When the Bough Breaks

May 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Posted in Family, Transylvania | 16 Comments
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The sun lasered through the white pear blossoms as I glopped sunscreen on three sets of ears. Bees sniffed out invisible spots of honey on the wooden breakfast table. The rooster next door cock-a-doodled at us through the fence.

An idyllic Monday morning. In an idyllic country inn. Except for the occasional quarrel over who got to make wishes on the wispy seeds of the next white dandelion.

And then he came rushing outside, the tall, dark-haired father carrying his tall, dark-haired daughter. She was limp and sweaty. Her flushed cheeks looked like too-ripe cherries. Her gangly little-girl-arms dangled strangely, like twigs broken from their tree.

He laid her on the wooden table and bent down to yell her name in her ear.

We all swarmed over, the guests, the kids, the innkeeper, her mother.

Her mother. Crying, slapping those too-red cheeks, screaming in vowel sounds instead of words, as if her brain couldn’t quite connect syllables.

Someone brought water. Someone else brought wet towels. Someone else, a blanket. Voices bounced off each other like pinballs.

I couldn’t understand anything being said. But I could feel the fear. The panic. The helplessness. As if it were my own. It was my own.

All the mothers, we felt our lungs lock up, refusing to accept air, forgetting how to rise and fall and breathe. We looked and looked away and looked again. We sent silent prayers into the ether.

We imagined our own daughters up on that table. Silent. Still. Wrong.

Minutes passed. Or seconds? The little girl opened her eyes. She reached out for her father. She started to cry, quietly, as if she could contain the confusion, the hurt, the embarrassment, in those perfect, tiny tears.

Her parents whisked her off to the shady porch swing in the cool back corner of the courtyard. They stroked her hair and made her drink water she needed but didn’t want. They rocked the swing, gently, gently, gently.

Her thyroid, someone whispered.

A blockage in her neck, said someone else.

Heatstroke, said another.

No one really knew. No one called a doctor.

Instead, we tried to give them privacy even as we brought offerings of umbrellas, orange juice, and barrettes.

We lingered. We held back.

And we pretended that scent in the wind was a mingled mix of rust and mud, and not sharp, pungent desperation.

Have you ever felt another parent’s fear? Ever wanted to help but not known how — or the words to ask? Ever offered refreshments because there was nothing else?

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Green Means Go

May 1, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Photo Tuesday, Transylvania | 12 Comments
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“April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go.” — Christopher Morley

Have the April showers brought May flowers where you are? Have you danced in any puddles? Or tasted the season’s first fresh strawberries?

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Fluffy Bunnies in Romania:
Read the tales
.
See the photos.

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See more “spring” at Beth’s.

The Borrower

April 25, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Posted in Bun, Family, Giggles, Lollipop, Photo Tuesday, Transylvania | 26 Comments
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“You don’t take a photograph. You ask, quietly, to borrow it.” — Anonymous

Are you a borrower, like me? How do you capture the quiet moments, the ones that might otherwise go unnoticed? And don’t you want a pair of those pink boots?

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Today’s Five for Five topic is pictures. Join in at Momalom.

The Bass Line

April 24, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Posted in Me, Transylvania | 30 Comments
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I’m at a place called Boom Party Club.

Pop music blares. The disco ball whirls. Preschoolers shimmy.

It’s a five-year-old’s birthday party in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

While two child-minders in princess dresses lead imaginary dragon hunts and make balloon swords, the parents — me, a French couple, and 7 or 8 Romanians — relax in the back room around platters of schnitzel de pui and salata de cartofi.

After pleasantries in English and a round of gin and tonics, conversation turns to the usual adult fare: the economy, traffic, chicken pox, and the upcoming class trip to the football stadium.

There’s talk of a helicopter ride over the field.

At least, I think so.

At some point I don’t quite notice, the Romanians switch back to their native tongue, leaving me and the French couple swirling our empty gin glasses and reaching for more meatballs.

I catch words I know: grădiniţă, maşină, varicelă.

I laugh when I’m supposed to.

I chime in with a da, da! every once in a while.

But, honestly, I haven’t got a clue.

And it’s more refreshing than the salt-rimmed frozen margarita with fresh lime juice I haven’t had in 10 months.

Instead of wracking my brain for something to say about the latest Greece bailout, I admire the beadwork on one mother’s purse. I slip pretzels to the two-year-old in pigtails winding her way through our feet. I take a long but inconspicuous look at the woman across the room who I’ve heard has a newborn at home. She’s wearing high heels and mascara. Her hair is freshly blow-dried. I marvel.

Then I realize the room is quiet. Everyone is looking at me. I blink.

“American schools?” one of the dads asks. “Are they worth what you pay?”

I have no idea if he’s talking about preschools or primary schools or massage schools. I pause and say “um, well, uh” a few times before coming up with something vaguely intelligent. Or at least something vague.

Eventually, the English words dissolve back into Romanian ones, and I resume parceling out pretzels to the pig-tailed toddler. I wonder how many grown-ups are sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs in San Francisco and Duluth and Tulsa right this very moment, double-dipping potato chips into ramekins of ranch dressing and talking about the state of education. Or how the soccer team is doing. Or the latest economic bailout.

