Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Exploring Transylvania

If I said “Transylvania,” would you think “Dracula”?

Dracula

Transylvania was indeed the home of Vlad Țepeș, or “Vlad the Impaler,” whose bloody reign and hilltop castle inspired the famous vampire novel by Bram Stoker. That’s Vlad in the top-right picture, which we saw when we visited Bran Castle this past week.

Other TransylHowever, as we discovered during our 5-day trip to Transylvania, there’s so much more to see than tacky Dracula T shirts and coffee mugs.

Churches

Transylvania is located in central Romania, west of the Republic of Moldova, which was once part of Romania and retains close cultural ties to it. Romania mapTransylvania has lovely rolling hills, picturesque villages and snowy mountain peaks. Its monasteries are stunning, and more than 150 fortified churches with moats and dense stone walls dot the countryside. Brașov, Sibiu, Sighișoara and other cities combine charm with great dining at low prices.

They are also brimming with history, as you can see from these trip photos. If much of the architecture appears German or Hungarian, that’s because many of Transylvania’s people came from those countries.

Church interiors

Romania’s Western ties have grown steadily since Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown and 42 years of Communist rule ended in 1989. Especially since it joined the European Union in 2007, Romania has been prospering, with one of Europe’s fastest growth rates.

Organs & altars collage

Champa and I drove there  with a Moldovan physician we met through an online ride-sharing service called BlaBlaCar. Once in Transylvania, we toured with Florin Ilea, a wonderful local guide who I recommend highly. We stayed in hotels in Brașov and at a great Airbnb apartment in Sibiu located just a block from the historic Bridge of Lies.

Squares

If Transylvania seems exotic to you, let me gently suggest you’re living in the past. I am old enough myself to remember when Prague was considered exotic, too. Now it has become a popular tourist destination for many Americans, as have Budapest, Warsaw and Dubrovnik. Based on what we saw during our visit, I expect Transylvania to join that list soon.

Roof collage

My advice is to visit it now, before everyone else discovers it. As Elizabeth Berkley famously said in Showgirls, a movie even tackier than the coffee mugs: It doesn’t suck (regardless of the vampire legends).

3 Plazas
From top: Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara

Painting Eggs

Are you getting ready to paint Easter eggs?

If you need some inspiration, the most beautiful Easter eggs in the world are surely here in Moldova and its neighboring countries. See for yourself in this photo I snapped last weekend at the travel fair in Chișinău.

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Viorica Flocea painted these eggs. That’s her with Champa and our friend Denise. You can watch her technique in the video below.

Painting eggs for Easter is a centuries-old tradition in this part of the world. The practice nearly disappeared in Moldova during the decades of Soviet rule when religion was suppressed. Now it has been revived and many Moldovan families paint eggs with their children during the Easter season.

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You begin by draining the egg’s contents through a small hole. Then you mark the egg with hot wax lines to form ornamental areas. After the wax turns cold, you place the egg in colored water and then dry it. Next comes the fun part,: painting the egg with different colors, progressing from lighter to darker colors. Finally you dry the egg and strip off the wax lines.
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Traditional designs may symbolize the sun, a leaf, wheat or the cross. Certain lines represent life or death, while others portray water or purification. Several websites like this one have more information.
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People here traditionally paint Easter eggs on the Thursday and Saturday before the holiday. However, artists such as Viorica paint eggs throughout the year and at exhibitions like the one we attended.

After we bought several of her eggs to bring home as gifts, she encouraged Champa and Denise to give it a try by each drawing their name and the date on an egg.

You can learn from Viorica, too, at her family’s lodge in Fundu Moldovei, Romania. If you’re here in Moldova, the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History organizes several exhibitions and workshops each year where craftswomen demonstrate the craft.

You also can learn egg painting at the Orhei Vechi archeological complex or Lalova village in Rezina district. Tatrabis offers an all-day excursion in Moldova that combines a class on egg painting with homemade wine tastings where you can wash away your disappointment at not being as skilled as Viorica.

Perhaps I should say you’re not as skilled yet. You still have some time before Sunday to become a master egg artisan yourself.

Travel Fair

If you haven’t planned your summer vacation yet, how about a trip to Macedonia, Ukraine or Bulgaria?

IMG_3612Not for you? Well, then maybe someplace here in Moldova: to see crafts in Nisporeni, a beautiful mansion in Hîncești or the castle in Soroca?

All of these destinations had booths at a travel fair Champa and I attended on Saturday at the MoldExpo convention center in Chișinău. There was also information about destinations more familiar to American travelers, such as Greece, Israel and Hungary. But most were places you’ve probably never heard of, much less considered visiting.

IMG_3673In other words, it was our kind of travel fair. We went there to gather information for a trip we hope to take at the end of 2017 to Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. But we were also curious to see what the travel industry looks like in this part of the world. I’ve also been working with several other Peace Corps volunteers on a project to highlight the importance of friendly customer service and online marketing for Moldovan travel destinations.

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Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey had some of the biggest exhibits at this weekend’s fair. All are popular among Moldovans who have the means and interest to travel. Moldovan national travel organizations and companies had exhibits, too, as did some of its 37 raions, or districts. There was a small booth for Georgia, where an enthusiastic guy told us about that country’s hiking, food scene and night life in Tbilisi. We also picked up brochures for everything from holidays in Montenegro to the painted monasteries of Bucovina, Romania.

My favorite booth was for the Slovak Republic, where I recognized the man in a casual shirt and blue jeans who was laying out brochures and pouring free beer. It was Robert Kirnág, the Slovak ambassador to Moldova, who I met last month at a ceremony to launch a water project.

