In Romania, it is now:

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Postlude III: If Only I Could Be Two People ...

...then one of me would surely still be in Romania, enjoying the friendship of some truly wonderful folks. My last four days in Oradea and Sintandrei (after finishing the Unitarian tour and bidding my fellow pilgrims goodbye in Targu-Mures) were a happy blur, starting with a good visit with Veronica Thursday night over dinner on the pedestrian mall in Oradea. We caught up on many details of our lives, summer travels, school gossip, and found so many things to laugh about. Vera has a lovely sense of humor, her dark eyes sparkling with amusement at life's ironies. I stayed at the new Ramada close to her apartment that night and was tickled that I had chosen not only the weekend of the Palinka and Wine Festival in Oradea (Toamna Oradeana), but also the Octoberfest sponsored by Ramada right in its parking lot!*** The next day, Friday, I had my trusted friend/taxi driver deliver me to my friends' home in nearby Sintandrei. Ana and Petre, their daughter Raluca and her husband Mihai had invited me to stay with them during this trip, and I was happy to be a part of their family for a few days. Only Petre was there when I arrived, the others at work, and he gave me a warm welcome, but I was soon off to my old school just a short walk away. It was wonderful to see the students, the faculty, and principal. I had candy corn and Halloween stickers for the kids, but they gave me the best gifts--enthusiastic hugs! They wanted to know if I were "back for the year," and I felt sincere regret in having to say no. And it was the European Foreign Language Day! So I watched their presentation in the media center at noon. Vera and my former colleague Andrada, the documentarian, organized the program with a power point presentation and readings.*** Friday night with Vera's help I arranged for a dinner at the Mushroom Restaurant (Ciuperca) on a hillside overlooking the city. Felicia, my teacher friend from the scholastic high school in Oradea, her husband Horia, Vera, Mihai, Raluca, Ana, Petre, and Alina, their other daughter were my guests for a festive meal. I had no idea just HOW festive as an alumni group of musicians occupied half the restaurant with music, singing, and dancing as part of their program. At first I worried that we wouldn't be able to talk, but as the evening wore on, I could see that my guests were enjoying the show and I relaxed and enjoyed it, too. These good friends were so generous to me while I was in Romania last year and I wanted to at least show my gratitude with a little dinner party--such a small token! They deserved more.*** The next morning I found myself in my robe having coffee in Ana's kitchen bright and early with a gathering of their relatives I'd never met! It was corn harvesting day! We hit the field and worked for a few hours before coming back to the garden table for a huge breakfast, and then back to the field to finish up. Mihai's brothers, one of their wives, and a niece all helped out with good humor and great appreciation for Ana's excellent cooking. The weather was perfect and I thoroughly enjoyed this bit of farm labor with good company.*** Later I watched Mihai's niece Edina prepare for her troupe's dance performance at the festival that night. So much ironing of the many layers, many ruffles and yardage of the beautiful costume. Actually getting into the whole ensemble wasn't easy either! Watching her dance at the festival was special after observing all the necessary work beforehand. And the festival was fun. Besides the dances from many villages, stalls all over the park offered tastings of palinka and wine from small wineries and stills. The wonderful Hungarian tube bread with various coatings was being baked on site and the aroma permeated the air. Cotton candy and candied apples and bon bons were all around. Why are these people not more rotund?? Then we joined Vera and her friend and daughter back at the Octoberfest site for a round of German beer and sausage and German patriotic music. Bidding farewell to Veronica was the only sad part of the day. (Photos of the weekend) *** Sunday morning I was delighted to learn that Ana and Petre would also come along with us to Budapest to deliver me to the airport there. They--in their mid fifties--had never been to the city and Mihai decided it was a good time for them to see the sights! So we were a jolly group making the 2 1/2 hour drive in Mihai's comfortable car on a fast toll road. What a difference from the shuttle van I've taken before slowly through many small villages! We teased Ana who was nervous about the speed of our travel, something she wasn't used to. Finally it was time to say goodbye. They came into the airport with me, Ana giving me a bag of fruit to take along, and all of us having good hugs and double kisses. I wish these dear souls lived closer. I can envision returning for special times--Vera's wedding, the house blessing of Mihai and Raluca's new home, their child's christening--but I know distance and practicality get in the way. Still, I'm hoping to see Vera next April if she can meet me in Verona where Lee will be teaching for three weeks, and Mihai thinks the house is coming along and should be ready in a year or so, so who knows? The pull of friendship is strong and can shrink the globe in remarkable ways. Peace to all. May you be grateful citizens of this planet Earth. May you live a beautiful poem.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Postlude II: The Village

The destination of our Unitarian pilgrimage was Okland, a small village of around 1500 residents, nearly all Hungarian and members of the Unitarian congregation of our partner church. I wasn't sure what to expect since the word "village" is used to describe a number of different smaller settlements throughout Romania. But Okland fits well the American vision of a European village, right down to the cows coming home down the main road at dusk, the geese honking their welcome, and small gardens overflowing with flowers and vegetables. (Photos) It was first mentioned in 1546, but has remains of Roman structures and was apparently a frequent haunt of Attila the Hun whose favorite wife, according to legend, is buried here. The sanctuary of the Unitarian church of the village, our partner, is from the Romanesque era and was altered around the turn of the 16th century in late Gothic style. In 1938 it was doubled in size, but in keeping with the style of the old section. What impresses the visitor is the abundant use of embroidered decorative cloths, red on white, the bright blue paint, and the wonderful ceiling tiles, wood panels painted with nature and folk motifs. These panels were the subject of much debate, apparently, when the 1938 expansion took place. Many did not want to replace the panels, opting for a newer, more elegant look, but thankfully, the minister and other elders were adamant about keeping them and won out. We were glad to be present for a communion service there, led by both our and their ministers, and to exchange gifts, songs, and well wishes with the members. It was a moving service, especially after we had learned their history, the difficulties of trying to meet during the communist era and then later to maintain autonomy and survive in a country 87% Orthodox.****We were hosted by various villagers during our four-day stay, and my friend Anna and I, being the "walkers" in the group, were situated at the home of Rosalia and her husband on the outskirts of town. We liked the walk to the parsonage and church--over the river, past a school and several homes, beside a park, and around the bend to the pretty churchyard garden. The weather couldn't have been more perfect--bright blue skies with sunshine and breezes in the day and a nip in the night air that made sleeping under the farm house quilts feel cozy, especially when Rosalia offered to boil some water for my trusty hot water bottle. Though the villagers all spoke Hungarian, Rosalia and I could communicate on a very basic level in Romanian, a fact most satisfying (and a bit amusing, given my inadequacies) to me. Mostly we relied on a bright young interpreter who was with us during mealtimes. Meals, by the way, ALL meals were preceded by a shot of palinka (strong plum brandy) to aid the appetite and digestion. I could happily accept at lunch and dinner, but at breakfast, I just had to decline. I'm not a "morning person" and struggle with the aid of coffee to wake up. The last thing I need is something that crosses my eyes and makes me want to head back to the pillow.***** Overall, our stay was informative and pleasant, an opportunity to examine our own commitment to our beliefs, a time to come to know and appreciate each other better, a chance to test our willingness to grow--elements, of course, common to all pilgrimages. The tour/pilgrimage ended with our leaving the village for Targu-Mures where the others would begin their return flights to the US. I, however, was given a ride to Cluj where I would take a train, probably my last in Romania, to Oradea to visit dear friends in the area. Part III will be about this bitter-sweet weekend.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Postlude I: Return to Romania, the Pilgrimage

