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A Romanian plait with green and gold ribbons

When Francesca and I looked at photos together, she saw a picture of me with my hair plaited. If there is a god, he was feeling very generous when he gave me my hair. It’s dark, strong and grows long easily. Francesca loved my hair, and seeing me with it flowing around my shoulders one morning asked if she could plait it. I, of course, said yes. Francesca brought out grips and ribbons and before long her gentle fingers had weaved my hair into a colourful display. I felt like I should be skipping some folk dance.

The plait that she saw in the photo we looked at was streaked with gold. My hair – which I almost always wear up – is easily bleached in the sun. (A fact which amazed the black haired Egyptian women I befriended when I was in Cairo.) It’s a natural gift.

“Who did your hair there?” Francesca asked pointing at the photo.

“Me.”

“But who plaited it?”

“I plaited it.”

She looked at me, as if trying to work out whether what she heard was right.

“How?”

Because Francesca comes from a world where girls plaited each other’s hair, where mothers taught daughters, and where you’d help your sisters and friends. Ribbons were shared freely. Me however, I taught myself to plait my hair because generally, there’s nobody to do it for me. And what’s more, if you wanted me to plait your hair, I’d struggle. I just don’t know how.

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An Art Workshop in Rural Romania

The teenage girls hug and kiss me before I’m allowed to leave. They’re excitable, trying to outdo each other in their displays of affection. I’ve known them only a few hours, and I can count the words most of them have managed to say to me on one hand.

There’s one girl though, A, she’s eighteen, and a little more reserved. She wants to be a photographer, and she shows me some pictures on her phone, including a beautiful portrait taken by her older brother. He’s her role model.

This girl comes from a village in rural Romania. Although it’s in the school curriculum, children in rural areas rarely get to do art in school. If they want to do art, they must provide their own material, and these girls cannot afford paints. Indeed, when this series of art workshops began, the children stole the half-used tubes of acrylic paint and battered brushes. It took time for them to understand that the paints were theirs, but needed to be kept together to be used.

We painted together all morning, creating an elaborate entrance for the festivities that mark the start of the school year.

The building we’re houses in is crumbling in places. It was once a small part of a large compound which was owned by a rich man (the main building is architecturally beautiful, albeit wrecked now). The rich man gambled the property away. Communism happened. The window frames were stolen away for fire wood, and the stone to build homes. There are decorative flowers made of sliced toilet rolls on the walls of the studio.

We pause for a break, and A invites me to accompany her to the ‘magasin’, the village shop. She explains the compound, points out the building that was once a hospital and takes care to guide me across the road. All this she does in broken English. She asks if I have a boyfriend, husband, baby. She has a boyfriend, he’s being a bit of a jerk.

We reach the shop and she buys me a bottle of water. I don’t need a bottle of water, and I feel bad for this girl who has comparatively so little buying me a drink. I can’t however say no, as I quickly realise that the entire purpose of the walk is to make sure I have something because I am a guest and this is Romania where people go out of their way to help.

Before I leave, one of the adults who speaks only a few words of England grabs me for a photo, and then makes my friend translate for her something dear to her heart. Romanians, she says, are not gypsies. She echoes a sentiment that many Romanians have stressed to me. The semi-nomadic Romani (the gypsies) and the Romanians are two distinct people. They’re physically different and culturally different, and when you’re understanding Romania you have to understand this difference.

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I know nothing about Romania

That is, I didn’t know anything until an hour ago, when I spoke with a lady I’ll be staying with while I’m there and had my first impromptu lesson in Romanian. I didn’t know that Romanian was a Latin-based language. Eu sunt din Anglia. So learning that it is made me smile. I might sometimes struggle to differentiate between my romance languages, but I can give their words a better guess than any slavic language.

Apparently, Prince Charles is a big fan of Transylvania. They have bears and some of the last true wilderness of Europe. And from my chat with my host, I get the feeling that I might be learning about folk music and dancing. Two weeks is not going to be enough, but it’s what I’ve got.

When you have an initial conversation with a host they have lots of questions. They’re doing a risk assessment (as are you). You both want to know that the other person is willing to be generous with their time and interest and isn’t going to cause you any trouble. When I travel somewhere, I want to stay with people who have a desire to share their lives with me. People who are willing to tell me about their opinions and experiences.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about where we get our ideas of ‘should’ and ‘ought’ from. We inherit our norms from our parents and the culture we ourselves live in. My logic therefor goes that unless we experience other cultures and ideas to compare our own norms with, we’re accepting our own blindly.

