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Jason Braswell works with the Peace Corps as an economic development volunteer in Romania
Jason Braswell works with the Peace Corps as an economic development volunteer in Romania
Arkansas smile warms a cold land
By Terrica Caldwell
As I wake up, the sun shines in my window, fooling me into thinking that today may not be as cold. It is cold, and for a boy from Arkansas, a seven-month winter of below freezing temperatures has been a learning experience," wrote Jason Braswell in a long-distance interview that began this spring via e-mail.
Braswell, a Russellville native, works with the Peace Corps as an economic development volunteer in Romania.
"Whether it is learning how dry my skin can get, the importance of hot tea and soup or how tissues, long johns and fast walking can become integral to survival," he continued.
"This week my radiators that are fed by the city boiler never seemed to start working, so getting out of bed is not the easiest thing to do.
"I get out of bed and begin my daily heating routine of turning up my Peace Corps-issued heater and turning on my stove.
"Using the stove for heat is a trick I learned from my local friends. Gas is subsidized here, and electricity is not; neat trick. My one luxury is the hot water heater I bought and had installed.
"I was not tough enough to envision ice cold showers through a seven-month winter. Once I get dressed, I usually throw my Hungarian study books in my bag and my laptop as well and head out for the day.
"I walk out of my apartment and I can smell paprika; one of the old Hungarian ladies is up early, getting food ready for the week. I step out of my apartment and the cold air slams me. I would not mind an Arkansas winter right now."
Braswell left the United States on June 12, 2003, and will remain in Romania until August 2005, for a total of 27 months.
As an economic development volunteer, he handles a variety of issues from critiquing business plans and offering new business ideas to arranging connections and meetings with American officials in Romania.
But his duties with the Peace Corps are not all business. When he joined as a volunteer, he was asked to dedicate much of his time "just simply in the community socializing and talking with people," Braswell said.
"Two-thirds of the Peace Corps mission is cross-cultural exchange," said Braswell. That means he will spend time learning about "Romania in hopes to foster a better understanding and in the future bring some of that information back to the U. S.," he said.
Braswell also added that it is important to "put a face on America" by letting the Romanian people see what Americans are like; not let movies, music and the European news explain American values, compassion, morals, beliefs and way of life.
In 1960, before he was president, Sen. John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the students at the University of Michigan. Kennedy wanted the students to serve their country by living and working in developing countries for peace sake.
That challenge grew into a widely known federal government agency with a mission that says the agency "is devoted to world peace and friendship."
The Peace Corps has worked on issues ranging from AIDS research to environmental preservation and has been invited to more than 130 host countries to work on various issues.
Recently, the Peace Corps has added more than 1,000 volunteers due to President Bush’s HIV/AIDS Act of 2003. The organization has had more than 170,000 volunteers since 1960.
Braswell trained in a town called Ploiesti, after which he was sent to a village called Valenii de munte, where he lived with an Romanian family for two months.
He described his host family as a young couple, a bunica (grandmother) and a German shepherd named Jesse. The young couple married the same day that Braswell began living with them.
While living with his host family, Braswell took Romanian language classes every day and technical classes in community development in Romania.
Sfintu Gheorge is another Romanian town where Braswell was assigned and has approximately 70,000 people. The town’s name means Saint George and is a "unique town in Romania," Braswell said.
"The signs and stores have Romanian and Hungarian names, and interestingly many restaurants, cafes and bars have chosen English names" such as Big Mama’s, News Cafe, Restaurant OK and Pizza X.
"St. George seems to be more like a town of 10,000 people in America," said Braswell. Many of the people live in the large Communist-era apartment blocks.
St. George is in a region of Romania called Transylvania, the region that is the source of the Dracula legend. "It is the most beautiful and most visited region of Romania," Braswell said.
After Braswell finished his training, he moved to his own apartment, which he said is "just like what the majority of Romanians live in." He described his apartment as an old Communist-bloc apartment with "hard edges and plenty of concrete."
The apartment has two rooms with concrete floors, a small kitchen, refrigerator, TV, table top stove, a sink "that decides to leak from time to time" and a bathroom. The apartments were built for Communist living, meaning few electrical appliances, Braswell said.
"The use of electrical equipment must be scheduled carefully or an unplanned blackout will follow," Braswell said. "I can make hot water, watch TV and use my computer at the same time, but of course that means no heat ... if I unplug the refrigerator for an hour, I can leave the heat on."
Braswell said that unplugging the refrigerator is common, because he can hang meat in the unheated kitchen in the winter. "I must admit, I enjoy my merry-go-round of electrical usage and take pride in the intricate system I have developed to get everything done," he said.
"I have been treated with incredible generosity," he added.
"The Romanian people are warm and giving; it is so important to always remember what it means to get gifts from someone who has so little."
Gifts in Romania have a different meaning than in America. "I have been invited to people’s weddings, their children’s first birthdays, company Christmas parties and into the homes of people who have known me for only a few minutes," said Braswell.
Most of the people under the age of 22 in Romania speak English, Hungarian and Romanian. The tri-lingual people helped Braswell with everything from paying bills, explaining the transit system and translating for him as he talks to local business people.
Learning Romanian and Hungarian language is not necessary if someone wants to be involved in Peace Corps or to survive in Romania. Many people in Romania know the English language to help with day-to-day life.
Since the revolution in 1989, the English language is mandatory in schools.
Braswell made the decision to learn the Hungarian language; he got a tutor, studied and practiced Hungarian "almost every day," which he said earned him the respect of the local people.
"It is a special feeling to speak to someone in their own language and see the surprise on their face when they realize that an American has come to Romania and is learning Hungarian."
The Hungarian language is considered to be the second most difficult language for English-speaking people to learn, behind Mandarin Chinese, Braswell said.
