In Romania, it is now:

Friday, December 31, 2010

Well Seasoned (Part I)

I'm writing this on a train which is making slow progress through the snowy fairyland of Transylvania--fields, mountains, streams, villages--on our nine-hour trip to Brasov. We'll arrive in time to celebrate the New Year with some of my Peace Corps colleagues tonight and then Lee and I will enjoy this wonderful old city for a few days until our Monday return. I finally have a little time to write and so much to tell about the events of the past few weeks. Christmas in Romania has been a whirlwind of song and dance, food and drink (hot, spicy wine (vin fiert) and polinka (dinka-doo!) in great abundance), and the kind of warm-hearted hospitality that should characterize the season everywhere.****Lee arrived in time for the community Christmas program, a presentation of traditional and modern dance and song, poetry and holiday songs in both Romanian and English, and a contest of table settings (our documentarian's idea) by the different classes, judged by Santa Claus, himself. It was a evening everyone seemed to enjoy (see pictures.) A few days later, on the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, I had the great pleasure of presenting the teachers at my school gift bags I filled from the boxes of supplies my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship back home sent. The boxes arrived just in time and I loved making up the bags of everything from post-it notes to staplers to stickers to pens. They were surprised and in a festive mood they sang their thanks--some beautiful Romanian carols in 3-part harmony!****The next day our son Dan arrived from California. Lee and I had bought a small tree and decorated it and had lights in the landing window outside our flat, a star wreath on the door. I was disappointed the snow had melted, but he got to experience plenty starting the day after Christmas. On Christmas Eve we had the great pleasure of accepting an invitation through my friend/colleague Connie to spend the afternoon and evening in a village just south of Oradea. Our hosts (friends of Connie's) were warm-hearted Romanians who had spent some time in the US and spoke very good English. They wanted us to experience the carolers, food, traditions of their village. Lucky us! The food was a feast of all things Romanian, the homemade wine and polinka well-done, and the walk through the little town with a visit to the Orthodox Church and its priest was a highlight. (see pictures) The priest is an accomplished architect and artist and is adorning the interior of the domed sanctuary in colorful, accurately portrayed iconic paintings. He has been working on this project in faith and artistry for a few years now and is determined to complete the task. He has created a space for worship filled with joy--colorful, light, and welcoming. He also had us join him in the parsonage for a sip of polinka and/or homemade wine from his grapes. While there, carolers visited--one of three carolings of the evening. Different from the Dickensian singers with choir-like decorum (our British/American ideals), the carolers here are revelers, often wearing animal or demon masks, wearing fur capes, beating drums, and acting out cautionary tales. Someone always seems to represent good, too--a priest-like character in white who carries a replica of the church constructed of cardboard and foil. We were told the masks and capes were often passed down from one generation to the next in a family, along with the particular role. (In a restaurant in Oradea on the 23rd, we were visited by strolling carolers who sang, acted, and danced the "goat dance," something I want to learn more about.) Another group we encountered on our walk--teens led by a different priest--seemed less costumed and medieval, but were just as eager in their singing. It has become more and more clear to me that singing is a very Romanian way to give of oneself. A gift of song is always the right size, always appropriate, always from the heart. (to be continued)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Finding Christmas In Romania

Our IST (In Service Training) in Sibiu was a kind of week-long echo of our summer training: language classes, cultural sessions, and much information and urging about community projects. It was great seeing fellow PCVs I haven't seen since August though we had less time to visit than I had hoped we'd have.****I think our "settling in" time has ended now and besides our teaching, we must concentrate on other aspects of our community's needs. It's a bit daunting--figuring out the need, the process, the means. I'm lucky to have unflagging support at my school/community and forward-thinking people with lots of ideas. I know it's not so everywhere.****So the Christmas season is upon us. Pigs are being slaughtered all over Romania with family members helping butcher and prepare the meat in sausages or hams for smoking or freezing. It's a tradition that occurs sometime after Saint Nicholas Day on December 6 (which begins the season) and Christmas. I was feeling a bit left out of the gifting of St. Nick's Day when my landlady dashed down the stairs and presented me with a lovely wool felt hat as I was waiting in the foyer for the taxi to the city and then the bus to Sibiu. And Sibiu with its lovely decorated square and with the snow that has fallen in the past week, I'm starting to put some jolly in my jingle. Oradea has a coating, too, and today for the first time I had to walk my 4K in snow and slush and with flurries flurrying. I was relieved to find that my pricey Geox boots do indeed stay 100% dry inside and have fine traction. (Thanks to Joe R for the recommendation via his wife Diane.) I came home and strung up some lights in a window, put on some holiday music, and started a big pot of soup.****I have to say though that what really hit me full-force in terms of "the spirit" and what surprised me in my reaction was today's rehearsal for the community program this Friday. I lost it, quite frankly, when I heard the sweet voices of those Romanian children singing "White Christmas." I had to excuse myself to my office momentarily where the documentarian followed me, gave me a big hug, and told me to be strong. It was such a Romanian gesture. I laughed and wiped my eyes and returned for a rousing "Jingle Bells" where I made the children do the sub-text "Ha, ha, ha" after "laughing all the way." I had bought a pretty red wooden, jingle bell "rattle" in Sibiu with the idea that it would be perfect for the percussion and it was/is! The program at the community center will consist of a dance number (we have quite a talented troupe and a creative media specialist who choreographs) where worldly souls are visited by angels who set them straight, carols and songs in both English and Romanian, and Christmas poems in both languages. Apparently we'll have a visit by Santa Claus (the mayor, I think). And my husband will arrive on Thursday and be here for the program. His visit is anticipated by the village, too. Perhaps I should insist he wear a Santa hat and laugh alot. :-) Joy to the world--all over--in whatever land you're reading this. This season of love and peace has meaning for us all.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Over the River and Through the Woods

Extremely busy days just now--preparing for the holidays with its special Christmas program for the community and my family visitors (yay!), getting various presentations ready for a week at IST (In Service Training) which begins a week from today in Sibiu, finishing our budget report, and completing the 30 hours of language tutoring by December. I'm waiting for my tutor right now and decided I could take a few minutes to let you know that Thanksgiving was indeed well celebrated by the PC volunteers in Romania--and true to our third directive, we also shared information about this quintessentially American holiday with our students and colleagues. I made presentations, using video clips from the History channel's website, pictures, and personal anecdotes 18 different times during the week and had my students make the "hand turkeys" American children make and had them present them in English with an emphasis on the thankful part. I must say I have never felt more keenly the significance of and true appreciation for this holiday as I've felt it this year. Those of us volunteering on the west side of Romania (too far to go to Bucharest for the American ambassador's big Thanksgiving Dinner) had our own gathering in a lodge at a national park near Arad. We did indeed go "over the river and through the woods" to make this celebration happen. Twelve of us met on Friday and cooked and prepared toward a big dinner on Saturday for ourselves and our Romanian guests--about 40 or so. It was a collaborative effort in the planning and execution--trying to pull together the ingredients to faithfully represent a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. We did pretty well, missing only the cranberry sauce, which is something Romanians know nothing about. I found sweet potatoes finally (from India) and put those into spicy little iced cookies since I was told there wouldn't be oven space for a souffle. I was also the gravy maker and was anxious for days ahead trying to figure out how to make it without the "drippings" from the roasted turkey. (Ours was grilled in pieces over a fire.) As it turned out, the fat from beef and chicken, which I had saved in my freezer and the broth that came from two large turkey necks, which I cooked at site, formed the stock and many herbs and seasonings were added. It was a hit on the mashed potatoes, dressing, and meat, and I even had Romanians wanting the recipe (gravy isn't part of their cuisine). Recipe? I could never duplicate this particular gravy. Nor this particular Thanksgiving, for that matter. And though--like most holidays for PC volunteers--there is sadness at being away from loved ones back home, the pleasure of cross-cultural sharing is a grand compensation and will make these times memorable.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tiny Truths and Lessons of a Lesser Nature

When I tell my friends and family about the little discoveries and coping strategies that punctuate my life here, they often say, "Oh, that's worth a blog." But, of course, they're not--taken individually--but I've decided to lump them here into a random, rambling list, just for a rainy day's entertainment. 1)The only way to arrive at school (after my 2K walk in early morning mist) with hair that isn't lank and damp is to brush, spray, and tuck it into a shower cap--the kind you get in hotels--and pull on a toboggan hat or a raincoat hood. At school, I dash into my office, whip off my head gear and shake out my hair. It works! 2)Now that I'm using the official Peace Corps double-barreled, super-duper water filter (installed by Dr. Dan during the Health and Safety Inspection), I'm glad not to be lugging bottled water home from the local magazin, but I have to say that PC-filtered water is the flattest-tasting liquid on the face of the earth! 3)Big slices of Romanian bread "toasted" in butter in my omelet pan make me glad I don't own a toaster. 4)I must always carry packets of tissue with me and if I can manage it gracefully, a small role of toilet paper. Paper products are the responsibility of the individual here. 5)I've learned to always know the name of the train stop (town) just before my station destination and *watch* for it since there are usually no announcements. 6)Besides the tissue, I always carry a tightly-folded, large shopping bag and a small umbrella. Forecasts are notoriously off and you must pay for shopping bags. 7)The weekend bus schedule to and from my village is a test of patience, unlike the predictable weekday schedule. I can imagine the drivers thinking that no one really needs to hurry anywhere, it's *weekendul!* This is when I make phone calls to other PCV's to catch up. 8)The local magazin, which can be the size of a large walk-in closet, can actually provide you with enough items in the basic food groups to keep you alive and without scurvy. 9)A 12 Lei (about $4) bottle of dry Romanian white wine can be just lovely! 10)You just can't buy any plum jam, smoked pepper-eggplant spread, or plum brandy as good as what is made at home by someone's relatives. I've tried and failed. 11) Soup made from tripe (pig's belly) is surprisingly delicious! 12)Don't give your adult class a list of 15 topics and ask which ones they want to cover. All of them, of course!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Strength of Constancy

