Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Very Sarmale Christmas

Sarmale is a traditional Romanian food served at festive occasions and so it is traditionally served at Christmas.  On Christmas Day I participated in preparing the sarmale and then eating it with my friend, David, and on Dec 26 I was a guest at Diana's (my director at SNSPA) house for more sarmale.  Let me share a little more information...

Sarmale, or stuffed cabbage leaves, come from the Turks and variations are prevalent in this section of the world.  In the fall people starting purchasing whole cabbages to put into brine so they would be ready for Christmas sarmale.  While it can also be made with grape leaves (typically in summer and early fall when such are in season) and can be made with fresh cabbage leaves that have been lightly boiled or steamed to become flexible, traditional Christmas sarmale is made with pickled cabbage leaves.  Like any regional food there are individual differences that make one recipe slightly different from another.  The basic must-have ingredients besides the cabbage leaves are onions and rice.  The most traditional version is made with pork, but a vegetarian version - de post, referring to its use during the Orthodox fasting times - is not uncommon. Here is a video (about 4 minutes) that demonstrates a process that generally takes an hour or more of prep time and 1-3 hours cooking time:

David and I had a fun time together making ours.  David's parents are Romanians who emigrated to the US in the 80s, so while he is fully American he grew up in Romanian culture.  However it took coming here to live for him to make sarmale for the first time - when he treated us at Thanksgiving (see that post).  By the time we were rolling the final sarma, I felt rather adept at shaping the rolls and tucking the ends in just so.

Sarmale is traditionally served with mamaliga (there is a little u-shape over the first a, making the pronunciation "mummaleega"), a kind of polenta served with sour cream.  The texture of the corn for mamaliga is somewhere between corn meal and southern grits.  It is cooked slowly until just the right consistency.  The sour cream (smantana, also with the u-shapes, so pronounced smoontoona) is way better than any sour cream I have ever tasted in the US.  It is not as sour, creamier, and fresher-tasting.  David and I also served it with telemea, a cheese a little like feta.  What a feast!

Yesterday, Diana started us with appetizers of pumpkin with cheese - a recipe I need to get from her as it was most delicious! - and bean spread.  Second course was a light, clear, vegetable soup (also delicious!).  And then we had the sarmale and mamaliga!  She made her sarmale using textured soy protein as a substitute for the traditional meat, so it had a very different texture and flavor.  Also good and yet, I think I will stick with the mushrooms and other veg as I prefer that.  For dessert there was a selection of fresh fruit and a sample of cozonac, another very traditional item, this one made by Diana's mother.  It is a not particularly sweet cake with a swirl of chocolate and nuts.  (As I do not typically eat sugar, I had 3 bites to give it a proper taste and then continued with the fresh fruit.)  As I said above, what a feast!

Now all this writing about food has made me hungry for lunch.  And guess what?!? I have leftovers from my two Christmas feasts, so I think I will have more sarmale for lunch...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Vienna (Part 2 of 2)

On Saturday we visited Haus der Musik, a highly interactive museum on - what else? - sound and music.  Amanda had also selected this place from her research and I admit to having my doubts, simply because it is a modern, private museum and I'm all about the historic.  But she made an excellent choice!  We spent about 5 hours there!  Go to this page: and click on "video 20sec eng." for a nice quick overview.  We had great fun composing music, conducting, and running sound experiments.  Below, Amanda is conducting the Vienna Philharmonic - the neat thing is that her baton does indeed control the pace at which the video plays the music.  At the end, the conductor comes on and provides some feedback!

We then made our way to Schonbrunn Palace ( and one of the Christmas markets.

The holiday markets consist of lots of small wooden huts selling handcrafts, commercial kitsch, food, and hot wine punch.  I was just a little embarrassed to order "kinderpunsch" for myself to avoid the alcohol.  Amanda tried the wine punch and enjoyed it very much.  Not only are these markets for admiring and purchasing items for the holiday season, they are clearly places that locals go to socialize over the hot punch.  But it is VERY cold there!  The temperature was below 0 Celsius the entire time we were in Vienna and when the wind blew, it was bitter - especially for this North Carolina acclimated person!  Definitely a fun experience, however, and helped us be in holiday mood.

Sunday, our last full day, was spent trying to fit in things we still wanted to do!  Despite the cold weather, that included a visit to Prater park and the Giant Ferris Wheel (  The Ferris wheel was built in 1896/97 and was rebuilt after WWII.  It is the kind with large enclosed cars that hold 20 people or so.  Not the most beautiful day for panoramas, but still fun...

Then it was on to the Technical Museum - as a category this is Amanda's favorite kind of museum.  On the way, we saw this fellow...

In the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and many others, can it ever be too cold to play for the masses?

Remember that it gets dark at about 4 pm, but even so we were late enough to the museum that we had a very hurried visit here (  Too bad, because, again, the museum was nicely done and we easily could have spent several hours in there.

