Friday, December 31, 2010

Travelling Back

On the three hour drive through the Carpathian mountains to Sighisoara, Laci, the driver, was giving me a glimpse into Romanian life and the split between the Hungarian and Romanian population and some of the tensions that exist between the two due to their history. Harghita county and Transylvania used to be part of Hungary until after WWI when it became Romanian territory and the Hungarian people were forced to adopt the Romanian language and culture and abandon their Hungarian heritage.

Laci wasn’t the first person to tell me that Romanians have a bit of a bad reputation throughout the rest of Europe. A lot of that is due to what they call the ‘gypsy population’ who are stereotypically lazy, work the government welfare system, resort to stealing and have children they can’t afford, hence burdening the already overloaded child-care system.

As we drove past a group of gypsy men gathered on a street corner, Laci asked if I could see their skin tone was a darker color. I looked at the men and then at Laci and other than their clothing, they looked the same. The gypsy men typically wear wide brimmed hats and the women I saw wore long flowing skirts like a folk dancing costume.

I ate a bag of paprika potato chips on the drive and Laci stopped at a natural water spring where people drove from miles to fill up plastic bottles of the mineral water. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have had the water; it smelled off, was a light brown color and had a slightly fizzy consistency. I wondered if in this fairy-tale region, the water really did have the mysterious healing powers people spoke of and perhaps my stomach pains were the release of toxins in my body, but I think it just didn’t agree with me.

Laci went on to tell me the Romanian Government is still trying to distribute property back to its rightful owners after the fall of communism in 1989. It’s a slow process and one that invites some people to file false property claims and in other cases it may be difficult to track heirs of prior owners.

As we drove through a larger town I saw a long line of people waiting to get in to the Penny market grocery store. I wondered if the line was just due to the holiday or if it’s still a remnant from the communist era. We passed a gas station where cars were lined up waiting to purchase diesel and my thoughts traveled back to the 70’s when my mom and I would wait in line for gas in her convertible Mustang.

When I asked Laci about the high number of orphaned children he explained that adoption used to be very easy but then rumors spread that children were being sold for body parts. I laughed, but Laci’s serious expression told me he believed this rumor, adding, “Well, a lot of children simply disappeared and no one knows what happened to them.” It evokes yet another mysterious element about Transylvania like the tales of Dracula and wild dogs.

I spent the night in Sighisoara and arranged to take a bus for the hour drive to Targu Mures where I’d catch my flight to Budapest. I’d heard several people speak of how terrifying the drive to Targu Mures was due to maniacal drivers who take the route back and forth every day, speeding and dangerously passing cars on the windy road. The front desk clerk of my hotel told me he was scared to death the last time he took one of those busses.

I recalled the bus I took on a small Greek Island to get to a remote beach off a steep dirt road and figure if I survived that, I could survive this bus ride; hopefully.

Friday morning, several people were waiting to board the bus when the driver suddenly appeared, flicked away his cigarette and quickly took his seat. A toothless gypsy woman helped lift my bag onto the bus. As I paid 9 Lei, about $2 U.S. dollars to the driver, I thought I smelled alcohol on his breath and I feared I was in for a death ride.

Imagine my relief when the drive turned out to be slow and steady, no hairpin turns at high speeds. Perhaps it was the alcohol that made him drive more slowly, at that point I didn’t care.

The small airport in Targu Mures where I arrived two hours before the Malev airlines ticketing agent, was a ghost town. The snack shop was closed, the upstairs restaurant was closed and it was briskly chilly as I sat and waited for my ticket to be issued.

I was the only person to walk through the security checkpoint, passport control and customs. The customs agent asked me if I had anything to declare to which I replied, “no.” He mumbled something to a colleague as I walked to the seats in the gate area.

Just as I opened the small container of ham spread for my Christmas Eve lunch, he motioned for me to follow him. He led me to a small room where my bag was on a table, unopened. For some reason I now believed that I was a drug smuggler in an episode of ‘Locked Up Abroad’. My pulse quickened.

He asked again, “You have nothing to declare?” and I shake my head no, now scared I was supposed to declare the two bottles of wine that are stuffed in my boots.

“You’re not carrying more than ten thousand Euros?” I quickly tried to calculate Euros to dollars and quipped back with a smile, “I wish I had ten-thousand Euros.” Instead of laughing with me, he motions for me to open my bag. My hands were shaking. Why didn’t I just declare the stupid wine?

