Last week we began practice school. Practice school is an ingenious idea: Peace Corps English Education trainees, many of whom have no meaningful classroom experience (like myself), teach two lessons a day for a little more than two weeks to actual Moldovan students. Everyone wins, because the Moldovan kids get free English practice during the summer that they would not normally receive, and people like me get some classroom experience before we are thrown to the wolves in September. A Moldovan English teacher who is experienced with working with the Peace Corps helps us to plan our lessons and gives us feedback at the end of every day. The first week I would be teaching 7th graders; the second, 11th graders. (Once I move to my permanent site, I will only teach 10th, 11th, and 12th grade.)
I’ve never been good on stage. I usually lose the ability to think linearly when I present something in front of a group; I forget things and have to backtrack; regardless of how much I prepare I end up being unbelievably disorganized; I shake and sweat more than can possibly be attractive. And even though I would start out teaching 7th graders (most of whom I assume would be non-threatening) I had no reason to think that these symptoms would not appear during my first lesson.
For my first activity in the first lesson with the 7th graders I tried a little icebreaker exercise: I was going to have all of the students write three interesting facts about themselves on an index card, cards which I would then collect. I was going to shuffle the cards, then hand a randomly selected card to a student to read; from the facts read aloud the students were to guess who among their classmates belonged to the interesting facts. I thought this would help me gauge the general level of the students with English and I could keep the cards to help me remember their names.
It quickly became clear that I had misjudged how easy this activity would be for these kids. The first card I looked at read something like “I like play tenis. I love is Moldova. My favorite animals is dog.” The students weren’t able to guess on those facts alone, so I moved to the next card. It said: “I lake tenis. I leave to Moldova. My favorite animals is cat.” No dice on that one either. Finally, one that they might be able to guess: “I like to play football, to work and I like eat hamburger.” The class went 0-for-3 and so I moved on, ahead of schedule.
The schedule was to be the problem, however, because the seventh grade English textbook is a bit advanced for the student who like eat hamburger. One of the vocabulary words in the first lesson, for example (the lesson is on “Appearance”) is “aquiline.” Seriously, people? Aquiline?
So this first activity rattled me. The shaking and sweating showed up with a vengeance. Somehow I managed to settle down, and I glided through the rest of the first lesson and through the second lesson (both are with the same students) fairly effortlessly. I felt comfortable. The students, who looked at me with blank, uncomprehending stares when I tried to explain the first activity, seemed to enjoy the lesson and to like me.
We ended the lesson with an activity I like to call “The Alien Game.” I give each student a piece of paper, and I tell them to imagine an alien. Then I tell them to write one sentence describing a part of the alien that I specify; for example, “Write a sentence about the alien’s nose.” After the students have written their first sentence, they fold the paper to hide their sentence and pass the paper to the student to their left. On the paper the students receive, they write another sentence about a part I specify, then fold, pass, and so on.
After about five sentences and passes, I instructed the students to unfold their papers, to read the five sentences, and draw a picture of what the sentences described. They loved this activity. I gave them colored markers to work with, and I got some pictures that the Moldovans would call “frumos” (basically a catch-all adjective for “pretty). Once the students had finished their pictures, I had them stand up, one-by-one, and describe their drawings. I knew the activity had been a success and the day had rebounded from a dismal start when one student said, “My alien has seven legs,” and another cut in — IN ENGLISH! — and said, “NO! He has EIGHT legs!”
My students apparently told their friends about the alien game, and I had double the number of students the second day. The new group included a handful of troublemakers. A group of boys had apparently come just to harass the girls who had come the first day (the first day I had seven girls and two boys) in that I’m-pulling-your-hair-because-I-like-you manner of middle school harassment. I wasn’t quite mentally prepared to deal with classroom discipline that day, since I had barely made it through the previous day with my neuroses. I must have had a convincing evil-eye, though, because once I separated them and gave them the stare they shut up and left the girls alone, for the most part. After that, the rest of the week was smooth sailing in the classroom.
On Friday night there was the graduation ceremony for one of the two village high schools. Each school has about five hundred students, and their classes are fairly small. I secured a ticket because host sister of a friend (the sister’s name is Olesia) was graduating, and I had promised that I would dance with her at the party afterward (the Moldovan version of prom).
