Archive for July, 2008



Below is a slideshow of photos from the last week of the Kids’ Festival here in Pitesti.


Hexes and Bad Food

First things first.  This is a post about the food.  However, I would be remiss without noting that I think I was just hexed.

Having disembarked from the 7B bus at the 5th stop from the hostel, I crossed the street.  With the morning sun beating down, I began to make my way up to the church where the rest of the group was, and I was stopped in my tracks on the sidewalk.  A stumpy old man with leathered and wrinkly skin, capped in a fedora and toting a thick brown cane, approached me.  What then?  He stopped, stabbed his cane into the sidewalk, lifted his free arm, and began proclaiming things in my direction that I only wish I understood.  It was like the little guy in front of me was channeling Gandalf at his most confident – spewing the incantation that prevents the fire-breathing dragon from devouring the little hobbits.  Was I just hexed?  Did he think I was a dragon?  I continued to walk past, only for a split second betraying my shock.

Last week, again waiting at a bus stop, a little old lady (notice the old people theme) in a houndstooth skirt, matching hat, sunglasses from 1982, and a billowy fuchsia blouse, approached the stop to wait for a bus.  Of all the free real estate on the sidewalk, I was a little discomforted by the proximity to me of the spot she chose.  (She was so close; one might say her parking spot was still in my “dance space” and therefore, not free real estate.)  Even more discomforting than her proximity was the direction she was facing (right at me), and her posture (akimbo – with a fist on each hip, and scowling).  It wasn’t long before she said something.  I looked over, and from her sub-five-foot frame, looking at up me, she pulled a fist from her hip, tapped her head, threw her hand in the air, and parked it back on her hip.  I explained I didn’t speak Romanian; she ignored that and repeated the gesture.  Thankfully her bus arrived soon after.

If the fascination with my bald head in parts of Africa is more amusement and entertainment (let’s-be-shocked-and-have-a-good-laugh sort of attitude), my baldness here is much more aggressively responded to.  It’s almost as if the condition inspires anger and outrage, and fascinating.


A couple mornings ago, I found myself walking up to the store from the small church we’ve been parked at a lot of everyday.  My mission: yogurt.  After days of bad Royal Servants food, I decided a splurge of yogurt and granola for breakfast was in order.

Royal Servants teams pack their non-perishable food in a couple dozen boxes and pack them with them as they travel.  The food is bad.  It’s not even exotically bad, or interesting-but-disgusting – like nshima with a side of goat brains or toasted caterpillars, kapenta, or chicken hearts – it’s the boring kind of bad.  With the exotically bad, there’s a bit of a thrill getting the awfuls of a goat past your taste buds and down your gullet.  The same kind of thrill-horror combination cannot be induced from starting at a plate of “noodle boodle,” a horribly proportioned mixture of mayonnaise (“satan’s pus”), noodles, and smelly chicken from a giant can that makes a wet “thwock” sound when you out it.  It cannot be induced from consuming faux-chili, the generic kind in a giant can.  (Which by the way, tasted even more disgusting that imaginable the last time it was served, because all of the spices and seasonings ended up in a large, sketchy, slimy mass on one of the student’s plates.)

Anyway, on my walk up to the little hole in the wall store, I passed the small funeral service place across the street.  Just as I was strolling past, two men got out of a grey van and struggled to carry the heavy cargo out right in front of me: a coffin.  A bit morbid, but it seemed that they approached their job with enthusiasm.  As I walked passed the van, I read all the writing on the side of it; obviously it was in Romanian.  It said something that might’ve been translated, “Non-stop Funeral Service.”  Next to that was something that looked like “Parasite Restaurant.  3 Stars.”

Hmmm…  It was all I could do to keep walking and try not to think about it.  One thing I will try to avoid to the best of my ability: entering a restaurant with this name.  That and Royal Servants food.


the unexpected museum tour

Picture it: Eastern Europe.  Romania.  Pitesti (“Pih-tesht”).  A bustling city parked in the countryside.  Living long in the shadow of Bucharest, Romania’s largest city by 20 times.  But that doesn’t mean Pitesti doesn’t try.  Or take pride in their accomplishments.  After all, they too, have loosed the chains of Communism and are free.

Take their National Museum, por ehemplo.  A minute, but well stocked treasure trove of information (and you eventually get to the swords) about Romania’s environment and history.