He barely unzipped the suitcase, pulled out one cosmetic bag and said, “Thank you.” He left me to zip up the bag and I carried my container of ham spread back to my seat where I waited for my heart to stop racing.

There was only one other passenger scheduled for the flight to Budapest, which was running an hour late. She had on a brown version of my coat and I wondered what her life circumstances were that brought her to fly on Christmas Eve day from Targu Mures to Budapest.

We got to talking and shared stories. Her father had just died on the 18th and she had gone back home for his funeral. I share my situation with her and told her that my father had died years ago on December 17. Eniko and I bond quickly.

I told her of my experience with the kids and she shares with me that she’d thought of adopting but doesn’t think the Hungarian Government would allow her to adopt from out of the country. She adds that her ‘boyfriend’ is 20 years older than she is and he doesn’t want any more children. She describes his personality as ‘difficult’ and when I ask in what aspect, she laughs and says, ‘everything’.

The two of us take seats across the aisle from each other as the crew of six swirls around us preparing the plane for take-off. The pilot invited us to look through the cockpit window before take-off and even though it’s the same sky from the window where I’m seated, it looked much more amazing and vibrant.

The flight attendant asked what we’d like to drink and I ask if they had champagne. She smiled and says it’s usually for business class as she hands me a small bottle of bubbly. Eniko and I are offered as many bags of peanuts as we want, and small wrapped chocolates that I assume are also only for business class.

Eniko confides in me about the complex and sometimes trying relationship she and her father had. I heard the regret in her voice and I tell her even if he was still alive it wouldn’t change the past or what the relationship was and even though it wasn’t perfect, they had love for each other. She glanced out her window at the sky and tells me she feels like she is closer to him.

Toward the end of the flight the flight attendant speaks in Hungarian to Eniko who translates to me the pilot has invited one of us to sit in the jump seat of the cockpit for the landing in Budapest. There is only room for one. She offers up the opportunity to me because she has a friend with a small plane she gets to fly in often.

I became a giddy schoolgirl as I got settled into the jump seat. The feelings of self-pity I’d had just hours before seem like a world away and I’m reminded that life is truly an ebb and flow of all things opposite, just a pendulum that we swing on day to day, year to year as we navigate through our lives and all the complexities of being human.

The rest of the travel back to LA had its challenges, but I arrived safely and made it home to face my new life, an ending and a beginning.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Saying Good-bye

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My time in the safe haven of Baile Tusnad was winding down and there were many slow farewells taking place over several days, like lingering over a sumptuous conversation you don’t want to end even though it’s three in the morning.

Tuesday I said my first good-bye to Barni who was going to spend Christmas with his alcoholic father. We had a preliminary good-bye on Monday night when he looked at me with sad eyes, hugged me strongly and said in that low serious tone he has, “Thank you.” And I knew he meant it from deep within his heart.

On the morning walk to school, Barni, who usually runs ahead with Lorkia and Laci, stayed behind with Ishti and me. He even walked home from school with us and I gave him the camera to use. He wrapped the strap around his wrist and pretended to drop it, giving me that mischievous smile. Out of all the kids, he’s the last one I’d have concerns about with the cameras and the computer. I hope he sees as bright a future for himself as I see for him. We had a few more hugs at the house and then he was gone. The first good-bye of many. I was hoping my heart would hold up as there have been several good-byes in my life recently and loss is something I never deal with well.

Tuesday night, Judit was singing in a school performance at five o’clock. Ilonka, the Nevelok whose house I’ve been staying in, walked with me, Ishti, Mozes and Judit. The classroom was buzzing loudly with kids yelling, running wild and boys and girls hitting each other in that flirtatious way nine-year-olds do.

The children took their places and a triangle ding signaled their cue to start singing. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand the words; their angelic voices, mistakes and giggles spoke directly to my heart. I videotaped them like a proud parent would do. At the end of the performance the girls walked around the classroom offering a tray of small crackers and plastic cups of orange soda. They smile and look everyone in the eyes and don’t miss one person in their offering. I take a cracker from each tray, having learned from when they offered me candy they really wanted me to take it.

A few more hugs to kids I’ve laughed with, comforted and walked hand in hand with over the past few weeks and then I went to decompress at Apol, the pizza place I frequented, and lost myself in facebook before going back to the house to start packing.

Wednesday was the day I’d be saying good-bye to the rest of the kids at the house and that night I was planning on visiting with Sabi and the kids at the St. Francis house to say farewell.

