ROMANIA : ACCOMMODATIONS
Agrişu-Mare : my home away from home
Saturday through Friday morning was spent at the home of Gligor and Cornelia Gavriş in the village of Agrişu-Mare. I immediately fell in love with the both of them, finding so many qualities in them that I know in my own parents, which put me instantly at ease. As the week progressed, I never experienced a moment of homesickness, and this is fully the credit of Gligor and Cornelia. Their home was inviting, their hospitality unmatched, and their love genuine for both John and myself.
For all purposes, the Gavriş home is a working farm, although from what I saw it mainly consists of extensive garden, chicken coop, and one large hog who I’m told is “not long for this world”. The adjustment took only a few hours as their home is, as their son Laurenţiu stated, “modern”, with indoor plumbing and plenty of heat. In these Romanian villages most homes are built in two structures divided by a central courtyard and enclosed by metal gates. One building at the Gavriş home houses the kitchen, bath and living areas, while the other building was living/sleeping rooms. Our team of three took over this second structure while Gligor and Cornelia stayed in the working areas, sleeping on a day bed in the kitchen. I never knew if we had displaced them or if this was a normal practice, but my guess is that they were accommodating us.
Cornelia and Gligor keep quite a garden and make most of their meals from fresh foods. And the food was excellent. Though I could not eat everything offered to me, everything was fully appetizing. Romanian meals are served in courses, beginning with soup and followed by a main course of meat and potatoes, accompanied by small vegetables or pickles or something similar, then completed by a dessert. There was always triple the amount of food necessary for those eating the meal, and we quickly understood that these “extras” were actually going to continue to appear at each successive meal until we ate all of it. The meals did not so much repeat themselves as they did shuffle around. Despite seeing some of the same items throughout the week, there was always something new at each meal that we were served. And we did not tire of anything.
Breakfast included slices of cured meat similar to what we call “summer sausage”, as well as a variety of cheeses. The assortment of cheeses was generally soft, creamy enough to spread on slices of bread, and it was never made from cow’s milk. We also had honey and jams for the bread, as well as fruits, and sometimes a creamy salad from the night before. Several mornings John and I convinced Cornelia to bring out a puffed bread that tasted much like our doughnuts, although that type of breakfast made little sense to her since it had been our dessert for previous meals. We told her of the American penchant for sweet pastries in the morning. John was adventurous, always willing to try anything set before him, but I chose to play it safe and not tempt my stomach with anything to which I was unaccustomed. Most mornings I stayed clear of the cheeses and opted just for honey on bread. There was one thing, however, that I developed an affinity for, so much that I have continued to crave it after being home these few weeks: the summer sausage. The taste of it in the morning seems to bring back immediate memories of Romania, and that’s been a wonderful treasure to discover.
Lunch is the largest meal of the day, so all three courses are served at this time. I noted that Cornelia never ate with us but instead served the table throughout the meal. Laurenţiu said this had always been true. We learned that Cornelia now ate her meals with her housebound mother who lives in the front room of their home. I missed having the opportunity to get to know Cornelia during these times when everyone was together for meals. It would have been a perfect opportunity to spend time with her.
The evening meal usually featured items from the noon meal, although the table was set with all courses at once. Bread is served with each meal, and it is only slightly different from homemade American bread. Though most women purchase it at the supermarket, it is baked fresh there. The texture is slightly more dense than what we were used to, but it is far more flavorful than any white bread we have ever known. The taste is not the same, but I can compare it only to a sourdough bread as far as consistency. What I do know is that the bread is a necessary component to every meal.
We did notice one missing element to Romanian meals: no beverages. John and I took to bringing our liter bottles of water with us to the table. As the week progressed, Gligor and Cornelia would offer homemade grape juice or a Fanta drink, but it was for our benefit and not a usual component to their meals. Coffee was served, but typically at the end of the meal. Other drinks were always served at room temperature, and I came to understand that they reasoned cold drinks too harsh on the esophagus. Halfway through the week John and I were able to purchase a liter of Coca-Cola at the village store, and we asked Cornelia to put it in the refrigerator so we could have that little taste of home. We discovered, however, that their refrigerator is simply cooler than room temperature but not actually cold. For most of the week we just lived on room temperature water and made the adjustment.
The Gavriş home is fantastically comfortable so that I never felt out of place while staying there. My bed was actually a large curved couch with a trundle-like mattress that pulled out from the base and lifted to extend the couch to a full-sized bed. The room was filled with an exquisite wood armoire and a glass display cabinet that covered one entire wall, and the floors were made of beautiful hardwood planks that were covered by room-sized rugs. I was as comfortable as I would have been in any family member’s home, and I slept well every night. Our only struggle was the heat. By morning, the house was so warm that John and I often would open the front door to let in the 30-degree wind from outside; we Texans weren’t used to such warmth inside our homes, but we laughed at how everyone else was dressed in layers of sweaters and still constantly shivering in the climate. For me and John, it was a welcome change in the weather.
