A Tour of Three Chişinaus: Traditional, Funky and Classy

For many of you who read my blog, I would guess that when Bob and I moved to Moldova, this small country and its capital city, Chişinau, had not yet gained a position on your bucket list of places to visit before you die.  If you knew of Moldova at all, you likely knew it as Europe’s poorest country, a small former Soviet republic still struggling to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as such, you might not have expected it to have much to offer a tourist.   But if that is the case you might want to reconsider.  We recently enjoyed a visit from our son, Joel, who admittedly would not have visited Moldova had we not been here, but who found himself pleasantly surprised with the whole experience.

While Joel was here we introduced him to three versions of Chişinau: “Traditional Chişinau,” “Funky Chişinau,” and “Classy Chişinau.”  None of these is the Chisinau he had imagined, having read typical descriptions of the city, which always mention that it was mostly destroyed by an earthquake and by bombing in WWII, and was then rebuilt by the Soviets, who erected many apartment buildings in the style they are known for: big, grey, plain and functional.   While this is all true, it is not the whole story.  The streets in the center of the city are in fact still flanked by many charming old buildings which survived the WWII period and the earthquake, and are now being restored.  And Moldova’s capital is actually a very green city, with lots of trees and parks.  In fact, Chişinau, compared to other European cities, has one of the largest proportions of natural spaces in relation to its size.   Thus, the introduction that we gave Joel, as would any tour of Chisinau, included lots of walking in the parks.

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If some of you, our friends, are thinking of making a visit to us here, -and we do hope that you will, we could give you a introduction to Chişinau, similar to that which we gave Joel.   Here is what you might expect to see:

Our tour of Traditional Chişinau starts out with a walk around the lake at our neighborhood Park Morilor.   There will be lots of old people out fishing, and young people out running on the paved path around the lake, under the shade of willows, cottonwoods and aspens.

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From there we can walk to the town center, strolling on our way through Stephan cel Mare Park, (formerly known as Pushkin Park,) down the “Avenue of the Classics of Moldovan Literature,” flanked by busts of poets and authors and other social heroes of Moldovan and Romanian history.

At the far end of the park a giant statue of Stephan Cel Mare dominates the plaza.

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We’ll cross the street, which also bears his name, and pass through Chişinau’s own Arche de Triumph, to enter Cathedral Park, where we will visit the interior of the Orthodox National Cathedral.

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Afterwards we’ll stroll along the flower market that borders Cathedral Park, and pass by  the school where I have been teaching English, Spiru Haret Lyceum.

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This school is located just around the corner from the best placinte bakery in town where we will stop for lunch. At the bakery, you can watch the kitchen workers stretching out the dough, spreading it with fillings, rolling up the long coils of placinte, and placing them on trays to go into the oven, -while you enjoy a couple of your own placinte, filled with your choice of filling: brinza, (homemade cheese) pumpkin, apple, plum, cherry, or the Moldovans’ lunchtime favorite, potatoes and cabbage.  (See previous blog about placinte and this bakery.)

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After our placinte lunch we will head to the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History, two museums housed together, in a building which looks, on the exterior, very reminiscent of an Islamic Mosque.  Inside you will find exhibits about the customs, traditions and handcrafts of the people of the historical Bessarabia region, as well as exhibits on the flora and fauna, the geology, and paleontology of the region.  At the end of the afternoon, if you like, we can visit a traditional embroidery shop, such as Casa Cristea, which is hidden away in a tiny room behind the Filarmonic Hall.  Here you can purchase hand embroidered traditional clothing, and perhaps some embroidered and tatted table linens.

If there is an afternoon festival in town we will be sure to see some traditional Moldovan dance, and if not, in the early evening, we’ll take in a concert of traditional Moldovan choral music at the Filarmonic.

Afterwards we’ll have dinner at La Taifas Restaurant where we will be further serenaded by more traditional folk musicians on the violin, accordion and ţambal mare, (see a previous blog about the ţambal mare.)  We’ll enjoy Moldova’s comfort food, mamaliga, (polenta) along with perhaps borscht (with or without duck,) or Moldovan meatballs, and roasted vegetables, and a celeriac or fennel salad.  For dessert, we can share a round pie-shaped placinte made in a stovetop skillet and filled with apples or plums or cherries.

On a Funky Chişinau day, after the early morning walk around Lake Morilor, we will have coffee at Tucanos, where the ambiance might have you thinking you are back in Asheville, and where you can get a pastry that has cannabis among its ingredients; (I’ve not had it so I cannot testify to its taste, but the coffee and other pastries are quite good.)

We’ll then visit the open-air Art Market on strada Stephan cel Mare between stradas Pushkin and Pârcalab, where you can browse through displays of antique silverware, brass and silver candlesticks, old coins, and silver and amber jewelry, and other paraphernalia from old Russia, all mixed in with lots of kitsch tourist items like nesting Babushkas, and wooden Ukrainian eggs, as well as very nice traditional sheepskin Russian hats.

If you wish, we’ll visit the Pushkin Museum, which we’ll find tucked away in a remote corner and down a narrow alley.  (See my report on this museum in a previous blog.)

Lunch would be at Mamico, a small restaurant on Strada Veronica Micle where diners can hide out in nooks and crannies on three levels of a rambling old house, or, if the weather is nice, enjoy dining al fresco on the sidewalk.   In the afternoon, if it is a Sunday, we can take in a marionette show at the local children’s Puppet Theater.  In the late afternoon we’ll return to Lake Morilor where everyone will be out enjoying a stroll, or biking, or roller-blading, or speeding along on scooters, or pedaling giant four seater tricycles in the late afternoon sun.

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In the evening we will have dinner at the very funky Propaganda Restaurant, where the décor looks like a bookish and homey 1950’s Russian parlor, and the fried mamiliga is the absolute best.

Your Classy Chişinau tour will begin with coffee and the best sweet almond croissant you will ever eat, at the Crème de la Crème French bakery.

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From there we will drive about a half hour north to Cricova Winery for a tour of their underground wine cellar and a wine tasting afterwards.

This underground wine cellar contains 120 km (or about 75 miles) of roads laid out in the tunnels that were left behind after mining the limestone that was used to build the city of Chisinau.  Putin has a wine collection stored here, as does John Kerry.   (There are many good wines brewed here in Moldova and you could fill up several days just touring wineries if you wanted to.)

For lunch we’ll take a picnic to Dendrariu Park and enjoy a stroll afterwards through its beautiful gardens and lawns.   In the mid-afternoon we can visit the small National Art Museum on the sycamore-lined street named “Strada August 31,” (for the date of Moldova’s National Language day)  and afterwards relax with afternoon tea on the patio at Delico d’Ange, another not-to-be-missed French café and bakery.

In the early evening, we can attend an opera or ballet at the Opera House, or a classical music concert at the Filarmonic,

and have dinner afterwards at the chic and sleek Gastro Bar, which specializes in Turkish fusion food as well as any food that can be grilled in a “Green Egg.”

If you can add one more day to your tour we will drive you out of Chisinau up to the Orhei region where you can visit Rustic Art, (Ecaterina Popescu’s traditional Moldovan kilim weaving studio and museum,) Tipova Cave Monastery, and Orheiul Vechi Cave Monastery.   (See my previous blogs about Rustic Art and about Tipova and Orheiul Vechi Cave Monasteries.)  After a morning visit to Rustic Art we will hike down into a river ravine to see Tipova Cave Monastery, where we can have a picnic lunch and then explore the caves in the cliffs overlooking the Dniester River, where the “Monks with a View,” as Joel called them, made their homes, or rather their sleeping cells.

Finally, in the late afternoon sun, we will visit Orheiul Vechi Cave Monastery and Church, which sit on a dramatic ridge above the otherwise flat plain of Moldova.

Before we return to Chisinau we will have a traditional Moldovan dinner on the outdoor patio at La Butuc Restaurant in the village of Bucuceni where your mamaliga will be served with brinza, eggs with green onions, and horseradish.

Ok, so it’s not Istanbul or Paris, but it is unique little Chisinau, with its own small pleasures, and we would love to introduce any of our friends who think they might be game for it, to our Moldovan hometown.  A good visit can be accomplished in 3-4 days and can be easily combined with a tour of Romania, as cheap flights are usually available between Bucharest and Chisinau on Air Moldova as well as on other larger airlines. If you think you might be interested, let us know!

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Rustic Art: Moldovan Handwoven Rugs

Ecaterina Popescu remembers the chance encounter that started her on the journey which led to the founding of her enterprise, “Rustic Art.”  She was visiting Odessa years ago when she happened to notice in someone’s home, a very worn out rug which looked familiar to her. It was dirty and there was a dog curled up sleeping on it, but she asked her host if she could examine it, and when she was convinced that it was an authentic antique Moldovan flatwoven wool rug she negotiated a price and bought it. When she brought it home to Moldova, her aunt became very excited. Examining it closely, she located a telling defect at a particular place in the rug, one which she expected to find because, as it turned out, this aunt and Ecaterina’s mother (who had since died) had woven that very rug themselves, when they were young.  Ecaterina’s mother had sold the rug, at a time when she was in need of funds, to a Ukrainian passing through Moldova, who had carried it to Odessa.

