Snapshots of Camp in Tigmandru

[Side note: I’ve been home for a 3 weeks already! Just trying to spread out the blog post love]

While my last post might give you a good idea of what a day at camp looked like, it was specific moments that made the week worthwhile. Let me take you through the week~

Monday (47 kids) | There I was with Mom, Sylvia, Isaac and 47 Roma kids I hadn’t seen in a year and a half. I was in a place I love with so many people I love listening to those 47 kids singing their hearts out. Și mâinile mi le-nalț, și-naintea Ta vin. Mâinile mi le-nalț, și mă bucur în Tin’. I raise my hands and come before You. I raise my hands and rejoice in You. It was a sacred moment. Half of the experience was being back. It felt so natural to sit among the kids of Tigmandru again, sending smiles every which way. The other half of the experience was watching my family finally begin to understand what I’ve been talking about all along.

Mom and her friend Eleza

Mom and her friend Eleza

Tuesday (67 kids) | If you’ve ever seen pictures of the children of Țigmandru, you’ve probably seen Florina. Florina is a 12-year-old girl who carts her younger siblings around, giving them a smack in the head every now and then to keep them in line. After spending some time in Țigmandru back in 2013, I looked back at pictures of the choir tours in 2008 and 2012. They also visited Țigmandru. There was Florina, smiling back. Oh, and there she was again. Florina is in no less than a quarter of the pictures taken with choir members. She is the poster child of Țigmandru. And now I understand why…Florina is not someone you might call gentle. She has always been one of the hardest for me to deal with for that reason, because she can be aggressively needy. She likes to get her own way and she often gets it by pushing everyone else around. But on Tuesday, I had a very good moment with Florina. As the kids gathered together, I was cleaning the tables after they’d been water colored on. When Florina saw me, she came up and asked if she could help. So I gave her some paper towel and she set to work. After just a second, she decided paper towel wasn’t enough. She needed water. I told her that it was okay – I would finish up later – and I went back to work. A minute later, though, I looked up to see Florina walking into the room with two wet paper towels, one for me and one for her. She was not willing to do a halfhearted job. As I watched her scrub away at the tables, I was very thankful for Florina.

Florina (2012)

Florina (2012)

Wednesday (72 kids) | Wednesday was a crazy day. We were beginning to run out of energy (although the kids certainly had some to spare and shared it well), and we had revamped our schedule to accommodate so many kids. That’s how I ended up sitting on the floor with a tangled mess of embroidery thread on my lap and 25 kids surrounding me, demanding that they be the next to tell me which colors they wanted for their bracelet. I was feeling a little frazzled, and the concept of waiting in line and being patient was not one I communicate effectively with my shaky Romanian. Among the chaos stood Alina. Alina is a nine year old I met when I was in Țigmandru with the choir, and then spent a lot of time with when I was there for the semester. I often found her outside on the church street, where she lives, playing with Magda and her siblings and another little guy named Tibike. As I sat there, willing myself to get through with my sanity in tact, Alina saw my frustration. She told the others to be patient and then stood back patiently as well, never once asking to be the next. She has a way about her that is so wise and mature and empathetic. As I look back over the few years I’ve known her, I see her gentle spirit shining through in so many memories. She has always been there, but always in the background. She has never been one to tug and pull or cling or even ask for a hug. However, whenever I approach her she lights up. When I hug her she holds on for a long time. When I smile at her from across the room she smiles back so broadly, with a knowing look in her eyes. Alina is a special one.

Alina and Emily (2012) *photo credit to Madeline Martinez

Alina and Emily (2012)
*photo credit to Madeline Martinez

Thursday (61 kids) | I looked out the window of the church on Thursday morning to see Isaac running around, being chased by 9 or 10 little people. They were all giggling as they ran, Isaac included. I could hear them through the window. Isaac surprised me that week. I was worried that he might not stay easily engaged during the camps, especially because he was not all that excited to come to Romania in the first place. But he found his place and his people, and it clicked for him just like it clicked for me. The moment that says it all, and that overwhelms me with gratitude, is when Isaac came up to me on Tuesday after camp and said, “Michaela, I found my Magda.”

Isaac and his buddies

Isaac and his buddies

Friday (64 kids) | There were a lot of good moments on Friday. The kids gave a program for the few parents that showed up, singing a Romanian song with such fervor that I got goose bumps and reciting Matthew 22:37-39, a Bible verse I learned with them throughout the week. But my favorite memory of Friday is the kite flying. At Interfaith Peace Camp in Harrisonburg, kite flying was always one of the best activities. The kids loved decorating their paper kites with hopes of peace for the world, putting them together, and then running around on EMU hill with their kites, hopes, and dreams flying through the air. I was very excited to do the same in Romania with the children of Țigmandru. One time this trip, I told Mom that everything in Romania is more rewarding because it takes a whole lot more time and effort to get things done. Making the kites took a whole lot of time and effort and energy and flexibility and thinking on our toes, but it was certainly worth it. The hour and a half before we began walking down the road with finished kites in was more than a little hectic. That image, though, of 64 kids running around an open field in blue and red shirts, beaming, with colorful kites dotting the sky, will stick with me for a long time.

kite flying!

kite flying!

As I said goodbye I felt very normal which, ironically, made for a strange experience. Maybe I couldn’t let myself go any deeper – the idea of never seeing those children again would be so hard to bear. Or maybe being there felt so natural that I can’t even imagine not returning. On the other hand, maybe I was too exhausted to feel anything. Regardless, as I said goodbye there was no heartbreak. It had been a good week.

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The Week it All Came Together: Tigmandru

It’s about time I told you a little about what’s been going on here in Romania! I’m leaving in two days, after all. When my family finally made it to Sighisoara, a whirlwindish three weeks began. We spent our first week together running a “Friendship Camp” in Tigmandru, along with Jennifer Young and Jay & Sheri Hartzler.

