WorldView, April, 2007
The medical staff had warned us that Romanian winters were the toughest. They had surveyed the emotional well-being of previous volunteers and showed us a graph that took a plunge in November that lasted until April. My group reacted predictably to the season. By mid-December 2004, limited sunlight and bad weather had led to low energy, and we all struggled for a reason to put pants on in the morning. We added pounds, grew beards and went unwashed. Once-ambitious English teachers turned to endless Bingo and Scattergories tournaments, and others spent hours on the Internet taking personality quizzes and sending e-mails criticizing other volunteers’ projects. It was bleak.
A run of bad luck that month made it challenging for me to stay positive. A smooth-talking Bucharest cab driver tricked and bullied me into giving him $20 for a $1 ride. At a restaurant, a waiter spilled a beer on me. On the train back to my home in a town on the Black Sea coast, an old man who looked like a mummy and smelled like pickles blamed me for the Soviet occupation of the Republic of Moldova and the inflated price of spread-able cheese.
When I got home I vowed to stay in my apartment, but after two cold, rainy days I started getting depressed. The doorbell rang and my spirits picked up; I was happy to trade my sweatpants for jeans and re-enter the world. But it was only the crazy woman who maintained the bloc I lived in. She wanted $2 in local currency to sprinkle water in the halls and rearrange mud puddles on the walkways outside. I handed over the money, dejected. An existential chasm inside me yawned and groaned like an old dog kicked awake from a long nap. I needed some yogurt.
Picking up my mail on the way back from the store, the bloc’s unofficial handyman called out my name from his first-floor apartment. Bogdan Amatioaie had helped me many times with repairs and twice nearly killed us both by testing for a leak in my propane tank with a lighter and starting a fire in my stove with a pint of diesel fuel.
Bogdan resembled a friendly brown bear, a compact, hairy unit moving with no great urgency on undersized hind legs. Sweet but confused, he persisted in believing that I was German and deaf.
“Guten morgen herr professor!” he yelled, walking towards me. “I’m so happy to see you. I thought you were dead.” Every few months a new rumor spread about me around town: that I was married, a spy, a Morman, gay, married to a man, marrying a Chinese woman, opening a Chinese restaurant, deaf, German, and now dead.
Normally I enjoyed our conversations, but not this time.
“No, I’m not dead, Bogdan. I was on vacation.”
“Wonderful!” he said. “But you don’t look well. You should come over for dinner. Elena is making piftie.” I flinched. Rancid flounder looks tantalizing next to piftie, a gelatinous mass of cold pork fat and onions masquerading as a holiday treat. “Thanks Bogdan,” I said, walking up the stairs to my apartment. “But I’m not feeling real well.”
Back inside my apartment, I found among my mail a Christmas card from my aunt in North Carolina. It had a painting of a smiling snowman on the front. “I’m sure there are many Romanian foods and customs about the Christmas season that you will be enjoying,” she wrote. It made me regret my hibernation. Here I was, wasting my Peace Corps experience inside my apartment, feeling sorry for myself. Well by god, things we’re gonna change! I was going to start giving back and making the most of my time here. And I was going to begin with dinner that night at Bogdan’s.
A few hours later, I knocked at Bogan’s door with a bottle of wine in hand. He greeted me, shirtless and shoeless. I felt embarrassed, as if I had opened the door to his bedroom by mistake as he was trying on his wife’s clothes. But Bogdan expressed no shame.
“The German!” he annnounced. Resting one hand on his sizable belly and the other on my shoulder, he walked me inside to the kitchen, where his wife, Elena, was preparing dinner.
“Elena! The German is here. He’s joining us for dinner tonight.” Elena glared at me and nodded, then went back to stirring her cauldron of stew. Dressed in black, thin and disapproving, she looked the opposite of Bogdan. She’d always ignored my greetings. I’d never seen her smile. Elena didn’t seem interested in a cross-cultural experience.
Ignoring her sullen nature, Bogdan led me into the living room, where he had been watching a soccer game at a high volume being played between two indistinguishable teams in a muddy, half-filled stadium. He poured me a very tall glass of homemade wine.
“Do you like Romanian football?” he yelled.
“Of course,” I said. Who doesn’t?
“Who’s your favorite player?”
