Thursday, October 25, 2007

Romanian Word of the Week

Misto (Mish-toe)
Derivation: Roma or Gypsy
Meaning: Cool

Update: The embassy has promised that it will hold my drivers license when it is sent to them by the police, so I don't have to move to Arkansas again just to drive. I do have to find my courage though. My invisible plastic I-can-drive-anything shield was cracked in the accident along with the Skoda.
Stay tuned.

They Ain't From Around Here.

Last week I tried to call my US bank on the 800 number. They wouldn't accept calls from Romania.

And when I typed the word "Romania" along with another search word parameter into one of the internal search engines of a site I visit frequently, an odd thing happened. The first half dozen responses all said approximately the same thing. "What to do if my account has been stolen." Hmmm. Shouldn't have surprised me though. When I was on eBay, and my account WAS stolen, it was stolen by, yup, you guessed it, Romanians. Well, not exactly Romanians. By Gypsies.

As any Romanian will tell you, Gypsies are NOT Romanian.

Now the Romanians I am lucky enough to live among and work with, along with your usual assortment of jerks, and geeks, social in-epts and classy-smoothies, dumb-bunnies and smart alecks that you'll find in any random population drift, are, for the most part bright, well-groomed, ambitious, optimistic, hard-working, family oriented, supportive of friends, smart as Rhodes scholars, and all-around swell folks to have added into your buddy lists. (Not to mention how gorgeous most of the women are. I'm sure that there are homely Romanian women here, but they must keep them chained in the attics or the basements, because, honestly, so far I have never seen any on the streets of Bucharest.)

And then there are the gypsies.

Here is a group that writes its own stereotype.

Except for some enterprises involving fresh markets (piata) (pee-aht-saas), fruits, vegetables and flowers, gypsies occupations often include liberating your passport, your traveler's cheques, and your hotel keys, putting your bank account on a forced reduction diet, keeping to themselves in a way that would make David Koresh and the Branch Davidians seem like blabbermouths, and training five-year-olds to look like sex-kittens or Dickensian urchins enough for handouts, depending on the best advantage. (Not to mention crumbling, rusty Dacia truck driver gypsies aiming at poor, unsuspecting Ami ex-pat Skoda drivers for their probable insurance. Opps. Sorry. Didn't mean to get started on that again.)

Unfortunately, for most of the world, think Romanian, and think email fraud, think Ponzi scheme, think paying ten thousand Euros to win a fictitious million, think hi-jacked eBay account. Too bad. Because, more accurately, it should be think real estate fraud, think "Just click here to reconfirm your account password," think paying ten bucks for a genuine non-existent Sony Erikson or Patek Phillipe anything, think gypsy. And leave the poor Romanians in peace.

Well, I’m a spoiled American, who, deluded or not, loves to believe that I have no prejudices (except for the Dacia …. Sorry…never mind) at all. So I decided to do a bit of gypsy research to learn more than just the myth that gypsies won’t cross into churches because it’s hallowed ground, and something about lightening striking them dead, but the outside edges at the egress are perfect Sunday assault pickings for “orphans” costumed in shabby and rehearsed in impoverished to run after you with “alms?” outstretched.

And guess what? The Romanians are right. The gypsies are not Romanians. They’re not even Balkans. They really ain’t from around here. Blame the Pakistani. (see below). It’s just that no one seems to have been able to convince them in the last seven hundred years to go home.

But to be honest, no gypsy has ever invited me over for dinner to talk, so maybe I am being influenced by my non-gypsy friends, and, ok, I'll say it, just the teeeeeensiest bit, ulp, prejudiced.

Begin Gypsy History Lesson:

The Gypsy peoples originate from Sind region now in Pakistan. Their Rom language is close to the older forms of Indian languages. The three tribes of Rom, Sinti, and Kale probably left India after a succession of campaigns in Sind through the C11, initially spending time in Armenia and Persia, then moving into the Byzantine Empire after the Seljuk Turk attacks on Armenia.
Within the Byzantine Empire they dispersed into the Balkans reaching Wallachia (1385) and Moldavia (1370) ahead of this area falling to the Ottoman Turks. Other groups also moved through India to Gujarat and south of Delhi. Gypsy populations can still be found along all these migration routes.
When entering west Europe they initially had letters of protection from the King of Hungary. This privileged situation did not last long as amazement at their way of life commonly led to hostilities. The Gypsy way of life still leads to hostilities from the people of their host nations. Europeans regard "private property" as sacrosanct, whereas gypsies do not have a word for "possess", which gives rise to two incompatible ways of life and a continual problem of gypsies being regarded as "thieves" from the European's view.
In each host nation gypsies appear to take on the religion, names and language of their hosts, but within the Rom they maintain their Rom language, names, music, customs and Indian looks. This tight community has meant that after some six hundred years there is still a large population of gypsies not integrated or assimilated with Romanians.
From the time of their arrival in Romania Gypsies were the slaves of the landowners, only to be emancipated in 1851. While in Romania some of the Gypsies took to speaking a version of Romanian called Bayesh which can be heard in some of the songs of Gypsy groups recorded in Hungary. Nowadays about 40% of the Gypsies still speak Romany and many can still be seen travelling in lines of carts along the roads of Romania.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I Love The Smell Of Ciorba In The Morning.


