This weekend was a great weekend.
I had a great long run on Saturday (you know you’ve left Arizona when you see the temperature is 23°F and you think to yourself, “Sweet! Today’s run is going to be warm!”). But it was beautiful and peaceful outside, and I could’ve run for hours out there.
On Saturday night, I went to town in the kitchen making cut-out cookies to frost with my host nieces. I had been waiting for my Christmas package to arrive with the cookie cutter and sprinkles. (I had warned my host family that, once the package did arrive, I was going to come over and teach the two girls a little American tradition we like to call “decorating cookies.”) When I finally found some time, I called my host family and said if they weren’t busy Sunday afternoon, I’d come over with some gifts and cookies. They heartily agreed.
Sunday morning, I frequented the local Baptist church. (A couple of weeks ago, one of the pastors there actually invited me to lunch in the capital. He’s studying theology in Vienna and works as a translator in Russian and English for many faith-based organizations in Moldova. We discussed theology…in Romanian…something I honestly didn’t even know I could do. We also discussed traditional Moldovan food. Yum.) So that was good.
After church, I gathered my gifts, baked sugar cookie cut-outs, frosting and sprinkles, and trekked over to my host family’s house.
I first had everyone open their gifts. I brought them some printed photos I had taken of the girls and the family, I gave my host sister Rainforest softener that I used to use with my own laundry (she would always comment on how good it smelled), I gave them the Arizona shot glasses my parents sent (they LOVED these and send many thanks to my parents), and I gave the two girls a toy doctor kit I found in Moldova (they ripped it open, went through every piece “what is this? what does this do?” and then proceeded to give all of us injections with the plastic syringe). Then the cookie madness began.
Sprinkles are not common in Moldova. I’m not sure they have them at all. To explain what they are to Moldovans, I call them “colored sugar.” My host family marveled at the shapes of the cookies (a boot, a Christmas tree, a star and a candy cane). I actually did see a set of cookie cutters here, but those are not common either as I understand. They were so impressed that I had made them all on my own, along with the frosting. (Remember, when we speak in Romanian, we generally sound like we’re 5 years old, so demonstrating adult actions just becomes that much more impressive.) I walked the girls through the steps…”Just like my mom does with my sisters and me, I will put frosting on the cookies and then I will put them in your pans, and you will put the colored sugar on the cookies. Be careful, because the sugar comes out very quickly. Here, I will show you how to pour the sugar…” and so on. And we began. They loved it. “Give me a tree! Is this pretty? Which colored sugar should I use?” My host mom was the first to taste a cookie. “So tasty!” she said. And she doesn’t even like sweets all that much. I was flattered.
My family just thought that was such a great activity for the girls. They get to contribute in the kitchen, to create a form of culinary art. And they all continued to marvel at how pretty the cookies were, and how there’s nothing like them in Moldova. (I ended up taking some to work this week for a birthday celebration. My colleagues also loved the colorful sprinkles and agreed that they were delicious and that I was good to marry.)
After cookie decorating, my family insisted I stay for dinner and help them prepare colțunăși, a delicious Moldovan cuisine that is similar to ravioli. How could I resist? Colțunăși is actually one of my favorite dishes, and I love learning how to cook new things.
They threw some flour into a bowl, sprinkled some salt around it, cracked several eggs into the mix, and starting mushing it altogether by hand. No measuring cups used here (in fact, I have yet to see any measuring cups in Moldova.) “In Moldova, we mix with our hands,” my host mom explained me. Clearly. I nodded in agreement. I told them I did the same thing with the cookie dough the night before. (No electric mixers in our kitchens.) They sauteed some onions on the stove, put 2 kilograms of shredded pork, beef and chicken into a bowl, threw in some salt and pepper, the onions, mixed that by hand, and we had our contents for the dough. My host sister rolled out the dough and cut out circles with a teacup. I helped my host mom fill the dough with our meat mixture. And then we laid them out to be boiled.
And as we worked, we chatted. I told them about my apartment, about my roommate, about work, that I had a new colleague, a guy. “OoooOOOoo.” Their immediate response: “Is he married?” I don’t think so, I responded. More “ooo” and “aahhh.” Then they said, with smiles, “Jennifer, you must not waste time!” And then we all laughed that, according to previous predictions in Moldova that said I will get married when I am 25, I only have 6 months left to reel in a man. I told them my parents might be coming to Moldova for a day. They were very excited to hear this. “You must announce and we will receive them. We will prepare a big feast with lots of food.” And we talked about Easter – they invited me to come stay with them and experience how Moldovans celebrate Easter.
After dinner, my host sister and her husband bundled up the two girls, and pulled each of them on a sled as they walked me home. That’s pretty common here, parents pulling their kids around on a sled. I like to think of them as sled walks. Maybe that happens in the States too, but its sure doesn’t happen in Arizona. It reminds me of a picture my great grandma painted that hangs in our dining room.
Few things fill a person’s heart the way human connection does. Watching children wonder at something, hearing a 4-year-old say “Jennifer, I love you,” working in the kitchen to prepare a meal together and telling stories while the men fix the gas water heater. These kinds of things bring true joy to our experience here. I love being able to share parts of my upbringing and my life with their family, and to be blessed by them in return.