I mentioned before that I was going to be in a village called Valea Plopului. That's where Pro Vita was started, but they now have a lot of facilities in the neighboring village of Valea Screzii, a couple miles away, which is where I ended up spending all my time. Each village probably only has a few hundred people, and everything's strung out along a single dirt road. You know you've reached the end of the village when the road peters out and melts into the forest. A few other miscellaneous points to set the scene: The guy who picked me up at the airport is in his early 20's, and owns three cell phones and a cow. Also, his name is Gabriel and he has a sister named Gabriella (though luckily they found other names for the four other brothers). Between the two little villages, there are no stores or restaurants or anything like that, but there are 27 chapels and churches. You can make of all this what you like.
I found out shortly before I left that the Eastern Orthodox Easter was coming up in the middle of my trip. Since the vast majority of people there are Eastern Orthodox, there's a lot of time spent in church for several days. Melanie andMihail took me along to the first night of Easter services, which started at 11:30 PM Saturday night and went until 5 in the morning, including sections outside and in two different churches. I didn't understand much of what what going on (it being in Romanian and all), but I enjoyed the candle lighting and singing, though things got a bit repetitive after a while. I was invited to sit up in the area by the altar in both of the churches. I don't know if that was just a courtesy for a guest (the regular part of the church was standing-room only) or if there's some other significance, but it was it was interesting to have that viewpoint of the proceedings.
On Easter afternoon, after sleeping through the morning, I got to go along to an Easter dinner with Mihail's family (after a brief stop at another church to kiss some icons, light more candles, and have holy water flicked at us). Mihail's father is the head priest (there's probably a real term for that?) at Valea Plopului, so he had been the one leading all the services the night before. There were also 5 siblings and some in-laws there. It was a long, drawn-out, happy family sort of dinner, so it was nice to be included in it, though I was again sad that I didn't know any Romanian. It feels awkward to be welcomed in by the people but still excluded by the language.
For one week before Easter (or 8, I think, depending on how hardcore you are about it) everybody eats entirely vegan. That suited me just fine, though by the time I got there I think the natives were having dreams about sausages. Once Easter arrives they eat meat like it's their job. Aside from meat, there's lots of bread and potatoes, and very little in the way of fresh fruits and veggies. In spite of all that, most of what I ate was quite tasty (though the fish soup we had one day with mackerels tossed in practically whole was a bit much). My digestive system didn't even freak out too much, which surprised me since I've been semi-vegetarian recently.
Robin enjoys cooking, so once he arrived we had a few excellent non-Romanian dinners as well, cleverly improvised from whatever he could find around the house and stuff he'd brought with him (which included various spices and such, as well as 36 days worth of army rations he acquired in England somehow). On my last night there, most of the rest of the household was gone but Robin made me a fantastic four-course goodbye dinner, working entirely out of the mini-kitchen in his RV. It included the best moussaka I've ever had (a famous specialty of his, apparently), and even apple crumble for dessert (he'd heard I'm a fan of apple pie and similar things). Yum.
Valea Screzii is in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and at this time of year everything is gloriously covered in lush green foliage. The woods up on the hills are some of the most picturesque I've ever seen, from a distance at least. For actually hiking around in, they're not that interesting. The trees are mostly identical and block your view of any landmarks, and there's no ground cover, or paths, or other stuff to change it up. Also, some of the hills are extremely steep, which can be difficult when you're sliding around in last Fall's leaf litter. But I found that if I climbed up and over the hill behind our house, I could get to a more open valley, and that was sort of nice to hike around the edges of, going in and out of the forest. Quena had reminded me that there are dragons in Romania (that's where Charlie Weasley works, after all) so I kept my eyes peeled for them. I think they're probably all farther up in the mountains, though.
Romanian driving can be a hair-raising experience. We were barely out of Bucharest when we started passing cows and horse-drawn carts on the roads. (The horse carts have their own license plates, which I found amusing.) Even on winding, narrow country roads, drivers will blithely zoom past these and other vehicles, often dodging out of the oncoming lane with just inches to spare before hitting someone else going the other direction. I got used to it a little bit, but not much. In a couple places I saw "Children Crossing" signs near schools, but the silhouetted figures were not calmly crossing the street but clearly leaping back in terror from near death experiences.
When we were hauling things up to the new sheep pastures in the hills, we usually took the tractor with a cart towed behind it, and I had some interesting rides there, too. On one trip, Gabriel and I perched on top of a stack of fence segments, trying not to sway too much or unbalance the load. We got off after we left the (relatively) smooth road for the horribly steep, muddy, rutted hillside, but trying to sit on the tractor wheel wells wasn't much better. Maybe I don't weigh enough, but I bounce around so much there that I had trouble holding on. On the way back I rode in the empty cart, but even there you still have to crouch down and hold on tight, not to mention dodging flying clods of mud from the tractor wheels once you hit the road and speed up.
On the last trip, we dropped the borrowed tractor off at its owner's house, and Melanie picked us up (me and three guys all much larger than me) in her basic little four-door sedan. The back seat was already full of groceries, so we pushed those aside and two guys sat on top of each other in the other seat. Then Mihail sat in front and I sat on his lap with my head twisted back around his shoulder, pressed against the roof of the car, one arm behind the seat and one arm out the window holding onto the roof. That was rough for a couple of miles, but thankfully Melanie let us out to walk the last segment of really bumpy dirt road.
I went for a couple drives with Robin in his RV, and that was certainly a monster on those little roads (though there were still trucks bigger than us out there, too). I was impressed with his handling of it, though, especially since it's English and has a right-side drive, which I expect makes the navigation/dodging even harder. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to do it.
On my ride back to Bucharest I was in a jeep with four other people, a bunch of luggage, and a large, farting puppy. That was a cramped two hours. I'd seen the jeep fuller than that, though, with, I think, the majority of the Tanase family in it. Also, Gabriel will answer whichever of his cell phones happen to ring while he's driving. I've seen him holding one phone up to each ear, alternating conversations and steering with his elbows.
On my first night there, Mihail asked me "Did you vote for Obama?" When I said yes, he replied "Good. We like you already."