Learning how to cook with cabbage and other unexpected things

We are back in the United States. And the transition has been real….and hard. I have a lot I could say about that, but it wouldn’t yet be coherent. I need some time to wrap my mind around it all and make sense of it.

However, I am trying to pull together at least some reflections that make sense. Mostly because I keep getting questions from friends and family. “How was it?” “Tell me a story about your time there.” “What was the most unexpected thing you experienced?” These aren’t bad questions. They are (mostly) thoughtful questions from people that we really care about. The problem is I just don’t know how to answer.

For one thing, the feelings seem too raw to discuss them anecdotally. For another, I’m barely making sense of my daily life right now…let alone taking the time to process all the things that I’m thinking and feeling. But it’s a new year and a dreary night – the perfect time for self-reflection. So let’s begin with some of the unexpected things I learned and adopted while in Moldova.

Host like a Moldovan

After spending a year invited into various different houses, I have learned that I want to host like Moldovans do – though perhaps with my own American flair. Moldovans tend to be a little fussy with their hosting style. Though it’s always well-intentioned. For example, they are constantly coercing you to eat more food than you want to. I don’t want to adopt that pushiness, but I do want to adopt the focus on food.

There is always food. At dinners there is plate upon plate of different delicacies. And outside of mealtime, even if you just pop by a house for a quick visit, you are always offered snacks or drinks. It’s humbling to be offered food by a person or family who doesn’t have an abundance of it. And the thing is, they are providing more than just food. They are also offering their time. A cup of tea is not just hot water and a tea bag. It’s an invitation to come in, sit down, and stay to talk. It’s lovely and unspoken and I so desperately want to live my life in a way that I can offer it.

Aside from food, Moldovans also value warmth. For this reasons, houses always have communal slippers or house shoes by the front door. Most Moldovan houses are floored with tile which can be quite cold in the winter. When a guest enters the house, they take off their outside shoes and put on a pair of the inside ones. Once again, I love the unspoken aspect of this hosting tradition. It’s almost like an “ushering in” to the house: leave your shoes and your baggage at the door and come in to the warmth and comfort of the home.

My final hosting inspiration comes from Daniel’s Aunt who lives in the Moldova region of Romania. When I have coffee or tea at her house, she always serves me in the pretty tea cup with the saucer. She has mugs – and one time I made the mistake of using one when I made my own cup of coffee. She scolded me and told me that I should have used the teacup; the mugs were meant for the kids.

Hosting is a fine line between making your guests feel comfortable and making them feel special. Some guests (the upper midwestern ones in particular) might feel uncomfortable with being “too” special, but hopefully just a little bit is okay. Using festive plates or pulling out that fancy bottle of wine – especially when used on an otherwise standard hosting occasion – makes that experience with your guests memorable.

It seems to me that you really can’t fail if you mix friends + food +warmth + pizazz. Doesn’t that combination sound great? In Moldova it absolutely was. And if it was there, then why not here? So Unexpected Lesson #1 – how to be a great host.

Intuitive Cooking

Moving on to a separate but related lesson: cooking. I’ve been cooking regularly for over a decade now, and even before that I was cooking for my family from time to time. But I’m a recipe-following, precise-measuring type of girl, and I always have been.

Enter Moldova – where most people use the front bit of a normal spoon as a teaspoon and the full spoon as a tablespoon. A country in which people learn recipes from other people and not from cook books. It is also a country with a limited number of ingredients and spices but with a surprisingly tasty cuisine.

My intuitive cooking lessons were multi-pronged. We were lucky enough to have friends that came over to our place and cooked Moldovan dishes with us in our kitchen. We received some informal hands-on cooking lessons this way. Then there were the cooking lessons that were trial by fire (pun totally intended). [Can’t forget that time that our entire floor (and the ones above and below) smelled like chicken marinade that burned on a pan in the oven].

Usually it wasn’t that dramatic. It was just me cooking with the same limited ingredients and kitchen supplies yet again and trying to make something delicious of it. It turns out that after a year of cabbage (cabbage is the only thing that seems in season during every season in Moldova), I now have some decent recipes that I can pull together without measuring anything.

And if that isn’t an unexpected lesson then I don’t know what is.

True cross-cultural relationships – messy and worthwhile

I am especially aware of this lesson after returning to Madison. I love Madison for many reasons, but its lack of diversity is not one of them. And I don’t want to get judgy, but some of the least diverse parts of Madison are the ones with yard signs advertising their inclusiveness.

To be fair, the people with these yard signs might actually be champions for marginalized populations or active participants in diverse communities. But they may just as easily be people who like the “idea” of diversity without ever having experienced how uncomfortable it can be.

Because diversity is uncomfortable. It’s messy. And when it occurs in the place that you live, you never get a break from it. In Moldova, our apartment was like a tiny America of our choosing, and it was easy to forget that we were far from U.S. soil. But once we went outside, the language was different. The cultural norms were confusing. There were many more poor and disabled people on the streets – reminding you of lives harder than you could imagine.

And we could have lived that way – seeking haven in our American apartment inbetween quick forays out into the general population. But we didn’t live that way. We made friends. And those friendships were among some of the most difficult and most rewarding that I have ever had.

In Moldova I learned that cross-cultural relationships are hard. They require you to think before you speak; to realize that people are influenced by pasts that are much different than your own. For example, we knew both true orphans and “functional” orphans during our time in Moldova. I, on the other hand, had an almost idyllic childhood. I certainly didn’t hide anything about my family in Moldova, but I was also careful not to unintentionally flaunt it.

Likewise, our behavior changed based on the finances of our friends. We considered the cost before inviting people to do something with us; often we simply found activities that were free. We factored meals into our plans, knowing full well that Moldovans are experts at not complaining when hungry.

These are small examples, but they highlighted for me some of the challenges one faces in a diverse society. We don’t go on living our lives just as we please – surrounded by a diverse community but not really interacting with it. That is the unrealistic, white-washed version of diversity. To be in a diverse community means to have cross-cultural relationships and that means to change our plans, bend our structures, and choose to be uncomfortable (sometimes a lot and sometimes just a little).

Perhaps these lessons are small, but to me they feel confident and correct. They are some of the concrete ways in which I pray have been changed during our adventure in Europe. Feel free to stop in and check on us in the upcoming months – to see if these lessons have really stuck. Give me a couple weeks though, please, I’m currently trying to survive this transition. 🙂