The generation of Ecaterina’s mother all learned to weave in their youth in order to make their own bridal dowry of rugs, and Ecaterina also learned to weave from her mother. But many of Ecaterina’s generation did not learn, and as more and more Moldovan women took higher education and left the villages, very few of the next generation learned to weave.   Women regarded the ability to weave a rug as a skill no longer needed in the modern world, and regarded the time it required no longer practical.   People began to forget the value of these rugs.  They were often tossed aside in homes, allowed to accumulate dirt, left outside to decay. Ecaterina lamented the cultural loss of this fine craft and began to contemplate what she might be able to do to revive it.

I noticed when I first arrived in Chisinau, that one could easily find machine made wool pile rugs, or loosely woven rugs of synthetic yarns in gaudy colors; but hand woven rugs, like the finely and tightly flatwoven wool kilims that I had seen in Chisinau’s Ethnographic museum, were nowhere to be found for purchase. Nowhere, that is, until I spotted a few rugs hanging up as a backdrop to one of the booth displays at Chisinau Day last summer. From across the street the rugs caught my attention with their subdued color schemes, their tight weave, and their traditional motifs, characterized by a unique blend of botanical and geometrical design.   I purchased my first Moldovan kilim from Ecaterina Popescu that day, and learned about her enterprise, “Rustic Art,” which she founded to teach women to weave Bessarabian kilims, thus reviving this cultural craft in Moldova.

I met Ecaterina again a few months later when the National Palace in Chisinau hosted a large exhibition of traditionally woven rugs.   Many regional ethnographic museums from around the country were there that day exhibiting their collections of antique rugs. But Ecaterina and the group from her village representing Rustic Art, were the only group there who were still hand weaving these rugs. I was able to arrange for a visit to her workshop in Clişova-Noua, in the district of Orhei, a little over an hour to the north of Chisinau.

Ecaterina greeted us in the courtyard of the old kindergarten in Clişova-Noua, or “new Clişova,” a town built after a mudslide destroyed the homes of the original village of Clişova.   The kindergarten building at one time was the educational home of three hundred school children, but since Perestroika, according to Ecaterina, so many people have left the village that the school census dropped to fifty children and most of the school building fell into disuse.   Ecaterina was well known in the region, having been a schoolteacher herself at one time, so the municipality was willing to allow her to use the building for her new endeavor. She took us on a tour of the Rustic Art’s facility, its museum exhibit, it showroom, and the workshop studio.

Traditional Moldovan rugs are actually flatwoven kilim rugs, and according to Ecaterina, they were originally meant to be hung on walls and draped over caskets but were not placed on the floor.

 

In the showroom we saw not only many finished rugs for sale, but also a lot of embroidery work. Ecaterina found after her first few years with Rustic Art, that only a few women, after being introduced to the weaving process, had the necessary time and patience, as well as the design and math aptitudes required, to give them the determination to stick with rug weaving.  Many more women wanted to learn to do embroidery, so Rustic Art began offering embroidery classes as well. This was a craft women could do in their homes with very little equipment and in which they could much more quickly gain proficiency.

Ecaterina has received a small enterprise grant from USAID and is working on restoring her facility, but in the middle of December when we visited, most of the building was not heated.     We shivered through our tour of the museum rooms and showroom, and were relieved when we entered the actual working workshop to find that this room at least, where several women were at work with their bare hands on the looms and the sewing machines, was heated.

Ecaterina explained the weaving process, as the weaver demonstrated the techniques they use on both types of traditional looms, the horizontal looms and the vertical looms

On that first visit in December we picked out a design and color scheme for a custom made rug to fit a hallway in our home back in North Carolina.   Ecaterina called last week to say the rug was ready and we went up Saturday to get it.

Our custom made runner is on the left.  While we were there, we also fell in love with this  mustard colored rug on the right and bought it as well.

The Moldovan flatwoven wool kilim is a traditional fine craft that merits not only preservation in museums, but also development in the active contemporary art and cultural craft world, -along with Moldova’s other fine crafts: embroidery, tatting, pottery, traditional musical instruments, and the wool/sheepskin vests, hats and boots.   In many “developing” third world countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, and India, the traditional crafts are still being handmade and incorporated into contemporary products, and are widely available. Fair trade systems, micro-financing, and export markets have grown these cottage industries into successful small businesses for women in many third world countries where government and NGO development agents have played a part in reviving them as part of economic development. Moldova may be the poorest country in Europe, but it is not a third world country, and the same phenomenon has not taken hold yet here; traditional crafts have not been as well preserved in Moldova even though the old peasant way of life is still visible in the smaller villages. I was delighted to hear however, that Ecaterina’s Rustic Art workshop will be one of the stops on a Cultural Tourism Tour, which USAID is helping to develop here in Moldova under their Economic portfolio. The tour, (which will stay within 30 km of Chisinau,) is not designed to be a Handcraft Tour, but as a Cultural Tourism Tour it will include a visit to Orhei Vechi (see my previous blog) and to several wineries.

Also, as Ecaterina proudly informed us, in 2016 UNESCO added “ Traditional Wall Carpet Craftsmanship of Romania and The Republic of Moldova” to its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage.”   You can read about it on their site at the link below:

http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/RL/traditional-wall-carpet-craftsmanship-in-romania-and-the-republic-of-moldova-01167

 

 

Happy Mărţişor!

On a visit to the Chisinau Opera House one day this winter, I tried to purchase a ticket at the box office and was told by a rather grumpy woman inside that she was not the ticket seller, that the real ticket seller was late and  I would have to wait for her.   I sat down on a bench outside the box office and was waiting there when another young woman walked up, entered the box office, and then quickly exited, looking startled. I stepped forward to open the door, intending to find out if the ticket seller had arrived, when the young woman exclaimed, “Everyone in this country is angry! Close the door or she’ll kill you!”

I laughed.  “Where are you from?” I asked the young woman.   She told me that her family had at one time lived in Chisinau when her father was a famous ballet dancer, but had moved to Ukraine when she was still quite young.  As a young girl she had seen many performances on the Chisinau Opera House stage and she had wanted on this trip, for nostalgia’s sake, to see a performance while she was in town to get a passport issue cleared up. The grumpy woman in the box office had complained to the young Ukrainian about the cold, and then cussed her out for standing in the doorway with the door ajar.   This Ukrainian assured me that she found the residents of Chisinau generally to be much grumpier than her Ukrainian compatriots.

Indeed, alas, Moldovans do have that reputation. Last spring, some of my friends at home in the neighborhood of Asheville, NC, broke out in nervous laughter when I told them Bob was taking a job in Moldova.   These were the few friends who had even heard of Moldova before, and the only reason they knew of Moldova was because of its notoriety in Eric Weiner’s book, The Geography of Bliss.   While Asheville had ranked among the happiest of places, Moldova had served as his subject for the last chapter -on the unhappiest country in the world.

I have already written about how some of my first impressions in Chisinau did provide some substantiation for that claim: the absence of smiles in response to a greeting and the blank staring faces of people on the street, especially older people.   But I have since come to see those first impressions as just cultural misunderstandings.   The American in me, -whose most recent cross cultural living experiences were in extroverted and friendly Ghana, and cordial and gracious Ethiopia, -was experiencing the cross-cultural jarring that comes of differing expectations about how one interacts or does not interact with strangers. The practice of ignoring a stranger who greets you, does not after all, necessarily make you an unhappy person.  I  have also come to see that this cultural difference is age dependent. I have found young Moldovans to be very open and friendly, frequently smiling, freely at ease in returning a greeting.   And as soon as I got out of Chisinau, I saw that older people in the villages wore friendlier facial expressions and even greeted me.

My language instruction, however, has provided further evidence of an unhappy national psyche. One day a stranger poured out a tirade of angry words at me, most of which I did not understand, after I took a telephoto photograph of snowy Lake Morilor that included her in the far-off distance.   Later I tried to tell Elena, my Moldovan Romanian tutor, about this encounter and asked her, “How do I say unhappy in Romanian? I want to say ‘She seemed like a very unhappy person.’ ”

“We don’t speak of people being unhappy,” Elena responded. “Everyone is unhappy; being unhappy is nothing to remark on- it’s the default condition.”

When I expressed my disbelief she elaborated further. “If we have 99% of everything we want, but don’t have that 1%, we would not call ourselves “happy.” If a person is “happy” they are on the level with a god.”

I protested. Certainly this was just a cynical view.  “There must be a way to say unhappy.”

“No,” she insisted.

“What about fericit?” I probed. “You say, Craciun Fericit! For ‘Merry Christmas!’  Can you not alter that word to make it un-happy?”

“Yes, we do sometimes use fericit,” she acknowledged, “but that’s just an adaptation of our language to imitate an English phrase. We don’t otherwise use that word much.”

