Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Eve

To celebrate Christmas this year I decided to prepare some traditional Romanian food, salata de boeuf and sarmale.  While chopping vegetables on Christmas eve I heard some loud noises coming from the street behind my block.  I quickly grabbed my camera and headed to my balcony to film the scene below.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Merry Christmas!


            It’s that time of the year again.  The city is lit up, the nighttime air is spiced with cinnamon and cloves as the steam rises out of the warm glasses of wine, venders all around town are pushing goods of all shapes and sizes into the faces of eager consumers, and in the thousands of small villages peppering the countryside of Romania, pigs are dying.  “Ignat” takes place on the 20th of December.  The word “Ignat” is actually the Romanian version of the name Ignatius and like most things Romanian, the 20th of December has religious significance.  Even though the 20th is the feast day of Saint Ignatius of Antioch the word is synonymous with the annual pig slaughter because of its convenient timing, 5 days before Christmas.  There’s just enough timing in between Ignat and Christmas to get the meat checked and ready to feast on after the long Christmas fast.  Due to the busy week schedule, the onrush of capitalism and the slow fading of tradition, the annual event of “Ignat” no longer actually takes place on the feast day of Ignatius, unless of course that day falls on the weekend.  This past weekend was the weekend before Ignat, and even though blood was spilled the courtyards of many country homes, good food and drink were offered in remembrance of the pig freshly slaughtered.

            It was about 9:30am on a Sunday morning in a small Romanian village that bears the name “Valley of the Monks” when three PCVs stumbled into Nico’s courtyard awaiting the feast day’s events.  The PCV’s were late and they had missed the actual killing of the pig.  They halted shortly after entering the gate with eyes fixed upon the scene.  There was an older man and a younger man each with torches in one hand and a knife in the other, burn scrape, burn scrape.  Despite their seemingly carelessness of where they set down their torches, it was clear that this wasn’t their first hot dance.  They were pros, and this was just one of their many pig slaughters of the season.  Soon after arriving, our host, busy with preparations of sorts, came out of the house with a large welcoming smile across his face.  In one hand he was holding a steaming pot and in the other he had a large tray with mugs.  After clearing off a spot on the nearby table he began to pour the not so clear liquid into the mugs and handed them out.  A morning cheers quickly followed and then we drank.  It had been two years since I had tasted tuica fierta and I had forgotten how much I had actually liked it.  My last taste of the drink took place at the same time of the year, while watching another pro clean a recently butchered pig, several hundred kilometers to the west.  Meanwhile, looking around the group I noticed that the one of the men working on the pig put his scraper down for his glass of tuica.  Tuica in one hand and a torch in the other, drink, burn, drink burn. 

Grandma cleaning out the intestines.

            After burning the hair off and cleaning and salting its skin, the men methodically began taking the pig apart starting with the head.  The first cut was the traditional cross cut in the head of the pig, reminding those present that they are thankful to God for the large healthy pig on the table.  The pig started as a 200+ kg mass on a table and in about a half hour all that was left on the table was one last flat slab of flesh.  I watched them pull the different parts of the pig off while standing next to my friend Jeremy who has a passion for food.  As they pulled off each part he explained what it was and what it is used for in the culinary world.  For him, knowing his way around food, it was obvious that seeing the slaughter was an interesting experience.  Meanwhile my other friend Aron was carefully documenting the activity by taking pictures, and our host Nico was lending a helpful hand to the professionals cutting the pig.  After all, it was all his meat.  Aside from the group, we were accompanied by some entertaining animals.  Between watching the butchers and chatting with Jeremy I was noticing the cats roaming around the scene slopping blood up off of the cold concrete.  Despite how domesticated an animal can be there are still instincts that kick in.

Pomana porcului was the culmination of the day’s activities.  Pomana porcului is the meal that the host offers those present who helped out with the slaughter.  Even though we didn’t help out very much we were guests and therefore we became direct beneficiaries of the delicious food served.  The meal consisted of some of the meat taken from the pig recently killed fried in fat from the pig.  There was also mamaliga, tuica and wine served, all products produced by the host.  Despite the cold, the meal was served at a table in the courtyard.  After enjoying the meal we continued to sit and enjoy the day and our great host Nico who brought out a pair gloves that he used to box with.  Back in the day Nico was one of Romania’s star boxers.  

For me, the event acted as a reminder of the beauty of the countryside.  After spending so much time in the city sometimes I forget how much I enjoy the fresh air, traditions, and hospitality that can be found not far beyond the limits of the city.  In some cases these traditions can also be found within city limits.  I remember walking to school on a cold morning before the winter break began last year and seeing torches lit in between city blocks at my old site.  Even though last weekend may have marked my final pomana porcului, it will not be the last time I make the trip to spend the day in the beautiful Romanian countryside.  In so many places in Romania the beauty of the countryside means incredible mountain scenery, rivers and lakes, but in so many more places in Romania the beauty of the countryside means much more than that.  It is the tradition, stories, and hospitality of the people who reside there.  

