Monday, March 28, 2011

Close of Overseas Service

Wow, COS has finally arrived.

Learning about all of the different PC events that we would have to attend in our service, COS was always so far off in the distance. Even after our last event, MST (mid-service training) COS still seemed a long many months away. As I write, all of the conferences have come and gone. From now until the end of my service I am a single volunteer. Even though everybody's Peace Corps service is largely an individual or community accomplishment, for me the group mentality has always been at least a bit present until late Saturday afternoon. By group, I am referring to my swear-in group, group 26.

Unlike at other Peace Corps posts, PCRo volunteers conduct all of their required PC training events as a whole group. We staged together, trained in Targoviste together, swore-in together, and we just conducted our last in-service training event together, the COS conference. Immediately after leaving PST and each of the in-service training events, I have on every occasion felt a strong bit of loneliness. After spending at least a couple of days with a large group of people that I call friends, I am once again alone on a train reflecting upon those days. I have learned that such a feeling will only last a day or two maximum, but at the time, sitting on that train and looking out into night, the feeling's strength is at it's peak. This last conference was a bit different in that some final goodbyes had to be spoken. We will not meet again as group 26.

On a lighter note, the COS conference signifies the fast approaching completion to our Peace Corps service. When someone signs up for the Peace Corps they know that it won't be easy and that they have the option to back out at any point in the process. Many people do decide to go home early and they always have good reason to do so, but looking at fellow group members at the COS conference I couldn't help but say to some of my closest friends "wow, we made it". If you've graduated college or highschool then you know about the bittersweet feeling that I felt as I said some goodbye's to fellow 26ers. I'm sure that that feeling will resurface as I prepare to leave my site.

The conference was a very busy event held at a nice 4 star hotel in Sinaia. Sinaia is one of the most well known tourist towns in Romania. It is a small town in Prahova Valley at the base of the eastern edge of the Bucegi Mountains. The Prahova Valley is one of the most beautiful mountain regions of Romania and by far the most visited as it is the closest to the nations capital. Sinaia offers good skiing, hiking, and great views from it's gondola. It is also home to the Sinaia Monastery and Peles Castel, residence of King Carol the first. Highlights of the conference include but are not limited to: PC service timeline, cutting Ted's hair, interviews, discovering beautiful Sinaia, birthdays in the lobby, Manuela and Ben painting, Chels's poem and superlatives at the COS dinner party. Of course there were also some really informative sessions put on by staff to help prepare us for the next few months of ending our service in Romania the coming months of readjustment back in the states.

View from my hotel room

Ben showing off his painting skills

Group 26 and PCRo staff shaking it at the COS party!

Peles Castel

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peace Corps Invades Cluj

With the insider help of veteran volunteer Doug, Peace Corps Romania descended on Cluj in full force on the weekend of 12 March 2011. The American forces started to move in on the western Romanian city on the evening of the 11th. That evening PCRo's rookie committee, the Multicultural Awareness Committee(MAC) held their inaugural meeting bringing together volunteers from both groups 26 and 27 to discuss the committee's mission and future involvement in the upcoming PST. Meanwhile volunteers were filing in from all parts of Romania to attend the following days' events. Those events included the spring GAD and VAC meetings on Saturday, and Sunday's annual Warden training.

Arriving by train late on the evening of the 11th, I attempted to find my way to the hotel in the city center on foot. I had been through Cluj before but only in transit. On a couple of occasions Cluj has acted as a stopping point for me connecting one leg of a trip to another. My last encounter with the Transylvanian capital was a four hour stop between a return flight from Venice and my train back to site. During that four hours I wandered through the city center snapping photos, drinking coffee, and reading my book next to the city's impressive St. Michael's Cathedral. I arrived in the city center cutting down taxi costs but eventually had to find a ride to the hotel that I was not familiar with. Still feeling ill from a cold that I caught earlier that week I decided to stay in and rest up for Saturday's meeting.

After a nice breakfast at the hotel and some miner last-minute preparations for the meeting the group of PCRo staff and volunteers made their way to Cosul Verde, a small organic food shop with a coffee shop upstairs which would be the VAC meeting room for the day. With increased participation due to other meetings that same weekend, Cosul Verde was the perfect location, just large enough to comfortably fit all participants. In classic VAC meeting style the scheduled 6 hour meeting lasted 7. The morning cruised by on schedule with a large variety of agenda topics leading straight into lunch at 1:00 on the dot. Two of the staff members present were experiencing their first VAC meeting in Romania. One was the PTO who recently came on board in November and the other was the Peace Corps Security Officer for the region stationed in Albania. Their presence added great value to the discussions as well as important information on the direction of PCRo and PC worldwide. An added bonus to the group of participants was veteran PCVL Chris. The Lunch Box was the perfect spot to get all of the VAC, MAC, and GAD members sufficiently fed and rested for the joint afternoon hour to come.

