In Romania, it is now:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Different Kind of Spring Break

A young Romanian woman on the train back from Moldavia asked Connie and me if we liked Romania, and before we could answer, she shook her head and said "Disappointing, isn't it?" We had just spent six days seeing the glorious painted monasteries of Moldavia and the old medieval capital town of Suceava, a fine symphony concert and botanic gardens of Iasi. We both leaped to disagree and thought it sad that so many Romanians only see the country's problems and not the riches all around them. But WE certainly enjoyed them, taking our spring holiday on the other side of the country in an ancient area we have wanted to see. Getting there was adventure enough--a long train ride from Oradea to Suceava where we stayed for 3 days and then a bus ride to Iasi for a few more days, and finally a 12-hour train ride back to Oradea. When I bemoaned the fact that we were only going about 350 miles (albeit, over mountains some of the way), Connie pointed out the bright side: slow trains mean photo opportunities. So we lowered the window of our compartment or walked into the hall and lowered one on the other side and took boo-coos of shots. The spring weather was wonderful and we saw the awakening fields and fruit trees, the grazing sheep and horses, and industrious farmers and villagers scroll by.****Being in Suceava this time of year was especially fun because it is the home of the famous Easter eggs of Bocavina. At a craft fair in the town square, earnest vendors sold fine traditional pottery, linens, carved spoons, clothing, and eggs, eggs, eggs! These intricately decorated beauties were being sold for only 5 to 7 lei (about $1.65--$2.30) each. I wanted to buy them all! I settled for 15--all different with symbolic traditional markings. Of further interest in the town was a well-preserved-and-maintained village museum where we saw traditional dances along with authentic buildings and tools from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And then we had to see the medieval fortress, lovingly restored in places, presiding majestically over the city, just as Steven the Great (Stefan Cel Mare who fought off the Turkish invaders) would have wanted.**** The next day we and our interesting fellow hostel guests (a Japanese fellow living in Spain, an Indonesian teacher living in France, a Canadian, two Americans and one Romanian) set out for the tour of the painted monasteries. We only had time for the four most impressive ones, which was enough to absorb, I can tell you. What makes these 15th and 16th century churches so special is that the colors of the frescoes on the exteriors of the buildings have remained vivid and stunning all these centuries. The explanation has to do with the composition of the dyes, of course--all from minerals. The sun doesn't bleach out rocks, so the south sides of the churches are still rich and bright. Driving winds and rain, however, erode the dyes, so the north side paintings are all but washed away. The much-beloved bright blue of the Veronet church, for instance, is made of ground lapis lazuli. The paintings, depicting Bible stories but also the fall of Constantinople, the ancient Greek philosophers, a lengthy poem, and local saints and heroes were intended to educate and instruct the illiterate of the day. Could the artists have possibly guessed how long people would be standing and staring at their artwork?****Our stay in Iasi, a city of 338,000 near the border of the Republic of Moldova, was brief, but we got to attend the symphony (Handel's Messiah)and see the country's oldest public university, a few impressive churches, and many monuments honoring their favorite son, the nationally beloved poet Mihai Emanescu. We also spent a splendid afternoon in the botanic garden and the adjoining beer garden. ;-) All in all, the Romania we encountered in this spring-time get-away did not disappoint in the least!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

And Trees in White Stockings

It's spring. Quick! Paint the trees! Everywhere--tree trunks are freshly whitewashed. I (and apparently many others, according to a web search) question the practice. Answers and theories vary widely--many I had already heard from Romanians I asked. Top of the list is that the wash is an insecticide, that it prevents crawling critters from reaching the leaves and fruit to do their damage. Next in popularity is that it protects the bark from "scalding" from the sun, followed by weather-fluctuation protection--bark being damaged by the quick change from freezing temps at night to the daytime warmth of spring sun. But I like the unguarded, honest answer someone let slip out--it just looks neat and tidy, like the trees are cleaned up and fresh. And not just the trees either; notice the concrete communist-era utility poles with their fresh stockings. I really doubt the insects will bother them, right? They just look cleaner. This seems fitting for a country fairly obsessed with cleanliness in their homes and yards and in their personal hygiene. And I have to say that this cleanliness isn't easy here in a country where dish washers and clothes dryers are virtually non-existent, where owning a washing machine is still quite a luxury, where hot water is an iffy prospect, where water pressure is often at the dribble level, and where detergents, shampoo, and deodorant are (relatively) expensive. Recently a fellow PCV wrote this in answer to using her apartment when we visit her city, "the kitchen sink plugs easily and often.... shake the hose under the sink...but know the hose will come out of the wall... it is just resting hold it while you shake...[***] the shower.... you may or may NOT have hot water...some days NO water at all... but saying that you do... the leatherman by the sink turns on the shower water... pull hard .....and know the shower hose leaks and sprays everywhere until you have your hand over the leaks... it is a messy deal taking a shower.... my hygiene has taken a nose dive... here is to your having hot water.." I'm lucky. My apartment always has water, usually hot water, too, if I wait long enough and don't mind dealing with a trickle, and my plumbing is fairly new and in decent shape. I was able to find an expandable rod to install over the tub for a plastic curtain. Romanians don't use shower curtains, managing the hand-held hose with a technique I'd really love to witness. Still, for many Romanians keeping body, clothes and home clean is a major accomplishment and they do it very well. The women take housekeeping seriously and spend inordinate amounts of time making sure the floors and bathrooms--in particular--are clean. No one wears shoes in the home, and slippers are often provided for guests. (If I were an entrepreneur in Romania, I'd start a charming line of guests' slippers in all sizes and styles, washable and snuggly.) Effective cleaning products here are all but canonized, spoken about in reverent whispers--no kidding! So, I salute the clean Romanians and marvel at their resolve. If Cleanliness-is-Next-to-Godliness, then they certainly have a nod from our Maker. Unfortunately, these good habits have not ventured out to where litter abounds at road sides and fields. But then, the white-stockinged trees preside there, giving perhaps a little inspiration.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bunnies, Anthems, and Cold April Showers

