Month: April 2015

Glorious Spring!

In Romania, some people say that when you try a new food, you should make a wish. Every time that I’ve tried a new food here, I’ve wished for the same thing: spring, spring, spring!

When I arrived in Romania a few months ago, coming from the oppressively hot Bangkok (and not even in the “hot season”!), I expected to need a few days to adjust. But instead, when I stepped out of the Bucharest airport, I felt an enormous sense of elation and recognition: cold! That spring cold, where the air is frigid but the sun is strong! That spring cold, where the ground has yet to thaw but already the plants are shooting up! That spring cold, where you need to keep moving to stay warm, and yet everyone is outside. I walked around the city for a few hours my first day, feeling like I had reentered my native habitat: the cold ecosystem, just before a spring.

It only snowed a few times while I was in Romania. This particular snowfall, at Iulia’s farm, the snow only stuck around for about two hours in the early morning. But the snow brought out even more vivid colors after it melted.

Flowers in the snow.

And flowers celebrating the absence of snow!

Is there anything more reassuring, or beautiful, than spring? I spent the most recent springs of my life in Wisconsin.  I love that first day that the temperature tops 32°F (0°C). The entire population changes into shorts and sandals, happy to expose skin to wind that doesn’t bite. I love how suddenly no one can sit inside, even when the snow hasn’t yet fully melted. I love that productivity declines inversely proportional to the rising temperatures.

But mostly, I love spending time outside in spring, when things start to grow again. I was happy to have work on farms in Romania as the spring season started, because it gave me an excuse to be outside. Spring is always a busy time on farms, and to me, it always seems to involve the heaviest manual labor: preparing the soil, moving debris that piled up over winter, transplanting, and cutting back early spring growth of unwanted plants. Though many days were bitter and cold, I saw promises of spring everywhere I looked: budding flowers, shoots of overwintered garlic, and happy people shedding winter layers. Springtime on a farm is a joyful time.

The first buds on the apple trees.

Before there are many vegetables and greens in the garden, Ana, a friend of Iulia’s, uses forest plants to spice up our meals. The rice dish on the left is cooked with dockweed and nettles, two native plants she collected from the forest.

Chico, the farm puppy, sniffs the springtime flowers with me in the orchard.

After celebrating spring on farms for a few months in Romania, I headed to Bulgaria for a few weeks to be a tourist. Luckily, Bulgarians love spring as much as I do, and they celebrate in a truly beautiful way. On the first day of March, every Bulgarian buys “martenitsa” (мартеница) bracelets or adornments, which are made of white and red thread. Friends and family give them to one another, and most people wear them on their wrists. Then, at the first sign of spring, usually the sighting of a stork or a budding tree, the wearer takes off the bracelets and leaves them nearby, usually hanging on a budding plant.

This tradition means that spring is consistently in your peripheral vision. The red and white colors of the bracelets add color to the landscape before the buds have fully flowered, and it is a constant reminder of the season.Though I arrive a little too late to fully participate in the tradition, I loved seeing these bracelets hung from every early-budding tree. This is a country that celebrates spring like I do: loudly, colorfully, and with a lot of joy.

A tree, adorned with various martenitsa bracelets, in Veliko Tarnovo.


Making Molehills out of Waste

I recently had a lot of time to meditate on the classic idiomatic phrase, “to make a mountain out of a molehill”, as I spent an afternoon raking molehills flat in a Romanian apple orchard. The work is important because if these molehills, mounds of soil brought up to the surface by moles digging underground tunnels, are left by themselves, within a few years the ground becomes uneven. Bumpy land makes the hay harvest with the scythe difficult and dangerous.

So, in the spring, here Iulia, my host, and I are, roaming around her apple orchard with rakes, flattening each molehill as we find them. And while, indeed, the molehills are not mountains, moles are certainly industrious creatures.

“My God, is there any soil even left underground?” Iulia sighs. After hour two of molehill-flattening, I agree with her. The moles have built an underground system more thorough and widespread than any metro I’ve ever seen.

But, Iulia doesn’t seem to mind too much. This orchard is home to her, and it is home to the moles too.

Old shoes used as planters for succulents- Iulia reuses everything in her orchard.

Since Iulia moved with her family to rural Transylvania two years ago, she has been even more industrious than the moles. Iulia bought an apple orchard that had been abandoned for decades. While the trees are well-established and productive, the land has taken a lot of work to be reclaimed for agriculture. Wild plants from the forest encroach on the borders of the orchard, and the apple trees have more sprouting branches than they know what to do with.

