Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lucrurile Mici

If Peace Corps has taught me one thing so far, it’s to learn to appreciate the little things.

Are you still with me? I was afraid an opening line so nauseatingly cliché might have incited a stampede for the exit. However, I didn’t know how to start this post without sprinkling at least a hint of it, so I figured I’d just dump the whole bottle.

In no particular order, these are a few of the little things that make my life here a little brighter.

  • Dear Orville Redenbacher, your business is a sham. Due to this country’s lack of widespread microwave usage, I’ve been reintroduced to making popcorn on the stovetop. It’s cheaper, quicker and much more fun – You get to watch those little fellas bounce around in there. Never again will I allow that action to take place behind closed doors.
  • Dear Tapatio, you complete me.
  • I just had a ham and egg sandwich. For dinner. It was delicious.
  • The light in my bathroom has been out now for what’s approaching four months. I’ve yet to replace it partly because apparently Gheorghe Mureșan was the architect, but also partly because I kind of like it. Essentially, anything with precision must be done by daylight. Anything that takes place after dark must be done by candlelight. That includes bathing, brushing and flossing, and even the occasional shave. There has been little bloodshed, and I’ve sincerely enjoyed this self-inflicted return to rusticity. 
  • I found some cheese in the fridge the other day that I had bought a few days earlier and had forgotten about. It made my week and will surely remain high in the running for making my month.
  • Said an eighth grader the other day after a class about “Dreams”: “That was a really good hour.” Boom.
  • We only get hot water about four hours a day: two in the morning, two at night. Now, it goes without saying that in a place with winters akin to Minnesota, I quickly adapted a schedule to allow myself to shower during these periods. In fact, I’ve become pretty adept at the phrase, “Trebuie să plec pentru că vreau să prind apă caldă.” (I have to leave because I want to catch the hot water.) However, I’ve recently discovered that doing dishes with water that isn’t bone-chilling can lead to a markedly better psyche. Who knew? Probably all of you. 
  • I’ve become a master nose blower. The teachers in most of my five kindergarten classes have transitioned from helping me teach, to just watching, to taking a breather in the other room when I come. I’m totally fine with this, as it’s something of a complement on both my teaching and language skills, and I know how exhausting 25 minutes is with the little ones, so if anyone deserves a break, it’s their teachers. But what comes with this is the often – read “everyday” – runny nose. Domnul Profesor de Engleza to the rescue: “Suflă. Mai tare. Bravo."
  • So apparently the dryers in Romania are hiding somewhere along with the microwaves, but I can’t say I miss them all that much. The convenience is indisputable, but there’s something sweet about picking laundry off the line that’s been dried by summer air.
  • And finally, some underwear magic. My bathroom has a heater that’s warmed by hot water as opposed to anything flammable. I know what you’re thinking. “Matt, put your underwear on that thing before you get in the shower, and it’ll vastly improve your disposition in the morning.” Well, I did. And it did. And does. Every day. 
These are my little things. Appreciate yours.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sports! Mi-au fost dor de voi!

Although I'm starting to get the hang of this teaching thing, I can't help but miss my old job in sports PR. The PR part? Meh. But the sports part? Absolutely.

Luckily, my school and town have a commitment to mișcare și sport, as evidenced by the yearly skiing contest that happened recently and our hosting a handball tournament for middle-school aged kids (the ages I teach). Alas, our boys finished fourth, but that just means they can only go up, right? RIGHT!? That's what I thought.

A few pics: First, the skiing contest. It was held last Sunday. The contest was only for the copii, but the adulți partook of the groomed slope as well. We even had a couple snowboarders, something not nearly as popular here as in the U.S. Because my area is so mountainous, skiing is a big part of the winter lifestyle, and it showed, as many of the kids appeared pretty comfortable glissading down the hill. 

I, however, chose not to partake, despite being offered skis and boots. Although I've been skiing my entire life, I haven't been in a couple years, and I didn't really feel like banging off the rust in front of everyone in my village. Totuși, data viitoare, when there's a bit less of an audience.

