Hristos a înviat! | Christ has risen!

This weekend was Easter in Moldova, and it might’ve been one of my best Easter celebrations yet.  Also, maybe my coldest…but, from the beginning.

I went to stay with my host family for the weekend so I could be part of their Easter celebration.  When I arrived, they had already made cozonac, a sweet bread with white frosting and colored sprinkles on top, traditionally made for the Easter holiday.  Having finished the bread, they were working on coloring hard boiled eggs with a deep red dye.

We chatted, caught up, I spent some time teaching my little host brother some sweet American handshakes, and then taught my host sister how to crochet a beanie (she had actually crocheted this beautiful decorative piece for school, so she already knew how to do it, I just had to teach her the pattern for a hat).  My oldest host sister and oldest host brother were both out celebrating Easter with other friends and families, so it was just the little guy, my younger host sister Nadejda, my host parents and myself.

My host sister and I hung around until about 11 p.m., watching televised Easter footage and preparing our basket of food to take with us to the church.  My host mom put to loaves of sweet bread in the basket, a bowl of red eggs, a water bottle filled with red wine, salt, candies and a candle to light when we got to the church.  We would take the basket with us to church to have the food blessed with holy water by the priest.

Just after 11 p.m., we bundled up and met her friends outside to head to the local Orthodox church.  We entered the gate to the church, and my host sister and her friends all kissed the cross at the front.  We walked around the church, which was already filled with people singing.  Lots of women, all with scarves covering their heads, as required by the Orthodox religion.  (Interesting note: women who are menstruating are actually not supposed to enter the church, even on Easter, as they are considered “unclean.”  They can, however, wait outside.)

We set our basket of food down on one of the long tables outside in the church courtyard, where we spent most of our night.  (The church is quite small, and they are trying to build a bigger building, but not everyone can be in the building at once, thus many wait outside.)

Around 12 a.m., the flame from Israel arrived.  Earlier that evening, my host parents explained that a priest brings a flame from Israel, where Jesus was born, on a plane to Moldova, and then that flame is dispersed and carried to villages all over Moldova.  We actually caught news footage of the priest stepping off the plane with the flame in hand.  I thought it was all very interesting.

Once the flame arrived, bells started ringing and we all walked around the church three times (symbolic for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) lighting one another’s candles along the way.  Then the priest stood in front of the church entrance singing, along with a group of women and their beautiful voices (see the videos below).  Then, they went inside the church.  And then…we waited.  Outside.  Yes, it got a little chilly.

We were waiting for the priest to come bless the food, which happens after they finish singing inside the church, at a time that no one can predict exactly.  Some said that last year, he came out between 2:30 and 3 a.m., some said not until 4 a.m., so I had no idea what to expect.  To pass the time, I chatted a bit with my host sister’s friends, and tapped my feet to try and stay warm.  As the night continued, more and more people came with their baskets to get their food blessed.

Around 3 a.m., people started moving and setting up their baskets of food.  They had brought them with, but they had to open and uncover everything so that the holy water would land directly on the food.  People had vegetables, meat, eggs, candies, champagne, wine, all kinds of different food.  Everyone also lit luminări, these tall, skinny, yellow candles, and put those into the bread and food they had brought with them.  The luminări, I was told, should be lit when the priest comes.  You buy those at the church window.

My host sister, Nadejda, setting up our basket.

The finished product. A full table.

The priest didn’t come until just after 4 a.m.  He walked up and down the aisles between the table, sprinkling holy water over the opened baskets.  First came a boy with a picture of Mary, then a basket to collect money, then a basket to collect food donations, then the priest, then two more large baskets for any food donations.  By that time, crowds had lined up all around the church and up into the yard  where they’re building a new church, around which people had also lined up.

The priest blessing the baskets.

Once the priest blessed our basket, we packed away our things and headed out.  At this point, I turned to my host sister and said “I can’t feel my toes.”
“Me neither!” she responds.  And her boyfriend kindly escorts us home.

Leaving the church.

But the celebration didn’t end there!  We got home, crawled into bed between 4:30 and 5 a.m., and around 10 a.m., my little host brother ran in saying “Get up!  Get up!”  My host dad’s sister and brother-in-law from Germany had arrived.