 Romania, te iubesc! 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Planting Season

 Planting season has come and gone!  Over the past several weeks I have been assisting in the planning and implementation of the fall series of tree planting projects that my host country organization puts on each year.  Before the tree plantings started, my host country organization MaiMultVerde (MMV) organized a course to train volunteer coordinators in planting projects.  The course gave its 40 participants the skills needed to plan and implement a tree planting on their own.  It also expanded the pool of coordinators that MMV utilizes to assist in their own plantings.  The planting projects offered by MMV give those coordinators some practical experience in conducting a tree planting activity.  The season started with a bang.  

Three tree plantings were scheduled for the last weekend of October.  There was a small one in Bucharest on Friday, a larger one in Ploiesti on Saturday, and the largest was held on Saturday in a small village called Lesmir in Bihor County.  

Panorama from the top of the hill at the planting in Lesmir
The Lesmir planting was set up on a bare hillside for the purpose of helping to prevent future landslides.  The MMV team along with the coordinators made the 10-12 hour trip by van to Marghita where they stayed and commuted to Lesmir.  It was a beautiful area of Romania, but as you looked out from atop the steep hill where the planting was to take place, you saw a number of towers in the distance poking up out of the foggy haze which had settled in the valley.  We were in oil country.  Those towers were oil drills and our tree planting activity was one of the many projects funded by “Tara lui Andrei” the CSR branch of Romania’s largest oil company, Petrom.  On Friday the Petrom coordinators set up the location to receive volunteers while the MMV team and coordinators set up the planting area so that when the volunteers arrived the next day it would be easy for them to know where and how to plant the “puieti” (young trees).  The hard work setting up the terrain and early morning wake-up time the following morning, put the MMV team and coordinators to bed at a decent hour, eagerly awaiting the next day’s events.  

The team was up and out the door into the cold morning by 6:30am.  The sun had not yet risen and the sharp sting of the cold northern air was enough to wake up each member of the team as they all piled into the vans.  The warm air circulating through the vans discouraged them from exiting once at the planting site.  Minor morning preparations had to be made in order to be ready for the four hundred volunteers who were about to show up ready to work.  The volunteers consisted of children from the local schools with their teachers, nearby community leaders, and Petrom employees with their families.  They were split into four teams with two of MMV’s coordinators helping each team.  As with all of the season’s plantings, the first several minutes are the most hectic and crucial.  Volunteers come ready to start and tend to rush into things rather than patiently and attentively listening to directions.  In the first half hour of planting the coordinators must make sure that the volunteers are doing it correctly and in an organized fashion.  After that first hour things seem to go rather smoothly.  

Unfortunately, for the coordinators of the two blue teams, things didn’t go so swimmingly that day.  The day before, we identified one of the yellow sections to be the most difficult because if it’s steep grade and tricky terrain, but the blue section ended up being by far the most difficult because of its hard soil.  The soil in the yellow teams’ section was much more sandy and easy to dig, but the soil in the blue teams’ section was difficult to break and volunteers lost their patients.  After giving some instruction, handing out some water, and getting dirty a bit, the blue team coordinators got through the lengthened first half of the day which ended in an awards ceremony for the hard working volunteers.  The second half of the day consisted of cleaning up the planting terrain after the volunteers left and then heading down to the small village of Lesmir to eat and drink with the locals.  Certainly that evening the volunteers and some of the coordinators continued celebrating back at the old hotel in their host city of Marghita.  The next day came early but much less taxing as the group only had to pile back into the vans to embark on another 12 our trip back to the capital.  

The Lesmir trip was only the start of the planting season and it created a team that would come back together as a whole for the final planting in Marsani.  Many of the Lesmir coordinators were involved in the plantings in between the first and the last as well.  All in all, MMV organized seven tree planting activities in the fall of 2011 addressing one of their goals of the reforesting Romania.  At the final and largest planting of the season an impressive 37,000+ trees were planted in an area that you could play beach volleyball on.  We were not planting in soil, it was sand.  Riding the bus away from the planting site you could see large plots of trees planted in the same ground a few years earlier taking nicely to the soil.  Plus, the trees planted were one of my favorites found in Romania, the acacia tree.  Seeing the before and after, and the realization that a forest was just planted was a very rewarding aspect of the project, but certainly not the most rewarding aspect.  Meeting, working with, and getting to know the coordinators was by far the most valuable reward that I gained in this project.  For that I thank MaiMultVerde.  For the coordinators themselves, maybe it was the trees and realizing the positive impact that they can make, maybe it was the smiling faces and the interesting stories of the volunteers they coordinated, or maybe it was getting to know the other coordinators a bit better.  If one of the coordinators happens to read this I kindly ask them to leave their perspectives in the comment section below.  

If you wish to donate to future tree plantings you can donate here.  Ten RON ($3) plants 1 small tree.