Catching Up

The past few months have been an absolute blur of activities.  Between school and the Peace Corps organization itself, I’ve been kept very busy.  As such, I haven’t had much time to blog, but now offer this summary of recent events in the hopes of bringing everyone up to speed on some of the highlights of what’s been going on.

EQ Wine Visit – August 26th thru 29th 2012 – Valea Călugărească

Since the beginning of summer break my Romanian counterpart, Loredana, asked me to block off the last week of August on my calendar for an International European visit that she’d planned for us to host.  The project is a multi-year event that is funded through the European Union and is designed to bring expert secondary school educators together to further improve upon and develop a more complete curriculum about viticulture and vinification for their students.  So, on Sunday August 26th, our guests began to arrive in Noah’s Arc fashion, two by two.  We had pairs from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia, Germany and, of course, our own representatives from right here in Romania.  Including the two travel days, our guests visited Valea Călugărească for a total of five.  Loredana and our viticulture professor, Vali, handled the majority of the planning and preparation, leaving only small logistical details to me, such as the creation of a Prezi presentation which highlights the various wine regions and varietals of Romania.  Beyond this, I was largely just a shepherd and resident English expert.  Though short, the week was jam packed with things including tours of local wineries and vineyards, the Romanian National Institute of Wine Research and Development (right here in Valea), plenty of wine tasting and of course “classroom time” where our participants sat down, conference room style, and hashed out improvements to their curricula.  Ultimately the goal of the project is to strengthen and improve the European wine industry, by training the youth of today for the future of tomorrow.  The second stage is a competition in which high school students are prepared to compete academically against each other at the European Wine Championship.  This championship takes place in a different city every year; 2011 took place in Germany, 2012 having been in a small town in Italy and 2013 scheduled for a town in Slovenia.  It was a great opportunity to be able to assist Loredana and Vali with this project, as I was able to meet folks from throughout Europe and to learn more about wine.  At times it was a little awkward as this is a European project and I was the only non-European in attendance.  Fortunately, though, I was able to help with plenty of copyediting and translation into English.  As a result the group invited me to tag along to the next competition in Slovenia in April, on my own dime of course; no European funds for the American!

“Eu sunt! Tu?” – September 7th thru 9th 2012 – Predeal

Peace Corps Romania currently has two Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders or PCVLs.  These are volunteers who have already completed their initial 27 months of service, have applied for an additional year and have been selected by their peers and Peace Corps Staff to serve in a heightened capacity.  These volunteers are first and foremost role models and support to the larger Peace Corps Volunteer community but also take on a primary job with a societally beneficial organization of their choosing.  Currently our PCVLs work with the WWF Romania and Public Services International.  The latter organization focuses it’s efforts on promoting better quality public services to the population at large and functions globally in 148 countries/territories.  Here in Romania they partner with an organization titled “Eu sunt! Tu?” that focuses on educating and empowering the Romanian LGBT community.  Recently, they hosted an annual event in Predeal bringing together about one hundred members of the small but growing Romanian LGBT community for a weekend of discussion, presentations, team-building and socializing.  Our PCVL who works with this organization requested some additional help from PCVs to facilitate the activities of the weekend.  So, being close to Predeal and always up to help out, Aran and I eagerly signed up.  Arriving Friday afternoon and staying through Sunday morning, we were kept busy from dawn to dusk with a myriad of logistical items, but mainly we were just there to help ensure everything went smoothly.  Notably, Friday night Loredana Groza, Romanian pop singer and TV actress made a guest appearance where she shared a story of her interaction as a heterosexual woman with the LGBT community and her support for them.  Unfortunately, this community continues to have difficulty with mainstream Romanians, but they are gaining ground and increasingly are winning the battle for acceptance; I was happy to play my small part in helping their cause.

Kennesaw State Visit – September 29th 2012 – Valea Călugărească

Early last spring Peace Corps staff contacted me from our country headquarters in Bucharest as they passed along a message from an MBA student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.  Through this exchange, I was introduced to Coulter Stout who, as it turns out, is a former Peace Corps Romania Volunteer who served in Pitești and had enrolled at Kennesaw State University in conjunction with the Paul D. Coverdell Fellowship Program as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV).  As he explained to me, KSU coincidentally has a great exchange program where EMBA participants collaborate with businesses in Romania, resulting in annual trips to Romania for the Americans and vice versa for the Romanians.  This time around Coulter was interested in having his colleagues partner with a Romanian general or secondary school to work on a project of some sort.  This is where my Colegiul Agricol and I come into the picture; with a tight schedule the KSU students wouldn’t have the time to travel a great distance to visit a far off village and since we are located quite close to Bucharest and I was the first in the area to raise my hand, a partnership was agreed to.  Throughout the spring and summer, Coulter and I communicated regularly providing framework to what would be a great visit by their group.  When the day finally came and their giant tour bus arrived, our school was aflutter with activity and curious eyes.  From the start Coulter’s team had wanted to provide some form of educational presentation to a group of our students, Loredana and I decided that something in the vein of “American Culture” would be best and the KSU folks gladly and whole heartedly obliged.  They prepared an interactive photographic game show whereby they educated our kids on important American landmarks.  I’m happy to say that I scored quite well, with the exception of the “Southern Most Point Buoy” in the Florida Keys.  Additionally, one of their students created a video compilation that included images from their daily lives in America.  In closing, another one of them led our students in an impromptu rap session about their visit to Romania; needless to say my kids loved every minute of it.  In addition to generously donating their time, and creative genius the group also donated several gifts directly to the school, including learning materials and even farm equipment to be used by our agricultural students.  Overall, it was a great collaboration and both sides seemed to benefit from and greatly appreciate the experience.

Peace Corps Gala Event – September 29th 2012 – Bucharest

With Peace Corps’ imminent departure from Romania looming, the US Ambassador to Romania, Peace Corps Staff and the PCV community wanted to do something special to celebrate our 22 plus years of accomplishments working hand in hand with Romanians.  So in the spring it was decided that a gala event would take place as a commemoration.  The US Ambassador graciously donated the use of his Bucharest residence, Peace Corps Staff and two key PCVs worked tirelessly to organize and promote the event, while a handful more PCVs like myself contributed to the event by designing and managing a regionally representative booth.  The over arching theme was “Legacy of Change” and a dozen or so Volunteers, in conjunction with host country nationals, created a booth designed to show off something special from their respective areas.  Early on in the process, I was recruited to help represent the Montania region of Romania, specifically Prahova County where Valea Călugărească is situated, more likely than not because they knew my region’s reputation for wine production.  So with months of hard work and lots of preparation the big day finally came.  Loredana and Vali both helped in significant ways in the creation of our booth, as did two of my favorite students, Ana Maria and Marian.  Our school prepared various fruit jams and a traditional apple pie-like pastry for tasting and I sourced 50 liters of wine from my neighbor Nicu to offer our 300 plus guests with samples.  Other booths included, traditional egg painting, Romanian artwork and handmade crafts, and even a scouting exhibit.  There were also speeches by the Ambassador, Peace Corps Romania Country Director and many others as well as traditional song and dance.  When entering the “fair” each guest was given a regional “passport” for which every booth had a unique ink stamp to mark the appropriate region of the passport; a very clever souvenir and keepsake.  As much work as we put into this event it was absolutely worth it and a great way to celebrate our time in this wonderful country.

If you fast forward to about 44 minutes in this clip you can see a Romanian news broadcast about the event featuring yours truly.

TOBE Video

If you’ve had the time to keep up with this blog over the past two years you’ll know that one of the most rewarding aspects to my Peace Corps service has been TOBE (Teaching our Boys Excellence).  My hope is to participate in this skills development camp again in the summer of 2013.  Meanwhile, during the last camp one of our great facilitators, Nicu, recommended that we create a video to promote the event for next year.  The result is this short movie trailer I compiled in October to get the word out for next year.

English with Jeremy

In my spare time last year I worked with a general school in the town of Bucov and the Roma Education Fund in the village of Ciupelniță.  This year my counterpart asked if I would help out with her daughter’s first grade class once a week teaching English in Ploiești.  It’s really amazing the difference in attention, enthusiasm and energy that younger kids bring to the classroom when compared to my high schoolers.  As you may recall, I worked with Loredana’s daughter’s kindergarten class once last year for a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration and absolutely loved it.  So far this year, Loredana and I have hosted four sessions with the first graders teaching about introductions, numbers, colors, parts of the body, and even Halloween.  The timing even worked out such that I was able to bring other Americans to these classes including another PCV serving in Romania, an RPCV who just finished her tour in Senegal and my good friend Scott from San Diego.  A quick slideshow of these first few events can be seen here.  Even though I often ended up doing silly dances, generally acting like a fool and am genuinely exhausted afterwards, I really enjoy working with these younger kids and appreciate the boost to my Peace Corps morale that they bring to me weekly.

Odds and Ends

In addition to keeping busy with the aforementioned litany of projects, I’ve also hosted another Language Refresher Weekend (similar to the one last year), toured around Romania with my American visitor Scott, visited the historical monasteries in Suceava and, among other things, continued work with my weekly English Club and regular regimen of classes. Two major projects that I’ll be working on over the next couple months are, firstly, a funding scheme for TOBE 2013, and also an encore of the Trees for Peace project I participated in last year, though this time as the Peace Corps point man organizing it.  Overall my work here continues to be hectic but rewarding and with only eight months left I’m trying to make a strong push for a solid finish.

