Friday, November 30, 2012

Wedded to Work

My host parents seemed to go to a wedding every weekend. Whether it was due to how surprisingly young they are and all of their friends are getting married, or that they are simply that popular, I could not tell. I also could not understand why they would not leave for the wedding until nine or ten in the evening only to return late in the night. Fortunately, one of the weddings was at our house so I got an invite.
When I say that the wedding was “at our house” I mean it started there. My host parents were the nașii (roughly translated into English as “godparents”), which meant that they were to stand alongside the couple and be witnesses for the entire ceremony. The guests and the groom gathered at our house around noon for finger-food, drinks, and dancing before going to pick up the bride. We then accompanied the bride and groom throughout each step: the signing of the marriage certificate, the service at the Orthodox church, and, finally, the reception. The whole journey was made into a party. The long caravan of cars drove along with ribbons and bows, honking and making a commotion in the streets, which to my surprise, was greeted by smiles and waves from onlookers. At one point, the car in front of me stopped and someone inside handed a bottle of țuica (plum brandy) to a few construction workers on the road. Every time we reached our destination a three-man band would play and two men adorned with Romanian tri-colored sashes made sure everyone had their fill of țuica. When we finally arrived at the reception hall and it seemed close to the end, it was really only just beginning. It continued on for hours over a six-course meal and dance after traditional Romanian line dance until, finally, around 5 am they brought out the wedding cake and things wrapped up.
Of all the differences between American and Romanian weddings, the length was what struck me the most– A total of eighteen hours. As I though about this difference, the words of a Romanian friend came back to me: “Americans work too much.” I began reflecting on America’s commitment to hard work and how it can overshadow other parts of life. Maybe that’s cliché, but as I sat there in the reception hall wondering why there were people passed their middle ages still dancing at 4 am, I began to see the difference more clearly.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Flooded by Grace

Over Thanksgiving, while all of our Romanian neighbors were going about their daily lives of work and home, we Americans were prepping ourselves for an evening of friends and feasting.  Yet, when all 4 of us entered into our kitchen built for no less than 2 cooks at once, and began to assemble all of the necessary items, we quickly realized that we were without an important ingredient: water.  As regularly occurs here (though this was our first experience in the apartments), the water had been shut off for the day.  Needless to say, the kitchen got significantly more chaotic.  3 hours later, we emerged, victors , with 4 homemade dishes in hand, ready to leave for a weekend at the cabin in Straja.  Unfortunately, in the midst of the chaos, we forgot to turn off the faucet, as there was no water currently coming out. 

“Currently” is the key word, because at 4 am our directors received a desperate call from our downstairs neighbors that their apartment was flooding.  Adi, the hero of the day, rushed over and spent the next several hours mopping up the small lake which had made its way from our kitchen, into the hall, and over half of the living room. When we received a call in the morning to inform us about the eventful previous night, I felt my heart sink and bury itself in the ground beneath my feet. 

Coming home to the apartment was nerve wracking.  Would our neighbors hate us?  Would they yell and scream, as they had every right to do?  Had we forever ruined NHF’s relationship with them?  My roommates and I huddled in the mostly-dry living room and memorized a speech in Romanian that we hoped would relay the depth of our sorrow and penitence, and knocking on their door, I shot up a quick “Help!” prayer. 

The man who opened the door looked confused, but soon realized who we were.  While I prepared for an angry tirade, he nodded and tried his best to discern our nervous, Romanian speech.  When we had finished, he said, “It’s ok.  Not a problem.  I understand.  Just be more careful next time and don’t let it happen again.”  Not sure we had understood correctly, we insisted several more times, “Ne pare foarte rau!” (We’re so sorry!).  And again, but with a smile, he only asked that we be more careful. 

Walking upstairs to our apartment, we marveled at his kindness and generosity to us.  When he could have been very angry, yelled, and demanded compensation, he forgave us and treated us so kindly.  I could not have asked for a more perfect example of human grace. 

Grace has begun to feel like a theme to our time here.  Operating in a new culture, there are so many instances in which I require grace.  My homestay family worked so hard to understand me, acting out words like charades or drawing pictures when we struggled to understand each other with words.   The students in my IMPACT club let me ask questions over and over and help to translate during the meetings.  And my fellow classmates, who have to live with me every day for four months give me the grace to have bad days, sad days, and to fail their expectations.

