Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Greek Taverna, French Crepes, Romanian Martisor, and a German Evening

After my trip around Romania had come to a close, I settled back into my routine in Constanta.  My classes have started up again for the second semester, and I have high hopes that this semester will be a great on for me and for my students.

Josi had sent me a video of her walking on the Black Sea, since the ice along the shore was so thick.  I had hoped to get to see this, but a warm spell returned to Constanta the day before I returned and all the ice disappeared from the shoreline.
No more ice on the sea, just some snow banks along the beach
Josi's father only had a few days to visit, but Josi packed a lot of activities into a sort time, and I joined them some of the time.  Sunday evening we went to a play in Romanian.  It was a sort of a dinner theater thing, except they only served drinks and little snack bars.  It seems like it was a good play, and I generally understood what was going on, but it was still hard to get into it fully with the language barrier.  Poor Josi's dad just doesn't know any Romanian at all, so he was even more lost.

The next day was Monday.  I don't have classes on Monday so I met with Josi and her father around noon.  We took a walk around the mall.  Josi and I split from her dad to take a look in one of our favorite stores in Romania, Glow.  (I got some new jeans for under $10!)  On our way to reunite with her dad, Josi spotted our friend Giorgos at the cafe at the bottom of the escalator.  We said hi and he invited us to join him and his friend.  We found Josi's dad and brought him back to the cafe for some tea.  This was our first cafe of the day.

It was early afternoon by the time we were finished, and we were ready for lunch.  A new Greek restaurant recently opened not far from Josi's apartment, but we hadn't tried it yet.  Giorgos was between classes, so we asked him to join us for lunch there, so we could have a Greek's opinion on the authenticity of the food.  I liked it.  Giorgos said it isn't quite the same, but that it wasn't horrible either.  This was our second cafe/restaurant of the day.

From the Greek taverna we went to Times, our favorite cafe.  Giorgos left for class, and Achilleas came to join us.  It is right next to Josi's apartment and they have rummy there, which we love to play.  Josi's dad is an expert rummy player.  He's so good that no one back home wants to play with him, so he was glad to get three people who were willing to challenge him.  I won a game, Josi won a game, and her dad one all the rest of them.  This was our third cafe.

After a long hard time drinking tea and playing rummy, we had worked up and appetite so Josi, her dad, and I went to a restaurant for dinner.  Nothing terribly exciting happened here, but it's worth noting because this was our  fourth consecutive cafe or restaurant of the day.

Have you ever wondered where bottles are grown?  Actually they use the bottles to insulate plants.

After dinner we went to Cafe Cafe to meet up with many of our friends over drinks.  Josi, her dad, Atilla, Angelina, Achilleas, Giorgos, and I were all there.  As we were sitting there, a waiter brings three pieces of delicious looking cake.  We were about to point out that we didn't order cake, when the waiter all-too-purposefully pus them in front of me, Angelina, and Josi.  It's then that Atllia recalls that at this cafe they often bring free cake to the ladies.  How could he have not remembered this before!  Why is it five months into my stay in Constanta when I find out there are placing giving out free cake!  It was very exciting.  And so we went to our fifth cafe of the day.  By this time it was late in the evening.  Josi's dad was leaving early the next day, so I said goodbye until the end of March, when both of her parents will visit for a week.

Delicious, free cake!

The next events of particular note was a crepe party, hosted by our French friend, Camille, and her new, German roommate, Hannah.  Josi and I arrived together, nearly half an hour late, and we were, of course, the first to arrive, as everyone here is on a Romanian schedule (or worse!).  The party was an opportunity to eat French crepes and to meet Hannah, who arrived in Constanta earlier that week.  To accentuate the French-ness of the evening, we got to enjoy some accordion music by Camille, and I got to try my hand at playing the accordion (I'm awful).

Josi made this special crepe out of the leftover batter.

That weekend the weather was spectacularly warm and beautiful and there were swans on the lake.  It got cold again since then.

Swans near the lake behind City Park Mall

Me and the swans.  It was so warm I ditched my coat for the day.  I regretted it after dusk.