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Trail Blazing

Summer as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania is an incredible time.  School is out and volunteers are left to fill their free time participating in camps, travelling and entertaining visitors from the States.  One of my favorite weeks this summer was spent in the Țibleșului Mountains in the Mărămureș region of Romania.  A volunteer in the group preceding mine had been assigned to work in a general school in the small remote village of Groșii Țibleșului.  This volunteer integrated himself into the community in a way I hadn’t yet seen, fully learning the language and building some incredible relationships.  Through his integration, he worked on a secondary project to improve the condition of the local hiking trails in an effort to increase tourism and incentivize against logging.  To this end, every summer he and his counterpart, Horațiu, host trail marking and clearing camps.   Welcoming a change from the screaming kids at English camps, I gladly signed up to help out with a full week of sawing branches and painting trail markers; little did I know what an incredible experience this would be.

Travelling together from one camp to the next, seemingly inseparable, Aran and I made our way this time to Groșii late on a Sunday afternoon.  After navigating a series of maxi-taxis, which winded their way through the mountains from Cluj-Napoca, we arrived to a warm welcome from our volunteer friend, Ryan, beers and homemade horincă in-hand.  Like many Peace Corps Volunteers, Ryan is no average chap; looking as though he had just stepped out of the wilderness, with a long ponytail and thick scruffy chops flanking his jawbone, he smokes hand-rolled cigarettes like nobody’s business while waxing poetic about the importance of saving Romania’s forests.  Ryan is a stout fellow who looks fully capable of wrestling a bear to the ground with a lit cigarette in one hand and a shot of horincă in the other, with no concern over spilling a drop.  He reminds me of the sailor (perhaps the Robin Williams version of Popeye), with his bulbous forearms and a perpetually mischievous twinkle in his eye.  His uniform, a pair of blood, coffee and paint-stained military green pants rolled up to just below the knees and an “I love Apuseni” t-shirt.  If ever there were a fisticuffs battle between loggers and conservationists, Ryan would undoubtedly tip the tide in favor of Mother Nature.  After spending only a short time with Ryan it became immediately apparent how perfect his assignment to Groșii Țibleșului had been; many volunteers wouldn’t have thrived in this rural environment as well as him and he certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the city life of a site like Aran’s in Ploiești.

With a beer in each of our bellies, Ryan showed us to our campsite in the backyard of the locally owned pensione that’d be providing our meals for the week.  Groșii is surrounded by beautiful, tree-lined foothills, which lead to the nearby mountains.  Just beyond the back edge of the property where we’d be staying was a shallow stream that babbled through smoothed boulders which would provide many a welcome, refreshingly cold rinse-off after the long, laborious days ahead.  Once we built the tent and threw our stuff inside we saddled up to the dinner table loaded with sarmale (the first of many incredible meals) and made our acquaintances with a group of French Scouts, guys and girls, who had travelled from Paris to volunteer for the week.  Certainly an energetic bunch, they coaxed me into leading a game of Ultimate Frisbee with the disc I had packed along for the summer and we played until the sun had thoroughly set and we couldn’t see the disc in front of our faces.  This was definitely a great summer evening and perfect introduction to the mates we’d be working alongside.

After our first full day of trail blazing, the scouts built a fire for us to relax around after dinner but before heading to bed.  We were all enjoying the cool night air when out of the blue an argument erupted between four or five of them.  Being that this was all in French I had no idea what was going on when, at last, they threw their arms up in frustration and bolted off in separate directions.  Apparently all part of a larger plot, the argument was only an excuse for them to initiate a set and wardrobe change because within five minutes they had all returned, dressed head to toe in black, dawning aviator sunglasses and military style hats.  Unbeknownst to us they had a full evening of activities planned with an over-arching theme of an American Military invasion of Romania.  So to be clear, we had a group of high school senior aged French Scouts pretending to be American Navy Seals — absolutely hilarious.  The program that followed included a series of physical strength tests such as pushups and a competition whereby we were required to hold a full 2.5 liter bottle of beer up with one arm extended straight out as long as possible.  After surviving this pseudo boot camp, we broke up into groups and were tasked with creating a skit of our own, highlighting the day’s events.  Ours focused on a few of the finer points of the day including an incident where I almost sawed my left leg off and one of the scouts patched me up.  For hours this went on and included crazy French songs and scout games.  One that I found really interesting is a bit difficult to explain but resulted in our creation of a sort of circular human pyramid where we had to rely on our collective strength to hold it all together.  At an all too late hour, our camp leader recommended we wrap things up so as not to further annoy the Romanian neighbors.  The next day was positively grueling with a mix of extra hard work as punishment from the trail master and my aging body, which definitely doesn’t heal as quickly from such antics as it once did.  Regardless, the show the scouts put on was truly amazing and an incredible amount of fun.

For better or worse, these scouts have a certain affinity for singing at the top of their lungs while riding the bus to the trailhead.  There were times when I wasn’t sure whether to be more astonished at the fact that my ear drums hadn’t ruptured or that their vocal cords hadn’t torn (either of which would have been fine by me after a few days of this).  One of our bus rides home wasn’t particularly lively, it had been a hard and rainy day, with our spirits dampened by the unfortunate progress some of the loggers had made on clearing the forest since the previous year.  The mood was downright solemn and defeated as we road silently home, when suddenly our driver veered off the main gravel road and onto the dirt parking lot of a freshly painted pensione, complete with a long sheltered outdoor picnic area.  As it happens, the mayor of Groșii Țibleșului had arranged a surprise “Thank you” party for us.  The long wooden table, ironically a thick, ages old, tree cut in half long ways, was prepared with tall steaming plates of fresh baked placintă cu brânza, and rows of shot glasses flanked by jugs of țuică, not to mention an added bonus of Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola.  This was definitely a welcome thank you for the hard work we were doing and needless to say the Scouts had rather robustly gotten their voices back afterwards.

The rest of the week was one day after the other of many long, hard hours clearing and marking trails through the mountains.  One of the things that really struck me about this whole experience was that each trail we worked was very much unique with its own characteristics and majestic views.  Our first trail winded around haystacks and through open, sloped farmland.  The next was a steep grade, seemingly straight up, a jagged mountainside with tall pine trees guiding our way.  Many of the trails were endlessly lined with raspberry bushes loaded with plump, ripe berries that were bursting with flavor.  Another trail took us along the peak of the mountaintop where we met goats, shepherds and Carpathian bear dogs.  Perhaps my favorite was the final trail that we worked on Saturday which led to views of the landscape seemingly straight out of a fairytale; from our vantage point we could see countless rolling hills dotted with farmhouses, shepherds and villages all illuminated by the bright summer sun and accentuated by brilliant fluffy white clouds lining the horizon.

An undeniably tiring week, working the trails of the Groșii Țibleșului mountains was at once exhausting and immensely rewarding.  Often times we would work our way along the trail up the mountainside clearing and marking away and then return back down the same path on our way home, soaking up the fruits of our labor which were immediately evident.  Not only was this a great time where I was surrounded by beautiful scenery and a camaraderie few get to know; this week was also a much need shot in the arm of enthusiasm for the work Peace Corps Volunteers accomplish in Romania.  Often times our efforts as TEFL instructors go unnoticed by locals and even ourselves because usually the work we do is not immediately measureable.  Switching gears for a week and being involved in something so tangible was really refreshing.  Leading up to this summer, I confided in friends that I had a feeling this coming summertime would probably be one of the best my life had ever or would ever see; working the trails in the mountains of Romania went a long way to making that statement true.

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Every year it begins basically the same way, the air surrounding the camp is full of apprehension and nervous excitement.  As the initial campers arrive, the first question is always something similar:  “What are the other campers like? Are they nice, friendly or are they mean?” As the week progresses this apprehension gives way to jubilation and by the end of the week no one wants to leave.  Even these strong, young-adults tear up as they say “Goodbye” to their new friends.  At its core, TOBE is about youth development; giving young Romanian men the added boost in strengthening and expanding their characters while building other important life skills.  But TOBE is so much more of an experience than what is summed up by its mission statement.  As a volunteer participating in TOBE for the second time, I can honestly say that both of my experiences with the weeklong, overnight camp have been the highest points and most rewarding of my entire Peace Corps service thus far.

The avid 27Luni reader may remember the several part series I wrote last year about TOBE (Teaching Our Boys Excellence) and they’ll remember that TOBE is based on the GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) model which was invented here in Romania by Host Country Nationals and Peace Corps Volunteers working side by side.  This time around I will spare you the history lesson and just focus on what we accomplished at this year’s camp.  As in the past, the camp’s facilitators have a high-level plan for the week, giving each day a different theme and from there we work to fill in each day with relevant activities.  This year, the days were set up in the following manner:

  • Monday – Teambuilding and Trust Exercises
  • Tuesday – Field Trip Hike to Creasta Cocoșului and visit to Merry Cemetery
  • Wednesday – Sex, Gender and Race discussions
  • Thursday – Leadership and Community Building
  • Friday – Community Project Development and Implementation

Additionally, the location of the camp shifted from last year’s village of Agaș to Lacul Apa (Water Lake) near Seini, in-between Baia Mare and Satu Mare in the northern Romanian region of Maramureș.  Like any place, this new site had its advantages and disadvantages.  First of all, and perhaps most obvious, the camp was situated directly on the banks of a beautiful clear water lake, which needless to say was hugely enjoyed by the campers and an easy way to cool off from the summer sun.  The artificial, man-made sandy beaches were developed by private businessmen, who are in the process of turning this area into a sort of resort for those living in the nearby big cities.  Everyone must pay to enter the grounds, whether on foot or by car, with additional fees for boats, jet skies and campers.  The well maintained property has spots to pitch a tent to camp under the stars, small one-bedroom cabins if visitors are looking for more protection from the elements and a brand new two-story hotel complete with restaurant for those not in the mood to “rough it” at all.  Having arrived on a Sunday and stayed through until the following Saturday, I can attest that this lake is mostly for weekend warriors as its population swells significantly on Saturday and Sunday, only to wither during the week.  The far side of the lake is skirted with well-spaced, uniquely architected private homes that offer owners a welcome summer getaway; I’ve been told the lake freezes over in the winter.  And, in the middle of the lake is a small, tree and reed covered island…more on that later.

