Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays from Bucharest!

Dragi prieteni,

HAPPY HOLIDAYS and a Happy New Year!

I am currently in Bucharest, Romania watching the snow melt away that accumulated over the past week or so....there still will be enough around to make it a white Christmas. This holiday season will mark another great adventure for me. December 26th Brynne (a special heart & soul) and I will meet in Casablanca, Morocco for a 10 day journey exploring the bazaars of Marrakesh & Casablanca, the sea side of Essaouira and the highlight of the trip...bringing in 2010 under a full moon in the middle of the Sahara desert while on a 3 day desert excursion, treking on the backs of camels, sleeping under the stars and eating authentic Berber cuisine!

I feel the winds of change beginning to blow as that familiar restless feeling gets stronger and stronger. As is the case of the future, 2010 is uncertain but one thing I can say is that it will be full of new adventures, journeys & changes...all of which I patiently await and am ready to embrace with open arms!

Much Love & SUTW

Alex :)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Something to think about...

December 1, 2009
New York Times

Well In Month of Giving, a Healthy Reward

When Cami Walker of Los Angeles learned three years ago that she had multiple sclerosis, her health and her spirits plummeted — until she got an unusual prescription from a holistic health educator.

Ms. Walker, now 36, scribbled the idea in her journal. And though she dismissed it at first, after weeks of fatigue, insomnia, pain and preoccupation with her symptoms, she decided to give it a try. The treatment and her experience with it are summed up in the title of her new book, “29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life” (Da Capo Press).

Ms. Walker gave a gift a day for 29 days — things like making supportive phone calls or saving a piece of chocolate cake for her husband. The giving didn’t cure her multiple sclerosis, of course. But it seems to have had a startling effect on her ability to cope with it. She is more mobile and less dependent on pain medication. The flare-ups that routinely sent her to the emergency room have stopped, and scans show that her disease has stopped progressing.

“My first reaction was that I thought it was an insane idea,” Ms. Walker said. “But it has given me a more positive outlook on life. It’s about stepping outside of your own story long enough to make a connection with someone else.”

And science appears to back her up. “There’s no question that it gives life a greater meaning when we make this kind of shift in the direction of others and get away from our own self-preoccupation and problems,” said Stephen G. Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University on Long Island and a co-author of “Why Good Things Happen to Good People” (Broadway, 2007). “But it also seems to be the case that there is an underlying biology involved in all this.”

An array of studies have documented this effect. In one, a 2002 Boston College study, researchers found that patients with chronic pain fared better when they counseled other pain patients, experiencing less depression, intense pain and disability.

Another study, at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, Calif., also found a strong benefit to volunteerism, and after controlling for a number of variables, showed that elderly people who volunteered for more than four hours a week were 44 percent less likely to die during the study period.

How giving can lead to mental and physical changes in health isn’t entirely clear, although studies suggest that altruism may be an antidote to stress. A Miami study of patients with H.I.V. found that those with strong altruistic characteristics had lower levels of stress hormones.

By contrast, being self-centered may be damaging to health. In one study of 150 heart patients, researchers found that people in the study who had more “self-references” (those who talked about themselves at length or used more first-person pronouns) had more severe heart disease and did worse on treadmill tests.

And like Ms. Walker, numerous people have reported feeling better after helping others. A 1988 Psychology Today article dubbed the effect the “helper’s high.” Analyzing two separate surveys of a total of 3,200 women who regularly volunteered, the article described a physical response from volunteering, similar to the results of vigorous exercise or meditation. The strongest effect was seen when the act of altruism involved direct contact with other people.

For Ms. Walker, a former creative director for an advertising agency, most of the gifts involved time, emotional support or small acts of kindness. After the first 29 days, she began a new cycle, a pattern she continues. Neither she nor Mbali Creazzo, the spiritual adviser who taught her about the month of giving, knows why it is 29 days rather than 30 or 31 — it may have something to do with the lunar cycle, which is 29.5 days.

Ms. Walker says she now approaches daily giving as a crucial part of her treatment, just like regular medication. She has also found new purpose in her experience and started a Web site,, that encourages giving to improve health.

“Giving for 29 days is not suggested as a cure for anything,” Ms. Walker said. “It’s simply a coping mechanism and a simple tool you can use that can help you change your thinking about whatever is going on. If you change your thinking, you change your experience.”

Dr. Post, of Stony Brook, agreed. “To rid yourself of negative emotional states,” he said, “you need to push them aside with positive emotional states.

“And the simplest way to do that is to just go out and lend a helping hand to somebody.”

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Back in Bucharest, working off jet lag, trying to get back in the swing of things Romanian style and again working off jet lag…coming back east of the Atlantic always hits me harder than going the other way. I had an excellent month of October 2009! I returned home to the USA and Grand Blanc, Michigan for the first time in nearly 2 years.


The feeling of seeing my family at the airport on the evening of October 1st was something I cannot describe. Granted we talk on the phone every Sunday afternoon, but there is nothing like the real thing! Within the first week of my return my family and I all ventured out to the city of sin, Las Vegas for some sunshine, gambling and good times. We all had a such a great time out there enjoying the warmer weather, the pool, the food, the atmosphere all that a city like Vegas has to offer. It was the first time in a long time we all as a family were together on a vacation, it was nice for everyone to get a little break from Michigan. As much as I love Romania, there is no place like home. Sleeping in my own bed, reading the New York Times in my dads recliner (one of the most comfortable chairs around), sipping on a Starbuck cappuccino at the breakfast table with my Mom & Dad discussing life everything from little things to really big things, joking around with my brother the only way the Kuch boys can, going on shopping expeditions with my sister, 2 year old niece and Mom on a Saturday afternoon like in the old days, reading a book to my niece with her in my lap absorbing everything like sponge and full of innocence, having family pizza night at my sister & brother-in-laws house, Saturday morning breakfast at the Big Boy in town, celebrating my 28th birthday with a cake, candles & cupcakes…all the little things of just being home.

