Monday, January 15, 2007

Short History of Romania

The following is something I wrote for a small project in the works. Feel free to comment on it, though constructive criticism is preferred. I anticipate being lambasted for mentioning Mattius Corvin, since he was a Hungarian King. But lets not forget he was born within the current confines of Romania. Talking about the history of Romania, and especially that of Transylvania is difficult because people are still very much in conflict as to the context of events. The sensitive nature of this subject is that of gun control or abortion in the United States. For this reason I tried to keep it as factual as possible. Let me know if you think it needs alterations.

The history of Romania is a history of the fusion of people and culture which dates back to before antiquity. Most historians consider the birth of the Romanian civilization to be made up the ethnic amalgamation between the Geto-Dacians and Romans. In 106 A.D. the Dacian kingdom, ruled by the powerful King Decebal lost a second war against Roman legions led by Emperor Trajan. Decebal was forced to capitulate, and thus the Dacian kingdom of the lower Danube fell victim to the relentless expansion of the Roman empire. Afterwards, Dacia was quickly incorporated into the empire and colonists invited to "civilize" the region. The Romans stayed for another 200 years before abandoning the province. Although official administrative and government bodies left, much of the language, people, and culture remained.

Many of Romania's most infamous rulers all lived within a 200 year span in the middle ages beginning in the 1300s. Among them were Mircea the Old, Vlad Tepes (also called Vlad Dracula), Stephen the Great, and Matius Corvin (one of Hungary's greatest kings). What these great leaders all held in common was their opposition to the Turkish expansion and domination, and their desire to consolidate the monarchy. That being said, the medieval history of Romania remained tumultuous, and difficult for the common people. Throughout the years Romania's efforts to develop were thwarted by it's geographic location sandwiched between the two great powers of Hungary and Turkey, and later Russia.

The modern Romanian state was recognized in 1881 after Carol I united the principalities of Walachia and Moldavia. But it wasn't until 1919 that the region of Transylvania was added to the kingdom as a spoil from the First World War. This caused the size of Romania to virtually double overnight and significantly changed the religious and ethnic composition of the country.

During World War II Romania was again forced to choose between the lesser of two evils when it ultimately aligned itself with the Russians. It was the influence of the Soviets, and a backlash against the Antonescu's fascist regime which lead to Romania's adoption of communism after the war. Although communism setback societal advancements by decades, it was one dictator in particular who accelerated this process. Nicolae Ceausescu came to power in 1965 and ruled until shortly before his death in 1989. His legacy was one of massive industrial development, the Diaspora of various ethnic groups within Romania, the creation of one of Eastern Europe's harshest police states, and the cult of the personality. His erroneous economic policies and system of government based on cronyism bankrupted the state and led to his forcible removal from power and subsequent execution.

The early 1990s were marked with confusion, the acquisition of state resources by the Old Guard, and democratic governance carried out by those with little or no experience in democratic practices. However, as the new society matured so did its status. In 2002 Romania was invited to join NATO, and began negotiations with the European Union in the same year. As of January 2007 Romania, along with Bulgaria, has obtained membership in the European Union. New investors are continually arriving in Romania with the emergence of a growing airline industry and the expansion of national infrastructure. Today you are just as likely to see a shepherd tending his flock with a cell phone in one hand as you are someone driving the latest BMW. Although access to modernity is growing all the time, the history and culture of the people's difficult past can still be seen everywhere you look.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Borat in Romania

The film

Borat: Cultural learnings for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan

was partially filmed in Romania. All of the scenes where he is supposed to be in Kazakhstan are actually filmed right here. The characters in the villiage are not characters at all, but very poor people who were offered cash, and more excitement than the town has ever seen to play along with the antics of actor Sacha Coehn. It's sad but true, there are still places in Romania like the one seen in the film. Equally sad is the fact that people are willing to put a pricetag on their dignity whilest the whole world laughs at their predicament.

