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.)

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