Judit was especially needy on Wednesday, knowing this would be our last time together. She wanted me to play with her like I do with five-year-old Mozes who climbs all over me, but she doesn’t realize her strength, size and age are not conducive to that kind of play. It becomes bothersome and Lorkia scolds her.

Enco came to the house in the afternoon to steal me away for an exit interview at Szekely Fogado where there were a group of Romanian businessmen drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Enco commented she knew they were drunk because they started hugging and kissing one another. Harghita county is mostly a Hungarian population and there’s a bit of criticism toward the way the Romanian government works, or in many cases, doesn’t.

The afternoon was spent baking cookies and much to my surprise, Lorkia was the one to take over the activity to the point of shooing the young ones away; not even allowing them to sprinkle red and green sugar on the cookies, so they just filled spoons with sugar and ate it, respecting Lorika’s authority. I felt badly for the kids but didn’t want to contradict Lorika’s admonitions to them. At fourteen, he’s sort of the man of the house and I wanted him to feel some autonomy in the activity.

With very little guidance from me, he rolled out the dough, floured the rolling pin, flipped over the dough and pressed the cookie cutters precisely before lifting the fragile dough to place in exact positions on the makeshift baking sheet to be placed in an oven that has one temperature; hot.

Lorika has all the qualities to make a great baker, meticulous, detailed, organized, precise and he takes pride in his work. I want to send him a book on baking and I imagine him in the future in culinary school. There are so many possibilities for these kids but they will most likely have to leave Romania to achieve them. The country is economically depressed and many young adults are leaving the country to find work.

The kitchen started to get that nice buttery sweet smell which lured the young ones into the kitchen as I slid the cookies onto a tray with a knife. Judit reached for one and like a strict father, Lorika looked sternly at her barking, “Nem!” You can gather that means, no.

I would have let them get covered in dough and eat the cookies fresh out of the oven. When Lorika left the kitchen for a moment, I covered my eyes as Judit reached for a cookie with a hopeful look in her eye and a big grin.

When most of the cookies were stacked in neat little piles of matching shapes on the tray, Lorika finally gave the okay to eat them. Forty cookies were all gone in a matter of minutes.

With a few scraps of dough left, I invited Mozes, Ishti, Felix and Judit to roll the dough and press the cookie cutters. They sprinkled the dough with flour and too much sugar and Judit ate it raw.

It was tough to break away from them that evening. We had our final hugs and as I walked outside toward the gate, tears filled my eyes and that familiar nausea I had before I left for Romania returned.

Laci came running out the door with a ¼ full bottle of water I’d left behind and lingered for one more hug. I trudged up the hill attempting to quicken my pace to get to the St. Francis house, it was already nine p.m. and the younger kids would probably already be in bed.

The front door of the St. Francis house was locked. I had no choice but to head back to the house. The clanking and high pitched whistle of the train that used to make me think of how quaint Tusnad was, now sounded like a sad call that it was time for me to move on.

That night I dreamt about my mother dying. She has in fact been gone since 1991 and I don’t often dream about her dying. In this dream she had been ill and had survived many years beyond her prognosis but she finally succumbed. My brother and I were making arrangements for her service by the sea. We threw bouquets of flowers onto a hillside and then walked to a dock where her casket would be released into the ocean. There were children present and I didn’t want them to see the reality of death. My brother and I stood on the dockside of a tall gated wooden fence built high enough that the children couldn’t see the release of the casket into the water.

That morning after getting dressed and packing the last few items, I headed over to the St. Francis house where I was grateful to have breakfast of sliced meat on buttered bread with Sabi and a few of his boys. One last kid grabbed my hand and sent me on my way with a full but saddened heart.

Enco had arranged for someone to pick me up at Ilonka’s house to drive me a few hours over the Carpathian mountains to the town of Sighisoara where I’d spend one night before heading to the airport in Targu Mures on Friday, the 24th.

As we drove up and over the mountain pass the sun emerged and the distance between the little town of Baile Tusnad and my secure feeling while there was growing.

I just had to keep looking and moving forward even though I am drawn to the safety of the past.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Running With Scissors

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Monday morning leaving the house at 6:45 a.m. was the coldest it’s been since I’ve been here; -4 (F). It was the kind of cold where you can feel your nostril hair stiffening as you breathe in. Before I joined the kids for the breakfast of sliced meat on bread and luke warm fruit tea, I opened the storage room door for ‘Terra’, the dog. No one had let her out that morning and there was poop right by the door.

