Monday, December 12, 2011

Beard today, gone tomorrow

And then there were two.

Weeks, that is, remaining in the semester. Today was my first day back at school, and it was the first day in the final two weeks of my first semester in Romania. (We just had a 10-day break due to the Romanian National Day Dec. 1-2 and a weeklong Peace Corps conference.)

It's pretty amazing to think about, actually. People always tell you that time will fly, and I guess I always believe them on some level, but I'm somehow always surprised at how quickly.

Anyway, this week is testing and inputting final grades. Next week is looking at the test, going over some of the things we need to and probably having some fun because I know I'll have about 3% of the students' attention. Then it's time for break, Christmas, New Year's, a bloody rivalry hockey game in the coldest city in the country, and a short little jaunt to Paris. But more on that later.

Well, as mentioned in my face's artfully written letter to my beard, we had to put the old fella down. However, it went for a good cause, raising something like 370 lei for Peace Corps Romania's Gender and Diversity Committee. The winning design was peace signs, which may or may not have happened because a certain high-ranking staff member, who will go unnamed, stuffed the ballot box with a 50. Either way, there were a handful of participants, the highlights being two guys doing a yin-yang style cut into the back of their heads and even a female volunteer shaving one into her neck, under her hair. All good sports, all for a good cause.

So, here's the progression:

Full beard.


And, back to square one.

Due to a pretty tight, daylong schedule, and because the sun simply makes a brief flyby here in the winter, we did next to nothing during the conference, with one exception: a strange drifter competition on the street in front of our hotel. Don't worry, I got video. I guess I also can't complain too much with a a view like this from the balcony: 

Yep, we had a balcony. NBD.

However, I did make a weekend trip to Cluj-Napoca, a beautiful college town that was once the capital of Transylvania, the week before.

Here are a few highlights, but to see the whole album, start here.

First things first, we went to the opera! We saw the Barber of Seville for 15 lei (like 5 dollars!). It was a French play, turned into an Italian opera, sung completely in Italian and translated into Romanian subtitles on a projector. We cosmopolitan-ed the crap outta that place.

Cluj was also lit up beautifully for Christmas. (I apologize for the pictures my iPhone camera takes at night. They're sub-par, but I'm hoping you can at least sort of get the idea.)

We also made a day trip to the salt mines in Turdă, about a half hour away. All my pictures from there were kinda lame, but it was a pretty bizarre experience. They've basically turned this massive mine into an amusement park, complete with a ferris wheel, rowboats in the underground lake, mini golf, bowling, pool and a playground for your tikes.

That's all I got for now. I can't wait for school to end, and a pig-slaughtering, țuica-swilling Christmas break to begin.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An Open Letter to Matt's Beard, From Matt's Face

Dearest Dr. Beardface,

Well, the time has come to say goodbye. Matt and I are shaving you not because we don’t love you, or because we haven’t had fun together; it’s simply for a great cause.

You see, we’ve offered you up to the Peace Corps’ Gender and Diversity Committee as a fundraiser. The volunteers are going to vote on your future with their hard-earned lei. Will you become a fu manchu? Will you become some weird shape like stars or someone’s initials or lightning bolts? Will you become mutton chops? Or a chinstrap? Only time will tell.

But let’s stop talking about the future for a minute. Let’s take some time to reflect on the past, on everything you’ve been to Matt and me.

You have so expertly connected Matt’s hair to the rest of me, then back around again to the other part of Matt’s hair.

You have outed Matt. The world now knows that he is a Ginger. He fought it, but because of your courage, he has accepted it and wears it proudly, just like you.

You have given Matt something to scratch at all times.

You have kept me warm and dry from the wind, cold and rain.

You are the world’s greatest sunblock.

To the parts around my mouth, you have ensured that Matt never eats or drinks alone, and you have so often selflessly held on to the leftovers so he could enjoy them later.

To the tips, you’ve been with us since the beginning, old friends, and we won’t soon forget it.

To the roots, you’re new here, but that doesn’t mean you’re any less a part of this. Listen to what the tips say, but don’t be afraid to go your own way.

