Blisters and Donuts

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck

There are a few Romanian words that I unexpectedly learned straight away.

Obosit? – Said repeatedly to me after just a few minutes work. “Tired?”

Pauza, pauza – “Take a break, take a break.”

Basica – “Blisters?”

I may not appear as a gritty farm hand ready to tackle a long day in the field, but I have logged plenty of hours doing manual labour in my day and am far from lazy. I got my back up, held tight to my rake when they tried to strip me of it, and refused to sit down.

(That is, until I did get a basica from the rake rubbing my skin raw between my left thumb and forefinger. Thankfully it was near the end of our day because I surely wasn’t going to tell anyone.)

Although I do believe that their insistence of minimizing my contribution had less to do with the fact that I don’t appear able-bodied. Here both Pete and I were, two foreigners and complete strangers, working in their fields and even paying a small stipend to do so. Our handling of a rake was a direct challenge against their small town hospitality.

I wondered though, if they realized our real reason for being there.

Our handling of a rake was a direct challenge against their small town hospitality.

*****

We entered the golden hour while working in the small field. We turned over the straw that had been cut before our arrival, giving the shaded side a chance to dry in the sun before it was to be packed away. With the handmade rakes and forks we would scoop under, flip, and lay it back to rest. Pauza, pauza, they insisted in chorus after just a few minutes of work. I tried not to pay them mind, continuing to keep pace, but then the Grandpa who worked alongside us sat for a pauza, and yelled at me to join him. I couldn’t refuse.

He continued the yelling, in Romanian phrases I couldn’t possibly understand, gesturing to the field before us, the cows eating in the ditch across from that, and the staggered peaks of mountains just beyond. I nodded and smiled, but when his voice rose to form a question, I had to just say “I don’t know.”

Then he would say it again, yelling louder. (I thought this was solely a North American tradition to speak louder to enforce understanding, but apparently it is universal).

Pauza, pauza, they insisted in chorus after just a few minutes of work.

Collecting Hay

Once the field was turned we all sat for a long pauza before going back to where we had started to stack the straw into piles. There was no bailer to reduce the labour, the entire Ittu family (and one neighbour who we never learned the name of), just raked and stacked, raked and stacked. Mrs Elena Ittu soon stood on the top of a long wagon attached to the tractor, spreading and smoothing the straw tossed up. Her position appeared more precarious as the stack got higher, but she expertly balanced and continued evening the pile.

The short ride back to their house saw us cross a small creek with tractor, wait for a horse drawn carriage to pass, and see others walking home from the fields with rakes and scythes resting on their shoulders.

Coming Home
Tractor Ride

Romania cannot be considered a sleek and modern country by any means, and the small village of Sinca Noua even strikingly less so. It is as picturesque as quaint rural towns come, settled between two emerald mountain ranges, the Persani in the northeast and the Fagaras in the west. With a population of less than 2,000, traffic jams still do occur, most commonly in the morning and evening when livestock are herded on the main road to and from the communal pasture.

Sinca Noua Traffic

Many of the locals have barns right within their small estates, and in the evening one member of the Ittu family would collect their cow and usher it down the driveway, through the courtyard, and to the attached barn to the right of the kitchen. Behind that door were also chickens and two dogs, a few cats would sleepily emerge from the barn when the smell of food wafted into the courtyard. The youngest and cutest could often be found curled up on the bench just inside the door.

Sinca Noua Kitty
Life revolved around the kitchen. It is only accessed by the courtyard, and takes up just a tiny fraction of the entire space, but it is where the day began and ended and held all congregations in between. During the heat of the day, when the wood-burning stove blasted at full force, the table and chairs were moved outside for the midday meal to be enjoyed.

Everything was made from scratch, including the liquor served up at every meal. Shot glasses full of palinka or cherry flavoured vodka were offered before any bite was taken. Un pic, un pic, was the resounding chant for everything placed in front of us, we had to at least try it, and couldn’t handle the disappointed looks on their faces if we attempted a refusal. Besides, if the robust 90+ year old Grandpa gave any indication as he downed more shots then the rest of us, perhaps we had stumbled onto the secret of his long life. (My own pathetic resistance to alcohol, on the other hand, meant I held a joyful buzz for most of the day.)