Before you read this, note the disclaimer to the right and understand that my comments are merely the observations of one who has lived here six months, not a sociologist, historian, nor theologian, and certainly not one who speaks for my government and its programs. Since I first arrived, I have struggled to understand the complex relationship between the government of Romania and the Orthodox church. While theoretically there is separation of church and state, in practice they seem tightly woven into a fabric that defies fraying. Here's what I've found through personal observations, comments from others, and online research (mainly having to do with the education system since that's my arena). In every school I've entered here, I've noticed icons of holy figures on the walls of halls and classrooms. Religious messages and notices are on bulletin boards. The state curriculum requires that religion classes be taught--in theory, as non-denominational , but in practice many times they are taught by priests or by teachers whose own orientation is Orthodox. The state pays salaries to priests and augments construction of church buildings. Schools participate in a point-gathering competition throughout the year and one way to gain more points is to have iconic art created by students for a regional exhibit. Priests bless the schools at opening day ceremonies and holy days are observed in schools. I'm sure there are more connections I've yet to learn about, but these have caught my attention and were at first shocking to this American with liberal principles firmly ingrained. Gradually, however, I've come to a better understanding of the importance of the church as a constant in the lives of people who have endured feudal lords, barbaric invasions, vicious monarchs, dictators, communism, frequent redrawing of country borders to add or subtract large tracts of land and ethnic populations, and rampant government corruption. The church has been there from the earliest times and has survived even through the years of atheist communist rule, by means not always noble but certainly pragmatic, in order to keep church doors open and parishioners served. It is a quintessentially paternalistic institution and has come to be--for the 87% of the Romanian population who identify themselves as Orthodox--a symbol of nationalism, its beautiful churches and cathedrals aesthetic foils to the horrors of communist architecture, its solemn traditions and elaborate ceremonies points of pride. It serves an important role in Romanian life and has offered stability and order where other institutions have failed. "If I ruled the world," would I have the church less entangled with the government? You bet I would. But I can at least understand WHY things are as they are...and will be long after I'm gone.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Humming Dogs of Romania

I love teaching sound words (onomatopoeia) and thought this would be a good time to introduce them--in conjunction with a lesson in the 7th Class's text on super heroes. Inevitably, amongst the zaps, pows, and sizzles, pounce the animal sounds. This particular half-class, all boys, reveled in this noisy lesson and enjoyed my reaction to various sounds animals make in Romanian. (Though apparently some animals are very quiet here for there are no words in the language for their vocalizing!) I could sort of see how most of the words for their sounds came about. I could even accept the "mac mac" of the duck, knowing it's impossible to make an m sound with no lips! But the one that throws me and makes me laugh out loud from the time I first heard it last summer is their word for "what the dog says." Now you must understand that Romanian dogs are notoriously rapscallion. In our training city last summer there were packs of them that roamed the city streets, mainly scavenging for food and often pitifully shaggy, but at times gang-like in their street fights and occasionally attacking humans as well. Here in my village everyone seems to have a dog--big dogs--behind fences and gates. Many on my street can't get past the fact that I live here and will pass them without threat or incident at least twice a day. They still want to alarm their household that the stranger approaches. (Do Americans smell different?) Most are just loud. Only two--one of which I've only seen a snout--seem to really want me for breakfast. The snout pokes out from under a solid metal gate along the sidewalk and literally drools as he growls and bares teeth, trying his best to reach my passing ankles. Dogs, dogs, dogs--even in my civilized little village a few packs of strays are allowed to run free, their cross-breed variations quite stunning. OK, you get the picture. So what do these rascally vagabonds/vicious protectors of home and kin "say?" Ham, ham, ham! (pronounced hum, hum, hum) "Nu, nu," I say, laughing, "Dogs don't hum! They go arf, arf, or grr or bow-wow." Blank stares. "No, Mrs. Reed (or Mrs. Clela or just Teacher), hum, hum." They actually believe it! So I'm left with the notion that while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, animal noises are definitely in the ear of the beholder and I suppose to my Romanian students a barking dog is silly indeed. Why doesn't he just hum?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Friend for Dinner

They said it would happen and they tried to prepare us. Our good Dr. Dan even put up a chart during a Peace Corps training session showing the inevitable ups and downs our emotions and general psychological state would take during our two years at site. I hit one of those lows this morning. After the hurry-scurry planning and preparation for the big community Halloween Carnival last night, I woke up from fitful sleep with a headache, feeling suddenly overwhelmed, tired, lonely and altogether incapable of making my life here WORK. On the immediate horizon sit a deadline for a huge report for Peace Corps (Monday), language lessons I desperately need and have had to miss the last 2 weeks, lesson plans for my 16 classes and 2 sets of diagnostic tests to grade. Added to that is an apartment full of dust bunnies and a pile of dirty clothes, rubber gloves that leak, a computer that is agonizingly slow at downloading/uploading anything and which has recently inexplicably lost a tool bar which I can't recover, and a large, sensitive swelling on my left arm where I was given a flu shot Wednesday. Sigh. A friend recently commented that to do what we must do in Peace Corps, you have to be your own best friend. I've thought alot about this statement and find it's true. So today after I swept, washed and hung 3 loads of clothes, did my floor exercises (yes, with my purple "peanut" inflated ball), and multi-tasked downloading pictures from the Halloween *do* while I worked on language translations, I invited myself to a nice dinner. I gently fried floured talapia (frozen from Vietnam albeit)in olive oil and lemon pepper, baked a potato, made a fresh spinach and tomato salad, put on the iPod playlist (thanks, sons) "Mellow Songs #3," lit a candle, poured a glass of good Transylvania vin alb, and sat down to dinner with myself. Many times I just collapse with my plate in front of the TV and watch whatever I can find that isn't sports or animals (not that I have anything against animals, of course--just want people), but this was nice and I was actually pretty good company, sorting through my thoughts, finding things to be glad about. Anyway, it's 8:30 now and I'm feeling like I can "do this thing" once again. Tomorrow I'll tackle the report which has 56 pages of instructions but is supposed to take no more than 5 hours to complete. And my PCV friend Connie a few bus rides away wants to make plans for something fun next weekend when we both come up for air. Yay!**** On a much lighter note, as promised, here are pictures with commentary from last night's carnival. My village has never had anything like this apparently--not even a harvest festival. I was amazed at how eagerly and enthusiastically they embraced the whole idea. We had a smashing turnout and everyone truly did seem to have fun. OK--must go wash up the dishes with my rubber gloves that I carefully dried in the sun and patched with the duct tape I brought from home. Ah--Yankee ingenuity!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Diane's Visit

Seeing Romania afresh through my good friend Diane's eyes is such a pleasure! She arrived on the 15th and will return to Georgia on Monday (25th), and we've managed to cram in a lot of experiences and fun in these 10 days. Oradea, Baile Felix (nearby thermal baths), a movie, some shopping, a day at my school, a six-hour train ride through the beautiful countryside between Oradea and Sighisoara, and now we're ending a 3-day stay in this awesome (in the truest sense of the word) medieval town. We've had gorgeous fall weather--quite crisp, but sunny--and we've had beautiful walks, sightseeing, great shopping, and some indulgent Romanian/German cuisine. Added to that are several jolly encounters with other English-speaking tourists from Finland, Washington DC, and two families of Baptist missionaries from Arkansas and Alabama who have lived here in Romania for 10 years. We're also continually besieged by groups of school children who hear our English and want to talk to the Americans. All Romanian students study English and to speak to native speakers seems to be an opportunity they can't pass up. They are bright, inquisitive and utterly *darling* as we both have come to exclaim after such a meeting. Because I can speak some Romanian, they become embarrassed when they think I've understood all their chatter. (Don't worry, kiddos!) Diane is such fun through our travels because she never meets a stranger and the Romanians love her genuine interest in the culture and history here. And we've had funny things happen. I bought a collapsible umbrella and the 2nd time I used it in downtown Oradea as we're making our way to the train station, I pushed the button to open it and it opened and flew from the shaft like a flying saucer! Di had to take a picture of it forlorn on the sidewalk where we had to leave it. Then because of a little tumble from the top of my suitcase, the bottle containing the last of my landlord's gift of Palinka (strong plum brandy) cracked just enough to flavor the inside of our plastic snack bag and to let us know that we needed to finish it off on the train quickly before it all drained away. We tried to be subtle as we passed the bottle back and forth--nobly frugal in saving a waste of perfectly good spirits. The rainy train ride was quite cheery after that! These are only a few of our laughs. So I'll miss her after the Monday departure for sure, but will be so busy getting ready for the big community Halloween Carnival, which this American is *creating* and overseeing, that I won't have time to be gloomy. More about this invasion of Yankee kitsch and commercialism in the next entry.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Baths, Bells, and Benevolence

