Wednesday, October 3, 2007

School, and travels

The weather here has been getting more autumnal. It's cool/chilly in the mornings and evenings, and pretty warm during the middle of the day. I have noticed the leaves changing a little bit. I noticed this weekend while I was passing through the country-side on the train. However, in Lugoj it seems like the leaves just fall off the trees before they really change color. I miss the New England Fall.

Teaching has been okay so far. No real complaints. At the end of last week, my schedule was kind of up in the air. However, on Monday I spoke with each of the English teachers and finally settled everything once and for all, well, mostly. There is still one class that I'm not sure about, a class of 10th graders. It looks like I won't be able to teach them anymore because with the changes in the schedule they've been given a time slot that won't work for me. Its really too bad because I liked that class, and I saw them twice a week (but probably not at all now).

The school's cantina has opened up for the year. I plan to eat my lunch there every day. The food is actually really good, and very cheap (considering they give you four courses). Its also a good way to meet people and interact with my students. Both staff and students eat there, so it's sort of like an old-style university cafeteria.

I have a tutor lined up for Romanian. Now that I know my teaching schedule I can give her a call and set up a meeting. I also talked to a teacher at the other high school in Lugoj, and told her I could come for one-hour a week to give after-school lessons. And, there is a kid's afterschool club here where I'm planning to volunteer. The woman who works there is actually travelling from school to school promoting her programs. She's coming to my school, Brediceanu, on Thursday. I'll talk to her about plans on that day.

This past weekend was quite possibly the best weekend I've had so far in the Peace Corps. As you know, I was in Turda for the Festival. The festival itself was fun, but a little less-well organized than I would have expected. The hot air balloon that they promoted as the big attraction for this year's festival was a bust (pun partially intended). They also promised t-shirts for all volunteers, but I didn't get one. But even if I didn't get a ride in a hot air balloon or a t-shirt, I'm very glad I went; it was a great opportunity to hang out with about 40 other PCVs. There were several familiar faces from group 23, and I also had the pleasure to make acquaintances with a good number of PCVs from previous groups. They're a really fun group. I got there late on Friday night, long after they had finished setting up the tents and whatnot. So, there wasn't too much to do, try as I did to find things. Eager to help, I got up very early on Saturday (after going to bed at about 2) to help set up the famed and much-anticipated hot air balloon. That took about two hours. Just as the balloon fully inflated, and the basket slowly dragged off the ground, the wind started to pick up. So we had to give it up. It was tremendously anti-climatic; the basket had gotten perhaps five inches off the pavement. But, it was for the best. I had some questions about the site that the professionals had chosen for setting up the balloon. It was a small parking lot right in the center of town, with a road on one side, a buildings on the other sides, and telephone poles encircling the entire space. On top of all this, in the very same parking lot as the balloon was a rather tall, pointy-looking monument. If I've learned one thing about balloons in my lifetime, it's that balloons and pointy objects don't really mix. I had originally envisioned that this festival would take place in a large open field of some sort (sort of like the county fairs I'm accustomed to in the States). However, Turda Fest, like other Romanian festivals I've seen, was set up on the streets of the city center.

After dismantling the balloon, I went to the slow cooking booth, the place I had originally been assigned, but there wasn't a soul there. I figured, true to their nature, they were off to a slow start. Without much to do, I decided to wander around and enjoy the sights, sounds and foods of the festival. Eventually, I did get to help with something else: setting up an apparatus for cooking a pastry worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records (which indeed was the intention behind this machine). The pastry is known as cozonac by Romanians, and kurtos kalacs by Hungarians. How it works is you wrap a rotating cylinder in dough, and the cylinder is placed over a charcoal fire. As the cylinder rotates, the dough cooks on all sides. The cozonac is usually coated in honey and coconut shavings. Ours was going to be over 20 feet long. In order to make this world record possible, about 20 of us had to carry the huge cylinder out into the middle of the festival (navigating the crowds with the extremely heavy thing was an interesting experience in itself). Camera crews were there filming the whole thing.

setting the cylinder in place

cooking in progress

That was about it for Turda Fest. Most of us who needed to teach on Monday decided to leave the festival a little earlier to go to Cluj, where it would be possible to take a train back home. Well, at least that's why I went to Cluj. An added incentive was that Cluj happened to be hosting another festival-- 'September Fest,' I believe they call it. I hitchhiked to Cluj, which was my first experience with hitching in Romania. I know that the practice is frowned upon in the States. But here things are different. It's actually quite safe, and everyone does it (even little old ladies).

