Monday, December 13, 2010

To Love a Home is to Love the People Living There

It really is a wonder to come back to a dearly loved place and realize that life as you knew it has moved on without you that while you were changing in some beautiful mountainous region that people continued living and not just living but living without you. I have never been the type to be very homesick but arriving in the states and leaving the four people that I bonded with the most during the semester has made me aware that coming back to a place that you have left for a while is much harder than to assimilate into somewhere new. As I was walking into my dorm Hospers, I said goodbye to Kelly and Marit. It wasn’t until I was greeted downstairs by my group of friends here at school that I realized how desperately I missed my Romania people. Now it wasn’t that I was unhappy to see my friends it is just that I know Kelly, Marit, Tad, Zach and the rest of the gang in Romania much better at this moment then the lovely people who greeted me in the lobby. I wanted to stay with the other four for they were what I knew all semester and we at least had an understanding of what we had done and how we had grown. I feel right now as if I don’t have the energy to explain the time I was gone…that I won’t do the semester justice if I try to explain it to those who have not had the same experience. I have never had such an intense reaction to being back in a place but then again I have never come back from such a long period of being gone. Granted three and half months didn’t seem to be that long, but people have been changed by two week trips in the mountains and we had a much longer time away. Three and a half months I chose to be present in Romania and now that I am back I must choose to be present in America, in school in Iowa, and with my family during Christmas break. I am dreading what comes with that choice as I know that I cannot say something and do something else. And sadly it means that thinking about people and mountains in Romania and idealizing Lupeni in the Jiu valley as the best place to be right now is not an option. I do think that without my faith and stronghold that I would not have been capable of going to Romania, much less coming back. And though I know that it may be a near impossible feat to become fully present in America it is the only way that I can become fully here. To all the study abroad students and everyone else who is having a tough time finishing out the semester strong and anyone else who needs a little bit of encouragement, remember that God is a rock who is ever constant and is a firm foundation and if you focus on him he will get you through your tough times. A verse in Psalms emphasizes this point quite well as it is in the context of David praising God for getting him through a tough battle and has been an encouragement to me throughout the semester when I doubt that I am going to be able to overcome my battles. In Psalm 18:1-3 it says, “I love you O lord, my strength. You are my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, God you are my rock in whom I take refuge, You are my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. You are worthy of my praise, I call out and you have saved me from my enemies.

The Result of watching too much LOST

So because certain people have been pressuring me to watch a certain show and have succeeded in making me watch it, I have been inspired to make a few connections from it to life in Romania. Lost, a show about people deserted on a mysterious island after a plane crash focuses on the survivor’s stories and how they tie into the events that are taking place on the island. As the characters go through challenges on the island each one offers something to the group and they have to work together to use their talents and overcome their weaknesses to help each other survive. After the first few episodes Zach insisted we be paired with character we identified with in the show, but as soon as he decided this he began assigning ones to us himself. As well as all of the characters having their distinct personality traits each one has a major character flaw meaning all of them have a dark side that they each have to try and overcome. As the show continues the characters become more complex. With all this in mind both Zach and Tad gave us each characters because they had seen the entire show. I am sorry to all those who have not seen or heard about Lost for you will probably not understand what I will be making to references to and I will understand if you just stop reading here. If you know who the characters are then you will understand a little bit better but here is who we got stuck with- Kelly as Kate, Marit as Hurley, Zach as Charlie, and Tad as Sayid. At first I was paired with Sawyer because
Kelly and Marit Zach Tad and Julie Tad and Zach
Zach heard that I agreed with Sawyer about not trusting anyone on the island but because I refused to acknowledge that we had been paired and I loathed his character Zach became frustrated that I rejected Sawyer and decided I was Ana Lucia instead though he did not really explain why. Just thought I would show you how obsessed the boys really were with the show and how much of their addiction they passed on to us girls.
Sawyer Ana Lucia
So onto the connections, as the people have done their best to survive on the island through kidnappings, cave collapses, polar bears, creepy “others” and etc. they have had to go through many tough and trying challenges just as we have had to in Romania. Through having to attend sometimes philosophic classes, help in our IMPACT clubs, spend time with our host families and each other and try to communicate in a different language in order to assimilate into Romanian culture we have also had to overcome many challenges to survive. As the characters combat several different catastrophes they and their fellow survivors learn more about themselves and each other coming to understand how to live on an island and the support and life skills you need to be able to do so. In a sense Romania was an island for all of us American students, we could not just leave and go home we had to stick it out until the day came and we were rescued. Though unlike the island survivors for some of us rescuing felt funny and a couple of us were like “No! This is my island home that I have come to love” or something like that because we had come to love the people on the island and the island itself through the lessons gained and challenges we overcame.
My last connection is more of my own personal one. As the story progresses two of the characters happen upon a sealed metal hatch in the woods and to prevent panic do not share their find till the life of one of them is in jeopardy. His last words lead to the discovery of the hatch and before the secret gets out, the two people go back day after day obsessed in opening it. When I arrived in Romania I was filled with some hard questions that I had been pondering for a while, hoping that a few would be answered in Romania. Every day as we woke up in a different country I became obsessed throwing everything I had at it like Locke and going back over and over asking God if anything would ever be revealed. I did open the hatch like Locke and like him all I found was more questions. But in opening that hatch I learned a valuable lesson as well that though I may question God he will never turn away or get irritated that I am pestering him because he is a patient God who will in his own time answer me. When I think about the other lesson I learned I am reminded of the time when in one of the episodes Locke keeps asking Jack to believe and trust that he was brought there for a reason. Because in the same way I have to accept that God led me to Romania for a reason and though I do not know what is going to come next I believe that God knows and has it under his control.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Beacon article that (dear old) Barracuda considered spam...So it shall appear here, instead. (a couple days late)

Thanksgiving has come and gone, December has arrived, a phenomenal weekend has been spent in the Cabana (go read two posts down the list, to hear about that one), our final papers have been written and turned in, and we have gone through pre-departure re-entry exercises to prepare us for the ordeal ahead.

