Friday, February 24, 2012

The line between beginning and end: a new chapter

So as many of you know, we have come back Stateside a bit earlier than planned. The decision was multi-faceted and extremely hard. But here we are. Below is a snippet of each of Ash and I's thoughts about the whole journey that we'd love to share...


And we’re home… and it’s good.  We’ve had a ridiculous amount of validation in our decision to come home, so many blessings unforeseen and so much support from everyone around us. 

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, studying for a test that will determine whether or not I’m admitted to a program for a teaching license that I didn’t know I even wanted before my experience in PC Moldova.  Sitting here is all at once completely surreal and perfectly normal in relation to my life story. I can’t count the number of hours I have spent studying in coffee shops throughout my years of study and yet there is a part of me that can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that just 2 weeks ago I was sitting in a room surrounded by Moldovans and their American partners trying to figure out just how to write a grant proposal in Romanian. 

I do know that is was the right decision for us on a variety of levels.  We have been welcomed back with open arms by our closest friends and family.  Blessings that we cannot count have come our way and the only questioning from others is “Do you feel you made the right choice for your health and happiness?”  There is no tone of judgment or lack of understanding and for that we could not be more blessed or reassured.

We talk about the fact that there are times in which it seems as though we never left – those incredible once in a lifetime friendships that allow you to pick up where you left off regardless of time gone by, the love of a certain Java cat who didn’t forget us, the majestic beauty of the mountains, the fullness of life that greeted us here the moment we stepped off the plane.  And yet when we think about it it’s more and more obvious that there are subtle (and not so subtle) things that have changed – those same lifetime friends buying homes, friends starting families of their own, the changing of seasons, opening of boxes that we haven’t seen for 18 months, growth of two spectacular younger sisters (both physically and emotionally), the weightiness of a certain Java cat (that can only be explained by the comparison of the cats we’ve become accustomed to during our time away), and nuances of 18 months having come and gone that we were not a part of blended with the realization that although we are the same people there are things that are different about us as well.  There are stories that we have experienced that we can’t fully put into words, languages learned (both literally and figuratively), people we have met that will forever be a part of our life story, journeys that we have been a part of that have helped shape new and exciting passions in our lives.    

There are times in which I find it all slightly overwhelming and borderline unbelievable, as though I’ve just woken from a dream, but then I remember…

I remember the African sunset that commanded attention.

I remember the exchange of cfa on the roadside for some breakfast millet cakes.

I remember the infectious laugh of our host mom as she yelled out “Mariama!”

I remember the heat of the afternoon as we studied Hausa under the shade of a tree.

I remember the inevitable and much anticipated outbreak of song and dance that came with every CHARM birthday.

I remember the friendships and the unfathomable bond of CHARM.

I remember the two young boys who helped us and claimed us as their own territory in the market during our first week in Fadama.

I remember our kitty, Charlie.

I remember working to plant moringa trees in yard and as many veggies as we could manage in our “garden” looking forward to seeing them grow.

I remember the men from Fadama surrounding us in prayer seconds before we were looking at them in the rearview mirror and wondering what was going to happen next.

I remember eating ice cream (more times than I can count) at “bar Teresa” as the “Budestians” drank a cold beer after a long day of language classes.

I remember Budesti (and Colinita) and a group of people who have blessed me in ways that cannot be put into words.

I remember T and her abundant joy that is so evident that you can’t help but smile and laugh in her presence.

I remember Katie and her heart of hearts and how happy I am to know her and have her in my life.

I remember Erin and the way she kept us all together and strong as a group.

I remember Cristen and the unbelievable way she cares for people without even thinking about it.

I remember Martin and his little-big brother ways that make me smile.

I remember Craig and his amazing ability to be laidback in any situation.

I remember Sarah and our long nights of talking that I will forever be thankful for.

I remember Stu and his quiet peacefulness that drew people to want to know him more.

I remember amazing afternoons spent with Jos – cooking, laughing, and enjoying our time together.

I remember the smiles and laughter of the 4th graders as we taught about transmissible diseases and my Moldovan partner teacher sprayed them with a water bottle as a demonstration.

I remember the flowers given to me by shy 4th and 5th graders at First Bell.

I remember Galina and our ability to speak to one another on a level that didn’t make much sense considering my lack of Romanian.

I remember playing Uno with our 10 year old host sister and her silly competitiveness.

I remember laughing and making traditional Moldovan foods with Anastasia.

I remember picking grapes in anticipation of another year of delicious wine.

I remember the moment I fell in love with teaching.

There is so much good that I remember and that is what I will hold onto, that is what our PC story will be.


