Monday, January 26, 2009

Boiling Oil!

It's about 10:30 on Sunday morning, and I receive another of those phone calls from Tibi:

"Hey Mike, wanna go swimming today?"
"Tibi, it's January."
"Yeah, I know, don't worry. We're going to a thermal bath. It's all indoors and very warm."
I paused for a moment, thinking... "Aw heck, ok. I got nothing better to do. Let's go."
"Alright, we'll come to pick you up. Be ready in half an hour."

Half an hour, but of course.

I rushed to finish my bowl of muesli and quickly grabbed a towel, bathing suit and flip-flops. Tibi called when he was downstairs waiting, so I dashed down to meet him. We got in the car and drove off to pick up Simona, Tibi's girlfriend (and my boss at the Kid's Club). Simona stuffed the trunk with drinks and food for the day, including a whole roasted chicken. One thing I've learned about interactions with Romanians (it doesn't really matter what sort) is that you never have to worry about going hungry.

We drove down the road a bit, through the village of Costei, and took a right into Tipari to pick up Tibi's mother and her friend. It was one of those cold, grey, wet days. The streets of Tipari were muddy enough for a volleyball match. The current song on Tibi's MP3 audio system was 'Dancing Queen' by Abba.

We cruised along E70 towards Timisoara. Well, perhaps 'cruised' is a bit of an exaggeration. After all, the road is in terrible condition, and has been under construction for decades. They just can't seem to get it right. In fact, they just repaired some sections, and I swear it's worse than it was before. Anyway, Tibi was driving, I was in the passanger seat and the rest were in the backseat, grumbling every time we hit a bump. We weren't 10 minutes into the ride before Tibi's mom started teasing me from the backseat about my ability to pronounce 'eg├ęszs├ęgedre.' I just laughed, politely saying that I've retired from speaking Hungarian. Soon enough we came to the village of Belint, and Tibi started slowing down while looking for something on the left side of the road. He stopped the car, finding what he had been looking for-- a man waiting in front of his house, a bag tightly clenched in his hand. I soon recognized the man; it was Karol, a friend of Tibi and his mother. Forgetting to look both ways, Karol hastily ran out into the street to come towards us, but he had to jump back when he heard the honks of an approaching truck. After the truck passed, Karol judiciously looked both ways and jogged across with his bag, which was apparently full of apples. All he had wanted to do was give us apples for the ride! I have no idea how he and Tibi had set up the apple transfer, since I hadn't seen Tibi use his phone at all during the drive, but they must have planned it somehow. Who knows. These sort of things happen all the time. Anyway, now well-stocked with apples, we continued on our way. The next Abba track started playing, I believe it was 'Money Money.'

Eventually we came to our destination, the village of Sanmihaiul German. The air in the pool hall was warm and thick with fog, it also had an unusual smell to it. The room was very crowded; apparently we weren't the only ones to have the idea to come to Sanmihai. All my companions had made it into the pool before me. So, when I entered the room, I was more concerned with finding my group than with the color of the water. Spotting them at the opposite corner, I walked over to meet them. It was only when I got closer, seeing Tibi in the water, that I noticed the color. It was black; I couldn't see anything below the water line. "Water's pretty clean, eh?" I astutely observed, adding, "Do you think it's safe to drink?" Always quick with the wit, Tibi commented, "it would be if it weren't for all the pee."

Needless to say, urine was not the only thing in that water. I just shrugged my shoulders and dipped in. Man, it was hot! I couldn't stand it for very long, so I decided to sit on the side and dangle my feet from the edge. Tibi came over to join me, deciding, like me, that the ambient temperature was warm enough. Not only was the heat hard to bear, but that pungent smell was also starting to get to me. I knew it was a familiar odor, but for some reason I couldn't put my finger on it. It wasn't quite sulfurous, as you might expect in a thermal bath. It was something else altogether. In fact, now that I reflect on it, the smell was something like the inside of the old 'Muppets' lunch tin that I had during my kindergarten days-- the smell of old lunch meat, rotten bananas and spilt milk. Mmmmm. I Finally I asked Tibi what it was I was smelling. He looked at me, scrunched his nose and told me it was petrol. Of course! Oil! That explained the color of the water, as well as the slippery feel of my skin. I scrunched my nose too. "I don't much care for it either," Tibi declared.

