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!