Monday, November 2, 2009

Back in the land of big cars, frozen foods and green money

So I'm back. I've been here for nearly three weeks now.

After being away for almost two and a half years, I was a bit worried that coming back to the US would be a shocking experience. I wondered what sort of things I'd have to readjust to upon 'reentry.' I wondered if I'd feel out of place. Just as I'd had to adapt to Romanian culture, I thought perhaps my return to the States would require a similar period of adjustment.

My conjectures turned out to be partly true, partly exaggerated. My first day back felt very strange, surreal even. I couldn't believe that after all this time I was back on my native soil. However, as those initial feelings of weirdness dissipated, I wasn't confronted with the sort of sweeping cultural shock that I had vaguely imagined. On the whole, things seem fairly normal. And, there are certainly many things about life in the States that I appreciate more after being away for so long.

Nevertheless, I keep noticing lots of little things here and there that strike me as odd. For example, on the highway from New York to Connecticut, I couldn't help but notice the sheer number of big cars. I mean, it seemed like every other vehicle was a truck or SUV. They say things are big in America, but only now do I see how true this is. When I got home, I was astonished at the size of our kitchen refrigerator. 'Good God,' I thought, 'I could probably fit four medium-sized adults in there and still have room for a casserole!' Things here are just big. Period. Even tubes of toothpaste are huge! Although, there is at least one item that's decidedly smaller around these parts: the common beer bottle.

I've also had issues with the money. First off, the bills just look plain weird. After not seeing greenbacks for such a long time, their shape seems odd to me now, as does their green color. Secondly, I've been struggling with the idea that 4 quarters equal one dollar (despite the fact that they're called 'quarters,' which should be an immediate tip-off). Their size and weight remind me of Romanian 50 Bani pieces, or 50 Euro-cent pieces. Thus, I automatically assume that 2 quarters equal 100 cents. At the JFK airport I wanted to use a payphone to call my parents and let them know I'd landed (cost: $1.00, clearly marked on the front of the payphone). I put in two quarters and attempted to make the call. Of course, the machine wouldn't put the call through, but I sat there for a good ten minutes trying and trying again, scratching my head after each failed attempt.

Another thing is transportation. In Europe I got quite used to being able to ride my bike or walk just about anywhere in town. However, here the towns tend to be much more spread out and walking/biking is not always easy, safe or practical. I'm finding this point a bit difficult to adjust to. I've promised myself to ride a bicycle as much as possible (and one of my first activities upon coming home was to get my old bike back into working order). Although, having said this, I have to admit that being able to drive again is pretty liberating.

Other things of note:
--I've returned to find the country in the throes of controversy over a public health care system, a controversy that seems silly to me.
--For many Americans, the DMV is a source of dread. The long lines and disgruntled employees are to be avoided at all costs. However, I have to say that my most recent trip to the DMV to register my truck was a walk in the park compared to many of my service experiences in Romania.
--Everyone has an iPhone and they're all twittling and tweeting about websites, movies, tv shows, music and all sorts of other stuff that I've been missing out on.
--It's strange to have access to dishwashers and microwaves. At one point my mother walked into the kitchen to find me washing some dishes by hand. She said to me, 'Michael we have a dishwasher, you know.' The thought hadn't even crossed my mind.
--A few things have changed here and there, but most everything seems to have stayed the same. Even still my perception has changed, and I'm looking at everything with new eyes. There are many familiar old places or things that seem somehow unfamiliar to me now, and even my home doesn't completely feel like my home anymore.

All in all, it's good to be back. I'm living with mom and dad for the time being. I'm currently pretty busy helping them finish a new addition off the back of the house. I've also been spending a lot of time reconnecting with family and friends. My first meal after the return flight was good ol' Pepe's pizza, but I still have a long list of specialty foods that I'm craving. I'm looking forward to this Thanksgiving moreso than ever before. Mmmm, pumkin cheesecake!

So, what's my next step? The simple answer is I have no idea whatsoever. I'm hoping to find a job somewhere, doing something. But as far as specific plans go, I haven't got any ideas yet. However, I'm sure it'll all come together. In fact, this stage is pretty exciting. I'm not really tied down anywhere, and nearly anything is possible. It's like a new beginning!

So my journey has ended; my time as a Peace Corps volunteer is now behind me. As such, I bring this blog to a close. Time to start the next chapter...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Drumul in continuare...

At this point I'm almost home! I'm currently in Dublin, where I'll stay until my flight to JFK on Wednesday.

Since my last update a lot has happened. Here are some highlights:

-Bremen with my friend Ioana and her gang of housemates. I stayed there for about 10 days, and ate more bratwurst. I also caught some performances of an international theater festival that was going on at the time. In addition, I managed to fix one of the many non-functioning bikes in the backyard and went for some rides through the countryside outside of Bremen. There were also walks through the city center, and a visit to the science museum, called Universum. From Bremen I also made side trips to other places, like Hamburg, or the North Sea.

-Amsterdam, where I stayed with two couchsurfing hosts. There I also got around by bike, and it seems the rest of the city does as well (I experienced bicycle traffic for the first time). I spent a lot of time getting lost, but eventually managed to get a map and find my way around (the concentric design of the city literally threw me for a loop). Of course, I checked out some of the red-light district; it's everything they say it is. And, I also got a bagel at Gary's Deli, spent some time strolling through Vondel park and missed my bus to Paris. So, I ended up staying in Amsterdam an extra day, which afforded me some time to check out the van Gogh museum.

