Monday, December 12, 2011

Final Goodbye Thoughts

It was a very emotional morning leaving Buchuresti. I was sent off with a 400 RON fine from customs because I didn’t have a visa, but I was relieved to make it to my flight on time. I boarded the plane with a big sigh and eyes welling up with tears, overwhelmed by the fact that I was actually leaving Romania. One of the questions from the customs officer dealing with me was “when will you be returning to Romania?” I said “I don’t know,” to which he responded, “You never plan on coming back?” I regretted whatever I had implied but I really don’t know if I will be back in Romania. The more I meditated on it, the more I realized I grew closer to the other eight girls I was studying with rather than the Romanian people or Romanian culture. Romania came alive when I experienced it with the NWC girls, my sisters, and when they were suddenly gone Romania was not the same sparkling, novel land of the unknown that it was with them around.

I am almost convinced that making a fool of yourself is a requirement if you really want to make the most of what life gives you in each new day, and NWC girls, this is one of the many things you taught me. However, I’m still working on the making a fool of myself part. Ice skating in Ciesmigiu, aka Lovers, Park was an example in itself: Kadie was eager to learn some tricks like learning to skate backwards or even the basics of learning to stop, and as a result, or maybe just because of her overflowing enthusiasm, she wiped out twice, once on her back and once a complete face plant. I, on the other hand, was hesitant to try any new moves on the rink because I risked making a fool of myself and falling. Who had more fun? Kadie did for sure. She relinquished any inhibitions and had a lovely time, I think, even if part of it was laughing at herself laid out on the ice. She said she would have felt better if I had fallen, and I think I would have felt better too if I had fallen. I will continue to be inspired by these girls, even in their absence. I don't think I've felt so loved as I did by them.

I'm only in my first day back home and nothing significant has happened yet. I haven't seen any friends yet, only my parents and the Burmese student who is staying with us. My parents and I talked a lot on the drive home from the airport but nothing too deep. I was amazed at the variety of foods in the kitchen- the "Country Style" eggnog, the chocolate-covered pretzels, real lettuce, and my favorite chai tea- it was pure bliss at breakfast time. I've found it a bit depressing being back home where it's a bit lonely, and I don't feel motivated to go out and get into American life again. I find myself analyzing my thoughts and actions to see whether I've really changed at all, trying to measure how in Romania I was. However, I know this is stupid because I'm not going to see the changes manifested right before my eyes, but the changes are internal and will gradually manifest themselves in relationships over time. I want my friends and people at church to see that Romania changed me. I desperately want to hold on to everything that happened to me in Romania and I don't want to move on yet, although I know it's inevitable.

Here's to my eight sisters at NWC. You girls taught me how to love deeper and that life is better when you can make a fool of yourself, among many other lessons. Va iubesc mult!

Craziness, Things, and Late Night Conversations

It is complete day three here at Northwestern College. The wind bites more harshly than the shielded mountain valley across the ocean in Lupeni and snow thinly blankets the ground of the flat landscape now surrounding me. I breathe in the cold air and blow it out, viewing the familiar stream of fog that I was so used to seeing inside of my dear Apartment Lucy, which seems like a foreign land compared to here. Where am I?

Reentry: it’s difficult. I knew it would be, but I didn’t know what this difficult would feel like. I expected the tiredness that accompanies jet lag and even that things would be different when I returned. I wasn’t expecting it to feel this way. My feelings, expectations, hopes, concerns, and fears are a twisted mess inside of me. On one hand I feel excited to be back, but on the other hand my heart longs for the life that I grew accustomed to this semester. I know that this shall too come to pass, but right now I feel as if I am standing on shifting sand. Kadie gave us a quote during our reentry seminar in our cozy Cabana on Straja. It read:  “You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”

 This quotation fits the place I am in right now. I have been blessed during my short time back; I cannot deny this fact. The other evening I spent a few hours playing the game of Things with a group of people, some of whom I know very well and others whom I met for the first time that day. This game supplied uncountable fits of laughter. I have also blessed by a few late night conversations with people that I love. Conversations filled with stories, hopes, fears, and honesty. I am clutching these moments of joy to my heart. They shed light on the dark parts of my perspective of being “home.” I am in the place of re-realizing this place as my home. I must relearn how to best love the people I left here at the beginning of the semester and in turn how to accept love from people here.

