Comrat, Gaugauzia, Part 1

“You’ve given him reason to keep living!”

I wriggled my eyebrows in mock-pleasure as the Gagauzian man across from me grinned widely and teased. He was referring to his father, a slurring 73-year-old with a fondness for wine and a delicate red stain on the collar of his light-pink-pastel shirt. I had just sat down after a short dance to Gagauzian national music where we stepped (close but not too close) in a near-waltz and whirled a few times out-of-sync with the beat (I wanted to see if I could give my unintelligible partner a bit of a shock, but he was delighted with my spin and emphasized it with his favorite exclamation, “y-AH!” I imagine this is the sound a farmer would make when an ox refused to take yoke, a curt half-yip with a hint of glee). Apparently, now that my new gentleman friend knows I’ll be back in town, he’ll have a little more spring to his step.

Oof, I’m getting good at taking these jokes. I genuinely laugh when my host mother suggests I’m ready for marriage (I can, after all, wash the dishes, and she instructed me on the intricacies of duck-gut-extraction), but I’m still adapting myself to humoring old foreign men. It’s an interesting dynamic, and I predict many opportunities over the next two years to learn how to “diplomatically” rebuff, joke about, and fully appreciate these loving advances. Oh yes, and the marriage proposal, offered up by the very same dance partner (grandfather to the lad): my first young suitor, at the tender age of 19, is attending university and has a job! He is eligible.

An hour earlier, Olga (the director of the organization I will be working with for the next two years) and I slid into a small red taxi that sped off into the dusty hills behind her parent’s home. We chatted as the grimy sedan spat clouts of dirt in all directions, and as we approached our forest destination, Olga brightened suddenly: “Ah, look at the flowers! Isn’t our country beautiful!” We were driving past rolling fields of sunflowers that blurred into the distance on our way to the party where I had met my dance partner, already an adventure in the place I will soon call my own.

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My rest-house home is located near the center of Comrat, the capital of Gagauzia. Olga took me to visit the “compound” the afternoon I arrived by long-distance rutiera. She led me down a road thick with fermenting mulberries and jiggled a long screw from the front gate’s lock, heralding our arrival with a soft metallic chew. As we passed a crumbling structure on our left, I spied a stooped figure hovering between two buildings, grasping what looked like weeds in one hand. She stared at us, and stared. Olga greeted her, and turned to me: this was Ana Nikolaevna, my soon-to-be grandmother.

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Ana Nikolaevna (I include the patronymic with great respect) is 75 years old, petite, and a true treasure of Gagauzia. Her home is famed for its welcome to foreigners and local students: she has been renting out the rooms of the main building (others include a summer kitchen, a deep cellar I did not have a chance to explore, and what looks to be an ancient and long-undisturbed home in the corner of her impressive L-shaped garden) for 5 years. Besides me, she is currently hosting an EVS volunteer from Spain who supports my new host organization, Miras Moldova. We are awaiting a French volunteer who will arrive mid-July. Ana Nikolaevna is also a former journalist: she was the very first female Gagauzian journalist, a lauded radio and television presence, and beyond her routine garden work each morning, she continues to work in the archives at the local TV station a block from her home.

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The Spanish EVS volunteer told me I could do nothing better than consider Ana Nikolaevna my new grandmother. She radiates a strong softness, a hint of worry (she is so concerned whether I will like the place, said Spanish volunteer) and at times a spark of cheerful mischief. When she spied my shoulder tattoo as I stumbled groggily from my room one morning, she tsk’d, asked if it was permanent, stated it was bad for the blood and suggested we’d have it laser removed by the end of my two year stay. Though humble (she shied away from conversation about her journalism), I get a sure sense that this tried women still harbors a very strong flame and zest for life. Her hospitality rivals all…

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Except, perhaps, the hospitality of partying people! That birthday party Olga and I attended was another one of many gatherings, I am sure, where I will partake in this region’s famous (at times so abundant I might consider the word “infamous”) banquets. The table was spread with wine (“sharap” in Gagauz), placenta, shashlik, chopped cabbage, barbecued chicken wings (called “Bush’s Wings,” a result of their initial import from America during the G.W. Bush administration), beet salad, fresh fruit, mushrooms in a cream sauce, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, small pastries, grilled onions, Cognac, fruit compot and many more delectables. I was, as usual, overwhelmed by the quantity and stuffed myself stupid.

And the birthday boy’s mother had hired a lady-clown to entertain the children (those who merited the term both by years on this earth and those by their heart’s nature). She blew up balloons, spouted a few raunchy jokes to delight the adults, encouraged a tug-of-war (the rope broke the second time in!), and facilitated a “musical chairs” session for the kids using small plastic potties. As the older children shrieked in circles to American music and well-meaning adults shuffled one of the potties closer to the birthday boy each round, I observed the youngest of the bunch quizzically inspecting the remaining plastic pots. He took three from the stack, arranged them by color (lighter to dark blue), replaced two of them and plopped down on the last with a grin.

Like the smallest boy, my old dancing partner had also disappeared to plop down to rest. After Olga and I took a traditional “you’re leaving the party, here’s a toast!” shot of Cognac, I spied my old friend prostrate beneath one of the forest’s trees. He lay stiff, straight, arms crossed on his chest. I do hope he’ll make it through the month…

To Be Continued

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