Grandfather Traian Portrait

Sitting around the small kitchen table, we all took to hollering at each other in our native tongues, hoping something would get through. The inefficiency of our communication forced Pete to translate on his phone and the daughter, Nicoleta, did the same on her computer, which worked moderately well. But it wasn’t until well on in the second day that we found our most effective method – imagine our surprise when two English-speaking Canadians in a rural Romanian home found common ground via broken Spanish with Nicoleta.

La comida was served up in generous heaps. Sausage, cheese, eggs, mamaliga, and bread for breakfast. The two later meals always started with a gorgeous soup followed by grilled meat with potatoes and once a pilaf. More bread, small salads, and then a desert that I was invited to help craft.

La comida was served up in generous heaps.

Sinca Noua Food
Gogosi

On the second day while we readied for work in the fields again, it was suggested that I stay behind. At first, with the language barrier, my back rose again, believing that their insistence was because they thought I was obosit or not fit for it. But I couldn’t be cross for long, for I was invited to get my hands dirty another way – in the kitchen. Myself, Elena and Nicoleta would make gogosi – Romanian donuts.

No recipe on hand, no measuring cups used. On taste and feel only Elena would determine the quantities to be added. While the dough rose, we butchered more conversations and then some carrots for dinner, and played with the cats when they made themselves seen. When it was time to shape the dough, Elena stretched it with her hands, Nicoleta cut it with an upturned cup, and I added the powdered sugary goodness.

I had never quite had pastry this fresh, my mouth burned on testing it, and they laughed at my eagerness and gushing. Elena reached over and squeezed my arm, oozing warmth in the sparkle of her eyes.

And that was exactly what I had come for.

Elena reached over and squeezed my arm, oozing warmth in the sparkle of her eyes.

*****

Fully sated, blistered, maybe even a little obosit, we were set to leave after three days with the Ittu family. And that is exactly what we felt – a part of a family – for in this time we worked side-by-side with them in the fields, in the kitchen, attended their church service, met their friends and extended family, and shared generous meals and shots of palinka. Pete and I had picked up many Romanian words since arriving, including that which we didn’t want to say at that moment – ramas bun. Goodbye.

We were handed a bag full of pound cake to take on our journey, and handshakes were replaced with hugs. Elena made a big circle in front of her with her hand, which I finally understood to mean that she was asking us to return.

Of course we would, I assured her, but really, I didn’t know. We find ourselves making that promise often in our travels, but the world is too big and wide to make it everywhere twice.

This particular promise though, I hope to keep.

Elena made a big circle in front of her with her hand, which I finally understood to mean that she was asking us to return.

*****

We put together a one minute video showing highlights of our time with the Ittus!

how to do it

VillageLife.ro is an NGO committed to bringing sustainable development to rural Romania. They work with three other families in small towns besides Sinca Noua, and for a very affordable price, allow travelers to experience small town life in Romania.
28 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • July 28 2014

    Love that Grandpa, so open and lively. And Romanian donuts are very similar to Ukrainian ones!

    • August 3 2014

      As we always say: borders blur when it comes to food. It’s also just like a North American donut without the hole in the middle, except that they also add in lemon zest to give it a delicious kick. πŸ™‚

  • July 28 2014

    Guys, it all sounds just amazing as I can feel your joy through your words. Reminds me the moments I used to spent with my ancestors in a remote village in Slovakia… Countryside makes people happier, even if it’s for a short while πŸ™‚

    • August 3 2014

      Agreed Ivana! And thanks for your comment. πŸ™‚

  • Janet Wehrer
    July 28 2014

    Thank you for that beautiful story. You are living the life of a traveler that has real meaning. Your story was brought to life by your beautiful photos. I could almost taste those doughnuts.

    • August 3 2014

      Janet, your comment means a lot to us. Thank you!

  • Wesley Travels
    July 28 2014

    That sounds amazing… I love your pictures guys.

  • Looooooved the video!! Looks like such an interesting place to spent a bit of time πŸ™‚ The soup looked delicious.
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..How to Become a PADI Scuba Diving Instructor

    • August 3 2014

      The soups were SO GOOD, and I’m generally not much of a soup person. We ate very well there.

