Love Letter to Cluj

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Before I got my placements in Romania, I remember googling different cities and imagining myself walking down their cobblestone streets and having coffee on colorful squares. I imagined visiting the cathedrals and museums of Brasov, Timisoara, Sibiu, Iasi. But something about Cluj drew me towards it–maybe the student culture, or its location in the center of Transylvania.

I was lucky to find friends in Cluj, and that both of my placements have been about the same distance from the city–about 3 hours by bus. I’ve gotten to know the mountains and villages and rivers between my own apartment and the “Tangerine Palace,” my friend’s very orange apartment.

I love staying in Cluj. I know the squares and the courtyards. I know which cafes serve food and which serve coffee with the best views and which serve Coca Cola with ice for Americans.

I’ve been when it’s so cold an inch of frost coats everything–I spent a night cuddling a radiator for warmth. I’ve enjoyed cold lemonade in sunny courtyards in a t-shirt.

I’ve had a few friends visit Cluj. They like it, but I’ve been asked why I spend so much time there. One of my Romanian colleagues answered it best: “Of course you love it there. That’s where your family is.”

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Represent

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Small-d diplomats! Note our Romanian/American flag pins

At the end of this past week, I was lucky to host my friend and colleague Damaris for the first in a series of lectures I will give in Baia Mare. We were given a difficult task: the students and teachers attending our talk wanted to know about “the real America” as opposed to the America represented in movies and TV series. We wanted to keep the presentation around an hour, to hold attention and be respectful of busy schedules. How does one represent a 3,796,742 square mile country with a population of over 320,000,000 in a one-hour presentation?

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Caffeine: an important component of presentation planning

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Celebratory coffee from my favorite place

We chose to focus on diversity: the diversity of our landscape and of our people. We took a visual journey through America, through the National Parks and into our communities, and wrapped up with an emphasis on tolerance and cultural exchange.

We were very happy with how the presentation went: we had a good turnout, especially considering it was a warm, sunny Friday afternoon, and our audience seemed interested in what we had to say. It was nice to show positivity and beauty in contrast to the current headlines we are reading about America.

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Spring is here!

It was Damaris’s first time in Baia Mare, and it was also nice to show her around town with the beautiful spring weather. As she discovered this city for the first time, I started to think about how I will represent Romania when I return to the United States or continue my travels elsewhere.

Like the US, Romania is a large and complicated place. I have experienced my fair share of frustrations, but also had some wonderful conversations with so many different kinds of people in cities that are just as alike as they are different. How can I make a general statement about Romania when I have traveled from the very north in Baia Mare to the very south in Craiova? From the capital city, Bucharest, in the east, to Timisoara in the west?

Someone recently asked me to sum up my experience here in five words, and I couldn’t do it. I could only come up with “surprising” as an all-encompassing word. Anything else would be too limiting. I can, however, say that Romania has always surprised me, and I’m sure it will continue to surprise me.

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Uncertain

One of my favorite and least-favorite things about eastern Europe is the uncertainty in life.

If you hadn’t picked up on it in my previous posts (or in real life), I’m a planner. I like to at least have a rough idea of where I’m going and what I’m doing and when. Romania, in general, is not a place where planning is easy. For the past few weeks, I’ve been showing up at the Faculty of Letters to meet with the Dean on most mornings. We chat for a bit, and he introduces me to colleagues, and then, sometimes, I teach a class. Sometimes the professor is there. Sometimes not. In more than one case, I’ve had to ask the students what class they are attending and what material they are covering. Now that we are a few weeks into the semester, I have a better grasp of the schedules and I’ve met some of the students a few times. They recognize me more than I recognize them. We have good conversations about books we are reading and how life is different in the United States.

Although “by the seat of my pants” is not my favorite way to live life, it has also brought some of my favorite memories this year. I try to say yes to as many opportunities as I can. This is how I ended up in Montenegro, Albania, and Greece last month. It’s how I ended up dancing with my colleagues at a Women’s Day celebration two weeks ago. It’s how I’ve done things like smoothen poetry translations, and attend theatre productions, and introduce myself to former presidents. It’s how I ended up in Romania.

The uncertainty persists. I plan to return home to Ohio for about a month this summer. I’m not sure when. I’m not sure where I will go when I leave. I don’t dare to make plans just yet. But after my time in Romania, the uncertainty bothers me a lot less. This time last year, I was agonizing over what to do after graduation. Today, I know that I’ll figure it out when I figure it out.

