Citizen of Rome

Although I have no idea what Rome is like, nor what it’s citizens are like, I do in fact know what Romania is like, for which the meaning “citizen of Rome” is derived. Laden with even more weight than usual, I arrived in Timisoara on a sunny Saturday afternoon with the girl that I would be teaching English with for the following two weeks. A lot of the weight could be attributed to lots of paper and print outs, pens, sellotape and other potentially useful items for teaching young Romanians a foreign language. The aforementioned girl’s name is Natasha, and she is not Russian, much to the surprise of all Romanians.

We were picked up by Dana and her son Robert, who whisked us away on a 4 hour drive which passed by like a blur. Having hardly slept I dozed in and out of slumber as my head bobbed this way and that on the meandering road, windier than the A7, which I previously thought impossible. Robert was apparently trying to jostle me with his mad driving skills, whistle, and blare music to see if I would stir, but I slept on unphased. It is also considered socially unacceptable to wear a seatbelt when sitting in the back of the car, whereas it is socially acceptable for the driver to chat away on the phone.

Dana is the most wonderful host, she reminds us of an older Marilyn Monroe, but without any of the trauma, nor drama. She glows with an oozing heart that spreads warmth everywhere, which can even get border officials smiling and laughing. She’ll never let us help with anything, no matter how hard we try, and she always ensures that we have everything we need. We eat until we are full, and then some, but she’ll still ask if we’ve had our fill with astonishment concerning all the leftover food on the table. Some of the food has been delicious, in particular a simple dish with egg, tomato and onion, served with polenta on the side, and a strong sheep cheese. Most of the food is all homemade or local, eggs from the neighbours hens, honey from the beehives, plum, apricot or strawberry jam, vegetables from the garden, lemons from the lemon tree, warm milk freshly squeezed from the cows udder, cheese from the Czechs who pass through every week or two. All the water is taken up by a well, and I desperately asked if I could have a go! They even have their own vineyard, but we are far too early to taste any wine.

There is not much to do in Berzasca, a remote fishing village on the Danube. My room contained a balcony, from which I could see swallows swooping, a giant rusty satellite dish, an abandoned van, and the gleaming river reflecting spectacular sunsets, or perhaps lighting and heavy downpours, which tended to happen every couple days or so. The river is very wide here, much wider than Wien, Bratislava and Budapest, increasing in breadth as it approaches the delta. Fishermen are dotted along the riverside, and when you can’t see the Danube you will see endless crops of corn. There are also fields of yellow, not rapeseed, but beautiful sunflowers, of which there must be millions. Men can also be seen, using scythes on the long grass which will later be piled into haystacks to make hay (this was an embarrassing revelation for me). Others sit outside their homes, under the shade of trees, watching the world drive by. A man wonders down the railway track, and I ponder where he’s going. On the other side of the river lies Serbia, an array of hills covered in lush green forests and the occasional sheer cliff edge and a castle.

In the mornings we teach, 9 – 12.30, and in the afternoons and evenings (at the risk of being eaten alive by mosquitoes) we go for walks if it’s not too hot, read, or sunbathe and swim in the river. We have had Cristiana to keep us company, Robert’s cousin, and it’s been lovely getting to know her and see what life is like for an 18 year old living in Romania. In a way I’ve been lucky that there’s not much to do; I’ve been able to prepare for my working group projects for Astronomy Camp, and continue research for my Final Year Project, and I’ve learnt to count to 10, say thank you, good good, a couple of swear words, and cheers/bless you. I’ve waded thigh deep across a stream and back to pay a visit to the bees. I’ve checked out the green grapes at the vineyard. I’ve looked up at the stars and gazed upon some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.

One night I decided to hike up one of the mountains, as always it was steeper and higher than expected, but I pushed on, desperate to reach the summit before sunset. I’m not sure if I ever reached the summit or not, for there were trees everywhere and it looked like the sunset was almost over, from what I could see through little gaps between branches. Dismayed, I found myself a walking stick and made the decent, looking up in the hope of seeing some noctilucent clouds along the way, of which I saw none. The TV would occasionally be on for the football, but it was an old cathode ray television, and could take up to two hours for the screen to work, and when it did finally work the screen would be pink. One night a whole match was missed, and then the screen came on just in time for the second match. One minute later there was a power cut, and we all burst into laughter.