It was incredibly hot on Friday. We had a long day of language classes and teacher training, which meant that I had been roasting in my business casual clothes all day. I was under the impression that it would be cooler here during the summer, so I didn’t bring any lightweight but nice pants or shirts. Needless to say I’ve been sweating a lot. Anyway, I had to run up the hill to my house after our last session for the day, and my host mom fed me a quick dinner: hot soup made of sour cream and chicken grease, with what I believe was a chicken’s spine and heart in the middle of the bowl. The sour cream was really the worst part, because immediately after I ate it I could feel it curdling in my stomach.
I changed into some less-sweaty clothes (but by no means clean), a shirt and tie. As I was leaving my host parents were also leaving for a wedding in the capital. It was my intention to wear my cowboy boots to the graduation ceremony, but I already knew my mom wouldn’t let me out of the house with them, so I tried to wait until after they left to carry my boots outside and put them on. I heard the car start up and back out of the driveway, and I went outside, boots in hand. Standing in front of the door, with her hand on her hip, was mama gazda. She forced an embarrassed smile and said the Romanian equivalent of, “You can’t be serious with those boots. You aren’t going out in that.” But she left right thereafter, so I put on my boots and started trudging down the goat path between the cemetery and a vineyard that serves as my shortcut to the other part of town.
The other school is maybe about a mile away, but it seems further because it’s on the next hill; the hills here are big enough to where they’d probably be considered mountains in Arkansas. I could hear the music from the party on my hill, though, as well as some hooting and hollering. It sounded like it was going to be a lot of fun.
When I showed up, it was immediately clear that I was overdressed. The graduating boys were the only males who were arguably “dressed up”; even then there was only one boy who was wearing both a long sleeve shirt and a tie. All of the graduating students were standing in a disorganized semi-circle around the front steps of the school, where the director stood at a table and announced student names. Spectators stood awkwardly far from everyone else, about thirty yards away and behind the students, on the edge of the paved area in front of the school. When a student’s name was called, one or two people might clap, he or she would come up to the director and receive a diploma (in a little wallet about the size of a passport), and then say a few words into the microphone. The speeches made the ceremony take a lot longer than they should have, and in a lot of ways resembled Oscar acceptance speeches (from what I could understand): people were thanked, people who were forgotten were also thanked, speaker was ushered from center stage before he was quite finished. The girls who graduated received flowers from their fathers and/or their boyfriends when they walked back to where the rest of the students were standing.
Another volunteer had promised that he would be Olesia’s “date” and had brought her a flower. He was almost as overdressed as I was: he was wearing a shirt and tie, dark suit pants, and tennis shoes. The tennis shoes made him look like a twelve year-old going to church, and made him more conspicuous than we both already were. He followed her father out to Olesia, who pretended to not have expected the flowers, and she laughed at him and told him he looked like a child with his tennis shoes on. He was already pretty embarrassed, so this exchange just made his face redder.
After all of the diplomas had been handed out, those who had paid for tickets went inside for dinner. The dinner was in the room where we were greeted with a masa our first full day in town, and there were round tables seating about eight scattered throughout the room. The tables were covered in food, and each one had a bottle of what looked like whisky in the center. Olesia and her little sister Dana led the four volunteers who were there to a table and told us to sit with them. The table was on the side of the room where most of the graduates were sitting, and when the last grads to trickle in were trying to find their friends they wanted to sit next to it was very uncomfortable because I felt as if I were taking someone’s seat. Everyone found a satisfactory seat eventually, which meant that the other two chairs at our table were empty.
Once everyone began eating, the boys in the group began going around and encouraging the other boys to drink from the bottle at the middle of the table. One skinny kid wearing an orange short-sleeved shirt and tie came over and poured a glass for me and a glass for Olesia’s date. It wasn’t whisky, it was some sort of Moldovan cognac, and it was terrible. Olesia’s date had to excuse himself and go to the veceu immediately thereafter.