I am learning the art of carrying my various homes in my heart, and that even though I can’t live in all of my homes at once; it is possible for them all to live in me. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Continuing the Journey

Moving to a new place, for however long you might stay, is quite the adventure. Going in you never expect to love it, appreciate it, or be as frustrated with it as much as your original home, but what is astonishing is that every new place tends to find its way into your heart. It never replaces any previous home or experience, but creates more space for another.

I entered this semester with the excitement of seeing a new place, guessing that I would be busy with school work but was going to live up every chance I could possibly get to see new places and experience new adventures. I did all these things. But what surprised me even more was the level of depth that I created here—with the people, town, store owners, dogs on the street, taxi drivers, security at the grocery store, cleaning ladies of the apartment stairwells, and random people on the street. This semester created space for me to truly live out what I was learning in class. Studying Romania’s culture, history, and language and then going into the culture and watching it play out. We learned about sustainable development and what that means for Romania, how New Horizons Foundation is dedicated to making it happen, and then carried that knowledge over by studying about other countries across the world. I have come out of class, or should I say daily activities, with a new awareness and appreciation for my culture, Romanian culture, and the reasons that those cultures are unique.

So what now? Do I have to say goodbye? Do I have to look on this semester with sadness that it is ending, or happiness that it is ending? No. This semester has taught me amazing things. Opened up my eyes to topics and realities that I have never been aware of before and now my task is to continue the journey. God blessed me with the chance to come here, learn from Dana and Brandi Bates, Kadie Becker and the rest of the New Horizons Foundation staff and moving back home is the chance to take the things I have learned and put them into practice. Yes, we have left Lupeni with no concrete ideas as to when we might return, but that doesn’t mean the journey is over. It is not ending, rather, it is continuing, on to a new place, with new experiences under our belts that will help us move forward.

A heartfelt thank you to all those who made this semester possible which includes both those people in Romania and those back home who supported me. It has truly been a blessing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Denis: an Underdog Story

In IMPACT Club Best Hurricane, we have a lot of Denis'. Not to mention, two Denisa's. So when I met another Denis, I wasn't surprised. This Denis, though, was different. 

He's small. Smaller than "small for his age", smaller than "just got some catching up to do". Denis is tiny. His feet, his hands, his stature. But not his smile - that wide eyed and goofy smile giving away his quiet demeanor. 

He's the kind of small that makes him an easy target for the bigger kids. An overbite and visibly well-worn hand-me-downs only adding to the excuses. 

It was my first day at IMPACT Best Hurricane and I was feeling out of the loop. The language was hard. Fresh off weeks on the road in Italy and to the north of Romania, in Cluj, my language skills were more lacking than usual. "Da" and "biene" seemed only to have survived the trip back home. Gratiela broke us up into two teams, the infamous "portocale" and "banane". Oranges and bananas. I was a portocale. Denis was too. 

In our corner of the room, we organized ideas and props and characters for our skit. We were portraying the harmful effects (health and social) of littering for the club's upcoming service learning project. They are scheduled to perform it in front of an audience at one of Uricani's next upcoming city events, on stage at the Miner's Cultural Center. It's the big times. 

After a few moments discussion, everyone moved to one side of the room to rummage through big bags of old dolls, stuffed animals, and Grandma's oversized sweaters. I didn't quite catch the directions but Denis came to my aid quickly. Having missed the rush to get the good props, he snagged for me a lime-green half-bear, half-guerilla holding a red plushy heart. "Te iubesc". I love you. "Multumesc," I said, smiling, as I took the outstretched animal, knowing Denis was looking out for me. Knowing somehow this was only a small deed on a long list of gentle and sacrificial "little brother" acts.

Denis looked out for me a lot that day. Saving me a spot in the circle, helping me clean up the props, stacking the prodigal chairs, the list goes on. I didn't know why he chose to look out for this goofy, red-headed, obviously strange stranger like he did. 

After the club, after a chorus of "ba", "nevedem" and "ciao!" has ended, I asked Gratiela about the board of jewelry hanging up in the front. Beautiful, handcrafted wooden beads and those neon string keychains we all made when we were ten. "It's to sponsor Denis' family," she said. "The club started the project last year to help them buy groceries every month." 

She continued, "We really try to encourage Denis and his sister. Especially Denis. They alternate staying home with their younger siblings while their mom goes to work. Dad is working in another country; Spain I think." 

I got home that afternoon busting at the seams. As I talked to my flatmates about IMPACT I realized how deep Denis' story had jumped into my heart. He had gotten in there real deep. 