The Hungarian Cave Thermal Baths last weekend were as interesting and decadent as they sound. You may have seen my Facebook pictures, but if not, you can take a look here. It was the nicest kind of escape from the bone-chilling damp cold of the previous weeks and I'm really grateful to the 4th year Peace Corps Vol (Chris Fontenasi)who organized it. My brief encounter with a Hungarian massage therapist was noteworthy, too, as I've never had anyone get up on the table with me, straddle my back and knead away! I have to say it was all very clinical and sterile--a medical procedure, even though it was advertised as Aromatic Massage and the spa is housed in the luxury of the baths (a la Roman). I suppose I should be glad he didn't bring out the small tamed bear to walk on my back--a Romanian custom I may have to skip. **** Back in my village on Monday, I happened upon a funeral when I went to the Post Office. The procession was organizing in front of the Orthodox church on the main road. Two priests in full regalia and two alter boys carrying the staffs-with-crosses (must learn the name for those) led the way. The mourners, all in black and two-by-two, solemnly followed a flower-laden, casket-bearing pick-up truck down the main (busy) road all the way to the cemetery--a good 5 or 6 blocks. All the churches in the village (Orthodox, Catholic and two Protestant) tolled bells a long, long time. I liked this interfaith salute. Traffic was slowed, clerks came out of their shops and crossed themselves, and there was a general "paying respect" to the dead that seemed genuine. **** My school participates in a project "The Heart of a Child" which helps children with profound physical/medical needs who could not otherwise receive help. Our students generously brought in bushels of used toys and several students and the media specialist contributed artwork to a sale this week, first at our school and then at the Children's Town Hall in Oradea on the weekend. I was very impressed with this enormous park in the heart of the city with colorful, sturdy, well-designed playscapes outside and in, a well-equipped hall with offices and meeting rooms, and permanent stalls outside (more like little log cabins with drop-door/counters in front) where vendors on occasions such as this fund drive could set up their wares. It was a beautiful fall day and a good turn out of families and helpful citizens and me without my camera! When I told my counterpart that I didn't think I had ever encountered a city in the US with this concept of a town hall for children, she was shocked. I am constantly reminded of two things: 1) my country does so many things right and I'll be even more appreciative when I return of those things I took for granted, and 2)other countries can offer us examples of what they do right as well, and we need to be open-mined enough to allow ideas to flow both ways. **** To end on a warm note: I have HEAT! The landlord has cranked up the wood-burning soba/furnace and the radiators are doing some impressive radiating to the point where I have to keep taking layers off the bed--and myself. I've retired the hot-water bottle for now. Three of my PC Westside colleagues spent the night here last night, and thankfully we were all warm with minimal blankets. If they had come a few days earlier, I would have had to bring in the landlord's hound dogs to keep them warm. Sweet timing. Peace to you, friends.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Zen and the See Saw

A week of ups and downs so typical of my life here. First my nasty cold and then enough recovery for a wonderful picnic at a lake with a Romanian family and two Peace Corps friends on Saturday (a truly delicious cookout) and a good visit with PC friend Connie as she spent the night here in the Red House. A productive session with my language tutor on Monday followed by a successful 6-class day on Tuesday (complete with spontaneous hugs and "I love English" from two of the classes!) and then an intestinal upset late Tuesday that kept me home in bed Wednesday. Some mean bug, for sure, but staying in bed with my hot water bottle through most of a rainy, cold day did me a world of good. A fine day today back with the students and another 6-class day interrupted in the middle by my principal carrying in an enormous bouquet (more like a bush!) of purple astors. When I sputtered my thanks and asked where they came from, he replied melodramatically, "From my heart!" Would this ever happen in America??? Then later my landlady brought me fresh vegetables from the garden and several jars of jam, peaches, peppers canned by her mother. While they still haven't turned on the heating system, I have a new tank of propane to cook with and a new remote control (which had been missing since I moved in) for the antique TV. And I do have my down robe. Things balance out. Poison darts and antidotes. Stomach bugs and big bouquets. Life is interesting.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Of Peace, Respect and Kisses

Many years ago when Goldie Hawn was asked by a talk show host why she had her first baby at 40, she blinked her famous saucer eyes and said, "Guess I forgot." I loved her total disregard for the tyranny of numbers. Without conscious effort, I "forget" my age most of the time--or, more accurately, ignore it. I don't want special concessions or help when it comes to physical demands. ("Oh, thanks but I can carry that box up to my attic apartment just fine.") My genetic legacy is hearty and I try to maximize that gift with exercise and healthful eating. But I have to say that my Romanian experience has made me ponder this whole aging thing a bit more. In trying to learn the language I'm surprised at how the words and formations I think I know slip from my brain like eggs from a teflon frying pan. It takes many mnemonic devices to make anything stick. And physically, this past week gave me a good kick in the knickers. Sunday I baked to have something to take to the teachers' lounge on Monday (a sort of thanks, I guess, for going along with my Peace Day hoopla). Monday, after a quick trip by car made possible by the principal to the post office in the city to get my packages from home, I spent the day preparing for the Peace Day observance/celebration. The kids and I made 250 white poppies (symbol of peace started in NZ) from cupcake liners, which they had never seen before and which were not easy to find, and blue ribbon which I had split vertically and cut into 250 strips the night before. The students and teachers were very cooperative and congenial and seemed to honor the notion of courting peace. (see photos) Tuesday I made presentations in the media center all day and spent the evening preparing for Wednesday's 4 classes. Wednesday, after the classes and some minimal grocery shopping, I prepared for the 6 classes on Thursday. My school is over a mile from my apartment and within the school are the standard halls and stairs and the typical on-your-feet-all-day necessity of engaging the students. Last night I was exhausted and today I have a nasty cold. So on my day "off" I washed and hung out 3 loads of clothes and made a huge pot of chicken, vegetable, rice soup with veggies I picked from the landlord's garden. I'm thinking tonight I should tackle some Romanian lessons, but I'm indulging in this little whiny report instead. In all honesty, I'm fine and am managing quite well, but I'm not as facile at forgetting my age just now, I can tell you. There's a lovely custom here which has a long history. If a gentleman wants to show great respect for a woman (not necessarily, but usually an older woman), he says, "Sarut mana." Literally--Kiss your hand. At times he actually does. Some of my age-mate colleagues don't like this at all, but I accept it readily and think, "You bet your sweet palinka, this hand could use a kiss."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Westsiders, Brooms, and Bags of Posies