“What about a woman who just had a baby and the baby was born healthy and all went well. Are she and her husband not fericit in Moldovan Romanian?”

“Well yes, maybe they would be “fericit,” she finally relented. “But there is no form of the word to make it a negative. You would just have to say someone is not happy, and we don’t say that.”

Another time I asked her,   “How do I say that I “enjoyed: something? For example, how would I say “I enjoyed the concert.”

“We don’t say that.” She said. “We say ‘I passed the time well at the concert.’

Again I protested. “What if you went to a friend’s house and you ate wonderful food and spent the evening joking and laughing, would you not say you had a good time, you enjoyed it?”

Her answer: “We would say “We passed the time well.”

In a later lesson I did in fact learn how to say I “enjoyed” something, but Elena was not admitting to it that day. “I hear Americans tell each other to ‘Have fun,’” she said. “We don’t tell someone to ‘Have fun!’ We use petrece; we say, “Pass the time well!”

“To my American ear that sounds more like an admonition to not waste time,” I told her.  “Don’t you have a word for fun?”

“ Yes, distractie, but that word is used more as a verb, a se distra, and it has bad connotations, you don’t tell someone to distract themselves.”

I was initially, I confess, a bit exasperated with Elena’s insistence that I accommodate my vocabulary to express what she viewed as more culturally appropriate sentiments.  It took me the better part of the past seven months that we have lived in Moldova, to begin to grasp how profoundly the hardships and dashed hopes of Moldova’s short history, have indeed molded Moldova’s national psyche.   The country is, in fact, still recovering from the tumultuous economic collapse into which it was born, and the older generation has endured a very long and severe economic depression. They are in many ways a depressed generation.   Current widespread corruption, and a recent scandalous thievery of the nation’s treasury, (which occurred under a ruling party that represented the high hopes of those who favored turning toward Western Europe) have added cynicism and fatalistic despair to the underlying fatigue, giving many Moldovans, those over forty at least, good reason to feel like pawns who have little to gain by raising their heads or stepping out of line, and little use for the vocabulary of happiness.

But just as I was starting to better appreciate all of this, all of the reasons that older Chisinau residents have for feeling glum, I started noticing that people on the streets of Chişinau were suddenly more inclined to smile back at me. There was a subtle brightening in the faces of the old people coming toward me on the street, faces in which I had come to expect a kind of dourness. Suddenly there was a softening around the eye, indeed a slight light in the eye, an upturning of the corners of the mouth, even the hint of a smile before I smiled.   What could be accounting for this?

Slowly it dawned on me…. It’s the Mărţişor! (prounounced “Martzishor”) Every year on the first of March Moldovans begin their observation of “Mărţişor” or “little March,” a tradition that celebrates the coming of spring, the coming of new life after a hard winter.  The legend behind the holiday involves the Queen of Spring, who during a walk through the snowy woods, noticed a snowbell blooming in the snow under a briar, and tried to protect it, but inadvertently pricked her finger on the briar. A drop of her warm blood fell on the snow beside the flower and nourished it, helping it to survive the cold and to flourish.

In observance of the holiday, Moldovans give each other little “mărţişors,” twisted yarns of red and white from which hang two tassels, one white and one red, or possibly some other more ornately crocheted figures instead of simple tassels. They pin the mărţişors to their clothing and wear them until the end of March when they tie them to a branch of a fruit tree. I have been seeing these mărţişors on women’s blouses, coats and hats, and dangling as bracelets from wrists, and have received a few as gifts from friends and students.  People have set up stands on the sidewalks where they are selling homemade as well as mass produced mărţişors.

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At the public school where I give English classes to the 9th graders of the Lyceum I saw this display of handmade mărţişors created by the younger students of the school.

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The flower sellers on the street corners are also selling bunches of snowbells, which are grown in greenhouses for the occasion because it is now prohibited to pick them in the wild.

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The young flower vendor, from whom I bought a bunch of snowbells, was all smiles and cheer, despite the fact that with two young children at home, and an income not sufficient to cover her rent and electricity, she is thinking about going abroad to get a job. (Her dilemma is common, and the current troubling trend of leaving one’s children to work abroad could be the subject of another blog.)

It does seem that spring has in fact arrived promptly with March 1 in time for Mărţişor.   When we left Chişinau at the end of February to attend a family wedding in Phoenix, there was still snow piled up in our yard and along the edge of our walks and our driveway. We hoped an interlude of warm weather during our absence might make it all disappear before our return, and indeed we did find the piles shrunken dramatically, if not totally disappeared, upon our return. We are having temperatures up to 60 in the afternoons, and the sun, which was hidden behind cloud cover for weeks on end in January and February, is suddenly shining.

Schools have been on vacation for the first three days of this week in observance of the Mărţişor and of International Women’s Day on March 8th. Yesterday afternoon when I walked along Lake Morilor, the promenade was full of teenagers out enjoying the warm sunny weather and taking selfies with their friends. The bikers, roller bladers, baby strollers, skateboards, and scooters were all out in full force as well. The coffee and ice cream stand had a long line waiting as did the new cotton candy stand, and someone was selling balloons.

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I came across this old gentleman sitting on a park bench at Lake Morilor playing his accordion, and I was surprised to recognize the tune he was playing; it was one I mentioned in my last blog! – the original Russian version of what we know as “Those Were the Days My Friends.”

International Women’s Day is also a big holiday here and Moldovans observe it by giving flowers to the women and mothers in their lives. Tulips seem to be the favored flower.   On the morning of March 8th I saw many children out on the streets carrying bunches of  tulips, and two of my students whom I tutor in English here at my house, also brought me a bunch of tulips.

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I love that this celebration of spring here in Moldova, this Mărţişor, appears to have the power to revive tired hearts and thaw frozen faces.

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The “Ţambal Mare”

One evening this week Bob and I had dinner here in Chisinau at La Taifas restaurant, where we were delighted to be serenaded by a group of folk musicians. Their ensemble included an instrument with which I was not familiar, though I had seen it once before, at a concert of the Chisinau Filarmonic.   It looked a lot like the hammer dulcimer I have at home, but it was much bigger, with four built-in legs, and had a dampening foot pedal like a piano has.  The musician at the restaurant was playing it just like a hammer dulcimer and the hammers that he sent bouncing across the strings were simply carved wooden sticks with slightly curved ends wrapped in homespun cotton thread.

I asked the men of the folk group the name of this instrument, and they told me it was”the *ţambal.” My Romanian to English translator on Google immediately translated the word to “dulcimer.”  This ţambal however, was a “Ţambal Mare,” or Concert Ţambal, (the word mare in Romanian means large or great, as in Stephan cel Mare.)  I later learned that the proper word in English for the Concert Ţambal is the “cimbalom.”  The ţambal is also called the Tsymbaly in Ukrainian, the Hackbrett in German, the Cymbalam in Hungarian, and the Santouri in Greek.   All of these instruments developed from the Persian Santur, which came to Europe in the 11th century, and was popularized and spread by gypsies who carried it hung from their shoulders. In the 1870s, a Hungarian piano maker built the first concert ţambal by adding more strings, four legs, and suspending a foot pedal lever under the instrument to control the dampening bars.

The group last night was playing lively Eastern European folk music, but the ţambal player demonstrated for me his wide repertoire, which included classical music.  While Bob ate his mushroom placinte, and I my celeriac salad, he proceeded to play a beautiful and expressive arrangement of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

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Below is a link to a You Tube video of a very talented player on the Concert Ţambal.  You cannot see his feet operating the dampening pedal, but you can see the dampening bars on either side of the instrument as they lift and lower throughout this performance.

incredible playing on the cimbalom

You may have already heard the music of the cimbalom.  Igor Stravinsky included the cimbalom in his Ragtime for eleven instruments, Franz Liszt used it in his orchestral version of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, and Bela Bartok used it in his Rhapsody No 1 for Violin and Orchestra.  For those among you who are avid movie watchers, I read that it has also been used in many film scores including Startrek III: In Search of Spock, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Golden Compass, and The Black Stallion, as well as in some of the musical scores for the old TV series Mission Impossible.

I do not remember ever seeing a cimbalom before I came to Moldova, but unbeknownst to me I had listened repeatedly to one in the past.  In reading about the cimbalom I discovered that it was featured in Mary Hopkin’s 1968 recording of the song “Those Were The Days.”   I very much remember that popular recording and can still sing most of the verses.   The song was originally a Russian romance song composed by Boris Fomin in the early 1900s, with lyrics by the Russian poet, Konstantine Podrevsky.  Mary Hopkin’s version, produced by Paul McCartney, with English lyrics written by Gene Raskin, was a number one hit when I was a young teenager.   That recording featured a cimbalom played by Gilbert Webster of London’s Guildhall School of Music. Below is a link to help you remember the song.  The cimbalom is especially easy to hear in the introduction.