Returning to Romania after three months back home in the states reaffirms my affection for this land and gives me a whole different perspective as I learn about the Hungarian minority here, the history of Transylvania and of the origins of Unitarian beliefs. I’m writing from Okland, a beautiful little village in the Homerod valley in Transylvania. I and eight other members of my Unitarian Universalist congregation have come on a pilgrimage of sorts to our partner church. This is ancient territory, this particular village feeling obvious pride in being the burial place of Attila the Hun’s favorite wife, and the people of this area showing great satisfaction in being descendants of the famous warrior.**** We began in Budapest, seeing the sights there and enjoying a sweets festival and a wine tasting at a winery in Eger—seven large samplings that left us reeling and happy as we bought our bottles, convinced we had just had nectar of the gods. (Actually it IS very good wine and may someday soon be sold in Seattle).**** Upon entering Romania, we were immediately welcomed by my friends in Sintandrei with a small band of musicians, a cookout featuring traditional foods and drink and a lively performance of traditional dance by a troup of dancers who were friends of Mihai and Raluca. AND Mihai and Raluca even joined in on one number! Ana, the matriarch, had prepared her best dishes of Romanian foods, and her husband Petre shared his home made palinka (plum brandy), afinata (blueberry liqueur) and cherry liqueur. We were given colorful woven bags filled with a small bottle of palinka and a jar of Ana’s special zacusca (pepper relish). Mihai had two video-tographers capture the evening and we’ve been promised the videos! We were only in “my city” of Oradea for a night and day, but I knew I would be returning on the 29th after the UU tour ends. I was glad that my American friends had this sampling of Romanian culture as the rest of the trip is almost exclusively Hungarian. Our tour guide, wife to the minister in our partner church, represents well the Hungarians in Transylvania who cling to their language, culture, and worship. Unitarianism is very popular with Hungarians, but some are also Lutheran, Calvinists, or Catholic. The Medieval Hungarian King Sigismund was Unitarian. We visited his tomb in the abbey of a medieval church (now Catholic) in Alba Julia. We also visited the medieval church in Turda where the Edict of (Religious)Toleration was signed in 1568, a direct result of Sigismund’s influence. Even though such progressive thinking had been present years before as the Reformation across Europe grew, for all practical purposes, it was the beginning of Unitarianism. **** This is a different Romania than I experienced as a Peace Corps volunteer. Here is a population who seems resentful of the oppression placed on them by the Romanians, themselves an oppressed people under many governments and rulers. It seems good King Sigismund’s ideal of toleration, religious and otherwise, is still an elusive state, difficult to reach and difficult to hold.**** Two more entries to come.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Of Adventure, Service, and Leavetaking

Since I first began the long application process to be a volunteer in the Peace Corps in 2009, I've cringed whenever someone makes a comment about my "adventure." I know being a PC volunteer IS in the broad sense, an adventure ("an unusual experience," "a risky undertaking"), but in my mind there is a distinct difference between adventure and service. Adventure is something I do for myself. Service is something I do for others. And as corny as it sounds, service is the reason I joined the Peace Corps, leaving family and friends and a comfortable life to serve where I'm needed. So when news of a recent government study showing the low level of need for volunteers in Romania came to my attention last spring, I had to admit to myself that--in my particular village in my particular region--I had already reached that conclusion. This may not be true currently at all sites, but in a village where the school has perfectly competent English teachers and the mayor's pockets seem unusually deep, my presence is at best one of ambassadorship. At the same time, unplanned developments in my family and with some of my friends have created greater need for me back home. So when I put it all on the scale, the tilt was obvious and I just couldn't justify staying on in Romania to continue my "adventure." But oh, the difficulty of saying goodbye! I've repeatedly thought I'd like to be two people--one to go and one to stay. Because there are so many reasons I'd like to stay in this beautiful and complex country, enjoying its people, countryside, food, music, and traditions. I liked my Red House apartment, the big-sky sunsets, and many special people in my village and in the city. I became very close to my counterpart, a superb person professionally and personally. I'll miss my PCV colleagues, especially the Westsiders, and several others with whom I bonded during the training months. I sincerely hope my 60 blog entries have given my readers a good sense of what life here is like and that I've represented my country well in my association with Romanians. I arrived back in America last Saturday night after teary goodbyes in Oradea to find teary hellos at the Atlanta airport. My heart is full and I know I'll be gleaning poems from this experience for a long while to come. Happily, I'll be returning to Romania in September with fellow Unitarian Universalists on a tour, so I was able to say "so long" instead of "goodbye" to several people I know I'll get to see then. And that trip will certainly be an adventure, something I'm doing for myself, a pleasure I look forward to.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Smart Views on Romania's Economy

I can think of no better way to answer people's questions about the economic situation in Romania and what needs to happen than to share Ambassador Mark Gitenstein's speech to the Bucharest Stock Exchange this past March. ***** BUILDING EQUITY MARKETS AND REFORMING ENERGY MARKETS IN ROMANIA Talk by U.S. Ambassador Mark Gitenstein at the Bucharest Stock Exchange, March 31, 2011 Distinguished Guests, I want to thank you all for joining me here today at the Bucharest Stock Exchange, to talk about something we have all discussed many times: the future of Romania, especially its future economic growth. As many of you here already know, I am the proud descendant of Romanian immigrants to the United States more than a century ago, and this country is dear to my heart. Since my arrival here a little over a year and a half ago, I have had the privilege of working with many of you on a variety of issues that are not only important to the United States, and to our bilateral partnership, but which are important to the future of Romania because they affect each and every person in this country. These include our joint endeavors to strengthen Romania’s rule of law, support for reforms to stabilize the economy and spur a return to growth, and promote Romania’s assets and opportunities to potential investors. The key to Romania’s future is building enduring institutions that under gird your democracy and free markets, transparency, rule of law and predictability. These reforms which began in the early part of the last decade helped to attract over 10,000 RON of foreign direct investment for every man, woman and child here in Romania. Furthering those reforms as your current government has been doing in the last two years is the only way to keep that foreign investment flowing and to generate more domestic investment here in Romania. The most recent assessment by the IMF declared that these measures have succeeded in stabilizing and reversing the economic decline, and if the reform agenda moves forward, Romania can expect a return to positive growth this year and beyond. That is why I am speaking to you today from the Bucharest Stock Exchange. You have not yet harnessed your equity markets in this effort. Why are equity markets important? Growth cannot happen without a reliable energy supply and supporting infrastructure, and the energy sector here will require significant amounts of new investment if the sector is to be a driver for, and not a drag on, Romania’s recovery. Equity markets can play a critical role in attracting investment from here and abroad. Romania’s infrastructure, roads, bridges and rails and especially the energy sector need capital but you must keep your deficits within IMF and EC limits. Just in the energy sector alone you need something in the range of 10 billion Euros to modernize the sector and thereby unleash your most important strategic assets. That CANNOT be accomplished with tax revenues alone. And it will not happen as long as these assets are tied up in inefficient state-owned enterprises run by inexperienced political cronies making decisions based not on what’s best for the company but what serves their own interests. I believe that the right model for Romania is Poland whose government announced in 2009 that it would undertake a program to raise over 10 billion Euros by selling part of its interest in state enterprises. Poland did it without the government losing control of critical assets. Imagine what that would mean for your budget, your energy sector and average Romanians – not just making energy cheaper and more abundant, but also building highways and bridges which would generate businesses and jobs for Romanians and perhaps even reverse some of the difficult budget cuts undertaken in recent years. Poland did this not by giving preferential deals to political allies who bought the assets below their fair value, but by using its equity markets. Under the supervision of reputable financial managers these assets were offered on a transparent open market to the highest bidder. Ultimately many of these state companies will be owned by average Polish shareholders themselves. That’s what should happen here. Average Romanians should own these companies. In Poland there are over 1.5 million retail investors, average Poles who get up every morning, drive their own car to work, and earn a salary. In Romania there are probably less than 10,000 retail investors. That has to change. Shares listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange are worth over 200 billion Euros. The value of shares on the Bucharest Stock Exchange is less than 13% of that amount. So the market here has some distance to go. In 2009, Poland was the only EU country to report economic growth, in part thanks to the country’s solid capital market. Last year, the PZU Group, one of Poland’s largest financial institutions, gave a successful initial public offering of 2 billion euro in the middle of an economic crisis. Through the first 11 months of 2010, Poland had 81 initial public offerings. Only China (442) and the USA (101) had more. That’s one of the reasons that a recent survey listed Poland as one of the 10 top emerging markets in the world. Just this last year several of the top investment banking firms opened offices there. They see the potential. That can happen here in Romania but not with the current proposed path. The on-going effort to reorganize state-owned energy companies into two “national energy champions,” instead of exploring full or partial privatization options, is not only an inefficient use of valuable resources, but as one outside expert commented, “contrary to government claims, the policy would significantly impede competition, crowd out private investment and raise prices.” It is as we would say in America an effort to “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic” because it does not deal with the basic problem of state owned energy companies – that they are not run like real businesses. Media reporting has shown that for at least ten years, more than 50% of Hidroelectrica’s output has been directed to preferential energy contracts at rates significantly lower than production cost. This has resulted in significant profit loss and lack of investment in the company, forcing the government to divert scarce public funding to keep the company afloat. Similar allegations have been made against other energy complexes. While giving wholesale energy discounts to large volume customers is not necessarily an unfair business practice, a state-owned company extending this benefit means subsidizing only a few users at the expense of all other consumers. An important distinction in Romania’s case is that access to these kinds of special discounts often seems to be a function of political connections rather than sensible business practice. Other abuses include at least two examples in the recent past where the government literally used these state-owned enterprises as a “piggy bank” to deal with short term cash flow problems. For example, this past year Romgaz was asked to make a “donation” of 100 million Euros to the government to meet its budget exigencies, and government representatives on the board were directed to approve the “request.” Your government also needs to move on the commitment it made to deregulate its energy price markets if Romania is to fully develop its energy resources. I understand the concern about the impact on individual consumers, especially those below the poverty level. But you can deal with this the way we do in the U.S., with effective regulation, and as in the U.S. and your neighbor Hungary, through targeted social subsidies for the poorest among you. It simply is no longer acceptable to keep all energy prices artificially low even for those who can afford it. As long as Romania chooses to refuse market pricing for gas and electricity, new investment in exploration and production will stay away. Romania will have chosen unnecessarily broad subsidies instead of new jobs, and imported resources instead of increasing its own supplies and potential exports. But there are some good things happening in your equity markets and even in your energy sector. Just two months ago, to great applause, shares from the Property Fund (Fondul Proprietatea) were listed on this very stock exchange, capping years of preparation and anticipation. I believe this listing holds far greater significance for Romania’s economic future than most people realize. The Property Fund holds stakes in 83 private and state-owned Romanian companies, with energy companies comprising a major component of its portfolio. Successful listing of the Fund is prompting fund manager Franklin Templeton to broaden Romania’s exposure to global equity markets and to showcase Romanian investment opportunities to a vastly expanded global audience. This positive impact can be seen on the upward trend of the stock exchange since January. This is a terrific starting point to introduce more private capital to other potential growth areas, such as transportation, infrastructure and retail services. However, all investors will evaluate the risk of investing in Romania, including Government policies toward business, their stability, and how they are implemented. The Property Fund and its presence on the boards of these state owned companies is having a perhaps even more important function. Property Fund board representatives are holding these companies and the Romanian Government accountable for bad decisions. For example, the Fund has challenged the so-called “donation” by Romgaz to the government. It is fighting the ill-conceived energy champions idea. It will fight the cronyism in the state companies and insist that they be run like real companies for the benefit of all shareholders, not just government bureaucrats. They are determined to get real value out of these strategic assets. If the government would sell even larger portions of these assets in the market, like Poland is doing, the Property Fund would have more allies in this fight and in all likelihood those shares would eventually fall into the hands of average Romanians. And then average Romanians would not only own these companies but benefit from the increase in value that would come as these assets attain their market potential. I cannot overstate the benefit that the “self policing” role that real equity ownership in these state companies would bring to Romania. As I said in the beginning, the real challenge for Romania is to build self- sustaining independent institutions which preserve the values of transparency and the rule of law that are critical to free markets, democracy and ultimately to personal autonomy and prosperity. Healthy equity markets, combined with representation of Romanian shareholders on the boards of these companies, is the best guarantee that the companies will act like modern businesses. I am very impressed with the efforts you have taken since 2000 and especially in the last year or so, at great political cost, to reform the state. But it is not enough to reform the pay and pension laws; the Labor Code; the anti-corruption laws; to recruit good police and prosecutors and to start to reform the judiciary. That’s been difficult and it’s good. You should be proud of it. But it is not enough. It is not enough to undertake these reforms to satisfy some bureaucrat in Brussels that you have complied with the CVM or that you should get into Schengen. It is more important and more lasting to empower average Romanians to insure transparency, predictability and to end corruption. In fact empowering average Romanians and offering them a brighter future might help you comply with CVM and gain Schengen entry. More important than any single law or reform, the international community is seeking proof that that drive for reform is coming from inside Romania – not being imposed from the outside. I can think of no better means of demonstrating this commitment than privatizing your energy sector with the highest standards of corporate governance. By kick-starting your equity markets and disbursing more wealth and power to individual investors you empower these investors to block abuses. Individual investors, average Romanians or their representatives, judged by how much value they bring to Romania not how many political points they score, sitting on these boards would do more than even the best prosecutors to end these abuses. Lest you think I am being patronizing in these suggestions I hasten to add that we have been through all of this in the United States. It took us over 100 years to figure out that we needed to do the things I am suggesting here. Our Constitution was ratified with a Bill of Rights in 1789 and a hundred years later we were struggling with exactly the same issues you are here a mere 20 years after your revolution. We still have greedy people in America too and we’re still working on it. In the 1890s we had wealthy railroad barons who ran their companies like political empires, owning newspapers, political parties and politicians. They benefited from generous hand outs from the federal government. Sound familiar? We passed powerful new antitrust laws and created equity markets. Through stock ownership these companies eventually came to be run by independent shareholders. President Teddy Roosevelt’s bust appears on our most revered memorial, Mount Rushmore, because he had the courage to use those laws. The New York Stock Exchange became the most powerful equity market in the world once it was freed from the control of the barons of industry. And even more important we realized the real value of America’s assets and with the help of free markets redistributed wealth to average Americans instead of concentrating wealth in a few oligarchs. You can do this in Romania, like we did it in America and like your friends in Poland are doing. We are here to help, not simply because it is good for you but because it is good for us. Good for us because we will invest along with your citizens in these projects but also because it will make you even more reliable allies and trusted friends. Thank you for listening and let us know how we can help.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Celebration, Commemoration, Dedication, and One Happy Blue Fish