So much to tell!! First--the gathering of the Westsiders in Ineu. One of the volunteers in Group 26 and his director (principal) took it upon themselves to invite all the volunteers serving in northwest Romania--10 of us scattered about--to a weekend of getting acquainted--26ers, 27s and a few 25s--before we get too busy with our teaching assignments. Frankly, I wasn't sure I wanted to go. Friday was chilly and rainy, and getting to Ineu involved walking in the rain about 400yds to a non-covered bus stop, riding the bus (rolling duffel, umbrella and I dripping on everyone) into Oradea, taking a taxi to the train station where I met another volunteer, riding the train into Arad where we spent the night with a third volunteer, and then taking an early train the next morning to Ineu. But I have to say, it was worth it and just what I needed to put me into a great frame of mind to start the school year.*** Justin's school has a guest house for visiting parents when the school used to board students. It was a perfect set-up, and kind staff members provided breakfasts and lunches for us. While it was fun seeing 27s again (my group who spent the summer in training) and getting to know the others, the "field trips" we took were splendidly interesting and fun. The person largely responsible for this was the director or principal of the school. Not only does he successfully manage a school that shines with careful maintenance, innovative programs, bright and cheerful facilities, and an obviously dedicated staff and faculty, but he also serves as "voluntary executive administrator" of a self-sustaining, totally-organic farm where the workers are graduates of his school's vocational program, plying their skills in all seasons to tend crops, hot houses, animals, and to build furniture, preserve food, and make brooms! We were each given a dandy little whisk broom (because traveling with a long one would be just too Harry-Potterish). When the dear man has spare moments, he retires with his wife and 4-yr-old daughter to his cabana (weekend retreat) where he tends various fruit trees and...grapes! Here he, his wife and some staff members hosted a gratar (cookout) for us, complete with his own tuica (a kind of plum brandy) and wine from his grapes. We also were free to take walks around the hilly and beautiful property, and I was actually able to hug one of those Romanian haystacks I love. (see Facebook profile ;-)) The trip home was streamlined with bus rides (2) instead of trains and I got back to the red house while the sun was still shining on Sunday. ***Now I must tell about today's most unique school opening. Well, unique for me, but as my colleagues report in from villages all over Romania, I see that it is the norm here. So here is my journalist eye-report: It's 8:15, foggy, and students and parents are already gathering in the school yard (courtyard) even though the assembly will not start for another 45 minutes. Children--little and big--are carrying bouquets of flowers, some from the shop, others (most dear) handgathered from gardens. At 8:45 the teachers who have been making preparations inside file out along with the principal, the mayor and 3 fully-robed orthodox priests to join at the top of the circle...the DJ!--right there with his sound board and speakers, looking very serious and prepared, playing some happy folk music. The children are arranged into classes amazingly quick, the music stops, and the principal says a few words of introduction. Cue the DJ who plays a loud and moving rendition of the Romanian national anthem that includes a male chorus. Following that the priests sing/chant a longish blessing and prayer, complete with swinging amulet (fumes AND little bells) passing around the circle. Introductions of teachers next and the American one gets applause. ;-) But then--my favorite part: the second graders form a long tunnel--hands joined up high for a flower-clad "roof," and the new first-graders march through, two by two, and process around the circle of classes. There is long and genuine applause from all the classes and such a sweet welcome for these little ones. The happy music (I'm sure someone will start dancing) starts up again as the courtyard empties. The anticlimax is the gathering inside, distribution of textbooks, and faculty meeting following. My big problem of the day was how to carry home all the flowers given to me by students and even a few teachers--all with the lovely double kisses. I used my handy plastic shopping bag I always carry and when it overflowed, Veronica gave me hers. Once again I was a spectacle walking home through the village with my brimming bags of roses, marigolds, goldenrod, and zinnias, but I didn't mind a bit.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Goodbye's, Hello's, and Juggling Acts

Lee left this morning and the apartment seems cold and quiet. We had a fine 3-week visit and he's planning to return in December. Our communication, of course, is very good with Skype and email, but they do little to keep my toes warm. ;-) How fortunate I am to have a husband who understands and supports my unconventional aspirations!******School bells are ringing all over Romania--but not for students, for the teachers. Here faculties ease gently back into the school year by meeting in non-rushed, coffee-enriched gatherings, a few hours a day for two weeks before the students arrive. It's a time to see just who is or isn't returning, catch up on pleasantries of inquiries about vacations and families, and to take care of the business of creating a schedule--for teachers first, and then for students. My counterpart had a chunk of the program yesterday, introducing me through a power point presentation on the Peace Corps and then helping me communicate to the faculty (after my few words of Romanian) in a Q&A session. They gave me a heart-warming welcome and had some interesting questions--mainly about what Americans know and think about Romanians. I was honest--Americans don't know much about Romania. But as my counterpart pointed out, that's one of my 3 PC directives here, and I take it seriously--hence my blog and posting of pictures and the email pen pals Karen Solheim and I will facilitate with our American--Romanian students! Overall, I'm feeling a great deal of trust and high expectations for my impact here, which, of course, scares the dickens out of me!***** As to the pace, I expect things will rev up a bit next week, but for now, I'm feeling like I used to as a kid wading into cold water. It's just fine to let the water inch up as I adjust and readjust to the situation. It's been 7 years since I've been on a faculty and this approach is mai bun with me. I was sent home today after I had dressed and walked my mile or so in chilly mist because the teachers were all taking a psychological test and they didn't have the English version yet. So I went to one of the local stores and bought a broom and cleaning supplies to at least feel industrious. Now let me tell you, it's not easy to juggle a broom, umbrella, bag of cleaning supplies, purse, notebook and extra pair of "professional" shoes. I did not look cool strolling back home through the village, but I buna-ed all I met, smiled, and acted like this was the most natural predicament in the world and that I was born to do it. And maybe that's true.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


We've been in Sighisoara five days and spending an extra night tonight to allow Lee to get over a stomach "bug" that attacked him yesterday--who knows from what, but one of those travel woes one encounters. He's on the mend, and all in all, it's not a bad place to recuperate. The weather is cool and sunny, the natives are friendly and our room is really a suite of sorts, located in a 400-yr.-old building on the main square of the old citadel town on the hill. We're in the attic! But we love it--all the beams of solid ancient wood and the rows of little dormer windows jutting out from the roof. We were sure one of us would bonk our noggin on a beam getting up in the night, but so far, so good. Our pretty tiled bathroom, though, is totally modern with a huge tub and non-splash shower (very special in Romania). We're surrounded by bell towers of various churches and have no problem remembering the time! The chimes are all in different tones, and if I were to stay a few more days, I could probably identify which were the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Lutheran. ***Sighisoara (in the Carpathian Mountains in the Transylvania sector of Romania)was settled by the Saxons in the 14th century and inhabited by mostly Germans for centuries until many moved back to Germany after WWII. The Hungarians have been here since the early days, too, when the King of Hungary granted settlers special privileges if they moved here and learned the excellent crafts of the village. One of the few fortified towns in the world still inhabited, it's picture-book perfect in its Medieval cobble-stone, meandering little streets and stone buildings. A great fire in the 1600's burned away much of the village, but it built back and the original buildings don't appear that different from all the rest. The eight towers for defense around the wall were built and maintained by different guilds. They are all very distinct and reflect the wealth of the particular guild. But I like the Cobblers' quaint one the best and it's the only one that is currently a residence; the caretaker of the Catholic Church yard and cemetery lives here and is a fine flower gardener! And of course, the Dracula house is here, too, as Vlad and his father lived here for a period of time. The house now houses an inn, art gallery, and little outdoor cafe which specializes in Dracula ice cream concoctions. As is true in nearly every Romanian town, a statue of Vlad Tepes, national hero, stands in a prominent place.***Below the fortified hill (with its grand clock tower, churches, and city hall) is the rest of Sighisoara, also quite beautiful on the banks of the Tarnava Mare River, but holding inferior status for much of the history of the city, when the master craftsmen and religious leaders on the hill held all the power. When the Turks or other tribes attacked, however, all were brought into the fold and helped in the defense. Interestingly, the bloc apartment buildings constructed during the recent communist era seem to have been remodeled, especially the roof lines, and made more in keeping with the architecture around them.***OK, so much for your travelogue/history lesson for the day. Must go buy water and provisions for our 7-hour train trip that begins at 8:30am tomorrow. I'll post pictures when I'm back to my site and will tell you about the brunch we plan to "put on" this Sunday. La revedere.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tomatoes, Poetry, and Sudden Storms

Lee is here! So good to be with someone who really knows me (and loves me anyway!) and to have a chance to show him some of my adopted country. We're having a good time in spite of extreme heat (in the 90s for three days with no ac), sudden violent storms that had us looking for funnels in the clouds, and a missing suitcase. What is it about the Reed luggage, anyway? I imagine a dialog that goes something like: "Reed, huh? OK, Vlad (Pierre/Juan/Marco), you know the routine. DO NOT put that one on the connecting flight. Just toss it in the corner and forget it for four (six/eight) days." *** Anyway, the weather has cooled to a delightful, breezy day with temps in the 70s, and the suitcase was retrieved last night at 10 during a storm when our landlady Ica drove us in a mad dash to rendezvous with the airport delivery man at a designated point between Cluj and Oradea. So I have copies of my new poetry book Of Root and Sky (Yay!) and my beloved purple peanut exercise ball, which I've missed greatly. And Lee no longer has to wear the sleeveless red t-shirt and clam-digger pants which were the only things that fit him at the local magazine (general store). I have pictures I've threatened to post on Facebook. ;-)****And it's tomato season! or at least the time in which tomatoes are preserved or made into sauce or juice. The whole process has been going on beneath my balcony for the past two days and I find it fascinating. I'll try to attach a link to my pictures at the end. Lee and I love the vine-ripened tomatoes and have been invited to help ourselves to what's in the garden. Here's a fine short poem that captures the essence: Cherry Tomatoes by Anne Higgins Suddenly it is August again, so hot, breathless heat. I sit on the ground in the garden of Carmel, picking ripe cherry tomatoes and eating them. They are so ripe that the skin is split, so warm and sweet from the attentions of the sun, the juice bursts in my mouth, an ecstatic taste, and I feel that I am in the mouth of summer, sloshing in the saliva of August. Hummingbirds halo me there, in the great green silence, and my own bursting heart splits me with life.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Site for Sore Eyes