Women’s Day in Romania

The 8th of March is International Women’s Day–something I may have vaguely heard about in past years. Last year, I had the privilege of turning in my Independent Study on midwifery in early modern France on this day, which felt particularly appropriate. In Romania, however, there is no mistaking that Women’s Day is special. 


At school, I was greeted with flowers and kisses on the cheek from colleagues, and even champagne after a faculty meeting. Amused, I remarked to one of my colleagues that we don’t celebrate this holiday in the same way at all–those of us who know it even exists. 

I had the chance to get on my soapbox in an American literature class reading The Scarlet Letter. Although I haven’t read the book myself (I know, I know) I used the class discussion time to talk about women’s health and pregnancy in history in the United States. My co-teacher was able to chime in with some comparisons to Romanian culture, and our common need for comprehensive sex education, destigmatizing women’s bodies, and a better understanding of reproductive health. Not what the students were expecting, to be sure, but an important conversation. 

I was glad to be able to celebrate Women’s Day in these two ways. I appreciated our university Women’s Day party–more fancy than I expected, in a local hotel’s event space with lots of food and dancing. I loved bringing a little color into my new apartment with the flowers I received and the general air of festivity. But–especially with my general sense of helplessness every time I read the US news–I was also glad I got to get fired up about women’s health, even if it was only for one class. 

New Semester, New City

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New semester, new city

The last I wrote, I was on the other side of my move to Baia Mare–the uncertain side. I write to you, friends and family, from the warm welcome of Maramures, the region I will call home for the next four months or so. I learn this lesson over and over again: that I must trust in the universe and in myself, because life works out and plans are overrated.

I journaled about being uneasy about this move back in August, before I had even stepped foot in Romania. But, once again, I moved to a small city in Romania with no apartment, knowing exactly one person here. Since then, a warm community has embraced me and made this transition a smooth and pleasant one. Although I don’t have a set schedule at the Faculty of Letters (what was that I just said about plans being overrated?), every professor I’ve talked to has been excited about potential collaborations, and I’ve already introduced myself to three sets of students.

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The river helps with orientation

I’ve found an apartment in the city center, close to school–just above a pastry shop that tastes like France. I’ve found some of the best coffee I’ve had in Romania, reminding me of the corners I like to haunt in Cleveland. Most importantly, I’ve found kind and welcoming people everywhere. Along with the sun and spring weather, these elements have helped me to find a (temporary) home here already.

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Seriously. Such good coffee.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel for the Fulbright Think Tank in Bucharest, where my fellow ETAs and I discussed some of the cultural adjustments we’ve had to make in Romania. One of the difficulties of talking about differences between the US and Romania, of course, is that both of these countries encompass a multitude of complex cultures. It’s easy to say that, but not easy to comprehend until one travels.

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Celebrations.

Now, as I am settling in a new region, I am seeing these differences first-hand. Several people told me that Maramures is the region of Romania that holds the most tightly to old traditions. I’ve seen this already, from small things like being greeted with a kiss on the hand, to a celebration I attended on Sunday with traditional food and drink accompanied by unique regional singing and dancing, all in costume. Traditions seem at home here.

I am excited to continue discovering Romania with new people and new (to me) traditions. I am expecting a totally different experience from last semester–and that’s okay with me!

Moving

I’ve been moving around a lot lately. Tomorrow, I’ll pack my bags into a colleague’s car and head for a new start and a new university in Baia Mare.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written because I’ve also been traveling: around Romania to Cluj and Craiova and Bucharest; and around south-eastern Europe to Montenegro and Albania and Greece. At some moments while on the road, I questioned my choice to come here and put off settling down somewhere a bit more permanent–an idea that is occasionally attractive to me. It’s something I thought about during my time in France and in Greece, and even while at Wooster. I haven’t lived anywhere for longer than about 5 months in years, and until recently, I even split my time at home between my dad’s house and my mom’s house.

Mostly (I tell myself) I find home in other ways. Even in the most far-flung places, I manage to find the familiar. Sometimes, I connect with someone who has a place in common with me, such as the cab driver in Bucharest who skyped his brother living in Parma, Ohio while he drove me to the train station. Sometimes, the connections come once I start to familiarize myself with a place. The tiny city of Kotor, Montenegro, felt like home a few hours after we arrived and began to recognize friendly faces on the street. We had long conversations with one eager waiter, who showed us his favorite bar, we stepped into a leather goods store and a Turkish man offered to share coffee with us, and when I went to the tourist office to make arrangements for a day trip, the woman at the window asked, “Oh, are you Marija’s guests?”

