The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania


Eating out in Romania has some slight differences than your typical restaurant experience in America. This is a little “how to” guide for anyone hitting a Romanian restaurant for the first time.

Reservations: Reservations can be made at some Romanian restaurants, although I’ve never found it necessary. Half of the clientele will usually be sitting down for a 20-40 minute drink, so in a full restaurant you can expect a table or two to turn after only fifteen minutes or so.

Seating: I’m yet to eat at a Romanian place with a hostess or assigned seating. Essentially, it’s first come, first served. Your only real consideration should be whether you pick the smoking or non smoking area of the restaurant (if there happens to be a distinction). Take care not to sit at a table with a ‘reserved’ sign, and to choose a table with seating that corresponds to the number in your party. Otherwise, you’ll probably be asked to move.

Menus: Within a few minutes, a waiter/waitress will approach your table. Don’t be surprised if they throw a “Spuneți” at you (the formal form of “speak!”)–the first time I heard this it caught me off guard. Most of the time, you’ll need to ask to have a menu brought to you, which shouldn’t take more than a minute or two.

Beverages: These can be ordered with your meal, or beforehand, but I’ve noticed it’s more common to throw your entire order at the server at once. Tap water is not brought to you, unless you request it. And it will never be brought to you with ice–Romanians are wary of ice-cold beverages, as they believe they are a shock to the system and will cause you to get sick. So if you do ask for a tap-water, it’ll be luke warm. Sodas will come in bottles, and you’ll be charged for each one. The only place I’ve ever seen a soda fountain is McDonalds. If you get a beer, remember that the average beer here is 500 ml, or about twice the size of a typical American beer. If you go for wine, I recommend asking for a  house carafe, which is usually the best value for your buck. You also need to specify how many glasses you want. The server will bring your drinks, and open them for you at the table, regardless of what they are. Snapple style juices will be shaken. Beers will be popped. Waters untwisted. Etc.

The Main-Course: In Romania, menus are typically broken down into different sections. Pizzas (super popular all over), Soups, Meat, Sides, Salads, Beverages.  Simply put, you get exactly what is written in the item description. If you order a 150 gram grilled chicken breast, do not expect it to come with anything else. I’ve made this mistake. It’s up to you to order any appetizers, sides, and even sauces. Don’t be surprised to see raised eyebrows if you order just a salad, or meat without a side–it’s common for Romanians to order a small cabbage salad, a type of meat, and a side or two. Anything other than that may seem a little out of the ordinary.

However, it’s possible that the restaurant will have a ‘meal’ menu. Just check the description: if it says that your turkey snitzel comes with french fries (ate this on Wednesday), then it will. If it doesn’t, it won’t. If you want ketchup or mustard, you’ll have to request it (and may be charged an extra Lei or two).

Don’t underestimate the power of a little Ketchup picant or dulce (spicy or sweet) with your pizza. It’s really pretty good. Also don’t assume that your pizza will come with tomato sauce, unless it’s in the pizza description (they typically list every ingredient). In these cases, a little bit of ketchup on the side is a must.

Dessert: It’s not necessary to order dessert when you order the rest of your meal, but it’s certainly more common. If you decide you do want dessert, then just let your server know when they’re clearing your plate. It’s important to use this time to tell them because they won’t specifically ask you if you want dessert, and they could disappear for a while thereafter.

Service: In America, servers work for tips, so they are trained to be out-going and attentive. In Romania, however, tips are small, and by no means expected. I’ve completely surprised a server or two by leaving a tip for a cappuccino in a restuarant. It’s not normal.

Now, one might presume that because Romanians aren’t working for tips, that they’ll be less friendly and outgoing. I haven’t found this to be the case. In fact, I’ve only had one experience where the service was so bad that I laughed. Otherwise, the servers are typically pretty nice. They’re not as outgoing as in America, however. Romanian servers are literally there to ‘serve.’ It’s not so much a social hospitality thing as good food service.

So, when you order, expect your drinks in a timely fashion, and for your food to be prepared quickly, but don’t expect to see much of your server thereafter. I don’t think this is a rudeness thing, but rather an issue of privacy. A Romanian would probably feel overwhelmed if they visited America and had a doting server asking them if they wanted beverage refills, or checking to see how their meal tasted.

That means, in Romania, you see your server approximately 6 times throughout the meal: to receive menus, to order, to receive beverages and silverware, to get your food, to have your plates cleared, and to receive the bill. If you need a drink refill, or an additional condiment, you’ll have to grab your server’s attention in whatever way seems most appropriate. They really are very attentive (plates are cleared quickly, drinks are served almost as soon as you order them) but it’s very different than the American system.