I'm here! Arrived yesterday morning at 7 and was greeted at the train door (literally) by my ever-cheerful and industrious principal and my sweet and reliable counterpart Veronica. The trip this time only took 15 hours because we made a speedy switch at the intervening station. Five of us PCVs were together to this point and we had a mountain of luggage among us. So when we learned that 3 of us had to be on the next platform over, the smart (and strong) youngsters jumped down onto the tracks and made a hand-to-hand luggage brigade to convey the bags to the next platform without having to tackle the two sets of stairs and underpass. My (senior) job was to "guard" the luggage as it stacked up. It worked great, our train was on time, and we zipped away (well--as zippy as Romanian trains can muster) to cross through Transylvania and the Carpathian mountains on to our 3 different sites. I was in a sleeper car, but didn't sleep much and then when I arrived at my village and was left in my new home, I was too excited to sleep, so just got back on a regular schedule, waiting until 11 or so for bed time.***My apartment defies description, quite honestly. It's a large attic apartment (slanting ceilings and dormers everywhere) with lots of space and some really neat features. It also has no light fixtures--only wires with light bulbs--and no screens on the huge and numerous windows. It's been partially remodeled recently and isn't finished. I keep getting assurances that it will all be done soon. In the meantime, after a night of frequent encounters with the local little vampires, I've pulled out the official Peace Corps mosquito net and have asked for a hook so that I can hang it. A family of 4 occupies the first 2 floors--lovely folks who are making me squeeze out every Romanian word and phrase I can remember. But as to the apartment in the big red house on the outskirts of town, the only thing that keeps coming to mind is "teetering on the brink of elegance." Certainly it isn't the mud hut or hide-covered yurt I once imagined!**And speaking of speaking Romanian, I met with my tutor this morning. PC pays for on-going language training and I'm taking advantage of it. I will meet with Nicole once or twice a week. She seems pleasant and professional--just what I need. After our meeting I ventured to the magazine (small store) on the way home to buy some provisions. Realizing that I had not brought my shopping bag with me, I decided to buy a bucket, knowing I would surely need one. So there I was walking back to my red house along the main road, carrying my bucket overflowing with bread, water, fruit, cheese, and some wild flowers I picked along the way. Later, I repeated the process at the other magazine (there are 2 in town), this time carrying a red, plastic laundry tub filled with cleanser, toilet paper, oranges, peaches, pretzels, and a bottle of wine and walking down different streets, saying "Buna Ziua" to all the curious folks I encountered. I introduced myself to the clerks at both stores and explained in Romanian what I was doing in their village. Integration is key. Oh, yeah, they're getting to know me, alright.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Out and About: Last Days of PST

Amazing where you'll find deep and memorable conversations--at places you would least expect. Let me back up: I really needed a hair cut and my friend Martha had had good results from the sister of one of our language instructors. So after our language tutorials on Saturday, she and I were to have haircuts--back to back--at Jennifer Salon. I was first and had to leave as Martha was going into her session, so after getting general directions (I sort of knew the area), I burst into the full salon, announcing who I was in a complete Romanian sentence, just knowing I was late. Everyone stopped and stared, and finally a very sweet-faced, blond angel appeared before me and said, "Marti's friend?" (Romanians have a hard time with the "th" sound) "Da" and then she pointed at the clock and struggled a bit with "eleven, not ten." Well, drats! So I shopped for snacks for our trip to the farm (another story) across the street at Interex to while away the time. I returned at 10:55 and was told that Dana needed more time with a client and in trying to explain, she turned to a fellow who was waiting for his wife and asked him tell me in English. I sat down as instructed though I would have rather waited outside because the salon had to be 110. I'm fanning and "dewing" when the most precious child with her mother comes in. I really wanted to know the diminutive compliment and had several variations in my brain, so I turned back to the fellow and asked how to form the ending to dragut so that it was appropriate. To make a long story short(er), this 30-something, articulate man and I had a serious 30-minute conversation--to the sound of blow dryers and chit-chat-- about the plight of Romania. He had just returned from 7 years working in the UK and was now training to be a prison guard (which we both agreed was a recession-proof job). I knew all about the flight of the young, smart, and ambitious to other countries for better wages. The Romanian version of the "brain drain." "Why did you come back?" I asked. His brown eyes crinkled (he was handsome-as-all-get-out)and he said he missed Romania. "The people are warmer here," I said. "Yes," he laughed and did a little pantomime of a proper, up-tight Brit. "I lived in an apartment building for years and never knew my neighbors." We talked about the Peace Corps, the attitude of the Romanian people, the death grip of corruption in the government, and the absolute necessity of a legal system that is corruption free and dependable. (I even gave a bit of Lee's property schpiel, which he understood and agreed with.) And we talked about the irony of the incredible wealth of this country--in natural resources, cities and history, traditions and culture known by so few around the world. There are salt caves here with whole playgrounds, sports areas, and restaurants carved out inside. There are fairy-tale castles and beautiful ski resorts in pristine mountains. There is rural life that makes our Amish look like jet setters and cities with unique architecture, arts, and cuisine. This fellow and I both agreed that tourism should be pushed, that Romanians needed to feel proud of their country and that they could "right the wrong" of the government. We were fired up. And then I was whisked away to have my much-needed hair cut. Sigh. But it's so validating to talk with someone like this fellow, to know that there are sparks of hope out there because it's customary to encounter victim-like futility, especially concerning the corruption. ***Less profound was my foray into dress shopping today. We got out early and so I decided to try to find a dress for this Friday's Swearing-in Ceremony in Bucharest. My old black knit dress just looked too hot and dreary for the occasion, so I went into a number of shops, muddling through with my broken Romanian, sweating and fanning in the 90+ degree heat this afternoon. At one point I said, "Prea cald sa cumpare!"--which is supposed to be "too hot to shop," but either my accent was just too ridiculous or it came out as a joke because I caused considerable laughter. But the ladies in one shop were so accommodating and kind, bringing me dress after dress and seemingly understanding my pronouncements, that I ended up buying a summery confection from them (Romanians like confections) mainly because I felt obliged after leaving my dew on at least three I didn't buy! Now I need some of those cute Romanian shoes. I'm thinking aqua.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Satul Meu (My Village)

I'm back at my training site and should be doing my homework, but just had to post a quick entry to say that my visit to my assignment site, a village near Oradea, was very informative and thoroughly enjoyable. I was introduced to the mayor, the principal and staff of the school, the other Romanian English teacher, the librarian, police chief, the post mistress, the clerk at the general store, the Orthodox priest, the librarians in Oradea, and a few of the children of the school. The school is a friendly, cheery, clean place with conveniences and modern equipment. Veronica was a great hostess, translator, travel companion (18-hr. train trip north) and tour guide. She and her brother and sister made me feel very welcome. Her dear brother transported me all over the area and lugged my luggage around, which was muchly appreciated since I was trying to move some of my belonging here for storage until I move down in 2 weeks. (My lodging is not ready yet, so I and my extra luggage ended up in V's apartment.) V's sister is a gourmet cook and insisted on bringing wonderful dishes over--the last a big tray of her special tiramisu! The librarian and husband had me over for a cook out, and the principal and his wife prepared a multi-course lunch with lemon vodka appertif and "Bull's Blood" red wine for the meal of traditional meats with cabbage and soup, finishing with fresh fruit. We were instructed that it is wise to accept all invitations, but I would have anyway! Romanians take pride in their cooking and do it well!! Overall, I felt very welcomed and quite honestly didn't want to leave.****Oradea is very close to my village--only about 4 miles through fields of sunflowers and corn. It's a fabulous city. Budapest is just over the border and a short drive or train ride away. This is a fine location for visitors to find me. (hint, hint)**** I've posted a bunch of pictures on Facebook. If you're a "friend," take a look. Now, I MUST do my homework and study so I'll be able to stumble through conversations with the villagers sounding less like a 2-yr. old with a speech impediment. Oh, one bit of humor--Peace Corps is Corpul Pacii in Romanian, but some native speakers want to say it in English. At times, after those long train rides and umpteen meetings, being called a Peace Corpse seems altogether fitting. ;-)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Veronica, The Little Green Man, and the Superfeet of Romanian Women

