Monday, October 29, 2012

Maramures, our “Romanian Brigadoon”

Some of you may remember the wonderful Lerner and Loewe musical “Brigadoon” about a Scottish village that remained unchanged and untouched by the modern world because it only appeared for one day every 100 years.  Well, Maramures is our “Brigadoon,” a land of horse-drawn wooden carts where hand-pitched haystacks dot the landscape and the spires of simplistic wooden churches pierce the sky.  This area is also home to some of the kindest, most genuine down-to-earth people we have ever encountered.

We were fortunate to have Andrei Mahalnischi as our driver/guide through this amazing time warp.  Andrei has a remarkable talent for relating to the local people, and he gave us an unforgettable glimpse into a way of life that has disappeared from the rest of Europe.
We spent three nights in Maramures in the home of Maria and Ioan, the nicest couple you could ever meet who welcomed us into their home and into their hardworking lives.  Ioan is a true proud peasant, a farmer who works the land and cares for his farm animals from dawn to dusk.  He is also a gentle soul who touched Anne’s heart when he handed her a perfect white rose on our last day.
Maria holding a painting of her and Ioan on
their wedding day
Maria is a retired elementary school teacher who fills her days making gorgeous handicrafts and creating the most delicious dishes – every meal was a culinary adventure from incomparably creamy polenta called “mamaliga” (made with sour cream) to an assortment of delicious soups, all made with the freshest ingredients.  Dinner each night consisted of a starter, a soup, a main entrĂ©e, and a dessert.  Everything made from scratch with local ingredients – baskets of just baked bread, extra spicy pickles fermented with horseradish, featherweight crepes served with homemade jam.  In Maramures, people never want to appear ungenerous, so the amount of food delivered to our table each night was always overwhelming.  We were constantly torn between not wanting to offend Maria and wanting to be able to fit into our clothes!
Maria and Ioan spoke no English, but they did speak French so that worked out pretty well since both of us have a few years of French under our belts.  Frank and Maria were able to speak Russian as a backup; altho reluctant to do so, Maria understood/spoke some Russian, as we found out. 
Ioan, Andrei, and Maria celebrating
Andrei's 61st birthday
Staying with them was so much fun.  Andrei celebrated his 61st birthday while we were here, so one night Maria and Ioan presented him with a huge homemade cake and sang a Romanian birthday song.  Not to be outdone, Frank played his harmonica and Anne sang “Happy Birthday to You.” 

Creek water for an impromtu "shower"
Of course, rural life is full of surprises.  One morning the entire town was without water.  Unfortunately, Anne was just heading for the shower, but no worries, Ioan arrived on the scene with a big pot of warm water (from the nearby creek, we assumed) along with a smaller saucepan to use as a ladle.  What can you do?  When in Romania, you do like the Romanians!  When the water goes down, you sit in the bathtub and scoop warm creek water over your body as you scrub to get clean.
One of the wooden churches of Maramures

The pride of Maramures are the fabled wooden churches – impressive small buildings with towering Gothic spires completely made of wood.  The government at one point in time disallowed any new churches from being made of stone, so not to be deterred, the peasants made them of wood instead.  Inside, the church walls are decorated with unsophisticated paintings by local talent.  The overall effect is a simple devotion that perfectly matches the people who live here.

Ladies of Maramures shopping at
the Animal Market

On one day, we visited the Animal Market, a traveling band of vendors who move from town to town selling animals and just about anything you would need to buy: horses, cows, pigs, shoes, clothes, furniture, leather goods, cabbage, beets, other food staples, and trinkets galore.  What a zoo!  And the best part was watching all the people of the town doing their shopping.  Everyone was so friendly, and they all seemed amused when we took picture after picture of what to them is just a routine event. 

Vendor bagging a piglet for a lady customer
Anne still can’t get over seeing a woman purchasing a live piglet – the piglet was hoisted up and dropped into a burlap sack by the vendor, and the happy buyer went on her merry way, carrying her squiggling, squealing shopping bag over her shoulder!