By the end of our time in Agrişu-Mare, I had become quite attached to the Gavriş home and had learned every step on the path between buildings and outhouse and front gates. I could step out in the middle of the night with hardly a light and not trip on any steps. It became my second home. Of course, it was only the first of our two homes for the week.
Hunedoara-Timişana : Bālāceanu home
On Friday, we moved to the home of Pastor Florin Bālāceanu in the village of Hunedoara-Timişana. We had been with Florin all week but this was our first visit to his family’s home. Though it was just John and me on the first night, some shuffling of relatives was necessary to accommodate everyone. Florin’s oldest son, Robert, and youngest daughter, Rebecca, left with their grandparents to stay at the flat that the Bālāceanus keep in Arad. The children attend school in the city, so the family stays in the Arad flat throughout the week, only coming to the village every other weekend. But this weekend, the village house was full.
The home featured an entry room and full bathroom, housed just inside the door, and then a large living room, small kitchen, and two large bedrooms at the back of the house. The entire house was heated by a large ceramic-tile stove that radiated heat throughout the space. I was intrigued by this unit and amazed at the amount of heat it puts out. Both bedrooms and the living area benefited from this one unit. I had seen it in many other homes but this was my first experience with its actual use. In my mind, this is now distinctly Romanian to me. (I’m sure it’s not, but I’ll always associate it with Romania.)
I slept in the back bedroom with Florin’s oldest and youngest children, Ema and David, piled into the other bed. Most of the beds I saw in Romanian homes were used as couch and bed, making it the equivalent of a day bed. In Florin’s home, these were used only as beds. And on this first night, John, Ema, David and I had these beds to sleep in. Florin and Gabriela slept on their living room couch which pulled out into a bed like the one I’d been using earlier in the week. On the second night here, our company grew by two more adults, so the sleeping became much more interesting.
One of our American team members joined us on Saturday morning after her Romanian pastor had to leave town due to a family situation, and that was also the day that Laurenţiu rejoined us. Our sleeping situation changed in this way: Janet and I slept on the two beds in the back room, John kept his day bed in the first bedroom, and a mattress was pulled into that bedroom and deposited in the middle of the floor for Laurenţiu. The entire Bālāceanu family who was present that weekend were then forced to sleep in various positions on the pull-out couch. When I awoke the next morning I found Ema asleep on the floor beside the couch. I was grateful that we did not have to put anyone out for a second night.
Our meals this weekend were somewhat different than those at the Gavriş home, but only because we saw more packaged items and more “American-style” products. Florin is 32-years-old, and his family is still very young, so they lean toward many Western ideals. We still had the meats and cheeses that we had grown accustomed to, but these were supplemented by other foods from the supermarket. Our first day in Timişana, in fact, brought a late-night trip to the supermarket, where John and I helped Florin choose foods for Saturday’s birthday barbecue. I stumbled upon a special treat for myself, as well: Lay’s Cheddar potato chips and cooler-chilled Coca-Cola. Both John and I couldn’t wait, and we enjoyed this snack on the drive back to the village that very night. I didn’t realize how much I’d been missing junk food until I had the chance to eat it. I learned later that Gabriela loved the chips, as well, so there may a new trend for this family.
Saturday’s barbecue included beef links, pan-fried pork cutlets, and creamy cubed potatoes, but the meal began with two soup options: a tomato-based stew and a delicious chicken soup with semolina dumplings. I was so enraptured by the flavor of this second soup that I quizzed Gabriela about the recipe and determined to make it for myself when back home. [My first attempt was less than desirable, but I am determined to perfect it.] Of all the foods we’ve enjoyed throughout the week, this soup is actually my very favorite.
I noticed when the main course was placed on the table, Janet was quite impressed with the presentation and jumped to get her camera. We had seen this same presentation all week from many different cooks, so I was surprised by her reaction. I guess it’s not a standard plating technique for all Romanians. Or maybe it was just that particular selection of foods. Either way, I was happy for her reaction because it made me realize that I had not yet taken pictures of our meals. It was such a huge part of our experience that I’m happy to have some documentation for my photo collection.
Lunch featured a special treat since it was David’s 7th birthday: a gourmet chocolate cake with rich, creamy icing between the layers. It was a treat, of course, but we all enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate his birthday and gorge ourselves on something so delectable. I’m certain there will never be a cake to compare no matter how far I may travel. And sharing it with Florin’s family, with John and Laurenţiu and Janet and our new friend Vasile, is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Because our weekend was so full and so short, we ended up eating the barbecue meal again that night and for breakfast and again for lunch on Sunday. And yet, I never tired of it. I felt very comfortable by the week’s end, and I have already begun to miss many of the foods we experienced. I have also found myself waking in the middle of the night in Texas listening for roosters to crow on the half hours as they did in Agrişu-Mare. I even miss the muddy village roads a little. I’ve learned that determining to be flexible allowed me to embrace every unique aspect of Romanian life that I experienced. And I do miss almost all of it.
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