Paynesville Press - August 9, 2006

Community Perspective

Romania visit serves as trip back in time

By Kathy Ziegler

My son Frankie recently submitted an article to the Press about Romania where he has completed a year of service as a Peace Corps volunteer. He needed a bit of prodding because he didn't think life there is very different. The "total immersion" goal of the Peace Corps has worked with him!

As a three-week visitor this past spring, I found it to be quite different. If you want to take a trip back in time, you can make Romania your destination. In many places life hasn't changed in hundreds of years. I was invited to stay with the family my son has been living with for the past year.

He's in a small village in the Transylvania mountains where animals are "sort of" in pens, but no one cares if goats, chickens, and cows roam around town. My son Frank said that in the summer the gates are purposely opened so the animals can go find a place to graze during the day, returning home at night. There are no formal "pastures."

As throughout Europe the houses are all side by side along the street, fronted by continual fences with each home having a gate. Going through the gate one usually finds a small yard, then the house, and behind it, a barn, and then a vegetable garden, all enclosed on a long rectangular lot. Grape arbors hang somewhere in most yards so wine can be made, and, later, a more potent drink called tsuika is distilled from the wine.

All have chickens and/or other fowl, so families will have their own eggs and meat. Several generations may live in the solidly-built concrete house, which usually stays in the family.

The smell of wood burning - Romania's primary source of heat - is always in the air in March. The man of the house where we lived, Nicu, got up about 4 a.m. each morning to put wood in the furnace to heat the water that goes up the pipes into radiators to warm the house which becomes quite cold during the night.

There's no hot water before noon, so a morning shower is very refreshing! Most homes have a soba, which is a tiled heater, usually in the kitchen, attached to the wood stove used for cooking. Our house also had a new gas stove attached to a propane tank under the sink, which we turned on before cooking.

We also had running water, very safe to drink. There are many public wells around town to provide for those who don't have water pipes, or if their pipes become broken or frozen. Each well has a religious icon of the saint it is dedicated to, as well as a cup hanging on it for any thirsty passerby.

While walking in the country we saw a pipe protruding from the ground with water coming out (with a cup on it as well). Frankie said he fills his water bottle from these places in the summer and it's safe, partly because the Romanians do not use herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides in their farming.

Back to the house. There is a small refrigerator, but the lady of the house, Flori, leaves the "pantry" window open in winter, and many things, like a newly butchered chicken, are left out in the cool room rather than stored in the refrigerator. (One night when he got something from the pantry, Frankie told me I might not want to go in there because one less rooster would be crowing the next morning.) I didn't ask what he saw!

Eggs aren't refrigerated, or washed off. There is only one little store in town where you can buy some meat, usually smoked sausage. After two weeks of enjoying summer sausage on their wonderful bread (handed to you without a wrapper when you buy it for 35˘) someone asked me how I liked their famous horse meat sausage. I should have known, because beef and pork are scarce, but there are many work horses in use.

All roads are shared with horse-drawn carutzas, which are long wagons carrying hay, wood, and anything else needing transport. We saw some loaded with hand-shoveled snow taken from city streets and sidewalks to be dumped in the country.

We came upon a funeral procession and everyone was dressed in black carrying banners and flowers, followed by a carutza carrying an old woman laid out in the open on a bed of flowers. Frankie said at the cemetery they put the top on the coffin just before lowering it into the ground and then everyone helps shovel the dirt on top.

We saw carutzas filled with kids on their way to school. Since there are no pastures to put these horses out to when they can no longer work, they use them in sausage! Some people keep a milk cow. One day when we were visiting a neighbor, we were served a rare "treat." Their cow had just delivered a calf, and the grandmother was cooking a special milk called colostrum. She gave us each a bowl. It was very rich and seemed to have "dumplings," but she added nothing to the milk.

When agreed to have tea, she dipped water from a bucket because they had no running water. Even though it was before noon, we were served suitka. It was cold out, so the grandmother put some rum in my tea! One time when Frankie had been there previously, he'd been given another special treat, a big chunk of fried fat.

At a birthday party for a Romanian friend, we were served tripe soup. I couldn't "stomach" it, but Frankie and his dad (who joined us for two weeks) added a lot of garlic and ate theirs. Chicken soup is served with the chicken parts in itŠskin, bones and all. When I turned the breast over in my bowl of soup, some giblets were still attached. But it isn't fatty and has excellent flavor.

Speaking of fat, I did not see any obese people for the entire three weeks I was there. It helps that most people walk wherever they go and households don't have dishwashers, clothes dryers, and other labor-saving appliances. They don't quite know what to make of Frankie jogging because they don't exercise for the sake of exercise and don't need to.

Even though sanitary conditions for the food are not what they are here, they have no additives and people there are healthy. This is in spite of the constant kissing of pictures and statues that goes on in the Eastern Orthodox monastaries by all worshipers. When I was first introduced to a man I put my hand out to shake but instead had it kissed! Another step back in time. Women kiss cheeks.

Very few people speak English, so Frankie was always very busy translating. The household of Frankie's friend with the new calf was quite "casual" with a pet pigeon flying freely around the house. The bird had followed the dog into the house one day, so became their pet. The two "fight" as the pigeon grabs the dachshund's tail and then he whirls around and gets the bird in his mouth.

Frankie's friend who lives there is a university student in a city a few hours away and comes home each week to work at the city hall. Most young people who get their degrees or learn a trade soon leave town because there are very few jobs, and a skilled laborer or engineer can make a much better living elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Italy (similar language) and Germany (in need of laborers).

One little boy asked me why Frankie was learning their language and living there! I explained that we Americans can learn from them too and appreciate the beauty of their country. He looked confused, because America is like Utopia to these people who see us on TV with big homes, new cars, etc.

His English and immaturity prevented me from comparing their simple but happy life with one of ours filled with more abundance, but also drugs, crime, and other problems unknown in their village.

Having been an educator, I was interested in their schools and asked if I could go for a visit. I observed the teachers working very hard with very few supplies. They earn $100 a month and theirs is considered a good job. The children in the first four grades keep the same teacher for those four years. She moves up with them, and then starts again with another group when they go on to fifth grade.

Most of the little girls wear a pinafore "uniform," but it isn't required. Many classrooms have bare walls, except for the one with a board painted black. A bucket and sponge are used to erase, so the next student or teacher can write on the blackboard. The children often sit two and three to a desk. These same desks were used by their grandparents!

I brought along some children's books and materials that teachers in Paynesville and Eden Valley donated. The children and teachers were thrilled. I'd stopped in Amsterdam for a few hours on the way to Bucharest, and a Dutch friend who is a research biologist gave me a 20-year-old microscope to donate to the school. The happy science teacher even saved the duct tape that was around it!

In spite of the sparse classrooms, some good learning is going on. The English teacher doesn't just teach conversational English; the grammar lesson she was doing with sixth graders would challenge American students of the same age! The children are also learning French, includng the grammer, as well as their own language.

The students stay in their homerooms, as the teachers move at the end of each hour. In between classes, there is a 10-minute break with the students left on their own, unsupervised. They've never had any problems. The only inattentive children I observed were a few of the older gypsy children who didn't listen or take their education very seriously.

Ziegler of Paynesville recently visited her son Frank Jr. in Romania. This column will continue next week.

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