June is bustin' out all over--that's for sure! So many recent events. I'll give you the highlights and links to albums of photos. First there was the amazing kindergarten production in my village on Youth Day (June 1st). The big class taught by only one well-organized woman presented songs, dances, and recitations all in elaborate story-book character costumes. Not only did they perform well, but they behaved themselves on stage for over an hour in a very hot room. It was an impressive program and very well attended, of course. (Photos) Then there was Hero's Day in my village. This seems to be Romania's version of Memorial Day, honoring fallen soldiers and living veterans. Our school children processed to the cemetery along with the priest and several veterans and what seemed to be widows of the fallen. The priest offered prayers, the children read short passages and sang, and the mayor hung a wreath on the memorial tombstone. It was a nice ceremony. (Photos) Also during that week Peace Corps' Habitat for Humanity build was occurring in the nearby town of Beius. Our volunteers came in shifts to complete the house in a week. I knew I had too much happening at my school to attend, so I made a donation and enjoyed some of the volunteers coming through the area. (Photos) It was great to visit with them in Oradea and a few spent the night with me in my village before and after their shifts and were even on hand for the community celebration of Youth Day, which was delayed until Sunday, June 5th this year. (Photos) It was in the park, a very nice venue with a fine stage at one end for all the dances, songs, skits, and music. The park was packed and everyone was having a great time--even with the heat. Fortunately, there was a steady breeze, too. My sixth grade students presented two narrative poems in English with accompanying skits. We worked on these after school several times and I spent much time on the head gear and props for the skits. Thank heavens for a Chinese import store a short bus ride away. Everything seemed fine, but the kids seemed to have stage fright when they actually had to perform on stage, and many in the audience who didn't understand English tuned us out and talked. So it wasn't the big success I had hoped for, but I'm hoping the experience was a positive one for them (they sure looked cute in their little bee antennae, bear ears, or flower wreaths!)and that they'll remember it with a smile...or a laugh. One bee wore high heels, the bears kept losing their noses, and the tree kept lifting the branches high over his head instead of in front of his face. Ah, but my paper bag beehive held up just fine. And finally the event I had been anxiously awaiting: the dedication of the Peace Mural at our school. Our mural, along with many others around the country is part of the celebration of Peace Corps' 20th anniversary in Romania and 50th anniversary around the world. (Photos) We encouraged the students to come up with a drawing to be used, but ended up using elements of four different drawings, cleverly interwoven by our documentarian Andrada. The chosen wall is right at the entance to the school and can't be missed! The mayor attended our dedication and cut the ribbon for us after two students read a little speech in English and Romanian. The design features the outline of the country of Romania with scrolls of music from both national anthems, doves, flowers, a peace symbol in Romania's colors and the Peace Corps logo. "But why blue?" our principal asked last week about the light blue dominant color. I think he had something brighter in mind. "It's what the students wanted. It's peaceful," answered Andrada. I like it. It looks for all the world like a big, happy, blue fish, trailing its music and doves through a peaceful sea of diplomacy.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Snapshots: Alina, Bianca, and Razvan

