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All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

A walking tour in Bucharest (or thoughts on making friends with temporary colleagues)

Bucharest

Bucharest, August

It’s hot and I’m sweaty. My legs and arms are covered in bites. I’m used to bites that swell momentarily, and then disappear, but perhaps it’s the foreign insects, or perhaps it’s the foreign heat, but these are less helpful. They itch, breaking my resolve to meditate without fidgeting. I downgrade my ambitions of serene perfection for vaguely keeping my eyes shut most of the time. I didn’t even bother this morning. Not that I’ve had much time. I woke too late. And made a mad dash to be at the University Square for eleven.

The kind guy also living in this apartment made me coffee. It was strong. I added more boiling water and tried to gup it down when I should have added cold.

I arrive with a few minutes to spare. My tour companions are a mix. The guide herself (Walkabout Tours) was excellent. Easily one of the best walking tour guides I’ve had. She was bubbly and professional. Amazingly, somehow, she managed not to look too upset at our inability to really gel as a group and laugh or ask questions. We’d met each other at the same time as we had met her, as strangers, but were fast trying to form bonds as we knew we were working together for the next week. In practice, we’re wary of each other.

When you’re with travellers who have spent just a month or two away, there’s often an over-enthusiasm with the desperate need to be friends. You’ve been travelling long enough to actually miss home, and long enough that the people back home don’t really get what you’re doing. You feel disconnected and alone. In its own way, it’s quite adorable. With travellers who are perhaps a little older and have travelled longer, there’s often a more cautious approach. Despite the difficulties, you’ve worked out that loneliness is manageable and new people (like sugar or alcohol) are merely a distraction that perhaps makes you feel momentarily better. I know this is stereotyping, and just a generalisation, but it’s also a safe assumption.

We act knowing that in a week we’ll all say goodbye. Be wary of commitment now, and you’ll find it easier to carve out your own space later in the week and easier to admit the truth which is that friends here are friends for now (which is not bad – just something to be aware of).

As a side note, although I say this, I do stay in regular contact with a number of people who I’ve worked with, either in teaching, being an au pair, or in the case of the Finnish Photographer, carpentry.

On this tour though, ambling through the streets of Bucharest when most of the population is wisely indoors, we’re all English Teachers. It’s a weird social mix. Most people have already done a program like this one we’re doing together, typically in Poland where Angloville, the organising company is based. There are more men than women. The age range is a little younger than me to older than my parents. I’m comforted by the variety. Americans, Canadians, Australians, a chap from New Zealand, a guy who lives in Switzerland, another lass from Yorkshire – we make an odd bunch, but I enjoy the company and conversation.

As we walk the streets of Bucharest, we learn about hidden, relocated churches; a revolution sculpture nicknamed the potato; the reconstruction of buildings post-communism; the area known as little Paris (influenced by a little brother relationship with the French post-independence); the palace of telecommunications (the post office); an alley decorated by umbrellas hanging above, giving a gentle respite from the sun; and we eat lunch.

And in a short few hours, I find myself belonging to something.

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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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Lessons from a not-so-little mermaid (why being a teenager sucks)

The Little Mermaid and I walk to the library to collect some pre-ordered books on the history of fashion. It’s bright sunshine, and I’m happy in my skirt and strap top, but she’s wishing that she’d worn something other than jeans. One of us has been lounging out in the garden and knows what the weather is doing today.

We pass the tennis court, where younger children are batting balls across the net, and flying paper planes. We talk, or rather she tells and I prompt and somehow despite working around the age gap and that weird sense of being family so knowing each other (and in odd ways being rather similar) whilst knowing nothing of each other we manage to get along.

She’s surviving the summer holiday; I’m having an education.

It strikes me that I assume all teenagers are teenagers like I remember from school. In my mind, they’re bigger. Furthermore, I assume schools are pretty much all the same – they’re not. The Little Mermaid has a locker and is encouraged to take a photograph of her homework assignments with her smartphone. I try and explain to her a Nokia 3310. She’s amazed at the idea of a phone without colour. It appears I’ve become one of those old people who grew up without modern technology.

I try and explain that we could do more than text. We had MSN messenger (the easiest way to put a virus on the computer). Surprisingly, she’s heard of MSN. It makes an amusing line in a very old French textbook. I learn a new word – télécharger (to download) – is how French textbook characters acquire music. The Little Mermaid is worried about the character’s ethics.

She’s also worried about me walking out in front of a car. She’s got that whole ‘stop, look, listen, live’ thing memorised whereas I’m still trying to shake of the influence of Cairo. That said, when she moves, she strides with purpose. I’m the one having to speed up to keep up.

Yesterday we visited an art gallery and saw some Wedgewood pots, some pre-Raphaelite paintings and some Japanese prints. She liked the painting of a goat and another in which a young woman was begging a soldier not to go to war. I liked one where an almond tree turns into a woman vexed with the inattention of her beloved. The young man looks quite taken aback by the ordeal.

I learn that being a teenager is hard work. Wearing the right clothes matters. As does having the right (read bountifully liked) social media. The most important thing is not to be trying too hard to be someone else. You must be authentically you AND on trend. There’s peer pressure, but also pressure from an abundance of very young celebrities. These are people achieving stuff right now. Or at least, having their picture taken lots.

My mind thinks of Einstein’s achievements at my age, and I say nothing.

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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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