In which I say goodbye to Romania, and have one last madcap adventure

It’s our last few days here in Romania. We packed up all of our stuff we wanted shipped to Ireland, since we’re traveling for 2 weeks before we get there. It all fit into seven smallish boxes that we took to the one post office in town that handles international packages. To demonstrate our ridiculous helplessness at basic life skills here, we had four helpers to assist us mailing packages. Three of these were Eric’s delightful students here, and the fourth was Rob, who has become our guide here of “How to manage Romania as an American.”

They led us through the process of filling paperwork, then giving it to the clerk to check before sealing packages, then weighing them, getting the paperwork stamped, putting the paperwork into little pouches and sticking those on the boxes. While this was happening I heard a sound that instantly took me back to childhood, a whirring, clicking, beeping noise. I followed the sound and it took me to…a DOT MATRIX PRINTER. I stared at the relic, remembering hours of lining up the dots, then carefully tearing the edges off at the perforations.  

We followed with a lunch at a local restaurant, where we had lively discussions about the new Gilmore Girls revival, the Romanian job market, and how to steal cable. 

It’s no secret I wasn’t all that excited about Romania when we first found out we were coming here. Romania? I thought, picturing dreary landscapes with concrete blocks for miles, lines to pick up milk and eggs, and scheduled power outages. People shuffling around despondently, grandmothers with scarves tied over their ears and men with cylindrical furry hats. And when we first got here, it seemed that this would indeed be the case. 
But over time, as we learned the layout of the city, where to find things, how to do things, and I was able to let go of some of my own doubts and fears, it became increasingly warm to us. Unsurprisingly, people react to who they see, and the more open and friendly we were, the more we got in return. 

We learned so much about the world of Communism and dictatorship, what that really felt like, and the lasting impact it still has here.

Things change when you are able to build community somewhere, which makes anywhere seem like home. I’ve had more lonely and dreary times in some of the world’s best cities than I’ve had here. 

And I leave with a feeling of sadness that we’re not staying for longer to let that community grow, as it feels we’ve only just started. I’m sure we’ll find the same, and even more in Ireland as the kids will be in school and, well, we can speak the language. 

Timisoara occupies a warm place in my heart, and I’m happy that we ended up here after all. Had we been in a more Westernized city, I don’t know that we would have been able to make the same connections that we did. 

I’ll share one last story from Timisoara here, something that just wouldn’t have happened back home. The kids and I had gone to see Rogue One (excellent, btw) and hopped in a cab to take us to Viniloteca. Eric was working as assistant bartender for the night, and when we got there, he was flitting about from table to table with a frantic energy. I had run out of cash, so grabbed a 10 lei note from Eric, ran back out to pay the taxi and headed in. Lots of people were there for the amusement of watching Eric work, including many of his students. We chatted with some friends who were there, and I had a nice conversation about the differences in hospital organization with a young medical student. Eric asked me then to take pictures to document his night of servitude, and I reached in my pocket for my phone. It wasn’t there. I then searched my backpack, the kids’ pockets, and my pockets again, but to no avail. 
I used Eric’s phone to track it, and saw that my phone was making its merry way around Timisoara, having some fun at the mall, then heading back to city center. Clearly, I had left it in the taxi. I rang the phone remotely, hoping the driver would find the phone and bring it back, and a few times the taxi did seem it was heading back my way, only to turn in a different direction. Emile, upon hearing my plight, tried to call the taxi company to see if they could track down the driver, but was told “this is not possible.” A few other people tried to call also with the same result. At one point I had a few people clustered around me, watching my phone’s progress around the city – it had become a bar-wide event. The battery indicator of my phone, which shows up when you’re tracking it, was at an unnerving 8%. There was only one thing left to do, which was track it down ourselves. Three of Eric’s students, Dena, Roxy, and Roxi decided to help me out. They called another cab that was there in five minutes. In the meantime we changed into trenchcoats and fedoras so as to feel like we were truly private detectives on a mission, well, at least mentally we did. “Who’s going to yell ‘follow that cab’?!” I asked the girls. 
We got in the cab, they told the story to the taxi driver and while tracking my phone yelled out streets for him to go to. He picked up his phone and called the dispatcher to try and call the taxi, but that driver never picked up. I would refresh the screen, call out the street “Tigrelui!!” The girls would respond in unison “tigrelui street!” And then the driver would say “tigrelui!” Into his cell phone, talking to the dispatcher, he too now fully invested in the hunt. We followed my phone around, the battery becoming ever more depleted, until it stopped moving on a small side street. We drove down the street and off to the side, in a small lot, was the taxi I had taken! The interior dome light was on and I yelled excitedly “That’s it!” The girls and I piled out of the car and surrounded the taxi with the stolen goods. I peered in the passenger window and spied my phone on the seat “There it is!” I couldn’t believe we’d actually tracked the phone down. 
I tried to open the passenger door but it was locked. The driver got out of the car, looking incredulous at being tracked down. He stammered some lame explanation of planning to give the phone back tomorrow, which was clearly a lie. The girls and he bantered in Romanian before he finally got into the car and picked up my phone, continuing his false excuses. He gave it one last longing look then opened the passenger door and handed it back to me. We scrambled back to our car, hooting in exhiliration. On the way back home, after dropping the girls off, the taxi driver told me how happy he was we got the phone back, which was sweet. I paid him double the meter reading, a whole $15, which was a small price to pay for getting my phone back, and in all what ended up being a fun adventure. (Not that I wish to replicate the experience!)

