Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Little Man, Big Year

I know that some of you remember that a year ago I was wrapped up in the emotion, and the awe of having my first nephew born into the world. He came early. More than two months early, which gave us all a big scare.

As convincingly and stubbornly (a true Taurus, already?!) as he wanted to come into this world on his own terms, he has lived this year, also. As I also mentioned before, he went home way early from the maternity, only about three weeks after his birth, despite doctors’ predictions that he would be there to his full term, which meant almost two more months.

He showed us all that he was ready for life: he could do in seven months what others can do in nine. He breathed and learned to feed on his own sooner than expected. And fed he did. Around the clock and then some. He grew up fast, and grew up healthy. They tell you babies will run a fever after each routine shot. Growing up in a Canadian winter, he has almost never run a fever (until he got a stomach virus in a foreign land). By month three, he was the same size as babies born to term at that month. And he stayed caught up.

He’s taken on every challenge that life, and we, his family, have thrown at him with bravery and guts. And like a true little Romanian, with gusto, also. He was baptized just like every other “normal” baby, at three months old. Since they immerse the baby in water in our faith, I was afraid he was going to be too little for that, but he was fine. He has managed to handle a (small and close quarters) house full of guests at that age as well, for two whole months, keeping his sleeping and eating routine, despite the hectic to-and-fro of relatives and guests from Romania and the US.

Parents out there forgive me for my self-righteousness, but I have never believed in raising a baby in vacuumed bubble, away from the real life. And I am so grateful to my sister and brother in law for not raising him like that! They have raised him in real time, with real life challenges, and real environments, with real people all around, and he’s managed to handle them all so far, more or less cranky.

He took a road trip (and yes, you read right: “road” trip, as in driven!) from Montreal, Canada, to Greensboro, North Carolina when he was five and a half months old. Sure, he cried, he was cranky, but he made it fine, and he did great. He even started learning how to sit on that trip. He then took a trip to Germany, to see his paternal grandparents, when he was ten and a half months old. He took a trip from there to his parents’ home country of Romania, at eleven months. And now, that he’s one, he’ll go back to Canada, his home, finally.

Patrick and I in Romania, about a week or so ago

Through it all, he made it fine, as he learned new things, and progressed at his “normal” pace, as any baby would do. He ate everything he was supposed to, he is learning new words, and he’s finally not afraid of crawling, so he’s got that figured out now. He’s learned to warm up to people, not just his parents, he’s socialized and happy just to be held.

He’s still tiny, but that’s his charm! He cries when he needs something, but don’t we all?!

I am proud of his parents for giving him nurture, attention, and most of all, love. He’s a loved baby, for sure, and he will always be. I am grateful to his parents for bringing this miracle into our families, and making our lives a bit brighter and a bit more hopeful: now, we can see the face of our future. That is a priceless feeling, for which I thank them!

In Romania, we have this custom (more like a superstition, but it's like an unwritten law), when the baby turns one. We place a number of items from life on a silver platter (remember how your grandma told you that you had it all handed out on a silver platter?!). Each item symbolizes something that you might grow to like, or grow to make into a trade, or something that might possess you negatively, as a vice. We choose to place things like money (wealth) , rings (wealth and interest in jewelry, or coquetry) , hammers (for boys: handy-ness, industriousness, etc), thread and needles (for girls – same connotation), a book, a pen (signs of higher education, perhaps), a church item (an icon, a cross or candle, maybe) – as a symbol of spirituality; something technical (a cell phone, a mouse, etc), a musical instrument (if we want our child to be musically inclined?!), a glass of wine, a pack of cigarettes, to suggest vices; your imagination is the limit here.

We place these items on a platter, and we let the one year old baby choose three of them. They say, in old Romanian tradition, that what they choose will shape their destiny. Patrick chose a cross, a pen and a syringe. As he was choosing, the crowd of guests was gasping: “Will he be a priest?” “Will he be a doctor?”. The godmother is supposed to prepare this, so you can imagine the responsibility I felt (and I feel) for all this.

Patrick choosing the pen

All I can say is: I am not sure what Patrick will be, or what he’ll chose as a trade in life, but from the bottom of my heart, I would like to put on a virtual tray a huge amount of health, love, luck and happiness – and I want him to pick all of them with both of his little hands. That’s what I would destine him for, if I had a power to do so.