Mary Hopkins, Those Were the Days, with cimbalom

By the way, that song was about the remembrance of youthful idealism and expressed a feeling of middle aged disillusionment: “… Then the busy years went rushing by us. We lost our starry notions on the way…”  But by referencing this song, I am not seconding that sentiment!  I don’t believe that my generation lost their “starry” notions: witness the current uprising in defense of inclusion and diversity, equal rights for women and minorities, civil liberties and political freedoms, the protection of vulnerable refugee populations, and the protection of the environment, an uprising that includes plenty of middle aged and retired people who are standing up again for “notions” they held in the 1960’s to 70’s and have not lost over the years.  More precisely, I don’t believe that most of those notions were, or are, so starry-eyed: they are grounded in democratic traditions and ideals that will always resurface when those in power try to repress them.

So, please do listen to the song, especially to the exotic twang of that cimbalom, but remember: These are the days, my friends!

*****

PS:  Last week in my blog I wrote about Paul Shapiro’s book, The Kisinev Ghetto, and mentioned that he would be coming to Chisinau for a lecture when the Romanian language edition of his book is published.   I wrote mistakenly that this would occur in the fall.  He was actually here in Chisinau this week for the celebration of that publication, so I have now added a photo to last week’s blog.

* The Romanian letter  “ţ ,capitalized Ţ”  which looks like a t with a little comma under it,  is pronounced like the sound you make at the end of the word “waltz.”

 

The Kishinev Ghetto

On Friday, January 27th, Moldova commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day for the second year in a row.   The new president, Igor Dodon, included in his remarks the following statement: “…We condemn the Holocaust and implicitly, violence and discrimination, and we appreciate how members of the Jewish community are providing lessons of human dignity and forgiveness.” He saluted the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Kedem Jewish Cultural Center, for their promotion of tolerance and mutual acceptance. Moldova has been an observer state in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance since 2014.

On that same day, Bob and I happened to be in the town of Balti, visiting with four PC Volunteers who work in that region.  We joined the volunteers for lunch with Ambassador Pettit who was also in the region and wanted to meet with some PCVs. In anticipation of our visit I had read a bit about the city of Balti and its history and discovered a reference to a “Balti concentration camp.” Over lunch I asked the volunteers from Balti about this historical camp, and although they had heard reference to it, no one was sure where it had been located and whether it had been a WWII concentration camp run by the Romanians and Nazis, or whether it had been a Soviet camp during the Soviet era. The question however led to an introduction of the book, The Kishinev Ghetto 1941-1942; A Documentary History of the Holocaust in Romania’s Contested Borderlands, written by Paul Shapiro, who is the director of the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.   The book was published in 2015 in English, and the Ambassador informed us that the publication this year in the Romanian translation would be celebrated this winter here in Chisinau at the National History Museum.

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The author Paul Shapiro, giving lecture at National History Museum, Chisinau, (Photo was added the week after this blog was originally posted.)

It just so happened that the English language edition of the book had recently arrived on the shelves at the *American Corner where one of the PCVs was volunteering, and I was able to check it out during our visit there.

The “Kishinev” of the title is of course the old name for the city in which Bob and I live, now known in Romanian and English as “Chisinau.” The history documented in the book begins with the Romanian-German military drive across what was then a Romanian border province and is now known as the Republic of Moldova, toward Kishinev. The drive occurred in the summer of 1941 following a year of Soviet rule in the territory. It covers the creation, administration and “liquidation” of the Kishinev Jewish ghetto, the mass killings during the drive toward Kishinev, the shooting of thousands of Jews on the streets of Kishinev during the first days of the re-establishment of Romanian administration, and the deportation of all the residents of the ghetto to Transnistria in the late fall of 1941, a deportation which turned out to be a forced death walk.

It has been chilling these past few days, to read the documentation of these horrifying, barbaric events, while sitting in my living room here in peaceful Chisinau and recognizing on the Chisinau map the streets where this ghetto existed just 75 years ago. The ghetto in fact encompassed the neighborhood where the PC now has its office.  I asked around a bit and learned that there is a memorial to the residents of this Jewish Ghetto on Strada Ierusalim and set off in search of it.

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The inscription in Romanian reads, “For the martyrs and victims of the Chisinau Ghetto; We who live, do not forget you.”

At the same time that I was reading this history, I was learning that the current president of the U.S., this past Friday, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, chose to remember this day by signing an order to ban almost all permanent immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Syria and Iraq. Syrian refugees, the currently desperate victims of a savage war, can die for all he cares, just like so many Jews who were denied entry to the U.S. during WWII, (including the family of Ann Frank, by the way.) Trump and his advisors would carry us down a path that completely betrays our American values, a path that is consistent only with the ugliest parts of our history when we acted from our lowest natures: the previous bans on immigration targeted against ethnic or religious groups, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, our cruel treatment of Native Americans, and of our racism against African-Americans. It seems that Trump would make America “great” again by reviving that version of America of which we should all be hugely ashamed.

Republican leaders, who, I am sure, do recognize that a ban based on a religious affiliation is entirely unconstitutional, are sitting silent. Some of them spoke out in the past against Trump’s idea of banning Muslims, but now, whatever keeps them in power and on the side of the Big Bully is what they will do. It appears to me that they have no moral compass, no integrity, and no real commitment to our constitution.

Thank goodness for the action of the ACLU, and the lawyers of groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, a few judges who did what they could to block parts of the order, and for the courage of Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, who refused to enforce the unlawful order and was then fired by Trump.

This past week I read a short story called American History, by Puerto Rican-American author, Julia Ortiz Cofer, to the 9th grade English sections at the Spiru Haret Lyecum. It is my aim in my interactions with them, to introduce them to literature or essays that are not only by American authors, but which also reveal something about life in the US, the culture and history of the US; so I chose this story about an immigrant student which happens to take place on the day that President Kennedy was shot in 1963.   After reading the story out loud, vocabulary work, and our discussion for comprehension and response, I included some remarks about how the U.S.as a nation was built by immigrants, and continues to be a nation of immigrants.

At the end of the class one student wanted to know what I thought of Trump and I told him my truthful opinion, also pointing out that my opinion is shared by many Americans, that he was not the winner of our popular election but is only in office because of our Electoral College system.  It was evident in the discussion that followed that a few of the boys in that class were fans of Trump and had been ardent opponents of Hilary Clinton.   My host teacher told me later that quite a few students in that class, both boys and girls,  generally hold very conservative rightist viewpoints.

One student shared with me a cynical joke that I found very interesting. He said the joke was circulating in Russian language circles in Moldova, and took the form of a riddle: “Why are there no free and fair elections in the US?” Answer: “Because there is no US Embassy there.”

If you have never worked closely with an American Embassy you may not be aware of how much our Embassies are known for their involvement (along with private US and European institutions) in efforts to support free and fair elections all around the world, or of how much they advocate for the protection of free speech and independent media.   I know that in the countries in which we have served, – Ghana, Ethiopia, and now Moldova, the US Embassy is very much associated in local peoples’ minds with efforts to promote free and fair elections.   How sad it is that it has now become apparent, at least to some Moldovans, that our own country is currently and ironically in great need of an American Embassy to advocate and provide support for democratic processes,  since our election system and balance of powers have become so obviously corrupted and weakened.   How sad it is that our current president’s administration and the Republicans in power are undermining the proud efforts of American Embassies everywhere to promote the principles of democracy and of universal humanitarian principles with respect to refugees and immigration, and have instead made our country easy pickings for accusations of blatant and obvious hypocrisy.

But we have given the world cause to see us as hypocrites many times before, and we will eventually rise above it this time too.  I am so heartened by all the grassroots push back.  We are not a passive, fatalistic, helpless people; we shall overcome… overcome our lower natures, that is; we shall always be overcoming, it is an ever present necessity;  we will rise again to our true aspirations and to the world’s expectations and hopes….eventually.

*****

* “American Corners” around the world are libraries sponsored by the US State Department, which provide access to English language books and media, to Internet access and to programs that inform local citizens about US culture and history, and about the principles of democratic government. They work under the US Embassies in close cooperation with our Public and Cultural Affairs departments and also provide resources to participants and alumni of exchange programs between the host country and the US. Many of them are very much utilized by elementary, high school, and university students who come in during after school hours to take part in the English language activities. While we were visiting the Balti American Corner we saw elementary age students participating in an English language game led by the corner’s Moldovan director and we spoke with three high school students on a Diamond Challenge team, who, with the help of their mentor, the PCV, were preparing for their presentation in the “idea pitch” contest this weekend here in Chisinau. The Diamond Challenge for Young Entrepreneurs is another great program—read about it online at http://diamondchallenge.org/.)

 

January 15: Poet and Preacher

This past weekend on our Sunday morning ramble Bob and I made a loop through the center of town on our way to our habitual Sunday morning stop at Tucano Coffee Shop.  In Pushkin Park we found a crowd of perhaps a hundred-fifty people gathered around one of the pedestals that line the central promenade and on which are displayed the sculpted busts of revered writers. A lectern had been set up and speakers were reciting poetry and expounding on the richness of the Romanian language.