Friends and So Much More:

Out in Vegas, I was able to reconnect with my buddies Adam, who flew in from L.A. for the weekend and Fever, who lives in Vegas (the reason why we went to Vegas in the first place.) It was great catching up, picking up right where we left off. Fever has actually visited me in Romania, in the village for the last two years, so it was a change to see him without horlinka flowing like water. Where as I have not seen Adam since the last time I was state side, which was December 2007. Days were spent by the pool with my family, Tecate, turkey club sandwiches & fruit plates, nights at Playboy Club and Club Moon with way too much Patron…it was great to get the band back together and have some fun. As if Vegas could not get any better, Brynne, who is such a beautiful soul & woman and very special to me, made a trek from Hawaii to sin city to hang out. It was her first time in Vegas. So despite making our rounds to most of the casinos on the strip we also had a night on the town with Fever up at the Playboy club and club Moon at the Palms. We were also able to catch Cirque du Soleil’s “Love” at the Mirage, a celebration of The Beatles, which was spectacular! In Michigan I was able to also catch up with quite of few friends who I had not seen since my adventures to Romania…there was a lot of talk about up coming weddings, jobs and the good ol’ days etc., which is all pretty standard since we are all approaching our late 20’s and these are things people talk about when their in their late 20’s I suppose. Then towards the end of October, I also made a quick two-day trip out to New York City, and absolutely magical city. It was 2 days of fun to say the least. Eating sushi while drinking sake bombs, open bars at private parties at the Bowery Hotel, brunch with bloody maries in the west village for 4 hours, New York Style pizza at 4 a.m. followed by chipotle burritos just a couple hours later for lunch…need I say more!

It is good to be back in Bucharest where I have a lot of work to catch up on between the two organizations. I was able to speak with my host family in the village a couple of times while state side, but my Romanian is still a bit rusty. So while I am brushing up on that and readapting to life in the big city of Bucharest…I am starting to prepare for the upcoming holiday season. Thanksgiving will be spent back in the village, this time with Brynne as a special guest visitor. Then Christmas holiday off to Morocco to bring in the New Year Moroccan style!

To the journey! S.U.T.W

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

1 year & 10 months

3:45 a.m. Bucharest Otopeni International 2 hours and 15 minutes my journey back to the States and more specifically to Grand Blanc, Michigan begins after 1 year & 10 Months abroad!

To the journeys...

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. – Mark Twain

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How does a lamp burn?

"My Bucharest" in bullet points:

- Discovering all sorts of new places, cultures, foods & people

- The authentic Lebanese restaurant 10 mins from my apartment is so delicious and even affordable on a Peace Corps Volunteers budget, not always the case here in Bucharest...they also have hookah (tobacco water pipes) which is great for digestion after a meal of hummus, falafel, tabule and lintel soup.

- Titan park, 2 blocks from my apartment is my weekday morning, before work running spot as well as my weekend escape from the hustle and bustle of Bucharest streets.

- Division of my labor between the Peace Corps office and MaiMultVerde is about 60%/60% thus I sleep well at night!

- I continued my streak of making it to the Black Sea coast each of the summers I have been in Romania...this year was only for a few days and for a conference but I still made it into the sea for a swim and caught some rays on the beaches.

- Romanian culture is so diverse and varied between its different geographical regions...granted the part of the country I spent my last two year in the village is incredibly unique and Bucharest is definitely a different part of Romania than the rest of the country...I think that is so cool.

- Time is flying even faster since moving to Bucharest than it did the last two years...hold on tight!

- I had forgotten how much I enjoy the hidden beauties, chaos, confusion and fun large cities have to offer...I see myself sticking to them for the next couple of years at is just trying to figure out which ones...that is the trickier part.

- An old woman who lives in my block apartment steals all of our mail and then hand delivers it to our door, ha ha, it is pretty funny and I kind of like it...I do have all of my personal mail sent to the Peace Corps office however. I am still not sure how I will explain to the electricity company though that the reason I am paying the bill late is because "grandma" gave me the bill after the pay date, although I would bet they have one of those "grandmas" at their apartment block as well!

- I finished "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky...brilliant and timeless

- I will be making my 1st trip back to the village this weekend...I am really excited to see all of my friends and family up there, a little concerned about all the food and drink that I will consume Friday, Saturday & Sunday and will be bringing along a separate piece of luggage specifically for all the horlinka I still have up there to bring back down. I have maintained phone call communication with Ion, Angela and the boys on just about an everyday basis since moving down to Bucharest....even my Mom, Dad & Sister in Michigan communicate via email with Angela and the boys, I cant get away with anything, I have eyes watching me all over the world!!

- October 1, 2009 at 15.50 I will be arriving at Bishop International Airport in Flint, Michigan for a one month visit! I am so excited to see my family, my friends and eat all the foods I have missed for the last two years, deliciousness such as burritos, turkey sandwiches, turkey burgers, sushi etc. I am anxious to see how it will be adapting back into life in the states...I used to kind of laugh at the idea of "reverse culture shock" but now I kind of get it.

- Click on these links below...something to think about:

- Lastly I will leave you with a passage given to me by true inspiration...

Do you think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary? What we need is to live without getting tired.

How does a lamp burn? Through the continuous input of small drops of oil. What are these drops of oil in our lamps? They are the small things of daily life: faithfulness, punctuality, small words of kindness, a thought for others, our way of being silent, of looking, or speaking, and of acting. These are the true drops of love.

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies
- Mother Theresa

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Quote of the Day...

Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men.
—Albert Einstein

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bine am gasit!

It has been Four weeks since my move from the village to Bucharest…what are my thoughts? Where to begin?! As hard as it was to leave the village, it was also time for a change of pace for me and boy o boy did I find a change of pace here in Bucharest! No more fieldwork for me…I now spend my time in-between two offices, delivering training sessions to new volunteers, researching potential EU funds for environmental projects while wandering around my new surroundings, getting lost and then found again.

Fortunately, I have been so busy since my arrival in Bucharest, my transition has been pretty natural. Part of me staying with the Peace Corps for a 3rd and moving to Bucharest is I will also be volunteering with local Romanian organization. I was pretty excited about the opportunity of being able to work with a local organization while in Bucharest and was set on gaining some experience in a new field of interest. I had caught wind that a local Environmental NGO in Bucharest expressed interest in working with a volunteer. I was pretty excited about the idea of working in the Environmental sector and getting some new exposures. After reading their website and having my interview with them I was even more enthusiastic about collaborating with them this next year. It was one of the most professional interviews I have ever had in my life…there were four members of the organization who interviewed me all at once, the interview lasted about an hour and twenty one minutes and over 90% of it was all in Romanian. Long story short, I am starting my second week with MaiMultVerde ( and I am really enjoying myself. As an organization they develop and implement a variety of environmental projects ranging from tree plantation, creating a bike rental company in downtown Bucharest to trash clean ups on mountain trails. I will be assisting with the projects department. Working on developing and then implementing the projects into the Romanian real world. Actually in two days I will participate in my first project. There is an International Jazz Festival in Garana, Romania…I am not really sure where it is but I know it is in the mountains, which is all I need to know! MaiMultVerde will be implementing a recycling/trash clean up program on the grounds of the festival and I will tag along to help out any way possible…as the Peace Corps motto goes “Peace Corps, the toughest job you will ever love!”

