Romania Part 1
Paul and I are up at 4:30 a.m. (ugh) to finish packing and gather bedding and towels for Paul’s sisters to wash up. I feel bad about that part. We then warm up our bakery goods we bought yesterday for a very early breakfast. A few minutes before Steve is due we carry our luggage downstairs, trying to be as quiet as possible, to wait for our ride. Steve shows up on time and an hour later we arrive at the London Luton airport. We settle our bill up with Steve, thank him for our wonderful tours, and make our way to the terminal.
Our flight on Wizz air (I’m not kidding) goes smoothly and we touchdown at the tiny airport of Cluj-Napoca airport in Romania. We stand in line to show our passport and the only thing the person checking our papers ask is how long are you staying in Romania. I guess since England and Romania belong to the European Union they assume you have already been scrutinized. Our duffel bag shows up on the baggage claim belt and we walk out of the terminal to see a strawberry blonde, with a friendly smile waiting for us. Whew, two things that cause me anxiety, will our luggage arrive and will someone be waiting for us, are behind us!
Cornelia welcomes us to Romania and we walk a short distance to her silver van. Cornelia gets in on the right side of her vehicle and we are ready to start our adventure in Romania. Imagine our surprise when we find in Romania they drive on the right side of the road as we do. Cornelia tells us her husband bought the Honda van out of England; this is why the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car. Now think about how hard it would be to drive with that arrangement. In the days to come we would often have to tell Cornelia if it was alright to pass a car since she didn’t have a clear view of oncoming traffic.
It is a wonderful warm, sunny day in Romania and after the rainy, mostly cloudy days in England, full sunshine is very welcome! We don’t drive far before we stop for lunch and to fill the van with fuel. Paul and I laugh when we see a placard on our table advertising the restaurants new Mexican food dishes. One other thing that amuses me at our lunch stop is when we are eating the song “I had the time of my life” is playing over the speakers. I take this as a sign of good things to come! We are also shocked but delighted to see how cheap our lunch cost, which is about three bucks apiece!
Driving down the winding highway we encounter horse-drawn carts and though I knew the horse and wagon were still prominently used in Romania, I never dreamed this mode of travel was allowed on a busy highway! We also see the handmade haystacks here and there that are a trademark of Romania, particularly in the region of Maramures. As we drive, Cornelia in very good English, relates some of her countries interesting history along with information about her life too.
We stop in Baia Mare, where Cornelia lives, to buy bottled water and some snacks. When we prepare to leave we notice that there is a funny vibration coming from the rear end of the van, also the steering wheel is making squeaking noises. Paul guesses that the vibration is a loose exhaust pipe. The good news is that Cornelia’s husband Dan is a mechanic, so she drives the vehicle to his garage. Dan, a big friendly man, gets behind the steering wheel, turns the motor over and intently listens to it. He gets out, peers under the vehicle and pronounces that the exhaust pipe has broken loose. Way to go Paul!
Dan announces he can repair the exhaust in an hour or so and he drives the three of us to the city square to pass the time. We listen with delight as Dan talks about his passion for cars, particularly Dodge chargers. He also is the owner of a Cadillac and both Dan and Cornelia talk about how much they love their caddy. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Dan is that he speaks English quite well and he learned English on his own. I am so jealous of people who have the ability and tenacity to do that!
Dan drops us off at the city square and the three of us settle at an outside table at one of the many small cafes that line the square. Cornelia treats us to fresh made lemonade and we relax with our refreshing drinks as we watch small children running, riding trikes, or playing in the manmade stream of water that runs from one corner of the square to the base of the decorative water fountain. Once we have finished our drinks, Cornelia leads us around the square explaining the various buildings and the restoration work that has been finished or is ongoing on many of the old structures. We leave the old square and stroll down other streets taking in the scenes and atmosphere of Baia Mare.
An hour and a half later after leaving the van with Dan, we walk to a bus stop where Dan drives up with our repaired vehicle. Waving goodbye, we continue toward Breb and Mairoara Pensiunea where we will be staying for the next three nights.
