White Horse to Bucharest

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White Horse to Bucharest Lessons Romania Taught Us

Vila Gingerich

White Horse to Bucharest by Vila Gingerich, a Plain Day Press book


All rights reserved. No parts of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. Under no circumstances may any part of this book be photocopied for resale. This is a work of creative nonfiction. All events are true but portrayed only to the best of the author’s memory. Some names and identifying details have been changed for privacy. Cover by Maple Cat Press Printed in the United States of America

Copyright Š 2020 Vila Gingerich All rights reserved. ISBN: 978-0-9995446-3-1 LCCN: 2020939812

To Lee who went to Bucharest with me

Author’s Note He who has not seen Bucharest, nor ridden upon a white horse, knows not what is beautiful in this world. —Romanian proverb

When I happened upon this proverb in a book of quotes about Romania, it spoke to me instantly. Each one of us has a white horse, something that has brought special value to our life, something we will tell about until the end of our days. It doesn’t have to be a place. It can be a happening, an achievement, or a hobby. Anyone who spends time with my husband and me knows that Romania is Our Thing. Our white horse. The event that colors our life choices forever. In this book I’ve tried to show you why. As an ode to the country and language, I chose to use Romanian spellings for names of towns and people, as well as the occasional Romanian word or phrase. There is a basic pronunciation guide and glossary of Romanian terms at the back of the book. For more pronunciation guides, maps, links, and information please visit my website: vilagingerich.com. And now, some words of appreciation are in order. Grateful thanks to all of you who gave me permission to tell your stories: our Romanian friends, former missionaries, and children adopted

from Romania. Some names, locations, and small details have been changed for privacy reasons. To my editor, Melinda: you help me keep my Oxford commas while going lightly on the rest. You save me from misused homophones, typos, and other unsavory things. You’re also my favorite grammar teacher. Thank you! Sincere thanks to my writerly friends and my writing groups—real life and virtual—for your inspiration and support. Without my fellow Scribbers this book wouldn’t have happened. An especially deep bow to you members of “This Is Just to Say” for brightening my life. Thank you, Nancy, for smoothing out my poetry. And thanks to the blog friends who helped me decide which stories to include in this book and which to banish forever. To our family and friends who waded through those endless monthly newsletters I sent home from Romania: your curiosity made me want to preserve these stories and make them available to a bigger audience. Thanks for your interest. Lee, thank you for putting up with my writing moods, and doubts, and obsessions. But most of all, thanks for those seven years together in Romania. Dincolo de cuvinte.

Adjustments Ca boul la poarta nouă —expresia românească

Like an ox at a new gate —Romanian expression

How I Ended up Near Siberia I knew humanitarian work wasn’t all tropical beaches, bustling foreign markets, and piña coladas. I realized our church sent workers to the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. I just didn’t think it would be me. After our decision to volunteer under our church’s humanitarian program, my husband and I filled out an application form. Toward the bottom of the page was this heady question: is there any particular place where you feel called to serve? Oh, the possibilities! The wildness and exoticness of African countries, the catchy music and friendly people south of the Rio Grande, the mystery and charm of Asia… How could you ever narrow it down? In my mind’s ear I heard the calls of the market vendors. I caught a whiff of nutmeg from some elusive source. I pictured myself coming home a changed woman, with permanent tan lines from wearing hemp flip-flops under the equatorial sun, lean and fit from walking dusty trails. Learned in foreign arts, I would skillfully eat with chopsticks or shape flat bread with practiced ease. Perhaps I might be called on to provide medical assistance in some remote village, maybe even deliver a baby or two single-handedly. There were only three countries I wanted no part of: Russia, Ukraine, and Romania. Why, everyone knew those photographs—always in black, white, and shades of gray—of Eastern Europeans garbed in fur hats and overshoes, standing in somber lines at grocery stores. Those countries faced frigid temperatures for a huge percentage of the year. Didn’t the church sewing circles make thick dark double-knit blankets for Romania?