The following week Josi and I noticed a great phenomenon sweeping the city!  All along the walking street near Tomis Mall (the first and smallest mall in the city, also the home of the cinema) dozens of display boxes were opened, filled with all sorts of very affordable (I daresay cheap) trinkets, most notably pins and pendants.  Okay, so it wasn't really a phenomenon; it is very explainable and apparently happens every year.  Nonetheless, Josi and I were befuddled (as you, too, most likely are, dear reader).  But luck was (ironically) on our side.  I spotted a Romanian friend of mine walking with her aunt.  I hadn't seen Deliana in two months so I was thrilled to get to see her.  As we spoke, I asked her about the sudden pop-up of street vendors.  She informed me that they were for the 1st of March, which is a cultural holiday in Romania, and the start of spring.  She told me that on March 1st--Martisor--people give their female friends a small gift (a martisor) accompanied by a red and white string with tassels.

Street vendors selling martisoare

Josi and I love a good excuse to buy jewelry and gifts, and since these were impeccably priced, we had a mini shopping spree, with 5 days left before the holiday.  After buying many  martisoare, we did some more research on the holiday, which was supplemented by an extremely helpful outpouring of information from Romanian friends.  We learned that you are supposed to wear your martisoare for the first several days of March.  (We found different numbers, but I think they were all in the vicinity of 9 days.)  We also learned that traditions very similar to this are also found in Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and Moldova.

At this point you may be wondering what the whole point of giving martisoare is.  The general idea behind it is a a sort of good luck charm.  As such, popular shapes are shamrocks, ladybugs, and horseshoes (and flowers, but that's just because it's spring-y), and they sometimes say "Noroc," which can mean "cheers" or "good luck."  Achilleas tells us that in Greece, you wear the red and white string on your right wrist, to protect against sunburn.

When Martisor (March 1st, as I'm sure you remember, as you were paying very close attention) rolled around, I was given three martisoare.  Josi gave me a flower pin, Hannah gave me a shamrock pendant, and Giorgos gave me a blue puppy pendant (with kind of creepy eyes).  I also got a belated martisor from Kelli, the ETA in Iasi, just today when we met in Bucuresti for the Fulbright Spring Orientation.  I missed wearing any of them on two days since March 1st, but otherwise, I wore at least one a day.  (I have no idea if I'm doing this tradition right, but no one has criticized or kindly corrected me, so I figure I can't be that far off the mark.)

Traditional Martisor flowers

My martisor from Josi

Josi has had a stockpile of German sweets in her cabinet for awhile now.  She had them so she could present a German night at the International Cafe.  Since there was a pressing concern that she would eat them all before she could give them away, she hastened to put on this German night as soon as possible.  She and Hannah planned and executed it last Friday evening.  They decorated with flags, a German puzzle, German books, gummy bear-filled centerpieces, and German music.  They each made a presentation about their hometowns in Germany and created a German trivia game.  The best part of the program--in my opinion--was getting to see Josi dressed in her dirndl.

The International Cafe, set up for the German night

After the German night at the International Cafe was over, Josi and I decided to go get some dinner somewhere.  We were brainstorming where to go when I (half-jokingly) suggested we go to the German Bierhaus restaurant so that Josi could dine there in her dirndl.  She loved the idea, so we headed out.  The waitresses--themselves dressed in imitation dirndls--smiled at us, and no one seemed to mind that we took dozens of photos.  And the food was delicious!  We've already gone a second time since then and have decided it's out new favorite restaurant in Constanta.  They have a good choice of big and delicious salads, mouth-wateringly delicious savory filled crepes, and cheese-filled sausages.  It is wonderful!

Josi in her dirndl at the Bierhaus

Now I am back in Bucuresti for the Spring Orientation.  There are several new Fulbright grantees who are only in Romania for the second semester.  Today was the business part of the orientation.  I didn't want to cancel my classes this morning, so I received permission to come late to the orientation.  I left my apartment at 7:30 this morning with my bag packed for two nights in Bucuresti, and I taught two classes, until noon.  I took a city bus to the autogara, caught a 12:30 bus to Bucuresti, and arrived at the Fulbright Commission at 4:15, after a short and very enjoyable taxi ride (please see closing note on my unsavory taxi journey several weeks ago).  Tomorrow we will be all touristy all over the city.  I'll let you know how that goes.

