I can’t believe I’ve never written about sarmale!* They are one of my favorite Moldovan dishes. Before I came here, reading blogs written by other PCVs I couldn’t quite understand why they said that cabbage rolls were so delicious. But now that I’ve tasted these delectable little bites, I totally get it. Sarmalele take a LOT of work: Sasha selects a steamed cabbage leaf, smooths it out, scoops a spoonful of previously prepared stuffing (rice, meat and… secret seasoning?) onto it, then carefully rolls it up, tucking both ends in as she goes. Then repeats the process maybe 50 or 75 times to make a full casserole dish of sarmalele. They are somewhat similar to the dolmades I’ve tried in Mediterranean restaurants, but the bitter taste of the grape leaves is replaced by smooth steamed cabbage, resulting in a mouth-watering combination!
Last week we received a text from our Safety and Security Manager telling us that a “code orange” Winter Weather Alert was in place. Iarna* (winter) had finally arrived. Ever since, my walk to school has been covered in snow. And filled with wonders for an Alabama girl, who has never actually experienced snow that stayed around for more than a day! Here are a few of the glories of Iarna in Cahul, Moldova! Click for larger images. There are few captions as the images mostly speak for themselves!
“Graffiti” in the snow. It says ‘Class 8B’ in Russian. Evidently some proud 8th graders passed this way!
Can you name a famous person whose birthday was celebrated last Monday on January 15th? If you’re in Moldova, probably the first person who comes to mind is Mihai Eminescu (“Mee-high Yem-een-es-kyoo”).* Eminescu one of the most famous and influential poets ever to write in the Romanian language. He’s extremely well known in Romania and Moldova; his portrait is seen everywhere from schoolroom walls, to the church lawn, and even on Romania’s money! Since the school where I work is one of many Moldovan schools named after him, there were a variety of special activities during the school day on Monday. Each grade level had special activities planned, including this Eminescu Trivia Challenge for the 9th grade:
And the day ended with a performance in the school auditorium featuring song, dance, poetry, and skits, all performed by the students! Here is about a minute of it for you to enjoy. See if you can catch the poet’s name near the end!
“This is my husband’s favorite cake,” said Lucia as she gave me a slice. It was just after midnight, now January 14th, “old” New Year. We had just watched her brother shoot off some gorgeous fireworks, and now we were preparing to greet the new year with cake and champagne. After one bite, I could see why her husband liked it so much! Smântână* means “sour cream” and smântânel consisted of zillions of thin layers of pastry (kind of like phylo dough, but not as flaky), with a sour-cream based sweet cream between them. Yum!
*(very) approximate pronunciation: Smun-tun-uh. Try saying the first two syllables with the u sound from “push”. The cake is (aproximately) smun-tun-ell Same deal with the u’s.
Sisters, Sisters, there were never such devoted sisters…
The words from this classic song played in my head as I watched my host mom and her sister together. As the family celebration of “Old Christmas” started to wind down, the two of them curled up together on the dinette bench for a chat. Passing one pair of reading glasses back and forth, they looked at photos in each other’s cell phones, reminisced about “the good old days” and caught up on what everyone and their kids were up to lately. As some family members slowly drifted toward the door and began looking for their coats, the sisters shared an orange, stretching the party out as long as possible.
(I should note that they have one other sister, Maria, equally close, who just didn’t happen to be on hand for this particular celebration).
I woke up this morning to this lovely snowy vista out my window. On the way to school I enjoyed the snowfall, marveling in the tiny snow-caps on each fence post, the way the ornate gateways were transformed, and the stark contrast between the black tree branches and their coating of white. But the snow is late. Everyone is concerned about the warmest winter in Moldova’s history. People who depend on the land for food are worried that the fruit trees will bud too soon, then freeze, and fail to produce fruit later on. I’m told that arctic wind patterns have been disrupted by global warming, causing cold fronts to migrate to the southern USA, rather than here in Eastern Europe where they’re needed. A worrisome outlook indeed. Nevertheless…. the snow is beautiful today.
“Urători! Come see!” My Romanian tutor Lucia, her young son and her sister-in-law rushed me to the door. It was “Old” New Years Eve, and her family had graciously invited me to their village to enjoy the festivities. Sure enough, at the door were several young people. One was strenuously ringing a bell, while each in turn recited a long poem, wishing us well for the new year. When all of them had finished, the gospodina (housewife) of the house presented each of them with cookies or a colac bread, sweets, and….. MONEY!
Although the calendar read January 13th, this night was New Year’s Eve by the old (Julian) calendar still followed by the Orthodox church. Here in Moldova, some villages welcome the new year on December 31st, and others on the more traditional January 13th. Last Saturday night, I was fortunate to have been invited to enjoy the latter.
Throughout the evening, many other groups of urători came to the door, as well as colindători, who came singing carols. In between, we enjoyed a bountiful feast, complete with homemade wine, and I had a lot of fun playing with a precious little boy and girl who spoke to me in (respectively) Romanian and Russian.