However, since these were only three out of all the many posts available, I brushed them from my mind. * I will never forget the moment I found out. A friend and I were driving home from a fun day together when a text message beeped in from my husband. Lee quoted the field secretary verbatim. “How would you like to go to Romania?” I wouldn’t. My heart plummeted. “I can’t go to Romania!” I wailed. “It’s freezing cold. It’s black and white. It’s communistic.” Lee agreed. My friend sympathized. So did a lot of other people, confirming my worst fears. “I don’t know where Romania is for sure, but I do know it’s not exactly a tropical country,” drawled an acquaintance. “Oh.” Someone else was brutally honest. “I thought you’d go somewhere interesting.” My husband’s practical side helped me through the packing and leaving. “Obviously, Romania is where we’re supposed to go,” he said. “That means it’s the best place for us and we’re going to like it.” * We spent the first few months in Arad, in the western part of the country, where we studied language. No, it wasn’t tropical but to my shock, temperatures stood at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit those first few weeks. One sultry summer night, soon after we arrived, we flung the doors and windows wide. As dusk began to fall the neighbors turned up the music on their patio and we ventured onto the balcony to investigate. The air smelled of ripened grapes, hot concrete, and cooking food: something spicy and garlicky. Under the grape arbor the neighbors danced to the


catchy traditional music that is evidence of Romania’s Latin roots. A dog barked nearby and the sun set over the huge dome of the Orthodox cathedral. No black, white, and shades of gray here. I smiled in the darkness as the lady and her partner bowed low to each other to end the dance. * But later, I still wasn’t sure. The concrete apartment blocs were so ugly. No one smiled at us on the street. Romanian grammar confused us, and the stray dogs both terrified me and pulled at my heartstrings. Our elderly language teacher warned us about eastern Romania and our permanent post in the city of Bacău. According to her the people there stole, drank, smoked, fought, and generally caused trouble a good share of the time. Drivers were uncivilized, neighbors untrustworthy, and the weather was awful. “Here in western Romania we have a more Mediterranean climate,” she said. “Where you are going is affected by Siberia.” Siberia? I groaned. Wasn’t that the ultimate banishment location? “Over there the wind blo-o-o-ws in from Russia!” she said, pursing her lips and showering us with saliva. I would need a fur hat, I decided. Maybe even overshoes. Somehow we had to survive. * Soon, there we were in the northeastern corner of Romania. And seven years later we had yet to walk on a beach or see a giraffe. I was neither tanned nor fit, and the only first aid skill I had put to use was sticking Band-Aids on blisters formed while trudging down uneven and pitted sidewalks. Most Romanians had never heard of cumin or turmeric. However, the country was not drawn in black and gray. Romanian


markets were a cacophony of sound, smell, and color. Kerchiefed babushkas watched the two foreigners from behind mounds of paprika and parsley and dill. Adorable gypsy children peeped around their mother’s gaudy skirts as we passed, and on Sunday mornings we woke to chanting from the Orthodox church across the railroad tracks. We decided that, if Romania wasn’t the most beautiful country in the world, it must be close. Remote villages—with mud houses in traditional robin’s egg blue, mint green, and lavender—were full of old timers with tales to tell. They served us plates of savory cabbage rolls while we listened or gathered a basket of apples from their orchard. Bent farmers scythed the plots of land that ran in stripes up the hillsides. They draped the grass over wooden racks to dry, then piled it high into fragrant haystacks. Families labored in the vineyards, tying grapevines to neatly whitewashed poles. Spring flowers, summer greens, and autumn colors spangled the mountains by turns, and winter’s glorious hoar frost nearly blinded the eye. My husband and I adjusted, both to city life and to Eastern Europe in general. We never left the apartment without an umbrella, some form of toilet paper for public restrooms, small money for shops perpetually lacking change, and a folded market bag. English was no longer the most beautiful language to our ears, and we soon suspected that privacy is overrated. We learned to enjoy strong cheese and even stronger coffee. Our closets held wool coats, heavy boots, and fur hats. Because guess what. The wind did blow from Siberia!


Horse White to Bucharest

He who has not seen Bucharest, nor ridden upon a white horse, knows not what is beautiful in this world. —Romanian proverb An elderly, illiterate woman hears the story of creation for the first time. A Christmas shoebox finds its way to a street boy in a snowy parking lot. The secret police trail a Bible smuggler through the streets of communist Romania. An old woman in a dreary hospital ward demonstrates the meaning of true love. One of Romania’s many orphans finds his roots in a poignant homecoming. When their church sent them out as humanitarian workers, Lee and Vila Gingerich expected a positive experience, but they never guessed how much Romania would teach them. Through this collection of over seventy short stories, let Romania steal your heart like it did theirs.

Encode: 9780999544631 90000 PU

MAG 80 NBAR .0104the BWA -0.0010 Vila Gingerich grew up in Mennonite communities across Midwest and WHITE HORSE TO BUCHAREST dreamed of seeing the world. As an adult, she spent seven years in Eastern Europe and sometimes dreamed of home. Now in rural Missouri, Vila teaches her sixth through eighth grade students that the world is wide and dreams sometimes come true.

ISBN 978-0-9995446-3-1


9 780999 544631

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