I'm sure the film is hillarious. The trailers I've seen ensure your stomach will be sore from laughter, so the film is probably a riot. But it does raise questions of Romainia's readiness to join the ranks of the so called "developed" nations of Europe in January 2007. I'm sure that many Romaians are looking at this trailer and asking themselves "Is this really happening in my country?"


Friday, November 3, 2006

Smells like snow outside

Last night I went to a fellow PCV's place for dinner and as I came in someone remarked "It smells like it's going to snow outside." Though these words in and of themselves sound strange I have often sensed the same smell.

As I watched Euro News last night they mentioned that the whole of Northern and Eastern Europe was being plagued by some sort of unexpected snow storm. Ships were going down in the Baltic Sea, cities in Sweden were shutting down due to overburdened and underprepared mayors offices.

Sure enough when I woke up this morning what did I find but a blanket of white flakey dust coving everything in site, and it was still coming. Four hours later and it's still coming down but now in even bigger chunks. It couldn't have come at a better time either because I'm going out to Sovata with Outward Bound this weekend to do a team building training for instructors. Should be a lot of fun. Hopefully I can even bring a pair of cross country skis out there.

Let the winter games begin.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Courtesy of The spoon Man

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Stronger than the bull

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Keeping the husband in line

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Wild and Wacky Moldovan Wedding October 2006

When a large and exciting trip or event takes place which is filled with fun, laughter, and new experiences its always difficult to sum it all up into a neat little package…even more so when you attempt this feat 3 weeks after its all over. At times I felt I could write a book about all the weird and wild stuff that took place. Here would be a few of the titles of said books:

-How to smuggle yourself into Moldova: concentrating on the small victories
-Protecting the Princess-Using your mace on unruly wedding guests
-Today is my “not drinking” day- a comedy
-No, seriously, what are we drinking?
-Men kissing men: appropriate public displays of affection in Moldova
-Oh God, I can’t eat anymore-the importance of fasting before a trip to the Republic of Moldova
-The day the priest threw water in my eye: hours of Orthodox blessings for you and your family
-A day in the life of a vornicel (Moldovan best man)
-“Dear American guy, will you be my son-in-law?” How to avoid repetitive conversations
-Moldovan bus journeys: why never to take them.
-A Catholic in Chisinau.
-Is it sunny outside? The true story of the cave ladies of Milesti Mici: largest wine cellar in the Europe

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Random thoughts and observations:

City Day in Chisinau is enormous we spent only a half hour walking through the jostling crowd. There were thousands of people everywhere pushing and constantly moving, long lines of friends holding hands so as not to be permenantly separated.

I left my apartment at 7:30am on the day of departure and arrived the next day at noon. During the time in between I walked, hitch hiked, took a train, rode two buses, a taxi and had a friend drive me to the border in the middle of the night with aspirations of jumping across the Prut. Scheduled busses did not arrive, frantic telephone calls were made, sms progress reports were given, comrodery was established among fellow stranded strangers, I became the mascot of the Poliţia de Frontieră Moldovă, I “slept” in a bar, and I still managed to shower and change in 20 minutes and then go out for the Bachelor party later that night. Excuse me while I pat myself on the back…yes, that was nice.

It’s very interesting to hear the perspectives of neighboring countries about one another. I first encountered this when I traveled through the former Yugoslavia this summer, then again when I traveled to Moldova. Romanians would tell me, “Better bring a big coat. It’s Siberia out there.” Others would warn me of the violent nature of the “Russians” by telling me to be careful. About midway through my trip I came to a conclusion about national stereotypes between the bordering countries:

-All Romanians think that Moldavians are Russian
-All Moldavians think that Romanians are gypsies

That pretty much sums up the national stereotypes. Romanians don’t trust Moldovans because they view them as Russian hard line socialists from WWII, and Moldovans think that all Romanians are uncivilized and uncultured people that will try to cheat you out of a handful of sunflower seeds.

