(Poo) Pipe Dreams


Leah: Rule #1 when having volunteers install bathroom/sewage pipes: if you want your fecal matter to reach the septic tank in a timely matter without leaking all over the basement, then perhaps you should think twice about abandoning them in the middle of nowhere with your non-English speaking mother for a week. Let's backtrack, shall we?

The train from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest, Romania was delightfully uneventful and luckily we had booked a hostel in Bucharest close to the train station so we could get in and out of the city early the next morning. The bits of the city near the station were dodgy to the max and the hostel, Vila 11, was a bit creepy as well (or maybe it was the Canadian proprietress with sallow skin who never made eye contact?). We had initially been looking quite forward to our time in Romania, since we secured another Workaway that promised to be spectacular, both in terms of scenery and company.

However, our original hosts cancelled at the last minute due to a family emergency and we scrambled to find someone else who could take us. Adrian responded quickly in perfect English (he had lived in Vancouver) and let us know that he could use help restoring his grandparent's house in a tiny village outside Sibiu. We knew from his profile that the accommodation would be quite basic--well water, an outhouse and not much in the way of a kitchen--but we were up for it and stoked at the idea of Romanian country life and learning from our host.

Adrian was pleasant when picking us up from the train station and told us that we'd be sharing the experience with Truman, another Workawayer. He hailed from Taiwan and was also helping with web-based projects, as Adrian is working on getting an online business school up and running. Once at the house Adrian explained that we'd all head to the village the following day and that we should feel free to grab some dinner on his dime and explore Sibiu because he had work obligations and would be sleeping elsewhere that evening but would be back in the morning. Um, okay. Slightly bizarre, but our odd-looking trio (Truman was quite the novelty everywhere, since most Romanians have never seen a tall and gangling pony-tailed Taiwanese man traipsing through their locale) spent the evening getting to know one one another and dallied through the open squares and past architectural marvels and cafe culture as the ochre sun dipped below the horizon, illuminating the steeples of the orthodox cathedrals.

The following morning Adrian arrived and systematically kept pushing back our departure time for the village due to work, finally suggesting that we walk to the farmer's market to purchase provisions for the week and he'd meet us there. I love markets, as you may know from reading our blog, but when we actually shop in them I have my list and we try to bang it out as systematically as possible. However, shopping with Truman, God bless him, who also happened to have studied at a culinary school in Australia, was a special.

We bounced back and forth from stall to stall, trailing in his wake as he asked vendors for items they clearly didn't have for sale and settled on the cheapest produce possible, even though the broccoli was only a dollar more than everything else (no, Mel, I still haven't had my fix!) He also couldn't believe that the baby rabbits for sale next to the basil were for eventual consumption, not pets, so we had to explain that one a few times. Anyway, we eventually (sort of) found everything he needed and Adrian eventually arrived, piled us in and whisked us away to the village, Aciliu, about 35km outside of Sibiu.

The village was darling, with rows upon rows of painted houses featuring massive doors that swung open to reveal a central courtyard ringed by various housing and storing structures, each house sharing one wall with its next-door neighbor. Our work project was delightful, with low-slung grape vines draped every which way, a centerpiece of a barn at the far end, wine cellars, attics, wood burning stoves and private rooms galore. We could see the potential here and were excited to help Adrian get some plumbing in, tidy up and maybe tile the soon-to-be-christened bathroom. His mother Maria ambled over, introductions were made and we were shown to our room with festive green shutters that swung out onto the street and a picture of Adrian's great grandparents with his grandpa as a baby.

The history was palpable and it reminded me of exploring my grandparent's farm house in Pennsylvania as a child, discovering the toys my dad and uncles used to play with, old magazines from decades earlier and farm tools that boggled my mind. And to make it that much more surreal, while we may have had internet access, horses pulling carts still clopped down the cobbled street, people cooked on outdoor fires, our only source of water came from the well in the courtyard and the loo consisted of a wooden outhouse tucked in the corner. It was just like Game of Thrones, but with wifi (and no incest, gore or direwolves for that matter).

We were all geared up to live like pioneers and jumped in to help Adrian and Maria change out the grotty semi-working two burner cooker in the "kitchen" to a more functional range/stove unit adapted for propane use. He then proceeded to show us his plans for the week, including clearing out and cleaning a front room, as well as installing water and sewage pipes for the bathroom and hopefully starting to tile the pantry that would become the indoor bathroom. It all sounded doable, but our enthusiasm took a bit of a dip when he gave us a wave and said he'd be back tomorrow, as he had to return to Sibiu for work. Riiight. So there we were with Truman, Maria (who he had jokingly referred to as the "project manager"- little did we know this foreshadowing would grate on our last nerve), a giant property and our host was taking off yet again. We were to cook for ourselves (no biggie), ask his mom to call him with any questions since she didn't speak English and he'd see us soon. Confusion aside, we quickly settled into a routine with Truman in the kitchen and Steve and I as his sous chefs and we passed our first night falling asleep to the incessant barking of dogs and screeching of villagers in the street (how was it possible that small-town life was louder and more chaotic than the city?!). Little did we know that just like the drain pipe, our spirits would soon head downhill.