The two biggest challenges we had with this wonderful new site, unfortunately, were quite major. There was no affordable drinking water and no affordable food supply.  This meant we had to bring in barrels of water everyday filled from a well in Seini several kilometers away and that all three daily meals had to be driven in, also from Seini.  Had there been an emergency of the dehydration variety, water could have been bought, for a price, at the local magazine, but this would have been prohibitively expensive for the entire week.  The collateral downfall to these challenges is that one of our camp facilitators, Nicu Romaniuc an HCN, was busy running logistics all week and couldn’t participate in many of the sessions.  This was very unfortunate as Nicu always a lot to offer as he draws from his many years of experience as a parent, Romanian Scout leader and professional entertainer.

In addition to Nicu, we also had an encore presence by the talented HCN Adrian Ruso whose skills with project management and event building are always in high demand.  Beyond the two native Romanians on hand, we also had five Peace Corps Volunteers.  Ester Dela, the sole female representative in the group who we have to thank not only for her significant input into the race/gender/sex discussions but also for her tireless fundraising to make the camp possible.  The solitary representative from Peace Corps Romania Group 27 was Brad Ludlow, the PCV veteran of the group; Brad was responsible for organizing the camp from the outset and for coordinating the daily program with Adrian.  Supporting the rest of the team included Theron LaBounty skilled linguist, guitarist and life skills orator, Michael Ross our American Eagle Scout extraordinaire and me.

Although the camp officially began on Monday, the facilitators were scheduled to arrive two days before, on Saturday, to help with programming, logistics and physical camp setup.  Campers then began to arrive on Sunday, depending on their parents, bus and/or train schedules.  Some of the participants had very long travel times from far points in the country, many even taking overnight trains to arrive on time.  Personally, I spent most of the hot summer day sweating and trying not to get sunburned as I erected all of the tents, of which we had a sufficient eight to sleep our twenty campers.  By the time Sunday night rolled around we were well prepared to get things underway the next morning.

As every other day, Nicu ferried in our breakfast of milk/cereal, bread/nutella and orange juice from Seini and had it on the tables before the 8:00 a.m. mealtime.  The first day of camp is often one of the most challenging as the campers are still getting to know each other and have yet to build a cohesive group.  That’s why we like to spend the first day breaking the ice, getting to know one another, and building teams.  Right out of the gates, we had the campers line up in order of their birthdays; the challenge being that they had to do this without talking aloud.  Once lined up from youngest to oldest we had them count off to form four groups that were generally spread out by age and region.  This helped to ensure the teams were evenly matched.  After the groups were formed we assigned them a PCV as individual group counselors and then separated them and allowed time to build a team identity, to establish a team name and to write a team chant.  Ester then presented a chores/work table that she had created on flip chart paper that divided out camp clean up responsibilities evenly among the four groups.  Many of our participants come from wealthier backgrounds where Mom or Grandma does everything around the house, while others come from families where they must work on the farm.  Regardless, from the start, it was important that we communicated with everyone that they would have daily chores and would be responsible for the cleanliness of the campsite.

With the camp rules out of the way and work details assigned, it was time to have some fun while beginning to build bonds between the campers through a series of games and activities.  Without covering every single one, I’ll highlight a few of my favorites.  Keep in mind these may have different names than you are familiar with, and in some instances I’ve made up my own names as my memory fails to recall the real ones.  “Group Stand” is an activity where 4 or more members of a group sit shoulder-to-shoulder with their backs facing the center.  They then must lock elbows and attempt to simultaneously stand up.  Rarely does a team get it on the first try as they find their group footing.  In reverse, this game can be played with a larger group of students, which are all facing each other, into the circle.  In “Touch the Branch” each team must devise a way to have one member of the group touch a branch (or other object) that is 3 meters (or some other dimension depending on team size) off the ground.  In many cases, this involved lifting their lightest member into the air towards the branch.  With “Blind Trust” each member of the group, in rotation, is blindfolded and lead by the rest via a random path to a tree on the opposite side of the playing area and then back again to the starting position.  After a few extra spins, the player is un-blindfolded and told to figure out which tree they were taken to.  The idea here is that each player must trust the rest of the group not to trip them up or run them into a tree.  Perhaps my favorite, the “Submarines in the Dark” is from last year and entails each group in competition with the other groups.  All team members, save one, are blindfolded and lined up with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them.  The person in the front is the torpedo and the person in the back (only person without a blindfold) is the captain, with everyone in the middle forming the rest of the submarine.  Each team is then taken to a different part of the playing field by their PCV counselor and instructed to sink the other submarines with their torpedo.  The captain must guide his submarine with a series of hand tapping signals on the shoulders of the person immediately in front of them, which then relays the signals forward.  The game continues until only one submarine of the four is left.  Finally, the favorite among the group was the “Trust Fall.”  For this activity a location is selected in which one person can fall from a relatively higher plane than the others, for example a table top, boulder, or in our case a railing.  The whole group then forms two rows, with each row facing the other.  The trusting volunteer than climbs up above the rest, asks if everyone is ready to catch him, then yells out “Trust fall” and falls backwards into the arms of the group.  Because of the dispersal of weight throughout the whole group, it’s an easy task to catch one falling person.  By the end of the day everyone knew and trusted each other more than they would have imagined upon arrival to the camp.  In many cases, this first full day is the beginning of potentially life-long friendships.

Every year the facilitators like to take the campers off site for a field trip, usually this involves a famous landmark or is something of otherwise important cultural substance.  This year, that day happened to fall on Tuesday.  From the onset, we had planned to go for a hike, visit a war museum and stop by the Merry Cemetery, but we were, perhaps, a little overzealous from the beginning and/or simply miscalculated how long the hike would take; thus, in the end, the museum had to be cut from the itinerary.  Regardless, the day was fun and action packed.  First we drove for about an hour to the head of the trail that would take us to Creasta Cocoșului.  This translates to the funny looking thing on the top of a rooster’s head, whatever that is called.  Sure enough, after hiking for a couple of hours through truly amazing Romanian countryside and picking wild blueberries to eat, we came to the base of a large rock outcropping that, indeed, looked like the top of a rooster’s head.  It was here that I figured we were finished and would be turning around, but our fearless leader, Nicu, encouraged us to not only press on but to climb this shear rock face without equipment.  As unnerving as the whole experience was, it was at least as equally rewarding to be standing up there, seemingly on top of the world.  For better or worse, I was given the assignment of staying at the very top as Nicu guided smaller groups to the summit for individual photo-ops.  This gave me plenty of free time to soak up my surroundings as I waited; at first basically terrified and then, in the end, fairly content with the experience.  I competed with the clouds for a 360-degree view of the surrounding Maramureș region, felt a cool breeze, and could faintly hear goat bells in the distance.  This was definitely one of those experiences that will stick with me for a lifetime.

Once everyone experienced the pinnacle of Creasta Cocoșului and had their commemorative photo taken, we regrouped at its base in an open grassy field with a still amazing view.  There, Michael led a discussion on leadership as it had been explained to him through his experiences as an American boy scout.  Following this, we began the long trek back down the hillside, many in the group thoroughly winded and now slow in pace.  Detecting Nicu’s growing discontent with the slow progress we were making on our return trip, Ester began singing with the boys to give them some extra pep.  Picture this: a small in stature, though big in soul, Filipino-American woman barking call and response chants at a group of tired teenage boys.  Absolutely priceless.  One song that remains with me, she seemingly made up on the spot:

Every where we goooo
People wanna knoooow
Who we are, where do we come from
So weee tell them
We are the TOBE Boys
Mighty Might TOBE Boys
We are the TOBE Boys
Mighty Might TOBE Boys

Once back to the bus we made our way down the twisty mountainside road and across Maramureș to the city of Sighet where we grabbed lunch before pressing on to the Merry Cemetery.  Now this is no usual cemetery.  It’s highlighted in all of the Romanian tourist videos and maps as being a destination point for travelers.  Read the Wikipedia page for more detail, but to sum it up, each tombstone is hand carved and painted with an image and words to go along with your life and/or death.  Many of the images depict death from alcoholism or through military service, while others show the coffin’s occupant as having drowned or being hit by a train.  Each inscription is written in an old form of Romanian, akin to old English.  So much of the text is hard for even Romanian’s to understand, however, many of them are quite poetic in nature.  After another couple hours in the bus we all arrived home, exhausted from the day’s events, but a little stronger in character from tackling the climb to the top of Creasta Cocoșului and learning about one way in which Romanian’s honor their dead.

