Monday, September 29, 2008

Turdafest or how I learned to stop worrying and love the onion

Many exciting events were planed for the weekend of which none actually came to fruition, though time still managed to throw me into the participation of a world record attempt for the longest strand of onions (5241 meters), discussions of Romanian identity at a Hungarian dance party, and the loss of my left sock in the line of ‘duty’.

The plan was for all us teachers to drive up to Cluj and watch the football game Friday night. Marius, the P.E coach, the only person who has ever given me a welt from a ping-pong ball, regaled me with lavish stories of his favorite team, CFR Cluj, and how much fun life is when watching a live match. Plans fell through at the last minute, the tickets turned out to be too expensive, so instead I bought a log of Toblerone and drank coffee until the wee hours of the morning making a wallet out of The Declaration of Independence. We received a package from the American Embassy a couple of days earlier with all types of propaganda for the youth center including these sweet pocket sized books of The Constitution, so naturally I thought ‘wallet’.

Lately I have been brushing my teeth with my left hand. This will be day number 7 and its not getting any easier. I read somewhere that it helps memory to do things I normally wouldn’t do, like eating cereal with my left hand or volunteering at an onion festival. The festival was held in Turda, three hours northeast of Abrud, and half way into the bus trip I discovered that all my money was in my new wallet that I left on the table next to my cell phone. So much for brushing with the left hand. The bus zoomed through green winding hills as we made are way to Turdafest. Out my window kids played kickball in cornfields with scarecrows and I thought to myself how soberly pragmatic names like ‘kickball’ and ‘scarecrow’ really are.

We arrived before the festival was to begin and old ladies in their Babushkas were still laying out their hand crafted spoons and jars of jam and honey. Turda is an absolutely beautiful city with long streams of sherbet maisonettes bordering spacious cobblestone streets, one of which held the festival. Our job was to grab cord after cord of onions and line them up in the center of town then snake them all the way back to the church parking lot where the cords of onions would continue until the parking lot was completely filled. For two hours we looked liked prisoners on an onion chain gang as we moved our ripe sections of a world record length sting of onions. Why Onions, I can’t say, but apparently the Germans broke Turdas original World Record strand last year, taking the only thing Turda had going for itself. Other Peace Corps volunteers began to show up and soon most managed to abscond into the beer tents, but since help would still be needed through out the night we decided to drink to the point where our services would be of no use to any person or vegetable.

As the day went on the streets teemed with excitement and onions; people were dressed in traditional white and black garbs, children danced in circles holding hands to the sound of synthesized accordions, and venders sprang out from booths scaring you with their wooden dolls for sale. It all seemed like some fantastically twisted scene from a fairytale and I wandered off, getting lost in a crowd of puffy shirts and bowl shaped hats.

I regained consciousness in mid-conversation with an old man as we were sitting on the brick steps of a church. He was a philosopher who had grown tired of experience and mentioned how the truths of beauty and happiness depended on constant change, which could never be understood through the senses. An old lady soon came and carried him away; this would be around the time my stomach began to give me troubles and I hurdled into a rickety church bathroom before all was lost. Unfortunately the little boy’s room lacked all essentials and I returned to the beer tent with one sock missing.

That night as the crowd reached its zenith and the world record length of onions had been measured and confirmed we had reason to celebrate. The Germans had been beaten, the food was free, and we won the onion fight against the local Romanian gypsies. Some Romanians who considered themselves to be Hungarians joined in our onion fight and afterward invited us to a local dance party. This was located a block from town center in a little room with a kitchen. As the techno music played in the main room we were in the kitchen explaining to a full crowd about sub-prime mortgages, globalization, and ethnic minorities. Our audience was Romanian but they were educated and brought up as Hungarians by their parents. Some wanted their children to know only Romanian so that they would feel apart of the culture and have more job opportunities, others refused to give up their heritage for such things. Just a bit of history, following WWI Transylvania became unified with Romania, the Hungarian language was expunged from official life, and all place-names were Romanianized. Territories were taken and given back through out the years and identities redefined along the way. I wonder how I would feel if Washington became part of Canada, eh?

Anyway, the night seemed to never end and by morning I was ready to be back in my little town without any world records to speak of, though it might have a record for the most amount of drunken old men before 6 am, I will have to check. Still having no money I hitched a ride from a teenager who was driving through my town. I saw the cornfields one more time as we whizzed past gypsies on their horse drawn carts. They were sitting on a pile on onions.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

“That’s nothing,” he said “my wife came home with a card stuck to her ass that said ‘All of us at the station will miss you dearly’”

Came to class today with my tie and Italian sports jacket to start off the week. I did this for two reasons, the first being that I had missed the last two days of my first week due to horrible stomach illness (bad cheese) and wanted to make up for it with the appearance of professionalism. The second was that I would be asking the director if he would allow me to miss an entire week of school come October so that I can attend an international conference in Turkey and I needed to up the charm a bit. Everyone seemed so impressed that I even owned a tie that all the teachers who never once smiled in my direction offered to buy me a Nescafe, the only coffee available, and the director happily agreed to my free week vacation. I even came to my classroom to find that computer I had asked for weeks ago sitting on my desk. Coincidence?