I've met my counterpart and she's terrific! Veronica is intelligent, understanding, attractive and just idealistic enough to make a great partner for forward-thinking projects. We both love Hemingway, poetry, movies and Sandra Bullock. Neither of us has ever been able to keep pet fish alive and after getting lost on our way back from the train station to the university (when we decided to use our 2-hour lunch to purchase our tickets for Monday night's 15-hour train trip) we confessed that neither of us has a smidgen of directional sense. I really like this young woman and want my son Dan to visit soon. ;-) (I know, I know--but mother knows best.) **** The traffic in our training site city is insane--in a sort of Italy-meets-Bali choreography that keeps pedestrians--well, on their toes. The little green man crossing signal is merely a suggestion that this might be the best time to take your life in your hands (feet?) and attempt a crossing. Drivers DO NOT see this as a mandatory stop signal for them. If you are directly in front of one, he/she will screech to a halt and literally rev the motor waiting for you to get out of the way. I have--many times--been in the middle of a crosswalk and had cars whizzing by in front of me and behind me. Sometimes they weave AROUND me. The best thing to do is stand as near a little old bunica as you can and cross when she crosses. Yet--I've never witnessed an accident and don't hear of hits--except for the poor stray dogs whose population is somewhat controlled in this way. *** When I meet a well-dressed Romanian woman on the street, I can see her eyes focus immediately on my shoes. I can just read her thoughts about my ugly walking sandals. Because Romanian women wear pretty shoes. In stiletto-heeled or high-wedged, bow-trimmed or ankle-strapped, lipstick red, sunflower yellow, or lime green shoes, they sashay down the rough-paved sidewalks, around the standing rain water, through construction sites with the adroitness of mountain goats and the grace of butterflies. And they do this for block after block. I stand in awe. Walking only a few (3 on most days) miles a day, I still need something cushy and reasonably low to carry me along without injury. And still, I've had some minor ankle problems and some swelling. I'm trying to reason that it's an age thing, but I've seen plenty of older women in those fashionable little torture chambers, too. Veronica and I agreed today that heels definitely make women's legs look better and we like that, but... She, by the way, took a middle path today with pretty medium-wedge sandals. I? Well, yes, I was in the more attractive of my two pairs of walking sandals. ;-)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Brasov--"Probably the Best City in the World"

This past weekend the W(h)ine and Wisdom group (over-50 PCVs) met in Brasov, Transylvania, for gabbing, sightseeing and venting. The 3-hour bus ride up through the Carpathian Mountains was beautiful, and the city itself was a treat (see my Facebook page for pictures I'll gradually post). The weather was strange, but made for great lighting as the dark sky formed a backdrop for the lovely old buildings when the afternoon sun spotlighted them. We did eventually have a gully-washer Saturday evening that drove us inside from our sidewalk seating at an Italian restaurant. Brasov's architecture is a wonderful mixture of Gothic, Medieval, but mostly the stately 18th century style Austrian architects brought to it. Cobblestone streets and flower boxes spilling over with petunias, magnificent churches and bustling squares all charmed us. We took in museums and churches and a breathtaking cable car ride to see the city from high above. We all loved the fact that the city slogan appearing everywhere on cafe umbrellas was "Probably the Best City in the World."***The women in our group were fun to meet, many making long train rides to get there from their sites. Interesting women, every one, with wild stories of their bungles and triumphs in Romania. We stayed at a well-run and well-located hostel which was quite an experience in itself.***I'm now back to the training "camp" and behind in my journal writing homework (in Romanian, of course) and with a pile of dirty clothes, but it was worth it.***Coming next weekend is our Counterpart Conference when our Romanian teacher counterparts whom we'll be working with the next 2 years arrive here for a 3-day meeting after which we'll journey with them (a 10-hour train ride in my case) back to our sites. We'll spend all next week working with them, making plans, and getting our lodging arranged. Then we come back to our training site and prepare for the language exam and our swearing-in ceremony in Bucharest on August 6. I feel I'm on the crest of a giant wave, holding my breath as it sweeps me to the shore where I hope to glide in with only a few sand burns on my knees. May it be so. ;-)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Site Placement News

Site announcements today and much excitement as we 44 are assigned to locations all over the country. Just a quick note to let you know I'll be in a village near the city of Oradea in Northwest Romania, near the Hungarian border. It will actually be quicker for me to get to Budapest than to Bucharest. Oradea has an airport it seems! The assignment is not what I was lead to believe I'd get when I went through the interview process, but I'm assured by some of the current volunteers who know the country well that this is a beautiful area and that the people here are forward-thinking and hospitable. I'll be working with 5th-8th graders. And though I had wanted high school students, apparently the need in the village is something the placement officials saw as right for me. I'm trying to find out more about the area and will visit there with my counterpart in a couple of weeks. Will let you know more as I find out in the next few days. To those of you who knew the assignment I thought I would have--well, with the Peace Corps, you just never know.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Sunny Window

After two weeks of practicum teaching (with observation evaluations), an intestinal ailment, an oral exam, classes, homework, a journal and notebook to be turned in, my site interview, and rain, rain, rain, I find myself feeling fit and relaxed at a sunny window--the only to-do's being to meet a friend this morning to finally climb Dracula's tower, wash clothes and bake brownies for tomorrow's 4th of July picnic. ***The teaching was great! The second week with ninth graders reminded me of why I chose high school teaching--working with those bright minds, grappling with some literature and with social issues in debate was inspiring. I wasn't sure after being out of the classroom for 7 years how I'd feel about returning, but this gave me my answer--I'm ready for the challenge. My observations went well and the kids seemed appreciative--even got hugs from 15-yr. old BOYS! We asked them on Monday what kinds of things they wanted to know about and we would try to fit the topics in during the week. One of the things the boys wanted to know about was video game production/computer programing. They are big World of Warcraft fans. So I was able to enlist Dan's help and made a Skype appointment with him for 10am here, midnight in California. There he was, God bless him, talking to my students via my netbook and Skype about his work, what he had to do to end up working for Blizzard (World of Warcraft), life in Southern California, answering their questions--and often mine since they were a bit shy. Other topics we covered during the week were contemporary poetry (of course!), the environment (they completed a neat project), controversial social issues, and a plethora of vocabulary building activities. My partner--a fine dancer--even taught them to do the Cupid Shuffle on the final day of class. They, in turn, showed us the hora and other traditional dances. **** The oral exam, by the way, proved to be even more difficult than I imagined because upon entering each station, we had to draw a "role" to act out. I totally bombed in the "post office" when I had to explain that there was a mistake with a package I had received 2 weeks ago but I wasn't sure which counter to go to. (?!) Anyway, I received 4 B's and 2 C's for the six stations--a very generous assessment. I wouldn't have given myself those marks! :-) I think I'll have some mastery of enough of the language to get by at my future site, but I'll definitely take the continuing tutoring offered by the PC after training. Many of us who "used to be" A students are feeling like dunces, but we're continually being told that that's normal--especially for the over-50 crowd.***Tomorrow we celebrate the 4th of July with our gazda families at a picnic, which is totally organized and sponsored by the trainees. We're cooking out, playing games with the kids, singing, etc. Hope the weather cooperates. I'm sending wishes to you all for a Happy 4th! in the states. Living abroad certainly makes one aware of what a splendid nation we have--warts and all. *** I'll put the word out Wednesday as to site placement announcements. It's THE BIG DAY for us! Wish me luck.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chalk Dust and the Kindness of Strangers

Well, after several packets of mystery powders and tablets from the American Embassy in Bucharest, my intestinal state seems to be recovering--though I still think I could give credit to Felicia's mother's tea of locust blossoms. Anyway, it was a very rough week, feeling crappy (no pun intended) and having to carry on with full days of teaching in the morning and going to language classes in the afternoon. Last night our little group (6 of us, including the youngest (23) and the oldest (79)) celebrated survival with a dinner at our new favorite restaurant--San Marco's, which has very tasty Italian food and excellent service. After all the bland food for so long, it was heavenly. The first week of practicum was with 3rd graders. It turned out to be a successful 5 days with lots of pictures and gestures and games to communicate with kids who've had very little if any exposure to English. They were sweet, bright children who took our pictures with their cell phones and wrote us "love notes" both in Romanian and broken English. The school that opened its doors to us was clean and well managed with large, bright classrooms and thriving potted plants. The classrooms had black boards and chalk with felt erasers, which were washed and "pounded" respectively. We found precisely one electrical outlet high on the wall near the light switch. It seemed reminiscent in so many ways of schools in the US in the 50's and 60's. Still...I have to say that I didn't mind using chalk again--(lots of it! We filled the board many times over during the 3 hours each morning.) There's something pleasing about the slight friction on the matte finish and the control over soft or hard lines as you write. Modern white boards are slick and lack any degree of subtlety. Ah, well--this might be extremely boring to my readers. ;-) I must tell you about my encounter with Romanian generosity. Wednesday night I dropped my netbook--just a little tumble from the stacks of books I was trying to unload onto my bed, but enough to bend my "stick" device for access to internet. Kaput--it stopped working (though not my netbook--thank goodness). So the next afternoon after school, I went to my nearby "Orange" store to buy a new one, thinking it wouldn't be much since the original had been 4 lei. Imagine my surprise at hearing 250 de lei. (about $90). While dealing with the young woman at the front counter, a gentleman costumer in the rear of the store summoned her and she went over to talk with him and returned with a surprised smile. "He would like to give you a device," she said. "He has 7 accounts with us and is about to change over 2 and won't need the devices. He owns a carwash here in town." (Oana spoke excellent English though she apologized for her grammar.) After saying I couldn't possibly accept such generosity and thanking-but-no-thanking a few times, and after Cosmin, the kind computer-wiz agent who lived in Chicago a few years and took care of my phone and stick account convinced me that their customer was a "very good man," I accepted. As Blanche DuBoise would endorse, relying on the kindness of strangers is sometimes a good thing. Next week--the 2nd week of practicum with 9th graders, an oral evaluation of our language skills on Monday afternoon (I'm petrified), and my interview for site placement on Tuesday. Prayers, positive energy, good luck wishes are all appreciated.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bedraggled but Still Here