The journey we started together two and a half years ago by pressing send on the Peace Corps application website from our Capitol Hill studio apartment is coming to a close. The question of would we have changed anything had we known the form it would take is simultaneously ridiculous and extremely crucial in this moment we’re facing. Obviously we had no clue the journey would start before we left the US. With 15 months of application processes, medical appointments and bills, interviews, and aspiration statements. Even more than the actual application steps, it was the sense of waiting. Not knowing when we would know, then once we knew, waiting for it to come while still trying to fulfill commitments and work on passions which were in front of us.

Then, departure to an unknown land – fear, excitement, nervousness, purpose. All riding in the economy class seats with us as we descended toward the vast brown simmering land named Niger. The shock of the heat stepping off the plane, the beauty of our host family, the depth of Islamic culture and belief. To cover those three months with broad strokes only creates an abstract image, leaving the outward impressions up to the viewer. Yet in many ways, that is the painting of our memories: imparting more impressions and emotions than steadfast images or facts. When details do jump out at us, they are often without context, perhaps a dot or patch of clarity which deepens the abstractness of the overall piece.

The time in between. Suddenly we were back, having rushed to Morocco, then home, we were thrown back into limbo as we awaited the next overseas assignment. Generous friends. Supporting family. Meaningful encounters over beer or in a garden. The time was brief, packed, beautiful. I was burrowed into work with Revision International, yet unable to fully settle knowing we were still pursuing Peace Corps service. Where can I make the most difference, here, or overseas? Or perhaps more accurately, where am I supposed to make a difference at all? The answers to these questions were frustratingly beyond our grasps, as if their colors hadn’t yet been selected. We still had to try. Without pursuing service overseas, we could never know for sure (or think we know for sure) that serving here is where we’re meant to be.

So the airplane took off in the United States and set down in Eastern Europe. In Moldova. A country neither of us knew about, nor frankly that either of us had thought we wanted to know about in this way. Yet there we were. The heat stepping off the plane slightly less severe. The rolling countryside a palette of greens instead of browns. The paint strokes seem fresher now. Homemade wine. Friends and relatives simply stopping by for visits unannounced and the Moldovans stopping everything to make sure their guests had something (either white or red) to drink and eat. Another tongue. Another culture. The colors comprising each just as deep yet profoundly different than that of Niger.

And now, we’re leaving. We’re choosing to cut our service with the Peace Corps short instead of it being cut short for us. We’re choosing to leave this country after seven and a half months of investment and electing to change the shades of paint into which our brushes are dipped. Part of the reason we’ve chosen this transformation is that we’ve noticed the vibrancy of the colors we’re leaving behind have been growing duller and duller lately. Our hearts have slowly grown less passionate, less engaged, less alive here. And at the same time, the direction our paths are leading us toward in the future has become more detailed, more clear, and more sure than when the planes wheels left the tarmac more than 15 months ago. More certain than when we clicked “Submit” online two and a half years ago.

What is even more reassuring now is that instead of this journey ending with its road narrowing into a dead end, it feels – when we pause long enough to see through all the doubts, frustrations, and feelings of failure – as though its widening into new possibilities. The speed bumps, potholes, and detours are all still a part of the road ahead. But in spite of this, in spite of knowing the hardships are not something to try to avoid, but simply a part of the journey, we’re hopeful. The fresh paint and new colors about to be added to the canvas are exciting. The direction of the strokes and the patterns or shapes that result are yet to be understood, as is the impression this masterpiece will leave on those who see it. Yet this is the ultimate freedom: to choose how to paint with colors and brushes you’ve been given.

Thank you Father for this gift, let us "Listen closely[, for] the gift is music. Return it abundantly [because] the gift is love. Touch it gently [as] the gift is fragile. Protect it fiercely [since] the gift is vulnerable. Laugh aloud [recognizing] the gift is joyous. Share it[, acknowledging] the gift is truth. Use it bravely [knowing] the gift is freedom. When [there] is money, give it away. Above all, [let us] not pretend to understand why [we] have been chosen to receive these gifts. This is the mystery of life." 
- Moore & Nelson, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Our Baker's Dozen Days of Christmas!

Here’s a rundown of our Christmas travels 2011!! :)

Day 1 – Ash had celebrations at school that lasted until about 2:30 at which point we were on a bus to Chisinau to exchange monies, have lunch/dinner and catch our overnight bus to Brasov, Romania leaving at 7:30pm.  All went well with only a minor hiccup when we realized we somehow exchanged our Moldovan lei for British pounds instead of Turkish Lira… happy we caught it before arriving in Brasov!  Outside of the border crossing in which we had to get off the bus and show our luggage/passports both in Moldova and (an hour later) again on in Romania, the ride to Brasov went rather well. 

Day 2 – We arrived in Brasov around 5:30am were we met the woman renting out the apartment we would be staying in for 3 nights… so nice!!  We found it on … where you can find apartments or rooms for rent all over the world that are usually less expensive than staying in a hotel.  Anyway, we then slept for a few hours before setting out in search for some brunch, we found a great place where we enjoyed croissants, coffee, a veggie omelet, and poached eggs for an incredible price… a great start to our vacation!!  We walked around for a bit and attended a Christmas Eve church service in the historic and beautiful Black Church both the singing and message were in German, which made it all the more majestic (even if we couldn’t understand anything that was happening).

