The Christmas Letter

Dear peoples,
A year ago I was preparing to go to my northern relatives, the ones who have snow in the winter, tom and jerry's for christmas and cribbage tournaments. I was also substitute teaching almost every day a week because teachers get colds too, and I had recently received a letter from the Peace corps telling me they liked me and they would probably send me to Eastern Europe and to please hurry up and get my dental exam.
After the holiday seasons I "moved" to Chicago (does it count as moving if you are leaving your brother's apartment after 4 months there, to be living in a big closet in your friend's apartment?)
Do not move to Chicago after the holiday season if you can help it. The suburban shovel-your-sidewalks mentality does not transcend city limits and I walked over icy sidewalks for two months. I got called into temp jobs in downtown offices and spent an extra 20 minutes getting to the right office because who knew that the blue line doesn't go to that part of downtown? And then I started biking to work and the thrill of passing rows of cars in traffic was glorious - until I wiped out on State St. one morning. Good thing my five layers padded the fall. And I spent a lot of time crocheting, watching scrubs and arrested development, making lentil-barley stew and convincing the city of chicago that I was worthy of a library card.
Then I got a thick envelope from the Peace Corps.
"It is our pleasure to invite you to Peace Corps Romania. Please respond to this invitation within the next 30 days. Information about your job description and life in Romania is enclosed."
-Peace Corps is in Romania? I asked myself. Then I went onto youtube and looked up Romanian music. O-zone and Akcent are from Romania. Not too bad, I decided.
In May I left Chicago on a bus with two very heavy duffel bags, rearranged my belongings in Missouri, visited college friends in Arkansas, said good-byes to mom, dad, grandma and Daniel and got on the plane to Philadelphia for a couple days of meet-and-greets with the 40 other peace corps volunteers that were going to Romania with me.
After we had found out what everyone wanted to do in Romania (the common theme was skiing) and we had blown our fears of living in a different country out of porportion by drawing unskilled pictures of outhouses and strangers, we flew to Romania, spent 10 weeks together learning Romanian, learned more about each other than our fears, and head-banged at Iris concerts.
In August I moved to my village in Northern Romania and I have been teaching English at a middle school, finding a balance between appreciating and integrating into Romanian culture while still keeping up with my peace corps friends.
I seesaw between loving teaching and wishing I could just sit at a desk and be mindless. My beginning 5th graders can say what they want from Santa Claus now, and my more advanced 8th graders know words like tasty, rotten, unbelievable and dull. I made Christmas cookies with the math teacher at my school this week and I've gotten into crocheting hats. Romanian television plays a lot of bollywood and French movies with Romanian subtitles, so I read the subtitles and am always proud when I know what's going on.
The first half of my year was full of expectations and the second half of my year has been overwhelmed with guessing at what is going on around me. Either I've gotten better at guessing or I really do understand more of what is going on around me, but I am putting down roots in Romania and am content and glad I've come. There are lonely days and frustrating moments, but so far they happen less than the days where I smile for no reason and feel on top of my village.
So that is the wrap-up.
I hope your Christmas and New Years are what you want them to be.


It makes me crave raw vegetables...

On my way home from school yesterday I stopped by a neighbor's house to pick up some milk (they have cows and if I bring a 1/2 liter bottle, they give me milk), which inevitably becomes a lunch...
So when I walked into my yard, it was beginning to get dark. I could just make out Ciprian and a neighbor standing over a bloodied, still pig. Because in Romania, before Christmas, you buy a pig and butcher it. It's like Americans eating turkey for Thanksgiving, but more involved. This tradition is fading out in bigger cities, but in my village it is still strong. Beginning a couple weeks ago I began to see pigs in everyone's yard and now the event...

Vasile blowo-torched the hairs off, while Ciprian scraped off the charredness...

Taking a break from butchering...

Cipri enjoying salted, raw pig skin. It's his favorite.
I also got to taste it and will be fine if I never eat it again.

Taking care of the head. Ciprian, looking on, is trying to learn how to butcher so he can do it himself next year.

Flavoring the pot full of heart, lungs, liver, and pig ears.

Mamaitza preparing the intestines to make sausages with.
Taking care of the meat is a lot of work...

Newly cut pork stakes grilling out.

So we stood around at 10 o'clock at night, eating with a chunk of bread in one hand, a pork steak in the other and biting into whole cloves of garlic.



I am at the big conference that every peace corps person participates in after 4 months of living at their respective sites.
Which means seeing everyone that met romania with me and who I learned romanian with during the summer.
So we talk over each other about our different lives and we find the common threads that is Romania.
But none of has the same experience...and some of us are almost fluent and others of us rarely use romanian.
And we are staying in a big hotel with hot showers that have enough water pressure to just blast the dirt off without the help of soap...and heated rooms. Oh the beauty of heated rooms without daily making a fire in my soba.
And we have snowball fights when we're walking back from the evening out
and I have spoken more english in the last few days than I have for a month
and it's nice to wake up in the morning and converse without translating everything into a second language.
and it is reminding me that I am part of a larger group (easily forgettable when I'm in my village)
and I am glad to have this week for refreshment, new ideas and good times.
And I know I will be ready to go back to my village come sunday.


It's here.

Craciun (Christmas) is here
There is a giant blow up Mosh Craciun (Santa Clause) hanging out on a monument in front of the mayor's office.
There are three different sized christmas trees with various levels of blinking lights in front of the aforementioned building.
My host family man, Ciprian, put up their Christmas lights yesterday...but then Gabi, his wife, didn't like his arrangement of them, so he is redoing the lights today.
All my fifth graders are way excited about putting their shoes out on Friday night for St. Nicholas to fill them with goodies (Saturday is St. Nicholas day).
I am teaching my students Jingle Bells, which they mostly know already, but once we get past the "jingle bells" line and sing "oh what fun it is to ride..." their voices become confused and they sound cacophonous.


we're obvious.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Romania.
So on Thanksgiving day I taught 4 hours of classes then invited myself over to a colleagues house (she makes delicious ciorba) for a big lunch.
The big thanksgiving event for myself was traveling to Transilvania to another peace corps volunteer's site for a weekend of thanksgiving.
So on Friday I stood out at the road in front of the magazine kiosk in my town and flagged down a big white bus at 11 in the morning. The bus got to Tirgu Mures at 6:30 that night, after driving across the Carpathians which are now stunningly snow covered. The bus played popular romanian music and even had a television screen so passengers could listen and watch the music. The music videos feature romanians in traditional dance with big microphones in their faces as they sing and dance.
Unfortunately, by the time the bus arrived in Tirgu Mures, it was dark and the last maxi taxi to my friend, Jake's, village had left. So I stayed the night in Tirgu Mures, a breath of big city air, in the nicest looking Peace Corps apartment I have ever seen (thanks Ikea).
I got the bus station and walked around, looking into the front windows of the vans and buses to see if one was going to Riciu, and finally the security guard came over and asked me what I was looking for. We began a conversation that culminated in him promising to keep an eye out for the maxi taxi for me. After hour 1, I wondered if there wasn't a better way to get out there, after hour 2 I wondered if all the buses I kept seeing leave were really heading towards my destination and my waiting for hours was just a clever hoax. After 2 1/2 hours, I began wondering if Riciu even existed. After 3 hours, the security guard reassured me, "imediat o sa vine," and the grey skies were beginning to clear into blue.
After 3 hours and 15 minutes, the correct maxi taxi finally arrived. Imagine a subway station without the signs telling you where to go, and you're not really sure where you are going...and you stand there long enough to feel lost, and then suddenly, a subway comes with the exact destination you are looking for. The ride to Riciu was beautiful in an ozark, wisconsin dells kind of way, and the van dropped me off near the mayor's office. Jake had told me that he lived in the only bloc apartment in town. The town, better described as a village, is small enough for the 5 story, pink painted bloc to be obvious.

