Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pentru Copiii (for the Children)

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. Any opinions or observations expressed about Romanian or U.S culture are my own and do not represent anyone else are have been made after 56 days in this country…

I haven’t had a chance to say much about the big part of Peace Corps training which isn’t language class. This part was our practicum project. We were put into groups with up to two other volunteers in our own sector (mine is institutional development) and have had six weeks to plan, implement and evaluate a project in partnership with a local nonprofit.

My group was assigned to Casa Eva, a local home for street children or children who have no parents, or for whatever reason don’t live with their parents. Children in Casa Eva range from age 9 to 22. They live in a house together, 36 children and 8 staff members alternating shifts.

Each floor in the house includes bedrooms with bunk beds, a kitchen, and a common area. Each floor houses a group of twelve kids that live in assigned “families” and the top floor is eight of the older people many of whom have jobs or attend night school. The idea is kids in each family look out for each other and encourage each other to follow the rules and teach each other to take care of themselves and each other. The older kids are supposed to take responsibility for and help the younger kids.

Casa Eva has three principal domains of instructions for the kids who live there; Personal Hygiene which is health and cleaning in general and extends to the cleaning of living spaces and clothes, Educational activities, and How to behave in Public.

On our first visit to the casa we were happy to find none of the stereotypes of the Romanian “orphanages” to be true here. We were wondering what we might do for a project because the house is neat and orderly and there were no apparent needs. The house is a pretty new building – two or three years old and very clean. The children who live there learn to care for it and I think every time I was there some cleaning was going on. It is also apparently well funded from outside of the country which is the case with Casa Austria, another “casa,” here in Ploieşti funded by Austrian Jesuits. Casa Austria worked with another practicum group on another project as well.

Initially member of the Peace Corps staff went with us to the casa – more than anything else to show us how to get there, but she ended up being our interpreter as the director and the educator we had the most contact with speak only Romanian and German. The educator told us that some of the kids when they arrive at Casa Eva are unable enter the Romanian public school system because they are so far behind in skills, and therefore not allowed to go to school yet. The staff tries to teach the kids enough so that they can get into the school, but their system of education works in cooperation with the emotional and psychological therapy the children receive. Rather than force the children to attend lessons in their own home, the learning takes place in the context of informal games and activities that are conducted in the common area. Kids participate if they’re interested. The educator expressed a need for more educational games and activities to do with the kids.

At our second visit we spoke with some of the older residents of Casa Eva who speak English very well. They told us whenever the kids are not doing homework they watch tv and on the weekends they perform their cleaning and laundry rituals and take walks. During the summer the kids take organized trips out of Ploieşti, even to Turkey, but during the school year and on weekends it didn’t sound like there were a lot of organized activities for them. They also mentioned that some of the kids in the house have friends at Casa Austria but outside of these big summer trips there is not much coordination between the two houses.

Our group decided to plan a joint “Activity Day” with the kids from Casa Eva and Casa Austria. We would meet in the park from 11 to 3 and have games in the morning and after sack lunches a little talent show where the kids could show off for the members of the other house. We even had another volunteer lined up to do some magic tricks. Our activity day was originally set for March 24th, a Saturday that Ploieşti was saturated by rain so we had to reschedule it for last Saturday April 14th.

While we planned our event our group continued to visit Casa Eva a couple of times a week. The third time we came back we asked in advance if we could observe one of the organized educational activities with the kids (it was arranging Rumikub tiles in ascending and descending order and by color.) The kids loved us, and they loved to show us their “homework” - little notebooks in which they practice writing lines and letters. We were surprised to learn that many of the kids look and act a lot younger than they are. Some of these were twelve and thirteen year olds beginning to learn the alphabet and how to write their letters and numbers. But they taught me to play Rumikub which I had never played, and a couple of the boys even played my teammates Brandon and Geoff in a couple games of chess.