Day 3 – Merry Christmas!!  We made ourselves mimosas (orange juice and champagne), which is a Christmas morning tradition for Ash’s family.  After a long walk around Brasov, where it was lightly snowing (perfect for Christmas), we read for awhile in a local coffee shop and returned to our apartment to watch holiday movies before going out for a nice Christmas dinner.  We made our way back to the center of the town where we took pictures in front of the Christmas tree and bought ourselves some vin fiert (malt wine) – yumminess!

Day 4 – We woke semi-early (actually setting an alarm on vacation – wow) and took a bus up into the mountains to Poiana, a ski resort, just for the pleasure of being “in” the mountains and seeing the trees covered in snow.  We walked around for awhile and then took the bus back down into Brasov where we decided to check out the gondola just outside the old city walls.  We took the gondola up, up, up and then after enjoying the view and taking a ridiculous amount of pictures we made our way down, down, down on foot…. Perfect!  After a coffee break, absolutely necessary of course, we made fools of ourselves ice skating but had a blast in the process.

Day 5 – Said goodbye to Brasov and hello to Istanbul via train from Brasov to Bucharest and flight from Bucharest to Istanbul. The flight was delayed, but we finally arrived in Istanbul around 7pm and quickly got lost after taking a cab and ferry to the neighborhood of our next apartment… after speaking with many cab drivers one gracious gentleman actually called the woman we were renting our apartment from and she ended up meeting us just a couple of blocks from the apartment without issue.  And then sleeps…

Day 6 – Walked around the Asian side of the city and found a great local café were we enjoyed our first cup of Turkish coffee… we were instantly hooked.  A short ferry ride later we were on the European side and found ourselves looking at the marvels that are the New Mosque, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, the Grand Bazaar, Spice Market, and every side street that leads to new and exciting areas of the city.  Slightly exhausted we headed back to our apartment, found dinner on the way and ended the evening watching a movie.

Day 7 – Up bright and early and on the ferry for our amazing Turkish bath experience at Suleymani Hamami (the only Turkish bath for couples in Istanbul that we know of).  Basically we sat on hot marble for half an hour while sweating more than we ever have in our lives (sounds appealing doesn’t it? It gets better I promise), after which we were scrubbed, bubbled (bubbles!!), and massaged for another 30 minutes.  Lovely and relaxing… the best way to complete said experience was to find a orange juice stand and enjoy two large glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice as soon as possible afterwards.  :)  Life is good :) For lunch we shared a ridiculously large sandwich from a street vendor and walked around the Galata Tower and Taksim neighborhoods for hours before grabbing a couple of beers and Turkish pizza and heading back to the apartment.

Day 8 – Our last day in Istanbul… sad face.  Wondered around the Asian side some more and ate what we dubbed a breakfast tocaniţa – basically, pure yumminess in the form of scrambled eggs and veggies all mixed together! Finally we made our way to the airport via the metro and arrived in Capadochia (central Turkey – look it up!!) around 9:30pm.

Day 9 – Happy New Years Eve!! Enjoyed breakfast and tea at our hostel before heading out for a long walk/hike around Capadoccia – gorgeous and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.  We found a local café and shared some spectacular lentil soup and fresh baked bread with Turkish coffee.  We are now hooked on both Turkish coffee and lentil soup – we’ll be giving both a try in the kitchen at some point in the near future. :)  For New Years night we found a great local restaurant where we enjoyed some great food and live Turkish music… the music was done by a father and son with the father playing a drum and singing and then son playing a Turkish guitar, absolutely beautiful.  Another unexpected find…

Day 10 – Hello 2012!! Went on our first “official” tour ever after finding out there wasn’t any way via public transportation to reach a couple of different sites that we really wanted to see before leaving Capadochia… decided it was definitely worth it in the end (it’s called the Green tour throughout the region so if you ever find yourself in Capadochia check it out!).  It started with a panoramic view, beautifully breathtaking, but ridiculously windy.  Then a short ride to see an underground city, the largest in the region, where people used to live in order to find safety from attacks.  On to the Ihlara Valley with a short, but very worthwhile hike along the river at the bottom of a stunning canyon ending at our lunch spot.  After lunch we had a bit of a longer ride to see one of the many cave monasteries in the region – imagine a labyrinth of rooms built into the side of a mountain… incredible.  Last stop was a local artisan center, aka an obvious ploy to get us to buy jewelry (although it was beautiful) and finally back to the center of Goreme (the name of the town where we stayed, Capadochia is the region name).  We finished our day with a bowl of lentil soup, homemade hummas, fries (which one of these is not like the other? Haha) and some delicious tea.  Perfect!