First of all, Ciorba (chore-bah). What it means I’ll get to in a few paragraphs.

Before that, I’d like to introduce you to my long-gone grandmother. A perfect grandmother, who loved me unconditionally. Not the “unconditionally” that your parents promised which conveniently faded at the first spilled nail polish remover on the new parquet floors. Real unconditionally. Like from your grandmother. Or at least like from mine.

As to the rest, well, you now know the most important part, unconditional love. Also a lap to crawl into, and a strange language which she shared with my grandfather that was mysterious and fun to listen to but unknowable.

Here’s what little else I know: My grandmother arrived in the United States at the age of 18 from Georgia. No, y’all, not THAT Georgia in the US South, the other one that’s part of northwest Russia. I don’t know how she got to the US. By boat, I suspect. How else? I don’t know where the money came from for the passage. Or the inspiration. Alas, no one in the family ever talked about her journey, being so busy assimilating. And her English wasn’t all that good, nor would it occur to her to tell an eight year old whether she arrived at Ellis Island from steerage, or skipped, as the better people got to do, that part, and debarked directly in New York City. Those are only the first few things I don’t know about my perfect grandmother.

How she got to Chicago from New York? Unknown. How she met my grandfather, who’d come over when he was barely twelve? Clueless. How they hooked up or whatever it was called in numbers marking centuries and not just decades? A complete mystery. Why she never found the time to learn to read English in a country she would spend the better part of 60+ years in? There’s no one left to tell it.

But Grandma could cook. Dishes my friends found strange, that were everyday occurrences at family meetups. Ground whitefish balls with carrots and clear yellow jelly. Omigood. And as familiar to me as her traditional lutefisk was to my old Norwegian friend. And as odd to each of us as the other. Roasted chicken with herbs and spices I still can’t find in my hypermarket. Delishes that still flood my memory’s nostrils.

Then there was her soup. Which is now my soup.

Grandma and Grandpa never made it rich, though they did live their part of the American dream. What little family legend there is tells us Granddad started out with a pushcart on the streets of Chicago. He sold spools of sewing thread, and needles and notions for pennies a card I’m told. Hard work and true belief and more hard work and after enough pennies, they owned a dry goods store. This was long before I was ever ingesting oxygen. And they must have done okay because by the time I knew them, though the dry goods store was long shuttered, I never knew them, in their later years, to be in lack of life’s necessities. Maybe not luxuries, but we never had to take up a collection.

But back to the soup.

Even now, though an apartment or cash would have been nice too, I consider the recipe my only true ancestral inheritance. Not that I’m complaining. After all, I did get the soup.

It’s a sweet and sour cabbage soup that apparently Grandmother only knew how to make in quantities large enough to feed a large family, or maybe half a small village. I only know the recipe in that extravagant battalion size. So I make it in the winter when I have a hungry gang arriving. Or I’m wanting to eat the same soup for days on end. And, no matter what part of the world I set up house keeping into, I always somehow manage to transport my huge, heavy stockpot. For the soup.

It’s an easy recipe, made with patience and cabbages. Canned tomatoes, salt, pepper, sugar, crystallized citric acid, beef short ribs and time. It cooks best for at least three days. For the first two it tests the tolerance of the neighbors. Because for those critical first 24 -48 hours the house, the hallway, probably the neighborhood reeks like an Irish tenement. Cabbage is not subtle.

The soup never leaves the stove. The first day it boils for hours as the chopped cabbage shrinks, and the beef drinks the liquid. Then it simmers till you remember that it is still on the stove and you turn it off. Then it rests like a living thing. It is boiled hard before bedtime, and again at first light. If you’re staying at home that day, it simmers on and on for hours. If you’re not, then you’d best not be cooking the soup in the wrong month. Cold Octobers through Februarys are the best ways to avoid ptomaine. When the beef falls from the bone, the meat is pulled and shredded with two forks in a secret family method dating who knows how far back, returned to the pot, and kept at a constant under-simmer till, well, you’ll know.