-Paris was awesome! I stayed with a friend and former PC colleague. She just moved into her apartment, and the only pieces of 'furniture' she had were a bed and a coffee maker. While there, I was stunned by the city's size and grandeur. There's just so much to see and do, and it's all so classy. I experienced many a fine meal, lots of great wine, good bread and, of course, croissants. On top of that, the deserts were simply out of this world (the best tarte tatin ever). Of course I went to the Louvre, which was great, but a little overwhelming. I have to say, I actually preferred the Musee d'Orsay (I easily spent 4.5 hours there). I walked along the Champs Elysees, went to the Eiffel Tower, took in the sights at the Tuileries garden, visited Notre Dame, and explored the Monmartre district. I spent my last night in Paris at a house party before taking the train to London the next day.

-More house parties in London. In fact, one was going on when I arrived at my hosts' place in East London (there was homemade cheesecake and a banjo and flute duet, might I add). One of my hosts also took me a lovely autumn bike ride along the canals of East London, past Victoria Park and right out of town to Epping forest. On the way I caught a glimpse of the construction site for the 2012 Olympics. We stopped along the way at a canal-side pub for a few pints of Fuller's.

-Ireland. I decided to hitchhike from London, which was both a good and a bad choice. It all started one gloomy morning in London. The skies were ominously grey, and the rain was drizzling lightly. Nevertheless, the weather seemed like it might clear up, so I held out hope for the best and boarded a train to High Wycombe (the town from which I planned to hitch north).

When I got to Wycombe, I had to walk across town and trek up a huge hill until I got to the junction with the main motorway. Luckily the rain seemed to be holding off, and though the skies were still grey, it seemed that perhaps the clouds would burn off fairly soon. I plopped down my bags on the side of the road, took out my sign (which read: "North (Ireland)") and stood there with a pleasant smile on my face, feeling lucky. However, my luck was soon to change. No more than five minutes passed before the torrential rains started, and they didn't let up for the rest of the time. Needless to say, I got soaked. I stood there for nearly two hours before a truck stopped. The driver was a Polish fellow named Tomek. He said he was going to 'Beer-meeng-haam,' with a short stop in 'Kes-ham.' Because of his thick accent, it took me a moment to realize that 'Beer-meeng-haam' was in fact Birmingham, which was on my way. I climbed in, happy to get out of the rain.

I later found out that 'Kes-ham,' where he had to make a quick delivery, was the small hamlet of Chesham. He showed me his delivery papers, where I saw the address written out. It was only 24km out of the way, so I didn't mind. However, what he promised to be a short side trip tunred out to be a 3.5 hour ordeal.

First of all, Tomek's GPS unit directed him down little country roads that were barely wide enough for his giant truck, let alone on-coming traffic. It was one of those situations where once you start down the road, there's no turning back (litterally, because there was no place where he could turn the rig around). For most of the way the roads were lined with tall, thick hedges on either side. In fact, the hedges were so close to the edge of the road that there wasn't any room to pull off to the sides. So, when on-coming cars came along we had to stop, reverse a bit and let them squeeze past, which made for slow going. We weren't the only ones having problems, however. At one point we encountered a roadblock caused by a box truck and a garbage truck that had gotten stuck as one tried to pass the other. Apparently the box truck had tried to go around the garbage truck, driving up onto the small dirt embankment. But the embankment was a bit too steep, and the truck tipped over enough to bump into the garbage truck's trailer. There was nothing to do but stop, get out and try to help seperate the two trucks (meanwhile the traffic was piling up). Eventually we got them apart and we were on our way.

With our luck we got into the town of Chesham and of course got hopelessly lost amidst the tangle of narrow streets and one-way roads. At one point I had Tomek stop, and I got out with the delivery papers to ask for directions to the address. The man at the shop drew me a map, which I used to give Tomek directions (using hand gestures because he didn't really understand English). It took a while, but we got to the delivery point. On our way out we ended up getting lost again in a residential area where we had no choice but to turn around, an impossible feat. In the process we hit a parked car, tore up someone's lawn, completely ran over a street sign and nearly took out a lamp post, all to the complete shock and disgust of the on-looking locals. After about 20 minutes of swearing and cursing in Polish, Tomek finally manged to weasle his way out and we were back on the motorway.

Unfortunately, because our little side trip had taken so much time, Tomek wasn't able to make it to Birmingham that day. He had to stop in Oxford, where he dropped me off at the highway service station. I hung out in the trucker's lot, holding up my sign hoping that someone was going my way. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be anyone heading North on the M40, or at least no one that was willing to take a passenger. Then, finally, I found a Czech trucker who said he was going do Dublin. The catch was that he was leaving at midnight, and the time at that point was only 4:30 pm. I said I'd look elsewhere to see if I could get a ride a bit sooner.

So, I stood at the exit of the gas station, holding out my sign. It was like most people didn't see me, or didn't want to look at me. A few kind souls stopped to inquire, but it turned out they weren't going my way. Eventually, an Irish lad pulled up. He seemed rather excited that I was going to Ireland, and said he'd be happy to drive me to Dublin. He kept saying it was my lucky day. But he really meant it was his lucky day. Long story short, he swindled me out of 70 pounds, took me for a ride to his home in a nearby trailer park and almost got me in a fight with a gang of his mates. Luckily, I got out of that situation and walked back to the service station. I was glad that at least they didn't hurt me or steal any of my belongings.