Day 11 – Ridiculously early morning alarm at 4:00am to be on the shuttle to the airport by 4:30.  Easy flight back to Istanbul where we spent the day wandering, finished with going to see Mission Impossible 4 (don’t judge :) to pass the time and rest our tired legs.  We drank Turkish coffee for the last time and found some beautiful traditionally painted mugs to remind us of the city.  On to the train at 10pm … yay to first class sleeper cars!! Boo to border crossings at 3:30am!!

Day 12 – Day on the train!!  Note to self (and others :) – there are not restaurant cars on every train regardless of the length of the trip, so pack snacks!!  Yay for reading, enjoying the country side of Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, listening to music, talking, playing games, drinking French press coffee, and generally enjoying the trip back to Moldova!!  Next stop Bucharest…  We had only 25 minutes between one train and the next, but managed to get food and find our train without any problems.  The train from Bucharest to Chisinau only got better … We didn’t even have to get out at the border crossing between Romania and Moldova – so spoiled!!

Day 13 – Arrived in Chisinau safe and sound around 9am and there you have it!!

We hope that everyone else was able to have as blessed of a holiday as we were.  We definitely missed our family and friends back home and look forward to when we can spend our holidays together again.   Love and light to you all and Happy New Year!!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Killing a Turkey

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I took a course in hunter safety and received my hunter’s safety license so I could go hunting. Only one small problem: I didn’t believe in hunting. I had a problem with the idea of killing an animal to eat it. Yet apparently this problem wasn’t big enough to keep me from eating meat, I think I simply didn’t think about it. My brother went hunting one year and bagged a buck. I was morally opposed but secretly fascinated to sneak down to the garage where dad was working with our neighbor the Game Warden to skin, gut, and butcher the deer carcass. Somehow it took me another 10 or so years to realize that my moral objection to personally killing an animal was just plain hypocrisy and denial.

I had learned much more about our food system and how it abuses, mutilates (both genetically and otherwise), then slaughters literally billions of animals to provide us all with our meat cravings at a cheap price tag. I had to confront my hypocrisy face to face. How could I judge hunters then walk to the freezer and pull out a bag of Tyson frozen chicken strips (boneless of course!) to eat for dinner? So, Ash and I became vegetarians, mostly. We only ate meat when we could verify where the meat came from, the conditions in which the animal was raised and slaughtered, and what it was fed. Since arriving in Moldova, I have, rightly or wrongly, let go of this distinction. Mostly because almost all of the meat Moldovans eat comes from their backyard or that of a neighbor. Yet every time I eat meat, I think about the animal it once was, and wonder, where and how did it live? Did it know it was going to be eaten? Did it understand that it was only fed in order to become food?

Then Ash signed me up (ok, I also volunteered…) to help kill the Thanksgiving turkeys with a few other volunteers and then help prepare them for the big volunteer meal the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Although I jumped at the opportunity, I did so with an understanding that I would again have to confront my beliefs, thoughts, convictions, feelings, and motivations for eating meat. Yet this time I’d be doing it with an ax in my hand.

So I travelled to the volunteer’s village in which we’d be doing the deed on Thanksgiving and helped him start to prepare pumpkin pie filling and crust as well as cooking a vegetarian chili to eat with his host family and the other volunteers who would be joining us that night. Friday morning we awoke early and, with Grișa, the host dad, hopped in the car and drove across the village to pick out the turkeys. The sun was setting the strips of clouds on the horizon afire and making the backdrop of sky appear a deep purple as we got out of the car and walked through the gate to greet the family who had agreed to sell us six of their turkeys. Us five Americans were obviously clueless as to how to carry live turkeys as we struggled to hold onto their wings and carry them over to the house from the massive yard in which they lived with their about thirty or forty fellow gobblers.

Soon we were on our way back to the house, six live turkeys, incredibly docile, occupying the trunk of the aging white Lada. Back within the confines of the low green wooden fence of Grișa’s house, we carefully unloaded the live cargo, which, with their legs tied, simply plopped down on the grass quietly. We then worked together to start the fire which would boil the water to loosen the turkey’s skin’s hold on their feathers. Soon came the time. Grișa took hold of the first turkey, saying he would show us how then we could each have out turn. Holding the wings together in one hand with the feet looked simple enough. He held the bird upside down like that with his left hand, slowly and gently placing its head on the small block of wood before picking up the small ax with his right. The bird was completely calm, not making a noise nor moving at all as the ax came down perfectly on its neck, severing everything but a tiny bit of skin. Grișa held the body upside down to let the blood come out, then handed it to me to hold until it stopped twitching, at which point he showed me how to dip the whole bird in the boiling water quickly before pulling it out and tasking a few of us with the tedious job of plucking.