Just a quick entry to let you know I'm still working away at the many steps to becoming a true PCV (as opposed to a trainee). Last week was rough--you haven't lived until you struggle through the genitive case in Romanian while fighting a nasty stomach "bug" that demands you eat only rice and bananas and tea for 4 days. I'm gradually getting back to normal with some added medication and bed rest this weekend. Of course, I'm making lesson plans while doing so--beginning our 2-week practicum on Monday, 3rd graders the first week and high schoolers the second. These kids are all volunteers from the city and surrounding villages. Over 870 volunteered this year (!), a big increase from last year and a good sign that our program engages kids. We also have interviews coming up in which we discuss aspects of what we want, envision in our site placement. Exactly 100 schools asked for PCVs, and these were reduced to the 44 who will have one of us assigned to their communities. I have my location "druthers" at this point, of course, but it's hard to know the best fit and the placement directors have more experience at it than I have. Well, back to the lesson planning and another banana.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ploieste: Linden Blossoms and The Current

We've just finished up our IFV--Integrated Field Visit--on site in Ploieste, a city of 300,000 northwest of Bucharest. In many ways it was great--green and flowering spaces and parks, nice restaurants (Italian and Lebanese were our choices), interesting experiences in meeting a famous boxer at his bar and seeing a French Cabaret performance last night, really helpful information from the volunteer we visited, her counterpart, and another volunteer, and from our language instructor who traveled with us and gave us good tutoring sessions in the host volunteer's apartment and in our hotel lobby. There were just five of us here and 7 other small groups were scattered all over Romania. The down side of our stay here was the heat--temps in the 90s and virtually non-existent air conditioning. Our 3rd story hotel rooms were so hot the first night that two of us went out and bought fans, which we'll take back with us. And here I must tell you of a uniquely Romanian habit/superstition. Doors and windows in houses, schools, buses, etc. must be kept closed because the "current" will cause illness. This was not a concern when the temps were still coolish the first week or so after arriving, but increasingly the obsession about closed windows when you're on a sweltering bus or in a public building or even in your gazda's home seems absurd and a bit masochistic. So there were definitely some sauna moments these past few days and walking long distances in the heat was energy draining, but breezes blew through the city's countless Linden trees in spite of the cultural tabu, releasing the most wonderful fragrance from the blossoms, and we have fans to take back to our training site tomorrow on the Maxi-taxi. Another irony--sweating as I trudge along a mile or so to the station with my luggage and a fan wrapped in a garbage bag. Not as good, however, as needing someplace to pass the time between meetings yesterday and deciding to do so in the Clock Museum.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Week Three: Random Observations

1) Life is just a bowl, basket, bag, hat of cherries. It's cherry season in Romania! You've never seen so many cherries--everywhere: market place (farmers' market) and every little sidewalk shop. The teens at the high school where PC holds classes carry them around and generously offer them to us. I, however, have my own stash since Andrei and Stefon picked at their grandfathers' farm in the country last weekend. Love them in my lunch bag--along with country cheese and bread. I've been thinking all week of Alice Friman's wonderful poem "Cherries" about Catherine Hyde, Duchess of Queensberry who died of a "surfeit of cherries" and wondering just how many it takes! 2) The "wild dogs of Romania" are mostly sweet and docile, searching us out at break and lunch for scraps. They actually look pretty well fed and I've been told they're a significant part of Romania's waste management. They also provide demonstrations in acrobatic mating, questionable entertainment at lunch. 3) One can make excellent coffee with just a pan of water, a gas stove, and coffee. 4) My young colleagues give me hope in our country's future. 5) People laugh in the same language. 6) In addition to words having to do with technology, Romanians have adopted "weekend." ;-) 7) The second fastest train in Romania is the sageata albastra--the "blue arrow." 8) If you don't have a "name day" because you don't share a name with a saint, you get March 9, a day of great celebration nation-wide, complete with special round pastries like doughnut holes. Sort of a very merry unbirthday. I can't wait. 9) This weekend we visit a PC site where a volunteer will host us overnight. My UU friends will be interested to know that my hostess will be a fellow UU!! Ive met her and she's terrific. More later on our site visit.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Weapon of Mass Destruction

That would be eu, mea, yours truly. It all started a few days ago when the computer at my gazda's started acting up--freezing and then not connecting back to the internet--while I was using it. Mihai says it must be the change over to a different server that's causing the problem. Hm-m-m. Then yesterday I cracked a glass while washing dishes. And tonight (drum roll) while home alone since Mihai and the boys went to a teacher conference and Felicia had to work late grading exams at her school, I managed to a) tear a cabinet door off its upper hinge and b) break the uni-handle-lever-thingie off its mounting WHILE the water was running. I braced the cabinet door with a tall container to keep it from damaging the bottom hinge and--after calling the PC staff and Felicia--figured out on my own where the water valve was located and turned the water off. The PC gazda coordinator arrived breathless right afterward, expecting to see the furniture floating, I'm sure, and was relieved to see there was no horrific damage for which the US Government would have to pay. Mihai, God love him, was unperturbed when I fessed up to the problems upon his arrival home. He snapped the cabinet hinge back into place--still don't know how he did it--saying that it was his fault for not fixing what he knew was a problem, and then assured me that the faucet handle was just old and worn out (which it obviously was) and went right out to buy another--where at this hour, I can't imagine. The bloc apartment buildings, built before the revolution, are apparently wearing out in general and just not a match for my mighty capitalist muscles. But I'm sure Andrei and Stefan have enjoyed the extra outing to the night-time faucet shop and tomorrow the PC staff will have something to laugh about at coffee break. I live to serve.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Observations: Week One in PC "Boot Camp"

The location of my gazda's (host family's) apartment is very convenient for finding my way around the city and for walking to school. My morning walk is a pleasant mile or so down a tree-lined boulevard (oaks, maples, cottonwoods, horse chestnuts) until it deadends into a busy street where I cross and walk for a short distance until I turn right into a busy short cut (haven't decided if it's a street or ally) past storage units and behind bloc apartment buildings and emerge on the street our school is on. From there it's only a block to the entrance of the campus where a security guard bids me "Buna dimineata" (good morning), recognizing at once that I'm one of "that group." Everyone in the city knows about our program and our 3-month presence here. The newspaper published an article about our arrival and apparently to be one of the gazdas is considered an honor. Shop keepers and people on the street are very helpful. I haven't felt unsafe one moment and even when I was "slightly" lost after meeting with some of the PCVs for a beer after school one day, I had no trouble communicating with a shop keeper to get directions. We get our share of bemused looks, of course. This is only the second year PC has located the training here and Americans, I take it, aren't usually part of the landscape. Challenges: The language instructors are very good, which is fortunate since they have 10 weeks to get us ready to function in our rural villages where very little English will be spoken. The lessons are fast-paced from 8:30 to 12:30 and interactive, so there’s no chance of zoning out. At about 11:30 I start feeling my synapses closing down one-by-one like lights going out in a suburban neighborhood. But I’m persevering and am finding the language very euphonic and reasonably logical. I will be proud to be able to speak it one day. Other challenges have to do with just staying healthy and “up,” keeping my bum ankle in good walking condition, working out bathroom time (which is also the laundry room) with 3 adults and two children, and getting internet access. My gazda’s computer is down right now. I’m writing this on my netbook and hope to paste it into my blog site on Monday when I can use the wi-fi in the PCV lounge on campus. I want to set up Skype, but will have little time or privacy to use it UNLESS I get a “stick” through my cell phone carrier which will enable me to have access on my netbook wherever I go for a monthly rate. My friend Martha and I just learned about it and went to the “Orange” store yesterday, but they’re out right now and will get more in next week—maybe. Time is an inexact dimension here. Last Thursday Dr. Dan and the safety and security staff gave us a 2-hour session on all the *bad stuff* that could happen to us. Essentially we’re all destined to have digestive track ailments at some point and 90% will have pin worms once we’re in our villages. This was presented in a power point presentation by our humorous (Romanian) Dr. Dan, who thought it would be more impressive to show pictures of huge worms (instead of the tiny white ones) because—he said later—we’d pay better attention. You can imagine the gasps. He’s a character who peppers his commentary with “S**t happens” and “the dirty little bast**ds” in his thick Romanian accent. In the same session we had to brainstorm ways to avoid pickpockets and packs of wild dogs—apparently the two greatest security threats in Romania, which is by all counts one of PC’s safest destinations. So far only one of us has been bitten. I see the wild dogs all the time, but they just seem more pitiful than dangerous. Don’t worry, I don’t attempt to pet them. They are the descendents of the pets that families were forced to leave during the communist era when everyone was herded into the bloc apartment buildings. Sad, really. Sometimes amidst the day-to-day (hour-to-hour!) challenges, something beautiful happens: an old man in a supermarket parking lot feeds stray dogs bread and meat scraps, several days last week bits of delicate white fluff from the cottonwood trees swirled all around the campus, drifting into classrooms, sticking in our hair, making lunchtime outside seem like a picnic in a snow globe. And lovely gestures—Felicia’s father kissing my hand, and yesterday Martha’s gazda gentleman sitting us down at his garden table, spreading out a big map of Romania and giving us a “geography lesson” while his wife served us raspberry ice cream. It’s so important to savor what my old roommate used to call “crystal moments.” You were right, Sue Ann. May you rest in peace.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Back in school! My first official language lessons today and homework tonight. This is a jam-packed 10-week course--both exhausting and exhilerating. After the 8:30 to 5:00 day, I managed to find my way back home, walking through city central, and then meet a friend to shop for a few items at a supermarket and then go for a Turkish coffee. Martha spied the sign and we went up some rather mysterious stairs to a cafe pulsing with lounge music and well-adorned with big hookas (sp?) and vague young men. We didn't care; we were tired and wanted coffee, so we settled into the plush, red leather, kidney-shaped sofa and savored the rich coffee we were served. It was enough to get us back to our respective apartments. At least, I think Martha made it back; she's a resourceful 61-yr. old who has been in Romania many times since her son married a Romanian. We compared stories about our sons and their respective Eastern European wives. She's as delighted with Lavinia as I am with Magdalena. I'm gaining more appreciation for this fascinating country as we learn the language, meet the people, and hear the history. But I've got a long way to go. Attrition rate is about 30% world-wide for Peace Corps "drop outs" during training. We've already had one. But I'm betting my group will come through with a better percentage. We've been praised at every juncture for our energy and spirit. Well, homework calls. Pa pa ("bye, bye") from this corner of the world.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bumpy Rides and Smooth Landings

