Sunday, March 30, 2008


It seems that spring has arrived! The trees are budding, the flowers are blooming, the weather is getting warmer, and the birds are building a nest in the awning above my window.

Daylight-saving-time began at 3:00am today, three weeks after the United States. Getting up this morning was more difficult than usual (but heck, it's always a chore for me). I hate losing that precious hour of sleep, but I'm looking forward to the longer days.

Yesterday I spent the day with some other volunteers in the nearby town of Deta. The weather was warm and sunny, so we took a grill out to a nearby pond and had a barbeque. We grilled potatoes along with the standard summertime favorite: mititei (meeteetay), also known as mici (meech). Mici are essentially a mixture of ground meat (pork, beef, lamb) spiced with herbs, rolled into a sort of sausage shape and served with bread, mustard and beer. Think of mici as the Romanian version of the hamburger.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Teaching English Is Easy, Changing Minds Is Hard

Last week I was visited by the fellow who served as a volunteer in Lugoj before me. He had finished his service a few days before my arrival, so we never got the chance to meet face-to-face before last week. But he came back to Romania for a visit, and was passing through town.

Since he had been home for nearly 8 months, it was interesting to talk to him about what has changed in Lugoj since he left. Of course some minor things have changed--a restaurant closed, a new one opened, some buidings have been painted, etc--but basically things have stayed the same. In fact, this was his general impression of the whole country. He said that it felt like nearly nothing of substance had changed in Romania, and for him, this was somewhat disappointing.

Before he left Lugoj, he gave me a copy of a magazine about Romania called Vivid: Romania through international eyes. As the name implies, the publication contains commentary on Romania written by foreigners. I looked it over, and found a couple articles that echoed the very sentiment that my fellow volunteer had: change simply isn't happening quickly enough.

I photocopied one of the articles and brought it in to school to discuss with my students. The article was somewhat harsh on Romanian politicians, claiming their selfish greed is the cause of just about every problem in Romania. My students generally agreed with this position, saying that politicians always make promises, but nothing ever really gets done. They don't have the country's interests at heart; they're more concerned with making a quick buck (or Leu, as would be the case in Romania). I was surprised how accepting my students were of this fact. When I asked them, "How can we fix this?" some of them responded, "What can we do? We can't change anything, this is just the way it is."

'Asta e viata' (or, 'such is life') is a typical saying in Romania. It seems to reflect a broad cultural outlook, perhaps left over from communism. It also sums up the general sense of apathy and disillusionment. Everyone knows what their politicians are doing, but will it ever get any better? Many people I've talked to don't seem to have any reason to think so; it's just the way things are. This sort of thinking is especially common among the older generations who have seen governments and leaders come and go. However, sadly, this outlook is even spreading to the youth; ineffectual leadership is all they've ever known.

I can understand why many Romanians are frustrated with the way things are going in Romania. Its been nearly 20 years since the Revolution, and things have changed, but not enough. The Revolution was certainly a turning point, and it brought with it hope for the future. But, that future has come, and for many Romanians, things didn't turn out quite as expected.

As mentioned in the Vivid article, the corruption is certainly one part of the picture. For politicians, money seems to take priority over the real issues--like the ailing economy, crippled healthcare system, or grossly under-funded educational system. In this post-communist age, when it's possible to accumulate some money, these politicians are taking full advantage of the situation--even if it means cheating the system. Perhaps they're sort of like the kid who sneaks over to the neighbor's house to play Super Mario Brothers because his mom never let him play video games.

In any case, because politicians don't have their fingers on the pulse of the nation, and because nothing seems to change in their country, Romanians lack any considerable faith in their political system. Apathy is more common than activism because people feel that trying to enact change is futile. They do their part, they vote, and things remain the same. So, what else can they do? Trying to tackle this "what can I do?" attitude is one of the most challenging, and sometimes discouraging things about being a Peace Corps volunteer in a post-communist nation.

One question I used to get a lot was, "why did you come here???" As if to imply that no one in their right mind would leave the United States to come to a place as terrible as Romania; many think the place is a lost cause (which explains why a lot of young Romanians move abroad). This attitude is so commonplace. But I try to do what I can to chisel away the pessimism, even if it may be an uphill battle.

When one's goals are so intangible, it's hard to gauge results. Sometimes I wonder what sort of effect I'm having. I'm sure my presence here is doing something, it's just hard to tell sometimes. A Peace Corps volunteer in Africa may help build a latrine, and be able to look back and say, "I did that." In some ways, I envy that sort of 'instant gratification.' For volunteers in a place like Romania, instant, visible results aren't always the case. This can make one feel ineffectual at times. But, just because the results can't be seen doesn't mean they aren't there somewhere under the surface.

I'd argue that being an effective volunteer is made more complicated because of Romania's level of development. Some people jokingly call the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe the "Posh Corps." It's true that we have access to restaurants, grocery stores, trains, cinemas and many other western amenities. Romania is certainly further developed than just about every other Peace Corps country, but that doesn't mean that the job is any easier. In fact, the situation here implies a different set of responsibilities. We're dealing with more complicated problems, like the culturally-ingrained pessimism that I mentioned. Such 'intangibles' present the volunteer with a unique set of challenges, the solutions to which aren't always as straightforward as finding away to supply a village with clean water.

All I can hope is that my presence as a volunteer is having some impact, no matter how small. Even if I help to influence just one person, that's something. I suppose it all depends on one's definition of success. I certainly don't expect to single-handedly turn Romania into a nation of optimistic, politically-active citizens. However, if I can inspire a few people, maybe they'll go on to inspire others, and so on. I've noticed a lot of potential in Romania's youth, and that's why I think it's so important for them to take an active interest in their country's future. Some of them do have a genuine interest, but it'll take more. Many educated young Romanians leave the country in search of higher-paid jobs, causing a national "brain-drain." Working abroad may be a fine solution for the here-and-now. But if everyone left the country, who would be left behind to tackle the real issues? Romania's problems affect everyone, and require a collective response. There is no doubt that the process of building civil awareness takes time. I just hope that when it comes time for the post-communist generation to take the reigns they steer the country in a positive direction.