Throughout this semester, I've heard a lot of stories about hope for change in Romania. I've heard a lot of hopeless stories too. But Denis - small and unassuming Denis - gives me hope. He has every reason to cheat the system, to try to get ahead, to get what he can and give nothing back. But he doesn't. He didn't get to chose whether or not to stay home from school to look after his siblings. But he does. He doesn't have to be a part of IMPACT, to do the community service learning projects, to help out the stranger - that new Americano. But he does. 

In my five minutes here, I've seen how IMPACT can change the course and the story of someone's life. How IMPACT chooses good, time and time again, even when in the face of pain, corruption, persecution, and old habits of Communism - like mistrust and dishonesty - that are hard to change, even 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Still, IMPACT chooses hope. To trust. Work, hard work. And most of all: love. 

In the same way, Denis gives me hope for Romania. He chooses good. He chooses good and IMPACT allows him a space to be celebrated, growing and sharpening that sense that draws us into community. Draws us into honest work and honest love.  

Maybe I'm drawn to Denis because he's the underdog story. Maybe IMPACT is too. But then again, as Mark Twain put it, "it's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog." Keep fighting, Denis. You're going to be something good, I promise.

- - Our program admin Kadie has written a similar & beautiful story about Denis' sister. Read it here. 

Canadian Thanksgiving

The warmth of the kitchen is tingling my toes. The tinkling of knives knocking on wood, voices bouncing off the pots and pans strewn every-which-where comes through the door, quickly absorbed into the beating of my happy heart.  It’s Canadian Thanksgiving.

We gather around the table in Apt. 8, just barely big enough for all eleven. But this is family, and everyone, elbows and shoulders – all mashed and mismatched – squeeze together. The table is set, Trevor strumming quietly in the background, and all of our hungry faces illuminated by the gold of the candlelight. It’s a Canadian holiday but we’ve adopted the Romanian tradition of courses – four to be exact: appetizers, entrée, first dessert and second dessert. It’s a good idea.

We lift our glasses – the tinkering of goblets and repurposed canning jars – as we toast to gratitude, sisterhood and this place. Narouc! Good health! Kadie stands to read a chapter from Cold Tangerines, words strung together like pearls, each a reminder to hold the moment at the moment. I reach for Dana’s hand as the candlelight flickers, holding in my sniffles until I can hear them out loud. I look over and she is too. I reach for Sammy’s next to me and watch as word by word, hand by silhouetted hand, we hold the moment warm and close.

We sit in silence a moment, the kind of silence that fills a room with security. The kind of silence that makes you breathe easier, even if just for that moment. We take turns, words of thanks free-flowing as they come. I hear my sisters say they are thankful for the snow on the mountaintops. The beauty of creation and the beauty of being created. The freedom of belovedness. They are grateful for the hard work of the growing season and the freedom that comes with the harvest season.

My words come out unexpected and true. “I’m thankful for my momma,” I say, a swelling in my heart, “who sends me emails of words about home and God. And who keeps sending me emails, knowing I need them, even when I don’t yet have words to send back.” And Dana squeezes my hand tighter, and I cry, knowing my words are straight and true.

We finish, looking at one another with half smiles and full hearts. “Can we sing the doxology?”, I hear myself say. Kadie nods and the rooms fills with harmonies that are made sweeter with the passing of another season of hard work and the coming of a new.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” Amen. 

A Romanian-sense of Humor

I went to take a shower this morning before sitting down to write, my cold feet touching the cold tile of the bathroom floor, moving to the cold ceramic of the bathtub, hands on the cold faucet. And I thought how happy I’d be to walk across the dormitory hall to a shower ready with hot water, again. The thought surprised me. But it’s been something I’ve been wanting for a while: a long hot shower without so much work.

This semester, we’ve read Slavenka Drackulic’s book How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.  Her descriptions of the living arrangements under Communism were at once the hardest and most-accessible issue to understand.

On one hand, my Westernized subconscious spouts a “if it doesn’t work, change it” mentality. Change the settings on the heater, change the heater, seal up the window that leaks cold air directly into the shower, even… close the window that leaks cold air directly into the shower.

But it’s not like that here. You don’t just get to decide that you want to change something, no matter how much it needs to be changed. There’s a lot more at play here than that. The window is cracked so the apartment doesn’t mold. The window leaks because of the pressure from the cement walls; it’s been years of pressure and force on that small wooden frame.

It’s hard for me to understand the “grin and bare it” attitude that I assuming ascribe to one wanting change but knowing it won’t come. But in Romania, it’s not even that. Here it’s even better: a “laugh and bare it” attitude.