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Kotor, Montenegro

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Perast, Montenegro, about a 15-minute drive on the bay

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Budva, Montenegro

It also seems that no matter where I end up in the world, I find myself doing similar things. I am always on the hunt for a good book, and in traveling to places I never imagined, I have found unique voices I may never have otherwise read. I tell myself there is always room in my suitcase for a book, and even as I am packing now and realizing just how quickly those volumes accumulate, I wouldn’t leave any of them behind.

Eating was also a major activity on our trip–to balance out all of the walking and exploring. No matter where in the world I am, people are always happy and excited to share local culture through food and drink.

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A tiny, hidden, medieval (?) church in Kotor, Montenegro

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A tiny bookstore in Tirana, Albania

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Enjoying sunshine and exploring

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Trying to decipher secrets of the past

Returning to Greece, while it didn’t quite feel like going home, was a return to familiarity. We started in Crete, then spent a few days in Nafplio before returning to Athens. While I am always eager to see new places, it was also nice to rediscover places I had already been to. In particular, coming back to Athens and being able to navigate by the Acropolis, running into people I knew in the streets, and of course eating my favorite Greek foods brought a smile to my face.

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The bright, friendly colors of Greece

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Aiden and a new friend exploring Nafplio

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The sea

I returned to Romania refreshed. After what felt like a long and cold winter, finding temporary homes along the Adriatic was exactly what I needed. Spring is just around the corner here, and so, I’m sure, are new adventures.

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Atop the Acropolis of Athens

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Findings on a cliff in Greece

Romania by Numbers

I am well into month 4 in Romania, finally legal and getting settled–just in time for me to move. Here are some numbers, for those keeping track back home:

  • 3 weeks to get my phone working
  • 98 days to get my residency permit
  • 103 days to get a bank card
  • 4 flights to get here, 7 flights since I’ve arrived
  • 80 (ish) students, 13(ish) weeks of classes
  • 2 conferences on the horizon, 3 presentations  behind me
  • 8 cities in Romania visited
  • 9 books read (hit me up on Goodreads, y’all)
  • 4 members of the Fulbright group lost to the US at the end of the semester, one gained
  • Countless excellent meals and conversations, often simultaneous

Visual Travel Journal

I started painting about a year and a half ago, on a whim. It’s a hobby that has been very calming and fun during tumultuous times. This summer when my Pop and I went to New York, I started keeping a visual travel journal. I use an A4 Leuchtturm journal and a gouache set to keep track of things I’ve found interesting or pretty from place to place. Sometimes I just make a quick sketch, and sometimes I spend a few hours on them. Some of the pages are fairly neat, and some of them are a bit more messy. But they have all been lots of fun to work on, and I’m looking forward to continuing in 2017!

A Tale of Two Christmases (and some New Year Reflections)

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Christmas lights in Targu-Mures

This is the first year I have spent Christmas away from my family. With all of my travels in Romania, I almost forgot it was the Christmas season at all. I have been back and forth from my home base in Targu-Mures by plane, train, and bus non-stop. After our unconventional Thanksgiving in Budapest and my whirlwind trip to Bucharest around my birthday, the season snuck up on me.

I was lucky to have a few days of downtime for the holiday. My Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day were all laid back days. I slept in, had chocolate for breakfast, read in bed, and stayed warm inside.

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I received this beautiful embroidered tablecloth as a gift

On the night of Christmas Eve, I had a Transylvanian Hungarian Christmas with a colleague. The evening started with singing carols and lighting sparklers on the tree (I had to suppress every American instinct to witness this) and continued with several hours cozy around the table with plenty of food and drink. I sampled all of the traditional foods and walked home warm and satisfied.

I spent Christmas evening with Corina, where I again sampled all of the food. Between two dinners, I ate almost enough sarmale to qualify as an honorary Romanian. We spent the rest of the evening snacking on desserts and watching fun movies.

The day after Christmas, I left for Timisoara. As a Christmas present to myself, I booked a trip with a Fulbright friend and her visiting friend from the US. We stayed at a lovely hotel (with cats!) and spent our time wandering and finding places to get in from the cold and eat. We met the friendliest people and ended up having long conversations about everything about Romania and the United States that crossed our minds.