When I got to the bloc, I realized I didn't know where Jake lived, so I walked into the magazine alimentar (little shop) under the bloc and asked, "Stiti unde locueste omul american" (do you know where the american lives?).
Yes, the woman did, but she wasn't entirely sure, so she walked outside with me and together we asked some men working on an apartment balcony, "Stiti unde locueste omul american?"
And yes, they knew exactly. Up these stairs and at the top floor, to the left.
So I entered the pink bloc and climbed 5 flights of stairs and forgot which door to knock on. So I knocked on the one I thought it might be and someone opened the door
and it was Jake. I don't think I've ever been that happy to finally find someone.
And the next couple days in Riciu were great, with lots of mud, a turkey, mashed potatoes, sarmale and talk.
And whenever me and the other pcv's that came later would speak in English, any nearby villager would ask us if we were friends with Jake.
We are so obvious.


My affair with the elderly

When I was in highschool, my mom thought it would be a good idea for
me to volunteer. And why not volunteer at a nursing home? Because
there was one near our house and we could bike to it (always an
important pro in any decision). Also, my mother is wonderful at
catering to old people's wishes, genuinely taking interest when old
people tell stories about their children and grandchildren and looking
over lapses in memory and the stubbornness that comes with age's
reversal into childhood…At the age of 14, I was none of the above. In
fact, scared would be the best description for me– and not the kind of
scared that has a fascination to it, like when you're jumping into the
future. Scared like thinking if I never have to smell the halls of a
nursing home, maybe the nursing home will disappear. And if there
aren't nursing homes, maybe the old people will become sane and see
their children more and maybe their daily lives won't smell like pee
and pills. But my mother signed us up for a cooking hour every
Thursday where any resident at West Bend Nursing home could come and
cook with us. I do not remember what we baked, but I remember
"collecting" the residents before the hour and helping them back to
their rooms. My mom and the nurses would cajole the shriveled women
with purple-tinted hair into coming downstairs to the class. The hour
lasted forever. I could never understand the old people and tried to
push my mother in front of me whenever one of them would try to talk,
preferring the peace and quiet of doing the mixing and egg-breaking
and baking. Because let's face it, a bunch of old ladies in wheel
chairs are not going to be baking their own cakes.
And I remember excusing myself from the volunteer hours whenever I
could "Sorry mom, I have to work, I have to babysit, I have a big
chemistry project…"
I forgot about the old ladies sitting around the table in the nursing
home kitchen.
And then I was in pre-med in college and the idea of being a nurse's
aide seemed like a smart move – get some medical experience, work for
more than minimum wage, work off campus. So I took a course for a few
weeks in the summer before my junior year and got a job at a nearby
nursing that paid above minimum wage, but was within walking distance
of college. So every Thursday and alternating weekends I would walk
over the pipe and up the hill to the nursing home during the dawning
light. I would deliver plastic trays with thick maroon plastic bowls
to rooms and stir the sugar into the cereal before trying to talk a
bed-ridden patient to get his food down. I was never good at feeding
– never forceful enough. One morning I sat next to an old woman in a
faded nursing home gown, feeding spoonfuls of mush into her dry,
half-dead mouth, and cried silently. I cried for the injustice of
being old and unable to feed yourself, of being forced into an
institutional routine that is the nursing home, of wearing faded
hospital gowns to bed, of always smelling like body fluids, of never
having a visitor after spending 93 years interacting with people, of
having other people wash the drivel, among other bodily fluids, from
your wrinkly, dry skin.
And then I worked at the same nursing home a couple summers later,
the graveyard shift. And I had less of a sadness about the
elderly…asta este (this is the way it is) as my Romanian colleagues
say. I would check on them sleeping every couple hours, hang out with
the ones who couldn't sleep, wake them up in the morning.
And now I live in a town where almost everyone my age has left my
village to work in Italy or Spain or at the least, Bucharest. And my
host family's grandmother, Mamaitsa, lives across the courtyard. And
she recently bought eyedrops to put in her eyes twice a day. She
comes to my host families kitchen with her eyedrops and asks for me to
put them in her eyes because apparently I am very good at dropping
saline solution into eyes.
And I cross paths with bunicas (grandmothers) walking to and from
school. Them hunched over and hobbling after years of manual labor,
communism and children; me walking tall, stumbling over words, asking
about their health, their children, their recipes. And so the elderly
have once again become an important part of my life, one that I even
seek out. And so my affair with the elderly continues…


makes my week

This week became cold...
And the sun was shining and it was cold.
And I learned a new phrase.  
When the sun doesn't actually warm the day, it's called a sun with teeth - soare cu dinti.


a change of mind

I teach 3 hours, give or take, of adult classes a week. It's a refreshing break - students that want to be in class, don't require grades as incentive (I'm growing a little hatred for grading), and know how to study. This week I tackled the town, introducing words like post office and mayor's office, grocery store and farmer's market. I let the students come up with the words in Romanian, then I translated to English, expanding on some ideas. For example, Romania doesn't really have libraries, but since libraries are my favorite building in any city, I made sure to teach them that, then threw in the story of when I lived in the desert of Arizona and had to wait for the bookmobile (so now a group of adult in northeastern Romania know the word bookmobile).
Yesterday one of them wanted to know the english for parking lot.
I also taught them the word sidewalk. Romania kind of has sidewalks. There are some crumbling, uneven stones that line the road in my village and since I live a little outside of the "Downtown" I walk on the road for a while before reaching the beginning of the crumbling, uneven stones. I introduced the word sidewalk, then drew an aerial picture on the chalkboard of a road, with a line of grass and then a a sidewalk.
-We have sidewalks, my students protested.
-Yes, but most of the sidewalks are full of cars.(the side of the road, i.e. sidewalk, is generally lined with parked cars.
-But that's because we don't have parking lots, the throw back at me.
And standing there, in front of the class, I had an epiphany. Maybe parking lots aren't that bad. So much for the peace corps making me a hippy.