Wednesday proved to be a much heavier day with discussions on topics related to race, gender and sex.  Beyond the technical lessons about equality, race relations, STD’s, etc., we also had a couple of interactive activities that I thought went over very well.  The first was our introduction of the “Sex Box.”  Seeing as how teenagers can often button up when it comes to asking questions of a sexual nature we created a kind of comment box where campers could write a question or comment and place it anonymously in the box.  To encourage participation we required everyone to put something in the box even if his card was blank.  We also all contributed as facilitators to the box and left it out overnight so people would have time to think up questions.  Even with all of this I really didn’t expect much in quantity or quality of submissions, so I was surprised when the campers filled the box to almost overflowing with well thought out questions.  Of course, we had a few blank cards, but the vast majority were legitimate concerns ripe to be addressed and discussed.  Even during the open discussions our 14 to 18-year-old campers were incredibly well behaved and took the session seriously.  Little did I know they would continue to impress as the day went on.  Next on the agenda was our condom demonstration, I thought without a doubt this would be a disaster of gags, jokes and misbehavior, but again I was dead wrong.  It went incredibly smoothly, short of a few chuckles, but who wouldn’t curl up a smile at a facilitator holding an unwrapped condom and a bright yellow banana.  It all started with a question from Brad “Do you think I can put this condom over my hand?  How about over my head?”  From there the students were amazed at how big the condoms could be blown up like balloons; honestly, I was surprised, too.  The idea here was simply to get them comfortable with the idea of condoms, since the more comfortable they are with them, the more likely they are, perhaps, to use them.  Then Brad led a demonstration on what to look for in wrapped condoms to ensure their quality, checking the date, the wrapper, etc.  He then demonstrated on a Banana how to properly put one on and take it off.  We then broke up into our teams and as counselors helped each student go through the same process.  I definitely believe that these morning sessions were beneficial for everyone and even eye opening for some.

On Wednesday afternoon, we had yet another life changing experience, for me at the very least.  Nicu had come up with the idea of a challenge in which the students have to swim from one of the beaches out to the island; we are talking a 250-meter swim in open water.  Under normal circumstances I would have outright refused this idea.  In America we would have needed all kinds of waivers and even after that would have had countless calls from parents chastising the idea.  But things work a little differently in Romania, kids are allowed to test their limits in ways I never witnessed in the States.  So that morning, before all the sex stuff, Theron, Nicu and I boated out to the island to create a landing area and to clean off a place to relax once we all arrived.  After an hour of cleaning with saws we had a decent size area cleared out, certainly sufficient for the group.  Theron and I then hid messages in bottles for each of the four groups to find, adding a layer of complexity and intrigue to the adventure.  That afternoon, a few of the smaller (and a couple bigger) kids put on life vests and a couple counselors manned a paddleboat and an inflatable dingy for an added measure of security.  When the time came, we all stood on the small strip of beach and looked out towards the island, unable to even see the landing zone because it was slightly around the corner.  Rolling in above us was a dark set of storm clouds that alternated black shadow and bright sunshine on the rippling water.  Being propelled by the sheer force of mutual silent peer pressure alone we all jumped in the crisp cold water and started to cut our way through.  Knowing the basics of how to swim, but not having ever really done it, I quickly learned that there was no way I’d make it across if I didn’t alternate strokes.  So I switched from free style to breaststroke to butterfly, and switched the hard work between my legs and arms at intervals.  A peaceful meditative exhaustion rolled over me, as I lay on my back unable to see but only to feel the direction in which I was going.  With my ears submerged and the waves lapping over my forehead I looked up at the small sunny break in the dense clouds and truly felt for a moment how amazing life could be.  I can only hope that our campers had a similar experience.  Many, understandably, had to take breaks and hold onto the paddleboat to catch their breath, but everyone made it across, there and back.  On the island, after the campers found their secret (though identical) message of congratulations Nicu led us in a long moment of silence, giving everyone an opportunity to reflect on what we had just accomplished.  That’s about the time we saw the first streak of lightning and heard the loud clap of thunder.  We now found ourselves in the unfortunate position of standing on a small island in the middle of a lake during a thunderstorm.  Lucky for us, Thor must have been impressed by our TOBE campers, because he spared us his wrath.  Once the storm passed, the campers jumped back in the water and made the return journey.  Needless to say the dinner table had an exhausted, but proud, quietness about it that night as the air of pushed boundaries hung over us.

After a good night’s sleep, we rose the next morning to take on the challenges of leadership development.  Adrian led the session, which turned out to be an elaborate role playing game.  Each camper drew a role at random from a hat.  There were a King and his two advisors, financial and public relations.  Then there were four group leaders, each with a different agenda — a priest wanting to construct a new church, a teacher who wanted to build a new school, a farmer who thought agriculture needed to be expanded and a businessman who wanted to open a brothel (yeah, I know, strange).  Then the rest of the campers had varying other roles in the community.  One was even a courtesan, whose job was to please the King (I know, even stranger).  Each camper’s role was given a description of what they cared most about, what their life situation was and how they were supposed to act in character.  Then as a group, a larger scenario was read to everyone.  The game was played by giving the King time to analyze the situation of the Kingdom with the assistance of his aids.  In the meantime the Priest, Teacher, Farmer, and Businessman had to win followers to their cause and then after a set time each had to plead his case to the King in the hopes of receiving the money they needed to meet their aims.  In the end the King made the best decision that he could under the circumstances, with no absolute correct answer to the scenario.  This activity was an absolute riot to watch unfold.  Campers all took their roles very seriously and got fully into character.

Thursday afternoon was definitely my favorite event.  Like last year, the campers had designed posters and put them up around town, encouraging people from the surrounding villages to come to the soccer field to learn American Football and Ultimate Frisbee with the TOBE Campers and American Volunteers.  We got there a couple hours early, taught the campers how to play these games and then practiced for a bit while we waited.  It was an absolutely beautiful afternoon, with a perfect temperature for playing sports and bright fluffy white clouds lumbering around low in the sky.  The soccer pitch was surrounded by tall stalks of corncobs, which made the whole scene reminiscent of the movie Field of Dreams.  We never know how many people to expect for an event like this, but are always surprised by how many actually show up; we definitely had dozens.  The true magic for me of TOBE is what happens next.  You take teenagers who are generally stereotyped (often rightfully so) as self-centered and egotistical; you teach them a new skill; and, then, you give them the responsibility to teach others and they absolutely soar.  Rather than forming teams and playing to win, they intentionally included people from the village; the chubby kid that couldn’t run, or the little girl that couldn’t catch, or the mother who couldn’t throw and they actively encouraged each of them to participate.  Everyone got to catch the Frisbee, and everyone got to throw the football and everyone had an absolute blast doing it.  That is how you build bridges, my friends.

As an important side note to this community event:  As villagers started to arrive, many of our campers rushed over to hide their belongings.  One then came up to me and said “Jeremy, some of them are gypsy, you must put your camera away in a safe place or it will be stolen.”  I responded simply that I wasn’t concerned about it being stolen and to let the camera be on the bench.  As we wrapped up the day’s events, later back at the campsite, I asked everyone to raise a hand if they had had something stolen earlier that day.  Although no hands went up, their shame certainly did.  It was a poignant final comment on a weeklong conversation we’d been having on relations with the Roma community.

The final day was dedicated to teaching our campers about community project development; how to identify and target challenges in your home communities; and, then, how to create a plan to get out awareness and how to build a network to address those challenges.  We did this in a practical manner by having the campers go out into the beach area and identify potential challenges or areas for improvement.  We, then, had them come back to camp and create short newspaper articles discussing the issues and potential solutions.  We also had another role-playing activity that afternoon where we pitted each group against each other in a race to fight off or support a fake oil company that wanted to start drilling in their now beloved Lacul Apa.

As is tradition, we closed out the week with a surprise campfire that Nicu had organized.  All of the counselors chipped in to buy chocolate and crackers to add to the marshmallows Ester had already brought for S’mores.  Then we collected firewood and made our way to the same beachhead from where we had started our swim the afternoon before.  The kids sang songs, acted out a few skits we taught them and went around individually thanking all of the facilitators for their contribution to making this camp possible.  As we finished off the S’mores and put out the fire we looked up and noticed that above us were laid out more stars than I had honestly ever seen before.  We were at once in a deeply remote place, far from the conveniences of the city, and yet also surrounded in the camaraderie that we had built throughout the week.  Based on my experience with TOBE over the past two years, I can honestly address any initial participants’ concerns with “I can guarantee you that all the other campers are going to be just as friendly and amazing as you are.”

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Immediately following the end of the 2011-2012 school year in June, two of my best stateside friends flew to Romania for a visit, Jen from San Diego and Luke from Boston.  On our agenda were the usual Romanian tourist destinations; Centrul Vechi in Bucharest, Piața Sfatului and Biserica Neagra in Brașov, the Mathias Rex statue in Cluj, and of course Nicu’s wine cellar in my village, Valea Călugărească.  However, one major detour on this particular visit would take us out of Romania altogether to its southern neighbor, Bulgaria.  As it so happens, Jen has a coworker whose family owns a hotel in the small Black Sea coastal town of Sozopol (Созопол).  With an open invitation to visit, Bulgarian hospitality proved to be as generous as that which I have experienced in Romania.  So, with a free place to stay and the nagging reality that none of us would likely be in a position to visit Bulgaria again, we booked the rental car and began learning Cyrillic.

Early on the morning of Tuesday, June 26th, we picked up our Sixt rental car in the luxurious lobby of the JW Marriot Bucharest Grand Hotel, resting comfortably in the shadow of the communist era Palace of the Parliament.  Aside from the obviously good company, an added benefit to having friends visit from the States is the US dollars they bring with them; understandably, I never would have been able to afford a rental car on my monthly Peace Corps stipend.  And without that rental car we never would have been able to make such a trip to the Bulgarian coast in the limited amount of time we had.  With the paperwork signed we jumped into our chariot for the week, a brand new Opel Insignia stick shift.  Luckily for us, Jen was all about driving, especially seeing as how Luke doesn’t know how to drive a manual transmission and how as a matter of policy I, as a Volunteer, am not permitted to drive anything with pistons in any country in which Peace Corps operates.  The drive from Bucharest to Sozopol via the border town of Giurgiu/Ruse and then Shumen takes about six hours according to Google Maps.  However there are two things that the geniuses at Google didn’t take into account, our uncanny ability to get lost in a country where we don’t speak the language and the terrible Bulgarian stretch of road from Shumen to Sozopol.

