Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Venit Mos Craciun

Well, I've had my first Christmas in Romania, and it all went pretty well. I spent Christmas Eve with about 20 of my 12th graders. We went caroling from house to house, and even stopped to sing for some strangers on the street. All the carols were traditional Romanian pieces I had never heard before, so I had to learn the words on the fly (and most of the time I didn't understand what I was singing). We visited a bunch of the teachers from Brediceanu, the highschool. Some of them live in small apartments, which made it interesting when the entire group of carolers tried to stuff into the living room. We sang two or three songs at every home, and stayed for a while to talk and sample the wares of the household. Many of our hosts thought that because I'm American it would be a good idea to give me whiskey. So, I got my share of Jack Daniels (which is really expensive in Romania). I don't even like whiskey.

After caroling, I went to visit a colleague and his family at their home. I ended up having dinner with them at about 10, and stayed at their home till 3. I had given them a bottle of wine. We cracked it open and talked for a while.

Later that morning I went to an Orthodox Christmas service. It started at 10, and lasted until 1. I suppose it goes without saying that it was a very long mass. The ceremony itself was much different than what I'm used to from Catholic masses. There were no scripture readings, no singing by the parish. The priest(s) simply seemed to recite many ritualistic prayers. The choir sang some unfamiliar, almost medieval-sounding chants. There seemed to be several holy men in attendance, one of whom was responsible for walking around while swinging the incense. It was pretty interesting. The layout of the church itself was different. There were some pews, but also a large open space in front the altar (which was concealed by a templon wall, with a curtains and three gates through which the priests passed back and forth). In the middle of that open space there was what appeared to be a bible resting on a book stand. During the early part of the service people seemed to mill around and genuflect in front of the bible. However, as the service progressed, more people came and the open space began to fill up with spectators. By the end of the three hours, the place was packed. To be completely honest, the mass was so long and I was so tired (having been up till 3) that I fell asleep during the middle part. However, I rallied towards the end. I'm not sure I'll attend another Orthodox Christmas service. But it was something I thought was worth experiencing. I'd say the coolest part was when they rang the church bells. There was a man up on the choir balcony who pulled a giant chord which was connected to the bells. Their resounding 'ding-dong' sent subtle vibrations throughout the church.

After the service was over I went to another colleague's house. We had a huge dinner and played a board game in which one of the players is 'Agent X' somewhere in London, and the others are officers trying to surround and capture him. It was actually pretty tough.

So, what did Santa bring me? Santa, by the way, is called 'Mos Craciun' in Romania (pronounced: Mosh Cratch-yoon). I've gotten several cards from friends and students. I've also received candles and free meals from worried mothers who think I'm too skinny. Flavia gave me a scarf, a calendar with Romania's landmarks, a CD of famous pieces by Romanian composers, a box of cookies, and a stocking that says "Merry Christmas." I've hung it up as one of my two Christmas decorations (the other is a page taken from a Charlie Brown coloring book, and shows Charlie playing with a train under a Christmas tree-- given to me by a friend and former PCV). I also got some packages from home-- one that was filled with books and Reese's peanut butter cups (Reese's are a big hit with my Romanian friends), and the other sent by my brother with DVDs and a picture of my niece (she's getting so big). And, last but not least, I received a pressure cooker from my colleagues at the school. They've caught wind of my new interest in cooking.

I ended my Christmas by making a skype call to my family back home. We miss each other very much, but talking for free on skype made it a little better.

Here's a picture of my land-lady's christmas tree. I helped to set it up on Sunday. It was funny, she approached me asking for help because the tree wouldn't fit in her tree stand (which was not adjustable, but simply had a pipe to receive the trunk-- and the trunk was about twice the diameter of the pipe). I spent a few minutes widdling down the trunk so that it'd fit. Then we trimmed the tree:

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Very Lugoj Christmas

On Thursday night I went to a carol concert put on by the Ion Vidu Chamber Choir (a professional group from Lugoj). They sang several English and German classics, as well as many traditional Romanian carols. They were really quite good. Here are just a few samples of some of the Romanian carols they sang:

"Astazi s-a nascut Hristos" (Jesus was born Today)

"Florile Dalbe" (The White Flowers)

"Plecarea Magilor" (The Magi's Journey)

I went to do my Christmas shopping today. It took me about two hours to get through the grocery store, and all I wanted to do was buy three bottles of wine. Waiting till the last minute to buy Christmas presents is a mistake I continually make. Oh well, at least it's done.

Next week I'll be going from the home of one colleague to another for visits and dinners, etc (I definitely won't be alone for the week, which is nice). On Christmas Eve I'll start things out by going caroling with some of my students. The caroling tradition is quite strong here. ('a colinda' is the Romanian verb for 'to carol'). The students usually go to their teacher's homes, sing, visit for a while, and receive candy or money. It'll be interesting to see what it's all about.

Sarbatori Fericite! (Happy Holidays!)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Art Exhibit

Last night I heard loud drumming down in the street below my apartment. At first I wasn't sure what it was; it was so loud. I thought perhaps someone was digging a well with a giant percussion drill-- in the center of town, at 6pm. But, something told me that probably wasn't the case. So, I peered out my window, and what to my wondering eyes did appear, but six men with drums chasing a seventh dressed in strange gear. The man they were chasing was dressed in a frilly, colorful costume that I think was supposed to make him look like an animal. I put on my jacket to go downstairs and have a closer look.