My Peace Corps world has also been going very well. As soon as I arrived in Bucharest, I took off to a neighboring city about 90 kms northwest outside of the city to lend a hand at the training sessions of a new group of volunteers that arrived in country at the end of May. I stayed there for two weeks and had a really great time getting to know the new group while being able to reminisce about the good old days when I was fresh off the airplane stepping into a whole new world. It is interesting being on this side of training. It has also allowed me to do some self-reflection on how far I have come since May 2007. I remember all the little challenges that used to consume so much of my efforts and energy…things like ordering food, buying bus tickets, having a casual conversation with people on the streets. Now those one time challenges are just part of my normal everyday life.

However in other ways, I do feel like I am back where I started two years ago as a brand new volunteer in a new land and new environment. Granted, it is a major plus having two years of Romanian “real world” experience under my belt and not to mention my Romanian language skills. However, I am meeting all new people, adapting to an all-new situation and being exposed to a whole new culture…Romania as I knew from the village’s perspective, has done a complete 180-degree turn upside down. I really am getting a whole new perspective of Romania.

Despite being extremely busy with work, I have still found time to take advantage of all that there is to take advantage of in a capital city like Bucharest. I have had a coffee at Starbucks, talked via skype to a good friend who is Japan (my first ever Skype call…It is amazing and FREE!), bought some new “city” clothes at a mall that would put most American malls to shame, saw Santana in concert on 4th of July, played a game of Ultimate Frisbee, have seen two movies at a cinema and was even able to play a little tennis the other day. One thing that I have not had too much ambition to do is to drink any of the 12 liters of horlinka I received as gifts before I left the village. I wont lie it is kind of nice having a bit of a break from it but it really is not the same having a glass of it outside of the village without the scenery, the food, the smells, the long days of field work and most of all without my good friends and family back there. I have talked to Ion, Angela and the boys just about everyday since I have arrived in Bucharest…sometimes even twice in a day…with the last question before we hang up always being “When are you coming back for a visit?”

Again what a different world I am living in these days, but as always I have a smile on my face, curiosity in my soul and new adventures within reach…S.U.T.W

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Au Revoir

Underwear? Check! Passport? Check! Visa? Check! Horlinka? Double Check…at least I am hopeful 10 liters of this stuff will last until next time I make it back to the village for a visit! As far away as this day appeared sometimes over the last two years, it has arrived here on my doorstep. This afternoon I will be making the big move to Bucharest after two years in Poienile Izei. History has a funny way of repeating itself. Just over two years ago, I was sitting at my parent’s computer in Grand Blanc, Michigan unable to sleep writing a blog entry trying to prepare myself for the trans-Atlantic journey to Romania as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Well, here I am again, granted in a bit of a different environment, exhausted after a sleepless night of emotions, trying to prepare myself for yet another 14 hour journey, although this 14 hour journey will not take me across oceans but rather across the beautiful and varied landscape that is Romania! My ridiculously large back pack is stuffed full, my normal size pack back is bulging at the seams and an extra duffle bag is on the verge of a “Heavy Load” long as bunica (the grandmother of my host family) does not try to add any more sheep’s cheese, potatoes or garlic to my all ready overflowing collection of our home grown garden I should be fine.
Recently, I would hear myself explain to a neighbor, “Da, o se plec in o saptamana, dar o se fi in Bucurest pentru mai un ani deci pot se vin in apoi pentru visita” and I would think, well at least I still have a week before I leave. Today all of that changed when I climbed on the bus this morning leaving the village for the last time as a volunteer. It has been a whirlwind of a last couple of weeks. First of all, trying to finish up a school year as a teacher is a challenge and from what I can tell that is the case whether you are a teacher in Romania or the United States. I never want to say never, but I have to say I don’t see myself being a middle school teacher, or any kind of teacher for that matter, in the next couple/fifty years! I have total respect and admiration for teachers because now I have been there and I know how challenging and rewarding teaching youth can be. I interviewed each one of my students in a face-to-face English interview. It was very interesting to see the progress many of my students that was in my classes during the last two years with me. It was a nice way to end the year, a very easy "A" for the students, and it allowed me to personally say good-bye to all the little rug rats, even if it was in Romanian! Next on the “Getting ready to move to Bucharest” To Do list was the impossible task of making a point to thank and explain my appreciation to all the great friends I have made in the village over the last two years.
When I arrived in Poienile Izei for the first time I had the same oversized and over stuffed packs, a guitar, an open mind and a smile on my face. The sense of adventure mixed with my eagerness for a new challenge was at the maxim and I knew I had landed in quite a unique place. Despite my confidence and naivety, I was also scared shitless! I was a long way from Sighet, the closest city to the village, let alone from anything that resembled my life back in the States before I left for Romania and I was all alone. Luckily, that feeling of being all alone quickly vanished after met my host family. My first impression of them as great people was way off...they are not great people but rather they are AMAZING people! They welcomed me, a complete stranger from another country into their home and family as if I was a long lost son right from the beginning. It is impossible to explain all the support each one of them have given me since I arrived in the village but as with anything you truly love, you never forget it and no matter how far apart we may be in the years to come Famila Ilies will always have a special spot in my heart. With each and every day, I found and developed my niche as a member of the community and as each and everyday pasted I become more and more integrated and accepted. It would be ridiculous to say my adaptation into the village ways and customs was easy. There were ups and downs, good days and bad days, smiles and tears. Looking back, I think I learned more from the downs, the bad days and the tears than anything else. As all of those challenging moments were always followed by a moment of realization and clarity that kept me motivated, persistent and passionate about what I was doing in the village. But again I had such a great group of friends during my entire time in the village who supported me even if they could not 100% understand what I was going through. Within the hierarchy of the village, I was caught in between two service as a teacher at the school entered me into the "professional" atmosphere of the village while living with my host family I was exposed to the self proclaimed "simple" folk. I have to be honest I felt much more at ease and more on par with the "simple" folk in generally speaking. Unfortunately a lot of the “simple” folk get taken for granted and left in the shadows of the younger generation interest in computers and TV and the politics of the village big wigs. As I was saying “good bye” to all my friends and neighbors yesterday, a lot of the credit for people in the village that helped me to adapt into the culture and everyday life of the village was immediately given to the big dogs in the village…Mayor, School director, Priest etc. Don’t get me wrong there were indeed times when these people did assist me, however it were the conversations on the park bench with the 60 and over club on Sunday afternoons, it were the hand blistering trips to the fields and forests with my host family and it were the meals of corn meal, pig fat and horlinka (peasant food) that helped refine my language skills, build real friendships and gave me a sense of belonging in the village. These people, the “simple” folk are the heart & soul of the village and they deserve much more credit they are given and what they will accept. Interestingly enough these same “simple” folk are the ones who, when I gave them a kiss on both sides the cheek and hug good bye and said “thank you so much for all you have done for me,” humbly accepted their compliment and immediately gave the credit to someone else much less deserving.
Thank you Poienile Izei for one hell of a ride, I will see you all out Bucharest here I come!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


