Chronicles of a writer abroad


Romania recap 2: Sinaia and the Carpathians

Wow…what a crazy few weeks we’ve had, travelling and hosting relatives more or less constantly. I’ve taken a number of trips and hikes in recent days, and I will be blogging about these eventually, but I wanted to first finish telling you about our trip to Romania.

After spending the first part of our trip with Stelian’s relatives in Targoviste, Stelian, Alex and I ventured into another part of Romania. We boarded an immaculately clean (albeit airless and overscented by myriad car air-fresheners dangling from the ceiling) coach, and in two hours we had wended our way through Romania’s lush green forests to Sinaia.

This is a mountain resort town; I imagine that it is bustling with skiers in winter. In mid-May, it was quiet, though the weather was beautiful, and the beautiful emerald green mountains were beckoning us outdoorsy types to hike.

On our first day there, we checked into a nice hotel, which was an absolute bargain (especially to those of us who have now partially adjusted to Swiss prices), and almost immediately headed out again to see the Peles castle.

This particular castle was the summer residence of King Carol I — the first King of Romania. Building began in 1873, after the King approved a plan for a castle whose rooms would showcase different architectural styles; hence, there are rooms in Renaissance style, Moorish style, Oriental style, Rococo style — newer styles like Art Deco were also incorporated into the castle as they came into fashion. The King was also fond of secret staircases, and so several of the rooms served as secret passages to other parts of the castle. My favourite was the library, where, among walls lined with real books, one shelf of fake ones led, Batman-style, to the King’s bedroom.

At the castle entrance, Stelian was excited to see a copy of a statue that we admired in the Vatican several years ago:

At the Peles castle in 2011

At the Vatican in 2008









We then went on a guided tour of the castle — it has some 168 rooms, of which we saw a couple dozen. Here are some highlights:

Castle exterior

Atrium with spiral staircase and stained glass ceiling panels

Part of the King's personal theatre

On our second day in Sinaia, we headed into the mountains, taking a gondola to an elevation of 2,000 meters — above the tree line, where only dried grasses were to be found — and starting our hike.

Our aim was to reach the Babele. This word means “old women” in Romanian, but in this case it simply denotes a number of mushroom-shaped rocks.

We had to walk a little more than 6 kilometers, and gain about 200 meters of elevation, to reach the site. The most challenging aspect of the hike was the snow, which had to be traversed very carefully:

Or else this would end up happening…

Since the snow was incredibly deep in some areas (thanks, Alex, for the great shot!).

We kept climbing up…

And eventually reached our destination at the top. It was pretty secluded, except for a dog who barked savagely at us, prompting its owner to emerge from a lone cabin and ask if we would like to purchase some food or a hot drink. It’s not an impractical system, I suppose. We ate our packed lunches instead, and admired the views of the surrounding valleys.

Here is an example of the Babele:

Another key attraction was the Sphinx rock formation. Interestingly, it was quite unconvincing in person, but at the right angle in a photograph, the head comes out rather clearly.

Alex and the Sphinx

Finally, we had to turn around and quickly retrace our steps, since the last trip back down the mountain was not too late in the afternoon. As we hurried back, nobody fell and covered themself in mud and there is really nothing to tell. Except that we had to climb this, which was not the most fun.

Once back in Sinaia, we found a restaurant and ate like Romanian Kings.



Romania recap 1: Family

Watching a family that has not been together in the same country for more than 10 years become reunited is a pretty special thing. Eyes sparkle with excitement; voices and glasses are raised in happiness; the best holiday dishes are prepared; people dress up in their finery, and linger in each other’s embraces. As a new member of the family, I felt very honoured to be brought so swiftly and completely into the fold — I was fussed over, fed like royalty, and told by Stelian’s grandmother (with the aid of a translator) “you are like one of my own.” On this trip, I learned how well you can connect with people, even when there is no common language.

Even though they will probably never read it, I think that these people deserve some limelight on this here blog. So please allow me to introduce…

The Matriarch

How cute and stylish is Stelian’s bunica? I aspire to be like her when I am in my seventies. She is a whirlwind of activity, always cooking things, feeding people, arranging things, bestowing gifts: she is apparently indefatiguable. She and her husband, Stelian’s grandfather, have a property with two houses, one of which they built, in Targoviste. In their back yard, they have grape vines, cherry trees, and they grow a variety of other fruits and herbs. Since beekeeping is their trade, however, they spend a lot of time in other locales. They often drive late into the night when transporting their bees from one location to another. I marvel at their energy.