Time is now spent either in school teaching or playing ping pong, at the youth center playing ‘Settlers’ with the Germans, or in my room on the top floor gazing out my window as I listen to Chopins ‘Three Nocurnes’ which is set perfectly for light rain. The flies here are horribly clumsy, almost worth pitying, unlike the American flies that anticipate every swing leaving one vexed and irritated. These post-communist flies sort of just loiter around my table bumping into one another waiting for the hand to fall and end their short and absurd lives. I suppose I could catch one of them with a chopstick then tie it with a string but it would probably just waltz on back to its comrades and continue feeling sorry for itself.

On my way to the market Yesterday I realized that the little shop I go to for sandwiches is actually connected to the church, along with the hardware shop, and the appliance store with its neon signs. I took a step back and realized that all my favorite shops are actually housed within the buttresses of the towns’ church. I marveled at this seamless blend of Capitalism and Catholicism as I haggled for beans and cheaper bananas. Paying more then 6 lei for a kilo of ripe bananas tells every farmer within sight that you can be hornswoggled. I was their target for the first month until I got wise.

Anyway I have been playing with ridiculous first sentences for short stories and I thought I would share a couple I wrote today:

He opened the door to the smell of an old refrigerator freshly opened and there on the floor laid Ms. Popescu, she still had that half smirk on her marbled bloated face.

There were plenty of unspeakable undertakings she would gladly admit to, but it’s the ones she didn’t do in Hamburg that this story is about.

After a long period of reflection he slowly and with great effort reached his frail hand into the upper left vest pocket and pulled out his whistle, snagging his cocaine tin along with it.

I woke up, supposing everything that happened resembled a dream I set the pistol down on the park bench and floated to the nearest hospital.

They call me Poobah. I’m thirtysomething years old, look like a horse jockey, eat like a horse, and hate horses. I also find the sound of children singing and people who read while sitting on toilettes intolerable but this is not about them, and I am not a hateful man, this is about why I love to kill.

Anyway these were all written on about the 5th cup of Nescafe so I can’t receive all the credit. Gotta sleep now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

There is no privileged perspective


The first real day of school has come and gone and I am left here to reflect on all that has happened within the past couple of days, including my all expenses paid trip to Bucuresti last weekend for an MRI scan and the holly water the priests used to bless the students and teachers during our assembly which got in my eye, causing me to sneeze and frighten parents.

Today was a day of firsts for everyone, especially myself, as school gradually came to a start around 8:12. I remember asking my counterpart when we should head up to class as we were sipping coffee in the teachers lounge. She looked up at the smoke filled ceiling as if waiting for a sign.

“Not yet,” she whispered into her coffee

In my youth I always wondered what types of mysteries and wild amusements were kept out of my reach within the inaccessible boundaries of the ‘Teachers Lounge”. It turns out that it was just the absence of kids like myself who made the teachers lounge so sacred as well as a place where every vice can be nurtured and frustration vented. A wonderful magical place where shots of liquor and coffee flow like wine and the thick wall of smoke makes navigation funny and confusing.

Classes seemed to go smoothly considering nothing had been planned, not by me but my counterpart who I am supposed to work with. Lesson plans aren’t in style at the moment and I will eventually receive a workbook to use as a guide for my classes, but in the mean time I have to improvise. The students aren’t used to talking in class, this isn’t the way the education systems works here in Romania. Usually the teacher reads from a book or writes on the black board and the kids are supposed to absorb the information some how and score well on tests. They are very shy and reserved when it comes to any form of class participation, so I made sure to get the high school kids to all stand up and dance in a circle for my amusement before starting the days lesson. We played ‘coffee pot’, a game where I think of a verb and the students ask questions to discover what it is, saying ‘coffee pot’ in place of that verb.

“Do you ‘coffee pot’ in the morning?” – yes
“Do you ‘coffee pot’ alone?” – yes
“Do you ‘coffee pot’ in the bathroom?” – always
“Brush your teeth!?” – you got it

The assembly that rang in the new school year was about as pointless as putting lipstick on a pig. We all stood for 2 hours inside our little gymnasium as the school director then the mayor then the priests each took turns mumbling into a mic connected to a little karaoke speaker while kids played on their cell phones. The whole spectacle ended with the priests praying for the kids to pass all their tests, culminating in the singsong voices of the priests reciting some Latin verse as they flicked holy water at us, which somehow got into my eye and irritated the hell out of it.