As part of an extended mission trip in a foreign country, a leader or host of said mission team would of course want to culture the team.  What better way than to wedge a visit to the National Museum in between racing from the church to a park performance?  After all, the museum is small, and it can’t take too long to get through, especially because everything is in Romanian.

The group of 15 students (high school and college ages), 3 leaders (Steph, Travis, and Erin), 1 official group add-on (moi), 2 hostesses (Dutzi (rhymes with “Oopsi” – as in oopsi daisies) and Elena – young Romanian leaders from the church), and a baby in a stroller (Steph & Travis’ Jovie), all enter.  Lights are off; all is quiet.  In the foyer (“foy-yeazs”), a quiet waif of a woman accepts our 2 lei-each entry fee (about 90 cents) and we enter the first exhibit room, which is 5 feet away after hanging a Louis from the foyer.  Students disburse, and begin drinking in the knowledge that is Romania.  We are off on our own, as in most museum experiences.

But a slight commotion ensues.  A rotund, humorless man holding a stick enters the room and loudly begins proclaiming things in his native tongue.  It seems this man intends to give us a tour.  This apparently deeply surprises Dutzi and Elena. Stunned, they attempt to stifle their shock and amusement at this man as he pivots in the center of the room, speaking authoritatively, his long stick – which we’ve deduced by now is meant to point at the various beefs and cheeses displayed on the walls – traveling in circles around the room’s circumference.  The man isn’t budging from his self-imposed post as tour-guide, continues to talk, and waits for one of them to translate.  Silence.  He says something in Romanian, eyes widened, pokes his head at them, then opens his hands at his side as if to say, ‘Well, go on then.’  (Again, here is a series of surrepetitiously-taken photographs.)

The way his right hand effortlessly controls the stick at this point is important to note, and I think I’ve captured it in this photograph.  It hangs, ever so gingerly, between his pointer and middle finger right at the first knuckle, and he gently swings it.  It betrays his long relationship with said stick, and perhaps his comfort with it, almost like his baby blanket.  One wonders if he takes it home with him, if it’s at his side in the church pew, if he buckles it in its own seat belt, if he has named it, or even if his wife feels like the stick is competition for real estate in her bed.

Dutzi struggles to try and translate.  And also keep a straight face.  When he turns to face another direction, Elena giggles and her eyes widen.  She also makes a face as if to apologize.  Travis looks over and whispers, “This is RIPE.  I’m going to love this.”

Dutzi didn’t know she was going to translate for us today in the Pitesht National Museum.  What does our tour begin with – uh, plate tectonics?  Photosynthesis?  Wha?  I’ve accidentally entered a time-warp and traveled to 6th grade science class with Mrs. Warner and her super-bendy right pointer finger.  I am no longer in a museum about Romania, and I am annoyed.  I did not pay one whole dollar to get a 6th grade science review, especially while taking a very sloooow walk, carrying a 43-pound backpack, in a dusty, stuffy 87 degree building with smelly teenagers.  (No offense, if one of you smellies happen to wander onto my blog.)  I digress.

Students do their best to behave well.  Oopsi does her best with the translation, but she didn’t know she was giving a Biology tour in English today, so there’s a LOT of the the roundish man chattering away and pointing, then silence, and then in English, a brief, generic explanation that I might’ve come up with by looking at the picture on the wall.  The difference in the time it takes the rotund man to talk and Oops to translate is astonishing, and wildly entertaining.  It’s almost like watching an English-dubbed Japanese kung-fu movie: the lips keep moving, but not much is said.  Rotund Man notices, and appears visibly annoyed.  He apparently mildly insults her.

We move on from photosynthesis and enter the room with stuffed animals.  We have in front of us a sample Food Chain.

Rotund Man: Romanian blah blah blah blah blah blah.  Dutzi: “Here are some birds.”  More Romanian sentences…  “And some more birds.”  Two Romanian words.  Silence.  The man quietly looks and does the head poke-hand gesture to Dutzi.  Having apparently first waited for more to translate, but maintaining eye contact with him, she now responds, dead-pan: “A bear.”

At this point, I nearly die. I can’t look at Stephenie, Travis, or anyone else for that matter.  I sneak back it to the next room and weep quietly while struggling to breathe.