It hit me hardest last night: in under a week I will leave Romania and return to the United States.  I’ve known about this all semester— December 6th, a day to look forward to seeing my friends and family, a day to sit on 3 different airplanes for 14+hours, a day to not forget anything… and now, very honestly, a day to mourn.  Romania is beautiful and hospitable, it is loving and unique and my home and I don’t want to leave.  The people I have met are incredible, the culture, peering past the broken bloc remnants of communism’s legacy, is rich and deep, and the mountains surrounding my Lupeni home are breathtaking.  And tomorrow we will move out of our respective homes in Apartments Lucy and George (Noooo!), tromp off to Bucharest for the weekend and on Monday afternoon, begin flying west towards home. 
Kadie, our amazing program administrator (I start tearing up just thinking about say goodbye to her), found this beautiful quote (From Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi) which aptly sums up what most of us seem to be thinking right now: “You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place…like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”  It is nice to have words to describe at least that piece of the jumble of thoughts stomping through my brain, a weekend before the end.  
There is no way that I could summarize my semester for you in 600 words, so instead let me urge you to go find out for yourself, perhaps not in Romania (although I would highly recommend it to some people!), but somewhere.  You have a unique opportunity, as a college student, to spend a piece of summer or a whole semester off-campus.  …You’ll need at least that many credits worth of electives eventually anyway AND it fulfills your cross-cultural Gen-Ed requirement—or pick a program that fits your major and the list of great academic reasons gets longer— it’s an opportunity well worth taking!  Enjoy your Northwestern community, but remember that the world is so much bigger than we sometimes remember in the jostle of classes, homework and campus obligations.  The walk to and from the caf seems endless sometimes, but outside the edges of campus, a bigger world awaits (and I don’t just mean Orange City…or even Sioux county). And with such a diverse range of opportunities just an application away, it seems a shame not to at least consider experiencing a new place, a new subject matter and a new vision of life in a way you might not have the chance to ever again.  I mean, seriously, how many of us will have the chance to just up & move to a country of our choice for 4 months ever again…and with scholarships, to boot!  You might learn a few things about the difference between knowledge and understanding.  You might be stretched by thoughts you didn’t know were out there.  You might be captured by the beauty of the earth, the diversity of the human race, a new way of seeing…who knows, you might even fall in love with a place, a people, a way of life.  You might discover another place that you will remember as home.   I have.

So goodbye until Monday, Northwestern, and be prepared…because ready or not, here we come with all our stories and our excitement (and our reverse-culture-shock-combined-with-jet-lag-crankiness!  Oh boy...). 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Wait a minute, I'm the leader, I'll say when its the end.......It's the end"

We have 5ish days till we are back in the states. As I look back at what this semester has been I am both pleasantly surprised as well as disappointed. This semester is not what I thought it was going to be. It was not an easy semester, I couldn't go wherever I wanted on the weekends, I was not invisible among the Romanian crowd. In some cases I was viewed as the ignorant American, in other cases I was seen as that lucky, awesome American, neither of which I liked at all. I didn't make relationships the way I wanted to. I didn't leave Father Ciocan's house feeling good about myself in regards that I made my stay pleasant for them. I have regrets and I can't change that. I don't know if it's possible to have an experience like this and not leave without regrets.

However, in spite of all the things that I regret, there is so much more good that happened. Yes, it was a hard semester, but an excellent semester. I learned more than I could have dreamed of. Many time I ask myself, "What is a computer science major doing on a semester like this?" Well the answer is a simple answer, I just plain ole wanted to travel abroad, I love traveling and I wanted to see the world. This semester offered that to me. But even though I'm a computer science major I still had a wonderful time learning about the issues in our classes. Obviously since were in Romania, I had a Romanian Culture and History class, and I definitely enjoyed it. Since the Romania is mostly Orthodox Christian we had an Eastern Orthodoxy class, and since I am Christian Reformed I had many beneficial struggles and eye openers in this class. Since we are studying under an organization that deals with development we had a class call Sustainable and Human development, many of the things I learned in this class I had never heard of before, and I loved it, even though it was insanely hard and confusing at times. And since this organization uses experiential education to teach kids about how to be active in their communities I had a class called Experiential Education. This class I probably struggled the most with, since I'm not good with short term relationships that I had to make with the kids. But I still learned a ton from it, I learned what New Horizons is all about and what experiential education can do for kids and their country.