After dinner there was dancing out on the paved area where the ceremony had been. The students were dancing the hora, and although the dancing at that point was supposed to only be for the graduates, we Americans were dragged into it. My host brother, Condrat, was in the middle of the circle, filming the event. Because the hora circle kept growing and shrinking whenever people would join or leave, getting the rhythm correct was difficult. Condrat kept coming up to me and telling me, “No! It’s one-two, one-two!” whenever I was having a problem. As videographer he was getting a kick out of all of the Americans anyway, and so we will probably be prominently featured in the graduation video.
After a few horas, the DJ played a slow song and then some pop music. I was drawn into an awkward dance with Dana — she’s fifteen but thinks she’s twenty-five — and tried to not act like I was uncomfortable until I had the opportunity to excuse myself. I was not at my best on the dance floor, but I tried to make up for my awkwardness by showing Dana and Olesia a few basic moves and they acted as if I was the caveman who invented fire: Olesia would not let me stop dancing. Finally I was able to escape and dance with a volunteer.
We danced for a while; the crowd thinned out; we danced some more. The DJ played the Macarena, which I admittedly danced to. By the time I got home, it was 6 a.m. I thought I would be in big trouble from mama gazda, so I tried to sneak in, and false modesty aside I was like a ninja coming into the house that morning. Nothing gets by mama gazda, however, and I was busted as soon as I came in the door. She had her hand on her hip, and she said in Romanian, “So I see you didn’t come home last night.” My heart skipped a beat; I wasn’t sure what to think because she didn’t seem angry. But then she said, “How was the sunrise? Did you have fun?” And then she made me fried eggs and sausages for breakfast.
After I shut my alarm off the other morning (the 4 a.m. roosters do nothing for me now), I was unable to go to back to sleep because there was a pig somewhere on my street that was shrieking like a banshee. I didn’t think much of it at the time, because frankly, no animal sound I hear at this point surprises me. What I surmise was the reason for all the hubbub was that a pig was being castrated.
If this seems like a random assumption, let me explain: one of the other volunteers in the village usually runs errands with his host dad, and one of their errands on a particular day last week was to castrate pigs in the neighborhood. My friend would help hold the pig, while his dad would perform the surgery. I can imagine that it’s quite painful for the pig, and apparently the pig makes the sounds one might expect. The unexpected for my friend came afterward, when a few baby turkeys fought over the pig’s testicles which had been thrown onto the ground after the operation.
So the irony of the screaming of the pig would not hit me until later that same day. After language class, I came home and took a glorious and well-deserved two-hour nap. I was awoken by Condrat, who was banging on my door, saying “Hai! Hai!” “Hai!” is kind of fun to yell, and it basically means “Come on!” He said something about a pig, but I was half-awake and didn’t really understand. I had enough sense to put on the pants I brought specifically for nasty (muddy, bloody) goings-on, and followed him to the family car.
We drove to my host uncle’s house (the site of the funeral masa last week). It quickly became obvious to me that we were going to kill and slaughter a pig. I was pretty excited, because I’ve been begging my host family to let me help in the garden and with the animals. Apparently I exude gross incompetence in the realm of animal husbandry and agriculture, because they normally laugh and just ask me to sit down in the kitchen and eat cookies (probably a good decision). But this time, I got the sense that I would actually have the opportunity to help.
I followed my host dad around the back of the house, to the clearing where the pig’s shed stood. A couple of other male family members were standing around the pen with shovels, cleaning off the floor of the pigpen. All I could see through the door of the pigpen was the pig’s head, and judging by the pig’s head I was expecting it to be the size of a small bear. From the way my host dad was acting I gathered it was going to be a little while before they actually killed it. I assumed they were going to want my help holding it or something, since it looked like it weighed half-a-ton and seemed to be rather surly. So to kill time I went and took pictures of the rabbits.
Well while I was snapping a few photos of the family rabbits, I heard a bloodcurdling scream. I ran around the corner to the pigpen, and just saw a bloody pig head hanging over the threshold of the door. Blood seeped from its neck. My host cousin asked me if I was going to faint (because, as he roughly said, “Lots of guys who aren’t used to the blood faint when they see it, it’s no big deal”). The question seemed a little back-handed, but I brushed it off and offered to help drag the pig to the platform where it would be slaughtered.