Us, trying to look like badass detectives

I recently changed the settings on my phone’s Weather app, deleting some cities which we didn’t need anymore – Tokyo, Saigon. My kids saw what I was doing and said to me, “Make sure you always keep Timisoara on, Mom, because it’s another place we’ve called home.”
And you know what? I think I will. 

At the airport, saying goodbye with Romanian wine


In which I get a manicure with a side of attitude

I love having my nails done. Something about it just makes me feel like even if the rest of me is falling apart, at least I’ve got one little piece that’s put together. Most of us have something like this, whether it be having our hair done, or having a book with us at all times, or wearing a hat, or having a notebook or what have you. I had never had a real manicure until medical school, when my friends Rebecca and Doosa, upon learning this, looked upon me with wonder and pity and promptly booked an appointment. Since then I’ve never looked back. Frivolous, I know, but there you have it. 
When we arrived in Romania, one of my first orders of business was to find a nail salon. At first, I was so intimidated by this, as I often was when we first arrived here. I didn’t know if there was different etiquette here, or how to communicate exactly what I wanted. I ended up choosing a place at the mall with good reviews and walked over. Inside was a clean area, lit with bright lights, six or seven nail stations at which were seated women in various stages of nail perfection. All turned to look up at me as I walked in and chatted with the receptionist, which made me feel a bit like a spectacle. At the far end of the room was a tv bolted near the ceiling playing pop music videos in English and Romanian, lending an air of familiarity to the place. As they were busy, I made an appointment to come back to have a manicure with someone named Carmen. Now, I actually know a Romanian Carmen at home, and she is no one to be messed with. I was soon to find out that neither was my new nail tech. 

I went back at the given time and sat down in the chair, and was offered a cafe which I accepted. Carmen sat down across from me, a serious looking young Romanian woman with crimped bleached blond hair. Not saying much, she began to inspect the state of my fingernails. They were somewhat of a disaster. Some had broken off nearly entirely, others were cracked. Her eyes widened, the corners of her lips pursed and she held up the stubs and said, “What can I do with this?” “Well, just leave them and they’ll grow” “It won’t look nice,” she admonished, “I will have to cut them all.” Foolishly, I thought I would still be able to get my way and said, “No no, just leave them.” After a few minutes of shaping while continually sucking air in through her teeth, she stopped. Holding up my fingers in front of me again, she said sternly, “Do you see, it won’t look good! When I do a job, I do it from my soul! I want it look very nice for you.” Okay, okay, I acquiesced. I mean, I didn’t want to be responsible for a stain on Carmen’s soul. This was also the moment when I knew I really liked Carmen. Anyone with that degree of decisiveness is always a winner in my book. 
Out came the clippers, efficiently slicing all the nails down to fingertip length. I have to admit, she was right and they did look better that way. I later tried to tell her only to cut the cuticles a little bit, but again this didn’t go far. After one round with nippers, there was another round with a pair of very sharp scissors. Enough dead skin piled on the table in neat little strips that I thought it could be an effective weight loss technique if done on a regular basis.