I’ve been trying not to sound like a crazy nag about the dog, but it’s really hard. They feed her bread for breakfast if they remember and I’ve seen one Nevelok gently kick her from the front door. I have to keep telling myself at least she has a home and is off the streets but I can’t help but think how different Terra’s life would be in LA. She’d have a special dog bed inside the house, the best nutritional food, chew toys, squeaky toys and cute reindeer antlers on her head for Christmas pictures.

Of course the same could be said for the kids, minus the antlers for pictures. However, while there are too many children under government care, I do think they at least have stability, education and a network of charitable organizations that provide monetary support and one on one support through groups like Mondo Challenge, the organization I went through. The kids will be getting Christmas presents from sponsors and in the summer there will be up to twenty-five volunteers coming through to spend time with the various group homes.

Walking to school, Mr. Independent, Mozes, actually waited for me at the curb to grab his hand before crossing the street to drop him off at nursery school. Ishti and Judit held my hands the rest of the way to their school and Felix is always close by even though he’s closer in age to the older boys, Lorika, Laci and Barni who always run ahead as teenagers will do.

The afternoon is filled with the older kids playing Halo, Plants vs. Zombies and Stuntmania, games I downloaded for them. I even find myself playing Plants vs. Zombies at night to decompress from the day.

At four-thirty I hurried to the Tusnad Hotel to the Spa area where I was hoping to have another massage but the thick choking cigarette smoke coming from the massage area and the two prickly bearded men producing the smoke indicated I was too late. “No, no.” was what the auburn haired woman said as I slightly pushed open the door asking for, “massage?”

I took my aches and pains to the St. Francis house where I wanted to lose myself in service. They had a Christmas gathering where the kids got to see the tree and presents donated by sponsors were given out to all the children. The air was electric, the house reverberated with laughter, no echoes of sobbing that night. I surrendered to the chaos, and let it guide me.

I was literally pulled, physically, quite strongly by the group of girls who I’d spent time with before. They were unsupervised at the moment and Bobbi, a fair skinned raven-haired girl with bangs was literally running with scissors. When I managed to get them away from her within minutes I saw her chasing another girl with scissors, threatening to cut her hair. I took that pair away from her and then saw her yet again with another pair that she held open in defiance to her own throat as I tried to grab them from her. She chased after girls using both hands to open and close the scissors quickly at the backs of their heads.

One girl emerged in tears holding a piece of her hair that Bobbi had cut. I had three pairs of scissors in my back pocket as I went to meet the Nevelok coming up the stairs and in broken communication, informed her of what I can only assume was not an isolated incident.

That night, the house reminded me of a dormitory but full of little kids, many of them raising each other. I could see the effect on the children of being in institutionalized care. Some of them exhibit sexualized behavior, they are overly clingy, groping for attention and affection. They hit and slap each other and have too much unsupervised time.

I helped Sabi and Angnes with some ironing as the boys watched movies and used my computer. The boys would eat dinner in their own quad that night and I helped carry plates and a dish of sour cream sauce up to what was Peter’s group, now Ava’s.

I met the infamous, T.B. (Tibor) when he came into the boys room to take pictures. He was younger and less mean looking than I imagined him to be. In fact, he seemed quite pleasant as he took pictures of the kids sitting at their dining table where a large bowl of stuffed cabbage was steaming. The boys ate by candlelight that night and I got video of them saying their Rub a dub-dub prayers to send to Peter.

I help clear dishes and bring them downstairs to the kitchen where the scene was loud and chaotic with clanging plates and squealing children running all over the place with bags of candy. Many of them stuff candy into my pockets and say, “please?” as they offer me wrapped candy. It’s no use to say no, they are relentless and I’m touched at how these children with so little are so willing to share what they do have.

I didn’t want to leave the festive environment, but all the Nevelok and Tibor were spending some celebratory time together in the dining room and I felt like an outsider. As I started to put my coat on, Belag, another Nevelok, invited me to stay for hot wine. I was thankful for the invitation, feeling a bit orphaned myself, it was nice to be welcomed.

The room filled with twenty or so Nevelok once they put their groups of kids to bed and we all sat around, sipping hot wine, smiling, laughing and embracing the warmth of connection.