I run 2 or 3 times a week. I have for the last few years.
Running keeps me from bottling anger, makes me tired, gives me routine, is something I can check off a to-do list.
So when I first moved to my Romanian village, I was a little concerned. Running isn't done here.
So I didn't run for the first couple months, reasoning that I didn't need to be more of a fish in a fishbowl than I already am.
Then the natural anger and frustration began to get thick and I reasoned, the whole town knows I'm American, so why not just act odd. And so I do.
Bunicas (grandmas) stop me on the road and ask me what I am doing.
I have been offered beer-on-the-run as I ran past a couple of my neighbors.
One old man wearing an alpine cap acted like he was jogging with his bowed legs.
An old woman asked me why I jog and I explained for health of my body and mind. She said I was thin so I didn't need to run. Then she lifted up her shirt to show her belly, that looked as if she'd birthed several children, and told me that someone like herself probably needed to run.
Some of my students run with me for a few blocks.
And so now I run for the anticipation of what will happen next.


obama cookies

I received my first package from America yesterday. It was full of gorgeously durable boots, sexy thick socks, long johns, I've-been-waiting-so-long-for-them crochet hooks, yummy black licorice and double-stuf oreos, to name a sampling.
I told my fellow teachers that I had received a package.
"From Obama?" the white-haired, alcoholic French teacher asked. All the teachers at my school have been keeping an eye on the elections and many know stuff I don't know, like when Obama will actually swear in as the president, etc.
I laugh and say that no, the package is from my family.
Another teacher picks up the joke, "He is celebrating his victory and sending packages to his supporters."
"Yes." I say with gravity. "Obama is sending packages to every american that voted for him in every country in the world."
The room laughs.
I decide to share some of my american wealth and open the package of double-stuf oreos.
"Would you like a cookie from America?" I ask the Romanian teacher.
"You mean an Obama cookie?" She wittily replies.
The Romanian teacher then helped me offer cookies from Obama to the rest of the teachers.


voting day

I finally received my absentee ballot in the mail yesterday, the 3rd of November. I'm sure my vote won't count, because it will be arriving about a week after the elections.
But I still wanted to vote, y'know, in the spirit of the occasion.
I signed my name that I would not vote more than once and that I was a real Missouri resident. Half the candidates on the ballot I had never heard of before, as they were candidates for Newton County treasurer or coroner...I felt very democratic connecting the arrows to show my voting preference. And I was so focused on the ballot I almost smoked myself out of my room by forgetting to pull out the chimney-blocker.
This morning I stopped by the post office with the big yellow envelope and paid 5 lei for the par avion postage to send it to Kay Baum of Newton County, Missouri.
The man at the postoffice has white hair, a white mustache and a thin, droopy face. He wears a postoffice vest and does not use a computer. He is the only person I have seen working behind the counter at the post office. It always takes him a few minutes to weigh the package, look up in a book how much postage should cost for America, then look in another book for the proper postage stamps. His cigarette ashes lightly dusting the stamp catalogues.
After locating the right postage stamps he spits on their backs (apparently he has become wise to licking the envelopes after so many years behind the counter), and presses the stamp down.
Gata (finished), he says.
All this to say, I voted. You should too.


43 students and a bus

Last weekend, I was invited to go on a school field trip with students from grades 5-8 to Cluj, a city in Transylvania, the western part of Romania. "Meet at 6:30 in front of the Mayor's office," the profesoara in charge of the field trip told me on Friday.
"How are we getting there?" I queried.
"By Autocar."
"Autocar?" I imagine a caravan of cars driving over the Carpathians towards Cluj.
"A very big Autocar which we are renting."
I figured I'd just wait until Saturday morning to figure out what this autocar business was all about.
So on Saturday morning I arrived at the Mayor's office, breathing frosty air and with my English Romanian dictionary handy. After waiting for 45 minutes with 43 students and their mothers in the dark, I discovered that an autocar is a tour bus. After securing a seat in the front of the bus with the other chaperoning teachers, I put in my earplugs and began to doze as we passed through little villages and cows.
"No no." Anucu, the profesoara that reminds me of Mrs. Teapot from Beauty and the Beast, points at me and shakes her finger. "This is new for you. You must talk romanian with us and look at the country side"
I try my best to not speak Romanian for the first hour of my day...it never comes out right that early. But if Anucu really wanted me to speak with them, I couldn't argue with that shaking finger.
After the first hour, we had gone beyond familiar territory and were climbing up the mountains on drum cu serpentin (winding road). The fir trees were covered by a haze of fog. We stopped for coffee at Dracula's castle hotel where students flooded the souvenier shop and bought multicolored neon wigs and scary masks. Then we took the students in two groups to the "museum" which was walking down a narrow, unlighted corridor into a small room with paintings of dracula on the wall and a small old-style coffin. The tour guide described the pictures and then simultaneously opened the casket lid, turned the light off and screamed. Immediately the lights came back on, my students looked fearfully around from the protection of their huddle and we were done with the scary museum. In the narrow corridor a hand would come out of a hole in the wall and scare the students as they walked back up the stairs. Because of that hand, I had to almost carry one of my terrified fifth graders outside.
The rest of Saturday was spent stopping at "museums" of famous romanians, mostly poets and writers. The museums were their parents houses where they grew up. At 9 o'clock, I figured we were almost done, when the bus pulled into a monastary and the students and their teachers did their thing in the monastary and lit candles. Several older women were crawling on their knees around a tiny church near the bus. Some of the kids saw them and decided it would be funny to do it as well, so a couple rolled up their pants and crawled their way around the church, with the other students pointing and laughing, after which they also rolled up their pant legs and crawled around the church.
We finally got to our pensiune (kind of like a motel) by 10:30. My students spend the night running around the halls, smearing toothpaste on each other, not sleeping, playing cards, calling their friends in the next room with their cell phones and being yelled at by the other teachers. I got out of policing the students because that would mean I would have to yell in Romanian and being yelled at grammatically incorrectly...well, it's like if someone yelled "you sleep immediately!"...doesn't quite have the right affect.
Sunday morning after a breakfast of coffee, bread and the ever-present ham, we finally made it to Cluj. For the morning and most of the afternoon we went to another museum, the botanical gardens and then a quick tour of the city and a couple famous churches there. I slipped away from the group for an hour and walked around the big city by myself. Big cities are great for feeling anonymous and no one cares if you're foreign. Needless to say, it did my soul a lot of good.
Finally, late in the afternoon we climb back in the bus, all the students talking about how tired they are and all the teachers glad that the students are finally tired. We didn't get back to Vama until midnight where the bus dropped me and the students that live near me at our road. We walked home together, talking about our favorite parts of the weekend. The stars were bright against the frosty night air and wood-smoke permeated the air. I was exhausted.
But now I finally know the names of class 5a and I had something to talk about for the week. My life is surprisingly not dull.


chilly morning

I was walking to school this morning, keeping my eyes on the ground to keep from tripping embarrassingly on the uneven sidewalk in front of my students who were also walking to school.
It is frosty in the morning, so I was bundled up in my recent Romanian thrift store jacket with a scarf wound multiple times around my throat and my hands dug deep into my pockets.
I was walking past a young man wearing a blue and pink wind jacket.
"Tu nu esti plicitisit de Romania?" he asked me.
I stopped, confused that I was being talked to by someone I've never met and trying to switch my mind to Romanian.
"Poftim" (Say again) I said.
He repeated his question, but this time I understood, "You're not bored of Romania yet?"
" Nu inca" (not yet) I replied, continuing on my way and wondering who he was.


picking mushrooms could mean making strudel

I am never sure what I will be doing on any given day.
At first, I thought this was because I couldn't understand an entire conversation, but now I realize it is because there is just not a lot of commitment to plans around my village.
On Saturday, I thought I was going to pick mushrooms which is a popular weekend activity around here.
But the people I was going to go with left earlier than planned, so I missed them.
"What to do on a clear-skied Saturday?" I ask (I have started talking to myself)
I text my friend Silvia who is in her 50's and ask if she wants to pick mushrooms with me. She texts back that she has work to do in her yard.
Can I help? I ask.
Da (yes) she replies.
When I arrive at her house, she acts surprised I have actually come to work, then points me towards the apple trees. Can you climb trees?
Her husband seems dubious about the whole thing, but willingly pulls the ladder out from behind the shed.
The next two hours are spent with Dorul, the husband, repositioning the ladder for me and me filling up bag after bag of shiny red apples under a bright blue sky.
When the last tree is almost done, they call me down for a break which turns into an early dinner with soup and cabbage and sausage and drink.
Silvia asks if I have time to stay for an apple strudel while she starts mixing a pie crust.
De ce nu? (why not) I respond.
She grates a bucket of apples, then squeezes the juice from the gratings, offering me the juice, "It is organic" she jokes, referring to an earlier conversation about processed food.
She mixed sugar, cinnamon and semolina with the squeezed apple gratings, then rolled the pie dough out and put the apple on the pie dough like cinnamon sugar on cinnamon rolls.
After a discussion about how she doesn't think President Bush is very handsome she pulls the strudel out of the oven and gives me half of it to take home. Mmmm.
Picking mushrooms is probably overrated anyways.


