Sofia

After a brief respite from my weekly blog posts, I’m back in the saddle. This weekend I tackled my first major trip while here and embarked on a 22 hour journey that ended in Sofia, Bulgaria for a media literacy conference. While the train and overnight bus were long, I am so glad I decided to make the trek. I met so many wonderful Fulbrighters from across the Balkans and listened to brilliant speakers. The trip did lead to the death of my phone (RIP Claire’s iPhone 2017-2019) but at least now I know where I can go to purchase a new phone at 8pm while stranded in Bucharest.

I could write about the specific seminars I attended and the sights I saw in Sofia but I am a firm believer in a picture being worth 1000 words. So instead of words, here are a bunch of photos I took of the beautiful city of Sofia.

These are just a few of the pictures of the beautiful places I visited. I especially love seeing historical places of worship and Sofia has no shortage of those. In other exciting news, while in Sofia I received an invitation to interview with one of the law schools I am applying to, so that will be coming up this week. Next weekend: Prague!

Halloween and an Interview

Halloween marks the 30th day that I have been in Romania. I have officially been here for a month! Yesterday morning I received a Facebook message request from a name I didn’t recognize. Assuming it was a student in my course, I accepted. To my surprise, it was someone from the University Media Center asking if I would be willing to do an interview with them the next morning. Naturally,  I said yes!

When I met with my contact and two other members of the media center, we discussed plans for the next day and got to know each other. They invited me to a meeting that helped teach Romanian students technological, leadership, and English skills while incorporating aspects of faith. It was so encouraging to see such a group of thoughtful, mature young-adults discussing serious and important issues. When that was over, we all went to a Romanian dancing lesson. Even though the lesson was in Romanian, I managed to learn the steps to a few traditional Romanian dances!

I woke up on Thursday to the news that the Washington Nationals had won the World Series. I think this was my first real moment of homesickness. I wanted to be able to be in Washington to celebrate this momentous occasion. Instead, I settled for telling everyone I spoke to about Washington’s victory.

The news segment was an hour long and my interview was about ten minutes of it so I got to sit and watch as they filmed the rest of the segment. It was really interesting to see the behind the scenes aspect, even if I didn’t understand most of what they were talking about. The interview itself went really well. I was able to show off a few of the Romanian words that I had learned and promote the first session of my public speaking club. You can check it out at this link (my interview starts at 25:25).

Everyone at the Media Center

After the interview I had a meeting to figure out more logistics for the public speaking club. I learned that I had over SEVENTY interested students and faculty members. Thankfully, the room we are using is large enough to hold everyone! The first session is on Monday and I am looking forward to getting to know everyone and helping spread my love of public speaking.

Because it was Halloween, I was invited to a local high school English class to share in their Halloween celebration. I dressed up as Rosie the Riveter (since I had the necessary supplies on hand) and got to explain a little bit about American Halloween traditions. The students bobbed for apples and turned each other into mummies using toilet paper. I absolutely loved meeting all of the students, they were so enthusiastic and fun and asked me lots of questions. We had a lot of television shows and favorite singers in common so I enjoyed talking about that as well.

As always, I am in awe at the variety of experiences and opportunities I am offered. I never imagined having a day where I went from an interview with the university TV station to learning that I will be working with seventy students on public speaking to hanging out with high schoolers and talking about Halloween. What makes this even better for me is the spontaneity and joy that I experience in saying “yes” to as many opportunities as possible. Next up: Halloweekend at Bran Castle.

Google Translate and Friendship

Thursday morning started off with a bang. It was laundry day and I was about to embark on a journey of discovery (discovering the basement of my building, specifically). Armed with my limited Romanian and the courage of one who is running out of clean clothes, I marched down the five flights of stairs to the dark and empty basement. I turned the handle to the spalatorie (laundry room). It was locked. Unfazed, I returned to the first floor to ask the guard “vreau cheia pentru spalatorie”. He gave me a look. “Is it my Romanian?” I wondered as he pointed to the computer monitor with security footage from the laundry room. The screen revealed a person inside the room, doing their laundry. “deschis” he said. Assuming I had not pushed the door hard enough, I wandered back downstairs, only to discover that indeed, the door was still locked. A worker who was walking through the basement spoke to me in Romanian, pointing upstairs and (I believe) telling me to ask the guard for the key. I went back up to the guard, who made me stand and watch the screen for a few minutes until ANOTHER person easily opened the door and entered the room. Feeling very much like I was in some episode of The Twilight Zone, I went back down to check. Third time’s the charm. To my surprise, the door was unlocked! After moving past that relatively demoralizing moment in the life of Claire, I returned to the task at hand.