We also hosted a handball tournament today that featured middle schools from throughout the area. Because they're mostly Hungarian, I heard a whole lotta "Mit csinalsz!?!?" ("What are you doing!?!?") from some pretty intense benches. The indoor-action shots leave a bit to be desired, but check out our two-year-old gym! It's a great asset for the school, and I'm glad they have it, especially because it was -27 (-17 F) this morning. Joi.

I knew very little about handball before today, but after four hours and a bit of tutoring, I think I get the idea and most of the rules, and I definitely want to give it a try. Why wouldn't you want to jump in the air and huck a ball as hard as you can at a guy like 5 feet away? If only I had somewhere to play...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Moșul de Iarna

It's Feb. 7, and I remember back in October when I put up a post about winter beginning, a bit early I might add. Well, that turned out to be a false start. The real winter only just arrived about a month ago. Not sure whether you've seen the news over here, but some pretty intense storms and bitter cold has gripped -- why do weatherman always use "gripped" for cold temps? -- all of Romania. Roads have closed, people have died. It's had all the fixins' of a pretty severe winter.

Except in Tulgheș. Here, it's been more or less business as usual. Now, we get snowstorms and subzero (F) temps too, but that's just ca de obicea in the "North Pole" of Romania. In fact, like most places famous for their cold winters -- eh hem Minnesota -- people are more likely to talk about how severe this winter hasn't been.

Anyway, for me, it's mainly meant three things: 1) Adding the outer layer to my Columbia jacket (just last week); 2) Explaining to people that this is normal for me; it's the same as in Minnesota, where I'm from. (I have this conversation about once daily); and 3) Hiking a lot and taking some pretty amazing pictures.

No. 3 is actually the main reason for this post. I'd like to share with you some of the beauty that is, Tulgheș, Romania, in the winter.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

France and Underpants

So I’ve sat down to write this blog about 12 times now, starting approximately three weeks ago, when it was still January and this still would have been borderline timely. However, each time, I had no idea what to say about my Christmas vacation.

I think I can call it epic. Four major cities. Two countries. Three weeks. I’m probably too old to use this word for anything other than a movie, but we’ll go with it.

Now that I’m physically forcing myself to get this one in the books – and by physically, I mean prying open my jaws to force down some brain juice (hot wine) – I still have no idea what to say.

It’s times like these when I thank the fates for Dr. George Keeler, my first journalism professor. Without George, I wouldn’t have the education to default to the J-100 inverted pyramid and simply begin with the most important, the most interesting, the most France-y.


I had never been. When I backpacked through Europe in 2006, I had to leave before my misfit troupe made its way to Paris. To be honest, I, like many uniformed Americans, thought Parisians to be rude and have a deep-rooted dislike for us Yanks, despite never actually having been there. However, I found that not only to be untrue, but I found the opposite to be true. They weren’t only not NOT nice, they were exceptionally friendly.

And that city that everyone keeps talking about – the one in France, not in Texas; I get confused all the time too – didn’t disappoint either. I’m going to let the photo album do most of the talking, but I’ll hit some of the highlights.

First off, Paris is one of those cities – like Rome – where you walk down the street to your next tourist destination and you happen to stumble across something equally as breathtaking. However, you have no idea what that thing is. Or, I guess I’m using second person here… I had no idea what that thing is. It’s simply chock full of history and beauty, literally on every corner.

But there are a few things that everyone knows. Of course, the trip started with the Eiffel Tower, where we were fortunate enough to actually get to meet some friends under it. Call it cliché. (Actually, F-off if you just called it cliché. It was awesome.)

From there, the next four days is a haze of wine, tourism and wine. Roll the highlights.

Every night, the Eiffel Tower lights up, and every hour, it sparkles. I added some music to really up the whimsy.

Here's the old girl in all her glory.

We also went up, of course. The line for the elevator was visible from space, and the top was closed anyway, so we did it the real way: the stairs. It was also nearing sunset, so the light was pretty amazing.

Another one of my favorite parts was the Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) cathedral. It's located on the highest point in Paris, so the views there are OK too.

And there was this SICK soccer player on the steps that did some things that prompted quite a few, "Wait, no. He's not... WHAT!!?"

Then there's the Arc de Triomphe.

We also saw the Catacombs, which is a network of underground tunnels where they shipped and deposited a bunch of remains from cemeteries around Paris. The result is a BUTTLOAD of bones.

