Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Heart of Bucharest

Cris goes to university in Bucharest, so she took me to school with her one rainy day. The first place we visited was the university library ... just have a look at all the towers and pillars and fancy windows! The inside has thousands of books, in Romanian, French, English, German, Italian, Hungarian, and all sorts of other languages. The English ones were too grown-up for me, and I couldn't read the others, but it was fun to play hide and seek among the bookshelves. The National Library is smaller, but it has beautiful white galleries and arches inside. When we visit the Mallorytown library we go to the community centre basement, but these libraries had several floors full of books.

Unfortunately I didn't have a library card, so Cris took me to some bookstores afterwards. Some are more like markets, out in the streets with a tarp to protect the books from the rain. Cris took me to a little place where they sell books that I read when I was her age. The seller sat me on the top shelf so I could look around. Cris found a treasure: a storybook that she'd loved when she was my age. We couldn't find a bag big enough to fit it so we covered it in a newspaper to protect it from the rain. It looked a bit silly, but she was so happy to have it!

Carrying the book carefully, we strolled through the downtown. (We thought about taking the subway, but I was afraid of getting squashed even flatter than I already am.) There's an art museum on one side of Revolution Square (which used to be called Palace Square, until Romania had a revolution twenty years ago). The museum used to be the Royal Palace. My favourite picture was a portrait of Santa Claus, painted before he moved to the North Pole and started raising reindeer. Back then he was called Nicholas.

Even though it was so rainy, a furry rat was scuttling through the park looking for something to eat. We tried to get close enough to take his picture, but he hurried away to hide under this piano.

Kris and I were getting a little damp, so we stopped at another book shop. Look at all the new friends I found here!

The shop was selling postcards, so I bought a set to mail home to Mallorytown. I almost toppled into the box mailing them ... luckily Cris grabbed me by the ankle just as I was about to tumble in after them.

By now it was getting late, so we hurried to the bus station. It's as big as a shopping mall! The buses are all a normal size, though. We took ours back out of the downtown, through the rain, to Cris' house. As soon as we'd hung up our raincoats and left our umbrellas to drip dry, Cris opened her newspaper package to make sure her storybook hadn't gotten wet. It's all about a trickster called Păcală and his friend, who are basically kind-hearted but love to play tricks on nasty people. Once we'd put on our pyjamas, we snuggled up in bed with the stuffed animals. Cris read me story after story, until Păcală was somehow mixed up with Vanda and huacas and the Old Sea Lion Hotel ... and I was fast asleep.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Romania - what about the vampires?

I couldn't believe how short the journey was from Jerusalem, Israel, to Bucharest, Romania. Every other trip, I had time to read three or four Magic Treehouse books. (I keep a flashlight in my envelope for reading in bed.) This time, I couldn't even finish my one book about vampires.

Cristina met me at the post office, and I checked her out veeerrry carefully. She wasn't wearing a black cape or red lipstick; in fact, she wasn't wearing any black at all. Maybe she was in disguise! I looked at her teeth, but they weren't pointy either.

Obviously her disguise was better than I had expected. It was time to catch her off guard. I held on tightly to my garlic, and asked her in a voice that was only slightly wobbly whether she'd drunk any good blood lately. Cris looked extremely surprised, and suddenly I realized I was being rude.

I said quickly that I was sorry, but that I'd been reading about vampires and all the books said that vampires came from Romania. Cris laughed, and said that the books about Dracula were all fiction. The authors might have gotten the idea, though, from a prince known as Vlad the Impaler. He lived five centuries ago, and treated people very cruelly.

So vampires are fiction! Whew! Now I could relax and meet my new (and very non-fiction) friends. Cris lives with her mom and dad, five brothers, two sisters, and all sorts of stuffed animals on the outskirts of Bucharest. The stuffed animals all came to the post office to meet me. Here we are, hanging out together in the back seat of the car.

On the way home, we stopped by the office where Cris' dad works. He specializes in flooring and interior design, and showed me some of his plans and sketches. We also stopped off at the supermarket for groceries. Cris and I looked for food from some of the countries I'd visited, and found tangerines from Argentina; we bought them for breakfast.

Cris and her family have peach trees growing behind their house. There were still some peaches on the tree, so I climbed up to pick one. All sorts of wasps were buzzing around the fruit, and they started buzzing around me, too. I remembered that if you don't bother wasps, they won't bother you, so I didn't swat at them. Instead, I stayed still, while Cris helped me choose a peach to snack on. Then she took me inside to meet the family and unpack.