I have a hard time letting any grass grow between these toes. As spring has arrived here in North Central Romania so has a bit of cabin fever. As soon as we were done plowing our fields and planting our potatoes, Orthodox Easter was around the corner. As a result, I had a week vacation from school and since I had spent last year in the village to celebrate Easter I decided this year I would take the opportunity to visit & reconnect with part of my family heritage in Ukraine. The family tree gets complicated and very confusing, so long story short, my grandma’s father on my dad’s side of the family was born in a small village outside of Chernovtsy, Ukraine. Thus, I have some distant relatives that still live in this village and as well as Chernovtsy. I made my way over, well around, the Carpathian Mountains over to the northeastern part of Romania. From the city of Suceava, Romania I caught a bus, it was more of a soviet era boat on wheels with pulled dark red curtains and a poster of a topless women taped up behind the driver. I was warmly welcomed into Chernovtsy, Ukraine by some distant relatives with hugs, kisses and a plenty of conversation in Russian & Ukrainian that I could not understand a word of! That was one thing entering into Ukraine and observing the road signs that passed us by, I had not even a clue what they said. However, I love an adventure of any kind and I looked at the language barrier while in Ukraine just as another adventure. I was spoiled though, the wife of Ivan, one of the distant relatives, Luda speaks and understands English pretty well, their daughter in law is part Romanian and thus speaks Romanian and a lot of people in general in Chernovtsy speak Romanian…Chernovtsy used to be apart of Romania and was actually the capital city of the northeastern region Bucovina. Ivan and Luda took me to there home and made me feel extremely welcomed. Naturally, there was a feast of a meal with never ending portions, all of which was excellent, with an American flag on the table to make me feel welcome and a shot or two of vodka! The Ukrainian vodka that I drank was excellent…very smooth and clean, even more so than the top shelf vodkas I had drank in the U.S. and being more than half the price. I was fortunate to have Ivan and Luda’s daughter in-law seated next to me at the dinner table those first couple hours as I was able to express how excited I was to be in Ukraine and how thankful I was for them to take me in and make me feel like a part of their family, no matter how distant we are. I spent the first two days with Ivan & Luda showing me all around Chernovtsy, which is a beautiful university city with a lot of character. I visited Chernovtsy’s grand bazaar, a bit different than the one in Istanbul, but of the same idea, you can find anything from a new/used car to a wedding dress. Ivan is quite the comedian, so while he does not speak very much English nor I any Russian or Ukrainian, he would approach usually the best looking young women he could find to ask if they spoke Romanian (which most did) and ask them to translate what he wanted to tell me. This discussion was always followed by the women blushing when Ivan told them I was a single 27-year-old American who speaks Romanian and would they be interested in having coffee with us later, ha ha! Before I arrived in the Ukraine I mentioned to Ivan & Luda that if it were possible I would like very much to visit Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev. Just to explain how hospitable and wonderful these people are, when I arrived they handed me a round trip bus ticket with a two day itinerary for Kiev! So, after visiting all around Chernovtsy for the first couple of days, I took a 21:00 bus 500 kilometers to Kiev. After a 12-hour bumpy bus ride through the night I was greeted at the Kiev bus station by one of Ivan & Luda’s son, Sasha…that is short for Alexander. Sasha is also 27 years old and is a third year attorney at a private firm in downtown Kiev. It was around 6:30 in the morning so the natural thing to do was grab some breakfast. We arrive at his centrally located, communist style block, bachelor pad apartment with open beers in hand and two more in the bag. After the beers were completed we moved on to the next serving, fried eggs with rye bread and it all finished off with one shot of vodka! After a brief nap, I was feeling revived from the lack of sleep from the night before and we hit the city streets. Kiev is BEAUTIFUL! It is a large city but with a very comforting feel to it. It is a very old with great architecture. The streets are filled with all sorts of people from all over the world and everyone dressed to the tens, especially the women all dressed very stylish and elegant. As I walked around, It was hard not to be distracted by the simple beauty of all the Orthodox Churches gold plated circular domes. Everything I observed in Kiev from the many large green parks to the subway system are all very well maintained and clean. It was great to be back in a large city again and soak in as much of a new culture as possible. Kiev has moved right up there next to Istanbul as great cities I have visited so far! My two days in Kiev went by too fast, but Easter Sunday was a couple days away so Sasha and I were back on a 21:00 bus from Kiev to Chernovtsy to be back for Orthodox Easter. Easter Sunday was quite the day. I woke up at 5:00 in the morning to go with Ivan & Luda to the main Orthodox Church in Chernovtsy. All the city streets were jammed packed with cars and families carrying their Easter baskets in hand. Everyone made long rows with their baskets and patiently waited for the priests to come out and bless the baskets as well as themselves with holy water. After our Easter basket and we were soaked with holy water we headed to the village where my grandmother’s father was born and raised before leaving for the states. I was very very excited about this visit to the village. I arrived and was immediately greeted by 5 elderly women and 1 elderly man who all grab me at once and did not let go the whole afternoon I was there! Everyone was hugging and kissing me while crying, even the man, Stephan, gave me a wet one right on the lips, ha ha…and all talking to me in Ukrainian/Russian! It was quite a scene to say the least! My grandmother Helen, had visited the village before she passed away many years ago and they were all very excited to see Helen’s grandson Alexander, me…the whole time I was in Ukraine, everyone called me Alexander not Alex which I really liked. Luckily, there was a friend of a friend’s brother’s cousin who was there and spoke Romanian, so I was able to understand all they were telling me and vice versa. It was quite exhausting listening so attentively trying to pick up a word here or there in Ukrainian, hear the translation in Romanian, break it all down and then respond back in Romanian, let alone while everyone is talking so anxiously at once! Their village is much larger than the one I live in Romania and is much different. However, there were many aspects of their lives that I knew much about from my time spent in Romania, such as agriculture and fieldwork! Never in my life would I notice the difference between the soil in a Ukrainian village to that of a Romanian one and the difference in haystacks from one country to another, but I do and I did! They all laughed with amazement when I told them I had just planted potatoes with my host family in Romania and that I had no problem using an outhouse. The women cooked up quite the feast of traditional cuisine, which was all very similar to what I eat at my village in Romania and very good, maybe not the best for my cholesterol but oh well! Obviously before we began our feast we all had shot or two of Vodka…the tradition I learned when drinking in vodka in Ukraine is you do 3 shots, each with a different toast, when I asked what each of the toasts represented, they all laughed and said the only remember the 3rd one which is to the women in your life or future wife if that is that case, and then they started in, just like all my friends and neighbors do in Romania, “I have a grand daughter or a niece or a friend of a friends sister that you should meet,” ha ha! As much as I enjoyed eating sushi at a hip new sushi bar in downtown Chernovtsy and sipping a delicious cappuccino with a beautiful Ukrainian women on a street corner in Kiev there is something to be said about getting back to the roots of life, so to speak. 19 people sitting down to a table that only has room for 10 maxim, plates of home cooked food and drink pouring off the table with people that just an hour ago where complete strangers in a village in Ukraine that I cant even pronounce the name of… eating, drinking, laughing, sharing stories with not a worry in the world! I have always been a believer in the “little things in life” and I tell you taking the time to sit on a tree trunk on a crystal clear Easter Sunday talking about cow manure and apple trees with good hearted people, who come close to tripling me in age is actually one of the “little things” that makes life that much better. I left the village full to the brim, a bit tipsy from the vodka, wonderful stories of my Grandmother Helen and a huge smile on my face.