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I said hello and he thanked me for the the article I wrote about the  project, which his embassy posted on its website. We chatted and posed for the photo you see here of him with Champa, me and our friend Denise, a Peace Corps volunteer from California who is working with me on our tourism project. He also told us more about Slovakia, which we now plan to visit if only because we like its ambassador so much.

Champa’s favorite moment was learning to paint an egg in the traditional style of Romania, which we’re visiting in one week. In my next post, I’ll show you what she created.

Buying Groceries

Shopping in Moldova can include Heinz ketchup, Lay’s potato chips, Tide detergent, Nescafe and a Coke. Add a bag of Skittles, too, if you want.

When Champa and I shop for groceries in Ialoveni, however, we usually buy products made in Moldova or in nearby countries such as Ukraine, Russia or Romania.

We cook our own food, a mixture of Nepalese, American and Moldovan dishes. There’s no doubt we eat better than some other Peace Corps volunteers around the world, especially since we live in a small city, but we always stay within our official food budget. Our daily diet is more modest than some of these photos suggest.

The local bread comes in many forms and is cheap and delicious. Cheeses are great, too. As you see, they come in many varieties. Salami is a local favorite. We love the fresh chicken and pork, which is much tastier than our supermarkets sell back in Durham. (Yes, that’s a pig’s head in the photo.)

Moldova is famous for wine and, as I’ve noted previously, its grocery shelves are stocked with local merlots, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and more, as well as cognacs, brandies and sparkling wines. The Ialoveni Winery is just up the street from us.

Our neighborhood markets also offer cakes from local bakeries, noodles from local pasta makers, candies from local confectioners and, of course, local fruits and vegetables that will soon be abundant and delicious. No surprise, we eat a lot of rice. We also can enjoy cheeses from Holland, persimmons from Israel and beer from Germany. One block from our house is the Sandra ice cream factory, with flags from both France and Moldova.

Champa and I have become regular customers at all of Ialoveni’s grocery stores, including two Victoria Markets and a UniMarket. We also shop at the Casa Cărnii store shown above, where I shot many of the photos in this post, and at some of the kiosk shops we pass on the main street as we walk home. Local farmers and vendors sell goods along the sidewalk, too.

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Just up the street is an apartment complex with a corner market where we often buy groceries. If you look carefully at the photo, to the left of the door, you’ll see it also offers an ATM machine for our bank. The “Farmacie” to the right of the door is actually a separate shop. Downstairs, by the yellow brick, is another shop, selling meat. The windows to the right are yet another shop, selling soaps and toiletries.

In other words, shopping in Ialoveni is a mixture of small grocery stores, neighborhood shops resembling bodegas and smaller shops specializing in certain kinds of products. At the other end of the spectrum is Moldova’s “super store,” Metro, which resembles Costco. We’ll visit there in a future post. Right now, I’m hungry.

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Web Designers

This is Mihai, with the first website he ever designed. It’s about our city, Ialoveni.

Victor has his first website, too, about Moldova’s famous wines.

This boy, also named Mihai, made his first website about his family.

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All three boys are in my weekly computer class at the Ialoveni library. During the past several months, they’ve learned some JavaScript, Excel and other programs. Two weeks ago we turned our attention to website design. Since I am most familiar with WordPress, which is also available in Romanian, that’s what I told them to use to build their first sites.

In fact, I created this post — the one you’re reading now — while they were watching, to show them how to do it. I snapped their photos with my iPhone, uploaded them to my blog on WordPress and inserted them here.

Perhaps you were surprised by Victor’s site about Moldovan wine, given how young he is. When I pointed this out to him, he produced the following screen. Enjoy:

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Poems, Dances and Songs

Ialoveni students performed poems, dances and songs to welcome Claudia Partole, a popular Moldovan author of children’s stories and other books. She spoke at the local library. Don’t miss Champa receiving her certificate. (The video is also on YouTube at https://youtu.be/_eRms9fmshU.)

Our Favorite Food

 

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What’s our favorite food here in Moldova? That’s easy: Placinte (plah-chin-teh), the soft, savory, mouth-watering pastries stuffed with cabbage, potatoes, apples, cherries or other delights.

We especially enjoy placinte made with brinza, the traditional cheese usually produced from sheep’s milk, similar to crumbled Greek feta cheese.

I’m writing “placinte” in the plural form because it’s nearly impossible to eat only one placinta.

Some Moldovans make round placinte, like thick pancakes. Others swirl them into into spirals or pat them into triangles. On Sunday, Champa learned how to roll them into a shape like breadsticks.

She had two great teachers: Natalia, an adult niece of our host family, and Bunica, our 86-year-old host grandmother who is such a beloved part of our lives here.

The recipe was simple: Combine the brinza cheese with some eggs, dill and salt. Roll out pastry dough on a towel in the shape of a rectangle, Place the cheese mixture along one end of the rectangle. Gently lift the towel under the cheese side of the rectangle and roll the dough in the opposite direction, forming a long tube. Place the tubes on a greased pan, seam sides down, and bake at medium heat for about 40 minutes.

IMG_3339At the bottom of this post is a video of Bunica showing the rolling process. When she says “Gata” at the end, it means “Ready!” My own job came after the placinte emerged from the oven, tasting them to see whether they were even more delicious than the placinte we buy in local stores.

They were. We ate most of them fresh out of the oven. Mmm. Placinte!

If you’re feeling inspired and/or hungry after reading this, you can easily find several YouTube videos showing how to make placinte yourself. When they come out of your oven, don’t forget to say, “Gata!”

I bet you can’t eat just one.