We started watching some short film clips earlier this month on our trip to Cluj-Napoca. Clips about the ironies and jokes told under Communism. I laughed, hard.

Romania has taught me how to laugh better. This semester hasn’t always been rosy. We’ve run into a lot of angels and we’ve seen our share of the demons of international travel, cross-cultural understanding and the effects of “I’m just being plain tired” while living in community. But Romania has taught me a lot about playfulness and how to laugh in spite of hardship. Romania has taught me that happiness isn’t a hot shower. It’s not always about getting what you want. It’s about having what you need: family, faith, connection to the land and to a community. And don’t forget, laughter.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"La Revedere" A Reflection on Saying Goodbye

“Antiquated goodbye formulations, such as “fare- well” or even the older, ‘fare thee well’ reveal that at the heart, goodbyes are a blessing.”

I wish I could show you Lupeni right now. The sky is bursting with vibrant displays of deep pinks, dark reds, and a bluish purple tint that extend into the horizon. This light is illuminating everything: the frost covered trees, the dark colored chimneys, the faces of the people that walk past our apartment block. It is 7 am on my last day in Lupeni. I couldn’t sleep anymore; my heart is heavy knowing that tomorrow morning will be the last day that I take in the fresh mountain air, the dogs with their big eyes begging for food and attention, the sound of cars honking and zooming past you, the man holes that I almost always fall in, and the sight of a people and a place that I have grown to love. So this is it… it’s time to say goodbye. Saying goodbye is always hard. It forces your heart to expand in a way that causes pain, but makes it more pliable. It forces you to separate with a people or a place that holds a very significance in your life. Goodbye marks the moment when being “with” a place/people beings to move into being apart. It’s been a nearly a week and a half living in this “funeral like” state. A time of wide eyed excitement and enthusiasm about the place that I have called home for the last couple of months and a time of tears, dreading the day that I must let it go and say my final goodbye. So today it begins. A day spent capturing the final beauty of a place and a people by relishing in the moments of a day.

I can’t get the letter that my host dad gave me stuck out of my head. A couple of weeks ago, I asked him to write his story. I told him that I didn’t want to lose that part of my experience and I felt that his story held great significance. Who would have thought that the ending of his story would have touched me in the way that it did. The ending of his story was the time that I spent with them. He recounted the memories and moments that we shared as well as his difficulties that took place within the first week. He wrote about how “today” is going to be a hard day but that our goodbye was never final because I was forever apart of them now. My eyes are swelling and tears are finding themselves cuddled in the crevices of my face as I write this. Goodbye is painful but it’s not permanent. Goodbye is itself a blessing. So today I make my final walk over to my host family’s house with my little hand written letter to say goodbye to a people that have loved me, cared for me, and touched my heart in a special way. I will embrace the pain in this because it means that there really was love there. In the words of Walter Brueggemann “Only anguish leads to life, only grieving leads to joy, and only embraced endings permit new beginnings." I will make my final walk to Café Mago and order my last chocolate cake, taking the smallest bites and enjoying each moment. I will put my last 50 cent coin into the coffee machines to get my last cup of poorly made instant coffee and find a place nestled on a bench in the children’s park and watch the excitement of the children as they dart their way down the windy yellow slide. I will order my last deep fried langosi filled with warm chocolate filling with my friends for the last time. For now it is time to say “goodbye”.

I say this with an achy heart Lupeni. “La Revedere,” to a place that has grown me, shared with me, and loved me into who I am leaving you as today. You are a place of paradox but there is beauty in you. Thank you Lupeni for your people and your potential, I pray you pursue your potential and give your people a chance to inspire you.

With great love,


Sunday, December 4, 2011

I'm a wannabe farm girl

Being in Romania has brought about many experiences and memories, some of the best ones come from the good ole host family! When I first arrived at my host families house I was excited to see that it was a farm! They had cows, chickens, dogs, a cat and lots of produce! From my time on this Romanian farm, I remember 4 things specifically. Some of my favorite days were those when I was able to help my family pick prunes and apples. It was like I was able to bond with them in a new way even if we weren't speaking to each other. I really felt like part of the family in those moments. Another thing that I will remember is taking our cow on a walk. It sounds crazy right! I mean most people take their dogs on walks.... but no in Romania, its all about the cows! Ha! My host mom opened the gate led the cow to the door and we began to walk down the gravel, leaf covered road. My host mom and I walked the cow to the pasture and left it there, trusting that it would find its way home. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later the cow was mooing at the door! It was so crazy and hilarious! Another memory from my host father was that he would also wink and give me high fives. That is, when he wasn't working on the twica.... Every day that I would come back from school I would ask him how his day was and he said... I worked on the twica! Finally I came home one day and it was finished! I asked what he was going to do now that it was done! He laughed and said, I live on a farm, there is always more work to do. The last, but most memorable was when I was able to milk our cow.... oh wow! I was planning on doing it in my own clothes and shoes, but they insisted that I wear my host mom's milking clothes.... so I obeyed. I remember walking into the stall and having mixed emotions. I watched as my dad demonstrated how to gently grab the utter and squeeze out the milk. It was my turn... I sat down and grabbed the utter, it was slimy and a little sticky, I was shocked, but I didn't mind. After a few tries I actually got pretty good at it! My family thought it was really funny that I even wanted to do it, but it made me feel really cool, and more like the farm girl I dream of being! :)