Once Easter was over so was my time in Ukraine. I was able to squeeze in some Russian billiards with Ivan & Luda’s oldest son, Tolec and some of his friends…by the way Russian billiards is played on a large billiards table with smaller pockets and larger balls and with different rules thus it is really difficult but still a good time especially with some chilled Russian beers! Ivan and Luda, decided it would be better for me if they just drove me 150 kilometers southwest to the border of Ukraine and Romania, where I could cross the border into Romania and I was only 50 kilometers away from the village…just another example of the amazing kindness.

I had a wonderful time in Ukraine and it was just the right kind of “get away” I needed! Also, with having learned a bit more about this one part of my “Diverse” family heritage, I can only wait until I make it to Malta and get in touch with the Maltese part of my blood line!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Journey Continues...

It started back around November/December of last year…the anxiety and stress of what the hell I am going to do when my 27 month service as a Peace Corps volunteer comes to an end in July of this year. I am a constant thinker to begin with, there is always something turning in my head, some kind of idea or crazy day dream, which is good but can also be over whelming at times and lead to many sleepless nights while trying to figure future plans. To say the least I was beginning to feel the pressure as I thought past summer 2009. I came to Romania as a volunteer to see another part of the world, help others, learn a new culture and language while hopefully learning some things about myself and maybe even begin to figure out what I want out of life…in other words, to SHAKE THINGS UP a bit. Indeed I have learned a wonderful new culture, can speak the Romanian language very well, have seen parts of the world I only used to dream about and I would even dare say I have a better understanding of who I am as a person after these 27 months in Romania. As far as what I want out of life…it is a bit trickier but I want to keep being international in this ever shrinking world we live in, learning new languages and cultures, interacting with people from all around the world, help others where I can and continue to challenge myself while seeking new exciting and unique adventures. I arrived at a point where I literally wrote out a list of all the major interest, influences, skills, likes, dislikes I have regarding what I wanted to do. I have to say, creating this list was a very useful way for me to realize that I have a restless & curious soul that will not allow me to settle for anything less than I am capable of and to accept that. I was researching companies’ website from London to India, looking at requirements for graduate schools from Denver, Colorado to Cairo, Egypt and day dreaming about living on the beaches of Costa Rica all the way to the hustle and bustle of Taqim Square in down town Istanbul and everywhere in between. Meanwhile, I put my name in a pool of many other strong candidates to stay in Romania for a third year for an assignment that would move me to Bucharest, Romania’s capital city, while still working as a volunteer but not as a teacher of English. The job description explained it as a Volunteer Leadership position where the volunteer would split his/her time 50% with the Peace Corps Romania based out of their office assisting with volunteer support and the other 50% with a Romanian NGO. I have a lot of respect, pride and enthusiasm for what the Peace Corps does and represents, especially Peace Corps Romania, so I figured the possibility of sticking around for a third year could only add to my already wonderful experience I have had in Romania. While doing plentiful research into continuing my career in International Relations, I was beginning to realize more international experience with a combination of a graduate degree of some sort would be critical. Thus with my mind set on applying for a third year with Peace Corps Romania, I also decided to put out an application at The American University in Cairo, Egypt for a masters degree in International Relations. For all the work that it takes to write letters of intent, request letters of recommendation, order and send transcripts across the world, fill out on-line applications with limited internet access and complete interviews…I think waiting around to hear if you are accepted or not is even more daunting! After I sent in both of these applications and was waiting around to hear what my next move would be, I wrote out another list of what I would do if neither of these two options worked out…well the list actually turned into a small size notebook chuck full of web addresses, ideas and day dreams covering every inch of the world! Each night I would put myself to sleep with a different scenario grinding out the details and logistics…one night I would be figuring out how to get to France and learn French for a year or two, the next night it was finding a NGO to work for that would get me to Africa, after that wondering if my buddy Fever could get me a job as a pool boy with him at the Palms casino’s pool in Vegas etc. etc. Not only have I probably put a few more grey hairs on my Mom and Dad’s hair with each new idea and day dream but I think my sister and brother-in law’s as well…”You want to go where!? Just when we thought we had heard it all, you always find a way to surprise us!” they would often exclaim on our weekly Sunday conversations. Truth is, with out having them to bounce ideas off of and explain my madness too, I would have been a bigger mess than I was already…Thanks guys, you all are the BEST!! Then all of a sudden, last week just when I thought the graduate school had forgot about me…there it was in my e-mail’s inbox, I had been accepted into the International Relations masters program at American University in Cairo! The smile still has not faded away, I am very excited and proud of being accepted into their program…however I still had not heard any news from Bucharest regarding my application for a third year in Bucharest, so the nerves were still running on edge. Going into this whole situation, my primary goal was to be accepted into a third year assignment in Romania. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity that is only possible right now, where as grad school will always be there. Then finally, two days ago, I received the news I had been waiting not so patiently for…I had been accepted for a third year extension in Romania as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader! I have deferred my admissions to graduate school for fall of 2010 and hope it will all work out for me to make it to Egypt. However, for now I am just focused on finishing up my last few months here in the village, savoring all the great things I love about this village that has been my home for the last two years! Then, once school is out in the middle of June I will make the move from this 1,000 person traditional village to the 3 million person, mega-city that is Bucharest…talk about culture shock! I am very excited and eager about the new life, challenges and experiences that wait for me in Bucharest. My “What the Hell I am going to do!?” notebook can be stowed away for now at least, but knowing how fast time slips away when I am having fun I am sure it wont be long before it is back out on my desk again…TO THE JOURNEY!!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Beautiful City