His day at work is "varied and many times uncomplicated," said Braswell. His assignment is ASIMCOV, "a chamber of commerce-type organization." He spends anywhere from 10 hours to 30 hours per week, depending on the activities that are going on.
He teaches at an economics high school, a local high school and an economics college. These activities were Braswells’ own ideas and not required by Peace Corps.
At the schools, he teaches "practical, real-life business class and also a two-hour English club," said Braswell. Braswell teaches his business classes by trying to get the students to "think in real terms," instead of definitions and theories.
With the English classes, Braswell wants the kids to think instead of memorizing. He uses activities to "just let them talk and gain confidence in their abilities" said Braswell.
"The classes give me a chance to help give them [students] a chance to go far beyond what the lesson plans are. We talk about cultural tolerance, attitudes towards women’s role in society, making a plan for the future, what type of opportunities might be out there for them and much more" said Braswell.
"In essence, this is what the Peace Corps is about in Romania.
"There are really not ditches to be dug, bathrooms to be built and lives to be saved with healthcare improvements and education, or housing to be built; it is really about planting a seed in somebody’s head about what they can do through planning, taking a chance and cooperating."
Although Braswell enjoys the people in Romania, there is one thing that he misses a lot from home - food. Braswell said that the people in Romania usually eats a light breakfast like cheese, bread, yogurt and jam.
"Most people take a sandwich to work and eat it around 2 p.m.; during Communist times the factories did not stop for lunch, so people go very used to not eating lunch and waiting until they got home" said Braswell.
The typical Romania dinner is usually a "big meal" with soup first, followed by the main dish with meat and potatoes.
Most of the people eat food that can be grown themselves or in Romania. The prices for fruits and vegetables can go "sky high and are almost unobtainable through the seven-month winter," said Braswell.
"I eat a lot of fried chicken, roasted pork and many, many kinds of potatoes; French fried, mashed, boiled, etc.," said Braswell. Pizza is common with ketchup for sauce.
Traditional Romanian foods are corn mash, sarmale (cabbage stuffed with meat and rice) and mamaliga. Ciorba is Romania soup and is "creamy sour soup ... the food is great, but what I would give for some enchiladas at La Huerta," said Braswell.
To keep up-to-date with current news in the U.S., Braswell gets a subscription to Newsweek from the Peace Corps and an English language Romanian business magazine.
He also downloads articles from international relations Web sites and news Web sites to keep informed.
Being so far away from home can create a phone bill that is outrageous; paying international tolls and rates per minute have a influence on phone bills.
"I actually do not call home because it is quite expensive and difficult; I do have a cell phone so that people in the U.S. can call me anytime," said Braswell.
"My family calls me about once a month and we correspond by e-mail frequently. I have a digital camera so I can e-mail pictures and they can feel more like they know what is happening with me."
Braswell is the son of Marilyn Braswell and John Braswell. Braswell’s father, John Braswell, the owner of Russellville Printing, describes his son as a "well-educated person with a unique sense of humor.
Braswell attended Louisiana Tech on a track scholarship and majored in marketing; he later attended the University of Arkansas and majored in finance management.
Braswell worked for Prime Trucking Company in Missouri. "After a year, he decided to see and travel Europe" and worked for Russellville Printing as the director of marketing, according to John Braswell.
Braswell said that while Romania is coming into the free market, the country is a "land of contradictions."
"Many people barely have heat, they spend their incomes on food, few people have cars or have ever been to their capital city, but yet almost everyone has a cell phone and uses e-mail at the Internet cafe on a regular basis." said Braswell.
Braswell says that he spends more than an hour walking. His shoes and socks wear out quickly and he admits that he has lost weight.
During the day, he stops at a "Cheers"-like place called News Cafe, where he usually has coffee. He has befriended many of the people in the town and will miss everyone when he leaves.
He later makes his way to his Hungarian language teacher. She is "a great teacher" because she is someone who has never taught an English speaker Hungarian, said Braswell.
After the Hungarian language class, he stops by his office to work on some things and check his e-mail. After he leaves his office, he goes to his English club at the local high school.
The students come to speak English. On this day, Braswell asks the students their opinion on controversial statements that he makes such as "a woman’s place is at home and in the kitchen" and "I do not need to vote because it will not make a difference."
"Many times the kids come up with the right reasons why these are wrong statements, but no one had ever made them think about it before," said Braswell. After the English club the students and Braswell go to his favorite cafe and continue on with the discussion.
But Braswell can only stay for a while this night because his friends are coming to have dinner and watch "I Am Sam" on HBO. "Thanks to my mother’s wonderful care packages, I am able to cook them fajitas, Mexican rice, salsa and chips tonight," said Braswell.
"Well, another day in the Peace Corps, a lot of walking, a lot of learning, a lot of new things, and a few new friends today.
"On this day though, I have the quintessential Romanian moment ... I turn the corner behind one of the apartments to take a short cut and I see a pack of four stray dogs sleeping on the ground above a manhole that is warm, a horse-drawn cart comes down the street full of scrap wood that will be used for heat.
"A Roma (Gypsy) man stands at the dumpsters waiting for new trash to pick through, an elderly lady is hanging up her carpet so that she can beat the dirt out of it, and I see people standing around and talking, switching between Hungarian and Romanian.
"These are the times that I smile, and I know I am someplace very different and special. Sure, I can’t say that I changed anything today, but I hope that my time here will create a better understanding of our two countries," he said.
"Maybe even in the future something I did or said will help somebody get through life a little easier or do something that they would not have done otherwise. I do miss home, but when I leave here, I will miss this home, too."
Copyright © 2004, Russellville Newspapers, Inc.