Our week was chalked full. When we weren’t at camp, we were planning for camp. When we weren’t planning, we were collecting materials or preparing activities or buying supplies we’d forgotten about. We started each day with a drive out to Tigmandru, 12 people packed into a 9-seater van. A group of kids always awaited us outside the church, there 40 minutes early. After some last minute preparations we let a swarm of children in through the front doors. By the end of the week, we had 83 kids registered, ages three to 17. We began with singing and then moved into story time, memory verse activities (Matthew 22:37-29), outdoor games, snacks, small groups, and crafts. I wore the hat of music teacher, bracelet maker, storyteller, memory verse trainer, actress, soccer player, kite flyer, group leader, hand holder, and perpetual smiler. Everyone else had just as many roles too. We made bracelets and kites. We painted with watercolors and colored with crayons. We glued hundreds of beans and rice and noodles and flowers onto a big piece of cardboard in a beautiful design. We sang songs in English, Swahili, and Romanian. We did the chicken dance, played with parachutes, and had rousing games of soccer. After each full day, we crashed…but not for long! Our plans continually needed to be adjusted, so there was always something to be doing.

We came out of the week incredibly exhausted, many of us with annoying colds, but with energized spirits. It had been an incredible week. It was remarkable to look back after bulldozing through the week to see what had fallen into place. It’s those moments, when I look back to see the way a million little fragments came together to create something seamless that I can see God’s hand in my life.

Between the end of my freshman year at EMU, Sylvie’s graduation festivities, my work and Mom’s, and normal life’s craziness, our plans for the camps came together slowly and haphazardly. When I left with the Hartzlers two weeks early, we left my family with a lot of loose ends to tie up. We had some work to do from Sighisoara as well. It all made me a little nervous. On top of it all, we really didn’t know what to expect. Would we have 40 kids or 120? Would the kids understand the concept of sitting in a circle and passing a talking stick around? We just didn’t really know. Although we tweaked many things as we went along, we did it all! And I think we did it well. That was a miracle in itself.

I was also worried about translators. We didn’t have any lined up when I first arrived in Romania, and knowing Romanians it wouldn’t be until the day of camp before we knew who would actually be there. Not only did we want people who were capable of translating from English to Romanian and back again, but also people who would understand what we were trying to do and embrace the ideas themselves, be engaged and good with kids, and be able to lead small groups. That was a high order. But it couldn’t have turned out better. We ended up with five girls, ages 15 to 17. All could speak excellent English. What was most exciting, though, was that after the first day, three of the girls could not stop expressing their surprise at how affectionate the kids were. They had never experienced anything like it. By the second day, Corina said she didn’t want the week to end. Hearing that was powerful. Here were a few girls who live in Sighisoara, right around the corner from Tigmandru. They had never been there before. We were able to share our love of the place with them, and they very quickly understood the value of loving these children. I think it might have made a significant impact on some or all of them.

Another thing we were nervous about was weather. What would we do with 70 kids for four hours and no outside space? Turns out we had beautiful weather every single day. By the middle of the week, when we had over 70 kids showing up, I worried about the amount of supplies we’d had. We’d planned on having 50 or 60 kids max. And we had another week of camp coming up. But somehow, even after both weeks of camp, we ended up with extra t-shirts, kites, and a variety of materials that we can leave behind. And food? We seemed to underestimate the number of children we’d have each day. Every day, though, there was enough for every child and the volunteers. I’d also worried that my family wouldn’t connect in the same way I had. More on that sometime soon, but I can reassure you that there were absolutely no problems there.

My week in Tigmandru must have been one of the main purposes for my return. I think it’s the reason my family joined me here, too. Tigmandru has always been a special place for me. When I returned for the first time and experienced a similar connection to the one I’d initially felt on choir tour, I was relieved. When Sylvia had a similar experience to my own, I was amazed. Needless to say, upon my return this time around, I had some expectations, especially for myself. Today I can say that I am certain that, if I were to return, I would find a place full of beautiful people who have an uncanny ability to show unconditional love. It lived up to my memories.

Michaela Mast ed. 2015 in Romania

It’s been a week and a half since I walked into the Ludu’s apartment for the second-first time. I was invited in with warmth that I hadn’t realized I’d missed so much. It really did feel a little bit like home. The smells were the same, the rooms looked the same, the homemade bread tasted the same. There was a vase of beautiful flowers sitting on the desk of the room I once called my own. Aside from a new couch, the addition of a wi-fi connection, the obvious lack of Lori’s presence (she’s still in Bucharest finishing up her first year of university), and Bia’s height, everything felt pleasantly familiar. Not much had changed. When I walked down the street, I saw the same children asking for money. There was the bus stop, Kaufland (the big store), the river, the citadel, and the intersection. I felt almost as if I’d traveled back in time…but not quite.

Imagine taking the person you are today and plopping them down into a place and time two years ago. Bizarre, eh? Among all of the similarities, I noticed an outstanding difference – me. It’s an interesting perspective, coming back to a place I felt so removed from when I was away. There are moments when I am transported back to a specific place and time not just by thoughts, but by my emotions as well. When I first arrived this time, I could distinctly remember some of the ways I felt a year and a half ago. And of course, I know how I feel now. The contrast allows me to pinpoint some ways that I have been shaped in the past year and a half.

Michaela Mast edition 2015 and Romania have a very different relationship than Michaela Mast edition 2013 and Romania did. I would have hoped as much, knowing how much I’ve experienced between now and then. I’m much more confident in some ways and less so in others. When I first got here a week and a half ago, I had to pull myself out of my shell and drag myself through tasks that required me to be self-sufficient. I don’t know what it was that made it so difficult, but it took some time and encouragement to adjust to the thought of challenging myself and stepping out of my comfort zone. Yet I am much more confident in who I am. I find myself being less apologetic about my opinions and desires. In a place where I am constantly being bombarded with the unknown, I am more certain of myself. Over the last year and a half, I have apparently also figured out how to let my thoughts go and live in the present. I am, more often, here and now.