Still groggy, we got out of bed and headed downstairs.  I went into the bathroom and splashed some faucet water on my face, and my host sister comes in and says, “No, Jennifer, you’re not supposed to wash your face with THAT water!”  (Whoops!  Integration fail.)

She leads me into the kitchen and takes me to a bucket with water, two eggs and some Moldovan coins.  She walks me through the steps.  First, put water on your face.  Then rub the eggs on each cheek saying “be healthy” and then rub a coin on your face saying “be wealthy.”  And then, as I am the last person to wash my face, I get to take the money left under the bucket, 4 lei.  Not sure how the money got there…but I’m guessing prior face washers must have left it.

My host family and their guests greet me from the table set up in their living room, “Christ has risen!”
“Good morning!” I say.
No, Jennifer, you’re supposed to say “Christ has risen!”  Whoops, how was that again?

My host family has prepared a huge feast for Easter.  In the six weeks before Easter, many Moldovans practice something they call “post.”  It’s like lent, except they give up all meat and animal products.  Some go the entire six weeks, some practice for just one week, some not at all.  (At my work, when we’ve had celebrations in the past month and a half, there have been plates for “post” and plates that are not “post,” cakes that are “post” and cakes that are not “post” – it’s all very interesting to observe).  So, back to Easter Sunday, the idea is to have a huge feast with lots of meat to break the fast.  So, at 10 a.m., we sit down to a feast of traditional Moldovan foods, rabbit, lamb, salami, vegetables, and (of course) wine!  And we toast with “Christ has risen!  Be healthy!  Many years ahead!”  We also took part in a tradition where you tap the red, hard-boiled eggs against each other to see who has the strongest egg.  My little host brother, Dami, started us off.  And he managed to crack almost everyone else’s egg!

As the day went on, my host family received calls and guests at their home, everyone greeting each other with “Christ has risen!”  Can you imagine greeting everyone like that in the States on Easter Sunday?

It was, by far, one of the coolest Easter celebrations I have had.  And I told my host mom this later that day.  I liked the meaning, the significance in the traditions they practice.  I liked that, on Easter, I didn’t just go to church like on any other Sunday, but it was something special, something set apart.  I liked that we washed ourselves clean in the morning, symbolic of being washed clean by the blood of Christ, and that we sat down together to celebrate with food and drink, much like they would have done in Jesus’ day.  Looking for Easter eggs and Easter baskets was fun as a child, but it’s really not related to, or symbolic of the actual holiday itself.  I liked the deeper meaning in Moldova’s holiday traditions, and, as I told my host mom, I’d like to try and bring some of them back and incorporate them into my future celebrations.

One day, I will leave Moldova.  But I’m not sure Moldova will ever leave me.

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My parents, in Moldova. And Europe.

I can hardly believe it’s already come and gone.

Back in the fall, my parents started talking about coming out to Europe and meeting me somewhere to do a little bit of traveling together.  We started planning, decided to do Italy, and then started looking at cities.  Then Romania came into play.  What if we went to Transylvania?  Visited the Dracula Castle?  Then that became, “Gosh that’s close to Moldova…what if you came to Moldova for a night?”  Flights were found, flights were canceled, schedules were arranged and rearranged, and we had our itinerary.  Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Bucharest, Brașov, and then to Moldova for two nights.  Like I said, I can’t believe it’s already come and gone.

Here are some quick highlights from our trip:

Rome

We met in Rome.  For my parents, this meant a flight from west coast to east coast and a long overnight flight from Philadelphia. For me, it meant 30+ hours of traveling, starting with an overnight train into Romania, then catching an afternoon flight from Bucharest to Rome.  Lucky for me, it was gorgeous outside and I spent a good portion of the day reading in the grass in Bucharest.

When I arrived in Rome, I had to catch a train/shuttle from the airport into the city.  Met a guy from Amsterdam on the shuttle and we chatted quite a bit about Europe and Peace Corps and weather and art, his area of business.  Having a job where you get to travel Europe for work?  Where do I apply?!  I started walking to the B&B from the train station, and, in Kitson-family fashion, my parents run up behind me and say “Excuse us!” as they pass me on either side.  I just stopped and started laughing.  Lots of hugs followed.

