Thursday, August 23, 2012

Home Sweet Home

Anne and Monica's trip "around the world" ended for me with 3 weeks in my home country, Romania. This visit was not part of the original itinerary, but since I had a lot of British Airways miles and were able to buy tickets on miles for a very small fee, I decided to extend my trip and go see my family and friends back home.

Going back to Romania is always an emotional whirlwind for me. Being constantly surrounded by people I love and who love me back, seeing my parents and grandparents, tear-filled goodbyes, the uncertainty of whether I'm going to see certain family members again... all of these lead to a very emotionally-intense experience. It's not about experiencing new things and seeking adrenaline; it's about going back to one's roots, traditions, customs, upbringing, societal norms and all the things that built me, yet feel so remote from who I am today.

With my strong-as-a-rock, sassy, stubborn, sharp-tongued adorable grandma in her backyard.

Outside of "La Caru cu Bere" - one of the most "atmospheric" restaurants in Bucharest.
I left Anne behind in London and flew to Bucharest by myself. My mom and brother picked me up from the airport.My mom especially was extremely relieved to see me alive and well after being to all those "dangerous faraway countries." She had been especially nervous during our trip, so I had to constantly email my parents every other week to let them know I'm still alive and well.

My mom and her two cubs.
One of the first things we did in Bucharest was get food at La Caru cu Bere. Grilled meats, pickles, sour soups and draft beer of the house were in order.

My brother and his beautiful girlfriend, Elena.

The same day we heard that "Arcul de Triumf" a historical landmark of the city, was open to the public for a few hours. You were able to climb up to the top through one of the legs of the arch, see the vista and then descend through the other leg. The lines were not too bad, so we went for it.

View of a Bucharest street from the top of the Arcul de Triumf.

Florin and Elena. Love is in the air!

Siblings: I think we both have the weird habit of biting our lower lip.

The next day we drove to my home town of Braila, which is about 3 hours away from Bucharest, in the south-eastern part of the country, on the Danube river. Nothing like intense games of backgammon at the kitchen table between my brother and my father lasting until the wee hours of the night.

This is Noel, my other cat. When I was 17 years old I brought home this cat. He was 2 months old. My mom hated it and had previously forbidden me to bring any cats into the house. But I still did. I really wanted to get Noel's brother too, and name him Liam (as I was a big fan of Oasis back then), but two cats would have caused my mom a heart attack, so I settled with just one. Fast forward, Noel is now 14 years old. He's still just as playful and agile as a kitten. Man, cats really know how to age well.

My parents and I went out for a stroll on the esplanade of the Danube river and took a few photos. Here's my mom and I enjoying the sun over a beer at a local restaurant.

My lovely parents, looking sharp and cute in their early 60s.

This boat broke down, so it was being pushed up the river by that little boat behind, to a nearby shipyard to get repaired.

In a park in my home town, retired men get together every day to play chess or backgammon.

At a monastery near my home town. This is a well for holy water. "Aghiazma" means holy water, and "Anafura" means holy bread. They're both basically regular water and bread that have been magically turned holy after the priest uttered some mumbo jumbo and made a cross sign above them. You're supposed to only eat/drink it on an empty stomach (symbolizing fasting), which is what the writing in the photo above says.

My dad is the king of afternoon naps and sometimes Noel sneaks a nap with him.

A few days later we drove to the countryside, to the village Pogoanele where my grandparents live. This is yet another place filled with memories and emotionally-charged for me. Especially since their yard and farm is run down and in shambles. A place of former glory, where we spent every summer taking care of the crops, picking the crops, making jams and preserves, shelling beans, picking grapes, climbing into sour-cherry trees and getting our arms all bloody-red from the juicy fruit, the place is now so sad and neglected that it made my eyes tear just walking around. I guess there's nothing more painful in life than seeing place where you spent your childhood fall apart. This is all because my grandparents are now very old and ill, and lost the physical power to work their farm. What will happen next with this place I don't know...

My grandmother's "organic free-range chicken." I am laughing at this American-made, post industrialized food industry expression, as I was fortunate enough to grow up in a place where all chicken I ate was organic and free-range and I didn't even know it. Everything I ate didn't contain any preservatives, was not processed at all and was straight how mother nature made it. I think one of the reasons why I don't have any food allergies, or any allergies at all for that matter, is because I grew up eating like this. Now that I live in America and I see so many people struggling with allergies or all sorts of diseases, I am truly grateful for growing up where I did and for the food that my family made me eat. I am who I am now because of them.