Our route takes us through the Carpathian Mountains on very curvy roads where incredible vistas unfold beyond the car windows. Unfortunately, I can’t get any decent photos due to window glare. As the light of day is beginning to dim we come upon an incredible sight along the road. There are four men milking goats and Cornelia asks if we want to stop. Absolutely we do!
As we are walking towards the goat milkers a flurry of conversation is taking place between Cornelia and the men. We were hoping to get ringside seats to witness this activity, but Cornelia tells us we cannot leave the highway due to the sheep dogs. Odd, the sheep dogs are lying around and haven’t paid any attention to us, but perhaps if we stepped into the dog’s territory their bored demeanor might change.
We still are able to watch the fascinating process of the goat milking from the side of the highway. There are four men milking the big herd of goats, we estimate over 200 goats. The men are sitting with their backs against the corral fence where the goats that still have to be milked are penned. The men milk the goats by reaching between the animals back legs; in essence the goat’s butts are a few inches from the milkers’ faces! When the men have finished milking a goat, they release it and the goat is free to join its herd mates that have been milked. A man standing in the group of goats that still must be milked shoves another goat through a gate to the waiting milker. There is no feed involved and I can’t figure out why the goats stand still to be milked but we learn later that goat and sheep milkers hold the animal’s tail or leg with one hand and milk them out with the other hand. It will be dark soon and I can’t imagine they will get through all the goats they have to milk yet before the sunsets.
I ask Cornelia if I can take a photo of the goat milkers but her inquiry to the men is evidently answered with a “no” as Cornelia just shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head. Rats, I really wanted to capture that scene in a photo.
We arrive at Marioara Pensiunea just before dark. The main building is a beautiful two-story house that is definitely not the norm in Breb. However we are staying in the old wood house behind this new structure. Marioara shows us to one of the two rooms upstairs and points out which bathroom is ours. It is a simple room, with two single beds but it will do just fine. We go back to get the rest of our luggage and Paul forgets how low the door is when we enter the house. I hear a thud as Paul makes contact with the head jamb, then I hear a curse word split the air as Paul stops to rub his head. The top of a door frame seems to be well named. It won’t be the last time Paul has an encounter with head jambs in this house and other places in Romania!
We return to the main house for a homemade dinner made by Marioara who owns and runs this place with her husband. The first thing we have is a small glass of homemade horinca. Holy Smokes, I manage one sip that leaves my throat burning and my eyes watering. Criminy, how do they drink this alcohol?
Marioara then brings us a hearty meat and vegetable soup along with thick slices of bread. The next course is a pork dish accompanied by mashed potatoes and it is wonderful. A plate of cake is the finish to the meal. I tried not to eat too much as it is late but it was all so good! We retire to our room and settle in for the night.
This morning it is cloudy so it appears the English weather has followed us across Europe. We don’t have breakfast until eight o’clock so Paul and I look around the grounds. They have a garden, stacks of firewood, herbs hanging from the sheds eaves, a swing set for kids to play on, a picnic table and a unique corn crib that I assume is just for decoration.
After our breakfast of schnitzel, cheese, bread and jam, Cornelia suggests we walk around Breb. We start out but don’t get far when Paul decides he had better go back for our rain coats as the clouds seem to be thickening. Our first stop in the village is a wood shingle “factory”. This is a start to finish operation, starting with logs that are cut into boards by workers at a small outside sawmill. We enter a shed where two men are actually making the shingles. One of the men splits a board into thin pieces and the second guy takes one of these strips and quickly shapes it into a shingle. The men are friendly and gladly answer our questions that Cornelia translates into Romanian for them, but they never stop working. Paul asks Cornelia to find out who they are making the shingles for and surprisingly the men tell us these shingles are going to America. A Romanian community in the U.S. is building a wooden church and they want authentic, handmade shingles from their home country. It really is a small world.