But this semester was great for more than just the classes. We had amazing awesome trips around Romania which showed us beautiful sights and taught us a little more about Romania's history. Our group of students was able to bond and not tear at each others throats by the end. I found this fascinating, not that I wanted to tear at each others throats but I just thought that a group this small would get sick of each other quite fast under the circumstances that put us together all the time. But the opposite happened to my delight and I can honestly say that we are good friends. There are many, many, many (I probably need more manys on this one) more reasons why this semester was fantastic, there just isn't enough room in this blog to tell them all. So it's the end now, we have a week till we're back in the states. With that being said, I would like to thank everyone who prayed for me and kept me in their thoughts. And I would like to thank our semester leaders who put up with us and enjoyed some good times with us (hopefully). Thank you all, the end is nigh.

-Zach Hankel

Monday, November 29, 2010

Delight is best explained by Calvin and Hobbes

 Today, Monday November 29th is significant for many reasons:
It is the birthday of our dear, wonderful program administrator, Kadie.  It is a week before we leave for the United States.  And it marks the beginning of finals week.  And this is the first time in my college career that I have finished any of my final papers by the time finals week proper rolls around.

Usually it goes something like this:

But no, this time I was prepared!  And as I sit on the couch in Apartment Lucy on Monday , three of my four papers are complete and have been turned in.  “Aha, you’ve finally learned!”  one might say.  But one would be wrong.  It is not that I have suddenly, halfway through my senior year, learned to work on my papers in a timely manner.  This beautiful, momentous occasion is due entirely to a weekend at the Cabana.

The FNO Cabana sits in the small ski-village of Straja atop Mt. Straja, 9 km due "up"from Lupeni.  Straja is home to summer’s Viața camp, and the Cabana at Straja is home to Viața’s summer leaders.  In the winter, though, it is home to Adi and, for the past weekend, Kadie & us studenții. 
On Thursday night, after a beautiful Thanksgiving day of fellowship and food at the Bates’ home, the five students, Capt’n Kadie and Adi drove up Strada Straja (Straja Road) to the town of Straja where we intended to stay two nights and return on Saturday evening.  Upon our departure, we laughed at ourselves for the excessive quantity of food we had packed.  By this morning, though, we had just about finished it off.  I worried beforehand about how little homework I would get done, locked in a Cabin on a mountain with a mess of fun people for the weekend.  By last night, though, I had accomplished a good cite more than I ever would have in Lupeni.  So now, an extra two nights later, here we are back in Lupeni, thanks to a glorious weekend of snow.  There is simply nothing more delightful than being snowed into a warm cabin in the mountains on the weekend with no urgent need to leave.  And the extra time just made the time even more relaxing, productive and delightful!   
Much of our semester, to date, had looked like this, in hopes of seeing snow on the Transylvannian alps before our departure. And so great was our delight over a good solid snowfall that I think I understand now how perfect Calvin’s comparison of a snowfall to a lottery win is!

Other than the many papers completed, here are some of my make-you-jealous highlights of the weekend: 
Good conversation with great company.

Warmth, hot chocolate, down comforters and a den-like living room for cozying up with a good book.  
(Granted, we didn’t have a fire…or even warm tiger tummies, but this is the feeling.)
A nearly-constant snowfall, huge windows overlooking the fog-covered, mountains, town, valley and steady stream of children and sleds flying down the hill or the snowed-over road…  Glorious! 

Laughing at (and later joining) Kelly & Julie as they danced around the living room to the sounds of Luther College Choral Christmas music.

Hiking up to the Straja Cross and then through snowy pine woods down a darling little trail. All accompanied by a massive, extensive snowball fight. (Photos stolen from Kelly Larsen – Thanks Kelly!)

And, of course…knitting with Kadie! 

Relaxation, homework, and snow?  The perfect way to spend the weekend of finals?  I think so!   

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Some Thoughts

There are things that we can't do ourselves. Have you ever tried to move a couch into a building by yourself? If so then you know what I'm talking about about. We need each other. No one man (or woman) stands alone in this world. We are designed to be in relation with one another and if you deny that then you have it dead wrong. I'm sorry friend but if you don't believe me then just try doing the task that was mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. So how does this concept play into our lives? Not just our everyday life but our life as a whole because another truth about humanity is that we fail. As much as a person would like help another person all the time they won't be able to, all the time. There are things that the former person won't understand about the latter. We can't know exactly what is going through the head of the person we want to help. So where does that leave us? Will we just have a gap that won't be filled? A spot that no one else will fully understand? No, it doesn't have to be that way. Because there is a being who wants to help you and They (or He/She) know exactly what you are going through. They know what you want, what is going on in your mind, and what you truly need. They are the Trinity.

Over these past few weeks I have been able to see the power of the living God alive in my life. Just like there are tasks that other people help me complete, there are tasks that God helps me complete. There is no way that I would be at peace right now if it hadn't been for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost's intervention. Two and a half weeks ago I was about ready to throw in the towel, give up, and go back to the states. But through God I was able to find a peace that filled me so much that I have found a new yearning for Romania. So much so that this weekend I gave up one of my passions, traveling, to stay behind and hang out with some Romanian youth a little this weekend.

Another example of God helping me complete a task is, as many know, when we were in Italy driving about, trying to find hostels and other various attractions, we probably would have died if it hadn't been for the supernatural calm that was over us (it's crazy that within chaos there is tranquility).