My favorite part of this trip was the last day when we used our hop-on, hop-off bus tickets for the “archeo-bus” tour.  The bus took us outside of Rome a little more and into the countryside.  It was just so beautiful.

Florence

I think I loved Florence the most this trip.  Finally got to see the State of David.  This was very cool.  I read at the Galleria dell’Academia (where the statue stands) that this depiction of David was a deviation from many done at the time which showed David victorious in triumph after defeating Goliath.  The statue includes his sling, but it is not obvious or in the forefront of the work.  And his facial expression.  I loved that the most.  If you’ve ever read the Psalms in the Bible, many of which David wrote, I feel like Michelangelo captured who David is in his expression from what I’ve read in Psalms.  He looks as if he is deep in thought, maybe conflicted; he looks pensive.  And that’s why I loved seeing the statue.  You’re not allowed to take photos, but I found one online to share.

(Side note on this story: I took the trouble to make reservations from Moldova to see this statue…called over the phone…so we get there and they ask me for the reservation number.  The one that I have awesomely left at our B&B in the notebook I had carried around every day but that one.  Haha, #winning.)

My other major stories from Florence mostly focus around food.  I did make my parents hike up to the highest point in Florence with me.  That was quite a view.  And a bit of a workout.  As for cuisine, we ate at two of the most fantastic restaurants.  One called “Yellow” near Il Duomo, and another called “Il Latini.”  The big cuisine in Florence is Florentine beef.  Il Latini has it.  We had this huge, maybe 10-course meal there.  As much wine as you can drink, meat appetizers, salad, several pasta dishes, a 2 kg cut of beef cooked rare, several desserts to follow with liquor, wine to cleanse the palate, coffee and limoncello.  If you go, ask about it.  And don’t be intimidated by the line.  There will be a crowd outside.  But go when they open, and you just might manage to slide into some seats.

And then there was the case of the broken suitcase.  I have to tell this story (sorry parents!).  In short.  Suitcase breaks (in Rome).  Parents don’t want to throw it away.  Parents have a matching suitcase at home (for the solid black suitcase).  Parents want to find a wheeling rack instead of buying a new suitcase.  Ask the guy at the reception where we can find a wheeling rack.  Looks at us like we asked where to visit aliens from Mars.  When we realize the wheeling rack is not going to happen, parents give in and buy a new suitcase.  But still don’t want to throw away the old one.  Try to mail the empty suitcase when leaving Rome.  Post office closed on Saturdays.  Take the empty suitcase on the train with us to Florence.  (Are you laughing yet?  Because all of this is quite hilarious to me.)  In Florence, take the suitcase to the post office.  No I don’t speak English, but you need a box, we’re told.  No boxes big enough at the office.  Walk outside.  See a pile of boxes on the street.  Grab one and run with it.  (Laughter, people?)  Cut it so it fits the suitcase.  Use tape and scissors from the post office.  Bring it back up to the window.  You haven’t written a thing on that package you fools!, they say.  Have us wait in line again to get help with the form.  We wait.  And wait.  Wait while an Italian woman chews out a postal worker who’s supposed to help us.  We finally get help.  We go back up to the window.  Our paperwork is not right.  They’re speaking Italian, but somehow we manage to communicate.  We finally get the makeshift box with our suitcase shipped off.  The whole process takes about two hours.  On our last day in Florence.  This is one of those stories that I will probably have to relentlessly tease my parents about for decades to come.  So sorry, parents, the teasing starts now.  The solid black suitcase that my parents couldn’t leave in Italy.  Several times, I threatened to throw that sucker out our hotel window.  Instead, I got a great story.  Fair trade.

Pisa

After seeing the Statue of David, we decided to go to Pisa for the afternoon.  Also very cool.  Pisa is the one city I had not been to yet.  The rest of them I had passed through on my first trip through Italy.  But the tower.  It was incredible to see in person.  My mom and I talked about this.  It’s something you hear about, maybe read about, and even see pictures of.  But it was surprisingly very cool to see and take in in-person.  We enjoyed a late lunch just down the road, with the tower still in our view.  Worth the trip.

