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Sam and Noelle LeBlanc in the Peace Corps in Romania
Sam and Noelle LeBlanc in the Peace Corps in Romania
THE LEBLANCS OF ROMANIA
Sam and Noelle in the Peace Corps
By Sam LeBlanc
Editor’s note: Sam and Noelle LeBlanc were one of New Orleans’ most prominent and powerful couples. He practiced law at the prestigious firm of Adams and Reese; he was also a state legislator, a runoff candidate for mayor and chairman of the New Orleans-area Chamber of Commerce. She was a local activist and, under Gov. Dave Treen, state secretary of culture and tourism. Their glamorous, art-filled condominium in the Warehouse District has been featured in magazines. Earlier this spring, the couple boxed their belongings and headed for eastern Europe, where they began living the spartan existence of Peace Corps volunteer trainees. With their training complete, the couple will begin a two-year stint helping Romanians rebuild their communities. During their training, Sam LeBlanc wrote this report.
Dinner in Romania is a treat. Breakfast is another story. It’s not a breakfast we’re used to. Romanians, for the most part, don’t even eat breakfast. But our gazda (host) family, the Beldimans – with whom we are living for our 10 weeks of Peace Corps pre-service training, want to treat us right. We get the staples of the country: bread, cascaval (cheese), salami and coffee. Every day. It is filling, however. And it’s freezing cold outside – we need a good base in our tummies, so we eat. We also pack lunch: salami, cascaval and bread.
The walk to town is almost 2 miles. Because of the cold, we wrap up like Russians and head out. At the third block, Noelle does a half gainer on the icy sidewalk we traverse every day. I try to catch her, but she’s too fast, and she pancakes on the slab of ice. "Luneca!" (Slippery ice: Watch it!) The cushioning of her clothes prevents any injury. With the practice she gets from doing this most mornings, the only damage is to her ego, when occasionally she slides to a stop in the manure left by a local horse-drawn wagon. Not to worry. Valenii de Munte, where we are living as part of the "community-based training," is a small town. We don’t need to feel embarrassed, even though every one of the town’s 10,000 residents knows we are two of the Americans living here. Indeed, they like us. The Romanians, as we quickly learn, are hospitable and friendly.
We skate on past the Liceul Agromonton high school, where on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays we are subjected to an immersion class in limba Romana for four straight hours, without even a break for lunch. Ordinarily we would finish class, meet folks and practice our language skills, work with the other six volunteers living in Valenii on our community project, go home, eat ciorbaciorba (a type of gumbo) with our gazda family, study and then plop in bed, exhausted. Today, we continue toward the MaxiTaxi Station for our weekly two-day jaunt to Ploiesti, a larger town about 20 miles away. There, at the HUB training center, all 36 members of Peace Corps Group 16 will come in from the communities where they live and congregate for group training sessions.
During our walk, we are joined by Bob, a Texan our age who says he hasn’t had a "movement" since we left Chicago three weeks ago. The fried cheese sandwiches his gazda makes for him don’t seem to provide enough roughage. We discussed this yesterday with Jean, a former United Way executive from Seattle, who is in our language class. She said she has no problem because the tuica (home-brewed brandy) she gets from her gazda at breakfast probably cleans her intestinal tract. This, of course, is a joke because she waters the plants with the alcohol when her gazda isn’t looking.
In 45 minutes, we are at the MaxiTaxi station. We meet the other five members, the younger contingent, of our Valenii group and our two language instructors for the trip to Ploiesti. The MaxiTaxi is the preferred method of travel in Romania for those without cars. (Most Romanians don’t own cars. About 98 percent of those who do drive a Dacia, a national brand created by the former communist regime.) Peace Corps volunteers can neither own nor drive a motorized vehicle while in service, so we must go with the flow. The MaxiTaxis are vans running a regular route on quasi-regular schedules. While reliable, there are some discomforting features. One: Despite the number of available seats – usually around 15 – the only limit on the number of passengers is the cubic space available. This does not bode well for Noelle, who is claustrophobic. Two: Romanians fear the curent, any type of crosswind, because of a firm conviction that fresh air will cause illness. So this morning, while the weather is cold outside, inside there are about 28 bodies, the windows are closed, and the heater is blasting away. It is about 35 degrees Celsius (that’s 102 degrees Fahrenheit). And the ambient air-stench quality leaves something to be desired.
