On Sunday I went with bunelo across the street to borrow a wine press from a neighbor — I was the muscle who was supposed to carry it back across the street. The press is made of wood and metal: there is a large, squared-off, metal funnel on the top, painted in blue; the funnel draws the grapes down to two grooved metal cylinders that crush the grapes and push them out of the funnel; the cylinders are driven by two large gears and a wooden crank, also blue. The whole apparatus is attached to two parallel wooden sticks that look like wheelbarrow handles.
Before we started work I was directed to carefully set the press on a big blue plastic barrel (everything is blue). I’d seen these barrels everywhere — at peoples’ houses, at every marketplace — but I had assumed they were for storing rainwater. Even though I was wearing my hog-killing pants, and was perfectly prepared to get them dirty, bunelo instructed me to put on this smock that was hanging from the clothesline. I don’t know whose smock this was: I’ve lost a good deal of weight in the four months I’ve been here, and I could barely button it on. I suspect it may have been intended for a teenage girl. The smock itself is also blue, and vaguely resembles a long doctor’s coat (except for its color), came down to my knees, and had cuffs that buttoned tightly around my wrists. Bunelo gave me a pair of medical scissors and told me to climb the ladder and start snipping off the bunches of grapes.
My host family does not have a vineyard, but they do have trellises the whole length of one side of the house that support vines of white and black grapes. The vines grow above the patio, casting it into shadow the whole day. The vines have grown over the trellis in such a way that there are two layers to the canopy, so in order to reach the highest grapes one must reach through the lower layer. The higher bunches are just within my reach when I stand on the highest rung of the ladder and reach with one hand. Thus, to find the small spring of soft, green vine that connects the bunch to the thicker part of the vine, I’d have to reach up blind with the scissors after I found the grapes I wanted to collect and cut the stem while positioning my bucket with the other hand in such a way as to catch the grapes. I quickly grew adept at this and to entertain myself I would try for more and more difficult shots. Once, when bunelo was standing below me, waiting with an empty bucket to exchange for the one I had which was almost full, I cut one bunch so that they fell directly into his bucket. He was too surprised to be as entertained as I was by it and simply scowled at me. I toned down my hot-dogging after that.
The problem with reaching through the canopy of vines for grapes is that we apparently left the grapes on the vine for a week or two too long, and some of the grapes are now overripe. Some had burst and started to turn brown, and the sweet juice inside the grape had been oozing out. Bees were attracted by the sugar, and were hovering around almost all of the grapes as I was cutting them. Obviously I would prefer not to be stung by a bee (again) at all, but I imagined that being stung by a bee while on the top of a ladder, already daring gravity to bring be down, would not have a positive outcome for me. So I would target bunches of grapes more because they were bee-free at the moment rather than how easy they were to reach. Bunelo, prone as he is to giving me advice I don’t need, would suggest one area to cover or another. When I said that I was going to wait on a particular bunch because it was surrounded by bees, he mocked me and said, “Those aren’t bees, those are just flies!” I assured him that they were, in fact, bees, and that I was satisfied with my grape-collecting strategy.
The neighbors had been collecting grapes and making wine as well on Sunday. Two brothers, Andrei and Roma, live next door; both are twenty-something boys, and they have their house to themselves because their parents live abroad and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Both speak some English. Roma, the elder of the two, worked in South Korea for a good bit of his twenties and picked up a bit of English in addition to Korean. Andrei studied English in high school and worked in L.A. at a hotel for three months a few years ago. His English is excellent, to the point that it’s futile for me to try and say anything in Romanian, while his older brother and I usually converse in a strange mixture of English and Romanian. While I was finishing one section of the vines, they walked over to the fence and invited me down the street to have a beer with them, so I took off my smock and walked down to the corner after cleaning myself off a bit.
As I rounded the corner, I saw that Andrei was sitting in a circle of nine twenty-something male Moldovans. They shouted at me to join them; they were all inexplicably dressed in white. Before I could say anything, someone came from my flank, outside my field of vision, and put one hand on my back, using it as a fulcrum over which to bend me backwards. I had no idea who this was, or what he was doing, so I just went along with it, all the while sheepishly asking in Romanian, “What is this? What are you doing?” All I heard was a chorus, in English, of “Drink! Drink, American!” Seeing the mouth of a bottle suddenly appear in front of me, I obliged.
As it turned out, the guy who bent me over backwards was named Octavian, and he was wearing a white doctor’s lab coat that had a bottle of twenty-year-old cognac stuffed into its (the coat’s) left breast pocket. I took a swig — it didn’t taste horrible, and once I had caught on I had prepared myself mentally for something along the lines of jet fuel — and Octavian righted me and slapped me on the back. He said something that translated in my mind as: “Welcome to the doctor party! That was your medicine.” I wanted to ask Andrei what exactly was going on — everyone but me at the “doctor party” was wearing a lab coat, and it was clear that they were all drinking a lot. Instead, I made a joke that thankfully went over well: “Si, cine are gripa porcina?” Or, So, who has swine flu?
Octavian sat me down, poured me a beer, and pushed some grilled chicken wings my way. I was introduced around the table, and told everyone’s occupation: there were two state prosecutors, a police officer, district government officials. Andrei works for the largest cell phone company in Moldova as an engineer. The group said that Octavian and another guy had jobs for the government that they couldn’t even describe to one another, so I let that dog lie. Then, they continued a conversation that had begun before I arrived.
At the time the sun had just set over the hill to the west, and we were bathed in the faint glow of light from the bar’s decorative Christmas twinkle lights. The conversation would abruptly stop when a big rig would come up the highway towards the bar, at which time Octavian would stand on his chair and pump his fist, exhorting the truck driver to honk his horn (while I was there, he had an astonishing success rate of eleven out of twelve trucks; the one truck that didn’t honk was the only one that was not Russian or Ukranian, but German). During lulls in the conversation I could make out the music playing in Andrei’s car behind me (a running car with an open door and a stereo on is the Moldovan jukebox). At one point a modern but still girly cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played four times consecutively.
I finally gathered they were having a discussion about how everyone would be spending their vacation. As it turned out, the majority of those at the table would be off work for two weeks, and they were contemplating going skydiving. Skydiving in Moldova apparently consists of jumping out of a plane at the relatively modest altitude of 1800 feet with a Soviet Army-issue parachute. Not surprisingly, Soviet-issue chutes are not well-made, and so for safety’s sake one must jump from the plane with the chute already unfurled, and after that point it’s not possible to steer it at all, so the low altitude is to mitigate the effects of these measures. Andrei invited me to come along, but I demurred: I’m not allowed to drive a car or ride a motorcycle, per Peace Corps rules, so I can’t imagine that I’d be allowed to jump out of a plane with a possibly defective Soviet-era parachute.