My here and now has included all kinds of good things, most of which involve rekindled friendships. I have found my place once again in the Ludu family, doing Bia’s hair, attempting a conversation in Romanian with my host mother, and chatting with Sendi. I sang in the Church on the Hill with my good friend, Agco, last night, accompanied by Sheri on the organ. I have spent a few hours in Țigmandru, trying to make up lost time be meeting the new children and trying to remember the names of all those I knew before. One day, I crossed paths with four people I know in the space of one block, turning a five-minute walk into a 45-minute one. I have been continually surprised by how genuinely happy people are to see me, and I, them.

The perspective I had when I first arrived is becoming much more blurred. I have grown into this new relationship between Romania and me, and I am relishing in this place. In the same way that I deeply appreciated my home after being away for 4 and ½ months, my sense of appreciation for this place has grown to new heights during the past 10 days. I can’t wait to show my family what Sighișoara and its people are all about.

A Colorful Mix of Beautiful and Bewildering: Romania in the Past, Present & Future

[originally posted at http://www.pvmchurch.org]
303522_3634169863515_769580754_nRomania. Where exactly is that again? Back before I traveled to Eastern Europe with my high school Touring Choir, I probably couldn’t have told you that Romania was in Europe. I know I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that the language they speak is Romanian, or that their weather is very similar to our own in Virginia. And I most definitely couldn’t have anticipated spending more than one week in the country. But I certainly did. The story begins on a stuffy bus packed full of high school students and a few chaperones, crossing the border from Hungary into Romania after a long, hot, thirsty wait. It continues, taking me from the city of Oradea to Cluj to Sighișoara. The colorful buildings of Sighișoara were adorned with flower boxes, and the streets were made of cobblestone, and when we sang in the Church on the Hill our harmonies rang for five whole seconds after our singing stopped. Sighișoara captured my attention. We spent the next day in Țigmandru, a village 20 minutes outside of Sighișoara. I spent only a few hours there, playing with and singing to the children that showed up on the front steps of the church. Țigmandru, or rather the children of Țigmandru, captured my heart.
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Fast-forward a year, one month, and four days. The day is July 17, 2013, when I stepped onto Romanian ground for the second time. I had recently graduated from Eastern Mennonite High School with flying colors. My senior year, I was calm amidst the frenzy of college decisions going on around me. Through most of my year, I experienced a patience I never had before, followed by certainty after making a decision. I would spend a semester in Romania in the same area as Jay and Sheri Hartzler, my choir director and his wife, who were taking a year’s sabbatical to return to Romania as well. In retrospect, things fell into place so easily that I can only give God the credit for thinking that crazy idea up. It’s humbling to think that I, an overanalyzing, indecisive, ambitious person, was able to cruise right along into such an ambiguous, unusual adventure with peace. After much preparation, I was off.

I heard once that if you stay in a country for a week, you can write a book about it. For a month and you can write an article. For a year and you can’t write anything at all. I understand that. I will, however, try my very best to give you a peek hole into my experience. I returned to Sighișoara and lived with a host family. I spent my weekday mornings in a Kindergarten classroom held at an organization started by the Nazarene Church. Twice a week, I had Romanian language lessons. On Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, Jay, Sheri, and I out to Țigmandru, the same village I visited on the choir tour. The population of Țigmandru is 80 percent Roma (commonly known as Gypsy), and the standard of living is very low in many cases. I spent my evenings there at a church, where 20 to 60 kids gathered for stories, crafts, food, games, and music. The rest of my time was filled with Gospel Choir, church, family dinners, journaling, and girls’ nights with my host sisters. Within that framework is where the meaningful stuff is found.

Romania, to me, is Dorinel, Magda, and Timi racing down the road when they see the Hartzlers and me arrive in Țigmandru, greeting us with wide smiles and big hugs.

Romania is a family with six daughters, three of whom who live at home, who took me in as one of their own for almost five months. Romania is movie nights with my sister Lori, English and Romanian lessons with my younger sister, Bia, and theological conversations with my older sister, Sendi. It’s coming home to a mug of warm pudding with sprinkles on top left for me by my mother, and jovial greetings from my father.

Romania is a place of towering mountains and bumpy roads and five-story apartment buildings and castle ruins and quaint villages and cardboard roofs and rolling pastures.

Romania is frustration at the prejudice I see toward the Roma people, an ethnic group found all over the world, but concentrIMG_3615ated in Romania. Roma are not to be confused with Romanians. This topic is far too complex to get into. Ask me about it sometime. For now, though, know that the children begging on the street were Roma, the adults I watched going through dumpsters for food were Roma, and the children I worked with in Țigmandru were Roma.

Romania is my friend Agco, who I would sit down at the piano and sing with for as long as we could think of something to sing.

Romania is no exercise, aside from lots of walking and feeble attempts to do quiet workouts in my room.

Romania is a 30-minute walk to and from town at least once a day, alone. That time became a mental struggle as I battled homesickness and exhaustion and loneliness. But within that loneliness I became acutely aware of the beauty of connectedness. A hug from my little sister, a kind word from a kindergartener, or an unexpected conversation with a stranger all held special meaning.

Romania is homemade bread and jam and soup and goat cheese and potatoes and cabbage and tomatoes and sausage.

Romania is hearing my name called on the street and turning to see Andreea, a girl I passed almost every day on my way to and from town. What began as a feeling of apprehension and helplessness as I passed her and her siblings begging was transformed into humility and a sense of accomplishment when I learned enough Romanian to talk to them and become friends.

Romania is sitting in a car, willing myself to get out and face the hand-grabbing, name-yelling love of a crowd of children. On other days, the 20-minute car ride to Tigmandru couldn’t pass quickly enough.

Romania is a woman and her daughter walking around all day long with a stick and a bag, going from one dumpster to the next.

Romania is a place where I lived comfortably, with a newly built Kaufland grocery store around the corner and $3 meals I could easily afford. It’s also a place where I often questioned the validity of my experience because I was comfortable. Finally, it’s a place where I discovered that gratitude is meant to transcend comfort and discomfort.

Romania is 60 children in a big room, all their eyes on me as I lead them in singing and signing Peace Before Us.