Teaching on hot summer days in a remote village is as lax as one can suspect. The kids always arrived before us, and I was provided with coffee and sugar to drink in the classroom, and basically everything else I was left to figure out on my own. It was tough. Really tough. The younger children, aged 6-13 knew very little so it was hard to explain what I wanted them to do. But the most difficult thing was actually controlling them. The boys in the class basically wanted to run riot all the time, it was difficult to keep them interested. After one week we switched over and I taught the older children, ages 12-16. This was much easier in comparison, as they knew a bit more English and had more patience. I tried teaching them some Astronomy, whenever I had the chance, and was able to play more complex games. On the last day we had a party, where we managed to organise one session of musical chairs and then the kids ran riot. We tried to teach them ceilidh dancing, but they were having none of it, so we basically gave up because none of them would agree to do anything… The youngest girl, who was also the cutest, was my saviour, always smiling and trying to talk in Romanian with me. Since I never knew what she was saying we would always resort to pulling faces at each other. She’d come up to me and take my hand, and dance with me, or she’d draw me pictures covered with love hearts and Rapunzel. From my teaching experience this year, in Scotland and Romania, I have come to the conclusion that I am not cut out for teaching at all. I’m incapable of controlling children, unless they have a thirst for knowledge, I feel helpless. After discussions with others it seems that maybe technology is to blame, no one remembers a time when the children were so distracted and uninterested to learn. Most of the kids had smartphones or tablets, and played with them constantly; why bother with learning when you have the whole world at your fingertips?

There are stray dogs everywhere, blind, hungry, and flea ridden. One day there appeared three puppies, living in a doorway next to the school, causing excitement in the village. The next morning when we went to see how they were doing, we found them lying dead in a pile, the flies already beginning to gather. People were saying that some guy killed them for no apparent reason… At the weekend we drove back to Timisoara, this time via Serbia to get cheap supplies which meant narrower roads, Cyrillic, and a new stamp in our passports. Every time we drove past a church, or walked past one, the members of our host family would cross themselves. After asking about it, it’s not a devout religious thing, but more of a habit for people do it even when they’re hardly religious, and never go to church. There was not much to see in Timisoara, because most of it is under renovation. We saw the square, ate delectable ice cream (salted caramel and pistachio) and wondered about. In the evening we headed out to the student campus for a few beers and danced until the early hours of the morning. Afterwards we went out to hunt down some schwarma, which is unusually with chicken in Romania. Natasha, being vegetarian, only wanted french fries, which seemed to be an entirely alien concept to them because they gave her a burger with deep fried cheese, coleslaw and 4 chips in it. She then took out one of the chips and pointed at it emphatically. With a confused look, they tried again, and gave her a new burger exactly the same as the last, whilst I was laughing myself to death.

There are two things that Romanians hate. Manale music and gypsies. The former is a sort of Balkan music with horrendous lyrics. Although they know that not all gypsies are bad, they do have valid reasons for despising the ones that are. They steal and they refuse to work. Some of them buy huge mansions in the city as a status symbol, but then board up all the windows so that people can’t see that most of the rooms are empty. If the gypsies stopped stealing, and were happy to work, the Romanians would have no problem with them. On the tram today I saw an older woman giving a young, heavily pregnant (I’m guessing gypsy couple – depicted by their darker tans) the two fingers. It was so bizarre, but nobody else seemed to care.

After the two weeks of teaching were over, we drove back to Timisoara for the last time, put Natasha on the plane at 6 in the morning, and I took a minibus to Arad where I was picked up by a couchsurfer. I spent the next day with the couchsurfer and his Polish medic student girlfriend, so we discussed everything from the stars to genetics. We walked along the river, stopped for a beer, and then continued walking around the city, which is filled with grand churches that have been under construction for decades. This annoys a lot of people because hospitals and schools are being closed down from lack of money, yet they are funding these churches of which there are already many. I also joined them for lunch with his parents, and was fed palinka and wine, the alternative being death should I wish to refuse. We played Settlers of Catan, and I was so close to winning, only a point away! The greatest amusement came from the fact that they struggled to pronounce the difference between ship and sheep, of which are both required a lot in the game. I then stayed with another couchsurfer in Arad who has lived in places all over Europe and had many more interesting stories to tell. We went for further walks, and stopped for another beer, you know the routine. As always, couchsurfers are the most helpful of people; picking me up, dropping me off, figuring out which tickets I need to purchase, feeding me, as well as providing accommodation. What a treat it is! I can never be grateful enough.

I’m currently sitting on a train which is going to Oradea, but I’m not 100% convinced…

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