The Bill: This crucial part of the meal has thrown me off many times. You have to specifically ask for the bill–your server will not offer it to you. I’ve sat around at tables for over a half an hour before I grasped this. The server figures you’re relaxing and taking your time, when you really just want to pay and get out of there. I’ve found it’s easiest to just remember how much my meal cost (or to approach the server and ask them) and pay that way rather than requesting the bill, paying, and waiting for change. This is perfectly acceptable in Romania, but as a server I know it’s considered rude in America.

Pofta Buna.


“The Incredible Journey” Parte a treia

There are a couple of ‘vagabonzi’ that hang out around my school. One is named Rita, and the other is named Blacky. Rita is a tiny, short-haired, female mutt–all white except for a smear of cinnamon around her ears and eyes. Blacky is a big, black, shaggy descendant of Labrador.

During the days, they sleep on the front steps to our school where the cement is warmed by whatever sunlight comes through the grey haze of the valley February. Rita usually shivers in her sleep. Blacky chews at the ever present burrs he collects on his haunches and tail. I’ve patiently tugged a few out of his long fur, but not often. Whenever I do, my hands reek that earthy scent of wet dog. Also, Blacky is suspicious of all men older than 14, and seldom lets me pet him, let alone meticulously groom him with my fingertips.

At night, the pair runs through the side streets with whatever students happen to be playing outside. They dart across the main road, making the speeding taxes honk, swerve, rev away again. Sometimes, when I walk past the nearby dumpster area late at night, I find Blacky there, picking through the trash tossed that day.

The two are loved. Various members of the school bring them meat scraps from home, and the children rub their ears and muzzles during the breaks. Luna visits with them in each of her smoke breaks through out the day. She speaks to them in high pitched sing-song, like they’re her little children.

Today, my 5B class told me that the neighbors had made a threat against the dogs. All of my kids were upset, and a few had already made small, loose-leaf signs to collect money/find the dogs a home/etc. The school needed to relocate the dogs, or someone official would do it forcibly.

So our Guardian, Doru, piled the two dogs into his tiny, coupe, and drove them 6 kilometers to Cimpa. Doru locked the two in an open lot there, which belongs to one of our cleaning women (this is how I understand the story). This was at 2:30.

At 4:00, I was discussing weekend skiing, and possible English tutoring with Doru, when we heard some students outside squealing and laughing: Blacky and Rita had come home. They had somehow escaped from the lot, and run 6km back to the school. And they had done this in about an hour and a half.

The school secretaries, accountant, and librarian all playfully pet Rita’s head (Blacky had wandered off somewhere). Luna spoke to Rita excitedly, and held her front paws. Even Directoara (who often chases the dogs off the top of the steps) joked and smiled.

Not the most incredible journey (I exagerated), but silly and sweet enough. It reaffirmed for me that those dogs are a part of the school–fixtures that belong there. And they feel the same (and they like the pork scraps). I hope we find a way to keep them around.

Cabana Voie-Vodu: Part III

This is part 3/3 of this post.

Capsuno and I woke simultaneously at 10:00 AM. My eyes burned, and my mouth was dry and scratchy. I had left in my contacts–terrible decision. Now, I couldn’t open my eyes because the contrast of morning light and eyelid hurt too bad. Tears streamed down my face. I somehow peeled the contacts out of my head, and shoved on glasses. If I looked too far to the right or left, my eyes burned and teared up again.  Whining aside, things would ultimately be okay.

Capsuno and I dressed up in snow pants and jackets, and walked back to the dining room. Pisto had made two big pots of warm Mamaliga (kind of a simple polenta) mixed with fresh cheese, eggs, and a little pork sausage slices. There was instant coffee, and two types of fruit salad. I ate much, until I had a tummy full of heavy breakfast. I could’ve gone back to bed.

Pisto teased Capsuno and I for sleeping so late., but Vitzo and B-dan said they had gotten up only a few minutes before us. I didn’t feel bad. I actually felt really good. Comfortable and smiley and warm, even though my eyes were puffy and red.

Vitzo and B-dan left–Vitzo had tutoring appointments at noon. Capsuno, Directoara, Pisto and I went to the steep, ice-covered hill and grabbed two sleds leaning against carved stone embankment. Romanian sleds are fantastic. They are all wood and metal. They have two long, round runners along the base. There is no plastic, or fancy colors. They are difficult to steer, a little heavy, and, best of all, they go really fast.

