In Romania, it is now:

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.;-)