It sometimes put me in a tough situation. On the one hand anytime I’m outside of Romania I tend to bad mouth life there. On the other hand its kinda like talking trash about a sibling. Its ok if you do it, but you become defensive the second somebody else tries it. But I can say I did find something very appealing about Moldovans. They did seem more friendly, less annoying, strangers weren’t talking each other’s ears off about the price of carrots. People seemed very trustworthy and honest. When people got on minibuses in the city they would go to the back and pass money up to the driver in the front who would then hand the change to a series of hands before arriving to the owner. It seemed a little more decent that way. This doesn’t happen in Romania (not anywhere I’ve ever been). Drivers don’t seem to make a national past time out of swearing at other people like they do in Romania. Other people seemed very genuine and fairly interesting to talk with. Of course it did occur to me that I was only meeting really warm and friendly people because I was surrounded by people with close ties to the wedding party. So, its hard to tell weather I had a genuine experience. Nobody threw my change at me in the grocery store as they tend to do in Romania. The one bad customer service experience I had was on a very interesting morning…

I woke up at 11 or so and decided to go to the nearest market for some orange juice and a loaf of bread. I stopped in at a crummy bar to order a coffee. When I asked if they had espresso the fat woman behind the counter looked at me as if I had requested to purchase uranium. “Ok, fine, instant,” I said. So she makes the coffee behind the counter and then gives it to me. I tasted it and then asked her “Did you put sugar in this.” And she said “yes.” I then told her I don’t drink my coffee with sugar and that I wanted her to make it again. She said “You should have told me ahead of time if you didn’t want sugar.” I assured her I would pay an additional 10 cents for another coffee and then told her “I’m used to telling people when I want additional things put in my coffee, not when I don’t.” This is when things started to remind me of Romania.

Later I’m walking down the street and a man in overalls says something to me in Russian. Most of my Russian is long gone but I still remember basic words and phrases I just can’t carry a conversation. So he asks me to help him start his car. He’s got the hood popped and I’m supposed to sit in the driver’s seat, turn the key and pump the gas. Boom, the car starts and I’m on my way again.

I finally get to the store where I buy my bread and juice. I see a packet of skittles which I haven’t had since I left the United States. I ask for a packet and she tells me she doesn’t have any. She notices my accent and asks if I’m from Romania. I tell her “sort of.” She asks again, “Where?” I tell her and then she bursts out laughing and says “that’s not even close.” I told her I hadn’t noticed. Then she says “What the hell is an American doing in Moldova.” “I’m looking for skittles,” I said and then left the store.

Oh yeah, and the wedding. God, where to begin. It was long, it was fun, it was delicious, it was entertaining, beautiful, sweaty, and long, at least 10 or 12 hours. My official role as the vornicel was to be the right hand man for the groom (including translating during humiliating tests of faith) “Actually Chad he said genunchii which is plural for ‘get on both of your knees.” It was also to make a funny speech, which I did not, and finally to protect the bride from being stolen, which she was. But there are three things I would like to mention about this last point. The first is that what few people know is I saved the bride earlier in the evening with rapid reflexes and stealth like tracking skills. The second is that the people who stole the bride didn’t really play by traditional rules as they A) Were repeat offenders who had tried and failed on a previous occasion and B) incorporated women to kidnap the bride. And the third thing is what Chad (the groom) told me himself “the kidnapping of the bride is a necessary element of drama in any successful Moldavian wedding.”- I have 94% recall of all spoken conversations, but not really.

The wedding food was amazingly fantastic. I think saying goodbye to the food was the saddest part of leaving the reception hall that night. Not only is their food delicious (arguably better than Romanian cuisine) but they also go extremely overboard. These people stack so much food on the table that there is no surface left uncovered. The plate you eat off of is the size of a bread plate because that’s how little space is left over after the food comes out. And it keeps on coming.

