Monday, February 27, 2012

Around I Go! Suceava and Ciumani

A week ago I returned to Constanta after a four-city trip around Romania.  I visited Suceava, Ciumani (near Gheorgheni), Cluj-Napoca, and Brasov.
Cities I visited on my trip
My first stop was Suceava.  I took the train with Josi on the 2nd of February.  It was a little over 9 hours long, and I brought way too much food for our trip.  Since the train started in Constanta and ended in Suceava, by the end of the trip there weren't many other passengers left, so Josi and I were sprawled out in our own compartment and getting a bit stir crazy.  This was in the middle of the deep cold that gripped Eastern Europe.  Our compartment was heated, but the hall next to the outer door was not.  One of the doors was a bit ajar and it was quite frosty and snowing inside, which was very unhelpful for when we wanted to use the bathroom.
Snowy Floor

Frosty Door

The thermometer in the wagon said it was 17 C inside (63 F), but with that much frost inside, we're pretty sure it was broken...

We had arranged to stay at a hostel ahead of time, and the owner had said she'd pick us up.  When we arrived at the train station in Suceava she wasn't around.  We were able to call her and she came straightaway (she had thought we were on the train from Bucuresti, an hour earlier) to get us.  She told us the current temperature was -27 Celsius (-17 Fahrenheit)!  It was certainly chilly!  We got to the hostel and were pleasantly surprised.  We had a 4 person room to ourselves with our own bathroom.  We also had access to a kitchen, where there was free coffee and free raw milk, so we had some nice cafe lattes the next morning.  The next day we took a taxi to the school where Josi's friend Carolin was teaching and living in the attached dorm.  We had forgotten to go to the ATM before our trip, so we had very little money between the two of us after paying for the hostel and we weren't entirely sure we'd make it all the way there.
In Josi's left hand you can see the amount on the taxi meter so far.  In her right hand is all the money we have remaining, 3 lei.
Laura, Kelli, Carolin, and Josi braving the cold in Suceava.
We dropped off our luggage in Carolin's room then headed into town to find an ATM and meet up with two other Fulbright ETAs.  We met Laura and Kelli for lunch and then went to the mall together.  It was pretty cold out, so we weren't in the mood to spend much time outside.  Laura is teaching in Suceava and Kelli is teaching in Iasi, visiting for the day before they headed off to Cluj-Napoca for a short vacation.

At the bottom of the stairs to the citadel
The next day Josi, Carolin, and I visited Suceava a bit more.  We went to a bazaar, to the ruins of a citadel, to a 3D cafe, and a disappointing Chinese food restaurant.  It was the best Chinese food we've had in Romania so far, but it wasn't really up to our standards. Back to the citadel:  it sits a top a hill overlooking the city.  It had a great view, but since it snowed every second we were outside or looking out the window, there was a lot of snow on the steep path to the top.  This made for an exciting and fun trip.

Climbing the snowy stairs

The citadel

It was worth the climb!
Josi could only stay the weekend, so we both left Suceava early Sunday morning.  Josi had planned to take an early bus back, but when we got to the bus depot we found out that the bus wasn't running.  We made the best of the situation and got Josi a train leaving only a minute after my train.. All went well until Josi ran into numerous weather and technical problems with her second leg of her trip.  She was supposed to arrive that evening, but instead had to spend 36 hours in transit.  And she was lucky!  Hers was the last train to arrive in Constanta before the tracks were closed.  The problem was a massive snow storm that dropped up to 15 feet of snow in parts of Eastern Romania.  I, on the other hand, had no problem with my train trip to Gheorgheni...except for two different men who wanted to woo me upon hearing I was an American.  I had been nervous since I had to transfer trains in a relatively small station, but everything turned out just fine.
The train station where I waited for 3 hours before transferring trains