While on the 14-hour train ride from Sighet to Bucharest, I had plenty of “quality” time to daydream and get excited about my imminent trip to Istanbul, Turkey. I have never been much on doing a lot of research and planning for trips, I prefer the “shoot it from the hip” and “I will figure it out when I get there” methods of travel. Thus, my trip to Istanbul was no exception. Besides arranging a place to crash for the first two nights, the rest was all up in the air, just the way I prefer it. Honestly, the 14-hour train ride to Bucharest on top of the 21-hour train ride to Istanbul was not as bad as I thought it would be. A lot of this had to do with the fact I was traveling with my buddy Mike, another volunteer and as chance would have it a Turkish man named Ali, who was entertaining to say the least. Ali’s topics of conversations revolved around women, politics and conspiracy theories, in that order! As we were making our way through Bulgaria, we happened to make friends with a Bulgarian train controller, who claimed he was “THE” train controller of train controllers in Bulgaria. The train stopped somewhere around Sophia, for a period of time to change and add wagons. At the station we were at, there was a little store/restaurant/bar, that “THE” Bulgarian train controller invited us to, for as he described “The Best Kebab in Bulgaria,” you don’t have to ask me twice I was out of the train before he could finish the word kebab! Just for reference, it is about mid-night at this point in our journey. Once we are seated at the table, the women behind the counter demanded while also asking us “3 kebabs, 3 beer!?” We just smiled and nodded, yes. I am no food guru, but I do know the difference between a kebab and a non-kebab. I observed the women open a freezer door pull out three white hamburger patties and pop them in a microwave. Mean while, our conductor friend was sipping on a small coffee cup, that obviously did not have coffee in it, repeating “Americans… Kebabs” with a bright white grin on his face. To this day, I am not sure what we ate that evening, but it was a damn good non-kebab whatever it was. After washing down the mystery meat with a local Bulgarian beer, my buddy Mike asked our controller friend, while pointing at his watch if we should be boarding the train soon. The controller, laughed out loud, took another sip from his coffee cup and said, “the train leaves when I say it leaves…as long as you are with me you are fine,” while raising his coffee cup to offer cheers. The man was true to his word, after a few phone calls in Bulgarian that sounded a lot like Russian, he motioned for us to board the train and I will be damned if that train did not start moving as soon as we all stepped on board…Nine hours later, hello Istanbul.
I have always respected the expression “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Well, Istanbul’s first impression on me was an impressive one to say the least. Immediately, I felt a soft, colorful vibe of the city. The streets were spotless and full of life. For a city the size of Istanbul, 12-13 million, it is impeccably clean…even if you want find a gum wrapper on the street you will be hard pressed to find one. As we searched for our hotel, men trying to steer us into their restaurant or store, greeted us. They were never pushy; it was all very friendly, genuine and clever, while obviously trying to make a sale. The city’s many Mosques were also another strong first impression. Structurally they are they simple, ornate and absolulty stunning (see picture.) The first time I heard the call to prayer, the prayer called from Mosques from speakers on each Minaret, chills rushed down my spine, which was what happened every time I heard it through out the whole trip. However, it is the Turkish people and culture that make Istanbul my new favorite city in the world I have visited so far. Everyone we came in contact with was friendly, warm, engaging and very hospitable. The best term I have to describe the Turkish people and culture is, classy.
I had just set foot in this city but already I had a good feeling for it, one that just grew stronger as the days went by. Finally, reaching the hotel Mike and I meet up with Liz, another volunteer, took a much-needed shower and hit the streets. First stop was to the Grand Bazaar. If I had read a tourist’s guidebook to Istanbul, without question the Grand Bazaar would be number one on the list, but if it is not, it should be. The Grand Bazaar is a giant market where you can find just about anything, and you cannot find it just ask, because more times than not it will be found for you. To be honest, it was a bit over whelming the first time walking around. First of all it is massive, with all these little side paths, all jammed pack with vendors selling everything from gold, silver, scarves, leather and the world-renowned Turkish rugs…and the whole time bargaining for the so called right price, a definite sensation overload. Again, each vendor is unique and full of personality to catch your attention and hopefully land a sale. I could see how some might find this a bit aggressive and maybe uncomfortable, but I loved it! The first carpet store we were convinced to visit was a lot of fun. The gentleman helping us, spoke excellent English, as do most in Istanbul, and seemed like a genuine salesmen, if there can be such a thing! First things first, tea…he did not mention a word about rugs or carpets until well into our second glass of tea, which is customary, piping hot, sweetly delicious and on the house. Then once we started on rugs it was all encompassing…big ones, small ones, thick ones, thin ones, double knotted, single knotted, traditional, modern and prayer ones etc. Most vendors I encountered in the Bazaar practiced the true and traditional sense of salesmanship, the customer is always right. You cannot come up with an excuse that will stump these guys…if you tell them you do not have room in your suitcase, they will wrap it right there and ship it to you, if it is not the right color, they will find you the right color, if it is too expensive, which it always is, you bargain for what you think is the right price. I enjoyed this type of consumer environment compared to just walking into a store, picking something out, paying for it and leaving, often never even talking to anyone. Not only was it entertaining but also each purchase has a story behind it.
We crossed the Bosporus river and landed on the other part of Istanbul that is settled in Asia. This was my first but not last time in Asia. The Asian side of Istanbul was much more low key, less touristy and traditional, or so it seemed. Other highlights of the trip, included visits to many Mosques including the famous Blue Mosque (see picture) which were all very welcoming as well as informative in regards to understanding Islam and its faith…each Mosque we entered was simply beautiful, ornate with an powerful sense of devotion. We also wandered in the Hagia Sophia; Takim Square that absolutely blew me away with how crowed it was especially during the off-season. Raki is the traditional drink, with a flavor very similar to Greece’s Uzo or Italy’s Sambuca. It was refreshingly tame compared to the village’s horlinka, served with equal part water and on ice. Also, it was often served with a bowl of mix nuts and or a creamy, salted white cheese. As you might expect the food was exquisite and full of flavor. Turkish coffee lives up to its reputation of strong, delicious and sweet. Smoking fruit or mint-flavored tobacco from a water pipe, nargile, was another customary tradition we enjoyed in many of the relaxed, vibrant, friendly cafes that line the streets of Istanbul. Just before we boarded the train for our return trip to Bucharest, we visited a Turkish bath, which involves getting washed actually forcefully scrubbed is a better verb as I am pretty sure I lost a few layers of skin in the process, massaged and rinsed in a sauna like room. It was a perfect way to end the trip and a great way to prepare for a 20-hour train ride back to Bucharest.
Just like any trip to a new place, the time flew by and 6 days was not nearly long enough. I am not convinced 26 days would be enough for a city like Istanbul…that’s why next time I go there, it might just be with a one-way ticket!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Nu Mai Bine