Unpacking was not a pleasant experience.... I've lost all sorts of socks and underwear by now. I'd also left a bunny slipper under Fernanda's bed, and then left my nightgown under the pillow at the hermitage. I thought that I'd have to sleep in my clothes, but Cris came to my rescue. She made me the most beautiful nightgown, with matching bunny slippers.
When I wore it that night, I felt as if I were sleeping on a cloud! At least, for a while - then a giant thunderstorm rolled over us, so fierce that I could see the lightning flashes right through the envelope. The thunder got so scary that I crawled out of my sleeping bag, out of the envelope, and into bed with all the stuffed toys. Even after the thunder moved on, there was a strange, rattling, whirring noise from down the hall that went on and on. Were there vampires here after all? I burrowed deeper under the toys, and that's where Cris found me next morning when she came in to wake me up.

For breakfast, we had tiny, perfect pancakes that we made from a mix. There is no maple syrup in Romania; here they sprinkle their pancakes with icing sugar. I enjoyed them just the same! We had the tangerines on the side with banana slices. Yummy!
Remember the rattling, whirring noise that went on all night? This afternoon I found out that it was not a vampire. Cris' brother has a new hamster named Kate, who is nocturnal. She likes to spend nights running on her wheel. This made the whole family rather grumpy, so he has promised to take it off at night from now on. Kate will just have to get her exercise during the day.

Kate hoped that I'd brought apples or carrots, which she especially enjoys. If you cut up a carrot into pieces, she can stuff the entire carrot into her cheek pouches. She also likes to shred paper and use it to decorate her nest, so I had to stay well back in case she ate my clothes!

Cris attends school in downtown Bucharest, so tomorrow she'll take me to school with her. Vampires in Bucharest? I'm not a bit worried anymore. I've even taken that garlic clove out of my pocket; I planted it in the rose bed.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jerusalem - the old city

For the rest of the time that Sister Claire Edith was in Italy, Francis, his big sister Joyce, and I played in the garden together every day. We played hopscotch, jumped rope, and built castles in a big pile of sand, but our favourite game was Hide and Seek in the herb garden. I won every time!

By the time Sister Claire came home, it was almost time to start school. Francis invited me to help choose his new backpack. We went with Joyce, and their mom, Henriette. Some cousins came too. Back before I started my trip around the world, I'd have just assumed that we'd go to Zellers or Giant Tiger .... but after six months in Latin America, I was pretty sure we were going to a market. I was right!

There are different markets in Jerusalem, but we went to the souk, which is the market in the Arab quarter of the old city. The oldest part of Jerusalem is encircled by a wall, with seven gates in it. To get into the souk, you enter the old city through the Damascus gate. In the olden days, if you wanted to travel to the city of Damascus you left Jerusalem from here. When he built the gate in 1542, the Sultan Suleiman made the Damascus gate as challenging as possible. To pass through it, you have to descend a set of stairs, and then make a sharp turn into a narrow passage which twists this way and that. No enemy soldier would have been able to gallop his horse down the stairs and around those tight corners without getting killed first.

No cars can get through the gate, of course, and so you don't see cars, trucks or buses in the souk. Everybody walks. I couldn't see through all those legs, so Francis gave me a piggy-back ride and then I could see much better. He's only six years old, but he's still much taller than I am!

It seems there have always been soldiers in Jerusalem, either attacking it or defending it. Everywhere we went, we saw soldiers. Some were doing their shopping (you can see a soldier looking at watches), but you can see that their guns are placed so that they can get at them quickly in an emergency. There are some groups of people who don't like each other very much, so they have to be ready for anything. In Israel, once you turn 18 you have to join the army. You serve for 3 years if you're a man and 2 years if you're a woman. After that you still have to go back to the army regularly to help out and stay up-to-date.

In the souk, we bought some bread, spices, a few glasses of pomegranate juice, and some halvah for dessert. Halvah is a delicious candy made of ground sesame seeds and syrup, which you buy in slices. It comes in different flavours, but my favourite was chocolate. We also bought some cubes of lamb to grill kebabs for supper. The lamb carcasses hang in a glass case, and you ask for the part you want. The vendor invited me to pose inside the meat case for this photo, but I said, "No, thanks!!!"

Then we waded through the crowds, deeper and deeper into the souk. First we bought some glow-in-the-dark tops, and then looked for a knapsack store. On a corner we found a little store, which seemed even smaller once Francis, Joyce, Henriette, Sister Claire Edith, and some cousins were all inside. Ramez (a younger cousin) chose a Spiderman bag; he's holding the bag and top in the photo here. Mayliss and Samara (two older cousins) took a long time to choose, so the rest of us played with our tops while we were waiting for them.