They were celebrating the birthday of Mihai Eminescu, the Romanian poet, novelist and journalist of the 19th century, the most famous and beloved of poets here in Moldova as well as in Romania. I have seen statues of Eminescu in parks everywhere throughout Moldova; every city and small town has a street named Eminescu; and his photograph is displayed in nearly every public institution and classroom that I have visited here as well.

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He was born on January 15, 1850 near Suceava in the Bucovina region of Romania (where we visited the painted monasteries.) The region was at the time a part of the Austrian Empire, and Eminescu became a strong Romanian nationalist. He continues to be the literary figure around whom Moldovans rally when they wish to celebrate Moldova’s cultural ties with Romania as well as the Romanian language.

The next day I was visiting ninth grade English classes at the Spiru Haret Lyceum just across the strada Stephen cel Mare from Pushkin Park, and happened to sit down for lunch in the school cafeteria next to the school’s Romanian Literature teacher.   In my limited Romanian and his limited English we tried to discuss the poet, and I asked him where he would recommend that I start if I wanted to familiarize myself with Eminescu’s poetry.   He advised me to begin with any of a multitude of Eminescu’s love poems.   Many of these have been translated to English and they are indeed beautiful. I have included an uncharacteristically short one here:

And If (Si Daca)    

by Mihai Eminescu, translated by Corneliu M. Popescu

And if the branches tap my pane
And poplars whisper nightly,
It is to make me dream again
I hold you to me tightly.

And if the stars shine on the pond
And light its somber shoal,
It is to quench my mind’s despond
And flood with peace my soul.

And if the clouds their tresses part
To let the moon out blaze,
It is but to remind my heart
I long for you always.

*****

I was at the Lyceum on Monday to begin my weekly volunteering there. A few weeks ago a PC staff member introduced me to an English teacher at the school and together we came up with a plan for me to visit her six sections of ninth grade English classes each week to provide English supplementary activities.    I observed in Mrs. S’s classes one day last week and was impressed with the facility of these 9th grade students in English. Some of them  are quite advanced in their reading and speaking, so my plan will be to provide  listening comprehension exercises. I will read aloud in my American English voice, short stories or excerpts from novels and essays by American authors, with no print copy in front of the students, and then go over vocabulary and give the students the opportunity to discuss the ideas in English.  Any suggestions that any of you can offer for selections which can be read aloud in fifteen minutes, thereby leaving a half hour for vocabulary work and discussion along the way, which are appropriate for 9th graders and which also provide some insight into American life and history, would be most welcome!

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Since my first lesson took place on Monday, January 15th, the American holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., I did not bring fiction but brought instead excerpts from MLK’s I Have a Dream speech. I used it to introduce a bit about the history of race relations and the struggle for civil rights in the US, but also as an example of great oratory.   None of the students were familiar with MLK or with the speech.  Mrs. S. then pulled up the recording of his speech on You Tube and we listened to and watched his delivery of part of it.  I had to explain to them the difference between the historical use of the word “Negro,” as used by MLK in his speech, and the other word they had heard of, (the “n-word”) making clear that, though it might sound a bit like the word for black in Romanian, negru, the  n-word is a pejorative word in English, an insult, which they should never use.

Moldovans whom I know well enough to talk about such things, tell me that there is wide spread prejudice against people of dark skin color in Moldova too. Moldovan society is in fact very white, with the only diversity being between people who identify themselves ethnically as Moldovan, Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Roma, Gaugazian, or as “Other,” a category claimed by less than 0.5%.   All of our African American Peace Corps volunteers have had to contend with this lack of diversity here, many have had to contend with obvious prejudice, and some unfortunately, have faced outright hostility, including the intentional use of that n word.

These students seemed receptive to the ideas in the speech, though they had very little idea of the US civil rights history out of which it arose.  I enjoyed the interaction with them and hope to get to know them further over the coming weeks.

The Lyceum is currently down one English teacher, so all the English teachers, and some Math and Science teachers, are currently giving up free periods in order to cover those classes. My hosting teacher told me that it is very difficult to recruit young university graduates to teach in Moldovan public schools because of very poor salaries.   A typical beginning teacher’s salary in a Romanian language public school, I am told, is about 3200 Moldovan Lei a month, equivalent to $160 a month, which is less than $2,000 a year. The average monthly salary across all occupations in Moldova is currently around 5000 MDL, equivalent to $250, so the beginner teacher’s salary is well below the average salary across occupations.   She also told me that a teacher who retires after forty years of teaching would receive a pension of the equivalent of about $100 a month.

Today I read in the news that a few hundred educators protested yesterday in front of the cabinet building, asking for a 50-percent hike in salaries. The Education Ministry issued a statement noting that last year they implemented an 8.6-percent hike in educator salaries hoping to encourage young people to become educators.

And that’s the news from frozen Lake Morilor, where all the men can recite poetry, and all the teachers are underpaid, and all the children are out playing in the snow.

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Rhapsody in Blue…White…and Technicolor!

The Year 2016 for us here in Chisinau was a year full of musical concerts. In the final concert that we attended, on December 30, 2016, a US Embassy sponsored American pianist, Thomas Pandolfi, played a guest performance at the Filarmonic Hall along with the visiting Tiraspol municipal orchestra.   Tiraspol, Moldova’s second largest city, (population of 150,000,) is also the capital of Transnistria, that Russian-leaning region east of the Dniester river which has aspirations for independence.  Together, the visiting American and the visiting Transnistrians, performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and the extreme contrast between the two performance styles could not have been more striking.   Pandolfi’s performance was indeed a rhapsody; we could see the passion of the music transmitted through his body, which seemed to expand and contract with the dynamics of the piece.   He hovered over the piano, sometimes crouching so low over the keys, we could barely see him, other times bouncing off the bench, or arching his arms out with flair at the end of a phrase, his entire body free and unrestrained in producing that beautiful music.   The orchestra players, meanwhile, remained rigidly fixed in their seats, not a hair on their heads ever disturbed, and looked slightly bored.   I have grown accustomed to the subdued style of the musicians of Chisinau’s own Moldovan National Symphony who also exhibit a certain a dignified restraint in their demeanor …when they stand to take a bow, very few of them allow even the faintest of smiles to cross their faces.  But I don’t think I have every in my life seen an orchestra quite so uniformly constricted in their facial expressions or body language as was this one from Tiraspol. They played well, the music was beautiful, but I had to wonder as I watched and listened if they were enjoying the music, feeling it. The American in me is still finding all this restraint in facial affect, very hard to interpret, confounding.

At any rate, as the political situation at home is never far from my mind, when I closed my eyes and just listened to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, brimming with confidence, determination and joy- all mixed up with exquisite yearning,- it felt to me like the perfect musical accompaniment for the departure of President Obama from office.   In the music I heard the long journey from “Yes We Can!” …to … “Look at all we did despite all the obstructionists… And Yes We Will….Eventually! …..  We are not done yet!”  I heard the dignity, grace and finesse with which he traveled that journey.   If you have a recording of the Rhapsody in Blue, get it out and listen, and if you don’t, find the online YouTube recording of Leonard Bernstein playing the piano while also directing the New York Philharmonic in a splendid 1976 performance of this piece.

The Pandolfi and Tiraspol performance brought a standing ovation from the audience here in Chisinau. And for an encore Pandolfi performed a solo medley of his own arrangement of music from Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 West Side Story. The Sondheim lyrics which this music brought to mind, “There’s a Place for Us, Somewhere a Place for Us…” and “I want to live in a America! ..” seemed especially poignant now, sixty years later, with a new President-elect coming in who has made it his rallying cry to keep people out of America….

In another very memorable concert last week we heard an ensemble of ten young cello players from Romania and Moldova playing a wide range of music from classical, Latino, jazz and popular genres, including a piece I have not heard in live performance for many years: Speak Softly Love, from the Godfather movie.   The young players in this group were not so restrained, and among the pieces they played was a loose jointed, felt-in-the-bones delightful rendition of Piazolla’s Libertango. This was the fourth time we heard this piece performed in Chisinau in 2016.

On New Year’s Day instead of attending another musical concert we drove about two hours south of Chisinau to visit the Purcari Winery which is known here in Moldova for its very fine wines. Those that we sampled were indeed lovely, but we are not really wine connoisseurs and cannot tell you much more than that.   We were more interested in having a countryside getaway, and they did not disappoint on that front either. We spent the night at their country lodge set in a landscape of rolling hills covered with acres and acres of grapevines. It was cold but we enjoyed a long hike in the afternoon and afterwards a cup of hot tea by their great fireplace.

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Purcari Winery Hotel; Definitely worth a visit if you ever get to Moldova

Yesterday back here in Chisinau we spent the morning of Orthodox Christmas shoveling snow. About six inches fell Friday and the temperature dropped to -15 C. (That’s 4 F,  but it sounds so much colder  to give the temp in C!)   Last night we ventured out for the evening to the home of Dave and Kate Panetti for a “Soup Night” with some other Embassy families.   On our way home it was snowing again.   This morning we walked down to Lake Morilor enjoying the winter wonderland, a rhapsody in white.