This cultural difference can exist even between neighbours. Consider how your family goes about having dinner on a Sunday. For much of the world, Sunday is just another working day. For some, like my host family in France, Sunday is special, defined by a mid-morning mass, followed to a trip to the bakery for treats. The children drink watered down wine.

I love witnessing this variety. The knowledge of how other people live their lives gives me a freedom, a choice of how to live my own.

Now to add a welcoming Romanian family to the mix who have recommended the following documentary:

 

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Why I prioritise learning to listen

Poland, Teaching English

Stepping out of normal life, to be somewhere remote and just listen. It can be kind of special.

The Grandmother asked why would I want to go to Romania, a country I know nothing of, and do nothing for a week but converse with people who want to learn my language.

It’s hard to explain because it doesn’t tick the typical list of priorities that people have for their lives. I get a qualification, yes, but that’s kind of just a bonus. It’s not going to lead to a career, I love teaching English occasionally, but my ambition isn’t to be an English teacher.

It’s not just me though. In Poland, the woman I shared a room with had flown there from Canada. Not a girl in her twenties, a woman with a house and grown children. She wasn’t paid, she didn’t get an exchange of a qualification. She just wanted to spend her time listening to these people who were in the process of trying to change their lives.

Which is what I enjoy about it.

Some of the participants in Poland were people whose work had paid for their place and encouraged them to partake but a significant proportion had paid for themselves. Public speaking is terrifying to most people anyway, and speaking a foreign language which you know you’re not fluent in to a group of strangers takes some incredible nerve. At the end of the week every participant gives a presentation in English. You don’t turn up for a week of English immersion just because your boss thought it was a good idea. You can’t learn a language if you aren’t willing to commit to it. It takes guts.

There are many reasons people want to learn English, that as a native English speaker we take for granted. International business demands it. Travel is easier with it. Sales wants it. Machine manuals and health and safety documentation are written in it. There was a determination from those fed up of struggling through meetings in English, or having to have information translated.These were people who wanted to make change happen. If you speak English, you can have more influence.

One woman I met worked in a Polish only role in the lower levels of a big international company. When the chief executive gave speeches and talked about the company in English, she wanted to understand. She wanted to know what was going on. She cared.

Another oversaw implementing the health and safety requirements from a non-Polish parent company, and wanted to improve her English because she needed to convey Polish law and Polish health and safety requirements to the parent company in a manner which they could understand. Somehow she was going to make them listen.

And what about a grandmother learning to speak her grandchildren’s first language.

Or an office-worker who wanted to travel.

Or, one of my favourites, a woman training to be a coach. As the best textbooks on coaching are predominantly in English decided that she was going to learn to read them.

It’s an odd combination. You spend all day, everyday listening and talking. People open up.

Complete strangers sit and talk authentically and freely about anything on their mind: crumbling relationships, aspirations for their businesses, family, depression, death, neighbours, improvisational theatre, teenage drinking, moving to a foreign country, or the ordeal of having their son’s girlfriend to visit for the first time.

You learn more about a persons hopes and dreams in one week than you learn about many people you see regularly over years.

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A Polish bedtime story

I sit across the table from an older Polish man. He’s one of those people who stands out. There’s something beautifully genuine about him, but there’s also something unsettling in his haphazard coordination, jolting manner, frequent bursts of loud speech and the terrifying sincerity about his message. He’s one of those people who exhibit an odd unpredictability. He’s not quite aware of how he’s being interpreted, and is hurt easily because he doesn’t quite understand why people react the way they do. He’s difficult to converse with. If he started talking to you on the train, you’d feel uneasy.

He tells me about his life being full of sharp ups and downs, and he recommends the books and authors who gave him something to believe in when he wasn’t sure that he had anything at all. I listen, take notes and ask questions. Occasionally I correct his English.

And he shows me this video:

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Poland in the fog (near Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains)

Thursday afternoon and a free hour. My camera’s neglected, tucked amongst my belongings, under timetables, notebooks and scenario guides. I’m teaching English, constantly conversing and I’m exhausted. I’m scared because in only a few days I’ll be going home, and I have many things waiting for me when I get back which threaten to overwhelm me.

I contemplate sleep or reading. There’s a swimming pool downstairs, but I’ve only an hour.

Instead I pick up my camera and walk along the road to the church. Normally you can see the church from my bedroom window, but the fog here is too thick to see anything. Outside I follow the road. It’s straight and I can’t get lost. I watch for cars with a certain terror – ready to dive into the field should one come along because I know they’ll hit me before they see me.

The fog makes it impossible to focus. It’s not just the camera, but my eyes which relax then contract again and again, quite unhappily. I’m working hard just to see, struggling although I know resolving the far off streetlight or stone wall is impossible.

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