To the mustache part, don’t let the world’s Movember movement make you feel like less of a mustache. You are still a mustache at heart, and a brilliant one. Let your light shine. Also, although you make it impossible for Matt to itch my nose by sticking out my chin and bottom lip and blowing upward, we know you did it with the best of intentions, even if we don’t know them.

Finally, to all the parts, let us not forget that we are one, that our whole is better than any sum of our parts could ever be.

You will be missed.

Sincerely, Matt’s Face

PS: See you in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ziua Recunoștinței (Thanksgiving Day)

Ziua Recunoștinței. For those of you Anglophones, that’s Thanksgiving Day over here. They don’t really have it, but this is how they translate it for us Yanks.

Originally, I hadn’t planned to do anything. Travel is challenging, and I didn’t want to take the time off school. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I love this holiday, and how much I wanted to be with people I love on this holiday.

So, I decided to join a group of eight people up in this corner of the country for a Romanian village Thanksgiving. And that it was.

I think the best way to break down the weekend is with a blow-by-blow account, so here goes:

Thursday, Nov. 24:

10:20 a.m.: I catch the bus to Iași, a giant college town in the northeast of the country. Although this is the real Thanksgiving Day, we had decided to celebrate on Saturday. However, I don’t teach Thursdays, and I had already taken Friday off, so I travel.

2 p.m.: I arrive in Iași.

2:15 p.m.: I hit the Billa for some essentials. The receipt reads: two half-liter plastic bottles of Polar vodka, 7-up, Fanta, Pringles and sour cream (for tacos later on).

3:30 p.m.: I catch the bus to my friend Kelly’s village. She told me to sit on the right side of the bus and in front so as to not miss her stop: Focuri (which literally means “Fires”). The only seat I find is in the back left. Well done, Matt.

3:47 p.m.: As we’re leaving Iași, the sun is setting over the urban landscape while, strictly by coincidence, “August’s Rhapsody” comes on my shuffle. I take a swig of the Screw-Up I prepared for the ride (vodka, 7-Up and Fanta) and enjoy.

4:46 p.m.: I arrive in Focuri to a smiling Kelly. There have been worse welcomes.

5:29 p.m.: Kelly tells me another volunteer, Lindsey, named our turkey Bert. By the way, our turkey is currently alive in the backyard of Kelly’s gazda (host family).

5:30 p.m.: Bert is dead. Cause: decapitation. Weapon: ax.

7:01 p.m.: We eat tacos. And it was good.

Friday, Nov. 25:

7:15 a.m.: Two more volunteers arrive. We are now four.

9:30 a.m.: Kelly and I hitchhike into Iași in quite possibly the first Dacia ever built. Upon arrival, the driver tries to extort us for way more than anyone ever charges for that leg. Kelly knows this because she does it all the time. We explain this to him. He’s still an a-hole. We walk away. I assume he remains an a-hole to this day.

10:30 a.m.: After an hour walk to the train station because the a-hole (see previous) wouldn’t drop us off any closer, we meet up with three more volunteers. We are now seven. (Note: Hitchhiking in Romania is typically a great experience. People are nice, and it’s safe. This was an aberration. The walk also allowed us to stop by an awesome stand with killer coffee and some great breakfast options. I went with a hot pocket and a hot dog wrapped in a pretzel. This is not the first time, nor the last, I will eat this for breakfast.)

10:32 a.m.: Three more arrive. We are now seven.

10:45 a.m.: We eat, again, at the McDonald’s next to the train station. This is common practice.

11:30 a.m.: We arrive at a mall and the only Carrefour visible from space. We do some clothes shopping. A few of us succeed in finding jeans. For me, the only pair I find that wouldn’t have to be removed with the Jaws of Life costs 335 lei (conversion: a lot).

1:15 p.m.: We finish clothes and food shopping for the weekend. As a group, we’re about a thousand lei lighter, but, like good little Peace Corps Volunteers, we made smart choices. We decide to take our time now because we know we’re not going to make the 2 p.m. bus. The next one is 3:30 p.m. This is called foreshadowing.

3:31 p.m.: We miss the 3:30 p.m. bus by “câtevă minute,” (a couple minutes), we’re told.