If you’re lucky and the stars are all aligned the magic happens. It’s a phenomenon known most intimately to French cooks and confirmed foodies. The breathtaking instant when water and everything else merge, become something far beyond the sum of its ordinary parts. The moment when ingredients morph into manna. Into a slightly thicker mélange of beefiness and sharp savor leavened by the tiniest sampling of sugar. Grandmother’s soup is a one bowl feast that an on-hand dollop of sour cream adorns well. Rarely, if the magic fusion occurs earlier, will it ever get to the third day unsampled. Some nearby hungry, impatient someone almost always just has to dip a little ladle.

It has been one of my top three comfort foods since slightly after I attained consciousness. Grandma’s Sweet And Sour Soup. It always makes me feel dear. Unconditionally.

Then I came to Romania with a hunger to learn the language. I read on every restaurant menu a special offering called “Ciorba” and I confess I left it off my order. I just didn’t know what it was, and even I just wasn’t adventurous enough to try any, in case it contained shuddery foreign things like tripe. Or eyeballs. Or brains.

Finally, my curiosity overcame my fearful palate and I asked. “Okay, Okay, what’s the ciorba?”

“Oh, it’s a delicious sweet and sour soup. Kind of an acquired taste though. Most foreigners don’t like it. Mostly, it comes from the villages.”, I was told.

“Comes from the villages" is a convenient Romanian euphemism for peasant. Ciorba is a mulligatawny peasant creation colored by whatever’s left in the pantry or the root cellar and what’s in the piata (pee-ah-tsah) (fresh markets). There are chicken ciorbas, and beef ciorbas and fish and sausage and ham ciorbas, depending on what season it is. Curious about how familiar it sounded, I gave in and ordered a bowl. Funny how sense memory works. Grandma’s connection reached out to me with a spoon over all those miles, and years.

In Bucharest, in the early morning, before the sunrise, when the dog is insistent that outside is a better choice for her than leaving me unwanted presents on the tile floor in the hallway by the front door, we walk the blocs to let her sniff out any recent messages from canine passersby. While she’s reading her pee-mail, what I smell is the start of the morning’s cookpots wafting through open windows. Here cabbage isn’t so much a mainstay - at least not now in mid-October - as tomatoes and local vegetables. But the smell of the ciorba is identifiable. And unmistakable.

Whether it is the first day or the third, my olfactories say it makes no difference. In that faint blue first light, the ghost of my grandmother taps me lightly on the shoulder in an Eastern European city I’m pretty sure she never set a single size 5 slipper in. Apparently there is a shared common peasant cooking heritage throughout the Balkans, the Ukraine, and the old pieces of Mother Russia. We called it “Grandma’s Sweet and Sour Soup.” Here, the Romanians call it “ciorba.”

As the sun rises in the foreign country I never expected to feel so quite at home in, I find myself feel inexplicably loved unconditionally, happy and comforted.

Is it any wonder that I love the smell of ciorba in the morning?


Sunday, October 7, 2007

Yesterday, When I Was In Istanbul


Not so long ago, when I was wondering where my life had gone, when money wasn't tight, it was evaporated, and the US was closed for business, at least as far as anyone over 32 without 40 years of Internet experience was concerned, I gave it all up and went to live with my kids.

Trust me, none of us loved that arrangement.

You see, they both had had parents like me. Not an easy thing to live with if you're them, or so they led me to believe. And I do. Believe them, I mean. They had had enough of spontaneous adventure and wanted life on still waters. Me, I just wanted to know where my life had gone.

They wanted me to give up on dreaming. Come down to earth, quit waiting for the next adventure and get a job at Home Depot, where they seemed to specialize in hiring the elderly and the misbegotten.

I tried to make them understand that I was neither. But that must be hard to imagine on the early side of the parent-children bridge. I was waiting for my life to start again. They were waiting for me to grow up.

"But, Mom, what's the matter with being ordinary?" Sean inquired, as though it were really a question with an answer. I knew what he meant, of course. For him. And I asked every friend I owned if they understood the question. Strangely, of course, none of us did.

Last night I went to a live, outdoor MUSE concert in the middle of Bucharest and let the fusion flurry and the boom-tumble of the 24 foot woofers wash through me, wash me clean of old despairs, clear every channel that stood in the way of laughing out loud, and finally understood my answer. I don't know how.

Three weeks ago I had to do a solo performance for a member of The Board, embedded in a meeting whose content wasn't mine. Nonetheless. The show must went on in a stunning solo study of competence, confidence and quiet don't-screw-with-me bravado that looked like granite expertise.

Two weeks ago the mother of my closest Romanian friend departed early, though there was a diagnosis that said there were several more months to fill up and say farewell before my friend had to join the universal adult orphanage that awaits us all. I learned customs I so much prefer to acquire as a distant tourist catching the sad parade from a bus window, and not as a sharer of the nutcakes and wine served beside the bier. Some time I'll share with you the exotic, well to me, of course, customs like only bringing an even number of flowers, and other things that will go in the guidebook to here. But now it's too personal and close, and tinting everything, so that's not for now, and the fortnight goes on.