This gelatinous casserole is made from the hooves... I didn't fancy it. 
When I arrived in Gheorgheni, my friend Eniko was there to pick me up with her boyfriend, her sister, and her sister's boyfriend.  They brought me to a hotel room where I spent my first night in Ciumani (the town where Eniko lives) and then to a dinner with representatives from Ciumani's sister cities in Slovakia and Hungary, all ethnic Hungarians.  You see, Ciumani is actually the Romanian name for Gyergyocsomofalva, what the nearly all-Hungarian residents call their town.  All my hard work learning Romanian was mostly useless here.  I was able to attend this dinner because Eniko works for the town hall and was one of the coordinators for the event.  I got to try some traditional Hungarian food, all made from the pig.  Some of the dishes were delicious (such as blood sausage) but others were...not my taste.  Overall I had a really nice time meeting many nice people who tried to get to pronounce Hungarian properly.

The next day Eniko had the day off from work so she showed me around the area a bit.  We went into the city, Gheorgheni, for a bit, and we also visited a castle in one of the other towns that circle Gheorgheni.  According to the folks working at the office of the castle, I am the only american they can recall having visited, so I felt very special having gotten to visit.  On subsequent days we went ice skating, went to the pool (this town of 4,000 has two and so far as I know, Constanta has none), went sledding pulled by a car, visited the middle school per my request, watched some traditional Hungarian dancing, and visited the museums of Ciumani and Gheorgheni.  We also did some other things as well, but there's only so much I can recap in a blog post nearly three weeks later.  I stayed with Eniko's family had their home and received the best hospitality.  It was really a wonderful experience to stay in Hungarian town, in contrast to a Romanian city.  It was like being in a whole other country.
The church in Ciumani.  Nearly everyone is Catholic, so there is just one big church.
A banner for the town

The castle

The view from the top, of the entire basin where Ciumani, Gheorgheni, and the other surrounding towns are located.  It was snowing so visibility was poor.

Eniko's sister Julia gets naturally carbonated mineral water from a neighbor's well.

Eniko and Julia's boyfriend ready the sleds behind the car

Eniko and Julia riding on the sleds.  I did it for 5 minutes before hoping in the car.  I'm not really a thrill seeker.

It's really a very beautiful area!

The sun setting over Ciumani

When it came time to move on from Ciumani to Cluj-Napoca, Eniko put me on a bus at 4:25 am that stopped right in her town.  I spent six hours in transit and then arrived in Cluj-Napoca, but that's a story for another post, because this one is too long already.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Busy January

Well, I am back in Romania for my second round.  I've had a terrifically busy month, so I haven't found the time to update the blog until now.  At the moment I'm in Ciumani, on the second leg of my four-city tour around Romania.  The first semester has ended and the second semester doesn't begin until February 20th, so I have some time for travelling.  There will be lots to share with you after my return.  For now, I'll stick to the stuff that happened in January.

Although I missed my leaving my friends and family in the US after such a short visit, it was still nice to see all my friends in Constanta on my return.  Josi and I decided that we wanted to welcome all our friends back from Christmas break with a "Bine Ati Venit La Constanta" party.  We made some Romanian food and we celebrated it on Giorgos's 20th birthday.  We cooked ciorba (sour soup made with bors), sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls), mici (sausage without casings...they kind of look like poop, but they are delicious), mamaliga (polenta), and stuffed mushrooms.  It was our first time cooking sarmale without the assistance of a Romanian, but we managed to turn out something quite tasty, despite the deceiving layer of charred black sauce that bubbled out of the baking pot during the four hours we cooked them.  
Josi rolls up the sarmale.

The sarmale in the pot, before we add some tomato sauce.

For the birthday boy we set out the pastries...that survived...
Giorgos's birthday cozonac.
Since it was Giorgos's 20th birthday, Josi picked up some little cakes and pastries on her way over.  THEY WERE SO DELICIOUS!  We set them out for dessert (Well, to be completely honest, two never made it to the party.  I'm slightly ashamed to say that they were simply too delicious to share...even with the birthday boy.)  We also decorated a cake for Giorgos.  Since the theme was Romanian cuisine, we had some cozonac, which is more of a sweet bread than a cake.  We had no icing to use to decorate the cake, so Josi and Camille got their creative juices flowing and embossed Giorgos's name into the cozonac using peanut butter M&Ms.
Happy 20th birthday, Giorgos!

