This last Sunday I had my first invitation to a Moldovei home for a masa since coming to live in Hîncești. It was a big first for me – I was going on my own, without another PCV or my host sister accompanying me. Angela and her husband Uri are the parents of Auriel, an 18-year-old young man confined to a wheel chair who comes to my center every day. In fact, Angela, who is a social worker with the raoin council (similar to a county worker in the States,) is the president of the association which started Pasărea Albastră a number of years ago. She also attends the English class I co-teach on Tuesday and Thursday nights. We have taken a liking to each other, as she is a very determined, classy, well-spoken and intelligent
Uri picked me up in his car and drove me (thank you!) way up into the hills that surround Hîncești, where they have a house abutting the forest. They have quite a spectacular view and seem to be fairly well-off by Moldovan standards (note the flat screen TV in the background of one picture.) I was relieved to see that Angela met me at the door in sweats, absent her usual make-up. This was obviously Sunday and a day for relaxation; it made me feel immediately at home. I greeted Auriel, who was quiet vocal in expressing his surprise and happiness (though he is not able to verbalize) and their 12-year-old adopted daughter Nicoletta, who speaks perfect English (though she is shy about doing so.)
Angela’s mother and husband Uri
This comfortable feeling deepened over the course of the 5 hour repast. Their friends Angela (same name) and Sergio joined us with their youngest daughter. The second Angela speaks almost perfect English; she has her own business working as a document translator. Sergio is an optometrist. They lived for three years in Portugal and have adopted many European viewpoints. It made for a very different experience than I am accustomed to having when interacting with Moldovans.
Auriel, his grandparents and me
They are impatient and disappointed with their country about many of the problems that Americans immediately identify: the lingering Soviet-era entitlement mentality coupled with the endemic rigidity, nepotism and cronyism, corruption, and multi-tiered bureaucracy that makes changing the toilet paper require a veritable act of legislation. They are personally affected by the economic conditions that require their children, brothers, sisters, and extended family members to work outside of the country, possibly with no hope of returning.
(Second) Angela and (first) Angela’s mother
Angela talked about her older daughter who is working as a maid in a five star hotel in Chicago. Because she has an excellent command of English, she has a good chance of moving up to the front desk. If this happens, she will most likely not come home. Ever. It is too expensive and her life would be grounded in the United States with the husband and children she hopes to have one day. I ask Angela how she feels about this and a steely curtain descends over her eyes. “This is the best thing that could happen for her. I have to let her go,” she tells me, not even a hint of a quiver in her voice. Wow. My mothers’ heart broke open wide and mourned for her.
Angela with her mother and daughter
The evening was mostly filled with laughter and enjoyment, however, despite some of the grim realities of life in Moldova. The two Angelas and their husbands are obviously very good friends. It put me in mind of my Canyon Acres and IUCC buddies; there was palpable warmth and happiness that suffused the room and it was pleasurable just to bask in their friendship. I haven’t felt so relaxed and completely at ease in any setting since leaving the States. I even joined Nicoletta for a rousing karaoke and dance to Queen’s “We Will Rock You!”
Of course, the next morning I paid the price of imbibing a little too much cherry raku (a homemade liquor) but it was definitely worth it. I have made new friends. The second Angela actually talked me into joining her aerobics class at the casa de cultura on Monday and Friday evenings. Will report on that later…..
So I guess when I find myself lingering over an internet news story illustrated with a picture of a Big Mac, it’s time to start to talking about food. I’ve managed to steer clear of the subject pretty handily for the last three months, other than giving sidebar compliments to my Stauceni host mom for her “healthy cooking.” It was healthy, primarily, for being composed almost entirely (other than a tablespoon of oil here and there) from items plucked directly from the ground outside her kitchen door. I ate soup (or ciorba, as they call it) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cold, lukewarm, and sometimes hot. This had nothing to do with the weather, but rather when she might have prepared it and how long it had been sitting in the beci since then.
Honey, I Shrunk the Plates
You’ve all heard of Super-sizing your meal, right? That’s what we do in America – take reasonably sized things and inflate them to gigantic proportions: cars, houses, airplanes, hamburgers, sodas, boobs, lips, waistlines. Well in Moldova, they haven’t quite caught up yet. Everything is micro-sized. Or maybe it’s actually normal-sized and I’m just myopic in registering things on this scale. Honest to god, their plates are six inches across. They look like saucers. I thought they were saucers when I first arrived and I kept searching through the cupboards for the dinnerware.
