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Unravelling the story I'm trying to tell

Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker

Sheep herding, Romania

When friends in England were mastering the latest computer technology, I was learning to mow. ‘This’, as I wrote to a friend, ‘is what I call progress.’

On a hill, just outside an old Romanian village, I’m sprawled out on the sofa, reading Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker. I giggle causing my friend to glance up from his own book. This is what happens when you’re reading a tale of an Eton educated Brit falling – quite haphazardly – in love with Romania in the 90’s and its peoples. You laugh at the absurdities.

I had found myself uncomfortable with the fact that I knew nothing about Romania, especially since I was going to be spending so much time talking with Romanians, so I loaded Along the Enchanted Way onto my e-book reader and began to learn.

There’s something special about reading about the land you actually see when you look out of the window. I read Victoria Hislop’s The Island, when I visited the island of Spinalonga – an old Greek leper colony – and the mixture of reading and seeing had convinced me of this fact. As the sun peeked up over the hills of Romania, I passed the goats, heard the donkey braying, saw the sheep being herded down the road, saw the women chasing their cows with their sticks, saw the stacks of hay in each garden, alongside rows of bold red tomatoes. At lunch time I lay on the sofa and read about what I was seeing.

On our first evening in the countryside, we were warned, strenuously, to keep to the path, beware of the sheep dogs which won’t hesitate if they think you’re trespassing on their flock’s territory. I nodded convinced, I’d read about how these dogs are trained to hold their line if wolves attack. I’d learnt that a herd of horses can keep off wolves over night by putting their heads together to form a circle and using their hind legs to kick out. I’d learnt how the dogs were trained to position themselves around the flock, with the shepherd in the middle to coordinate their aggressive defense.

I read about tensions between populations (Saxons, Romanians, Hungarians, Romani Gypsies) and love and history and tradition, and I listened, because all around me were Romanians speaking of Romania. The primary and secondary evidence educating me with a complete visual, kinesthetic and auditory experience. We drank milk brought up fresh from the village, and bought watermelon from the van which passed by calling, “Pepene, pepene!”

I delighted in it all. The book itself is an entertaining read, brought to life for me by the colour of the people I lived beside.

 

Additional reading: Prince Charles and the Half-Gypsy Kid

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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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