Back at the service station, I kept waiting and waiting for a ride. By about 6:30 it was getting dark, and I figured my chances of getting a ride were pretty much nill. So, I resigned to the idea of forcing myself to stay awake until midnight and go with that Czech driver. If for any reason that didn't work, I knew I could always stay at the nearby Day's Inn for the night.

So, the plan at that point was just to wait (the driver was sleeping, so I didn't want to disturb him). I went into the service station to use the facilities, got a coffee and some KFC, and looked at my road atlas to kill the time. I went back out at midnight, and luckily the truck was still there, shades drawn. I waited about 15 minutes for the driver to wake up. He saw me waiting in front of his truck and immediately recognized me from earlier.

His name was something I couldn't for the life of me manage to pronounce, something that sounded like Gus (so I'll just call him that). Like, Tomek, he didn't speak a lick of English. But, unlike Tomek (who didn't shut up the whole time I rode with him), Gus was extremely quiet. I tried to start up a conversations a few times, but they never went anywhere. So, I had a very quiet ride to through Wales to the port at Holyhead where we were to catch the ferry. We got there by 6:00, and becuase I came in on a truck, the guards thought I was a trucker. So, I got free passage on the ferry, as well as a cabin with bed, a free breakfast and access to the trucker's lounge. It was beyond my wildest dreams! The ferry ride was over 3 hours long, most of which I slept through. Once we got to Dublin, we got off the ferry and Gus dropped me off somewhere on the highway a bit outside Dublin. Just as you might expect, it was raining cats and dogs. From there I asked around how to get to the city center, found a tram and took it into town.

So, all in all I got from London to Dublin for virtually no money (if you don't count the 70 quid I lost...which I'd rather not count as a travel expense). I hadn't ever expected to get a ride staight to Dublin; I was originally planning to get a ride to Wales and just stay there for a day ro two. But, I was lucky enough to get a ride straight through, so I took it. Since I'd arrived in Dublin a day earlier than I'd planned, I didn't have any accomodations arranged. However, it was easy to find a cheap hostel for the night.

The next day I took a bus to the city of Navan, about an hour north of Dublin, where I stayed with a nice Polish couple. From there, I explored some of the surrounding area. It's incredible how much old stuff there is throughout the area! I went to visit one of the oldest man-made structures in the western hemishpere, the Newgrange megalithic tomb (also known as Bru na Boinne in Gaelic). It's basically a mound of dirt and rocks in a field that has a passageway leading to a burial chamber inside. At over 5,000 years old, the thing is even older than the pyramids of Giza! It's incredible to think that they managed to build the thing with stone blocks taken from over 70km away (some weighing over 5 tons). It took 60 years to build (and back then an average lifespan was about 25 years, so that means it took nearly 3 generations!).

The other day I went for a hike next to the river Boyne. Along the way I saw two castles, an old abbey, a mansion nestled in the woods, and on top of all that, I got absolutely drenched by the torrential downpours. The path somewhat ended a fews times, but I just kept following the river (which at some points took me through fields and private properties with signs like, "owner reserves right to shoot," or "turn back immediately"). After walking for about 8 miles, I reached the next town, Slane. The place is synonymous with St. Patrick because it was on the hill of Slane that St. Patrick lit an Easter fire to celebrate Christianity's triumph over paganism in the year 433. I went up to the hill of Slane to see the ruins of an old monastery built there in the 1500's. The rain was still coming down hard, and I was the only one up there, so I took shelter in the ruins of the old college and had a little lunch. It was so cool to be the only one there, and to have totally free reign in the ruins; you could walk all aorund them and inside them as well!

Just yesterday I went to the town of Trim, where they have a castle dating from the 1100's. I went on a guided tour inside the keep, and then just walked around the grounds for a while. This was actually the castle that they used to film Braveheart. I learnt many interesting things about the medieval castle design, such as the fact that they collected rain water for drinking (and if the enemy wanted to spoil their water supply, they'd catapult an animal carcass into it). Also, before they used tiled roofing, they used animal hides (which they would wet down before attack to prevent fires from flaming arrows). Also, they'd ward off attacks by boiling a mixture of sand and tallow (since they didn't have oil). Furthermore, it was common for noble living quarters to have a little hole in the corner of the room in which the inhabitant would relieve himself (the sewage would be carried by pipe down to a sort of holding tank. An interesting/disgusting side-note: it was common to hang clothing over the hole because the fumes that crept back up were effective in delousing). With regard to spiral staircases, they designed them to rotate clockwise for strategic reasons- if a right handed warrior were attacking up the steps, the spiral design would restrict the use of his fighting arm and force him to constantly turn his body and expose himself to attack (likewise, the steps were purposely made of differing heights and widths to trip up a hurrying attacker).

Today I'm back in Dublin, staying with an older Irish fellow named Loch. His place is a quaint little house with drafty doors, old books and lots of interesting trinkets scattered about. It's in the east of the city, near the harbor. Loch welcomed me with a cup of hot tea and some apple cake. He also gave me some maps and guidebooks and suggested that tomorrow I take his bicycle and go to check out the cliffs of Howth. It's supposed to be a beautiful day, so I think I will.