I got to September Fest and I wanted a beer, which only cost 2 lei. Unfortunately, however, all I had was a 100 RON note. So, my first challenge was trying to break the large bill. I walked around to a few vendors asking for change, but they all refused to take my 100. I think I've mentioned before that it's very difficult to find a vendor or cashier who'll gladly give you change. And the larger the note you try to use, the more trouble you're likely to have. When you flop down a 50 for a bag of groceries that cost 22.76, the cashier is likely to look at you as if to say, "what, you're really going to make me count change?" I'm not sure what it is, but large bills are like the common cashier's kryptonite. Anyway, so as you might imagine, it was quite a frustrating experience to try and persuade any festival vendors to break my money. Things seemed pretty hopeless, when out of nowhere a hand grabbed my shoulder. I turned around to discover Peter, the man who'd organized the camp I went to in Parang. He lives in Cluj and works as a professor of biology. I was surprised and happy to see him. We talked for a bit, or at least as long as I could sustain my broken Romanian. He turned out to be my savior because he had two 50 RON notes, which I took in exchange for my 100. I then approached the first vendor to whom I had talked. This time I sheepishly held up the 50 and asked if she might be able to break it. She kind of sighed, and begrudgingly reached into her pockets. She gave me back 48 lei and a beer. Finally! I also found some fried dough, which I bought...because I could.

The next day a few of us decided to get sushi for lunch. It was a tremendously good choice. Cluj happens to have quite a decent sushi bar. I got a platter of sushi, soup, a salad and tempura for only 18 lei. And it was amazing! I know I've said it before, but this is beyond any Peace Corps experience I could have expected. I mean, I'm eating Sushi? After leaving the restaurant, Cameron and I took a taxi straight to the train station, where we caught the 3:35 train to Timisoara. We ended up sitting in different compartments for the 7 hour train ride. I read my newsweek and happened to meet a nice couple who were heading home to Timisoara. I always seem to meet interesting people on the trains. In fact, on my way to the festival on Friday, I met a guy named Florin who actually lived in Greenwich, CT for two years. While riding on the train, I got a call from the Romania country director. Florin heard me speaking in English, and after I hung up he asked, "are you American? You talk like one." So we ended up talking for nearly the whole ride about the United States as well as Romania. I also found out he knows my counterpart's brother. What a small world.

When I finally arrived in Timisoara, I had to wait a little over an hour for my train to Lugoj. So I went to Cameron's place. We watched an episode of the Simpsons on his computer and then I headed to the station. Unfortunately, I got to the train station just two minutes before the train was scheduled to leave. I ran to the ticket window and asked for a ticket. The lady refused, saying the train was due to leave any moment and she couldn't sell me a ticket. She asked what other train I might like to take. At least that's what I understood of what she said. I pleaded, no, I needed the train leaving now! She still refused. I'm not sure why she couldn't sell me the ticket. She just told me to run to the train and talk to the Nasu. So I did. This was the first time I had ever boarded a train without a ticket, so I was a bit nervous. Long story short, I got to Lugoj after midnight and crashed onto my bed, hoping to get some sleep after a weekend in which sleep was certainly a secondary activity. After all, I had to teach at school the next day...


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty relieved the balloon didn't make it more then five inches off the ground. The conditions were less then ideal! Where did they plan on landing if it hadn't been a "bust"? Certainly not in the same site I hope! Very funny story though.

Anonymous said...

We never found that sushi bar when my girlfriend and I were in Cluj in June, but there's at least one other reference to it out there:

Nice blog, thanks!

Mike Nork said...

Here's the Sushi bar's website, where they have an address and other contact information:

If you're ever in the area again, maybe you can try again. It's worth it!