Skiing in Romania

How do I explain to you the emotional ups-and-downs of a young adult ski trip in Romania last weekend? Oh let me count the ways…

A little backstory

Our fearless leaders here in Moldova (at the nonprofit we volunteer with) were kind enough to organize a weekend ski trip to Sinaia, Romania. I think it was a bit of a family vacation for them and their two kids, but they also opened up the trip to other Americans and Moldovans. They booked the hotel rooms, managed the van rental, and organized which ski slopes we would go to on which days. John didn’t ski at all either day; he acted as a home base on the ski slope – managing crises and keeping people organized. He deserves some kind of award for all he did that weekend. As for Daniel and myself, we left the weekend with plenty of thoughts, and certainly no merits to receive an award.

The whole time, I could not stop thinking about herding cats…

Daniel and I are often painfully aware – here in Moldova – that we are not cut out to work with young adults. Yes, of course I realize that in the grand scheme of things we are still considered young ourselves. But I’m talking about working with high school and college students. For example, every night the younger people stayed up until the early hours of the morning to play games. We crawled into bed at 10 PM, desperately trying to relax our bodies and minds before the next day arrived.

Daniel likely pretending to be 10 years younger than he actually is

But the difference in life stage between ourselves and the younger adults was most evident whenever we were trying to get from point A to point B. In the morning we had a roughly 15-minute walk to get to the gondola to take us to the mountain top. No problem, right? You have NO IDEA how many times a group can be stopped, separated, or otherwise delayed during 15 minutes. Where is Maria? Oh, exchanging money somewhere over there? Okay….we can wait. (5 minutes later) Maria is back! Perfect! Let’s head out. Oh….you mean Costica and Nicu aren’t here any longer? They got bored and wandered into that grocery store over there? Okay…well…I guess we can wait a little longer…. (5 minutes later) So I guess we’ll just go ahead and you’ll catch up with us when the boys return from the grocery store? Okay….so how do we get to where we are going again?

Imagine this scenario occurring on repeat: when we reached the first gondola and had to wait in line for tickets; when we made it to the halfway point and needed to rent our ski equipment; and the worst at the end of the day. Let me fill you in on that one. Daniel had left his passport at the equipment rental place as collateral, and we made the mistake of using his passport for the rentals of four different people: ourselves and two Moldovans. One of those Moldovans split from the rest of the group as soon as he hit the peak. Now, you must understand that this particular guy is a lovely person, but it turns out he is extremely reckless on skis. We could only imagine how many off-piste courses, how many near-death experiences, how many slopes he flat out bombed, during the course of a day. At the end of our day, Daniel and I returned to the equipment rental place and heard from our fearless leader, John, that this guy was just going up the lift for one final run and then he would return his equipment. John and the remaining Moldovans headed off the mountain while Daniel and I waited for our Moldovan friend.

We waited. And waited. At one point the guys at the rental place offered me a cigarette. At another point they finished drinking their handle of Jagermeister. (Makes you want to work at a ski rental place huh?) We waited some more. Finally, I spotted our friend about 200 feet away and about to get on a gondola heading back UP the mountain. I’ve never moved so fast. I bolted out of the equipment rental place and grabbed him before he could get away. After some discussion with the rental guys as to whether he had time to go up the mountain for one more run (he did not), he finally returned his stuff and the three of us got in line for the gondola ride OFF the mountain. But at this point, everyone was trying to get off the mountain….so we ended up waiting in the gondola line outside in the cold for 1+ hours. Herding cats anyone?

Taken at one of our many “wait times” during the day

The challenge of enjoying a beautiful vista while trying to keep everyone alive

The difference between real life and a social-media-curated life was poignantly evident to me after this trip. Friends – the scenery was beautiful. Amazingly beautiful, especially to someone who is accustomed to the flatlands of the American Midwest. Even taken on my phone’s camera I think you can see some of the beauty of the surroundings.

