Given the break-neck pace of the earlier couple days, Matt and I decided to approach Sunday in Paris a bit more sedately.  Thus, before heading out for the day, we highlighted only a couple of interesting attractions given our relaxed outlook to the day ahead.  First, making the cut, was the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, because Matt had yet to see it and since it was so close to the hostel, it only made sense.  Second, having seen the Arc de Triomphe we thought it compelling to visit its bigger, more modern brother, the Grande Arche in the La Défense business district.  Hatched over the usual morning coffee and croissants, our plan for the day was all set and so were we.

In order to reach the Basilica from our Hostel we had to make our way past the Anvers metro stop and head north on Rue de Steinkerque, a small cobblestone side street.  The route is lined with souvenir shops and little cafes.  Unlike my Friday trip through this area, today there were several gentlemen, evenly spaced at a distance, with tall cardboard boxes setup in the middle of the closed-off street.  On top of each makeshift table they were playing a version of the shell game, with small black disks, one of which is marked underneath with a white dot.  Operating each of the half-dozen or so games was one of many seriously shady looking individuals.  Opting not to lose my lunch money again in the shadow of the Basilica, we pressed on, only observing.  Montmartre was much busier this time with many more tourists, panhandlers and Senegalese immigrants illegally selling trinkets on the steps.  At one point a small contingent of police came walking leisurely around the corner, before which, only seconds earlier had several peddlers quickly bundled up their wears in blankets and hauled out of there with lightening speed.  Probably the real highlight of this visit to the Basilica was a middle-aged male musician playing the harp.  For several minutes, Matt and I sat on the stairs of the Basilica mesmerized by the music.  This is one of those times when my senses were so profoundly overwhelmed by the environment that I was nothing short of paralyzed in blissful enchantment.

Reluctantly, we pried ourselves away from the incredible Montmartre view and from the beautiful music and made our way back down to the metro.  On the way, we noted that several of the street’s side stalls were selling winter scarves, a fact that we would later take advantage of for souvenirs and gifts.  Within about thirty-minutes we had made our way through the subway system to La Défense and had exited out into the empty plaza at the foot of the Grande Arche.  This is one of those monuments that is so big you find it unrecognizable when you are up close.  Effectively, the structure is a cube-shaped office building, now housing government offices on the two sides and an exhibition hall at the top.  Though technically outside of Paris, the Grande Arche lines up with the Arc du Triomphe, the Champs Elysees and ultimately, the Louvre.

With our stomachs growling, we started looking around for a restaurant or café in the weekend ghost town of the business district.  Fortunately for us, there happened to be one restaurant open just off to the left side of the Grande Arche, aptly named Café Bistro de L’Arche.  Their lively group of waiters made up for the folly of those at the restaurant next to Notre Dame from the day before.  Giving us a laugh, they even commented that Matt and I looked like brothers; it must have been the scraggly beards.  Surrounded by the all-glass terrace, we relaxed into a long leisurely lunch of Jambon-Buerre, purée of vegetable soup and two enormous plates of French fries.  Accompanying this feast, we appreciated a bottle of Sancerre and finished off the meal with some incredibly girly looking cappuccinos, complete with whipped cream.

Fully rested and waddling out of the restaurant from our long lunch, we resumed our tour on foot of the La Défense district, which is probably the most interesting business zone I’ve ever seen.  The broad pedestrian walkway leading from the Grande Arche back in the direction of Paris is flanked on both sides with anything but cookie cutter office buildings; each has its own unique and modern architectural design.  These incredible buildings are accentuated by several giant installations of modern art prominently placed throughout the plaza.  Additionally, there are many water features, including fountains, waterfalls and reflecting pools that add an extra level of aesthetic beauty and soothing ambient sound.  I can only imagine what a great place this would be to enjoy your lunch breaks in the spring. Once we made our way from one side of the long plaza to the other we picked up the metro and made our way back to the hostel.

Continuing the theme of our lazy Sunday, we stopped at the market down the street from the hostel, where we were now regulars, and resigned ourselves back to the Parisian balcony where we washed the afternoon away with fine French cheese and wine.  Sometime after sunset one of our roommates, Lucy from Mexico, returned to the room after her day exploring the city.  We chatted with her for a while before deciding that the three of us should venture out in search of something for dinner.  At this point Matt and I had already settled our minds on the idea of Chinese food and were ready to hit up a little place I had seen by the train station while looking for Melissa and Jovanka.  Lucy was game, too, so the three of us hit the street, making it to the restaurant just before their ten o’clock closing time.  Now here is what I think is an interesting difference between Chinese restaurants in the US and in Paris.  In America we are used to either sitting down to service in a Chinese restaurant with white tablecloths, hot green tea and endless menus or to self-service with a buffet.  I noticed at several different places in Paris that Chinese is something in-between these two worlds, where the food is displayed in glass cases, buffet style but not self-service; you make your selections from the counter and the proprietor dishes it up.  Regardless of how they do it, the food was full of spicy delicious goodness, perfectly accompanied with Tsing Tao the meal transported me straight back in time to my neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Richmond, Virginia.

With full bellies and another successful day under our belts we made our way back to the hostel to wind down our night, finishing off the wine we had and enjoying conversation with our roommates.  Though a much slower day than the previous, it was a welcome change of pace to the hectic, non-stop life of being a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Knowing that the second semester of school was only a week away we were happy to take full advantage of this well-deserved vacation.

Note:  If you are viewing the email version of this post please click on the blog title above to view the photographs.

Day Two

Sleeping off the previous night’s fun with the curtains drawn tight, dawn came and went unbeknownst to Matt and me, as did my second chance to watch the sunrise over the Parisian landscape from Montmartre.  Also disappearing in the early morning without a trace were Melissa and Jovanka who had a pre-dawn train to sweep them off to the next city on their whirlwind European tour.  Summoning the energy from an unknown place, we arose just in time to catch the last five minutes of the complimentary hostel breakfast.  Chugging down coffee and munching on croissants like they would be our last, we schemed about the day to come.  Being like-minded people, Matt and I wanted to approach our exploration of Paris in much the same way, with our focus on good drinks, food and outside scenery; and largely in that order.  So it was, our Saturday in Paris had begun.

Expecting the automatic reflex of a deep squint when first emerging from the darker inside of the hostel, we were pleasantly, though admittedly oddly, surprised to see that it was slightly overcast outside.  We set out on foot heading north to the Anvers metro stop, as the decision had been made to head in the direction of the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral.

The Diatribe

As a brief side note, the name Anvers is pronounced with a silent “S” on the end; this was a common occurrence that I noticed throughout my visit in France.  It seems to me that the inclusion of this consonant at the end of any word is completely pointless, as they never seem to pronounce it.  Let’s look at a few examples that I have pulled from various Paris Metro station stops, of course there is Anvers, then Ternes, Courcelles, Villiers, Jaures, Couronnes, just to name a few.  How much ink, let alone the wasted brain energy and embarrassment of foreigners, could be saved by simply dropping the “S” altogether?  Perhaps a nod to the thirty-five hour workweek they enjoy.  “Well…we drop the s from the end of all our words, why not also drop the last five hours of each workweek?”  It’s my recommendation that the French government forgoes the next round of austerity measures and simply stops printing that final “S.”  This would undoubtedly save the French economy truckloads of money each year and be a Godsend to students around the world who are learning French.

Paris by Rain

Anyway, back to the task at hand.  As Matt and I perplexingly discussed the pointlessness of the French “S”, we made the executive decision to get off a few stops early in route to the Cathedral so as to take the added opportunity to walk around a bit in that part of the city.  The grey sky began to sputter drops of rain as we crossed the Seine River heading south, entering the westerly tip of Île de la Cité.  Strangely, neither of us was bothered by the rainy weather. In fact, we welcomed it, as the addition of rain somehow enhanced the experience of being there.  After the fact, I more recently watched a movie titled Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen, starring, among others, Owen Wilson.  Owen, playing the role of Gil Pender, regularly remarks how his favorite thing in the world is walking about Paris in the rain.  Though a little chilly when I experienced it, I can certainly sympathize with his sentiment.  Regardless of the chill, our souls were unexpectedly warmed as we crossed Pont Neuf and a father began whistling La Vie En Rose to his two young boys.  What a great moment!

As Notre Dame came into view we decided that all of this walking around was making us hungry, so we decided to look for an appealing place to rest and enjoy lunch.  Craving the ethnic food that we can scarcely find in our small Romanian villages, we meandered for a while looking for something just right.  As it turns out this is one of those times where “it’s the journey that matters not the destination.”  Though we didn’t find an answer to our craving, we did find a wonderful maze of cobblestone side streets packed with small cafes, restaurants and shops.  It was the type of area I could imagine happily walking through every morning on my way to work.  Still quiet after breakfast but before the lunch rush, shopkeepers were sweeping the streets and restocking their produce.  Perhaps an ethnically Greek area, such options were in abundance, but too close to the Romanian cuisine we are all too familiar with.  Instead we decided to satiate our craving for something Asian later and instead opted for atmosphere, vying for a place with a view of Notre Dame.