Though Easter is twelve days away, it and Earth Day (22nd) are my focus in lessons this week since our spring/Easter break starts after this Friday. So I'm a veritable cornucopia of Easter vocabulary, Easter Bingo, and Easter cookies this week. And I try to have Easter "conversation" at the end of each class where I ask about Romanian traditions and tell about American ones. Both cultures have the decorated eggs (theirs are amazingly intricate and beautiful) and both have the Easter bunny. I thought they were making a joke when I asked what they eat that's special at Easter and they said "Rabbit!" "Oh, no!" I said with mock horror, "You eat the Easter Bunny?!" They assured me yes, but I'll have to find out if it's true. Lamb is eaten, I know, and in rural settings a lamb is killed with a measure of celebration just as the pig was killed at Christmas. My PCV friend Connie and I will be in the northeastern side of the country next week--the area which was once Moldova--to see in particular the famous "painted monasteries." These small Byzantine churches were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, some serving as fortresses against invaders. Their exteriors are painted with vivid religious scenes, an attempt to educate the illiterate masses about Christianity. It seems an appropriate Easter destination. I'm sure I'll have some colorful photos for my next post.*****As for Earth Day, our school's multi-talented documentarian is planning a video shoot this week of our students running through a field, doing chalk drawings on the school's playground, forming a human peace symbol. Saturday I made wreaths of flowers (silk) for the girls to wear in their hair. We've already recorded children singing the anthem, an original tune by the music teacher--in Romanian and in English with my lyrics, based on a loose translation of the original. It was quite an challenge to write the rhyming, perfectly-metered lines for 3 stanzas and a chorus, keeping the general gist of the original. We're planning to put the finished product on YouTube, so I'll give you the link when that happens.*****Alas, the few days of sun last week are history. I caught some lovely sunsets, but now we are in a solid week of rain with temps in the mid 30's at night and the low 50's in the day. It's supposed to clear by Saturday, which will be wonderful because it's the christening day (or blessing day) of baby Elijah, the son of the foster parents at the Roma boys school where I volunteer tutoring. It will be at the small Baptist Church in our village and I've been invited to attend. Let the sun shine in!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hands (Music, Friendship) Around the World

Well, I think it's safe to say Spring has arrived even though days are still a bit chilly for me, but there is SUNSHINE and some fresh new green popping out everywhere. Yesterday I had the good fortune to be invited to a garden gratar (cook out). My friend Felicia, a high school English and French teacher in Oradea, invited me to join her and her husband and assorted long-time friends at their summer cottage in the hills overlooking the city. The cottage and garden have been in her family for generations--through communist requisition and restoration--and is surrounded by similar holdings though newcomers are erecting some two-story large homes that she and her friends regret. There is still a rural feel to the area and yesterday, the first visit of the season, everyone seemed to be in a holiday spirit. Food and drink (as at all Romanian gatherings) were abundant. The husband of one of Felicia's best friends was the chef and presided over the grill with impressive--and jovial--mastery. A couple from Italy also joined us and we were quite the international group--talk sliding from Romanian to English to Italian. Most spoke English--lucky for me (though I'm understanding a little more of what I hear now) and another English teacher whom I had met last week at the speech contest joined us, to my delight. Between courses (yes, courses!) the women took a walk while the men cooked and we visited another gathering of long-time friends at a neighboring cottage. I call a day a golden success when I've spent hours in the sunshine, had my hand kissed numerous times, been cooked for and presented flowers. It was definitely a "Life is Good" kind of day. I noted to my friend and she agreed that Romanians--even those who live in the city as she and her husband do--seem to maintain a connection to the soil. Everywhere I see garden work beginning, even if it's a tiny plot in the front yard. Spring means delving into the soil and planting something, an exercise of hope they've learned to count on. **** I must tell you about another international experience. Thursday night I went to the Oradea Symphony concert. I've mentioned them before--a wonderful group of musicians who perform weekly. I rarely can manage to get into the city on Thursday nights, but I was determined this time. The concert was the third and last of a collaboration with musicians (orchestral and choral) from Japan. It was fabulous! The very distinguished Japanese conductor spoke to the audience in English at the start of the program, asking for a moment of silence for those who were suffering in his country. It was very moving. The program was all Mozart and Handel and at one point during the "fragments" of the Messiah, I thought to myself how surreal to be sitting in a concert hall in Romania, listening to the music of a German composer, performed by Japanese and Romanian musicians and sung in English! The encore was the Hallelujah chorus. Indeed! ***** And I should also mention the "World Peace is in Our Hands" display that my students and I put together at school--everyone had a "hand" in it, so to speak (the feathers are fingers) and I was satisfied with the results, an attempt to prime their thinking as we design a peace mural for the school's entrance. Peace to you, dear readers, in this beautiful primavara.