The worst thing is the driver’s death-defying tactics. The ride resembles the Indy 500. The driver is trying to pass every horse cart, Dacia and truck on the narrow two-lane road to Ploiesti so he can make another revenue-producing round trip. Closing our eyes to avoid heart-pumping surges of panic, we believe we are making good time. Alas, we have to stop for a flock of sheep. We arrive a little late.
From the MaxiTaxi station, we grab a taxi. We have learned that if four of us take a cab to our training site and split the cost – about 80 cents total – it is as cheap as it would be for us to take the bus. Most importantly, we can avoid the fate of Bethany and Andy, a young married couple who last week bought a book of bus tickets to save money. Not knowing of an unannounced, overnight price hike, they used two of the tickets. A "controller" accosted them on the bus and screamed Romanian phrases at them, which they did not understand. Finally, a kindly English-speaking passenger explained the problem. Andy offered to pay the 20-cent difference between the two ticket prices, but the controller said it was too late. He demanded a $10 fine (two days’ Peace Corps salary) from each of them, in cash, on the spot. There was a chorus of support from the Romanians on the bus telling the controller to back off, but he stood fast. Being a good volunteer and following the Peace Corps training on cross-cultural sensitivity, Andy thought it better to pay and move on.
We decide to go in our overheated taxi.
Most of Group 16 is already there attending the first session, on safe sex. Noelle and I aren’t especially concerned about being a tad late for this particular session, nor do we think we’ll need the supply of balloons during the next two years, except to decorate our living quarters on holidays and such. After the session, during the Q&A, we suggest a safe-sex method practiced by older people all over the world: abstinence. This does not go over well with the younger crowd.
The fear produced by the sex session is mild compared to the next session, on what not to eat and drink. Ignoring the fact that we have been thoroughly enjoying the food, our Romanian doctor/instructor says we should cease and desist eating and drinking everything – unless we wash it, peel it, have it examined and then overcook it. Moreover, it is mandatory that we use the Peace Corps-supplied water filter because most of the country has bad water. This apparatus weighs about 5 pounds, is mostly unattachable to the local plumbing and, even if successfully attached, operates with little precision. After all the warnings, our minds are filled with visions of diseases such as tuberculosis, trichinosis and psychosis. There is good news. Malaria is not a problem here.
DARING TO THINK
There is real substance after lunch. A formerly exiled history professor tells us about his homeland’s history, former dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu’s years in particular. We have already noticed that unlike some Peace Corps countries, Romania is not an undeveloped country; it is a developing country, or one in need of some way to increase the standard of living. He verifies our observations. Ceaucescu "took us back to the Dark Ages," he says. At the turn of the century, the country was almost as up-to-date as western Europe. Bucharest was dubbed "little Paris." Indeed even in Ploiesti – heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II because of its huge but now defunct oil refinery – we see lovely turn-of-the-century dwellings, courtyards and boulevards. "He destroyed our country," says our lecturer. "His communist-inspired central economic planning, moving country folks into the city, shoving them into the blocs [tenement-type apartments] and overbuilding huge, unrequired industrial plants was a disaster. His securitate, the secret police, supported by a vast number of citizen informers, created an Orwellian society. No one dared to contest the authority or even to think." This may have been the reason that, of all the eastern European countries that converted from communism to some type of democratic system of government in the late 1980s, only Romania resorted to an armed overthrow of the government.