A highlight of the evening was one group of urători that included a dancing goat. Apparently the tradition includes trying to grab a piece of tinsel from the goat costume, to ensure good luck in the coming year.
As midnight approached, the little ones fell asleep one by one, until only the oldest (5 whole years old!) was left awake. Finally the magic hour arrived, and we went outside to enjoy a fireworks display provided by Lucia’s brother, then saluted the “new” year with champagne and cake.
What’s the date of Christmas? Is it December 25th or January 7th? For many people in Moldova, the answer is “both”! You see, the Orthodox church uses the Julian Calendar (established by Julius Caesar in 45 BC) rather than the more recent Gregorian Calendar (introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582) that most of us are used to. There is a 13 day difference between the calendars, which means that Christmas falls on what we now know as January 7th. My host mom refers to January 7th as Old Christmas and December 25th as New Christmas. She says that in her childhood everyone celebrated Old Christmas, and no one knew of anything else. Later, as people started to visit and live in other European countries, they brought the “new” tradition here as well.
So I asked around. Which one do people celebrate in Moldova? I’ve heard that villages closer to Romania probably celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th, while those with a large Russian population might celebrate on Jan. 7th. But here in town, I was told, some people celebrate Old Christmas, some people celebrate New Christmas, and people who really like to party… celebrate both!
While I was excited to spend “new” Christmas at home with my American family this year, I was also very happy to be part of a Moldovan celebration of Old Christmas, on Sunday Jan. 7th. Family members came to visit, and Sasha spent days preparing lots of special dishes for the holiday masa. I enjoyed the family time around the table with Sasha’s daughter, son-in-law, sister, brother-in-law and nieces.
Shortly after their arrival, I noticed Liliana and Angelica (the nieces) preparing a packet that included a colac (torus-shaped woven bread), various fruit, cookies and candy, and a lighted candle. With some words of congratulations and appreciation, they solemnly presented it to Sasha, along with wrapped gifts. She reciprocated in kind. I learned later that this is traditional between godparents and godchildren on Christmas.
Sasha’s daughter presents the bundle with the colac to her cousin.
Preparing a packet with a colac (braided bread), cookies, candies, fruits, and a lighted candle.
Christmas present for her sister!
The family sat around the table for a long time, enjoying delicious food and (most of all) each others’ company. The last bit of food brought out was a box of chocolates, and I was able to add a few Hershey’s kisses so everyone there could have a taste of chocolate from America. So next year on January 7th, remember to greet all your friends with “Craciun Fericit!*” (Merry Christmas!) from Moldova.
What does your family eat on Christmas Eve? My host mom’s family eats Кyтья (“KOO-tee-ah”*), which is a sweet, crunchy, lemony porridge made with toasted wheat, walnuts, lemon juice, water, and sugar among other things. She is quick to point out that it’s not a Moldovan food, but a tradition borrowed from Ukraine, where evidently it is served on Christmas Eve. I got to enjoy it on “old” Christmas, January 7, with my host mom and her family. But that’s a subject for another blog…
*Pronunciation approximate. And taa-daa! I can type (a little bit) in Cyrillic characters!
Slowly, I blink myself awake and stare in befuddlement at the ceiling, trying to work out what time it is (what day? what city?) … What a lovely dream I had! There were airplanes, and chocolate chip cookies, and my husband was there… Wait! That really happened! This isn’t my bedroom in Cahul, or some hostel bed in Chișinău, this is the bed in Alabama, where I woke up every morning for many years! Although my morning-fuddled brain hasn’t processed it yet, I’m here to spend Christmas week with my family.
In my same old robe, I wander around the kitchen making coffee… reaching up to tap the tricky light over the sink in just the right way to make it come on… working the coffee maker by instinct (although it’s been almost 7 months since I’ve had drip-filtered coffee)… drifting over to the cereal cupboard… reaching for a bowl without looking. Just as if I’d never been gone. Just as if nothing had changed. I marvel at the ease with which I take up the mantle of this everyday life. (Mantle (n). A long decorative cloak which conceals everything beneath it. Probably an apt metaphor.) It seems incredible that these little things do NOT seem strange after so long away.
Most of my thoughts are with people half a world away. I find myself obsessively checking FaceBook and repeatedly regaling my ever-patient family with other volunteers’ adventures in Salzburg, Budapest, Rome and Madrid. I wonder if Barzig the kitten has climbed my host mom’s Christmas tree again. What are my partner teachers are doing at the school today? Little things surprise and delight me: Diet Dr. Pepper, light switches inside the rooms, dried pineapple, unlimited drink refills, ice! I take a selfie with Krispy Kreme donuts (I confess that I posted this to Facebook as a sort of passive-aggressive counterpoint to my friends’ glorious cathedrals, fountains and monuments). When people ask me about Moldova, I talk and talk and talk and talk… I am surprised to find how much I have to say!
While I slip easily back in to some familiar routines, the person behind my eyes is different. I like the changes I find in myself. I am grateful to the people who have made me more confident in my worth as a person; and to the experiences that have shown me my ability to cope with… whatever!