It's hard to believe that in three days' time I'll be home in the US! What a long, strange trip it's been...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On the road...

Just a quick update:

I finally left Romania on September 4th, after one last get-together in the village of Jupani with Tibi, Simona, Tibi's mom and Simona's parents. Tibi cooked a paprikash for the farewell dinner, and cracked open some home-made walnut cognac that he'd been saving for a special occasion. The next morning Tibi and Simona saw me off at the train station. Flavia was also there, waiting for me; she surprised me with a big bag of food for the trip. Our goodbyes felt surreal. It all seemed as in a dream. I stuck my head out the window to wave farewell as the train slowly pulled away from the station. It was hard for me to believe that I wouldn't be returning any time soon. In fact, I'm still not sure that realization has fully set in.

From Romania, my first stop was Budapest. I stayed just for the weekend. I've been to Budapest so many times over the course of the past two years that I'm pretty familiar with the place. Thus, it was a good place to begin my westward journey. By complete coincidence, Liz (a fellow Peace Corps volunteer) and her family were in town. I met up with them, and we went out to dinner at Gerbeaud's.

Following Budapest was Vienna. Upon arrival I knew nothing about the city. Heck, I didn't even have a map, or any clue where I was going to spend the night. But, in the end it all worked out, and I got to know Vienna quite well. I stayed in a hostel the first few nights, but later managed to contact a girl through She let me stay at her place in the south of the city. I was impressed by Vienna's elegance, incredible architecture and beautiful gardens. My host suggested some great things to see and do, and even took me out for a night time bike ride through the city. And in case you're wondering, yes, I did eat a wienerschnitzel.

I'm currently in Berlin. I got a ride with a guy who was driving from Vienna last Friday. We drove through Prague, and then up through Dresden at a speed I never would have imagined his little van could handle. Arriving in Berlin at about 1:oo am, I had nothing but an address and a phone number of the guy with whom I was supposed to stay. Eventually I found his apartment building, and tried giving him a ring, but my call wouldn't go through (I found out later that I was entering the country code incorrectly). I wasn't sure what to do. I was so tired that I actually thought about just setting my stuff down in front of his gate and falling asleep right there. However, realizing that was just silly, I went for a walk until I found a payphone, dialed the number, and finally got in contact with my host. He welcomed me graciously, even at 2:00 in the morning. No sleeping on the sidewalk for me!

Berlin is quite different from Vienna and Budapest, both of which are fairly relaxed, laid back cities. Berlin, by contrast, seems to be younger and more energetic. It's also incredibly multi-cultural-- you can find anyone from anywhere here. My host is a freelance photographer and lives in a great apartment in a hopping part of East Berlin. The day after my arrival, he took me for a quick tour of the city on his motorcycle! He even gave me a map and let me borrow one of his bicycles to go out and explore the city. I spent the majority of the afternoon yesterday riding around; the weather was perfect. I stumbled upon the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin wall that's still standing, which local artists have turned into a giant mural. I also got some lunch at a Turkish cafe and hung out in Alexanderplatz. But there's so much still to explore...

I think I'll stay in Berlin until Tuesday, when I'll head West to Bremen, the city where Beck's beer is brewed. I'll be staying with a Romanian friend who lives there. If I'm lucky, I'll have access to a computer and be able to write a bit more. Till the next update!


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Journey Home

So, it's over. I've finished my term as a Peace Corps volunteer.

It feels a bit weird. I officially closed my service yesterday, and ever since the realization has been slowly setting in. I feel like I've lost a part of my identity, and yet I feel somewhat liberated all at once. But most of all, I'm proud of myself for completing the 28 months, and I'm glad I can look back on my time with satisfaction.

The first thing I did after becoming a post-PCV was to buy a ticket home. I'll be flying out of Dublin on October 14th.

After my visit yesterday to the Peace Corps office in Bucuresti, I'm currently back in Ploiesti. It feels like I've completed a big circle--I started in Ploiesti, and I've returned here at the very end. I came to pay one last visit to Vili and Florina, my original host family. I didn't tell them I was coming, however, hoping to show up unexpectedly at their door. I bought some flowers, went to their apartment and knocked on the door. No answer. I tried once more, but still no answer. So much for the surprise, I thought. I decided to give them a ring, and found out they had left town and were on the road to visit some friends in a town just North of Ploiesti. After receiving my call, however, they decided to turn back around, and we had a nice last visit.

Tomorrow morning I'll head back to Lugoj for a couple days to say my final goodbyes. I've already said farewell to most everyone, paid my bills and moved out of my apartment. So, most things are wrapped up, but it's still hard to break away.

After Lugoj, I'll strap on my backpack and take the slow road West. My first stop will be Budapest, but I also plan to make stops in Austria, Germany and France before I get to Ireland in October. I'm currently without a laptop (having given it away), but we'll see if I can't post some updates at internet cafes along the way.

Here begins the journey home...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Adio, Lugoj!

I recently wrote a farewell letter to the town of Lugoj and sent it in to Redesteptarea, the local newspaper. Here's what I said:

School is over and my time here in Romania is quickly coming to a close. Unfortunately, I won’t be teaching English at Brediceanu next year. It is amazing how fast the past two years have gone! I can remember my arrival in Lugoj like it was yesterday. However, now it’s time for me to go home, to see family and friends, and return to the life that I left behind in the States.