I hopped on a sled and rode it down the steep driveway. I almost veered off the bridge at the bottom into the river. Then I hit a series of bumps that rattled the lump of corn meal and cheese in my happy belly. It was fantastic, and I laughed out loud.

Capsuno came next, rattling down the hill, legs flayed out, short squeaks piercing through her rust red, second-hand jacket. When she finally stopped herself at the bottom of the hill, her expression was a mix of terror and dumb joy. The emotion was articulated perfectly by the next thing she said: “I don’t know if I liked that.”

So, the four of us trekked up the valley of Voie-Vodu. The snow was 5-6 inches deep, and light. I instantly felt an electricity inside me. The trees themselves seemed like an undefined patchwork of white hanging on black branches–the green over exposed by the blaze of late morning snow-shine.

I occasionally pulled Capsuno on the sled, or she would pull me. Pisto and Miora played the same game. We passed massive, three story cabanas made of carefully placed wood, like Lincoln Logs. They looked warm, cozy, mysterious. They were keeping secrets. Capsuno gazed at them, longingly. “I want one of those someday,” she said, half to me, and half to herself.

We turned back after a mile and a half, maybe more, and pulled each other down the road. We began a snowball fight with Pisto. We gave each other snow baths. It was so ridiculously idyllic that it seemed like some Eastern-European fairytale. But I’ve become accustomed to moments like this in Romania: the land of quiet dreams and rugged simplicity. Sometimes for the better (at moments like this) and sometimes for worse, when it frustrates.

At the Cabana, we veered right, following a small, one lane road along the river. I told Pisto I didn’t want to turn home, yet. Exasperated, he said “you walk and you walk and suddenly you realize you should have turned around two hours ago.” Capsuno hit him with a snowball for me. He almost pushed her face down into a fresh pile of horse manure.

We made our way back: back past the river, back up the icy hill, back past the snarling dogs, and back into the warm dining room. The children whose father owns the cabana were there. One carefully prepared a large pot of tea for the rest. The two oldest boys cooked food. The youngest girl swept and labored to collect dirt in a warped dust pan. Each child had their task, and each worked laboriously, without complaining.

Directoara, Capsuno and I toasted our fairy-tale weekend with a small shot of Tuica. Pisto refused: he had to drive. I’ve noticed that Romanians take drinking and driving very seriously here, although I’ve never seen anyone pulled over– for drunk or reckless driving or even for speeding.

We put our bags in the trunk, and slowly plodded home. Exhausted, eyes burning, I held Capsuno’s hand and stared out the window. I tried to reflect on my fairy-tale story, to think of all the chapters my fantasy life here in Romania has written. My eyes flicked over the passing scenery, but my mind was much deeper. I was remembering that I had volunteered for all of this. That Peace Corps and my community were actually paying to have me present here. That I had come here to open myself to a community in need. And instead, when I had opened, this entire country of make-believe had rushed in.

Saying ‘No’
February 13, 2009, 7:14 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cultural acquisition necessitates a devotion to the ‘yes.’ Some of the most salient advice for my group during Pre-Service Training was to say ‘yes,’ to any and all social invitations. This is an excellent community integration technique. Discomfort was certain, and flexibility a must.

Here in Romania, a short visit can seamlessly become a multiple hour excursion. No meal comes without multiple servings, and parties for anniversaries/weddings/religious holidays will meet the dawn (sometimes for multiple days in a row). Romania is a land of limitless hospitality. ‘Play hard’ is a birth right.

As I’ve adjusted to my site and developed a routine, I’ve had to re-learn to occasionally say ‘no.’ America is a place that nurtures rugged individualism (and some antipathy), so I’m used to saying ‘no’ only once. In America, when we say ‘no,’ the issue is not pressed.

In Romania, hospitality doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. In my busiest weeks, my strained schedule is hardly a deterrent for repeated invitations–I must politely decline three or four times and be prepared to repeat the same conversation the day after.

Countless days, I’ve folded to the requests simply because I was too exhausted and felt too guilty to refuse again. This is my generalization: it is hard to refuse Romanian invitations as a well-meaning American.
But today, I realized that Romanians aren’t insistent only with timid, linguistically handicapped foreigners. Romanians treat other Romanians the same way.