Unique grave markers of the Merry Cemetery
Another highlight was the Merry Cemetery (which Anne wrote about in her latest cemetery article).  This was the most colorful cemetery we have ever seen with hand-painted bright blue crosses.  Each cross has a painting of the deceased and a personal epitaph (that Andrei translated for us).  The bright colors are intended to remind us that death is not a sorrowful thing but a new beginning, and each epitaph begins with the reassuring words of the dead person, “I am relaxing here…” 
Cells inside the former prison from the Communist era
The Memorial of Anticommunist Victims was a much more sobering sight because it addressed a period of nasty history on the Romanian calendar.  This museum was dedicated to all the Romanians who suffered imprisonment and often death at the hands of the Russians and the infamous Romanian dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu.  It is impossible for us as Americans to imagine living under these regimes, and the tyranny they rained on their citizens.  One small example:  you needed a permit to own a typewriter and permits were given only to those who needed a typewriter for their jobs.  But it didn’t end there -- every year you had to submit a designated text typed on your typewriter which was kept on file so that it could be used to identify the source of any subversive pamphlets or documents.
Artisan milling corn --
note his traditional Maramures hat
We also visited a local Maramores artisan who seemed to have a regular “industrial complex” in his front yard.  Since his place was located next to a small creek, an active water wheel was able to provide power and water to wash major sized blankets and rugs in a large conical wooden barrel; at the same time, it could also operate a mill stone that ground grains like corn and wheat into flour. 

Making "palinka" in a wood-fired still

But the most interesting operation was the brandy distillery, a rough looking set-up fueled by a wood stove to accelerate grain breakdown and fermentation, and where alcohol was cooled at the final stages by the waters of the creek.  We got the full tour including a taste of the home-brewed palinka (plum, apple, or other fruit brandy).  We were never sure if homemade palinka is exactly legal.  But in this country of Romania, everybody drinks it, everybody makes it, and everybody swears it is medicinal.  Yes, Frank bought a few bottles, and we’re bringing ‘em home to America for those times when we need to fight off those nasty colds!
What a cute Maramures peasant couple!
One morning, Maria gave us a demonstration of carpet-making on her loom.  She is an incredible talent, and weaving on a loom, as we discovered, is just one more of this woman’s long list of capabilities -- and she has been weaving since she was five years old!  For some fun, Maria decked us both out in a selection of her best Romanian garments.  We made quite a pair, and Andrei took lots of pix to capture the moment.

Frank drives the hay wagon with some of the locals
A favorite activity in Maramures was just driving around and stopping whenever something caught our eye.  One day, we stopped to talk with two farmers who had just finished loading their hay wagon, and before we knew what was happening, Andrei had arranged for Frank ride on the wagon and drive the horses.  What a thrill!
We hope this report and these pictures give you a taste of what we experienced in our “Brigadoon.” According to the legend of Brigadoon, no resident can ever leave the town or Brigadoon will disappear forever.  Even in this regard, Marmaures is somewhat similar.  Recently after an especially difficult winter, Maria suggested to Ioan that they sell the farm and move to the city.  Ioan replied, “I can’t leave; this land is my life.”
Faces of Maramures:

Frank hunkers down with the locals and entertains
them with his harmonica

Friday, October 26, 2012

Welcome to Cluj!