Tibor carried in bags of gifts to give out to his employees and volunteers and I was shocked to be the first one he placed a bag in front of. It was a small bag of sweet treats and I know it wasn’t planned because he had no idea who I was before that evening. That’s what made his gesture so considerate. I felt guilty for judging him but then again I don’t have to work for him.

I was smiling on the walk home and stopped to take in the bright moon glistening on the snow in this little village that I have become so fond of and hope to return to one day.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pizza In The City

Monday December 20, 2010

On Saturday I took the kids into the town of Miercurea Ciuc, which I can kind of pronounce now. It’s a half hour away by train and where locals in Tusnad would travel if they want to buy fresh meat or poultry. Many of the families in the smaller villages slaughter their own animals and in fact, Saturday was the day many of them killed the pig. When I saw Enco Sunday afternoon she was complaining of how sore her arms were from making sausages and cutting up the meat from the pig.

The morning Nevelok helped purchase the train tickets once the attendant finally arrived at the window after my loud rapping on the glass. He seemed to be having words with the Nevelok and I was getting the translation from Enco on the phone that he didn’t want to allow Ishti and Mozes, who are five and entitled to ride for free, to board without paying for a ticket. So, we all got tickets and waited for the train, stomping our feet in an effort to keep the circulation going.

Lorika, the fourteen year-old, had been into town a few weeks prior, but the younger kids seemed pretty fascinated with the passing landscape from the smeared train window that brought us into town.

Once there we waited in the train station for two local students who would act as translators for us. Barni and Ishti chased pigeons while Mozes became curious about the two homeless men slumped over a radiator. We walked to the main square of the city and went in to a very small indoor shopping area, reminiscent of a flea market set-up with various vendor stalls, to warm up before going back out to look at the large decorated Christmas tree.

The translators seemed a bit bored or unenthused about being there and I had to constantly ask them what the kids were saying and kept reminding them this was the only time I’ve been able to understand what they were saying, but I think my plea fell upon deaf ears.

The kids entertained themselves with the small shop windows displaying toys made in China or playing with either of the two cameras before we headed to Bandido’s Mexican restaurant for pizza.

I was finding myself a little moody both from the lack of translation from the students and from the thoughts of my return ‘home’, whatever that looks like now. I’ve been in a protective bubble here, far away from pain, but I can’t stay here forever and I’m having some anxiety about returning. Reality has even invaded my dream world, the peaceful sleep I’ve been having has reverted back to the dreams I was having before I left for Romania.

The patient waitress took our drink order of coca colas and hot chocolate. When Mozes’ hot chocolate was set in front of him his eyes grew big and through translation he said, “Is this all for me?” It was in a big glass and topped with inches of whipped cream, something they don’t see at home I’m sure. I ordered several salads for the table to share knowing that they don’t get many fresh vegetables in their diet. They devoured the greek salad with the exception of the black olives.

The pizza was delicious and the kids ate half a pizza each plus extra slices from a whole pizza I had ordered. After we finished, the younger ones were starting to get restless and I was running after them as they ran through the restaurant, stopped and stared at other tables and played with the automatic hand dryer in the bathroom.

After managing to get them all back to the table I asked if they wanted desert and Barni said, “If you really want to pay for it, we’d love to have it.” They all wanted ice-cream and we ordered four for them to share in pairs of two.

The bill for ten people having sodas, hot chocolate, salads, pizza and desert was 179 Lei equivalent to $55 U.S. dollars. Not a bad way to treat ten people to lunch.

Snow was coming down heavily and we playfully got back to the train station where the translator helped navigate the ticket sales. This time Ishti and Mozes got to ride for free as they should.

We sat in a couchette with a hole in the window where snow came in on the beat up train and listened to songs on my ipod. Barni is the tech gadget kid and has found more features on my phone and camera than I ever knew about.

Back at the house the kids had little patience for a jigsaw puzzle. I was exhausted from the day and headed back home. I’ve become used to the crunch, crunch, squeak, squeak of my footsteps in the snow. I notice how the sound changes depending on how fresh or compacted the snow is. My thoughts keep turning to Thursday when I will begin the journey back home and I wonder how I will say good-bye to these seven children I’ve become so fond of.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Her Name is Ildiko

Friday, December 17, 2010

On Thursday late afternoon I had tomato and noodle soup with Ishti, Felix and Judit. When Judit accidentally dripped a tiny speck of soup on the worn off white tablecloth the Nevelok, who’s name is Ildiko, went into an angry huff, yelling at her for her mistake. The three of them hung their heads low and continued eating in silence.