And I always want to assure him that he will forever find two big open arms to catch him when he needs to be caught, as long as I live.

Thanks for being in our family and bringing us together as you did, Little Man. And thanks for being you! Your smile makes my day, and your antics give me reason to look forward to tomorrow. You have been blessed since day one, and we through you, and may you always be that way!

Happy birthday from your Nana*, and much, much love!!

*Nana means godmother in Romanian.

One of my favorite pictures of Patrick. Go, show them, Little Guy!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Only in Romania

Some of my friends already know this: there are some things that can only happen in Romania. Usually, the weird kind of things … Sometimes, just the unusual ones, not necessarily “weird”, but … unique, however.

Every time I go back home people here ask me to share unusual, and “exotic” happenings from my trip.

So, I wanted to spend a few minutes to note the couple of “weird” things that have happened on this last trip, that just ended a couple of days ago. I hope they mostly make you smile, not necessarily make you throw up, or cringe!

Only in Romania … can a soccer (the “king of sports”, there) club owner be compared to Jesus Christ on the cross, when he is rightfully arrested for chasing down, assaulting, and shooting the people who were trying to steal his car, instead of calling the cops. Somehow, he felt like he was done wrong, and the thieves were done right, by being free, although they were still to be proven guilty, while his infractions were caught on tape.

Only in Romania … can a talk show host one enlightened actor/ director one night, and a “high class prostitute” (I was told) and XXX star the next. The first (Dan Puric) was presenting his new book (“Despre Omul Frumos” – or “About the Beautiful Man”), while quoting Charles Dickens’s father, who allegedly advised his illustrious son: “If you want to understand God, read a page from The Bible, every day; and if you want to understand Man, read a page from Shakespeare, every day. Only that Man, as seen by Shakespeare, has degraded in the meantime, so keep that in mind”.

The second invite to the talk show (Laura Andresan) was invited to discuss the topic of “Sex during an economic crisis”, while digressing into details about anal sex. Decency prevents me from linking to one of her sites, but you can feel free to google her name. I am not sure how a porn star is an authority on the quality and frequency of sex during an economic crisis, in a normal household, but … you be the judge.

Only in Romania ... I can finally get fish the way God intended it to be: with fins and tails, and with a fishy and not … airy taste. Yes, we peel the scales off of them, and we clean their insides, but … we eat the fins and the heads, too – or at least the insides of the heads. No, there is not much meat there, but … neither is on chicken wings! Also, fins and tails are like … potato chips: crunchy and flavorful. So, why not eat them?? Sure, this can be a “Third World” eating habit, but … sometimes Third World countries have the richest lives, don’t you think?? I know, I know: still weird – and that’s why it made the list …

At least you know you're eating fish, and not some kind of other creature!

Only in Romania ... , I think (or at least, in my universe!), are people ingenious enough to use a blow-dryer to fan their coals, on a grill. My dad decided that the wind was too strong on the very day he planned to grill out, so, he had to blow directly into the coals, to keep them burning, but his lungs got tired, so, he used a blow dryer. I, of course, schooled more in the spirit of American paranoia, was afraid he’s going to blow up the whole house, or at least the electric circuit, but … he was confident. And it worked!

Yep! That's a blow-dryer over a fired grill.

And only in Romania can you take a raw lamb’s head and force it into a grin, but I am afraid that PETA will call the cops on me, so I am refraining from posting that pic. Just trust me on this one!

Oh, how I am going to miss it all !!

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Good Friday: A Time to Feel Humble and Grateful

“There is something about coming back home. It looks the same, it feels the same, it smells the same. You realize the only thing that’s changed … is you”.
(approximate quote from “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”).

Walking the streets of my hometown is a surreal feeling: I am waiting to see old friends, and relatives show up around every corner, at the ages I last saw them: about 11 years ago, or so. But I am waiting in vain, of course.

Some buildings look the same, and some bear the mark of time, and of unfunded city hall candidacies, crumbling in pieces. Some of them have been more lucky and have been renovated, having gotten a new coat of paint on the ages they have weathered.

Old or newer, they all carry memories from my past: the movie theater I used to love, the museum we used to visit every January 24th, as a field trip in school (The national holiday of The National Union), the “Palace” that hosted my first public library, where I first learned how you can get lost and lose track of time, when you’re stolen away by book hunting … The churches where members of my family got christened in, got married in, first took communion in…. The restaurant that hosted my parents’ first date …
Memories abound.