The next time we went to Casa Eva we told them we’d bring a planned activity to do with the kids. I translated the game “train wreck” – a popular ice breaker from the Linking Up after school program - with the help of one of our language teachers. It was fun for a while and gave us volunteers a chance to practice our Romanian vocabulary, but after it wore off the kids wanted to play slaps with us. We taught them “Rock, Scissors, Paper” and “Thumb war”. After that we’d visit the kids and play games with them – rarely were they planned in advance – but with our limited Romanian vocabulary we taught them “Spoons,” “Go Fish”, and they taught us another form of “uno” that starts with an “m.”

Since our original event was canceled we had a lot more time to think about our project with Casa Eva and we decided to compile all the educational games and activities the six of us in the Casas Eva and Austria group could think of them, and translate them into Romanian for a book we would give each of the casas. This honestly might not have actually happened if we had been able to concentrate solely on pulling off the Activity Day. We divided our activities into Educational, (such as Around the World, BINGO and even coloring by number), Teamwork, Communication or Leadership building, (this was me translating many of the games I remembered from the Linking Up after school program I co-coordinated while I worked for Americorps), and Games that were just Fun (Ashley’s experience as a former camp counselor really came in handy here.)

We borrowed research translated by another practicum group and included a brief essay on how physical activity and increased serotonin levels can aid in the treatment of mental and emotional problems. We also wrote brief explanations of the social and mental benefit of engaging kids in leadership/teamwork activities, good sportsmanship, and the steps for planning the Activity Day so hopefully the two casas can arrange similar joint events in the future. We had our Language and Cultural Instructors (LCIs) proofread our Romanian and corrected our errors.

One happy side effect of our project is we now have a collection of activities for kids in Romanian. I’m now working on collecting the English instructions for each game from my teammates and putting together another book in English and Romanian for any volunteers in my training class who will be working with kids. It’s called “sharing resources or Laura makes more work for herself.” No, I’m very excited to pass along the work that me and my teammates did and hope it can benefit other people’s projects when we go off to our sites.

So Saturday arrived, a beautiful spring day, not a cloud in the sky. We decorated our area of the park with colored streamers and waited for the kids to arrive. Immediately we engaged them in a big game of train wreck which I called “Castron pentru Salata” or “Salad Bowl” another name for it, because there are trains here and they must crash sometimes and we didn’t want to be insensitive. After that we played an exciting game of “Cat and Mouse” before all of their attention was stolen from us by three soccer balls.

After that we basically had an unorganized day of fun in the park, interrupted briefly by random spurts of organized games. There was much wrestling with Justin, the biggest volunteer in our group whose tattoos were a major source of fascination for the kids. But we did manage a three legged race and a little bit of blob tag as well. It didn’t look like any kind of organized “talent show” was going to happen, or at least not the way we planned it, but the kids from Casa Austria who take karate lessons outside the casa were determined to display their skills. After that a couple of groups of girls bravely entered the circle to sing songs for those of us who were paying attention.

Someone told me they counted 15 volunteers from my training class out of 33 who had no obligation to the project. I was overwhelmed by the show of support whether people played games with the kids, took pictures, did a few card tricks or held up a garbage bag and helped us to encourage the kids to pick up their garbage off the ground.

I promise pictures for the blog as soon as I get them from the people who took them. As per usual I had my camera with me and I didn’t take it out of my bag all day.

Although the day didn’t go exactly as planned, I still think it went well. The kids all had a good time running around outside and there was a lot of friendly activity going on between the kids of both houses. The staff members from both casas sat together in the shade talking and looking at the books of activities we had given them while the kids ran wild. I took it as a good sign.

We can’t know if future collaborations with Casa Eva and Casa Austria will take place. If the teachers will use our books of activities (I think they’ll have better luck implementing them since they speak the same language as the kids) or if they’ll go on shelf and be ignored. We’ve had only six weeks to put a project together and there’s no knowing whether or not we’ll have any lasting impact, but based purely on the fact that the kids had fun I think I’ll call the project a success.