As we were sitting there, the power suddenly cut out. As a result, the ventialtion fans stopped working, and the air, which was already hot and stifling, became even more so. Soon enough the 'pool boy' (a scruffy middle-aged man, pot-belly hanging out of his extra-small red t-shirt and cigarette dangling from his lip) came along to open the windows. This made some of the folks in the pool noticeably nervous, since open windows would invite that most unwelcome of guests: curent. The cool, moist air from outside flooded into the hall, and immediately condensed into a thick fog which can only be compared to my mother's pea soup (the kind of pea soup in which you can make your spoon stand up by itself). At least we could breathe.

Tibi and I continued sitting along the side of the pool, our feet turning into oily prunes. We both decided that the temperature was much more tolerable with the windows open, even if the fog made it nearly impossible to see. As he often loves to do, Tibi spent a good deal of time telling me jokes. Unfortunately, I usually have a terrible memory for jokes, and when the jokes are in Romanian, my memory is even less. So, whenever Tibi tells me a joke, which is virtually always, it usually goes in one ear and out the other and I can't recall it 5 minutes later. For the sake of this blog, that might be a good thing since most of his jokes wouldn't be appropriate to relate here anyway.

The electricity returned just as we were getting ready to leave, much to the joy of the cheering masses. I can only suppose they were cheering because the power was back, not because we were leaving. That's what I tell myself anyhow. We decided to head straight home, since we were hungry, and the pool hall, what with it's sopping-wet atmosphere and less-than-appetizing aroma, didn't seem like the ideal place to eat. So, we went to Simona's place, where she re-heated the chicken. We ate it with a prune-sauce and homemade wine. I noticed there was a vase with mistletoe in the middle of the table, so I explained to Tibi and Simona the typical Christmas tradition of hanging mistletoe in a doorway. Upon hearing what happens when two people meet under the mistletoe, Tibi's eyes lit up. "Mike, this is great! Why don't you make yourself a crown of mistletoe to wear at parties?" I explained to him that this isn't exactly how it's supposed to work. Instead, we decided it'd be more appropriate to carry around a cardboard doorframe with the mistletoe hanging from it. Silly, right? Such are conversations with Tibi. Anyway, I think I've got my next Halloween costume all figured out.

After dinner, I went back to my place to take a shower. I did my best to scrub the oil smell out of everything...but I fear I'll never get it out of my bathing suit.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Piure de Castane cu Frisca

This culinary adevnture began over a month ago. Before Christmas I was in Szeged, Hungary with Mr. and Mrs. Bloch (acquaintances from Lugoj). While there, we went to a cafe, and Mr. Bloch insisted I try the chestnut puree. I'd never heard of such a thing; as far as I was concerned, chestnuts came in two varieties- roasted or unroasted. Boy, was I wrong! Turns out the chestnut universe is much more complicated than I had ever conceived.

Out of puree curiosity (get it?), I ordered a portion of the chestnut dessert. It looked a little like vermicelli covered in whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate. Simply put, it was delicious! Before we left Szeged, we stopped at a store so I could pick up a package of frozen chestnut puree to take home.

The puree sat in my freezer until tonight, when I finally decided to try making the dessert at home. I took the package out to thaw, and bought some heavy cream. I just needed something with which to whip the cream, and something to transform the puree into worm-like strands (viermi, which is in fact how one would describe them in Romanian). A whisk would suffice for the cream, but I knew I'd have to be a little more creative with the 'worms.'

As I've done before in this sort of situation, I went my neighbors to see if they could help me out. My land-lady appeared not to be home, so I went to Vasile, one door over, and asked if he had a pasta press, food mill or potato ricer. He hailed his wife who came out of the kitchen, saying she didn't have anything of the sort. Ok, I thought, 'what about a garlic press?' No such luck. They asked me exactly what I was trying to do, if I was doing something with garlic they'd be happy to let me borrow their grater. I explained I didn't need a grater, I needed some sort of press because I was trying to make castane cu frisca. They looked at me kind of funny, and asked, "then what do you need the garlic press for?" There seemed to be some confusion about whether a garlic press would be suitable to crush a chestnut. I tried to explain that I wasn't trying to crush chestnuts; I had already bought pureed chestnut, and I wanted to make it into worms. This led to a bit more confusion: "wait, what about worms now?!" In retrospect, I suppose 'spaghetti' might have been a better word choice, but at the time all that came to mind was 'worms.' In any case, we all had a good laugh.