Before all of this school stuff began I was in Buchuresti for the weekend because of a headache that would not go away. Our Doctor, Dr. Dan, asked that I come to the headquarters and have some test done, including an MRI. I had a whole day of doctor visits and finally my appointment for the MRI came and I was more then anxious to get it over with. The room containing the machine was white with a lone plant in between two large industrial sized freezer doors with ominous signs indicating incomprehensible dangers with for those with metal attached to their body. The machine was inside, a huge bulk of white, shaped like an engine turbine with a bed in the center. I was to lie on this body-sized bed and not move for 20 minutes while the magnets did their job. Up to this point I had not even begun to think about whether I was nervous or not, but as they put special noise cancelling headphones on then locked my face in place and as the mechanical sounds of my sterile white bed in this pure white room hummed into action slowly sliding me into a tube just big enough for my frame to enter, I realized I was naked under this medical costume and a bit nervous. Immediately I had an itch on my nose that I could nothing about and I felt claustrophobic just laying inside this tube no further then 5 inches from my face. Then the frequencies began and a whole new set of challenges presented themselves. Tones were set into my skull deep inside my brain, I could feel them humming and vibrating bits of information to the big machine around me. It began with three low bursts followed by three light ticks for what seemed like an hour, I used the pulses that were being shot into my brain as a beat for a rap that I was trying to freestyle. I didn’t get too far because the machine let it really rip as it pumped a low frequency then as if slowing turning up the dial let me feel every tone humanly possible culminating in an almost polyphonic kaleidoscope of tones, my brain felt tampered with, I was dumb struck.

I wonder how much the whole day would have cost had I been back in Washington. Lets see, a private doctors check-up, an eye exam, two chauffeured trips including one to an MRI, which required a team of 2 doctors and 3 nurses. Plus my transportation and hotel was paid for including daily per diem. All for a migraine it turns out. I remember when I was sick in Naples, Italy, with food poisoning and the doctors fixed me up after they fed me intravenously for my severe dehydration and gave me medication. The room had about 10 others coughing and barfing and the doctor was smoking a cigarette as he took my temperature but at least it was free. I also remember back in Tacoma when I had food poisoning again a year later (what’s the deal?) and Ashley drove me to a hospital that did the very same procedures but I was smacked with a 1,400-dollar doctors bill.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt

I have decided to post my own collection of occurrences, reflections, revelations, and irritations beyond my daily journal here for friends and family to enjoy or possibly cough at. Instead of trying to recap my life into a sweet little pastry one could consume in one sitting I will just skip it if it’s all the same to you, let’s just say I've been places and seen stuff. I just like traveling and writing, that’s it. That and ping-pong and piano, but still very hard to do together. I currently work for the Peace Corps as an English teacher in the little village of Abrud, Romania, where I give kids a break from their busy schedule to learn English in a way that does not suck for them. School starts this Monday so hopefully I will be able to qualify that statement.Life so far in Romania is quite relaxing and full of subtle little surprises one can enjoy on a daily basis. Winding roads that hug the banks of the Carpathian Mountains make a simple car ride an adventure since all cars in Romania (the Dacia) must maintain a speed at or above 65km or else Nicolae Ceau┼čescu will catch them. Most Romanians will have some sort of techno music playing which only fuels their insatiable desire to pass on blind corners. Seat belts are mostly available but frowned upon because of the non-verbal statement they make about the driver. The roads from Abrud to Alba Iulia (the nearest city) or anywhere for that matter are usually in a profound state of disrepair, mostly falling apart, the sides crumbling into the river bed, so concrete barriers are placed in front of these ‘road chasms’ to keep people from plunging into the abyss. I was given a ride to the nearest train station one day and my driver slowed down to let another car pass as she reached a concrete barrier. We were plowed into by a wildlife SUV with trailer attached as a result. We were alright of course; seatbelts do work, though her car was smashed pretty good. The funny thing was that her car could still drive but she refused to not because of the glass or the exhaust leak inside but because of the ‘current’. You see Romanians have this belief that the wind coming through an open window is the cause of all afflictions and illnesses among other things. Also if you are a woman and you are bare foot or sit on the floor your ovaries will freeze, but that is beside the point. To combat the ‘current’ you must stick cotton in your ears. I tried this once and it actually took the edge off a little, this could come in handy while teaching my high scholars.
My little town of Abrud has all the characters one would expect from an old mining town, including old men in fedora hats walking slowly, hands behind their backs, toward one of several old man bars. My town among the many things it has to offer has a disco (dance club) which also acts as the town’s library, weight room, billiard hall, and hardware store all in one. Don’t try to order vodka and red bull because you won’t find shot glasses or red bull. The farmers markets on Mondays are always a hoot and their one can find most anything. For example if your looking for an axe you go up to the old man with different axe blades on his table and pick you favorite, then you head to the next old guy with axe blade handles and buy the one that fits your hand, then head over to the last of the three who will put them all together for you at a nominal cost.