Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Cards and Fish: Things That Stand Out

It turns out that playing cards is also another form of universal language. After days of playing round after round of Macao and War, I taught my host family's daughter Go Fish. She LOVED this game, and after a day or two, Go Fish became the most popular game around. One day, as we were playing it under an umbrella in the back yard, her 17-year-old cousin looked up, smiling, and said, "Go Fish--a beautiful game."

Fishing with the family:

Early in the evening, we drive down a gravel road and into a pasture. Andreea, a cousin of the family, turns to me in the backseat and says, in English, "Food for cows." I love this clause, the simple and direct connection to the earth. Her husband is driving, and her brother is next to me in the backseat. We park in the middle of the pasture, and climb onto the base of a transmission tower to set up our poles. For the first time since my childhood, I hook my own worm, and it feels good. 

Uninterested in fishing, Andreea wants to make sure I'm comfortable and entertained. I assure her that I'm not bored. I love fishing. It's like writing, in a sense; sitting and waiting in the realm of potential for an idea or a feeling. And as I'm thinking this, I see a herd of cows on their way home for the night, some pausing to drink from the river. Andreea attempts a cast and catches the tower. We laugh. Frogs are gurgling behind us. The wind stops, and the river now looks like a lake. The boys catch four tiny fish, which they'll bring home for the cat. 

I move to make room for Andreea, and this time she casts with a magnificent force; she casts the entire contents of our fishing gear into the water. We're laughing hysterically. Her brother says, "Un calamitate!!" Now he's laughing as hard as us. Her husband hangs over the edge of the concrete and retrieves most of our supplies. "Un calamitate!" I'll never forget learning this word, feeling this moment--the familiarity and strangeness of language, how necessary, yet not always essential for understanding. Her husband, speaking no English, her brother, hardly any, and I, speaking Romanian barely beyond the level of a four-year-old. I'm laughing so hard I'm crying--and still we can't stop laughing. Un calamitate--my Romanian, their English, this beautiful, funny dusk. Andreea asks if I'll write a poem about this. She knows what the title would be.

Driving back to their house to be overfed wonderfully home-cooked food from the garden, Andreea asks me if I will return to visit them în viitor (in the future). As I assure her that I will, a woman passes us on foot; she's pushing a wheelbarrow carrying two children covered by a blanket. Her husband says something to her, and she translates: "In America, you see this?" Her brother looks at me and says again, "Go Fish--a beautiful game."

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hearing Another Language, Thinking About Poems

Poems open. Poems open up the healing. Call attention to the gap, the wordless thing. Speak the space. What isn’t a poem? What isn’t a poem is also a poem. A poem goes beyond the boundaries of its lines. Reaches into the blank space, calls out to the mind, asks to be opened up like a thought—part image, part memory. Like thought, it forms its own syntax. It doesn’t understand itself. It can’t be completely understood. It wants to say more than it does, and it does. It bridges. It binds. It casts. It resists its catch. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Things That Stand Out

A Saturday trip to the mountain to fill a week's supply of plastic bottles with mineral water.

My host reading Eminescu (Romania's national poet) to me in a lulling and expressive iambic rhythm. I don't understand the words, but I feel the poem, and then I copy it out in my notebook to feel each individual letter.

Mihai Eminescu - Fiind Băiet Păduri Cutreieram

Fiind băiet păduri cutreieram
Şi mă culcam ades lângă isvor,
Iar braţul drept sub cap eu mi-l puneam
S-aud cum apa sună-ncetişor:
Un freamăt lintrecea din ram în ram
Şi un miros venea adormitor.
Astfel ades eu nopţi întregi am mas,
Blând îngânat de-al valurilor glas.

Răsare luna, -mi bate drept în faţă:
Un rai din basme văd printre pleoape,
Pe câmpi un val de arginţie ceaţă,
Sclipiri pe cer, văpaie preste ape,
Un bucium cântă tainic cu dulceaţă,
Sunând din ce în ce tot mai aproape...
Pe frunza-uscate sau prin naltul ierbii,
Părea c-aud venind în cete cerbii.

Alături teiul vechi mi se deshcide:
Din el ieşi o tânără crăiasă,
Pluteau în lacrimi ochii-mi plini de vise,
Cu fruntea ei într-o maramă deasă,
Cu ochii mari, cu gura-abia închisă;
Ca-n somn încet-încet pe frunze pasă,
Călcând pe vârful micului picior,
Veni alături, mă privi cu dor.