Romania is six to 16 kindergarteners (depending on the day), trying so hard to write their names as I sit by their side. It’s the purpose I received after deciding that I needed to take on a project of my own in the Kindergarten class, and the challenge of teaching the kids how to write their names using only Romanian.

Romania is Skyping with my family after a meal at the Hartzler’s every Sunday.

Romania is confusion and complexity and questions. But it’s also longing and compassion and joy in their simplest, most pure forms.

Romania is a thrill of accomplishment when I first understood a sentence spoken and later when I realized that I could speak those sentences myself.

Romania is beautiful relationships and a lot of self-searching and a colorful mix of beautiful and ugly.

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Fast-forward a year and five months to today.  The value of an experience can only truly be measured in retrospect. Less than a month after I returned from across the ocean, my dad died. Needless to say, that left me reeling. All of a sudden, my content, broad, optimistic view of life was funneled into a tiny pinpoint that allowed me to think only about the people in front of me and the moment I was in. Romania? Where exactly is that again? Ever so slowly, the pinpoint has grown yet again into a vast lens that seems almost limitless. Well, some days. As I have been re-exposed to the world, especially through my studies at Eastern Mennonite University, Romania has snuck back into the picture in the form of memories, conversations, nostalgia, and questions. There are things that were once very clear that are now muddled, and other things that were very muddled but are now at least a little more comprehendible.

I try not to romanticize my semester in Romania as I reflect on it. It was not all rainbows and flowers and hugs from little children. The poverty I was surrounded by was often not synonymous with generosity and hospitality, as is so often shared by Americans who go overseas. I did not always feel like staying. What Romania gave me was a gift so powerful that I don’t regret spending a semester there – it gave me deep gratitude. I returned home with a renewed appreciation for the Valley, for my community, for my family. I returned home with an appreciation for learning and living and noticing simple things. I know, though, that there’s much more that semester did for me than make me appreciate home. I think it’s one of those things that will slowly become unwrapped, revealing new pieces of influence in my life as time goes on. But clearly, there’s something special about Romania. I feel it when I sit down to write about my experiences and my mind starts clicking along at double time, my heart beats a little faster, and I feel this energy coursing through me, ready to spew words onto the page. There’s something in me that lights up whenever I think about the children of Țigmandru. Ask me about them sometime and you’ll probably see it in my eyes.

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Fast-forward yet again, to June 10, 2015. On that day, in less than a month now, I will board a plane with Jay and Sheri for Romania Adventures, part III. This time, though, my mom, sister, and brother will join me two weeks after I arrive. I will be reunited with my host family, with my friends from Sighișoara, and with the children of Țigmandru. When the rest of my family arrives, all six of us will lead a “Friendship Camp” similar to the Peace Camp my mom started here in Harrisonburg. We will spend a week with a group of about fifteen kids in Sighișoara and a week with who knows how many kids in Țigmandru, playing games, sharing stories, making music, and creating art. As my departure date draws near, I am so excited in some moments, nervous in others, but always hopeful that this trip will once again touch me deeply.

For more information on our upcoming trip, join us in the Fellowship Hall of Park View MC at 7:00pm on Monday, May 25 for our fundraiser. There will be stories, reflections, dessert and tea, and music. We look forward to seeing you there! 

Meet My Friends!

Life is made rich through connectedness with people.  Romania will always be a part of the world inside of me because of the relationships I have built here.  I’d like to share a glimpse of that world by introducing you to some of my friends.

Meet David.

I have been asked a number of times (the majority by my sister) if I have found a Romanian boyfriend…David is my best bet :).  He is also five years old, so Sylvia, don’t get your hopes up.  I love each of my kindergartners for different reasons (that’s my way of justifying my choice to tell you about David…I try not to have favorites!).  David is sweet, adorable, polite, and yes, he’s also a people pleaser.  I can always count on a few warm hugs throughout the morning that often come just at the right time.  He seems to be able to sense my frustration and, whether out of a desire to please, empathy, or a bit of both, tries to comfort me.  He always has a mischievous glint in his eye!

6_386604140_n

Meet Agco.

Agco is 17 years old.  We first met at music camp back in September, where she translated for us.  Her perfect English made it pretty easy to hit it off right away.  She’s also one of those people who are easy to feel completely at-ease around almost immediately.  Agco was my first Romanian friend, other than my host sisters, and has become someone I can count on to brighten my day with laughter.  We share a love for music that has resulted in hours of singing together in choir, attending a concert, singing a duet in church, and picking up pieces that we sing and play piano to whenever we get the chance.  One of the afternoons we spent together included making sugar cookies…and eating half of the dough before it got to the oven :).  That’s a sign of a true kindred spirit!

Meet Raluca and Maria.

These two girls are also in kindergarten.  They are sisters who come from a family of five children.  Maria is seven years old, and Raluca follows at age five.  Their mother gave birth to Maria, her first child, at age 14.  Their family situation is not uncommon here…at my 18 years of age, it is almost inconceivable to most teens that I don’t even have a boyfriend (at least among Gypsies).  Maria has a real thirst for learning, which makes her very teachable!  Raluca is very quiet; she hardly rarely speaks, even when asked a question.  But when she smiles (which she does often) her whole face lights up.  I have enjoyed eating lunch with Maria and Raluca every day and sometimes walk them home.

(Raluca is on the right and Maria is on the left)

(Raluca is on the right and Maria is on the left)

Meet Roberta.

If you were to ask everyone in Sighisoara if they knew Roberta, I wouldn’t be surprised if half said yes.  Roberta is from the United States, but has lived and loved here long enough that she now calls Romania her home.  Roberta is a warm person, right down to her pleasant southern accent.  I have grown to know her as a selfless woman intent on following God’s lead and shining light wherever she goes.  She has been a wonderful example and friend throughout the semester!

(Roberta is on the back left)

Meet Magda, Timea, Marian, Craciunel, and Claudiu.

