Friday, July 25, 2014

Romanian Food- a meal 13 years in the making!

13 years ago I volunteered and worked in Romania for a month. I stayed in a tiny little town called Lupeni. (It doesn't make many maps it's so small.) What I was doing there is a story for another post and time. Today we're going to talk about food, specifically my love of Romanian food.
Back in Lupeni I discovered two dishes- sarmale and papanoci. (sar-maul-eh and poppa-nosh). These were my two most favorite foods, and I ate them every chance I got in Romania. My "bunica" made them for us. Bunica means grandma, old lady, or babushka. Everyone has a bunica.
It's been 13 years since I had good sarmale and papanoci. I've tried many times to make them on my own, but it's never been as good as Bunica made it.
So you better believe I was looking forward to having it again when I got back to Romania!
In our first town, Baile Herculane, one of the first things I did was ask our hotel if they would be serving us either dish. They were impressed I knew Romanian food, and said they would try, but it never happened. Hotel Afrodita did serve us some awesome food, but it was mostly just nice hotel food, but nothing truly amazingly Romanian.

It's hard to be disappointed in really awesome food, so I wasn't too sad about the lack of authentic dishes.

Not to mention, I accidentally got the restaurant to serve us free Cokes for a few meals before the hotel caught on and made us pay for them. (How does this happen? Easy. I went up to the restaurant bar, and asked for a Coke Zero. Which reminds me, did you know Coca-Cola Light (which is served instead of Diet Coke in most other countries) has been replaced by Coke Zero? This was new to me. I quickly adapted to it. Turns out I like it. Who knew?) I tried to pay for it. The bartender didn't speak much English. And by that I mean, he was very pretty to look at, but spoke absolutely no English at all. This has a lot to do with why I re-learned how to count and all my numbers in Romanian. Bet ya didn't know I know a good 20 words in Romanian. It's a pretty easy language to learn if you know any of the other Romance languages, especially French. But I digress. So the bartender said since our meals were covered, my Coke Zero was too. At least, that's what I gleaned from our miming. I did this for 2 meals before other people caught on and started to get free drinks too. That lasted another 2 meals with 30 people getting free drinks before the hotel caught on. After that we had to pay for our drinks. A 1-liter Coke Zero was roughly 50 cents, so not exactly a hardship, you know?)

We were in Herculane for 5 days, and then moved on to the town of Timisoara. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I LOVE Timisoara. It's a beautiful, charming town. We stayed in a nice little hotel right off the town square. We ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant (which was very small), but our other meals were provided by the festival. We ate at a small school a few blocks away with the other performers. The food was... pretty typical cafeteria food. Just cafeteria food with a Romanian twist to it. In other words, a hunk of bread, gassy water, meat, with a side of meat. And sometimes a dish of pickled cabbage.

It was perfectly good food. But I wanted food like Bunica made it!

And what was I supposed to do with a beautiful, charming town square with a dozen restaurants just feet away from my hotel? Closer to me than the school? And I hadn't spent more than $3 a day in over a week! With plenty of Romanian lei in my pocket, and in a town that actually takes credit cards, I went off in search of sarmale and papanoci.

I tried looking at the window menus of three different places with no luck. After going on a big walking tour of the city with the whole group-
- I decided to try one more place. I walked right into one of the nicest restaurants in town, and asked if they served either dish. They said yes, they served papanoci, but no to the sarmale. But then the manager (quite fluent in English) asked how I knew about sarmale. I explained "My bunica used to make it for me." He stopped and looked at me funny. "You know bunica?" I said yes, and she used to make the best Romanian food for me. (I took his question to be more surprise that I knew the word bunica, than anything else.) He stared at me again. "Then I will make for you sarmale like bunica." He had me bring a group of friends back with me an hour later.
Sarmale isn't on their menu. And he did have me put a deposit down on the meal, which I felt was completely fair under the circumstances.
So one hour later, I rounded up a few Clog Americans, and we ate at one of the best tables in the restaurant.
So what is sarmale? Other than a little piece of heaven in your mouth? It's boiled cabbage, wrapped around a rice and sausage mixture. It has some lemon, dill, and vinegar going on in it too. You have to like lemon and dill to love it. And oh, do I love it. 13 years of waiting for sarmale, and it didn't disappoint!
But then came the papanoci!
Papanoci is basically a big, fluffy donut, not unlike Krispy Kreme, with the donut hole on top. The center is then filled with cream and either fruit compote or hot fudge. And then more cream and fruit over top of the whole thing.
It's rich, it's heavy, and oh is it good!!!!
I can promise you not one tiny bit was left on our plates.
I even went back the next day with some other friends from our group to get the papanoci again.
I admit I was a bit nervous to take a group of soon-to-be-friends that I barely knew to try a food I feared I had over-hyped. But I'm happy to report that no one seemed to think I oversold it. They all loved it. In fact, word got around to several people in our group about our foodie excursion, and more than one group of people went in search of it the next day.
It was a meal 13 years in the making. And totally worth it! 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Things You Don't See in the U.S.