The last of my mini portraits are of "Alina," one of my students, "Bianca," a sales person at a local magazine (convenience/general store), and "Razvan," the foster dad at the Roma Boys Home. Alina is a pretty seventh grader who has the quiet grace and kindness of one much older. She seems "tuned in" to me and makes thoughtful gestures that sometimes catch me off guard. Mostly, she likes to accompany me on my walk home--or at least to HER home, which is about half way to mine. She will approach me after class and say "walk with you"? or at times--on days I don't teach her, she'll simply be waiting a little way down the path. Sometimes her little brother, also a student, will be with her. I'm never sure if she's trying to help me with my Romanian or practice her English. We do both. I will ask "Cum se spune...?" (how do you say?) about many items or phrases. She will ask me questions in English or just make an accurate statement at times that surprises me. She's one of those students you always feel deserves more. I admit there are days when I'm tired and feel I could use a quiet walk home, but I find that I always feel better after walking with Alina, waving her on at the corner where we part, feeling a little unspoken benediction in the "la revedere."****I met Bianca the second day I was in the village, making my rounds to the magazines, introducing myself like a good little PCV. She seemed bemused and I immediately liked her bright, merry eyes and big smile. I know virtually nothing about this woman, but she has cheerfully helped me buy what I need two or three times a week. When I'm in the tiny store and others are there, she always introduces me if they seem curious--much smiling and nodding, and she gives me credit for learning Romanian "repede" (quickly--such a joke) when I ask properly for items, seeming to take a small measure of credit. We've had a few laughs, too. When I was doing some Christmas baking, I realized in the store that I was nearly out of baking powder and couldn't remember "praf de copt." Lee was with me and we both did numerous impressions of dough rising. Bianca thought we were hilarious (well, we were) and finally figured it out after pulling out nearly every little packet under the counter. She knows very well my taste in vin alb (white wine), the particular kind I like requiring her to fetch a little rickety ladder to reach it from the top shelf, and as she's reaching high (she's short) above her head, I and any number of other patrons are yelling for her to reach left or right to fetch it. I think what I really like about Bianca is her look of friendly expectancy, eyebrows raised and half-smile--as though my entering her little world could cause merriment at any moment. I live to serve.*****Razvan is the dad at the foster home for Roma Boys in my village. He's in his thirties, a family man whose wife and two little boys live with him at the American-built home. He is a calm and patient fellow, tall, husky, bespectacled, and earnest. He loves to sing--a tenor--and studied voice for awhile. He supervises the boys with a firm hand, but loves to present them with little surprises--a puppy and two canaries in the past few months. The birds get to fly free among the big potted plants in the living room. I don't know how the housekeeper handles this, but no one seems concerned, and the boys and birds are happy. Razvan and his family are Baptist; I was invited to the "blessing" of their infant son in April. He is simply a good, kind man--perfect for the job he's doing--and when he says, "May God bless you" as I leave the car, I feel God is probably listening.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Snapshots: Anca and Crina

"Anca" and "Crina" are women of my village whom I know through observation, interactions, and snatches of conversation and to some extent through their children. They know little English and so we limp along with my little Romanian, and still I feel I know the quality of their character, and I admire them both. Anca is a woman in her late fifties, a kindergarten teacher and the mother of two lovely grown daughters. She is a bundle of energy and her bright henna-dyed hair and big smile make her easy to spot in a crowd. She not only deals with a passel of tiny tots all day, but she also tends a huge garden, and does massive canning and preserving of the produce as it is harvested. Her home is welcoming and well-organized. I love the fact that she has a fully-appointed wash stand between her garden and kitchen door and that she uses for handy hooks broken twig stumps on trees in her back yard. Her husband cannot eat dairy products and one of her daughters and son-in-law do not eat red meat. Still, from my experience, Anca's meals are delicious, varied and healthful (if one discounts the fried pies, which I do!). At neighborhood celebrations she always has her kindergartners perform--recitations, dances, songs. I don't know how she trains them so well, but they're delightful to watch! At a performance of Romanian traditional music and dance in the city, Anca was the first on her feet, hand to her heart, when one of the singers began, "Rise, Romania, Rise," a rousing anthem. Having lived through the difficulties of her country's recent history, she holds dear her patriotism and pride. One of her daughters is in my adult class, speaks English, and is a very special young woman. Her intelligence and forward-looking attitude speak well for her up-bringing, and her affection and high regard for her mother are obvious.*****Crina is a neighbor, just a few doors down from the red house. I first met her when my landlady brought her up to meet me and make a request. We somehow communicated--neither of them speaking English and I with my baby-talk Romanian. She is a religion teacher (a mandatory subject here) at a school in the city, in her mid thirties, and her two children, Mihai (10) and Ioanna (7) attend schools in the city. She asked if I would spend some time talking with them. I explained that I cannot give private tutoring lessons (PC forbids it, rightfully), but that I would visit with them the next Saturday afternoon. What has evolved is a standing session at their house with her two children and often a few of their friends. I usually tailor for their level a lesson I presented that week to my classes. It became a highlight of my week, the children being precocious and delightful. Mihai is one of those children who seems to have an "old soul," and again and again I have been amazed at his sensitivity and maturity for one so young. Ioanna is impish and cute--a pixie of a child who is taking gymnastics classes and could be another Nadia. But getting back to their mother, Crina is one of the most poised people I've ever met. She is immensely attractive while being modest in her dress and demeanor. Her home is light and airy and aesthetically pleasing and her flower garden at the entrance to their home is nothing short of gorgeous. She speaks to me slowly and repeats as necessary, but (unlike me) she never uses her hands, keeping a very calm and serene tone. She has trained her children to be courteous and they always--on subtle command--present me with a little thank-you gift as I'm leaving--usually chocolates or other sweets. Crina always follows me out to the gate and many times picks a bouquet on the way to send along with me. I have stayed for dinner on a few occasions and been royally treated with traditional foods. She and her mother, who is often there, are both excellent cooks. Her husband, a businessman, speaks quite good English, and he and Mihai keep the dinner conversation going in English very well. She once said to me in the bleakness of January that I should come to see them any time and have a cup of tea, just visit, not be alone. I don't remember exactly how she said this to me, but I got it, and it endeared her to me, feeling that she saw me as a person a long way from home, and not just "the American woman."

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Snapshots: Stefan

My second snapshot is of Stefan, one of my adult students. Stefan is thirty-three, has an electronics business in the city, and married a fellow associate only a few years ago. He speaks good English, is optimistic and ambitious, and is a genuinely nice person who likes to please. He is cheerful and has a well-developed sense of humor. I learned his story after he and his wife took me to a fine performance of traditional music and dance in Oradea last month. His great passion is dance; he was nearly dancing in his seat at the concert! Indeed for many years he studied traditional dance, danced as the lead in a troupe of performers who were employed by the state theater in Oradea, and wanted to go to the Ukraine to study choreography in a university dance program. Romania, perhaps more than its neighbors, has valued and sustained its traditional dance to a high degree. Many young people are serious about the "old ways" and devote much time to weekly classes taught by masters of traditional dance. Elaborate, expensive costumes are handed down from generation to generation. Stefan wanted to cherish the old, but also learn the new and become a trained choreographer who could bring skills back to his fellow dancers in Oradea. His excellent dancing got him accepted into the program (albeit with a rather haughty attitude toward this Romanian folk dancer), but he needed financial support for a short period of time until a kind of student aid/scholarship would begin. He asked his employer (dance master) if he could continue receiving his regular pay for that time as he started the classes. The master refused. Stefan feels there was some resentment, some jealousy perhaps, and this fellow didn't want to be upstaged. The dream was shattered. BUT Stefan points out quickly that he has not given up dance and along with another dancer/friend, he heads up a summer dance program for young people, using his own native ability in choreography as well as passing down the traditional steps. He's a happy man, as far as I can tell, but he harbors a bitterness, too. He feels his situation was typical of those of so many other bright and talented young people in Romania who not only don't receive encouragement and help, but are often actually held back. No wonder so many leave for other EU countries. Such a loss! I'm glad Stefan is still here and that he's found an outlet for his dance and for helping young people, too.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Snapshots: Bogdan