March sure is a nice month to be a woman in Romania.  Just a week after Martisor, Romanians celebrate International Women's Day.  It's a catch-all day for all your loving sentiments towards a woman, be it your mother, a spouse, a friend, a teacher, or a stranger.  This day was today, so many women could be spotted carrying bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolates, or trinkets similar to those given for Martisor.

Now for a final story.  This is a story from the day I traveled from Brasov to Bucuresti to Constanta.  When I arrived in Bucuresti, I took the metro to Gara de Nord (the train station), since I knew the bus depot I needed to meet Josi and her father at was very nearby.  I called Josi for directions to the bus station and she just so happened to be in the train station, buying soft pretzels. (Romanian pretzels are very skinny and are called covrigi.)  She had just walked the two or three blocks from the bus station, but suggested we take a short taxi ride, since I had all my luggage with me and since the roads were crowded with mountains of snow.  We found a personable cab driver among the sea of waiting taxis.  We should have seen it coming when he turned in the opposite direction of the bus station.  He had spoken to us in English before, so Josi pointed out that the bus station was the other way.  He told us the roads were blocked because of snow and that he had to go around.  We decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and not press the issue.  We drove for about 2 minutes AT THE EXTREME MAXIMUM and arrived at the bus station.  He pretended to press a button on the meter and ripped off a receipt already hanging out from it.  It was for approximately 21 lei.  Now the rate printed on the door of the taxi was somewhere in the ballpark of 1.49 lei/km.  Now I'm no wiz when it comes to the metric system, but I did know that there was no way we drove even half the distance he claimed.  Josi and I looked at each other  incredulously at this ridiculously high bill.  While cabby got my bags from the trunk, Josi reached to look at the meter, which was *conveniently* pointed down.  Cabby got angry, shouting at us that he doesn't go through our bags why are we touching his stuff, and then he accused Josi of unplugging the meter when she touched it...I suppose to cover the fact that he didn't even have it plugged in, not to mention running.  We got out of the cab.  Josi slyly grabbed my bags as I began to argue with this suddenly unfriendly driver.  I told him that there was no way we drove more than even 5 km and that the rate he gave us was bogus.  I told him I'd give him 10 lei and that it was far more than he deserved.  He made up some baloney story about it including a fee to the company he works for and how he has to pay for the car.  I told him again that I'd only give him 10 lei, and placed the money in his hand.  He mumbled something about doing me a favor and only charging me 5 lei, so I gave him a 5.  When he didn't move to give me back the 10 lei I gave him before, I snatched my 5 lei back, scowled at him while shaking my head, and walked away.

Josi had thought she'd seen him press a button at the start of our ride, and we assumed the meter had been turned on.  Well we've learned our lesson and will now always check to see that it is actually running and that it is the same rate as is listed on the door.  So, if any of you are travelling to Romania (or other countries with conniving cab drivers), make sure you see the meter turn on, and that you check intermittently to make sure it stays on.  Also, estimate the fare in your head, based on the rate on the door.  Had Josi and I not taken Romanian taxis on several occasions before, we might not have realized how much of a rip-off 21 lei was for the length of the ride. (It probably should have been only 2.50 lei, even taking the long way around.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Around I Go! Cluj-Napoca and Brasov

After Eniko put me on a very early bus from Ciumani to Cluj-Napoca, I drove through Transylvania for 6 hours before arriving in the Romania's 2nd most populous city.  My friends Timea and Laszlo, who I met at Kellerhaus (my summer job), picked me up from the bus station.  I went back to the their apartment for the first of many meals they included me in.  I also got to see Timea's sister Judith, who also worked at Kellerhaus.  (For simplicity's sake, please just assume that every person I mention from my stay in Cluj worked at Kellerhaus at one time or another, unless I tell you otherwise.)
The statue of Austro-Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, in front of  St. Michael's Church

Laszlo showed me around the historic center of the city.  He took me to some of the many churches from many different denominations and told me some of the history of the city.  It was a very cold day, so we stopped for tea before visiting the Hungarian boarding school he attended for high school with Timea and Judith.  I'm pretty sure it wasn't really allowed, but Laszlo took me all the way to the top of the building, to the boys' dormitories.
The interior of the Franciscan Church, which changed hands a lot among different sects and is the oldest church in Cluj-Napoca
Another Church
Part of the wall that used to encircle the city.

