Un weekend plăcut (A good weekend)

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.

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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.

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God bless the food

One thing I continue to be amazing by is how much cooking and baking is done from scratch.  And without measuring cups (a phenomenon that continues to boggle my mind)!

I think about these rolls my mom makes every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas (hi mom!), and how much work she puts into those, and how even the slightest change in certain ingredients can change the way the rolls turn out.  There’s almost a science to it.  And it makes me appreciate the dishes and foods these Moldovan women make from scratch.

But really, I’ve seen women cook from scratch before (hi mom!).  What I found most interesting was that my host mom, who belongs to the Orthodox Church, makes the sign of the cross over each pan before she puts it in the oven.

God bless the food.

A Wonderful Weekend

In Ialoveni, I work Monday through Friday, 9 to 5.  So I enjoy having the free time on the weekends to explore the community more.  And this is how I spent this weekend:

Friday

Friday, it actually rained in Ialoveni, which I loved.  I don’t know if it’s the novelty of it after having lived in Arizona for so long, but I do love the rain.  After work, I went for a quick run, which always helps put my mind at ease, and then I chatted with my host mom over tea for a bit about the Soviet area.  That’s a post for another time.

Saturday

Per my new norm, I started off Saturday with a long run.  I remember in Arizona, while training for the PF Chang’s marathon, running along these long stretches of road and easily getting in 13, 15, or 17 miles.  Now, it’s a bit more challenging to get the distance.  I run along the main road through the town, which is about 1 1/2 miles.  At the end of that road, there are four streets.  One leads back to my house, two lead through other neighborhoods, and the fourth leads to another village.  If I run to the other village and back, I can get about 7 miles in.  Down the other streets, I can’t quite get that amount of distance.  But Saturday I ran up and down a couple of roads and managed to get in about 6 miles.  Some of the volunteers are training to run the Athens marathon, so I started to pick their brain about how they get the distance in.  Most run to other villages or in circles around their village.

After my run, I bathed (beginning to appreciate that more now that I only do it once or twice a week!), and then I made my first attempt at cutting my own hair.  I actually bought hair cutting scissors and brought them with me from the States, figuring that cutting my own hair is more economical on a Volunteer budget.  So, I gave it a go, and it turned out pretty well.  I stuck to just trimming the front…the back I think I’m going to need some help with.  But it was a small accomplishment.

Next, I made the trip into the capital to meet up with another volunteer.  (I take a minibus to the outskirts of the city, where I switch to another minibus. I learned this route the hard way when my site mate and I tried to go in to the city center and got dropped off on the outskirts of the city.  Luckily, someone was kind enough to direct us to the microbus we should get on to go to the city center.)  Back to this past weekend…after meeting up with my fellow volunteer Andrea in the city, we ordered burritos from a stand along one of the main streets, and they were delicious.  They weren’t your typical American burritos…they chicken, tomatoes with what I think was mayo, cabbage, carrots, cheese, and french fries (yes, IN the burrito).  We were also offered ketchup, but we declined.  Regardless, it tasted pretty good after three months without any kind of Mexican food (boy, do I miss guacamole!).  Afterwards, we walked through some of the city parks, got some delicious ice cream at a ritzy stand in the park, and then continued on to the piața centrala (or central market).  There, I picked up some bananas – in the States, I used to have one every morning for breakfast, but those aren’t grown in gardens here, so I’ve been missing my morning fruit!

The weather outside was perfect.  Coming from 115-degree summers, this day was cool and breezy, and we had a wonderful, leisurely stroll.

We also chatted a bit about plans for Christmas.  This is probably one of the harder topics for me, as I LOVE spending Christmas with my family, and, for the first time ever, I won’t be doing that this year (I think it would be hard to come home having only finished 6 months of service and still having 18 months ahead).  I remember we spent a day in language class talking about holidays, practicing our “holiday” vocabulary, talking about what we usually do at home, and I actually teared up in class.  Granted, those two months of training were tough, and we were all tired and worn out, but thinking about not being with my family at Christmas made me sad.  But, onward…

After our day, I boarded the bus back to my site, bananas in hand, and then strolled around my town in the nice weather after arriving.  I even sat down by a WWII memorial outside the mayor’s office to sit and read Shantaram (my favorite book ever) for about an hour.  It was great.

Sunday

Sunday I finally got the chance to try our local Baptist church.  Here, the primary denominations are Orthodox, Catholic and Baptist.  Seeing as I fall under the “Protestant” umbrella, I thought I’d try out the Baptist church.  I heard about it from a volunteer who was previously stationed in Ialoveni, and I’ve really been missing my church community at home, so I found out where it was, what time the service started, and headed over.  It felt great to sit through a Sunday church service after not having been for a good 3 to 4 months now.  And I met several young couples in the community, along with the pastor and his wife, who I hope to continue to get to know over the next few years.  They have a Bible study during the week and an event for youth every Friday, so I hope to be able to explore some of those as well.  Later in the evening, I actually ran into a couple from the church, and let me tell you…it feels SO good to recognize someone in a town where you’re new, and still sort of a stranger.  I stopped and said hello, and explained that I was going to meet the other American volunteer.  It was great.