The Chicagoan in Romania

I spent the first week of school teaching my students the "first conversation"

me: My name is Ms. Johnson. What is your name?
student: My name is Alexandru.
me: Nice to meet you.
student: Nice to meet you.

I added other pleasantries for more advanced classes, such as
How old are you?
Where are you from?

student: Where are you from, Ms. Johnson?
me: I am from Chicago.

That's right, out of laziness I have claimed Chicago as my home in America. Having lived there for almost 3 whole months, I surely know everything there is to know about the city, right?

In the past, my answers have always been twisted by that question. Sometimes I say everywhere, sometimes I say Wisconsin. At times, when I don't care if the questioner thinks I would marry my cousin, I'll say Arkansas. If I want to seem moderately exotic, I respond with Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. If the questioner wants to get down to the bottom of it, they always ask, "where were you born?" Well, Arizona, then. Because my home address is now in Missouri, I sometimes throw that one into the mix.
Since the average Romanian middle schooler has no clue where or what Missouri, Wisconsin and Arkansas are, and I want them to think I'm from America, not the Philippines, I tell them I'm from Chicago. People know what Chicago is and I don't have to stumble through wrongly conjugated Romanian trying to explain my transient history.
Although now, when I return to the English-speaking world, I'll have another addition to my answer.



I really do work.
4 days a week, some days 6 classes.
And when your students look at you with varying levels of incomprehension for 6 hours straight, it can seem like a thankless day.
Sometimes, I feel more like an actor than a teacher. Like today when I went over the first few lines of a poem
"There was an old woman who swallowed (finger pointing down throat)a fly(jazz fingers as a fly)
"I don't know why she swallowed a fly(huge shoulder shrug and massive intonations)
"Perhaps she'll die(doing the pose from the painting, Scream)
"There was an old woman who swallowed a spider(hands walking like a spider)
"Who whiggled and jiggled and tickled(I gyrate around the room) inside her.
"She swallowed the spider to catch the fly..."
They like the "whiggled and jiggled and tickled" part the best.

My older students tend to be more self-conscious, so I had them write me a letter to gauge their language skills.
Some of the letters sound like advertisements in the personals:
" I am tall and slim. I am quiet, quick-tempered and sociable."
Most of them say something about me:
"It's a pity that we will be doing english with you only this year because you are a good teacher and I like learn english with you."
"I really like your english classes because it`s a new experience for me.Since I was just a kid I`d liked english ,but now i love english.I don`t like so much english gramar but I like comunication"
I'm verry happy to learn english from an american people."

So this is what "the american people" in Romania is doing, as of late.



It goes with every meal and would be on a list of condiments next to ketchup (the sweet kind) and mustard in the average Romanian kitchen.

Crush a few cloves of garlic
pour in some oil
mix it up until it is white and creamy
shake in some salt.

Eat with hard boiled eggs/fried squash/fried eggplant/fish...be creative.
And expect garlic breath for a while afterwards.


head scarves

Ciprian, the man of my host family, sings at one of the orthodox churches in my village for a job.  On Sunday mornings and other times (like Thursday nights and Friday mornings) he dresses up and hops on his old-style german bicycle and pedals to the church.  
A couple weeks ago I told him I wanted to hear him sing and he told me the best time to come would be Friday morning, between 8 and 10.  I asked, "Why do you have slujba (service/work) on Friday morning?"  
He told me, "The other church in the village started having slujba on Friday morning, so our priest decided to start doing it."  
"Oh." I nod my head.
Ciprian explained that on Friday  mornings, only a few bunicas (grandmothers) come to slujba and I wouldn't have to do anything, just observe.  
So I walked to the Biserica (church) at around 9:30 and I knew slujba was still going on because there are speakers outside letting all the passers-by know that they are missing a slujba.  
I opened the door and snuck into the church.  Orthodox bisericas do not have pews, just a large room with carpets on the floor and icons painted on all the walls and high ceilings.  There are a few high-backed wooden chairs lining the room.  I stood indecisively at the doorway, trying to find an inconspicuous place in the back of the room.  My uncertainty caused the 4 bunicas that were knealing on the rug to beckon me over to them.  Now that they had noticed me I couldn't ignore them, so I tiptoed over and kneeled next to their kneeling, bent bodies.  One of them told me something I couldn't understand, but as I was looking at her, I noticed that her and all the 3 other church goers were wearing head coverings.  I immediately scrambled in my bag to pull out a scarf and throw it over my head.  The bunicas went back to crossing themselves and accompanying Ciprian's singing under their breath.  
After a few minutes, the bunicas stood up and the entire kindergarten class of my village came through the door!  Even they knew enough to have their heads covered.  So much for friday morning being a slujba with only a few bunicas.  
The priest walked out of his area in the front of the room with an incense burner and swung it towards the children on one side of the room and me and the bunicas on the other side.  The sweet, pungent smell filled the room.  
Suddenly all the children and the bunicas, who had taken it upon themselves to teach the children proper church etiquette, walked toward the front of the room and knelt for the priest to bless them with what looked to me like a golden lamp.  After standing indecisively for a few seconds I also walked towards the front of the room and knelt with the flock.  When the priest got to me, he looked at me and said, "Sunteti nu din biserica noi!" (you are not from our church), I looked over at Ciprian who was also kneeling and the priest seemed like he was going to pass up blessing me.  But then he leaned over and touched my scarf-covered head with the bottom of the lamp.  After everyone had been blessed, the bunicas started standing, so I also stood and walked as quietly as I could out of the building.
So much for observing unobservedly.  I'm sure Ciprian will have some explaining to do to his priest about my ignorance.  Being a foreigner forgives me for so many things.  


Romanian 6th graders

6th graders are the same everywhere. A couple of my students don't seem aware they are in school. I imagine that in their minds they are floating along, doing their thing and every once in a while some adult figure disrupts their oblivion by taking away their mp3 player or making them sit closer to the front of the room.
Today I split the 6th grade class into two teams. This takes longer than you would think because only two students in the class trust their minds enough to understand my half english half hand motion instructions. After I say something in English, these students translate my instructions into Romanian. I listen to the Romanian to make sure they are saying the right thing. Also, I'm not sure they play many "games" in class.
But we played a game today and the class was split. I allowed the students to pick the names of their teams.
The two teams decided on 50-cent and Snoop Dog as their team names.
So I rest my case, 6th graders are the same everywhere.


I wake up to lots of sun shining through the window
and I have a map on my wall with a dotted line to indicate where I've been in Romania
and I use internet sporadically.
and I went on a camping trip with some students last week and they wore bandannas around their necks
and responded to the whistle
and caught tiny minnows in the stream.
and tomorrow, Monday the 15th, is my first day of school.  officially.  



