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...

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Moldovan Winemaking: Part 1

Hello! So its been a while since we posted, but that is mainly because we've been trying to write about the amazing experience we had making wine with our next-door neighbor, Doamna Elena, and her husband, Mihai. Since in writing I went a bit overboard with detail, we'll be posting this in four parts, hopefully one per day or every couple days, so stay tuned! 
The story of today (slash Saturday, September 10th) starts the Wednesday before with Ash and I plucking up the courage to go find Doamna Elena (Mrs. Elena) in the school. This was no small feat seeing as how we only had a room number and a name and we ended up walking in on her working and awkwardly starting a conversation in which we asked her if she would be willing to consider tutoring us in Romanian (she has been a Romanian teacher for longer than we have been alive). She seemed skeptical, perhaps bordering on annoyed (Moldovans are incredibly hard to read sometimes), but said that we should meet at her house (our next door neighbor!) at 5pm the next evening. We were thrilled to finally have gotten the ball rolling on finding a tutor.

So, at 4:59pm, we walked out of our host family’s gate, turned right up the hill, walked for exactly 27 seconds, then turned right again facing a green gate decorated with two large yellow daisies. The paint was faded, but not peeling quite yet. However our eyes immediately were drawn to the amazingly full and lush grape vines forming a nearly opaque ceiling and wall over the driveway; their magnificent bunches of red grapes pulling heavily on the metal framework holding everything up. We opened the gate and walked in. We weren’t sure what to do next as Moldovans don’t have doorbells. I tried knocking on the front door, then, when nothing happened, we walked back along the side of the house. Still shaded and awed by the grape vines, we tentatively called out “Buna ziua” (hello/good day), hoping we weren’t being extremely rude by just walking through her property. We rounded the back of her house and found her sitting at a table shaded by still more grape leaves reading an Italian newspaper.

For the next hour, we found out that Doamna Elena is an incredibly genuine and nice woman who speaks amazingly clear Romanian (we understood almost everything she said!), and will be out tutor for at least the next month! Her husband, Mihai, lives and works in Chişinău and only comes to Puhoi on the weekends. On our way towards the front gate (Moldovans always walk their guests out to the street), we commented on how beautiful her grapes were and said that we wanted to help pick them when it was time. She then let it slip that Mihai would be picking all the grapes from their small vineyard (after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all Moldovan families were given anywhere from .5 to 2 or 3 hectares of land in the mid-90s as part of the land privatization) on Saturday and that we could help if we wanted. Score.

Fast forward to Saturday.

Doamna Elena has told us they would be leaving “late, not early”, which left us with the conundrum of not knowing when to go over to her house. So, after a rough morning starting with oatmeal slow cooked in raw cow’s milk, and hot, steaming, French-press coffee (yes, we are doing Peace Corps, we promise), we made the same trek to Elena’s house and the same awkward entrance, complete with trying the front door then cautiously walking around back. There we discovered them, Doamna Elena, her son Slavic, and his wife, Oxana. Elena seemed amazed we had actually shown up and was all smiles as she told us to come back in an hour then we would go.

Fast forward an hour and repeat awkward, but not quite as awkward, entrance to Elena’s house.

It was immediately obvious that we would not be leaving until we had eaten together, which was a great bonus since Ash and I had somehow forgotten to eat lunch and the numbers on my cell phone screen told me morning was now in the past. Doamna Elena and Oxana had been preparing zeamă, basically chicken soup. However this was no Campbell’s. The chicken had, I believe, been clucking around the back of Elena’s property not too long ago, the plethora of veggies swimming in the broth were picked within a 100 foot radius, and she had added her own twist to this traditional Moldovan soup: freshly made pasta. We sat down outside under the grapevines, slurped (Moldovans aren’t shy with the slurping of soup…) our zeamă, and made toasts with homemade sour cherry liquor.

Soon we were all sitting in Slavic’s Mercedes sedan (he is a lawyer in Chişinău), listening and grimacing as the undercarriage waged battle with the ‘road’ that many people in the States would be hesitant to take a truck on. The smoke from Slavic’s cigarette wafted back into the back seat as we rolled to a stop atop a hill which overlooked the town of Puhoi and a few rolling hills in each direction. Further to the East, larger hills brimmed up, cutting short the view of what lay beyond them. We climbed out of the car, retrieved the two buckets, knives, pair of hand-pruners, from the trunk, and walked through the line of trees at the edge of the road to come out on the side of the hill covered in mature vineyards.

Step 1: Picking the grapes (să culeagă strugurile)

At first glance, the rows upon rows of grapes which covered the side of the hill on which we stood and extended into the valleys on either side were orderly and well kept, seemingly one large vineyard. We starting walking down the hillside among the rows looking for Mihai and soon spotted him towards the near end of one of the rows and after Elena said she brought workers with a smile, we shook his hand. As soon as we started figuring out how to pick the dark red, almost black, bunches of small grapes which hung off the vines, two things were readily apparent. First, our knives were not only a far inferior tool to the hand held pruners Elena, Mihai, and another younger girl named Adriana had, they were incredibly dull. This meant that instead of cutting through the stem which held the bunch of grapes in place, we had to saw back and forth and finally more or less use the knife to break the stem.

The second observation was that the immediate impression of order and maintenance which we had had looking out over the vinyards from the top of the hill was not a clear representation of reality. The rows we were working were indeed a part of a larger vineyard, but had been planted right around the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago and the concrete posts and wire strung between them had not been attended to much since then. In many places the weight of the vines had created permanent sags in the wire and the stout trunks of the vines themselves had grown to fit this curve; growing diagonally instead of straight up. Although Mihai and Elena’s portion (perhaps 20 or 25 rows which were about 50 meters long) had been tilled for weeds once this year, the rows downhill and West were overgrown with weeds. The grape plants themselves looked healthy enough, but holes in the rows where a vine used to stand and the browning edges of the leaves betrayed the fact that Mihai simply didn’t have the time or money to invest in intensive care anymore.

Ash and I slowly made our way along our first row, her standing on the uphill side and me on the downhill, both of us filling our buckets and coating our hands and wrists with grape juice which formed a nice glue-like stickiness once it had dried in the slight breeze and sunshine of early afternoon. Each time we had filled our bucket, we walked to the West end of the row where large white plastic sacks were waiting patiently to be filled. Mihai and Adriana had been working since earlier in the morning and had already finished about 10 rows when we arrived. The morning coolness and fog had been completely destroyed by the sun as it beat down on the hillside, warming the grapes and those of us picking them. We picked for about 2 hours until we had picked clean all their rows, the only way to recognize the last row was the weeds growing thickly up on the other side before the next row of grapes hanging even lower on unrepaired wires and posts.

......more to come....