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!

A Grand Budapest Adventure

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They had to tear me away from Budapest, but I am back in my little city, in my favorite cafe, with a view of the Christmas lights being set up outside. I am content to be here, but thinking back to the wonderful long weekend I spent away with a few other Fulbrighters, I am already nostalgic and dreaming about going back.

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Our Airbnb

We arrived on Thursday for Thanksgiving, all of us having survived various difficulties leaving Romania, and found our gorgeous airbnb apartment on the Buda side of the river. Rita, our host, welcomed us with still-warm pastries, which tasted especially good after our 7-hour train ride. We picked a restaurant on the Pest side, and enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner toasted with delicious Hungarian wine, and three hours worth of food.Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

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Thanksgiving dinner

On Friday, we continued our mission to eat all the things in Hungary, starting with a cafe across the street filled with books. The food was delicious, but the atmosphere brought us back every morning we were there.

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We spent the rest of the daylight hours attempting to make up for all the food we were eating by climbing up and down the hills of the Castle District. The exercise kept us warm on a cold, but sunny, day. In addition to the stunning views, we discovered all kinds of little shops and bakeries and cafes.

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#FulbrightFunFam on Gellert Hill

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Pure exhaustion

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In the evening, we soaked our sore muscles in the famous thermal baths of Budapest. The Gellert Baths were closest to our apartment, and we were stunned by the beautiful tile work and the views of the outside bath. After a long day, we couldn’t stop smiling as we let the warm water relax us under the dark and cold night air, with views of the Liberty Bridge and city lights. After a few hours, we stumbled next door to the attached restaurant, continuing our quest to eat all the things.

On Saturday, Melanie and I decided we needed to stay an extra day, and emailed Rita to ask for her advice on changing our ticket. The next thing we knew, her 87-year-old father, Matyas, approached us at our favorite cafe and had Rita explain over the phone that he would help us change our train seat reservations.

We quickly discovered that he did not speak a word of English, but did have a bit of French as well as strong German. He talked us through a neighborhood walk, took us to the metro station and showed us how to buy the kind of ticket we needed, explained the construction of the new metro line, and took us to the counter at the train station. Between the three of us and the clerk, who didn’t speak English either, we managed to complete our mission. Matyas put us back on the metro and embraced us before leaving. Later, Rita told us that even though we hadn’t been able to communicate very well, her father had enjoyed our enthusiasm and persistence, and would have coffee with us if we came back to the city. She told us a bit of his experience during World War II, and we listened to his story incredulously. Melanie and I agreed that we would love to hear more of his stories–they reminded us that history is not abstract, but personal.

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Matyas and Melanie

We spent the rest of the day on the Pest side of the river, exploring Parliament, lots of little cafes and restaurants, and St. Steven’s Basilica. But we were reminded that no matter how beautiful a place is, it is impossible to escape ugliness: we unexpectedly found monuments and reminders of Hungary’s complicity in the Holocaust, and shed tears for the Jews, the disabled, the gays, and the communists who were murdered. Especially emotional for me were the identification patches these different groups wore, displayed next to personal items such as suitcases, shoes, and a violin case.

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We turned ourselves towards fun again for the evening with a girls’ night at the opera. We saw Lucia di Lammermoor, and were blown away by the beautiful voices, particularly the soprano. She gave an athletic performance, writhing and twitching on stage during her mad scene, climbing ladders, and generally astounding us while hitting perfectly clear high notes.

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On Sunday, we explored the main Christmas market, sampling Hungarian street food and mulled wine as we shopped.

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Since the Christmas market was near Gerbeaud (one of the top 10 chocolate shops in the world, according to some) and we were on a mission to eat everything, we stopped in around dusk to warm up and refuel.

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Dobos torte at Gerbeaud

Finally, we sat down for the evening at St. Steven’s Basilica for a string concert. Although not quite as overwhelming as the opera, it was lovely music. I was particularly happy to hear Massenet’s Thaïs Méditation, which makes me think of my sister.img_3713

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With Melanie atop St. Steven’s Basilica.

With our final day, Melanie and I explored the Castle District, visiting the stunningly painted Matthias Church, and indulging in two lunches and a visit to a bookstore for some Hungarian literature in translation.

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At Matthias Church

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Matthias Church

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Homemade chicken soup with healing properties

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Chocolate cake and rosehip sorbet

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A magical bookstore

We made it back to Cluj, Romania the following afternoon (with a 5am boarding time), both utterly exhausted. Stories of our adventures in Budapest keep running through my head, and even though I didn’t sleep 5 consecutive hours our entire trip, every moment was worth it. The food, history, and company were totally captivating. We are already trying to plan our returns.

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Melanie braved train station falafel and a Coke Zero for breakfast

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I stuck with a grocery store iced coffee

Winter in Romania

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It snowed! Last Sunday I woke to this beautiful view and promptly realized I had nothing to eat, so I trekked out to the grocery store and back, slipping and sliding the whole way. Wooster snow must have been good training, because I made it back without falling and all of my eggs intact.