Looking like the confused tourists that we were, unable to decide on which street-side restaurant to settle on, the decision was made for us as a waiter insistently ushered us inside Cafe Le Petit Pont.  Beneath the heat lamps and yellow awning, we quickly perused the mediocre tourist-slanted menu, made up our minds and summoned the waiter over.  Sadly, somewhere lost in translation our quintessentially disgruntled French waiter misunderstood our order and brought us both the same open-faced chicken and cheese sandwich (which turned out to be positively dreadful) with steak fries that Matt had ordered.  Not to be deterred, we chalked up the mistake and rudeness as part of the experience and happily finished a bottle of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc while noshing on fries in the shadow of Notre Dame.  This is probably as good a time as any to point out the emphatically inaccurate stereotype of French rudeness.  Though we encountered the phenomenon in this little touristy restaurant, it was the only time in the entire trip and seemed somehow forced and unnatural at the onset, as if more for show than actual disdain.  In fact, throughout our trip we experienced nothing but the most pleasant of French citizens and impeccably gracious hosts.

Reenergized with carbohydrates and flush with white wine we took our touristy photos of Notre Dame and continued our tour of the city.  Heading north again, back across the Seine, past the Palais de Justice, in the direction of Les Halles and happening across Saint-Jaques Tower along the way.  The irony of all this is that, again, we didn’t really have a plan, thus we, perhaps regrettably, walked by many iconic places admiring them for one reason or another but often not having a clue of the real significance until a later Wikipedia search.  It’s as  though we didn’t want our adventure to be spoiled with the chore of research and the diligence of facts.  We simply wanted to take it all in naturally and appreciate the city and landmarks for what they aesthetically were.  It was with this in mind that we consciously made the decision to admire the Louvre from the outside.  This may seem somewhat sacrilegious for a former art student, but the prospect of viewing an endless amount of art among the droves of tourists wasn’t the least bit appealing.  So, we momentarily gawked at the gawking tourists while standing next to the iconic modern glass pyramid surrounded by the 12th century Parisian fortress and decided in near synchronicity that it was time for some vin chaud.  Thus, in search of an early afternoon elixir we set off across the Jardin des Tuileries and found a great outdoor café right in the middle of the park that had just what we were looking for.  We took our seats at a small metal table nestled under perfect rows of young maple trees and placed our order.  At this point the clouds gave way to sunshine, which helped create another great memory.  As the air around us became spring-like, we watched a nearby pair of grandparents wrangle three tow-headed blonde toddlers, as we sipped our drinks; all within view of the Louvre.  It became immediately clear that life is indeed quite good.

Pressing on from that perfect moment, the sky voiced its disapproval by rolling in another swath of grey clouds.  At the western foot of the Jardin des Tuileries is what appears to be a permanently installed tall, white ferris wheel, actively taking patrons up for unobstructed views of the city.  Matt and I took the moment to compare it to the underground ferris wheel we had ridden in the salt mines of Turda, Romania.  Though the thought of an underground ferris wheel might seem interesting, and, in fact, is,my money says that this Parisian counterpoint has slightly more breathtaking views.  This spot marks the end of the Jardin des Tuileries and the beginning of the Champs Elysees and since Matt had yet to see either the Champs or the Arc de Triomphe we marched on west to the Arc, stopping midway for coffee and people watching.  Unsurprisingly, the Champs Elysees looked even more commercial on a Saturday then it had the day before.  Nevertheless, we soaked it all in, admittedly admiring the living art more than the commercial kind.  Boys will be boys, after all.  Once at the Arc, we made our way, past the street of death above, through a well-appointed underground tunnel.  As we emerged safely on the other side we admired the shear massiveness of the monument, like all things it was even larger up close.  Having seen the Arc the day before, I let Matt wander around while I again marveled at the juxtaposition of the monument, the flutter of tourist cameras and the whirling of the Parisian street around me.  Taking special note of one young British couple who were clearly more interested in each other than the rest of it all, I wondered, in ten years when they look back on this moment under the Arc, how will they remember it.

The Balcony

Having had enough of sightseeing for the day, the two of us hopped the blue M2 line at the Charles de Gaulle – Etoile station stop and cruised back to Anvers.  It was this afternoon and evening that we discovered how sensational our balcony at the hostel was.  More on the Vintage Hostel later, but it’s worth mentioning here that their street-side second and fifth floor rooms all have incredible balconies.  With our second floor room we had a great view of the traffic on the below sidewalk and street.  As dusk fell, the purple balcony lights clicked on, shrouding us in a glow of violet that somehow just works in Paris.  Admittedly, there was more than just one bottle of Bordeaux enjoyed on that balcony over good people watching and great conversation.

The Confluence of Happenstance

As it inevitably does, hunger set in again and thus we disembarked from our terrace perches in search of something more than liquid sustenance.  Fortuitously, there was an Indian restaurant a block down on the right that was just within view of our stoop.  Since Matt had never been introduced to Indian cuisine and I, of course, love it, the decision was a simple one.  Within minutes we had descended from the incredible environment of our balcony to only be bowled over by another amazing barrage to our senses — the awakening aromas of Indian food.  Disappointingly empty for a Saturday night, the locals don’t know what they’re missing out on.  Though pricey for my Peace Corps budget, every bite was thoroughly worth it.  Leaning back in our chairs, full of curry and garlic naan, we knew that if we didn’t rally we’d be down for the count, and seeing as it was Saturday we had to see what kind of nightlife Paris had to offer.  So we settled up with our Indian host and made for the city streets.

Conveniently, right next door was a small corner bar called Le Bar du Lycée.  We had already wondered by several times in the past two days so thought we’d try it out.  Unfortunately, our plans were almost to be thwarted, as we read a note on the door implying that the establishment was closed to a private party that evening.  Again, with a mixed look of disappointment and dumb tourist we began to turn and walk away when the owner jumped out and encouraged us to come in for the next five minutes or so until the party got started.  Not wanting to turn down an invitation, it is the Peace Corps way after all, we graciously accepted and saddled up to the bar.  Here is the interesting thing, our five minutes quickly gave-way to fifteen, thirty and so on.  The owner just kept offering us food and drinks, incredibly hospitable.  As it turns out the event was a birthday party for a Parisian children’s clothing designer.  With a full spread of catered food and bottomless bottles of wine the guest of honor insisted that we stay on and join them.  Not only was she incredibly welcoming and obviously successful, but she was also one of the most stunning women that Matt and I had ever seen.  In her mid to late twenties, she’s the child of a mixed race couple, probably African and European parents.  With her hair outrageously styled in a giant Afro, and her makeup seemingly professionally done, she looked as though she had just stepped right off the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.  Though, not wanting to over stay our welcome we paid the bartender and appreciatively made our exit.

Parlez-vous Roumain?

At this point, once again interested in live music, Matt steered us in the direction of the Irish Pub and who was I to disagree.  Arriving just on time for the main act’s performance, we ordered a round and started making friends.  It’s worth mentioning here the story behind the title for this series.  As it turns out, when I am in a foreign country, for example France, where I clearly don’t know the language, I now default to Romanian (which I don’t speak well either) rather than English.  Thus, as I spoke with French people throughout the week who didn’t speak English and obviously didn’t speak Romanian either, I would, to the amusement of my colleagues try to communicate in Romanian anyway.  So imagine me in a French bar, looking clearly American, trying to order a round of beers in Romanian; this is my life.

After enjoying the music for the rest of the evening and helping to close down the bar, we began the journey home.  This is when the only other qualm I have about Paris arose; you can’t get food here after 2:00 a.m.  in the morning (Matt will keenly observe that I’ve taken certain creative liberty with the daily timeline here).  All of the street-side vendors, shops and restaurants are closed, and, according to the concierge at the hostel, not even delivery is an option at this hour.  A quick mental note is taken; herein lays a potentially very profitable business plan.  Though a somewhat disappointing note on which we ended our day the overwhelmingly positive good time we encountered throughout the rest of it thoroughly trounced this minor inconvenience.

Note:  If you are viewing the email version of this post please click on the blog title above to view the photographs.

Day One

It was now Friday morning and after a good night’s sleep it was time to see Paris for the first time in the daylight.  The forecast of partly cloudy skies and moderately warm temperatures would turn out to provide the perfect atmosphere for the day.  Little did I know at the fresh promise of dawn exactly what was in store for me; this would be a full day of searching for friends, marveling at some of the world’s most famous landmarks and, unexpectedly, fulfilling the cliché of falling in love with Paris.

The Business

As I noshed on a wonderfully buttery and delicate croissant I contemplated the day’s business.  As it were to happen, my sightseeing plans would pivot around three unrelated goals.  First, two Peace Corps Romania volunteers would be arriving in Paris as their one-millionth stop on a European train tour and would be staying for the night.  It was these two lovely women, we’ll call them Melissa and Jovanka, that had suggested the Vintage Hostel in the first place.  So I thought it would be nice to meet them at the train station as a little surprise.  I say “surprise” because although they knew I would be in Paris, we had limited means of communication at this juncture and had not arranged a meeting place.  Thus, I had little to go on regarding their exact arrival, though piecing together a few abstract details I was certain they would arrive at Gare du Nord from Amsterdam at around ten in the morning.  So I waited…and waited…and when they didn’t get off the ten o’clock train I waited some more for the eleven o’clock.  Though, taking full advantage of my time at the beautifully European station I happily enjoyed another Jambon-Buerre while watching travelers busily come and go.  When my friends didn’t get off the second train I thought it a more prudent plan to leave contact information at the front desk of the hostel and strike out on my own for the day.  So, I picked up a new SIM card for my mobile and left my new Parisian phone number scribbled on the concierge’s print out of my friend’s reservation.  Since obtaining a phone number was the second bit of business that I had to attend to that day, I was now one for two.  The third challenge would be to pick up PCV Matt at the Beauvais-Paris bus stop at Port Malliot at 5:00 p.m. that afternoon.  Fortunately, we had the wherewithal to coordinate this rendezvous ahead of time.  Provided that his flight wasn’t delayed and he didn’t make the same mistakes that I had with the bus, he would likely arrive on time.  So, with several hours now to myself, I set out to see what this Paris craze was all about.