Intermittently during our first appointment, we would have a conversation in broken English. I learned she had a six year old daughter, I told her about our time in Romania and our travels. Around the shop, the nail techs chatted amongst themselves in cheerful Romanian, clearly trading gossip and ribbing each other in a friendly way. Every now and then Carmen would shake my hand gently and tell me to relax, which happens to me every time I get my nails done. After the fifth time of this, she threw her head back and smiled and said “Oh my god!” In a rather amused, exasperated away. 
The color I chose was a difficult one, requiring several coats to become opaque, unlike the usual two. Later on, I asked for a design on one of the nails. She brought out a big set of stamping plates and laid them on the table as she continued to work. I saw a nice little feather design I thought would be cute and waited until she asked me what I wanted. This time was not to come. “I choose for you,” she announced, poring over the plates until she made her decision and then stamped a nice little wavy design on. It was quite nice, actually, and our visit ended with a picture of my hands for her portfolio.
Soon it was time to go back, and of course I booked with Carmen. I had to again face the disappointment in her face when she saw another few broken nails. Sighing heavily, she brought out the clippers to cut the rest of them down. She offered to make one of them longer instead, but I declined and opted for the cut down. “What color do you want?” She asked with trepidation.”Not the same one as last time?” Clearly thinking of how long that one took to go on. “No,” I said, “just black this time.” “Black?” “Yes.” “Okay, if that’s what you want,” her eyes widening slightly and with a upturned tone to her voice at the end of the sentence, in a way that made it clear I was unwise to want this, but this time I felt pretty sure about it and didn’t give in. This time we chatted a bit more, and it was nice to be in the midst of a pleasant sussurus of women’s voices in the clear tones of gossip. This time I was allowed to choose one of my nail designs and she picked the other. 
The last time I went in was yesterday, the girl accompanying me as the boys had other plans for the day. When I’d made the appointment a few days ago, the receptionist knew me and immediately turned to Carmen’s schedule to see when she was free. On arrival, I was greeted warmly by the staff and then again tutted over by Carmen for the sorry state of my broken off nails. I showed her a picture of the polish pattern I wanted, and she said definitively “I will have to do a few tips.” Now, I’m not usually one for fake nails of any type, and the last time I had them may have been my wedding, but by now I learned that Carmen knew best. Besides, since I’m not working I figured there was little harm in it for now. (Medical providers usually aren’t allowed to have any type of fake longish nails because of the increased bacteria risk, but moreover it’s entirely impractical. I mean, I don’t think my patients would take kindly to being stabbed during an exam.) She turned to her colleague and they had a rapid discussion in Romanian about the best way to achieve this, and ten minutes later I had a full set of perfectly long nails. My daughter peppered her with questions about the process as we went on, clearly not approving of the nail tips, narrowing her eyes at me as they went on. Then a discussion on how to achieve the french manicure type look I wanted, only with black and gold. She painstakingly applied the polish so it would be perfect. One one nail I wondered if a stripe could be thicker. “It won’t look good!” She rebuffed. And that was that. When she was nearly done, about an hour of work later, I said to her as a joke, “Uh, I don’t like this color, can you redo it?” She looked at me with her eyes wide, mouth partly open and nostrils flared in a “Oh-no-you-didn’t” sort of way, and I burst into laughter “I got you!” And we both laughed about it while she related the story to the tech next to her in Romanian. 


At the end, she said, “I want to do a design for you.” And pulling out a plate of snowflake patterns she applied them to my nails as she chose, with the overall effect lovely and seasonal. I told her we were leaving Sunday and we hugged. 

It’s a small thing, like I said, but these interactions are what make me feel like we have a sense of community here in Romania and things I will truly miss. The evolution of my experience at the nail salon reflects my overall experience with Romania. Initially nervous, then more comfortable and even welcomed. After being on the road for several weeks and feeling unrooted, we come to this unlikely place and end up finding places where we have friends, make connections. Viniloteca, the local bakery where we pop in nearly daily, the gym, the nail salon. I finally feel like I have a general sense of how things work, and don’t feel quite so nervous about trying to interact with people. Not surprisingly, this means that the people I interact with are generally friendlier and more open that I found them at the beginning. I suppose in a way this means we’re all mirrors, that someone has to be the first one to open up and smile before others can. 

