A Romanian Christmas Tale
I spent this past Christmas with my girlfriend's family in the Romanian countryside. We'd stopped in the small town of Roșiori de Vede to meet her first grandmother. She greeted with me a grand, warm, grandmotherly hug. There were Romanian Christmas treats wrapped in foil on the table in the small old living room. We ate some of them and listened to the smallest cousin sing Christmas carols for a while, commanding the room's attention.
Then we hopped back into the car and headed down a dusty road through mostly barren land. Swaths of forest paralleled the road at certain points. One of these forests is where Oana used to pick flowers as a child.
'Suntem aici.' We're here.
There were a number of dogs barking like mad as we pulled in. Everything I could see looked like it'd been struggling to maintain the pulse of life for centuries. It looked like a forgotten place.
Some family members heard us arrive and came outside to meet us. A fat man with a big smile bumbled toward us to lead the way. Everyone was greeting each other like families do, hugs and happiness. Then it was our turn. He kissed me on both cheeks and I did the same. Meeting people from other countries can be confusing.
'Aha! Welcome! I'm.. John,' he said in poor English.
I later learned that his name wasn't John. He'd just adapted his name to meet the foreign boyfriend that came to share Christmas with the family. His smile and energy was reassuring. I could tell this was going to be an interesting day for everyone.
Oana had a small, quiet cousin whose name escapes me now. She was John's daughter. Her excitement for Christmas wasn't expressed outwardly, but was certainly hiding somewhere behind her eyes. I saw two small, crooked old women walking in the main hallway. One of them must be her grandmother.
We walked inside to meet them. They were both hunched over significantly and greeted everyone with hugs and kisses down the line. Very happy to see everyone. Her grandmother knew I was coming and was excited to meet me as well, as I was for her. Her face was worn like a baseball glove and her hands were small and dirty. But her eyes pierced through the worn edges of her face. Life found its way here. We hugged and I felt the toughness of her shell. This old woman was built like a crooked stone. The other woman was the great-aunt. They both had missing teeth and were dressed in ragged clothing: faded greenblue head shawls wrapped around their chins, shoes that looked like a thick piece of cloth wrapped over itself a bunch of times. Their clothing was entirely practical, accumulated over time and proven useful in the harsh winters of the countryside. I never learned either of their names.
We all gathered in the small kitchen to keep warm and eat the Christmas meal. There was a ceramic heater bringing a faint heat to the room, but everyone kept their jackets on. John came around with some homemade hard alcohol for everyone and we drank it out of these funny colorful espresso mugs. It was white, hot, strong, and had peppercorns floating in it. I drank my cup and then he poured me another, so I drank that one too. I wasn't about to leave anything on the table.
John kept trying to make conversation with me and it was funny as hell. His English was about as bad as my Romanian, though we found a way to bond. He liked to drink and vowed to quit cigarettes on the 1st of January. Meanwhile I could tell I was the alien in the room because every time I looked up one of the tough ladies were staring at me, smiling. I smiled back. They've never stepped foot outside this country before or fathomed the idea of getting on an airplane and flying across the world at 30,000'. It's not relevant to their lives. Yet here I am.
Oana's father helped the grandmother out with the food gathering and preparing. She was his mother and he grew up on this little old farm. The first food to reach the table was shavings of pig skin. Romanians love pork and they eat it all. Every year the grandmother raises a pig on the farm and has it butchered before the holidays, providing a supply of meat for months. These animals are raised and treated purely as food. At least they eat well and have some room to roam, I thought. Oana's father says he can't understand vegetarians. He says that maybe plants have feelings too but we choose to ignore that possibility.
After the pig is slaughtered the skin is taken and seared briefly over a fire. What's left are the shavings in the bowls and everyone at the table loved them. I took a piece and ate it. It was chewy and salty with a weird fatty consistency. I can't say I liked it, but I was still compelled to eat a few more pieces to make sure. Gheorghe came back with some homemade red wine - the finished product of the fermenting wine we'd tried earlier in the week at their other house. John was jolly about it. It was good stuff.
Next on the menu was sarmale, a traditional Romanian staple. It's essentially boiled pork meat with rice, wrapped in cabbage, and left to simmer for a while in a pot of cabbage sauce (don't quote me on the recipe). These were absolutely delicious. I savored every bite and the juicy sarmale filled my gut with magic. On a good day I could eat 50 of these, I'm sure.
At the table I was immersed in Romanian conversation, with sprinkles of translation coming from Oana when interesting things were said or directed at me. I wondered at what a wild world it is that my life coalesced into this moment, eating sarmale with these welcoming people. I'll never predict the future and neither will anyone.
When the sarmale was finished, the grandmother returned with bowls of grilled pork meat. They looked like ribs but there weren't any bones in them. John asked if I'd like him to bring some bread.
'Bread? From here?'
He used his hands and help from the others to signal to me that the bread was homemade. I told him yes and he scurried out to grab some. He came back with a bowl of bread. I took a piece, ate it, and quickly realized how much sugar exists in an American loaf. Although different, the bread was warm and enjoyable. The pork meat was also delicious. It had a gamier texture than I was used to and I found it hard to chew and swallow. We were true carnivores at this table. At one point I ripped off a piece of fat and chewed it for an eternity - my saliva did nothing to break this piece down. So I sat there in my seat chewing fat gum like a foreigner. I nudged Oana and she told me it was kosher to spit it out onto the plate, praise the lord.
'Want to take a tour of the farm?'
I certainly did. I grabbed a piece of pork meat for the road and chewed it as we walked outside.
The air was cold and crisp. There were about 20 chickens and turkeys running around the gated area. Three dogs. A family cow. Two goats. A horse. And a young pig getting ready for next year's Christmas. He had his own enclosure. We opened the gate and stepped into the yard. I saw a frozen puddle of blood and mud that streaked toward the house. A recent sacrifice. The animals were waddling around clucking and burping and mooing and bucocking and farting out all sorts of noises into the air, creating little puffs of steam in the process. I couldn't tell if they liked us being there or if they knew that the humans coming inside meant that something was about to happen.
Everything that I could see was old. The wood, the cement shacks, the mud, the earth, the tools, the well, the carts, the pots and pans - it was all withering away but still had a place on the farm. I felt bad for the dogs. They were kept purely for protection. They seemed cold.
I haven't smelt a shred of a complaint since I've been in this country. It strikes me as the Romanian way. Just do what you have to do and pull your weight in the world. The sun will keep on rising and life will keep on flowering. There is a resiliency and toughness on this farm that I'd be hard-pressed to find in the affluent cultural centers of the western world. Humanity is wholly versatile in this wild world. Looking at the grandmother in the eyes, I see a vision of the world that is completely different from my own. Still, we managed to foster an emotional connection somewhere out there in the ether.