Though he couldn't help me with the garlic press, Vasile suggested I run to the pharmacy to pick up a syringe, break off the tip and use that to make 'worms.' Even though plunging my dessert through a medical piston pump sounded intriguing, I decided instead to go ask Doamna Sidei for help. Doamna Sidei is a Ukrainian lady that lives nextdoor, but I rarely speak to her, which is a shame- it turns out she's a really nice lady. I asked her if she had anything I could use. Unfortunately, her pasta press had just broken, but she gladly gave me her garlic press and a whisk.

When I got back to my apartment, I soaked the garlic press in vinegar and washed it off, trying my best to scrub off the years of accumulated garlic smell. I quickly looked up how to whip cream, never having done it before. Seemed simple enough, so I got to work whipping. No one warned me that the cream would splatter everywhere, but I quickly found it out. Once it was sufficiently beaten, I put the cream in the fridge and started making worms. I grabbed the garlic press, gave it a little sniff (seemed passable), broke off little chunks of the puree and started pressing. The resultant substance appeared to be something between vermicelli and dog food, but it tasted pretty good. Since the puree already had sugar added, the only thing I added to it was the whipped cream. I made 5 portions-- for Doamna Sidei, Vasile, his wife, their daughter Betty and myself.

I brought the first cup over to Doamna Sidei along with the utensils she had let me borrow. She was a bit surprised, and promised me she'd try it, but I got the impression she didn't want to eat it in front of me, so I let her be. I then brought the rest of the cups over to Vasile's apartment, saying "I brought some worms for you all!"

Vasile took his cup, looked at it inquisitively, furrowing his brow and shifting his eyes from the cup to me. He slowly raised it up to his nose, and sniffed the contents hesitantly. I waited expectantly, wondering what he'd say. He tried it. I noticed a look of relief on his face, and he said, "it's not bad, but we'll see how I feel in the morning!" I retorted, "yeah, you gotta be careful about eating worms."

After Vasile encouraged them to go ahead, Betty and her mother tried their cups as well. After which, I was offered coffee. I don't usually drink coffee, but in this case I accepted and we sat around and talked for a while. My conversations with Vasile are usually very short, taking place in passing on the stairs or in the streets, and the majority of our exchanges tend to be devoted to practicing how to pronounce "well" (Me: 'Ciao Vasile, how are you?' Vasile: "Ciao Mike, I am wale." Vasile is quite keen on practicing his English, limited as it may be). But, my visit this evening allowed us to converse in more depth.

I only intended my visit to last a few minutes, but it ended up lasting a few hours and we talked about everything--from pesticides, to AIDS, to communism, to the gas crisis, to the Masonic order, to whether I'm Jewish, to why the Peace Corps is not a religious organization. In the course of the conversation, I even managed to explain to Vasile that Canada is not in fact part of the United States of America, nor are Mexico or Columbia. He believed that the Americas, as in the entire hemisphere, is the same thing as the USA. I assured him this is not the case, that even if it's called the United States of America, it doesn't mean it's a conglomeration of all the countries from across the continent. He had some trouble understanding the distinction between 'state' and 'country,' which in Romanian almost always mean the same thing. And then there was the matter of Washington DC, "is it a state? no? Is it the collective capital for all the states?" I tried my best to muster a limited explanation of federalism. In the end I think he got the idea, noting how different the American system is from Romania.

Eventually I got home, mentally drained. I haven't felt that exhausted since I my first months in Romania, when even the simplest conversations knocked the wind out of me. But, I was quickly revived by a dollop of fresh whipped cream from the fridge.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Graffiti in Belgrade

Found this as we were walking along the streets of Belgrade New Year's Eve
(Thanks to Sarah for the pic)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Yep, that's me they're talking about at the top of the front page! I've been trying to get the guys at the newspaper to publish something about "Project Lugosi" for some time now. I submitted a couple articles, but they were never published. The paper told me that it was impossible to publish my stuff since at the time the elections were going on and a lot of the space in the paper was devoted to political ads.