Each of us went in turn, and suddenly it was my turn, the last bird a pure white turkey weighing around 6 kilograms. It was quickly obvious that the skill of holding both wings and both feet in one hand firmly enough to not let a wing erupt was a skill Grișa had acquired over many years. I managed to get the grip, and to place the birds head on the block. As I reached for the ax, I thanked God for the turkey in my hands. I thanked him for making it, for the life it had lived, and for the nourishment it was going to provide our bodies. Then the ax fell and I was again holding a twitching body.

The experience was one which I would not have missed, and, if given the chance, will do again. I don’t enjoy killing things. To the contrary, I take the deed with the utmost responsibility and seriousness, knowing that what once was living is now not because of a movement of my arm. It makes me confront profound questions about the meaning of life, humans and our place on this Earth, and how we should be filling our role as stewards of the ecosystems on which we depend for life. We are indeed a part of this world, not separate from, above, or below it. Yet somehow we are apart. We have the power to take a life and to reflect on the life we took. Because we have this power, we have the responsibility to use it. To reflect on our impact on those around us and the world in which we live. To reflect on the consequences of our actions, both large and small. Will you reflect with me?

Friday, October 28, 2011

What is your contribution?

I also posted this entry on Paradigms, a blog where I post thoughts and ponderings on life. 

We walked into the Sala de festivă, the all purpose room of the school. Its recently rehabbed interior buzzing with tens of different conversations between the hundreds of townspeople seated on the cold, metal and fake-wood benches which were positioned in rows facing the stage. Women of all ages, most of them wearing basme, head scarves, each folded in half to form a triangle and encircling its owner’s face and covering their hair, the other two ends tied loosely under their chins with the knots struggling to hold onto themselves against the constant motion of the women’s chins as they talked. Almost immediately we realized the people had segregated themselves by gender. The women sitting toward the front, the men either sitting in the couple of last rows or standing in the back in pairs, hands in their pockets as they discussed whatever it was that Moldovans seem to be able to talk about for hours on end non-stop.

We had come to the general parents’ meeting of the school (serving 1st grade through 12th) out of interest, to see what would be discussed, and what a mass meeting in Moldova was like. We sat down, still bundled in our jackets against the chill of the room, on an empty bench two-thirds of the way back on the right side of the auditorium behind our host mom Tania. As we looked around, it seemed most of the teachers were already present and seated in a loose group in the front right, furthest from entry door.

The meeting actually started almost right on time (highly unusual), even though stragglers kept streaming in every few minutes until the room was filled to standing room only. Doamna Maria, the school director (principal as we would think of it) called the meeting to order by thanking the parents for being there and inviting the mayor, Domnul Petru, and the vice-mayor, Doamna Nina, to sit down at the table at the front of the meeting, facing the crowd. She also asked for a volunteer to be secretary of the meeting, and asked for another community member to volunteer for something else that Ash and I didn’t catch.

Though the format of the meeting was brutally boring (Doamna Maria or another woman simply standing at the front and speaking into the microphone for what turned out to be two and a quarter hours), trying to understand their Romanian and being curious about what they talked about kept Ash and I focused for most of it. Soon, the speaker was asking for input from the parents on different needs/issues/ideas for their school. In the ensuing yelling match, two parents in particular offered complaints which drew heated sounds and responses from other parents and from the speakers. One main issue which Doamna Maria had raised was about the veceu (bathroom) situation. The current ‘bathroom’ for over six hundred students plus teachers, is an outhouse with two holes, no lighting, and no heating, situated about a hundred yards from the main school building. With help from the parent’s association – parents can voluntarily give money which goes into a pool for clubs and small projects for their kids – a small indoor bathroom (one stall for girls and one for boys) was recently installed on the first floor, but the sewage system can’t handle much usage, so its only open for the 1st grade to use.

So in response, a man in his late thirties sitting against the back wall, stood up and said that the school director should simply apply to a fund somewhere to get the money to rehab the sewage system and install more bathrooms on the other floors of the school. Simple enough, right?

Thankfully, that’s when Doamna Elena, our next door neighbor and Romanian tutor, stood up from the front of the room and turned to face the hundreds of eyes now trained on her. She said something pretty close to the following (English paraphrase of Romanian…):

“I’ve been teaching here since 1976. How many years is that? A little math practice… 30 something right? 34 or 35 years. Every year, I have taught here, I have walked out to that outhouse to use it. Every year I’ve taught here, I’ve sat in a cold classroom [another note of the meeting was how the school hasn’t turned on the heat yet because gas prices are going up and they won’t be able to afford it in the middle of winter. Which means that its downright cold in the school all day.] and watched the kids bundle themselves up and still try to learn. Do you know, if every family gave 10 lei each month, 10 lei!, that is nothing, we can all afford that, that we could probably install bathrooms on the second and third floors? It helps no one to offer criticisms without solutions. What have you personally contributed sir [speaking to the man who suggested simply writing a grant]? Do not offer suggestions if you are not willing to invest with your own money and time.”