Orthodox Cathedral in Cluj
We bid a sad farewell to Munich, Frank’s favorite city in the world, with a vow to return again soon.  The next leg of our trip was a short (1 ½ hr.) early morning flight from Munich to the city of Cluj (pronounced: Kloowdj) in Romania.  We flew a Lufthansa flight once again (although the plane was much smaller).  The friendly crew offered us a breakfast pastry and the usual juice, coffee and tea.  But then they asked if we wanted champagne. Was there ever any question?  Lufthansa may have just become our favorite airline!
The tiny Cluj airport was easy to negotiate, and Passport Control was a breeze with no visa required.  We hit an ATM and got our first look at Romanian currency (known as lei or RON).  Weird bills!  The currency looks typically European, but it’s made of plastic – it’s like the stuff has been polished with furniture wax; it’s slippery to handle.  The plastic construct lasts longer and is supposed to be harder to counterfeit; and it does not deteriorate like paper money; you can actually run it thru the washing machine with no negative effect on the money.  Outside the airport, we looked for a taxi to take us into the city and had our first encounter with “unscrupulous Romania.”
Statue of Baba Novac, a famed warrior
who was nicknamed Baba (grandmother)
because he lost all his teeth in battle
A cab driver approached us, and we showed him a piece of paper with our hotel address carefully printed.  He said he could take us but when pressed, finally gave us a price of 45 euros!  That’s the equivalent of $58 American dollars.  What a rip!!  The hotel had advised us that a typical price was 5-7 euros.  Anne snatched the piece of paper out of the cabbie’s hand and said, “No, thanks.” He was clearly disgruntled and mumbled some (undoubtedly) unkind stuff in Romanian as he walked away.  We weren’t sure what we would do now, cause he didn’t even offer an alternative lower price – guess he figured he could wait for the next foreign sucker.
But now what? We stood there uncertainly until a nice-looking older man came over and asked us (in good English) if he could be of help – and offered to drive us for a fraction of what the other guy wanted. It turned out that “Pop” (pronounced: “pope”) was a friendly guy who taught us our first Romanian word multemesc (mool – tse – mesk) which means “thank you” and even gave Frank a beer recommendation (more about that later).  Pop drove us straight to our hotel and true to his word, only charged us 20 lei (about 5 euros).  Frank gave him a generous tip, gave Pop accolades for his honesty, and we were all happy.
Hotel Alexis, where we are staying, is a new hotel in Cluj, and our room is amazingly spacious – more than twice the size of our Munich hotel (and half the cost).  Romania is cheap, with lots of bang for the buckaroo!!  Welcome to cheap Europe!  We also got the “Romantic Weekend Package” which meant a basket of fresh fruit, a bar of Romanian chocolate, and a bottle of Romanian champagne.  This is becoming quite the bubbly trip.

Love that Ursus beer!

A five-minute walk from Hotel Alexis brought us to the center of town where we found a restaurant called “4 Amici’s” (four friends), and they even had a nonsmoking section, just for us. Unfortunately, smoking is rampant here, and we will have to work at protecting our lungs from the second-hand smoke issues.  The smokers even light up in restaurants clearly marked “no smoking,” despite the restaurant’s insistence to the contrary.  

We ate pizza, ciorba (soup) and salad, but the big hit of the meal was the Ursus beer.  Ursus means “bear,” and Pop, our cabbie, who had recommended this Cluj hometown brew, told us that Romania has lots of brown bears from the Carpathian Mountains.  These bears are protected so the Romanians can’t hunt them; and according to Pop, this is a big problem because these bear eat sheep and other farm animals.  Ursus beer is the best beer in Romania (at least according to the Clujians) – and it definitely tasted good to us.
Taking confession in the middle of the church
The following morning we met Andrei, who will be our guide for the next week.  Today he gave us a walking tour of his hometown Cluj.  Cluj actually has many elegant buildings, and it is obvious that much has been recently restored. (Unfortunately, Cluj also has many ugly concrete constructions built during the Communist days under the despot Nicolai Ceausescu).  We visited several churches and viewed a portion of the old fortified city wall – Cluj is fortunate to have an intact old city.
We were lucky enough to witness a Greek Orthodox baptism while in Cluj.  The ceremony begins with the mother taking confession right in the middle of the church aisle (with the priest’s robe draped over her head).  There are no confessional booths, so this is the way confession works with everyone. 

One of the triple baptismal dips!

The big finale comes when the tiny unsuspecting infant, totally naked, gets entirely imersed via a triple dunk into a basin of holy water! None of that pouring of a few drops of water on the head, like they do in similar ceremonies here in America. Our little guy went for an unrequested swim in some deep holy water!!  He handled it remarkably well, and you could see how proud the family was.
Cluj has been occupied by other forces repeatedly and churches have changed hands too sometimes from Jesuit to Protestant Reformed.  Being close to the Hungarian border, Cluj has a large Hungarian population – their protestant churches tend to be quite plain (in fact, they plastered over the old Catholic frescoes!) except for the ornate organs and the elaborate pulpits.
St. Michael's pulpit of carved wood that
gleams like gold and copper
Unfortunately, we had one more experience with “unscrupulous Romania.”  We don’t want to dwell too much on this because overall the people of Romania are kind and friendly, but you need to be a savvy traveler here.  We returned to a small neighborhood grocery store near our hotel to buy more bottled water.  When Frank got his change, he realized the young woman had shorted him 5 lei.  She said, “Oh sorry,” and immediately gave him the 5.  That's OK; mistakes can happen, we thought. 

