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Jo & Tony: Peace Corps Romania
Jo & Tony: Peace Corps Romania
The end of school, Nikki, & a Sibiu Family Christmas
Craciun Fericit! (Merry Christmas!)
Things here have been crazier than usual, so I'm sorry it's taken me more than 2 weeks to write this time... Between the semester ending, Nikki's visit, and Christmas just around the corner we've barely had time to sleep, much less email Things should be winding down immensely now and we're hoping for a little time to relax before January arrives and we have to go back to school. These past few weeks have been pretty stressful, and school surely didn't help matters.
School went from good to ok to frustrating as ever as the semester came to an end. It was "good" when we assigned our essays and everyone was getting Christmas fever, then moved to "ok" when we spent three weeks stressing and grading all the stupid essays we assigned (never again!), then on to "frustrating as ever" when we both ran into major, let's say, cultural differences when it came time to enter the grades officially in the catalogs. All the headaches came from grading issues, and we are both just thankful that it's all done, in the books, and we don't have to worry about it anymore. Tony and I each had problems, though they were completely different.
At my school, the issues came mostly from how they keep track of attendences and the fact that I didn't do it correctly all semester (both mine and my colleagues fault - they assumed I would ask direct questions about all the little issues I didn't understand, but I knew so little that I didn't know what questions needed to be asked), more or less meaning that I can't prove that there are five 12th graders that I have never even met... therefore meaning that I couldn't give them the lowest possible grade they truly deserved but had to settle for something a little higher. Then on top of that small mess, I had a bigger mess when my counterpart saw my grades and didn't like them. She spent the whole semester reminding me that they called the last volunteer "The 10 Man" because he gave almost all tens (the equivalent to an A+) regardless of class performance, and stressing to me how that doesn't help the students any and how I shouldn't do that because the students won't take me seriously. The problems arose at the end of the semester not because I gave too many 10's or too many low grades, but because I apparently gave the lower grades to the "wrong" students and gave the 10's to those who aren't "quite so smart." After trying to explain that I based my grades more on participation and effort than I did skill (why reward the smart ones who don't show up to class when their classmates are busting their butts to learn?), but that concept seems foreign here. After talking it out and getting a lot of contradicting advice and info from both my counterpart and the other English teachers, we finally found a compromise... Rather than giving two grades toward their English average (the other teachers each had 3 in the book), I averaged my two marks together and only put one in the catalog minimizing the effect of my grades overall. This hurt the 10 kids, but helped the slacker kids - neither of which I agree with - but a compromise had to be made and now I know how to work within the system in the future and won't have these problems in the Spring. The challenge now will be proving to the kids that I know what I am doing, and that the slacker kids won't get off so easy this time around.
At Tony's school there were a few small problems as well. Apparently he's a tougher grader than everyone expected (ie. He didn't give all 10's. At both of our schools we are battling the students' assumptions that our class will automatically bring up their English averages) and both the students and some of the teachers seemed to have problems with it. Obviously, the students are going to try to convince you to raise their grades, but it's pretty ridiculous when you have teachers approaching you and asking you to improve the students' marks - especiallly when most of them are already nines and tens. When Tony refused one teacher's request, she went so far as to ask Tony if he could raise only her son's mark then. Apparently this is a fairly common practice in Romania, and when Tony brought it up to another teacher at school she replied, "Oh, don't worry about it. You don't have a child here whose mark she can lower. She can't get revenge on you." Fortunately for Tony, his refusal to raise the grades was respected and the issue was quickly dropped.
Like I said earlier, everything is now cleared up and done and we are just grateful for the break and the fresh start in January. I guess we knew coming in that jumping into a new position and new culture with no experience in either would be a huge learning curve, but I guess we were hoping for a miracle adjustment. Ahhh, Peace Corps - the toughest job you'll ever love, right?
Anyway, as our semester ended and we got our cultural misunderstandings cleared up, we had reason to be happy - Nikki arrived! She got here on Friday (12/12) and left yesterday morning (12/21). It was our last week of class - though no one really had class as all the grades were being finalized and everyone just wanted to go home, including teachers - so we spent much of the week in Sibiu having Christmas parties, sightseeing, and hanging out with our students. After arriving on Friday, the three of us spent a miserable afternoon being confused in Bucharest and trying to get back home to Sibiu. We finally arrived around 2 in the morning Saturday - approximately twelve hours and three missed busses after Nikki landed. Needless to say, it was a bad first impression As the week progressed though, we had more and more fun. Our sitemate, Susan, came over Saturday night for a thrilling round of Scattergories and a bottle of wine. And the rest of Saturday and Sunday were mostly spent sleeping, eating, and wandering around the city taking pictures.