It was also a great opportunity for me and my fellow volunteers to do some cultural observation. I had never seen the game “horse” played before although I heard it described by Bill Cosby, I think. It’s where one person bends over and puts their head between the knees of the person in front of them. When you have a chain of four people bent over, other people run, jump and vault on to the backs of the bent over people. The goal is to try and see how many people the bent over people can support before you all fall over. I think every American’s reaction to that game was “that looks so dangerous!”

In general we found the games the Romanian children played on their own to be very violent (like the game where you stand in a circle and slap everybody’s hand in turn – the goal being to try and get someone to say “ouch” and then they’re out.) I think those of us from the U.S. would believe the Romanian kids are allowed much more freedom and opportunity to hurt themselves than we’re used to, and I’m sure Romanians would find kids in the States a bit overprotected and over analyzed.

We were given somewhere between 30 and 40 children for 4 hours and told to do whatever. The words “insurance,” “liability” and “first aid” were never mentioned.

At the end of the day candy was distributed to the kids courtesy of our two practicum groups. We picked up our garbage and made sure it was thrown away. We thanked the staff members from Casa Eva and they wished us Good luck. They decided to stay in the park with the kids and enjoy a sunny Saturday afternoon in the park and we left to explore a beautiful spring day in Ploieşti.

Geoff arm wrestling Marius
Gabi playing football
The boys playing football in the courtyard
Marius playing chess
Fun at Casa Eva
A chess game at Casa Eva
Geoff and Gabi play slaps

Monday, April 09, 2007

Paşte Fericit! (Happy Easter)

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. This information is not for publication elsewhere without my permission and is intended only for the readers of this webpage. Reproduction of this information without my expressed written permission (after I get it checked out with Peace Corps) is not nice and could get me into trouble so don’t do it.

Written Monday April 9, 2007

Yesterday was the Orthodox celebration of Easter which I think this year lines up with the Roman Catholic and also Protestant celebration of Easter. Usually the Orthodox celebration of Easter is different so for the next two years you’ll probably be hearing Happy Easter from me a little early. Although my gazda family has never gone to church with me before, Saturday night we stayed up until midnight and brought candles to church to have them lit and bring them home. The priest came outside on a wooden platform built outside the church and the people stood around crossing themselves occasionally (like they do on the bus every time we drive past a church.)

I’m told the service usually lasts three hours and you stand the whole time – usual in the Orthodox church, people spend the whole service standing. It was kind of strange for me to think of people staying up late to go to church at midnight for three hours. It reminded me a little of going to the midnight showing of Return of the King. But we didn’t stay for the entire church service. The church, or outside of the church before midnight was very crowded. When the time came there was a lot of pushing and making your way through the crowd to get your candle lit, or just sticking it in someone else’s flame to light it. I’m surprised more people don’t get set on fire. An old woman did bump me and sort of lose her candle between me and my jacket. I gasped and jumped and was generally quite flustered. I probably overreacted but I was wearing rayon and I know how flammable that is.

Yesterday after a late breakfast Lumi announced that we were going on a visit at one and today “families would all eat lunch together.” We got in the car with a bouquet of flowers and drove to another bloc in Ploieşti where we were greeted warmly with kisses on both cheeks from the woman and a kiss on my hand by the old man. I had no idea who they were but apparently we were having dinner with them. I was surprised to realize they already knew I was a vegetarian.

The conversation went very fast and I wasn’t always able to follow all of it but I could tell when it was about me, my family, my friends in the Peace Corps, the job I’ll have in Deva, the jobs some of my friends will be doing, the project I’m working on next weekend for practicum with Casa Eva, a list of things that I will eat…

I jumped in whenever I could to attempt to clarify points about myself which I’m not sure I did successfully in my very slow Romanian with I’m sure some incorrect grammar. In general though I got the sense that everyone was impressed with all the things I was able to say correctly. There was some joking that if I drank more palinka I would speak better Romanian.