As I waited for the next washer to become available, the girl in the laundry room turned to me and asked me a question in Romanian. I gave my normal “nu inteleg romana” response and she responded that she did not speak English. It was a fairly normal interaction for me and I went back to scrolling through my phone. To my surprise, a minute later she tapped me on my shoulder and held out her phone. Written on google translate was the question “can I help you with anything.” As we both waited for washers, we proceeded to have a fifteen-minute conversation through google translate. I told her I was from America, we discussed what she was studying, and she asked me about my transition to Romania.

Up until that point, I had grown accustomed to being the odd-one-out in conversations and especially in interactions with strangers. Most people, when they discover I do not speak Romanian, move on to talk to other people or wait until someone can translate. While this is perfectly legitimate and understandable–I know the frustration of trying to communicate with someone when you don’t share a common language–and I certainly don’t say this to complain, as I have been blessed to find many friends already in my short time here, I have found the ever-present language barrier to be isolating at times. So to meet a total stranger (in the laundry room of all places) who patiently went through the awkward process of typing down messages on the phone and waiting for me read them was incredibly touching. I don’t think I’m able to fully communicate how much that small gesture meant to me.

When I finished with my laundry, she asked to exchange contact information and offered to show me around Suceava later that week. On Sunday evening, we hung out in her room where she served me delicious baked apples, I met her sister and fiance, and we played Jenga. Our heavy reliance on google translate did not deter us from having a lively and interesting conversation. Once again, I was so touched by all of their willingness to, despite some frustrating moments, try to communicate with and get to know me. As I sat on the floor, laughing as the Jenga tower fell, I felt truly content.

I know Romania has many grand, exciting adventures to offer. And I’m sure my blog will become full of stories about those adventures. But sometimes it doesn’t take a train ride or plane ticket to find a meaningful moment. Sometimes it just takes walking down five flights of stairs.

First Week of Classes

I arrived in Suceava exactly two weeks ago on Sunday evening which thankfully meant I had a full week to settle in before beginning my duties at the university. My meetings with my university contacts went well, beginning the process for obtaining my resident permit and giving me a solid grasp on my role as lecturer at the university. The professor who is my contact here also introduced me to two of his students who will assist me this semester in organizing a public speaking club as well as an English conversation group. Beyond their help with logistics however, I’ve found them both to be incredibly welcoming and enjoyable to interact with. Moving to a different country where I don’t speak the language, especially a place that is relatively small and rural, has its challenges. But I have been blessed to find that there are so many individuals here who are willing to sacrifice their time to help me settle in and feel comfortable.

Last Saturday I went boating and visited the Suceava fortress with some of the students at the university. The group presented some interesting communication challenges  as some of them didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Romanian. However, we had a graceful and effective translator who was able to ensure everyone could understand each other (and that everyone had a good time). The Suceava fortress was an impressive and historic spot that provided a beautiful view across the entire area of Suceava. I was also able to practice my limited Romanian vocabulary during the boating trip. Broasca testoasa (turtle)? Check. Tantar (mosquito)? Nailed it.

Monday I had my first day of actual classes and I met my students in a formal setting. The morning I gave a lecture and then I led two discussion sessions in the afternoon. Everything that I had heard about the Romanian education system told me to expect low class attendance. Students take 8-10 classes a semester and I was advised not to take it personally if students chose to forego lecture in order to study for other classes. So when I walked into the classroom I was not prepared for the large room to be full of students. There were barely any empty seats and I looked across a sea of expectant faces. After the initial shock wore off (and some technical difficulties were figured out), I gave an hour long lecture summarizing important events in 20th century American history. This was followed by a 40 minute discussion with all the students. I was delighted to find my students were engaged and active. They asked me challenging questions and offered insightful comments.

I’ve missed having a regular schedule as my recent weeks have been filled with last minute shopping trips, travel, and meeting other fulbrighters. While I have had a wonderful time, I thrive on having places to be and things to do in an orderly and scheduled fashion, so I am glad that I am beginning to obtain that here. My upcoming learning opportunities: taking Romanian classes, opening a bank account, and figuring out the bus and train system.

