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.'

Clearing Storm

Looking ESE from the center of Lugoj, next to the Iron Bridge

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Yesterday the weather was beautiful, and I hadn't got out of town for some time, so I decided to go on a bike ride. I headed out of Lugoj on a dirt road heading West. I had never been down the road before, and curious to find out where it went, I decided to just keep going as long as I had sunlight. I the first village I came to was about 10km from Lugoj. I wasn't sure where I was, but I had a hunch, so I asked two old women sitting along the street outside their home. "Is this Jabar?" Indeed it was.

I'd passed through this village many times with the train, but all I'd ever seen of it was the train station. This time, however, I got to see the village itself. Church steeples towered above the single-story homes; men and women worked their gardens; children rode their bikes along the dirt roads, chasing geese; others gathered around the community water pump; farmers guided the cows home after a day of grazing; old folks sat in the shade of the trees along the road or stuck their heads out the window to gaze at passers-by and take in the whole scene (a form of entertainment pre-dating television). I struck up a short conversation with the two old ladies. They knew from my question that I wasn't from around there. I explained that I was just exploring the area a bit. "Oh, my son does the same thing, riding from here to Lugoj and the other villages," said the younger of the two women with a smile. "Looks like it's going to rain," I said, looking at the darkening sky as thunder echoed in the distance. The older lady, with her thick villager's accent warned me that I wasn't dressed warmly enough, and told me that I shouldn't take the road I had come on to get back to Lugoj; it was too rocky. I'd be better off taking the road through Boldur, she advised, since that one had asphalt. I thanked her for her advice and set on my way. I wasn't quite ready to return home yet, and I was willing to take my chances with the rain.

I set off West down the main road, not knowing where it would take me. Bolts of lightning touched down in the fields on my right. The sky let a few drops fall, but it wasn't much; just enough to cool things off and settle the dust. It seemed like the storm was passing off to the North-East. After riding for a while longer I reached another village. Ohaba-Forgaci read the sign at the entrance. I'd never heard of it before. I found it to be quite a quaint little place. It seemed to be frozen in time. A lot of the villages in the Banat region are modernizing quite quickly. In fact, this is true for villages throughout most of Romania, but things are changing especially fast in this region. Tractors are replacing horses, more and more farmers are using modern machinery and fertilizers, cell-phone coverage is expanding, internet lines are being installed, and old homes are being demolished and replaced with modern constructions. While progress can be a good thing, I'm saddened to see many of these changes taking place. Modernization seems to be coming at the expense of old traditions. However, in the midst of this fury of change, little Ohaba-Forgaci seems to be clinging on to some of the old ways. The thing that struck me the most was that the homes there were very old, many were prime examples of the architecture that was once typical in the Banat in the 18th and 19th centuries. Seeing as such homes are quickly becoming extinct, I decided to take a few pictures:

From Bike Ride to Ohaba-Forgaci

A house in traditional Banat style, shaped like a "C" with a little courtyard on the inside

There's typically a mini-arcade along the perimeter of the coutyard, as you can see here

Western influences are evident in the architecture throughout the region

The rounded, arched gables (as seen here on the two houses to the left) are another detail typical in the Banat

Friday, May 15, 2009

Small Town Politics

Four teachers at Brediceanu are retiring at the end of this school year, and they hosted a farewell party this afternoon in the school canteen. I happened to arrive a little late, went over to the 'men's table' and said hello to all the fellas. I went right down the line, greeting Mr. Muresan, Mr. Kina, Mr. Bancu and several other teachers.

The mayor was also there, so of course I wanted to make a point to pay my respects. Extending my hand to him I smiled and said, "Domnul primar! Ce mai faceti?" He looked up at me with a grim expression and refused to extend his hand to me. Instead, he shook his finger, saying "N-am ce discuta cu tine." I was not expecting this in the least, and was shocked that he didn't want to talk to me at all. I didn't understand what the issue was, but it was clear he wasn't in any disposition to explain. So, confused and hurt, I took back my hand and moved down a couple chairs to sit with Mr. Bancu, who offered me some wine and told a joke or two.

While I was sitting with Mr. Bancu, the mayor (who was only 4-5 feet away, mind you) went on talking with his cronies. I could hear him loudly repeating the word nesimtit (which basically means 'ill-mannered') and I knew it was in reference to me. It was quite humiliating, but I did my best to smile and ignore it.

Later on I discovered what this mess was all about. Another teacher who had apparently witnessed my exchange with the mayor explained to me that he was very upset about the grade I had given his granddaughter. She's one of my 6th graders. I had given her a 9 last semester because that's what she happened to deserve. Evidently, however, it didn't matter what she actually deserved. It's just expected that someone with important connections should get a 10.

I'm sorry that the Mayor took such offense; I had never intended to hurt anyone. The thing is, I give grades according to merit, not political connections. This may not be the way things are normally done around here, but it's simply not something I'm willing to compromise.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cleaning the banks of the Timis

From River Clean-up 08-05-09

It's long been a goal of mine to expose my students to volunteer work. Volunteerism isn't something they ordinarily have opportunities for. When I was a student, I did a lot of volunteering, and found it highly rewarding. In fact, if it weren't for my volunteer experiences during high school, I probably wouldn't be in the Peace Corps now.

I've volunteered on a few different occasions at a local nursing home with some of my ninth-grade students. At first they seemed somewhat reluctant to get involved. But, on our most recent visit we helped to tidy up their yard, and the kids seemed to really enjoy the experience. They put in some hard work, were able to see some tangible results, and could tell their help was appreciated.

Today was another volunteer opportunity for some of my students. I'd been talking with the guys at Clubul Concordia (the local hiking/outdoors club) about organizing a river clean-up, and today it finally happened. We made it a joint venture between Clubul Concordia and Brediceanu (the high school where I teach). Students interested in participating gathered in front of the school after classes were dismissed. I was surprised how many actually showed up; I had done my best to promote the clean-up among my students, but I wasn't convinced many of them would come. In any case, I was pleasantly surprised. It was good to see that so many of them were genuinely willing to help.

We took the afternoon to scour the river banks from one end of town to the other, and managed to collect a fair ammount of trash. I think the kids enjoyed the experience, and were glad to do something good for the town. I took a few pictures, which can be found HERE.