Needless to say, the first time estimate would turn out to be much longer.  Regardless, we had a surprisingly good time, propelled by the initial excitement of a road trip, we were undaunted by the funny looking “letters” on street signs or later, the bumps in the road.  More than bumps, these were cavernous potholes of corrupt road construction that could seemingly swallow a whole VW Bug without compromise.  Unforgivingly, our “luxury” sedan, built with a go-kart’s suspension, trumpeted each pebble of the graveled road through our spinal cords to our chattering teeth.  Fortunately, though, on the former point of language, Luke has an amazing penchant for foreign tongues and was able to teach himself the Cyrillic alphabet while we were in route.  Although this doesn’t mean that we could actually read and understand anything, we were at least able to make sense of the street signs and compare them against the worthless map provided by our guidebook.  With little to no Romanian printed anywhere and absolutely zero English, Luke’s talent came in quite handy as he gamified this part of our trip and saved us from extending the already long day, let alone from loosing our sanity.

Bulgaria itself was a stark mix of amazing beauty and surprising squalor.  Even as we crossed the 1950s Danube Bridge from Romania into Bulgaria, an ominous sense surrounded us as we traversed the foreboding steel truss structure in the shadow of a thick grey sky.  The border guards were no more welcoming, perceptibly bothered by our existence on this planet.  Thankfully the weather improved and the decrepit communist era bloc apartments along the border ultimately gave way to serene countryside with seemingly endless seas of vibrant bright yellow sunflowers, undoubtedly visible from the International Space Station orbiting high above.  Thoroughly rewarded after our long bumpy day of travel the diverse Bulgarian terrain opened up onto the Black Sea as we reached Burgas, just a few kilometers north of our destination.  With the crystal blue water calling to us like the sirens of Greek mythology, we finished the final stretch of road and pulled into the resort town of Sozopol.  With a few hours of daylight left we found the Hotel Verona, made our acquaintances with Jen’s friend’s family, dropped our things and went exploring through the historic center of town.  We couldn’t think of a better way to get to know historic Sozopol than by bar hopping thru it.  So it was that we sipped our way along the steep cliff faces, from one terraced restaurant to the next, over looking the foamy waves crashing on the boulder laced beach below, with just the right mix of a strong but pleasant breeze and sunshine washing over us.  Unbeknownst to me, the Bulgarian people shake their heads side to side to indicate “yes” and up and down to mean “no,” which, perhaps fortunately, translated into an extra beer or two when really we were ready for the check.

We started off the next day with a brisk hike down and back along the coast, commenting on the 80s art deco hotels and the newly built modern condominiums.  Plenty of construction was underway and even the older buildings were still in good repair; the town as a whole was under good upkeep.  Once we got the blood flowing it was time to walk through the market where we enjoyed a couple rounds of Nescafe cappuccinos, shopped for souvenirs and then tried some whole, bite-size, street cart seafood.  I found the creamy cappuccinos much more enjoyable than the bone crunching fish; Luke and Jen, however, might disagree.  With this being our only full day in Sozopol we thought it appropriate to spend the rest of the afternoon at the beach.  So, after procuring a couple of beach towels from a local vendor we grabbed our books, and a couple cans of Bulgarian Wymehcko and set out for some sun.  The beach was great, well taken care of, generally clean and not particularly over crowded.  Though fair warning, it’s better to avert your eyes and to save yourself the unpleasant shock of when physically degraded nudists wander across your once pristine view of the ocean.  Once we had our fill of sun, sand, and waves we made our way back into town, got cleaned up and headed out for dinner and drinks.  The evening weather was close to perfect and almost made me forget the fact that we had to hit the road again the next day.

Our third and final day in Bulgaria was more of the same from the first day; long stretches of open road through the Balkans.  This time we opted to bypass the hellaciously bad route from Burgas to Shumen and to head north through Varna.  Coincidentally, Luke also has a coworker from Bulgaria, whose hometown of Kavarna was on our way back up along the coast to Romania, so we stopped off there for lunch and a photo-op.

This all too short detour the three of us made to Bulgaria could only have been better if we’d had a few more days to visit.  It was an interesting opportunity for me to see Romania’s neighbor to the south and to compare the two former communist countries.  It was also interesting to, again, be in a place where I’m more or less helpless for lack of understanding the local language, but where I can continue to rely on the friendliness and hospitality of others.  We were able to try new foods, drink new beers, and explore a different culture.  In the end it was sad to leave Bulgaria so quickly after arriving, but I was happy to have spent my short time there with two good friends.

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As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am encouraged to take on additional projects that are beyond the required minimum commitment of teaching a set number of hours per week in my assigned high school.  For example, some volunteers organize summer camps, others work with local community libraries, and others partner with non-governmental organizations that work toward various goals focused on improving different aspects of society.  Last spring, two such opportunities presented themselves in which I was asked to participate.  Both involved extra time in the classroom, but in different schools and in different communities outside of Valea Călugărească.  At first, I was concerned about the added time commitment to my already hectic schedule, but I was almost immediately glad I had accepted the chances, as they have both been very rewarding.

The first activity stemmed from another short-term event in which I was asked to participate.  The Assistant Principle of my high school established and now manages her own NGO, the name of which translates to Young Volunteers.  The self-explanatory organization title basically says it all, but the idea is to help encourage youth to become more engaged in their communities through volunteerism.  Every year my AP tries to take a few of these local kids to Bucharest so that they have the opportunity to visit some of the museums that the capital city has to offer.  Many of these students don’t have the money to do things like this; and, furthermore, some of them had never even been to Bucharest despite our relatively close geographical proximity (this is another activity that I was asked to participate in and for that matter ended up personally funding).  Leading up to the museum fieldtrip, the AP asked that I give a talk on the important role that museums play in American society.  The students from one school in the neighboring town of Bucov seemed enthralled, perhaps less in the subject matter than in simply having an American in their classroom.  As we left, following my presentation, the school’s English teacher asked if I would be willing to visit once a week for a couple of hours at a time to help encourage the kids to learn English in a more fun and engaging way.  By the time I was out the front door we had established a time for me to return the very next week.  The students I worked with were in the eighth grade, getting ready to graduate from middle school and needed help preparing for their tests leading into high school.  Their English level was much better than that of my high school students so I was able to do a lot more with them that was entertaining and engaging not only for them but also for me.  We played games, did some creative story telling and helped develop their problem solving skills.  At the end of the school year, and my last visit with them, they even expressed their appreciation and told me how much they’d miss our time together.  These are certainly not sentiments that I receive from my high school students.  Even though there will be a new group of students this next school year, I look forward to continuing my interaction with the school in Bucov.

The second extracurricular activity with which I found myself involved was with an organization called the Roma Education Fund.  This NGO was originally started in 2005 in Switzerland, then spread to Hungary and is now also in Romania.  The organization’s mission is to help better integrate the Roma population into society and stem the tide of segregation and prejudice against them.  The Roma people are traditionally nomadic, originally having travelled from parts of the Indian subcontinent, with their own Romani language classified as Indo-Aryan.  In Romania, they are also widely referenced as Gypsy or Țigani, and have settled all throughout Europe; with no connection between the name Roma and the country of Romania.  Every society seems to deal with challenges of this nature at one point or another; Romania has made great strides, but still has a way to go, based on my experience.  Many Romanians whom I know personally, who could be described as educated, civically engaged and caring, are generally quite tolerant, that is until the topic of the Roma comes into conversation.  It’s usually at this point that every fault of modern Romanian society is blamed in one-way or another on the Roma (less than 5% of the population).  Thus the REF has a number of programs, which they use to help the Roma.  One such program works in conjunction with general schools to help keep Roma children interested and engaged in the educational process.  They have asked volunteers, such as me, to work in an afterschool program with a mixture of students in order to keep them preoccupied when normal daily classes are finished.  Assigned to the Roma village of Ciupelniță, my role wasn’t so much to teach them English, as it was to make learning English fun, and to keep them out of trouble in the afternoons.  Being that these kids are mostly 1st through 5th graders, it also gave me the chance to step out of my normal comfort zone of teaching young adults.  Before I knew it, I was singing and dancing while teaching about parts of the body, clothing, and numbers/letters.  Although the whole experience was quite fun, it was almost as equally frustrating.  During one period I was left alone with the rascals and had an impossible time keeping the volume down let alone maintaining their focus.  My hat is off to teachers everywhere who do this day in and day out.

The Peace Corps is smart to encourage Volunteer engagement in extracurricular activities.  Not only is it great for our communities but it can also be a big morale booster and break up the monotony of routine.  Each week, I found myself looking forward to the few extra hours I would spend with these other children.  The higher-level of engagement I was able to experience with the kids from Bucov and the endless energy of the children from Ciupelniță certainly brightened my weeks this past spring.  I look forward to keeping these extra activities going this next fall semester.  After all, how could anyone not like hearing their name yelled with enthusiasm and excitement every time you walk through the classroom door?

