In Which We Are Smacked by Romanian Boys

On Friday morning, after the long and painful (for me, at least) drive to Lupeni, Romania, we set our alarms for an early rise and trekked down the muddy hill to breakfast at a nearby hostel. The view from our cabana was a beautiful snapshot of the Transylvanian woods, so at least we had interesting things to look at besides the run-down houses and spotty construction scaffolding dotting the village.

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As soon as we saw our plates of food, we groaned; almost Sarajevo all over again. Bread, cheese, and meat. Don’t get me wrong, I like that meal, but when that’s all you ever eat for breakfast, it gets old fast. I put the cheese and unidentified meat on a piece of bread, then sampled what appeared to be another piece of cheese, ruffled and pale-looking. Salt is all I can say about that. None of us to this day know what that cheese is for, but it’s obviously not for eating plain, as that’s pretty much impossible with the intense level of salt in that sucker. It had the consistency of smashed and then reformed small-curd cottage cheese.

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Another quick sidenote about Lupeni – if you want to see the town of stray dogs, go here. I walked out the front door and counted nineteen stray dogs within my line of sight, and there are many, many more hanging around. It’s incredible. And I thought Sarajevo was bad as far as strays were concerned.

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After breakfast, we took the bus back down the hill (and caught some pretty nice scenery images too).

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Most notable about that trip down the mountain was our encounter with a roaming Romanian shepherd brandishing his long wooden stick to herd his flock around us. He was very cheerful, smiling and waving when he saw us – a characteristic that I would soon learn to miss dearly, as Romanians are not at all prone to act kindly toward strangers. But can you blame them after the indoctrination they received under the communist regime?

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Once we got back into the main city, we headed straight for the IMPACT building, where we were to meet Dana, the founder of the IMPACT program in Romania (and, eventually, around the world).

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So what exactly is the IMPACT club and its accompanying Viața program? IMPACT was originally a system created with the intention of creating leaders from youth in the Romanian community by improving their abilities to trust other people and increasing their self-esteem. I’ll be honest; when I read about the programs at first, I was rather unimpressed. Just another one of these programs, huh?

However, IMPACT does really stand out from its peers, as we soon discovered by talking to Dana. Sure, anyone can make his own program sound great, but we also had the opportunity to see IMPACT programs (which are led exclusively by students) in action and see how they work. Indeed, if there is a way to make these types of programs work, IMPACT knows how. Students are entirely in charge of the program, but adults can provide answers when necessary. Students and youth of all types are welcome into the clubs, and they come up with their own goals for the community, raise the money themselves, and implement the program themselves. Because the students themselves determine what needs to be done in the community and carry it out with no intervention from the adults, they build leadership skills and get the self-esteem that Dana has been hoping for, all while improving the community as the same time. It’s somewhat difficult to describe in detail in such a short blog, so check out this link for more detailed information about IMPACT and Viata (http://www.noi-orizonturi.ro/index.php?lang=en).

After the meeting about the IMPACT clubs and the Christian Reformed Church’s activities in Romania, we had lunch delivered to us in the building. Should I have been surprised that it was pizza? Nope. It was just from the other pizza place in town, Pizza Planet. I had four pieces, in addition to some other snack crackers and whatnot. This pizza was surprisingly good – normally ham is my least favorite pizza topping, but the ham on this pizza was very thin (almost transparent) and very sweet, making it almost like a candy pizza.

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Anyway, we were then partnered in small groups with some study abroad students who are currently living in Lupeni, and they showed us the town over the span of a few hours. Our leader, Leah, took us first to a small pastry shop, where we got two common Romanian sweets – a vanilla croissant, and an apple-filled foldover pastry. Both were good, but nothing spectacular. They tasted as you might expect them to.

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After that, we walked down a few streets zigzagging around the small, forlorn town and quickly discovered the unwelcoming attitude of almost all of the Romanians there. Upon seeing us, they would stare blatantly. That wouldn’t bother me, except that people were running out of their houses to come and stare at us. As Leah led us to our next destination, Café Mago, a man opening the door to the café stopped, literally planted his feet, grabbed his son’s hand, and stared at us with the widest eyes he could manage. He reminded me of a Maori warrior I once stayed with. His stare was piercing and not at all intended to be secret. He wanted us to know that he was staring at us, and with fervor too. Leah actually had us walk away, because he would not have stopped staring if we’d continued to stand there. It was incredible.

Anyway, we went into Café Mago and snatched a table for four. We broke the 50 lei bill that we’d been given (with Leah’s translation help) and approached the unique-looking drink machine.

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I decided on a cicolata cu lapte, or a hot chocolate made with milk. There was a +/- button for the amount of sugar you wanted, and a small cup (more than enough) cost me a single lei (the conversion rate at the time of this trip was approximately three lei to one dollar, so the hot chocolate was around 33 cents). A good deal if I don’t say so myself, that was some real hot chocolate. It tasted good, what with being made with real milk, and it was rich, sweet, and creamy without being too “dessert-y.”

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Speaking of desserts, I decided to use a few more lei to buy myself a dessert from the pretty-looking selection behind the counter.