As many of my postings have shown, this country has great beauty in its countryside, its architecture, its traditions, dance and music, but what will remain most poignant in my memories is its people. I've decided to write about a few specific persons who have touched my life here. I can't say they are particularly representative since I've met so many vastly different personalities--just as one would anywhere. I was going to call these descriptions "portraits," but since they are limited glimpses, I'll call them "snapshots." Oh, and I'm changing their names to other typical Romanian names. Bogdan: My village is very close to the city (about 4 miles) and has a shuttle bus that runs on the hour most hours of the workday until 8pm. However, if you need to come back from the city after hours (like after a concert or movie) or if you need to go in on the weekend, or if you need to get yourself and luggage to the train station or pick up heavy boxes at the post office, you'll need a taxi. I found Bogdan last fall and was so impressed with his courteousness, promptness, and good driving, AND his good English that I immediately put his number in my cell phone. He has become not only a reliable driver...but a friend. I sit in the front with him and we speak in English so that he can practice his skills while patiently feeding me Romanian phrases as I inquire. He says it once slowly as though he's handing me a gift for my brain. "I have to see it written," I whine, laughing at my bad pronunciation. Then he'll say it again rapidly several times as though that should do it. Bogdan is in his early 30's, college-educated, a vegetarian, and a t-totaler. He laments the fact that poor economic times have hurt the taxi business and is not as happy about sunny weather as I am. "No one in the city wants to ride when they can walk in this nice weather." He and his wife have no children and very little extended family. They are intellectuals (he agrees with me when I offer this description), read voraciously and do not have much of a social life. (It would be difficult in Romania to have much of a social life if you didn't eat meat nor drink...nor have children.) Another unusual aspect of his personality is that he is not Orthodox and is in fact more Hindu--a follower of Hari Krishna and the Upanishads philosophy. For my birthday, he gave me a very nice copy of the Bhagavad-gita in English. I am reading passages with titles that seem interesting like "Nature, the Enjoyer and Consciousness." He likes discussing life-and-meaning and believes there are no accidents in life, that our random meeting was not random at all. We are surprisingly close on many of our views of spirituality, but miles apart in other areas like government and society. When we were discussing family at Christmas, he told Lee and me that he had very little. "Well, we can just be 'family'," I said impulsively and he immediately agreed, "Yes, you are family." I can't tell you how comforting that attitude was when I hurt my back last winter and he helped me up and down stairs and along icy sidewalks, to the post office once where he carried the package, and always driving slowly so as not to jar me. I don't think a son could have been more attentive. Family indeed.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In the Sweetness Hereof

Well, here we are. My birthday came and went and the predicted Doom's Day came and went and we've all survived. The busy-ness of springtime in my village this past week involved the aid of the good caruta horsies more than usual. They are very sweet-tempered and well-behaved creatures (certainly deserving of Rapture transport as much as anyone!). I took these photos one afternoon from my kitchen window as I baked birthday brownies.****So on Friday, it was all about me. ;-) Ziua mea, my day, my birthday. (Photos) In keeping with the rather nice Romanian tradition of the honoree being the one who gives, I bought bunches of miniature Snickers and Mars bars to give to my students and made brownies with chocolate frosting and sprinkles to put out in the faculty lounge. My counterpart Veronica had organized a surprise for me, however, and I became the receiver more than the giver. All the faculty sang Happy Birthday in English to me and presented me with an enormous and scrumptious cake with a filling of fresh raspberries and strawberries with cream. SO nice! A group of eighth grade students gathered in the media center to sing to me and students throughout the morning gave me little tokens (a rose, a card) and always the double kisses AND hugs. It's hard for me to imagine middle school kids (especially boys!) back in the states being so demonstrative and unselfconscious in their affection. I felt humbled by their sweetness. Later back at my apartment at the English Club gathering of eighth graders, I wanted to do the typically American birthday thing, so I stuck candles into the remaining fourth of my cake and had the kids sing to me in English and let me blow out the candles, but unbeknownst to any of us, they were the kind that kept relighting themselves. The kids were astonished (their first encounter with these), I was surprised, and we all had a good laugh until I finally just dropped them into a glass of water--the only way I could extinguish them.****On my birthday eve, I must mention, I had another treat. Fellow PCV Connie came into town and we had dinner in the courtyard of a lovely Italian restaurant before seeing a fabulous tribute of arias to Virginia Zeani, Romanian opera diva now 87, gracious, regal, and amazingly well-preserved. The best operatic voices of Romania came to the Philharmonic Hall in Oradea to honor her and to entertain a packed house. It was a stunning review, a very special evening for all the opera lovers here. There seemed to be no resentment that she had left Romania in 1984 and has lived in the US ever since. They were just glad to have her back in their midst--the prodigal daughter, their beautiful Romanian nightingale.****And May 20 was also another anniversary--our Peace Corps group arrived in Romania on that day a year ago, so it was my second Romanian birthday, both memorable--the first mostly spent at the airport, all of us bleary-eyed and exhausted. I have to say, I liked this one better!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Growing Season

These are the days of the great green hope. Everyone seems involved in a gardening project, even if it's in window boxes or balcony pots. Romanians seem to draw from the soil a special nourishment that goes beyond the benefits of good food. One could say it has pagan roots (no pun intended) and that the ancient rhythms of the seasons remain spiritually important unto themselves even when anointed with religious labels. No matter the reason--this time of plowing, planting, and tending seems a very satisfying and rewarding season. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a gratar (cookout) (Photos) in a garden setting here in my village last week and was given a tour of the beautifully planned and planted garden--a large one of vegetables of every kind, smaller beds of flowers and herbs, and many fruit trees and berry shrubs. The owners were rightfully proud. Never mind the hard work, there was a real joy in the accomplishment of establishing the garden for another year. And under the blooming chestnut trees we celebrated, of course, with delicious food cooked on the grill and sinfully good little pies and pastries ("little lies" was the translation of the dessert).**** And speaking of chestnut trees (castana), they are in full bloom and everywhere. They're the preferred shade tree here, having thick foliage and growing quickly to maturity. The other blooming tree one sees and smells all about this region is the locust (salcam). It's highly prized both for the tea made from the dried flowers and the honey that comes from their pollen. When I looked it up (Wikipedia to the rescue), I learned that it has been naturalized from the native trees in North America. I know we have Honey Locust in Georgia, and I suppose this is the same, maybe a bit altered by the climate. To my knowledge no one back home made tea from it, but certainly the honey is important (hence the name).The fragrance is fresh and clean from little white flowers that could be flakes of soap.***** I'm missing my visits to the Roma Boys home these few weeks as they work in their villages with a team of Americans from upper state New York. Seeing them on Mondays is always a real pleasure and I wish I and they could work out other times for tutoring classes, but they're busy guys and my schedule is full, too. (Photos) The agency running the home and other such schools and homes in the area are providing a wonderful service and I salute their mission and dedication. As I've said in the past, the complicated issues involving the Roma (gypsy) population in Romania have no easy answers, but certainly working with the children is the most effective approach for lasting change.**** My birthday is this week. It will mark the one year anniversary of our group's arrival in Romania. Sometimes it seems only yesterday and sometimes it seems a lifetime ago. Just as a tree shows by its rings that it grows more or less in a given year, so I believe the human soul has greater or less growth in a year's time. For me, soaking up all I can in this endlessly interesting culture, I think I've added one heckuva broad ring, not to mention a few pounds!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Gandhi, Fresh Gilt, and Blue Sky Days

Just as in the states, the last month or so of the school year is filled with many extra events. Coming up is a Youth Day celebration in the park on Sunday, the 29th (though the actual holiday is on the 1st) and the painting of our peace mural, which has been designed and located (a wall at the school's entrance), but not painted. There are doubtless other events I'll be told about, too. This past Saturday, the National Monologue Contest took place in Oradea and I was asked to be a judge. Thirty students--county winners (ninth-twelfth grades)from all over the country--came to Oradea for the weekend. The topic this year was "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." (Gandhi) I had judged at the county level, too, and enjoyed it and was glad to be asked for the national level. The other judges, all Romanian, are a terrific bunch of educators who, like so many of their American counterparts, wanted to find ways to honor all the finalists. They looked to me to help come up with titles, so I found myself dictating to the certificate scribe things like "Most Effective Use of Props" and "Most Dramatic Costume," and "Best Singing Voice" (for the one contestant who sang!). I was asked to speak for the judges at the awards ceremony and was able to make a little pitch for volunteerism, something still looked upon askance in Romania since the communist era's twisted version (mandatory volunteerism!). The entire weekend's program was extremely well organized, and I was delighted that it included a "sneak preview" of the National Theatre (Photos) which has been closed for restoration for the past four years. I was stunned at the richness of the interior. Even while the little nagging thought--but what about the country's roads and rails, for God's sake?--kept popping up in my mind, I admired the gold gilt work, the beautiful upholstery, the modern lighting, the deep stage and lovely box seating, knowing that this, too, is a necessity for the hearts and souls of the people.**** I'm basking in the slowly warming weather. Mornings are still nippy and I haven't packed away the blankets from my bed, but afternoons (Photos) are becoming truly springlike and everyone's spirits are lifted. I've had nodding and brief conversations with villagers on my way home from school. They've come out of the barriers of their walled-in homes and are sociable. Some of the grandmothers are out with little ones who are eager to interact with me. Smiles, waves and blown kisses are always easy to translate. Tonight I've been invited to a cookout and I may not even take a coat!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Welcoming May: Lilacs, Libations, Laughter...and Bumper Cars