Chamomile growing wild and random in my grandparents' backyard. This reminds of another story: growing up, we never had "black tea." The concept of real tea (black or green) didn't even exist on the Romanian market. All we drank and all that was sold in stores were herbal teas: mint, chamomile, linden blossom and other popular herbs whose names I don't know in English. Most of these herbs we would pick and dry ourselves, since it was more affordable and flavorful than buying it in the store.

A gate separating the yard into two sections. Usually, the section in front of the yard would be a place where chicken were allowed to run free. The area behind the gate contained rows of vegetables and chicken could not go there, as they would have destroyed the crops. Now, the fences have fallen apart and weeds are growing everywhere.

This wheelbarrow is really old, most likely older than me. Surprisingly, it still gets the job done. When I was around 5 years old or so, my whole body would fit inside it and I'd get rides from my grandpa up and down the garden.

My grandmother (everyone calls her "Doamna Lili" - which means something like "Mam Lili") has advanced varicose veins on her legs. I did not take a photo of her legs, as it would scare you off, but they look something like this. She's not supposed to stand up or walk for too long, but she's a very stubborn and determined woman with a busy agenda, so she's always running around doing a million things. She's over 80 years old and I've never seen anyone as energetic as she. Here, she is telling me about her huge list of garden chores, as if any of that matters more than her health. Countryside people are married to their land. It's their lifetime love and sole purpose of living.

She doesn't like being photographed when she's not wearing her best clothes and not posing. Her attitude towards photography is still very old-school (and sweet, at the same time). Back in the day, getting your photo taken was a rare and special occasion. You'd get your hair done, put on your best clothes on and walk to the photo studio in the village center, where you'd sit stiff on a chair and pose. Spontaneous photography is not her thing and she deeply hates it when I snap photos of her, like this one. So I always have to distract her or pretend I'm playing with the camera and not really taking pictures. 

My mom and I took a walk in the garden, picked a certain type of grass that the chicken really like (I don't know the name in English), chopped it up and gave it to them. Repeat this action twice a day, every day...

It's lunch time: polenta with butter, cheese and shots of plum brandy. I described this in more detail in my Romanian food blog post, so I won't repeat myself here. Needless to say, when it's cold out, this is a really hearty meal to have.

This dish is again described in more detail in my Romanian food blog post. Check it out!

From the countryside, my brother and I drove my parents back home, then we took off back to Bucharest, where I'd wait for Anne to arrive and hang out with my friends. I spent a day walking around the city, trying to remember streets and places. A lot has changed, so it's been quite challenging for me to remember exactly where things were. I only lived in Bucharest for 4 years, during college, and in San Francisco for almost 10 years, so by now I can say that I am more familiar and more emotionally attached to San Francisco than to Bucharest.

This street leads to my old college, and now the walls are plastered with these horendous grafitti. I wish SF taggers would be more creative and less lazy... This is bullshit, not "alternative art". If only they'd see how creative SF murals are...

The entrance hallway of my former college. Everything smells old and breathes history here - it makes me feel nostalgic.

Seen on the walls of the foreign languages college. The copy says: "The Culture Corner" - but the spelling reflects the most recent trend in Romanian slang. Back when I lived there in 2003, if you wanted to refer to something as being "rad", you'd say "adevarat" (which literally translates as "real"). So, for example, "a rad dude" would be "un tip adevarat." Fast forward to 2012, I used the word "adevarat" in the same connotation and everyone laughed at me and corrected me: "Monica, we don't use the word "adevarat" anymore... we now use "cool" instead. Get with the program!"

I happened to walk inside an apartment building in downtown Bucharest, that was probably built right after WW2, and saw this rad painting on the entrance hallway. It was really dark and the hallway narrow, so I couldn't take a photo of the whole mural. This is just a small section of it.

On the streets of the "old town," an area that was recently remodeled with new pavement, lots of trendy bars and restaurants. On warm summer days, it's a great place to just sit out at a patio, shoot the shit, have a lot of beer and (second) smoke your lungs out.

A cute old car parked by my brother's house.

Bicycle lane in Herastrau park. Allegedly, these are some of the most expensive bike lanes in Europe, it cost something like thousands of euros per meter to make. That's how corruption works, baby!

Anne and I visited the Village Museum, one of the largest outdoors museums in the world. Basically, this guy once had the genius idea of uprooting traditional houses, churches and mills from various parts of the country, transporting them to Bucharest and re-planting them in a make-shift village. As you walk down the streets of this village, you get to see chickens running around, vegetable and flower gardens, trees, fences and all it takes to make it look like a real-life community. The houses are gorgeous and so very different from one another. This was my first time visiting the museum, and I had a blast. Wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone visiting Bucharest.