The Walking Tour

Being that I’m not a big fan of organized tourism, I opted to focus on a few main attractions, figuring that once in the general vicinity, I could walk from one site to the other and experience the city randomly on my own in-between.  So at the recommendation of my sister, and through the sheer coincidence of convenient proximity to the hostel, I started with the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the top of Montmartre, the highest point in the city.  Truth be told, we are jumping around the timeline a little here because I actually did this first thing in the morning, hoping (unsuccessfully) to catch the sunrise.  This part of Paris was still waking up as the city cleaners were out and about tidying up the landmark, most notably hosing down the many steps to the summit of Montmartre.  Due to my timing, I had the architecturally stunning landmark mostly to myself, save a handful of Senegalese panhandlers, and, thus, the story of how I got taken for my lunch money.  There is one level of stairs that flank either side of the post-entrance to the Montmartre grounds and, thus, you are given a choice of going up a level, left or right around a fountain built into the wall.  Regardless of which way you go, there are three or four skinny, dark-skinned gentlemen waiting for you with wide smiles at the top.  Seasoned masters of their trade, they effortlessly capture your attention while obstructing your path.  Long story short, they take your hand and proceed to make a bracelet for you in the colors of the Senegalese flag, promising that there is no obligation to pay and that only if you are happy with the outcome would they accept a small donation.  Needless to say, at this point I was already hooked and, as I type this blog entry, I am wearing a not so one-of-a-kind Senegalese bracelet.  Finally buying my way out of the situation I completed my stair-stepper morning workout and arrived at the Basilica.  To this day, I’m still not sure which is more impressive, the Basilica itself or the view of the city from this vantage point.  From what I read the stone used to build the Basilica has an inherent self-cleaning chemistry and, thus, the structure continues to glisten after nearly one hundred years.  The view of the city is nothing short of breathtaking; with a light mist emanating from the buildings, you are instantly transported into the past.  Due to the strict building code in Paris, very few buildings are more than five stories and thus the cityscape hasn’t changed much in recent history; this was a view that was certainly worth losing my lunch money over.

Next on my city tour would be the Eiffel Tower.  My logic at the time was that, based on the forecast, this would be the only day within the next seven, not to be graced with rain.  A forecast that, thankfully was largely inaccurate.  So even though I knew that I would be visiting the Eiffel Tower again later in the week, I still wanted to make sure that I had the chance to see it up close on a sunny day.  Though I decided to save my money and forgo scaling the structure until I had company.  This leg of my journey would require a quick ride in the metro since Montmartre and the Tower are on opposite sides of the city.  As the green M6 line train emerged from beneath the ground to cross the Seine River on its way to the Bir-Hakeim Tour Eiffel stop, the iconic monument came into view.  By this point tourists had come out of the woodwork to clog the streets and generally get in my way, seemingly with the goal of taking as many pictures of the tower as their little memory sticks could hold from every angle imaginable; perhaps understandably so, as the Parisian symbol is truly magnificent.  No matter how many times you have seen the tower in films or in photographs, you simply can’t be ready for its stature, as it dwarfs every person, tree and building around it.  It’s hard to imagine that this installation was scheduled to be dismantled some years after the World’s Fair of 1889.  Perhaps, ironically, we have capitalism to thank for saving the tower, since it was business that encouraged the city to leave it standing as they cited that the structure was the perfect radio tower.  Regardless of to whom we owe our gratitude, the Eiffel Tower is unquestionably worthy of its notoriety.

As I wandered down the Champs de Mars, shrinking the Eiffel Tower behind me, the next logical stop on my walking tour was L’Hôtel National des Invalides and the Esplanade des Invalides.  The former was originally built to serve as a hospital and retirement quarters for war veterans in the late 1600’s.  Today the facility houses several museums dedicated to past wars and is even the site to Napoleon Bonaparte’s final resting spot.  Focusing my tour on the exterior of the city, I pressed on past the mammoth Les Invalides building and across the grassy Esplanade to Port Alexandre III.  This bridge is squared off by four towers on top of which are beautiful “gilt-bronze” (which look gold to me) sculptures.  Each of the Pegasus-restraining sculptures represents one of four different “Fames”: Fame of Sciences, Fame of Arts, Fame of Commerce and the Fame of Industry.  The bridge itself is also ornately decorated; on either side are Nymphs of the Seine, one meant to represent France and the other Russia as a symbol of the Franco-Russian alliance.  From there I decided to walk along the right bank of the Seine back in the direction of the Eiffel Tower, hoping that I could get a few more admittedly touristy snapshots.  Once that mission was accomplished I meandered past the Trocadéro and back through the city, past ambassadorial residences to the Arc de Triomphe.   This is another monument the size of which can’t be fully comprehended until you actually see if for yourself.  Earlier in the day I had read something about an airplane flying through the Arc in the early 1900’s as a stunt.  This seemed questionable to me at the time, but once I saw the enormity of the Arc up close I began to understand how this feat could be accomplished.  Knowing that I would likely return to the Arc with company later in the week I elected to save my Euros and admire the structure from a bench across the street.  Almost as impressive as the Arc itself is the traffic that endlessly flows around it.  There are twelve distinct roads that connect to the Charles de Gaulle roundabout and there are no painted lines or street lamps to direct traffic.  Though, I think if you had a keen enough sense of hearing you could probably navigate the mess blindfolded while simply focusing on the various car horns.

The last major part of my self-guided tour was down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to the Grand Palais.  I’m honestly not sure what I expected here, or if I even really gave it any preliminary thought at all, but I don’t think that I had envisioned this romantic sounding street to be a highway of commerce.  Nothing against shopping, but I think I had more of a quiet tree-lined street in mind when I first thought of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.  Regardless of what I expected, the real deal is endlessly lined with giant flagship designer stores, from major perfume and clothing retailers to high-end car dealerships, intermittently dotted with restaurants and cafés.  I suddenly felt out of my depth as I clutched the few Euros I had left in my pocket to finance the day; my Omega Seamaster would certainly have to wait until later.

The Convergence

Before heading over to the bus stop to pick up Matt, I decided to rest my bones for a bit, so I hopped on the orange M1 line at the Franklin D. Roosevelt stop and wound my way through the subway system and back to the hostel.  After a short rest, I thought I would see if there was a coffee shop in the mall next to the bus stop and perhaps have a coffee while I waited for Matt’s bus to arrive.  Sure enough, lo and behold, there was a Starbucks.  Now this may not sound at all surprising for those of you who see these everyday on every street corner in America, but this was my first time in one since having left the United States.  So, going against my better judgment, I put my hard earned RON (now brutally converted to Euros) and elected to have my favorite, a soy latte, which cost about one week’s worth of groceries in Romania, but I have to admit it was quite enjoyable.

With my Starbucks coffee now in tow, I spotted Matt across the street waiting for me after his bus had dropped him off (early of all things).  So I guided him back to the hotel where we got him checked in, dropped his bag off and had a swig of Romanian țuica just to ensure that we wouldn’t forget our roots.  Somewhere in the midst of all this, we received a call from Melissa and Jovanka who had arrived on the train immediately following the last one I thought they might be on earlier that morning; so they, too, had been gallivanting around the city all day.  Since they were still out and about, we decided to meet up at a predetermined time directly beneath the now lit up Eiffel Tower.  I know, I know, how cliché is that?  I guessed we figured that we were in Paris for a short time together and why not ham it up.

The Parisian Night

From the time it gets dark until midnight, the Eiffel Tower is not only lit up, but also twinkles on the hour every hour.  Honestly the normal, good old lighting is enough for me.  I find the incessant sparkling to be akin to having your mobile phone bedazzled.  Regardless, we met up with the girls, caught up briefly and then decided to grab a bite to eat back in our hostel’s district.  Just down the street was a little bistro named L’Ecrin where we spied on the chalkboard out front a prix fixe two course meal with Steak au Poivre for only €12.50.  We figured that if we added a bottle of red wine how could we go wrong?  Now there is no doubting that I have a real weakness for anything involving beef and anything involving copious amounts of black pepper.  But when you add the two together and then put a cognac-based cream pan sauce on top, I am basically in heaven.  In my mind, there is absolutely nothing else like it, and if I am ever given the opportunity to select my final meal, that will be it.  So needless to say, by the end of dinner I was in a very happy place.  Who would have thought that it would only get better with the addition of dessert later that night?