The Cool Aunt

These women know how to pose for a picture, don’t they? I think I have something to learn from this, though I’m unsure that I can pull it off.

Simona is the younger sister of Elena (Stelian’s mom). Among Stelian and his siblings, she is known as “the cool aunt,” in the same way that my father, the youngest in his sibline, was dubbed “the cool uncle” by my older cousins. Simona was determined to show us a good time during our trip, and she did, by taking us to different sites, cooking us delicious food, and engaging us in good conversation (always faithfully translated for me by Stelian or Alex).

The Cousins

I mentioned in my last post that we twice feasted on an animal slaughtered by Stelian’s  cousin. The animal was a lamb, and this really impressed me, since I’ve never known any member of my family to procure dinner in this fashion. “Do you think it was difficult for him to do that?” I asked Stelian. Stelian reckoned not, and regaled me with a story of Catalin trying to behead a chicken with a dull dinner knife when he was a small child (after the failed attempt, he returned, despondent, to his father and said something along the lines of “I tried to kill a chicken but it wouldn’t work!”). These kids grew up in the country, and, unlike me, have no illusions or mental defences relating to what food is and where it comes from.

Catalin is close to finishing high school; he has a very shy and sweet smile and demeanour. His mother told us that he speaks very good English, but he mostly declined to speak it with us since he was afraid of making mistakes (I could well relate to this situation, since venturing to pronounce new words often earned me giggles and the comment that my Romanian was “so cute”).

Stelian’s younger cousin, on the other hand, is not shy at all — gotta love those sibling polarizations. He and Stelian caught up instantly, even though he was a very small child when they last met, and he was soon discussing such topics as youtube videos that he finds “super-hilar” (this is a nice example of the mixed Romanian-English, or Romenglish, that I enjoy so much). We also discovered his penchant for the half-hour timeframe. He ran up to us the morning after we arrived and said, “the airport called — your bags have landed and will be here in half an hour.” They did not arrive until the next day, so maybe I should have been suspicious the next time I heard it…Stelian and Alex dropped me off at the Bucharest airport (I was leaving before the others so that I could be back in time to meet my sister), and they were to be picked up by their uncle and cousins, and driven back to Targoviste. Alex called as we neared the airport to check when they would be picked up, and was told by Dorin that “we’ll be there in half an hour.” They in fact had three or four hours to kill before their ride arrived.

This is such a vibrant, fun and loving family…a joy to reconnect with, or meet for the first time. I mentioned that (among many other gifts) we received two litres of honey from them, but now that Stelian is back I have to amend the number of litres to six. Suffice it to say that we will be using more of the amber stuff in our cooking and baking. Good honey recipes, anyone?

Here are some more assorted family pictures from the week (credit for most should be given to Alex, Stelian’s sister).


Romania by the numbers

Hello there!

As of last night, I am safely home in Zürich after my trip to Romania. And as of this afternoon, I welcomed another houseguest — my sister Leah is now here visiting for a week. So while I want to tell you all about my trip, I think I’ll be uncharacteristically brief for the moment, and give only tantalizing hints about the adventure through the following figures. Please let me know if there’s something you’re curious to know more about!

Number of flights from Zürich to Bucharest: 2

Number of days that it took for KLM to deliver our lost luggage: 2

Amount of compensation offered by KLM: $25

Number of near-accidents caused by stray dogs en route to Targoviste: 1

Number of dogs in the pack of strays that escorted us home one evening: 7

Number of times I stepped squarely in dog poop: 1

Hour of the first family dinner: 2:30 am

Number of dinners centered around an animal slaughtered by Stelian’s cousin: 2

Number of relatives that I met in the first 12 hours of our visit: 9

Number of glasses of strong homemade wine drunk by family members before verbal hijinks incomprehensible to me ensued: 1

Numbers of cities visited: 3

Highest peak visited: 2,200 meters

Length of our hike in the Carpathians: 13.5 km

Number of times husband usurped my usual role by slipping and falling in mud: 1

Number of castles visited: 1

Number of churches visited: 2

Number of public squat toilets used: 1

Number of attempting-to-convert Mormons encountered: 2

Number of seconds that the beautiful parliament building in Bucharest was gazed upon: 60

Number of famous-rocks-that-are-supposed-to-look-like-Sphinxes-but-don’t-really visited: 1

Litres of honey gifted to me by Stelian’s beekeeper grandparents: 2

Number of delicious pastries eaten: 342*

Number of embraces received: 574*

Number of multumescs (Romanian word for thank you, and the only one I am comfortable pronouncing) uttered: 1,443*

Amount the whole experience was enjoyed: unquantifiably much

*Note: some exaggeration may occur.