But it causes me to ask myself, how often do I give grace to others?  And how willingly?  I am apt to shut down or pull into myself when asked to go above and beyond for someone, especially a stranger, or to forgive someone who has seriously wronged me.  Yet so many Romanians have willingly opened their lives to me, and have continued to do so even when I inconvenience them, burden them, or even flood their home.  I have seen the incredible “Romanian hospitality” extend to include grace, and I am so thankful that it does.  They have reminded me that we all depend on each other and that just as I am in desperate need of human grace, I must give it just as freely so that others may experience grace as well.  

Monday, November 26, 2012


Since arriving in Romania, I have experienced different ways of communicating, whether this is via motions or pointing and trying to say what it is in a different language. My first few nights with my host family is an example of that because, it was just my host father and myself. My host father does not speak English very well, but we had to communicate about things in the house. Through hand gestures, broken English and Romanian, we were able to communicate what we needed to say. Yet we communicated better through one element, and that being worship. My host dad plays guitar for the Pentecostal church here in town, and I seen the guitar and he asked me if I wanted to play, and I did. One thing I learned from that experience and many other similar experiences is that worshipping God transcends cultural and language barriers.

When you are trying to communicate how you feel and yet do not have the language to do it things tend to get interesting. Even if you have the language to do so you might not be able to work the words the way you want to, because only you feel what you feel. When I wrote a thank you letter to my host family I did not feel I was able to express how I was feeling, yet they tried to understand how I felt, but yet the love that God showed me though them was able to get through. When you are with people for an extended amount of time, you tend to know how they feel, even without speaking the same language, and you start to see the beauty that God made them with. When you feel that you have been openly invited into a family, many things tend to happen one of them being a sense of understanding, and some time non-verbal communication.

Communication is a funny aspect of humans, because it requires a lot of patience, and some people just do not have that. When we take our time to communicate, it most often will come out clear. I look at all the times in the semester where I have seen myself try and communicate, and it is amusing to say the least. I can think of multiple times where I have messed up my Romanian trying to communicate with my host mom, but yet we got through it even if we started laughing really hard. Patience is key when trying to communicate, and it is meaningful when you sit and listen, because that means so much more than not trying to communicate.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On the Jiu Valley

The Jiu Valley is the most beautiful place I've ever lived in. It lies in the Carpathian Mountains, nicknamed the Transylvanian Alps. I love seeing the sun rise and set behind the mountains on bright days, and the tops of clouds resting on top of the mountains on dreary days. Both sides of the valley came alive with autumn colors during October and make walks around Lupeni a joy. During my weekly 45 minute maxi taxi ride to Petroşani for IMPACT, I watch the trees explode with reds, oranges and yellows. It is one of the best parts of my week. 
Although it's bursting with natural beauty, you can't talk about the Jiu Valley without mentioning its stains - the run down factories, the web of power lines and the mismatched bloc apartments which serve as a constant reminder of Communism. Those in authority didn't care about preserving the natural beauty of the Valley - they only saw the coal under the mountains. So a tour through the Jiu Valley is both a feast for the eyes and a painful reminder of the past.
For the first six weeks I lived here, I saw the empty factories and the peeling paint on the blocs as romantic - horrible, I know. I saw Lupeni and the Jiu Valley through rose tinted glasses because it was new, exciting, and I didn't have to live the rest of my life in the shadow of the smoke stack you can see from any point in Lupeni. It wasn't until I read a line in Slavenka Drakulic's How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed that I realized how arrogant this was. She wrote about the broken streetlights on her street and how no one would fix them, and how an American had commented how quaint it made the street feel. The arrogance of considering a systematic failure "quaint" or "romantic" hit me in the face and I wanted to slap myself, along with the American who had made the comment. Life in post-communist Romania is real and hard. There is beauty in the hard work the people of Lupeni put in to make a home, and beauty in the mismatched fabric of old and new cultures creating a new tradition.
So the Jiu Valley is no longer romantic to me, but I like it better that way. The mix of natural and unnatural make a view that is breathtaking and truly Romanian. I will miss the Jiu Valley terribly when I leave in a few short weeks. It has been a blessing I will treasure for the rest of my days.
Here is a short video of Lupeni from one side of the valley. (Please ignore my horrible Romanian.)

