Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jingle Bells

It started out like any other day. That is, until the phone rang at 7 AM and pulled us from our warm and happy sleep. Lucia was on the other end, urgently telling Sarah that we had exactly one hour to get ready to go to the country and kill the Christmas pig.

How to dress is always a question when we go to the country in the winter. We know it's going to be incredibly snowy and cold outside, but we also know that the wood stove is going to be baking inside. The key is to dress in layers so that we can find a way to be comfortable in any situation. I put on three layers on the bottom, five layers on the top, and two pairs of socks. It wouldn't be enough.

Time for a quick geography and civics lesson. Small towns in Romania are organized into communities, normally named after the largest village in the community. Lucia's sister, Mirela, lives in the community and village of Păstrăveni. Her parents live just down the rutted dirt road in the same community but in the village of Lunca Moldovei.

We stopped quickly at Mirela's to pick up her husband so that we would have enough manpower to handle the pig, and we started off for Lunca Moldovei. In the best of conditions, the road is rough, but we've been getting hammered with snow lately. Right now the road is just wide enough for a single car, with 3-6 foot embankments of snow on either side.

We were about 1/2 mile into the drive when we encountered a car that had been heading towards us, high centered and stuck, with a horse cart waiting behind it. This is the very definition of a Păstrăveni traffic jam. The car was easy to get moving again, but we were warned to discontinue our porcine pilgrimage so we turned back, defeated.

Defeated, that is, until someone thought of Ionel and his one-horse open sleigh. We stopped by his house to find his wife home alone. She sadly informed us that Ionel couldn't help us, because he was currently playing Santa Claus at the local school. I kid you not. If we were patient and played our cards right, we might get to dash through the snow, o'er the fields, in Santa's one-horse open sleigh. Would it be too much to ask that the horse would have jingle bells? No. It wouldn't. And I can personally attest to laughter all the way.

So, back to Mirela's for a few minutes while we waited for all of the Santa Clausing to finish up. Did I mention it was cold and snowy? So cold and snowy that in the span of 30 minutes the house lost power and the water stopped running. Mirela's husband, Costel, boiled snow on the fire to try to warm the pipes so that the water would flow again. Just another day in the Romanian countryside.

After a while, Lucia's brother, Vali, gave Ionel a call. Vali knows how to motivate. The conversation went like this: "Hey Ionel! I just got into town from the seaside. Come on over to my sister's. We've got beer! Oh, by the way, bring your sleigh."

"Ionel" means "Little John." Yeah, right. This man is a titan. A colossus. A giant. When he shook my hand, I remembered what it felt like to be a child whose hand was devoured by an adult's. After he arrived, we quickly hopped on the sleigh. As I was climbing aboard, the sleigh started to move and I immediately fell off. Since nobody noticed, I had to run for it and hop on before they were gone for keeps.

At this point I began to wish that I had literally worn every article of clothing that I own. The wind and blowing snow from the field was colder than anything I have ever felt. It couldn't keep us all from laughing and singing sleighing songs, though! Because the snow was high and the going was so tough for the horse, we could actually hop off the back of the sleigh and run a bit to keep warm.

When we made it into Lunca Moldovei, we cheered, and vowed to warm ourselves by the fire, pardon the pig for a day, and immediately go back home. The weather was too bad and the day was quickly turning into afternoon. We just didn't have time to finish the job. But you know how it goes. You get warm and comfy by the fire and you feel like you can do anything. The pig was about to be in for some bad news, and Ionel was the messenger, as he had been for 7 other pigs already this year. Time of death: 12:37 PM, December 20, 2012.

A pig slaughter is a long, complex business, and I had the stomach to witness the whole thing. If you want the gory details, you can read them on Jeremy's blog. In the process, I learned that there is a single word in Romanian that means "to burn the hair off of a pig" (a pârli). I can also say with certainty that you haven't lived until you have washed down a bite of fresh pig skin with a shot of moonshine, using the hollowed out hoof of said pig as a makeshift glass.

About halfway through the process, the pig is covered in a blanket "to rest." This is the time for the photo op and for everyone to come out and take a ride. I think every family has a slightly different belief on what this accomplishes. Ionel promised me increased sexual powers for the new year. See how happy I look?

As the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky, someone made the astute comment that horses do not have headlights. Lucia had to work the next day back in Pașcani, so we had to get home. But there was still work to be done. Lots of work. I have learned to relax in seeming crises like this, because the Romanians are relaxed. But this time it was different. Lucia was visibly agitated, and Costel seemed downright worried. If the weather got any worse, and we were out after sunset, it could get dangerous fast.

Part of the "work" was eating the traditional first meal. Nobody would dream of skipping this, no matter how dangerous the weather might get. And if there is one thing I know about Romanians, a meal is never rushed. The first meal with the pork is called friptură, and it is a mixture of meat and fat thrown into a giant cast iron pot and cooked over an open fire. It is eaten with mămăligă (polenta) and pickled cabbage. The rest of the pork will be salted, smoked, turned into sausages or soap, or eaten right away for Christmas. Ionel gave a prayer before the meal, a few more glasses of moonshine were poured, toasts were said, and we tucked into a feast.

As we said our goodbyes and hopped on the sleigh again, dusk was just starting to fall. A plow had cleared the road. Costel and Lucia had been seemingly worried for nothing, but we weren't quite home yet. About half way home, we encountered an abandoned car blocking the entire path. We all jumped off the sleigh to assess the situation, and just as we did, the horse decided to go for it and take the most direct route through the 3 foot snow bank. He didn't seem to remember that there was 15 foot sleigh attached to him that also needed to clear the car. With a lot of heaving and hoeing and shoveling snow by hand, we managed to get the sleigh in the right place. It came within an inch of side swiping the car. Worse, Ioan was almost trampled in the process. But on we went.

Thankfully, on this cloudy night the horse didn't need headlights going through the snowfield; it was still bright, long after the sun had been extinguished behind the snowy hills in the distance. I took a moment to relish the silence and beauty surrounding us, a silence broken only by the soft jingling of sleigh bells and the quiet laughter of great friends.


  1. Could it have been more Hallmark meets Romania? Great story! Great memories! Craciun Fericit si La Multi Ani Labounty-ilor!

  2. Fantastic on all accounts. Merry Christmas!