These children had already snatched up part of my heart a year and a half ago when I visited Tigmandru.  I returned to find that they weren’t yet ready to give it back.  Magda, Timeia, Marian, Craciunel, and Claudiu are five of the six children in their family.  They come to the kids program at the Nazarene Church in Tigmandru every Tuesday and Friday, always skipping along in their dirty clothing and falling-apart shoes with smiles on their faces.  Marian is the youngest – a one or two year old boy.  Timeia is next; she’s five.  Magda is seven, Claudiu is probably nine or so, and I would guess that Craciunel is 12.  None of them go to school, and their mother has been known to sell any new clothing they receive.  Despite their difficult family situation, I see Craciunel feeding his little brother at every meal, caring for Marian like a parent would.  Claudiu is a little bundle of energy, always trying to have some fun.  Magda has always been special to me – she continues to brighten my world with her genuine smile and sparkling eyes.  And Timeia is the adventurer, always looking for a good time like her brother.  I wish I could take them home with me.

(Magda is in the middle and Timeia is on the right)

(Magda is in the middle and Timeia is on the right)

(Claudiu has his thumbs up)

(Claudiu has his thumbs up)

(Craciunel on the left, Marian on the right)

(Craciunel on the left, Marian on the right)

Meet Doamna Rodica.

I don’t know Doamna Rodica very well, but she is one of the few people I can expect to start a conversation if I pass her while I’m out and about.  She runs a stand of touristy souvenirs on the stairs up to the citadel.  One of the things I was struck by when I first arrived in Romania was that people were not very friendly in passing.  I struggled with the lack of trust and amiability I felt as I walked down the street.  However, I have discovered that once you are introduced, there is great potential for a strong friendship.  Doamna Rodica is one of the only people who initiated conversation with me the first few times we saw each other.  Now, every time I pass her she asks how I am and we have conversation about any number of things – the weather, how much she has sold, the language class I am usually headed to, or how “my mother,” Sheri, is doing.  It is people like Doamna Rodica that make me feel at home when I miss being away.

Meet my family.

Nelu, my host father, is jovial and good-natured and takes care of a small farm in a village called Viscri, located 45 minutes away.  My host mother, Monica, is hospitable, hard-working, and sincere, always making sure I have a good breakfast set out and that I’m feeling okay.  She lives in our apartment unless she’s in Viscri with Nelu, where they lead a children’s ministry program they started a few years ago.  The oldest daughter is Oana, who is married to Relu, the pastor of the church I attend.  They have two sweet daughters, Raisa and Briana.  Roxana is the second daughter.  She lives with her husband, Vlad, and daughter, Sofia, about two hours away.  She is expecting a second little one come summer!  Monica comes next.  She lives with her two children – Tibi and Estera – in Viscri with Nelu.  Her husband, Cipi, is in England working for the year.  And then there’s Sendi.  Sendi has been in and out of the apartment, but it’s always nice to have her around.  She is a mentor to me – providing such an example of devotion to her Christian walk.  Lori comes next.  Lori and I are best buds :).  We are the same age, which is great fun.  We always find things to talk and laugh about.  And last but not least, there is Bia.  She’s Daughter #6!  Bia and I have a special connection through a shared lack of knowledge of each other’s native language.  One of my favorite things to do with Bia is learn Romanian or teach English, whether that’s by playing a game together or teaching each other songs.  So there you go – a tiny introduction to my Romanian family!  I love them all and will miss each of them so much.

(I'll let you figure it out :) )

(I’ll let you figure it out 🙂 )

It will be hard to say goodbye to the people of Romania in in two and a half weeks.  I have discovered that I am very much a people person; we all are!  Without relationship, we would be and have nothing.  This semester, it is through relationships with others that I have truly experienced God.

I would like to thank you all again for your continued prayers!  As I wrap up my time in Romania, travel back to North America (Canada first and then Harrisonburg), and make the difficult transition back into a life that was once normal, those prayers will be especially appreciated.  Happy winter and merry Christmas!

Irony.

(Written on September 1st)

I was walking across a footbridge this morning to get to church.  Two or three sets of church bells had just finished ringing, the morning air was crisp and cool, and the sunshine reflected off of the river to my right and intensified the vibrancy of the flowers to my left.  I was approaching the citadel, its beautifully constructed buildings and steeples looming before me.  So this is what it feels like to walk to church in a beautiful European town.  It was picturesque.  Walking across the bridge, though, I came across a woman begging with two children by her side.  She spoke desperately in Romanian, imploring me.  As always, feelings of sorrow, guilt, pity, and a tinge of apprehension rose within me.  But I hurried along, trying my best to send her a warm look as I went on my way.  I had just made it past her when she said, “Sunt Crestin!”  There I was, walking to church with my Bible in hand past a woman and her children who, out of truth or maybe just a last resort, chased after me telling me that she, too, is a Christian.  Does that change anything?  Will that make me turn and look at her?  Will that change my mind?  No.  I kept on walking.  Now there’s some irony for you.  But giving money is not the best option – who knows what that would get used for.  I don’t speak Romanian – I can’t possibly say something to her that would mean anything.  Besides, I’ve heard that it’s not good to encourage Gypsies to beg because then that becomes their lifestyle instead of going to school or getting a job.  I don’t know about you, but I think this is sounding a bit like the Good Samaritan story.  And I do not represent the Good Samaritan in this version.

This issue is one that has bothered me more than any thus far. Indeed, it is one complicated topic.  A bit of background information may help you grasp the complexity (keep in mind that I am not a very credible source):

  • The Gypsies (sometimes known as the Roma people, not to be confused with Romanian people) are a largely discriminated group found all over Eastern Europe.  I won’t try to explain the history of this group, because I don’t know enough about them myself.  What I do know is that they are discriminated against here in Sighisoara as well.  Many are very poor, some do not go to school (even though most have the opportunity to), and many do not have jobs. Collectively, as a group, they like to stick to themselves.
  • There are different types of Gypsies.  Each group is identified by their current trade or the craft they were skilled at in the past.  Some are very wealthy and others beg for a living.
  • Discrimination in Sighisoara is both blatant and subtle.  I have experienced it in church (in very subtle ways, naturally) in the way people greet and interact with one another.  The best example I can give for obvious, completely unjust discrimination is in hospitals.  I have heard numerous stories during my time here of people being turned away or ignored, being given low quality treatment, being left uninformed, or being asked to pay much more money just because they are Gypsy.  Just last week one of my sick kindergarteners was not even tested for hepatitis when she went to the emergency room because of the color of her skin.
  • The stereotypes surrounding the label “Gypsy” include untrustworthy, opportunistic, poor, dirty, unintelligent, lazy, and deceitful.
  • This is an issue that is so ingrained in the culture – so rooted and old and widespread – that it becomes a looming monster that can hardly be approached.  In some situations, it almost seems better to go along with it.