And then there was the wine... Oh, man was there wine... in the shadow of the Louvre...

...on the Champs-Elysees...

...on our hostel balcony...

...and in the shadow of the Notre Dame (into which we didn't go because we were so "parched")...

After Paris, we stayed with some friends in Amiens, about 100km north. (No, I’m not going to convert that. You should know 100km.)

Not only was the company out of this world – some of the sweetest people we’ve ever been lucky enough to encounter – the town was the very embodiment of every American romantic’s dream to ex-pat to the French countryside, eat baguettes, own a small tavern, drink wine and make a crappy movie with Owen Wilson. (You know who you are. You owe me two hours.)

Anyway, the biggest highlight of this part of the journey – next to the hostesses – was the gothic Catholic cathedral. Built nearly 900 years ago, it’s the tallest complete cathedral in France. Anecdotally, I’ve seen A LOT of churches through Europe and Romania, and apart from the Vatican, I’ve never seen anything this astounding. I took quite a few pictures, but here are some favies:

After we reluctantly headed back to Romania, well, we went back to school. However, we’re not doing chronological here. We’re doing inverted pyramid. (I’m hoping this second reference has gotten you curious enough to look it up.)

Before Paris, I spent a few days in Csíkszerada. Actually, in Romanian, it’s Miercurea-Ciuc, but it’s 90-percent Hungarian, so we’ll go with the majority. It’s officially the coldest city in Romania, and the home of the beer of the same name (Ciuc), but for us, it was the seat of a pretty cool hockey rivalry.

Basically, the team from Csíkszerada is full of ethnic Hungarians, as Csíkszerada is the county seat of Harghita County (where I live), and Harghita is one of the three main counties in the Székely, the largely ethnic Hungarian part of Romania. Well, their rival is Steaua București, the mainly Romanian team from the country’s capital and biggest city. Without going too far into it – this Canadian does, in part 1 and part 2 of a documentary; fast-forward 5 minutes into part 1 – it’s one of those fantastic rivalries that runs much deeper than simply two teams from two different parts of the country. (More photos here.)

Well, since I live in Harghita County, I can say that the good guys won, Csíkszerada (4-3) although Steaua made a game out of it, especially considering Csíkszerada had gone into București and beaten them 8-0 a few weeks prior. So, when you’re an ethnic Hungarian team, how do you celebrate a win? Well, with the Székely national anthem, of course, even though I’m told it’s illegal. They were clearly bothered by this.

Before the game, a fellow volunteer and I took some time to explore Sibiu, this picturesque Saxon town butting up against the Făgăraș Mountains in Transilvania. Sibiu is a really cool place because, apart from the outskirts, it looks much more like a German city, as it has remained fairly bloc-free and communist-light. All those pics are aici, but here’s a few highlights from there as well.

Piața Mica

Turnul Sfâtului

The old city walls

So, that’s it. If you’re scoring at home, you’ll notice that we’ve hit all four cities in both countries.

Currently, I’m back at school, three weeks in and going strong. I’m still teaching the same kids in fifth through eight grades, still doing five kindergarten classes and two adult classes, and still loving it.

However, I came to the realization today that I really only update things on Facebook, and I think it’d be a shame to not have those somewhat daily nuggets documented in perpetuity. So, here are a few status updates from the last week or so:

Jan. 30: Write a story with go, run, play, sleep and dream: "One day I went hiking and run and play and sleep and dream." Gotta at least respect the brevity.

Jan. 29: Said to my sister and her boyfriend today, two TEFL teachers, on our students: "Until our graceful touch, they are indeed just animals."

Feb. 1: Just spent an entire 45-minute English club watching my students enthusiastically pore over the books sent by a couple non-profits. Quite possibly the best class I've had as a teacher. (And it's not just because I didn't do anything.)

Jan. 27: I got to say something today in class that I HOPE I get to say again: "Deseneaza 'fart.'" (FYI, “deseneaza” means “draw.”)

At long last, I can move on. And more importantly, I can move this God-forsaken “Blog_France” document from my desktop to its final resting place.


PS: If you were waiting for something on underpants, I got nuthin’. I really had no idea what to call this, and I like rhymes. And underpants.