Small plates actually equate to small portions – who would’ve thunk? Dietetic problems solved – bingo! One starts to realize how much was being previously consumed after finishing the micro-sized portion and not yearning for more. Now, this can be partially attributed to the relative blandness of the composite ingredients – there are not a lot of fat/carb combinations stimulating the production of insulin and keeping the engine of fork to mouth churning. But I think, for me, the very act of having a smaller portion in front of me (and not being the one in control of the portions or distribution) has changed my experience of eating altogether. Since I actually eat more slowly (the food is just not that exciting) there is time for my brain to register that my stomach is full and I can blithely refuse the second helping that Moldovans are seemingly obligated to offer (probably because their plates are so small.)
While Moldovan cuisine isn’t bad by any means, it isn’t built on a distinctive melding of complex flavors. There doesn’t seem to be the potential for artistry or creativity that propel some other ethnic foods to world-renown status (the French and Italians pop immediately to mind.) I know some of my fellow PCVs would argue this point, but to me one cook’s placintă tastes pretty much the same as the next person’s. I like sarmale, but it’s comprised of basic ingredients – meat of choice (usually pork,) rice, onions, tomatoes, broth, with some dill and bay leaves stewed on the stove for a couple of hours, then wrapped in grape leaves and steamed for an hour or so. Tada.
Their cheese (brinza) is made, oftentimes, from sheep or goat milk and has a very distinctive, shall we say pungent, taste. It doesn’t melt well. Butter is expensive and used sparingly – primarily as a spread (along with mayonnaise and ketchup – yuk!) on white bread. Their herbal potpourri is limited (but maybe that’s because I can’t read all the Russian labels?) Meats – the ones cured from their farm-grown ducks, chickens, pigs and rabbits – are VER Y lean and spare. (These aren’t animals that’ve enjoyed a pharmaceutically-enhanced, hormone stimulated, grain fed existence. A whole chicken here doesn’t contain near the amount of meat that’s in a two-piece lunch meal from El Pollo Loco.) There is no brown/wild /jasmine rice, quinoa, barley, bulgur, faro, millet, or wheat berries to be had. There is white rice, corn meal, and buckwheat, white flour and semolina pasta. And plenty of grapes, pears, plums, potatoes, green beans, cabbage, carrots, onions, eggplant, tomatoes, and cucumbers (tons and tons of cucumbers.) No lettuce, or spinach, or bok choy, or radishes, or radicchio, or leeks, or broccoli, or Brussels sprouts, or fennel. Occasional mushroom of the standard white capped variety.
I guess what I’m trying to convey is that the cook’s palette is very circumscribed. You eat locally here. And you also eat they what they’ve eaten for the last two centuries. There isn’t much imagination or variance that goes into the pot. Mostly it’s some combination of vegetables in a broth or sauce with a bit of meat added (sometimes) as a flavor enhancer. Some cooks rely on pasta and rice to fill up the saucer/plate (my first Nina shunned these staples, but my new Nina is a fan. I don’t eat with her much.) Putting cabbage and potatoes in a pastry (placintă) is a national favorite. So is wrapping rice/meat fillings in grape leaves (sarmale.) Zeama or ciorba de pui (sour chicken soup) is eaten two to three times a week. Cold, for breakfast.
Anyway. I have found my lifelong gusto for all things culinary has abated here. Food is fuel. That’s about it. Mostly, it bores me. I do get a brief frisson when I know the kitchen is clear and I can go in and wield a knife on the cutting board, but the dearth of stimulating ingredients when I open up the refrigerator soon quells it. How many ways can one slice and dice vegetables? Without an oven or food processor or crock pot, I’m kind of running thin on ideas.
With all the aforementioned now said, I must emphasize that Moldovans – like most cultures – use food as a primary mechanism for displaying graciousness, appreciation, inclusion, and nurturance. They want to feed you. PST devotes an inordinate amount of hours to discussions about food. Yes, they tell which foods to avoid and instruct on boiling water and sanitizing cooking implements and warn about checking label dates. But they also provide guidance on how to politely refuse a third helping (customary politeness dictates acceptance of the second one, but not all of us are polite.) They suggest tactful means of explaining that one doesn’t need to ALL the food that has been prepared in order to convey one’s appreciation to the cook.
I think this treatment of food as a bounteous expression is most beautifully illustrated by the Moldovan phrase “poftă bună.” The word loosely translates as „bon appetit,” however, in other idioms the word poftă can also mean to lust for or after. (And ”poftim” is an interjection with a variety of useful applications, from ”here you go” to ”pardon me” or ”Wtf?” – my interpretation, not the dictionary’s.)