Iulia is dedicated, however, and her land shows her efforts for the past few years. Iulia practices permaculture, the newest agricultural buzzword, in this orchard. Every farmer has their own definition and beliefs about permaculture, but (at this writer’s risk of a thousand ideological challenges) the basic premise revolves around considering a farm as an ecosystem, rather than a factory. There is an emphasis on biodiversity and organic methods, and materials are continuously re-purposed and re-used.

Iulia’s farm is in rural Transylvania, a quiet and calm region. There are cars, electricity, and many other trappings of city life. But many villagers also still use horse and carriage to transport manure, hand-draw their water from the local wells, and collect chicken eggs daily from their flocks. People here are living “close to the land”. After decades in big cities, Iulia has slipped back into village life, but with a new focus: permaculture.


A view of part of Iulia’s vegetable garden, facing the orchard. She builds her vegetable beds using a process similar to hugelkultur, where underneath the bed, there are layers of organic materials. Wood, compost, sand, and other organic materials are layered to decompose slowly under the top layer of soil. Over time, the soil in the beds should improve even more as these organic materials decompose. On the left-hand side is a solar-heated shower- simply add water to the black box, add a curtain around the outside (unless you’re adventurous), and wait for the water to heat up in the sun for your outdoor shower!

The other volunteer, an American named Emily, and I spend one sleety day sewing down feathers into a blanket. I had never realized how warm real down feathers are!

One especially cold day, instead of working outside, Emily, another volunteer, and I help with a household project, sewing down feathers into an old, mass-manufactured blanket from Ikea. Iulia found old pillows and blankets in the house when she moved in, and they contained real, hand-collected and cleaned chicken and goose feathers in them. The amount of time that goes into collecting feathers like this, only from the soft bellies of chickens or young chicks, is incomprehensible, but they are worth their weight in gold.

Emily and I cut open the blanket, stuff it with feathers, and then carefully sew it back up. A cheap blanket from Ikea, previously filled with synthetic stuffing, suddenly became a warm, soft, comforting down quilt.

This is why I like Iulia’s outlook: nothing is wasted. Old ceramic shingles become stones for a path. Fallen logs are cut to border garden beds, sand from deepening the well is reused in creating fertile soil. She transforms things.

Iulia (right) and her friend Anna (center) spend one rainy afternoon teaching me how to make soap. They make all of their own soap and cosmetic products, using organic oils, fragrances, and sodium bicarbonate (chemical version of lye). The soap is still in liquid form at this point; I am mixing it in the bowl.

Today, we are manufacturing some things that are difficult to transform. In many rural communities, from Senegal to Romania, the disposal of plastics has become an enormous issue. In Iulia’s village, this rural community that could compost all of its trash for centuries is now faced with a reality that this new trash will not decompose in a few years. Trash disposal systems or the concept of littering have not yet become common, and plastics have begun to pile up in forests and along roadways. How do these communities adapt to these changes?

Plastics present a large challenge, but other materials are possible to quite easily reuse- water, organic materials, things we clear from our land, biological waste, and food waste. Many of the materials that we seek to dispose of are instead capable of being usefully transformed. However, in American cities, we often see these materials as waste, just like plastics. Food waste is thrown away; grass clippings are shipped away in paper landscaping bags.

Iulia sees waste as an opportunity for reuse. Iulia’s house is not on any water system; drinking water is drawn from a spring well by hand, and water for washing is rainwater collected off of the roof. While I am staying with the family, they put the final touches on the outdoor compost toilet. The house is heated from two efficient wood stoves, using wood collected from the orchard. The family grows most of the fruit and vegetables that they eat, and the meat and cheese comes from trading with their neighbors. There is very little waste coming out of this household, and it is because Iulia chooses to reuse materials.

This re-conception of waste is the foundation of permaculture, of seeing the ecosystem. When we see our farms or kitchens as factories, and we ship away our waste, we forget that we have a responsibility for what we create. Permaculture is growing in the world because it imitates the systems that have worked for lifetimes. Living ecosystems do not ship away waste; materials are instead continuously transformed. And when we imitate nature- as Iulia does on her farm, as my friends do in Wisconsin, as Pom and U do in Thailand- we are transforming.

Panoramic view from Iulia’s home, in the late evening. She has the best view in the village.

