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.