To say I have a holiday hangover is a vast understatement! Holiday season 2008 is in the books and I have to say it went down as one of the most unique holidays of my life. If I could not have been back in Michigan with my family, then there is no other place I would have rather been, than here in the village. I was not really feeling the Christmas Cheer, as the December 25th was only a week away. I am so used to being back in Michigan, with all the decorations, Christmas songs and fighting the crowds as Somerset mall picking up last minute Christmas gifts it was difficult to find it. The Monday before Christmas Day, I was sent to Sighet, the closest big city to me about 50 km away, by my host family to pick up some last minute items. I thought the lines at J.Crew were long the last few days before Christmas, but they don’t even come close to chaos that was at one of the major grocery stores in Sighet! Literally it was shoulder to shoulder, grandmas fighting over tomatoes and old men filling their arms with cases of beer, and that was just in the aisles. I waited in line for over one hour in line to pay and they had about 10-12 cashiers open and running…it was the kind of Christmas spirit I needed! I arrived home stressed out, over whelmed and wet…it poured cats and dogs all freaking day, but it was feeling a bit more like Christmas. Tuesday morning I woke up to help put the finishing touches on our Christmas tree…which was hand cut and dragged from one of the surrounding forests, just a quick side note, we had this tree for 4-5 weeks, not once was it put in water and even the day we took it down there was not one pine needle that fell from it, talk about organic…any way, I woke up to a winter white wonderland. Just in time for the big day, the rain and mud turned to huge snowflakes and ice! A few of my friends who were staying in Romania for the holidays decided to come up for all of the traditions. As they trickled in on Christmas Eve, all the kids were getting ready for the big day of caroling. The boys I live with made the opportunistic decision of “quantity not quality”, meaning instead of focusing on the houses that traditional give the big bucks, they were just going to hit up every singe house in the village. The young children start caroling in the early afternoon so they are not out all night, followed by the adults in the evening. I had built up this caroling thing pretty big in my own head but also to all my friends who came to visit, I did not let them down! It was almost 11:03 p.m. when “our” troop of carolers arrived at our house, as we were the first of the houses on the list. As the group of about 25 villagers caroled on our door step, I was running around like a mad man on direct orders from Ion to find as many shot glasses as I could find and the largest bottle of horlinka we had, let the night begin. It was difficult to properly introduce all of my American and Danish friends…one of my Peace Corps buddies who came up brought two of his buddies from Denmark…I was not sure how it was all going to work, the Danes did not know more than 3 ½ words in Romanian, I was not sure how comfortable the others were with their Romanian and the villagers don’t speak English. As I was giving hugs and kisses to all my villager friends I noticed out of the corner of my eye, Angela’s brother Vasile, right in the middle of the clump of Americans and Danes shot in hand, yelling “La Multi Ani” I should have known better, horlinka brings everyone together, it really builds bridges between cultures and languages! It is difficult to explain in words the amount of hospitality, warmth and openness these people have in the village, you really have to be here to see it, sense it and most of all feel it. There was not one moment of awkwardness. Immediately, my friends from the village were talking with my American and Danish friends, offering them their seat at the table, their food and their drink…in their own house non the less. In total, there were nine houses to be visited, I remember walking between our first or second house and all my English speaking friends coming up to me with their cheeks a bit rosier from a combination of the crisp cool winter and moonshine strong horlinka saying they have never seeing anything like this.

One thing about strong traditions, there is not much variety. Each and every house was exactly the same thing…the same carol at the door step, shots of horlinka, followed by glasses of beer, all the cabbage rolls you could eat, appetizer meat balls and cheeses on the table all capped off with cakes and pies…don’t get me wrong, every thing I just mentioned was absolutely amazing but it was just interesting how not one house varied from the program! At the first two houses, us English speakers were making an effort to pick up a few words of the Romanian Carol that was being sung but this was made a bit more difficult after a few shots of horlinka. On the other hand, after a few shots of horlinka, the confidence and courage levels tend to rise, thus we eventually piped out a Christmas carol or two in English. However, the highlight of the night was having my two Danish friends sing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer in Dutch, defiantly a first in the village! I was unable to complete the full circuit of all nine houses, as one of the Danes had had his fill of all the food and drink and thought it wise to head home…I wont lie it is probably best that I did not continue on to the last two houses either. I told him I would walk him back to the house, when he insisted that he knew the way back and that he would be fine, a perfect example of the liquid courage effect that is horlinka…on the walk back I asked him at each intersection whether the house was to the left or right, was it this house or the next…it was good I walked him back, if not he may have ended up sleeping in a pig trough somewhere! Needless to say we did not make it to the Christmas morning service at the church. Christmas day is just like Christmas Eve, in the sense that children do some more caroling, as do the adults who have rebounded from the night before.

I have a Peace Corps neighbor, Ben, in a village about 8 km away from my village. He also had some other Peace Corps Volunteers come up for Christmas. We decided we would all meet up on Christmas day for a little gift exchange. After shaking some of the cobwebs out of our head Christmas afternoon, my friends and I made the hike over to Botiza. The fresh air was nice and it helped to get the blood pumping a bit after the previous night. Once we arrived at Ben’s apartment, we sat around and chatted about how much fun Caroling was the night before, ate homemade Christmas cookies and eventually opened up our respective was really nice spending the holiday with everyone there because we were all in the same boat, away from home for the holidays but together in Romania.