Luzern’s lovely lion

We have family from Canada staying with us this week, and after showing them a few different sides of Zürich, we decided to take a one-hour train ride to Lucerne (Luzern in German) to do some exploring there.

Luzern is rather like Zürich: it is centred around a lake framed by mountains (admittedly, theirs are closer than ours); it has a beautiful, pedestrian-only old town with a  bevy of high-end shops; cafés and chocolate stores beckon at every turn.

One of the city’s main attractions is the Lion of Lucerne:

Picture by Alex Coros

From a busy city square, you walk up a small street and into a beautiful park-like area enclosed by trees. A small pond separates you from the massive wall of rock into which the lion is carved.

It is a piece of art that I have been waiting for some time to see. And it did not disappoint — I found it to be as beautiful and poignant as I had hoped.

The lion was carved in 1820 and 1821, and is a monument to the Swiss guards killed in 1792, as Paris’ Tuileries Palace was stormed by revolutionaries. The lion is shown wounded and dying, and resting on shields bearing the Swiss cross. Mark Twain apparently deemed this carving “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” I cannot claim to have visited that much of the world, but I can say that this is the most evocative piece of stone that I’ve encountered in my travels thus far.

Picture by Alex Coros

I enjoyed all of our visit to Luzern — we ate delicious Berliners (a type of European doughnut), visited several very nice churches, and admired the views along the lake and from several famous and very old bridges — but this lion was the highlight of the trip for me. I recommend paying him a visit if you find yourself in the area!

We’re leaving for Romania for tomorrow — I will most likely not be posting for the next week, but will be back with pictures and tales of our adventure to share with you.


Writing workshop postmortem

I attended my first-ever writer’s workshop this past weekend, and I thought that some of you might be interested in what kind of experience it was. It was certainly enriching, though not without stress.

I first learned about this workshop when, back in January, I revealed to a new friend (who is the wife of one of Stelian’s coworkers) that I wanted to try my hand at creative writing while in Zurich. Great, she said — she was one of the co-organizers of a writing workshop that would be held in Zurich in May. I should sign up! When registration opened a month later, I did sign up, even though at that point I hadn’t written any fiction that I was comfortable showing to others.

In mid-March, I received one of the most terrifying e-mails of my life: the instructor of the fiction workshop, a published author whose book I was in the midst of reading, wrote to ask us to send “the first 10 pages of your novel” to her and the 13 other attendees in a month’s time. Uh, yeah, I thought. My novel. Right. I’d been writing shorter fiction, and while I had an idea for a longer piece brewing in my mind, it was not something that I would be comfortable calling a novel.

But I worked, shaping and giving substance to my idea, writing to 10 pages and beyond — with the changing shape of the “beyond” often forcing me to go back and alter the first pages. By the deadline, I had 10 pages that I was reasonably happy with, and off they went to the other writers.

While initially I thought that being asked to send my work out to so many people that I didn’t know was simply cruel, I came to see the value in it. During our weekend-long workshop, we looked at examples of published short stories and prose poems and talked about mechanics of writing, but the heart of the workshop was the critiquing of each writer’s work.

Our instructor led the discussion of each piece. The most interesting — and perhaps most valuable — aspect of these discussions was that the author was not allowed to speak. The rationale for this rule is that authors don’t get to defend or explain their work to readers: it simply has to stand on its own. It was like being a fly on the wall, watching a book club go at your work, and when you wanted to scream No! That’s not what I want you to think! you had to instead calmly make a note to clarify or rewrite. Sometimes incredibly difficult, but also incredibly useful.

Near the end of each discussion, our instructor skillfully exposed the seams of each writer’s work and tugged gently to show how they could be ripped, while also offering advice on how each story might be fortified or enriched. I think that each one of us felt somewhat deflated after taking our turn. I recorded this impression in my journal after the critiquing sessions were finished:

…it was depressing to see each of the 14 submissions so quickly reduced to their problem areas. It was sort of like watching as a line of average-looking women are paraded through a room before a heartless model scout who quickly scans them head to toe and pronounces: your thighs are too big; your eyes are too close together; you’re flat-chested; you’ll never get anywhere with that beak of a nose. Our creative efforts had yielded a litany of faults.