Two nights ago as I sat in my study starting this blog post, the night sky outside my windows was alight with fireworks. It is now January 8th and the fireworks, privately purchased and set off by private households, have been going on every night for the past couple of weeks.   Ironically, the citizens of this corner of Eastern Europe, noticeably restrained in public, seem to love fireworks.  (They even include fireworks in their wedding celebrations. During August and September we often heard and saw fireworks over the lake near our house on Friday and Saturday evenings and were thus informed that someone had just got married.)  These are not small crackers either. They are the full deal, like we see at municipal Fourth of July displays in the states. On December 31 the grand displays that shot up one after another from various houses in our neighborhood started at 10 p.m. and continued on until 1a.m., a Rhapsody in Technicolor…. We thought maybe they would be all blasted out by then but they have continued. Next weekend is “Orthodox New Year,” so we shall see, this may go on for a while yet.

Moldovan Bors

December 2016

During the cold winter months I have an appetite for hot soups, and I have a long list of favorites,- Betsy’s Gypsy Soup, Mary Ann’s Curried Red Lentil soup, Mary Alice’s Indian Butternut Squash soup, my own Carrot, Parsnip and Apple Soup, Tuscan White Bean and Kale soup, Smruti’s Indian Kadhi, Bob’s Best Chili, and here in Chisinau a favorite is Red Beet and Cabbage Borscht.   The recipe I had been using before I came to Moldova I learned from Laura Linger which she got from the original Moosewood Cookbook. (See below.)   But I have noticed that Moldovan style bors* has its own unique flavor and was recently enlightened about this while I was having soup with Elena in LaPlacinta restaurant here in Chisinau.    (“Bors” , the Romanian word for borscht, is actually prounounced “borsh”, and is indicated thus in the Romanian language with a cedilla under the letter s.   I unfortunately have not learned how to produce that mark under a  letter on my computer….)  Elena told me of the special ingredient that makes Moldovan style bors so uniquely tasty: the Bors Acro.  She described the Bors Acro as a transparent yellowish liquid and tried to describe how it tastes, but could not find the words.  Most borscht recipes call for a small amount of vinegar added to the broth, so I suggested, “perhaps like vinegar?” But she insisted it was entirely different.

Those of you who like to include fermented foods in your diet will be interested to learn that Bors Acro is made from fermented bran. To make Bors Acro you pour boiling water over wheat bran, let it sit and cool down to just the right temperature about 85 degrees F, and then add a bit of your Bors Acro starter which you keep in the fridge.  You  let this mixture ferment, incubating it as you would yogurt except at 85 degrees, allowing it to ferment for two to three days. You then strain it, removing the bran and store the sour liquid in a cool place, the refrigerator nowadays.  (I have read that some people evidently keep the bran after straining, mixing it with flour and cornmeal to keep the bacteria longer that way, but I have no experience with this yet.) You use only part of the stored liquid when you make bors, because the rest should be used as starter to keep replenishing your stock.

This culinary use for bran explains why it is so readily available in the central “piatsa” market here in Chisinau.   I have looked for wheat germ all over town and have not been able to find it, but bran we can buy in bulk and very cheaply in the market. Now I know that the other consumers are not adding bran to breads and granola as I am, but are making their Bors Acro!   🙂

Naturally I was curious to try it in my own homemade bors. But of course one has to get a starter before one can make Bors Acro from bran.   Elena assured me one can easily find bottled Bors Acro in all the grocery stores, and indeed I did find it in the dairy section at the little No 1 Grocery on Sciusev Street.

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I brought some home and tasted it, and can tell you that Bors Acro tastes like a cross between a weak apple cider vinegar and watered down beer. It is of course sour, as that is what the root of the word “Acr” means, as in the “acrimonious divorce.”

I used a cup of this purchased Bors Acro in a my last big batch of Borscht and found it indeed tasted just right.

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This red soup by the way is perfect for an evening meal during the Solstice season. A dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt, and a sprig of dill or parsley or cilantro and you have your perfect red, white and green for the season.

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I likely will not be making enough of borscht to warrant the trouble of keeping my own starter going, but my curiosity required me to try to make at least one batch of Bors Acro anyway.

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The Bors Acro while it is fermenting, before it has been strained for storage

I am currently experimenting with using this starter as an inoculate for a sourdough starter with flour, to use in sourdough bread.

Here is the recipe for Bors a la Moosewood in Moldova

Saute until tender  1 and 1/2 cup chopped onion in 4 TBSP butter. 

Add 1 large carrot grated, 1 stalk celery chopped, 3 cups red cabbage shredded, 1 tsp caraway seed and 2 tsp salt.  Simmer  a few minutes.

Add 4 cups beef stock, 1 and 1/2 cup peeled and chopped white potato, 1 cup peeled and grated beets. Simmer about 30 minutes.

Add and mix in well 1/4 tsp fresh or dried dill leaves chopped, 1 Tbsp cider vinegar OR 3 Tbsp Bors Acro, 1 Tbsp honey, and 1 cup tomato puree.

Serve hot topped with a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt and garnished with a sprig of extra dill or cilantro or parsley.

Enjoy!

Wishing you a Merry Solstice and Happy New Year, – and lots of warm togetherness with your loved ones around many a bowl of hot soup!

PS: In my last blog I mentioned I would write about the Rustic Art rug weavers in my next post.   We did have a wonderful visit to the home of Rustic Art last weekend and we ordered a custom made rug. I will write about that visit when the rug is finished… stay tuned!

Christmas Concerts and a Postscript

We had our first snow in Chisinau this past week.  It did not accumulate in a smooth cover over the ground, but laid down a light sprinkling of soft fluff which, with a warming thaw, and then another freeze, quickly turned to frozen mush.   For much of the week the temperatures stayed below freezing, so our Lake Valea Morilor had a thin layer of ice over most of its surface for the past few days.  Winter has arrived.

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I am still hoping that winter here will not be too severe, and have found new reason for this hope, in all the Mistletoe that I see in the trees.   In the US, I have only seen  the Mistletoe tree parasite growing in plant zones 6 or warmer, and here I read that the European Mistletoe inhabits mostly zone 7.

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The cold weather has brought on a new slate of concerts here in Chisinau, and we’ve been attending quite a few, along with crowds of Chisinau residents, all enthusiastic for Christmas music.   Last week we arrived at the Filarmonic Hall just before the announced starting time for a concert sponsored by the German Embassy, and found a crowd of people still trying to get in.   The concert had been publicized ahead of time as free, but in actuality the German Embassy had handed out invitations ahead of time to nearly enough people to fill the hall.  After the staff let in those people holding invitations, there were not many seats left, and a crowd practically stampeded the front door trying to get in.   Standing on the steps I got pushed into the middle of the mob crowding into the entry way, and as I was pressed from behind and all sides, I was thinking, if only we had this problem at our Haywood Arts Council Swannanoa Chamber music concerts!   (Perhaps the Balsam Ridge Band gets that kind of response in Haywood County, I don’t know.)   At any rate we were admitted for standing room only, and happily stood for two hours for what turned out to be a terrific concert by the Concertino Accordion Band, five Moldovan accordion players with a tuba player, a violinist, a keyboardist and a drummer.  They  were spectacular in their renditions of all genres of Christmas music, including arrangements for accordion ensemble of classical pieces, such as Winter from Vivaldi’s Seasons, with all its dramatic flair.  And they were joined on stage by Helena Goldt, a German soprano, and the National Symphony Choral Group, the “Corul National de Camera.”

This soprano by the way, Helena Goldt, was introduced to the audience as having been born in Kazakhstan and having immigrated to Germany at the age of six. I later learned from Elena, my Romanian tutor, who was eager to tell me this history, that Ms. Goldt was a descendant of that large population of Prussian/Germans who emigrated to Russia in the late 1700s at the invitation of Catharine the Great ( a German herself,) and in large numbers again in the 1800s during the Napoleonic wars. The story was a bit familiar to me because among those Germans in Russia were many Mennonites.   At the outset, Catharine excused Germans in Russia from military service and from many taxes, and by the late 1800s many had became prosperous, and thus also resented. With Russian nationalism growing, the invitation to European immigrants was revoked and Germans lost their privileged status.    During WWI German Russians were suspected of having sympathies with the German enemy, and some were exiled to Siberia. Later, during the revolution, many tried to leave but this emigration was stopped by Stalin in 1929.   In the late 1930s there were ethnically motivated attacks on German language speakers and in 1941 Stalin ordered German inhabitants to be exiled to Siberia or Kazakhstan.   After Stalin’s death in 1953, emigration out of Russia was again allowed, and of course after Perestroika many Germans emigrated back to Germany as well.   But according to Elena, these descendants, the generation of Ms. Goldt’s parents, came back to Germany speaking a two hundred year old version of Low German, along with fluent Russian, and therefore appeared more Slavic than German to many modern western Germans.   For this reason they had difficulty with assimilation and were sometimes treated with prejudice.