In which I dance like a chicken, or rather, a turkey

Thanksgiving, for me, has never been a huge holiday. Growing up we didn’t have a big tradition, and I’d often end up at a friend’s house for the holiday. At my job at home, you either work Thanksgiving or Christmas, and I always opt for Thanksgiving, so it’s not like we can typically travel anywhere either.
Long before we’d even arrived in Romania, our friend Cath announced her plan to come visit us there for Thanksgiving and to make sure we had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey. We, of course, do not eat turkey, but details like that don’t deter Cath. She was sure that we’d be able to find willing omnivorous bellies. She was so determined to have turkey that she was planning on throwing a frozen one into her luggage. I asked a Romanian colleague of mine if one could get a turkey in Romania, and she replied, “Of course! You can get everything in Romania!” I have learned that this is not entirely true (case in point: cilantro) but didn’t think a turkey would be much trouble. Besides, I was only half sure that Cath would even make it here. 
Of course, Cath is not one to back away from her promises and she arrived here the Monday before Thanksgiving on one of the last few planes before Lufthansa was hobbled by its pilots’ strike. Our mission was now to find a turkey. Rob and Dana had said they would find the turkey, but they were unsuccessful in their attempt. Remember, these are the people who LIVE here and are Romanian and they couldn’t find a turkey. 
Challenge: Accepted. 
On Tuesday afternoon after dropping off Cath and her son at their flat, Eric and I walked past a butcher shop and decided to go in to see if they had a turkey. First, I looked up the Romanian word for turkey on my phone. Armed with the knowledge, we walked into the store, went up to the woman behind the counter and asked “Curcan?” She replied “Congealada, curcan congealada?” (Congealed turkey? I wondered) and pointed us to a case with frozen turkey parts on the familiar yellow styrofoam trays, wrapped in plastic. “No, no” I said. Now, I suppose I could have looked up the word for whole turkey, but this didn’t occur to me. What DID occur to me was to pantomime a large beach ball with my hands, then flap my elbows like a chicken and bend my knees while chanting “Curcan! Curcan!” The shopkeeper’s lips curled slightly upwards, which I think is Romanian for pointing and laughing out loud, and said “Intrega?”and pointed to a whole chicken in the next case. “Da!” I replied, “Curcan intrega!” At this point she rattled off about two minutes of solid Romanian during which the only word that made any sense was “Kaufland,” the name of the grocery store down the block. I wasn’t sure if she was telling us that they had them there, or if she was saying that I should head down and do my turkey dance for her colleagues because they’d think it was funny as hell. 
Later that afternoon, we all decided to go to a large bar/bowling alley/arcade at the mall where the kids were out of our hair could play and we could have a beverage. We stopped first at the grocery store there, in search of a turkey, thinking that if they had one available then we knew and could come pick it up the next day. 
We now knew how to ask for “curcan intrega,” and thus empowered, walked into the meat section. At the first butcher area, we asked the man behind the counter, “curcan?” He shook his head “no” and pointed us to an area with refrigerated and frozen bins. We walked over there and saw familiar cut pieces of turkey in styrofoam trays and wrapped in plastic. “Too bad,” I thought to myself. “I guess there’s no whole turkey in Romania.” Cath, however, is a dedicated omnivore and has more knowledge about the ways of gastronomic ornithology. “Wait,” she remarked, “those are FRESH turkey pieces. That means that SOMEWHERE in the back is a whole turkey.” 

Contemplating the existence of turkey

We walked to another worker, this one in the fish section. “Curcan intrega?” We asked. She gave us a look of horror and initially shook her head as if we had asked to buy a whole cow. Then she paused and strode off purposefully, walked over to a colleague and had a conversation that clearly went something like “Those crazy foreigners want to buy a whole turkey.” The colleague came over and asked me something in Romanian I didn’t understand. I pulled out my phone and had her type it into google translate. “Did you order a turkey?” The screen read. “No” I said, thinking again that our quest had come to a fruitless (or birdless, I suppose) end. She turned on the spot and walked off, waving at us to indicate that we should wait. In no less than two minutes she returned with a whole fresh turkey, shrink wrapped in plastic, with a price sticker on it. Cath looked at me and pronounced, “We MUST buy this turkey now, as this will never happen again.” 

Dear friends, we bought the turkey. We did not change our plans to go to the bar, and the turkey accompanied us there. 

Yes it’s revolting

A few days later, we had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, with Cath, our friends Rob & Dana, and Marinela and Pali, the lovely Romanian couple from whom we rent our flat, and our collective children, feeling that we truly had the spirit of sharing bounty as newcomers to the land, and that with a little knowledge, persistence and dancing, anything is possible, even turkey in Romania.


In which we make key lime bars and learn something in the process

We get a lot of questions about how we’re educating the kids. Aren’t you worried about them falling behind in school? How do you know they’re learning anything? Do they need to prove anything to the school when they return? (The answer to that last one is no) And sure, we’re doing some academic formal schooling, but sometimes the lessons are those that come from just being somewhere else. 
Yesterday, the boys went off to a yoga class and left the girl and I for a little time alone. After a bit of reading, we thought we’d engage in the classic teenage banter of “I don’t know, what do YOU want to do?” Mulling over the park (too cold), the mall (uh, no), we settled on baking. Initially, I chose a salted caramel brownie recipe but then the girl saw a link for key lime pie, her and her brother’s favorite. I thought we should make it a little easier and go for bars instead, and off we went to the grocery store, shopping list in hand. Limes, butter, eggs, gingersnaps, cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk. A few veggies for dinner too.

She insisted on putting the coin in for the shopping cart herself. Here, the carts are chained together to prevent theft, and to use one while you’re in the store you insert a 50 cent coin that you get back if you reattach them. 

We got into the store, crowded as usual, and set about to find our ingredients. Limes were the first one. Would they be next to the lemons and other citrus fruit? No. Near the refrigerated section? No. Would we have to abandon our mission? No, we kept looking and found them tucked in between the ginger and the pomegranates, in what I think is the “exotic fruit” area. 