Trip through Suceava County

Today I took a wonderful trip to see the Suceava countryside and visit a few of the Bucovina painted monasteries. As we drove through the mountains and countryside, I marveled at the combination of yellow, red, and green trees that covered the hills. We drove past countless farms growing corn, cabbage, and a variety of animals (I spotted some adorable baby pigs!). One village we drove through is famous for their cabbage. As we passed mountain after mountain of huge, vibrant green cabbages, I understood why. Along the way, we stopped in Marginea, a town that is famous for black ceramics. I got to watch two potters as they worked at the wheel and purchased a beautiful–and incredibly affordable–mug.

The first painted monastery on the trip was the Sucevita Monastery, known for the unique blend of herbs used to create the beautiful red color in the paintings. I did not know what to expect before entering and I was blown away by the intricate designs that covered literally the entire building, both inside and outside. The monasteries were built in the 1500s by Stefan Cel Mare (Steven the Great) to thank God for battles he had won. The paintings on the outside the building, especially the side facing the north, are worn down and at points barely visible due to the endless battering from the wind and weather. The paintings inside, however, are vivid and vibrant and tell both Biblical stories as well as historical ones. Every monastery also includes a scene of Stefan Cel Mare dedicating the monastery to God. While the first monastery we visited was in the middle of reconstruction and the quiet peace of the sacred place was somewhat marred by the noise of construction, the second monastery, Moldovita Monastery, was pristine in its stillness. Somewhat smaller than the first one, this monastery is known for the green paint used on the walls. Like the first, every wall is covered in detailed artwork. The walls were also covered in graffiti that was left before a security system was implemented, some of them only slightly younger than the United States!

Our trip took us across the Mountains of Bucovina, which are a collection of three different mountain ranges. We crossed over one to reach the top of another with a beautiful view across the countryside. While I unfortunately neglected to get a picture of it, at the top of a hill by the road stood a statue of a hand. I learned that this statue was erected when the road was finished being built. Two groups of workers built the road, starting at either side of the mountain. When they had both finished and met in the middle, the two groups went to shake hands. That statue serves as a monument to that moment. It is called Palma, or The Palm. We also drove on the Transrarau, which literally means the road across the Rarau mountains. It is also called the North Road because it stretches all the way from the far north east in Suceava to the far south West in Arad (which happens to be where I will head next semester).

On our way to lunch, we drove through a town called Campulung, which literally means long field. It has one street down the middle of the town and only two cross streets that go a short distance and stop. The town is in the valley of two different mountains and is so narrow it only needs one street. This might be the only town with directions straightforward enough I wouldn’t get lost in it!

Our last stop was a lunch at a wonderful restaurant with a view over another painted monastery, this time the Voronet Monastery known for its blue colors. I ate so much that I am still in the process of recovering but the food was absolutely delicious. Everything was made in-house with fresh ingredients, and you could definitely tell the food was made with love. We started with a mushroom sauce and a veggie sauce on bread, similar to bruschetta, but unlike anything I had ever tasted before. Throughout the entire drive we had seen vendors on the side of the road selling fresh mushrooms they had picked in the mountains this morning, and the mushrooms in the dip came from one of those vendors! I ate Tochitură bucovineană which is a traditional meal of tender pork and pork sausage, soft cheese, a fried egg, polenta, and pickles. For dessert there was fried cheese dumplings with blueberry sauce. The dumpling (which was similar to a donut but denser and richer) was so tender and mixed perfectly with the sweet but tart blueberries. The entire meal was accompanied by a cat that chilled with us at the table, an added benefit of eating outside!

I am now back in my room, which is decorated with my two new pieces of ceramic. I have a relaxing weekend ahead of me and I am looking forward to having lively discussions in my classes on Monday. Apologies for the long post, I wanted to share the entire adventure!

Bucharest and Orientation

It’s been a little over a week since my first day in Romania and I am already in awe at the variety of experiences I have enjoyed as well as the prospect of many to come. I spent the first five days in Bucharest playing the tourist. My hotel was a two minute walk from the traffic circle with Bucharest’s Arch of Triumph so that was the first sight that greeted me as I took a morning stroll my first day. I wandered into the beautiful Parcul Regele Mihai I (King Michael I Park) and was delighted to discover how large and exciting Romanian parks are, complete with delicate fountains and statues of famous writers, politicians, and philosophers.