After dinner, the girls wanted to go see the façade of La Moulin Rouge, which was conveniently located only two metro stops down on the Blue M2 at Blanche station.  So, in short order, we were standing out front, our faces all lit up in red from the glow of the neon lights.  Having taken our token photographs and not having the gumption to spend €100 to see a show we went for the next best thing, crêpes.  We found a little stand next door that made crêpes to order, of the savory or sweet variety.  While waiting in line for my banana and nutella crêpe to be whipped up, I spotted the last thing in the world that I would have expected to see anywhere in Paris.  On a piece of metal trim, protruding from one of the café’s walls was a rectangular little magnet with a single round medieval looking tower.  Unbelievably, the word inscribed below the tower was Târgoviște.  How that magnet got there was enough of a mystery, but the fact that the four of us Peace Corps Romania volunteers were standing there after having, only months ago, lived in Târgoviște for a summer was just amazing to me.  Whether for this reason or not, the crepes were equally good.

Feeling fully satisfied now from a fun day and full evening we decided to head back to the hostel to relax.  Fate, however, had something else in mind for us.  Since we decided to soak up the Parisian evening by walking back rather than taking the metro, we happened across an Irish Pub with live American music playing inside.  Matt’s ears immediately perked up, and the four of us were unavoidably sucked inside.  After sizing the place up, and mutually agreeing that we could easily round off the night here, we saddled up to the bar and ordered a round of pints.   To our pleasure, the musician, though clearly French, sang with a perfect American accent all of the classics that we grew up with.  After a couple of hours, the music came to an end and we called it a night.  Having just forty-eight hours earlier been sitting in Bucharest, with little to no plan for what I would do in Paris for a week, this trip was quickly becoming a very good time….and it was still only Friday.

Note:  If you are viewing the email version of this post please click on the blog title above to view the photographs.

The Intro

This January I was fortunate enough to join a few Peace Corps Volunteer friends on a trip to Paris, France.  Even though we decided on the excursion late in the fall of 2011, I honestly hadn’t given the vacation much thought until the night before departure.  As such, I hadn’t planned anything in particular to do or see, aside from the obvious inescapable landmarks.  I hadn’t read through a Lonely Planet, or even gone so far as to google “Paris.”  I had, however, emailed a sister who is no stranger to the city, but didn’t even read her response until after takeoff.  The only French I knew was “Merci” and that’s only because of the word’s regular use in Romania.  And I wasn’t even sure where I would be staying for the week.  So, in short, I was about as ill prepared as a person could be for such a vacation.  After all, Paris is just another European city right?  It’s full of the same history, churches, and metropolitan snobbery as any other major city, isn’t it?  Oh, how wrong I was.  This adventure of ours turned out to be one of the most amazing in all of my life, thanks to the best travelling companions ever and an incredible setting for us to explore.

The Harsh Truth

Paris is one of those places that we are all familiar with from our exposure through movies, television, news, etc.  It’s a city that is so tightly engrained into the world’s psyche that simple images of berets and baguettes conjure up romantic and whimsical thoughts of bistros and French accents.  For those of you who have never been to Paris, take a moment now to imagine that you are there.  Pull up a small wicker chair to a little round table on the sidewalk patio of a bistro that is tucked around the corner on cobblestone side street.  Order your coffee or glass of red wine, and take it all in.  Feel the warm Parisian air caress your skin as it swirls around you.  Smell the fresh French bread baking.  Watch the smartly dressed, brilliantly beautiful Parisian men and women motor by on their Vespas.  Eavesdrop on the delightfully alluring French conversation that is taking place over your left shoulder as the young couple next to you incomprehensibly plans their afternoon jaunt to a secluded park.   Okay, 3, 2, 1, back to the blog.  Now take everything you just imagined and file it under pure fantasy in your mind, because it is total rubbish.  There isn’t a human being on this planet that can accurately imagine the wonderment that is Paris.  Nothing that you have ever read or ever will read will do this city justice.  No romantic film, or steamy love novel can even come close to what it really means to stand on one of the many Parisian bridges and to stare blankly at the Eiffel Tour.   Of course this is coming from a man who almost cried over his first bite of Jambon-Beurre….at the Beauvais airport no less.  Oh, yes my friends, that is real butter.

The Disclaimer

Now having said that, I’ve made my job of conveying how truly great my experience was infinitely more difficult, impossible in fact.  So you may be better off closing your web browser right now, calling your travel agent and embarking on your own Paris trip.  However, for those of you who have already planned your vacation for 2012, I will wholeheartedly attempt this venture with the limited resources at my disposal: the English language and two-dimensional photographs.

The Preparation

As you may recall from my New Years Eve blog post, there is a fantastic hostel in Bucharest, The Green Frog; this is where our story begins.  Since my flight left the next day, rather than go home after the hockey game in Miercurea Ciuc, I bypassed Valea Călugărească and went straight on to Bucharest.  Moments after walking through the front door, checking-in and throwing my pack on the bed, I was greeted with a complimentary tall boy of Ciucaș beer.  As a brief side note, I feel that it’s interesting to point out that “normal” small, American sized beer cans don’t exist here; only their big brothers.  Step it up America!  Anyway, it was over this refreshing 24 oz., that I first started to wrap my head around the trip.  I booked my hostel for the first night, as I would be arriving a day ahead of my compatriots, and I downloaded the necessary iPhone apps to ease my navigation around the city: Paris Metro and Paris2Go.  The former being completely pointless, as the latter has the metro map built into it.  Also, being a big fan of the Lonely Planet series, I downloaded their electronic book to my iPad and considered myself to be all set.  The last bit of business was to research where we’d be staying for the week.  My friend Matt has acquaintances that live “just outside of Paris” that offered to put us up.  Aside from the awesomeness of the city, a big draw to visit Paris was that we’d be able to stay for free with some local college students that knew their way around.  As it turns out, “just outside of Paris” means the city of Amiens, which is actually 150 kilometers one way from Paris.  This is not exactly the kind of distance that lends itself to daily site-seeing commutes.  Thus, it quickly became clear that our “cheap” trip would suddenly incur the costs for lodging.  Not to be deterred, I gulped down the last swig of Ciucaș and tabled this minor inconvenience for another night.

The Departure

The next morning, one of the hostel owners gave me a free ride to the Băneasa airport, which is just beyond the Bucharest city limits.  This is the area’s answer to low-cost airlines and features such gems as Wizz Air and Blue Air.  My Icarus of choice for this adventure would be Wizz Air because of their great rates to Paris; my roundtrip ticket was only $300 including one checked bag.  There is no doubt that the age-old adage “You get what you pay for” certainly applies here.  The Băneasa airport is no sight to behold inside or out and is about as efficient as it is aesthetically pleasing.  The loud speakers were so garbled that I wouldn’t have been able to understand them had the announcements been in English.  When it was finally time for my delayed flight to board, a small sheet of 8 ½ by 11-inch paper was taped to the gate’s window that said “Beauvais.”  With no zones and no seat numbers, all passengers were inadvertently encouraged to press up against the gate desk to be the first on the bus.  Yes, that’s right BUS.  Rather than the modern convenience of walking through a jet-way to your plane, at Băneasa you’re piled onto a standing room only bus and wildly carted off to the runway.  As the two buses came to a stop alongside the plane, all six doors opened, at which point passengers began to bum rush the plane as if their lives depended on it.  Though the seats were astonishingly comfortable, the flight smooth and the flight attendants attentive, when I think of “Wizz Air” I now think more along the lines of golden shower than I do whizzing effortlessly through the air.  The fact that my Oakley sunglasses vanished from their hard shell case, apparently while airborne, admittedly sours the experience further.  Though like a mouse to cheese in an electric shock experiment, I will likely use the low-cost Hungarian airline again some day, if only for the low rates.

The Arrival

Unfortunately, arriving at Beauvais airport did little to lift my spirits, aside for the aforementioned Jambon-Beurre.  The airport is some fifty kilometers outside of Paris, so it’s not as easy as hailing a cab to get to your hotel.  The airport does however offer a bus service that promises to accommodate all passengers with transportation to Paris for only twenty Euro roundtrip.  So with my Jambon-Beurre in hand I decided to leisurely make my way to the bus’s ticket booth, this time doing my best to avoid the hordes jockeying for a ticket.  Once the ticket line died down I made my approach only to be cut in front of by a local.  Being that I wasn’t up to speed on my French expletives and that I didn’t want to start an international incident on day one of my visit, I shrugged my shoulders and let the offense slide.  Little did I know that I would be the very first person after the last person to get a seat on the bus and that I would have to wait another hour for the next one.  To make matters more nettlesome, the ominous Parisian sky was spitting cold rain and blustering wind down on me; not the pleasant French welcome I was shooting for.  As I waited in line, shivering, the next bus pulled up, but the driver wouldn’t let anyone on board until it was ready for departure, thirty minutes later.  The disgruntled bus driver exchanged a clearly unpleasant barrage of French dialog with many locals standing in line.  Fortunately for me, this was without a doubt the low point of my trip; it was all rainbows and gum drops from here forward.