My program manager, Mira, came to visit me at site. While she sat in on my seventh grade class and observed, Directoara and Luna decorated our Syndicate office, and brought in a chicken platter from the best restaurant in my town (appropriately named ‘Number One’). Then the directors, along with Mamei, buzzed about and poured Mira coffee and pinched my cheeks while they said nice things about me and put piece after piece of chicken liver on my plate (delicious).

Mira and I began our goodbye at 3:18, but finally walked out of my school much later after goodbyes and cheek kisses were exchanged. Mira and I drove to Petrosani to visit a potential site for a PCV this upcoming year.

Mamei’s daughter, Scarlet, is applying for a Peace Corps Volunteer. Scarlet and her director fed Mira and I more coffee, and some fresh cakes. We took a brief tour of the school before Mira said that she couldn’t stay any longer–it was getting dark, and the snow was falling harder.

Scarlet urged Mira and I to use the director’s office to finish our paper work. Mira, with a smile, flatly refused and literally dragged me out of the building. Scarlet begged, and Mira, without turning, thanked her for her hospitality. I actually felt bad, and froze in place. It’s a part of this culture that Mira and Scarlet have both grown in. Excusing ones self is like a duel with your host–there’s no screwing around.

And so, today, I learned an important lesson about the Romanian hospitality which has obliterated my comfort zone on so many occasions: it is not for the faint of heart. American hospitality is timid and polite. It is full of gentle gestures. It is a smile with soft words. It is candle light.

Romanian hospitality is strong, and in your face. It is the scratchy cheek of an 80 year old man with Tuica on his breath. It is dancing the Hora and Ciuendra until your knees grind from exhaustion. It is a heaping third course of pork and fresh-from-the-pot polenta. It is a heavy, wool blanket: scratchy, heavy, wonderful, warm, warm, warm, warm. It cannot be blown out with a gentle breath. It must be kicked off–hard. Probably a few times.

Comfort Food

The stress of the final few weeks of school has spilled over into my semester break. It’s compounded because I have to go into school each day, which means I’m feeling a little trapped right now. I don’t really have the days off, since I have to be at school at eleven each day. I have few responsibilities: I go tosit in the cancelarie and plan syllabi, or to help decorate the school for our information center opening tomorrow morning. But I’m still cranky, and I have that weird ‘stress stomach ache.’

Capsuno is here with me. I feel awful because she’s borne the brunt of my stress. I’m not much fun to be around, right now, and I can’t believe she hasn’t left.

The week hasn’t been without some smiles, however. Capsuno and I went to Petrosani on Friday, and we found a handful of treasures that made me giggle in spite of my mopey melodrama.

At Casa Verde, a tiny, one room health food store in central Petro, Capsuno and I found whole-wheat flour, good oatmeal, plain green tea, brown rice, and dried chick peas.

Next, we wandered over to Carrefour, a french grocery chain that has locations in Romania. At Carrefour, we stopped at the ‘exotic foods’ cooler in the very front corner of the store. I’ve found innumerable little treasures in that tiny, refrigerated display case, like avocados, and mangoes. 

Today, however, the Gd of exotic produce smiled upon us. In small, portioned plastic bags, Capsuno and I found Cilantro leaves. I flipped out. I had assumed that I wouldn’t have cilantro for two years, until I got back to Denver and all it’s wonderful New Mexican, hole-in-the-wall, family run eateries.

So, Capsuno and I bought bags of Cilantro, and dried kidney beans, and expensive, gold colored bell peppers. We also bought limes (about 30 lei/kilo) and two bottles of Corona, imported from Mexico (5.00 lei each).

Capsuno made whole wheat flat-bread, and I marinated a big chicken breast in lime and cilantro and pepper flakes.  We bought ‘Cascaval Afumat’ (smoked, pressed cheese), the closest thing to a simple American mozzarella that we could find. Capsuno made salsa, and guacamole (both amazing) while I sauteed bell peppers and red onions.

Then, we cracked our Coronas, pressed lime wedges into them, and ‘noroc’d’ (cheers) each other for a first semester well done. I had marinated cilantro chicken breast, wheat flat-bread fajitas and salsa and guacamole and it was amazing. Capsuno had hers without chicken, and had re-fried kidney beans that she’d made instead. We sipped our Coronas and smiled.

That meal of Mexican comfort food made me realize that, secretly, deep down, I really miss home sometimes. I have a few days of break left to decompress, and simultaneously prepare for the second semester. I’m thankful for Capsuno’s patience, and culinary prowess. And I’m thankful for the grace of the Gd of exotic produce, for giving me something to smile about, even when I’m feeling homesick and burnt out.