Steve: It's one thing to give someone their space and quite another to abandon them entirely. Unfortunately we felt that we fell under the latter category. The first day was spent clearing out a cluttered, cobweb-filled detached room that hadn't seen the light of day for probably twenty-five years. Easy enough, this was work that didn't need direction or supervision.

The next day we got up at a reasonable time and got ourselves fed and ready for a full workday. As time ticked by waiting for our host, Maria received a phone call from her son and after some discussion in Romanian she passed the phone off to me. Apparently he was going to be too busy to come to the village that morning so he instructed me to start trenching for the drain pipes that would run outside of the building. Fair enough, we can handle this. Of course after I got off of the phone I realized that we had several options on where to run pipe; the preferable course would run close to a tree so I figured Leah and I would do some exploratory excavation to make sure the root systems weren't too bad.

We gathered our tools and started to pick out a few of the large rocks that served as pavement using one of their spades--using a hoe wasn't going to work just yet. But after getting a couple of rocks out of the way I was quickly stopped by Ma Maria who mumbled something in Romanian, grabbed a hoe/pick and started to pull out rocks (which were now easily accessible with said tool). Ohhhhhh no. Please no. Helllll no. So this is how it's going to be? Ground control to Major Tom, commencing countdown, engines on. 'Calm down Steve,' I told myself. I nodded my head, smiled and I'm pretty sure I said something nice but undetectably  sarcastic. And so the project management began...

Ma Maria quickly handed off the hoe and took her seat watching over us as we worked. Every now and again she would try to convey something in Romanian and/or attempt at calling Adrian to translate. In all fairness she was a rather sweet old lady but I don't do well with people hovering over my business, bird dogging my every move. Leah felt the same and over the course of the next couple of days we would turn our heads while we were working, wary of someone standing behind us; either that or we did our best not to work where she might be sitting. (Leah: It actually started giving me PTSD flashbacks to the most trying parts of my Peace Corps experience, when my host mom would show me the "proper" way to wash clothes or clean my room. Just because my way of approaching the end result is different than yours doesn't make it wrong! From telling us how to peel potatoes to the best way to dig a trench, Ma Maria was on my last nerve.) Towards the end of that second day--with major portions of the trenching done and our clothes completely drenched in sweat--we received a message from our host that his car had overheated and he would be coming either late that night or early the next morning. We had no pipe or supplies so we called it a day, made dinner and commenced our ritual of ice-cold well water bucket showers (we have edited PG-13 photographic evidence of this, don't you worry).

During breakfast the next morning we were surprised that our host hadn't made an appearance yet. We didn't have any pipe or supplies and Truman had quite a few questions himself (he had been holed up in his room working on Adrian's revamped website) and as doubt was creeping in whether he would arrive we heard a car pull up in front of the house. He was here with pipe and fittings and we stopped eating to help him quickly unload the car of supplies and tools. As we started to explain what we had completed the day before he made it known that he was not going to be staying and in fact was in a hurry to leave. We spent a few minutes going over what was done, what we would continue doing that day and after a quick scan of the parts he brought I made note of several more that would be needed. I felt brushed off, but no worries I guess...I was sure we could handle it. At least we got that much out of him, he told Truman he would have to Skype him later and left.

A little bit later Ma Maria called him because she had some concerns where a tee would be installed and the cell phone was handed off to me. I had a pretty good grasp of what needed to be done and anyways Adrian said he would be back around noonish (he later told Truman one o'clock via Skype; Leah guessed it would be 2, I upped the ante and said 3). Either way as the day wore on we started pipefitting and I realized that we would need some additional fittings and I had several questions. Ma tried to call him but was relegated to leaving a message. After putting in about as much work as we could we again called it a day...another hot sweaty day that was tainted with frustration at not having all the tools or equipment that we would need and not knowing if we were doing things as we should have been.

In my humble experience, most homeowners like to know that improvements are done properly; unfortunately we could only understand about 5% of Ma Maria's Romanian and son was off doing other more important things. At one point I might have even had a hissy fit when my clay-soil-hitting-pick hit a massive rock--boulder is more like it--that wouldn't budge. A broken pick handle and a half-an-hour of my life later I conquered that rock but that didn't do much for either of our spirits. We felt kind of used, were getting touchy with each other and felt a bit trapped in this quaint but lacking-in-things-to-do village.

As that day wore on it quickly became apparent that our host probably wasn't going to show up and hadn't even returned his mother's message to call. I penned a wish-list with some questions and had Truman forward it via Facebook which had been his go-to for messaging Adrian. The next morning, Saturday as it were, after completing the few remaining tasks that we could without the needed supplies we were contacted and told that he would be showing up a little bit later that day. After some lunch, reading and getting things done for our upcoming travels Adrian showed up with the much needed fittings (as well as with an awkwardly stand-offish lady, who we later learned was his wife and with whom there had been some recent marital discord).