It was dusk when we loaded the bus and latched our seatbelts, which is apparently mandatory in France, and began the hour-long journey to Paris in total silence.  The giant coach bus was largely empty so I managed to score the front row seat, right by the front door, which gave me an unencumbered view of the lush, green countryside as we drove south on the perfectly paved highway.  I mention this, because I hadn’t been on such a nicely paved road in over eight months and was bemused at the smooth ride.  Being lolled to sleep like a toddler in the car after a long day at the playground, I fought to stay awake not wanting to miss anything; that is when the city lights of Paris first hit the horizon.  By now the sun had set and Paris had taken over the job of lighting the sky.  A few minutes later we arrived at Port Maillot where there is a metro stop, and disembarked, slightly disoriented from the days travelling.  Not having a clue how to get to the actual entrance for the metro and not seeing any obvious signs, I just followed the flow of travelers.  To my surprise, they led me right into a huge shopping mall, another spectacle that I had rarely caught a glimpse of in the prior eight months.  As I wearily roamed past the designer stores I caught the trail of signs leading to the metro, bought an unlimited five-day metro card, consulted my Paris Metro iPhone app, and figured out my route to Anvers, the closest stop to my hostel.

Being that rush hour had now descended upon Paris, the metro was in full swing with business people making their way home and to happy hours, so understandably, the masses didn’t react kindly to my giant hiking backpack.  Nonetheless, I managed to navigate the mass transit system, narrated by the loveliest of mass transit automated announcers.  When I ascended from the Anvers station, I was pleasantly surrounded by more hustle-n-bustle, bright lights and a welcoming positive vibe of city energy; we had definitely picked a great hostel location.  In the minutes that followed, I walked by a proverbial treasure trove of ethnic restaurants, from Thai to Indian to, of course, French.  By the time I had made my way to the hostel I was famished and as giddy about my dinner options as a school kid on the last day of the spring semester.  After getting checked in and finding my room I headed out solo for a culinary delicacy.  Thai would be my first choice, as the polar opposite to Romanian food and just the jolt my system needed to get my palette readjusted to the culinary wonders of the modern world.  After a thoroughly satisfying dinner, I headed back to the hostel to relax in the lobby.  My goal: to hash out a plan for a bit of sightseeing.  What would I do tomorrow?

Note:  If you are viewing the email version of this post please click on the blog title above to view the photographs.


On a last-minute whim, thanks largely again to the insistence of PCV Aran, I hopped a train North to Miercurea Ciuc, Romania for a hockey match.  Now, understandably, it may seem strange to travel ten hours round trip for a hockey game, especially when I am not even a sports fan and you would be right to question my sanity for making such a commitment.  But, somehow the pace of life in Romania is simply different from that of the United States.  I can remember a time when I would turn down the opportunity to see a music concert in Washington, DC simply because it was a forty-five minute drive to the venue.  Here, though, our suburban excursion equivalent usually involves packing a roll of toilet paper.  Travel time alone was not about to keep me from exploring a new city and a new, interesting aspect to Romanian society and culture; the enigma that is Hungarian-Romanians.

In my defense, this hockey game turned out to be, as promised, a very memorable experience, largely because of the teams that were playing.  As history tells us, the boarders of Romania have changed about as often as a US politician’s views.  Over the centuries, the size of Romania has ebbed and flowed considerably before settling into its current form.  Once upon a time, a large part of northern Romania belonged to Hungary and it was not until after World War II that this swath of territory was gained/regained by the Romanians.  In the meantime, a large number of ethnic Hungarians had settled the borderlands, many of which still live there today.  Herein lies my compelling excuse for making the last-minute trip.  As a result of the historical changes in territory, there is a significant rivalry between the ethnic Hungarians in this region and non-Hungarian Romanians.  There are many cities in this area where upwards of ninety-percent of the population speak Hungarian as their primary language; street signs, café menus, let alone spoken word on the street stand as proof.  To this day, there continues a movement for the northwestern region of Transylvania to secede from the Romanian republic altogether, though it lacks wide enough support to likely come to fruition.

Regardless of the greater political ramifications of this discourse, we saw an example of this rivalry in the microcosm of the Miercurea Ciuc hockey rink.  Our gladiators for the evening were the Romanian national team, Steaua Rangers, Bucharest and the Székely team from the north, Hoki Sport Club, Csíkszereda.  Joining a Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in this region, who has subjected himself to the water-boarding torture that is the experience of learning Hungarian, we naturally had to root for the home team.  If not out of loyalty to our comrade, than for our safety in this Hungarian dominated venue.  To our initial chagrin and later nervous elation, no beer was served at this event; a management decision that became clearly understandable as the game progressed.

Picture this extreme embodiment of Hungarian hockey fan exuberance:  A forty-something man wearing a shiny, light purple mechanic’s jump suit.  Sporting an eighty’s inspired crew cut, straight shaved sides and back with two inches of jet-black hair on top.  Running along the length of the rink, bouncing back and forth on the railing like a temper-tantrum inflicted child on a jungle gym.  Passionately yelling expletives in Hungarian while clutching a baseball card style representation of an Eastern Orthodox Saint, pausing only intermittently from his raucous illustration of dedication to pray for victory.  Clearly mentally unstable or perhaps just intensely passionate about his hockey team; most likely both.

Though not all Hungarians get as fired up as the cheerleader portrayed above, those in attendance clearly showed their love for Sport Club and their disdain for the Romanian capital’s team.  Although Sport Club served an embarrassing victory over Steaua a few days early in Bucharest, eight to zero, this game was much closer.  As fun as a blowout would have been, this fight for every goal was more interesting.  In the end, Sport Club came from behind to win, four to three.  Once the game was over, the Székely anthem, emotionally led by the Sport Club Team Captain, blasted over the loud speakers to the crowd’s delight, as captured on video by another Volunteer.

At the risk of sounding a bit cliché, this was another one of those Peace Corps moments that make the sacrifice worth it.  Even though I was exhausted by the journey and my extremities were numb from the bitter cold in this, on average, “coldest Romanian city,” I couldn’t help but feel that this was one of those moments where I had witnessed something truly unique to the Peace Corps Romania experience.  Sappy stuff aside, I found a Washington Capitals puck from the nearby hockey store to bring home as a souvenir for only 12 RON. Score!

Note:  If you are viewing the email version of this post please click on the Blog Title above which links to www.27luni.com to view the photographs.


La Mulți Ani 2012

With the fully content mindset to stay home alone on New Years Eve, I was ready to bring in the New Year silently cheering in my quiet school side home.  However, as fate would have it my Peace Corps Volunteer neighbor, Aran, in nearby Ploiești convinced me to venture down to Bucharest with him and another Volunteer, Anthony, to see what the Romanian capital city had to offer on “Revelion.”  Somewhat exhausted from the events of the past few months, a big Volunteer get together was the last thing of interest on my list, but the idea of hanging out with just a couple of the “fellas” struck a chord as the right mix between vociferous socializing and relaxing solitude.  As usual, little did I know what plans Aran actually had in the works; plans that would make for one of the best New Years I’ve ever had.

Aran is the type of unassuming character that I tend to liken to the old detective character from the TV series Columbo.  Quiet and modest, Aran is humble to the core, but always has something up his sleeve that leaves more than meets the eye.   Just when you come to the realization that he has been checked out of the conversation for the better part of half an hour, he chimes in with a surprisingly profound quip that takes the topic to another level.  The events of New Years Eve 2011, as orchestrated by Aran, held true to his character.

As luck would have it, Anthony was on a holiday tour of Romania and happened to be down visiting our neck of the woods during this period.  So on Saturday morning, December 31st, the three of us met up in Aran’s Ploiești bloc apartment and made our way to the Autogara for a bus to Bucharest.  Now, if you know me at all, you know that I am not one to comfortably step off the cliff blind folded; I like to have a plan, I like to know where we are going, when we will be leaving, what bus number, how many rain drops are forecasted to fall from the sky that hour, etc., but for this trip I left everything up to my comrades.  And, I have to admit it, though nerve racking, the experience was quite liberating and probably more inline with the typical seat of the pants behavior of Peace Corps Volunteers.  Anyway, we arrived in Bucharest in the early afternoon and checked into a great hostel, that Anthony had found online earlier in the week, just a few blocks from Gara de Nord, called The Green Frog.

As another quick side note, the more I stay in hostels, the more I think I want to own and run one someday.  Hostels are the perfect mix of inexpensive and eclectic, with the personality of a charming Bed and Breakfast, but without the stuffiness of a hotel.  We only stayed at The Green Frog the one night but quickly made friends with the staff.  They not only offered us free coffee upon our arrival that afternoon and a complete complimentary breakfast the next morning, but also champagne to celebrate when we returned at four in the morning on New Years Day.  In fact, as circumstances would have it, I unexpectedly ended up staying in Bucharest another night a few days later and never considered staying anywhere but The Green Frog.  Though I will say, walking from Gara de Nord to this Hostel during the day is perfectly fine; walking in any direction at night, alone and with a giant backpack even just a few blocks from any Gara let alone Gara de Nord is not so smart; invest in the very short cab ride.  Even though there were a couple sketchy moments including, but not limited to, an abrupt exchange with a woman of the night, I did manage to find a new Chinese restaurant!

Okay, so back to the story.  After the three of us threw our packs on to our respective spots in the eight-bed room, we relaxed for a moment being reinvigorated by the free coffee and the great conversation with the hostel staff, namely Roxanna and Marius.  We also met a construction working Irishman, puzzlingly searching for work in Romania with possibly the worst English I have ever heard, and a Spaniard traveling the Balkans on holiday.  With our stomach’s growling we decided to head out for a bite to eat.  This is when the true plans for the evening began to be revealed.  Unbeknownst to me, Aran had made arrangements for us to join one of our two Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders at her flat in Bucharest for dinner.  As it turns out, her Romanian boyfriend had recently caught a wild boar and was cooking it up that evening.  With renewed excitement at the prospect of eating Romanian wild boar we hopped on the metro and made our way across town.