The mind is a wonderful tool (when it works), and such a loyal depository of … things. Places bring back to memory people we met, and we knew and people who have affected our upbringing and character: our teachers, school mates, teachers, doctors, grandparents …

To make this journey alongside my sister and her new baby is a gift from God!
Coming back home, opening up the book of live memories alongside my folks and family around Easter , cooking traditional foods together, congregating with them in the kitchen, the true heart of our home, is making me breathless; more than words (in any language) can express.

I am not the same as 11 years ago when I left. My friends, parents and sister are different too. Time has passed over streets, buildings, as well as people; but the heart is just as raw, and hungry for love, and closeness, and just as nostalgic!

Enjoy the pictures, and I hope our smiles and the blue skies we’re fortunate with speak for themselves, and speak about the kind of happiness that we’re feeling blessed with and that abounds around us on this Holy Day, of the Orthodox Good Friday.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Vive la France!

Yes, I realize that this is not going to be a popular headline, in this day and age, but … I cannot help myself: I am a foodie! And when someone tickles my food cravings and my food preferences, I can’t help grand gestures …errr … words…

I have traveled on several foreign airlines in my time, anything from the famous Royal Dutch KLM to Czech and Romanian airlines (well, Romanian is not that “foreign” to me, I suppose). I am used to airline food to be a step up maybe from hospital food, but with the same potential to give you a tummy ache.

I never have high expectations about airline food: it’s either “chicken or pasta” or a warm napkin of nothing, inside the US. Oh, or $5 for a coke! But on my last trip from the US to Europe through France, my food standards were about to change.

On the flight from Philadelphia to Paris, we had a menu, and we had choices: yes, still some chicken and wild rice (no mushy potatoes, as usual), or pasta Bolognese, and both were accompanied by a couple of kinds of cheeses (of course) and a couscous salad which was divine! Couscous is a kind of pasta, and I guess this made it a pasta salad on top of a bed of lettuce. It was the most unusual, very stylish, pasta salad I know of. The couscous was sprinkled with a vinaigrette dressing, mixed with black olives, pimientos and bell peppers, and topped with chunks of salmon, in some sort of vinaigrette brine as well. It was so light, and refreshing and delish!

On the flight from Paris to Bucharest, also serviced by Air France, we were served a light mid-day dish of zucchini noodles in mayo (I guess a “healthy version” of frites-and-mayo?!), alongside sautéed scallops. YuMMy!

I guess what they say about the French it’s true: they don’t skimp on luxuries, even during these tough times: they live loud and expensive, because life, as the greatest gift, is meant to be splurged on an enjoyed.

I also read in the in-flight magazine that Air France has a contest going on this year, where they have various cooks offer to cook for the airline, and at the end of the year, the airline officials judge them by the quality of the food they cooked and tray design. Trust me: I did not mind being part of this experiment!

The in-flight tv schedule was like nothing I have seen before, either: not only did we get our own tv, where we had a choice between small screen and big screen programs, but we had at least 20 movies to choose from, some of them as recent and as valuable as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", for instance. We could also, rewind, pause, or fast forward through the movie, at our own pace. I know that this kind of luxury is very much non-existent on American airlines, for the coach tickets, for sure!

Again, as some sort of a testimony of a grand gesture, the Charles de Gaulle airport is amazingly different that anything I have ever seen: it’s modern, and huge, first of all; and it’s more crowded with boutiques and shops than one medium town in the US with strip malls, probably! There were more stores selling perfumes than I have ever seen my whole life, and more stores selling chocolate. Again: a bit of a French myth, but they know their chocolate and their perfumes, I gathered…

I didn’t buy anything, because chocolate and I don’t get along, and I could not find a bottle of perfume I could honestly afford. 25 euros for the smallest bottle which would not have lasted me for more than a couple of weeks just didn’t seem like a good plan. But … I was amazed at the various brands and abundance of it all. I guess it’s true what they say about shopping in Paris. If this was just the airport, I cannot even begin to imagine what the city itself offers, in terms of shops and boutiques. Or foods! I need to stop thinking about that couscous salad! It’s the first thing I want to make when I go back home!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Note on My Birthday

In the tradition my dad instilled in me, by saying “you must find time to celebrate the important things in life”, I usually try to do something … different on my birthday. Even if it’s not the usual party bash, going out, and partying, what have you, I try to do something out of the ordinary to mark the event. After

all, we only get a birthday once a year! It should be special!