While VAC and GAD held their meetings at the same time but in different locations, GAD and MAC representatives were able to join the VAC meeting in the afternoon to present their committee updates. After the joint committee hour GAD reps returned to their meeting location and VAC continued on with survey presentations. This part of the agenda took longer than expected as the results of both the VAC annual survey and the group 27 site integration survey came under heavy, but necessary discussion. Finally the end of the meeting came one hour past its scheduled timing.

The beautiful spring day allowed me some time after the meeting to snap some pictures of the large statue outside of the cathedral. The statue is of Matia Corvin a former king of Hungary. Though I had visited Cluj on previous occasions this was my first sighting of the statue as it had been under construction during my earlier visits.

The evening began with a satisfying dinner at 360 where I ordered a plate of delicious fries, a cheeseburger and some cole slaw. It was the most American meal I had had since my cheeseburger meal at the small Irish pub, McGowen's, a year earlier in Medias. From there we wandered through the old Romanian-Hungarian streets hopping full bars until finally arriving at an artistic 2nd floor joint called insomnia. It was an interesting bar with several rooms that get redecorated every six months. It was there where we chatted over Stejars until heading back to the hotel.

Luckily the next day's warden training was pushed back from 9am to 10:30 allowing us all some time to rest a bit more and eat a nice breakfast before getting starting. For many, the warden training was a refresher in case there is an emergency in Romania. As for myself, I was receiving the information for the first time since I have only recently become a warden. Basically a warden simply relays information between staff and volunteers, and keeps things under control if there is an emergency in the country. The training didn't last too long but it was thorough and helpful. It was also the last meeting, closing out the weekend in Cluj.

Even though the last meeting had ended, my Cluj time continued. My next best travel option was at 9:30 the following morning. That evening after the warden training I wandered around with my colleague Cbrown and we found the less-than-impressive cock church. Instead of a cross at the top it has a rooster. Next we ate some really good Indian food where I said goodbye to her and a couple of other colleagues venturing south to Turda. A bit later on that evening, wandering through the downtown walking streets with Chris and Ted, we heard some music that would turn out to be a major highlight of our Cluj trip. In a second-floor bar we found a young group of musicians playing some great sounding jazz music. Sitting there in the corner with our Silva's we admired the music and introduced applause to the room after each song. The band was made up of a keyboardist, bass player, drummer, and a violinist, student musicians jamming out with each tune they played. We stayed there until the band finished and even found one other bar to have our last drink of the night. It was a proper ending to the weekend of PC meetings in Cluj.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Being an English teacher in a foreign country you get to celebrate a lot of holidays. Of course you get to celebrate or at least recognize the host country holidays, but you are also charged with the responsibility of appropriately representing your own holidays and how they are celebrated. Here in Romania, English teachers are well into the spring holiday run even though spring hasn't really come yet. This run seems to start with St. Valentines Day which is followed by its Romanian counterpart ten days later, Dragobete. Fast-forward just five days and it's Martisor already which is followed by 8 Martie, or Mothers Day, one week later. The first week of March begins and ends with a celebration focused on women so I simply consider it woman's week. During that week I am more consciously polite to any women that I may encounter. Finally, ten days after 8 martie we arrive at one of my personal favorites, St Patty's Day. At the moment we are in the midst of woman's week so I'd like to say a few words about my favorite Romanian holiday, Mărţişor.

Mărţişor is a celebration of the beginning of spring. The first flower that brings in the season is the snow drop and it is given as a small gift on the first of March. Leading up to Martisor you begin to see stands pop up throughout town offering small gifts. The basic, cheap, Martisor gift is a small ornament in a box with a red and white string tied to it. This ornament can be pinned to ones shirt. There are also more complex Martisor gifts ranging from bouquets of flowers to various display ornaments. Whatever the gift is, cheap or more elaborate, it is always well appreciated. Martisor gifts are always given to women. Sorry guys. Many students will bring them to their women teachers, or male colleagues will give them to their women colleagues. Martisor technically means "little March" or "Dear March".

Last year, when I first saw Martisoare, they actually did seem to signify spring. I remember it being a nice spring day when I was looking through the piles of brightly colored ornaments, picking out some for my colleagues. The snow drops were a welcomed sight and I remember that I started seeing Crocuses on the Parang footpath only a week or two later. After the Crocuses came the Narcissus, my favorite springtime flower. Spring evolved and became, by far, my favorite time of the year here in the Jiu Valley. This year has already turned out to be a bit different. It was a colder, longer winter already and an end is not yet in sight. I can't complain too much as this type of weather is expected here and still, in the cold, I manage to have some pretty great outdoor adventures. Last year we were lucky to have an easy, mild, short-lived winter. Either way, I am eagerly waiting spring. During this year's Martisor I spent a little less time scanning the tables of gifts. There was a warm fruit tea calling my name nearby.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

March 1st

Once again Peace Corps's birthday is the subject of the post. Fifty years ago on March 1st, Executive order 10924 established Peace Corps, though it was not authorized by congress until September. To commemorate Peace Corps's official 50th anniversary Peace Corps Romania held informational sessions promoting volunteerism at every "American Corner" around Romania. I was fortunate to be able to be a part of this project.