Ţuica (TSWEEKA) is a common drink – I think it’s the national drink. It’s plum wine twice distilled into Plum brandy. Palinka is Transylvanian Ţuica that is distilled one more time, (that’s three) making it about 87% alcohol. And it tastes like it. As the amount of Palinka in my glass decreased the amount of mineral water I added to it increased. Faced with all this overwhelming hospitality I decided to test the tradition that if you empty your glass, it will be refilled. It is true. Luckily I switched to white wine. Don’t worry I didn’t embarrass myself or the U.S.

I’m proud to say I contributed to the conversation – and spoke more than Tina. I don’t know if that’s because she isn’t welcomed to participate because she’s a kid, or because she was watching the TV that was on in the corner, but I spoke almost no English and was able to communicate I think pretty effectively.

Through conversation I learned that these people are Lumi’s in-laws. The mother and father of her late husband. Pictures were passed around of her niece, their granddaughter who is a child model at the age of 6.

When we sat down there was the traditional Easter dish, drob (the internal organs of a lamb, wrapped in the stomach and baked. It looks like greenish brown meatloaf due to the fistfuls of parsley in it.) grilled fish, bread, zacusca (it’s called pinjur if you buy it at Trader Joe’s and it’s very common here – roasted eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and garlic spread on bread. I eat it for breakfast almost everyday but this was homemade as opposed to from a jar. I was encouraged to eat it all so there wouldn’t be leftovers), cooked pinto beans with garlic and parsley, salad made of shredded celery root, mayonnaise, olives and radishes, a plate of whole tomatoes and radishes (what Romanian meal is complete without whole raw tomatoes?) and boiled eggs.

The Easter tradition here with the eggs is to color them – many people dye the majority of the eggs red, although there are other colors or prominently display the red ones to represent the blood of Christ. On Easter Sunday you take an egg in your hand, pointy side up and someone takes their egg and says “Christos înviat” (Christ Resurrected) to which you reply “Adeverat înviat” (The resurrection is true). Then they knock the pointy side of their egg against your egg. The point is to try and break the other person’s egg without breaking your own. When your egg is broken you peel and eat it.

The only eggs we celebrated with were dyed solid colors, but there are the more elaborately painted Easter eggs here that I would have thought of as Ukrainian Easter eggs at home. The tradition extends into Romania. You can buy the elaborately painted blown egg shells or wooden eggs at the Palm Sunday craft market in Bucharest if you’re into souvenirs but what many people do is to paint hard boiled eggs and then save one every year. If it breaks and is rotten you’ll have bad luck for a year, but if it breaks and is dried up and not rotten you’re luck will be good. Best just to not let them break. My professor Simona has one from when she was a kid.

Above listed with the food are the things that I ate including a small piece of grilled fish (the fish here is fishier tasting than I’m used to and I’ve accepted that people even in the US believe vegetarians eat fish. To contradict them requires too much energy.) I was glad that something else that looked like fish in clear gelatin had some other kind of meat in it because I wasn’t welcomed to try it. There was also sarmale – cabbage rolls stuffed with rice, beef and pork and served with sour cream. I think they’re my favorite Romanian dish when I have them without meat, served this time with a relish of pickled peppers, and also lamb coirba – the Romanian sour soup that can be made with any kind of meat – or no meat at all.

After all this, I thought the cozonac – traditional Easter sweat bread and I can’t remember the name of the other bread with cheese and raisins was desert. But then came out a huge plate of lamb that even I had to comment looked perfect (Lumi agreed “like a picture in a magazine”) and a salad made of spinach, parsley, tomatoes and radishes. Green salad is not something I’ve seen a lot of in Romania. Most “salads” involve some kind of mayo and are similar to potato salad. But especially since we arrived at the end of winter our choice of fresh vegetables has been limited – mostly to tomatoes and cucumbers. There is always imported produce in the big supermarkets but a lot of people would rather wait until spring and summer and stick with Romanian grown vegetables from the local piaţa.