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The walk from our hotel to the city center, over the river

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City center, Timisoara

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City center, Timisoara

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Viniloteca: at the recommendation of another Fulbrighter, we stopped in and asked for the owner and told him “Eric sent us.” We ended up staying for hours!

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We made friends with this young man at a sandwich shop, who told me that his great grandfather fled the first world war to Cleveland. His family received a packet of letters dated 1919 after the 1989 revolution.

I came back to Cluj in time for the New Year. My Dutch friend Melinda, who studied abroad at my high school, joined me for New Year’s Eve. We met up with the graduate student of another Fulbrighter for drinks and an evening chat, and ventured out to the square for the countdown to midnight and fireworks show.

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Melinda had to leave early, and a bone-chilling cold has set in here in Cluj, but I have been reflecting over the past few days on how thankful I am for this past year. I have found such warmth all over the world. I have been lucky to travel far and wide this year, and to have found family and friends in all of the corners I found myself in. What better way to wrap up 2016 and ring in the new year than with an old friend and a new friend on each side?

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Her Heart Grew Three Sizes That Day

Last week, we had our Fulbright winter meeting in Bucharest, which happened to coincide with my birthday and the birthdays of two other Fulbrighters. We coordinated poorly–all of those coming in from Cluj (including me) came in at a different time–but we all reached our hotels and met for dinner. The evening set the tone for the weekend: we spent much of our time around the table in good company.

It was wonderful to hear about everyone’s experiences so far, and to chat about our common challenges and joys. Some of us have become quite close through our travels, and some I hadn’t seen since October, but it was lovely to catch up with everyone. Mihai, who coordinates the Romanian Fulbright program, even called me out as a pioneer as the first Fulbrighter in both Targu-Mures and Baia Mare.

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Fulbright gets fancy

In addition to our meeting, we had a reception at the same location as our fall reception (with the same delicious desserts), an outing to Parliament and Controceni Palace, and a lunch at the famous Caru’ cu Bere in the old town of Bucharest. On our own, we scoped out interesting restaurants, went on long walks in the beautiful sunny weather, and even tried to crash a party.

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Sometimes it can be hard to find, but there is beauty in Bucharest

I spent my birthday, on Saturday, with the Fulbrighters I have gotten to know well over the past 3-ish months. We wandered through the old town, had more delicious food, and got haircuts.

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Pastries for breakfast at Zexe

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A simple haircut became quite the experience

We wandered into a salon because it was open and three of us wanted to trim our hair. Little did we know what we were in for. First, our new friends at the salon insisted that we also needed to get our nails done. We all looked at our hands and agreed they could use some love. After finding out that it was my birthday, the man who made our reservations said that he would make some special drinks for us. He mixed some of the most delicious drinks–although it was challenging to drink them, as I was having my hair done and my nails done at the same time in order to make our dinner reservation on time. Our friends gave us a good price, and we took selfies together before running off to dinner.

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Looking good + feeling good

We ended up with a group of seven at dinner, with a mix of generations and fields of study, but lots in common. It was a perfectly-sized group for talking travel, Romania, and food. The restaurant was small and cozy with excellent food, and we talked into the night. I am constantly amazed by the people I meet here, and really enjoyed being able to take a long evening to get to know the people around me.

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Christmas market in Cluj

I made a quick stop in Cluj before heading home to Targu-Mures on Tuesday. I have considered myself a bit of a “Grinch” for a while now. I don’t enjoy getting into the Christmas spirit as much as many of the people around me. I don’t listen to Christmas music or watch Christmas movies, I don’t love decorating, and I think the Christmas season lasts entirely too long. However, I have really enjoyed the Christmas markets and lights here and was thinking about how they bring people together, even in the cold and the dark.

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With friends at the Christmas market in Cluj

And then I returned to my apartment in Targu-Mures, and Santa Claus (aka my landlady, Gaby) had visited! While I was gone, she left little decorations and sweets–even a tiny Christmas tree. And, like the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes. I am so touched by the kindness I have found here, from my fellow Fulbrighters, to my colleagues and students, to the people I meet from day to day. I cling to their kindness when I get frustrated with Romania. I can say now that when this year is over, I will remember the people and their kindness above all else.

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Santa visited!