After picking up a few bottles of wine and finding our PCVL’s apartment among a maze of Bucharest blocs we were welcomed with open arms and big smiles.  With the corks popped, conversation quickly got underway.  In time, our group slowly grew to seven, with the addition of two more Volunteers who had just returned from a four-week stay back in the States visiting family.  Admittedly, their stories of big box stores, chain restaurants and gigantic SUVs made my stomach turn a bit; my U.S. reintegration is definitely going to be difficult, if at all possible.  Fortunately, the wild boar cutlets, wild boar sarmale (best sarmale I have ever had) and all the fixing you’d expect from Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner brought me back to a much happier place.  Another highlight of dinner centered on fish scales. In addition, our hosts baked fish for dinner and dried a handful of fish scales in accordance with an apparent tradition to bring financial good fortune in the coming year.  We were each required to place several scales in our wallets in observance of the tradition; keep your fingers crossed.

Wrapping up our dinner party at around 10:45pm, we decided that we should make our way to the city center for the fireworks display.  Months earlier, one thing that had peaked my interest about New Years in Romania was the thought of seeing fireworks in front of the People’s Palace or Palace of the Parliament.  This building represents the largest administrative building in Europe and the second largest in the world, second only to the Pentagon outside of Washington, DC.  From what I have heard it is quite amazing when lit up at night.  With no place open to buy bus tickets this late at night, we toyed with the idea of risking the fine of a free ride.  Thanks to our tight timeline on getting to the Palace and the slow frequency of buses we opted for cabs instead.  Within minutes, despite roadblocks, we were dropped off just a stone’s throw from our destination.  As we walked along side droves of people making their way to the Palace we could hear music playing from the free concert that was taking place for the evening, with Smiley as the headliner.  In addition to the music, the sounds of store bought fireworks were tearing through the atmosphere around us.  On either side of the main tree lined Bulevardul Unirii heading to the Palace, inspired by Paris’ Champs de Elysees, are thin strips of fenced in grass and rows of balconied bloc apartments, from which Romanian’s shot off enough fireworks to rival the forthcoming State sponsored display.  My favorite of the homegrown variety, was one balcony towards the end of Bulevardul Unirii, where the residents were launching Chinese styled floating lanterns.  The official fireworks show was quite impressive, though the one I saw in Cluj earlier in the year was somehow better.  The real disappointment was that the People’s Palace was never actually lit up.  Regardless, with the count down progressing and champagne corks popping off all around, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend this particular New Years.  The evening continued, as we hopped from the center of town to our friend’s hotel and then back to our hostel for the aforementioned champagne nightcap.

The next day we slept in a bit, had a late breakfast, packed up our stuff and headed out for a stroll around Bucharest.  Mustering energy from the unknown, we toured Parcul Cișmigiu, Parcul Izvor, Piața Constituției, Parcul Carol and Parcul Văcărești before making our way back to the bus station.  We covered a lot of ground that day, running solely on fumes, but it was worth it.  Though not as well maintained, Parcul Văcărești reminds me a lot of Central Park in New York City; definitely a good place for a picnic on a spring or summer day.

Another great thing about Peace Corps service, in addition to cultural exchange and helping the host country with wanted skills development, is the simple randomness that can accompany service if you let it.  A welcome lesson regularly bestowed upon me by my fellow Volunteer colleagues is that of simply going with the flow and having faith that even with a minimum of preparation some really memorable times can be had.

Note:  If you are viewing the email version of this post please click on the Blog title above which links to www.27luni.com in order to view the photographs.

Crăciun Fericit!

Like in America, Christmas time in Romania is very important.  If for nothing else, it is an opportunity to relax with family and friends, free from the stress of work and pressures of society.  Christmas is a highly anticipated time of great joy for children and guilt free full bellies for adults.  Knowing that this would be my first Christmas out of the United States and away from family, my Counterpart graciously insisted that I join her family for the holiday.  Well, to be honest, I was also out of the United States for Christmas of 2006 while visiting my good friend David in Sydney Australia, but that wasn’t going to stop me from taking full advantage of the opportunity to be a guest in a Romanian household on Christmas Day this time.

On Christmas morning, since I didn’t have any presents to open, let alone a Christmas tree, I decided to treat myself to a big Christmas breakfast.  My Romanian Language tutor, knowing how much I miss American style bacon, brought me a pack from the city earlier in the week.  What better to serve with bacon than, well besides green eggs of course, Pancakes!  So I dusted off my copy of our Peace Corps Romania cookbook, Pofta Buna, and whipped up a quick batch of pancake batter.  Without a non-stick fry pan, my recently acquired wok served as an excellent substitute.  In no time, I had a full pile of crispy bacon and a tall stack of homemade pancakes.  What to use when Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup isn’t handy?  In my book, peanut butter and honey always serves as a good stand in.  With the addition of a piping hot mug of coffee, I savored every bite of the breakfast Santa had brought.  Little did I know that moments later I would receive a phone call asking if I could come early because a full brunch table was about to be served and everyone was starving; I immediately began to regret my early morning indulgence.

In a manner that I fully appreciate, but perhaps only serves to spoil me, my Counterpart’s husband again drove out of Ploiești to pick me up.  He insisted that I shouldn’t have to stand and wait in the cold on Christmas for a MaxiTaxi that may never come.  In route, we picked up my Counterpart’s parents and made our way through the empty streets of the city to the family’s apartment.  My Counterpart lives in a great part of Ploiești on a wonderful tree lined street in a well-maintained bloc.  With presents in hand, we all tromped up the several flights of stairs, and opened the apartment door to their welcomingly aromatic home.  Within seconds, my shoes were off and hot, peppery țuica was warming my soul.

Shortly following our arrival, the food began to migrate from the kitchen to the table.  Though I was still recovering from my earlier food coma, I nibbled on homemade charcuterie prepared from Ghiță who had been sacrificed for us the weekend before.  After the edge of hunger was satiated the gift exchange began.  Not expecting anything in return I brought a couple jars of American style stews that I had recently made, thinking that it would be a nice gesture of “Thanks” in exchange for the kind invitation.  Certainly, I should have known better, because I was promptly handed a bag of goodies; namely, lots of chocolate and a brand new leather wallet.  Now the later is particularly interesting because they have a tradition here that if you give someone a wallet you must be certain to put money in it so that the recipient will enjoy wealth in the future.  Even though there is little chance of an increase to my Peace Corps stipend, I appreciated the thought nonetheless.

The afternoon continued in this manner as the țuica and wine continued to flow.  My counterpart presented a slide show of her family’s recent vacations as well as albums from major events in their lives like their wedding and their daughter’s birthdays.  Since I had my iPad with me and was able to return the favor by showing photographs from my travels and of my family.  It was a great way to spend the holiday away from home, my Romanian Counterpart again succeeding in making me feel like an important member of the family.

Note:  If you are viewing the email version of this post please click on the Blog title above which links to www.27luni.com in order to view the photographs.

Ghiță goes to Market

One mainstay of Romanian tradition is the pig sacrifice that takes place a few days before Christmas each year.  Fortunately, however small my network of Romanian friends is they always want to make sure that I don’t miss out on any important national holidays.  Such was the case this past December when two Romanian families that I am close with insisted on my participation in their respective celebrations of this time-honored tradition.  Needless to say, with my love of any event involving food (and wine) I jumped on both opportunities.  What I saw was not only continued Romanian hospitality but also a glimpse of a more wholesome, more respectful and perhaps overall better way to approach food.

Like most traditions in Romania, this one is also tied to religion and specifically pays homage to Saint Ignatius.  Every year on or about the twentieth of December any family with the will and means to do so slaughters a pig.  As I understand it, strict adherence to Eastern Orthodox doctrine forbids believers from eating any meat products during the observance of a period called Post.  This, like Lent, is a time of cleansing and sacrifice where devotees show their faith in God.  If my memory serves me correctly, here in Romania this period lasts a full forty days and ends on Christmas Day.  The Pițu family is one that strictly adheres to Post, abstaining from meat products of any kind.  It’s actually quite common during this period to find Post products advertised in grocery stores.  As an example of their seriousness, during this period I brought the family a box of chocolates; a box that went untouched until Christmas day because of the milk contained in the chocolate.  I highlight this not only because of how interesting it is, but also because of the fact that the family goes through all of this work to prepare the pig but can’t actually enjoy it until several days later on Christmas Day.  The Pițu Family did, however, prepare a meal of fresh pork for a couple of my Peace Corps friends and me.  This traditional meal, for those choosing to partake, is called Pomana Porcului, which roughly translates to the Pig’s Alms.  Why all of this is associated with Saint Ignatius is beyond this blogger’s realm of knowledge, but feel free to enlighten us all in the comments section if you would like.

Okay, so the first of my two pig slaughtering extravaganzas was particularly exceptional because my high school Counterpart specifically organized the entire event with her family so that it could be shared with me.  This was actually the first time that my Counterpart and her husband had taken the family lead on this particular event and since they live in the city of Ploiești and can’t actually raise a pig in their fifth floor apartment they bought one.  Luckily the family has a neighbor next to a small piece of land they own outside of the city that has been passed down through the generations.  The next-door neighbor had just what we needed a plump 100-kilogram female; she was promptly named Ghiță, in reference to a game my Counterpart played as a child.

