With over nine million people in its metropolitan area, Chicago is the United States’s third largest city. We have delis and small groceries, along with Walmarts and mass superstores. There is no need for people to grow food or keep livestock, and some have never visited rural areas or seen pastures filled with sheep. As a child, my parents wanted me to understand the value of working with my hands; they hoped I would appreciate country life and what it can produce. Thus I spent many childhood summers working on an Amish farm in rural Ohio. I raked manure, administered medication to kittens, attended animal auctions, and milked goats. None of my work ever involved planting or taking care of anything green.
Growing up, I remember my mother spending lots of time in our backyard. Weeding, planting, tying up rose vines – she loved having a beautiful garden. I never showed any interest in plants, though I reaped the benefits.
I first read about Stanciova on Teodora’s Couchsurfing profile. An aspiring archaeologist, I had planned to excavate in Syria for a month before heading to România in June. The Syrian government had murdered about 400 of its own people by the time I was packed and ready to leave the States. It was not a good time for Israeli allies (or anyone else, for that matter) to visit Syria. With a week to go before my flight from Chicago to Istanbul, I had to come up with someplace to go and something to do. I decided to tour Turkey and Greece, and then head to România, where I would dig at Porolissum, a Roman-Dacian archaeological site outside Zalău in Transilvania.
My first introduction to România was in summer, 2010. Though it was an archaeological opportunity for me, my work at Porolissum quickly became a life-changing experience. România rocked my world; I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay away. Since most of my time had been spent at a campsite tucked away from the rest of the country and its people, my experience lacked the quotidian encounters with România that even a summer tourist might enjoy.
That’s why, only a few days before leaving the States, I changed all my plans (again!) and decided to go to România only a week after touching ground in Istanbul. I flew from Istanbul to București, hopped on a train from București to Hațeg, then hitchhiked straight to Teodora’s front gate.
As gravel flew up from under the tires and the village came into view for the first time, horses and colorful houses and hundreds of ducks welcomed me. The site and the scent brought back images of the farm I so lovingly spent my childhood summers on. I leaned out the window to get more of it.
Stanciova was everything I hadn’t expected, and it quickly became a place of wonder for me. I thought I would find silence, but I heard children’s laughter in the morning, old women’s bench gossip in the afternoon, and a chorus of dogs every evening.
At this point, Teodora deserves recognition; I am forever indebted to her. Not only did she take me in with short notice and almost no references on Couchsurfing, but she introduced me to gardening, working patiently with me as I asked repeatedly which plants were friends and which were foes: Is this a weed? Is this? What about this – is this a weed? Teodora must have laughed to see a person work so slowly and accomplish so little in a morning, yet she said nothing, and for that I am grateful.
My first day in Teodora’s gardens included introductions to zucchini, peppers, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, leeks, onions, garlic, sunflowers, herbs and more. As she pointed out plants, Teodora taught me the Romanian name of each one; those were some of those most useful words I learned!
So what does an American girl do with her days in Stanciova? I confess I cannot remember a time recently when I was happier. I spent my mornings with the weeds and my afternoons with my neighbors’ children (what joy to lie in a hammock and watch children scale trees for cherries!). Always eager to play or help me with the nightly watering, Mihaela and Mihaeza kept me on my toes, and I would fall asleep the moment my head hit the pillow. Every night I lay down with a smile on my face, happy to rest up before a new day in Stanciova. The sun kept me tanned, the garden kept me busy, and the children kept me deliriously happy and satisfied with all of life.
All around me was life! And all the time! I spent time with people I’d just met, some who had chosen a rural lifestyle, some who had been born into it. Truly, what is living if you cannot provide for yourself? If you cannot depend on yourself to grow your own food, to create life in a garden, to care for animals that make your lifestyle possible, how can you be self-sufficient? How can you depend on yourself? In the city there are so many ways to evade responsibility, to avoid taking care of yourself. We buy our food in cans, we buy our eggs in cartons, we do not take care of our own waste – we do not pick up after ourselves!, we get fruits and vegetables that other people grow for us, we live in buildings others have built, we forget how to fend for ourselves. We forget how to provide for our families without asking others to provide for us. We cannot live without money
.I remember the first time it rained: From the hill just past the hammock I watched the villagers hurry inside. Dark clouds rolled over the fields and enveloped the sky. Slowly but intrepidly they took over the landscape. I took my time walking down to the șură. From there I felt the rain pelt the roof, saw the waters deluge the gardens. I watched as Capra Doina did something very uncharacteristic of herself: She stopped eating. She just stood still in one place, doing nothing, as if paralyzed with the thought, I am goat; I do not know what to do in this situation – I’m just a goat! I still laugh to remember how silly she looked, thrown by natural forces from her usual grazing habits.
My grandmother immigrated to the United States from a village outside Odessa, Ukraine. One time, when asked what she and others in the village did for fun, she responded, For fun? For fun we stopped working! How true that becomes when you live in a village! When the rains came, they brought a night off from watering. An Orthodox sărbătoare AND evening rain provide a true holiday. (At this point, lest you think I am incredibly lazy, please believe me when I say that I came to love weeding; I garnered immense satisfaction from seeing rows of veggies unencumbered by their green foes.)
Even with little knowledge of română, I never felt like an outsider in Stanciova. Paul and Cristina drove me to and from Recaş, Iris included Poiana in a welcome package for me, and I remember baking brownies in the family’s kitchen. We ate them in the living room and listened to records from the Beatles and Phoenix. I spent many afternoons sipping nettle syrup (or something else yummy) on Gab and Irina’s porch. Our discussions ranged from contemporary philosophy to schooling children; we always had something to talk about. One day we headed to the forest to catch bees. With only a saw and a cardboard box in hand, we were unsuccessful bee hunters but fortunate strawberry pickers.
Perhaps the closest friend I made in Stanciova was Maria, Teodora’s next door neighbor. Maria taught me how to cook sarmale, build a haystack, and bring in the horses at night. One evening we shelled peas until midnight; another we took the căruţă out to collect wood for tomato stakes. Only Olga (unruly horse!) didn’t have a good time. Most of my memories from Stanciova revolve around the time I spent with Maria’s family. I recall Maria’s husband Mihai trying to hook up a sprinkler system in the garden, and Maria’s mother giving me fresh milk to drink while it was still warm. I remember going to church with Mihaela, and strolling hand in hand with her to her grandparents’ house. I could never forget Mihaeza helping me in the garden when he could tell I was slowing down, or teaching me to yell at the crows when they tried to steal cherries. Maria’s family invited me over for dinner and conversation. Their door was always open, even though I didn’t speak much română, and they didn’t speak English.
Talking to people in the evenings while watering the front garden, strolling through Stanciova’s spread out neighborhoods, laughing to see old women shoo stray horses – these are just a few daily occurrences that made my time in the village so special. I thank Stanciova, ducks and people included, for its generosity. Thank you for welcoming me into your homes, your kitchens, onto your porches. Thank you for rides to and from town, for the use of the internet and the phone, for trusting me to take care of your vegetables and your animals. Thank you for speaking română slowly enough for me to understand. Thank you for broadening my cultural perspective, for asking me about my culture, for sharing your traditions with me.
Alexandria joined Stanciova for a few weeks in May/June 2011 through CouchSurfing. We are all too looking forward for her to return. :)