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...

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