Our day started out early on a cold and rainy Saturday morning on December 17th.  Yes, I know, not the traditional twentieth of the month, but in this modern world of ours most folks have to work during the week and since the twentieth fell on a Tuesday we had to bend the rules a bit.  My counterpart, her husband and their daughter drove the opposite way out of the city to pick me up in Valea, generously offering to drive me both ways so that I wouldn’t have to bother with public transit.  Immediately upon arriving, their daughter presented me with a colorful homemade drawing.  Even though I have forgotten the exact content, I like to think it was a depiction of Ghiță and us, foreshadowing the fun we were about to have.  After a short drive back across Ploiești we arrived in the small village of Ariceștii Rahtivani.  This is where the family’s property is located and where I met the relatives.  While I was getting acquainted with everyone my Counterpart’s husband went and picked up our pre-slaughtered Ghiță from the neighbor in their family’s hatchback.  Upon their return is when the real fun began and the blowtorches were fired up.

Now that I have been thoroughly initiated into the amazement that is the Pig Sacrifice, I more matter-of-factly think about the description that follows.  For those folks with a weak constitution, now might be a good time to think about smiling babies and two-week old puppies and to skip to the next paragraph.  The whole process obviously starts off with the killing of the pig.  Traditionally, this is done by rolling the pig off its legs, holding it down and strategically cutting a main artery, which leads to the heart.  From this point the pig begins to make the transition from a friendly farm animal we sing so fondly of in Old McDonald Had a Farm, to dinner for the next six months.  Once a member of the European Union, certain additional rules are imposed on member nations that dictate the way livestock must be euthanized.  The idea, of course, being to make the process more “civilized.”  Understandably it takes time before centuries of traditional methods can be phased out, though it is worth mentioning that Romanian’s clearly take this whole process very seriously and have a great amount of respect for their animals.  The next step in the process is to burn the pig’s hair off and to char the skin.  Once upon a time I imagine that this was done over an open fire but these days propane torches get the job done.   Originally, I figured that this process would smell horribly bad.  If you are anything like me, you have probably burned some of your arm hair clear off while in the kitchen and had to deal with the odorous aftermath.  For some reason pig hair isn’t quite as bad, perhaps because we were outside and had a good breeze going.  Once all the hair is gone and the skin is black the pig is thoroughly cleaned with a scrubbing brush and water; the result being a beautiful dark brown caramel color.  This is when the pig really starts to look like dinner.  Next in the process, the head and limbs are removed.  This part also surprised me because I figured my chances of passing out would increase exponentially at the site of a pigs head being cut off, but by this point most of the blood is gone and the inside honestly looks just like a country ham.  Once the limbs and head are removed the pig is rolled over on to its belly and the skin and fat are sliced straight down the back from head to tail.  Another surprise here was how thick the layer of fat actually was, at a solid three or four inches.  Known as Slănină, this is a Romanian delicacy, often lightly smoked, salted and eaten as little cubes.  As the fat and skin are sliced away from the body as whole large sheets, the muscles are exposed and that’s the really good stuff; it’s what you buy perfectly sliced and cellophane-wrapped on little Styrofoam trays at the grocery store in America.  The ribs are then painstakingly removed from the backbone that is then itself chopped into sections and packaged away for making Ciorbă.  Next up are the organs, which are by far larger than I could ever have imagined, taking up a huge percentage of the animal, and if anything in this process smells, it’s the organs.  Sparing you the details of what happens with those it’s fare to say that very little goes to waste.

Even though trichinosis is largely a thing of the past in the United States, they do still check in Romania just to be on the safe side.  Although testing is required by law some families still opt to forgo this step and from what I am told, pretty much every year at least one family ends up sick.  Lucky for me, my Counterpart wasn’t going to cut any corners, either in safety or in my experience.  After cutting off a couple pieces of specific muscle we hopped in the car and drove around the corner to the local veterinary clinic, which turned out to be completely packed.  After waiting a short while we watched one of the technicians sit down at a dinning room table with a steak knife and a glass microscope slide.  He cut off tiny slivers of meat and placed them at equal distances along the glass, taking samples from two different pigs and lining them up next to each other.  The slide was then handed to what I presume was the Veterinarian who placed the samples into a large 1950’s microscope with a small projector so that we could watch the process.  She slowly went through the dozen or so samples checking for signs of contamination before giving us the thumbs up and wishing us “Sărbători Fericite” or Happy Holidays.

Back at base camp everyone was happy to hear that the day’s work, let alone financial investment, were cleared by the veterinarian.  I can’t imagine the disappointment that a family must feel after raising a pig and slaughtering it only to discover they cannot eat it.  Not only that, but if a vet finds out that one of your pigs is contaminated all the pigs that you own are taken and disposed of.  Counting our blessing, we began to dig in.  First was the șorice or pig skin; at first not a particularly appealing thought, but it’s actually quite good when served with salt.  The skin is definitely a little chewy for my taste but has a distinct, smoky flavor that results from the blowtorches.  Next up is the Pomana Porcului that I mentioned earlier.  For this various pieces of muscle meat are cubed up and pan fried to perfection, and served with mămăligă and brânză.  Without a doubt, there is nothing like fresh, locally home grown, antibiotic-free pork.  The only way to make it even better is to throw in some homemade wine and some authentic Romanian music, performed with an accordion, right in front of your eyes by a man who not only survived communism, but could also eviscerate a pig while blindfolded.

Earlier that Saturday I received a call from my neighbor Nicu with the last details on when his pork sacrifice would take place. And even though I had hounded him for weeks about when exactly it would be, I still, in typical Romanian fashion, found out less than twenty-four hours before show time.  Regardless of timing I was thankful for the invitation and even though the țuica was only just starting to kick in from day one, I knew I would be ready for a second round the next morning.  This time I invited two of my Peace Corps colleagues to join me, one of which is a long time volunteer and had witnessed all of this before and another volunteer who had not.  Perhaps fortunately, we arrived about ten minutes late and had again missed the tumultuous last moments of the pig’s life.  Ironically, this is one of the few times that I have been late to a Romanian invitation and the event actually started on time; that is how seriously they take this.  It’s like the Super Bowl.

With coffee in one hand and țuica in the other, we each looked on as the masters of their trade disassembled Ghiță 2 with the meticulousness of a surgeon.  As the hours passed, I could not help but reflect on the state of our food supply chain in the United States.  With the ever-increasing number of farm raised animals, use of antibiotics and obesity inducing quantities of meat that Americans eat, I feel that Romanian traditions such as this one are a real model for how life should be lived.  Where the animals that you grow and the food you eat is respected.  As Nicu puts it: “Super naturala, din Domnezeu,” “Super natural, from God.”

Since the Thursday immediately after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs award ceremony was Ziua Nationala (National Day), a major holiday here in Romania, school was closed and thus I was off work.  And being that I only had two classes scheduled for that Friday the gods of coincidence were clearly encouraging me to take a five-day weekend.  With my annual leave form submitted and approved, the only remaining question was where to go?  The criteria of “someplace new”, “relatively convenient to reach” and “cool”, pointed us to Cluj-Napoca.  Located northwest of the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, Cluj is deep in Romanian-Hungarian territory and would prove to be a better time than I could have possibly expected.

The only miscalculation I made during this adventure was securing a regular second-class train ticket for the overnight trip from Bucharest to Cluj.  Normally for a journey like this I would invest in a cușeta ticket and sleep the night away in relative comfort.  However, to save a few RON, I opted for the stifling over packed general cabin, which for no extra charge, features an overwhelming affront to a passenger’s every sensory perception.  Fortunately, a couple of hours of sleep at the hostel after my predawn arrival Thursday morning set me straight.  Regardless, even the grumpiest of Scrooges would have to crack a smile and feel at least mildly contented upon setting eyes on the streets of Cluj for the first time.

Following my nap and a great cup of coffee at the hostel, we set out to explore on the bright though subfreezing day.  To get our bearings, we visited the top of a nearby hill in Parcul Cetatuia on the northern side of Cluj and which overlooks the city.  The old though renowned Belvedere Hotel seemed shuttered up at the moment but undoubtedly offers amazing summer views in season.  From our vantage point, we could see the three main squares that Cluj offers, complete with historical churches, the oldest of which dating back to the 14th century, Saint Michael’s in Unirii Square.  The Orthodox counterpoint, Catedrala Adormirea Maicii Domnului is located a few blocks away in Avram Iancu Square and is frankly more aesthetically impressive both inside and out.  Across from the Orthodox Cathedral is Lucian Blaga National Theatre the old opera house built at the turn of the 20th century.  With an understanding of the city layout and a few landmarks in mind we setout to explore the city close up.

Being that this was Romania’s National Day, we were witness to a couple of unexpected events.  The first of which was a full military parade around Piața Avram Iancu.  As interesting as the parade was I have to admit that it was oddly eerie at the same time.  There we were, American visitors, in the center of a formerly solid communist country, watching tanks, trucks with missile launchers and droves of uniformed troops marching around as a show of nationalistic pride.  The detail that many onlookers were dawning the stereotypical Russian style Cossack fur hats didn’t alleviate my cold-war nostalgia any either.  Fortunately the Kurtos Kolacs brought me right back to a happier time.  This is a Hungarian pastry rolled out flat, then molded around a wide cylinder and grilled over an open charcoal fire with a sugar glaze.  The final touch of seasoning, with your choice of cinnamon, nuts, or coconut makes for a heavenly dessert.