All of this is running through my head in the few moments that I pass these people by.  Are feelings of compassion in my heart good enough?  Is my work with the children in Tigmandru enough?  I may not be impacting that specific child, but surely it counts for something.  In my current situation, adjusting to a totally new culture and living with a host family, how involved can I get without doing something that will affect others negatively?  I don’t know.  I don’t know what to do.  There is no getting around how wrong it feels to pass these people by.  Right now, what I’ll do is keep the advice a friend gave me at the forefront of my mind: above all, I must not get de-sensitized to the people I pass begging on the street.  I must not ignore them, make them feel-subhuman, or harden my heart towards them.  Because if I put up a wall, who can I reach?  Who will I notice?  And who, then, can reach me?

~

I wrote that back in September, over two months ago.  Although many of the same underlying questions persist, my feelings of uselessness have been partially transformed these past three months.  The most evident ground for this change has been a huge improvement in my ability to speak and understand Romanian.  Being able to approach a child and ask the simple question, “Cum te cheama? (What is your name?)” makes a world of difference.  This has allowed me to stop and talk to kids I see along the road and wish them a nice day.  Even that takes a lot of courage though, so I have come to understand that it is not within my own power that I reach out.  I also don’t always have the energy or courage or whatever it takes to approach someone on the street.  A number of times I have really sensed God’s leading, though.  One of those moments has led to a friendship of sorts with one of the girls I often pass and her sister and brothers.  On the way to town, there is a set of stairs that leads to the road from the walkway.  On warm days (which are becoming fewer), there are almost always children sitting there waiting for the cars to stop at the nearby stoplight.  They then proceed to go out onto the road to beg at car windows until the light turns green.  This is where I met Andreea and her sister, Silvania.  It all began when I was headed to the grocery store one day.  On the way back, I stopped to meet them and give them a few plums.  Ever since, I have stopped to chat with them any time they’re there.  Maybe they only recognize me because I gave them food.  Maybe that’s the only reason they talk with me at all.  But I hope that, by choosing to stop and ask them how they are doing, I am showing them that they are important.  They are children of God, just like you and me.

I think about home and how, in a way, it will be a relief to walk down the street and not have a child who clearly does not have enough to eat begging by the path.  And yet I have realized that it’s really not so different.  Instead of passing beggars on the street, they are sitting behind closed doors, not as easily seen.  But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.  And, if you want to dig even deeper and open a whole different set of doors, we are all poor.  We may not be materially poor, but what would it mean if we viewed ourselves as equally poor as the children I’m describing?

Well, I feel as if this blog post is better suited for a messy, incomplete journal.  Really, I’m just thinking out loud.  Maybe you’ve found something worth thinking about.  I wish you wisdom as you begin, or maybe just continue on this long road of questioning.

A Day in the Life of Michaela

Part I: Getting out of the house

My day starts with the beep of an alarm clock.  Well…a more accurate way of putting it is that my day begins to start with the beep of an alarm clock.  I don’t consider myself in a state of full awake-ness until about the 4th or 5th time my alarm clock has gone off.  But that’s beside the point.  So my day begins between 6:20 and 7:10am, when I am jolted out of a nice, relaxing sleep.  I eat breakfast, which is usually set out for me as a nicely displayed array of homemade bread, different spreads, meat, and cereal with the accompaniment of tea.  I am (hopefully) out the door and on my way by 7:35.

Part II: Kindergarten

I arrive at the Veritas Kindergarten by 8:00 or so after a 25-minute walk, which I have become quite accustomed to.  It’s really a nice way to begin the morning, unless it’s raining.  I walk by the river with a view of the citadel most of the way and sometimes hear church bells ringing for part of the journey.  Kindergarten is always an adventure.  I’ll admit that at times it feels like all I’m doing is babysitting, but I have grown to enjoy it more and more as each week goes by.  I have gone from standing around, wide-eyed, not having a clue as to how to control kids who speak a different language than me, to being able to handle the kids for hours at a time on my own (like I did this morning).  I have found that this is a great place to improve my Romanian.  First of all, the kids will talk to me as if I know what they’re saying regardless of the language I speak.  Second, they repeat things over and over again.  Third, I am much more willing to try out my Romanian with children, and am often forced to.  My responsibilities in the Kindergarten have grown as well; I have planned and led crafts, taught three songs, and lead the music activities every Thursday.  I’m also excited to get a pen pal exchange up and running with my mom’s kindergarten class at EMES!  The latest task I have given myself is to teach the kids how to write their name, or at least the first letter.  Of 15+ kids ages three to six, no one knows how to write a single letter!

[A quick note: a little girl named Eliza, who has been to class almost every day since the beginning, is currently in the hospital with Hepatitis A.  Please keep her and the rest of the class in your prayers!  In a setting like that sickness spreads very easily.]

Part III: Lunch

In Romania, Kindergarten is for kids ages 3-6, so in a sense it is similar to a daycare or preschool.  For that reason, it is only half-day, so I am done by 12:00, or whenever the last child is picked up.  Every day I eat lunch at Veritas along with other staff members, students, and people participating in the programs (depending on the day, there are folks from the elderly club or special needs group there).  We’ve had a wide variety of delicious foods, most of them fairly traditional Romanian dishes!

