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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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 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

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.

Just Say Yes

I’m leaving for Europe in just over a week. Now that my departure date is quickly approaching, all kinds of anxiety and excitement that has been lurking for months is bubbling to the surface.

Meanwhile, I’m reminding myself of an important concept that guided me through my time in France and Greece and many other experiences: Just Say Yes.

This concept came in handy last January, when I was doing research in Paris for my Independent Study. Before leaving, I let myself become anxious about being lonely during the week I would be in Paris among the 17th-century books I was afraid to ask for. I worried that in the dark of winter, I would go the whole week without talking to anyone. Even as an introvert, it didn’t sound like the ideal trip.

I set my mind at ease by telling myself that as long as they didn’t interfere with my work at the archives, I would just say yes to any opportunities that came my way.

In just under a week, I met a friend of a friend–a Finnish student at Oxford studying abroad in Paris–for lunch at a bustling, quintessentially Parisian bistro. We hit it off, so we made plans for dinner later in the week as well. We talked about our studies and the importance of a well-rounded education and becoming your own person overseas, away from home. We talked about how lonely it can be until you find someone who understands.

On another night, I met my parents’ friend’s parents at their chic apartment in the third arrondissement, and we ate home-cooked Moroccan food and drank wine while they swapped stories with friends they had invited to share our dinner. Their daughter was applying to college and I recognized her giddy and nervous excitement. They made sure I made it home safely on the Metro.

One evening, when I came home to my Airbnb after a full day at the archives, my hosts invited me to join them for une verre with a few people in their living room. I met a young American violinist living in Paris and trying to make it as a musician and a Parisian man who had just finished his Master’s degree at Stanford. The three of us talked well into the night about the struggle of young adulthood.

Happily, my host family from my time in France in 2011 was also able to visit me, and we spent all of Sunday together, mostly eating and walking, and when it started to rain, I took my host sister to the train station and we had a warm cup of coffee while she waited for her ride home.

I’m lucky to have a network of friends and connections that reaches across the ocean, but I’m also glad that after spending years anxiously and shyly avoiding too much social interaction, I learned how to say yes. I could have spent all of my free time curled up in bed with Netflix (and I admit: jet lag did get me one evening and I did just that). But that week in Paris last January was filled with experiences that I could not have had if I had retreated inside of myself–and they brought me so much joy.

So, to all of my introverted friends out there: just say yes! Netflix/the book you brought/your bed will be there when you reach your limit.

(And for the record, I did actually do the research I went to Paris to do.)

 

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.

From the Archives: Thoughts on Traveling Solo

This post has been sitting in my drafts since my study abroad semester in Greece in 2014. I’ve since traveled alone to Paris, and plan to travel solo again in the near future. So I cleaned up this old post and added some thoughts:

One of the things I love most about study abroad the chance to meet lots of people who also love to travel. If you’re lucky, you get to travel with them to new places and see new things.

I also gained a lot of confidence in myself in travel, and for various reasons, I spent a significant chunk of time traveling alone. This fall break ended up being one of my favorite trips.

My fall break in 2014 lined up with Thanksgiving and lasted 10 days. I left on Thursday (the week before Thanksgiving) right after my Greek class and returned a week and a half later, around midnight on Sunday.

I started my break  with a visit to my French host family from when I studied abroad in 2011.

Lise’s partner, Nicholas, is behind the camera–but he’s also very much a part of the family!

I spent the night in Paris in an airbnb, with the most charmingly eccentric Parisienne who fed me buttered bread and strong black coffee before I caught the earliest train down to Poitiers, where my host sister, Claire, studies. It was such a relief to see her waiting for me at the train station. I hadn’t seen my host family since 2012, and I was only expecting to see two of my host sisters (plus my oldest host sister’s family), but my host parents surprised me and drove out on Saturday with my third host sister, so the whole family was there! I had an incredible experience staying with them when I was seventeen that I can’t help getting a little emotional when I see them.

My host family has a habit of downplaying future plans, and although I was told that my host parents were coming for “a little lunch together on Saturday,” the whole weekend blended into one long “lunch” with all eight of us sitting around the table, feasting, playing games, catching up on news and taking walks in town. During the 48 hours my host parents were visiting, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had spent half of those hours at the table.

Also, we may have cleaned out an entire bakery. If you think I’m exaggerating, you haven’t met my host family.

With tears in my eyes and a heart full of love and butter, I left France for the next leg of my journey: Berlin. I planned to meet my roommate, Emily, and our friend Mae at our hostel, but getting there meant navigating public transport, by myself, at night, after a full day of travel. A daunting task, made all the easier by the friendliness and efficiency of the Berliners! Again, I was relieved when Emily and Mae greeted me and we all collapsed into our beds for the night.

We only had two days in Berlin, but we filled them with a walking tour of the city, visiting the Christmas markets, walking along the East Side Gallery, and, of course, eating our weight in meat and potatoes (washed down with German beer). I spent one evening with just Emily, and the two of us wandered into a used bookstore (where I found a book from my to-read list, in English!), went snack-shopping at a convenience store, and had dinner together at a trendy restaurant.

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Seeing history in person

For the final leg of my journey, I spent four days in Amsterdam. Again, reaching my hostel was my most daunting task: my flight out of Berlin was at 5:30 a.m. (but only about $20), and upon landing in the Netherlands, I stumbled around in what seemed vaguely like the right direction until I made it to my hostel, where I drank coffee in a stupor until I could check in to my room.

I mostly spent my time in Amsterdam alone, except for a day with my Dutch friend Melinda (we went shopping and had coffee at Starbucks–she was missing her year in America much more than I was missing home!) This was probably the hardest part of my trip, since I arrived on Thanksgiving Day, and spent it alone for the first time in my life. It was an enjoyable day, though, spent seeing Dutch art at the Rijksmuseum followed by a hearty meal of Indian food and a good book. I found this to be a good way for me to spend my days–lingering in museums longer than I could if I were with friends, eating when I got hungry, and sneaking in afternoon naps without worrying about keeping to an agenda.

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Melinda in Amsterdam

Although I made plans for all of these trips on my own and found more quiet moments to myself than I would have if I’d been traveling with friends, I realized that traveling solo didn’t mean that I was alone. From the French teenagers who offered to carry my bag for me in the metro and made small talk on our ride, to the other woman eating Indian food accompanied only by a book on Thanksgiving night in Amsterdam, even in my loneliest moments, I felt a sense of companionship with those around me. Traveling alone gave me more confidence in myself than study abroad could on its own–while study abroad is an adventure, there’s a sense of comfort in knowing that someone else is planning your travels.

Even with my success, I was happy to return to my home base in Athens and my friends.

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.