In America, we enjoy our food with the best of them. But we don’t regularly wish anyone sitting down to a meal “eat with lust!” or “Go for the gusto!” But Moldovans do. If any Moldovan, from five to seventy, walks into a room where someone is eating they say “poftă bună.” When someone hands you a plate of food, he says “poftă bună.” When a server delivers you a bag of potato chips – “poftă bună.” When a newly arrived guest joins the dinner table, be prepared for the refrain. It’s ingrained in them, just like “gesundheit” or “god bless you” after a sneeze is for others.
Anytime I bring a friend into the apartment, Nina immediately prompts me to offer them chai. When I try to tell her it’s not necessary, the person either doesn’t like chai or has only swung by to pick something up, she conveys a grudging but reluctant understanding through a barely tempered glare of disapproval. I am not acting graciously in her mind. Moldovans will offer you chai if you look in their front gate as you’re passing by.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m just not that into their cuisine. Otherwise I might weigh 50 pounds more at the end of my service. And that is definitely NOT on my Peace Corps agenda.
This last Sunday I arose with some little trepidation (I’ll admit it) and put the last stray items into my luggage in readiness to move to my final destination. It has been a long journey that brought me to this point, all the way from my sallying cry in the dark so many years ago. It was not registering completely that this trip in Terry’s van would probably be my last ride in a personal vehicle with all my luggage in tow while I’m in Moldova. (When you leave the country at the end of your service, for some reason you have to find your own way back to the Peace Corps offices and the airport. Hence, most people leave most of their things here, only taking back the REALLY important stuff….)
When they arrived – Ana, my work partner, and Eduard, her husband, and Terry, the driver – we had to haul my luggage out from the apartment all the way around the building to the front to the car, because of course I couldn’t manage to open the gate into the parking lot. (This was the beginning of the end of my ‘healed’ knee.) On the way to Hîncești we stopped at a store called Metro, which I heard about but didn’t quite believe existed. I was wrong. Costco has married WalMart and moved to Moldova. Here is a huge warehouse store with everything from dish soap, to washing machines, to socks, to watermelon and cheese. All under one tin roof. For a nation of bus riders. That’s right. You know how much you buy when you visit a warehouse store….well imagine transporting all of that home on a jam-packed rutiera. I don’t get how this works. But Moldovans are diligent and proficient at getting done what needs to get done, with very little technology most times. It makes me yet again realize how much consumption we take for granted in the USA. Ana and I have hesitant conversations, comparing the price of laundry detergent. We find a bag for 20 lei cheaper and send her husband to put back the more expensive versions we had just picked up. Terry careens madly through the store, flirting with every woman he sees. (More on Terry at later time – he really deserves his own post.) I am feeling vaguely comfortable with Moldovans, not an American in site. We stuff all our purchases in the van with all my bags and climg aboard for the wild toad ride to Hîncesti. Terry pilots the van somewhat like a flying carpet. We seem to be zipping a couple of inches over the actual road. Is this better than a rutiera? I think.
I had barely set my bags down and hadn’t even unzipped a suitcase before Nina, my new host sister (I have to call her that as she is my own age – it feels too weird to call her my “host mom”) tells me that we are going to a masa in the small village of Boghaceni in celebration of a four month old baby boy born to a couple for whom she is the “Nona.”
Culture break: A Nona is sort of like a godparent for married couples. It is a non-relative whom a couple asks to serve as a guide and mentor for them during their married life. It can be a couple or a single man or woman. Generally, the person or couple is quite a bit older with some life experience under their belt. They will help the new couple make big decisions, teach them about parenting, offer advice and comfort during difficult times, etc. I find this especially perceptive in NOT having it be a relative, as many times married couples can encounter difficulties with parents and in-laws that require some sound guidance to help them through so they don’t make a mess of things.
So we cross the street in front of our apartment building and begin waiting for a ride to this village. Now ruteiras come by every ten-fifteen minutes or so, but most folks are impatient and try to flag down passing cars that are going the same way. Of course, Peace Corps advises volunteers against this practice, but everyone does it anyway. It is a good way to meet Moldovans and practice your language, I guess, but I haven’t tried it on my own. Now that I’m with Nina, I guess I’m ready to hitch hike (I actually don’t have a choice. She’s madly flagging down every car that whizzes by.) A couple of cars stop but they’re either going a different way or they can only fit one person. We end up in a rutiera just as it starts to rain.
