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.