bring personal experiences as an American helping to celebrate an "American" holiday. My most recent Halloween experience had been two righteous parties last year posing as half of an award winning pair, Jay and Silent Bob (credit to Silent Bob for not speaking during the entire party). I had a feeling my Halloween experience this year would be quite I bit different and it might be best to leave Jay back in Corning.

Thursday I had three events on the weekend's agenda but I still hadn't found a costume. Looking through photos online I found a quick and easy solution, Julius Caesar. I was a pro at tying the sheet up by the end of the weekend. I picked some leaves off the bush outside for a crown and I pulled my sandals out of storage to complete my costume.

Anticipating the party on Friday was a hallway full of students painting each others faces while I was working with others at putting the finishing touches on the room's decorations. There were some amazing costumes. We looked at a presentation that I had prepared in which the picture of the Haunted House was the main attraction and then I played a scary 5 minute video that a student of mine prepared about characters in horror films. What is a Halloween party without bobbing for apples? It was one of the hits of our party. What is a Romanian Halloween party without diplomas? I received my first Romanian diploma on Friday. The party was a hit, but we'll make it better next year. Later on that evening I attended site-mate's party which was very similar just with small students, and more Jack O'Lanters. I left his party with a candy bar of which I had no choice but to give up when a group of Trick-or-Treaters knocked on my door that night. Students from my class who had seen me outside of my block on previous occasions decided to make Jack O'Lanteres and dress up in costume seeking me out for some free candy. I gave it to them even though I thought that my neighbors, who were getting knocks on their doors, might not be as welcoming to the tradition.

My big Halloween excitement was yet to come. Castelul Corvinestilor was my next destination. Google it, the images are enough to give you goosebumps. Apparently Vlad Tepes (inspiration for Bram Stoker's "Dracula") had been imprisoned at Castelul Corvinestilor for 7 years. That's right, I attended a Romanian high school Halloween party at an old, spooky, and possibly haunted castle in Transylvania. The party itself was similar to the other two that I had attended including presentations, games, contests, diplomas, and dancing. I took the liberty at the start of the party to take some photos of the inside courtyard of the castle. I can see myself returning to the castle to check out more of the rooms. We ended up returning to my friends place that night with two pumpkins and supplies for making some vin fiert. Wine and pumpkin carving closed out my Romanian Halloween experience.

Overall it was a very coo experience, similar in some ways and different in other ways, to a Halloween at home in NY. It was nice to see the enthusiasm that the students had to get dressed up for a different kind of experience.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

John Wayne

John Wayne, an American Icon. The John Wayne I know was the tall heroic cowboy type in those western films that I grew up watching from time to time. What does this have to do with being in Romania?

My infatuation with the west started back at Corning Community College when I took my first History of the American West course. Not only did we learn both sides of the story but the last few weeks of class were dedicated to western films, John Wayne being an actor of interest. Later on at SUNY Cortland I had the option to take an elective and I chose the only Grad class that I now have under my belt, Issues of the American West. This class forced us to dive into several novels about the west as well as western films. The summer following that class I got a job working for security at the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, daily exposure to life in the West. Soon after that job ended another job began, a job in which brought me to California. I found myself living in the West and loving it. My pre-Romanian American west exposure ended with me finishing the first season of Deadwood the week before departing for Romania.

In Romania I have picked back up on Deadwood, finishing the second season last week. About a month before that I had finished my first book in Romania, the western, Appaloosa which I followed with the movie. My Colorado native site-mate tells me that the mountains here remind him of home, in the west. Now that snowboarding season is coming around I have been thinking a lot about my time in California, and I have been watching snowboard videos largely set out west. In addition, I have been mesmerized by photos of various excursions in America's National Parks posted on facebook by friends. Another sign supporting this infatuation popped out at me when I was browsing through a second-hand two days ago.

Here is where I give some background on second-hand shopping. I started second-hand shopping in the states when I wanted a cheap, easy, and sometimes comedic way to dress up for celebrations (e.g. New Years Eve, St. Patty's). My second-hand shopping has reached a whole new level in Romania. Right now I can think of 9 second-hand shops in Petrosani and I'm pretty sure I don't know about all of them yet. Most of these shops get their stock imported from other European countries and if you are there at the right time you can catch a great deal on some great clothes. Two days ago, it wasn't a piece of clothing that caught my eye.

I think it's a table cloth. Either way, when I first spotted it folded on the shelf, all that I could really make out was the desert mountain landscape in the background. I immediately unfolded it and smiling up at me was one of my childhood heroes, John Wayne. What a find. I didn't have the money for it right there and closing time was approaching so all I could do was hope that the next day I would see it right there where I had let it down. The next day school ended and I started walking to the other side of town where that particular second-hand was located. Sure enough it was sitting right there and luckily for me, it was 25% off. Now its hanging on my wall.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

From the road.