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Lest you think I’ve been getting too comfortable, considering my success with groceries and all, worry not! I’ve still been flailing around, the most basic tasks are still tripping me up. Some fun stories:

When I came home to Targu-Mures from Cluj last week, I went to seven (SEVEN.) windows at the bus station trying to buy a ticket before someone finally told me that you buy the ticket from the driver. This came after I decided taking the bus would be easier than taking the train–it turned out there was no direct train between the two cities, contrary to what the Internet told me, and I ended up sitting at a train station in the middle of nowhere (no cafe, no convenience store, no wifi) for three hours between trains. At least the bus only took a bit over two hours and dropped me off at my street.

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I’ve also been getting my paperwork together for my temporary residency permit, which has led me to offices all around town. Yesterday I woke up ready and motivated to face the bureaucracy of the immigration office, but life had other ideas. Instead, my heater stopped working. I called my landlady, who sent her husband, who puttered away and explained the problem to me several times in Hungarian. I still don’t know what was wrong, but by the time he fixed it the immigration office had closed for the day. Since it was only open today during my teaching hours, I’ll try again on Monday. (Please keep your fingers crossed!)

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Today I had plans to give my presentation skills students a short midterm evaluation and talk them through my vision for their final presentations–the end of the semester snuck up on me, and with the holidays, we only have a handful of meetings left. But, it’s a Friday, and the temperatures have warmed up a bit, and most of them have already presented, so I only had about 12 out of 36 show up at the start of class, and a few more showed up halfway through. The laid-back atmosphere was actually nice and fit with what I’ve learned from Romania: expect the unexpected and roll with it.

I capped off my morning with a trip to the bank. Since I’m not allowed to have an ATM card yet for some unknown reason, I have to go to a teller with my account information and passport to get money, which shouldn’t take too long. Except today, when my passport crashed the network at the bank, making my quick trip into a 40-minute one.

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But all in all, I am well. I walked back home with a quick stop for cookies and the skies cleared up and I have a lot to look forward to here.

Stronger Together

It has been a long week, and I feel as though a lifetime has passed between my writing about getting settled in Targu-Mures last week, and my return to this city last night.

I left for Cluj on Sunday, the city where the majority of my fellow Fulbrighters live. Our mood was generally happy: we found each other in restaurants and cafes and bars, went to the theatre, I found a medical history museum.

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Medical history museum in Cluj

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The view from a secret cafe

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The theatre on a Monday night

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On Tuesday night at 8:30, I arrived in Bucharest for an election night party hosted by the US Embassy at the Hard Rock Cafe. I traded gossip with and teased the other Fulbrighters while we danced and drank and ate. Live entertainment kept our minds off of the election. “I feel good,” a friend told me.

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Mihai showed up!

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Romanian boy band

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One of the most surreal moments of my life

The momentum of the party died a bit when an academic Skyped in to explain the electoral college. I sat down for the first time all night and switched my whiskey out for coffee. I chastised my friend for obsessively refreshing election results too early. We waited.

The mood grew more and more somber. The Romanian guests had mostly left. The staff of the embassy watched, dumbfounded, as state after state was called. I colored Montana red. “Smile!” someone shouted. I couldn’t.

At 5am, I had to leave to get on a plane back to Cluj. I reached for my phone every few minutes and then started to feel dizzy. At the security checkpoint, an airport staff member noticed my party swag and asked, “Clinton or Trump?” I pointed to my Hillary pin and explained that we were hoping she could still pull through. I stopped checking my phone and nausea overwhelmed me. “I don’t think I can get on this plane,” I said. I made it, in the end.

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Beginning of the night v. morning. Yikes.

I didn’t look at the news again until I had reached Melanie’s apartment and taken a shower. And my heart broke again and again and again. A young woman I consider my sister is worried she won’t be able to move to the US as she had planned because she’s muslim. Close friends worry they won’t be able to afford medication for serious conditions. Here in Romania, friends are concerned about the economy and our proximity to Russia. In short: people I love are seriously worried about their lives and livelihoods.

Over the course of the day, I thought I wouldn’t come home, that I would stay in Europe after my grant ends in July. I thought about the absurdity of the world: I had been awake for 36+ hours, watching a celebration of democracy devolve into a scramble to find a way to preserve any good we have accomplished as a nation before January. Tuesday night I danced and drank and smiled. Wednesday morning I cried.

Melanie offered me a bed for the night, and I accepted it–to be with friends and Americans, I thought, was important. And I’m glad I stayed, because even as we realized disheartening truths about our country and cried and became delirious from lack of sleep, we found comfort in each other as we talked about the good we are capable of doing.

I am lucky to be here in Romania with intelligent and compassionate and worldly people. Even as I approached hour 40 without sleep, positivity started to creep in again. We found good food, and our questions turned from “What has happened?” to “What can we do?” And even though my heart still breaks, spending time with these people brings me hope.

Maybe I’ll come home in July and maybe I won’t, but I do know that I will fight for love and education and rights in the United States. I am so grateful to my friends who kept me strong through election night, and to my friends in the United States fighting the good fight. I am still processing, but I know that hate will not win.