My Romanian friend Felicia promised me lilacs from her garden, but I didn't know she meant buckets of them! and many bouquets of lilly-of-the-valley besides! Being the scent-oriented person I am, leading with my nose as it were, these are flowers I especially love (along with the gardenias of my Southland which I hope to catch in June). I had mentioned my eagerness to see lilacs blooming in Romania as I had not seen them since I lived in Utah many years ago. Felicia remembered and yesterday she loaded my arms with all the lilacs I could ever want and many little bouquets of lilly-of-the-valley from her lush beds--a kind of reward for all those months of cold. For it was MAY DAY in Romania and at their garden cottage in the hills above Oradea, Felicia and Horia hosted a fine celebration of all things associated with this day--a salute to laborers (Labor Day in much of Europe), spring and all its fertile promise, and the honoring of the dead (the Orthodox version of the Catholic observance in November). Mostly it was a grand excuse for a party! I've decided that Felicia--brilliant teacher of French and English, reader, traveler, gourmet cook, skilled organizer--is a sort of Romanian Gertrude Stein who seems to gather up interesting friends and acquaintances in the great vortex of her energetic hospitality. She and Horia had just returned from 10 days in Spain but managed to have everything ready and perfect for the gathering on Sunday. Today she had to be back in the classroom! Among their fun-loving and interesting friends--this time there was a couple visiting from Israel. Ami had been the childhood friend of our chef for the day (long-time friend of our hosts) and had moved to Tel Aviv years ago and met Madelaine, both working as nurses in a large hospital there. Once a year they come to Romania to visit his friends and family. Before WWII there was a very large Jewish population in this part of Romania (one third of Oradea), but it decreased dramatically when many were sent to work camps. It's a period of history many Romanians are vague about, saying it's when the Jews left. On a between-course walk, Madelaine and I talked about tolerance, the problems with extremists in all faiths, the need for mutual respect. She's always felt comfortable visiting Romania, she said, thanks to hospitable people like Felicia and Horia. The other guests were many of the regulars--all interesting, educated Romanians with fine senses of humor, and my colleague Connie joined the group this time, too, feeling as lucky as I that English was everyone's common-denominator language.****And speaking of the courses, first: coffee and tuica (brandy) with herb biscuits, then: a spread of many appetizers from homemade bread with zacusa (sweet pepper and eggplant condiment) to all sorts of pickled and fresh vegetables and aged sausages, next: a wonderful soup--a Romanian version of the Hungarian goulash--with chicken, peppers, carrots, onions, and all-important paprika and caraway seeds, cooked outside on the grill, followed by: the must of any gratar--miti, those little all-meat, fresh sausages cooked on the grill, and finally: cozenat (a rolled up, sweet yeast bread), my American cookies (peanut butter) and more coffee and tuica and/or affinata (blueberry liqueur). Throughout the day, arriving guests would present their homemade alcoholic specialty (brandy, red and white wine, liqueur) and sampling was always a polite thing to do, of course****One interesting side note: When we returned to my village at the end of the day, we found the streets around the park and ball field crowded with parked cars. Apparently, for many, the way to celebrate May Day was to climb into a bumper car and slam into someone! A traveling amusement company had set up a small arena and it was a most popular attraction!****May, my birth month and a beautiful one most everywhere in the world, has been well-launched, it seems. And my apartment smells really wonderful.;-)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Different Kind of Spring Break

A young Romanian woman on the train back from Moldavia asked Connie and me if we liked Romania, and before we could answer, she shook her head and said "Disappointing, isn't it?" We had just spent six days seeing the glorious painted monasteries of Moldavia and the old medieval capital town of Suceava, a fine symphony concert and botanic gardens of Iasi. We both leaped to disagree and thought it sad that so many Romanians only see the country's problems and not the riches all around them. But WE certainly enjoyed them, taking our spring holiday on the other side of the country in an ancient area we have wanted to see. Getting there was adventure enough--a long train ride from Oradea to Suceava where we stayed for 3 days and then a bus ride to Iasi for a few more days, and finally a 12-hour train ride back to Oradea. When I bemoaned the fact that we were only going about 350 miles (albeit, over mountains some of the way), Connie pointed out the bright side: slow trains mean photo opportunities. So we lowered the window of our compartment or walked into the hall and lowered one on the other side and took boo-coos of shots. The spring weather was wonderful and we saw the awakening fields and fruit trees, the grazing sheep and horses, and industrious farmers and villagers scroll by.****Being in Suceava this time of year was especially fun because it is the home of the famous Easter eggs of Bocavina. At a craft fair in the town square, earnest vendors sold fine traditional pottery, linens, carved spoons, clothing, and eggs, eggs, eggs! These intricately decorated beauties were being sold for only 5 to 7 lei (about $1.65--$2.30) each. I wanted to buy them all! I settled for 15--all different with symbolic traditional markings. Of further interest in the town was a well-preserved-and-maintained village museum where we saw traditional dances along with authentic buildings and tools from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And then we had to see the medieval fortress, lovingly restored in places, presiding majestically over the city, just as Steven the Great (Stefan Cel Mare who fought off the Turkish invaders) would have wanted.**** The next day we and our interesting fellow hostel guests (a Japanese fellow living in Spain, an Indonesian teacher living in France, a Canadian, two Americans and one Romanian) set out for the tour of the painted monasteries. We only had time for the four most impressive ones, which was enough to absorb, I can tell you. What makes these 15th and 16th century churches so special is that the colors of the frescoes on the exteriors of the buildings have remained vivid and stunning all these centuries. The explanation has to do with the composition of the dyes, of course--all from minerals. The sun doesn't bleach out rocks, so the south sides of the churches are still rich and bright. Driving winds and rain, however, erode the dyes, so the north side paintings are all but washed away. The much-beloved bright blue of the Veronet church, for instance, is made of ground lapis lazuli. The paintings, depicting Bible stories but also the fall of Constantinople, the ancient Greek philosophers, a lengthy poem, and local saints and heroes were intended to educate and instruct the illiterate of the day. Could the artists have possibly guessed how long people would be standing and staring at their artwork?****Our stay in Iasi, a city of 338,000 near the border of the Republic of Moldova, was brief, but we got to attend the symphony (Handel's Messiah)and see the country's oldest public university, a few impressive churches, and many monuments honoring their favorite son, the nationally beloved poet Mihai Emanescu. We also spent a splendid afternoon in the botanic garden and the adjoining beer garden. ;-) All in all, the Romania we encountered in this spring-time get-away did not disappoint in the least!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

And Trees in White Stockings

It's spring. Quick! Paint the trees! Everywhere--tree trunks are freshly whitewashed. I (and apparently many others, according to a web search) question the practice. Answers and theories vary widely--many I had already heard from Romanians I asked. Top of the list is that the wash is an insecticide, that it prevents crawling critters from reaching the leaves and fruit to do their damage. Next in popularity is that it protects the bark from "scalding" from the sun, followed by weather-fluctuation protection--bark being damaged by the quick change from freezing temps at night to the daytime warmth of spring sun. But I like the unguarded, honest answer someone let slip out--it just looks neat and tidy, like the trees are cleaned up and fresh. And not just the trees either; notice the concrete communist-era utility poles with their fresh stockings. I really doubt the insects will bother them, right? They just look cleaner. This seems fitting for a country fairly obsessed with cleanliness in their homes and yards and in their personal hygiene. And I have to say that this cleanliness isn't easy here in a country where dish washers and clothes dryers are virtually non-existent, where owning a washing machine is still quite a luxury, where hot water is an iffy prospect, where water pressure is often at the dribble level, and where detergents, shampoo, and deodorant are (relatively) expensive. Recently a fellow PCV wrote this in answer to using her apartment when we visit her city, "the kitchen sink plugs easily and often.... shake the hose under the sink...but know the hose will come out of the wall... it is just resting hold it while you shake...[***] the shower.... you may or may NOT have hot water...some days NO water at all... but saying that you do... the leatherman by the sink turns on the shower water... pull hard .....and know the shower hose leaks and sprays everywhere until you have your hand over the leaks... it is a messy deal taking a shower.... my hygiene has taken a nose dive... here is to your having hot water.." I'm lucky. My apartment always has water, usually hot water, too, if I wait long enough and don't mind dealing with a trickle, and my plumbing is fairly new and in decent shape. I was able to find an expandable rod to install over the tub for a plastic curtain. Romanians don't use shower curtains, managing the hand-held hose with a technique I'd really love to witness. Still, for many Romanians keeping body, clothes and home clean is a major accomplishment and they do it very well. The women take housekeeping seriously and spend inordinate amounts of time making sure the floors and bathrooms--in particular--are clean. No one wears shoes in the home, and slippers are often provided for guests. (If I were an entrepreneur in Romania, I'd start a charming line of guests' slippers in all sizes and styles, washable and snuggly.) Effective cleaning products here are all but canonized, spoken about in reverent whispers--no kidding! So, I salute the clean Romanians and marvel at their resolve. If Cleanliness-is-Next-to-Godliness, then they certainly have a nod from our Maker. Unfortunately, these good habits have not ventured out to where litter abounds at road sides and fields. But then, the white-stockinged trees preside there, giving perhaps a little inspiration.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bunnies, Anthems, and Cold April Showers