I started Weight Watchers the next day.

On the 12th, unbeknownst to us, anti-government protests had begun across Romania.  They were initially in response to healthcare reforms that had prompted a popular health official to resign.  After the controversial bill was floored and the health minister re-instated, the protests mainly died down.  But while they were up and swinging, they were very serious.  In Bucuresti, the gendarmerie (let's just say they're like state troopers in riot gear) were called in after protests got violent.  In dozens of cities across Romania, people were protesting.  They weren't just protesting a health care reform either.  Topping the list of complaints: austerity measures that cut public sector salaries (like teachers') by 25%; an increase of the sales tax from 19% to 24%; the discontinuation of subsidized heating, effectively doubling the entire country's heating bills in the coldest winter in a long time (read on for more details); and general corruption.  People were calling for the resignation of President Basescu ("Down with Basescu!" / "Jos Basescu!" was a popular chant) and demanding the elections be moved up.

Josi lives near the Primaria (akin to the State House), where the people of Constanta were protesting.  In the clip you can hear them shouting "Jos Basescu!"
My second week back we had the first snow that really stuck, and we were so excited.  Now, it 's a bit funny...

My second week back was the final week of classes before the start of the exam period.  Because of the set up of the course I teach, this was also the week my students needed to present their final projects.  The end of my week was filled with mountains of assignments--most turned in last minute--to grade.  On Friday, as usual, Josi and I went to the International Café, a project of Youth With a Mission, Constanta.  Each Friday they have a café night, and this particular week the theme was Chinese New Year.  One of the YWAM team members told us about Chinese New Year in her home city, Hong Kong.  There were a few games and we got to paint ourselves “blessings” in Cantonese.  I chose to write “Improve your studies”—for my students.  Amid my busy week, I again found time to conspire again with Josi.  On that Saturday, we had a pancake party. 

I forgot to photograph them while cooking, so here are the reheated ones I had for breakfast. the next day. 

A Romanian specialty for dessert is clatite, which are basically just crepes.  Somehow, the translation has been ingrained into the mind of every Romanian youth that the proper English translation for clatite is pancakes.  No matter how often I try to protest this injustice and dishonor done to the flapjack family of fluffy golden griddlecakes, no one seems to understand the important difference.  Thus, I was determined to bring the true pancake to Romania.  As such, I brought with me a 5 lb. bag of pancake mix, a pint of real maple syrup, and a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's.  (I’m sure some of you are revolted at the thought of pancake mix.  I usually make my own batter and I could certainly do so in Romania, but the giant bag of mix added a nice dramatic effect.)

For our party we also cooked bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs, and homefries.  It was very delicious.  Maybe they were just being polite, but I’m pretty sure everyone liked the pancakes, even if they weren’t about to replace them for clatite in their cooking.

My next week was filled with grading, going to my Romanian course, and drinking lots of tea with Josi and sometimes Achilleas at our favorite new coffee shop, Times.  Times just opened in the ground floor of the building adjacent to Josi and Achilleas’s apartment building.  They have a huge selection of yummy teas for a good price.  We have now tried each of the 16 or so flavors they sell and narrowed down our favorites.  I daresay that I am on the path to becoming a tea snob.  I used to never drink tea, because I thought it tasted so horrible.  (I blame my mother, who only ever drinks black tea with milk but no sugar--no offense Mom!  I, on the other hand, have found that I love fruity teas, with a little sugar and no milk.)  Now, it is my go-to hot beverage at restaurants.  (I’ll be honest, the only reason why hot chocolate doesn’t hold this position is because I dieting right now, but I really do enjoy tea now.) 

On Wednesday of that week Atilla and Angelina had to make a day trip to Bucuresti, so Josi and I tagged along.  Atilla swung by my apartment at 6:30 to pick me up.  I was sleepy.  When we left Constanta the weather was fine, but we were driving into a snow-covered Bucuresti.  Once during our day the car got stuck in its parking space, so we three ladies got out and pushed.  Thanks to our brawn, the car was freed from its snowy confines.
Bucuresti in the snow.