 As Doamna Elena sat down, applause swept through the room. She had made a powerful, often over-looked point, summed up with one question: what is your contribution? The more I learn about the problems of the world, the easier it is to point out more problems. The more often half-assed solutions touted by short-sighted politicians or businessmen fail, the easier it is to simply say no to whatever is proposed. Yet the Romanian teacher with 35 years of teaching in the same school in the same town in Moldova challenges that paradigm. What is my contribution? Have I offered anything of my own or have I simply shot down what exists? Have I put forward empty solutions (i.e. “just write a grant to some funder”), or have I invested my own time and money in the work of bettering this Earth and the people who live on it?

What is your contribution? 

Friday, October 14, 2011

365 Days of Peace and Friendship

A quick note... 

Peace Corps Moldova created a blog site in celebration of Peace Corps' 50th Anniversary and volunteers in Moldova have been posting a new blog about their experiences/thoughts every single day so far! I just posted an excerpt from a journal I wrote about a Moldovan funeral I attended. 

Check out my post and the posts of other volunteers here:


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Moldovan Winemaking: Part III

So Part III is the last, I decided to make them all slightly longer instead of posting four parts... Click here for Part I, and here for Part II if you missed them!
For more photos and videos of winemaking (and other moments in Moldova), visit!
Step 3: Making must – fermentation (fierbând: literally, boiling)
Since Mihai lives in Chişinău during the week, Elena asked me to come by twice a day to check on the grapes, now fermenting in the barrels amidst their own juice. She said (or rather, this is what I managed to pick out of what she said) that the fermentation ‘boiling’ of the grapes would make their volume expand and therefore I’d need to come by and push it back down with a pronged stick. I wasn’t completely sure what needed to happen and that confusion was compounded when I went by on Monday (day 2 of fermenting) and it appeared as if nothing had happened except for seemingly thousands of fruit flies and bees trying to make the sweetness of the grapes their home. But I persisted and the next day was rewarded when I removed the plastic sacs covering the grapes and juice to find they had indeed risen two or three inches.

Elena was home and she showed me exactly how to push down the mass of grapes, mixing them back down into the juice, producing red foam which she said people use as a yeast substitute. (How crazy is that? Don’t have yeast? Just use fermenting grape juice foam!) It turned out I had to put my entire weight into the pushing and for the next few days my upper abs hurt from the unusual work-out they got each time I visited the fermenting barrels. On days three (Tuesday), and five (Thursday), I was able to taste the must. Day three it was simply very sweet, thick, grape juice, but by Thursday it had a bit of bitterness to it which apparently signifies its ready for Step 4: pressing.
Step 4: Pressing the grapes (să apăse strugurile)
Thursday afternoon approached, bringing the whole reason we experienced any of this full circle back to Romanian tutoring. Ash and I showed up behind Elena’s house around 3pm to find Mihai had already come back from Chişinău with Elena’s brother, Constantin. They were about to partake in a snack of salami, tomatoes, brânză (homemade cheese), washed down with homemade ‘viskey’ as Mihai called it. ‘Viskey’ turned out to be a clear, homemade liquor which smelled like gasoline. Thankfully Elena rescued us from having to try some right away (though her resistance was strangely absent later…) because we had to have a ‘lesson.’  We sat down at the same table we’d been at the week before, forced into upright postures by the hard wooden bench sandwiched in between the table and the left over roofing material which served as a barrier between the patio area and the garden. Elena pulled out a Romanian textbook for grade five and we started in on the tutoring session, following wild tangents more than a few times but overall feeling as though we probably learned something.
After two hours, I noticed Mihai and Constantin moving around, clearly starting to work on the wine, so I jumped up and started seeing where I could be of use. They had already started siphoning the must from out of the bottom of the barrels down the stairs into the basement and into an empty barrel using a long garden hose. One of the three fermenting barrels had already had all the easy to get juice sucked downstairs, so Mihai started scooping armfuls of the crushed grape remains (stems, skins, and seeds) into a large bowl, which he then deposited into the cylindrical metal colander positioned on the press. I’m not sure how they had managed to move the press at all, as it was sturdily built out of thick I-beams welded to a thick metal plate at the base and supported by three stocky legs. Since the colander by itself probably weighed 50 to 60 pounds, I imagined the whole press was easily over 200.