Then there was Torte (cake – there’s a lot of controversy in class as to how Americans think the names of Romanian deserts should translate) with fresh cream and sour cherries, Turkish coffees with fresh cream, more wine and just when you thought you were done for sure – fruit salad with fresh cream! After all this, Lumi, Tina and I went home to rest and “siesta.” I followed my personal Easter Tradition of listening to the Highlights from Jesus Christ Superstar up to my yearly quota.

Today we went for a long drive to a forested park near a lake. It was nice to be out of doors on a spring day and I was looking forward to a walk in the woods. Lumi said she hadn’t been there in three years. Apparently it’s a very popular spot because there were a lot of people there today picnicking and listening to music. Because this was the park you didn’t have to pay to get into people just drive their cars into the woods and tailgate more than picnic. When the trash cans overflow they leave their trash on the ground. This has started to seem sadly typical in a country where the local government isn’t always organized enough to collect trash and the idea of littering hasn’t become socially stigmatized. Lumi was pretty upset that the forest was so dirty and full of garbage and there were no flowers out. It really made me appreciate our state parks and campgrounds back home.

The other thing was there were no real trails to walk on, we just took a couple of short walks down the potholed pavement roads and had to quickly dodge any oncoming cars going faster than anyone should down such roads. Afterward we visited an Orthodox convent to pray and light candles and then the Catholic church to pray for Lumi’s mother who was Catholic. Her mother passed away two years ago a few days after Easter and then her husband died a month later, so this is a difficult time of year for her.

Today the Catholic church was closed because I think a mass was in session so we just stood outside for a few minutes and honored her mother in silence. Even though it’s still a beautiful but cool sunny day outside I’m taking advantage of my chance to be lazy and am typing this with the door to the balcony open in my room. I would like to spend more time outside but I don’t really want to go anywhere and I have a lot of reading and writing I want to do so I’ll sign off for now. Here’s hoping that in the year’s to come I’ll be able to describe Romanian Eater traditions more accurately and in better detail.

Tina & Lumi day after Easter

The Bucharest Craft fair last weekend
Woman selling painted eggshells and wooden eggs at the Bucharest craft fair
The family
The table
Me and the family on Easter after Lunch

Friday, April 06, 2007

At Last! Site Announcements!

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. This information is not for publication elsewhere without my permission and is intended only for the readers of this webpage. Reproduction of this information without my expressed written permission (after I get it checked out with Peace Corps) is not nice and could get me into trouble so don’t do it.

Written Wednesday April 4, 2007
It doesn’t feel like I’ve been here five weeks. Last week was our halfway through training mark and we found out our site assignments and job descriptions. First, though we had a half day of language “assessment” where we rotated through six different stations with our language teachers pretending to be shop keepers, restaurant waitstaff, postal clerks, our gazda families etc. putting us into situations where we had to speak Romanian with them, so they could give us feedback on what we need to practice.

I didn’t study too much before the day because I didn’t want my results to be artificially positive, and I’m satisfied with my feedback – four B’s and two A’s but I still have a long way to go. Anyway that in the morning and site announcements in the afternoon made for a very exciting and emotionally exhausting day.
My site where I will be living for the next two years is in the city of Deva which has approximately 71,000 people.
If you go to the Wikepedia site for Deva in Romania, you’ll know about as much as me because a printout of that is what I was given along with some information about my organization. There was a fortress there built in the 1300’s on some nearby mountain top – and it exploded I guess, but the ruin is still there, and apparently it’s a nice mountain in a city surrounded by the mountains of Transylvania.