On Monday and Tuesday, Tony and I passed Nikki back and forth and used her as our "show and tell" object in several of our classes. She brought a Motocross magazine and a bunch of snapshots of herself racing and gave a short presentation, which the kids just adored! On Wednesday, Tony and I more or less just cancelled classes since the turnouts were so low anyway and we wanted to spend more time with Nikki. During the evenings we met some of our students out at local bars/pool halls so that they could spend some more time with "the sister", and we had a great time. Monday night we went to a place called "Fashion Club" with two of my 11th grade guys, and Wednesday night we met a large group of Tony's 9th graders at "Chicago." We all loved the irony in that
On Tuesday nights, Tony and I do English groups for kids from two primary schools at a local library, so this past Tuesday we invited both groups together and had a Christmas party. The English teachers from both schools helped the kids to surprise us with some Christmas Carols and Christmas poems that they had written, and they gave us some small gifts, too (flowers, cards, and a homemade gingerbread house) in appreciation for the groups we do with the students. It was all really sweet and we had a lot of fun. Nikki was the guest of honor and helped us to run the games and things we did with the kids. Our activities were all really similar to our Halloween parties at Tony's school (word puzzles, group relay games, etc.), so it was easy to plan and fun to do. I think all of the kids had a really good time - it seemed to be near overload having three Americans in one room with them For most of the small guys, we're the first Americans they've ever met, let alone hung out with regularly. We feel like celebrities!
On Thursday, we were finally able to get out of Sibiu and we headed to Brasov, my favorite city in Romania (it is another German-medieval city in Transylvania, similar to Sibiu, only twice the size and twice as touristy). We stayed in Brasov for two nights and did a ton of sightseeing. We went to the region's sole Mexican restaurant (the food's not quite like home, but it's better than nothing!), did a lot of souvenir shopping, climbed the hills around the city to take in the views, and went to Bran Castle (more popularly known as "Dracula's Castle"). Bran Castle is always a good time, though the day we chose to go was the coldest and nastiest of the week... brrrrr! We took a bus out to Bran (about an hour out of the city), jumped off, practically ran through and around the castle, then got back to Brasov as fast as we could. It was fun and we took a lot of pictures, but I wish it could've been more pleasant weather!
We left Brasov early Saturday morning, to slowly make our way back down to Bucharest for the night, making a detour in a resort town called Sinaia along the way. Sinaia is home to another Romanian castle called "Peles" and it was something we didn't want Nikki to miss. Peles was the summer home of Romania's first King, back in the late 1800's/early 1900's, and it is absolutely beautiful. Unlike Dracula's Castle, Peles is as luxurious as one could imagine and kept up amazingly well. We took a tour inside the castle and wandered all around the outside, snapping picture after picture like the tourists that we were. After a couple hours in Sinaia, we jumped on a train to finish our trek to Bucharest. We met another Volunteer friend of ours at the hotel, went out for Turkish food (Bucharest is about the only place you'll find decent non-Romanian food in all of Romania), then went back to the hotel and played Dutch Blitz until we were ready to pass out. All in all a good night - and an early one considering that both Mike (our friend) and Nikki had planes to catch before 6am. The next morning we got up way before the sun did, took a couple cabs to the airport, and sent Nikki and Mike both on their way (Mike was flying to Spain to meet some friends for Christmas, the lucky bastard).
It was a long week with Nikki here, especially since we were trying to wrap up everything at school and prepare for the holidays at the same time, but it was well worth it! It was awesome seeing her and especially right before Christmas. Not only did she help end our first six months in-country on a good note, but it cured some major Nikki-sickness and she brought a bag of presents with her as well ;) Oh, and everyone who sent presents with Nik... uh, sorry. We opened them already... before we even got her to Sibiu. But blame Tony - it was his idea! We were stuck at the station in Bucharest, after missing two busses back to Sibiu, hungry, tired, and thinking we would be stuck in Bucharest with no place to stay until the next day, so he decided we needed some cheering up. I was just an innocent bystander... I swear! He had to twist my arm! Really though, we planned on opening them before Christmas anyway since we're having friends over on the holiday and thought it might be kind of insensitive to be frolicking in our presents while they just sat and watched. What's another couple days early, right?