A week ago the traffic I laugh about with you came startlingly too close. With mere inches to spare in the new emerging-country norm, at 4 feet away, crawling at too few kilometers/hour, my foot slipped off the brake pedal and hit the gas. One and a half seconds, I've since calculated, was the time I needed to recover from such a simple slip. Instead, well, this is Bucuresti. There is no second to spare. My wonderful Skoda, like my Schnauzer meeting a street dog for the first time, sniffed the tailpipe of the courier van innocently attempting to speed to a destination at about 5 mph. My first accident (ak-chi-dent) since 1974. A little soul shaking and a light tap on the bumper to remind me that in Bucharest you do not even dare to remove a loose thread from your sweater while operating heavy machinery.

Five days ago, off to my Romanian lesson in the middle of the day, in the miraculously as-yet undamaged Skoda, I took the turn I take every day of the week. A thrill-skill ride onto the highway from a near-dirt intersection at the end of the street on which the company lives. I do it daily. It's treacherous and tricky and requires skill and daring and keeps an Adrenalin junky fully supplied. I thought about turning right instead. Hie-ing the half mile to the ring road to get myself pointed where I was going. But look-left look-right look-left look-right look-left look-right told me I had the clearance.

The old guy in the old, old, old, crumbling piece-of-shit Dacia truck didn't see it that way. He saw an opportunity. A nice car with probable insurance. So he pushed his foot down hard, braced and raced, and slammed me to a standstill tearing the Skoda's front and side quarter-panel, and abruptly calling me to a hard, shaky halt. Where I come from, he had "the last clear chance to avoid an accident." Where he comes from, he had a new front end, a rebuilt engine and a new set of front tires. All for the mere price of about four hours in a, to me, foreign police station. Which by the way, was built by an insurance company, replete with ads and posters to the most prime targets, and came complete with an adjoining Internet cafe.

No, I'm fine. Shaken up a bit, of course, at first, thank you for asking. But now, of course, I'm mad as hell. And guilty of innocence. I'll also spend some time at the American Embassy, where the politia will send my confiscated drivers license, trying to convince them not to send it back to Arkansas where I don't live any more, and can't go to retrieve it. Hoping they'll have seen it all before, and know that this punishment doesn't fit this crime. Oh well. I've shaken off the early tremors, know that I'll have to get back on this horse and drive again soon, somehow, or be forever banished to learning the correct taxi Romanian expressions for "No, you idiot, don't take me to my house via Bulgaria! Do I look like I just fell off the cabbage truck, you moldy mutton of a hack!" which I can do because I lived for a decade in New York, and learned that lingo.

And yesterday when I was in Istanbul.

Two days ago, really, if you require this to be literal literature.

It was a perfect flight, and a perfect meeting, with rooms full of accomplished and accomplishing women who knew their stuff and brought it to the table. An evening wandering through the bizarre, which, now that Romania is getting, to me, to be a nearly commonplace, is not a sic misspelling. Buying turquoise and silver at the bargaining price because I carried the camera and was mistaken for a crazy American journalist. Hearing my sad friend/client explain that the millions of Euro at stake in the deal we were crafting certainly paid the tab for taking a few hours to watch the end of Ramadan break its fast by the old mosque's lawns at sunset, and worth the price. And hearing her laugh for the first time again in weeks. Crossing the bridge that took us in one short span to set a set of tires for five minutes into Asia because Istanbul uniquely stands with one foot there and the other in Europe. Talking with new friend-colleagues over a perfect Turkish lunch on a deck on the Bosporus. Sharing stories about places you only read about that we'd all been to. A story of Irish Catholic weddings in Italy conducted by an accented Indian priest. And another, after a lovely lamb chop dinner in Istanbul the previous night, how confusing it had been, if you don't speak the language, when you just want a receipt from the cab driver and he offers you instead a "fish" (fis with a cedilla so you say "sh") which is the word in Turk for "the company will reimburse me if you just give me a damn slip of paper with numbers on it." And, oh, yes, eating octopus. Lip-smacking just after the shuddering subsides.

We flew back to Bucha into the perfect sunset as though it were somehow our birthright. And somehow it was.

Last night, letting the fusion music fuse-drive-pound-rock into me with the fireworks lightshow I could see even with my eyes closed, I finally knew the answer to Sean's question.

"What's the matter with being ordinary?"

Nothing. If you know how.

But you never get to say, "Yesterday, when I was in Istanbul."

Yesterday in Istanbul