Hearing this history retold by Elena was of interest to me as one more reminder that all of world history is about constant immigration and emigration, -but Elena told me her take on this history in order to give me an example of how another language, like Moldovan Romanian, had evolved along its own stream, apart from the mother country.   She tells me that the Romanian which Moldovans speak sounds to Romanians like an older version of Romanian and includes vocabulary of Slavic origin. It is not as divergent from its mother language as would be Yiddish, or the Pennsylvania Dutch that my mother grew up speaking, but evidently it is recognizably Moldovan.

But back to concerts. This week we attended two more concerts. One was actually a recital at Organ Hall by three very talented young men, a pianist, a cellist, and a violinist playing piano trios by Rachmaninoff and Mozart.  And Friday night we went to the Christmas concert sponsored by the Italian Embassy. This time we had invitations so we actually had seats.   The National Symphony Orchestra and the Symphony Choir performed Italian opera arias with several vocal soloists, who were all spectacular. The Moldovan audience was rapt; they love their opera singers!

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Yesterday morning Bob and I provided the music for the US Ambassador’s Christmas party held for the Embassy community. I played piano background music, mostly traditional Christmas music and Hanukah music, and Bob joined in on a couple of pieces with his violin. We also got the crowd to join in singing Christmas carols, including a couple of them in Romanian.  The Moldovan staff were quite familiar with the Romanian versions of Oh Christmas Tree and Jingle Bells.

Also last week, Chisinau held a Traditional Rug Exhibition at the National Palace. Finally, I got to see an impressive display of traditional Moldovan woven rugs.  Regional Museums from all around the country displayed their rugs, mostly antiques, and traditional musicians and dancers performed.

“Arta Rustica” was also there, a group of women who are reviving the weaving of woolen rugs in the traditional style. We made appointment to visit their studio up in Orhei in two weeks.   I hope to write about that visit in my next blog!

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The snow was all gone for our walk in the park this morning.

A Post Script: Re: “Post-Truth”

According to an article I read a few days ago in the Washington Post online, the Oxford Dictionary announced this week that its new Word of the Year for the Year 2016 is “post-truth.” They define “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief.”   According to the Post, “…the “post-” prefix in this new word doesn’t mean after, so much as it implies irrelevant.”

“The word was selected after Oxford’s dictionary editors noted a roughly 2,000 percent increase in its usage in 2016 over 2015, in news articles and on social media in both the United Kingdom and the United States.  ‘Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time, ’ one of the Oxford editors commented.  The word was evidently used frequently in reference to the US presidential campaign in which accusations of lies and alternate realities flowed freely, in every direction, and hundreds of fact checks were published about statements from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Dozens of media outlets found that Trump was a champion among liars, in a class all by himself, and none of this seemed to matter significantly to those who supported him.”

It seems to me that, although the news media and social media may have just discovered the concept this year, “post-truth” thinking is nothing new. While I agree, it does feel right now as though we are living in an Orwellian “post-truth,” world, the “truth” of the matter, or my opinion rather, is that personal belief has always been the predominant way that most of us interpret the world, the predominant factor in how most of us construct our “reality.”   It’s not so much that the lessons of humanity’s “Age of Reason,” have been thrown out with the advent of a New Age of “Intuitive Knowledge,” like the unfortunate baby with the bath water, but that those lessons never really penetrated very deeply, never fully took hold. Most people, alas, never have been very rational, or informed, or even awake for that matter.  What most people need, in order to know what they believe, is simply to figure out what is assumed by the group to which they feel they belong or want to belong.  Maybe instead of “post-truth,” thinking we should be speaking of “truth-proof” thinking, as in “child-proof” bottle caps.

I am glad if this recognition for the word “post-truth” raises awareness of our perennial talent for slanting reality however we like. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling the need to reiterate my own understanding of reality in order to maintain my own sanity. I think this impulse is likely what drives a lot of us writers to write, this need to get our “truth,” our view of reality, down on paper, to have it read, heard, so that it at least stands a chance of survival. And so that maybe ten years from now we might be able to remember what used to be our “reality.”

 

In Vienna: Art and Anxiety

I love Thanksgiving, love the occasion to sit down to a feast at our dining room table with Bob and Joel and friends we have gathered around us; I love celebrating togetherness in the spirit of gratitude.   But sadly, this year was one in which we could not be with Joel over Thanksgiving, (he was happily included in the family gathering of his girlfriend, Charlotte, in Chapel Hill.) So in October when we learned that Air Moldova was offering very cheap tickets to Vienna over Thanksgiving week we were tempted.   We knew that Vienna in November might be cold, rainy and dreary, but thought it would still be worth visiting, and we were right. The weather as it turned out was not so bad, cold but not rainy, and there was indeed, so much to do in Vienna.

We had also thought that perhaps we might find a way to feast with strangers, newly made friends, on Thanksgiving Day in Vienna, but that, however, was not to be. We did not have any feast on Thanksgiving Day as Bob was having dental problems. He had a wisdom tooth extracted the day before we left Chisinau and developed complications which created persistent pain and inability to fully open his jaw.   Our first day he was feverish so I started him on antibiotics which I had brought with me. The fever resolved with a short course of azithromycin, but the jaw pain and trismus continued. He had been looking forward to eating Wiener Schnitzel but began the week taking in only pureed soups. If one has to live on soup, however, Vienna is a great place to be.   Along with the expected potato and mushroom soups, we found roasted chestnut soup, a heavenly carrot soup and a delicious pureed beet soup which tasted like it had apples in it as well.

We tried placing warm compresses on Bob’s jaw and massaging it, and he kept trying to pry his jaw open with his fingers between his teeth. It did open just a bit more and he was able to advance to mashing his pastas and risottos with his fork, and then to dicing everything, including schnitzel and pastries, squeezing it all into the half inch crack between his teeth with a fork.   Finally on Thanksgiving Day, he visited a dentist in Vienna who diagnosed and packed a “dry socket,” put him on more antibiotics, and instructed him to continue doing what he had been doing for the trismus.     (By the way, for the sake of comparison with American dentistry prices, that consult and treatment, along with an x-ray, cost us all of 70 Euros. ) This way of eating slowed down Bob’s consumption considerably and he lost a couple of pounds this week …but he does not recommend the method!

We stayed at the Palais Pertschy, a small family run pension/hotel in the central district within easy walking distance of all the museums.  Despite Bob’s persistent pain he only spent one afternoon in bed and we stayed very busy. During the week we heard the Vienna Choir Boys sing Hayden’s Mass in a Time of War at the Burgkapelle,

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toured the facilities and attended morning exercises of the Spanish Riding School,

enjoyed sipping on mulled wine

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and browsing through the stalls of handmade crafts at the many Christmas Markets set up in the streets and squares,

 

went ice skating in the park in front of Rathaus,

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lingered over coffee and hot chocolate in many a comfy, wood paneled Viennese Café,

took a guided tour and marveled at the acoustic wonders and beauty of the Vienna State Opera House,and took in two concerts at the home of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in their “Golden Hall,” from which the New Year’s concerts are broadcast, (one concert of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra with pianist Emilio Aversano doing a “piano marathon,” four piano concertos in one night, and another concert of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter with pianist Lambert Orkis.)

We also toured a clock museum, a museum of musical instruments, and visited many other museums housed in splendid buildings.  We especially enjoyed the Albertina art museum with its wonderful exhibit of Pointillism ( including Seurat, Signac, and Van Gogh) and the Batliner collection: “Monet to Picasso,” (Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Matisse, and more,)  the Kunsthistorisches Museum where we toured the Picture Gallery (15th century through 19th century, including Raphael, Rembrandt, Durer, Vermeer,) the Museum for Angewundt Kunst , known as the MAK, a museum for applied arts and design, which also held Gustav Klimt’s “Tree of Life,” mural, and finally, the Oberes at Schloss Belvedere, which is known for its Gustav Klimt collection.

Speaking of Klimt, we saw many reproductions of Klimt’s “Woman in Gold”, (on everything from napkins and notebooks to umbrellas and mugs.) but of course we did not see the original, as it is no longer in Austria; it is now in New York. It was one of the many paintings which would not have been among Austria’s museum holdings during the years that it was, had it not been looted by the Nazis when the Jewish population was being forcibly removed and murdered. You can learn of its history in last year’s movie, Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren.

One can hardly visit Vienna without being reminded of the ugliest historical example of extreme nationalism, the one which culminated in the Nazi party and the Holocaust.  Tens of thousands of Austrians gave Adolf Hitler and his troops an enthusiastic welcome when they invaded the Austria in March 1938. Austria fought in World War II as part of Nazi Germany and many Austrians helped run Nazi death camps.  Unfortunately as recently as in 2013, when Austria was marking the anniversary of its annexation by Nazi Germany, an opinion poll conducted for the Vienna newspaper, “Der Standard” showed that more than fifty per cent of Austrian adults thought it would be “highly likely” that the Nazis would win seats if they were allowed to take part in an election today.