And then it’s pouring. (Luckily at this point I had not learned of the horrible accident that just claimed the lives of ten people in a 17-seat rutiera that was carrying fifty persons. It’s brakes failed on a curve and the mayor of a town and his wife were among the fatalities.) I am not looking forward to the walk from the rutiera to this masa, as I left in such a hurry I didn’t grab an umbrella and hadn’t changed out of my sandals. After about an hour, I hear Nina yell for the driver to stop. We’re out in the middle of nowhere. I am confused. After we disembark, a young man comes up to greet us. His car is parked right there where the bus stopped. Oh thank the lord, I don’t have to walk. We get in his car and proceed down a dirt road that is quickly melting into mud. He is driving fast, trying to beat the disintegration of traction. A couple of times I find myself wondering if walking would’ve been better, but the road turns out to be miles long. The house that we’re going to comes into view ahead – it’s way up on a hill to the right of us and as we slowly drive by it is apparent that the car is not going to make it up the slippery slope of mud flowing down that is probably a road in dryer times. We exit the vehicle and ponder the slope. Nina is in high heels, I am in sandals. The young man grins, grabs my arm, and says: Sos! (UP!) Here we go.
Well, this is the second stage of total knee failure. I am slipping and sliding and clutching at the branches of bushes to my left with my free arm. Up ahead of me, Nina is slogging on galliantly alone with her umbrella held high and her wedgies sinking inches deep into the mud. Up and up and up. We finally attain the summit and walk for another few minutes through flat muddy soup and stop in front of a locked gate. The young man – his name is Sergio, I’ve learned during our little ambling duet – pulls out his cell phone and calls his parents, the people we’re visiting. Are they not here? Are they still miles away in a rutiera? If they’re home and they know we’re coming, why is the gate locked? We wait. And we wait. And we wait. Recall that it’s raining. Pretty hard. Me without umbrella. In sandals. In mud. After about 10 minutes, we hear the hearty hey ho of a man approaching the gate. He is laughing and chattering away in Romanian as he unlocks the gate. I learn soon enough why it took him so long. We have another half mile climb up yet another muddly slope to the house above.
We pass through orchards full of pear trees and grapes hanging off the vine. There are more tomatoes (roșii) and watermelon (harbuz) than we saw at Metro. Another orchard with plum trees, the fruit being the actual size of the prunes that they will become later upon drying in the sun (pruna.) Some corn that looks sere, droopy and tattered from the (former) lack of rain. Finally we pass what smells like the outhouse. Good, we must be getting close, I think.
Why am I here again, when I could be back at Nina’s place, dry and unpacking? Oh yes – the all important „integration” (I didn’t mess up on the quotation marks, btw, that’s how they do it in Romanian.) Not soon enough, we arrive at the front door where three older woman, all wearing kerchiefs and aprons, one with missing teeth and a wandering eye, one small, anxious boy, and one lithe young woman holding a forty pound baby (no kidding) stand waiting to welcome us. We remove our shoes and enter into safe harbor. Thank the lord, we’ve made it, I think. Now I just have to get down again. I guess I’ll worry about that later.
There is a mass of food – a masa – spread out on the table before us. We are given some bread and wine and salt, the traditional Moldovan welcoming gesture and invited to sit. Nina gives the married couple (Sergio turns out to be the husband) some money and a gift for the baby. We begin to eat. For the next two hours it continues to rain outside while we repast indoors. Wine, food, talk. More wine, more food, more talk. Many toasts to America and my health. The people comment on how well I speak Romanian. The old man says Barak Obama’s name several times, as it is the only English words he knows. Nina pulls out her Avon catalogues and goes into a protracted sales pitch which, suprisingly, holds both the men and the women rapt. Even the little boy is held captive. Perfume samples are passed out to all. She’s good. After about an hour, I note that Sergio is trying to refuse more wine as he reminds them he has to drive us back to the bus stop. Thank the lord, I think. He’s only successful about half the time in not having his glass filled. Oh well, I think.
When it’s finally time to go, Sergio runs out ahead of time and returns with a nice pair of galoshes for both Nina and I. Thank you god, I think. Though there may be no tread on the bottom of these, at least my toes will stay clean and the cuts on my feet will not be infected with typhoid. We wash our own shoes in a bucket of rain water kindly provided by the clouds overhead. And then we ski down the hill. That is the best term for our meandering sliding progress. The old man is holding Nina’s arm and Sergio has mine. I am clutching him in the hopes of avoiding an embarassing face plant. This is the penultimate stage of knee damage. (I still have to walk to work tomorrow carrying 20 pounds of books and computer on my back. That did it in completely…)
The ride back to the highway is a testament to German autobuiders (I think we’re in an old Audi.) The car weaves wildly on torrents of mud from one side of the road to the other. Sergio hunches with great concentration over the wheel, smearing his left hand against the inside of the windshield every minute or so to clear the condensation. One windshield wiper is working valiantly. A car passes us on the left. Seriously? I think. Nina pats my knee and smiles winningly. I wonder if she’s going to pull out the Avon catalogue.
