Sometimes you just have to write…
Well, I’m back from Romania, and it was absolutely fascinating! I know that what you’re probably most curious about is the answer to the question I posed in my post called “Sexy Romanians.” The answer is: it was just girls playing at being models.
I’m basing my answer on two things. First, I simply told one of the teachers about how I saw the pictures and asked her what this meant. (I know, I know, not very diplomatic, but she and I have developed in our e-mail and msn correspondence a certain openness, or you could call it bluntness, that really works well for us.) She explained that the families are very close in Romania and supportive of their kids and that she thought they were just playing at being models.
Second, I could tell in one glance at students at their school that they are just like ours! The boys wear their clothes too loose; the girls too tight. The boys put gel in their hair; the girls don’t. The girls giggled when my colleague, in talking about what preconceptions Romanians might have about the Dutch, mentioned prostitution. There was chewing gum under the desks. There were the usual three boys not paying attention in the back row on the left (why are they always on the left?). They’re the same as ours. It’ll be fine.
Other observations about Romania:
People are unbelievably welcoming and generous and friendly. We had dinner in Romanian teachers’ homes two nights in a row, and were amazed at the way we were treated. There wasn’t just a starter, a main course and a dessert; there were multiple starters (I didn’t count, but I’d guess six or seven starters in each house), a main course (two main courses at one of the homes), and, at one of the homes, two desserts. Our wine glasses were constantly refilled, and the conversation was always interesting. People kept giving us gifts as well; even the mayor’s wife, who wasn’t even in town, left us one.
The effects of the Communist Ceaucescu years before the 1990 revolution are constantly visible and on people’s minds. It was remarkable how many times in talking to people the phrases “before the revolution” and “after the revolution” were used. It was amazing and sometimes heartbreaking to hear their stories about how they survived the food shortages of before the revolution and the economic collapse after the revolution. We are so spoiled here in Holland!
Housing is a big issue there. Ceausescu did something called “systemization” that basically meant tearing down every building with any character and replacing it with enormous concrete apartment buildings. From the two flats I got to see from the inside, people take great care and pride in their flats. They were both incredibly clean (especially compared to my house!) and well-maintained. But the outsides of these buildings are positively grim: dirty gray concrete with the plaster crumbling off. Yet people can’t move. Flats cost almost as much there as they do here; it’s not clear why. It could be because there’s a shortage of housing, or it could be because of speculation raising the prices, or both. And detached houses can cost more than half a million euros!
It reminded me in some ways of my own family, especially the amount of food at dinner. In my Eastern European Jewish family, when you cook for guests, you always make too much. You know it’s too much, but you do it anyway. I think the idea is that, just in case someone is particularly hungry, or just in case someone extra shows up, you’re sure to have enough, because it would be an absolute disaster if you ran out of anything! My husband never understands this. He thinks it’s ridiculous to cook so much extra when you know it’s too much. But that’s just the way it’s done! That’s clearly what Romanians do too.
Romanians are feeling very optimistic. They’ve pulled themselves up out of the post-revolution economic collapse and they’ve just entered the EU. Things are bound to get better. What I’m afraid of is that some bad will come with the good. For example, increased tourism will help the economy, but those British stag parties that have become such a problem in Prague will come to Bucharest once the cheap airlines start going there.
You know, when we set up an exchange programme like this, we intend it to be an education for our students — to open their minds to other ways of life. We forget that it does the same for us, the teachers!