“But,” you might say, “if God is watching over us, granting us what we need, then why don't we always have peace?” Well, there's a catch, you have to ask, and even then it is granted in His time. But this is where other people can help too, they can ask for things for you. This is called praying. Talking to God. Affirming love for Him and your fellow man/woman. You see before we would drive anywhere in Italy we would pray, we would pray for safety and peace, and they were granted. Before the week begins I pray for peace, and not only do I pray but also my team back home, who remembers me daily. I truly believe that without my team of prayer warriors back home I would be freaking out right now and likely missing out on all the great things that are happening here.

All this is to say that we are not alone, we have someone who cares for us and wants us to care for Them and each other. And there is no little power in prayer, no instead there is great power and we should use it to further The Kingdom.

Dedicated to those that have prayed for me while I am in Romania.

To those that prayed regularly, prayed once, or even just thought about me, Thank You.

In Christ,

Bryent TAD Slagter

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tuberculosis in Romania

I thought tuberculosis had disappeared.

Honestly, seriously, I thought it was one of those diseases that was from the era of Ellis Island—one of those illnesses that would get your coat marked with chalk as you waited in line to enter America after a couple months at sea, one of those sicknesses that made you unfit for entry into the country for fear of a public health crisis.  I thought it was a disease only of the past, of the era of the plague and smallpox and yellow fever.  I thought it was eradicated.

It’s not.

Last week, a Ph.D. student from New York, Jonathan Stillo, came to our sustainable development class and delivered a lecture that’s still making my head spin.  He’s been studying tuberculosis (TB) in Romania for his doctoral dissertation as a medical anthropologist, and thus has been in and out of the country for the last decade, spending time at sanatoria across the country, talking to patients and doctors, learning more about the epidemic which is wracking lungs across Romania—an epidemic that no one will talk about.

There are about a dozen sanatoria in Romania, most of them remote, isolated from society atop mountains “beyond the sight of God.”  Jonathan described the road to one particular treatment center as treacherous, filled with potholes, impassable in the winter, winding in a series of wicked switchbacks up the side of mountains inhabited by bears but not by people.  Most of the people who work there live there—it’s impractical, if not impossible, to commute.  Few patients get visitors.  There’s only one maxi-taxi a day, and it’s expensive.  Plus, who’s going to spend a full day traveling up a mountain to visit a place full of patients with a disease that no one wants to admit they have?

Tuberculosis is a social disease.  There are economic and social conditions that predispose you to getting it—namely, poverty.  Malnourishment, overcrowding, high stress: all conditions of poverty.  All of them also will reduce your body’s ability to fight off TB.  So tuberculosis is a disease of the poor—but it’s not only a disease of the poor.  It’s highly contagious (so contagious that if you’re found to have TB in the United States, you will be locked in a hospital for months until you can’t pass it on), so rich people can get it too.  Back in the States, that’s less common—but in Romania, many of the patients at the sanatoria are taxi drivers, nurses, teachers, lawyers.  Not people in poverty.

We’d read Mountains Beyond Mountains in preparation for the class, a great book by Tracy Kidder about a medical doctor and anthropologist named Paul Farmer who’s doing great work with tuberculosis in Haiti (and all over the world, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll leave it there).  Farmer’s inspirational.  The book will make you angry, and make you sad, and probably make you feel guilty—and that’s as it should, because he gets it.  He cautions against the “immodest claims of causality” that anthropologists like to make—those exotic cultural habits that make foreigners seem ignorant, seem like the cause of their own problems.  He does more than caution, actually—he fiercely berates that practice, calling it ignorance in its own right.  Instead, he reminds us, there are political, economic, and social realities that are the real problem behind global health epidemics and poverty.  These are the real issues.  And it’s our duty to amend them.  It is our responsibility to create a “preferential option for the poor.”

And he’s right.  Looking at Romania (especially while living here) my heart jumps to my throat and I wish, for a while, that I was pre-med.  I want to help, you know?  I want to go to the sanatorium, to the hospitals, be a doctor who’s not corrupt, nurse people back to good health.  But that’s not my place.  That’s not my calling.  I’m an international relations major.  I have a good, solid understanding of the role of politics and economics and sociology, and the ways those things affect poverty and health and, ultimately, human life.  (Or at least, I hope that’s the understanding I’m developing!)  And that matters too.  It matters a lot, actually.  Let me try to explain.

Health outcomes in Romania are the lowest of any country in Eastern Europe.  They have the lowest life expectancy, higher rates of tuberculosis, etc.  But, Romania also spends only about three percent of its GDP on healthcare, which is clearly not enough.  In this case, you get what you pay for… which is minimal.  Although under communism, countless hospitals and clinics were built across the country, they’ve fallen apart, many of them dilapidated and under-staffed.  Doctors don’t get paid enough here.  It’s only going to get worse, with the financial strain of IMF policy causing a 25% cut in pay throughout the public sector—so the corruption that’s already prevalent in the medical system is only going to increase, as doctors still need to feed their families.  People here don’t go to the doctor if they can help it—they go six times less often than people in the Czech Republic, another former socialist country that’s fared a lot better financially in the years of recovery from communism.  And if they do go, it’s usually not until late—until the symptoms have become unbearable, and they’re suddenly coughing up blood. 

