In Romania, it is now:

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.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Of Gypsies, Travel, and Peanut Butter Sandwiches

No, I'm not going to try to speak knowledgeably about the Gypsy/Roma population of Romania, their treatment and management an unsolved dilemma for centuries, except to say that in every underclass there are scalawags and saints, those who wallow and those who strive, and mercifully there are those on the outside who seek to help. I have become involved with such a group, Children of the Son Ministry, who is funded by a US NGO (New Life for Children), various churches (particularly in North Carolina, home state of the founder), and by private citizens. This group works to place orphaned or abandoned Roma children in foster homes and aids in adoption proceedings. They operate preschool programs for five-to seven-year-olds, and after-school programs for 1st to 3rd graders. And, important to me, they have a home for Roma boys, high school students, here in my village. I have begun going there every Monday afternoon to give a tutorial class in English to the six who are now in residence. These are young men who want to finish high school (a rarity, unfortunately) and benefit from the care and attention of the foster parents and staff in this home. They spend the week in the home, attending school in Oradea, and then return to their families in their villages for the weekend. They are terrific kids--eager, funny, responsive. Working with them was the highlight of my week and I look forward to our next session. They got far behind in their English studies while in elementary school, missing more days than attending, a common problem with Roma students, and now are trying to catch up since passing English is mandatory for graduation. The "parents" are a wonderful Romanian couple who have love and discipline to share. The house, built of wood (unusual for this area) from American donations, is cheery, clean, well-organized, and always smells of something delicious from the kitchen. I'm glad to be a part of the team to help these guys reach for a better life. **** On a lighter note, I had fun Wednesday night introducing--in the cultural segment of the adult class period--PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICHES! Believe it or not, these adults had never tasted them and dutifully, if not eagerly, took one of the quarters I passed around. These were made with crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jam. Grape jelly doesn't exist here because, they explained, grapes are used for wine! Duh! Americans' love of peanut butter is almost a joke here. Romanians like peanuts just fine, but the texture of peanut butter (unt de arihide) doesn't appeal to them in the least. We tried to come up with an equivalent staple in the Romanian household, something to always have on hand to spread on bread, and decided it was zacusca, the wonderful roasted pepper concoction. As one class member said, "Maybe that's why we don't need peanut butter." Good point. *** I'm finally off to Timisoara this weekend. (Read about this interesting city here.) Weather and conflicting interests of my companions kept us from going a few weeks ago. The forecast is not so great for this weekend, but we have the offer of a friend's empty apartment and a tour of the city by two very nice Romanian young people, so Connie and I are taking a bus this afternoon and will arrive there four hours later in the evening. Right now the sun is shining and I'm hoping the forecast is off. Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My "Heart Attack"

Walking into the office of my friend the Documentarian (media specialist) this afternoon, I threw up my hands and laughed, "I used to love Valentine's Day!" I'm valentined to bits, I'm up-to-here with paper, scissors, glue, and glitter, I'm over-glazed with cookie hearts and sprinkles. In short, I've had a *heart attack*!! And it's only February 10th! But I wanted all my students to know the legend of St. Valentine (16 class periods of that) and make valentines and have a cookie, so I had to do it this week. It's funny how we take our customs so for granted until we try to help others understand and appreciate them. Actually, the Romanians have their own celebration of love in February, on the 24th. It's called Dragobete after their version of Cupid, god of love. It's an ancient holiday that apparently was all but ignored during the communist era, but is making quite a comeback now as a reaction to the increasing interest in Valentine's Day. Dragobete is related to nature more than our holiday. Supposedly, February 24th is when the birds choose their mates for the spring nest-building and reproducing. In ancient times the young people of the village would go into the forests and fields to find the first snow-drops or violets or any sign of spring. There they were encouraged to make promises of betrothals on that day to insure the protection of the gods. If snow was on the ground, the maidens collected it and melted it. The water was believed to have magical powers and was used in love potions and to wash their hair to make them especially appealing to the young men. If a woman wanted to be loving and alluring all year, she was supposed to touch a man from another village on that day. (Where? one wonders) To determine who would be the dominant partner, a couple took part in a "foot-upon-foot" maneuver. Today the holiday seems very much like our Valentine's Day though less commercial, and the cards I've located online are all nature-centered with the earliest tiny flowers and matrimonial birdies--all very sweet and delicate. So my introduction of our silly little valentines ("Bee Mine" with a buzzing bee and tulips, "You're a dear" with a doe holding a valentine, "Whale You Be Mine?" with a whale spouting valentines) took a bit of explaining. "Gluma (joke)," I would say, "It's a joke, see?" A few would get it, but cross-culture puns are hard. The highlight of my three-day marathon was when I told one class as they were finishing up that now they had pretty "felicitare" (cards) to give to someone they loved. One by one they each brought me one of their cards, complete with hugs and double-kisses. Well, maybe I do still like this holiday after all.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Winter Layering

I live in a crystalline world--frigid and brittle. Snow and ice in frozen layers on stem, twig and fence post. I have the feeling that if I poke my head out the window and scream, everything would shatter and fall tinkling into a mound of glitter. **** These are the days of layers: underwear, silk longjohns, turtle neck sweater, pants, cardigan, coat, scarf, hood over hat, mittens over gloves, boots over multiple socks. And in my mind, too, concerns build up in layers: family, friends, students, colleagues, PC forms, PC projects, PC goals, health, travel. Somewhere under it all I breathe and the essential me (love, laughter, music, poetry) taps out a cardiac rhythm on that old bongo drum, and I abide. **** A few more weeks into this month in Portugal and Spain and France, the air will be unexpectedly filled with fragrance. The mimosa's little yellow globes will bloom. "Winter Sun" it's called and there are festivals to honor it. I learned about this because I've long loved the bottled fragrance (from L'Occitane), so yesterday, in a little in-your-face to winter and because my husband accidentally packed and took my only bottle of cologne back to the US, I splurged on a bottle with my tutoring reimbursement. So now as a first layer I'll spray on sunshine, blossoms, the fields of Provence. **** Spices! These are also the days of warm spiciness: cinnamon toast, gingerbread (thanks to my son who sent the packages mix!), spice and nut tea bread, sweet potato bread, banana cinnamon muffins, carrot/apple/spice muffins. These are not typical in Romanian cuisine though I've been able to find cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves with little trouble. Ginger is a different story, but I'm sure it can be found, too. My landlady is always surprised when I share something sweet and spicey from carrots or sweet potatoes. I'm sure it seems a strange dessert compared to their frothy confections and flakey pastries. I must learn to make some of these lovely little jam-filled treats, learn the secret of the flakiness, all the layers, layers, layers.