Iarba Verde in May

6 mai 2007

Well folks it’s coming up on Memorial Day in America, a big holiday, but we had ours here in Romania back on May first. Originally a true labor holiday (as well as being connected to some fertility rites), the Communists co-opted the day as the pan-movement universal day to celebrate the Workers with a big W. Practically every Romanian city has a street named "May 1" from those days but now it’s mostly just a day off from work and a chance to party.

May 1 happened to fall on a Tuesday this year so most bugetari (literally "those of the budget" but meaning government workers) had the preceding Monday off as well as many private employers. Therefore it was quite a nice four-day weekend for lots of people even if the temperatures were a little bit chilly (and it rained at the beach from what I heard).

Which gives me a perfect segue to explain a Romanian custom of iarb? verde (lit: "green grass") or sometimes called aer liber (lit: "free (unrestricted) air"). During the Communist era, there was a strong push to urbanize the population. That plus better economic incentives in the post-Revolution era have created a large segment of the population which lives in densely-packed apartment blocks or choked city streets. I’ve spent the majority of my time in Romania living in cities and I can tell you it can be very overwhelming: cars honking and zooming by at all hours, people shouting and laughing on the streets, music blasting out of car and apartment windows, blowing dust, etc.

Therefore city-dwelling Romanians take every opportunity they can to get to iarb? verde, literally head out of the city to find the first piece of greenery they can find. They’ll pack a picnic lunch, park the car on a strip of greenery somewhere, crank up the tunes on the car stereo and have a little cookout. Then at the end of the day they’ll head back home. Those with a little more money might do the same, only spend the night at an inn or hotel (as did many people at the hotel where I live).

The standard Romanian "cookout" for a day of aer liber is: mici (also called mititei, both literally meaning "small ones") and/or pork chops and/or slanin?, all of which is grilled. A salad of raw vegetables, most typically tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and radishes is prepared on-site with maybe a dash of salt and pepper and oil. And all of this is eaten with a few slices of bread and several bottles of beer, sometimes wine and very often ?uica (or rachior, etc) with soft drinks (sucuri) for the kids.

A brief explanation about some of the food items mentioned above:

mici (MEETCH) – This is the "hotdog" of Romania although not because it resembles an American hotdog but because of its universal consumption. Mici are small, dark-colored sausages that are sold and eaten just about everywhere in Romania, usually at a very economical price and served with a dollop of mustard. I myself don’t eat sausage but I’ve had mici before and I’ve never met any foreigner who didn’t like them (if they eat sausage meats).

slanin? (SLAH-NEENA) – I might be slightly wrong about how this is made but I believe slanin? is made by smoking pork fat. It is literally a big chunk of pure fat and contains no meat. I’ve seen Romanians eat it "raw" but they prefer it best when it is grilled and served with (raw) onions. It’s fine if you don’t eat slanin? but Romanians tend to get a little offended if you express disgust at consuming slices of pure pig fat so don’t do it.

?uica (TSWEEKA) – There are about 10 different synonyms and variations of this but essentially what I’m referring to is the most popular Romanian (almost always homemade) liquor. It’s a very strong spirit and is called "Romanian whiskey" in some guidebooks but it isn’t a whiskey at all but rather made from fruit, most typically prunes. Romanian drinkers are connoisseurs of the various methods of making this drink and if you stay here long enough, you’ll discover your favorite. If you want to make a friend for life, learn to compliment someone on the ?uica they made themselves ;)

suc (SOOK) – Technically speaking, the word suc just means "juice" and should only refer to the liquid extracted from a fruit. The technical term for a soft drink is bauturi racoritoare (lit: "cooling/refreshing drinks") but that’s a mouthful even for Romanians and so everyone just says suc to mean soft drink. Americans tend to mean carbonated drinks like colas or Sprite type beverages when they say "soft drinks" while Romanians tend to more commonly mean drinks with a lot less (or no) carbonation, often just sugar water with a dose of fruit flavor, or often bizarrely drinks that mix sugar, aspartame and sucrose as sweeteners. If you have an aversion to chemical sweeteners or dietary sensitivies, read the labels very carefully as Romanians tend to just go for whatever tastes best without regard to content.

It’s worth noting here that "cola" is generally considered a separate category from "suc" in general and is referred to by that name. Therefore a "suc" is usually any type of sweetened non-alcoholic beverage from Sprite to third-rate fruit "drinks" but generally not Coca-Cola type beverages.

So that’s basically your typical Romanian warm-weather holiday and every weekend or day off, Romanians will leave the cities in droves to have a little iarb? verde time. Unlike the United States and other countries, every square inch of property isn’t fenced off and boundaried and so you’ll see Romanians parking just about anywhere that doesn’t seem to obviously belong to someone.

I once was riding the train from Oradea to Cluj and there’s a segment in Bihor Province where the train track parallels the river there. I was riding on a May 1 day I believe (or maybe it was just a warm Spring weekend) and anywhere someone could inch a car near the river banks they were camped out there for the day and having a little aer liber.

Bonus: if you ever get a chance, ride that train from Oradea to Cluj as the scenery is absolutely spectacular. I’ve been on that route in both winter and summertime and it’s just gorgeous and a wonderful way to see Romania from the comfort of a train. If you take the train from Budapest to Cluj, you’ll be on this route ;)

I’m not sure where you, dear Reader, are but hopefully you’re enjoying a nice warm Spring day and perhaps you too might feel the urge for a little iarb? verde or picnic. If so, I heartily recommend it and all I ask is that you take a sip of your favorite beverage for me ;)


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