Without question, my favorite part of Ziua Nationala and perhaps the entire weekend took place that evening on the steps of the beautifully lit opera house.  A short walk from our hostel, the whole of Piața Avram Iancu filled with people huddled in the freezing cold to see a display of fireworks.  The festivity began with a police car slowly making its way through the crowd that had gathered on the street in-between the Orthodox Cathedral and the opera house.  Once the sea of people had been parted a slow beat of drums began and a column of soldiers made their way across our field of vision, each holding a lit torch of fire.  The soldiers stopped, turned towards the cathedral and the city’s new young mayor made a brief announcement over the loud speakers.  With the politics out-of-the-way, the music of Enya began streaming through the air all around us.  What happened next can only be described as the most impressive fireworks display that I have ever witnessed.  This is perhaps, thanks in large part to Romania’s relaxed regulation of fireworks, evidenced by how close our crowd was positioned to the show.  The fireworks were being shot off from just in front of the Orthodox Cathedral and were literally exploding in the sky immediately above our heads with burned out debris falling only meters away.  From the instant that the fireworks began and for the incredibly long fifteen-minute duration of the show I was completely enthralled.  More than once I thought that we had just witnessed the grand finale only to have the spectacle continue bigger, brighter and louder than before.  The organizer would not be done until the sky was light enough to mimic the brightness of the sun.  As the sky fell dark again, the crowd erupted into a jubilation of cheers and clapping; the soldiers signaled the end of the celebration by extinguishing their torches and marching solemnly out of the square.

The next day was filled with more site seeing, more kurtos kolacs and more amazement at how wonderful Cluj is.  As additional Volunteers arrived, the highlight of our day became again, how it ended, this time with an opera.  On the play-bill for this Friday night was the Barber of Seville.  We dressed up as best unprepared Peace Corps Volunteers could and we made the short walk over to the six o’clock showing.  My Facebook comment from that day sums it up the best: “A French play turned into an Italian Opera, staged in Spain, sung in Italian, subtitled in Romanian, translated (mentally) into English in the Romanian city of Cluj. Life is good.”  Indeed it is.  Although the seats were probably originally designed for the prisoner waiting room of a cold war era government interrogation facility, our nose bleed tickets gave us a great view and were only six US dollars each.  By the end of the night, three hours later I felt thoroughly cultured and had a sense for how great European living is.

We spent Saturday exploring outside of Cluj to the south in the small town of Turda; more specifically in the Turda Salt Mines.  Okay, I agree, at first I had the same thought.  “Salt mines?  Really?  Yippie, this is going to be dreadful compared to the wonders that are Cluj.”  Although, Cluj is hands down a more inviting place, the Salt Mines are a true spectacle to behold.  You are probably imaging, wooden rickety mining carts on metal tracks, dangling underpowered overhead lights, generally dirty conditions and an upside down canary.  After all, that is what a mine typically is.  This, experiment in excavation turned tourist attraction, on the other hand is quite different.  Once through the modernly designed building that houses the main entrance visitors walk down and along a seemingly endless straight though well-lit tunnel.  If paying attention, you’ll catch the sign for the elevator and hang a sharp left or you will continue, like we did, until you find the exit at the other end of the tunnel.  On the way to the elevator is where the sheer magnitude of this facility smacks your consciousness.  As you come around the corner, a railing appears along the edge of a cliff that overlooks everything the Turda Salt Mine has to offer, including an underground ferris wheel and paddleboat lake complete with its own island in the middle.  If ferris wheels and paddleboats are not your fancy, then perhaps miniature golf, bowling or a myriad of other games would suit you better.  Okay, so the question now is “Why?”  Why on earth would anyone create an underground amusement park?  This type of thing would only make sense in the context of American or perhaps Emirati opulence, but in Romania?  As it turns out, the Romanian people believe that the pure air laced with traces of salt found in these mines has many health benefits, but you’d get bored just hanging around in a cave breathing air, so the distractions help to pass the time.  Regardless of “why” the whole place is quite amazing.

Cluj certainly has a lot more to offer than I have time to cover here, but if you come to visit and are interested, I would be happy to take you there.  In addition to history, culture and sightseeing, there is plenty of good food to eat and shopping to be done.  Every city in Romania that I visit seems to be my new favorite; the same is definitely true for Cluj-Napoca.

P.S.  If you are looking for a good, clean and inexpensive place to stay, check out the Transylvania Hostel.  The rooms are nice, the location is great and the owners are incredibly friendly and welcoming.

If you are reading the email version of this post please click the title above to few the photos on the blog itself.

There is no question that the holidays can be a lonely time for any Peace Corps volunteer.  Holidays are, after all, a time that is traditionally supposed to be spent with family and friends; perhaps the one time every year that people get to truly relax with those they care about.  During this past Christmas weekend for instance over one-third of all Americans traveled to see loved ones for holiday, whether by train, plane, automobile, or if you are in Romania, perhaps caruță.  This blog will get around to Christmas eventually but since I am still in “catch-up mode” let’s talk about Thanksgiving Day or Ziua Recunoștinței.

For me there was never much of a question about what I would do or where I would go for the Thanksgiving Holiday.  Although when I was a kid, my mother and I would pile our luggage into the car, swing by Dunkin’ Donuts for some donut holes and rock out to the tunes of James Taylor, Kenny Rogers and Jim Croce all the way to Johnstown Pennsylvania, this year would be quite different.  From the beginning of my Peace Corps service, I had heard that the United States Ambassador to Romania, Mark Gitenstein and his wife Libby, usually throw a Thanksgiving Day celebration at their residence in București.  Little did I know during Pre-Service Training that I would be stationed so conveniently close to București and that this year’s Thanksgiving trip of only an hour and a half would be shorter than the half-day drive to Grandma’s house of my youth.

After my full morning of classes, I made the usual trip to București via Ploiești.  With my toes partially frozen, I hoped off the bus at Piața Victoriei in the rain and made my way north on Șoseaua Kiseleff to the Ambassador’s residence.  Not only is this home recognizable by the American flags, tight security, and huge backyard in the middle of a metropolitan area, but also the house is noticeably pink with white trim.  Arriving a few minutes early I started the process of security bag checks and body scanning at the front gate.  After setting off the alarm several times by what could only possibly be the unknown alien implanted chip in the back of my head, they finally settled for a pat down and sent me merrily on my way.

Welcomingly warmer once through the giant front door, I checked my bag and jacket in a coat room bigger than my living room and started the process of mental preparation for an evening of mingling and small talk.  The first people to greet me were the Ambassador himself and our Country Director, Sheila Crowley.  This is where the sense of “home” started to kick in; sprawled out on the floor nearby were the Ambassador’s and the Director’s coincidentally matching Golden Labradors.  Since Director Crowley’s 2010 arrival in country their dogs have become friends to the point where they have regular doggie get-togethers and babysit for each other when traveling.  Further reminding me of home, as the night wore on, the two partners in crime were never far from the dinner table.

It wasn’t long before the once mostly empty living room slowly started to fill up with familiar faces.  The majority of those in attendance were Peace Corps volunteers, supplemented by members of the Foreign Service.  Even a Turkish dignitary to Romania made an appearance; a fun yet inopportune time considering the similarity between his country’s name and the night’s main course; I’ll leave your mind to wander on the overtly obvious and incredibly lame jokes that surfaced.  Regardless he was a true diplomat, going with the flow of all the puns.   The volume of chatter continued to rise as the crowd grew and volunteers caught each other up on the latest happenings at site.

With plenty of stomachs growling and the incredible smell of Thanksgiving in the air, the Ambassador called us around the buffet table.  Once the crowd was in place, he requested that we join hands and led us in a brief prayer to show thanks for the meal.  The Ambassador’s wife Libby then explained their family tradition of “breaking bread” by passing a loaf of challah around for each person to tear off and enjoy a piece in honor of the good company among us.  After a few remarks from others in attendance we all grabbed a plate and jumped in line.  What came next is indescribable; take the best Thanksgiving meal that you have ever had and improve it by a multiplication of ten.  Everything from the turkey to the gravy to all the side dishes was absolutely amazing.  Admittedly my analysis is probably at least slightly skewed as my taste buds took the opportunity to make up for the otherwise spice-less host country food.  Being a small guy, I usually don’t eat a ton in one sitting, that day however I embodied the cliché of over eating on Thanksgiving.  Focusing on the savory, I double and tripled up my plate, not even bothering to save room for dessert; a move that I whole-heartedly stand by, even though the reports from the dessert table were awfully persuading.

As the early darkness of fall settled in, the signal was given that we better not over stay our welcome.  Moaning and groaning from bloated bellies we wobbled out of our indoor, pool side chairs and made for the exit.  Although nothing can ever truly replace Thanksgiving Day with the family, watching football and arguing over whose gravy is better, I have to admit that memories of Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s house have taken a welcome seat next to Grandpa’s corduroy La-Z-Boy recliner.  If given the opportunity again next year, there is again no question of where I will be.


« Newer Posts - Older Posts »