Today, from the road, I saw...

Their babies.
A really cool black and white bird that wouldn't let me take a picture of it
and a T-Rex.

If you're a reader living in Romania then the only surprise might be the T-Rex. I was joking about the T-Rex. If you are a reader from the US then you might think I went to a farm.

When I was assigned to serve in a city of 45,000 people I did not expect to be able to see these kinds of animals often, and most of them I do not see often. There are always pigeons outside my windows. A neighbor lady has roosters and hens. There has been horses sited on my street from time to time. I saw a cow once next to a block on my street. I see goats everyday. All of these I see in the environment of a 45,000 person Romanian city. Today I discovered that within an hour's walk I can see all of these things and more in the country.

Today was a beautiful day and though the snow has melted off of most of the nearby hills I could see the snow covered peaks of Parâng. I decided to go for a walk exploring the borders of town to try and find a good spot to take some nice fall photos of the peaks. I failed in my quest in finding a good view of the mountains but succeeded in finding fresh air and a good view of rural Romanian life. Just beyond Şcoala Informatica, where the road changes from asphalt to stone and dirt, is where this view began. This place is where city abruptly turns to country.

At first I was a bit leery to continue. I didn't know where the road led. Was it somebody's driveway? I thought, what better time to explore then on a sunny fall day. These were my first steps to the outskirts of the city without a fluent speaker of Romanian accompanying me. Though there were several houses on the road each one seemed to have their own little farm. They all had some kind of animal grazing on the grass and usually had space for a garden. Pumpkins were the common site today though I did see some small corn fields as well. From this little road I caught site of a variety of animals, stacks of hay, hills, and beautiful scenes. I also caught site of many Romanians out in their yards taking advantage of the great weather, getting work done. Seeing them with my limited language ability was a little bit intimidating but a simple "Buna Ziua" was good enough for them for the time being. Maybe next time I venture up that road I will have enough confidence in my language to stop and chat for a while.

Point of the story is that my placement in a city atmosphere has provided me with a certain experience while, keeping me from other, more rural, and maybe more interesting experiences. Despite this fact, I learned today that sights and sounds of a more rural site are just beyond that point where the asphalt turns to dirt and stone. Maybe next time, when I take the time to talk to, meet, and get to know those people working in their garden, or transporting hay on the caruţa it won't only be the sights and sounds that I get, but a rural experience as well.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


July 2009

My 2008 new years resolution was a simple one. Read more! Until then, I spent most of my free time doing other things like social networking, watching TV, and whatever other unproductive forms of entertainment I could get myself into. I guess I see reading as a more productive form of entertainment. I was holding true, and reading some great books up until I came to Romania seven weeks ago. I have been super busy with learning the language so it's understandable that I have put my reading on hold, but recently I stumbled across a book that may be good or bad, but either way it attracted my attention.

Books written in English can be found in Targoviste, but they are a bit more expensive than they would be in the US and at this point my cash is only going toward the few things I need, and some traveling. Before coming to Romania my interest in the American West was revived when my brother and I worked our way through rented copies of the HBO series Deadwood from the library. He made it further than I did but only because I got bogged down with Romania preparation.

The free books box in our lounge is mostly full of sci fi novels and whatever else I don't like, but I keep my eye on them to see what new books will come through. Yesterday I found Appaloosa. The only thing I know about Appaloosa is what I learned browsing through redbox movies and catching the cowboy hats on the cover. I new it was a western. I also knew from my experience working at the Rockwell Museum of Western Art that Appaloosa is the name of specific looking horse used in the American West, if I remember correctly. It all fell into place when I looked at Mikes large list of movies and recognized the name. That redbox cover is within reach, and so is the book that it follows. This is a prime opportunity to read the book before the movie, which is an order that I have a history of screwing up. They might both suck, but they are still a small break from Romanian. Both versions may also be awesome. I guess we'll see.

I found out that a good time to do my Appaloosa reading is while I'm waiting for the bus. There are times when I find myself waiting for up to 30 minutes and I usually carry the reading over to the 15 min bus ride home. What better way to get that American culture fix than an American western?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

3rd day thoughs.

