For Friday afternoon before New Years I was invited to a school's celebration in the village of Costeshti. I had heard about such celebrations where each student participated either as part of a singing group or by reciting a poem or anything similar. So I decided it sounded interesting and agreed to take a half day off from work.
Fifteen year old Dima met me at my office shortly after Noon to show me the way to his village. We took the trolley to the central food market (piasta) where we met his mother Ana, Aunt Dunea and ten year old cousin Micha. They are in the fish selling business.
Micha joined us and we took another trolley to the bus stop. We ate ice cream cones while we waited for the bus which took us in fifteen minutes to Ioloveni. There we changed buses and headed for Costeshti another fifteen minutes down the road.
In Costeshti we walked up the road to Micha's house. There we found some bread, cheese, chocolate butter and fruit juice for lunch.
Dima and I walked up to the school. Dima explained that he has not been going to school lately. He has completed the nine years of compulsory education and he does not think that the school in the village offers much beyond the ninth year. He wants to go to a more advanced school (called a lyceum) in Chisinau. Dima proudly introduced me to some of his teachers and friends. His English teacher organized a class picture, Dima grabbed his friend Ion for one more pictures then we went into the auditorium where the loud rock music clued me into the fact that a party was going on.
I saw a Christmas tree, Santa Claus and teenagers standing by the walls and occasionally dancing. The girls were neatly dressed, the boys less so. More of the girls were interested in dancing than the boys. Occasionally couples danced but often it was not so organized. Santa walked around with her bag (she had a big white beard but nobody seemed to care that Santa was a woman) and gave out hard candy. Occasionally they stopped the music to award some prizes. My translations were sometimes less than complete, but there seemed to be numbers inside balloons. A balloon would be chosen, popped and a number matched with a student. Most of the prizes were passes to the local disco. I slowly figured out that there were not going to be any traditional songs or dances!
We returned to Micha's house where I met his father, Costea. Soon Dima's father, Efim arrived. They insisted that I stay for dinner and spend the night so that tomorrow I could see them "cut" the pig for the traditional New Year's dinner. I agreed. Then we watched videos of the day we first met at the open air museum of World War II military hardware and our visit to the circus.
Soon the mothers arrived. They cooked some good fish and a soft corn bread (like the spoon bread Mom made for us). They also found some good home-made wine. We drank from a small juice glass that got passed around, each person making a toast. This was much more relaxed than Georgian toasts, as you could toast anything you liked in any order.
I kept Dima busy as interpreter. The fathers had many financial questions about the US: How much do workers get paid? How much do things cost? Can anyone who wants find work? How would street sweepers get paid? Is life easier in the US? Naturally it was often difficult to explain the answers. We don't have many street sweepers and the ones we do have drive fancy trucks!
By now it was quite late, especially for the parents who had been up since before 6. First they explained that I should sleep here rather than in Dima's house because the heat was not working there and they would build a fire to heat a room and a half while the rest of the house was closed for the winter. I got a private bedroom: the kitchen. The parents slept on a fold-out couch in the living room while the two children were in the adjoining room. (The upstairs rooms were closed for the winter.)
When I got up in the morning the mothers were long gone to the fish market. Dima sent Micha to buy some bread for breakfast. The store didn't have any yet so Micha went up to Dima's house to get a loaf. We also had tea, feta cheese and jam.
Then Dima said that he should go to a meeting in the town hall for an hour. It took a while, but eventually he explained enough for me to understand what was going on. Last year a bank had started a loan program. Five hundred families had borrowed a total of $100,000 in the spring that many used for seeds or fertilizer for their farms to be repaid in the fall. Dima's father and uncle had borrowed money to buy a big truck. The families were divided into groups and one person was in charge of ensuring that everyone in the group repaid the loans. The purpose of this meeting was to find out whether enough people had repaid the loans so that the program would be repeated this year.
Feelings were high. Maybe three hundred people crowded into city hall for the meeting, with as many standing as sitting. On the wall was a big chart showing who had repaid and who had not. Fifty-one families had failed to repay. Group leaders reported on why some people had not repaid. A few families had used the loans to leave the country and had not sent back payment. Some of the group leaders had collected from virtually everyone while one had not gotten very few repayments. Borrowers wanted to know how much the bank was paying the group leaders but that question was never answered.
Eventually we heard that the program would be repeated but that the interest rate would be increased from 25% to 35%. Dima's parents decided that the rate was too high and that they would not borrow.