Shortly after this, I finally discover what the eyeball is I keep seeing peering around doors and corners. I noticed The Eyeball a ways back, but I now know it’s attached to a woman’s head. There is apparently a middle-aged woman secretly following us.  She goes ahead one room (from a secret passageway maybe?) and turns on the light switch, then makes her way back to turn off the light switch of the room we are exiting (but in some cases, are still in).  She doesn’t speak.  She only very nearly exists, what with her one eyeball and light-switching finger.

The tour goes on, into narrower, hotter rooms.  The tour won’t end.  Everyone is tired.  Maybe we’re so tired from having to stifle the laughter?  We are winding down but he is still going strong.

Completely worth it.



I entered Belfast International Airport on Monday morning, June 30, and after a rather extensive post-security search by a geriatric agent — who was awed (I could tell because he held everything up to the light, twisted it, then smelled it) by such things as power cords, contact solution, a digital camera, and other sundries invented in the last century — I ran to my flight and a few hours later found myself wandering in the heat of Bucharest.

By the way, anyone interested in an entertaining flight should fly Tarom Airlines, and pay close attention to the rough computer graphics of the safety demonstration.  At the point of the place-the-oxygen-mask-on-your-children, the ‘actor’ playing the role of passenger, who had grown a 5 o’clock shadow by that point in the safety explanation, reached over to his son.  His son, who was quite a bit smaller in size, looked every bit as old as the adult passenger, including 5 o’clock shadow.  In fact, he was identical, which is funny enough, but he was wearing a woolen, tweed-ish driving cap.  Wha?!?  I laughed out loud before I could contain myself, and to my embarrassment.  I got the Turn-and-Burn, as Romanians in adjacent seats turned their heads in my direction and burned disapproving holes into me with their eyes.

Romania is a very foreign place to me.  I’ve never had the privilege of being here, and I don’t know much about it.  I remember being a young teenager and watching and reading about the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe; I specifically remember the revolution and coup in Bucharest, and the arrest, brief trial, and execution of Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu.  The country has been trying to get back on its feet and thrive ever since.  I entered the customs point at the airport with this in mind, not at all certain of what to expect, and hoping not to encounter any problems (a la Sao Paulo this spring) at the checkpoint.  After a tense minute of waiting while the agent scanned my passport and my face, the crack and thump of the entry stamp immediately evaporated my fears.  Walking away, I looked at the stamp to confirm its existence, and blew on it to make sure it dried in place.

Bucharest is a fascinating city — a clash of old and modern, most readily visible in its architecture.  I am told that people are feeling more and more happy since the chains of Communism broke, but I was hard-pressed to see anyone smile despite my efforts otherwise.

I was wandering around one morning and a very excited man who noticed I had a camera, made me follow him a couple blocks.  He made me take a picture of this, which I understood him to say was a broken aqueduct (which doesn’t readily make sense to me).  Then he quickly disappeared.  And so did I.

Not all the buildings are worn down like this, but I found these interesting.

I’ve met up with my very good friends Stephenie and Travis Carr.  For those unaware, I used to work with Steph (I’m still not used to the past tense nature of that statement) at Oak Hills.  Steph and Travis and one other person are co-leading a team of about 15 youths on a summer-long, leadership-building mission experience, through an organization called Royal Servants.  I am privileged to be able to tag along with them for a few weeks while in Pitesti, and I’m already impressed by them.

They are partnering with a local church and helping put on a four-day kids festival, then an English language course, and lots in between.

Below is one of the students with the pastor’s son, who is every bit the two year old that the twinkle in his eyes betray.

Pitesti has unbelievable parks that everyone enjoys strolling through in the evenings.

Isn’t he cute?

A pickup game of soccer with some of the locals.


i hate coming up with titles to these things

I have a few more pictures from my last few days in Ireland.  Too hard to narrow down my favorites…

Below is Slieve League on the western shore of the island; reportedly the tallest cliffs in Europe.  It was a wonderfully drizzly and foggy afternoon, and very few souls were out “enjoying” the weather.  I hiked up as far as I could without getting lost in the fog, and could rarely and barely see the ocean far below.  The wind whipped up the cliffs so much so that when I peered over in places, I was forced to squint so my contacts didn’t blow out, and conscious of the potential of my earrings getting ripped out of my fleshy lobes.

I’ve been in Romania for nearly a week and a half, and have been on the ground running since arriving.  It is my first time here, and it really is a fascinating place and culture… more to come…

Katie Albert

PO Box 6536
Folsom, CA 95763
July 2008
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