The history professor is followed by a national TV news commentator. She begins by telling a joke about Napoleon, who comes back to life and visits England, Russia and Romania. Napoleon tells the English that if he had had their navy, he would not have lost at Waterloo. In Russia, he says that if he had had their manpower, he would not have lost at Waterloo. In Romania, he tells Ceaucescu that if he had had Ceaucescu’s press, nobody would have known he lost at Waterloo. Point taken. She is young and not happy. The press, she says, is still not free, and the old guard, to a certain extent, is today’s guard with different hats. (Her insights about the freedom of the press were inferentially validated several weeks later, when a world press organization gave Romania only a "partly free" rating.) She shows a poignant video of the weeks of shooting and killing during the December 1989 revolution. After her talk, a Romanian observer says the country needs another revolution, "a revolution of the mind," because there still seems to be a paralysis of critical thinking. "After so many years of being afraid to think, to talk, to challenge, to imagine anything but the party line, perhaps people still have a residual fear of bucking authority – any authority."
It’s 4 o’clock now, and we still have specialized training sessions to attend. Our group is here to help in three areas: environmental, institutional strengthening and health/social problems. The communist legacy left vast problems in these areas, and Romania has asked the Peace Corps for skilled volunteers who can help them out. The immediate driving force behind the Romanian need for improvements is the country’s desire to join the European Union. So we break into three groups to study those parts of the agreement with the European Union that affect our respective areas.
Under the EU agreement, there are scheduled improvements Romania must make. The country must adhere to a strict timetable and has to demonstrate results. The penalty if they don’t: no admission to the EU, with its cornucopia of benefits for Romania’s struggling economy and poor living standards. The target date for Romania’s acceptance is 2007. As we look at the requirements being outlined and do a quick mental calculation against what we have seen so far, we wonder if the timetable is realistic.
At 5:30 in the evening, our day – which began about that hour in the a.m. – is officially over. We can either go to the hotel and study limba Romana or attend the symphony. We went last week, and the orchestra was remarkably large and talented. Perhaps this was one of the good vestiges of a bad era. So we decide to go again. After all, it’s only 50 cents for a ticket, and even on Peace Corps salaries, we can afford it. Plus, there’s a soloist playing Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, a favorite selection.
The concert hall is a tall and narrow box with hard seats, but the acoustics are surprisingly good. As we relax and begin to listen to the dreamy romantic melodies at the beginning of the "Rac 3," the lights go out. All the lights. It’s not so bad for the pianist, who probably knows the piece by heart, but the oboes, clarinets and strings are blind. Carefully picking his way between the players, an announcer comes to the front of the stage. Addressing the audience in limba Romana, he says it will be about 15 minutes before the lights come back on. Fifteen minutes later, he makes the same announcement. The third is different. Now we hear that the lights are off in this part of the city, and no one knows when they will be on again. So, we can get our 50 cents back or come free next week.
It’s been a very long day. We have another one tomorrow at the HUB, then the thrill of the MaxiTaxi back to Valenii, followed by the same weekly schedule for another five weeks. During those weeks, in addition to the regular routine, we’ll visit a Peace Corps site somewhere else in the country and see real volunteers working; have a site announcement as to where we will finally live; visit our site; meet the Romanian counterpart with whom we’ll work for two years; complete our community project; face an hour-long oral exam in the Romanian language; and, if all that goes well, be sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteers entitled to a place to live and $200 a month. After a moment’s discussion, we decide to head for the hotel and hang up our spurs for the night. •
Sam and Noelle LeBlanc photograph
September 2003 - Vol. 37 Issue 12
New Orelans Lousiana
|By Anonymous (atoulon-152-1-17-72.w83-113.abo.wanadoo.fr - 220.127.116.11) on Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - 8:47 am: Edit Post|
WE try to joint Sam and Noelle. Have you their internet adresse? thanks.
Claude and Jeannine BRENOT
|By Tony Chamberlain (d53-64-52-214.nap.wideopenwest.com - 18.104.22.168) on Monday, October 08, 2007 - 8:47 pm: Edit Post|
I was in Romania with Sam and Noelle. I was in Bistrita, but went and visited them in Zalau.