No one wants to hear that they’re sick.  But especially, no one wants to hear they have TB—and especially not in Romania.  There’s a huge social stigma against it here.  Many people will describe it as a “lung disease” rather than name it.  They’ll blame the coughing on years of smoking, and they’ll try to hide their symptoms, rather than seek treatment—even though TB treatment in Romania is free.  Better to hide it than to face being ostracized by the community, anyway—because that does sometimes happen.

But when people finally are diagnosed and given treatment, a new set of issues emerges.  First of all, there’s the issue of the treatment itself.  Sometimes there will be a shortage of drugs in Romania, often for unknown reasons.  Simple miscommunication or corruption, perhaps, but regardless, it disrupts patients’ treatment cycles and makes the already-awful side effects even harder to deal with.  Tuberculosis treatment (especially under the World Health Organization’s DOTS program) is extremely regimented, with big handfuls of pills every day for months on end.  If it’s missed, the bacteria—which is highly evolved, since tuberculosis is the oldest disease known to man—quickly evolves into a drug-resistant strain.  Most MDR (multi-drug resistant) strains are almost impossible to cure, involving long-term treatments with expensive drugs that produce terrible and frightening side effects.  But MDR-TB is becoming more and more common, especially as the first round of treatment options fails on patients due to such simple causes as an interruption in the drug supply.

But there are other issues involved in treatment as well.  Sanatoria, a seemingly-outdated method of care for infectious diseases like TB, fill a social welfare role in Romania that increases the difficulty of really helping and healing patients.  There really aren’t homeless shelters or nursing homes here, and many of the patients who, in the States, would be serviced by such places, are left without options in Romania.  Some patients will skip drugs on purpose to set themselves back in their treatment, because they know that if they leave the sanatorium, they have nowhere to go.  It’s not fiscally responsible at all to keep treating these patients in sanatoria—they’re high-cost centers, far less economically efficient than a nursing home would be.  But because none of those social services exist, doctors keep patients longer.  In the words of one such doctor, it would be ‘against her Hippocratic oath to ‘do no harm’ to let the patient leave’ without having a strong support network in place—and that’s often entirely lacking.

The issues go on and on.  It’s a troubling issue, full of nuance, but also—in the eyes of people like Paul Farmer and Jonathan Stillo—strikingly black and white.  People are sick?  Treat them.  It costs too much money?  Treat them anyway. 

But the root causes remain unsolved.  Thankfully, Jonathan agrees with Farmer: to merely study the epidemic and do nothing about it would be futile—in fact, it would be wrong.  Observation alone is impotent.  Documentation isn’t the point.  From objectivity we’ve got to move to activism, to taking the step of asking how to better the situation.  I don’t want to end this post on a cheesy note, but I do want you—whoever you are, reading this—to think about it.  If nothing else, read Mountains Beyond Mountains.  Begin thinking about how to control Adam Smith’s invisible hand.  Begin thinking about liberation theology.  Begin thinking about the issues of development, of the troubling connection between a 41% poverty rate in Romania in 2001 and a skyrocketing TB rate here in 2003.  Begin thinking about the fact that over 60% of the patients in the sanatoria never receive a visitor.  Begin thinking.  And let it move you to action.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Romp through the Romanian Countryside