Just a few of the pictures I took around Eastern Europe of things you just don't see in the States. 
This was a mini-mart/7-11 type of store (0-24 indicates that it's a nonstop, open 24 hours store), that sells chicken. Every time we passed it, I thought it looked like there was a giant turd on top of the chicken's finger.

A contacts vending machine I found in the Moscow airport.

At a "beach" in Belgrade, Serbia (a dammed off river area), this ginormous water bottle (easily 3 stories tall, maybe more) was also a water spout/fountain. Most original marketing gimmick I have seen in a long time.

Just a random kid out walking her Shetland pony on the sidewalk. (Which begged the question, was it really a Shetland pony? or some other breed of midget pony?)

This was my hotel room in Timisoara, Romania. No sheets on the beds. Just this oddly folded blanket/comforter. And everything was folded into triangles.

Pepper cream cheese? (which, by the way, we ordered, and was exactly that- cream cheese with paprika and pepper in it). Grilled "chilly" pepper? I do love poorly translated English!

I didn't mean to buy this. I was attempting to ask if some chocolate candies were chocolate covered pomegranates. I kept point at this can and then at the candy. Next thing I know, I've purchased the drink, and not the candy. It was absolutely disgusting. Little floaty bits of aloe jellies in it. So gross. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Favorite Picture

This picture will forever be one of my all-time favorites for the way the moment was captured. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Finally- a real travel post on Romania and Serbia!

I finally have a few minutes to myself for the first time since arriving in Europe last week. I just double-checked the date and time, and discovered it is Thursday, July 10. I honestly thought it was Monday. Traveling on tour can mess with your head that way.
I guess I’m going to have to give this travelogue in reverse order, and jump all over the place. My brain refuses to remember the beginning of this trip. It was too long ago.

Tonight I’m in Timisoara, Romania, a town once known as the Paris of Eastern Europe. It’s also famous for being the city of roses, and the first city in all of Europe to have electric street lamps. All odd claims to fame. But as it turns out, Timisoara is one of my all-time favorite cities. There is a large town square (piata – pronounced pee-awt-suh) in the center of town. My hotel is “Hotel Central,” which is conveniently right off this square. The hotel itself is very clean, but something of a 1960’s stark nightmare. The bathroom has an accordion door to it, which locks from the outside. What would you ever need to lock a bathroom door from the outside for?

The hotel has very typical European, tiny, narrow elevators, designed to hold 2-3 people. I call these the violent elevators. Someone else described it as “they buck you off.” It’s pretty comical. You squeeze into this shoebox of an elevator, which is all mirrored on all sides, and go to your floor. It may or may not actually squarely reach the right floor. But when the doors open, the elevator gives a violent bump. So far I’ve had to grab the wall each time to keep from falling over. It’s amusing to watch someone else do it for the first time. 

Which brings me back to last week in Serbia. As I’ve mentioned, I lived in a floating bar/clubhouse. Each of us that lived in there have had a rough time getting our land legs back under us. I figured it was just my Meniere’s Disease doing exactly what I would expect it to do after living on water, but apparently the other 3 houseboatmates have it too. The elevators here send all 4 of us into a funky swirly dizzy spell for just a minute. For me it’s just a very intense Meniere’s attack. I think it’s the violent jolt with the mirrors, throwing off the sense of balance, and the part where we went from sea level to high mountain altitudes in one day.

Which brings me to the town before this one. We have been in Baile Herculane, Romania for the past few days. We drove to Timisoara today. Herculane (pronounced hair-kyu-lawn) was sort of the Park City or Deer Valley of Romania. Except without shopping. It had several high end hotels (by Romanian standards), and some fun history to it. So maybe it was more the Heber City of Romania? It was way up in the mountains, and simply beautiful. It translates to the “Bath of Hercules.” It’s the natural springs and cold bath houses where Isis, Neptune, and Hercules all supposedly came to rest and relax.

In typical Romanian style they’ve built a whole town around their historical marker, but haven’t bothered to fix up the actual bath houses. So you can only look at them from the street or through a boarded up door. Very cool marble statues, and nice cool air. But no springs, because in typical Romanian tradition, they’ve blocked off the water, to reroute it for some unknown use. So really it’s all a town about “something cool used to be here, we can tell you about it, but not show it to you.”

Our experiences in Serbia were, according to my companions, typical dance tour activities. We stayed with host families, went on a tour of the city, visited the orphanages, performed with the host dance company, went to church, had a party with the hosts, and left. Pretty normal stuff for Clog America apparently.
Our time in Baile Herculane was anything but typical. Everyone was surprised. We were put up in a 4 star hotel (I even got a massage- more on that bizarre experience later), ate (for free) in the hotel restaurant, walked to the performing venue (right next door to our hotel) with was an outdoor amphitheater, and had tons of free time. We also got a tour from a nice guide who took us up to a cave and to a zip line.

