Monday, October 13, 2008

For me, the perfect fall day includes a number of elements: clear skies, crisp air, rich-colored foliage, country drives, sweaters, cider, apple-picking and pumpkins. Although the autumn season in Romania is quite different from what it is in the North-Eastern US, there is still a lot to enjoy about it.

For example, the weather this past weekend was gorgeous. Even if the air wasn't as cool and crisp as I like it (actually, it was quite warm), at least it was sunny and clear. And, while I wasn't able to go for drive through the countryside, I did manage to go for a bike ride-- which was probably a better choice anyway.

Early Saturday morning two of my students from the 11th grade (Emma and Paul) and I boarded a train to Margina (a town in Eastern Timis county, on the 'margins' as it were). We had our bikes with us, and since we couldn't manage to fit them in the seating compartments, we had to stand with them in the hall. Luckily, it was a super 'low-budget' train, so they're somewhat lax about the bike fee. When the controller came to see our tickets, he didn't seem too surprised by our bikes; apparently he was pretty accustomed to seeing passengers in the halls with bikes. He did, however, mention the extra fee. Paul, as kindly as he could put it, asked, "but can't we come to some sort of understanding?" We could tell by his demeanor that the controller was a jolly old fellow, and he said, "aw heck, just leave some money in the controller's compartment at the end of the car." So we did.

So, the upside of the cheaper trains is that you can still get away with things like that. However, the downside is that they're extremely slow, and they stop at every village, intersection, sign post, and chicken coop along the way. So, after 1 and a half hours we had covered the 40km to Margina. We bought some supplies at a little corner shop, and headed on our way towards the village of Romanesti.

We took a dirt road through corn fields, lined with old wooden telephone poles and trees with bright yellow leaves (if they hadn't already turned brown). I certainly miss the vibrant colors that characterize fall in New England-- the reds and oranges--but the scenery was still interesting. Entire families seemed to be rustling among the cornstalks to gather the cobs (It looked like everyone had come out: parents, children, cousins and even grandparents and grandchildren). They dumped the fruits of their labor into horse-drawn carts to be carried back to the village for winter.

We finally arrived in Romanesti, where the scenery changed from cornfields and wagons full of corn cobs to houses and wagons full of wood-- yet another preparation for winter. When wood is delivered to a home, it is usually dumped on the street/sidewalk in front of the home, where it is sorted, chopped and then carried inside the gate to be stacked and stored. Our arrival in Romanesti was welcomed by the sights and sounds of men hard at work doing exactly that. In one particular area of the village the road runs parallel a little brook. I noticed the brook had a reddish tinge to it. There was a pungent smell in the air, the smell of woodsmoke mixed with fermenting plums--unmistakable signs that the villagers were making tuica.

From the main street in Romanesti we took a left up a dirt road to the Romanesti cave. Not more than 200 yards up the road we came to a hill on top of which there was a cemetary and an old wooden church (imagine a log cabin with a steeple). After about 40 minutes we came to the cave, and equipped with flashlights and headlamps, went inside. Almost immediately the bats greeted us by diving at our heads. I took a moment to throw pebbles up in the air and watch as the bats dove at them, thinking they were bugs-- an old trick my father taught me (he knew it doesn't take much to entertain me). As we went farther into the cave, the squeaks of the bats grew louder and the filth covering the rocks and ground also increased (ewww). There were several different routes and passages leading off the main chamber, so we took some time to explore them. I took a few pictures, which you can see at the link below.

After finishing at the cave, we went back the way we had come from Romanesti and then continued our bike ride on through the village of Tomesti, until we reached Liman's Valley. Unfortunately, we couldn't go any further because we had a train to catch. So we turned around and headed back to Margina. Once we got back to the train station, we found there was no one at the ticket office, which is quite typical for such small towns, which don't generally see a lot of traffic. So Paul asked around, and a little boy told him to knock on a specific door. He did so, and the door opened, the station guard emmerged, and Paul asked for tickets to Lugoj. 'So,' I thought to myself, 'that's how it works at these smaller stations!' It was actually kind of a revelation for me because, up until this point, if I hadn't found anyone at the ticket booth, I'd just board the train without a ticket and then buy one from the controller, explaining that I wasn't able to get a ticket at the station-- which is much more complicated than what Paul did. We got our tickets, little pieces of cardboard pre-stamped with the station of origin, the destination and the cost. Tickets from larger stations are usually printed out by a computer. However, many of the smaller stations still use this old-fashioned system, a remnant of a time before there were computer systems to manage ticket sales. The way this manual system works is very simple. There is a wall of hooks in the ticket office. On each hook hang cardboard tickets for every possible destination. So, the ticket vendor must select the proper ticket from many variants arranged on the wall. Think of it as the telephone switchboard of train stations.