Venice

My favorite memory from Venice is running alongside the grand canal early one morning.  I brought my running gear along with me on the trip, and I ran in every city we stayed in in Italy, but the run in Venice just took my breath away.  I started my run as the city is still waking up, and ran through the Piazza San Marco and some of the busiest tourist spots in the area.  And it was quiet.  Serene.  With gorgeous waterfront views.  Running in a new city is one of my favorite things to do, especially in the morning.  You get to know the city in a different way.  And while it’s still relatively quiet.  If you haven’t, try it.

I feel like Venice is one of those cities you just take in for the atmosphere.  It doesn’t have near the number of historical monuments that a place like Rome does, but it is still beautiful.  Romantic.  You can envision great writers and visionaries from history being inspired on the streets of Venice.  We did a lot of walking, a lot of taking in the city, a bit  of eating, and a lot of souvenir shopping.  It was good.

See photos from our Italy trip here.

Brașov

From Venice, we actually flew into Bucharest, Romania, where we rented a car and drove it up to Brașov, a couple of hours north in the mountains.  I loved this.  The drive was beautiful.  Once we got to the city, however, we drove around forever trying to find the place where we made reservations.  We had the wrong directions.  After scouring the streets for quite some time, I hop out at a B&B and ask for help.  They sell me a map and give me directions.  I would’ve paid almost anything for a map and directions at that time, but luckily they only charged me 3 Romanian lei.  Good thing I spoke the language, too.  We finally got to our actual hotel, despite few street signs and one-way roads we had to work our way around.  Never felt so good to arrive somewhere.

We explored the main plaza, the nearby Black Church, saw the narrowest street in Europe, took pictures of the narrowest street in Europe, and then headed to an authentic Romanian restaurant recommended by our hotel.  And that, that was another fantastic experience for our taste buds.  My mom even swindled them out of one of their beer mugs (and by “swindled,” I mean she asked to buy a coffee mug, and they offered to give her a beer mug for free instead).

The next day, we took a short hike up by our hotel that overlooks Brașov, then we headed to Bran Castle.  The castle is about 30 to 45 minutes away from Brașov, and so we had a nice little drive.  Bran Castle is one of the “Dracula” castles, but he didn’t really live there.  Still, it was interesting to read the history of the fortress and about the most recent royal family who inhabited the structure.  And the views were exquisite.  I most definitely recommend.

Then we headed back to Bucharest, caught the bus from the airport to the train station, and prepared for our overnight journey.

Moldova

As volunteers, we often talk about how or if it’s possible for us to actually convey our experience here.  How do you describe a country?  With words?  Pictures?  Video?  It just feels…impossible.  They best way to know a place is to experience it.  And I’m just so glad my parents got to experience Moldova.

I showed them around the capital, walking through the outdoor markets, by the street vendors, and along the main road in the capital.  We went to the Peace Corps office, to the art market, and to the national park.  We met up with my friend Andrea and had lunch at a Greek restaurant in the city.  Then we took the bus back to my town, and my parents got to see where I live.  We walked down our main street, and I pointed out the main supermarkets and shops, where I work, the  wells, all the important stuff.

My parents got to have two masa’s, here in Moldova, one with each of my host families.  There were toasts gallore, a bit of cognac, a bit of wine, a bit more wine, traditional Moldovan food, lots of translating, and did I mention the wine?  But they loved spending time with the families, especially sitting down with my host family from training.  My dad commented on how cool it is that our family is connected to their family through me.  And it’s true.  It is pretty amazing.  My host family from site actually brought out religious texts from teh 1600’s, handed down through generations of their family and written in calligraphy.  Incredible.

My host family from training showered my parents with gifts; they gave them chocolates from Moldova, wine from Moldova, and my host sister made beaded bracelets for each of my sisters back home.  My parents were just so touched.  They loved talking to my host sisters and brother, who have all studied English.  And my host parents took us around to see the houses they’re constructing in the area and where their gardens are.  And, on top of all of that, the next morning, my host dad from training drove all  the way down to my town to pick us up and take my parents and myself to the airport.  When I offered to pay for gas, my host dad looked at me and said, “What gas?”  It’s one of those moments where, as a voluteer, you’re convinced beyond doubt that your host family is the best host family in all of Moldova.  Then you realize that about 100 other volunteers feel the same way.  (But really, mine IS the best.)  Below is a picture we took on timer with my host family from training.  I’ll be back their direction to celebrate Easter this weekend.