Living here for the past two years, I’ve had opportunities to see and experience things that I would have never had anywhere else. I’ve met people that have become a big part of my life, and will remain my friends long after I leave. Above all, I’ve made numerous lasting memories, and even if I have to leave, I can always fondly remember my time here with friends, colleagues and students.

As one might expect, after living in Lugoj for 28 months, the town has become like a second home for me, which makes it all the harder to leave. Even while living abroad for such an extended period hasn’t always been easy, I’ve really enjoyed the experience.

I’ve learnt so much about Romania, its people, landscape, food, and culture. Two years ago, if someone had asked me what sarmale were, I wouldn’t have had a clue. I wouldn’t have had any conception of the beauty of the Carpathian Mountains, or the grandeur of the Danube. I wouldn’t have known about Banat’s long, rich history. I’ve come to discover all these things and so much more.

I’ve also learned quite a lot about everyday life in Romania, the good things and the bad. For example, I’ve had to deal with Romanian bureaucracy on more than one occasion, I’ve seen signs of corruption, witnessed how people trash nature, and I’ve become quite acquainted with just how bad roads can be. Romania, like anywhere, has its problems, and even while my experience here has been difficult at times, there have been countless happy moments. Moments like my first Christmas in Romania, when many of my friends and colleagues invited me into their homes and made me feel so welcome. I’ll also never forget last summer when a good friend took me to the village to teach me the ancient traditions of making hay and distilling tuica. Above all, I’ll always cherish the moments I had with my wonderful students. I’ll miss them, and I wish them all the best in the future!

I came here as a volunteer not only because I wanted to experience another part of the world and learn about a different culture, but also because I wanted to do something good for others. People often ask me, ‘Why would you be a volunteer? You don’t make any money!’ or, ‘Isn’t it hard to leave home for such a long time?’ And while, yes, it has been difficult to be away from my family for 2 years, and I haven’t made much money, the most important thing for me has always been the experience itself.

Volunteerism is perhaps more common in American culture than it is in Romania. It’s something that I’ve been doing ever since high school, and will probably continue for the rest of my life. For me, it’s important to be involved in society at large, to do something for the community in which I live. Volunteering is a great way to achieve these things. After all, a volunteer does his work not for himself, but to help others. This concept is an essential part of the ‘American spirit.’ But, I don’t think volunteering is something specific only to Americans; my students here have demonstrated to me a great desire to do good. I hope they foster that, and continue to act on it as they grow to become productive members of society.

I leave Lugoj on 28 August. It honestly pains me to go, but I won’t be gone forever. I promise to come back for a visit. I thank the town of Lugoj for everything it has shown me, taught me and given me. It’s been a great run. Farewell to all those who made it so!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Getting a Bit Nostalgic

Things I'll miss about my time in Romania:
-the friends I've made (obviously)
-pickles (especially pickled watermelon!)
-buying beer in 2 liter bottles
-the slower lifestyle (i.e. 5-hour-long meals)
-being looked after by every mother in town
-summer vegetables (especially the tomatoes!)
-shopping for silly shirts in second-hand shops
-train rides through the mountains
-local honey

Things I won't miss so much:
-waiting in lines
-the permeating fragrance of body-odor on personal trains
-stray dogs
-animal slaughterings
-pork (I've eaten it so much over the past two years, I figure I'll take a break for a while)
-grapes with seeds
-the slower lifestyle (in that projects may not progress according to Western expectations)
-the frustrations of bureaucracy and rigid, incomprehensible rules

Things I'm looking forward to about the United States:
-seeing family
-ethnic food of all kinds
-customer service
-Pepe's pizza, New Haven CT

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written here. I apologize. I feel like I’ve been constantly on the go ever since school ended on June 12th. Here’s a (not so) brief recap of what I’ve been doing:

On Tuesday, June 9th I went to Timisoara because Jeri Guthrie-Corn, the current US Charge d’affaires for Romania, came to give a talk on current diplomatic relations between Romania and the US. The basic gist was that Romania is one of the US’s closest allies in Europe. The most recent example of this is that Timisoara was chosen as the location for a refugee transfer center, a temporary holding site for displaced people and victims of political crime from around the world. After her talk, Ms.Guthrie-Corn went out for a coffee with the Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars from the Timisoara area. Cameron and I were the only Peace Corps volunteers to show up. And, taking pity on us Peace Corps volunteers, she gave us 50 lei for “a sandwich.” We both appreciated her gesture, and gladly accepted. It appears that Ms. Guthrie-Corn will relieved of her duties as acting ambassador when Mark Gitenstein (President Obama’s newly-confirmed appointee) comes to Bucharest on August 20th.

As I mentioned above, the school year officially ended on June 12th with a final awards ceremony. In the last few days of classes my students showered me with gifts. One of my 9th grade classes even threw a surprise party for me! When I walked into the classroom, I found they had decorated the blackboard with balloons and chalk drawings that said "we'll miss you." There was a cake on the teacher's desk, on which they'd written "we won't forget you." I was touched by how much thought they'd put into everything. They even gave me a custom-made t-shirt with each of them represented as South Park characters. Quite cute.