Not too long after that, Mozes spilled a little of the yellow broth from the potato soup and his eyes widened in fear. I quickly took the bread dish and covered the spill. When Ildiko was roaming from room to room on her cell phone I grabbed a damp cloth and dabbed at the spill. As I was cleaning Judit’s tiny tomato spill, Ildiko turned the corner and saw what I was doing. I wasn’t sure if she was going to yell at me, so I just kept dabbing and slinked into the kitchen. I don’t think she knows I fear her as much as the kids do, she smiles a forced fake grin at me and offers me coffee.

As I say my goodbyes, I can sense their sadness that I’ll be gone for two days and I feel it, too.

I went to the house to pack my backpack for Brasov and Ilonka and Zoltan were around so we ‘chatted’ and had a small glass of Palinka. They showed me more video of the traditional Hungarian dancing and I learned that Ilonka is an instructor and quite famous in Hungary apparently.

It was eleven a.m. when I got to Brasov and found my hotel in the Old Town Square, decorated with a huge Christmas tree and some small wooden shacks selling dried meats, wine and Christmas trinkets.

My room wouldn’t be ready for a while and a restaurant called Sergiano’s was recommended. I felt like I was a grown-up again walking into the exposed brick, well-lit dining space with black and white attired waiters. I’ve been used to my pizza place and Szekely Fogado, both very quaint establishments. When my duck arrived I realized I hadn’t used a knife in a week. It felt good to use that other utensil.

My hotel room with two single beds and a single frayed bath towel, felt like a suite. It was warm, had a great view of the square and the bathroom had one of those amazing towel warmers.

My taxi driver from the train station, John, had given me his number and told me to call him if I wanted to go to Bran Castle. He would take me for $150 Lei, $46 U.S. dollars. I decided to splurge rather than navigate trying to find the bus station and taking the bus thirty miles to the castle.

Bran Castle was empty and I enjoyed walking through the creaky cold rooms imagining what Princess Ileana of Romania did in each room during the summer months when she stayed there. I envisioned her in some gauzy flowing white dress with a bouquet of freshly picked wildflowers ready to be put into a vase and displayed on the table in the outdoor patio dining room used in the summer months.

I saw her skipping merrily in the courtyard like a fairy, bringing joy to those around her.

Most of the rooms had the wood-burning stoves decorated with beautiful sculpted and painted tiles. I don’t know how they got those rooms warm in the winter months. Brasov was colder than Baile Tusnad and it started snowing heavily as I walked down the steep path to the taxi. I hurried past two small puppies playing in the souvenier kiosk area. One puppy is enough to deal with.

My thoughts kept drifting to the kids and what they were doing and whether Ildiko was yelling at them and if they remembered there was a puppy in the storage room.

That evening, I ventured out to a restaurant called Festival 39, a dimly lit, cozy place that played classic 20’s – 40’s music like ‘I wanna be loved by you’ and ‘We’ll meet again’. The paper placemat had a picture of young lovers from the 30’s. Coincidentally, I’d brought paper to write notes on that were Xerox copies of my Great Grandparents, Morris and Sophie Marcus. I arranged their pictures next to the ones on the placemat to photograph. I felt like I’d stepped back in time and experienced a little of what they might have in those early years they were in Iasi, Romania as a young couple.

After dinner I decided to check out an Irish bar in town called Deane’s Irish Pub. A group called Drum Up was on stage. Three energetic and engaging guys had the bar laughing and joining in on the performance. Orlando had a cache of drums, tambourines and congas that he’d hold up over his head until someone came forth to claim the instrument. Eventually, he instructed them in groups and the end result was an amazing percussion performance.

I slept well in my single bed in my warm room and spent most of the morning sitting at the desk on my computer. Later I visited the Black Church, named from a fire in 1689 that destroyed much of the town but only blackened the walls of the Church.

After lunch, I picked up some pastries from a German bakery for the kids and some magazines from the train station kiosk, and then experienced the frustration of dealing with an inconsistent Romanian rail system that Enco had warned me about.

While I was waiting for my train that never arrived, I saw a young scruffy boy carrying a stock pot and a plastic bag with what looked like leftover food inside. He stood on the platform as people were boarding a train. A woman from the train came to the door and called something that sounded like, ‘Pepiloo’ and the boy ran over to take an orange and half a sandwich she handed to him. He scurried back to his pot and put the sandwich in the bag and immediately starting peeling the orange. He finished the orange, leaving the peel behind as he carried his stuff back down the stairs from the train platform.

