Romanian Grace

The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon. -- St. Cyril of Jerusalem

20 February, 2007

the way things are

Of dire importance to living compassionately and effectively among a people of different culture is finding a way to cram them into the framework of one's own culture in order to properly understand them. I feel that I have made headway in that vein today and thus can accurately categorize these Romanian people. They are a people riddled with peculiarity, like the residents of the American small town South (if that people still actually exists, I know not, but I hear they used to, and I think I understand them through their descendants and a couple of Cohen brothers movies). But they are also a people rather close and cold, hard to get to know, much like the people of the American North (though New Yorkers are certainly an exception to this -- everyone should make a point to get to know at least one New Yorker well in this life or the next [yes, there will be some of "them" there, I believe]). In light of the above, then I have been able to lump Romanians in with Floridians. I feel as though my work here can finally begin.

Lessons learned:

1. Always remember that you, if you are the customer, say, at the meat counter in the grocery store, are greatly imposing on the working staff of said meat counter. If they are not present to give you your meat, ring the bell, then brace yourself. Wait. She will emerge shortly. Or a little longer than shortly. When she arrives, she will demand to know why you rang the bell. You will tell her you want two kilograms of a particular kind of meat and she will say, "Sure, whatever you want, buddy." She might grab meat by the fistsfull and ask, "Well? Which one do you want? Any of these good enough for you?" Give an answer with an affirmative and confident looking nod quickly (remember, it really shouldn't matter to you which one you are the customer, and thereby your opinion doesn't count). As soon as she slaps the meat, all wrapped in paper and plastic, on the counter in front of you, try to say thank-you before she disappears backstage once more.

2. If someone offers to do work for you, agree on payment on the front end. This really happened today. I promise. A lady I know in my apartment block noticed that my windows were pretty dirty (I don't see dirt). Actually, there really were big globs of plaster and paint and other substances spattering a solid film of dust on all my windows, but like I said, I don't see these things. So she came in today to wash my windows, and three and a half hours later she left, having cleaned my trash cans in my bathtub, washed some dishes, swept the balcony...all very good things that, again, I did not know needed to be done. So she is standing in the hallway about to leave and I hand her two-hundred thousand lei (sounds like a lot but it isn't). "Oh, no, no, Nicholas," she tells me. "You don't have to pay me."

"Hmm," I thought, "That's interesting. I guess I just assumed she was offering to work for money. I will pay her some anyway." So I insisted and gave her half of what I had originally thought was right. I said, "My pleasure. I want to give you this. Is it enough?"

She looked at it and her face fell. "I get paid three times this when I work for another lady for four hours."

I still am wondering what I missed.

3. I used to fancy that I would make a pretty good farmer. After all, I have read a lot of Wendell Berry. I even worked on an organic farm in college for a semester. I have since rethought all this. I was pretty excited about getting real cow's milk here, straight from the cow. It comes in rinsed out sprite bottles and the like. So I got some and was told that I must boil it down and skim off the fat before drinking (this probably also makes it safe for drinking, too). This seemed to be a fairly simple process: milk in the pot, turn on the stove, stir occasionally. It even worked once, I am convinced, by fluke. The last two times I have tried it has resulted in greenish water and something like ricotta cheese. I don't know what I am doing wrong, but next time I think I will try stuff manicotti.

4. As my eleventh grade math teacher would often say, "Keep it simple, stupid" (he would also quote B.A. Baracus from the A-Team, saying, "You better check yoself before you wreck yoself, fool"). Sometimes I have to succumb to things that bother me rather than try to get my preference (see number 1, above). Like in McDonalds, where I NEVER used to go in the States, where I was getting coffee with Darin one night. She was filling up our cups over my the coffee machine, and I told her we would not be needing a bag. She said O.K., took the coffees off the machine, put them in a bag, and handed the bag over to us. I decided to play it cool and not say anything. Then I asked her for sugar. "So you DO want sugar? Make up your mind!"

"Oh." I guess I did say that, somehow. So, forget saving our forests one paper bag at a time. Just take what they give you, Nicholas, at least until you learn the word for bag, or sugar.

I guess what I am really learning is that I am a stranger in a strange land. I used to be able to put a lot of confidence in my ability to be pretty smooth, to move through life with a certain degree of competence and confidence. Now I think most people wonder if I am really as dumb as I seem. Sigh. What a trip!

Carlos says: How can I say this in a way you can understand?


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