We made our way from this part of town to another part where we went to the Stadthalle to attend a live performance of Die Schone und das Biest (Beauty and the Beast, for those of you who need help).  Of course it was all in German, but it was the Disney version, which we have seen several times, and so we didn't have any trouble following it at all.  The "Be our guest" number was especially well staged and choreographed - quite elaborate!  An excellent ending to our interlude in Vienna.

Travels to Vienna (Part 1 of 2)

Amanda's idea of being here in Romania is to use this a a base from which to visit as many places as possible.  I admit to being with her to some extent, although it had not been in my original plans to repeat places I have visited previously. However, Amanda had not previously been to Vienna and it was high on her list, so off we went for a 4 day weekend at the end of November/beginning of December.  Knowing that she had decided to return to the US for Christmas meant also that it would be a special holiday celebration for us.  Vienna is known for many things, but at this time of year the Advent or Kristkindl markets are high on the list.

We tried something new to us for accommodations.  I signed up with, a website that matches people offering spare rooms with people wanting somewhere to stay.  We stayed with Pascal, a relatively young man who has a apartment in a large historic building, convenient to a metro stop.  He greeted us with tea and pastry when we arrived and then he returned to work that day. The next day he went off on a skiing trip, so we wound up having the apartment to ourselves for a rate less expensive than a hotel room.

 Pascal's building
Front door to all of the apartments inside

And his interior door...  An interesting, but not especially opulent building.

We arrived Thursday early afternoon and had tickets that night for an unusual dining experience: dinner in the dark. ( Amanda had found this online and I notice that it is available in other cities as well, definitely not unique to Vienna.  The idea is to enter the restaurant, be seated, and have dinner all in complete darkness, simulating being blind.  From a culinary point of view, I think the idea is to enhance the experience of smell and taste as one is eating.  It was indeed an interesting experience - while I am not likely to repeat it and am glad I did it.  Our waitress was herself blind and also by day a special ed teacher.  This background came in handy with Amanda who relies so much on her sight because of her deafness and because of her autism.  I found several aspects especially noteworthy: there were several tastes that I recognized but could not identify without sight; talking with other patrons was fun in an anonymous sort of way; and Amanda relied on touching my mouth to communicate - while she can talk with me on the phone, I think being in that environment required her to have some physical contact.

Friday we began with one of the hop on/hop off sightseeing buses prevalent in all cities.  This provided a bit of overview to the city and its history.


We hopped off at St. Stephen's Cathedral and decided on a horse-drawn carriage ride.  Amanda was toasty warm in her new wool coat, a traditional Romanian coat hand-made for her.

I'm not so warm...  Later in the day I purchased wool socks and a wool hat!

After paying the carriage driver we walked across the square to a souvenir shop.  In that short period of time my wallet was lifted from my purse and with it my cash, check cards, bus tickets, metro tickets, etc.  (But NOT my passport!)  We spent the next couple of hours recovering from the trauma - making out a police report and finding kind people at a hotel on the square who not only allowed me to use their computer, but also to make a few international calls while I cancelled the cards and transferred money from my bank account to Amanda's so we could get more cash using her card.  I was quite upset at the time, but in perspective hardly the worst thing to happen and we did not let it spoil the rest of our trip...

We wandered the main shopping area for a bit - mostly because of the lovely holiday decor - and found a nice place to have dinner.  Then back to Pascal's for a relatively early night.

On Saturday, ... (continued in part 2)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Greetings of the Season!

On this Dec. 24th, it seems appropriate to describe a little of our holiday celebrations.  (Later this week I will catch up on the blog and post info plus pictures of trips to Vienna and Munich and comments regarding my experience of the Romanian healthcare system, all of which contribute to my being so far behind.)

Merry Christmas!
Craciun Fericit!

Way back when we travelled to Sibiu we watched the town put up its Christmas tree and Amanda brought back a small branch from that tree.  It has been on our wall ever since, decorated with small wooden ornaments we purchased in Sibiu helping us to feel festive:


On Dec. 6, the Romanian Fulbright Commission treated us - current and alumni Fulbrighters to a dinner at a lovely old building.  Once again it was good to reconnect with some of my colleagues.  One Fulbright alum was introduced as one of Romania's premier violinists.  He presented a program of about 5-6 short pieces that demonstrated a range of musical styles and techniques.  Quite enjoyable!  On Friday, Dec. 7, the Fulbright commission also trated us to several touristy activities as an all day affair.  The day started with a tour of the People's House, the second largest building in the world (behind the Pentagon).  Unfortunately I missed this one as I had a doctor's visit (see another entry on Romanian healthcare).  I caught up with the group for the tour of Cotraceni Palace, my second visit there, but still quite enjoyable and recommended to my visitors who like such architectural examples.  We then went to Mogosoaia Palace for lunch and a tour.  Again this was my second visit here, but fun to see the place decked out for the holidays:

The building above is where we ate lunch - an elaborate meal of several courses.  It was at this time that I engaged in some very pleasant conversation with my teaching colleagues comparing notes on the educational culture.  Their experiences - students seeming lackadaisical about attendance and preparation for class - are very similar to mine.  One of my colleagues, who grew up and attended school in Bucharest prior to emigrating to the US, talked about being aware now - but not at the time - how entitled she and her classmates felt to being "given" grades and a diploma, without having to work for it.  I suspect this is largely a holdover from the totalitarian regime that emphasized equality among people by having outputs be consistent rather than recognizing differing inputs...