Part IV, Version 1: Language Class

Twice a week – on Tuesdays and Thursdays – I spend an hour and a half in language class.  I am one of three in the class; Jay and Sheri Hartzler study with me.  Our teacher, Elena, is a bubbly, light-hearted Romanian who is learning English herself (well, she knows English quite well, but occasionally gives us a chance to feel like we actually know something by asking us a question about the English language).  I love language class, partly because the study of language has always been fascinating and comes naturally to me, and also because it equips me with tools that I can use on a daily basis in my interactions with others.  Really, language class is not where I have learned the bulk of the language I know, but acts as a place for me to start, enabling me to grow from the interactions I have in kindergarten, in Tigmandru, with my host family, and with anyone else I speak with.

Part IV, Version 2: Home

On days that I don’t have language class, I walk home from Veritas after lunch.  I am usually greeted by Bia, who will often come into my room and chat with me for a while about my day.

Part V, Version 1: Dinner at Dorothy’s

On Monday nights, the students in the Romanian Studies Abroad Program and the people working through the Nazarene Church gather for dinner at Dorothy’s house.  (Dorothy has played an integral role in starting the Veritas programs and has lived in Romania for years.  She is also in charge of the student program.)  We eat yummy food, drink tea or coffee, and pray with and for one another after sharing prayer requests with the group.  This is a nice time to debrief with each other and speak our fill of English!  Each week a few people cook for everyone else.  Although I find it quite intimidating to cook for 16 people, I have done it twice – once by myself, and both times successfully!  If nothing else, I’ll return from Romania knowing that I can cook a meal for 16 all on my own :).

Part V, Version 2: Tigmandru

On Tuesdays and Fridays I drive to Tigmandru with Jay and Sheri.  Without fail, my spirits are lifted by the many smiles of the children when we arrive.  This is one of my very favorite times of the week.  There is really no such thing as a typical kids’ program.  We can have as few as 20 kids and as many as 60.  Usually the children are ages two, twelve or thirteen, and everything in between.  The program begins (or ends…it depends) with some singing!  Of course I really enjoy this, and I believe the kids do as well or else they wouldn’t come back week after week!  Jay does an excellent job of teaching and leading, and I step in every now and then to lead the song Peace Before Us or He’s Got the Whole World.  When I’m not up front, I’m sitting among the kids, simply enjoying.  Every now and then I am struck by how truly grateful I am to be sitting among a bunch of such beautiful children in a place where I can see God at work more than almost anywhere else in the world.  After singing, Nelutu, the man who has led the program since its formation, gives some type of Bible lesson and leads them in prayer.  Then we play!  Sometimes I lead games, and other times they are led by Sheri or Nelutu.  Then on Fridays, everyone is fed a bowl of soup and two pieces of bread before they head home.  After the younger group leaves, a group of about five or so teenagers arrive for guitar lessons and ‘choir practice.’  They have made a huge improvement since day one!  I could go on and on about my time in Tigmandru, but that’s all I’ll write for now.  There will be more to come sometime soon in one form or another!

Part V, Version 3: Gospel Choir

On Wednesday nights, I walk back into town after dinner for Gospel Choir, which is held at the House on the Rock.  Gospel Choir is a place I can sit back (or rather, sit up straight), relax, and get rejuvenated.  I have realized how important music is in my life…both in the way it nourishes my soul and the way I can use it as a tool to connect with others.  This is the best place I have found to be nourished through music.  Gospel Choir has been in existence for a number of years already, but this year Jay was asked to lead it, so I don’t have to give up singing under his direction quite yet!

Part V, Version 4: Home

If I’m not at Dorothy’s for dinner or in Tigmandru or at choir, I spend the evening at home!  Many of you who know me well know that I need my alone time, so moments to myself at home are sought after and thoroughly enjoyed.  However, I also love spending time with my host family!  Most of my evenings are spent in the living room while Lori and Bia do their homework, and my host mother, Monica, works (she is an accountant and does her work from home).  Lori and I often spend the evening talking when she takes breaks from homework or occasionally watch a movie.  In many cases I also help Bia with her English homework (and sometimes Lori as well…her homework has stumped me more than once!).  The Ludu home has continued to be a place where I’m comfortable, especially as my friendships with my sisters and mother grow stronger.

Part VI: Bedtime

…you don’t have to use your imagination for this one.  Mama, don’t worry – I’m in bed and asleep before midnight almost every night :).

Well, that’s about it!  I could go into much more detail for every significant area of my life here, but I don’t want to bore you.  Please don’t hesitate to ask me a question or two!  I’d love to hear from you.  Signing off for now, this has been A Day in the Life of Michaela.

Daddy Daycare with a Plot Twist

As of today, I have made it through 2 weeks in Kindergarten!  What a crazy two weeks they’ve been.  During the few minutes I had the chance to formulate a thought this morning, I was reminded of the movie Daddy Daycare.  For those of you who have not seen the movie, no worries – basically, it involves a bunch of crazy kids running around all day while two dads try to control them.  These are a few experiences I’ve had that have…stretched me, and left me exhausted at the end of the day:

There is one little girl, Timea, who always has a mischievous glint in her eye.  Every time you look at her she’ll give you a cute little innocent smile.  I have to keep my eye on her though, because she has a strange obsession with the bathroom and everything in it.  If she gets the chance, she’ll sneak in and stand there flushing the toilets continually, pulling toilet paper off of the rolls, or squirting soap into the sink and turning the faucet on in order to create a cloud of bubbles.

I have a few aggressive boys.  Very aggressive boys.  If you know me well at all, you know that I cannot stand any form of violence or fighting.  The kids get away with a lot more than I would probably allow if I were the teacher (and could speak the language), but I have found myself holding kids back to keep them from punching, biting, and hitting many a time.

The other day I was trying to calm a little girl who was in hysterics because she had just wet herself.  She had entered into the gasping-for-breath, sobbing stage after only one minute.  Eventually her father came to pick her up because she would not calm down.

On Wednesday of this week, I found out that one of my kids is a boy, not a girl (after over a week of class).  Whew…that one’s not even in the movie!