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Better than “event” or “special occasion,” I have intentionally chosen the word “phenomenon” to describe Romanian weddings because that is what they are; no holds barred extravaganzas which are unparalleled by any celebration I have ever before witnessed.  During our initial Peace Corps training we were introduced to the various Romanian events that we might be invited to during our service, such as weddings, funerals and baptisms.  The various related traditions were outlined so that we would have an idea of what to expect in case we were lucky enough to be invited to such an occasion.  We were even taught a few of the more basic, though popular, dances like the Hora and the Penguin, for example.  As luck would have it, I received a formal invitation to attend the wedding of my neighbor’s daughter; an event that happened to fall on one of the three weekends that my mother was visiting from the United States.  Below are a few of the more important traditions surrounding this phenomenon.

Bradul:  Small pine trees are placed at the front gates of the bride and groom’s parents’ houses.  There may also be one at the church, where the ceremony takes place, that has been decorated with candies.  The trees themselves symbolize vigor and youth and the decorations symbolize the family’s future abundance.  Additionally, before the ceremony, the trees are splashed with wine, a further symbol of abundance.

Dressing of the Bride and Groom:  Following a visit to the Mayor’s office to sign the official documents, the bride and groom go to their respective homes to get ready for the ceremony.  Close friends of the wedding couple then arrive to help them each get ready.  Friends of the bride help with her dress and the final touches to her already styled hair and makeup and the groom’s friends mock shave his face and douse him with cologne.  The whole process is said to symbolize their preparation for and transition to adulthood.  In the background at both houses is the live music of an accordion musician playing, among other things, “ia-ți mireasă ziua buna”.

Searching for the Bride:  Once the bride and groom are dressed and ready to go, the bride is “hidden” somewhere in her parent’s house.  When the groom arrives he must search the house for her, leaving no stone unturned.  This tradition symbolizes the bride’s parent’s reluctance to give her up and perhaps has roots in the historical dowry process.

Breaking of the Bread:  The godparents of the wedding couple bring a round loaf of a sweet, brioche style bread and tear it apart over top of the seated bride’s head.  The bread is then passed around and anyone who eats from it is said to have good luck.

Ceremony:  After a short pre-ceremony reception at the bride’s parent’s house, everyone heads for the church.  The ceremony deserves an entire blog post itself, but suffice it to say that the ceremony is a long and detailed Eastern Orthodox religious ritual, complete with singing, candles, incense, and elaborately dressed priests.

Kidnapping:  Following the ceremony, the newlyweds and their guests head to the reception restaurant or hall.  The night is full of live music, dancing, food and plenty of beverages.  At some point in the evening friends of the wedding couple kidnap the bride, taking her off to a bar or club and demanding a “ransom” from the groom for her safe return.  During the negotiation process the groom is presented with one of the bride’s shoes as proof that the kidnappers have her.  Once the ransom, usually of alcohol, is paid, the bride is returned to the reception party and the groom places the shoe back on her foot.

Ciorba de Potroace:  The next day, following the wedding ceremony, a smaller number of close friends are asked to join the newlyweds at one of the parents’ houses for a full meal of Ciorba, Sarmale, Friptura and more drinking.  The idea here is to rejuvenate everyone after the previous night’s festivities.  This is also an opportunity for friends and guests to talk about their impressions of the wedding from the day before.  I was unexpectedly whisked off to this event while grocery shopping in town; my plan for a quiet evening alone quickly evaporated when a large glass of whiskey was thrust into my hand.

Wheelbarrow Ride:  In the afternoon, following the ciorba de potroace, the in-laws of the bride and groom are individually whisked away, up and down the street in an old wheelbarrow.  The reasoning for all of this is a little unclear to me, but my guess is that it somehow serves as a reminder to the parents that their children are now grownup and no longer need to be constantly watched over.

The above list really only scratches the surface of Romanian traditions as they pertain to weddings, but these are the ones I witnessed that seemed the most interesting and different from what I have seen in the United States.  The traditions vary from region to region and family to family, but this is what I have learned from my experience, internet research and through discussions with my Romanian tutor.  If you have additional insight that you’d like to share please use the comments section below so that we may all be further enlightened.

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Often, I comment to friends and family that I feel as though every day is a workday and, to a large extent, this is true.  After all, my “office” is essentially the entire country in which I serve.  Summed up, our goals as Peace Corps Volunteers are to help host country nationals with skills development and for us to take part in bilateral cultural exchange.  To me, this means that the second I step out of the house I’m at work and that it will remain that way until my plane touches back down in the United States in the summer of 2013.  In other words, with the first “Bună Dimineață” of each morning, I try to represent America in the best ways that I know how.  In our fishbowl existence, this means that every social event from weddings or parties to simple trips to the grocery store can all be trying.  If nothing else, just the simple act of trying to communicate is a challenge, as I struggle to understand even small snippets of what people around me are saying, let alone expressing my own opinions.  Even this blog itself is considered “work” as it’s listed on our semi-annual report as directly relating to Goal 3.  This may sound like a glass is half empty conversation.  Quite to the contrary; it isn’t.  Since high school I knew that I didn’t want to spend my whole life in a cubical; there is no doubt that, at least for the time being, I got my wish.

In a recent conversation with a friend back home, I was asked: “What did you do today?”  My honest answer was “Well, I mountain-biked 25 kilometers in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, explored an abandoned, centuries old Eastern Orthodox church and had a picnic with my favorite student at the highest point of my village, which overlooks hectare upon hectare of vineyards.”  Since arriving in Valea Călugărească, I have wanted to explore those foothills to the north, and I’ve been able to do this now that spring has set in and the weather couldn’t be better.  The first such trip was last Sunday.  A student of mine, from the afternoon wine classes I had taught up until Easter break, offered to act as a guide.  Initially there was a little confusion over how exactly we were going to do this.  He rides motorcycles and knows that I used to, but when I explained that we would have to go by bicycle instead he seemed perplexed about how that would even be possible.  Although motorbike would have been more fun, Peace Corps strictly prohibits volunteers from driving.  They even insist that we wear helmets when we are riding our bicycles; I get stares from the locals as it is, but they act like I am a total alien when they see me on my bike.  Regardless my student was game for the non-motorized adventure.

We met up at the village post office just past 10:00 a.m. Sunday morning, bought a few provisions at the store and, after delivering a pack of smokes back to his house and meeting his family, we were on our way.  We crossed the main roadway that cuts through the village and set off straight up the hill, passing farms, vineyards and the small țuica distillery that I may or may not have mentioned in an earlier blog post.  The thin, black topped roadway curved back and forth as we dodged piles of manure and chatted about his new girlfriend.  From my house in Valea the hills look, admittedly, disappointingly small, but up close was a different story, as I huffed and puffed trying to keep up with my younger cycling partner.  After crying “Uncle” we walked our bikes up the last 100 feet or so to our first resting point.  I had been this far before when my then tour guide, and now Romanian tutor, brought me here to show off the view last May.  In fact, the banner photograph of this website was taken at that time, from this point.  After looking the bicycles over, hoping unsuccessfully to find an excuse to blame the bikes for our slower than expected ascent we pressed on.  My original plan had been to simply summit the hill directly in front of my school and then to circle around on a path I had mapped out with Google satellite view (the roads didn’t exist on google maps), my student, however, had a different plan for us.  So, rather than make a left and more or less head around and back down to the village, we went right.  For a second, I thought about the other work I had planned for the day, but quickly remembered the Peace Corps encouraged mantra of “Never turn down an invitation,” nodded in agreement, shrugged my shoulders and said “Why not, let’s do it.”

A few kilometers later, riding the crest of the hill, we came across the old Eastern Orthodox Church.  Surprisingly, there was no locked gate, no signs warning against trespassing, even the front door was wide open.  Though there was admittedly little point in locking the place up considering the fact that a huge hole had been taken out of one side (how or why still eludes me).  Being careful not to venture too far in, we could clearly make out the old icons painted on the wall; now giving way to the elements and large cracks from earthquakes.  Though perhaps most interesting, in the decades old, very small cemetery was a fresh grave that had just been occupied as recently as January; old flowers having just been replaced with new ones in the past few days.

Next up was our apparent picnic destination, home to the area’s cellular phone towers and amazing views of the surrounding countryside; this would be the highest altitude we’d reach that day.  As we came around the bend the landscape opened up, the trees and bushes moved away from the road and we could see an old mansion just shy of the summit.  Today, I suspect this beautiful old building likely serves as equipment storage space for the adjacent mobile phone infrastructure.  Once at the top, we reached a derelict metal watchtower, which provided just enough shade for the sheet my student’s mom undoubtedly packet for us.  From this vantage point, we were flanked all around by abandoned terraced hillsides, once home to hundreds of grape vines.  The remnants of old cement staircases still dot the old vineyard that, purportedly, the communists had destroyed.  Not expecting the full day journey, I unpacked and started munching on the less than satisfying green apple I had brought.  Fortunately, Romanian hospitality was, unbeknownst to me, in full swing as my student had brought plenty for two.  We relaxed for a while, soaked in the scenery and enjoyed the perfect spring day air before taking off again.

Retracing our steps and heading back in the direction from which we had earlier come, we broke off to the right heading north towards a large forest.  Probably my favorite part of the actual riding was off the main gravel road, through a long meadow, which led to the woods.   The grass on the path had been worn smooth by occasional traffic and was a welcome change from the gravel road that had been working in cahoots with my hard bike seat to ruin my future ability to sit.  As the clearing ended we slowed down and road into the forest, the air temperature around us immediately dropped noticeably as the canopy of bright green leaves blocked the sun.  The hilltop quickly gave way in deep decent to a valley below.  We decided better to go ahead to the bottom on foot, since getting the bikes back up the leaf covered path would have been an unnecessarily difficult task.  We wandered around the forest for a while taking photographs, stalking beetles and looking, unsuccessfully, for a stream.  The forest was an unexpected surprise; I knew it was there based on the satellite images that I had looked at prior to the trip, but it didn’t really register with me that we might visit it.  Much like those that I explored as a youth in Maryland and Virginia, the woods here not only brought a welcome respite from the sun, but also brought back lots of good memories.

