Sunday, June 3, 2007

My First Two Weeks

I’m sorry that my last couple posts were pictures without any explanation. I was in a hurry. My internet time has really been limited so far, since I only have access at the training site (a local middle school). Many volunteers who brought laptops with wireless capabilities have been able to make use of the internet cafes in Ploiesti.

If you’re wondering why I took a picture of the canopy-thing, it’s because that’s Harry’s, a favorite hang-out for us trainees. The guy with the computer is one of my fellow trainees, Dan. Also included with the pictures of Ploiesti was a shot of my bedroom (as you may have guessed), as well the view from my window. My gazda family lives in a bloc apartment, on the third floor. They have a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom and a bathroom.

In the pictures of the picnic/barbeque my gazda tata (father) is the one wearing the baseball cap, his name is Vasile. My gazda mama, Florina, is the one posing next to the flowers. The guy with white hair at the grill is Gigi, and his wife Nutzi is the one with the cat. The barbeque was at Gigi and Nutzi’s house, which is located right outside Ploiesti. They have about 1-1.5 acres, and nearly all of it is used to grow fruits and vegetables. They had grapes, strawberries (the strawberries were awesome by the way), pears, sweet cherries, sour cherries, apples, lettuce, cabbage, onions, potatoes, beans, radishes, etc, etc. They also have a few dogs, some very fat rabbits and many chickens. They were incredibly hospitable (in fact I’ve found most people here are). We had pork soup, cabbage salad, bread and mici (pronounced meech, and literally translates to ‘smalls’). Mici is some sort of sausage, I think it’s made out of pork. My tata, Vasile, told me it’s like hamburger. It certainly looks like hamburger, especially when raw, but mici is much saltier and has some spices. It was really pretty good, especially grilled. Gigi broke out a two-liter bottle of beer for the meal. That’s right, two liters! For me it’s still a novelty to think that Romanian grocery stores sell beer in soda bottles. The beer here has been pretty good so far, but Romanian wine is even better. Many people make their own wine and many also make tuica, a type of plum brandy.

The Food:
I’ve only been here for about two weeks, but in my experience so far it seems like soup is a big deal. Nearly everyday Florina makes me a different variety of chicken soup. She’s an excellent cook. For breakfast she usually gives me white cheese (made with cow’s milk), cucumbers or green peppers, tomatoes, bread, tea, orange juice, and sometimes ham or salami. The lunches she gives me for school usually include two or three slices of bread, some sort of vegetable (like sliced cucumber or peppers), a piece of fruit, and sometimes meat (like chicken or ham). One time Florina gave me some sort of spreadable cheese with mushroom which was pretty good. Another time she gave me a pork paté sandwich, which was alright. And another day she gave me a margarine sandwich with cucumber. I had to draw the line at margarine sandwiches. So, that day I went to the piata (market) which is luckily very close to the school and bought a few things. The piata is sort of the equivalent of a farmers’ market in the States. Dinner is the biggest meal of the day. It usually happens in three courses, starting with soup (as I mentioned before). I’ve had several varieties of chicken soup, but the other day Florina made some awesome vegetable soup. Then comes the salad, which most of the time is lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, dill or parsley with oil, vinegar and lemon juice. There is also a potato salad which they call oriental salad. It reminds me of German potato salad, consisting of boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, onions, olives, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. The main course usually includes a meat, like ham, chicken, sausage, or sarmale (a sort of stuffed cabbage). A few days ago we had some pasta with a dill sauce that was really interesting. On Friday Florina made french fries and what she called “Schnitzel a la Florina” which was, as I gathered, pieces of chicken covered in fried cheese (cascaval, I think—a yellow cheese). That was just plain amazing. As she put it, her french fries are better (mai bun) than those is America. So, on the whole, I’ve been pretty happy with the food. It tends to be much fresher than in the US, and processed foods are few and far between. My only problem has been that we’ve been eating a lot of hot foods, and the weather has been really hot as well. On Saturday, however, Florina made me a cold lunch of cabbage salad and what I believe was goose (which tastes a lot like beef, strangely enough). So that was nice for a change. I’m learning to like cabbage. There are some pizza places in Ploiesti that I’d like to try, just to see how Romanians do pizza. Rumor has it they like to put ketchup on top of the cheese. I’m not sure if I’ll like that. There are also the standard fast food joints, like KFC or McDonald’s. But, I really have no desire to try those out.
My Gazda:
Communication with my gazda has been alright. It’s usually very basic, revolving around topics like, ‘are you hungry?’, ‘do you like this?’, ‘where are you going?’, or ‘what time will you come home?’ My responses tend to be halted and usually involve a mix of broken Romanian and English, a language I like to call Romlish. Vasile speaks enough English that we can understand each other most of the time, and Florina speaks very little English, but understands some words. There have been several nights where we sit around the dictionary, making hand gestures and drawing pictures. Everyday they test my vocabulary, asking me the names for household objects or foods. When we really can’t understand each other, Vasile goes next door to get Diana, who he calls his dictionary. Diana is 20-something, currently studying architechtural drawing at a university in Ploiesti. She speaks English pretty well, so when she comes over, she’s the translator. Vasile and Florina are very funny. They’re sarcastic, like me, so we get along well. Also I think they’re pretty comfortable with volunteers because they had two others before me.