A day later, I can take a more tempered view of the sessions. In addition to some criticism (which is always most salient in the moment), we each received written feedback on our manuscripts from 13 other readers and the instructor. And most of it was positive: people liked my character, they liked my story idea. Their comments left me with very concrete ideas about how to take the piece forward.

There were a lot of other great things about the weekend, too: really enjoyable readings by both instructors (there was a  memoir workshop running at the same time as the fiction one); a fun literary tour of Zurich (the tour guide was a very enthusiastic middle-school teacher who, knowing that he had an audience of writers, told some outlandish and entertaining stories that he’d invented about various city landmarks); and a dinner for the attendees at a great local restaurant. It was also great to connect with other people who understand the joys and sorrows of trying to write fiction. Most of the attendees also live in Zurich, though some were from elsewhere in Switzerland.

In the end, I’m happy to have attended; once I recover from the whirlwind nature of the past few days, I’ll be writing on with a renewed sense of purpose.

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Cleanin’ out my camera

Sorry for the low post frequency lately. Things are busy — I’m gearing up for a writer’s workshop and the arrival of family next week!

It’ s been awhile since I’ve done a photo dump, so here are some pictures from recent days…

First, I managed to take a good shot of Miko. This is amazing, since usually all shots of her are blurred, because she can’t stay still. But a few days ago she did stay still, long enough for me to take this shot:

Aw — the camera loves her!

Here is my neighborhood on a spring evening:

And here is some more happy graffiti 🙂

I’m not sure if you’ll be able to read the street sign — this is Venusstrasse. With scores of leafy trees and beautiful old houses, I’d say it’s aptly named.

Now, admit it — you wish the high school you went to looked like this.

Well, I do. It’s very Harry Potter-esque, no?

And finally…I have been spending some time here, as I try to get back in shape.

It’s a view that I’m tiring of.

Happy weekend!


Post-election soundtrack

I am not going to comment in my usual long-winded fashion on the results of the May 2nd federal election in Canada. I just want to say: damn. Crap. Darn. This wasn’t what I was hoping for, and I feel especially bummed since I didn’t even get to vote.

For those who are not up to speed, the much-reviled (at least from where I stand) Canadian Conservative party won a majority of seats in our House of Commons yesterday. Although only 40% of Canadians voted for them, they now have a strong mandate and the ability to cancel arts/faith/prevention programs, give tax breaks to big corporations, build American-style mega prisons, and spend tons of money on fighter jets.

But, my fellow Canadians, let us not wallow in anger and spite. I am here (well, okay, I’m not physically in Canada, but emotionally I am beaming you support) and I have a way for us to turn this anger and misery into a game.

Yes, you read that right. A game.

I have been spending too much time on Facebook, and while most of my friends are posting angry messages about the failures of our first-past-the-post system and their hatred of Stephen Harper, others are still playing the “30 day music challenge,” wherein a different song is posted every day for a month, in response to a specific prompt. The juxtaposition struck me as odd, until I had a flash of insight: I could combine the two. Bitterness at political outcomes and music combined into a game? I don’t see it, you say.

Well, here’s how it works. This game is open to all political stripes (yes, conservatives  welcome — I am trying mightily to understand your point of view). We’ll choose 2 songs for each of the 3 main federal parties: one song that we think represents how they might be feeling after the election, and a second song containing a message that we would like to send to them.

Here, I’ll go first.


Song I think they might be playing for themselves:

Didn’t We Almost Have It All, by Whitney Houston

Song I wish they would listen to instead:

Move on Up, by Curtis Mayfield

The fallen-from-grace Liberal Party

Song I think they might be playing for themselves:

Misunderstood by Bon Jovi

Song I wish they would listen to instead:

If You Tolerate This, by the Manic Street Preachers

And, last but not least, The Conservatives

Song I think they most definitely are playing for themselves:

We Are the Champions, by Queen

Song I would like to dedicate to them instead:

Forget You, by Cee-lo Green

Please feel free to share your song ideas (you don’t have to have a full set; I understand some of you are living busy lives) in the comments. I may come up with better ones myself; I really just wanted to start this game, which I think might be very fun and cathartic for the Canadian contingent of my readers! (Pat, here is your official challenge to bring us a hip-hop version).