Dancing is always spectacular. The only thing we had to be careful of was putting two foreigners next to each other while doing the “Hora” so that we wouldn’t kill anyone with our lack of coordination. We hora’d so much that my calve were aching for 4 days afterwards. Next time I’m following my 9th grade gym teacher’s advice and stretching ahead of time. But my favorite dance (even more than the one with the vornicica- Moldovan for “best chica”) is and will probably always be musica ţiganeasca or „gypsy music”. It my favorite because there are no rules and you just get to go nuts on the dance floor clapping, jumping, whisling and hollering.
It’s a fast rythm so the movements are variable and rapid. There is an unlimited potential for improvization and everybody has a good time. But be forwarned that this is the dance where you might need to change your shirt when it’s all over. Forget aerobics, go to a Moldovan wedding!

And how could I forget Mileştii Mici Europe’s largest collection of wine. On my last day in Moldova I went with the new Husband and Wife along with his parents and a few close friends on a tour of this magnificent winery. The grounds are beautiful and the caverns of the cellers are seemingly endless. When you visit it you drive in a car because its that long of a tunnel system. After touring Cabernet Street, and Merlot Boulevard we arrived at the decadent tasting house which resembled the lobby of a fine hotel. A 4 ton stone door greeted us along with live musicians and elaborately carved wood art. Ultimately we were led to a king sized dinning table where the happy couple sat in throne like chairs with a large portrait of Moldovan King Stephan Cel Mare watching over their backs. We were invited to sit and sample 6 different wines along with a special desert wine and a red sparkling wine. The hore derves alone were enough to consist of a meal without them having to bring out two or three additional hot dishes to accompany our tasting. We sat, enjoyed the beautiful atomspher while we sipped wine and reminiced on the sincere joy of the past several days.

I took that opportunity of peaceful transition to present them my wedding gift and tell them how much I appreciated being included in the event. My gift to them was made by a friend of mine who works as a traditional wood carver in the citadel where Vlad Dracula was born. We worked together to come up with some specific designs for a wedding spoon that would contain symbolism for a happy and heatlhy marriage. I was truely impressed by the work of art but not the least bit resentful about passing it on. The beauty and metephore of the spoon was embrased by all just before it was converted into an instrument of behavioral correction by the newfound wife. Thank you Andrew, this is how I’ll keep him in line”

So, was it a good trip full of memories: Yes.
Did you have more fun than you anticipated: Yes.
Are there stray dogs in Moldova: not so much.

Do I recommend it for other travelers? Definitely, but for the experience of meeting the people, not for seeing fancy capital cities, or beautiful countryside (Romania wins hands down on scenic landscape).

I really enjoyed my trip and I’d do it again, but at the same time I was glad to be “home” where I could understand “my people.” A acquaintance of mine who lived in Moldova once told me “It’s nice to visit Romania where they speak clear, understandable Romanian, not this mush mouth Appalachian crap here in Moldova.”

Noroc! And I’m out!

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Making tomato juice

Last night I had two coworkers over to my place after work. The goal: to make and can pickles and (separately) tomato soup/drink grandma style. No, these ladies are not grandmothers, or even mothers,themselves, but they've followed the recipes and they turned the tomato cranker with older, wiser, and mole-ier women for many seasons now.

When I arrived in Târgu-Mureş last fall I helped my first host mother and her family turn 90 kilos of eggplant into endless jars of a delicious vegetable spread called zacusca over the course of one very long day. The whole family was involved in different aspects of the project. Gabby and I, being the men, were responsible for firing the eggplants until they were a chared crisp of their former selves. The girls pealed them, washed out the jars adn chopped until they could no longer feel their hands. The result was a delicious canned food that we could feel proud about while spreading on our crackers and toast. Oh wait, you can't get crackers here. So, ever since the fall of last year I have been saving up my jars and lids waiting for the fine autumn day when I too could say that the fruits (notice play on words) of my labor could be preserved and eaten all winter long.

