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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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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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

One Month in Romania

It’s hard to believe that it has been one month. Some days I catch myself telling someone that I was just in Helsinki “like, a week ago” (I left over 4 weeks ago). At the same time, I have a pretty good sense of Targu-Mures now, and my apartment is starting to feel like home. I’m in a happy period: I am still discovering gems of the city (like the cafe I’m writing from, which offered a spicy cinnamon latte as today’s special), but I’m not a stranger here anymore. I’ve taught my fourth week of classes, and my students seem to have warmed to my American style. My Presentation Skills students gave their first presentations today, and they did me proud.

The other day, I went to a home goods store to pick up a few things for my apartment (spare sheets, cookware, a second pillow–I lead a life of luxury). I was frustrated because I had just found out that a Romanian class I had signed up for that I thought was once a week actually meets every day, meaning I would miss half of the classes due to my teaching schedule, and wouldn’t be able to take the course after all. But along came a friendly face: a security guard walked over and held open a bag for me, then walked it to the door while I paid. He asked me a question, and I caught the word for car. I shook my head, “nu,” I don’t have a car. I tried to show him my muscles to indicate I was strong and would carry my purchases. He looked shocked and asked another question I didn’t quite catch. “Taxi?” he said, pointing to his phone. Da, da! In the two minutes it took for the taxi to arrive, he showed me pictures of his daughter and told what I’m sure were interesting stories, and made sure the taxi driver knew exactly where to take me before he left.

This sums up my Romanian experience so far. I’m confused a lot of the time. I understand a word or two per sentence, if I’m lucky. But I find when I get most frustrated, someone is extra nice to me, or I stumble upon a beautiful view I hadn’t found before, or I get good feedback from a class. I’m happy to have reached this point of understanding. My days are mostly good, people are mostly friendly, and if I ever get fed up, I know something good is right around the corner.

Ta-da! I’m here!

Dear friends and family,

I’m safe and have arrived in Targu-Mures, my home for the following semester.

The last week has been a whirlwind, so I’ll start with the main bullet points:

  • Spent a week in Helsinki. Managed two sauna trips with my AFS friend Sara, lots of coffee, and visits to museums.
  • Took a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia, with Sara and new friends Rachel and Shasha.
  • Woke up at 3:30 am in order to make my 6am flight to Bucharest, via Berlin.
  • Fulbright orientation in Bucharest: so many cool people, so much information. Reception dinner: so much food.
  • Fulbright adventure to Peles and Pelisor castles. Another meal.
  • Drive to Targu-Mures with my faculty contact, Corina.

And here I am. Exhausted. Happy. Excited. Still without Romanian SIM card. (Soon, friends. The freedom of cellular data will be mine!)

I want to write about everything that has happened in the past week, but honestly, it’s all gone by so quickly my mind hasn’t caught up yet. I’ve been so lucky to be surrounded by friends, old and new, to keep me sane.

The next adventures include:

  • Finding an apartment
  • Teaching (starting Wednesday!)
  • Getting my residency permit
  • Romanian lessons (starting in November)
  • And countless more I can’t imagine

I’ll check in again soon–lots is happening, and I’m excited to share.

Twenty Tiny Penpals!

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Little brother was eager to help

This week, I had the pleasure of visiting my little brother’s first grade class to talk to them about Romania and what it’s like to move to a different country. We also practiced introducing ourselves in different languages–I taught them French, Greek, and (questionable) Romanian, and they taught me Mandarin. They asked questions that revealed the deep curiosity of children: “What do houses look like in Romania? What do children do in schools in Romania? Do they have seasons in Romania?”

I answered their questions as best as I could, but in the end we realized that there are only so many things you can learn about a country before you travel there, so each of the children held on to their questions and will send them to me in letters.

It will be heartwarming for me to receive a box of letters from six-year-olds while I’m adjusting to life overseas. But I’m also looking forward to making connections between cultures clear for small children. It’s a skill I hope to hone as a public historian: making complexities of history and culture accessible to everyone.

There are fun things to convey about the history of Romania, such as the (much toned-down) story of the real Dracula that I hope will catch the imagination of six-year-olds. But mostly I want them to realize how alike we all are as humans, even all the way across the ocean and a continent.

Planning for a year in Romania

One of the most overwhelming parts of moving abroad is the planning involved beforehand. Working with the information I have gleaned from across the pond, I’ve filled pages and pages with lists to make my transition to Romania smoother.

I know I’ll be living in the mountains and that winters can be long and cold, so I’m bringing my warmest professional clothes (shoutout to Ohio teaching placements–luckily I won’t have to buy much!)

Moving to Romania is different from both of my study abroad experiences in that I will no longer be a student with the privilege of sitting back and letting someone else fill my brain with knowledge. Now, it’s my job to teach and hopefully fill some brains myself.

Planning my syllabi for my fall classes has been quite the challenge. Having never been to Romania, I can’t gauge with 100% accuracy what kinds of cultural differences I will encounter in the classroom. What level of English will my students speak? Will they be comfortable writing long essays in a foreign language? Will they be used to group work and discussions, or will they expect only lectures?

I’ve made some decisions–my students will do peer reviews, whether they want to or not! After all, Fulbrighters are cultural ambassadors, and although I will strive to be sensitive about my students’ needs, it won’t hurt them to have a bit of an American influence in their educations.

I’ve dug out my warmest wool sweaters. I’ve triple-checked that my passport will be valid through my stay (it will, plus two extra years). I’ve downloaded Dracula on my kindle. As unbelievable as it seems, I think I’ll be ready when I leave in three weeks.

The Road to Romania

When I tell people that I’m preparing to spend a year in Romania, one question always follows: “Why?”

Like many decisions in my life, the decision to apply to teach in Romania came about through a convoluted process of questioning what I would gain from a year in various locations and the practicality of each option. As a historian with global interests, I knew I could be happy exploring almost any corner of the world, so I took into account different factors like cost of living, safety (hi, parents), language, availability of modern comforts (*cough cough* wifi), and the potential for me to continue my work in public history at a cultural institution.

Romania came about as an option with a relatively low cost of living, and while I don’t know the language, I’m hoping that my background in French (another romance language) helps in my immersion class this fall. More research only enforced my choice: the landscape looks gorgeous, the food is right up my alley, and friends who have visited Romania have nothing but good things to say.

I’m especially interested in the museums in the two cities I’ll be living in. Unlike many museums in the United States and other countries I’ve visited, Romania’s museums seem to focus less on important people and events, and more on the history of the common man and folk history. I have some ideas about how to explore this and bring their history to a wider audience–watch this space!

The decision to follow through with this year in Romania wasn’t an easy one. Although I invested a lot of time, energy, and stress in my application and interviews, I didn’t immediately want to accept the grant. I began to question if I could picture myself living in Romania or if it would be practical to move abroad for a year right now. I had a lot of energy and enthusiasm for graduate school, and thought about striking while the iron was hot rather than waiting a year.

In the end, I reminded myself of what had drawn me to spend a year teaching abroad, and specifically in Romania. Even with the uncertainty about where I would live and what I would teach, I was confident that I made the right decision. I am still apprehensive about my move, but my contacts in Romania have been lovely and reassuring in every way.

Most of all, I want this year to be an adventure–and something tells me I’ve signed up for the adventure of a lifetime.