Me, surprised

Cutting the cake

Notice how they decorated the balloon in the upper right!

In the last week of school the 12th graders took part in the traditional ‘serenada,’ in which each of the senior classes sang songs to the teachers. They used well-known tunes but wrote new lyrics in which they alluded to moments from the past four years and made jokes about teachers and classmates. After all the singing was over, the students gave flowers and gifts to their favorite teachers. In fact, it’s quite common for students to give flowers to their teachers throughout the school-year or at any major school function. The following day was the 12th grade ball, which is sort of equivalent to a senior prom in the States. One difference, however, is that the students don’t necessarily go with a date; instead they tend to go as a whole class. Also, all their teachers come and mingle. And furthermore, the party goes on foreveeer. We didn’t even eat dinner until 1am. H’orderves were served at 10, followed by dancing, then more food and then more dancing. There was also the ritual in which the students formed a line and went from teacher to teacher to kiss them and toast with champagne. By the time the school director and mayor gave their speeches and the dessert was put out, it was nearly 3am. In the end, I got home at about 9am, completely exhausted.

Some of the 12 graders singing at the serenada

The week after school ended, I went on a small tour of Transylvania. I stopped in the town of Reghin (famous for the manufacture of string instruments) to visit Alayna, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer before she left Romania. Cherries were in season, so we ate our share. After that I went to the city of Targu Mures (pronounced ‘Tirgoo Mooresh’) to help Mikey (another volunteer) with and English camp in a neighboring village.

After the camp there I headed north to Sighetu Marmatiei (the second part of that name is pronounced ‘Marmatzi-eh’), which is a town in Maramures right on the Ukrainian border. My friend Julie had organized a series of Klezmer workshops throughout Romania, one of which being in Sighet. So, I decided to go check it out. It was basically a weekend of Jewish cultural events that Julie had organized with the help of local community members and some klezmer artists from NYC. I had the opportunity to sit in on a prayer service at the synagogue, which I had never done before. After the service, everyone was invited into the community center for drinks and refreshments. There was dancing and singing, and of course, tuica. It was my first experience with such Jewish-Romanian traditions. In fact, it was probably the first time in years that some of the old-timers there had the opportunity as well. It was great to see everyone participating with such fervor. But, at the same time it was also sad to realize all of this was just a faint glimmer of a past life. Even while the Jewsih community in Sighet is still relatively large by Romanian standards, it’s only a shadow of what it once was. However, I think the local community so eagerly seized onto the whole thing simply because it revived something of a bygone era.

Sighet is the hometown of Elie Wiesel, and while I was there I took a moment to go see his childhood home. After having read Night—the book he wrote about his experience in Nazi concentration camps—it was interesting to see first-hand the places and things he had mentioned.

The Wiesel house

The weekend program also included some musical performances, which unfortunately I had to miss. However, I did have the chance to hang out with the artists during their rehearsals at the hotel. They played many klezmer tunes which were actually written in Romania, but have since been all but forgotten around these parts. Incidentally, at dinner that night we went to a restaurant and heard quite a few traditional folk songs, some of which the musicians from New York said sounded strongly influenced by klezmer. I thought that was pretty fascinating.

The three musicians from NYC, Benjy, Deborah and Jeff rehearsing in the hotel

Since Ukraine is literally just a hop skip and a jump from Sighet, a couple of us decided to cross the Tisa river and spend an afternoon in the first town we found, just so we could say we’d been there. Shaun, a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Ukraine, happened to be one of our party. He spoke Ukrainian quite well, which helped when dealing with the border guards. We passed through passport control and continued on until we reached the village of Slatina, a settlement no more than a kilometer from the border. I remember noticing numerous individuals on the road at the edge of town, stuffing cigarettes down their pants, in their bras, or hiding them somewhere in their car or motorcycle. Apparently smokes are considerably cheaper in Ukraine, so people smuggle them into Romania. As a town, Slatina didn’t seem all that different from any small town or village in Romania. In fact, there were quite a few Romanians, and just about everyone spoke the language. We stopped at a bar to try a beverage called kvass. It’s essentially a mildly-alcoholic drink made from old rye bread and sugar. It was dark and bubbly and wasn’t all that great, a little like drinking stale coca-cola. But hey, at least I gave it a try.

Sharing some kvass with Benjy, Shaun and Julie

I took a very uncomfortable train back to Lugoj from Sighet. Arriving at 6am, after 12 hours and no sleep, I went home and took a nap. At 10am I got up and went to Clubul Copiilor to help with the ceramics camp (the same one that I helped with last year). We had about 35 kids this year. Ole came back to Lugoj for the camp, and brought with him friends from Denmark and Norway, and, of course, lots of clay. My main function this year was to act as translator between the Scandanavians and Romanians, and I taught the kids how to make clay whistles.