Having made our way out of the forest, we decided it was time to head back to the village.  On the way back, we took the route that I had originally mapped out, so that I could see what the path looked like as recon for future bike trips.  After another kilometer or two the gravel roads at the crest gave way to beautifully paved twisty tarmac which lead us swiftly all the way back down to the bottom in no time at all.  We passed more farms, vineyards, a monastery and even waved to some of my high school students that were working their family’s land or enjoying a rest in the shade.

It was at the high point of the hillside, while we were snacking on lunch that I realized “This is my job.”  Here I was, sitting in the shadow of a communist era tower, on land that had been confiscated from a colleague during the Ceaușescu regime, with one of my students, who speaks little to no English, talking about his life here in Romania and sharing my stories from America.  We enjoyed ham and cheese sandwiches, ate sunflower seeds and drank strong Turkish style coffee, complete with a little plastic baggy of sugar, which his mother had prepared for us that morning.  This is life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, even your days “off” are full of cross-cultural exchange and often, the unexpected.

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Școala Altfel

The week leading up to our Easter/Spring break was a bit of an experiment.  Titled “Școala Altfel,” the Romanian Ministry of Education tasked schools to provide students with one week of nontraditional education.  In a normal school day students go from one classroom to another, from one subject to another, have their lectures and do their assignments.  The literal translation doesn’t really do the title justice, but essentially the idea behind Școala Altfel was to get students out from behind their desks and involved in more hands on practical exercises.  Each class of students is assigned to a Headmaster or Diriginte for the four-year high school term.  During this period of Școala Altfel, each class remains with their Diriginte for five full days.  This certainly has its own challenges ─ after all how do you keep the same group of kids interested for a whole school week?  In the end, the experiment was a success for our school, with all of the participants taking something positive away from the experience.

Fortunately, my counterpart is diriginte to one of my favorite, most engaged and well-behaved ninth grade classes, whose high school career focus is the study of ecology.  So we thought what better way to make use of this week than to focus on the environment and what actions people can take to improve it.  The theme, which my counterpart derived, was Omul pentru natură şi natura pentru om,” best translated to People for Nature and Nature for People.”  To further our goal of providing a thought-provoking week about the environment, we enlisted the help of our school’s Ecology Engineer and since she is not a diriginte herself, she was free and happy to help us out.  Here is a list of a few of the things we worked on:

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Presentations:  We broke our class of thirty students into six groups of five and assigned them the task of researching and creating a presentation on the Three Rs approach toward the environment.  We provided a basic framework for what each slide should include, helping to ensure they stay focused on the task.  The students were allotted a couple of hours in the computer lab to work on their projects and then a couple of hours to project and present them.  We judged each group for content, design and presentation skills.  Each member of the winning team was then awarded with a Snickers bar.  Overall the final presentations were good; general problems that students here struggle with are plagiarism from Wikipedia, too much written content on individual slides, and budding public speaking skills.  So we took the opportunity to address these challenges and hope to see improvement in the future.
  • Arts and Crafts:  The Ecology Engineer led a handful of sessions where students took old thrown out stuff like plastic bottles and repurposed them for a second life.  First, they made rain gauges by cutting off the top quarter of a two liter plastic soda/water bottle, filling the bottom with play dough so as to smooth it out and then reattaching the inverted detached top, turning it into a sort of funnel.  The idea was then to place the rain gauge in gardens at home to measure the amount of rainfall.  Next, they took old plastic cups, straws, pencils and bits of scotch tape and made wind speed measuring devices.  By mounting two long straws with small plastic cups (used for coffee here) mounted to the ends, to the eraser end of a pencil with a metal sewing pin, wind would catch in the cups and cause the straws to spin atop the pencil.  The number of revolutions made within a set period of time would dictate how fast the wind was blowing.  Finally, we made bird feeders by taking old plastic bottles, filling them with seeds, putting wooden sticks through the bottom and then poked several holes on each side.  The birds at first seemed slow to take to the idea, but I now have two empty bottles hanging from the apple tree behind my house.
  • Kindergarten Collaboration:  Since our high school also has a small building on campus dedicated for a kindergarten we thought it a good and convenient idea to have our students work with the children at the kindergarten.  One activity was devoted to making kid’s toys from used products like old bottles, used cigarette boxes and paper towel rolls.  Another activity was to create costumes for the children from recycled goods and then to have an “Eco Parade” in the main auditorium with music and dancing.
  • Tree Planting:  The U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, in conjunction with the NGO Mai Mult Verde, came up with the idea to help a handful of Peace Corps volunteers plant trees in their respective communities.  My counterpart and I were among the first to apply and to be awarded the funds.  Thus we purchased twenty-two trees to plant in a vacant patch of grass in front of the school.  The number twenty-two represents one tree for each year that Peace Corps has served here in Romania.  To conclude the project, the awarded communities received a commemorative plaque to erect in line with the saplings.  Our students eagerly engaged in this process, marking out the right spots, digging the holes and learning how to properly plant trees from an Engineer here at the school.  In addition, a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, who is currently assigned to work with Mai Mult Verde, came to the school to give a presentation about volunteering and about taking care of the environment.

As a first time experiment here in Romania, I feel that Școala Altfel was a success, at least from the standpoint of my school.  There was a refreshing buzz all around campus with students engaged in cleaning up the property, posting signs encouraging good behavior and beautification projects to put a fresh coat of paint where needed.  The trick now is to find a way next year to top the success we had this year.

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Early on in the process of becoming a volunteer, during the initial pre-service training, the program staff review each volunteer’s general background, work experience and evaluate their practicum performance in-country. Bouncing this information off of a brief survey each volunteer completes, they begin to make the important decisions surrounding each volunteer’s future service. Namely, review of the compiled data dictates not only the best possible site match but also what grade levels a TEFL volunteer will be teaching. For one reason or another, when the steam was cleared from my bubbling caldron of analytics, the bones and tea leaves read “High School.” Not without its merits, the experience of teaching at the high school level has been interesting, certainly with its ups and downs, but that is for another blog post. In this installment, I step through the wardrobe into the magical land of the little people, full of rainbows, fairies, spiriduși and juice boxes.

The young daughter of my Romanian Counterpart attends a small kindergarten in the heart of Ploiești. Situated in an interesting, multi-story building that is likely a converted house, it’s complete with a swing set and jungle gym in the front yard and a family guard dog. The school caters not only to very young preschoolers but also offers afterschool daycare services for grade school students with active parents. With every inch of wall space adorned by educational material or student artwork, the facility is tidy, well organized and run by a very friendly, welcoming and capable staff. My Counterpart’s friendship with the owner and director of the kindergarten goes back many years, so when it was time to enroll her own daughter in such a facility the choice was obvious and easy. It was through this friendship that the kindergarten director found out about the new American volunteer and where the idea was hatched to have him come and work with the kindergarteners in his free time.

Just as the winter snow began to melt and the symbolic ghiocei flowers were popping up everywhere, the seed for this project was beginning to sprout. During a preliminary meeting in Ploiești, over customary Turkish style coffee and sweet pastries, it was decided that the timing would be perfect for a Saint Patrick’s Day lesson. With my normal school schedule being the lightest on Tuesdays, March 20th was picked as the most convenient for all those involved and thus began the brainstorming. This is where I really became impressed by the little kindergarten; when first asked to participate in this project, I figured it would be like one of my normal high school classes, where the resources are limited, the students only sheepishly engaged and the teachers worn from years of salary stagnation and increasing mounds of responsibility. Refreshingly, the forthcoming experience could not have been further from the grim truth of high school. The Director and teachers (let alone the usual exuberance of my counterpart) were highly engaged, enthusiastic and incredibly creative. Building off the ideas I liberated from MES-English.com, my “go to” resource for lesson planning materials, we came up with a full morning of fun activities for the students.

Early on the morning of March 20th, I chugged down my morning coffee and ran for the next Maxi-Taxi to Ploiești and the rendezvous point where I was to meet my counterpart for a ride to the kindergarten. As I hopped in the car, my counterpart’s daughter greeted me from the back seat with the coached “Good Morning Jeremy” to which I have become happily accustomed. Fascinated with her mother’s American colleague, we fashioned a little competition, where by the end of my stay in Romania one of us is sufficiently fluent in the other’s respective language to hold a conversation. Although I have been given an unfair head start in language proficiency, thanks to Peace Corps training, and even though her English is currently, though understandably, limited to a kindergartener’s level of colors, numbers and simple greetings, I have every confidence that her young, sponge-like brain, and sheer tenacity will prevail. Regardless, I responded in kind with a warm “Bună dimineața” as we were whisked off to her kindergarten.