A Healthy Diet of Bread, Onions, and Liquor

On the plane from Bangkok to Bucharest, Romania, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, a new mantra: “I’m trading rice for bread”. Trading ginger, fish sauce, and coconut for new flavors. How will I sustain myself without the richest broths in the world? What will I eat, if not fresh mango? Would my digestive system even work properly without thrice daily portions of rice?

Every culture seems to have a “fast food”, cheap on-the-go snacks for people without a lot of time to eat. In America, chain restaurants or vending machines fill this role. In southeast Asia, street stalls serving hearty and healthy bowls of soup or takeaway packages of curries line the street (which in my opinion is superior in every respect).

When I arrived in Bucharest, I looked for their fast food: bread. Their bakeries have windows facing the street, and the cashier quickly grabs your order, slips it into a bag, and takes your payment. Most contain a sweet jam, or a combination of meat and cheese. People walk the streets with various pastries and sandwiches in hand, bundled up against the cold.

Bread is a utensil, used to transfer food from your plate to your mouth. Bread is a sponge, wiping each plate clean before the dishes are even started. And bread is the ubiquitous flavor, the base of the meal, the necessary component. I quickly learned that “please set the table”, in a Romanian home, implies a series of steps: shake out the breadcrumbs from the tablecloth, set the plates and utensils, and then cut the new bread.

To draw from recent months: as rice is to southeast Asia, bread is to eastern Europe. I am in for quite the change of cuisine.

Bread, bread! There was a basket full of bread on the table every meal. In one home in which I stayed, I was the designated bread cutter- a lofty title.

To celebrate Mucenici, a Christian holiday in Romania that also celebrates the beginning of the growing season, Liliana, one host, and I made pastries. The dough is rolled into thin strips, baked in a figure eight shape, and then covered in honey and walnuts. They say that when you feed someone on this day, you are also feeding your ancestors. If so, I was so well fed, Liliana’s ancestors must have been stuffed!

In Romanian cuisine, in addition to the base of bread, onion and garlic are always present. A balanced meal contains one or the other. Many Romanians believe that cooking garlic or onion is somewhat toxic for the body, and so these members of the allium family are usually eaten raw, on the side. I’ve seen few tables in Romanian homes that do not have a basket of bread and a bowl of raw garlic or onion.

Ceapeă, meaning “onion”, was one of the first Romanian words that I learned. (“Pass the ceapeă!”) Spring onions, garlic, and red or yellow onions are continually passed around during a meal. Romanians love the flavor, and many of the traditional dishes are meant to be eaten with it. Romanians even have a hidden treasure, off the tourist track- an onion monument, dedicated to the ceapeă, located in northwestern Transylvania.

One day, while working on an apple orchard in Transylvania, the family welcomes a friend for lunch. During the meal, he asks for a few extra onions, even though there is a bowl of cut onions on the table. I watch, barely keeping my mouth from hanging open, as he expertly peels them and chomps into them, apple-style. He devours two raw onions in a matter of minutes.

I say nothing at the time, listening to the rhythm of the larger conversation in Romanian between the rest of the family. But after the meal I ask quietly, “is that… typical?” My question is greeted by laughter, and we all joke together. While that man might have been exceptional, it is true: Romanians see onion and garlic as an entire food group.

Ciorbă, a sour soup popular in Romania, is one of my favorite Romanian dishes. The sour flavor comes from a fermented wheat sauce, or a special type of sour plant. With some cream and a side of bread, it is the perfect lunch.

Every visitor to a Romanian home will remember slanina (the meat on the left hand side) Slanina is pork fat that is salted for a month before it is smoked. The fat comes from a Romanian variety of pig, and there is allegedly no cholesterol- only good fats. The flavor of slanina is like nothing I’ve ever had, a sort of combination of bacon and cheese. It is typically eaten with bread and onion or garlic- a classic Romanian combination.

During my months in Romania, spending time with two open and welcoming families, I ate like a queen. Romanian cuisine features excellent soups, dried meats, and fresh dairy products. Even in the early spring, there are still root vegetables and canned foods leftover from the fall. Meals are long affairs, always full of conversation and laughter.

But although the bread and onion may feed a people, liquor truly sustains them. Eastern European liquors vary by the region, but northern Romanians prefer țuica, a type of clear fruit brandy. Tuica is drank in tiny glasses, sipping slowly on one shot at a time. It is strong and… effective. While it certainly does keep you warm, it may also lower your work productivity, as I found out after many a lunchtime glass.

Luckily, there was always bread and onion to sober me up.

Me with some of the family that hosted me in Transylvania. We spent many nights sitting around the dinner table drinking țuica and exchanging stories.