As the weekend after Christmas arrived, all of my friends had left, I finally had my own house to myself…I gave it up to my friends and I crashed on the couch in the dining room with my host family’s boys…I slept from Saturday afternoon until Sunday afternoon! It is a lot of work being the host and obviously I had not slept a whole lot over the previous 4-5 days, so I took advantage. When I awoke on Sunday afternoon, Bunica (my host family grandmother) thought I was sick and was really concerned,she spoils me rotten, I told her I was just tired from Christmas and she laughed and made some fried potatoes for me. A bit later in the afternoon, I found out a gentleman who was born in the village, who was a big shot commander in the Romanian Military under communism and who I had helped this past fall dig a foundation for a vacation house he wanted to build, had unexpectedly passed away. I did not know the man very well, like I said I spent a Saturday afternoon with him and my neighbors this fall and we chatted a bit about life in Romania. However, I figured it was the right thing to do to attend the service and pay my respects. I lingered in the back of the crowd allowing others to get closer and have a better view; in general I am head and solders taller than most villagers. I was holding my candle and trying to keep warm, it was an outside service and it was brisk to say the least, when the gentleman’s son caught my attention and waved me up to the front next to the casket, so much for laying low. He gave me a 3 ft tall candle with a towel to hold around it and asked me to stay up front next to the casket, next to family and close friends. All attendees of the service burn candles, most of them are short, thin church candles. However, close friends and family are given the much larger, taller, stronger candles. I was a little uncomfortable up there, next to the man’s children, grandchildren and relatives…oh and of course the village mayor and priest who was giving the service, but I took it as a huge compliment. As the casket was carried through the village to the grave yard next to the church, the gentleman’s widow came up to me and told me when her husband returned to her after working on the foundation of their new house in the village, he mentioned how there was an American out there digging with everyone else, laughing and joking along the way. She told me that he was very impressed with what I was doing in the village and that is why she had asked me to stand in the front with the candle. I thanked her for her kind words, gave her my condolences and told her how friendly her husband was to me that afternoon and that I was honored to be up there holding a candle.

Just when I had all intentions of staying in the village for New Years and helping my host family with the 8 tourists that were coming up from Cluj to celebrate the New Years, I was invited to a small cabin (see pic) in the mountains with one of Angela’s cousins, Petre. It was probably one of the best New Years Eves that I have ever had in my life. Why? Well the thing I hate about New Years Eves is that there are such strong expectations of having the best night of your life it is very difficult to live up to those expectations. Also, New Years Eve is the one night that everyone goes to restaurants, bars and clubs, even if someone does not go out the whole year, there is a good chance they will be hitting the town on New Years Eve…also known as amateur night. So when I thought about heading up to an old, refurbished mountain refugee cabin next to a mountain, I was excited for something new. My friend Petre and his buddies are big time mountain climbers, hikers, mountain bikers, skiers…pretty much anything involving the outdoors. A couple of years back they came across this old refugee, which was fully functional under communism. Following the revolution, it was striped of everything except the walls and its roof. Petre and his buddies asked around and no one seemed to claim ownership to it so they slowly but surely rebuilt it back to life. There is a strong Iron door with the craftiest lock system I have ever seen and they filled in the one widow with cement, after it was bashed out and everything with the slightest bit of value stolen. They have added 3 wooden beds, a wood burning stove, a table and a bench. There is an attic up stairs where 4 can sleep comfortably so with the 3 beds downstairs, capacity is ideally 7, however they inform me 25 is the record to date. Each day we went out for water, there is a natural spring 15 minutes down the path, we chopped wood for the fire, they had large dry pieces of wood from this fall under the beds so it was just a matter of chopping them down to size, we built a bon fire for New Years Eve, we climbed to the top of Crestul Cocosului translated into English as the Roosters peak, in reference to the shape of the peak looking like a roosters head, I learned how to cross-country ski and we just chilled. There is no electricity, so after sun down we lit candles, sat at the table, listened to a battery powered radio that we brought along, drank beer, wine and horlinka (you think my host family would let me leave the house for New Years with out the liquid gold, ha!) talked, joked, ate toast off the top of the cast iron stove top of the wood burning stove (the best toast in the world) and laughed until we were tired. There were three of us who slept down stairs and we were each responsible for waking up and different hours of the night to put more wood on the fire, so we would not freeze. Each morning, no one did anything until we all drank at least two cups of coffee. There was not a whole lot of snow but enough to paint natural scenery beautiful enough to represent all that is wonderful about life. All around it was just a great time with great people in a great atmosphere…I am thinking of creating a tradition for future New Years Eves, spending them on a different mountain side each year with outdoorsy souls and a sleeping bag.

Just as I arrive back into the village, feeling revived after my time in the mountains, trying to get back in the school mind set and thinking the holiday that has just past was amazing, I was informed that holiday was not quite over! On Wednesday January 7, 2009 was Saint Ion’s day. With half of the village being named Ion, Ionel or Ionut it is a big deal. Despite the official date of school beginning after the winter vacation being January 5th no one should up until January 8th, after Saint Ion’s day. January 5th was also the day when the priest came to every single house in the village to bless the families, houses and allow them to kiss his cross; I however missed out on this as I had not arrived back from the mountains yet. This gets us to Tuesday January 6th, officially the day before Saint Ion’s day. As luck would have it, the husband of my host family is Ion, his son is Ionel, they have uncles and godparents also named Ion and Ivan, which apparently falls under the Ion umbrella as well, and came into the village to celebrate. My buddy Petre had driven me back to the village and since he is my host family’s family decided to stay and enjoy the festivities. Honestly, I am not sure which was more of a spectacle, caroling on Christmas Eve or celebrating Saint Ion’s day the night before Saint Ion’s day…I am leaning towards Saint Ion’s day the night before Saint Ion’s day. There was an never ending supply of cabbage rolls, meatballs, ham rolls, cakes, pies, horlinka, beer, wine and I will be damned if there was not a bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey on the table. We start with everyone at our house for food and drinks. After 2-3 hours, we ventured…it really is an adventure when you have 8-9 guys drunk off of horlinka, beer and Jameson walking down the street dancing and singing at the top of their lungs…over to Angela’s parents house for another 2-3 hours of the exact same thing we had experienced, ate and drank the previous 2-3 hour at our house. Out of mere survival I have come up with maneuvers of getting out of taking shots of horlinka when I have had enough…I have acted like I was talking on my cell phone with no one on the other line, went to use the bathroom but choosing the out house instead of the in house bathroom and going for a bit of a walk instead, and the ever so cleaverly act like I take the shot but only put it to my lips and never actually take a sip…however this one only works when there is a large group with everyone a bit tipsy and talking really loud, so they are not focusing on you. Also, you must be close enough to the bottle so you can offer to pour the next round of shots so it looks like your glass has just been refilled. This may sound bad and dishonest but after spending a night drinking with these guys, trust me you will understand and thank me for my advice! At some point we make it back to our house where Angela served up some more cabbage rolls and my personal favorite, apple cake, oh and just for good measure a glass of Ursus beer, the king of Romanian beers.

With Holiday Season 2008 finally in the books, it is now time to prepare for the arrival of 2009! Personally, I am looking to 2009 with a lot of hope, optimism and excitement, not to mention January 20th 2009 when Mr. President Barack Obama enters office…Peace, Love and Change!