When we get to the road, Sergio stops at the bus shelter and leads us inside. Then he runs back out to the highway. What a gentleman, I think, waiting to signal the passing rutiera for us. Within seconds he has flagged down a late model Taurus (compete with leather seats and Dolby sound) and he gestures us to climb in with the three burly, bald Russian occupants. Great. Everything the Peace Corps warned me about. Gangsters, I think. Note the gold chains and silence. Completely unconcerned, Nina pulls out her phone and checks her voice mails. The entire way no one talks. The driver dials a number but gets no answer. Apparently the human trafficer connection has taken the day off, I think. When we arrive at our apartment, Nina tries to give the driver 20 lei. He refuses gruffly. Well how about that, I think.
Later that night, I put brand new sheets on my bed. I unpack all my bags for the first time since I loaded them up in Fullerton so many eons ago. I find things I forgot I brought. I Skype with Rhiannon and Nicole back in the States. I take a shower and get into my jammies. It’s still raining outside. Nina is already sacked out, fast asleep. The winds whistles and a steady patter of rain drops is like a metronome tick-tocking right outside my window. A smile spreads slowly cross my face.
My first day in Hîncești, I think. This might turn out to be a bit of the adventure I’d hoped it would be…
So here I sit in sick bay while all the rest of my compatriots travel on to their new sites and volunteer service, taking their first steps into their new lives. I have been watching FB all day, tracing their footsteps through their new villages, comparing the size of their bedrooms with my own, lusting after the masa (feasts) wherein their new host families celebrate their coming by spreading a multitude of wonderful dishes across the table. Hey wait a minute, I think. I have a kitchen…and some veggies from Nina’s garden…and some odds and ends in the cupboards left by former inhabitants of this den. I can cook something…
One of the less positive effects of Pre-Service Training and living with a host family is that it slammed the trainee back into the experience of childhood again. We relied on the Peace Corps staff or our host mother or our Language Training Instructors or even the M26’s and M25’s to script our lives for us. Almost every waking moment was defined by language lessons, tech training, homework, studying, self-directed activities or field trips or traveling back and forth to hub site or cluster site.
When I knew I would be here, on my own, at TDY for a week or so, I actually felt a bit of trepidation. No Nina to prepare my healthy meals? How will I eat? On Friday, I ventured into Everest, a pseudo-supermarket (everything is almost, in Moldova,) like a 10 year old given the responsibility of cooking some dinner for her siblings while mom worked late. All the labels are in Russian, so one must have a pretty good sense of what the picture on the packet might be in order to feel confident in making a purchase decision. The produce section was sad and empty (most everyone grows their own or buys in the piața.) There was an entire shelf of white rice (no brown) and pasta (all semolina,) supplemented by hrisca and lentils. They do like their carbs here. I ended up with a carton of mushrooms (haven’t had those since I left the States,) some Activa yogurt (same label as the States,) a miniature loaf of black bread and some carbonated water. Yea for me.
Today, after seeing all those masa spreads, I remembered the bag of veggies that Nina pressed on me as I was leaving Friday morning. Well damn, I don’t want another yogurt and I polished off the jar of peanut butter someone left in the cupboard (sweet!) for breakfast. It was strange at first, peeling the onions, mincing the garlic, chopping the dovlece (like a squash, only seedless…even sweeter!) Like maybe I wasn’t old enough to be handling sharp knives. I felt Nina hovering over my left shoulder, clucking disapprovingly. While she made some good, healthy soups, they tended to taste very much the same. She had a limited repertoire of herbs – parsley and dill – and used only salt and pepper to flavor. And, in characteristic Moldovan style, one did things the same each and every time. She cooks the way her mother taught her, the way her mother taught her before that. Nothing changes. Tradition holds.
Now that I was on my own, I went through the cupboards and pulled out mysterious packets of Russian-labeled spices and had at it with impulsive America style. Then I threw in some habanero sauce I brought from home – this was verboten in Nina’s house as it was way too hot for any Moldovan who tried it (mild by our standards, mild!) With a small handful of egg noodles to thicken it up, I had myself an aromatic concoction burbling on the burner in no time.
Let me tell you, the succulence of vine-ripened tomatoes and the sharpness of fresh plucked garlic make for amazing soups – I surprised myself! I had two bowls. But it wasn’t just my body being nourished: I felt like I had slipped right back into my age-old soul, wielding that knife on the chopping board. I’m back in the kitchen again, self-sufficient, creative, and all grown up again! Thank you, dear Hestia! And let me keep enjoying while the vegetables are ripening…