Butter, eggs,cream cheese were no difficulty. The next barrier was the gingersnaps. Walking through the aisles, none were to be seen. We thought, maybe we’ll substitute with graham crackers, but again no familiar boxes of grahams, even after studying the pictures. We settled on McVitie’s digestives, a crumbly round biscuit that resembles graham crackers, though doesn’t have their cardboard like properties.  
Then came the sweetened condensed milk. I actually thought this wouldn’t be a problem since it seemed to me preserved canned milk would be common for a prior Communist state, and headed for the packaged milk section to look for the familiar cans of Carnation. Of course, none were to be found. We searched the baking aisle, the sweets aisle (all on opposite sides of the store) and then one last search in the milk section. In the States, if a certain store doesn’t have an essential ingredient I’m looking for, I tend to do one of two things. Either I give up on that recipe for the day or I just get in my car and drive to another store where it will be and I can be out in five minutes. Here, it’s a bigger deal. If we wanted to go to the bigger store, at the mall of course, it’s a half mile walk and far more crowded. It would take us an hour. The girl, undaunted, was all for the extra effort of going, just to be able to make our recipe. One more desperate scan in the milk aisle showed me two bottles that looked like they had condensed milk. Was it sweetened? Who knows – the nutritional info label, in German, was covered up by a sticker in Romanian that I couldn’t translate. 
We made our way out of the store, not before being veggie shamed by the checkout lady as I thought the cucumbers we got were priced by the number, not kilo, and got home. 
The milk was just evaporated milk as it turns out, so I looked up how to make it into sweetened condensed, which involves a little sugar and and a lot of simmering. While that was happening, the girl got the other ingredients going until it was time to crumble the cookies. Lacking a food processor or blender, we crumbled them by hand until we had a relatively fine meal, using the flat side of a meat pounder for the rest. 

We don’t have a 9×11 pan, but do have a tart pan so used that instead. No mixer to beat the cream, so did it with a hand whisk, triceps aching by the time stiff peaks formed. Had to figure out what the oven temperature should be in celsius to set it correctly. Melted butter in a pan on the stove as we don’t have a microwave. Throughout all of this, not one peep of complaint or whining from the girl, even though this was much harder than it would be at home.

In the end, it all worked and we had some tasty lime bars. Sorry, this is the only picture I was able to get before the hordes gobbled them up. 

My point is this – one thing you can’t learn in a school is the essential lesson of learning how to figure something out. Maybe things don’t work exactly as you want or expect them to, maybe it’s harder than you anticipated, but you learn to make it work. I think it’s hard to do this in your familiar environnment as you know how things work and it’s set up for you. If I were Romanian and coming to the States, I’d be lamenting how to substitute for smantana and papanasi mix instead – it’s not about US vs other, it’s just about being somewhere where things are unfamiliar, being away from home. 
More than all the history and the culture, it’s things like this I think are the true value of leaving home, stepping outside your comfort zone. So while my kids may be missing out on watching a bean seed soak in paper toweling and sprout or making a solar system model out of styrofoam balls, my hope is that the lessons they are learning make sure if they ever need to figure something out, they’ll know how to.  


In which we have a typical day  of school and city wandering

The weather here has been a bit funny, or so the locals tell us. Instead of typically warm, 70 degree October days we arrived to relative gloom and chill. One of those where it was okay if the sun was shining but the minute it disappeared, an icy chill wind would blow through and freeze you. We only left with summer clothing and so have, out of necessity, had to acquire more fall and winter appropriate clothes. I had hoped to find funky, 80’s era clothing here which we would feel okay ditching at the end of the year, but alas, it wasn’t to be. The shirts and jackets were all of the truly ugly 80s variety, think bright yellow with small pink and green isoceles triangles. Moreover, I had the opposite problem I had in Japan – everything here is about four sizes too big. I did find this cool leather jacket for $10, but everything else has come from H&M. The kids have new weather appropriate shoes, the thin Chuck Taylors having worn out with so much wear and growing too small for them anyway at the rate their feet expand. I’ve started knitting for need as well as pleasure, making hats, fingerless gloves, and scarves to shield us from the cold. 