After the ceramics camp, I made another trip to the National Archives in Timisoara. You may recall my ill-fated experience there in March. I went back because the documents I was after had been returned from Bucuresti. Thus, I was finally able to access the church registry with Bela Lugosi's birth records. It documented his address as "Nemet Lugos, 6 Szemely" which means Nr. 6 German Lugoj (Lugoj used to be split into two halves, German and Romanian, demarcated by the Timis river). Unfortunately, no street name was specified, which was something I hadn't anticipated. I looked through the registry for other kin, hoping the address would be more specific in another entry. I found record of his sister Vilma's birth in 1878. But alas, the address in her entry wasn't any different. Digging a bit deeper, I also found his father's death records. Curiously enough, his address was entered as "Templom Utca 7 sz." (Nr. 7 Church Street). So, at least there was a street name--the same street I was expecting--but the number was on the opposite side. Perhaps this was the address of the place where he had died, not his home address? Puzzled but still happy that I had managed to track down these records, I asked to take some pictues. Non-flash photography is permitted as long as you pay the 7-lei fee. I was happy to pay the fee, and reached for my wallet. Seeing this, the lay said, "oh no no, you can't pay here; you have to pay at the National Treasury or at the post office." I should have known this would be the case, but for some reason I had forgotten how bureaucratic things can be. I ended up having an argument with the lady for about 20 minutes about how incredibly inconvenient and ludicrous the system is. 'Why can't I just pay you here?', I inquired. In the end I discovered that it wasn't the money that was important, it was the receipt that I'd receive after putting the money in their account. Without that one slip of paper, I couldn't get anything done. I realized there was no working around it, so I gave in. After numerous trips between the archives and the post office, hours of waiting in line and discussions with the Timisoara postal director, I finally got the coveted receipt. Returning with it to the archives, I finally managed I take the pictures I wanted. Phew!! It was quite frustrating to think that I had to jump through so many hoops just so I could take 5 pictures (a task that took no more than minutes in itself). Now that I have copies of the records, I'm going to give them to the Lugoj town hall so they'll have them for their archives. I hope they'll be helpful in the future for putting a plaque on Lugosi's house.

The page in the registry with Bela's entry (at bottom). Interestingly enough, the
church made a note of his name change in 1917 (right page, middle-bottom)

Next I went to Denmark with Martin for the Roskilde music festival, which took place just outside Copenhagen. After being in Romania for the last two years, I was a bit bowled over by Copenhagen. I didn’t expect it, but I was really impacted by little things here and there, like highways, or the prevalence of bicycles, or the fact that trains and buses run on time. Perhaps this was a little preview of the culture shock I might face in returning to the States. But anyhow, Denmark was incredible. I was really impressed with life in Scandinavia--precise, clean and elegant. The festival itself was amazing; I saw so many bands and met heaps of cool people.

I came back to Romania in time for the end of the year “campus” at the kids’ center in Mondial. It was essentially a summer camp; we sang songs, played games (like tug-of-war or water-balloon toss, etc.) and organized arts and crafts activities. It was my last time with the kids, and I’m glad things ended on a good note. The center is run by a group of Italian nuns, and they always invited me to their place for lunch after we finished the camp activities for the day. Needless to say, I ate very well that week.

Then I went to Istanbul with my friends Chris, Eva, and Zach. Having just finished his service, Chris was flying home from Istanbul; it was actually the cheapest flight he could find. So, we all went together to see him off and spend a few last moments together. Since we had all been to the city before, we didn't need to do the typical touristy stuff. Instead, our focus was to spend some quality time with each other, eat some good food and just relax. Highlights from the trip included excellent kebab, a seabass lunch, haggling at the Grand Bazaar, and a scenic boat tour up the Bosphorous (probably the most touristy thing we did). The bubbling of hookahs characterized our trip, but perhaps just as defining was the rattle of rolling dice. At hookah bars throughout Istanbul all the old men spend hours smoking and playing backgammon. A bit curious at seeing this, we decided to try our hands at the game. It quickly became our favorite pastime.

From Istanbul, Eva and I flew to London (turned out to be much cheaper for me to fly back to Romania via London than to fly direct from Istanbul). We stayed in East London with a couchsurfing couple who live in a townhouse with a garden out back. We shared many bottles of good wine, cooked a few great meals and engaged in some wonderful conversations. Eva and I also ate some Indian food at a restaurant on Brick Lane, drank some ginger beer, checked out the National Gallery, explored East London a bit and hung out in Victoria Park. Like in Denmark, I had some moments of shock and awe, especially going to a food market and seeing the sheer variety of goods that were available. I saw vegetables I'd never seen before, tasted cheeses I never knew existed. There were stands with local ciders and beers from all over the world. I ate a fresh blueberry muffin (hadn't had one of those in two years). As I strolled by a little chutney kiosk, I surrendered to temptation and sampled the wares. There were other kiosks with Turkish delight, but I deemed it a little too early in the morning for that. They even had a stand selling ostrich meat! It seemed there was nothing you couldn't find.

After coming back to Romania, I was struck by the realization that my time here is really running out, and perhaps I’ve made too many plans. I had promised to go to Cluj one more time before I leave the country, so I went last week to hang out with the Peace Corps volunteers still remaining there. Then I went to Targoviste (Turgoh-veesh-tay) to help with a training on peer counseling and stress management for group 26, the newest group of volunteers to come to Romania.

As I write this, I’m at Zach’s apartment in Sibiu. We’re preparing to head out tomorrow to help Outward Bound with the Carpathian Adventure Race, a competition in the Fagaras mountains involving hiking, biking and rafting. It starts the 12th and finishes on the 16th. I’m not exactly sure what our role will be, but I have a hunch we'll be manning checkpoints along the trail. After the 16th, I'll have about 10 more days at site in which to say my goodbyes, wrap up loose ends, and pack all my stuff. Then I'll head down to the Peace Corps office in Bucuresti to officially close my service as a volunteer. That may not seem like much when written down, but to be honest, I'm a bit overwhelmed by all the little things I have to take care of before I head home.