Another day trip has come and gone and though it felt like we were in the car for a good majority of it we all had a fantastic time. On our list of places to see was the Densus Church, Corvinilor Castle (also known as Hunedoara Castle the town where it is located), and the Prislop Monastery, all of which were beautiful. The church is famous for being the oldest church that still holds services and has a background of being a pagan temple for the Dacians and then the Romans when they invaded and built on it for their god Mars. The church is unique in its paintings because it depicts Jesus in traditional Romanian clothes and has a picture of the Trinity in which God is visualized as an old man, Jesus as a baby and the Holy Spirit as a dove. The odd thing about this is that normally paintings in the Orthodox Church do not depict God at all but in the Densus church God is portrayed as a bearded timeworn man. What I found immensely amusing was that on the back of the church roof is a statue of two lions both of which were at one time connected by their tails. When I saw this I guessed it to be a sign of fertility which can be connected to the pagan traditions though when I researched it I didn’t find anything specifically related to lions tails.  While we were visiting, a whole bus of kids arrived and ran wild over the church grounds after seeing a bit of the church and hearing about it from the priest. Once we felt we had combed the place fairly well, concerning information, we hopped back into the van and headed in the direction of the castle.
On the way we saw some of the handiwork of the Roma since they like to present their skill of metal work through their architecture and specifically on the roofs of many buildings. I cannot express how  truly amazing it was to be able to not only see an intact castle in Europe but also to walk around and take pictures inside pondering what the lives of those who lived there before were like. 
The castle of course was marvelous and legit since it had its own moat and wooden bridge to cross. I was extraordinarily bummed to find so many doors locked preventing us from accessing many intricately carved portals. Before we entered the castle Zach gave us a brief presentation on the castle telling us about some of the more spooky legends that create the image and feeling of a creepy haunted place. In one of them 3 or 12 Turks (the exact number is debated) are imprisoned there and are told that if 
they dig a well and find water they will be freed. The prisoners upon hearing this dig fervently and discover water but are denied freedom and instead given a ticket into the next world as their reward. In response to this the Turkish prisoners supposedly inscribed the phrase “you have water but you have no souls” on the wall of the well before being executed. The message that was left was in reality not as near disturbing and once translated meant that prisoners were here or something like that. Another spooky tale is about Vlad Tepes who also known as Vlad the Impaler, he was imprisoned in the castle by Mattias Corvinus. Corvinus was a Hungarian king who allied himself with Vlad early on in order to kick the Turks out of Hungary but when Vlad came to ask for his aid against the Turks, Corvinus arrested him on false charges and threw him in his dungeon. He was kept in the dungeon for around seven years and it is said he was so thirsty for flesh and blood that he impaled rats in his cell leaving their skewered corpses everywhere for the jailers to find. Near the end of seven years Vlad is given the sister of Corvinus whom he marries and lives with until he is free to leave the country.
After giving the castle a thorough inspection we all met in the courtyard to take some group pictures and make sure no one was lost. While standing in the courtyard the sound of choir music floats down and, becoming curious as to the origin of it, we following it till we arrived back in the hall where the dinner table and antique chair set were located. Upon entering the room we saw in the row of ancient high backed chairs against the wall a group of 10 to 15 people sitting as they sang together while the director conducted them. The ridiculous thing about this was that the director walked over to us as they were finishing a song and asked us two questions in succession of each other, “do you speak English and will you sing with us?” We, of course, were astounded and thrilled and a little abashed that he was so bold to ask us but nonetheless he began singing in English “As the Deer” listening for our involvement. We of course felt obligated to sing with them and hearing the music echo in such a magical and mysterious place cemented the memory. The last song they sang for us was Romania’s national anthem which was beautiful, but also ironic as the castle for a long time belonged to the Hungarians with many a Hungarian king living in it but was now ringing with Romanian pride.
We left the castle in search for food and discovered a lovely rustic establishment (the kind where they catch, kill, and cook the food as soon as you order it well maybe not but there has to be some explanation for the length of time it took to be served). The place had delicious food, though I only had some soup, but what I tasted from everyone else dish was pretty fantastic. Once everyone had finally chowed down their long-awaited food we hoped back into the van and headed off for the Prislop Monastery, which is a gorgeous representation of harmony with nature since all over the monastery grounds there are flowers, a tree garden, and even a cave dedicated to prayer which was filled with candles and other such meditation paraphernalia.
 As I entered through the  Maramures styled gate I saw the pile of crudely made long simple blue skirts sitting on the bench inside and watched as the women who did not come in with a skirt would pick one of those up and tie it around their waists moving it up or down for the desired length. Though I am normally averse to even the idea of wearing a skirt I appreciated the demand for it here because not only does it prevent immodesty but it also assists the wearer in developing the mindset that the monastery is a place in which God is the focus and we should come prepared as such. While we were nosing around the place we came upon the graveyard in which a funeral was taking place and it was beautiful and oddly comforting as it reminded me of my Grandmother’s funeral which took place in early February of this year. It wasn’t the memory that was comforting, per say, but the fact that in Romania grief is taken quite seriously and as I watched the tenderness in the kissing of the grave stone and thought back to the many funeral parades I have heard in Lupeni I realized life should be celebrated and remembered and that its acceptable to grieve for the loss of another and is even necessary if one is to process it with healthy results. Back home in the states grieving is a state that is expected and then once you have had your designated time you should not weep or cry at least not visibly for that person anymore because life is good even without them. Here though in Romania there is a day that commemorates those who have died and is celebrated annually and is not a time to grieve but to remember those people who are still dear to you and to rejoice about life with those still living. It made me realize that graveyards should not be areas you avoid but instead be explored and used as an area to ponder life and God and other such big mysteries or read of other’s lives etched on stones. Once we had climbed into the prayer cave and saw the candles, coins and flowers that had been left there we slowly moseyed our way back to the vehicle each in a meditative state as we passed buildings dedicated to deep musing and praying to God.

Once we had climbed into the prayer cave and saw the candles, coins and flowers that had been left there we slowly moseyed our way back to the vehicle each in a meditative state as we passed buildings dedicated to deep musing and praying to God.
We finally drove into Lupeni around 7 ending the day field trip much earlier than expected and the girls were dropped off at apartment Lucy where we headed up grabbed a few things and tromped back out for some groceries preparing for that night and the week ahead.             

Post by Julie, not Marit! 

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Brânzȃ.  The very word can strike terror into the heart of 5 study abroad students.  Perhaps ‘into the stomach’ would be a better way of putting it.  For brânzȃ, you see, is a cheese.  I cannot claim to be a cheese connoisseur, by any means, so perhaps I simply lack the taste to properly appreciate this particular delight, but I can tell you with certainty that there is nothing scarier to myself and my compatriots than the idea of Brânzȃ for breakfast. 

A sheep’s-milk cheese with an exceptionally strong flavor, fresh brânzȃ can be found in the piața, the grocery stores, and the fridges of all of our host families.  A single block of brânzȃ has been known to inspire The Hungry Thing (name has been changed to protect Zach Hankel’s privacy) to skip breakfast entirely. 