A view up at the Church that Timea, Laszlo, and Judith attend.

That evening two more friends joined us at Timea, Laszlo, and Judith's apartment.  Andreea and Silviu are both still studying in Cluj, which is a big university town.  It was nice to get to hangout with my friends in Romania when I'd met them in the US.  That evening Andreea took me to her brother's apartment, which she was borrowing since he was out of town.  This is where I stayed for my whole stay.  It was at the edge of the city, but was a really nice place to stay.

Andreea, Timea, and Silviu

The next morning, we had a bit of a Kellerhaus reunion of the people who worked at Kellerhaus during the summer of 2011.  We went to Salina Turda, a salt mine in Turda, a small city not far from Cluj-Napoca.  I got to spend the morning with: Timea, Laszlo, Andreea, Silviu, Cristina P, Doru, and Johnny.  (On a side note: Cristina and Doru are now engaged and have just moved to England for a year.  They had their interviews for the jobs the day after our trip to the mine.  So exciting!)  When we first entered into the mine we had to walk through a small tunnel for a long time.  It spit us out in a cave overlooking a small pit.  It was labeled as an echo chamber, so of course we all shouted into the abyss.  There was a little alcove and a nondescript door at the other end of the small space.  I was thinking to myself This is pretty cool, but that admission was a little steep for just this. Then, we went through this door into another long tunnel.  We went into another small cave, this one with some sort of giant screw that was used for mining the salt.  That was cool too, but I was still oblivious for what came next.  We descended some stairs and emerged on a walkway that circled a large cavern.  Now I'm not talking large as in a house, I'm talking just plain massive.  There was even a Ferris wheel inside!

The tunnel into the mine
Left to Right: Johnny, Silviu, me, Laszlo, Doru (in front), Timea, and Cristina.  Andreea was our photographer.

The echo chamber

The big screw

Climbing down the stairs, oblivious to the enormous cavern at the bottom

A blurry shot from the walkway

The walkway and the top half of the cavern

A look down at the cavern.  I couldn't tell from above, but that's a Ferris Wheel in the center.

I'm afraid of heights, so I hugged the wall as we circled the cavern. Two of my companions are civil engineers, and one of them assured me that the walkway was structurally sound.  This didn't make me feel any better...  There are two ways to get to the bottom of the cavern: the first way is an elevator; the second way is one of two loooooong stairways.  Most of us took the elevator, but a few brave souls in our group walked all the way down.

Cristina and Doru met us at the bottom of the stairs

A view of some of the stairwell, from the bottom of the cavern.

At the bottom of the cavern are all sorts of amusements.  Some things to do are ping pong, bowling, a Ferris wheel, and even row boats in a second, deeper cavern.  We were only visiting for the morning and also didn't want to spend extra money on many different things, so we all took a trip in the row boats.  It was very surreal rowing on the pitch black water, in the dimly lit cavern, carved from salt.

Looking down at the deeper cavern and the boats from the main cavern

Peeking up at the main cavern from the deeper cavern where the boats are

Boating in the salt mine

After our trip to the mine we returned to Cluj.  Andreea and I went to meet one of my oldest Romanian friends.  She goes by Ana Maria now, but I knew her as Ariana when she worked at Kellerhaus with me the summer of 2007.  I hadn't gotten a chance to see Ariana since then, so I was very excited to meet up with her again.  She was one of the first people to really get me interested in Romania--she's a big part of the reason why I am in Romania now.  We met for tea and then Ariana took me to a traditional Romanian restaurant.  I had some truly delicious mamaliga cu smantana, kaiser, si branza and some bean and ham soup in an enormous bread bowl.  It was delicious and filling.  Unfortunately it was more filling than my tummy had space for, and I had to leave some behind.  At the end of our meal we were joined by Ariana's boyfriend and one of his friends, who didn't speak English at all, so I got some good practice at my Romanian (which is still very sad and lacking).