So last night I had two coworkers come over to my tiny kitchen and help pass the secret of canning to me too. When they arrived they noticed that I had neither the special equipment, nor the proper ingredients to get the job done. I was missing celary, granular salt, the cranking machine, horse raddish, special conserving powder, and enough space in my kitchen to pack three people all weilding knives into. Most of those problems were easily solved by a quick visit to the local market 3 minutes from my house.

We started with 8 kilos of tomatos and ended with about 5 liters of tomato juice. I saved the tomato bits (skin and seeds) in order to make a spicy salsa with later on. We started with 2 kilos of cucumbers and ended with 13 jars of pickles. The bulion is consumable imediately but the pickles need 3 months to be ready. Even though they thought I was really strange for doing this I insisted that we put garlic in with the pickles and the bulion sauce. Its my strong hope that with enough practice I can mimic the gourmet Klausen pickles found at your local U.S. neigborhood grocery store (sorry for lack of imagery, non-U.S. readers. Wait, who am I kidding, nobody reads this.)

Without further adu I give you tomato juice and pickles:

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Slawter Summer Party Series reborn in the Balkans!!

Wow, what a summer. The lovely Charlotte came to visit for a week at which point we then partied in Sighisoara, relaxed in Tirgu-Mures and went for a jaunt in the forests of Codlea.

Went to Busteni with Outward Bound to help with their Carpathian Adventure.

One day back in Tg-M to pack my bags

1-night in Timisoara with resident Scotsman Richard for an all night drinking tour

2 days + one night in Beograd. Fantastic people, beautiful city, brilliant fortress

Overnight bus to Serbian Side of Sarajevo in BiH. 2 ½ days of narrow streets and tiny cups of espresso

2 days in Mostar, Hercegovinia to see the Gatoraid blue water and the manly speedo wearing bridge jumpers

Side trip to Blagaj (Blah-guy) where I saw the Sultan’s tea house, drank from the source of the river Buna, cave tour and ate some fresh trout washed down with crisp local wine. All for 10 euros. + Sunset tour of Prince Herceg’s ruined mountain top fortress.

“Dino” my 18 year old Bosnian Croat innkeeper

Raging nightclub in the belly of a cave in downtown Mostar

“Cockta” the un-cola

Rafting with Hitko in Konjic on the beautiful and stunning Nreveta River

Drinks with Richard in Sarajevo

Sonny’s “War and Tollerance” tour of Sarajevo

Standing on the spot where the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired.

Bus ride to Srebrenica- no ATM= get the F@#$* out. Sad, ruined, and eerie town where 8,000 muslim civilians were systematically murdered and then burried in mass graves by bosnian Serbs during the recent civil war

Hitch to Dubrovnik and then walk across Serbian Bosnian boarder to the bewilderment of Border Agents

Making a detour to Novi Sad after being offered a lift there from the Bosnian Border. Riding with crazy Romanian music loving 50 year old Serbs all the way. (in each of my hitch hiking experiences there the locals insisted on buying me something to eat or drink along the way. In this instance it was cherry flavored ice cream.)

Enduring “Revenge of the Balkans” syndrome on my last day in Serbia

1 AM wild goose chase to find a place to sleep in Novi Sad before finding the ever so mediocre "White Boat"

Accidentally adding an extra zero at the ATM and withdrawing an exorbitant amount of dinars

Having my paperwork checked at the Romanian boarder more than a dozen times

Train ride from Timisoara to Mangalia in excess of 800km

PCV conference, late night poker and rowdy American beach football

One forgettable night in Eforia de Nord

3 nights at the legendary Vama Veche non-stop beach party

Sleeping in tents on the beach, perfect weather and most importantly tatei!!

The long journey home

Catching a thief with their hand in my pocket on my wallet and passport at the Brasov bus station.

Arriving home to an empty, dirty apartment at midnight.

Eternal sleep….