Made with a deliciously springy merino picked up in Vienna

It’s been sunnier lately, and the other day was a crisp sunny fall morning. I think often of the Ray Bradbury short story about the Mars colony, where the sun only comes out once every seven years, focusing on a classroom of kids who lock a girl into a closet and forget about her, dooming her to miss the sun for another seven. Not to lock my kids in the closet, though I have often dreamed of it for other reasons, but to make sure that we enjoy these days among the gloom. Our days here are relaxed in general. We wake up around 8, and the kids snuggle in the living room under duvets and read whatever they’ve lately downloaded from the library for fun. 
At some point, we have breakfast (eggs & toast for the boys, Toast & yogurt for the girl, granola & yogurt for me). Eric and I have coffee, drinking instant nescafe. I’ve always quite liked nescafe, it reminds me of being in Mali, where breakfast was hot sugary milky nescafe and fresh baguettes under a canvas tarp outdoors, waving away flies who wanted a taste too. After we’ve all settled ourselves, we have the kids read their assigned reading – thus far we’ve read “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Mae Brown, “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, and are currently reading “The Shakespeare Stealer” by Gary Blackwood. We’ve downloaded lesson plans and have the kids write out answers to them. Sometimes they have to rewrite the answers, and then there may be tears and wailing. I do my best to ignore those, but sometimes fantasize about the aforementioned closet locking. 
They then switch to math, we’re using an online program called Dreambox which both kids like, though the boy will sometimes change to Khan academy instead. This needs occasional supervision but for the most part they’re on their own. We also do Geography, using online maps and quizzes, and while my kids now can identify all the countries in Europe and South America, this is the one place where I struggle in that there’s a lot of screen time involved with this type of learning. 
At some point during the day, we’ll sit down and have a discussion about the book, usually in the morning after math time. Eric is much, much better at the literature teaching than I am, given that he actually knows how to guide them to think and write and I just stare at them goggle eyed and say helpful things like “I know you can do this, why aren’t you?” Still, it’s where we try to mix in history of the times and places of the books – so far Civil Rights and Black Panthers in the 60s, World War II, and now Elizabethan England. Next up we want to read “the Wall,” a graphic novel about growing up in the Communist Era. The girl protests, saying “I’m SO SICK of learning about Communism! It’s always just communism in Vietnam and communism in Cambodia and bad things happening to people!” We will persevere. 

Afterwards we took advantage of the lovely day, playing in the fall leaves at Kids Park, picking up ice cream, wandering through the open squares and painted alleys, and finally finding our way to Viniloteca for a taste of a delicious IPA homebrew and some good conversation. 


In which I go grocery shopping and face a wall of mustard and some guy named Bob Lung

Grocery shopping in any foreign country is always an adventure. First of all, you’re not sure where anything is and since you can’t just scan signs or aisles because of the language, you have to actually walk down each one and look at the pictures on merchandise to figure it out, given that you’re a functional illiterate. As a result, it takes three times longer than usual shopping. Most of the time it works out in the end, but sometimes you can end up with surprises like the time we thought we purchased tofu onigiri in Japan and it turned out to be mashed tuna. Things that you take for granted as being a typical food just isn’t so everywhere. Cheese in Japan was relegated to a small corner, and here in Romania things like fresh cilantro are nowhere to be found. On the plus side, Japan had more choices for noodles than I’ve ever seen and fresh sushi at the market and Romania has a ton of choices for sour cream, paprika and chocolates. If they’re on the shelves, that is.

In fairness, most shelves are well stocked.

You can use google translate, but other times even that doesn’t help. I wanted to get arborio rice to make risotto, but none of the “orez” was labeled as such, just had labels like “bob lung” written on it. Who’s Bob Lung? I wondered. (Means long grain, I’ve since figured out). Ten minutes of examining each individual clear plastic bag of rice to see which one looked like a short grain starchy rice, and found one called “camolino.” A google search and translate of camolino yields that it translates as….camolino. All the other pages were in Romanian. Another tricky one is the cheese – in the cheese section you’ll find a whole row of “branza,” “cascaval,” and “telemea.” Google will tell you that these are all “cheese,” so then you have to spend five minutes searching for the difference between them, staring at your phone like a moron in the dairy aisle while literate Romanians walk around you, grab their cheese and get out in ten seconds. (Telemea and Branza are feta like cheeses made from sheep and cow’s milk respectively, cascaval is a cheese akin to colby with a smoother taste in case you were wondering.)
As in Vietnam, you have to weigh your own produce at scales in the produce section, which spit out a sticker with the price on it. Thankfully, these are coded with pictures as well as words so it’s not entirely impossible. Fail to do so, and the checkout clerk will snap at you in disdainful Romanian, leaving you shamed in front of the line. God forbid you mistakenly identify your produce. There was a funky pear like thing here which I thought would be fun to try. I couldn’t find the sign for it so I just picked the picture that looked most like it on the scale and hoped for the best. The checkout clerk looked at my lone fruit in the bag and chattered at me in Romanian, clearly saying “This isn’t a pear, you fool! It’s a (something)!” And then she called a different clerk over who took the fruit away. I thought maybe he would weigh it correctly and bring it back, but no, it was simply not to be. No fruit for you! (I’ve since learned that it is a quince.)