I was afraid of this question. The only Romanian soccer player I knew Adrian Mutu, and I remembered hearing that he had been in some trouble lately with cocaine. I had to think fast. I drank half my glass of wine to buy some time. It tasted like fertilizer. I gambled.
“I like Popescu,” I said, choosing one of the most common Romanian surnames.
“Popescu? That no-talent drunk!” He slammed his glass down and pointed a finger at me. I was in trouble. I needed diversion.
“Look at that!” I said, pointing out the window at a stray dog walking in the road. He stared at the one-eyed dog, then looked back at me, confused. Pointing out a mangy dog on a street in his town was like finding socks remarkable. But it diverted his attention to my stupidity, a subject he didn’t have the energy to discuss. We went back to watching the game.
A few minutes later, Elena announced the start of dinner by silently bringing a bowl of Romanian polenta to the table with all the joy of a pallbearer. Bogdan patted his belly and nodded.
“Ah!” he said in his limited English. “The wife!” We made our way to the table.
In addition to the typical ciorba, bread, french fries and fried chicken, Elena added a casserole dish full of piftie, complete with miniature smiling snowmen on top made of butterballs. I started on the polenta. The rest of the food was excellent, but I grimaced as I regarded the smiling snowmen, looking like chubby toddlers bobbing in a sea of congealed grease. I knew I’d have to confront them.
Bogdan and Elena stared at me, clearly pleased with how much I was enjoying the food. I tried to start some conversation. “So how do you like living here?” I said.
“We like it,” Bogdan said with a smile. Then his face clouded over. “Except for all the damn gypsies!” Bogdan then took me on an exhausting 10-minute journey through Romanian history and politics, as he saw them. What followed was a dizzying mix of rumor, speculation, revision, anecdote, limerick and fairy tale peppered with some facts. Everyone was implicated.
“Asta e,” he concluded. But what can you do? When Bogdan had finished even the snowmen seemed tilted and diminished under the weight of his sobering lecture.
As I poured myself another glass of wine, Elena served the piftie. I insisted that I was full, but she put a heaping plateful of it before me. My snowman had collapsed at the waist, and a disembodied head stared up at me. I was out of diversions. Taking in a forkful, I was surprised to find that when mixed with every available food on the plate, piftie is not without its charm. My fears overcome and the wine taking effect, I relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the meal.
Bogdan invited me to watch more television while Elena cleared the table. Remote in hand, Bogdan hesitated when a midget appeared on the screen–a dead ringer for Tattoo on Fantasy Island–who sang manele (Gypsy-influenced dance music) as women in mini skirts danced around him.
“Ah, Romanian girls,” Bogdan said. He looked at me proudly, as if he was responsible. “The most beautiful. What do you think about the women here?”
Since I had heard this question so many times before, I decided to throw him off. “They’re okay. But I like German girls.”
“What!” he said. “No, they are too fat.” I looked at him, sitting there like a hairy Buddha, and considered telling him he was the portly black pot pointing fingers at the kettle, but I didn’t want to spoil the friendly mood. Elena returned and sat next to him. Even she seemed happy. She asked me if I missed my family in Germany.
Later, over the blare of the television, Bogdan told me how he met Elena. The wine and heavy carbohydrates didn’t help my poor Romanian, but it was something about high school and gym class and a sofa. They showed me a picture of their son, a student in Bucharest. Bogdan toasted the New Year, good health and welcome guests.
After cookies and more wine, my host switched channels to a Romanian program called Vacanta Mare. It was the worst show I’d ever seen, but Bogdan enjoyed it.
“He’s bald like you,” he said as he pointed at one actor.
“Well, that one’s fat like you,” I said, pointing to another. He nodded. Next up were sitcoms and Dog Day Afternoon, which inspired Bogdan to do his Al Pacino impression, consisting mostly of a lot of incoherent yelling.
After two hours of Romania’s cultural channel, I was ready to go home. I had enjoyed many Romanian foods and customs of the season. Sure Bogdan and I didn’t really understand each other and likely never would. But we practiced patience and good humor, like all friends do. Awkward as it was, I enjoyed the evening and felt lucky to have been there.
Elena invited me back for dinner the next night, and I swear she even smiled. Bogdan shook my hand firmly.
“I’m glad you came,” he said. “And that you’re not dead.”
Ross Doll served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania from 2003 to 2005.