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.

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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

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.

Spooky Halloween Weekend

Now that we are halfway through the week, reminiscing about the weekend feels appropriate.

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A few other Fulbrighters and I travelled to Bran, to the castle that might have inspired Bram Stoker’s depiction of Dracula’s castle, and has used that rumor to fuel spooky Halloween fun. It made for excellent bonding (I’m proud to be a member of the Fulbright Fun Family) and good stories.

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My b&b in Bran had friendly sheep, chickens, and kittens. Pretty sure I had this sheep’s cheese for breakfast.

I arrived in Bran after a full Friday. I taught my morning presentation skills class, missed a bus to Brasov, made friends with a German who also hadn’t been as aggressive as he needed to be to get on the bus, found another bus, realized I hadn’t eaten all day, took a rather expensive taxi to Bran, and finally met up with a group at the Transylvania Inn for a dinner of local meats and cheeses with polenta.

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So cozy!

I was glad to meet up with other Fulbrighters. Being the only one in Targu-Mures, it’s hard not to feel a little isolated when dealing with the frustrations of getting settled in a new country. Swapping stories by the fire with a glass of wine was wonderfully comforting.

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Brasserie in Brasov

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Brasov

The next day, I visited Brasov with a few others. We wandered around some shops, peeked inside of the Black Church, and had a yummy lunch at a brasserie looking out on the main square. We found Halloween masks and drove back to Bran in time to wander the markets there and change for the party that night.

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Some of the Fulbright fam

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Vlad himself!!

The night started with a long wait in line, made easier to tolerate with beer, warm street food, and good company. We finally made it to the castle for a tour including secret passageways, costumed actors, and, finally, blood-red wine.

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Bran castle on the night of the party

The castle was festively lit, and we could hear the music from the party throughout. A few of us headed there to dance and have themed cocktails and dance some more.

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Back to Brasov

The next day, on little sleep, I headed back to Brasov with another Fulbright friend. We explored some more, went to the brasserie for a late lunch, and drank coffee to try to fight the tiredness from the day before, but gave up in the late afternoon. We attempted to improve our Romanian by watching TV instead.

All around, a fun and successful weekend! I made it to Bran an Brasov, and back to Targu-Mures, which would have made the weekend a success in itself, but I also made friends, had some delicious Romanian food, and got festive for Halloween. What more could I ask for?

Week One

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City Center

I’ve been in Targu-Mures for a week now.

Usually I settle in to a new place pretty quickly, but it has been a challenge for me to figure out my place here so far.

Firstly, I still don’t have an apartment. Although I’ll only be here five months, I’ve been longing for a place to come home to at the end of the day–my own kitchen, my own bed, a place to sit and relax. The university accommodations I’m staying in are very nice, close to school and the city center, but knowing I can’t stay here much longer adds another layer of pressure.

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My school

Secondly, I’m always exhausted. I remember this feeling from when I was 17 and studying abroad in France. Trying to keep up with my lessons in a foreign language, I would return home every night and collapse shortly after dinner, barely able to pry my eyes open when my alarm went off in the morning. This time, I’m sure the immense culture shock is taking its toll, along with the language barrier.

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The Medieval Citadel right outside of my school

Add in AT&T refusing to unlock my phone, trying to open a bank account, navigating a new city, and teaching courses to 70 (mostly) Romanian students with varying levels of English fluency. I don’t even want to think about applying for my long stay permit in a few weeks.

But with all of the stress, I am also taking in the beauty of this new place and taking time to be thankful for the lovely people who are helping to make my transition smoother.

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The park on a gloomy day

My fellow Fulbrighters have been a source of information and support. The professors in my department have also been very supportive: one ended our meeting with a warm kiss on the cheek, another, in a crisp accent, wished me “the best of British luck.” A librarian who lived for some time in Portland, Oregon helped me print course materials at 7:30 in the morning, and my faculty contact has helped me with nearly everything else.

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If I could say anything has gone better than expected, it’s teaching. While nearly everything else around me seems to be a source of chaos and stress, my students showed up to class (I was told they wouldn’t), participated (I was told they would be reluctant), and said some encouraging things in the self-evaluations I had them write. The university has given me a lot of freedom in designing my classes, and I think they’ll go well.

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My classroom

I’m optimistic about a lot of things in the following week. Each day has gotten a little bit easier than the last. I can find my way to school without a map, I know where to find coffee and groceries, and I’m getting a feel for the town–more than I could say last week. It’s tough going, but I’ll get there.

The Big Leap

I’m leaving on Tuesday.

This moment has felt so far away all summer, and now it’s a few days away.

First, I am stopping in Helsinki to see a study abroad friend. After a week in Finland, I’ll spend a whirlwind day in Bucharest, go on a field trip with the other Fulbrighters, and then my faculty contact will drive me to my temporary accommodations at the university.

As a planner, I have been anticipating this moment for a long time: the moment when all of my plans come together and it doesn’t seem inconceivable that everything will go smoothly.

The worrier in me is still having a ball, though. I won’t have an apartment until I arrive and find one. My clothes are shoved haphazardly into the two suitcases I’m bringing and every few minutes I think about something I’m sure to forget (at least 50% of the time I think it will be my passport). I’ve written up syllabi for my two fall classes, but leave them open on my computer so I can click over to them and second-guess myself.

Still, the reassurances of the very friendly people I have been in contact with have helped me to sleep easy at night. It’s hard to believe that the end of September has arrived already–but I’m happy it’s time to stop talking about doing the thing and do the thing!