Though Easter is twelve days away, it and Earth Day (22nd) are my focus in lessons this week since our spring/Easter break starts after this Friday. So I'm a veritable cornucopia of Easter vocabulary, Easter Bingo, and Easter cookies this week. And I try to have Easter "conversation" at the end of each class where I ask about Romanian traditions and tell about American ones. Both cultures have the decorated eggs (theirs are amazingly intricate and beautiful) and both have the Easter bunny. I thought they were making a joke when I asked what they eat that's special at Easter and they said "Rabbit!" "Oh, no!" I said with mock horror, "You eat the Easter Bunny?!" They assured me yes, but I'll have to find out if it's true. Lamb is eaten, I know, and in rural settings a lamb is killed with a measure of celebration just as the pig was killed at Christmas. My PCV friend Connie and I will be in the northeastern side of the country next week--the area which was once Moldova--to see in particular the famous "painted monasteries." These small Byzantine churches were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, some serving as fortresses against invaders. Their exteriors are painted with vivid religious scenes, an attempt to educate the illiterate masses about Christianity. It seems an appropriate Easter destination. I'm sure I'll have some colorful photos for my next post.*****As for Earth Day, our school's multi-talented documentarian is planning a video shoot this week of our students running through a field, doing chalk drawings on the school's playground, forming a human peace symbol. Saturday I made wreaths of flowers (silk) for the girls to wear in their hair. We've already recorded children singing the anthem, an original tune by the music teacher--in Romanian and in English with my lyrics, based on a loose translation of the original. It was quite an challenge to write the rhyming, perfectly-metered lines for 3 stanzas and a chorus, keeping the general gist of the original. We're planning to put the finished product on YouTube, so I'll give you the link when that happens.*****Alas, the few days of sun last week are history. I caught some lovely sunsets, but now we are in a solid week of rain with temps in the mid 30's at night and the low 50's in the day. It's supposed to clear by Saturday, which will be wonderful because it's the christening day (or blessing day) of baby Elijah, the son of the foster parents at the Roma boys school where I volunteer tutoring. It will be at the small Baptist Church in our village and I've been invited to attend. Let the sun shine in!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hands (Music, Friendship) Around the World

Well, I think it's safe to say Spring has arrived even though days are still a bit chilly for me, but there is SUNSHINE and some fresh new green popping out everywhere. Yesterday I had the good fortune to be invited to a garden gratar (cook out). My friend Felicia, a high school English and French teacher in Oradea, invited me to join her and her husband and assorted long-time friends at their summer cottage in the hills overlooking the city. The cottage and garden have been in her family for generations--through communist requisition and restoration--and is surrounded by similar holdings though newcomers are erecting some two-story large homes that she and her friends regret. There is still a rural feel to the area and yesterday, the first visit of the season, everyone seemed to be in a holiday spirit. Food and drink (as at all Romanian gatherings) were abundant. The husband of one of Felicia's best friends was the chef and presided over the grill with impressive--and jovial--mastery. A couple from Italy also joined us and we were quite the international group--talk sliding from Romanian to English to Italian. Most spoke English--lucky for me (though I'm understanding a little more of what I hear now) and another English teacher whom I had met last week at the speech contest joined us, to my delight. Between courses (yes, courses!) the women took a walk while the men cooked and we visited another gathering of long-time friends at a neighboring cottage. I call a day a golden success when I've spent hours in the sunshine, had my hand kissed numerous times, been cooked for and presented flowers. It was definitely a "Life is Good" kind of day. I noted to my friend and she agreed that Romanians--even those who live in the city as she and her husband do--seem to maintain a connection to the soil. Everywhere I see garden work beginning, even if it's a tiny plot in the front yard. Spring means delving into the soil and planting something, an exercise of hope they've learned to count on. **** I must tell you about another international experience. Thursday night I went to the Oradea Symphony concert. I've mentioned them before--a wonderful group of musicians who perform weekly. I rarely can manage to get into the city on Thursday nights, but I was determined this time. The concert was the third and last of a collaboration with musicians (orchestral and choral) from Japan. It was fabulous! The very distinguished Japanese conductor spoke to the audience in English at the start of the program, asking for a moment of silence for those who were suffering in his country. It was very moving. The program was all Mozart and Handel and at one point during the "fragments" of the Messiah, I thought to myself how surreal to be sitting in a concert hall in Romania, listening to the music of a German composer, performed by Japanese and Romanian musicians and sung in English! The encore was the Hallelujah chorus. Indeed! ***** And I should also mention the "World Peace is in Our Hands" display that my students and I put together at school--everyone had a "hand" in it, so to speak (the feathers are fingers) and I was satisfied with the results, an attempt to prime their thinking as we design a peace mural for the school's entrance. Peace to you, dear readers, in this beautiful primavara.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


I love that word--seen often here on everything from store signs to bags of sweets. It has to be something borrowed and refashioned from English. In Romanian it would be amestecat--mixed. But mixt (meekst) just sounds saucier, doesn't it? Anyway, mixt blessings, mixt reactions, mixt bag. This is my blog entry today--mixt. ***** It's been a good week overall. My session with the Roma boys (that always sounds like a gospel singing group) was terrific on Monday. We concentrated on body parts and after the flash cards and pointing, I asked for a volunteer and handed out little post-it notes with "elbow," "knee," "ear," "hand," "nose," etc. on them to all the others. They had to come up one at a time and stick the note to the proper place on the vol's body. The volunteer--Cristi--wants to be a teacher and loves to be in front of the group. He was quite a sight covered in little yellow notes and loved hamming it up! The director took a picture and promised to send it to me, but I don't have it to show you yet. We also sang and acted the ever-popular "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" song, which I was afraid might be too young for them, but they loved it, especially as we went faster and faster. The boys seem to be learning quite well and remember alot from week to week. I'm going to tackle grammar with them tomorrow--present progressive/continuous. After the weeks of mostly songs and vocabulary, they may balk. ***** There was tension in the air last week at school as the county education inspectors visited classrooms and evaluated teachers. I was not part of their evaluation and just smiled and looked American as they tromped through the media center where I was teaching. **** I introduced the Peace wall mural design competition last week and hope we get a few good concepts turned in this week. We PCVs (several anyway) are doing this all over Romania as a salute to the 20 years in Romania, 50 in the world celebration. Our wall will be right at the front entrance to the school, so it better look decent.(!) Of course, I have a hunch that it might get painted over as soon as I'm on a plane back to the states, but for now they are humoring me and the documentarian, a fine artist, is on board to help with making the design work on a large scale. More later on this. **** Wednesday I was in Oradea for the day at the Main Library, judging speeches in English given by 5th-12th grade students. The 30+ kids did a great job, but what I really enjoyed was hearing them speak about such hopeful and uplifting topics, having to do with volunteerism, serving others, etc. Since the communist era these have not been easy values for Romanians to embrace. The younger generation, however, never having experienced the oppression, seems to have a more positive mindset. I found the experience very encouraging and enjoyed meeting other English teachers, especially the 4'10" dynamo who organizes the event each year--a very gracious, intelligent and highly organized person who is also the only Jew I've met here. (Oradea lost 1/3 of its population--Jews--during WWII when they were sent to work camps and never returned.)*** Friday afternoon the "English Club" of eighth graders who want more practice with speaking English had a good meeting. They come to my place, drink Cokes, eat popcorn and cookies, listen to American music from my iPod and speakers, and we play vocabulary games, debate issues, respond to quotes, whatever will get them talking. **** This morning I attended church service at the largest Baptist Church in Romania and the 2nd largest in Europe (Emanuel). The foster parents at the Roma home where I volunteer took me. Wonderful (all male) choir complete with a brass section. I had headphones with English translation of the service. The beautiful round interior with natural light and plants made me think of my UU church in Athens--only about 10 times bigger! It was quite an experience. I sat with visitors from Korea and the UK. Here in a country where 87% are Orthodox, the Baptists are considered the liberal, progressive religion. **** And the week held some down moments, too, part of the mixt package. It's always true that we alone are ultimately responsible for our own happiness--but it seems that when you're thousands of miles from home, speak little of the local language, have a host of expectations placed on you, and are not even sure what you're doing is really needed that the "alone" part of that gets pretty heavy, and as one PCV friend put it, it's enough just to keep from going crazy. And that's why God gave us chocolate, Vivaldi, poetry, Kindles, and a little Transylvanian white wine.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