Saying goodbye to my parents was hard, and I cried, but my heart was full.  This is my life now, and I’m just so thankful my parents got to meet some of the people I love most in this country.  All in all, it was a great trip.

Click here to see photos from our time in Romania and Moldova. 

One lucky girl

My host family from my training days drove down to Ialoveni this weekend for a short visit at my apartment.  (When I was at their house in February for my host dad’s birthday, they asked if they could come visit and see how I lived.  Of course!, I said.  I’ll be waiting!)

So they drove down Sunday afternoon and we enjoyed bruschetta, tea and cookies in my very small, and quite chilly, kitchen.  My little 6-year-old host brother corrected my Romanian and point out that I don’t speak it very well; sometimes I forget words.  Touche, sir.  I got a good laugh out of that.

AND they brought me the wonderful long-stem rose for Women’s Day, which my little host brother presented to me, and the beautiful marțisor pin below.  (See my previous post, Martz-EE-shore.)  Gorgeous.  So thoughtful of them, too.  I feel like one lucky girl.  Wanted to share!

The power of human connection

In honor of Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary this year, a few volunteers created a website to tell stories of how Peace Corps volunteers are accomplishing the Peace Corps mission and goals in Moldova.  The site is called 365 days of Peace and Friendship, and I wrote the post below for that project.  If you’re interested, there are some great stories on the site, and I would encourage you to browse through.  You can see my post on the site here.

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It’s amazing how quickly we open our hearts to people.

One of the rewarding things about this experience is watching the development of cross-cultural relationships between volunteers and Moldovans.  It’s the magic of human connection, and it transcends any work we do here.  We become family.  We grow to love each other.

Last weekend I went back to visit the host family I stayed with during training, and it was wonderful.  I’ve been back several times, for birthdays and holidays and just to say hello, and it’s always wonderful.  Sitting around the table sharing stories and laughing with them, I started to remember the first day we arrived…

In the blazing summer heat, we waited for our families to pick us up.  More tired than I’ve ever been after hours of traveling, welcome orientation, our families arrived and I couldn’t speak a word of Romanian.  Everything was strange and new, and I had no idea what to expect.  I remember what we ate.  Chicken with boiled potatoes and salad.  Shots of Baileys.  It was a delicious meal.  The teenagers of the family, who have all studied English, did all of the translating.  Then I went to unpack my bags and settle into my room.  And, trying to fall asleep that first night, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  The pull of home was strong.  I’d been removed from everything and everyone familiar to me.  And in the morning, waking up to the crow of roosters outside, I laid in bed questioning my decision again.  I just volunteered to go live with strangers in a strange country for two years.  Was I out of my mind?

Honestly, maybe you do have to be a little bit crazy to undertake an experience like this.  And, in many ways, that first week was hard.  But it was also filled with excitement and new experiences.  And I quickly began to start to feel at home.

By the end of two months, I cried saying goodbye to my family, even though I knew I’d be back to visit.  The night before I left for my permanent site, a neighbor had stopped by and asked, “Are you glad you did it?  Are you glad you hosted an American volunteer?”  My host mom answered, “Of course, Jennifer is like our family now.”  Later, staying with them during a second round of training, I visited my host sister’s high school English class, and she told her teacher that I was “like a sister.”  I was part of the family.  And every time I go back to visit, I get a big hug from my 6-year-old host brother, “Jenn-EEE-furr!” and big smiles from everyone when I walk in the door.  I actually understand what’s being said, I get the jokes, and we chat comfortably in Romanian.  And when I leave, then first try to convince me to stay longer, and then they tell me to come back again soon; they’ll be waiting.

And we all have stories like this.  Ways that we’ve been impacted by the people here.  And we, too, leave our footprints on the hearts of many here.  Host families, work partners, youth in the community; my fellow volunteers are doing incredible things.  Building incredible relationships.  Language divides us, culture divides us, but still the human connection overcomes.  And that, I believe, is the true measure of the impact we are making here.