But first a word about my expectations of this event. I think part of me was hoping that the whole exercise would make me less hesitant to eat so much meat, since I’ve never been personally present at the death of some creature whose meat I’ve eaten. At the least I was expecting to be disgusted by all the blood. Neither happened. Once the animal was cut up, it just looked like a huge pile of bacon and ribs to me; this made me feel a little better about my eating habits (not that there’s not other problems with it, but I was relieved to find out that I’m not some sort of meat-eating, fainting hypocrite). Generally, however, I thought this would be some intense, macho experience, during which I would hold the pig down while someone killed it with their bare hands, and after which I would help carve it up with a cleaver or a hatchet or something. That’s not exactly what happened.
In the middle of the driveway some wood was stacked, on top of which was a giant metal plate. Nearby was a large tank that looked similar to a helium tank you might rent to inflate balloons. My host dad had been fiddling with it for a while, trying to figure out how to attach a hose he had to it. I figured the tank had pressurized water or something in it, and that it would only briefly be used to clean up the blood on the driveway. I was wrong.
Once the pig was on the platform, my host dad lit a match and opened the nozzle of the tank. The tank was full of gas, and the hose turned it into some sort of flamethrower. He began spraying the pig’s hide with the flamethrower, first burning off the hair and dirt, then burning the pig’s hide until it blistered and turned black. The other male relatives began taking knives to the hide and scraping off the black residue that formed on the hide. They seemed to have decided together, without discussing it, that this was something that I couldn’t mess up, and so they gave me a knife and had me scrape away.
After one round of torching and scraping, my dad aimed the flamethrower at the pig’s ears. They blackened, shriveled, and curled like newspaper in a fire. After they were sufficiently blackened, my dad cut the pig’s ear off, sliced it into strips, and handed a piece to each of the men there. He gave me a piece. It tasted like burnt pig ear.
Once we ate the ears and gave the whole pig another round of scraping, we dumped water over it to wash off the ash. The pig’s hide had gone from dirty pink to black to orange in the short time I’d known it. A blanket was briefly thrown over the pig so that the two young daughters of my host uncle could straddle the pig like a horse, and everyone in the family pulled out their camera phones like the moment was one that absolutely had to be recorded photographically. My camera was taken from me and I was ushered into the frame, the result of which was one of the most awkward pictures I’ve ever been in.
After that my dad’s eldest brother started to dress the animal, while another brother started cutting off the skin. Each family member — myself included — was given a piece of the skin to eat. I had mine with salt; it tasted better than the ear, but I don’t think I could have managed it without the salt. The family continued to pull bits of skin off the pig’s hide during the rest of the slaughtering.
First, they carved the shape of a cross in the pig’s head. Then, we cut its head off, then the pig’s legs, then the fat around its torso. After the spine was removed, they split open the rib cage and began removing the organs. The heart, lungs, and kidneys were thrown in one wicker basket and the liver in another. The intestines got their own basket. Condrat and I were told to take the basket and dump it somewhere, which I assumed meant somewhere close by. But we carried the basket to the car, put it in the back, and took off down the hill. The basket immediately stunk up the whole car.
We went all the way down the hill (about three quarters of a mile), to the edge of town, where we rolled into the gravel parking lot of a warehouse. The windows of the car were rolled down because the stench was unbearable, and a couple of dogs, attracted by the smell, had been following the car for the last quarter mile or so. We dumped the basket while the dogs skulked towards their skinky treat.
After Condrat and I returned the rest of of the pig (including the head) had been cut up and put in bags for the freezer. A few cuts were on the grill, and my host dad was barbecuing them by aiming the flamethrower at them. They were good, but a little well-done for my taste.
Last week I attended three masas. A masa is like a dinner party given for a special occasion. The first was small, and was in honor of my host brother, Condrat, having opened an office for his photography business (he had previously been working out of his bedroom). A few of the neighbors came, as did my host dad’s younger brother, who used to be a police captain. My host uncle seems gentle, but severe; he often smiles and speaks softly, but what he says is forceful and direct; he has a middle-aged man’s belly, but otherwise is in good shape; he wears a mustache and a close-cropped buzz-cut that highlights his shrinking hairline; on this particular occasion he looked like a character from the Love Boat because he was wearing too-short, nautical-themed shorts along with a red Hawaiian shirt with cruise ships on it.