Produce is all largely unrefrigerated here, woe is the endive

The scale for weighing

The stores are not arranged in any logical order either. You enter and to the left is a section for produce, behind it bread and wine. In the center of the store and seemingly blocking your path to the other side is a labyrinthine section of spice packets and some noodles. Beyond those are school supplies. Between the school supplies and some cookies there is a narrow entryway leading you to the other side of the store where you’ll find the dairy section, rice, and beer. It makes absolutely no sense and half the time is spent trying to figure out where the hell you have to go to get something in the first place.

Special offers in the front, like a wagon of cabbage. To tthe left is an electronics section. The actual produce section is clear on the other side.

Even in different stores, the illogical ordering of stuff persists. One “hipermarket” which I think is akin to our SuperTargets has an aisle with plastic wrap, tinfoil, but also hideously ugly bathmats, bath towels, and random plastic toys. One cool thing – they sell the plastic wrap rolls and such separately from the boxes, which is a brilliant way to reduce waste, I think.

Bulk frozen food!! Genius! Saves on packaging.

There are walls of mustard, yogurt, cheese, wine and beer at most places too. I love the “foreign foods” aisle, which stocks “oriental” food next to Swedish and British.


THE WALL OF OF PLAIN YOGURT. there isa nother wall for flavored yogurt.

The final gauntlet is the checkout line, which I have yet to see be less than five people deep, no matter the time. The clerks pick up each item, rotate it maddeningly slowly to find the barcode, then slide it over the scanner before moving it to the other side where you bag your own groceries. I have never missed the self checkout lines more.
Despite all this, I’ve managed to make some nice meals here with some twists! I couldn’t find ground coriander at first, so I had to make do with a meat tenderizer and a plastic bag. No chocolate chips exist, but that’s easy to do with just chopping up bars of chocolate. I don’t have any real measuring cups but using mugs works just as well and estimating spoon sizes has been fine too.

Coriander smashing technique


Butternut squash risotto, turns out camolino works just fine.

Curried vegetable and tofu soup

No poli to be had, so I made some! Not bad for a first try

Granola, of course

In which things start to look up in Timisoara, if we can figure out the elevators

We’ve been here a few weeks now, and have started to enjoy it here a lot more than those first sad days.  
People still stare at me everywhere we go, and doubly so when we’re out as a family. At one point, a woman dressed in head to toe skintight cow print stared at me for a full twenty seconds. I thought to myself, “You look like you need to be milked, but I’m the weirdo here?” I don’t notice the public staring as much because I simply don’t make eye contact with anyone as I walk by, instead choosing to look straight ahead as if I’m on my own personal catwalk. There’s also some freedom knowing that no matter what I do, people will look at me as a freak so I may as well do whatever I want. This includes rapping Nelly lyrics out loud as I jog outside. 
Why do they stare? I think this is due to a combination of several factors. First, is that I look vaguely Roma, or gypsy, so there are some who regard me poorly this way as the racism towards the Roma runs high here. Secondly, the impact that Communism and the repressive dictator state had on the national psyche can’t be underestimated. When you’ve lived most of your life not knowing who to trust and learning to be wary of others, it’s not a lesson easily unlearned. The regime only fell in 1989 so most people here have deep memories of that time. Third, is that Romania is not on the typical tourist beaten path so there aren’t as many outsiders here as there are in other cities. While I may joke above, I have to be honest that it still makes me uncomfortable. I never feel like I am in any personal danger, but it feels unwelcoming at the very least.   I’ve been into some stores where I was clearly not welcome, and I felt like coming back waving wads of lei saying “Remember me? I was in here yesterday,, you wouldn’t wait on me? Big mistake! Big! Huge! I have to go shopping now.” 
Onto nicer things – there are plenty restaurants and lovely open squares here, and why we were sent to the mall on our first day is beyond me, as there were delicious places just a block or two south of where we had happened upon. We’ve met up with friends ((who Eric met online before we arrived)who’ve given us some great pointers on living here, most importantly the word “sec” to be used when ordering wine of any type, else you will be served with something bordering on the syrupy taste of Manischevitz.  
Timisoara started as a fortress town surrounded by a swampy moat, which has since been filled in. The area was still well watered, so they’ve replaced the moat with a ring of verdant parks that surround the city center. 

There’s a rose garden (sad looking now given that it’s October, of course) a botanic garden, and many others. One is called Kids’ Park, seen above in the southeast corner,  which has several play areas, unencumbered by the safety restrictions that exist in the US so are higher and more fun than anything you’ll find back home. Note the trampolines at the park below!