So, that brings us pretty much up to date...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Global Conversations

One of my side-projects this semester has been trying to establish a partnership bewteen Brediceanu (my high school here) and Haddam-Killingworth High School (the school from my hometown in Connecticut).

We got off to a somewhat slow start, but now things seem to be under way. I've got a group of 8 students from the 9th and 10th grades who have been helping to make it all happen. Here's our group:

From left to right: Loli, Denis, Claudia, me, Cristiana, Doris, Lorena, and at the bottom are Cristian and Bogdan

We're collaborating with a group of 9 kids from Haddam-Killingworth's International Culture Club (ICC). Our first formal correspondence was to exchange powerpoint presentations, followed by email discussions between the kids on both sides (using the website

My kids used their presentations as a means to briefly introduce the Americans to Romania. They decided to split into two teams and do seperate powerpoints-- one team made a presentation on our local region, Banat, and the other made theirs about Maramures. The idea behind doing two presentations was to illustrate regional differences within Romania. The goal for both presentations was to represent the regions in terms of the 5 senses (sight, smell, sound, taste and touch). The kids really got into it and were quite creative in thinking up objects, landmarks, and symbols that are representative of Banat and Maramures, respectively. They were also extremely excited to receive the presentation made by the American kids (which included information about their school schedule, shad fishing, pancakes with syrup, and several other things my kids found interesting or unusual).

So far the exchanges seem to be going well, but the school year is just about over now. I hope that the kids will continue to correspond next year, even after I'm gone. Luckily, Mihaela, one of my English-teaching colleagues has offered to coordinate the effort when school resumes.

Anyway, I thought perhaps you'd like to see the presentations my kids made. Click on the slide shows to start them. The music originally incorporated into the presentations is included below the slides.

Music typical of Banat, performed by Nicoleta Voica:

"Ana Lugojana," a piece composed by Ion Vidu:

A traditional melody from Maramures:

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Coming to a close...

When I arrived here nearly two years ago, it seemed like 27 months of service would be an eternity. Those 27 months, however, are already nearly over. Time has just flown by.

I'm almost done with my second year of teaching. Things are winding down quickly. There are only two weeks left in the school year (really only one week of real classes). After that, I probably won't see many of my students again. I've been trying to prepare them, as well as my colleagues and friends for my inevitable departure, but I was never good at goodbyes.

While I'm certainly looking forward to going home, at the same time it'll be hard to leave behind the people that have become such a part of my life for the last two years. Knowing the end is near, some of my colleagues have mentioned how much they'll miss me once I'm gone. On one hand, such sentiments are extremely touching, and it's quite validating to know that they want me to stay. However, on the flip side, knowing this doesn't make the idea of leaving any easier. I'm going to miss them just as much.

One of my 10th grade classes honored me last week with a surprise: they all showed up to class. They're rarely all present. They knew it was going to be our last meeting. They're one of the classes that I've had the opportunity to teach both years. At the beginning of last year they were one of my toughest classes. However, after the rough start, they soon became one of my favorites. It seems they've come to enjoy working with me as well. At our last class together they showed their appreciation by giving me a 'Romania' souvenir clock and a Lugoj coffee mug. It warmed my heart that they thought so much as to give me going-away presents. In fact, it confirmed for me that I am actually doing some good stuff here.

Last week I also had the last meeting of my English Club-- a weekly after-school gathering at one of Lugoj's vocational schools. Being a vocational school, the English program is not as strong as at other high schools in town. Moreover, many of the kids come from troubled home situations. Some have to work part time to support their families and don't have much time for studies. Others may even live alone, their parents working abroad. Taking all this into account, I really appreciate the fact that a steady, albeit small group of determined students took time every week to come. Our last meeting was rather touching. I asked the kids to reflect upon our two years together and talk about their most memorable experiences. They came up with some great stuff, remembering things that I'd forgotten, or things that had impacted them in ways I wasn't even aware of. At the end of the meeting I gave each of the kids a personal compliment, identifying one thing about their personality that impressed me. They were clearly touched that I was able to find strengths in each of them (I'm not sure they often hear compliments). As we left, the kids came up to me and each gave me a hug. These are high-schoolers mind you, and many of them are known as 'misfits' or troublemakers. However, it was clear that I'd connected with them somehow. I was moved by their show of affection, and deeply stirred to know that my efforts had had an impact. I think in the end, the club evolved into more than just a place to practice English; it became a sort of safe haven. During our time together, we got to know each other pretty well. The kids taught me some things about what it's like to be a teenager in Romania. But more than that, I think the kids learned some good things about themselves, discovering qualities that perhaps they didn't even know they possessed.

Needless to say, these last months of service have been somewhat bitter-sweet. Some of my fellow-volunteers (and close friends) are already starting to return home. Time seems to be accelerating, and with each passing day I realize I have less and less time to do all the things I want to do before I leave. Additionally, I frequently have moments when I think, 'wow, this is probably the last time I'll have the chance to do this,' or 'I may never see this person again.' My official close of service is 31 August, three months from now. So, until then, I'm going to try to cherish all these 'last moments.'