Monday, November 19, 2012


Living here for the last couple months I have met and lived with some pretty amazing people. My host family whom I lived with for about two months are the most caring and hospitable people, I have ever met. My host family gladly invited me in. Their hearts are very pure, and their focus to serve God is bar none. I feel that I have been made a part of their family. They are very loving, and this shows in all that they do. There has only been a couple times in my life where I can truly say I have felt at home. To me home is where you have family. Family to me, are people I feel close to, since I do not have any biological brothers or sisters I consider my close friends my brothers and sisters. I have found this within my host family and even with the friends I have made here.

Who knew that this small town in the Jiu Valley would become another home to me? I had no clue what to expect when I first arrived, but my mind has been blown for all the hospitality that people have offered to me. I heard about Romanian hospitality, but it is one thing to hear about something, then to experience it first hand. Even though times have been hard for the people here, there is a sense within the people of strong perseverance. Family here is a priority, and they show it in how they raise their kids. One of my host brothers is one of the kindest people I have ever met, but yet he is still a quirky teenager, and he also is one of the best cooks I know. He is a great example of the hospitality here in Lupeni, and how great someone can become when they have great parents.

People here in the Jiu Valley look up rather than down, and can be very optimistic. I have seen this through several of my friends here. This is also one of the reasons I feel that is a home, I know no place is perfect and I understand that Lupeni has its flaws, but I can accept them as they come. This is a second home to me, and I am glad that I know I have a family here.


On the Street Sweeper

Each day I see her. Maybe “have to look at her” would be more appropriate wording, because she’s not exactly a pretty sight.
She is always wearing the same baggy scarlet sweatpants tucked into a frayed pair of white tube socks.  The tube socks are peeking out of the top of a pair of black pleather boots, the pointed toes worn away just enough to allow her too-large feet to work the tip of her socks out through the hole as the days goes on, creating a strange little dirty sock nub. Her magenta sweatshirt might be the most disturbing part of the whole ensemble- no one has told her that it is inappropriate for 40-year-old women to wear pictures of Hannah Montana across their chests. Her body moves in a painful rhythm as she sweeps the streets of my bloc apartment complex. Every few steps her shiny red fingernails pull her rose-scented cigarette up to her lips and she takes a long drag. Sweep, sweep, drag. Sweep, sweep, drag.
She is dirty and defeated. Maybe that is why it stands out so much. It is perfectly pleated and lays across her head in an attempt to hide her frizzed mass of once-black hair, now mixed with stained orange sections and gleaming gray roots. It is not hastily pinned or knotted, but tied into a perfectly symmetrical and dainty bow that rests along her uneven hairline. It is not stained or ripped, and I’m sure that if I had the courage to approach her, it would not smell like the smoke and sweat that have saturated every other part of her life.
Though she may not be able to articulate such a thought, it is what remains of another world, another set of thoughts, another way of life- all of which have been brutally taken from her by time.
At first, it is shocking to hear the stories of her generation of Romanian’s nostalgia. A generation whose “Back in my day…” stories include food rations, misguided dictators, and whispered conversations in rooms with no power because of electrical shortages. But those sacrifices brought along with them a comfort. Under Communism, she (as well as everyone around her) had had what she needed. She had been a factory worker or a writer, or maybe even an engineer. She was proud of her work. Each day she came home with enough bread and vegetables for her family, and even had time to travel on the weekends. Silent acceptance of the system was the only price she had to pay for these luxuries.
 Now, she watches the people of Romania file past her each day as she sweeps the curb. Sometimes, she sees the few who had the right connections after the fall of Communism buzz past in their shining new cars. Sometimes, she sees the American girl with the huge backpack walk past and try to analyze her thoughts so she can write to her family about “the people over there” on her expensive laptop. Sometimes, she sees politicians travelling through town, paying for the desperate citizens’ votes with meat and beer. But mostly, she sees the families of Lupeni. There are so many children, but not enough jobs. There is so much trash, but not enough space. Their new “freedom” may have made them nearly invisible to the rest of the world, but she cannot help but see them.
She, like all of the people who pass her daily, remembers when she was able to be so much more.
That is why it is so much more than a floral headscarf.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Romenglish" and Other Musings

I decided to go for a run the Sunday before our final week of homestays.