I’ve been told in Deva I can look forward to modern connivances like mobile phone service, and the internet in my apartment which make it a little hard to believe I’m in the Peace Corps, but then I will be doing my laundry by hand since everyday things in the US like washing machines are not common.
I’ll be working with a six year old NGO that has never had a volunteer before. It’s called Mara Foundation (Fundaţia Mara) and provides services and resources to at-risk youth in Hunedoara County. From the information I’ve been given it looks like Mara Foundation focuses on formally institutionalized children who were in orphanages, children with HIV and mentally and physically handicapped children and their foster parents. It sounds like they wanted a volunteer with some new and different ideas to help them recruit volunteers, fundraise, help with public relations and hopefully do a little bit of programming as well.

My Program Manager in Peace Corps told me there were two places they were thinking of placing me and this is the one where I will have less opportunity to work directly with the kids, but I’ll also have plenty of opportunities for side projects in case I want to go to the local high schools and start an English Club or a Service Club or something.
After a busy day of site announcements and language assessment, I still wasn’t done. I got on a train for the nearby city of Pieşti and volunteer for one day on a Habitat for Humanity Project. It’s our opportunity as trainees to get out of the school on the weekend and do some manual labor – and its all expenses paid by Peace Corps.

While I was there I met TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer who currently lives in Deva. So I was able to get some info on the town and learn a little bit about what to expect. For example, there are three grocery stores and pizza and sandwich delivery is available. I’m told the best coffee shop in Romania is there (although we’ll have to see, I heard about a really good coffee shop in the Miamurişt area). It sounds like I’m pretty lucky and I have pretty reliable train and bus access to the rest of the country and surrounding countries. I’m six hours from Budapest. Three hours south of Clug – a big tourist spot. Apparently “Phil” was able to get on a bus in Deva and travel to Istanbul. And he might be moving there after PC so if he as a couch to crash on…

I also met his girlfriend, a PC volunteer in Pieşti who’s from the Mississippi Gulf Coast – so we talked about my volunteer experience there! Even though they’re both leaving Romania in July it’s nice to have someone who can introduce me to the town and help me get situated (besides my second host family, I’ll be living with for the month of May, that is) and it was cool to talk to someone else who knew what I was talking about when I mentioned my experience in Mississippi after the hurricane.

The work on Saturday was enough to make you proud after you did it. We ended up deepening two sixty foot trenches each by three feet, laying the pipe that will eventually bring indoor plumbing to the house that was being renovated and then burying the pipe again. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the fact that we were digging into clay with large stones buried in it. And that it was so cold that after digging for three hours I still didn’t want to take off my sweatshirt. But I’m not complaining. It was good to get out in the aer liber and have some physical exertion even if my back and shoulders were already sore from carrying my bags before I even got to the Habitat Site.
In other news, (briefly) I was able to spend some time in Bucharest on my way back to Ploieşti last Sunday so some other volunteers and I were able to attend a craft and flower fair, held ever Palm Sunday at the Peasants Museum. Due to connections with a friend of a member of Peace Corps staff who works at the museum I was able to see the MOST AWESOME PUPPET SHOW EVER even though it was for kids. Perhaps I will post on just the puppet show at a later date. I was very glad I decided to go to the craft fair, although carrying my weekend bag around Bucharest after a day of digging trenches in clay was not my idea of fun and I was sore for not less than two days afterward. In fact, I’m still a little sore now.

Other adventures of a theatrical nature include, I went to see the show Biloxi Blues playing here in Ploieşti, although it was expensive $50 RON and I had to get money out of my checking account at home. I knew the story from having seen the movie about two years ago. My friend, Micah didn’t fair so well because he saw the movie when he was eight, but it was interesting to watch the story unfold and practice listening to Romanian while only understanding a word hear and there. The best part was hearing amongst all the rapid-fire Romanian the words “Biloxi Mississippi.” I was especially interested in seeing the show having recently spent time in Mississippi in close proximity to Biloxi. Luckily the characters in the play are mostly from other states or I would have felt compelled to point out that Mississippians pronounce it “Bluxi.”