Monday, December 13, 2010

Palinka and Church


Saturday, December 11

After having my WiFi fix and some delicious stuffed cabbage I was headed back to the house to grab a bathing suit and go for a soak in the mineral bath at the Hotel Tusnad but Zoltan invited me in for “alcohol?” he said with a smile and a wink. I heard some laughter from the kitchen and said I’d join them.

I figured that would be a good time to give him the little bag full of miniature whiskeys and liquors I’d stocked up on at Bev Mo as a thank you token.

The friends in the kitchen were familiar faces as I’d seen them earlier at the restaurant and took a group picture for them. We laughed at the coincidence and Zoltan poured me a shot of Palinka, a very strong, unpleasant earthy brandy. Not just any brandy, but the national Romanian brandy. It is super strong and we all agreed that sooner rather than later we’d all be speaking the same language with no problem.

I took some more group pictures of them with the man’s Canon SLR and mentioned I had brought my Nikon. He mumbled something and I recognized a familiar sarcastic tone as if he’d said, “Pity, not a Canon”. I laughed and said something to let him know I knew he was teasing me about having a Nikon.

The English speaking woman quickly let him know I was on to him and he blushed, slightly embarrassed that I understood. I think my smile and laughter let him know all was fine. In fact I kept hearing ‘Canon’ and ‘Nikon’ and giggles for some time afterwards.

I told the table that humor truly is the common language we all have. Once translated, all agreed.

Zoltan brought out his computer and played some video of traditional Hungarian dancing at what looked to be local festivals throughout the region. I recognized his wife, Ilonka, dressed in traditional costume. Zoltan was very proud of his Hungarian heritage and he enthusiastically drew dates and circles meant to be maps on notepaper giving me a brief history of the Hungarian and Romanian border changes throughout World War I and II.

Watching the traditional dance that young and old alike proudly participated in got me thinking that our American ‘traditions’ of celebrating 4th of July or going to ballgames or having Thanksgiving dinner and celebrating Halloween seem much less significant compared to generations who have learned musical instruments to play songs that ancestors of long ago had played.

When his friends left I bundled up and headed to the pizza place I went to the day before to see what if any nightlife was going on in Tusnad on a Saturday night. Apparently, I was it. The one couple in the restaurant left shortly after I sat down and not one other person came in during the hour and a half I was there. I had a beer and a plate of pasta and headed home, carrying a small container of leftovers, which, as it turns out, is quite dangerous in a town over run with hungry stray dogs.

I have to say, I was a little nervous when they were jumping on my back and nipping at my thick gloves. When I got into the safety of the house, I stashed the container in the fridge and pulled out some salami to give to the one patient dog still sitting hopefully in the cold at the door.

Sunday With the Kids

Sunday, December 12

I was worried that I wouldn’t have any common ground with the kids for 2 hours before going to Church, but the time flew by. They all pretty much stay together in a group, even with their range in ages, from 5 to 14; they seem to operate as one unit. I’ve seen Felix separate from the group, as he is a bit shy. Barni is definitely the most charismatic; he is Oliver reincarnated. He wears a cap, does amazing magic tricks, elbows his buddies appropriately in Church, figured out the camera and computer rather quickly and could easily charm you into adopting him.

I was wondering if the shelves below the books held any other games but when I saw Ilonka putting a doll away into one of them, I realized there were no games. Jenga was it. Tomorrow I’ll bring either the Memory game or the jigsaw puzzle. I can only imagine what these kids would be doing if they were like my nieces and nephews who have an abundance of toys and educational games at their disposal. These kids rely on amusing themselves and listening to Barni play the same self taught songs over and over on the keyboard. They watch the same video of the traditional Hungarian dancing that Ilonka was in that I’d seen at her house just the night before.

I brought out the computer to show a slideshow and they were absolutely riveted, inching to sit closer to the screen. I should have realized they wouldn’t have WiFi at the house, so it was kind of anticlimactic after showing them pictures when I couldn’t do anything else with the computer. They did take hundreds of pictures and video with the camera and they loved seeing the videos played back over and over. I’m going to download some games for them to play. Hopefully they’ll get the concept of taking turns.

Lorika, Laci, Judit, Felix and Barni and I bundled up and headed off to Church. The kids go on their own, whether an adult is with them or not. In fact there were many more kids in Church than adults. There was a large group from the St. Francis Home sitting with Sabi, another Nevelok I met. Nevelok is the James Cameron-esque word they use here for ‘carer’ of the children. The word conjures up a fairytale born from these mysterious mountains in Transylvania.

The Church had wooden seats and was very sparse on d├ęcor and warmth. Most people stayed in their coats and hats; frosty breath expelled with each prayer. I found my mind drifting from how I could raise funds for all the kids to have a dental check-up to taking the seven kids into town to a museum or an arcade or a restaurant.

When the donation basket was passed around, I handed Judit ten Lei, around $3.00 dollars, to put in the basket. Barni’s eyes widened and I motioned it was for all of us. In perfect English like when he’d been singing Run DMC he looked up at me and said, “Thank you.”

After Church the kids went back home and I headed off to the St. Francis Home with Sabi and the group of fifteen kids he’d escorted to Church. Immediately I was linked arm in arm by smiling kids on either side of me. They introduced themselves and asked me my name.

Their communal dining room has around six tables that accommodate ten kids at a time so the house eats in shifts. I joined Peter’s group at the table where the kids lined up for a serving of noodle soup and brought it to the table. There was bread and plum jam on the table and the boys said a prayer in Hungarian before eating.

Peter offered me what was left from lunch to dip my bread into. It tasted like chicken pot pie, without the chicken; very tasty, but I couldn’t imagine stew and soup being my every meal as these kids have. They don’t need the knives put out somewhat hopefully on the table. No napkins; pants and sleeves work just fine.

After dinner the prayer is in English. Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub, Yeah God. A prayer my brother and his friend Derek would say at our dinner table a lifetime ago.

Little girls were smiling and waving to me in the dining room and one little toddler just grabbed onto my leg looking up at me and giggled.

There was a performance for the kids that night and the dining area was filled with eager faces. A Christmas puppet show delighted them and I gave my camera to one of Peter’s kids to use and he quickly became adept at the camera features and seemed to enjoy taking pictures.

As I said my good-byes I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone wouldn’t want any one of the kids I’d seen. Given their lack of parental guidance and one on one interaction, they had to be the most well-behaved, polite kids I’ve ever seen.

They have so much independence, some of them just toddler aged are roaming the large home themselves to and from their quarters to the common areas or to visit friends in other quarters.

Some of the boys in Peter’s care are teenagers, which presents challenges in any situation; but overall I got the sense the kids respected and listened to him. Peter has an additional five boys to care for because another Nevelok took time off.

Poor Alvin stood quietly as he got admonished in Hungarian for not taking a shower when he was told to. Peter explained to him that with fifteen boys in his care, he does not have the time to make several requests for them to do what they need to do. Alvin nodded and headed for the shower.

I walked the kids to school this morning and on my way back I was happy to see Alvin’s smiling face say hello as he walked to school; presumably showered from the night before.


  1. Patti, your writing is so good... I want to read your book. I feel like I'm there! I remember when I was little (in Russia) I would amuse myself without toys outside in the snow just like these kids... I think its sad how today, most children in the modern don't even leave the house.

  2. You're a sweetheart for saying that, Jenya. Really means a lot to me.