I will be heating my house this winter with a soba.
There are sobas in most houses here, although there is a gradual switch to central heating.
But since I opted to not move into the centrally heated main house in the winter, I will be using a soba. My host family looked at me incredulously when I said I wanted to use the soba.
"Why?" my counterpart asked. "They are much more work and the wood is expensive!"
"Independence is important to me," I tried to explain. The independence to be able to leave my host families house at night and make noise without everyone knowing what I am doing, the independence to come and go without waking up the baby accidentally, the independence to have my own space for two years and not move into another space every few months, depending on the weather... The price of wood and time spent stoking the fire every few hours during the night seemed minuscule to me compared to the beauty of privacy and independence.
So, in order for the wood to be dry in time for the cold months, I needed to buy it this month, which I did a few days ago - three horse carts of wood. But the sobas have little doors, so the wood has to be cut up into relatively little wedges.
That is what we are doing right now. Ciprian expertly hacks at the wood with a giant ax while I cart away the wood wedges to the shed with an ancient, bent-up cart, and stack them.
Ciprian does not wear shoes or eye glasses for protection, which is a staple for American wood-cutting, in my past experiences.
When we get tired, we stop and eat apples from the trees in their yard and yell nice things across the road to the neighbors, who are also getting their wood ready for winter.


A day in the life of my August

August is vacation month for Romania.
Where I live is where some people go for vacation because it is in the mountains and cool in the summer, and because it is quaint and rustic.
Every day is different and I never know what I will be doing when I wake up in the morning.
My window faces the east, so I am learning how to sleep with covers over my head. After laying around for a bit, I climb out of my enormous bed and make my way down the deep stairs that keep old women and dogs from climbing up to my apartment and would be appropriate only for the Easterlund house. I shuffle around making tea and buttering bread for breakfast before I head outside to walk the 20 minutes to school with my laptop.
The first part of the walk is down a dusty road where I will probably have to stand aside for a horse cart or a BMW driving past and a Bunica (old woman/grandmother) will probably start walking with me and asking me if I'm a tourist. After the dirt road, I turn onto the only cemented highway in town and walk down it, past stray dogs and multiple little stores that sell the same thing. It's etiquette here to say "Buna Ziua" (hello, good day), so I exchange "buna ziuas" with the women out shopping and the men watching the cars drive by from inside their fences.
When I get to the school, I hook up my laptop to the internet and spend several hours doing the internet thing before I head back home. This time I normally stop by a store and pick up some tasty pretzels with sesame seeds or strawberry wafers, my current favorites.
When I get home, the Stefan, the baby, is up and the grandma is taking care of him, so I talk to them while I heat up my lunch. After lunch there seems to be an understood siesta time, so I read for a while before I go back down the deep stairs. Yesterday I learned how to do laundry in their washing machine and then Cipri, my host families son who is eleven, asked me if I wanted to go to the river with him. So he showed me where the swimming hole at the river was and we picked up another family member on the way. When I came back, it was time to hang my clothes outside to dry and then go back to the magazine to buy some chicken and potatoes for dinner.
Everything takes longer because I walk everywhere and I am trying to figure out how things work. Gabi, whose kitchen I use, helps me make dinner. For now, we are eating dinner together and I make meals every third day. While we're waiting for the chicken to finish, mama-itza the bunica who lives next door, comes over with a cake for me and we talk about her pension and how village people are nicer than city people. She doesn't wear her teeth very often and it takes me a couple sentences to figure out what she is talking about, but she always greets me with a smile and calls me beautiful miss.
They showed me how to use the well yesterday and while we were there another neighbor came by, "you will find a rich romanian boy, yes?"
Then he pointed at Gabi holding her baby, Stefan, and said, "That will be you in the future."
For the older generation, it seems that the only plausible reason for a single woman to move to a different country is to be looking for a rich man.
My tata, Gabi's dad, laughingly told me, "Romanians are rich and Americans are poor, that's why you are here to find a rich man."
By then, dinner is ready and Ciprian, Gabi, Cipri and I sit down to eat. Over dinner we talk about corrupt mayors and lack of money for projects. After a bit Ciprian brings out a watermelon and it isn't ripe yet, so I learn the Romanian word for ripe. By now it's eleven o'clock and I head off to bed, for another day of who knows what.


people might be basically good...

I left Ploiesti for good on the Sunday night train.
I had bought my ticket earlier in the bed and the type of bed that I had requested on the train was not available so I said "whatever" and assumed they would give me a seat and not a bed. My gazda mom helped me drag my 7 bags to the train station, repeating "sapte bagaj" to me in consternation and concern that all 7 would be stolen from me during the night.
I ungracefully got on the train and found a mostly empty compartment to settle into. Twenty minutes later the conductor came in to check tickets and told me that I actually had a bed, but I pointed to my luggage and said I couldn't carry it all to the next car. I think he told me to wait and left the compartment. So I sat there and waited for I didn't know what. Would the conductor come back? Would he help me move my bags? Would I just be waiting the whole night for the conductor?
A couple stops later the conductor returned and the poor man asked for my heaviest bag and then told me to follow him with the rest of the bags, which I did, right off the train. Was he dumping me off in who-knows where? No, he was still talking to me, so I followed him a couple cars forward were he passed my heaviest bag onto another conductor and said goodnight. I began to follow the other conductor who passed me a bag of sheets, showed me my bed and put my heaviest bag in the conductors compartment for safekeeping or for them to go through on their free time. Either way, I didn't want to sleep with that bag, so I left it there, made my bed and snuggled in with my other bags, including a hard, awkward water filter.
The train was supposed to arrive at Vama at 5 in the morning, so I set my alarm for 4:50 and slept fitfully in fear of missing my stop. By 4:55 I was in the hall waiting to get off and the conductor looked at me, laughed a little and said the train was running late and we wouldn't get there for another 30 minutes. So I stood in the hall with my head out the window watching the first light of dawn and getting ready at each station the train stopped at, only to be told that I wasn't there yet.
When the train did reach Vama my gazda man, Ciprian, and and old blue van with stumps of wood in the back were waiting for me. Home sweet home.
My porch.


where I will live

Today, I learned where I will be living for the next two years. From the result of interviews with schools who have applied for a TEFL volunteer, as well as interviews with each of the peace corps members in my group, “they” have decided where we will be living for the next two years.

My town is in the North-Eastern section of Romania, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains in an area called Moldova. My town is Vama, in Suceava county.

My counterpart, the teacher I will be working with at the middle school, sent me pictures of my town, which is known for its beauty, although the guidebooks, if they even mention Vama, say there is nothing there. My counterpart sent me a letter of introduction to the town and it is basically all I know about it right now:

“It looks like a small town; it has lots of facilities including running water, internet, mobile phones, railway stations where fast trains stop, bus stop, post office, a stadium and a not very glorious local football team, a dispensary where there work 3 doctors, 1 dentist and nurses, 2 pharmacies, restaurants, a factory which processes wood, a dairy, 3 Orthodox churches, 1 Catholic church, 2 school buildings, 1 police stations, many shops […]

“The mountains around are either covered by thick pine-tree forests or deforested – anyway in the winter you can go sledging and partially skiing, while in summer you can pick mushrooms and wild berries, blueberries, raspberries, etc.; the village is crossed by 2 rivers – you can bathe there in the summer.

“Inhabitants: around 7000: they work in schools, in factories (small private factories which process the wood) in local tourism; many of them work on their small farms raising animals (cattle, sheep horses, poultry) and growing potatoes, maize or vegetables; some of them (maybe 30 families) provide food and accommodation for Romanian and foreign tourists who come here to visit the famous medieval monasteries situated at rather small distances from the village.”


The camping

So this weekend, eight other peace corps volunteers and I climbed up a mountain next to Bushtin, a town here in Romania.
The trip was fairly unplanned as we are a bunch of invincible peace corps trainees, and the hike almost killed me. As we were climbing the mountain, part of which was pseudo rock-climbing, my knees were killing me and another climber, Meg, described the pain in our calves as the burn of success.
At one point Chase collapsed at a break point, gasping, "where are the bears! I want one to come and take me out of my misery!"
Despite the grueling hike, we arrived at the top before dark and asked around for a good place to camp. The mountain was covered by a cloud, we were all shivering from the cold wind on the top of the mountain blowing into our soaking wet hiking clothes, and we were hungry. The mountaintop was above the tree line so we could not find firewood for a fire. Some people who live up there warned us against camping since there were some recent bear attacks in the area, but it was too foggy and dark to find the cabana (camping cabins) so we eventually gave up and found a flat space to set up our three tents.
After gorging on provisions, we took the food out of the main tent and crowded in for a fireless campsite experience, complete with i-pod, speakers and the wind knocking our tent half-way down.
We had just gone through a round of "what is your biggest fear," when one of the guys heard a noise and peeked out the tent.
"There's a bear out there," he whispered loudly. Immediately all nine of us jumped toward the center and stayed huddled there for the next hour and a half while we listened to the bear eat all our food 5 feet from us. We could hear it crunching down on the hard-boiled eggs and licking the cartons of juice. A bear cub circled our campsite, making little cries ever few minutes.
When the bear left, we jumped out of the tent and threw everything the bear would remotely want to eat as far down the hill and away from our tent as possible. It had ripped the other two tents so all nine of us spent the night in a 5-person tent. Needless to say, not much sleeping happened that night. But, to quote my fellow Peace corps trainee, Tyler, it was "probably the best experience in Romania yet."
This is one of the tracks we found in the sand near our tent.


Noise makers

This week I taught English to a class of 6th graders for an hour a day. They were great students as they were all there of their own free will for summer school.
By the second day, several of the boys had started making noise makers with sheets of paper. After one class period of them popping them "secretly" we began to confiscate them at the beginning of each class period. Roby is waving at you from the back of the room. And George, the smart one, is bored in front of the class. Please notice Andrei's mullet, which is prominently displayed as he faces away from the camera. The mullet is apparently cool here.


clueless traveler

This last week in language school we were taught vocabulary for traveling on trains. Since this was my fourth weekend in Romania, I felt like it was time to leave Ploiesti. Ever since I arrived in Romania, my Gazda, her nephew, my language instructors and every other Romanian I meet asks me if I have been to Brasov yet. They keep telling me it is "frumoasa" (beautiful).
Since my going to Brasov seemed so important to so many people, I decided that the time had come. So on Friday morning I packed my bag with a change of clothes and toothpaste and waited until the school day was over. A fellow trainee, Monica, and I went to the West Train station and unintentionally asked for a train ticket from the information window. When we finally had the tickets for Brasov and had succesfully located our platform, we waited in uncertainty as trains came and went.
"Este Tren pentru Brasov?" we asked every conductor we saw.
"Nu." They would reply, looking at us pityingly.
Our train rolled in a couple minutes late and we got settled into a compartment with a stuck window, plastic brown seats and old brown curtains that fluttered in our faces from the open window.
The train stopped at every station and lasted past the sunset and stopped in Brasov's unlit section of the train station.
"This is the depths of despair," Monica told me as we jumped off the train and into the darkness.
Eventually we found the lit section of the train station and from there, a bus to go into the center of Brasov. We weren't sure when we would know we were in the center, though, so we got off at a random stop and started walking. The center of Brasov is cobblestoned, with quaint European buildings, cathedral spires, fountains and numerous outdoor cafes. Very different from industrial Ploiesti.
We asked around for directions for a hotel a volunteer had recommended which was hidden in a side alley. By the time we had a room and went out to find food, all the restaurants in Brasov were closed. After a couple unsuccessful attempts, we spotted a lighted-up sign for a Restaurant at the end of an alley where people were sitting in the seats. So we walked to the restaurant and were rebuffed for the third time. I started to walk away, then turned back and asked, in broken Romanian, "where food in Brasov?" I must have looked forlorn and starving as the woman hestitated than beckoned for us to sit down and brought us menus! The restaurant ended up being Sicilian and after she made us pasta (the best I've had in Romania yet) the chef( a Romanian woman), and her husband (a Sicilian), sat with us and we "talked" about where we and they were from. Whenever their was an awkward silence, we diverted our attention to their cat, Totsi, we kept playing with leaves.
The next morning I walked around part of the wall that was built sometime between the late 1400's and and mid-1600's as a fortification for Brasov. It is now surrounded by posch clay tennis courts, a tree-covered walking path, and playgrounds.
I came back from Brasov alone, and a couple middle-aged woman shared my compartment with me. They were very quiet at first, but when they found out that my Romanian is impassable, they talked about foreigners and their families (I think). When we passed fields of grain and corn, they would teach me how to say it in Romanian.
I'm not going to lie, I feel pretty competent after my first Romanian train experience. Booyah.


Soccer, etc.

When I come home from school each day, my host mom Lumi asks, “How was school today?”
“Bine,” I say.

“What did you learn?”

In present tense and a limited knowledge of verbs, I reply in Romanian, “Today, I speak vegetable and fruit. Tomatoes, potatoes, grapes.”

My host mom graciously affirms my awkward Romanian, “Foarte bine (very good).”

My language and Peace Corps classes meet in a middle school on the West side of town. During breaks we watch the middle schoolers watching us, sometimes engage them in romglish conversations, and the tallest guy in my group dunks basketballs for their entertainment. Many of the boys play soccer as well.

There is a grass soccer field behind the school and after classes on Friday, several of us started a game. Within ten minutes some highschoolers joined in and soon the field began to fill with kids of all ages. If any of us got the ball, about five ten-year-olds would surround us. The only penalties that were called religiously were hand/arm balls and we got to practice yelling “to the right, to the left” in Romanian. And now, on Monday I’ll have new friends at the middle school to talk romglish with.



Disclaimers are God's gift for flaws in human perspective. As this blog is entirely my perspective on my surroundings, it is neither an unbiased nor entirely accurate representation of my surroundings. Also, this blog is in no way representative of the perspective of the American government and, more specifically, the Peace Corps.

ma cheama Rachel? cum te cheama?

I am finishing my first of the 10 weeks of PST or Pre-service training. Me and my forty “colegii” spend 4 hours in the morning on language and 4 hours in the afternoon mostly learning about Romania and the Peace Corps.

Most of my time is spent repeating, mauling and otherwise becoming acquainted with the language.Language learning has taken on a survival aspect as an action as simple as buying a bus ticket requires me to speak. Right now I am doing that with what little Romanian I have acquired and embarrassing hand motions. I only knew the verb for “to be” until yesterday and it is exciting to finally do something in Romanian instead of simply being. I can now open and close, go and come, and even speak!

My Romanian teacher does not speak English in class so when new vocabulary is introduced, we play charades until someone guesses the correct word in English. I am surprised at how much I understand and can haltingly say after just one week. While my vocabulary is limited I will spend a lot of time perfecting hand motions.

One afternoon we observed three different English classes at the local middle school. One of the classes was taught by a Romanian volunteer and the other two were taught by Romanians. In a beginner English class taught by a Romanian teacher, the students were learning about was, has and had. The word "oasis" was in one of the sentences they had for homework. The teacher asked," what is oasis."

a brave student raises his hand, "a drink?"

Another student adds, "a club?"

The teacher responds, "yes, it might be the name of those things, but it is also a band, da?"

And that was the end of the quest for the meaning of the word "oasis."

Life is glorious.



I spent two days in Philadelphia, meeting the forty individuals in my Peace Corps group before we flew from JFK airport at 5:45 on Wednesday afternoon.
After 7 hours of flying to Munich (where Lufthansa provided free coffee, tea and newspapers) and 2 more hours of flying to Bucharest, I finally walked off the plane and effortlessly through customs, un-effortlessly collected 85 pounds of luggage and smelled fresh Romanian air.
We took a bus to Ploiesti where I will be staying the first 10 weeks I am here.
A few of us walked around Ploiesti yesterday. So from my vast experience, Romania seems full of bloc houses, construction, men in capris, old women wearing head scarves, wavy sidewalks, fried cheese, fresh tomatoes, pork, rainy afternoons, political campaigning, pda, stray dogs, potted flowers and park benches.
I am satisfied.


so soon

Today is the first day of my last week in America.
I have spent it renewing my driver's license, procuring passport photos, beating a favorite professor at backgammon and eating dinner at Barnett's Dairyette.

I will fly from Springfield, MO to Philadelphia on Monday where I will spend a couple days meeting the other forty volunteers in my group. We will fly together to Romania, with a layover in Munich. After arriving in Bucharest we will take a bus to Ploiesti, where we will spend ten weeks becoming conversational in Romanian, learning to be culturally aware and learning how to actually do what I'm going over there to do: teach English to highschool/middleschoolers.

If you want to, you can feel caring and send me a letter. My address for the first ten weeks will be
Rachel Johnson
Peace Corps/Romania
Str. Negustori, Nr. 16
Sector 2, Bucharest

Wait to send the packages, because this address only receives letters and any packages will be confiscated by behind-the-times Ceausescu agents who will eat all the black licorice you will send my way.

Adios America. Bună Ziua Romania.


1 blog created

I have lived in Chicago for a little more than 3 months, and I am leaving on the Megabus tomorrow to start the first leg of a trip that will end in Romania.
So here is Chicago, quantitatively speaking:

40(ish) rides on the L,

100 + phone calls answered as a temp receptionist

24 runs past the the line of post office trucks and the car wash on Kedzie Ave.; the Walgreens, the fruit store full of old men, the Serbian restaurant, and the KFC on Irving Park Rd; and the construction site, the cta bus break stop, and Doug's Hotdogs on California St.

1 visit to the zoo

5 roommates

17 books checked out from the Chicago Public Library

1 concert at Schubas Tavern attended

2 embarrassing slip-and-falls on Chicago streets, recovered from

5 dip-dish pizza dinners consumed

30(ish) miles walked

1 sidewalk shoveled multiple times

6 fresh fruit smoothies (with tapioca beads) slurped

2 trips to Madison

11 grocery runs to Trader Joes.

1 blanket crocheted

5 seasons of Scrubs watched

9 friends who visited


escalator enchantment

I am fond of airports.
They are full of entertaining people.

I was sitting near baggage claims yesterday, between an octogenarian having issues with his razor phone and a young family with a curious four year old and a barely walking two year old.
The four year old distracted me from my book, calling out, "Mommy, canidoitagain? Mommy, canidoitagain?"

I started watching the little boy who, on receiving permission from his mother, pulled his father towards the down escalator. He jumped excitedly onto the first step. A couple minutes later, the father and son appeared on the up escalator.
"Mommy, canidoitagain? canidoitagain?" The boy jumped up and down, like a puppy waiting for a treat.
This time the mom carried the two year old and took the escalator ride with her boy.
As soon as he stepped off the up escalator, he looked at his mom. "Canwedoitagain?"
And they did.


all of my life in a rectangle

This is the most interesting thing I have read in the news since Spitzer's sex scandal.

Nokia and other phone companies are attempting to design phones for those in the world who do not have them yet: the poor and rural. A human behavior researcher for Nokia conducts research by asking passers-by to sketch a design of what they would want in a phone. These are some of the ideas he's seen:
"One Liberian refugee wanted to outfit a phone with a land-mine detector so that he could more safely return to his home village. In the Dharavi slum of Mumbai, people sketched phones that could forecast the weather since they had no access to TV or radio. Muslims wanted G.P.S. devices to orient their prayers toward Mecca. Someone else drew a phone shaped like a water bottle, explaining that it could store precious drinking water and also float on the monsoon waters. In Jacarèzinho, a bustling favela in Rio, one designer drew a phone with an air-quality monitor. Several women sketched phones that would monitor cheating boyfriends and husbands. Another designed a “peace button” that would halt gunfire in the neighborhood with a single touch."

I want a phone with an albuterol inhaler, and a downloadable book that reads like paper.



1. When I eat asian food with Americans, an equal amount of rice and stir-fry is consumed.
When I ate asian food in the Philippines, I would be dished up with mostly rice while the stir-fry fought for space on my plate.

2. The people who depend on rice as an stomach-filler use it because it is inexpensive.

So what happens when a food staple, made so by its availability and cheapness, becomes "expensive?"



I am in Madison, Wisconsin this week. Four nights ago I learned that my Uncle's Bicycle shop was having their huge spring sale this week. When I lived in Wisconsin during third and fourth grade, we would dust bikes and make popcorn in the rented popcorn machine for his bi-annual sale. Mostly I remember squeezing in "test rides" on tandem bikes and other ridiculous models such as the Electra Hellbilly.
The day I heard of the sale I called my Uncle and invited myself to be his temporary employee.
Yesterday I spent eleven hours assisting "real" employees by organizing bins of bike components and accessories. Did you know there are at least six types of CO2 containers for airing your tires, and more than eleven types of red safety lights that all succeed in making you look like a mutant firerfly?
The store rents several circus tents during the sale to make their products more accessible to customers. I spent today under the white tents, moving bikes and smiling dumbly at customers as they asked me
"do you prefer steel or aluminum frames?"
"how do the gear shifters work?"(why does it matter how their machinery works, just use it)
and my favorite, "I've read that you can attach a component on the post that allows you to do trailing [not sure what all these words mean]. Do you think that would work with this model, or should I get the higher end one?" (from a customer who was an athletic hybrid of a disciple and a Scottish man.)
While not directing customers to "real" salesman, I encouraged fellow employees to watch the snow fall on the bikes parked outside of the tents, while gradually turning into an ice statue.


How did we not know?

I recently watched the reality show, Top Chef, for the first time. The episode involved chefs making food based on the tastes of animals from the Chicago zoo. For example, the chefs assigned to make food based on the tastes of Gorillas baked banana bread. (But nothing on Top Chef is as simple as banana bread. I believe the bread had an assortment of fruits and glazes on top.)

One chef-group made appetizers based on penguin's tastes. They were given a list of food they could use which was mostly varieties of fish.

Several of us were watching the show. The spotlight was on the penguin table and I noticed one of the dishes. The judges were exclaiming over the chef's great job with the anchovies as the camera zoomed disturbingly close to a white rectangle of something topped with a small, silver fish.

"Where are the anchovies?" I asked.

"It's on top," acquaintance 1 told me.

"But that's a little fish on top." I argued.

"That's what anchovies are. fish." Acquaintance 2 explained.

"Isn't it some kind of olive? Y'know, how Garfield the comic cat always says something about anchovies and pizza? And most people don't like olives on pizza..." I stopped talking.

Acquaintance 1 and 2 were incredulous. "You thought anchovies were olives!"

JE looked confused. "I didn't know they were fish."

How did we not know? And why would anyone every put fish on pizza.


Chicago-style spring equinox

The spring equinox is today.

Yesterday's warmth and the combined heat of 10 sleeping bodies and three working radiators in the apartment tricked me into thinking that today would be a weather-nice day.
I walked out of the house wearing thin canvas shoes and no hat, looking forward to my morning walk to the L.
I walked out of the house into snow and was shocked.

A couple houses down the street, a woman bundled in crocheted warmth was sweeping snow from her steps. As I walked by she cheerily called out, "Happy Spring!"

Later, as I walked over the bridge on Michigan Ave., the wind tried to push me into traffic.

This is ridiculous.


The Express

JP, a spring break visitor from New Orleans, and I rode home on the L the other night. We waited for too long next to a lubby-dubby high school couple and their friends until our train arrived. The car was surprisingly full for Monday night, but JP and I got seats in the front, facing the rest of the car.
We looked over the other travelers. She blurted, "I really like how different groups of people are together in restaurants and stores up here. In New Orleans everything is more segregated." Her voice rose to be heard above the voice of the train conducter monotonely speaking over the intercom.
"And there's lots of young people here." We both observe the horde of 20-somethings standing in an assortment of skinny jeans, calmly listening to their i-pods. (different than the pda highschoolers).
At the next stop, the car almost empties, but everyone who exited turned around to faced our train instead of walking toward the stairs.
JP laughed, "look at them. Why are they just standing there? It's like they're waiting for another train."
"Well, maybe they are," I answer unthinkingly.
The train starts moving and we sit back for a forgettable conversation. Looking out the windows, I noticed that we are not slowing down for the next station.
"It's not stopping when it should," I tell JP.
"I don't really know what's going on." Images of train accidents and spiderman's heroic subway rescue race through my head.
The other passengers have noticed that we keep on moving. Some of them seem pertrubed while others slouch down more in their seats, moving from dozing to slumber.
I watch the suited man in front of us talking and gesturing to the woman standing at the door.
By now, JP and I have noticed that the small red light that flashes when the train runs express is flashing.
The standing woman glared angrily at the closed doors as the train whizzes past her station.
The suited man turned around and asks us if we know when the runaway train will stop. "I asked her," he beckoned at the standing woman, "and she said it would stop at the last stop." His attitude toward her is disdainful, and she seems debilitatingly tired, or maybe drunk. She sways with the movement of the train, looking hopelessly sad after missing her stop, and the suited man made a few more unnecessary jabs at her missing her stop.
The train finally stoppped and the suited man and sad woman leave.
"Let's stay and see if it keeps going or it if it stops when it should," I told JP. But mostly I didn't want to be stuck next to the awkwardly rude man, waiting for another train.


UPDATE: I am officially halfway across the sea.

I do not take responsibility for this post and Yan ki hropku is not Romanian:

Faithful readers,

I have now blogged for a week. Or two, perhaps. Also, I am currently reading B. Obama's gripping thriller: Dreams from My Father. It is almost as good as Living Poor, by M. Thomsen. I am quite poor. This book provides many helpful tips on living poor, such as ways to save money. The best way to save money, I have found, is to steal movies and music online. I do this often. I also steal mints, and force them upon my unwitting friends. They pretend to like the mints while I am around, but after I leave the room they spit them out and say mean things about me.

Also: I have met the man of my dreamz (note the "z"). Stephen is his name. I am going to marry him someday soon. Perhaps a day when I do not have to work. Tomorrow, for instance. Or any day next week. Or next month.

Belovedess, I have run out of things to say. Ah! Lo! I forgot about my encounter with an Italian restaurant this evening. I was with my good friend J. E. and the man of my dreamz. I ate several small noodles in a spicy tomato sauce. It was very hard trying to concentrate on the food and sit by the man of my dreamz at the same time. His blazing blue eyes penetrated my salty soul.

That is all. As they say in Romania: "Yan ki hropku!". This means either "Goodbye, dear one" or "I buried it in the vestibule". I am still working on my Romanian.

-R. Johnson (as typed by B. Webster)


the spill

Biking in Chicago is a series of challenges...through red lights, around the idling cab, between the two moving trucks. The biker's road etiquette is a hybrid of pedestrian rights and vehicle laws and the most satisfying experience is biking past 20 cars sitting at a red light.
But this morning my biking euphoria was temporarily assuaged.
I was moderately lost, biking down Dearborn St., knowing I needed to turn left eventually. So I biked through a red light and turned a quick left in a move I'm sure commuters in their awkward, law-abiding cars envy. Except instead of going left, inertia and slick pavement combined forces and somehow my face was in the asphalt.
"Are you OK?" called out kindly pedestrians on all sides.
I jumped to my feet to show I was fine and retain some dignity, then shakily steered my bike off the road. A pock-marked business woman waiting to cross the street pointed out that I had pavement ground into my left cheek, and offered to watch my bike while I went into the corner convenience store to wash it off.
The nice people at the convenience store let me come behind the counter to wash off my face and hands, and my bike was still there when I got outside. The pock-marked business woman nulled Chicago's "meanness" reputation for at least a month.
I am now successfully fulfilling all my receptionist duties, and occasionally touching my chin which feels like a ripe peach.


inner city pressure

Virginia Woolf is very smart.
Idleness is a positive quality which cultivates creativity.
Therefore, Flight of the Conchords must be fairly idle.



I spent the summer in Siloam Springs working with a middle-aged woman whose ideal vacation centered on Branson, Mo and who consistently mispronounced my ‘lunch’ of Cous Cous as Cuss Cuss. She had three children and advised me to live freely while I had the opportunity before irresponsible children and husbands overcame all life’s opportunities.

When I told my fellow temp worker about joining the Peace Corps, she responded, “Do it while you can, girrrl. I wish I could just go off and do something like that. That’s what I should have done when I graduated. Instead I got into HR.”

I was thinking about these comments this evening. In fact, I might depend on them to validate my ‘unencumbered’ lifestyle.

Right now, having no responsibilities means I am unemployed and live primarily on oatmeal, beans and rice. Of course, I have all the time in the world to do whatever I want, provided it does not require monetary funding.

Ideally, my current perspective of desperately wanting a job will continue when I actually have one. Or maybe I’ll become a middle-aged, mid-western woman urging youngsters to ‘live life before the blankity-blank children and no-good husband ruin life.’?

The horror.


sidewalk clog

One of my reasons for moving to Chicago was that I could walk everywhere. While I often see fellow pedestrians, they rarely inhibit my gait. But today I got stuck behind a short, stout Latino wearing heavy-soled boots and thick pants. The bumpy, iced sidewalks hinder typical passing maneuverability, so I slowed my pace and hoped he would turn out of my path at the next intersection. Thick-boots was in a great mood, whistling and knocking the snow off shrub-tops with his bare hand. I started walking where he stepped and avoiding where he slipped. He turned after a couple blocks and I quickened my pace, occasionally brushing snow from the top of shrubs.