Today was different, though. I just woke up at my normal time, took my shower, ate my breakfast, talked to a few members of my family, and some of my friends … Went to work. Went to lunch with a friend. Was in meetings all afternoon. Went to the grocery store. Then, did laundry, and packed for my trip the rest of the evening …

An usual day indeed, it was … Except for all the people who remembered my birthday! That was a such a treat. Those of you who remembered it outside of Facebook get extra kudos, of course.

I realized for the first time, I think, in a long time, how grateful I am to have all my friends, right along with my family! Today, I just want to say thank you, to all of you out there, whom I call “close friends” and who put up with me on a regular basis! Those of you who take trips with me, or call me “family”, those of you who make sure my head stays the right size, and those of you who travel with me. Those of you who encourage my timid attempt to writing and photography, those of you who are patient and giving enough to pay me compliments.

I have folks out there who’ve known me for 15+ years, and are still my very close friends. I have folks out there who’ve known me for a shorter time, but whose relationships are so deep, so soul-mate-like, that it’s scary! There are others of you who I can rely on with my life, and never question! It’s such a gift, and I thank you deeply!

Thank you all: for your love, patience, wisdom and friendship. Today, I was reminded of all of those thing you freely give me, and I just wanted you to know: they are never taken for granted. I love you all – you know who you are – and I thank you for making my birthday special just by your call or email! You will never know how meaningful and special, it truly was. I can only hope I can reciprocate, when time comes!

And just as one of my friends said today, I “hope our souls are not as mortal as our bodies, because I cannot think for even one iota of a second of ever parting with you all for good” (thanks, Tz.!)

Be well!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

For Once, I'd Rather Feel than Think

"The longest journey a man must take is the eighteen inches from his head to his heart". (Unknown)

For the I-stopped-counting-th time in the past 10 years, I am getting ready to make the trip back home, in about a week.

It's a ritualistic sort of journey, as I always tend to read more into life than just what's in front of me. I am cursed that way. I always think of this as a return to the hearth, as a journey back to self, or a journey back in search of my roots. The fact that comes around Easter (my favorite holiday) and my birthday makes it even more meaningful. The fact that for the first time in 11 years my whole family will finally be together for Easter, with our newest addition in tow, makes is just over the top.

I am sure I'll have updates as the journey develops, so stay tuned.

For now, though, although I have done this for what seems like more times than I care to count, I am just worried sick about everything. And every time I do take this journey, all these worries crop up - every time. This time is no different: will I get to the airport on time? Will I make all my flights? Or spend some nights in airports? Will I lose my luggage? Will I be able to come back to the US on my way back? Will my cats be OK? Will I lose my luggage? Will I have enough cash on me? Will both my cameras die and I'll be pictureless (God forbid!!)? Will the wonderful lady that's taking care of my cats forget to come feed them? Will they die of starvation? Will ... oh ... you get the picture.

I am worried sick, almost, and for the life of me, I am not quite sure why. Sure, one year when I went there, I forgot to pack like half of my "necessities", for lack of a better word. Another year, September 11th 2001 happened while I was there, and Green Card holders (which I then was) were temporarily forbidden from flying back to the US. Another year, one of the suitcases got back to Greensboro about 3 days after me. But most times, everything went well, and I have had smooth trips. Typically. And even with the mishaps: I have survived it all.

I also love to travel. I love to be away. I adore my family and I cannot wait to see everyone. I cannot wait to eat the foods my parents cook, I cannot wait for the dancing, the parties, the family time, I cannot wait to see my friends, I cannot wait to breathe allergy free air!!! I cannot wait to see my middle school and high school Romanian teacher ... I cannot wait to go to church and actually hear the Easter sermon in Romanian. I cannot wait to hold Patrick once more!! Now, why in the world cannot all these things overpower the silly worries, I am not sure.