I had wanted to arrive in Tusnad at six o’clock to have a chance to say good-bye to Peter. As it turned out, I was arriving on the train he was leaving on and as the train slowed in Tusnad, I saw all the children lined up on the stairs above the platform to see Peter off. It wasn’t until I got off the train that I could hear them crying. It was heartbreaking.

Peter was boarding the train, saying his last goodbyes to his group of boys that he basically has parented for the past 2 years. All the other children were standing still, sobbing softly. I hugged Enco who was also in tears, and Sabi who has worked along side Peter for two years.

I don’t know what the mood will be like at the St. Francis house but I heard the director had visitors in from out of town and didn’t want all the kids crying in the hallways. You’d think he’d see the kid’s sadness as a testament to the caliber of caregiver they employ, but he obviously doesn’t see it that way. It’s a good thing T.B. and I have a language barrier because I’d have a few things to say to him.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Filling and a Puppy

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I’d sent Peter an email inquiring about how much the filling would cost for the kid who lost his. I may never raise funds for all the kids to have a dental exam, but I can help this one kid who happened to lose a filling while I’m here. And, if a one-hour massage is under $10.00, how much could one little filling be?

I got to the St. Francis house just as the kids were saying the ‘thanks for the grub’ prayer after dinner. While Peter and I were talking about the dentist I noticed a bit of commotion brewing and then saw a bowl of bananas and what looked like tangerines coming from the kitchen service window. This was the only time I’d seen the kids scrambling for any type of food. Funny how most kids grab for sweets, not fruit.

I was later told by Edit, the English teacher, that in addition to the personality conflicts T.B., the director of the house, has with many in the village, there are serious nutritional concerns for the children as well and many of them get sick from an improper diet.

Peter had also told me after I’d had tap water to drink, that the well for the house is contaminated. A few sips won’t do any harm but I can only hope that future Nevelok and children are advised not to drink it.

Tuesday was ‘bring an American to class’ day. I joined Edit in her four English classes where I recognized many smiling faces from the St. Francis home and ‘my’ kids from the Tusnad house.

I was told I’d be assisting individual kids with their English work during class but it turns out, Edit asked me to just take over the class, talk a bit and maybe do some games. The first class was sixth grade and I was completely unprepared. I felt flushed, like I was actually in the sixth grade again, asked to present something to the class. I know nothing about teaching kids, let alone non-English speaking kids!

Edit introduced me as being from California and prompted me to speak a little bit about where I was from and that took all of ten minutes. She bought me some time by having them sing Jingle Bells and If You’re Happy And You Know It.

Some of the kids wanted to practice the dialogues they’ve been learning which include asking about favorite colors, hobbies, pets, etc. After that exercise I was thinking of questions to ask them as they sat in a circle around me, all I could think was not to ask them typical questions about their parents, favorite toys or foods. I was so afraid I was going to blurt those words out, like if there’s a midget in the room and you concentrate so hard to not say ‘midget’ and then it slips out.

Edit then translated questions they had for me like what was my favorite music, food, animal and the inevitable, “How old are you?” Edit and I shared a knowing laugh and I answered, forty-six. The room filled with Hungarian whispers before Edit translated, “The children say you look much younger.”

I hate to admit that vanity has not escaped me while I’ve been here; it was flattering to hear they thought I looked younger.

The next class I found myself a little more comfortable and during the question and answer time the daughter of massage therapist, who I’d seen at the spa, asked if I wanted another massage. One boy asked which place is better; Romania or California and I said it’s how you feel where you are that matters. The questions ended with how old I was and again I was relieved to hear that they, too, thought I was younger.

In the Eighth grade class I was asked what religion I was. The area is heavily Roman Catholic and I didn’t know how my truthful answer would be received but I said I didn’t practice any formal religion and that I believed in God and felt that God is everywhere. Immediately, Barni, who I’d gone to Church with on Sunday, blurted something out and Edit translated that’s what he believes, too.

At noon, I walked Ishti home and turned around to go get Mr. Independent, Mozes, from Nursery School. He doesn’t like to hold hands while walking and can do everything for himself, until he falls in the snow and needs a brushing off and his mittens put back on.