Back to holiday conversation...
Of course we are celebrating much with the Anglican Church we have been attending.  On Dec. 8 there was a fundraiser at the Intercontinental Hotel, a lovely sit-down dinner for both congregants and people associated with Casa Ioana, a charity for homeless people.  It was a lovely festive affair, complete with a visit from St. Nicholas, who told stories and provided small gifts to young children.  I especially enjoyed chatting with the Englishman, Ian, who founded Casa Ioana.  He is a retired policeman who came to Bucharest in the early 90s in response to the stories about the horrendous conditions in Romanian orphanages and after some back and forth between Romania and England wound up settling here.   The program at Casa Ioana apparently has an excellent track record of getting their clients into the workforce and into stable living conditions within a year of their being enrolled in the program. 

Also at church on Sunday, the 9th was the children's nativity program and a small group from Casa Ioana who sang Romanian carols.  What's not to like about little kids entertaining us?

On Wednesday, Dec. 12, I met with my class and dismissed them a little early so I could meet Amanda, David, and Ruxandru at church for the Service of 9 Lessons and Carols.  Little did I know that the Anglican church uses slightly different tunes for many of the familiar carols, compared to the U.S. churches I have attended.  Singing along was a little more difficult as a result - still an enjoyable service.  And from there to the Bucharest Christmas market ...  However it was bitter cold that night and the snow and ice were slippery underfoot.  So back home to finish getting Amanda ready to leave the next day for North Carolina.

 The view from my window after the first snowfall

The garden after the walk had been cleared - that's Ralph's tail in the foreground.  Notice there were still roses blooming when the snow arrived!

Today, Christmas Eve, I am celebrating by Skyping with some members of my family and by going out with 2 of my students.  Tomorrow, David (Fulbright colleague) and I are making sarmale, a traditional Romanian dish, and celebrating together.  On Wednesday I have an invitation for lunch with my director, Diana.  So I thin I am celebrating the season well!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Midterm time!

I know that I have not said much about my class recently.  Typically, I have between 20-30 students attending (out of 50+ officially registered).  Class begins at 5 pm, but they arrive anytime between then and 6:30.  In consideration for what I have been told about accepted attendance practice, I am grading participation in class based on a short writing that is submitted at the end of class, so even those folks who come late have the opportunity to earn those points.  On Nov. 20, I gave the midterm exam.  For the first time ever I had excellent attendance right at the beginning of the class.  (I had let students know that as long as they arrived by 6:30 I would allow them the full two hours for the exam and I did have two folks show up at about 6:15.)

Eager students, taking the midterm:

In the U.S. my midterm for this class consists of 10 case-based essay questions (the idea is to apply concepts and theories to business situations) and students have 3 hours in which to complete it.  I decided to have only six questions for this group and provided the normal class time of two hours.  If folks had read all the assigned material and been in class where I discussed all but one of the concepts on the exam - the one was clearly in the online text chapter I had assigned - I believe the exam to have been fairly easy.  Unfortunately it was clear that many people were not expecting an exam of the kind I gave and had not done the reading...  About one third of the class failed the exam.  There were several reasons:
  • Each of the questions had 2-3 students who answered it accurately and completely and another ten or so who answered at B-level, so I am confident the material was accessible to the class.  I know, because they have told me, that many of the students have not done the reading I have assigned.  It is hard to learn if one is not reading.
  • Two students showed up in my class for the very first time for the midterm exam.  I understand that in Romania it is not uncommon for folks to believe they can pass the class simply by taking the exam.  I have done my best to make clear that is not the case in my class.  Although one of them clearly had read material assigned and did pass.
  • Several students left questions completely blank, contrary to my written instructions to provide at least some brief thoughts for every question prior to their completing the whole.  When there are only 6 questions, one or, in three cases, two blanks has serious impact on the final grade!
Since handing back the midterm, attendance and class participation has been a little improved, but not what I had hoped for.  As I type this  (2 weeks after beginning the post - more about what got in the way later) I am getting ready to head to the last class meeting prior to the holidays.  About half the class will be doing oral presentations tonight.  I look forward to seeing how they do.  The rest will present when we reconvene on Jan. 9.  And then they will take a final exam...