Silver linings, half-full glasses, roller coaster rides, life's balancing act--all of these could be the title for this entry. The past week has been filled with some of the worst and some of the best experiences ever. Briefly, the bad news items: whopping fine for a suitcase 3 lbs over, trains weren't running at Hartfield, AT&T cancelled my iPhone a day early so I had no service in Chicago, new netbook crashed the night before we left Chicago (staging) for Romania, seated on a totally-full plane next to a family with a screaming 2-yr.old for 9 hours to Europe (screamed when he was sad, screamed when he was happy, didn't sleep, and the parents were as loud as he was), and spent 3 days in a hotel whose restaurant seemed to be connected to a butcher shop--I've never seen so much meat and at every meal. But now for the good news: the heavy suitcase became lighter for the trans-Atlantic flight when a fellow PCV offered space in her bag for some of my stuff, my concourse at Hartsfield was only B, two different kind PCVs let me use their phones while in Chicago, I was able to dash out with less than an hour before our bus left the hotel in Chicago and, thanks to St. Jose, the world's kindest taxi driver, found a place open and bought another netbook and got back to the hotel with ten minutes to spare, after the rather miserable flight (I clamped headset to ears, watched three movies, and drank the complimentary wine whenever it came by), we were greeted in Bucharest early Friday morning by a cheery group of PC staff and volunteers holding a big banner and ushering us to the waiting buses, and I'm now with the wonderful family who will host me for 11 weeks--Mihai, a Baptist minister, Felicia (Fa LEET cha), a vocational school English teacher, and their two adorable little sons, Andre and Stefon, who all love FRUIT! The mantra we volunteers hear constantly is "Patience, flexibility, and humor." So far it's a good coping strategy--with a little help from my friends. ;-)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Letting Go

My mind scrambles for metaphors. Can't help it. It seems to be the way I make sense of the world. So I've searched for the right fit for my current state. For a while I thought of myself as the kid who climbs the long ladder to the platform high above the pool and is told to wait now (forever!) before taking the short walk and the long dive. Then I thought of the skydiver about to jump, trusting that the chute will open. After hearing our new minister talk about the leap of faith a la Indiana Jones stepping off the cliff with the faith that the invisible bridge would be there, I thought "That's it!" And it is, and all these are part of what I feel. But lately, I've thought more about the leaving part, what I'm giving up for the twenty-seven months. This spring in Athens has never been more beautiful. The dogwoods and azaleas were dazzling, fresh layers of bright green begin to frame everything, and now Queen Anne's lace tilts its galaxies at roadside and our backyard meadow is flocked with a thousand daisies. Mornings are filled with birdsong and the hummingbirds are back. And life is good in other ways, too. My family and friends have never been more thoughtful and appreciative; I'm reminded of what wonderful human beings they are and why I love them. In June my son and daughter-in-law are moving back to the states after his being in Macedonia for four years. My poetry is getting some recognition and I have a new chapbook going to press in the coming months. This is all hard to leave. So my metaphor has changed a bit. I feel now like the trapeze artist perched comfortably and securely on her swing, enjoying the ride, in control. She likes this swing. But she knows momentarily she will make changes, slip down to a hanging position, gain the right momentum, and at the proper juncture, let go, turn, grab the new swing waiting for her. I know it will be a good swing. I know it's part of the act I want my life to be. I know others performing the same leap will be there for me. But still, letting go is hard. And it's almost time.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Shoes and Tattoos

This shouldn't be so hard, but the packing process with a thousand decisions based on the official 5-page Peace Corps packing list (which reads like the inventory of an Army Ranger's survival kit: Swiss army knife, twine, duct tape, long underwear, etc.) is really getting to me. Plus, we are now in touch with volunteers already on assignment in Romania, and their views on what we need seem amazingly different. Women's dress seems particularly all-over-the-place and must depend greatly on the exact location of our post (which we won't know until the end of the 11-week training). Some advocate sundresses and shorts for summer, some say we shouldn't show much skin (and definitely NOT tattoos--of which I have a small, tasteful one on my shoulder blade) and that shorts are what hookers wear, some say "business casual" for the classroom, some say jeans, some say skirts,... you get the picture. They nearly all say to pack boxes of winter things to be shipped later, but wouldn't it be better to take SOME winter things with me to allay the cost of all that shipping? And though the PC will pay for 2 50-lb. suitcases, do I really want to haul that around to planes and trains? And as to shoes--what to take (to be able to walk distances comfortably and still look professional)and what to have sent and what to pack away for 2 years? And that's the other thing--clearing out space in our closets and drawers at our house for my son and daughter-in-law to stash their stuff when they come (from Macedonia) to live with my husband and his sister in June. And don't get me started on toiletries, supplements, and accessories! OK, I've vented and must get back to the packing. If there's a saint for packing, please say a prayer.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Back Story

Two weeks from tomorrow I'll begin an experience I feel I've been waiting for all my life--even when for long periods of time I didn't think about it or imagine that it was possible. As a child during the Kennedy era, I was intrigued with the idea of the newly formed Peace Corps and thought there could be no better way to help others while representing my own country and getting to know the culture of another. In fact, my "senior speech" as I left high school was on the importance of the Peace Corps. Then education, children, career, failing parents all made two years away seem impossible. Last winter (around February of '09) I came to the sudden realization that I had reached a point in my life where I was free of those responsibilities that had made my absence impossible. I had retired from teaching, my two sons were grown and on their own, I had no grandchildren, and both my parents who had needed my help through a difficult final chapter had died in '08. And, importantly, my husband agreed that I should pursue this challenging service, planning to visit often and benefit from the travel and opportunities to photograph places in Europe he may never have encountered otherwise. So the decision came quickly and was the easy part. The application process was amazingly thorough, lengthy, and at times frustrating. Essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, fingerprinting, dental and medical screening like-you-wouldn't-believe, and forms, forms, forms. A year ago I became an official "invitee" and later in the fall, I was told my medical and dental screening had been approved. My destination was to be Central Asia. For months I waded through Rosetta Stone Russian lessons, thinking that would be the language I would need. Then in February of this year, I learned that my post had been changed to Eastern Europe and not to a country that speaks Russian. I chalked up the language experience to a good mental work out for my aging brain. I did learn the Cyrillic alphabet and can at least sound out words in my daughter-in-law's native Macedonian. Beyond that, though, I felt a strange sense of loss because I had imagined myself in Central Asia for so long, reading all I could about the four possible countries, preparing myself for the long winters, eager even to see the steppes and become acquainted with yaks. ;-) When I got the word finally that my destination country was Romania, however, I saw immediately how this would be a good change--especially for the greater ease of having my husband and friends visit and for the proximity of grand European cities. And, too, as a Unitarian Universalist, Romania has special significance as the birth place of our denomination. Our congregation, in fact, has a sister church in Transylvania. AS luck would have it, I and the other 46 in our "class" will arrive in Romania on May 20th, my birthday! I see that as auspicious! So I'm ready to embrace this country and its culture and people. I'm making the leap and hoping my parachute opens. Positive thoughts, prayers, and your communication will be much appreciated.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Preparing for my May 18th departure: checking off items on the long packing list, reading materials sent to us online, getting final vaccinations, connecting with fellow Twenty-Sevens (our "class"), loading books on to my Kindle, spending time with friends and family, and trying to get mentally ready for a whole new life.