Now it was time go back to Micha's house to cut the pig. Dima's father, two uncles and one family friend had bought the pig just a few weeks ago with the plan to split it for the holiday. It would have gotten bigger in a few more months but nobody had any interest in waiting - it was big enough to offer several large dinners.
Dima videotaped much of the event with my camera. When we arrived the four men were working under the hood of a very large truck. Later I figured out that the truck ran on propane and that they were figuring out how to attach a hose for a massive blow torch.
They went to the pig-pen and carried the pig out by his feet. The expert slit the pig's throat and then the slow butchering process was underway. First they burned off the hair. Then they scraped the hide. Then they burned it again. Then they covered it with burlap, rubbed the burlap around, let the children ride on the burlap (to loosen things up) then they slowly scraped the skin again. The children retrieved water from the well to wash waste away. This part probably took almost two hours of steady work.
Then the process accelerated. They split the pig and removed the innards. Now they used hot water to wash away what they didn't want while they divided the meat into a few very big pieces. The children happily chewed on the ears, considered a delicacy. They also liked the skin.
When they finished butchering it was time to start cooking. They took some small pieces of meat and put it in a big flat pan and used the blow torch to cook it up with some onions. They found some more home-made wine and we enjoyed our barbecue picnic.
One of the men insisted that I return on New Years' Day for his birthday party.
For more explicit pictures of the pig you can go here. But this is not a link for squeemish vegetarians!
Early in the evening on December 31 two boys who looked to be about ten years old rang the doorbell. They were engaged in the Moldovan equivalent of Halloween. They sang carols in exchange for candy and other goodies. My neighbor said that there used to be many more carolers like that, but that our neighborhood does not get many.
Traffic was blocked off in the center of Chisinau. I read in the newspaper (English, internet version) that the trolleys and busses would run all night and the music would begin shortly after dark and go until 5 AM. I visited in the afternoon to try to figure out what the schedule was. In the park photographers had set up backdrops appropriate to the season. Families paid to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus or a men dressed in costumes of reindeer or cartoon characters. Lots of vendors offered cakes and other goodies.
All day firecrackers had been going off all over the city. After dark there were sparklers and small fireworks wherever there were people. Around 10 PM I returned to the central square. Live bands were booming out rock music while thousands of people danced in the square. The photographers were doing a brisk business as were the vendors selling cake, candy and champagne. A shish-kebab café had sprung up in the middle of the park and I decided I was hungry and happy to sit and watch the world go by.
As midnight approached the soldiers encircling areas where fireworks would be set off slowly made the crowd back away. More and more independent fireworks were going off everywhere. The soldiers didn't care where people threw their fireworks. I had learned enough Romanian to recognize the countdown from ten to zero and to understand the shouts of happy new year ("la mults ani"). Then the official fireworks started. They didn't let up for a half hour. Families toasted the new year and cheered. I didn't have an interpreter so that I didn't know I was hearing the President and Prime Minister wish everyone happy new year.
An hour after midnight I decided to head home even though a band was blasting away and there were still occasional fireworks going off. Every where I saw families heading home. Near my house I saw some fireworks going off nearby, so I walked a block and found a family setting off big fireworks in their backyard.
It was certainly a change from quiet New Years in Vermont. Last year I stood outside Andy's house on top of the hill with Gerry, Bonnie, Rachel and Joshua and watched fireworks below us in the valley and heard distant booms. The moon was bright but there was little sign of life except for the fireworks miles away.
Late the next morning I retraced the trolley and two busses to return to Costeshti. Dima met me and we walked through the serpentine streets of the village to the home of Micha, one of the men who helped with the pig on Saturday. We could hear the party celebrating his fortieth birthday from a block away even though all the yards have metal gates and fences you can't see through.
When I arrived it was clear that the party had been going on for hours. They had already eaten the shishkebab (they call it shashlik) and were happily drinking wine, champagne and cognac while they danced to cassettes of rock music. Then the cassette player died so they found a friend with a keyboard and karaoke set up who provided semi-live music.
There were no women at the party -- just half a dozen men and 8 boys aged six to fifteen. Dima claimed that the women were tired from the night before and didn't want to party again today.
We walked a short distance up a hill to see tunnels that the Turks had dug several centuries ago to help defend the village.
Then it began to snow. Within a couple hours everything was a beautiful white. I ate some chicken stew that had been simmering for hours, drank some more wine and headed home. It was a delightful ending to a long weekend celebration. Before I left they reminded me that Christmas was next week and they insisted that I return.