My host family had been invited to attend not only one, but two birthday parties in town that day—both families insisted the American daughter be in attendance. I woke up early to take advantage of any free hour leading up to what was sure to be a long day of broken conversation in what I’ve come to affectionately call “Romenglish.” I diligently crammed phrases into my head before the run, scanning page upon page of jumbled notes from my language class.

I knew my efforts wouldn’t be of much service, and I felt a slightly defeated at the lack of connection that would come despite any attempts.

Heading back later, I saw an elderly couple taking a leisurely walk ahead of me. To my slight dismay, they stopped right on the intersection where I usually took a left to make my way home. I found my footsteps growing softer as I approached them, attempting not to make my presence known through the loud crunching of the gravel beneath my feet—I was not going to begin the awkward conversations this early in the day.

As guilt would have it, I realized what I was doing—Why didn’t I want to engage these people? It was clear I was American…there would be grace. So, why didn’t I initially jump on in? I took the dangerous first step and made eye contact as I approached. Of course they were already looking at me—they’re always looking.

I threw out a polite “Niata,” (a shortened form for “morning”) with a halfway smile. Right away, the woman of the pair took it upon herself to engage this strange person. As usual, she fired a string of Romanian words that meant absolutely nothing to my comprehension of the language. I stumbled out the phrase “I’m sorry, I know a little Romanian” in her native tongue, followed by the disclaiming phrase: “Sunt American.”

I automatically had a foreign air bestowed upon me—why was I here? When did I get here? How long would I stay? I tried my best to answer with a genuine effort and engagement, and did what we’ve all learn to do so well here: celebrate the little victories within ourselves when we can just barely follow along. When our conversation came to an end, I received the standard blessing that most Romanian elders bestow on the poor English-speaking souls who venture to engage them—It was if we’d each given each other the world through three minutes of connection.

Matthew 5:47 notes, “And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?” The language barrier here can often feel like a much thicker curtain than it is, but disconnect can happen anywhere. After realizing how many people have squeezed their way into my heart despite this is both astounding and convicting.The familiar is always easiest, but “brothers” don’t become so unless we have the desire for family. To intentionally engage others anywhere in loving community—new and awkward community—requires a deep humbling of the self.
When we see that our oldest of relationships at one point took the same starting effort, we realize how different we can grow to be by expanding the family.
A growth that only occurs when we learn to love the language. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Abundant Life

The other day I was reflecting on the strong spirit of contentedness that has seemed to accompany my time in Romania. I was really trying to get to the root of this peace, because surely it was unnatural. Had I been living in the States with a half-suitcase full of clothes, 2 pairs of slowly falling apart shoes, and a Nalgene instead of my sophisticated Starbucks travel mug - I'm not so sure I'd be quite as happy. Ok, I'd probably be fairly miserable. Yet, I hardly miss any of the material things I left behind in the States. I'm very happy with my small wardrobe, and get almost embarrassingly enthusiastic when I can dress it up with second-hand scarves I find here for “un leu”. 

I've been free of a media feed for over 6 weeks now. That's not to say that I don't see Romanian commercials on occasion, or that I don't pass by billboards when I walk to the store, but the language and cultural barriers have made such things white noise. No brightly colored leaflets are telling me what style of jeans I don’t have, and I'm not jealous of my colleague’s latest fill in the blank, because they’re in the same boat. It's extremely comforting to know that you have enough, and it has really allowed me to rest in this belief that I am satisfied. On the other extreme, I feel I have abundance in partaking in joy. While in the States there's this constant feeling of guilt - I should be doing this, I shouldn't be eating that - but the abundant life doesn't allow for such questions to be asked. If a little old Romanian man is selling beautiful lollipops in the park, I’m going to have one and turn my teeth different colors, all the while having no regrets. It's a fascinating balance I'm starting to learn comes with habit, and one I needed to travel many miles to find. 

-Jenny Hyde
Gordon College