My bean and ham soup in a giant bread bowl

My super delicious mamaliga (it's very similar to polenta), smothered with sour cream,  thick bacon, and soft cheese.

After the restaurant we headed to a bowling center, where we met up with my other friends who I'd visited the mine with.  I'm not that great at bowling, but I'm not terrible either...although I did get my fair share of gutter balls.  After bowling a few people who were left went up to a restaurant on the roof of the building for some drinks and a bit of dancing.  Since they live in Zalau, a city two hours away, Cristina and Doru stayed the night with Andreea and I.  Johnny came back with us for a late night snack (featuring sausage that Doru made) but he left to stay the night with another friend.

Me and Ariana bowling

At the bowling alley
There were animal statues on the roof...

It was a lovely view of the city at night

Me and Cristina dancing

The next day was Sunday, and Andreea took me to a spot that overlooks the city.  We took some nice photos and then walked to the dormitories so Andreea could show me where she lives.  During my freshman year of college I lived in a triple the size of a double, and we all thought that was crowded.  In these dorms, they had a room with almost the same dimensions (if not slightly smaller) but with five people.  No one gets much personal space, but it is much more affordable than any other living arrangements.  The cost per month to live in the dorm is around 80 RON (less than $30), which is waaaaay less than I had to pay in college.


Looking over the city

From here we went to a artsy sort of pub/restaurant near the dorms.  Andreea and I met up with Ariana and Cristina M.  Cristina M. worked at Kellerhaus for three years, and her last summer there was my first summer.  She recently got her PhD and is considering moving to Canada. Now I have to admit that I don't like beer.  This dismays some people, so it wasn't all that surprising when Ariana tried to convert me.  She chose this particular place because they have different flavors of syrup to add to beer.  I tried raspberry.  it was definitely an improvement over just plain beer, but I don't know if I liked it well enough to drink it all the time.  We next went to the grocery store, followed by mass in the great Gothic cathedral in the old part of the city. We took a bus back to Andreea's brother's apartment and had some dinner there.

Andreea, me, Cristina M, and Ariana

Monday morning Andreea and I took the bus into the city.  Andreea went to work and I went to the mall to meet with Jennifer Feenstra, a Senior Fulbright grantee at Babes Bolyai University in Cluj.  We met for a nice chat and warm drinks at Starbucks.  I love their hot chocolate, and it was made just the way I like it.  She walked me to Timea, Laszlo, and Judith's apartment, where I hung out until the afternoon.

Jennifer, my fellow Fulbrighter
After lunch I went to visit Orsi-- another Kellerhaus friend--at her family's house.  She introduced me to her family and her pets and told me about her trip to Nepal and her photography.  It was very nice to get to catch up with her.  She walked me to the mall where I met Timea and Judith to watch War Horse.  It is an excellent movie and all three of us loved it!  Andreea met us after it finished.  We all stopped into Auchan (a hipermarket, which is basically like a super Walmart) and then Laszlo was nice enough to bring us back to the apartment where Andreea and I were staying.

Me and Orsi

Tuesday was Valentine's Day.  Timea, Judith, and I went to the university's botanical garden and then walked around town a bit.  We popped into a bookstore.  I considered buying a book in English, but decided against it, since the selection wasn't so great and since I can borrow ebooks from my public library back home in NH via the internet.  I did buy something there, but I don't want to spoil the surprise since it's a gift for someone!  We also popped into another church, which I'd overlooked on my church tour with Laszlo.  This church was  Greek-Romanian Catholic Church, which means that it is in communion with the Holy See in Rome, but that the liturgy is celebrated in the Romanian (Eastern Orthodox) Rite, rather than the standard Latin Rite.  This was my last day in Cluj-Napoca.