 Ash and I helped Mihai to stuff the grape remains by hand into the colander and as he added bowlful after bowlful, juice slowly started to trickle out from under the colander into the rounded base and dripped out of the spout, falling into another large bowl. With the colander full and the first barrel empty, Constantin washed off the thick wooden pieces which were cut to just the right size to form a circle and fit inside the colander. Then, on top of that circular base, more layers of thick wood were place until finally we were just able to squeeze in a hydraulic car jack between the wood and the horizontal I-beam. The first few pumps of the jack and subsequent pressing of the grape remains inside the colander were immediately rewarded with a plethora of juice oozing out the thousands of holes, forming little rivulets of wine, each joining to others and quickly becoming streams becoming rivers of dark red currents which dammed up behind the spout, as if they were frustrated by the hold up on their way to the bowl below. Now Mihai sat in front of the spout, scooping out the wine with a large, liter-sized stainless steel cup and into an awaiting bucket. Whenever the flow from the spout slowed, Ash or I would pump the jack a few times, thereby smashing the remains a bit more, forcing the juice to leave the constraints of grape and come gushing out. When the bucket filled, I took it to the basement, where Constantin was supervising the siphoning, and would carefully dump it into the a funnel resting in the opening of the barrel.
And so we continued, each taking turns at every job in the process from pumping the jack to adding wood pieces to scooping wine to carrying buckets. Each batch of grape remains (three: one for each fermenting barrel) took between an hour and a half and two hours to be pressed completely. The last half an hour of each batch was a battle of patience for me as it seemed that the little juice left in the grapes was clinging to the remains for dear life and refused to let go except one drop at a time. When the last drops had finally fallen, Constantin and I would heave the colander (which was now packed down to half full but still weighing probably 150 to 200 pounds) to the back of the property and Mihai would use a 2x4 to pound out the packed grape remains onto the ground, where they would give back the nutrients still left in them to the soil.

During each batch, we talked, ate, and were only marginally successful (read: were able to talk them into only pouring a third as much for us as they did for themselves) in moderating our consumption of the viskey. It was so strong and burned so much going down we had to immediately chase it with a tomato slice or bite of bread and brânză. After the second batch (about 9 o’clock), Ash excused herself and returned to our house to prepare for the four classes plus health club which she had to teach the next day (in Romanian of course…). I decided to try and make it through to the end, mainly because I was concerned about Mihai trying to lift the pressed colander with Constantin. And indeed we drank our celebratory last mouthful of viskey after the final bucket had been dumped into the second barrel in the basement around 11pm. 
All told, we had pressed and siphoned about 380 liters of wine. (Given that the average bottle size in the US is .75 liters, that’s about 500 bottles of wine!!!).  What’s more, we experienced a taste of a human tradition which has remain largely unchanged (granted, hydraulic jacks and metal presses are relatively new, but you get the idea) for centuries, for millennia. I imagine the taste of homemade Moldovan wine tastes a lot like the stuff Jesus had at the last supper, I wonder if he made wine with his family every fall. The depth of the experience with them is uncaptureable (new word!) with words. We glimpsed the past, thoroughly enjoyed the process, and hopefully will be imbibing the results with them in the coming months.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Moldovan Winemaking: Part 2

Here is Part 2. If you missed Part 1, click here. Enjoy! 

After a short break back up at the top of the hill on the ‘road’ in the shade of the trees, a van drove up to pick up all the grapes and take them back to Mihai and Elena’s house. As happens often, Ash and I got only the gist of what was happening by observation and educated guesswork since although we understood perhaps 70 to 80 percent (usually) of the words people say to us, the exact meaning or sense of clarity of the idea they are trying to convey somehow remains elusive. For instance, we didn’t understand why Slavic hadn't gotten out of the car to pick with us, nor why he nor the car were nowhere to be found after we got done. We just kind of roll along with the flow of what happens until it becomes absolutely obvious to us or the Moldovans we’re with (usually they know before we do…) that we have no clue what’s going on. 

As the van backed up to find a parting in the trees through which to pass to the hillside, Mihai motioned for me to join him and I assumed I’d be slugging the bags (each between 15 and 30 kilograms) into the van. Indeed it was so. As the van rolled down the hill, stopping alongside the sacks now contently full at the end of each row, Mihai and I quickly produced a few thick layers of sweat. After the sacks were all loaded, the sweat didn’t lessen at all as we climbed into the van along with Elena, Oxana, and Ash for the sweltering ride back to the house. I sat next to Oxana and Mihai, the three of us crammed onto two seats next to sacks of grapes, some leaking grape juice out of unseen holes onto the fake wood linoleum which covered the van floor.

I thought about Mihai. Although age and years behind a desk at his job at the office of a paving company in Chişinău had added a bit of a paunch to his midsection and softened his hands, he had the presence of a man of power. Not just physical, but the power of wisdom. Like his wife, it seemed as though simply how he conducted himself hinted at the fact that he had a wealth of life behind him which held up an appreciation for the present like scaffolding holds up its workers. Both of them, like all older Moldovans, had lived through an immensely tumultuous period of history. They had been born in the Stalin-led Soviet Union to parents who were themselves deported or knew others who were among the hundreds of thousands forcibly taken from their homes and moved in box-cars to work in Siberia. Although the life they lived under the USSR was one of relative plenty and of order, it wasn’t to last. Everything important was free: education – primary and higher, healthcare, public infrastructure, water.  Food and gas with which to cook were so cheap as to be free and towns had the sort of things we take for granted in the States: paved streets, street lights, cinemas, theaters, public bath houses, cleanliness. Then it collapsed.