June 01,

Finally I’m getting around to starting a blog about my experience in Romania. When my Country Director(CD) asked who in the room was writing a blog all but maybe 5 had their hands raised, so in doing this one could say that I’m following the heard. I’m OK with that. A blog seems like a good way to make this experience remembered and easily accessed by friends and family.
A little catch up to start. Last May I decided to apply for the Peace Corps. After a long application process a little over a year later I sit here in my room at my host families house in Targoviste, Romania. The trip here included 2 flight delays, 2 days in DC, 10 hours in Amsterdam and many hours in the air. Throughout that time I met, and started to get to know 36 others going through pretty much the same experience. I will be here in Targoviste for 11 weeks and then I get sent out to a yet to be disclosed location in the country where I will probably be alone at first with a limited knowledge of the language.
Targoviste is a city of about 70,000 people located roughly an hour northwest of Bucuresti. The city was a little bit scary for me at first mostly because I am from a town of less than 10,000 that all speak my language. Plus, we arrived at one in the morning and were greeted by stray dogs barking in the middle of the road. The longer I stay in Targoviste the more I like it. This is only my third day but I can see my time hear being very fun, memorable, and exciting mostly because of the people that I know. I am a part of a very friendly, and easy to get along with training class. I know that they will be people that I look forward to seeing everyday.
Yesterday I met my host family(gazda). It was one of the most stressful mornings of my life. I was very nervous not knowing fully how to act around them, what to say to them, if they will like me, if I will like them. Quickly they set my mind at ease. I think that my eleven weeks with them will be a great time in many ways. They speak English well which makes it easier to communicate with them initially but may hinder my ability to learn Romanian quickly. They are all very friendly and in many ways they have already started teaching me how Romania and America are both similar and different.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Care e fresh?

Words spoken by the bread lady that went unnoticed until I was halfway between Ted’s bread stand and my garsoniera, as I stopped, bread in hand, ‘did she just say fresh?’.

Language has been a struggle. I could probably get through an entire day without speaking a word of Romanian and some days that is a very attractive option. This particular day I walked up to the bread stand on my way home from school and ordered the usual, sliced wheat bread. She put two loafs in front of me, asked me which was more “fresh”, I squeezed, chose, and went on my way. After about a 50 second delay I realized exactly what she had said.

By now it is no secret that there is a foreigner in the neighborhood. I have talked to a few people on the benches outside of my block, and Cristi has introduced me to many others in the neighborhood. When I realized what my bread lady said I felt stunned, but after giving it some thought I realized that my presence here affects many. Before this little incident I had been so preoccupied with making sure this is a smooth transition for me. I have been doing much to make sure I settle in, and get accustomed to life here. I have been well aware and thankful of all of the help I have been receiving from the people here, but for many of them it wasn’t a choice to have a foreigner around. I did chose to go and serve in a foreign country and therefore it is my responsibility to speak the language as much as possible, try my hardest in those common social situations, and progress. Language learning here has been a difficult, time-consuming, rewarding, and oftentimes amusing experience. Sometimes in my anxiety, I forget that there are two sides to the conversation and that the other person is trying as well. They are trying to make their sentences simple but still hold a conversation, trying to speak slowly, and in Ernest’s case, developing an entirely new brand of Romenglish (eg.jumpeaza). Though it is important for me to feel comfortable at site, it is also important to work hard on the language everyday especially in these first few months. I would love to go back to Târgoviste in a couple of months and show off my language skills to my gazda, who in August, I was speaking to almost entirely in English.

Today a student asked me if I speak Romanian. I told him that I do speak some Romanian and that after living here for two years I hope to be able to speak Romanian well. Until then there will be people like the bread lady sneaking in surprise English words to try and make this experience a bit easier on me.

Garsoniera- 1 room apartment
Gazda- host
Târgoviste- my PST training city

Monday, October 12, 2009

The smell of dying leaves

Bine aţi venit! Welcome to my blog! So far I am having a great experience as a TEFL volunteer, I only regret not starting this blog up just before staging. Better late than never. Enjoy!

The smell of the leaves is taking me home. I’ve never wanted to be at a high school football game quite this much. Fall has hit this city pretty hard. It was about two weeks ago that I left Christi’s place and was stunned by the smell. There were signs of the season before, but it was one of those moments that takes you by surprise. It made me think back to the first few months of high school when I was regrouping with my friends anticipating that Friday night football game just for something to do. The walk to Aniello's during the last quarter was always the best part.

I have realized that besides the changing seasons, Petrosani is not very much at all like the home that I’m used to. There are football games but they're not quite played the same. There is a pizza place in town but it is nothing like Aniello's. I feel like I have friends and family here, but they’re not the friends and family that I’m used to back in Corning. I am just now realizing how much I like the autumn.

In all honesty, I have it pretty good. This is not at all what I expected when I sent in that application to the Peace Corps. I live in a clean neighborhood of a nice town surrounded by people who want to see me succeed. I have a nice, small, studio apartment, the internet, and a cell phone. Even though from time to time I miss the traditions, family, friends, sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of home, upstate NY, I recover when I consider both the warmth of the people I’ve met so far on this adventure, and the support that I have from my friends and family in NY. Thanks!