3:35 p.m.: We’re seated on the 5 p.m., but with GREAT seats.

6:15 p.m.: We get back to Kelly’s and, as seven, spend the rest of the night catching up and killing eight bottles of wine (or the equivalent of that; it was boxed. See “smart choices.”)

Saturday, Nov. 26: OUR THANKSGIVING!

7:15 a.m.: Volunteer No. 8 arrives.

2:30 p.m.: Volunteer No. 9 arrives. We are now complete.

3 p.m.: Bert goes into the oven.

5 p.m.: He comes out, a bit prematurely, something we find out partly due to one volunteer’s prodigious gag reflex.

3-7 p.m. (continuously): Side preparation is in full swing, a difficult pursuit with two burners and one oven. However, thanks to the masterful conducting of one Kelly, we redefine efficiency.

6-something: The power goes out. Seriously. So, after a few moments of “Are you f•••ing kidding me?!?” we grab the bull by the horns – and our Euro-Nokia phones that are all equipped with flashlights – and light everything we need to.

6-something-plus-a-few-minutes: We’re PCVs, dammit! We can handle this. We’re now cooking, and more importantly carving, in the dark. What of it, Electricity.

8:05 p.m.: Lights are still out, but so is the food. We’re ready to eat. Thanks to the continuing power outage, the creativity of the table-setters, and Kelly’s gazda’s penchant for figurines from all geni, we’ll be eating by candlelight jungle motif, just how the Pilgrims did it.

8:10 p.m.: We all say what we’re thankful for. I don’t care where you are, or whom you’re with, this should happen at every Thanksgiving dinner table.

8:30 p.m.: Mid-dinner, the power comes back on. We rejoice. But it’s short-lived. We’re eatin’ here.

The rest of the night: We eat, drink and be merry.

Sunday, Nov. 27:

7 a.m.: Five leave. And then there were four.

11:30 a.m.: Three leave. And then there was one.

Monday, Nov. 28:

Sometime Monday morning: Everyone is back to his or her respective sites and accounted for, with a belly fully of turkey and a heart full of great memories. Here’s to the next holiday. Wait, that’s this week:

I think it’s safe to say our first Romanian Thanksgiving, was exactly that.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


OK, so where were we? Ah, yes, I was just about to tell you about the seven more classes I picked up and my trip to Paris.

So, I picked up seven more classes and am taking a trip to Paris.

First, the classes. It started with three kindergarten classes. However, there are five kindergartens in the comuna (a handful of villages), so once the fourth one asked me to come, I figured I’d hit for the Tulgheș cycle and offer my services to the fifth.

So now, on Tuesdays, I have five kindergarten classes. It’s exhausting, but adorable. We mostly sing songs together, but they have a good time, and I’ve had a good time seeing them retain and progress.

Our current set list includes “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” – even though they all call those things on your legs “kneesand” – a variation of “One, Two, Buckle my Shoe” that I made up, and my favorite: “How Are You?” set to the tune of “Are You Sleeping?” It goes a little something like this:

How are you?
How are you?
I’m goooood. I’m gooooood. (with big smiles)

How are you?
How are you?
I’m NOT good! I’m NOT good! (as pouty as possible; they love this part)

I’m not crazy about reinforcing the negative response, but the main goal here isn’t to make them fluent by the time they reach first grade, it’s to forge an association between “English” and “fun,” maybe spur some interest and give them a small head start. So far, so good.

Last week I also started my adult classes. All 30-something of us met, and after the first hour, it was unanimously decided that, moving forward, we’d do a beginner class and an intermediate class.

Shortly into our first dialogue – “What is your name? Where are you from? How are you?” – it became fairly obvious that we had two different levels: those who’ve done this stuff and just want to freshen up their English, and those who haven’t had any English at all. (All the while, I was fighting the urge to sing my “How are you?” song because it was still fresh from the kindergarten class an hour earlier.)

More on that later.

So I’m going to Paris! I made a really great friend in my town who goes to school outside of Paris and offered to let us stay there. So, while weighing my options for Christmas vacation, I realized I’d be crazy to turn down a free place to stay in Paris, which also happens to be somewhere I’ve never been. So, a $300 round-trip ticket later, and I’m on my way (in two months)! I’ve started Pimsleur’s French – hey, already studying Romanian and Hungarian, why not throw in a third? This way, I won’t be totally clueless, just mostly.

