Just an Ordinary Day
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Romania
- Personal Essay
Before I left the States, I tried to imagine what my life in Romania would be like. I envisioned joining the Peace Corps as two years of roughing it. I pictured bucket baths, hiking to the outhouse in the middle of the night, and teaching English in a one-room schoolhouse. Instead I was sent to Eastern Europe. Romania is not a place I typically considered, when thinking about Peace Corps service.
Romania lies somewhere between the developed and developing world. It is not uncommon to see a horse and cart maneuvering through the streets of Bucharest, Romania's capital city, with the man driving the cart yakking away on his cell phone. Romania is the convergence of old and new, traditional and modern. This dual personality is part of what makes Romania fascinating and frustrating. The country plays tricks on you. At times it looks like home: I can buy Honey Nut Cheerios at the store. It feels like home: I can watch the Hallmark channel in English on TV. But, just when I expect everything to work like home, I turn the corner and find myself lost in another time and place. Stray into the countryside and you'll find yourself in the picturesque landscape of a Europe lost centuries ago. Farmers still till the fields by hand, shepherds cloaked in gigantic sheepskins cross the main highway with their flocks, chickens stroll nonchalantly through the streets. I once saw a man with a bagful of chicken's feet board the subway in Bucharest. As the subway car rumbled to a stop, a couple of feet tumbled out of the bag onto the floor. He picked them up, dusted them off on his pants, and put them back into the bag. Nobody paid any mind. That's Romania, horse-drawn carts and cell phones, Internet cafés on every corner, and virtually nowhere that accepts a credit card because no one has one.
Romania's duality is what characterizes my Peace Corps service. On the outside my typical Romanian day doesn't stray too far from what my typical day consisted of in the States. I wake up at 7, drink my coffee, walk to school, teach my classes, go to the market, come home, cook dinner, read, eat, and then go to sleep. But it's the little details in between my mundane routine that differ.
I make Turkish coffee in the morning. It's a strong brew that you have to boil on the stove in a special pot called an ibric. It looks more like brown sludge than coffee but tastes like a five-espresso jolt of bliss.
On my walk to school I pass by 300-year-old houses built in the traditional Romanian style. Faces with grimacing expressions pop out of the cornices and keystones guarding the entrances. I teach in a building that is well over a hundred years old. It looks like a brick-and-stone fortress guarding the entrance to the center of town. Students jokingly call Lahovari High School the Valcean Bastille, and the classrooms, their torture chambers.
The market is my favorite part of the day. In the heart of the city, tucked behind a cluster of five-story bloc apartment buildings is the piata (pea-AH-tza). Every day of the week farmers bring their produce here to sell. Each visit to the market is a mini-adventure. There are a million unwritten rules of how to bargain and how much to buy of what. I always get smirks from the vendors at my ill-formed Romanian. "You only want three peppers, young lady?! I am sorry, I can't give you only three. How about a kilogram?" one toothless grandmother says. I have learned that you always buy a kilo of potatoes (they're heavy), and half a kilo of peppers (they'll get squishy before you turn around), and if you buy leeks, expect a giggle out of the merchant (no decent city girl eats leeks; they are peasant food).
At the piata you are subject not only to the vendors who sell the vegetables, but also to the will of the seasons in which the vegetables are grown. Slowly I am learning the seasons for each fruit and vegetable. Winter was the worst time, a sad collection of potatoes and carrots. But in summer the market is an explosion of color, shape, and smell. The first time I entered the market last summer, I stood frozen at the entrance for five minutes, overwhelmed by the colors and the quantities: bruise-purple eggplants, fire-engine-red tomatoes, fields of leafy celery, mountains of cucumbers, dill by the bushel, squash, chives, bell peppers, and watermelons stacked to the ceiling. The scent of strawberries, blueberries, and peaches stuck to my skin, and sometimes I even caught an unfortunate whiff of goat cheese mixed in. After a long winter of potatoes cooked each and every way, I nearly cried at the scene before me.
But the best thing about summer is the tomatoes. I had never really tasted a tomato before I tried my first Romanian version. Perfect Romanian tomatoes are odd shaped, cherry red, sweet, not too mushy, not too firm, and truly summer incarnate. I dreamt all winter for the day when the tomato would once again appear in the naked piata.
After the market, loaded with a bagful of vegetables, I usually walk home and attempt to cook. Cooking in Romania has been an opportunity to start from scratch. I have no microwave, no food processor, no toaster, and no mixer; there are very few prepared, prepackaged meals. I have to make pizza dough, tortillas, French fries, tortilla chips from scratch. I know what you're thinking—that's not so hard! Not hard maybe, but time-consuming. Eating is like a prize for a job well done.
My day usually ends in a neat little circle as I get ready for my classes the next day, read a book, and relax. I do have a television and occasionally I'll watch the Discovery channel (the Romanian Volunteer's most-watched network). Then it'snoapte buna (good night), and my day has ended. So you see, our lives are not so different after all. Or are they?