I want the switch in my brain to shut off the worrying, and just let life happen, with peace. You would think after the hundredth (it seems) trip I have taken back there (and millionth trip over all in my life), I would be used to this, and know how to shut off that switch and just listen to my heart and let that be the driver. Boy, how we forget!!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

No Complaints

"Holy Lent is a time when we give up various foods, meat, fish, eggs and diary products. In the early church, the money that was saved by this type of fasting was given to the poor. Some people go further and vow to give up other things as well which may represent a personal sacrifice. They may give up some of their time to volunteer at local charities or visit shut-ins. My own personal goal this Lenten Season is to give up something which is intangible yet so beneficial to spiritual growth. I would like to concentrate my energies during this holy time to stop complaining. It sounds easy, but it's so difficult." (Father Dionysios of The Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church, in Greensboro, NC)

I was born and raised in the tradition of the Christian Orthodox Church. I choose to grow further in this tradition, and I want to pass over into "the other side" in it, as well. Growing up in Romania, we understood Lent (the 42 days or 6 weeks before both Easter and Christmas) as both a time for spiritual as well as a material journey. We thought of the body, as well as the soul, is what I mean.

The material component meant that this is a time of food fasting, mainly from foods that come from animals. In a spiritual sense, we understood Lent as a time to reflect upon our Faith and understand why (food) fasting, and withholding from "carnal" behavior and "needs" is beneficial also for the soul. The material withdrawing from "lavish" foods was meant to be just a reminder that the eternal soul has to be pure, too. This was a time to ponder upon things we don't normally think about, like the purity of our eternal souls, or about the example we have in Jesus Christ: it made us think about His life, and His painful journey to save us from a world of sin. It gave us accountability for our actions. Also a time to appreciate what we had. It was a time when we purposefully made supplies scarce, just to appreciate the bounty we truly have in life, and which we display, especially in foods, over the Easter and Christmas feasts. To this day, I see both Easter and Christmas as a powerful spiritual journey because of these things. And I am so grateful for having known and understood these things about life, momentary or eternal.

Lent was a quiet time. Music was not played loudly, and prayer was what started and ended our days.
The most obvious fasting was from foods. There were various versions of it: my relatives in the mountains (more conservative) would withhold from animal products for the entire Lent. My family (city people) would not eat animal products only on Wednesdays and Fridays. Those are special days for Christians: they say Jesus was captured on a Wednesday, and crucified on a Friday.

To this day, I obey my family's ritual for Lent. And to this day, I cherish this time. It brings me closer to God, and to what's eternal, and what will outlive me: my soul! I find myself also going to church more, praying more, and being more accepting, and more patient.

But Father Dionysios's piece in this month's newsletter really opened up a new door for me. It was half a slap in the face, and half a welcome revelation! I never thought of giving up something "of the soul" for Easter. And why, yes, I do complain quite an annoying lot lately! And if I could give that up, or at least be more aware of it ... wow! What an accomplishment!

The key remark in his opening paragraph, quoted above, was: "give up something which is intangible yet so beneficial to spiritual growth." I realized, as we all should, that yes, complaining is a huge hindrance to the spiritual growth. We get stuck in these 'catch 22's when we complain. We mostly complain about things we have no control over. Because if we do have control over them, we most often fix them and stop complaining! So, besides being a waste of energy, they're useless. They help no one, and definitely not us. Instead of moving forward, and seeing what's next and exploring the newness and gifts of every day, we find ourselves still stuck on what yesterday (and someone else) made us mad about. The utility bills, the economy, the frustrated co-workers, the "stupid" driver in front of us who's on the cellphone and driving too slow ... what have you... We hurt our own energy, and we bestow a negative vibe on everyone around us when we complain.

They say "answer the phone with a smile; people can't see it, but they can hear it!" - in the same way, when we complain, the mood of the whole world around us is negative, dull, abrasive, unproductive and lacks good vibrations to allow for happiness to happen!

So, my new Lent custom will be if not quitting complaining altogether, at least being more aware of it, when I do it, and trying to stop it in the bud. Like Father said: it's not easy to do. But no worthwhile thing is easy to do, is it?! I feel like my mind and my heart can make room for so much more "goodness" if they wake up with a smile, and go to bed with a "thank you" note to The Universe. And it's so worth it, too! After all, I think God wants our souls withdrawing from "junk food" more than He wants our bodies to.

I can only hope that this new custom won't stop at Easter. And it will carry me through the entire year! But just like Jesus's "New Life", after Resurrection, Easter Lent seems like a good start for it.