Having Nik here in Romania also helped open our eyes up to some things we had either forgotten about Romania, never noticed, or just become used to. Having a fresh perspective from someone new was kind of fun. Here are some of her biggest observations: Romania doesn't have ice cubes. There are no international foods (Mexican, Chinese, etc.), fountain drinks, or large portions in restaurants. Nor are there super-stores like WalMart, showers or clothes dryers. There is 10 times as much Coke than there is Pepsi (she works for PepsiCo - she's paid to notice these things). Cars park on the sidewalks legally. We have to light everything with a match everytime we need to use it (heater, stove), and Romanian buses and maxi taxis are either trying to kill you as they weave through the mountain passes dodging bumps in the road and passing every car they come upon, or simply giving you a preview of what Hell will be like.
It's funny to think that I take most of these things at face value anymore - it's crazy how fast you adjust to new surroundings and they become the norm to you. Coming back to the US will be a culture shock now - that's weird to think about.
Anyway... Now that Nikki has gone back home, it's time for us to focus on Christmas. I think I mentioned in my last email that Tony and I are hosting a Sibiu Family Christmas for some fellow volunteers. We dangerously opened the invitation up to our whole group (74 people in all), and fortunately got just about the number of "yes" replies we were hoping for -- 8 (plus one sitemate that is tagging along), so all in all we will be a group of 11 crunched into our apartment on Wednesday and Thursday. Our first guests are arriving tomorrow evening, the day before Christmas Eve, so Tony and I have a lot of work to do before then. We slept in today, and got a few things done, but tomorrow calls for some bill paying, grocery shopping, and a lot of apartment cleaning and decorating (my mom sent a bunch of those static window clings, so I'm going to create Christmas scenes in all of our windows - I know I'm a nerd, but I'm so excited!).
Christmas should be a really good time. I'm going to call my counterpart tomorrow and ask her advice on preparing our Christmas booze - apparently it's a Romanian tradition to drink boiled red wine with sugar and cinnamon on a cold Christmas night, so I'm going to find out exactly what kind of wine we need and how much sugar and cinnamon we put in. I'll let you all know how it goes. My students rave about it, so I'm pretty excited to try it. Also, on Christmas Eve we are expecting several groups of carolers - a tradition that is still going strong here in Romania. I know of at least two of my classes that promised to carol at our house, and many of Tony's students have plans to come sing for us (most of my students are older and getting to that "too cool" stage when it comes to caroling ). Between them and our Bing Crosby cd's it should be a night full of music! We'll be sure to send lots of pictures - and we expect the same of you!
We haven't decided yet how to spend our break after Christmas. We've been talking about traveling out of the country (to either Prague, Czech Republic or Budapest, Hungary) to celebrate the new year, but today we got an invitation to go up by our friends Dave, Julie, and Mike to see a parade and celebrate in the North Eastern region of Romania instead and we're not sure what we're going to do. On one hand, we'd love to travel and do something out of the ordinary, but on the other we'd also like to spend the holiday with friends. It'll be a touch decision, especially with Dave's incredible skill at guilt trips, but we'll have to decide soon so that we can start planning, especially if we're leaving the country.
Anyway, I guess that's about it for goings-on around here. I hope that everything at home is going well and everyone enjoys the holidays! Please take lots of pictures and send them to us as I have a feeling we're going to get pretty homesick over the next two weeks (especially those of you with the convenience of a digital camera - though we do enjoy real snapshots via snail mail, too). We miss you all and can't wait to hear from you!
ps. I forgot some news! Two things actually...
First, I am one of the the new members of Peace Corps' Gender and Development (GAD) committee! I applied back in October and have been waiting to hear back since. They announced it via email while Nikki was here and there are two other people from our group who made it in as well. I'm really excited! The GAD committee is made up of both American PCVs and Romanians and does a lot of work throughout Romania concerning women's rights. One of the big things I'm hoping to do is to get involved in the summer leadership camps for Romanian girls and boys, as well as try to slowly introduce the idea of gay rights to the committee (though they brag about being a "gender" organization, they only concern themselves with women as a sex.) Though I don't know how well or easily this might go over - I figure it's worth a shot. Wish me luck!
And secondly - Tony and I were on TV here in Sibiu! A fellow Volunteer who lives in a small village just outside of the city arranged for an interview for all of the Sibiu County PCVs just to talk about what we're doing here in the communities and introduce us to the rest of the population. Other than Jeff, Tony and I were the only ones who could make it, and though it's exciting to be on TV, I wish we would've skipped it, too. Our "interpreter" could barely speak English, though she is an English teacher at a local high school. Whew! What an experience that was... If only I had it on tape... years from now I would probably laugh watching it. But for now, I just hope every day that no one brings it up Ahh, language barriers - aren't they fun?
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