Romania is known for the decorative wooden gates that grace the entrance of many houses and we see several of them on our tour of Breb today. Most of the decorations carved into the gates are symbolic, such as the ropy looking limbs that symbolize the tree of life representing past, current, and future generations. Cornelia also tells us that the wooden gates were traditionally put up before a married couples house was built as this was believed to insure that they would have a son.
We leisurely walk along the dirt roads of Breb and curiously look at the weathered houses and activities going on around us. We stop at the gate of one house to take photos of a team of horses that are hitched to a wagon. There are two men and a woman loading tools into the back of the wagon and they smile and wave as we take photos of the horses, the people and the intriguing barn doors. An older couple is also in the yard. One of the men leads the horses out to where we are standing and Cornelia strikes up a conversation with him. The younger woman, dressed in jeans comes out too. The older couple walks through the wooden gate to where the rest of us are. The man has two hoes slung over his shoulder and the woman has a wicker basket strapped to her back.
Cornelia is busy trying to relay our questions to the villagers and then translating the villagers answers to us and vice versa. Paul and I ask questions ranging from who forges the heavy, cleated shoes on the horses hooves (the man handling the horses does), to questions about the rakes and pitchforks that are loaded in the wagon. Paul notices the older man is wearing a Sedona, Az. sweatshirt and points to the logo on the garment. The cheerful man just shrugs and we assume it was given to him by a tourist. There is a trio of women coming up the road and when they arrive at the wagon, they load themselves and their rakes and pitchforks into the wagon. The older couple turns and walks the opposite way from the wagon party towards a different field.
We move to the side of the road to let the ladened wagon by and I step onto the narrow strip of grass that is growing on the edge of the dirt road. Oops, my left foot slips off and I step into the ditch. No big deal right? Wrong, in Breb the ditches are open sewers! The good news is I give the wagon party something to laugh about plus the muck doesn’t go over the top of my waterproof shoe. The bad news is my shoe is covered with black sludgy muck. Cornelia says we must go back to our room to wash off my shoe, but she quickly adds that stepping in this muck is considered good luck by the locals. I laugh out loud at this supposed superstition, but Cornelia insists that this belief is true.
We strike off towards the hotel and by chance come to a community pump. Paul is able to hold the handle down slightly so a thin stream of water comes out and I am able to do a decent job of washing my shoe off. We didn’t have to backtrack very far which is another silver lining to a stinky story!
As we continue to explore Breb, we walk by a house where Cornelia points out a pipe that is dripping a fragrant fluid into the ditch. She tells us that the occupants of this place are distilling horinca and asks if we want to go in and learn about the process of horinca making. Of course we say we do, so Cornelia goes to the closed iron gate and calls out to the occupants. A woman comes to the gate and speaks to Cornelia. Cornelia converses with the woman who is outfitted as the majority of women we see, in a dress with a scarf over her hair and tied under her chin. Soon she throws the small door open and beckons for us to come in. There are two sections to the entrance gates. One is for humans to use and the other for horses or cars to use.
We look around the homestead which is similar to the fieldworker’s place that we just left. There is a wooden house, a barn and a shed where the fruit is being distilled into horinca. There are three men standing around the shed door who grin and wave us over to see their horinca factory. We walk inside the shed where the copper still sits upon what looks like a fireplace made of stone. One of the men shoves another log onto the blazing fire while Cornelia explains the process of how the still works. One of the tubes attached to the still runs to a vat that collects the coveted liquor. As we exit the shed, it is really hot in there; we continue to converse with the foursome. One fellow pulls an old plastic bottle from the pocket of his tattered coat and takes a long pull from it. He sees Paul and me watching him and extends the bottle to us. We shake our heads, not to violently I hope, to decline the offer. It’s 10 a.m. for crying out loud. When the others try to encourage us to try a sip, I put my hands on my belly and Cornelia explains that I have a sensitive stomach, which is true esp. when we travel. Paul somehow manages to escape having a drink with the group too. It does make one feel a little rude towards the friendly hospitality that is being offered.