I helped free the car with my awesome strength.  Fear me.  Really.
Friday of my third week back Josi and I went to the International café again, and then we met Angelina and Atilla at the new mall for a special evening of late night shopping with huge discounts.  We were shopping from 10:15pm to 2:00am.  We got some excellent bargains.  The winning buys of the evening: two pairs of fingerless gloves and 7 sets of jewelry, each for only 5 RON (about $1.50).  Afterwards, we went to a 24 hour pizzeria for a late night snack.

That Saturday was a chilly chili day.  A deep cold swept across Eastern Europe at the end of January, and Constanta was not spared.  It was the sort of cold that bit down into your bones.  Going outside was dreaded, and the wind off the Black Sea was very unhelpful.  After I woke up I headed to Josi’s apartment.  We made chili con carne, drank hot tea, and then we both turned in early.  The next day we shared our pot of leftover chili with Daka and Achilleas, then made a run to a small store to satisfy Josi’s chocolate craving.  Everyone was getting a type of candy bar called Kinder Bueno, which I’d seen on shelves in Constanta but had never tried.  Upon hearing that I’d never enjoyed a Kinder Bueno before, Daka insisted that I have the second pack he’d bought.  So I had my first Kinder Bueno.  It’s a bar with 4 “puffs” of hazelnut crème filling inside of a crunchy, fluffy, cookie sort of coating, then enrobed in milk chocolate.  It was yummy, but fortunately for my waistline, it wasn’t so life shatteringly good that I now have to buy them every time I see them in stores. Phew!
My first Kinder Bueno.

I took the final exams for the first semester of Romanian class on the 30th and 31st.  To study…well, I didn’t really study… I was a terrible student, and as a teacher, I am ashamed.  I did put a little extra effort into practicing, however.  I had a few friends speak with me in Romanian and I instant messaged with Daka almost exclusively in Romanian several times, and he gave me his seal of approval, as someone who’s been learning Romanian for three years.  And lucky me, my professors agreed.  I passed both the oral and written exams, with a score of 8 out of 10 points.  In Romania, the grading scale ranges from 1 to 10, 10 being the highest.  In order to pass, you need a 5 or higher.  An 8 is lower than I’d prefer, but considering I could only attend about 1/3 of the classes, rarely did my assignments (because I rarely went two days in a row), and--as I have already confessed—I really didn’t study for the exams, I’m counting it as a win.

Earlier in this post I mentioned something about how it was a little bit chilly at the end of the month.  It was positively (no…better make that negatively) frigid.  I took to wearing double socks, double gloves, yoga pants under my jeans, and an extra sweater under my jacket.  For a while I even wore two scarves.  The temperature was in the -20s Celsius. (Pop math quiz: figure it out in Fahrenheit!)  To put it in perspective:  the Black Sea started freezing along the coast of Constanta.  This is not common.  My landlady said this is only the 3rd time in her lifetime that this has happened.  I’m glad I got to witness such a rare occurrence…but it sure was cold!

The frozen Black Sea, from my apartment.

February 1st, Josi and I went down to the Cazino to take a closer look at the frozen sea and to get some great pictures.  It was breathtaking.  
Icy railings at the Cazino.

All along the shore are these giant cement jacks.  I'm told they are used to prevent the waves from eroding the shore.
The sea wasn’t frozen over completely.  Really there were just small ice floes floating on the top, all of which were concentrated on the shoreline, pushed in by the waves.  So it was still very fluid; we could see the waves moving.  It looked like a writhing field of snow, as if some fearsome giant worm was making its way toward us under the surface of the snow and ice.  The waves at the shoreline were about the same consistency of a Slushy.  We got a lot of great photos, but our fingers were so cold by the end.  We both felt as though our fingernails would fall off, they were in so much pain.  But God saw our suffering and sent the cheapest maxi taxis right away to bring us to my apartment.  The next day we left for Suceava, where my trip around Romania began, but that’s a story for another blog post.