However, later when he checked over the purchases, Frank realized that she had also overcharged him for one of the items!  Note that bar codes are nonexistent here, so prices are entered by hand.  It wasn’t much money, and we know these people are poor, but nobody likes to be cheated!  It’s just the principle.

The swarming black crows of Cluj

One very Transylvania aspect of Cluj were the hordes of large black crows that flew into the city center parks each evening at dusk (and back out at dawn to dine in the outer garbage dumps). 
These big birds looked like ravens (and we are not sure they weren’t), and added to the mystique of the Transylvania legend.  Hundreds and hundreds of black “crows” came flapping slowly along the main street each night, as tho there was another "thoroughfare" at about 100 feet above the main road, cackling at max decibel level right past our hotel window.  They were like creepy Hollywood Dracula-movie props, adding to the mystery and allurement of this part of Romania.  Haaaa!!  What a set up for Halloween! 
Happy Halloween from Transylvania!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Night in Munich

Wilkommen am Deutschland!
We enjoyed a pleasant nonstop Lufthansa flight from Newark to Munich on our spacious Airbus 340.  This plane had a most unusual feature: the bathrooms were on a lower level, down a short flight of stairs much like a split level house.  By noon the next day, we were walking through the Marienplatz, the main square in Munich. 

Our sentiments exactly!

The city is as appealing as ever with such a happy vibe.  Maybe it’s because everyone is busy drinking the incredible Bavarian beers!
After a much needed recuperative nap, our first stop was the Oktoberfest Museum.  Officially, Oktoberfest has ended here; but that does not mean that party time is over in Deutschland!!  

Posters touting Munich's Oktoberfest
The highlight of the museum was an excellent film about the history of beer which goes back 5,000 years! The first beer originated in the Middle East and was made from fermented bread. This “bread beer” continued until the Middle Ages when Europeans started experimenting with beer made from plants that even included the deadly nightshade as one ingredient!  When the Germans discovered hops, beer-making really got hopping (so to speak), and Germans became known as the “brew meisters” of the world. 
The museum itself comprised three floors of tiny rooms exhibiting mostly old photos but also collections of Munich Oktoberfest posters and the signature beer steins created to honor each year’s festival. We never realized what a huge crowd comes to this beer festival – 5 million people attend each year (and only a small percentage of them are foreigners).  We are thinking we have an Oktoberfest in our future!

The famed Hofbrauhaus Oompah Band
By now, the artifacts within the museum had inspired a terrible beer thirst, so we headed straight to the nearby Hofbrauhaus, Munich’s most famous beer hall and Frank’s favorite spot to tip back a few liters of real Bavarian beer.  The cavernous hall is always packed with beer lovers, and the oompah band never quits playing.  It’s touristy, yes, but the wonderful thing is that Germans love it too, and the clientele always includes plenty of old Deutsch partiers in lederhosen rocking to the polkas and drinking songs . 

Partying with the Schwabians
We sat at one of the large wooden tables and were soon joined by three Germans (sans lederhosen) -- Martin, Gerhart and Gerhart’s son Chris -- all from the region of Schwabia. Our fun-loving friend from back home (Steve) is a Schwabian from way back on his family tree, so we figured these guys would be up for a good time, and we were right!

We all bonded immediately and had a raucous night of constantly toasting with our giant beer steins.  The later it got, the crazier the toasts became.   

A toast "to Honey!!"
From left: Gerhart, Martin, and of course Frank
During the course of the evening, the Schwabians heard Frank call Anne “honey.”  They got such a kick out of this expression that they offered up many toasts “to Honey!”  Anne (aka Honey) was feeling no pain, and neither was anyone else.  The Germans never disappoint for energetic music and lively camaraderie.  What a night, and what a way to start our trip!