The language barrier makes it hard for any of us to make friends at the park though, so we’re happy that our friends Rob and Dana have a bright and active seven year old that the kids enjoy playing with. I’m hoping that as we spend more time here they’ll get to meet some other kids at the playgrounds, but I’m not sure this will happen.

The city center is the typical European center-cobblestone plazas, outdoor cafes and flanked by churches, with narrow sidestreets leading away. 

We moved flats to one across town – across town being a mile away – this one a refurbished Communist era apartment now made modern. You can see the rows of Communist buildings from our window here, charmless cuboid structures planted in the name of efficiency. Inside though, they are undergoing a revival and quite nice. 

The elevator to get in is a trip. When we first got there, we pushed the button to call the elevator. The elevatorcame down and we waited for the door to open. Nothing happened. 

After a minute of feeling foolish, we realized we had to open the door manually. 

Once inside, you have to close a second set of blue metal doors and then choose your floor. 

Then all four of us squeezed into a tiny tiny space! Clearly, the communists wanted to encourage people to take the stairs. Realistically, electricity was so spotty that the elevators probably were useless most of the time anyway and no one in their right mind would risk them. 

Inside though it is lovely.  It’s a big upgrade from our first place, namely we can sit on the toilet without risking bodily injury from the seat unexpectedly sliding off and the shower allows us to choose the degree of warmth. You know, priorities. It’s also close to an outpost of the best bakery chain in town, Prospero, and every few days we stock up on fresh bread, croissants, apple strudel and cinnamon rolls. Just outside is a vending machine for eggs and milk and next to those is a little shack that sells wine in bulk, so we’ve got the basics covered without having to go into the madness that is the grocery store, which I’ll write about later.

That’s a 2L bottle of wine for $4

So things are looking up overall! 


In which we find that in Romania, the streets walk on you

Friends, it was a rough transition from Japan to Eastern Europe. After an exhaustingly long, though comfortable flight, to get to Budapest, we had two days there before coming to Timisoara. The first night Eric and I went out to get some pizza for dinner. Whether it was fatigue, or extreme jet lag, or just real culture shock, my whole body felt stunned as we walked around. It was a complete reversal from Osaka to get to Budapest, from the slick cityscape of metal and glass to the brick and cobblestone buildings and streets. Suddenly everything became intelligible again, at least to a degree, as we returned to Roman script. Gone was the extreme politeness and solicitude of Japan, and instead the harsh straightforwardness of Eastern Europe. 
There were parks, open spaces and benches, which were a refreshing change to be sure. 

The next day we took a five hour car ride to Timisoara, driven by a dour man who was clearly agitated at our decision to eat while in his car, and had no interest in even polite conversation. We arrived at our flat in Timisoara, greeted by our friendly host, and settled in. I found the bathroom directly connected to the kitchen, which in and of itself was revolting. I went to use the toilet and the seat slid out from under me and I almost fell on the floor. I noticed that there were five air fresheners in the bathroom, but that did little to cover up the dank odor of stagnant water. The living space and bedrooms were fine, with high ceilings and large windows that spoke to a grander past. The kitchen was filled with pots and pans that were still covered in a layer of grease from whoever was there last. The shower water had two choices, scalding hot or frigid. What a metaphor. It was full of mosquitos, and the girl and I woke up with no less than 14 bites on our faces. 

We all set out to find dinner, looking up some places on our phone before heading out. The streets were dark, desolate appearing and had menacing graffiti tags all along cement block buildings. Whenever we walked outside, we felt cold stares of people on us. I’d look back in defiance, only to find that Romanians feel no need to break a stare when caught in one, and we’d end up staring each other for sometimes as much as 15 seconds while walking past one another, looking over our shoulders to stare. There was no accompanying smile or any gesture of friendliness in the stare. A Ukrainian colleague of mine once told me that in Ukraine, there is a saying, “Why are you smiling? Are you stupid or something?” And I felt that this had clearly bled over into Romania.
We made it to a wide plaza surrounded by outdoor cafes and people having beverages. We walked up to one and asked if they served food, and they simply shook their heads. Where can we find food at three pm on Sunday, we asked? The mall, they told us. Try the mall. So we went to the mall, a byzantine complex of shops and no clear pathway from one end to the next. There are modern stores there like Sephora and H&M, but then next to that will be a store selling mops and brooms. We found a passable Italian restaurant where we kept waving away the dense clouds of cigarette smoke that wafted over us from the other patrons. 
Before we stopped back home, we went to a corner market to pick up some bread and milk and such for the morning, and found this on the shelves. 

At this point, I felt like Romania was literally telling me to eat shit. We settled in for the night with heavy hearts, feeling that the next three months were bound for misery. 
It’s looked up considerably since then, but man, that was an unhappy start.