After a while everybody had knapsacks except me. I didn't want one, because I still keep
everything in the basket that Erasmo's Aunt Mary made for me. We kept walking through the souk, and came to a souvenir store. If you were a tourist in Jerusalem, what souvenir would you choose? I really wanted to take home one of the wooden Nativity scenes, but it wouldn't fit inside Aunt Mary's basket or even in my envelope.

Remember how I said that it seemed that there had always been soldiers in Jerusalem? Nine hundred years ago, soldiers from across Europe captured Jerusalem. (This was before the Sultan built those tricky gates.) The soldiers, who called themselves the Crusaders, killed over 30,000 Muslim men, women and children in the city. That's more people than in all of Brockville. They also built a hospital for their injured fighters. Do you see that archway? That's what's left of the old hospital. Nowadays, it's a busy market.

From the hospital archway, we walked (and skipped, hopped, and ran backwards) until we came to this building with the arches around all the doors and windows. It doesn't look very special, does it? It's very special, though, and millions of pilgrims come here. That's because this is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It's built over the place where Jesus was crucified and then buried. Actually, this church has two names: the other one is the Basilica of the Resurrection.

We met a friend of Sister Claire Edith's in the courtyard. Her name is Sister Agnes, and I loved her smile. We thought she might like to play with our tops, but she said that we were way too good and she'd just embarass herself. Instead she led us into the basilica, where we lit candles in front of the Empty Tomb. All sorts of people were passing around us: pilgrims and priests and nuns. When I heard that we'd see pilgrims I thought that they'd be wearing old-fashioned black clothes and shoes with buckles on them, but many of them looked like the people we see every day doing their shopping at Purcell's.

A woman whispered that sometimes people get into real honest-to-goodness fights here, but not today - everybody had an almost dreamy expression on their faces.

Outside the basilica, we met Father Angelo, who is from the Phillipines. We showed him and Father Fergus our tops, but for some reason they were just like Sister Agnes, a bit too shy to play with them.

I'm really going to miss Francis and Joyce, especially our games of hide and seek. Perhaps someday I can return to Israel. One place I'd like to visit is the Dead Sea, which is so salty that you just float on the top - you can't sink, no matter how hard you try.

Anyway, the next morning we all walked to the post office. Francis gave me a big good-bye kiss, and then I kissed everybody else and climbed into my envelope so Sister Claire Edith could mail me to Romania. The envelope smells a bit of garlic, but that's fine with me. I dug the garlic out of the hermitage garden before we left. People say vampires still live in Romania, and you just can't be too careful!

shalom (that's Hebrew for "peace"),

Sunday, September 13, 2009

another letter from Jerusalem

One day in late June Sister Claire told me that we were going to Italy together. She showed me the plane ticket to Rome. We were going to visit the Vatican and learn to make lace and do all sorts of things. I was soooo excited! The night before our plane left, I had a bath and packed my envelope and went to bed extra early.

When I woke up, Sister Claire's hairbrush was on the bed beside me. Sister Claire's sunglasses were on the bed beside me. Sister Claire was gone, and so was her luggage. I looked all over the hermitage, but no Sister Claire.

I couldn't believe it! She'd forgotten to take me! Then the phone rang. It was Sister Claire calling from the airport. She'd just realized that I wasn't in her big carry-on bag, and didn't know whether I'd fallen out in the taxi or what had happened. She was so worried about me that I stopped being cross with her.

Well .... her plane was leaving in half an hour, and there was no way I could get to the airport in time. Sister Claire was terribly sorry, and promised that I could visit Italy another time. I made some breakfast, and thought about what to do next. I sure didn't want to spend the next month in her bedroom!

After a while I decided to telephone the people where Sister Claire works. They were very sorry to hear what had happened, and invited me to come there until she returned. I walked across the road, looking at all the old houses with their satellite dishes on the roofs. It reminded me a little bit of the Tatooine cities in the Star Wars movies.

Once I was inside the office building, I found that all the windows had bars on them. I think it used to be an old fort. Here's the view from Sister Claire's office window - an old arrow slit! People used to fire their arrows at the enemy from the other side, but nobody could shoot at them from the wrong side of that little slit. I squeezed through the bars, climbed the wall and squeezed through the arrow slit, and then took this picture of the back of it.

After I was finished exploring the old wall, Dima invited me to work with her for a while in her office. Then Ioanna invited me to look at the pictures on her computer. (To be honest, all the pictures were grown-up stuff ... no webkins or anything.)

Because I was getting a little bored, I asked if they had anything else to do. Ioanna gave me a feather duster and put me to work cleaning! I cleaned the oratory, where people go to be quiet and pray; it didn't take much dusting. Then I started on the books. Look at them all! They didn't have any pictures, and not all of them were in English, so after a while I started looking for somebody to play with. That's how I found Francis, but I'll tell you all about him another time.