Şi ah, era atâta de frumoasă,
Cum numa-n vis o dată-n viaţa ta
Un înger blând cu faţa radioasă,
Venind din cer se poate arăta;
Iar păru-i blond şi moale ca mătasa
Grumazul alb şi umerii-i vădea.
Prin hainele de tort subţire, fin,
Se vede trupul ei cel alb deplin.


Walking home from the park with my 10-year-old playmate, we pass a horse grazing (much like this picture) in an empty playground. I think, how great is that, and then ahead of us on the sidewalk, I notice a man holding a rust-colored chicken in one hand, another bird lying near him in a small grass ditch by the road. Another man walks up to him and hands him a large knife (more like a saw). We stop to watch as he places the chicken on the grass and saws off its head, tosses the body to the grass. The headless hen twitches and flops in the little ditch as I count in my head to 15 mississippi. It stills. It reminds me of a story my dad told me about going downtown to pick out a chicken with his Romanian grandmother. I turn to see the little girl beside me smiling; this is just everyday stuff. The other man hands over some lei (Romanian dollars), presumably for the chicken. We continue walking down the sidewalk to the house.

Day trip to Botosani (in the northeast): 

Miles and miles of drooping, golden sunflowers, cornfields, people walking cows with a rope down the narrow roads (some gravel, at times paved), horse-drawn carts. All of the roads winding around the natural landscape of the country. We get lost. No GPS service to guide us. Two maps. We stop at least 8-9 times ask villagers, Is this the way to Botosani? They point the way, and we arrive 3-4 hours later. The family feeds me soup with chicken, bread, mashed potatoes, more chicken, chicken livers, cherry liquor, wine, dessert bread with sweet cheese and raisins (they break off a piece that is at least the size of half a loaf, and say, "yours"), hot milk, coffee. For the first time since I've arrived, I learn to say "full"--a word that, though quick and tiny, will become very important in the proceeding days. After all this eating, we go out for a Romanian dessert (see above). Then back to the family's apartment, where we eat watermelon (1/4 of a watermelon per person), and pretzel-shaped biscuits. So much eating.

(to be continued...)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Two Weeks in Zăneşti

I came to Romania in part to search for family roots, and, here in Zăneşti, I gained a new family.
I realized this after about a week, as I was bicycling behind my host family's ten-year-old girl, on our way to the village park to play soccer with the local children. This family took care of me like I'd been born into it.

Language-wise, it was a full immersion experience. Needless to say, I learned to comprehend a LOT of Romanian very quickly. During one of my first nights, I said "ma numesc" (my name is) instead of "mulțumesc" (thank you) upon receiving a mug of Turkish-like coffee--we all had a good laugh. Learning a new language in an environment where said language is the only one spoken can make one feel like a child again; I'm sure that I sounded like a four-year-old for most of my stay. Romanian is a beautiful, yet complicated language--close to Latin, flexible word order, complex and unpredictable conjugations and tenses (especially for native speakers of English), its having been influenced by Greek, Hungarian, Turkish, German, French, and Italian.

While playing soccer with the village children, I had this realization that "playing ball" is like speaking a universal language. The cooperation, the gestures, the implicit understanding, the implicit "togetherness" of a newly formed team like an instant friendship of understanding. For these two weeks, I felt as if I were reliving a second childhood. The children regarded me as a playmate, and they didn't care whether or not I could understand or speak their language well. One day, a little boy wiped out on the asphalt. As he cupped his scraped elbow and mouthed a silent sensation of pain, four little girls gathered around him. Then, one by one, they pointed out their own scars on their hands, arms, legs. This language, much like the one of playing ball, comforted him, and it was such a special thing to witness.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Morning trip to the village mill.
Unloading grain:
                                                          Weighing the grain:

                                                          Waiting behind a horse-drawn cart:

                                                           More grain on the scale:

                                                           Waiting for the flour:

                                                           Time to make bread:

All of the food comes from the garden, or a neighbor's garden, or a neighbor's cow, or straight from the tree. We even took a trip to the village mill to turn grain into flour for making bread.

                                          Fresh walnuts:

                                          And tomatoes:

                                          Homemade crepes:

                                          Carrot from the backyard garden:

                                          Land like cracked plaster (you can knock on it):

                                          In the backyard garden:


                                          A bucket of beans:

                                          Romanian peanuts:

                                          Romanian nutcracker:

                                          Flour, salt, yeast:

                                          Almost time for the oven:

                                          Traditional Romanian doughnuts:

                                          With homemade strawberry jam:

                                          Sarmale, traditional romanian food:

                                          Vegetables fermenting in the sun: