graduate student

I am a graduate student now.
At the University of Central Missouri I will be studying Linguistics and Teaching English as a Spoken Language, Teaching English as a Written language, Second Language Acquisition and all such things.
By a stroke of unanticipated luck I was offered a part-time Graduate Assistant job at the Nursing Department correcting "Intro to Nursing" quizzes.
I don't know anyone in Warrensburg,Missouri, so I go to the town library and read books like Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, which allow me to romanticize my hermit lifestyle and inspire me to buy eggplants at the farmer's market.
I keep looking for an herb plant that I can pot and put on my table and pinch savoriness from it flame my fledgling interest in cooking.
This evening I sat on my one-step stoop in the golden light of sunset, ate my eggplant and watched a stealth bomber glide over me from the nearby Whiteman Air Force Base.
Different from sitting on my balcony and listening to the cows make their way down from the hills. But still good.


Germany vs. Argentina

I am in Dresden right now.
And Germany is a force in the world cup.
So Ilie and I went to a local events park next to the Elbe river, despite the "I feel like I am sitting in a sauna" heat. After getting patted down in security, we walked into the masses of german-flagged cheeks, german-flag dresses, german-flag top hats, german-flag Burger King hats. One exuberant woman was wearing a plastic yellow hula skirt, a red bra and enormous black peacocky headwear.
Because we had arrived a mere twenty minutes before the game, the sandy benches were already full.
"That's ok. We'll feel the spirit of the game standing with the german-flagged masses."
As game time approached, the Dresden announcer played K'naan's Wavin' Flag and the germans diligently waved their sea of flags.
Then the same announcer yelled out the first names of team members and the fans yelled out their last names.
"He is only saying the names of the German players. He's not saying the Brazilian or the Turkish players' names that are on the German team," Ilie informed me.
I was amazed that all of these people could match the first and last names of players, even if it was just the German ones.
Within the first five minutes of the game, the German team scored and I got beer splashed on me by excited fans and then almost choked on the dust cloud that we were surrounded in by the dancing crowd. The cheering continued whenever a German player stole the ball, passed the ball, when the goalie caught a simple pass kicked to him by his own team...
When Argentine's coach flashed on the screen the same excited fan who splashed beer around boo'ed loudly.
This is dedication.


We no Speak Americano

I have been hearing We No Speak Americano every fifteen minutes on the radio here.
I tap my fingers to it and the Charlie Chaplainesque music video doesn't hurt.
And then I discovered that the version I am incessantly hearing on the radio is a remix of the 1958 Tu Vuò Fa' L'Americano whose comedic musicians and poking-fun-of-the-ugly-american-wanna-be lyrics are even better than Charlie Chaplain.
If all melodies could have the same luck as We no speak Americano...



I have been reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and Wendell Berry's What are People For?. Pollan's mantra is "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
This, combined with Berry's admonitions to appreciate the fruit of the land that is beneath our feet and to be a part of caring for the "varied and versatile countryside, fragile in its composition[...]," has primed me for summer in Vama.
If not hay and potato fields, every household has at least a garden with onions, garlic, dill, lettuce, beans, beets and strawberries.
Mamaitza, my "grandmother" is out in her garden every morning, weeding this, taking a look at that. She has done this since she got married as has her daughter-in-law, as does the next neighbor down the road and the next.
Mamaitza and I weeded the onions and garlic on Tuesday morning, leaving clean dirt valleys between the plants. Later I picked strawberries at Silvia's. We ate some of the strawberries with polenta and cream, and cleaned the remaining strawberries to make jam.
Whenever I want lettuce, I walk the 20 meters to Mamaitza's garden and pick some a few lettuce leaves.
My Chemistry teacher neighbor has bunches of red, crunchy radishes in her kitchen for snack time.
Summer gives even without cultivation.
The air at the stadium where I run smells of fresh hay from the recently made haystacks on the end of the field and the woodland strawberries are almost ripe in the forest behind my house.
Last year, Milica, Mamaitza's son, taught me how to search for mushrooms and distinguish the edible ones from the "nebuni" (crazy) ones. While the forest floor is littered with mushrooms, many are nebun, especially the red and white ones that look like mario brother mushrooms. The prize mushroom is Hribi and they are notorious for being difficult to find. Last year, I found one hrib, and it was old and yellowing. But this summer, I am finding hribi. Fresh, brown capped hribi. A lot of hribi:

Many people in Vama ask me if I am not bored now that school is out.
In his discussion on work and the inherent pleasures that are coupled with "drudgerous" work on farmland, Wendell Berry writes that while doing this work,"One does not miss or regret the past, or fear or long for the future. Being there is simply all, and is enough."


I'm going to see a principal about some honey

A few days ago, my throat was sore. The perfect sore throat for honeyed tea.
So I went to a couple of the stores in town.
"We don't have honey" they all told me.
I was confused. I know honey exists here. I've been given choices of honey or sugar in tea, I've copied a recipe for honey cake, I've seen bee boxes.
"Where do you buy your honey?" I ask Silvia, my math colleague.
"I buy it from my cousin who is the Principal at the Construction high school in the nearby town."
"I'm going there tomorrow. Do you suppose I could buy some from her?"
"Of course. Actually, why don't you buy me a bottle while you are at it?"
"Just go to the high school and ask for Doamna Directoara Geta."
The next day, after finishing errands, I walked through the nearby town towards the Construction high school.
"Buna ziua Rachel," a fellow teacher and his wife greeted me on the street. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm on my way to buy honey."
"Where do you buy honey?" his wife asked me.
"From Silvia's cousin who is the Principal at the Construction High school."
"Oooh. Can you buy me a bottle too?"
"No problem" I answer nonchalantly, although I am becoming anxious that the Principal will not be at school and I have two orders on my conscious for this elusive honey.
As I near the high school, I meet some of my now 9th grade students from last year.
"Where are you going, Miss? Are you going to teach here next year?" They are excited to see me.
"I'll take you to the Principal's office," one of the more enthusiastic girls offers.
We enter the courtyard and climb the stairs.
"Hello. How are you," the english teacher at the school recognizes me. "What are you doing here? The Principal? She's not here.
Can I help you? You need honey? Of course. I'll give you her phone number."
I call the number and the Principal answers her phone.
"Hello. I am Rachel and I am a volunteer and colleague with your cousin Silvia and she told me I could buy honey from you."
"Of course. Very nice to meet you. If you go to the Secretary's office, they will help you. If there is not enough bottles at the office, The secretary will call me."
I walk into the secretary's office, which turns out is four desks with four employees busy with diplomas and typing.
"Hello," I speak to all four desks at once. "Who do I talk to about honey? I just talked to the Principal and she told me to come here."
"Honey?" said the young man behind desk one. "Here is a bottle." He lifts up a bag.
"I would like two bottles."
"Just a minute.....Are you going back into town? Come with me and you can pick up the second bottle with me."
We drove into town and parked next to an alley behind an apartment building. A woman was standing in the alley in an open doorway, holding out a 2 liter bottle of honey.
"It's ok." the young man called out to the woman in the alley. "She speaks Romanian."
I went over to the woman, settled the price for the bottle and was invited to have coffee with the principal the next time I visit her high school.
Back at the car, the young man asked, "Where can I drop you off?"
All for a spoonful of amber honey in a cup of tea.


The last week

This week is my last week of teaching school in Romania. Teachers are "closing the grades," several students from one notorious 6th grade class have received the news that they get to look forward to 6th grade again in the fall, classes are having their end-of-year parties.
On Sunday I met for the last time with the English Club. Instead of the typical lesson, I opted to take the students on a short hike on the hills surrounding Vama. The sun exhaled summer into the air and after the first fifteen minutes of climbing, we stopped for a water break.
While I often slip into Romanian during class time, I maintained a strict only-english rule for myself. Three students picked up on my lack of Romanian and tried their best to speak with me only in english. The other seventeen prattled away in Romanian in response to my english questions. Listening skills: check.
When we arrived at our destination, we sat in the sun and munched on sunflower seeds, looking down on Vama and talking about summer plans.

On Tuesday, I finished my last english hour with my favorite 7th graders and said goodbye, explaining I wouldn't be here next year. As I was about to leave the room one of the english club girls got up and hugged me. The rest of the class followed her.
"Oh. Don't cry Miss Johnson" they protested through their own watery eyes.


Are you a Ion or a Gheorghe?

I was sitting in a mall in Germany this week, on our way back from Paris, with a 4th grader from my school and his dad, Aurel. The 4th grader had just shaken up his coke and when he opened it, it fizzled onto him. His father looked on disapprovingly and told his son, "Don't be a Gheorghe."
I looked at him quizzically. "What is a 'Gheorghe'?"
During the last 12 days this man had spent with me on our school field trip to Paris, he had found endless enjoyment in explaining Romanian proverbs and sayings to me.
Aurel settled back into his chair.
"Gheorghe (George) milks the cow and Ion (John) drink the milk."

I'm not so sure that Ion has the better deal, though...


Bran muffins

The amount of cooking and baking I do here is pitiful. really.
I am not starving, just people give me food enough times a week to be substantially sustained.
But sometimes I get in the mood for something that people don't eat much here. Last Saturday I was in the mood for bran muffins. So I looked up the word for bran - tărâță.
"Do you have tărâță?" I asked my counterpart.
she chuckled. "Of course. We feed it to the cows."

I asked a couple different people where I could buy it and someone finally asked me, "Why don't you ask any of your neighbors that have cows."
So I did. "Of course you can have some tărâță. They told me, eying me suspiciously for wanting their cow's food. What for? A cake? Hm."
Granted, the tărâță you feed your cows isn't exactly the tărâță you eat in bran flakes. I painstakingly picked out the wheat grains that had gotten through the crushing process whole and mixed up my mom's recipe for bran muffins.
In the kitchen Gabi was curious about the recipe, Mamitza tried to give me directions for making some other type of Romanian recipe that uses tărâță, and Cipri was shocked that I would use tărâță for baking.
They turned out golden-bottomed, and bran-textured, with the occasional oat grain.

Gabi, the politically correct one, didn't say they were amazing, nor that they were horrible.
Ciprian, the one who says what he thinks, told me that when I get married and make these, my husband will tell me that they are delicious, but to never make them again.
Marin, my neighbor who I got the tărâță from took one bite and told me it tastes like the black bread everyone ate during communism as he ate two more muffins with gusto.


The easter marathon

Last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, I had an Easter marathon of traditions and food.
At 12:30 Sunday morning, I went to the church with my host family to circle the church three times and then went back to bed.

At 10 minutes to 4, 2 hours after getting into bed, my alarm woke me up to go back to church for the blessing of the baskets.

Then I had breakfast with the sleepy-eyed Cozmatchi family at 5:30 that morning.

Slept. slept. slept. Hiked up a nearby hill, played pingpong. slept some more.

At 10 monday morning, day 2 of Easter, some friends of mine took me and Alicia, a visiting volunteer, to a string of monastaries and Daniil Sihastru the hermit's cave. He gave advice to Stefan Cel Mare, Moldova's warrior ruler who fought back the Turks from overruning Europe in the 15th century.

Monday night, in a rain storm, me, Alicia and some friends went to a traditional dance night at a nearby village. Jaunty green alpine hats are sexy.

We arrived home at 3something Tuesday morning.
On Tuesday, we visited Voroneti Monastery, known for its blue colors that retained their hue for 600 years.

Tuesday night I saw Alicia off on the night train and walked back home in a light sprinkle.
Easter is a fantastic, if rough holiday.


The Botosani Philharmonic

Yesterday I traveled to the city of Botosani which is the county seat of Botosani county in the plains of north-east Moldova. Romanians from other counties treat Botosani like Americans treat Arkansas. There are numerous jokes concerning the poor driving of Botosanites and their living in Romania's reserve county.
Despite these deprecations, Botosani has a soccer team, an almost 24 hour marketplace, a pizza place run by an actual Italian and a Philharmonic.
Last night I went to the Philharmonic with a couple of volunteers who work in the reserve counties seat.
We filed into our faded dusty-rose velour covered square seats with the soundtrack of musicians warming up behind the stage.
Soon the members of the Philharmonic paraded on stage and took their seats, playing a few more practice cords while waiting for the conductor.
The conductor was Ilarion Ionescu-Galati. He walked onto the old wooden platform, stooped with a slight limp-twitch in his right leg, silver haired. He wore a dark maroon jacket. It was laced to halfway up his neck with black kimono-style buttons. Around his neck was a short bolo tie and the material widened into puffed sleeves at the shoulder. Anne of Green Gables might be jealous of this man's sleeves. Domnul Ionescu-Galati pulled off the look and made it distinguished to boot.
The musicians were talented, the conductor gracious, and the solo cellist danced his head to the music that was smoothly flowing from his bow.
I often listen to classical music on my laptop. It is a different experience to see the music, not coming from a battered square silver box, but from a multitude of delicate wooden instruments and horse hairs. Twenty bows going up down up down in unison.


Doamne de Engleza

I was gingerly walking home on the icy road on Tuesday when I passed a few seven year olds milling around in front of a neighbor's house, each standing next to a flexible-flyer type sled. As I passed by, they respectfully saluted me
"sarut mana"
"buna ziua" I responded as I walked by.
Behind me I heard whisperings. "Uite. Asta e profesoara de Engleza." (That's the English teacher).
"Nu. nu cred." ( No. I don't believe you)
"ba da" (is too)
By now I was several meters in front of the children and I heard them pick up their pace, their sleds' scraping-on-ice noises becoming louder.
"Buna" said one of the boys, who I recognized as one of my kindergarten students, Ionuti.
"Buna ziua. Ce faci?" (Hello, what are you doing?)
"Mergem cu sanie." (we're going sledding)
"Pe parte dreapte sau pe parte stange?" (Towards the right or left fork of the road?)
By now, all three are walking abreast with me.
"Pe dreapta" (to the right)
"E bine acolo" (it's good over there).
I continue my small talk until I reach my gate. "Distractia placuta" (have a good time), I tell them, as I start to turn towards my driveway.
"Doamna, el nu ma crede ca esti Doamna de engleza" (Mrs, he doesn't believe me that you are the English Misses) my kindergarten student blurts out.
I look at the doubting thomas. "Sunt Doamna de Engleza" (I am the English Misses).
Ionuti looks at me with satisfaction and turns up the hill with his sled and his friends.



Applying for graduate school is like fishing for a frog prince. I spend hours casting my google searches until I find a school that I fall in love with and imagine myself meandering across the campus grounds so beautifully photographed on the welcome page. I painstakingly give them my detailed information, find contact information for various references and write an eloquent but honest personal statement about how certain classes on the course schedule would fit my exact needs and desires. But will the frog turn into a prince?
So in my uncertainty, I turn back to the sea of google...


tooting my own horn

Last week, my 8th graders learned how to write a thank you letter. Their homework assignment was to write a thank-you letter to one of their teachers who has impacted them. A couple of the letters were for me:

Dear Rachel
I thank you for teaching us English. You are a great teacher. With you English seems to be so easy. I'm sorry if I wasn't so good as you were expecting. Thank you because you are so patient.
That club in English that you made for us, it is great.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to share American culture.
Thank you for coming in our country to teach us English.
Yours Sincerely, Lavinia

Dear Miss Rachel,
Thank you immensely for that this year we have progressed in English and that only thanks to you. I am very sorry that you will leave soon as it was and still is an excellent collaboration. If you were not here I would not have the knowledge that I know now. In the near future we will get together if you will of course come to Romania because I do not think I will go to America. As I understand you will go on to do master in your native land. I hope that you will come back.
Thank you once again,
Of your student Andrei




A peace corps volunteer who lives near me received a package in which were, among other items, a package of dove heart chocolates.
These chocolates were wrapped in shiny foil with hearts on the outside and Martha Steward quotes on the inside.

"To start a romantic fire, crisscross kindling on top of newspaper." -Martha Stewart

If this is how you start a romantic fire, I have to ask, how do you start a regular fire? with squared kindling on top of newspapers?
Also, Ms. Stewart, not to be rude, but you're romantic fire will only last you as long as a french kiss.


valentine's ball

Following the successful Halloween and Christmas parties at my school, students asked if I could help with a Valentine's day party. Several 7th grade girls, actually. While the student council's party committee were the designated decorators, friday night before the party, twice as many students showed up to decorate the school's gym as were required.
We cut heart shapes out of pink construction paper and taped them to the wall, we strung up red lights and the crowning achievement was the big pink heart outlined in red christmas lights.
The Valentine's party was sparsely attended, due in part to the heavy snowing. We danced the Brasoveanca, Pinguini, and Macarena at least 3 times each, interspersed between a variety of games and snack breaks. These are group dances that are typically danced at least once at any wedding, barbecue, dance.

8th graders setting up the speakers

The light-lined heart and dance floor

7th grade boys scared to dance volunteered for the food table

Macarena hair

Me and a fellow teacher in the Penguini line-up:
right foot, right foot, left foot, left foot, two hops forward, one hop back
repeat for 8 minutes

Middle school is grand, especially if you're the only boy with the guts to dance


who cooks

Last night, I was chatting in the kitchen with Gabi and Ciprian.
We were talking about my trip to Vatra Dornei that morning, to go skiing.
"So, when you visit other volunteers, do you cook or do they cook for you?" Gabi asked me.
At first, I was confused by the question. Well, of course if you invite people over you cook for them. But I was stopped on this train of thought when I remembered the majority of my visitors...
When Natalie visits me, she typically makes the coffee
When Dave Pi visits, meals are a joint effort.
When Mark came over this summer, he demonstrated his potato frying skills.
When Baddorf comes, if he doesn't cook, he always does the dishes.
"Typically, we cook together. Like when I was in Cimpulung a few weeks ago and we all stood around the oven, stirring something," I responded. "But, people cooking for me might be pretty specific to me. I know how to cook, but if others want too..."
"Rachel likes to sit back and watch," Ciprian commented.
"I was just asking out of curiosity, because when people visit me, I always cook, and I noticed it's not that way when you have visitors."
"It is not something with American cultural," I said. "It's me."
Or the volunteer culture.


reluctant fire

When I come home from school, my room is still warm from last night's fire, although chilly. I make some tea and read, snuggled under a blanket in the afternoon light, allowing myself to drift. As the dimming light makes reading more difficult, I start to feel the chill even under the blanket.
I put back on the layers to go outside and pile a load of wood on my arms. During January and February, the climb up the stairs with the pile of wood becomes easier than in November. I sweep last night's gray fine ashes down through the grate in my soba and place two kindling pieces a few inches apart, crumple up some pages from a romanian language manual I used when I first arrived in the country for training, and place the crumpled pieces between the wood. After stacking more kindling perpendicular to the first two pieces, on top of the paper, I light a match. Today, the paper burned quickly, before properly lighting the kindling. I sat crouched next to the soba's mouth, feeding more paper, watching my kindling fall on top of each other, extinguishing what little flames had begun, amazed at how fire can engulf thousands of acres of California forest and yet catches onto my kindling so reluctantly.
Now the fire is noisily lapping up 3 logs behind the closed door to the soba's mouth. But it has transmitted its reluctance to me as I consider the rest of the week's schedule, summer plans, commitments.
Hopefully I will catch on to something soon.


white blanket

This week it snowed lightly for three days. I went on a walk with some colleagues and friends for a couple of those afternoons.
So much white and more coming.
Looking at general uncertainty coming up in a few months, the whiteness over everything was nice. And the numb feeling toes... :)
It is perfect weather for Simon and Garfunkel's hazy shade of winter


Iggy's Christmas

One of my peace corps colleagues received a bag of Ty stuffed animals last year.
I pilfered a few from the bag and use them as classroom props. The first time my students showed interest in forming the future tense was when I introduced Iggy the Iguana and the class had to create a story for what Iggy would do next summer.
As a past tense review to a sixth grade class today, I pulled Iggy out from under my sleeping bag in the bag of my closet and took him to school today. I started the fictitious story on the board "Iggy had a great Christmas." And invited the students to elaborate while asking questions to encourage their sleepy creativity. This is the story of Iggy's Christmas.
Iggy had a great Christmas. Where did Iggy spend Christmas? Iggy celebrated Christmas in the jungle Who did he celebrate Christmas with? with his friends. What did he eat for Christmas? He ate flies and bananas for Christmas dinner. What did he do after Christmas dinner? After dinner he opened gifts. What was his favorite gift? His favorite gift was a pink girlfriend.

Yes. a pink girlfriend. I was thinking more on the lines of a computer game or a basketball, but a pink girlfriend (Iggy is green). Not a bad Christmas for Iggy.


Christmas Vacation

A wonderful, wintery week in Dresden

Decorating an outside Christmas tree. Putting lights up with a stick is NOT a simple task.

Dancing New Years away with colleagues and friends from Vama.