The drummers were running all over the place, but eventually stopped and drummed in front of the town's art gallery for a while. Then they went off to another part of town. I really don't know what that was all about, but I can think of two possible explanations: Maybe the drummers and man in costume is some sort of Rroma Christmas tradition. The reason I speculate this is because I was in a pub earlier this week and three Rroma (perhaps better known as Gypsies) came in. Two of them had plastic buckets for drums, and the other was dressed in a similar costume, which made him look like a cross between a dancing, rainbow-colored Christmas tree and Cousin It. They made their way around the bar asking for money. So, perhaps what I witnessed last night was the same sort of thing I saw in the pub that day. However, there were some differences between the two occurrences. Firstly, last night, the men with drums were dressed very neatly in traditional costumes (whether Rroma or Romanian, I couldn't tell). Secondly, they had real drums, not plastic buckets. Thirdly, they weren't asking for money. And fourthly, the man dressed as the animal/tree/who-knows-what had a decidedly more elaborate costume.

These differences were enough to make me wonder if in fact this was the same thing I had seen in the bar a few days before, or perhaps it was something related to the opening of a new exhibit at the art gallery (my second explanation). This also makes some sense, since the exhibit is a collection of ceramic masks inspired by those of Africa. After all, the drumming was somewhat 'tribal' in nature. Perhaps their spectacle in the town center was a way to announce the opening of the art exhibit. Who knows. In any case, I went to check out the masks. They were pretty cool. The artist talked with me for a while, and tried to explain the motivations behind her project. It was very interesting, and a bit surprising, to see something such as this in a small city like Lugoj.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The 7 Month Mark

So, I've been in Romania for nearly 7 months now. And, I'd have to say, the past month has been the most emotionally difficult. Just around Thanksgiving my first real feelings of homesickness set in and I really started to miss my family and friends more than ever. I suppose it was the result of a combination of factors.

Firstly, on November 18th I had been in Romania for 6 months. That's half a year, a significant chunk of time-- the longest I've ever been away from home. This realization sort of put things in perspective. I may have made it so far, but I still have a lot to go. The last time I felt a similar realization was when I was sitting in the Frankfurt airport, waiting for the flight to Bucharest. It suddenly struck me that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. This was no vacation, i wasn't going for two weeks and coming right back, there was no turning back. I boarded the plane, all the while saying, "Mike, what the hell are you doing?" I got into my seat, fell asleep, slept the entire flight, and woke up in Bucharest--it was sort of surreal, dream-like.

Secondly, this is my first holiday season away from home, and I kind of miss my usual holiday routine.

Thirdly, I'm struggling to find 'friends' here in town. Don't get me wrong, my students and colleagues at the school are great. But, I haven't found anyone with whom I feel a close personal connection (save perhaps my counterpart).

And, fourthly, the novelty of my situation is starting to wear off. Things aren't any longer as strange or confusing as they used to be, and I'm falling into a routine, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, I'm becoming accustomed to PC life, and I'm starting to think of Lugoj as my home for the next two years. But, on the other hand, I'm still not quite there yet, and the transition has proven to be difficult--not physically, but I've felt more mentally torn than ever before. The PC staff warned us about the psychological difficulties of working in a country like Romania. I don't have it bad by any means. But, one of my motivations is to effect some sort of change by my efforts (which is probably true of any other volunteer). However, working as a teacher, the results of my actions are less tangible. It's not like I'm building latrines in a small village in Burkina Faso. There, the results would be much more real. I sometimes ask myself what effect I'm having in my community. But then again, maybe I'm expecting too much. After all, I've only been in Lugoj for 4 months. Moreover, I suppose just my presence here has an effect, and every conversation I have with a Romanian is significant in and of itself.

So anyway, I've been hitting some rough times. Nothing terrible; I mean, my situation could be much worse. But, there are good days and there are bad. At my orientation in Philidelphia the staff warned that service in the Peace Corps can be an emotional roller coaster, a warning I've heard again and again since.

My feelings of homesickness come and go. Hanging out with friends at Thanksgiving really helped. Then last week I visitea married PCV couple in a small village north of here. That was followed by a week-long In-Service Training seminar, at which I got to see all the members of my group. It was the first time I'd gotten to see them all since we'd gone off to our respective sites, which was nice.

However, coming back to site was sort of hard, after a week of being with my American friends. This past week dragged pretty rough, especially at the beginning. But, yesterday turned out ok. I did a lesson on the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" ('Twas the night before Christmas...) with one of my toughest groups of students (getting them to use English is like trying to get Pigpen to wash his clothes). We read the poem out loud together and discussed some of the vocabulary. They seemed to really like it, and by the end of the lesson, even my most intractable student was smiling. That made my day.

And, after nearly a month of cloudy grey skies, the sun finally came out today. So things are changing. One thing I'm finding out is that the life of a volunteer can be quite variable. One week might be completely terrible, but the next might be great. I guess you just have to be able to roll with the punches and keep on looking forward.