The cardboard ticket

The next morning I got a phone call. It was from Tibi, who you may remember from my post of June 10th. He said, "I'm going to the village today to pick grapes. I'm leaving now; do you want to come?" Once again, no advanced warning, but I've come to expect that from Tibi. I said, "sure, why not." After all, I had helped him pick plums in Tapia (a village just outside Lugoj) a few weeks before, and I had said I'd like to help him again if he needed it. I like doing physical work; it's a good break from school. Moreover, I like working with Tibi, he's got a great attitude and a sense of humor to match. I also like going to the village to see his mom and eat some of her delicious Hungarian cuisine.

We picked grapes till all the buckets were overflowing. The whole time we talked. I enjoy talking to Tibi because he doesn't know English (only Hungarian and Romanian), so I'm forced to express myself in Romanian. I think I've improved quite a bit with my fluency from talking to him. When I first met him I had a hard time following what he said, but now I understand most everything, expect maybe for a few words here and there. At one point he asked me, "what do you gain from coming to Romania as a volunteer?" This was a whopper for me to explain in Romanian, but in the end I got my point across. I tried to explain to him that the idea behind the PC is to promote frienship between America and the rest of the world. I also told him that my object wasn't something concrete; it's more like I was interested in seeing another part of the world, experiencing new things, meeting new people, forming friendships, etc. Sometimes locals find it hard to comprehend why someone would come to Romania. It would seem that such individuals think that Romania is the armpit of Europe, and when I tell them that I don't get paid, they look at me like I'm stupid. I guess they're thinking the experience is nothing but a loss if there's no financial or material gain. While I was explaining to Tibi why the Peace Corps is a good thing, I was worried he might counter me with such a mentality. However, not only was he very accepting of my reasons, but he seemed to completely empathize.

As we continued to pick grapes, Tibi expressed his desire to learn some English. I took the opportunity to turn the tables and began talking to him in English, followed by Romanian translations of what I had said. Eventually he decided the langauge was too frustrating, and wanted to stop. So, I asked him to teach me some Hungarian, which I've heard is an extremely hard language. I came to discover what they say isn't just a rumor. After about fifteen minutes of attempting to pronounce egészségedre ("to your health"), my brain hurt too much to continue. He and his mother kept laughing at me because apparently I was saying egész seggedre, which basically translates to "to your ass!" It took me a while to percieve the difference in pronounciation between the two words, in fact I'm still not completely sure about it. Every time I thought I was starting to get the hang of it, they'd point out my failure. Nothing I said seemed to be right. Tibi’s mother kept repeating, "Nem seggedre! ségedre. Ha ha ha." No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t seem to differentiate the e sound from the é sound. I was completely frustrated, but I kept mulling it over and every half an hour or so I'd say it out loud again to see if I had pronounced it correctly. Most of the time their laughter confirmed my suspicions. Just goes to show you how a minor change in inflection can make all the difference between toasting someone's health or their rear-end.

Click below for some pictures from the weekend:


John said...

Wow Mike ...what a wonderful posting. Mom and I went thru this together, and I read the story to her. It was more like reading a book to her. You do such great work, and we keep hanging on for the next great surprise. Thanks so much for sharing!!!

Anonymous said...

It's very interesting how you see Romania, especially for a Romanian in US, like me.

I wanted to ask because I don't know how this works: did you choose Romania to go there, there are options as a PC volunteer? Or they just tell you: you go there and he goes somewhere else. I am just curious. Thank you and the same, thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I didn't put my name: Amalia

Rachel said...

I'll go out on a limb here and say this is your best entry yet. :)

Your pictures are amazing too; reminds me of how pretty rural Romania is. I met a Romanian man riding the bus the other day, and that was the thing he said he missed the most -- the beautiful countryside.

My dad taught me to throw little things at bats too! Except we used Cheerios, not little rocks. It used to drive my mom nuts when we'd get the bats to swoop down over our deck... haha.

Mike Nork said...

Hi Amalia,

To answer your question, I actually had very little say in where the Peace Corps sent me (although, to be honest, I was willing to go just about anywhere).

Basically, when I applied, I was told the general region they wanted to place me in. They try to match the skills and qualifications of the applicant with a given region's particular needs. For example, posts in Eastern Europe tend to focus on TEFL, so the PC tries place people in Eastern Europe who are interested and qualified in teaching English. South America on the other hand may have more focus on agriculture, health and sanitation, thus the PC tries to supply the region with people who are qualified in those fields.

So, after my initial interview I was told they wanted to send me to Eastern Europe. I probably could have fought for a placement in Asia or something, but it would have drawn the process out quite a bit.

Once I completed the application process, they sent me a letter which notified me of the country they to which they wanted to send me: Romania. I had the choice of saying yes or no. If I had said no, they would have found another placement, but again, that would have taken more time.

So, basically, you have a very limited choice. You can't usually say, "I want to go to Mongolia." They choose where to send you based on the needs of the agency.

amallia said...

Hi, Mike,

Now I see how it works, thank you very much for your answer.