  • Those donuts look so delicious! I have done some Help-xing in small local communities and loved it. It was in Canada so I spoek the language and it felt like I got a better feel for what life is like for the people who live there.
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..Why you have to visit these intriguing cemeteries around the world

  • July 29 2014

    This reminds me of the night I spent in a homestay in Viscri – cows wandering home at night and being milked just off the kitchen; kittens playing with blades of grass in the doorway; and of course a delicious meal! Rural Romania really DOES feel like going back in time. But I loved that about it.
    Amanda recently posted..22 Awesome Photos of Italy

    • August 3 2014

      Us too. Would love to check out all the villages that Village Life represents, each has their own local customs and it would be so interesting to learn them all.

  • July 30 2014

    The first few photographs are like a throwback to some previous era, beautiful!
    And those doughnuts look yummy, and coupled with that heartwarming smile it surely must have tasted that much better!!
    Arti recently posted..An Aromatic Ode to Rajasthan: The Earthy Beauty!

  • July 31 2014

    What a beautiful story! I’ve wanted to go to Romania for a while now so I’m definitely bookmarking that NGO and spending some time in the rural countryside πŸ™‚
    Flora Baker recently posted..The Great Havana Hustle

    • August 3 2014

      I hope you do get there Flora! I am sure you would enjoy it.

  • August 2 2014

    And now you just made me want to visit Romania, what an awesome experience.
    Ayngelina recently posted..Roy Choi’s Birria Recipe – Mexican Stew

  • August 3 2014

    I am so loving all your Romania stories! Some of my best memories involve my first Christmas with Scott there nearly a decade ago.
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..The Cutest Lil’ Town in Montana

  • August 4 2014

    Makes me hope for the days that we can travel more slowly like you do (and visit Romania) πŸ™‚

  • August 4 2014

    I loved my time in Romania. It really does take you back to another world in those little villages. Your experience was not only told so beautifully, but it also sounds like something I would LOVE to do.

  • August 4 2014

    That sounds like such a fabulous experience! I am sad to report that my wifi strength here in Greece is too stubbornly slow to play the video, but I can’t imagine a picture more vivid than the one you painted with words!

  • August 4 2014

    “We find ourselves making that promise often in our travels, but the world is too big and wide to make it everywhere twice.

    This particular promise though, I hope to keep.”

    So beautiful! What a precious glimpse at your time in Romania. Thank you for sharing!

  • August 4 2014

    Been a while since I last went to Romania, but from what your portray it is still as varied as it was 10 years ago…
    Federico recently posted..What Should You Do if You Lose Your Passport?

  • August 7 2014

    Oh this is such a heartfelt story. I always love meeting people in Romania – though I never made it to the countryside – my brief stay in Romania definitely gave me a huge impression on the country. I especially love its food. Such a great experience guys!
    Aggy recently posted..Semarang in Pictures

  • Lovely post. This sounds like it was a beautiful experience to be in the countryside with the family, who only wants you to return again someday. πŸ™‚
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..FRIDAY PHOTO: Turtle & Dragonfly in Sanibel Island, Florida

  • August 8 2014

    The portrait of the man tipping his hat is FABULOUS!

  • Lakshmi Balakrishnan
    January 7 2015

    We plan on staying in Sinca Noua through Village life. What was the accommodation like?

    • January 7 2015

      Lakshmi, the accommodations are simple and clean. It is a double sofa bed – not the most comfortable but good for just a few nights! The room is large and you have lots of space to yourself. The bathroom is also shared, and detached, so you have to walk outside to get there. But it is also kept clean. Enjoy! And please say hello to them for us! πŸ™‚

  • September 12 2016

    Wonderful post, wonderful images. We fell in love with Romania at first site, the far north,Maramures. So much so that we stopped, downed our backpacks and bought a traditional village house. But now, with the demonic Brexit,I guess that dream is over *sigh*. It’s a magical place and living shoulder to shoulder with these incredible people has been one of the best experiences of my life. Glad you got a chance to see it too.
    Alyson recently posted..Romanian House Project Update.September 2015

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