Wow, we haven’t covered that much ground in Breb but we have had three very interesting stops already. We have reached the edge of town and we decide to walk up a muddy road to see if the field workers might be working close by. We reach a fork in the road and because it is starting to spit some raindrops, we decide to head back to Breb.
There is a woman scything grass about 50 yards off the road we are walking and stop to watch her work. Cornelia calls out to the traditionally dressed woman and inquires if it is O.K. for us to go down to where she is scything. The woman waves her assent and once there, we watch and photograph her as she gracefully scythes the grass. The woman than gathers the grass up with a pitchfork and piles it on a wooden-sided wheelbarrow.
Paul asks if he can try his hand at cutting the meadow grass with her scythe and she gladly hands the apparatus to Paul. Paul occasionally uses a scythe at home so he is a bit humbled when the woman begins talking rapidly and shaking her head, which Cornelia translates as meaning, “This is no good”. She takes the scythe from Paul and as she scythes she is telling Paul he must twist at the waist more; this advice is translated by Cornelia naturally. The teacher hands the scythe back to Paul who adjusts his technique and is awarded with a “that is better” compliment.
We turn to leave but the woman insists we must see her livestock. She leads us to the barn, opens the door and takes us into the dark confines of the barn. There are two Simmental looking cows tied up by means of a rope around their necks, as is the month old calf. A white hog sits in a corner pen, blinking at the sudden shaft of light that has illuminated their dark living quarters. We ask Cornelia if the animals are kept inside the barn all the time and she seems to think they are. Surely they are allowed out into the sun sometime. However, most homesteads we saw in Breb had a barn with the proverbial manure pile that had been shoved through a small door in the side of the barn, which proved there were animals inside. We never did see cows or hogs in the barnyard in Breb although we did see sheep and goats on occasion.
We turn towards the road when we leave the barn but the woman now insists we come into her house. Well, we would like to see the house so why not. As soon as we walk into the small but cozy kitchen, food begins to appear on the table despite our pleas to our new friend that we have already eaten breakfast. Bread, boiled eggs, and cold sausages are set in front of us. The woman decides she should make soup for us but Cornelia talks her out of that idea. A bottle of horinca is sat on the table and Paul decides he must accept some of the drink to be polite. I again plead a sensitive stomach. The woman watches with pride as Paul takes a swallow of the alcohol and we consume a boiled egg and a piece of bread. A plate of cake then appears and I simply can’t eat anymore. Paul eats a piece of the cake and declares it delicious. Somehow Cornelia manages to sit and watch us without eating or drinking anything!
Our hostess brings a photo of two teenage boys and Cornelia translates the woman’s’ sad story. It seems that her sons were swimming in the river when the younger boy began to struggle. The older brother went to help him but in the end they both drowned. This happened seventeen years ago but I could see the sadness in the mothers’ eyes as she related the tragedy to us. She then tells us her husband lived for eleven years after their boys died but in the end she believes his grief over his sons deaths finally took him too. The sweet woman than tells us she handles this loss by working hard every day and all day which allows her to sleep like a baby at night. When she has finished her depressing narrative, she ends with a phrase meaning, “That is life”. It’s a darn good thing we were done eating before listening to her tragic tale as I’m not sure I could have managed to swallow the food past the lump in my throat.
As the woman is putting the photos back in her cupboard, Cornelia suggests we might leave her ten lei as a gift. We have no problem with this but I am afraid this proud soul might be offended. Cornelia assures us that she knows what to say so the woman won’t take offense. When we stand to leave, the woman sees the money lying on the table and she does protest. Good to her word Cornelia talks to her; the woman nods her head and shakes our hands. When we leave the house it is sprinkling and the woman wonders if we should take her umbrella, saying someone could bring it back to her later. Good heavens, how wonderful is that! We thank the woman for her thoughtfulness but tell her we have rain coats in our pack. We wave goodbye and continue down the road. After discussing about this unique experience we realize that we never asked the woman her name!
I will quit with this wonderful encounter and save the rest of the day for the next blog. Nancy