Asta e tot.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

True Story

So, while on an evening stroll tonight, I discovered that the Transylvanian psychiatric hospital where I live has a pretty healthy, vocal bat population. I have no other reason for posting that here than I simply wanted something so perfectly cliché to live in perpetuity. And what’s more static than the Internet?

Other than discovering Dracula’s kinfolk, it’s business as usual here. American football is now happening every week – it exited English club time and now has its own after-school slot. In fact, while “Playing Favorites” in English club today, multiple kids said their favorite sport is, in fact, American football.

American Hegemony 1, World 0.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Are you ready for some football!?

Over here, that means something different, but since the great Tom Paulson’s care package arrived, it can mean what ol’ Hank Williams Jr. meant it to mean.

The past few weeks, like a fumble-happy college running back, I’ve been carrying with me an American football. Needless to say, it’s aroused some curiosity. I’ve gotten a few questions about the rules, but the more or less unanimous response is: I don’t understand.

I was mainly just itching to play catch with someone, but most people’s curiosity doesn’t dare exit the teacher’s lounge. I did force my group of tenis cu piciorul players to toss it around one night. After a few amusing attempts at trying to throw this strange, oblong object, they were fully content to toss it aside and get back to rounder, more familiar pursuits.

However, one of the charms of working with children who haven’t quite made it to high school is that they’re still grasping at least a small bit of their childhood eagerness to try something new and not care how it looks. So yesterday, Tulgheș’ first-ever English Club-American football game took place on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.

I explained things slowly, step by step, using a lot of motions. We were going to play two-hand touch with an all-time quarterback (me). Once we picked sides and kicked off – perhaps the part that came the most natural to them – what unfolded in the opening seconds was something that resembled a combination of one part rugby, two parts chaos.

The ballcarrier took off, then tossed it to someone else, who tossed it to someone else, who tossed it to someone else, who tossed it to someone else, until that person was finally tackled, stripped of the ball, then the whole process repeated itself, again, and again. All the while, I’m choking out “STOP!” while laughing.

Step by step, though, we got there, sort of. First they understood not to throw it to each other like in rugby. Then they understood that after an incomplete pass, the play is over. Then they finally got the two-hand touch thing (even though there was still a fair amount of tackling happening after the play). And last of all, they got the idea of four downs and a turnover on downs. All in all, for 45 minutes' worth of play, I was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly proud of them.

One of my fifth graders – a sweet kid who played in a suit – summed up the day in Romanian: “Are we going to play again next week? That was cool, really cool.”

Now, I know we can’t do this every week in English club, but I hope to figure out another afternoon to play, perhaps once a week. More on that later. But for now, let’s do a little “Tulgheș Bowl 2011: By the Numbers.”

·      18: total players
·      10: gametime temperature (in Celsius)
·      0-3: total crowd attendance at any given time
·      3-6: amount of times I had to yell “stop” each play to keep them from clotheslining the ball carrier after he or she had already been touched down
·      6-1: final score (didn’t feel it necessary to explain the real scoring)
·      0: amount of injuries (SUCCESS!)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Nu, nu sunt bolnav.

Vine iarnă.

It's October 14, and I saw snow in the mountains today. It’s October 14, and this is the third day in a row I’ve made a fire in the fireplace. It’s October 14, and three days ago, I’m pretty sure I saw my breath in the morning. While still in bed.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that everything north of the pavement was sweating. But alas, seasons change. It tends to happen every year. Admittedly, I did expect fall to make a little more than a brief drive-by before winter shoved it out of the way.

But we’re a hearty folk in Minnesota, and if there’s one we like to cling to as much as our insistence on calling casseroles “hot dishes,” it’s the supreme nature of our winters. With that, I welcome Old Man Winter’s Eastern European cousin.

Well, besides the drastic change in temp, not much has happened that’s fit for print. School is in full swing, and my counterpart and I are really starting to get the hang of this split-classes thing. We had ample time to plan, but none of that really means much until you’re actually in a classroom setting, becoming familiar with your students’ personalities, levels and needs.