The flavor is not all we dread, though-- the smell is perhaps worse yet.  I’m certain that I can now pick it out subconsciously from 100 yards, and it is this new sixth sense that I blame for my periodic desire to take the back way to the Impact Building.  “Aha!” says my subconscious to itself (because to tell my conscious self would be to inspire panic of the worst variety), “Brânzȃ ahead.”  And it begins to sneakily hint (…be subtle…look casual…act natural!  Don’t make her suspicious…) to my stream of consciousness that perhaps I would like to walk along the river-path, today.  “Oh, no particular reason,” I think… 

You suspect that I exaggerate the matter?  But while it is potentially true that many people enjoy brânzȃ (I am not convinced), this category does not include either myself or my fellow study-abroad-ers.  We’ve all got one another’s backs on this one, too; if anyone has inside information about impending brânzȃ-doom, they will immediately divulge it.  The word is often an expression of extreme frustration.  If brânzȃ were ever used as practical joke fodder, the joker would certainly be stoned upon discovery.  Possibly drawn and quartered, as well. 

When a new sign appeared in the window of our favorite pastry shop advertising the addition of a brânzȃ pastry to the menu, we sighed sadly…we will have to find a new favorite pastry shop, since the smell will undoubtedly contaminate the whole place.   

It has been discovered in lingoși (a delightful fried-bread-like treat), a very unwelcome surprise.  It is a frequent addition to mamaliga (an otherwise delicious cornmeal dish).  It can even show up in cakes, I found to my dismay.

So far this semester, I have faced most of my worst fears.  My fear of heights, by running across the high-ropes course catwalk, a log 20 feet in the air (its over sooner if you run, the logic goes!); my claustrophobic terror in a series of tiny, winding, scary caves.  I have conquered my gag-reflex to eggs and, heck, I even gave up my vegetarianism of 5 years in order to experience the culture more fully, through its cuisine.  But I’m fairly certain this one is beyond me.  Brânzȃ -- the bane of my Romania semester – is a fear I intend always to flee.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ziua Morţilor

It was already dark by the time we gathered at 6:15 tonight outside Kadie, Alice, and Lindsey’s apartment. Bundled in hats and gloves (with the exception of Zach, who never seems to wear anything but a hoodie), we met Andreea and her two-year-old son to walk over to the cemetery. Lupeni was bustling tonight. As we walked through town, past the big block apartments in various states of disrepair, we were surrounded by families and friends, little knots of people walking together in the evening chill, laughing and talking, carrying food and drinks in well-worn grocery bags and bunches of flowers in crinkly foil. Everyone in town, it seemed, was heading to the cemetery, or coming back from there. It’s November 1st, ziua morţilor: the day of the dead.


The cemetery was beautiful. Ordinarily it’s relatively empty, but tonight it was hopping, filled with families gathered around graves, remembering the lives of their loved ones who had passed away. Tombs were covered in flickering red candles and huge piles of flowers; long, narrow candles from the Orthodox churches smoldered in the dirt, left behind as tokens of past prayers. We wandered through the cemetery, listening to the ebb and flow of Romanian conversations around us, watching as women passed around homemade cakes, smelling the beer, hearing the familiar pop-fizz of large soda bottles opening… it was bustling. To me, the atmosphere didn’t seem sad. It wasn’t vaudeville; it wasn’t spooky. It was simply, well, Romanian: this charming mix of solemnity and irreverence. We passed a grave where a man was sitting and staring, his lips moving silently; at another grave, one woman dropped a cup full of alcohol on the ground and burst out laughing. It’s a personal thing—a time of remembrance which can look however the deceased would have wanted it to—but also a public event. That’s what made it so beautiful to me: as we passed through the cemetery, we were offered food and drink. People call out to each other; they visit other families’ graves. In the States, grief is usually a very individual and somber thing. In the Ziua Morţilor, grief is anything but solitary.

The event reminded me of another occasion this semester: our visit to the Cimitirul Vesel (“Merry Cemetery”) in Săpânţa, a small village in the far north of Romania. The Cimitirul Vesel is world-famous for its beauty: each tomb is adorned with a hand-carved blue cross, painted with a scene from the deceased’s life and a poem—often ironic, sometimes laugh-out-loud-funny, always poignant. (For example, read the following!)

... Să vă mai spun una bună                        ...Now I will tell you a good one
Mi-o plăcut ţuica de prună                             I kind of liked the plum ţuica
Cu prietenii la birt                                         With my friends at the pub
Uitam şi de ce-am venit!                               I used to forget what I came for!

In the Cimitirul Vesel, death is seen as an opportunity to celebrate the life that was lived, rather than a time of mourning and grief. Death is seen, in fact, as a joyful thing as we anticipate the better life to come. It’s a beautiful philosophy, and it’s reflected well in the cemetery. As we wandered through, I couldn’t help but smile. The stories captured in rhyme and paint seemed so alive, so real, that one couldn’t help but celebrate the great wealth of humanity represented there. What a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Culture Differences

Howdy y'all and buna ziua. As you can tell from the title this post is pretty much all about the cultural diffs between America and Romania. It's probably an interesting topic, hopefully it isn't boring, but it's definitely a struggle that I've had being a foreign exchange student here in Romania. So, here it goes.

There are many, many differences in culture that I have found. However I think they mainly can be summed up into 3 groups. There's the language barrier, obviously. The food. And the behavior diff, which is a broader topic but, whatevs.