When the child-minders beckon, we sing to the birthday girl. We eat strawberry cake and bop to catchy Romanian standards like De Zuia Ta.

Under the sparkly shine of the disco ball, I collect kids, shoes, and party favors. We say thank you. Mulţumesc! And goodbye. La revedere! The hostess and I cheek-kiss, as you do in Europe.

And we slip out the door of Boom Party Club, where cultures ricochet off one another like the children moshing inside to the thumping bass.

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Today’s Five for Five topic is words. Join in at Momalom.

Spare Change

April 23, 2012 at 11:54 am | Posted in Me, Transylvania | 36 Comments
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After you’ve been in Romania a while, you can tell who they are.

You look quick. And then you look away. Because staring too long makes you an easy mark.

With their oil-black hair, nutmeg skin, and onyx eyes, they are exotic and beautiful and shrewd. They peddle flowers and glass and potatoes. They stand by the OMV gas station on the E60 and wait for men to pick them up. They make some of the most enchanting music you’ve ever heard.

They are the Roma. The gypsies. Two million Romanians who are the minority no one likes to talk about.

A mother and her two daughters came up to my car once, while I was buckling the baby in. Bani, vă rog? they asked, their hands reaching over me and casing the black cloth seats. Alimente? Bani? Pentru copii?

With my own hands full of five-point harness straps, I tried maneuvering my shoulders to block them. Nu, nu înţeleg, nu vorbesc româneşte, I said, even though I knew exactly what they wanted.

I managed to slam the back door and slip into the driver’s seat. But not before one of the girls noticed our cache of change for parking meters and shopping carts. Bani? she asked as she stretched across me. I shoved a few silver coins into her hand and pushed her away. She eyed two forgotten Snicker’s bars in the door pocket. Ciocolată, she demanded. I gave her one and tugged the door closed.

She was seven, maybe eight.

I sat there. I watched her. I looked at my grocery list and the cloth bags in the passenger seat. Soon, they would be filled with milk and eggs and bread and yogurt and apples and cookies and pasta and all the things my family consumes in a week. When was the last time that little girl had a glass of milk? I wondered. An apple? A plate of spaghetti and a tomato-sauce mustache?

She stuffed half the Snicker’s bar into her mouth, pocketed the other half, and scurried up the road to join her mother and sister, who were rummaging through the trash cans at the top of the hill.

Without really thinking about it, I started the car and drove up beside her. I rolled down the window and handed her the other bar. She looked at me for a long second before taking it. What did she see? I wondered. A gullible stranger? A “rich” foreigner? A haughty bitch? Or someone who cared, at least for that moment?

As her mother and sister noticed us, they waved their hands and shouted. Bani, vă rog! Alimente! Pentru copii! I shifted into third and turned the corner, leaving that little girl with her 30 cents, her chocolate bars, and the mother who had taught her how to beg so she wouldn’t starve.

What would it take for her life to change? For her to go to college and get a job? For her to one day laugh at spaghetti mustaches on her own children’s faces?

Had I helped? Or hurt?

And who really needed to change? Her? Or me?

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Note: I’ve lived in Romania for 10 months. I don’t fully understand or have answers for the poverty and discrimination the Roma face in this country. But I know what I see, what I feel, and how I long for something to change. For me, writing it down is the first step. 

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Today’s Five for Five topic is change. Join in at Momalom.

The (Easter) Grass is Greener …

April 9, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Posted in Photo Tuesday, Transylvania | 22 Comments
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Awake, thou wintry earth —
Fling off thy sadness!
Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth
Your ancient gladness!
— Thomas Blackburn, “An Easter Hymn”

This is our first (and only) Easter in Romania. The traditions are different. The food is different. There are no pastels, no jelly beans, no Peeps. Instead, there are reds and yellows and blacks. Hand-rolled sarmale and cozonac with raisins and poppy seeds. Orthodox icons of the Virgin Mary on sale at the grocery store. It’s new. It’s strange. It’s amazing. And much to Lollipop’s delight? There are indeed rabbit-shaped chocolates.

Have you ever spent Easter somewhere else? Which traditions would you take with you, and which would you leave behind? Could you live without jelly beans? Peeps? Cadbury eggs?

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Bursting Our Bubbles

March 26, 2012 at 8:00 am | Posted in Family, Transylvania | 12 Comments
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“If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good.” — Dr. Seuss

Have you gotten out the bubbles and chalk yet? How else are you having fun where you are? And isn’t the spring sunshine wonderful?

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The Birthday Girl

March 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Me, Transylvania | 25 Comments
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My birthday is this week.

Maybe it’s because I’m so very far away from my family. Or because Romania doesn’t have buttercream icing. But I’ve found myself doing a lot of self-reflection as I cross another year off the calendar. It’s like I’m sorting through my mental manila file folders (I love those!) and clearing out my collection of memories. Keep? Toss? Share?

And this question: What’s missing?

In my 34 years, I’ve birthed three children, 943 blog posts, and countless magazine articles.