Originally, he was going to concentrate on grammar, and I was going to use the grammar points to create games and activities to encourage and improve speaking and fluency. Now that we have a few weeks under our belts, we’ve decided that he’s going to concentrate on grammar, and I’m going to use the grammar points to create games and activities to encourage and improve speaking and fluency. But at least we’re sure now.

To revive the winter theme, the inimitable Tom Paulson sent me the winter box I’d set aside before I left. Complete with my winter coat and enough fleece to equip Siberia, my first Romanian care package also included, by request, a 32-ounce bottle of Tapatio, sandwich baggies, an American football that’s aroused many-a-curiosity and, much to the delight of my 5-year-old neighbor who helped me carry it inside, A LOT of bubble wrap.

Besides receiving the package and its wonderful contents, and learning that bubble wrap is endlessly entertaining on all continents, my favorite tale of the day came in the midst of the 10 minutes it took to retrieve the package from the post office. (The time it took is notable because, from leaving my house in the morning to returning at night, the entire pilgrimage to the county seat took almost exactly 12 hours.)

Anyway, I was greeted with a smile by the kind woman. I thought she was just being nice, but once the conversation took the next turn, I realize now that it may have been spurred by something else.

“Psychiatric Hospital? (My residence that the package was addressed to.) What do you do in Tulgheș?”
Hurriedly: “I teach at the school. I live at the hospital.”
Somewhat disbelievingly: “Oh.”
“No, I just live there. I live with the nurses.”
Now laughing: “Oh, so you’re not crazy.”
“No, I’m not crazy.”

For some reason, things went swimmingly after that.

Well, I just put another log on the fire, opened a beer and tossed on a freshly arrived fleece. Right now it’s just Mr. Albacher and I, but I heard the gang from How I Met Your Mother will be stopping over later and perhaps even some friends from Scranton and Greendale CC. Looks like it’s gonna be a good one.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Școală începe... acum... OK, acum... Nu, acum...

We had the first day of school today – the first day with students – and I learned something: The first day of school, really isn’t. I learned that, in Romania, you essentially go through a series of soft launches before the year starts.

First, the teachers come to plan, ostensibly, on Sept. 1. Then, on Sept. 12 – today, for those of you scoring at home – the students come. They have an assembly, students meet with their dirigintes – basically, their homeroom teachers – and they get their class schedule.

I guess I can take pause and explain how school works here. Basically, you get a class when you enter school, whether that be middle school, high school, mă rog. Basically, that’s your homeroom class that you stick with throughout your tenure at that respective school. You all have the same classes together, at the same time, the whole time.

OK, back to today. There was a really nice assembly with the principal, asst. principal, head of the PTA, mayor, parents, neighbors, et al. All the students dressed up – boys in suits, girls in dresses – and listened to a series of opening words from the dignitaries gathered. The highlight was when the kindergartners read a poem about graduating from kindergarten to first grade; that’s adorable in any language. (There were also a couple kind shoutouts my way from the principal and mayor, the latter of whom including the phrase “a historic day for Tulgheș.” No big deal.)

In addition to the students getting their class schedules, I got mine. Unless this changes in the next week, which is a distinct possibility, I’ll teach six classes on Monday from 8-2, four on Wednesday from 10-2, and six again on Friday from 8-2. This obviously leaves Tuesday and Thursday liber, which I’ll definitely use to plan and work on my secondary projects. There’s also a large amount of interest from the community for adult classes, which will most likely be an hour or two a few times a week. In addition, the representative from the PTA – and some other parents in passing – mentioned having extracurricular “classes” for students outside of school time.

Although I have my reservations as to how successful this will be, I agreed to see what we can do. Perhaps I’ll simply mask it as an “English Club” and frame it as a fun, free time to practice, learn and play, which I believe will be much more fruitful than students being forced by their parents to come to classes in which they have no interest.

Anyway, back to these “soft launches.” The next two weeks is essentially review. We’re required to freshen up what they learned last year, and after that, the new school year really starts, or so I was told by this kid who inexplicably kept yelling “wolf.”