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It took me a while to make a choice, but I ended up going with a mango layer cake with a sugared chocolate lattice on top. It was one of the sweetest things I’ve eaten since coming to Europe – the clear mango glaze on top (complete with toasted mango piece) was smooth and sweet, not tart like some fruit desserts. The cake itself was sweet and lacked the bland filler attributes of some American desserts, and the inner cream was incredibly sweet but had the richness of buttercream icing. I was almost kicking myself for eating too much after I’d finished. Almost.

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In Café Mago, after sampling many of everyone else’s desserts, I also discovered another Romanian fetish – rum-flavored everything. Audrey got this tall dessert so packed with sweet rum that it was almost unbearable to eat. While delicious, it was a bit much.

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Then, Leah showed us to “the piazza,” a kind of farmer’s market filled with all kinds of home-grown goods, from herbs and fruits and vegetables to spices and decorations. Since we had a hike planned for Saturday, we went through and bought some fruits to eat for lunch on the mountain. I snagged a bunch of grapes (unfortunately all European grapes have giant seeds in the middle), a nectarine, a bottle of carrot-banana juice, and a hazelnut granola bar for about a dollar. After we’d wrapped up our shopping needs in the piazza, we walked around for a little while longer, in which we were reminded once again of the Romanian policy that strangers are a little less than welcome.

While we were walking in a group (which is strange, since there are too few people in Lupeni for people to walk in groups, thus singling us out), a little boy, probably ten or eleven, ran up behind Audrey and swatted her in the rear with a stick. We just chalked it up to his boyish immaturity and moved on. But later, as we were walking beside an exposed, decrepit pipeline which proved to be the hideout of a group of boys, the young men took some homemade blowguns and shot rolled up, pointed somethings at us. They weren’t dangerous (they did hit us a few times), and one of them threw a rock. Leah spun around, frustrated, and shouted in Romanian, “Leave us in peace!” (“Lasă-ne în pace!”) She had to repeat this a few steps later when they didn’t stop.

We’d seen pretty much all of Lupeni at this point, so we veered back in the direction of the IMPACT building, stopping briefly at a thrift shop where I got a windbreaker exercise shirt for 3 lei (a dollar). Then, it was back to the IMPACT building to meet Dana and head over to his house for a sumptuous home-cooked dinner.

The bus ran into a bit of trouble as we neared Dana’s house, but at this point the drivers expect just about anything and everything (and usually, they get it). The bridge to Dana’s house was wide enough but a little risky for the big bus to cross, so we walked from there.

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Dana’s house wasn’t far back on the rustic country road, and it reminded me a lot of home. In the back yard under a small shed roof, one of Dana’s helpers Audi was grilling our dinner.

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We were free to have  a look around the back yard, so we fiddled around with the chickens for a while and played with Dana’s dog, Hansel.

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Hansel’s quite a bit bigger than he looks, as I discovered too late. He came dashing into my outstretched arms, and he was just so massive that I couldn’t keep my balance and fell over backwards, earning a fantastic grass stain on my jeans and a good laugh. Dana also showed us a Romanian “washing machine,” which is outside and uses running creek water.

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There is also a trout farm and, up the road, a lot of apiaries where Dana and his family can get honey.

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After the short tour of how things work in and around his home, Dana welcomed us to his living room for a huge dinner. But first, get a glimpse of this house!

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His house was beautiful, and helping him to prepare dinner was a Romanian helper named Grațiella, whom we got to know much better the following day. Anyway, she stacked the table full of dish after dish of traditional Romanian food, and you can be sure that I stocked my plate with as much of it as I could fit. And when I couldn’t fit any more, I put more on anyway.

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Let’s break this down – first, there was the cabbage dish, varza. I expected it to be somewhat like coleslaw, but it really wasn’t. It was pretty much chopped cabbage doused in what seemed to be sunflower oil and then served fresh. What does this mean for the taster? Well, if you don’t care for just plain cabbage, you probably won’t be a big fan. But with lettuce a practically unheard-of vegetable in Romania, cabbage is what you get.

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After that was the chicken, which were just the typical drumsticks that Americans recognize instantly. Audi labored over the grill to make them, and they had a juicy chicken flavor although they were a bit dry. They burnt coating on the outside is a draw for some, but I’ve never really cared for it.

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A bowl of various meats was next, one a very recognizable kielbasa and the other some sort of composite meatball called mici. The kielbasa was quite good, with a flavorful but not overpowering taste. The “meatball,” for lack of a better word, was so intensely salty that I had to stop eating it, unfortunately. Romanian foods tend to be salty, and this was just another great example. I’ve often pondered to myself the use of Romanian salt; in poorer countries, foods become salty because salt is the main means of preserving food. But in the wintery climate of Lupeni, it’s difficult to know why so much emphasis is put on salt when your entire country is a freezer.

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Anyway, the meal was good, and I certainly ate my fill. After that, we sat and talked for a while before wishing Dana a good night and making our way back to our cabana, where the electricity had been restored. The first sign of power was the lights streaming out of the windows, but from the moment we stepped foot in that hotel, it was obvious that not only was the electricity working but that it was working well. Maybe a bit too well.

Stepping into the cabana took our breath away as a searing wave of heat washed over us. Yes indeed, the radiators are working now, Audi. Thanks.

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