He dropped off the parts, let us know that he was yet again on his way out and would be back Sunday night to bring us back to Sibiu for our departure the next day (so much for bringing us back on Saturday so that we could have more time to check out this tantalizing city which even had an art-music festival that would wrap up during the day on Sunday). As Leah told me later I looked like I was going to blow a fuse. I think I was quite civil, although I definitely had some questions, suggestions and advice but at this point I really didn't give a sh*t (pun intended).

Adrian left and we resumed finishing up the work that we probably could have finished the day before if we had all the necessary materials. And despite what Leah said in her opening sentences, I think we did a damn good job of installing drain pipe for the first time--and without any help or advice at that. I also think Ma Maria was a little worried about the first section that would tie into the floor drain but how do I tell her that this part can't even be finished until her son has the right parts and much less even knows where the drain is actually going to go? Alas, after a week here I still don't speak Romanian.

I apologize if this post seems like a rant. I'm actually still sitting in our room in the village house typing away as we wait for our host, so I couldn't even tell you yet when or if we are actually getting a ride into the city this evening. So to change to a lighter note, I'll talk a little bit about our fellow Workaway volunteer. Truman, whose given Chinese name is pretty much impossible to say with our Western tongues, took his name from the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show (Leah still contests that it was just coincidence but I swear he said that's where he got the name from). He is a tall, lanky bull-in-a-china-shop kind of person, and although it sounds really mean he kind of reminds me of Big Bird...without the costume. An aspiring and educated chef, he took the lead on preparing most of our meals, preparing them with love that is passed on into each dish as he explained to us. I got accustomed to the I'm-going-to-eat-the-plate-itself and then hurry-up-and-shovel-the-food-in-your-mouth that would be considered a faux pas at many Western tables but is a hallmark of proper etiquette in many Asian cultures.

I even got used to keeping a blank face as his highly audible farts slipped by during breaks in conversation, usually unacknowledged by anyone at the table (the laugh track in my head was still playing every time). It may sound like I'm gently poking fun at our Tawainese workmate but in all honesty, these are just things that I will always remember about him. And in the end, I will probably remember him most for his joie de vivre that he discovered in the freedom of travel. Since this blog has morphed into a time capsule for us to remember the tidbits of our adventure, when I am going old and senile and unknowingly pass gas I may very well nod and smile and wonder how Truman was getting along. I just pray to God that he heeds our advice and realizes that hitchhiking in northern Scandinavia is not a good idea in the winter.

Leah: So all things considered, this wasn't a bad workaway experience exactly, but it certainly wasn't good. We had yummy food, plenty of free time, daily trips to the corner shop for ice cream and managed to learn some Romanian. However, even the well eventually lost its novelty luster. I think female readers of a certain age will agree that for about a week of every month we ladies are more grateful than usual for running water and hot showers--unfortunately for me the timing did not line up well and I found myself attending to nature armed only with an outhouse and frigid well water. All part of the memories, right? I also tired of washing dishes in cold water with a grotty sponge that never seemed to actually clean anything- fine when you're camping for a few days, but when all I want is a cup of tea without a layer of film on top that doesn't taste like last night's spaghetti it gets real old.

And yes, we did do a damn good job of installing pipes and water lines despite my intro, but when we have yet to spend more than 30 consecutive minutes with our host over the last week and he shows up with his wife to drop off supplies before they have a night away elsewhere to save their marriage, I get peeved and start fantasizing about sabotage. I know marriage isn't always easy, but if you're having some serious issues (which we only knew about because Truman told us after the fact) maybe don't invite volunteers to come stay with you for a week? Also, none of our hosts so far have deigned to ask us to work on a project that they themselves wouldn't also do, so Steve and I are walking away from this feeling used and abandoned. Yes, Truman was his first official Workaway experience and we were his second, but Adrian has been involved in Couchsurfing as a host before and should understand the cultural exchange side of this arrangement.

There's so much potential here, both with the house and the environment, but we're leaving with a bad taste in our mouths and for the first time on our trip we'll be forced to write neutral/negative feedback for a host. You win some, you lose some, but at least we have dozens of well water shower pictures (most of which you will not be given access to for obvious reasons) to crack up over for years to come. Now it's off to track down Dracula and maybe find a Romanian or two who will sit still long enough to answer our questions about this country's history, people and culture.


Steve: P.S. So we're in the next town reviewing this entry before posting it on our blog. Too our welcome surprise we were actually picked up at 7 p.m. from the village house by our host, albeit with his estranged wife in tow. Apparently they had a nice evening in the mountains. Sweet. Anyways, there was really never any mention of 'how was your time,' 'how did the work go' or really much of a 'thank you' for that matter. If anything I thought Leah was going to blow her lid when he asked us about our itinerary and then noted that we were going in the wrong direction--information that could have come to light if we had actually had any real face time in the past week. But it's over, the past is past and now it is just a memory. A bitter sweet one at that, since we were actually quite bummed leaving Truman behind; he spent the morning sitting with us at the train station talking about future plans and it was quite apparent that the remainder of his stay would not be the same without us. And our stay would not have been the same without his part in the dynamic. So as we finish this post (for real), I must say 'cheers Truman.'


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