Arriving among the hurricane-like hustle and bustle of kindergarteners getting ready for the day’s lesson, we got set up and sipped our last coffee before getting underway. The school was a flurry of green everywhere; from student’s attire, complete with shamrock nametags, to decorations on the wall, even I sported a kelly-green t-shirt (Portlandia) under my grey blazer. They even had green apple juice on hand during snack time. Sticking to our schedule, another positive idiosyncrasy of this kindergarten when compared to high school, we kicked things off with a short story, read aloud in Romanian about the history of Saint Patrick’s Day. We then followed this up with a short cartoon about the holiday that we pulled from the YouTube. Then, with attentive eyes and craned necks staring up at me, it was my turn to present a quick English vocabulary lesson. Relying on the same techniques I use in high school, I fired up the iPad and went through a series of picture flashcards that I pulled from MES-English.com. As instructed during pre-service training, I went through the set of slides four times. First slowly showing each image and stating the vocabulary word twice with the students listening in silence, then the second time through I restated the words and had the students repeat after me. The third time through I presented each image again in order, this time saying two different words, giving them the option of a correct one and incorrect one, from which they had to choose. Then, for the last run through, the students had to pronounce the correct word for each slide without help. Although vastly more attentive than my high school students, the final round was understandably a little challenging for the little tikes, with many a blank stare at the “Leprechaun” flashcard. Next, to fortify what they had learned, we played the time-honored classic of Bingo. Each of the 25 kids was given a handful of green paper chips and a game card with uniquely placed images matching the flashcards they had just learned. Additionally, I took printed copies of the flashcards and arranged them magnetically to a small whiteboard so that as I called out the vocabulary in English I could still help them along by referring to the picture on the board. After a few Romanian instructions we played several rounds, each more successful than the previous as the students stopped exuberantly yelling “Bingo!” each time they had one match, not the requisite three in a row.

After the English lesson, the school’s staff began mixing water-based paints for the creation of what I think we called a “Learning Tree.” The rough outline of a tree was painted onto a large sheet of poster paper and each student dunked his or her hand into the paint and placed their handprints onto the tree. The teachers, including myself, contributed with the brown trunk, each kindergartener with the green leaves and the pre-schoolers with the grass. After drying in the warm spring sun the poster was placed on the wall to symbolize the growth of students as supported by their teachers. At the forefront of this activity it had disaster written all over it. All I could picture was 25-30 students running around soiling the walls, floors, furniture and each other with their goopy hands. Amazingly, the staff had this under control as if it were a science; one staff member manned the paints, another directed the tiny dipped hands to the tree, another immediately handed out paper towels to catch any dripping and a fourth guided the little Andy Warhols to the bathroom for a hand washing. This amazing choreography was a reoccurring theme throughout the day. Another such impressive instance was the staff’s ability to seamlessly transition the kindergarteners from one activity to another. Even though there was preparation that had to be done in-between each lesson, the kids were kept focused by singing nursery rhymes, seemingly ad infinitum. Had I been left alone to manage these kids, there surely would have been some disaster resulting in numerous parent-teacher conferences.

Following the experiment in finger painting, we held a nifty adaptation of the old board game shoots and ladders. On the MES-English website, they offer a printable template that can be made into a board game themed with Saint Patrick’s Day. The idea being that all the students huddle around a tiny game board, roll little air passage clogging dice and move their characters through the course. In a stroke of genius, the Kindergarten Director adapted the game to make it life-size. She printed two-dozen or so four leaf clovers, a hand full of fairies and leprechauns and one large pot of gold, complete with rainbow. She then placed the laminated stepping-stones in an S-shaped pattern on the floor. Six students at a time were then picked at random, given oversized Lego pieces to serve as place holders and a largely fuzzy die was used to move the game forward. In turn each student rolled the die and moved ahead the number of four leaf clovers corresponding to the number on the die, some counting in English, some in Romanian and one kid in German. If they landed on a spot with a Leprechaun they would move up a ladder leading to an advanced spot on the board. However, if they landed on a spot with a Fairy they had to slide down to a spot a few spaces back. Each game resulted in a winner only if the exact number was rolled to allow the player the precise number of spots to land on the pot of gold at the end; I think this was a little harsh, isn’t everyone supposed to win in kindergarten? Regardless, I am happy to report that one of the two winners, to obvious overt schoolyard bragging rights, was, coincidentally, my counterpart’s daughter.

A far cry from the spitballs, hormone-infused rowdiness and general apathy of high school, this experience at the kindergarten was a welcome and refreshing change of scenery. As the morning’s lessons came to an end and I prepared to return to high school for my afternoon class, we all filed out into the sunny front yard for playtime and a short break in the pleasantly warm air. I grabbed a seat on the swinging bench and was quickly joined by more little girls then could possibly fit next to me all at once. It was then that one walked up to me and whispered the following into my ear “Eu am un mesaj pentru tine: I love you Jeremy.” Needless to say, I made it clear to the Kindergarten Director that if she ever needs me for another cultural exchange session that I am only a phone call away.

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An Amiens Interlude

Seeing as how Matt’s friends in nearby Amiens, were the main catalyst for this whole trip to France, we thought it smart to head north for a visit to show our appreciation.  Again, Matt knows these students through his Romanian tutor who studies and rooms with them in Amiens.  So on Monday morning we packed up our stuff, made our future reservation at the hostel for our planned return on Wednesday and checked out.  A small, but thoroughly positive, twist to this story is that two more Peace Corps Volunteer friends would be joining us that day, flying in to Beauvais Airport.  So being the gentlemen that we are, Matt and I agreed to swing by Beauvais to pick them up on the way to our adventure in Amiens.

Knowing that we could easily get to the airport on the same bus that brought us to Paris, we made our way back to the Porte Maillot metro stop, grabbed the bus and motored effortlessly to Beauvais.  Timing it perfectly, Matt and I arrived only a few minutes before Nick and Jessica’s plane landed.  After our cheerful mini volunteer reunion we figured out that we’d have to, in a somewhat complicated manner, make our way by city bus to the center of Beauvais before picking up another bus that would take us to Amiens.  Though in continued good company, we weren’t the least concerned about the various modes of transportation that lay ahead, especially with our newly honed skills of navigating Romanian transport.  A few hours later, as the sun set over the French countryside, we pulled into the now sparkling city of Amiens and picked up another city bus that promised to take us to the neighborhood where our new-found friends live.

Amiens was, somewhat surprisingly, quite active on that Monday evening with students coming and going every which way; the bus itself was standing room only at this point and suffocatingly crowded.  Though within fifteen minutes we had made our way to the outskirts of town to the bus stop in our friend’s neighborhood and where we were able to inhale fresh air again.  While picking up provisions at the local grocery store, we made arrangements to meet up and make the walk back to their apartment.

Personally not knowing these students at all, I really didn’t know what to expect.  For that matter, neither did Matt since his Romanian friend was coincidentally on holiday in Romania at the moment and he’d only briefly met one of our hosts the previous summer.  When they arrived to guide us back to the apartment, we exchanged introductions, saddled up our backpacks and followed as they led the way.  Over the course of the following two nights and a day we were shown nothing but the most thoroughly pleasant hospitality.  I wish I could blame this incredible congeniality on the gifts of țuică, zacuscă and vișinată that we had brought as a thank you, but there is no question that these girls are just naturally amiable to the core.  Having arrived relatively late, they threw a few pizzas in the oven for us while we lightened the mood with a mix of cocktails and conversation.  We finished off our first brilliant night in Amiens hanging out in the cool Parisian air on their third floor patio while sharing a cigar that Matt and I had scored from one of our neighbors back at the hostel.  It was another perfect end to a great day.

The next morning the girls had set up a full breakfast spread on the kitchen table for us before heading off to their classes.  Being the first one up, I managed the important task of figuring out the espresso machine, knowing that this would be a key element in getting us moving that morning.  After showering and munching on some first world breakfast cereals we were ready to take on the day.  The night before, our hosts had drawn up the major Amiens landmarks on a map that they lent us, and pointed out the best route to get around and see the city for a little sightseeing.  So we headed out on foot to see what trouble we could get into.

Amiens is an absolutely beautiful town with architecture reminiscent of its long history and thoughtful green spaces, exhibiting historical monuments to various wars, intermingled among the neighborhoods.  Though, probably the crowning sight to see is the Notre Dame Cathedral of Amiens, which is a Roman Catholic cathedral built in the 13th century.  Having said that, I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals, monasteries and churches in my life and frankly I could take ‘em or leave ‘em at this point, but this place is impressive if not for its detailed beauty then certainly for its sheer size.  The spire itself is over 112 meters high, with general building dimensions of 145 meters long and 70 meters wide; it’s significantly larger than an American football field.  There really isn’t much more that I can say about this place that would do it justice.  Check out the pictures and read up about it on Wikipedia if you’re interested.

After wandering around for a while we came across a series of beautiful canals nestled among the houses, not far from there we settled on a great little French restaurant for lunch.  Following another long and relaxed dining experience we ducked into a bar around the corner where we had made arrangements to meet our new friends.  We spent most of the rainy afternoon there enjoying each other’s company and the hospitality of the bar.  Later on, when the girls finally met up with us, we closed out our tab and headed to an Irish pub around the corner.  While our hosts sloughed off the stress of the school day we all got to know each other and enjoyed the atmosphere of this quintessentially Irish pub.  Before we knew it, though, we were whisked off back to the apartment.  As it turns out the girls had planned a special French style dinner of crepes that they were going to prepare from scratch.  So we picked up a couple of bottles of wine and headed back to the apartment.

This part of the evening was particularly special for me.  In my opinion, there is nothing better than the smells, sights and sounds of a hectic kitchen, especially when it’s not your own.  And seeing as how I have a love for food and how the mother of all cuisine is French food, how could this have been any better?  With my background in cooking, my services were even enlisted a couple of times to taste check the Béchamel sauce they were making for the crêpe filling, a duty that I gladly obliged.  Before I knew it, with the kitchen in shambles, it was time to eat and once again our excellent hosts had done us right; the dinner was absolutely delicious.  The rest of the night was filled with the typical merriment that was beginning to spoil us all; plenty of good food, excellent wine, great conversation and even live music as Nick broke out the guitar.  Needless to say, this was another incredible day in France that will definitely be fixed in memory forever.

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