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!