Back at the house, we played some computer games I downloaded for them. It’s a challenge to get the younger ones to take turns and not slap all the keys on my thankfully sturdy, Mac Book Pro. I think Laci, Barni and Lorika enjoyed the mystery game they played, and even the Plants vs. Zombies game proved entertaining for all ages.

That morning, Felix had asked me if I would come get him from school at four o’clock when he was done with Judo. The Nevelok was scoffing at the idea of my going to get him because of his age, but I wanted to.

But it was on the walk home that I was really, seriously challenged. A small helpless adorable puppy came running, as best it could, through the snow, in the street, on the sidewalk and right over to me.

It was shivering and wagging its stumpy tail at the same time while grunting pitifully. I made the mistake of picking it up. Most of you know how I am with animals. This was a challenge. It’s heart breaking enough to see all the adult dogs running wild, but to see a small helpless puppy was just too much.

I thought of bringing it to the Romanian Church but Felix’s eyes grew wide in apprehension at my gesture of holding the puppy toward the Church gates.

I had no choice but to put the puppy back down in the snow. It nearly killed me to do so, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I’m in a village that has no regard for strays, seemingly no spay and neuter program, and I’m dealing with a huge language barrier. I hoped for the best and watched as he followed a young couple up the sidewalk and I didn’t look back. In my fantasy, they took him in and he will have a good life.

Later that afternoon, Felix, Judit and Mozes and I were playing computer games when all of a sudden the scary Nevelok abruptly came in and yelled at them. She made them get off the couch and arranged three stools for them to sit on facing the couch. I stood up waiting for my instructions but she left me alone for a moment. Just as I went to sit down she grabbed my arm and pulled me toward another end of the couch where she smiled and pushed my shoulders down, “sit!” And I did. We waited for her to leave the room and looked at one another trying to figure out what happened. When I patted on the couch for Mozes to join me he shook his head ‘no’, obviously in fear of the tempermental Nevelok.

On Wednesday I walked the kids to school and the plan was for me to join Edit in her English classes from nine o’clock until one o’clock when I walk the kids home.

In the teacher’s room, Edit was visibly upset. Her little girl was sick with a fever and she needed to leave to take her to the Doctor. She taught her nine o’clock class and then asked me if I would take her third grade class. She had some Christmas crossword puzzle for them to work on and I’d brought my computer with a slideshow of pictures from home.

I entered the class full of smiling faces and girls patting the chairs next to them, pleading, “Patti, Patti,” inviting me to sit next to them.

They loved seeing the pictures and I was able to help them with the crossword puzzle. Toward the end of class is when the girls started braiding my hair and one by one they all gave me their Christmas tree drawings. I think that will be my most treasured gift this holiday.

I grabbed a quick bite to eat an was heading back to school to pick up Ishti and Judit when all of a sudden who do I see but that damn puppy. Only now his shivering is much worse and I’m afraid he’s going to freeze to death. I scoop him up in my arms and recall hearing there was a woman in one of the nearby shops who feeds the stray dogs. A frail long-toothed woman opened the door to a second hand store and I tried to communicate the dog will die if it doesn’t get out of the weather. She makes a sweet face at the dog and I gather from what she says that she has too many dogs already.

I carry the puppy to the school where all the kids gather around and pet him. I’m trying desperately to let them know he needs a home and he’ll die if he stays out in the cold much longer. The kids smile and keep petting him and eventually it’s just the puppy, me, Ishti and Judit and we’re late to pick up Mozes.

At Mozes’s nursery school I decide to call Enco for help. I can’t return the puppy to the streets and I start thinking of how I can get him vaccinated and documented before my return trip home. Enco tells me to bring the puppy to the house and we’ll figure it out later. Relief.

I assume bringing the puppy to the house means ‘in’ the house, but the Nevelok made me put him in a cold storage room; still better than where he was.

When I talked to Enco later, she said the puppy has a home for Christmas. I was shocked. So my silly idea of placing stray dogs with the orphanage homes has already worked! And maybe it will just be that one dog in that one house, and that’s fine.

Felix was excited and surprised to not only see the puppy again but to know they get to keep it. And, ‘he’ turned out to be a ‘she’. I’m curious what they’ll name her. I heard Rexi getting tossed around, but with seven of them to agree on a name it may be a few days before they decide.

That night I went to the St. Francis House and Peter told me he spoke with the dentist and the boy had an appointment for Thursday morning. Total cost for the filling, $60 Lei. Best $19.00 U.S. dollars I ever spent.