My site mate, Luma, has actually started going to a gym in town where all the guys go to lift weights and work out.  It’s been fantastic for integration, because now, every time we take a walk around the town (several evenings a week), so many of the guys stop him to shake his hand and say hello.  He was out having a drink with a few of the guys he’s met around town, and so, walking around Sunday evening, I got to meet a lot of his gym buddies and some of the high school students in the town.  I do feel pretty old here – there are few single people my age in the area.  Most are studying at universities abroad, working abroad, or married.  So most of the guys and girls we talked to are 17, 18, 19 and 20.  It’s funny, I never thought I’d feel so old at age 25!  But age hardly matters – it was nice to be able to chat with some of the young people around town.  I hope we get to do it more often.

And that was my weekend!

A Moldovan Birthday

This is a post I wrote for our 365 Days of Peace and Friendship blog for Peace Corps Moldova, and I thought I’d share on my own blog as well.  Happy reading!

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This week, in Moldova, I celebrated my 25th birthday.

I’ve never really been good at celebrating my own birthday.  I like to be with family and friends, and it’s nice to get birthday wishes, but I get uncomfortable being the center of attention, and I really don’t like planning a party for myself.  All that said, I sort of wondered what it would be like to turn 25 in Moldova…and this week, I found out.

My second week at my permanent site, we actually celebrated a colleague’s birthday at work.  And I learned a lot about how birthdays are celebrated in Moldova.  At my previous jobs, we took the birthday person out to a restaurant, paid for their meal, and then maybe shared cake back at the office and presented the person of honor with a card signed by co-workers.  Usually pretty low-key, but a nice gesture.

In Moldova, I learned that, traditionally, the birthday person actually provides the meal and a cake for the rest of the office. This varies from place to place, of course, but the general idea is that the birthday person makes or brings everything.  At first, only knowing the American birthday tradition, this seemed a bit strange to me.  The birthday person does everything? But it’s their birthday, shouldn’t they get the day off?, I thought.  Regardless, as I volunteer here, my goal is to experience Moldova as it is, to embrace Moldovan traditions and be an active participant in Moldovan culture.  So I went home and asked my host family to help me prepare something for my office.  They were such a wonderful help.  And, little did I know, the Moldovan way would blow our American birthday traditions out of the water.

On my birthday, the first birthday wishes I got were from my site mate’s host mother.  She called first thing to wish me many years, and that I might find a life partner (if only I could say “you and me both, sister!” in Romanian…).  But her call was very sweet.  Next, my host sister helped me carry the cake and baked goods she and her mom made to my office.  At work, my first surprise was a beautiful bouquet of roses on my desk.  I think it was the best arrangement of flowers I’ve ever received. That surprise was followed by wonderful birthday wishes from my co-workers all morning.  In Moldova, wishing someone happy birthday is much more than just two words.  You wish them many years, you wish them happiness, success, health, a wonderful family, and you tell them you hope they realize all of their dreams.  They came in my office, and over to my desk, asked me to stand, and wished me all of these wonderful things.  It felt very personal, and very genuine.  I will never wish someone in the states just a lame, two-word “happy birthday” ever again.

About an hour before lunch, I asked a colleague to help me buy food at the magazin (store) next to our office, and we bought an array of meat, cheese, bread, fruit and vegetables.  Back at the office, we prepared the table in traditional Moldovan form—plates of salami, cheese, bread, a spicy carrot dish they like to serve here, bowls of fruit, cucumbers, tomatoes, placinta, wine—it was a true Moldovan feast.  And, like any true Moldovan feast, it started with a toast.  My colleagues, who I had only worked with for a couple of weeks at the time, showered me with wonderfully-worded toasts.  The wished me many years, all the best, success in work, family, life; I almost wish I had taken notes so that I can improve my “toasting” skills in the future. They also presented me with a gift—a beautiful clay pot with the word “Moldova” on it.  It was very kind.

And as we sat around the table enjoying the food, homemade desserts and Moldovan anecdotes, I thought to myself how wonderful it was to be able to treat my Moldovan friends to a big celebratory feast.  It’s sort of like Christmas.  As a kid, Christmas is awesome because you get so many gifts.  But as you grow up, you realize how much more satisfying it is to be able to give gifts to the people you care about and just to spend time together enjoying the company of one another.  And that’s how I felt on my birthday.  I realized what a pleasure it was to be able to give something to my co-workers and enjoy celebrating another year of life together.  And all of the sudden, our American birthday tradition seemed strange to me, and I wondered why we don’t take a more Moldovan approach to birthdays.

So here’s to a successful and satisfying 25th birthday celebration in Moldova!  A sincere note of appreciation to my host family and co-workers for making it a special day.  May we all enjoy happiness, health, long life, success, realization of dreams, life partners, and all the best things life has to offer.