An "American Corner" is a section of a library that offers books in English and reference books on the United States of America. It may also include films and recordings from the United States. American Corners support local English instruction offering a variety of language learning materials. It may also include informational sessions about the United States or given by a citizen of the US. There are currently 8 American Corners in Romania. American corners exist in libraries all over the world.

My colleague Chelsea and I were assigned to give a presentation at the American Corner in Craiova. When I first signed up to help for this project I originally offered to help in either Craiova or Cluj. Cluj is a great city that I have been to a few times in passing but never to stay very long. I have not yet been in Craiova but I pass by it sleeping whenever I take the night train to Bucharest. Since there are not many volunteers near Craiova, and quite a bit of volunteers up by Cluj, I figured that I would end up doing the session in Craiova. Craiova is the largest city in the region of Oltenia. Oltenia is known for it's fast speakers, perfectul simplu tense, and flat landscape, though the northern part of Oltenia is mountainous. I frequently visit Oltenia because it borders my town, but I have not yet had a chance to wonder around Craiova.

Chelsea came up to visit the Sunday before Tuesday's presentation to hang out, plan the presentation, and get a slightly better travel option to Craiova. That travel option happened to be a 4:00am Personel train that got us into Craiova's beautiful train station at about 10:00am. Craiova's gara is the nicest train station that I have passed through in Romania. It is even heated. From there we took a 6 lei taxi to the center of town where the library is located. On the phone the American Corner director emphisized taking a Romnicon taxi. Romnicon is a taxi company in Craiova that appears to be a trustful one.

When taking a taxi in Romania the customer must be attentive, especially if they are foreign. One trick that the driver might pull is the broken meter. They will claim to have a broken meter and then when you reach your destination the driver can charge what he wants. Just looking in to see if there is a meter or not isn't enough. I either ask him to turn the meter on or I ask him roughly how much it will cost to get to my destination before even entering the cab. Negotiating the price before entering the cab works well because then he doesn't have the option of taking you all around the city before finally arriving at your destination.

I was impressed with Romnicon's service. Every time we took a taxi we went with Romnicon and every time it appeared as if we went directly to our destination with the meter running.

At the American Corner we were greeted by friendly staff, a coffee and some great cake that the AC director made for us. We had a bit of time to freshen up after the long train ride and then we were brought in to speak quickly with the library director. The library director seemed concerned about receiving a new volunteer. They had had a great Peace Corps volunteer working there for two years and I could tell that they really loved and appreciated her. They would like another volunteer but unfortunately they can no longer apply for one. Only teachers in nearby schools can receive volunteers now as PCRo has moved to an entirely TEFL post. If a volunteer from the next group ends up in Craiova they have a great contact with the library there that will provide them with dedicated counterparts and a rewarding secondary activity. After meeting the people at the AC I really hope a volunteer ends up there to help them out.

It was almost time for the presentation when Chels and I were called to the back to talk to the media. Speaking Romanian in front of a camera was not an easy task but I hope that the obvious mistakes were edited out before the footage made it to air, if it ever did. I have refused to search and find out if it was ever actually played on air.

The presentation went smoothly. Members of the audience were no strangers to volunteering. When I told them to "stand up if you have ever volunteered" everybody in the room was standing. They were high school students and I was quite impressed. With them we discussed volunteering, told them about Peace Corps, and shared stories about volunteering. Many of them were volunteers for "Salvati Copiii" a volunteer organization that some of my students are involved in. After Chels and I presented a couple of other organizations spoke shortly about what they do and how the young people in the audience can get involved. After the meeting ended Chels and I were surrounded by young volunteers interested in what we do, why we are here, and our impressions about Romania.

The day had only just begun. Madalina, an assistant at the American Corner was charged with the responsibility of showing us around Craiova. We wandered around the center seeing the Museum of Oltenia where we learned about the traditional costumes, beautiful rugs, farming, pottery, and puppets. A delicous lunch split up our museum visits and we wandered through another three story museum about the diverse plan and animal life in Oltenia. We took a long walk through an impressive park where we saw a small zoo and a nice suspension bridge over the park's lake. Finally we stopped in a nice corner restaurant for a tea to warm up after being in the cold for a while.

After meeting the friendly staff and students at the American Corner and taking the nice tour around Craiova, it is easy to understand how a volunteer had a rewarding two year experience there. It was so rewarding that she continued serving in Peace Corps by transferring to Nicaragua to start another two year service.

The trip ended with a three hour train ride back to Petro, sleeping just about the entire way. An appropriate celebration for Peace Corps 50th birthday I'd say.