But. Do not be fooled into thinking that my soul and internal thoughts matched the serene view. There was no serenity, when, at 2000 meters I realized I was “in charge” of 3 other people who included 2 Moldovans who had just put on skis for the first time ever the day before, and my husband who has a fear of heights and going at rapid speeds. (Note: I, Daniel, did not think that Carolyn needed to be in charge of me…). We spent 45 minutes walking around in ski boots trying to find the “easy” ski run. Then I watched in horror as the two Moldovan girls sped uncontrollably down a shallow hill in totally opposite directions before falling over into snow banks on the side. Now I am in no way an accomplished skier, but I spent the next hour skiing behind my 3 comrades as they fell and then needed help with their skis and righting themselves. (Shout out to Daniel – I have never seen anyone hold the “pizza” position with their skis as tenaciously as he did. And as a result I didn’t need to help him with his skis when he fell over). (Note: I, Daniel, LOVE the pizza position. It’s the only thing that kept me from most likely death by impalement).

But literally, I perched at the top of each hill along the run while the others went ahead, waiting until they fell and then I would ski down to their location. At one point I commanded that everyone remove their skis and walk down a portion of the run; I eyed the steep grade of that portion and the drop-offs on either side and determined that I would not be held responsible for the ski deaths of any of my comrades. In the end, it turned out that we only had time for that ONE run the whole day. A combination of herding cats, long lines, and inefficient equipment rental meant that we didn’t get to the peak until the afternoon. And because of our snail’s pace down the slope, there was no time to go again and still be certain that we would catch the last lift we needed before it closed for the day.

Where is the fun part of all this, you ask? Well, it was heartwarming to see the girls improve in their skiing even on that one slope. There was much less falling by the time we got to the bottom. And we all got to ride back together on an open-air ski lift (our previous lifts of the day had been enclosed gondolas with 20+ people inside). It was the Moldovans first time on a lift and it was a thrill to share in their enjoyment of that.

Don’t we look so happy and safe and not-at-all cold? Lies. Lies. Lies.

Don’t forget the challenge of being a passenger in a van on a road trip in Eastern Europe…

The bookends of our trip were the eight hour drives to and from Romania. We were nine people in a nine-seater van with a manual transmission. And let me tell you, I have a newfound respect for the steel stomachs of Moldovans. Daniel and I spent each trip weighing the lesser of two evils: do we try to distract ourselves with something inside the van and thereby succumb to motion sickness? Or should we dare to look out the window to alleviate the motion sickness and by doing so notice each time (and there were many times) we came quite close to being in a car accident? The van’s poor suspension, the reckless Eastern European drivers, the curving roads – doamne! One time we hit a bump so hard that I was awoken from a nap only to immediately swallow the gum that had been in my mouth.

The moral of this story is that the next American friend we will see in Europe is bringing us Dramamine.

When embarking on an 8 hour road-trip on bad roads, one must always begin with high spirits and a formidable attitude. For most assuredly, your spirits will be broken and your attitude will sour.

Enough of the complaining – the real challenge is vacationing with friends who exist in a different socio-economic class

Here is some actual substance. In the big scheme of things, all of the above anecdotes are equal parts blowing off steam and relaying generally amusing stories of our adventures abroad. But truly the greatest challenge is reconciling our wealth and privileged backgrounds with the people here who have so much less. For example, how can I comment on the skiing ability of the Moldovans when they have never had the opportunity to ski? The only reason I am a mediocre skier and not a terrible one is because I have had the opportunity to try it. I went on ski trips in middle school and high school when I was young enough to pick up the sport more easily. Poor Daniel is just bad at skiing.

Or another example: Part of the reason we were herding cats is that the Moldovans were often checking prices and trying to spend as little as they possibly could. They are not stingy – they simply don’t have much margin for extra things in life. There were different prices at each of the equipment rental places, but the prices differed by (at most) $10 USD. For us, $10 is nothing. You can easily spend more than that on one trip to Starbuck’s for one person. But for Moldovans, that amount of money is significant. Of course they are going to consider this cost when they make their decisions! And that consideration might manifest as walking around and checking all the prices everywhere….or even deciding to go back down the mountain without skiing at all, which half of the group did.

It is a continual challenge for Daniel and myself to figure out how to respond to this. Should we pay lift tickets for Moldovans? Should we only participate in activities that are financially feasible for them? I’m sure there are entire books and dissertations and training manuals written on how to manage this difference between Haves and Have-Nots. Maybe we should be reading The Sneetches on a daily basis to inform our lifestyle choices?? We don’t have the answers, but we hope that we grow a little bit from each experience of dissonance and discomfort.