Ok, first off, the language barrier. I say barrier because that's exactly what it is. Not being able to be understood and even more so to understand is as hard as running through a brick wall, and I know exactly how hard that is (if your confused ask one of my friends or family). One cannot have a better example then the homestay example. Most of the students here have someone in their family who can speak some English, but not I. I live with Father Hammer and his wife Simona. They have 2 sons, Felix and Hoaria. The latter I met just once before he moved off to college and Felix followed a few weeks after. So, I was then left alone at home with no one that spoke English. By this time I could speak polite words (thank you, no thank you, etc) and I knew a few basic verbs but other than that I can't understand hardly anything. Without fail “conversation” will somehow end, rather quickly, in me saying “Nu intselect”, which means I don't understand. It's fascinating how every time I reach this point I literally cringe with a feeling of stupidity, embarrassment and above all guilt. To avoid these predicaments, sometimes it's easier just to flee to the comfort of a movie on the computer, or social networking, but then I start to feel guilty about not spending time with Father Hammer and I have to accept my fate and face the music once again. This cultural difference is obvious but I don't think one can actually appreciate how hard it is until they are in this position, don't believe the movies which portray foreign language as something that's easily picked up.

Alrighty then, second difference, food. I'm sure it's no shock that foods different in different places in the world, but the topic still qualifies for this post so I'm gonna talk about it anywho. There are 2 types of food in Romania, awesome food and nasty. I'm gonna attempt to make some kind of a list now so bear with me.

Ok, lets start with the good food.

1. Soup -Soup. Is. Amazing. There is no such thing as canned soup in Romania. Every last soup dish is made from scratch, and it's awesome. It's called ciorba here (pronounced chorba) and there are 2 kinds, sour soup and just plain ciorba. Sour soup usually has vinegar or something of the like in it, but it's still quite good. A Romanian classic soup is sour soup with pig intestine, yes I've had it and yes I like it. The other soup is just as good but doesn't really have any interesting feature to it.

2. Alcohol. I have no idea what the legal drinking age here is. What I do know is that I can legally drink. A good meal is not complete with out the usual shot o' tuika (pronounced suika), which is home made plumb brandy. There is also the occasional glass of wine but I've only had that once. However, drunkenness is looked down upon just as much as in the states. Father Hammer, my host father, has a saying which goes "One drink is from God, two drinks is from man and three drinks is from the devil". So drinking, at least with my family, happens in conservative moderation.

3. Natural food. This category pretty takes up the rest of the food list except for fast food. All the food here is natural, all the people here cook their own food and pretty much all of the ingredients they buy is natural, unprocessed food. It's considerably cheaper here than junk food is, in contrast to the States.

4. Fast food. There are fast food joints here but they too use, for the most part, natural ingredients. If you go to a Hamburger place, with the exception of McDonalds, you can bet that the food your eating came from local farmers.

Alright now for the food nasty

1. Brunza = Satan's cheese. Brunza is goat cheese. I've never had goat cheese before this semester and I never want to eat that awful stuff ever again. Even the smell of it set your insides against your own body.

2. Pate. Pate is a sort of liver mush that people use in place of mayo sometimes. ... ... Why on earth would you want to do that?

3. Sausage. Don't get me wrong, I love sausage and really the sausage here isn't all that nasty but I put it under this category for the sake of its fattyness. All the meat here is extremely fatty, which us Americans aren't used to, so for us it's more or less disgusting.

Ok, now for the last but not least category, behaviors. I'll also put this into a sort of list.

1. PDA = Ok. Got a girlfriend? Wanna make out in front of the whole world? Then come to Romania folks, people do it here all the time.

2. Modesty = less so than I'm used too. Personally I haven't had much contact with this, but apparently in the summer people go to the public pool and get naked. Also naked pictures are not uncommon in a newspaper or somethin.

3. Farming here is done in a sort of old fashioned way. There are not many tractors here and there are no combines. What your more likely to see is a horse drawn cart with hay or wood on it trotting down the streets of Lupeni (the town where we live). Seed is planted by hand (I think), and the harvest is done with either a small tractor or machine or a good old fashioned scythe.

4. Sportball (<- West Hall reference) The only sport here is Soccer, hardly any others.

5. Piracy. Romanians don't buy entertainment, they hack it from the internet. Games, movies, songs, apps all get snatched off the net and nobody cares. Kind of nice, I for one don't like paying money for songs especially.

6. Orthodoxy. They main religion is Christian Orthodoxy. Similar to the Catholic church but I'm not even used to that.

7. Utilities. Heating, water, etc are all very different here. There are hardly any gas furnaces here, pretty much everyone has a wood burning stove. There are hardly any microwaves. In order for your house to have hot water you must have a heating thingy which is usually located near the sink or bath tub or whatever it is.

8. Sickness. Romanians, from what I've experienced, are paranoid about getting sick. If you don't wear the correct clothing, you can be sure that you will be scolded and told that you're gonna get sick. If someone has a minor cold or an upset stomach they can be bedridden for days or become convinced that they need a doctor. And then there's the draft. Romanians think that a draft of air can cause one to become ill, so don't be surprised if your walkin down the street and you see a man with cotton in his ear.

Ok, so that's a basic summary about the differences between here and home. Hope this post wasn't too long.