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.


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.

Simon Says…I’m getting married in Moldova

Allow me to rewind.

Tonight, after a delicious dinner of vegetable soup, followed by some amazing crepes with honey and homemade jam, I sat around the table talking with my host mom and sister.  They are two amazing women – working in the garden all day, preparing food three times a day, caring for the children, and my host sister (who I believe is about 35) works several days a week in the capital from 5 a.m. to midnight.  Like I said, two amazing women.

But as we were sitting outside talking, they asked me when my birthday was, and I told them it was coming up very soon–two weeks from Wednesday, in fact.  And it’s a big one, I’ll be 25.  They were very excited by this.  And then I remembered an event back in training with my first host family, and I began to share the story…

One day, while out for our regular evening stroll, my teenage host sisters from my first host family told me that their aunt and mother have a method to determine at what age a woman will get married.  (For my host sisters, it’s 20 for the eldest and 24 for the younger sister.)  So one Sunday morning, while sitting around the table, they were asking me if I had met any nice guys at a 4th of July party we had.  When I said no, they decided they should try their method on me to determine exactly when I’ll be married.  They carefully plucked a strand of hair from my head, put their mother’s wedding ring on the strand of hair, and held it over a tall glass half-full of warm water.  The ring starts to swing back and forth, and they begin counting the number of times it hits the sides of the glass until it stops.  For me, it stopped after 25.  So, that means I’m getting married when I’m 25.  And my 25th year starts this month, which means I’m getting married in Moldova.

When I relayed this story to my new host family, they were so excited…here in Moldova!  And my host mom said we’ll have a BIG Moldovan wedding.  I just laughed and said “we’ll see” and then I explained that my father in the States has specifically forbidden me from marrying a Moldovan because he’s afraid I’ll never come home.  No problem, my host mom responds, you can just take him back to America with you!  See, dad?  No problem!

Regardless, I hope to have many more good talks like this one over tea with my new host family.