Still many Austrians, when they learned that we were Americans, looked at us with bewildered pity, offering us condolences because of the troubling results of our own recent elections, and expressing fear as well, for what it might lead to in their own part of the world.   We answered them with our truth, that we are distressed and anxious about the direction in which our country appears to be headed under Trump and the Republicans.

In my last blog I wrote about my fresh feelings of anger toward those who supported Trump, and the grief I feel as I face the abyss into which they have plunged us all.  I want to add for clarification now that I know very well that not all of Trump’s supporters are racist, misogynist, bigoted, and xenophobic.  I know that many of them were voicing a nebulous sort of discontent. But I also believe that they should have known, in fact they could not have been ignorant of the well publicized evidence, that a large mob of Trump supporters are all of those things, that among them are alt-right white supremacist groups, and that a victory for Trump would give further power to those sentiments in our public life.   I do therefore still hold people who voted for Trump accountable for their willingness to ally themselves with these forces.

The feeling that one is fed up with status quo in Washington, the fact that one is feeling economically left out, these are not, in my view, legitimate excuses for this tragic error.   (Sadly, this segment of the population have been duped if they voted for Trump thinking that this narcissistic millionaire tycoon and his wealthy cronies are going to suddenly care about them. I do feel sympathy for them in this regard. They have been used.)   We do need to listen to their perspectives, to understand “where they are coming from.” But Trump supporters are not the only ones who have been feeling economically left out. The groups who are the targets of all this bigotry have been feeling left out for many years, -women and African Americans for hundreds of years.   And, if it were African Americans (for whom being called “left out” would be the understatement of the century,) who were taking out their frustrations by aligning themselves with groups that advocate violence against white people, or if it were Muslims aligning themselves with groups that advocate deportations of Christians, the segment of society that supports Trump, would not be saying, “We have to understand where they are coming from. We have to listen to them.” There is at the very least an underlying tolerance for racism and xenophobia in their choice of alignment.

I worry for the many Hispanic  families whom I knew in my previous pediatric practices, who I know must be living in fear that they will be torn apart, that the parents among them who have not yet gained legal status could be deported even though none of them are criminals, and that they, such lovely people, will face more open hostility in the community, more difficulty finding work.    I feel distress for the innocent Muslim American families, including women and children, who will face, and have already begun to face, more open aggressive hostility.   In my Global Health news feed from Johns Hopkins Public Health School I read a recent article by a public health professor who reported his international students are coming to him saying, “Should I go home? Am I safe?”   Their parents are calling them, begging them to come home, to leave that dangerous place, the U.S.

Many years ago Omid Safi (Director of Islamic Studies at Duke University,) was in my home for a reception when our Cornerstone Sunday School class read and discussed the enlightening book which he edited,  Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender and Pluralism.  (I recommend this book if you are not already familiar with the broader spectrum of modern progressive Muslims.) I have been following his essays on Krista Tippet’s newsletter, On Being.  I recommend for your reading, his most recent essay, from November 12th, “Seven Thoughts on Waking Up in Our America.”   It is such an eloquent civil statement from one who has real reason to fear, who speaks as the Muslim American father of young children. “To speak of ‘unity’ “ Omid Safi writes, “when a president (–elect) has spoken of deporting millions of Mexicans, registering Muslims, and arresting Black Lives Matter activists, is not to promote real unity, but to inflict further damage on people who are already traumatized.”

Now Trump has named as one of his main advisors, Stephen Brannon, a man known for his anti-Semitic white supremacist loyalties. A large part of my own reaction to the election of Trump involves my gut feelings as the mother of Joel, my son, who was born in India, adopted by Bob and I, and naturalized when he was an infant. My own son has lived his entire life in the U.S. is an American to his core, and is not white; he looks his biological background, Asian Indian.   I know that he has never faced anything like what African American men or Muslim immigrants face in our society, and yet as his mother I identify with those who have a gut reaction of fear when racism and xenophobia are given such a loud voice and such a position of power.   People who look like Joel have been targets of the bigoted and ignorant hatred which has been set loose in our country.    I know that African American mothers and Muslim mothers and Hispanic Mothers, and mothers of children who are LGBT face much greater fear than mine. And Jewish mothers are also among those who have reason to feel fresh fear once again, here in this country where we were supposed to be safe from pogroms, but now have a white supremacist anti-Semite empowered by the president-elect. If you are not feeling fear or anger you likely have no loved one who is now threatened.

Those who say that our fears are overblown do not comfort me greatly.   They insist that there is no way these white supremacists, empowered by Trump, will be able to pull off their desired policies in our society. I hope they are right. But these same people also said, with such confidence, six months ago that there was no way Trump would actually be elected.  I think of Iran, when during the years of modern society before their revolution, people dismissed offhand the fundamentalist mullahs,  never believing they could take control of their country, never envisioning how they could plunge their country backward into fundamentalist tyranny for decades. I think of the Jewish groups who in the late 1930s could not believe that the Nazis would actually do what they eventually did, did not think it was necessary to flee, and I think of those who thought that by collaborating with the Nazis they would maintain some influence. My anxiety arises from examples like these of historical times when people who felt “left out” embraced xenophobic nationalism, and well meaning people underestimated the power of hatred on the rise.

So we should be afraid, and indignant.  Our safety, freedom, and civil rights are in fact threatened. It should move us not to urging each other to be calm, but rather to be engaged, to become active opponents of our government.   Barbara Kingsolver says it so well in her recent article in The Guardian.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/23/trump-changed-everything-now-everything-counts?CMP=share_btn_fb

Back in Moldova, on the weekend before we left for Vienna, Bob and I visited the newly opened Moldovan National Gallery of Art which was recently renovated here in Chisinau.  While we were there, several classrooms of fifth grade school children were also touring the museum. They wandered from one painting or sculpture to the next, snapping “selfies” with the works of art.   I had a conversation with a small group of these fifth graders who were eager to practice their English. When they learned that I was from the US, they wanted to know what I thought of the U.S.’s new president-elect Trump.   These Moldovan fifth grade children knew about the headlines coming from the US, but I would venture to say that their counterparts in the US have never heard of Igor Dodon who, the very next day, won the majority of votes in Moldova’s second round of presidential elections.

Dodon, a Russia-leaning member of Moldova’s Socialist Party won narrowly over Maia Sandu, a Western Europe-leaning member of the Liberal Democratic Party. Nearly a quarter of Moldova’s citizens live abroad and were supposed to be able to vote at sites set up in major cities around the world. Thousands of diaspora Moldovans traveled to these major cities in order to vote and waited in long lines for many hours, but there were reports that ballots ran out long before the voting hours were over at several of these voting sites. The diaspora voted overwhelmingly for Sandu, so there is suspicion amongst her supporters that this shortage of ballots was no accident. University students also favored Maia Sandu and they were not allowed in this election to vote at their university site if their permanent residence was in another town, thus discouraging their participation by requiring them to take a day to journey home from Chisinau. There have been protests since the election, with much discontent in Chisinau and among the younger voters.

Prime Minister, Pavel Filip,  has said that Moldova will continue its European integration process no matter what the opinions of the next president are.   “ Let us not forget that we are a parliamentary republic and that strategic decisions are approved by parliament and later are obviously implemented by the government.”   Igor Dodon however has been making bold statements about his plans. Yesterday he was reported to have told Russian newspapers that he would “make gravel” out of the stone monument in Chisinau which was erected in the Great National Assembly Square (PMAN) when Liberal Party head Mihai Ghimpu was interim president, to honor the victims of the Soviet communist era.

So, you may be thinking, it is Thanksgiving, can she not write about what we she is thankful for? Yes, I can. Gratitude is essential. I am truly and deeply grateful for my own health and that of Joel and Bob’s, for 37 years of a loving marriage with Bob, for our beautiful home on Plott Balsam Mountain, for my community of friends there in Waynesville, and for friends stretching back to my childhood years, for all the rewarding years which my medical education and pediatric profession have given me of meaningful work with families, supporting the health of so many children, for all the opportunities to travel that Bob and I have had, for the gift of music that my parents gave me by introducing me at so young an age to the piano and violin, by filling our home with beautiful music, and for the past eight years of having a President and First Lady of whom I could be so proud, for the way they presented my country to the world, – dignified, courteous, respectful, intelligent, compassionate, oriented toward service, inspiring.

The list could go on and on.   I know I have so very much to be thankful for.  So yes, let’s not forget to be thankful. And if any of you among my readers, or if your loved ones, are not among the groups of people who are feeling directly threatened by this election, if you feel no cause for fear right now, please learn to know individuals who do; invite someone who is feeling threatened into your life.  Let us lend our full support to the political policies and the social culture that will give all of us something to be grateful for.