As usual, I couldn’t understand much of the dinner conversation. I gathered that at some point the guests were discussing sick relatives (who has cancer, etc.). Then they started asking me about Michael Jackson. First, they asked me whether he was black or white. I tried to be diplomatic: I said that it didn’t matter whether he was black or white (seriously, and I didn’t realize the irony until afterward). They persisted, so I said he was black. They asked me why he looked white, and I think someone suggested he was wearing a mask and that he was black under his clothes. I tried to say that he had a skin condition, but that stretched the limits of my Romanian. Finally, they asked me why he was an odd person, and I tried to explain that his father abused to him. My host dad’s brother suggested to me that he was only who he was because his dad abused him. At that point I changed the subject.
There are three running jokes in my neighborhood about me (all of which I will explain): first, that I really like eggs; second, that I call veal “copil de vaca”; and third, that I gave my host dad Tabasco sauce, which he couldn’t handle. The third isn’t really about me but to defuse an otherwise awkward situation, I can generally offer my host dad some Tabasco to have with whatever he is eating. Back during my first week, we were eating some fried chicken, and I ran up to my room and grabbed the bottle of Tabasco I brought with me so I could let him try it. I told him, “Puțin, puțin” or, “Just a bit.” He dumped a third of the bottle on his chicken, and when he took a bite he started making noises like he was choking. He chugged a bit of wine and was fine. But, since then, the Tabasco has been a go-to joke. He refuses to try any more, but I give a little to everyone who will try it, and they heed my advice and just take a little. Afterward, most of them call him a wuss, which I get a kick out of.
As for eggs: even at home I am a fan of eggs, but my host mom takes it to an extreme. Even though I eat at least a little of everything she gives me (including vegetables, more on this at a later date), she’s very observant and noticed very quickly that I always eat all of the eggs she gives me for breakfast. Usually she fries them and gives me some sausages, along with some oatmeal/porridge like stuff called terci. So the word for egg was one of the first words I learned, and it’s kind of fun to say: you pronounce it like “Whoa-ey.” Because it was one of the first words I learned, and because it is fun to say, I tended to say it a lot at the beginning. My host mom saw that I ate the eggs, and knew that I talked about them a lot, so she started giving me some for lunch too, meaning that on some days she gives me seven eggs. (I give the lunch eggs away at school). All the host parents talk about their Americans, and so an early conversational topic amongst them was apparently my affinity for eggs. So whenever I say the Romanian word for egg, whatever the context, everyone laughs. I also learned last week that a colloquial term for testicles is the same as the word for egg, so I hope that’s not why they think it’s funny.
Finally, everyone gets a kick out of the fact that I can never remember the Romanian word for “veal.” So, for lack of the proper word, I tend to say “copil de vaca,” which means “child of the cow” but only in a roundabout way. I don’t really know why this is so funny, but all the Moldovans think it’s hilarious. This method of describing things has been used elsewhere: my neighbor was trying to describe to me what the name of a particular brand of vodka meant (it apparently means “she-wolf”) so when I figured out what he was telling me, I asked if it was the “sotsie de lup,” or “wife of the wolf.” More laughter.
So at two of the three masas I attended last week these three running jokes at some point came up. I used all three to change the subject when Michael Jackson’s ethnicity and childhood came up at the first masa. The third masa was a little awkward because it was the after-funeral masa for my host dad’s father, who died Saturday night. I had no idea I would be attending this masa, and my brother dragged me there right after work in my jeans and t-shirt, which I felt terrible about. So I sat there awkwardly, silently, for a while, eating really nothing but cucumbers (believe it) because there was nothing else but fish on the table (we Peace Corps types aren’t allowed to eat fish the provenance of which is unknown to us, and I wasn’t about to be the jerk who asked at a funeral masa where all the fish was caught). Finally, someone mentioned to me that Michael Jackon’s funeral was to be that same day. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that; after all, it seemed to be a little uncouth to be talking about the funeral of a celebrity at the funeral of a family member, so I said that it wasn’t important to me and that the masa I was at was more important. Just about everyone looked at me like I was crazy, but then, I think they already thought that because I was the only person at the table eating nothing but cucumbers.