I found an incredibly fun walking tour that turned each stop into a treasure hunt, giving me a clue that I had to solve in order to find my next location. I am sad to say I am not particularly gifted in the puzzle-solving department, some of the clues took me an embarrassing amount of time! Regardless, I had a great time on the tour and saw some really interesting spots including Pasajul Victoria, the famous and picturesque street covered by colorful umbrellas, and Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse, which is a fork-shaped covered passageway created to lessen traffic on the two main streets ofBucharest. The owner of a hotel refused to sell his property so this small passage splits in the middle to accommodate the building. Continuing the trend of instagram-worthy spots, I visited Carturesti Carusel, which was definitely the most beautiful bookstore I had ever been in!

The next day I joined my fellow Fulbright grantees for a full day of orientation. It was truly incredible to meet such a wonderful group of people, all of whom have diverse backgrounds, experiences, and aspirations. While we have all gone our separate ways to our various placements across the country, I am excited to plan trips with them and I know I have a solid support network (and places to stay when I travel throughout Romania).

The Romanian Fulbright commission took us on a trip to Peles Castle to see the beautiful Transylvanian countryside. The two-hour drive flew by thanks to great conversation and amazing sights. Peles Castle itself was beyond anything I had seen before, with something like 170 rooms, each one ornately decorated in different styles. We enjoyed a delicious four-course meal at a restaurant right by the castle before heading back to Bucharest.

My philosophy during my time here is to always maintain a positive outlook and try to say “yes” to as many experiences as possible. On Friday night, I lived that to the fullest. Despite still adjusting to the time change, I decided to explore the nighttime side of Bucharest with a few other Fulbrighters. We ended up discovering a Salsa and Bachata Dance Studio that was throwing a dance party that night. I’ve only danced Salsa one other time but that didn’t stop me from dancing the night away (and learning a few moves). It seems that Bucharest is a city that never sleeps because when we headed back to our hotel early in the morning, there were many couples still out on the dance floor.

A few other highlights of my time here so far:

  • Getting to go to a Romanian Folk Metal concert in Bucharest
  • Enjoying a warm bowl of Ciorba (a traditional Romanian soup)
  • Seeing a double rainbow as I boarded my flight to Suceava
  • Finally settling into my room and unpacking my suitcases
  • Meeting a few of my students and beginning to find my way around Suceava
  • ENDLESS coffee and treats at local shops

I still have a lot of logistics that need to be ironed out–I still don’t have wifi in my room, a Romanian bank account, or my residence permit–but I have confidence I will be able to tackle those challenges when they come. On Monday I will give my first lecture and lead two discussions as well as attend a Romanian language class at the university. There are many exciting things ahead!

Frequently Asked Questions

Just some answers to the questions people ask when I tell themI’m going to Romania for a year.

Why Romania?

  • Every since I visited Romania for a week in high school, I knew I wanted to return. From the beautiful scenery to the friendly people to the delicious food, Romania has so much to offer and is (in my opinion) often overlooked. I was also attracted to the specific program details of the Romanian Fulbright, which mentioned teaching to university students. I knew I wanted to be working with an older age group and the added benefit of being able to teach English literature (my major) or American studies really sold Romania for me.

What will you be doing there?

  • My primary position will be teaching at two different universities. The Romanian system of higher education is different than the United States because it starts much later and things tend to be more last-minute than in the US, so I do not yet know my curriculum or specific topics I will be teaching. In addition to teaching I plan on starting a book club and an English conversation club to help get to know the students. During my free time I want to learn about the Deaf Community in Romania as well as do some research on disability law there!

Do you speak Romanian?

  • Inteleg putin! I have been studying Romanian using Duolingo since I first applied for the Fulbright but I am not the best at language learning so things have been progressing relatively slowly. I am hopeful that full-immersion will help me grasp the language and my goal is to be conversational by the end of my year.

Do you know where you’ll be staying?

  • My first semester I will be staying in a university hostel. I’ll have my own room and bathroom but the fully-stocked kitchen is shared with others. It has the advantage of being very affordable and I won’t have to deal with the stress of apartment searching and lease signing during my transition to Romania.

What are you most excited about?

  • It’s hard to pick just one thing but I’m really looking forward to getting to travel and explore Romania (and beyond). I already know I’m going to Bulgaria for a conference in November and I hope to visit all the major cities and towns in Romania before I leave.

Are you all packed?

  • Almost! I have two checked bags completely full and my backpack and carry-on are getting pretty heavy. I keep thinking of last-minute items that I want to bring and I’m sure that will continue right up until I leave. I have managed to buy a beautiful (and warm) winter coat and some warm gloves so I’ll be prepared for the cold weather.