A Valentine's Day potato.
I'm told the botanic garden is much more spectacular in the summer when everything is in bloom

At the botanic garden

Flowers for Valentine's Day (actually here are always flower vendors)

Walking through Cluj-Napoca

The Greek-Romanian Catholic Church: It has an iconistasis like Orthodox churches, but also has pews, which Romanian Orthodox Churches lack.

The next morning I said goodbye to Andreea and thanked her for all her hospitality as we parted ways, she to work and I to Timea, Laszlo, and Judith's apartment.  They again made me lots of delicious food to eat and then Timea and Laszlo brought me to the bus station.  We located my ride, which was a turquoise maxi taxi.  It turns out I would be driving pretty close to the village where Timea, Laszlo, and Judith are from, so I kept an eye out for where I will be spending my Easter, since I accepted Timea's offer to spend Easter with her family.
My ride to Brasov

About 6 hours later I arrived in Brasov, where my friend Nicole was waiting for me.  Nicole is another Fulbright ETA, and she is teaching at Transilvania University.  We went back to her apartment, where I was lucky enough to have my own room.  We then went our for dinner where we ran into a friend of Nicole's who is also an American.  It was a lovely evening with lots of American interaction.

The next day Nicole showed me around the city.  She lives near the center of the city, so we were able to walk everywhere.  We went to a sort of department store place to buy a second towel.  These sorts of places are very common in Romania, from my experience.  They are like department stores in that there are a wide variety of different products all indifferent parts of the several storey complex, but each department is actually it's own shop, even though there are no real walls or doors around each shop.  While there I found a shop that was selling yarn.  Since I am trying to crochet up a storm, I was very pleased with my find.  We walked around the old part of the town for a bit before going for lunch, where we again met up with Nicole's american friend, Harrison.  After lunch we went to a nice bookstore where I bought a book in English, some gourmet tea, and a clay, bird-shaped whistle, which I think is just adorable!  That evening we had dinner at Nicole's apartment, and she made the all-American classic Sloppy Joe.  It was amazing!  Sloppy Joes are just so delicious, and I hadn't had one in a while.  After dinner we went out and had some mulled wine, which Romanians make quite well.

Pigeons lined up outside the market

Part of the old wall of the city

Bullet holes from the Revolution of 1989

The walking street in the center of the city

The center square in the old part of the city

One of the gates of the city

Friday we delved deeper into some of the things we'd passed by the day before.  We went to Biserica Neagra (the Black Church).  Brasov is historically a German city.  This enormous church is a German Protestant one.  It got its name from a fire that left it charred, but today you really can't tell.  We also went to the history museum, and we walked around the Schei District, which was outside the original city and was where the Romanians lived when Brasov was a German city.  We also climbed the hill that sits at the center of the city, dividing the historical district from the newer (uglier) part of the city.  Atop this hill sits a citadel.  It was closed when we got to the top, but it was still a great view of the city.  For dinner we went to a traditional Romanian restaurant and I had my favorite Romanian food, sarmale, and some plum dumplings for dessert.

The Black Church

A picturesque church in the Schei District

The iconic Brasov sign

The citadel, perched on a hill

The recent snowfall complicated out climb to the citadel

The new part of the city, as seen from the citadel

The old part of the city, as seen from the citadel

Me at the citadel

A closer shot of the old part of the city, with the enormous Black Church in the center

Sarmale and mamliga for dinner

The next morning Nicole brought me to the bus station.  I took a maxi taxi for 3.5 hours to Bucuresti.  Unfortunately, I had some poor planning ahead, because less than an hour into the trip in the over crowded maxi taxi, I had to pee like nobody's business.  With some amazing willpower, I managed to survive until I got to Bucuresti.  Josi's dad was visiting her for a few days.  They had spent a day in Bucuresti and waited for me at the bus station so we could all travel to Constanta together.  Atilla and Angelina picked us up from the bus station.  They dropped my luggage by my apartment and then we all went for dinner at the Irish Pub, which is neither Irish nor a pub.  My long and exciting trip around Romania was over.  I was a bit sad to have to get back to work, but delighted to see my friends again.