Most of the time, I have kids grabbing me, pulling at my hands, and asking to be held.  Others want to use me as a gymnastics bar or playground.  One day I had two girls vying for my attention and affection.  If one was sitting on my lap, the other would start to sob.  If the other was on my lap, the first one would go sit in a corner by herself.  And if I tried to hold them both, they’d starting hitting each other.

Can you see one of the scenes in Daddy Daycare starting to take shape?  I have pee on my pants while trying to keep two boys from punching each other while a little girl clings to my leg and another is crying because she’s not being held.  Meanwhile, the rest of the kids are running around the room screaming because they’re playing “a snake chases the people” or something…and there’s also music playing.  Oh yeah, and I can’t understand anything.  That’s the plot twist – put it all in Romanian!  The hardest aspect of knowing very little Romanian is mediating a conflict.  Normally, I’d think very carefully about how I would handle certain situations, choose my words carefully, and try to react in a way that does not provoke another misbehavior.  Well, in this case, I know how to say “No,” “Say ‘I’m sorry,’” “Stop,” “Are you okay?” and a mess of other words.  That limits my options!

Now.  Please don’t get the idea that I am not enjoying this position!  The experiences I shared are some of the most difficult ones.  I’m sure this is a typical scene anywhere in the world…energy is not a unique attribute to children only in Romania.  Thankfully, I have three great people to work with: the two women in charge of the kindergarten program at Veritas and one student from the Romanian Studies Abroad Program.  The kids I teach are very sweet.  I have witnessed precious moments when one child grabbed the hand of a new student, or helped one of the quieter boys get involved with the others.   There have been many times when I have two little guys snuggled up to me as we listen to a Bible story.  I’ve been asked to read a book in English over and over again, even though they don’t understand a word.  I’ve taught them two songs, made cookies with them, and helped them make caterpillar hats.  So although the job difficult at times, it is also very rewarding.

We’ll see if I make it out of this still wanting a degree in elementary education :).

Returning to Ţigmandru

Most of you know that my initial interest in returning to Romania came from my connection with the children of Ţigmandru.  To this day, that is what excites me most about being here!

My first time back in Ţigmandru was with a German team who led a German camp at Veritas the previous week.  I was excited, but very nervous to go back.  I have talked about my experience in Ţigmandru last June to so many, in individual conversations and at least four public talks.  What if I exaggerated my feelings of joy when I returned home to the States?  What if I made up some of those emotions?  What if I glamorized the experience?  Maybe the kids didn’t feel the same way.  What if they don’t remember anything about the choir or me?  What if Magda’s not there?  These questions and many more had been running through my head since my arrival in Romania, if not before.  My biggest question of all was, “What if I don’t experience anything that confirms my deep desire to return to this place?  What if I can’t connect?”  What if I had it all wrong?  Before leaving, I was certain that Romania was the right place for me to be at this time in my life; the idea of returning to Ţigmandru was a big part of that.  What would I be left with if I didn’t feel that pull after being there again?

Well.  I can tell you that those were all valid, but unnecessary fears.  As we pulled up, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I saw the huge group of kids gathered in the yard of the church.  It was such a strange feeling to be back – I was seeing familiar faces, faces that I had only seen in pictures for over a year; and the smell, the steps of the church building, and the houses were all familiar, all of which took me back to the time I was there with the EMHS Touring Choir.  That’s really the main thing I remember about my first time back: taking in the similarities. I held the hands of many children, played games with them, spoke to them (a very little bit of Romanian goes a long way!), and I smiled constantly.  What a surreal feeling to be back in a place that had made such an impact.

Although it wasn’t an extraordinary experience by any means, the first time back to Ţigmandru was exciting because I knew that I’d be forming relationships with the people I was playing with.  I knew that I’d be returning many, many times.  And I have returned!  I drive to Ţigmandru every Tuesday and Friday with the Hartzlers to help lead a choir for the younger group of children and the teens.  Every Sunday I am there as well, this time to go looking for people to play with or attend the Sunday evening church service.  I hope I never lose the feeling of excited anticipation I get every time I drive up to the church.

Many of you are probably if wondering if I have seen Magda again.  Yes, I have!  The first time the Hartzlers and I went to the children’s program, we walked into a room of kids listening to a lesson…and there she was!  She began beaming right away, as did I.  As I pictured my return to Ţigmandru, I couldn’t help but imagine her jumping into my arms the first time I saw her.   Although that didn’t happen the first time, every time I have arrived since she has come running with her arms outstretched and a huge grin on her face.  Those are moments that I will never forget, and ones that I thank God for.  But Magda is not the only friend I have in Ţigmandru!  I have so many little buddies now!  I am often followed around, asked to sit by someone, and pulled into a hug. My hands have actually been (gently) fought over…everyone wants to hold them!  That has been a bit overwhelming at times – I want everyone to feel loved.  I know that I leave that place feeling very loved, a love that I believe comes from God through the children, so I can only hope the children feel the same.

I have also built relationships with Nelutu, Diana, and Magda Cini.  Nelutu leads the children’s programs and his mother, Magda, is the pastor of the church and works with the women of the community.  Diana is Magda’s 14-year-old daughter who I’ve gotten to know through a shared interest in music (we’re taking guitar lessons together!).  Their family is so generous and extremely welcoming.  They are great people to work with, but even more importantly, they are becoming wonderful friends.

As I walked down the street with Diana a few weeks ago, I was struck by the thought that I am not utterly saddened as I pass by families living in houses with roofs that are hardly holding up or children who haven’t been bathed in weeks.  Some are worse off than others, but in general, the people in Ţigmandru live in very poor conditions.  Why do I view that as a place of hope instead of despair?  I would guess that people living there see it as the opposite.  Am I being insensitive?  Or is that a gift?  Maybe that allows me to reach out in love to the people I interact with instead of being paralyzed by hopelessness.  That is a question I will continue to ponder.  I have a deep sense that God has all of this in His hands, which gives me such a peace.  I know already that the people I form relationships with will change me.  And the way I touch the lives of the people in Ţigmandru is not up to me.  I wouldn’t want it to be.