At Any Moment Now

I'm finally finding a little pocket of time for my blog writing and am feeling some of you may have wondered where I was. I don't know who reads my entries but since Christmas I've watched my "stats" and know that I am about to reach 5,000 hits--probably with this piece. It seems a sort of milestone. I find this amazing, to be honest, and though I know some bloggers have much greater audiences, this reception far exceeds my original thought of letting the "folks back home" know what I'm up to. I'm gratified, too, to think that I'm addressing the Peace Corps' third goal (helping Americans understand the host country better)AND the second goal (helping the host country understand Americans better) since most of my readers are in America and Romania. Many of my American friends have indicated a new awareness of and appreciation for this complex and beautiful country. So here I am back "home" after a short, sweet rendezvous with Lee in Barcelona, and it DOES feel like home--even if it's a rainy, chilly home that seems very resistant to springing into spring. Barcelona weather wasn't terribly different the few days I was there though we had two and a half glorious days of sun, and with the sea, the food, and the architecture and art, it was a happy venue as a get-away with my hubby. I won't elaborate on the city--that's not what my blog is about-- but I'll give some links to my photos (with comments) of the streets and seaside, the cathedral of the Sagrada Familia, and the amazing Casa Bolla, my favorite Gaudi building.****Back here in my village, I'm feeling a bit energized by the longer days, even when they're rainy, and with highs in the 40's and low 50's, I've put away my heavy coat and wear only my all-weather coat. Some of the layering is gone, too. No more long undies. So I'm feeling I'm gradually crawling out of my winter cocoon and want desperately to be able to stretch these wings in warm air. The celebration of Women's Day on the 8th was lovely, by the way, with gifts of flowers, plants, candy, bath products, and glass ware from my students...even some of the adult ones. So my apartment is blooming with pretty plants, which I had to ask the ten-year-old downstairs to water for me while I was gone. I have a score of things on my to-do list; the projects I thought were hopelessly detoured seem to be back on track and demanding some attention. We have another PC report to file in a few days and I've resumed my language lessons on a steady schedule. I'm not only tutoring the Roma boys at the foster home, but have started an English Club for ambitious 8th graders, and am visiting weekly some neighborhood children who attend school in the city but would like some time with me, too. My adult class also meets every Wednesday night. Beyond these activities and my regular classes, I have to cook (no restaurants nor fast food in my village), wash and hang clothes, buy groceries, and keep my apartment reasonably clean. Sometimes when I get up feeling tired and think Oh, fiddly-dee, it's the age thing, I consider all I'm doing (plus walking 4 kilometers a day) and think this could make anyone tired. But, of course, when things are going well, it's a very good tired. When they're not, well, I KNOW spring is any moment now, and I know a warm breeze will be tinkling the Gaudi wind chimes I just bought. I know I'll be visiting family and friends in June. Sometimes just knowing is enough.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

So Let the Sunshine In--Please!

It's been a difficult week. Many disappointments--projects taking unexpected detours, poor attendance in my adult class and in the English Club for my 8th grade students and cancellation of my Roma boys' session, a travel agent standing me up, an expired bank card, my brother canceling his trip to visit me (for good reasons, albeit), technology problems, and many of the little daily irritations that seem to accumulate into ball-and-chain hindrances. And to top it off, the weather was just awful--dreary gray and cold, fog or mist or snow in the mornings, mud and overcast skies in the afternoons. We've had so little sun here in the past few months. I've become fairly neurotic about my sun hunger. If there is a ray peeking through and I'm home, I'll grab my sunglasses and peel off as much as I can get away with without neighborhood scandal and sit on the end of my desk at the big window there. I pretend I'm a solar cell and imagine the light seeping into my bones where it will store. I wrote a poem about a fire eater this week, I read travel guides on Spain, and I taught my students two sunshine songs! Yes, I know it sounds desperate, but somehow singing about sunshine seemed to create the illusion. So I mugged, mimed, and otherwise entertained as I sang "Let the sunshine in, face it with a grin," and "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine." Interestingly, they had a difficult time saying "sunshine," which is surprising since the "sh" sound is so prevalent in their language. Anyway, they seemed to enjoy it and paid polite though clueless attention when I tried to explain Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Just get on with the singing, Doamna).****But as with most of my weeks here, this one was not without a few positives--we celebrated the Peace Corps' 50th Anniversary and Peace Corps Romania's 20th. Balloons, banners, M&Ms, and some short videos of Kennedy's original announcement were part of my lessons this week. It was good to hear the original goals again. And Tuesday, March 1st, was also Martisor--a celebration welcoming spring--on which day lovely little trinkets tied with red and white threads are given to girls and women. As with all Romanian holidays and tradtions, much lore and symbolism accompanies the custom--in particular, the woven red and white threads signify the joining of man, wisdom, winter (white) to woman, passion, spring (red) and the various flowers, spirals, icons, and figures (one is a chimney sweep!) have long-held importance in honoring spring. These "martisoare" are supposed to be worn every day from the first to the eighth when women are honored in Romania's version of Mothers' Day (Ziua Mamei), which is International Woman's Day in much of the world. I've heard it's a big deal here and noticed the flower shops stocking up. I'm curious to see how it's celebrated this Tuesday, but mostly I'm just hoping for sunny weather, which, like spring, is promised.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Generosity in Timisoara

With unaccustomed accuracy, the meteorologist got it right last weekend. Timisoara was as rainy and cold as predicted. As antidote to the weather, however, my PCV colleague Connie and I experienced many "sunny" moments of extreme generosity and kindness during our visit. To begin with, we were given a comfortable apartment to stay in and were chauffeured about the city by a sociable young Romanian couple who spoke excellent English. Adi, a computer technician and the son of some of Connie's good friends at her site, and Mirela, his dentist girlfriend, helped us make the best of a short visit to a beautiful city that can only be described as stunning. The amazing variety in the architecture of the secessionist buildings--all unique, colorful, often whimsical--and the sheer size of many of the mansions and cathedrals kept us in awe. The city is grandly laid out with stately squares and small residential parks. It was the first city in Europe to light its streets with electricity, and the large elaborate street lamps in the main square (though only old in appearance) attest to the pride in this fact.****Another point of pride is that Timisoara is where the 1989 revolution against Ceausescu and the communist regime began. What seemed a spontaneous protest by thousands of the citizens had been building and organizing for some time. Their courage was immense as they faced the tanks and guns, and many lost their lives or were badly injured. One such man who walks with a cane due to having taken two bullets in his leg is the curator/proprietor of the Revolutionary Museum. He, too, showed us uncommon kindness as he patiently took us through two levels of rooms surrounding a courtyard, which also housed exhibits, and explained the significance of the pieces. Sculptures, carvings and paintings that depicted the events of the revolution showed both artistry and reverence for the sacrifices and bravery of the people. The curator had a soft-spoken dignity and humility, and it seemed to me HE was the greatest feature of the museum. He seated us in a small theater to watch a video about the revolution and then disappeared to return with a tray holding two cups of herbal tea. I've certainly never been served tea in a museum before and we found it especially nice on a cold, wet day. It was his birthday, he admitted at the end of our tour, and we were invited into his living quarters briefly where we were given more information in pamphlets as we said our goodbyes. I will no doubt forget the murals, the bell of freedom and other tributes in the museum, but I'll never forget this man. Connie captured his back in this photo. He didn't want to be photographed because he said the museum wasn't about him. Oh, but it was, dear fellow,it was. ***In the art museum the day before Connie and I were impressed with the quality of the three floors of exhibits, and we were also impressed--as we have been in Sibiu and Brasov--with how few people visit these excellent museums. Connie was taken by an extensive exhibit of photographs and paintings of the work of a female Romanian architect, but I gravitated to the second floor where a painter's water colors--some whimsical depictions of people, animals and flowers, some bold abstracts--were exhibited along with glass cases holding books of poetry. It took me a minute to realize that this was not just the illustrator but also the poet, herself. I spoke to the hovering docent (in my baby-talk Romanian) who looked rather lonely and she gave me more information than I could possibly fathom, but no matter--I loved this woman's work. Later, as we were leaving the museum after a quick foray into dark Renaissance paintings on the third floor, a docent came running after me and told me to wait. (I thought I must have committed some terrible breach of museum etiquette.) To my surprise, the docent from the poet exhibit rushed out with a beautiful book of the artist's paintings AND on every facing page were her poems in Romanian, English, and French. It was a very fine, museum-quality book and I admired it and asked where I could buy one. "Nu, nu," they both said and made it clear to me that it was a gift. I was flabbergasted and sputtered my thanks and gave them double-kisses. So our weekend may have been soggy and chilly and the bus ride back long and dark, ending in snow, but we sure received some wonderful kindness and generosity to warm our memories of Timisoara.