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Before you head for FactCheck.org, I want to clear up any confusion the title may suggest. I’m an American, but when I’m not hiking through places on my bucket list, I live in Romania with my wife Monica. While I was hairy enough towards the end of my Appalachian Trail hike to look like a werewolf, I’m just too cute and mild-mannered to be a terrifying beast. But “cute, and mild-mannered couple spend the holidays with several amazing families in Romania and Austria” isn’t quite as click-worthy.
The plan was for me to exercise my impressive Romanian skills by sharing this story in both English and Romanian, but “Hello, my name is Gabe. It is a pleasure to meet you,” “I would like more wine, please” and “I’m sorry” doesn’t make for a very interesting post. Fortunately, Monica has once again agreed to help me out. But, I’m still taking half the credit because I convinced her to marry me.
I wasn’t very excited about the holiday season this year. Turns out the rule about DINK’s (Double-Income, No-Kids) needing to travel to the homes of everyone else with youngsters is international. This year, our itinerary would take us from Bucharest, Romania to Vienna, Austria with several stops along the way. Some of these stops would include staying in the homes of people I had never met before. Conversations would be in either Romanian or German. No Bueno.
From a pigeon’s viewpoint, the holiday season in Bucharest looks pretty bleak. Concrete monsters, dead trees, and abandoned-looking cars litter the landscape. Sloppy snowflakes turn to slush before splattering on the ground.
Inside is where the life and the beauty is. Mothers, wives, and the extremely rare househusband (Monica tells me there is no word for “househusband” in Romanian) seem to be cooking constantly in their tiny kitchens. The combined smells of garlic, onions, smoked sausage, and pickled cabbage saturates everything. Probably doesn’t sound that appealing, but when combined with the banter of fathers and brothers debating which politician is the least corrupt, while toddlers waddle from lap to lap, I can almost hear Tiny Tim saying “God Bless us Every one!”
Arad, Western Romania (Wikipedia and I say Arad is in Transylvania, but most Romanians would disagree)
Alexa, my sister from another mister, wraps Monica and I in big hugs at the airport before pushing us back at arm’s length to inspect us thoroughly. “You’re so skinny!” She always knows just the right thing to say to keep my ego inflated.
Monica and Alexa, like many parents, have mastered the art of speaking in code. However, rather than spelling out words that children can’t understand, when it’s time for “girl-talk,” they have a whole language at their disposal. I occasionally pretend that I can understand more than a handful of words at a time to keep them on their guard, but I’m usually too busy trying to look past the McDonalds, the Starbucks, and the neoclassical architecture of the bustling city center for signs of vampires. After all, we’re in Transylvania.
My imagination might have been able to sustain the illusion that I was in the land of undead bloodsuckers and magic-wielding Gypsies despite several days of shopping at the Mall, wrapping mountains of presents to Michael Bublé crooning about White Christmas, and playing Monopoly, but I had to admit I was in a surprisingly cultured city when our pasta was served in a flaming cheese wheel.
Minis, Northwestern Romania
I’m halfway through my second glass of tuica, a Romanian moonshine with at least 50% alcohol that is reserved for guests, curing illnesses ranging from sore throat to aching joints, and I suspect, as an unexplored fuel source that may solve the energy crisis. The language barrier becomes less of an issue as everyone in the cozily crowded common room supplements slurred words with wild laughing gestures. Two grandmotherly women make a game out of trying to stuff me with food. They come into the room proudly baring pots filled with sarmale, mamaliga, grilled chicken, goulash, pickled stuffed peppers. Our table groans under the weight of all the dishes, and they begin rotating courses out to make room for the next, but not before trying to dump yet another serving onto my overflowing plate. Attempts to divert some of their attention to Monica, or Alexa, or Alexa’s father just makes them laugh. Before long I’m outside getting advice from a goat that is either pregnant or has been repeatedly subjected to the kind of delicious hospitality I just endured.
Although my thoughts are fuzzy, I realize that this wonderful little farm tucked far away from the noise and busyness of big cities is like many of the hostels I stayed at on the Appalachian Trail. Humble, sprawling collections of buildings where everyone was welcomed with plenty of food and drink, a modest place to rest, and the chance to connect with genuine people.
After a mission-critical stop at Parndorf Mall, we reach our next destination near Vienna. Alexa’s sister, Mela greets us at the gate to her home with a bright welcoming smile and everybody gets the traditional 2-cheek kiss. Husband, Paul, offers a handshake but instead takes several of the bags I’m carrying. I overhear Alexa and Mela’s mother complimenting Monica on her handsome husband. Two boys, Emi and Alex are excited blurs racing between us, just above waist level. Perfect family. Beautiful home. Got it.
Then I see him. His silky golden-red hair falls in perfect waves over a sleek, well-toned body. Those deep dark eyes glow with energy and curiosity. He pauses when he first sees me, probably wary of a stranger, but quickly overcomes his caution and approaches. I drop my bags unceremoniously, all consideration for appropriate behavior is gone. And you wouldn’t blame me, right? I’m in love.
Paul tells me his name is Buddy as I scoop his face into mine. He is a gorgeous 8-month-old Cocker Spaniel, and I can tell from his wagging tail that this is the beginning of something special.
Before I know it, Monica and I are part of the family. Paul and Mela are accustomed to adjusting their language and speaking speed for their children, so I’m feeling relatively fluent. Between the board games, decorating the Christmas tree, and eating, and eating, and eating, three days fly by in one continuous Noman Rockwellian blur.
Prior to hiking the Appalachian Trail, I would not have been able to enjoy 10 days of staying with several different families, many of whom I had never met before. Why would these strangers welcome me into their homes? What if I say something wrong? What if… These anxieties about being in close contact with new people dictated the rules of my life. Rules like: limit new experiences, say “no” to invitations, and most importantly, Always Have an Escape Plan. However, after 6 months of being dirty and sweaty with hordes of other dirty and sweaty hikers, all of us carrying our homes on our backs, forced me to be OK with being less than perfect all the time, and taught me to be OK with others being less than perfect all the time.
I’ve still got a long way to go, but as Monica and I settled into our cramped plane seats, she put her hand over mine and said “You did good this time.”
She was right of course, but I had a lot of help. For those of you that welcomed me into your homes and hostels over the past several months: Thank you so much for everything (Multumesc frumos pentru tot)!
And thank you for following me here. I hope you all know how much it means to me to know that I’m not just another crazy hiker wandering around in the world talking to myself.
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