This house comes from a lowland area by the Danube river. It is half buried in the ground. The reasons why it's constructed so low to the ground are the following: the winds in that are are very strong, so it prevents the house from being taken apart, it's very hot in summer time, so having it half underground makes it cooler inside. It also gets a lot of snow and blizzard in the winter, so it stays warmer inside. Not sure if you can see Anne, trying to squeeze by in the entrance area. And no, the people who lived there are not midgets.

The inside of one of the houses with typical decorations. My grand grand mother's house used to look very similar to this one.

A mill used for making apple juice /cider and for grinding seeds into oil.

Pin-up Anne at the Village Museum in Bucharest. Those things in the background are hay bales, just in case you didn't know. We saw similar ones in Nepal, that were elevated on a wooden platform to prevent them from getting wet and rotting from the rain. At some point Anne asked what those strange little houses are for, and I realized she didn't know they were hay bales. I thought that was cute.

Old school merry-go-round.

According to the specs, the roof of this house is twice as high as the height of the house itself. This house comes from a mountain area where it snows a lot in winter, so the steep roof prevents the snow from setting on a thick layer. The snow always slides down keeping the roof light and dry. I wish I could teleport myself back in time to live in a house like this.

Later on we visited my friend George Rapa at work. He is doing PR and Social Media for a composer association in Bucharest, which happens to have its headquarters in one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The building used to be a palace inhabited by a famous composer, George Enescu, and his wife, Maria Cantacuzino. The wife's father was a rich dude, who ordered this building to be made for his daughter and son in law. The building in the photo above is not the actual main house, but their guest house in the back of the main house.

A few days later my brother, mom, Anne, my friend Ana and I went on a road trip to Sinaia, a town located in the mountains, about 3 hours north of Bucharest. The weather was not very good, but we still managed to have fun and enjoy the clean, fresh air. Above: the Sinaia monastery complex.

Wall mural inside one of the small churches at the Sinaia monastery.

Later that day we got lunch at Taverna Sarbului in Sinaia, a traditional Serbian restaurant, where every booth had the name of a trade/craftsmanship shop. Our booth, La Dogaru, means "At the Barrelmaker's." It was really cold and rainy outside, so I got a hearty white bean soup flavored with chunks of smoked bacon and served with a slice of raw onion on the side. I've been to many a fancy restaurants in my life, but simple, hearty food is still closest to my heart.

Anne, on the balcony of our rental home.

My mom was pretty much in heaven that day. She was surrounded by her two cubs (plus the two Anne's), so she got to exercise her motherly lines to the best. She also got to be pampered. She loved the warm cosy house we rented for the weekend and was psyched to be watching the Eurovision show. Us kids went out to a bar and got drunk on my shots of whiskey, while she stayed at home to watch TV. She then texted us to bring her some beer... which I thought was quite endearing. Oh and my mom has a great ass for a 60 year old lady, don't you think? :)

Florin and two hotties walking around the streets of Sinaia.

You can't really tell, but in this photo I am eating raw pork rind (called "sorici") that I just bought from a street vendor. One of the tastiest things in life!

My mom and I at Peles Castle in Sinaia.

Peles Castle, where the king used to come for summer vacation.

The King Carol the First, also the first king of Romania.

Group shot at Peles.

The little Peles, where the royal residences actually were. The big castle was used more for social and political gatherings, while this smaller castle was living quarters.

My incredibly handsome brother.

Peles Castle.

Turta dulce = ginger bread.

We are psyched on trying out all those sweets!

Various types of nutty halvah treats.

On the subway in Bucharest. I was reprimanded by the "subway police" later for taking this photo. Apparently you're not allowed to take photos in the subway in Romania. Ooops.

Our last night in Bucharest consisted of us getting together at Laura's house and getting really drunk on moonshine from her brother's wedding. So drunk, that the next day during our takeoff to London, I held that puke bag closely to my mouth while saying many prayers to not let it happen. God listened, so if you read this, thanks God! It was a great night with my bestest best friends in the world: Florina, Ana and Laura. I love that whenever we get together we get silly, ironic, sarcastic, poke fun at ourselves and each other and laugh uncontrollably. It's a special bond that I haven't been able to foster with anyone in the US so far... hard to explain, but I guess what we have is really special.

Back in the good ol' USA, found my home almost the same way as it was when I left... and this sweet note on the kitchen board. Coming back to a routine and familiar things felt like waking up from a long dream. I really missed sleeping in my own bed, or sleeping in the same bed every night. I missed having a bit of routine and order in my life.

Going to bed on the first night back home I sieved through 6 months worth of mail.... mostly junk, but also bills and reminders that I am back to normality and real-life responsibilities. The dream is over...