After the elections were over, one of the writers at Redesteptarea, Cristian Ghinea, called me to his office to talk about the project. He too is passionate about local history (in fact, he's written a book on the topic of Lugoj history and folklore). So I did a short interview with him, after which he gave me a copy of a documentary about Lugosi that was made by some people in Timisoara in 2007-- quite well-done by the way

After my interview with Ghinea, I looked expectantly at the papers every week to see if his piece had been published. But no. The holiday season had already befallen us, and work at the paper had been disrupted (as it was just about everywhere else in town).

However, just this past Thursday I met with an acquaintence on the street and he said, "I saw you in the paper!" "Oh yeah," I responded, "what about?" "Something about a legal infraction," he retorted with a twinkle in his eye, obviously joking. My hunch was that the piece had finally been published, so I went to the nearest news kiosk and bought a copy of Redesteptarea, and as soon as I saw that picture of Dracula at the top corner, my suspicions were confirmed. I'm glad it was finally published; hopefully more peolpe will now be aware of my intentions and perhaps it'll create a public discussion.

You can find the article HERE (in Romanian)

Here it is translated into English:

by Cristian Ghinea

The great Lugojean actor, Bela Lugosi is better known in America than in his hometown.

Michael Nork is an English teacher at "Coriolan Brediceanu" National College. Before arriving in Lugoj, he had heard of the city, knowing it as the birthplace of Bela Lugosi. But Michael was surprised to find that the actor is almost unknown here in town.

In the United States, Lugosi is a symbol of Hollywood; he is considered a pioneer of the horror genre and the creator of the Dracula persona for the film industry.

"To my surprise, many of my friends and colleagues in Lugoj said they'd never heard this name. It's something surprising because Bela Lugosi is quite famous in the United States. He was the Hollywood actor who defined our modern conception of Dracula and he was born right here in Lugoj. Being that Bela Lugosi is such an important personality where I come from, I naturally assumed that he would be just as important here in his hometown. Anyhow, I came to discover that this is not the case. And this might be because he left this region long ago and became famous there in the United States. But, even if he left at a young age, he never forgot from where he came, adopting the stage name Lugosi to remember his place of birth," says Michael Nork.

Finding Lugosi's childhood home

The idea to look for Lugosi's home came to Michael around Halloween. "Seeing vampire masks and the like, I thought of Dracula and, naturally, Lugosi," says Nork. Not knowing where to start, he asked a few locals if they knew where the home was. Since no one seemed to know, he postponed his search for a while. Then, he decided to try a Google search and discovered an article written by Gary D. Rhodes, a renowned professor of film and Lugosi biographer. Rhodes came to Lugoj in 2003 just to find the famous actor's birthplace. After talking with a local historian and consulting town records, Rhodes located the house at 6 Kirchengasse (today Bucegi Street), right next to the Roman Catholic church. "I've passed by this house many times without thinking for a second. There isn't even a plaque to recognize who was born there. To me it seems ironic that Lugosi, an actor with such international fame --probably the most important personality to come from Lugoj-- is practically unknown in this area. Maybe it's just my humble opinion, but I think that the memory of Bela Lugosi deserves at least some sort of recognition, whether a plaque on his home, or just this simple article. After all, it would be a shame if we forgot the man who never forgot Lugoj,” declares Nork.

Dracula deserves at least an exhibition and a memorial plaque

"In the first place, I’d like have an exhibition about the man and his career at the Pro Arte art gallery, and afterwards put it in the town’s history museum, when the renovations are complete,” hopes Michael Nork, adding that Gary Rhodes, director, documentarian, and film historian has promised to help Nork with making an exposition which would commemorate the career of this actor.

In this way, Lugoj will receive photos, original files and cinematographic materials. Here in Lugoj, Michael has benefited from the help of Ivan Bloch, director of the Rotary Club, who has guided him with his requests on a local level.

"We've spoken with the mayor, Francisc Boldea, about putting a plaque on the house on Bucegi Street, and we got his initial approval. We hope that we’ll also have the consent of the current owner,” further remarks Nork.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

It's cold!

Winter has finally arrived! For the past 2 weeks the high temperatures have been consistently below freezing. Call me crazy, but I love cold weather. Last winter in Lugoj was sort of a bust; it hardly snowed and the highs were in the mid 30s-40s. I think it was actually cold for one week in total. This was a big disappointment because for me it doesn't really feel like winter unless my toes are constantly cold and my nose runs like a faucet.