The weather has been really hot and humid the last few days, upwards of 80 degrees F. There have been many afternoon thunderstorms. But Friday we had a tremendously violent one, which seems to have cooled things off a bit. Luckily for me, I was walking home when it occurred--without an umbrella.

Cell Phone:
I bought a cell phone the other day. Vasile’s friend owns a little cell phone shop, and they gave me a “deal” because I’m now Vasile’s baiat (boy). I told Vasile I wanted a really cheap phone with no bells or whistles, so he told his friend and they hooked me up. It seems a lot of things are done in Romania through ‘knowing people.’ There still seems to be a strong sense of community here, even in a fairly big city like Ploiesti. My phone is made by Sagem, which apparently is a French company. I got a pre-pay plan, so I buy a certain number of credits in Euro dollars, and the rate I’m charged depends on who I’m calling. But incoming calls are absolutely free, which is one cool thing about Europe. So, if any of you want to call me, go right ahead. It may cost you an arm and a leg, but it won’t cost me a dime (or a ban for that matter—the Romanian equivalent of cents). You might consider using JahJah if you want to call me. I don’t recall the rates, but I’m sure it’d be less than 20 cents a minute. My brother Jack is also trying to work out something with a Skype-In number that would allow people in the States to call a local CT number that would forward the call to my cell phone. That’d be cool, but we’ll see if it works. I’ll give you details on that as they develop. Email me if you want my number.

Transportation in Ploiesti is really developed. There are multiple bus lines that run constantly until midnight. There are also several train stations (at least two that I know of). A bus ticket costs one leu and is good for one trip. So if I were to take the bus everyday to school, it’d cost me 2 lei round trip. There are many diesel buses, but there are also a good number electric buses and trolleys too, which is pretty awesome. Then again, you have to wonder where they get the electricity from.

My Typical Day:
I usually get up around 7:15. I set my alarm for 6:45, but that’s just wishful thinking. I jump in the shower and have breakfast by 7:20-7:30. At 7:45, if the weather’s nice, I meet a couple fellow trainees who live near me in the center of Ploiesti. We walk to school, which takes about 45 minutes. If it’s rainy, we take the bus. Classes begin at 8:40. We start the day with language training and do that until 12:30. We have a break for lunch until 1:30. I usually spend that time eating the lunches Florina gives me, emailing, playing Frisbee, or going to the local market to walk around or buy a snack. After lunch we begin our afternoon sessions, which deal with topics like diversity, teaching methods, or health and safety. We’ve also done a few classroom observations in a Romanian high school and middle school. The afternoon sessions are over by 5:00, at which time I usually walk home (unless I need to buy detergent or something at Kaufland, one of the local supermarkets). When I get home, I usually talk with Vile and Florina and then we have dinner around 6:30-7. After that I usually go to my room to do homework, or I go to Harry’s to “study.” Sometimes I ask myself, am I really in the Peace Corps? I mean, I live in a developed city, I have a cell phone, the public transportation is really decent, there are western-style supermarkets and there are many internet cafes and bars. But, it’s important to remember my experience thus far has only been with urban Romania. The vast majority of the country is still grossly underdeveloped. My site assignment may very well be in a small rural village, where the need is greatest. I suppose I’m just amazed at how striking the dichotomy between urban and rural is here. I’m certainly not in Kansas anymore.

The Language:
The language training has been coming along alright so far. The teachers are really good. They make learning the language really interesting. And, let me say ladies and gentlemen, the rumors are true. Romanian women are quite attractive. Nearly all our language teachers are females in their mid-twenties, and I’m not complaining in the least. Each class has 4 students in it, and they really try their best to match the teacher’s style to each student’s needs. At the end of each week they interview every student about what worked or what didn’t work and if they feel like you’d be better suited to work with another teacher they place you in a different class for the next week. We’ve done a lot of interactive language exercises, including going to the post office to buy stamps, going to the bus station to buy tickets, and going to the supermarket to reinforce food vocabulary. We even made a traditional Transylvanian salad in class, the oriental salad. It’s all good stuff. I like that they’re trying to give us some practical skills and ways to apply the vocab. Last Friday our teachers split the trainees into 5 teams and sent us on a treasure hunt. Obviously the instructions for the hunt were in Romanian. Each team’s “treasure” was to perform a skit in front of the entire training group (as well as the country director and other PC staff). The topic for my team’s skit was “with the gazda on the weekend,” so we acted out our interpretation of a family picnic. All the skits were really funny. We have a really creative group.