So let’s stop here and discuss clogging. I’ve now seen the Clog America show several times over. I’m becoming an expert on this one show. I’ve also seen Serbian folk dancers, Romanian, Georgian, Armenian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and a dozen others. (I have an affinity for the “tiny Ukrainian dancers.” They dress in little ninja costumes and do this cute little “he-man” dance. I love it. I can’t wait to see it again tomorrow.) 

Most of these dances are pretty similar in style. Men kick, women prance daintily around them. There are lots of accordions and saxophones. You really can’t tell the difference between most countries. And after you’ve seen about 5 of these dances, you’ve seen them all. It can get pretty boring. But one thing is for certain at every show. They LOVE Clog America. Our team gets up there and does the Charleston, a 50s swing number, and a bunch of hoedown numbers, and the crowd goes wild.

We’ve come all this way for approximately a 10-20 minute show every evening. Today we were supposed to be in a parade before the big show. (I use the term “we” lightly since I’m not actually a performer.) But due to the rain that never happened. After the parade got canceled, the sun came out. So the band (and our band is awesome) went in costume to the middle of the square, and put on a concert of their own. They got a huge crowd all around them. Romanians were dancing in the square and calling out requests for “Clementine” and “Susannah.”

Speaking of our band- 3 members of the band are family. Nate, Adam, and Chrissy Keller are siblings. Their dad, Ivan, is also on tour with us. I believe Nate and Adam have been on over 10 tours with Clog America, and Chrissy maybe 5. Ivan is 77 years old. He just likes to see his kids perform and to travel. He keeps his schedule pretty easy, but he tries to keep up with the rest of us. He’s a very nice man, and always doing kind things for everyone around here. Yesterday at the outdoor show in Herculane the team was presented a trophy from the festival, and the Kellers were acknowledged. Much to everyone’s surprise, the announcer also acknowledged Ivan, sitting up in the stands. The crowd demanded he stand up and take a bow. I’m sure we missed something in the translation, but basically they gave him a standing ovation for raising 3 talented children. It was really an interesting cultural moment to see how they honored this father. It was very touching for the Americans to witness. (Of course, we all adore Ivan, and agree he deserves more ovations.)

My free time is rapidly dwindling, so I'll end this travelogue here. I'll write more about the rest of this trip the next time I'm caught up on sleep and have some free time to myself. 
And again, please go visit and for more pictures and stories. I'm putting a lot of work into those! 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Serbian Boathouse Living

Forgive me the poor quality of this video. It's just for fun to give you an idea of what life was like in our little boathouse in Serbia last week.
There was much laughter, chaos, and stuff everywhere. This was taken probably around 11 pm on Sunday night. We had 4 women in a studio apartment, living above a bar/clubhouse. Our bathroom was about the size of a train or airplane bathroom (plus a shower).
There was no furniture in the room- just 3 mattresses on the floor. (You'll notice there are 5 women in the video, including me. That's because one of the dancers, Ashlynn, was visiting us for a few hours.) We did find a few small chairs in the bar that we used as shelves.
Every time there was a lot of movement downstairs or a boat would go by in the lake, our little boathouse would rock. We had clothes hanging from a makeshift clothesline, and they would sway back and forth when the room rocked. I was trying to capture it on video. If you look closely, you can sort of see how the clothes never hold still.
But mostly you can just see the complete chaos we turned the place into. It was a brand-new apartment, very clean, and a very fun and unique experience!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014


A very quick and fast attempt to explain my whereabouts-

We were in Belgrade for a few days.
And then we took a bus to Romania.
We've been here 2 days.
We'll be in this town 1.5 more days, and then go to another town.
I forget how long we'll be in that town.
And then we'll go back to a different town in Serbia for a few more days.
And then I will go back to Moscow for 1 day.
And then home.
Where I shall sleep a lot.

Monday, July 07, 2014

go read the other blog

i only have so much internet access while we travel.
and i only have so much energy to blog.
so please go visit for the fun stories and pictures.

i'll get back over here sooner or later. probably later. or maybe tomorrow. i really don't know.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Orphanage Day

Today was orphanage day. We had a wonderful time visiting an orphanage in Belgrade and then a home for mentally disabled men. It was so much fun. I taught the little girl in this picture how to blow bubbles, and the joy of playing with a slinky. I may have even taught her to say slinky.
I won't be in many pictures during this trip, since I'm the one taking pictures of everyone else. There are lots of stories and pictures up on the Clog America blog and Instagram feed today.
All in all, a great day.
Stories and pictures to come when I have 5 minutes to myself. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

I'm on a boat!

Okay, maybe not a boat.
I'm on/in a floating club house on a river. But it's not a river house. It's also not a lake house, regardless of the fact that we've dubbed it the lake house. I'm in a club house owned by a dance club (Klub Talija), where they come to hang out, drink, etc. It's the base camp for this leg of our trip. Our group members are staying with host families nearby and around Belgrade. I'm staying with a few of the other older staff members (some very fun ladies), in an apartment on top of this floating party house.
More stories and pictures when I'm not quite so tired!
Be sure to follow us on and for lots more pictures and stories.

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