Meeting Real People

Our home-stays had a brilliant way of allowing our American lives to collide with the lives of the Romanian people. Oh, I would give anything to capture the stories, the moments, the laughter, the tears, the smiles, and wrap them neatly together for eternity. One of the greatest treasures that Romania has given me is its people; the beautiful broken, wonderfully complex, sarcastically optimistic people of Romania. Romanians are kind of like clams, they are hard to pry open, but once you do, their lies a priceless treasure. We’ve had the privilege of entering into real life with these people, hearing the stories and witnessing their hearts. This writing, although flawed and imperfect, is my tribute to these people. This is my account of living real life, with real people and in return witnessing the greatest joy that I have ever felt.

I began the home-stay journey more nervous than I had ever been. This was it, and this Romanian adventure was beginning fast paced. We entered a room full of Romanians staring and made our way up to the front of the room and took our places in a row of chairs. We were all whispering to each other and trying to guess who our families we going to be. Gripping each other’s hands we would whisper to each other, “they look nice…,” as our names were read off and paired with the families. My name was called last, and a rather large man with a baseball cap and a vest stands up; the only guy in the room. He was funny and friendly and introduced himself as “Ghita” and grabbed my hand and led me to his truck, which I fondly call, “machina mishto,” otherwise translated as: cool car. We made the drive passed an old, mustard colored factory to a street with several farms. He made sure to point out that he was a farmer and had several animals and that I would be living on a real Romanian farm. As soon as we arrived, I was greeted by my host brother, Ady, who was pretty much dressed like an American- gangster. He so kindly carried both of my large black suitcases filled with clothes up the stairs to the main bedroom where I would be sleeping with my younger fourteen year old sister, Ana. At first she didn’t look so excited to see me, and had to be forced to meet me. My insides were turning, I felt nervous and all I wanted was to see the other American girls. At first, I wasn’t so accustomed to the “Romanian way” of doing thing, watching music videos with half naked girls and an annoying techno beat at the dinner table, loud and chaotic craziness with nearly every conversation, and a humor that was both foreign and intriguing at the same time.

Weeks went by of learning how to do “life” the Romanian way: taking 10 minutes showers with pauses in between, milking cows and feeding chickens, eating soup and chicken for every meal, and learning to be a part of the family. We spent many long and frustrating hours of not understanding each other, me staring at the scribbled notebook page at the dinner table telling my host dad that this was the hardest language and I was never going to learn it and his frustration with my not being able to pick up the language faster. But within these times of frustration, pain, and frequent miscommunication there were moments of laughter, heartfelt tears, holding hands, and a love that didn’t need words to express. Moments where my host mom would just hold me as I cried because I wasn’t feeling well and sleeping next to me and holding my hand as I fell asleep. When I didn’t feel good or my pajamas didn’t meet the Romanian standard of warm she would offer me her fuzzy pink pajamas with a bear holding balloons to wear to bed. There were moments of deep, belly aching laughter while playing cards with the little neighbor girl from excitement and my inability to say some Romanian words. Our lives slowly began to mesh together…my sister and I washing our faces together before we went to bed, praying the guardian angel prayer in Romanian, and laughing about all the random things that we had done that day. Ady, my brother, playing loud music and his favorite racing game on the computer while I was trying to do homework, Ana and I washing dishes together, my mom trying to teach me how to cut my meat correctly, and my dad and I’s jokes. It was a beautiful, wonderful collision, an unforgettable journey. A journey of entering in- to living life with these people, hearing their stories, sharing moments of joy and pain, and getting to play a small part in the story of their life. They will forever hold a significance place in my heart. Thank you for the love that you have shown me, thank you for sharing your life and hearts with me, and for letting me share my life and heart with you.