I’ve sold Girl Scout cookies and magazine subscriptions. I wasn’t very good at either.

I’ve seen Yellowstone and the Parthenon and kangaroos hopping across a golf course.

I’ve stood in the middle of Dachau and been crushed by the infinite sorrow of that place.

I once walked down the Champs-Élysées alone on an August afternoon and felt my soul slip into place. Like all the pieces finally, finally fit.

I’ve ridden a roller coaster and slept in a tent. If I never did either of those things again, I’d be just fine with that. Seriously.

I’ve run a half-marathon. The whole damn thing. Every single hill.

I fell off my bike and broke my wrist when I was 9. I fell off a Vespa and broke my leg when I was 33.

I’ve cleaned puke off train tracks and My Little Ponies and stuffed ducks in the middle of the night.

I’ve avoided more conflicts than I can count, like the time I hid in the bushes outside the library to avoid telling this really sweet guy that I didn’t want to go out with him. (He’s not reading, I’m sure. But just in case, I’m so, so sorry.)

I’ve taken 8,000 pictures and used up probably that many glue sticks.

I’ve spent hours worrying. Hours and hours. About car crashes and cancer and, well, everything.

I’ve never made a diorama or gotten poison ivy.

I’ve looked my children straight in the eye and told them that, no, Mommy is not eating chocolate.

I made straight A’s my whole entire life. And now I think, who cares?

I can’t really cook or sew or grow things. But I floss my teeth every day, and I’m pretty sure that counts for something.

As I type this list, as I think my way through this birthday week, I wonder … Is this enough? What does “enough” even mean?

After the cake is gone and the wrapping paper is in shreds under my chair, what really matters? It it enough that I love my husband? That I love my kids? That I try every day to love myself?

Is that enough? Am I enough?

And how do I know?

Have you ever given yourself the gift of introspection? Did you find clarity? Peace of mind? Renewed sense of purpose? Or did you just want another piece of birthday cake?

Gooooooaaaaal: An Expat’s Guide to Soccer in Europe

March 19, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Photo Tuesday, Transylvania | 12 Comments
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1. Whatever you do, don’t call it soccer. It’s fotbal.

2. Mostly men will be in attendance. The line for the ladies’ room will still be twice as long. (Some things are universal.)

3. Cheer when everyone else does. Conversely, shake your first in the air and shout obscenities when everyone else does.

4. Even though it looks like the players are running pell-mell across the field, the game is one of detailed strategy. When I figure out exactly what that strategy is — aside from maximizing the number of times the ball bounces off any player’s head — I’ll let you know.

5. Don’t expect beer. Or hot dogs. Paprika-flavored potato chips? Of course.

6. The game will go on, rain, shine, snow, wind, fog, sleet, or apocalypse. Dress accordingly.

7. The number of times the paramedics rush onto the field with the stretcher is not indicative of how many injuries there are. Rather, it reflects the acting ability of the players.

8. Red cards are bad. Yellow cards are an opportunity to direct certain hand gestures at the referees.

9. Don’t, I repeat, don’t ask which guy is David Beckham.

10. Let yourself be awed. It’s a pretty amazing spectacle.

Have you ever been to a soccer, I mean football, match? Ever had paprika-flavored chips? And why is the line for the ladies’ room always so much longer?

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For Whom the Snow Falls

March 10, 2012 at 9:53 am | Posted in Me, Transylvania | 10 Comments
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Spring is in the Romanian air.

The temperature is still tap-dancing around freezing. The kids still laugh hysterically when they see their breath in the car. And I’m still wearing my beloved YakTrax. But spring? It’s here.

Ahhhhh, spring.

How do I know? Last week, I had an animated discussion about the pile of snow clinging to the roof with the old man who takes care of our building. He spoke some fast Romanian. He gestured a lot and stomped his feet. He made kapow! noises.

I nodded knowingly.

Even though I’ve never seen snow like this in my life. Let alone three months of snow about to fall off a roof. My roof.

We concluded that the deluge would happen in the next day or so … then ricochet off the covered front porch … and then explode right into the spot on the street where I had carefully spent 15 minutes parallel parking.

So.

I moved the car. And seriously considered buying us all helmets. Just in case.

The next morning, there it was. Right where he said it would. In the empty parking spot everyone else had had the sense to avoid.

Mărţişoare, like this handmade one, are given to women on March 1 to celebrate their awesomeness. Oh, and the arrival of spring.

As I stared at the smashed snow-pie in the road, it hit me. (Figuratively, of course.) I’m a rookie. Winter — real, cold, and brutal — is new to me.

But so is this life, this expat life filled with roundabouts and rolled r’s and purple money.

With spicy ketchup and cherry moonshine.

With holidays like last week’s Mărţişor, which celebrates the women, spring, and the exile of long underwear.

I can let this life — equal parts amazing and exasperating — frustrate me. Exhaust me. Grate my very last nerve into shreds thinner than the carrots in Romanian cole slaw.

Or I can open my arms and embrace whatever falls into my path.

Right after I put my helmet on.

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Fluffy Bunnies in Romania:
Read the tales
.
See the photos.

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