In fact you'd probably be right to call me crazy. I'm not sure why I like winter so much, given all its burdensome inconveniences. I mean, showering is a big hassle (especially when your bathroom doesn't have any heat!), the utilites bills shoot through the roof, and you have to wear a jacket any time you leave the house (which is something I patently disklike. Heck, I don't even like socks). Add to all of that the danger of freezing pipes--something my father's careful obsession with 'home-winterizing' taught me to fear like the plague.

Being on vacation from school last week, I left Lugoj for a little jaunt through Serbia and Bosnia. I took what I thought were all the necessary precautions--I watered my plants, washed the pile of dirty dishes in my sink, threw out the garbage and shut off my main waterline. Everything seemed in order as I locked my door and left. However, upon my return, I turned the mainline back on and discovered the water was no longer flowing. It seemed that the pipe had frozen. Gasp!

I should explain that I live in a building that's at least one hundred years old, and none of its apartments originally had electricity or running water. Plumbing has since been added, but in a rather ad hoc, hodge-podge fashion. In my particular apartment, a bathroom was added only a mere 2 years ago. In order to direct water to my place, the plumbers ran a pipe from one of the stores below me, up through the back balcony and into my apartment. The problem with this setup is that, even though it is mostly covered by concrete, the pipe isn't insulated. So, it's essentially exposed to exterior temperatures, which is never a good idea (just ask my dad). So, of course as soon as the air got cold enough, the pipe froze, especially since I had been gone for an extended period and hadn't run the water in a while. Clearly the man who installed the pipe wasn't thinking about what happens to water when it drops below 32 degrees. Clearly he'd never met my father.

Returning home after a long trip, all I wanted to do was take a hot shower. But obviously I couldn't do that. So I resigned to sleeping in my filth until I could tackle the problem in the morning. The next day I spoke with my land-lady and neighbors and asked if they had water issues. Nope, they all seemed to be problem-free; I was the only one. So, my land-lady and I called up all the plumbers we knew, asking them to come out and check things out. But, no one was available, or no one wanted to come (I tend to think my land-lady has a certain unfavorable reputation among all the tradesmen in town: "oh no, Stefania is calling again! Quick, pretend you have the flu!"). So, I decided to run some extension cords out my window and place some space heaters along the pipe. I set it all up and left it to run all night long. However, this morning there still wasn't any water.

At this point, clearly pushing the limits of hygiene, I meekly asked one of my colleagues at school if I could shower at his home. Lucky for me and the public in general, he said yes. So I finally got a shower, but I was still keen to get a plumber to my apartment as soon as possible...otherwise I'd have to use the showers at the school gym. I wasn't prepared to relive highschool.

My land-lady spent most of today making calls to all her usual plumber contacts, but she couldn't convince anyone to come out. I can only guess that word is spreading through town of the plumbing disaster commonly known as 6 Mocioni Street. This old building really must be a plumber's nightmare. Frustrated and on the point of desperation, my land-lady finally made a phone call to a plumber that someone had recommended to her. It turned out he lives just around the corner, and he came straight over (bless his heart, he must have been the only plumber in town who hadn't yet heard about the horrors of 6 Mocioni). When he arrived, he got right to work and it was immediately clear that he was good at his trade. He worked tirelessly, heating up the concrete with a flame in the hopes that pipe underneath would warm up and melt the ice. After about 3 hours and still no success, he dejectedly strolled into my apartment and said he was giving up for the night. He added, "you basically have two options: 1. wait until the weather warms up enough to naturally melt the ice--certainly not my first choice, or 2. tear up the concrete and rip out the pipe. The more I considered my options, the more attractive nr. 2 sounded, even though I knew it was going to be a pain in the neck. But just as I was considering it, I suddenly heard the sound of water running in my bathroom. "no way,' I thought, "it can't be!" I flung open my bathroom door, and sure enough, my water had returned. We smiled at each other and jumped for joy.

I guess the moral of the story is that we blindly rely on so many seemingly insignificant modern conviences. We're only really aware of this fact when they're absent. Or, I guess the moral of the story could be to insulate your pipes!