In the States, we’re taught briefly about the ‘collapse of the Soviet Union’. But for me, it was pretty much washed over in a breath and then the tightly guided walk through history as shared in US textbooks moved me on to the fall of the Berlin wall. The collapse was talked about only as a good thing. The end of the cold war. The end of communism. Progress. Yet now I am getting to know the people behind this glazed over and incomplete history. Not a single person old enough to remember the Soviet times has said to us they like life better now. Not a single one has said the phrase that ‘now we have liberty and freedom’ without a large portion of sarcasm or disdain as their minds recap yet again how much their lives have fallen apart since liberty and freedom started. Its akin to the story of our country. I’m reading “A People’s History of the United States”, by Howard Zinn and in it he tells stories of the groups of people our history books seem to forget: blacks, Indians, Mexicans, women, and in doing so, has helped me to realize more fully that people’s stories matter. They matter regardless of what position of leadership or not they hold. Indeed many times we can understand history as it was lived by the vast majority of the humans alive in that particular time period by hearing their stories, not the stories of the elite few who lead the nations. For isn’t the quality of daily life for each human being what matters? Surely the only reason humans thought up the idea of something called a government was to help better everyday life. Why then do we tell history about governments and nations while leaving out what matters?

I digress.

With all 33 sacks of grapes providing a new place for flies and bees to swarm on the back driveway of Mihai and Elena’s house, Ash, Oxana, and I walked up the hill to the magazine (store). Ash got an ice cream while Oxana made sure to get the coldest 2.5 liter bottle of Russian beer. Back under the shade of the grape vines, Mihai poured the beer as Elena cut up some salami, dried pork, home-made cheese, and bread. We relaxed and enjoyed the coolness of the beer and the nourishment of the food.

Step 2: Crushing the grapes (zdrobînd strugurile)
It seemed the beer was gone in five minutes, but I’m sure we rested for more like twenty or so before Ash and I popped back over to our house to let Tania (our host mother) know we were still helping Elena and that we’d be back later. Although the sun hadn’t disappeared beyond the flowing hills of the horizon yet, its rays stretched the shadows of everything, creating an imaginary world of absurdly skinny and tall people walking among skyscrapers on the ground. When we walked back around the back of Elena’s house, Mihai had already carried out the crushing apparatus from the tiny storage room between the summer kitchen (most villagers in Moldova have two houses on the same property –small and large casă mică şi casă mare. They cook in the small house in the summer so as not to heat up the large house, and some live in the small one during the winter to save on heating costs) and the built-in out-house.

The crusher itself is two metal cylinders situated only an eighth of an inch apart and each covered with small concave bumps, forming surface akin to a cheese grater. A handle is welded on one end of one of the cylinders and the two have gear teeth near the handle where they meet, enabling both to spin in opposite directions when the handle is turned. The cylinders are bolted to two long wooden handles and a large separate wooden hopper rests over the cylinders to hold the grape bunches and funnel them through. And so we started, washing the crusher then placing it over the large stainless steel barrels which had been cleaned and were sitting eagerly awaiting this year’s harvest. I heaved up the first bag of grapes and turned it clumsily upside-down into the gaping hopper, almost toppling it off the crusher handles. Mihai helped stabilize it as I emptied the sack’s fruit. He took a small wooden bat and started pressing the bunches down, forcing them into the cylinders as I turned the handle counter-clockwise. The process was slow, each hopper full took about 4-7 minutes and Mihai and I switched on and off, one pressing the grapes down as the other turned the cylinders. Ash and Oxana jumped in and helped too despite Mihai’s protests that the work was too ‘greu’, or hard, for women.

With 21 sacks emptied and two and a half barrels filled, we stopped to enjoy some more cold beer and more of the meat and tomatoes from earlier. The feeling of taking a break from hard work is, in itself, enjoyable. But add onto that the fact that Ash and I were actually helping (instead of standing by and watching), and were finally feeling comfortable around another Moldovan family made our time that day even sweeter. 
The sun had continued its path to the other side of the world and darkness now coated Puhoi as the last sack was laying empty on the ground, we had washed the crusher, and were sitting down to the table for a full meal of buckwheat and chicken meat in chicken based gravy-sauce. Ash and I were soaking up every moment but also aware we had better not eat too much as we had told Tania we would eat at our house as well (not knowing Elena would insist on feeding us).
...more to come...