Written by volunteer, Danielle Padilla
I wish I had the journal I kept of this summer in front of me, but it’s probably best I don’t. I want this to be a pure reflection of my summer as a student volunteer, not a report of what I thought I felt then. This is a reflection piece about my summer abroad and I want this to be about the now as well. Who am I now because of it? What was the point of it all? Was it worth it? If I knew what was going to happen this summer beforehand would I have still done it? The answer is nem, tu dom. Writing that phrase has made me smile because it is one of the only phrases I remember in Hungarian and means “I don’t know”. That has kind of been the theme of this whole summer to be honest. I didn’t know a lot before I left and – even though I learned A LOT – I feel like I still know nothing as well. So, since I suffer from the Jon Snow paradox, again I say nem tu dom.
You’re probably thinking: “Wow, this was a waste then if she didn’t learn anything”. But that’s not true. As I stated earlier, I learned a lot. However, this does not mean I know everything. Instead, it helped me realize I know nothing. You’re probably itching for more details so let me explain myself. The lessons I learned are not really something I can write down. I can try to reiterate some of it, but these are lessons I learned with both my heart and my head. Okay, before you turn away this isn’t some lengthy prose about how I found a boy in Budapest, had an epic summer love, and like all summer romances it was extinguished when we both returned to reality and our regular lives. Gosh. I wish my summer was spent like that. That would have made this all so much easier and it would’ve meant I had some game. But sadly I don’t, so I digress.
I was a student as much as I was a teacher. I know that sounds clichéd, but I can’t properly articulate how much this summer taught me. I was like an anthropologist “going native” and immersing myself in a culture so different from my own. I never felt this more than when I lived with my host families and for three weeks was their daughter. They never once made me feel unwelcome and worked tirelessly to make me feel included. I was invited to birthday parties, weekend road trips, and even on occasion to a place the village called the “disco”. I sometimes feel that I’m too much of a cynic, but experiencing the kindness from my host families and communities was astounding. Their generosity and good heartedness is what helped restore a bit of my faith in humanity.
I get it, this all sounds too good to be true. However, I swear to whatever god, gods, or no god you have, it is very much a real experience. Living with these families and communities was real. Teaching my students was real. You know it is funny, I say my students, but I’ll admit that my students owned me. They didn’t know any English and I didn’t know any Hungarian, how could I possibly have forged a connection with these kids? Let me tell you, it’s possible. The simple act of playing with these kids made my Grinch-like heart grow three sizes. To this day, if you asked me anything about this summer I will 9 out of 10 times tell you an anecdote about my kids. The times that seemed hard back then are now comical and nostalgic. I can go on and on, but it would be a dissertation paper-length of a read.
I’m realizing now that I cannot just summarize my trip. It wasn’t just something I did one summer. LE Romania is something that still stays with me. It has helped me learn so many things about myself and has made me realize no one is ever really done learning. No matter how many degrees you accumulate, despite how many years you’ve been in school, this doesn’t mean you know everything. Sometimes the greatest teachers are the experiences you live through and sometimes the greatest lessons are taught outside of the classroom.
Written by volunteer, Tim Coan, originally on http://gucaravel.com/final-week-with-my-host-family-in-szalard/
Going into my home-stay experience, I was unsure of what to expect, and needless to say, I was terrified: a family of strangers, a foreign language, and a town in a far away country that I’d never been to before. What was I getting myself into?
After three weeks, it is safe to say that I’m just as sad to leave my host family as I was nervous to meet them. For three weeks, this Hungarian family, their neighbors, and friends, took me in as one of their own. I was not only brought in as a member of the family but as a member of the community as I taught English in the little Transylvanian village.
My last week in Szalard kicked off with a weekend festival known in the town as “Village Days,” a unique mix of a neighborhood block party and a state fair. The event blended the classics—bumper cars, cotton candy, and plenty of drinks— with a small neighborhood atmosphere: you couldn’t turn around without seeing someone else that you knew. For me, this included some of my 50 students who shyly smiled and waved and also the older kids in town with whom I spent most of the weekends.
During the day, the festival featured dance performances, but by nightfall, a DJ and live bands took the stage and played a variety of popular Romanian, Hungarian, and American songs. On Saturday night, the music blasted until after 3:00 am, with many of the older kids, including myself, staying out until the sun rose around 5:00 am.
Sunday was decidedly tamer than Saturday with most people preparing for work on Monday. In the morning, there was also a joint religious service held that in the morning, which unfortunately I did not wake up for, between the village’s
main religious groups, including the Catholics and Protestants. The festivities continued that evening with a fireworks display held just before midnight.
As my final days in the classroom rolled around on Monday, I decided to teach my older group a classic American gym class game: Capture the Flag. After pushing through the language barrier and resolving any hesitation about the rules, they quickly picked up on how to play. The game reminded me so much of gym class at home—one hero sprinting across the field as the rest of his or her teammates cheered wildly for them to bring back the flag to their side and win the game. Each day after that first game, I was always asked the same question: “can we play capture the flag today?”
For my last night with my host family, my host sister, host brother, and I sat down and watched a movie together. It reminded me of sitting down with my family at home to watch movies and also that in just three short weeks, I felt like I had become a part of this family.
My final week with them went by very quickly, as did the entire three-week stay. When the time came to finally leave, we all found ourselves saying how quickly the time had gone. However, we also reminded each other that the next location I will be staying in is only about a 10-minute drive away. I will definitely miss waking up every morning to a table of bread and jam with cottage cheese on the side, and it will be completely different not having my host mother tell me to “have some more!” every time I have an empty plate on the table. After three weeks, I definitely learned a lot with my host family about the culture and myself, and I am excited to see what the next three weeks in my new village will bring.
Written by volunteer Tim Coan, originally on http://gucaravel.com/on-transportation-food-and-foreign-languages/
Each day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, my host family and I formally sit down and eat together. At one of the dinners this week, my host sister had a friend visiting her family, and he asked me what struck me most about Romania as different from my life back in the United States. So, here are the three things I find most different about life in Romania in the Transylvanian region:
1. One afternoon, my host family decided to take me to their wine cellar on the property they own in another town, and they asked me how I wanted to get there: by car or by cart. Horse-drawn cart, that is. I chose the cart, and soon enough I was climbing into the back of a cart pulled by two large, brown horses. As we rode through the streets, a man driving a Mercedes pulled up behind us and patiently waited until there was enough room on the side of the road for him to pass us. This is not uncommon, either. Each day I leave the house, I always see many people riding in horse-drawn carts and people driving cars, waiting to get around them so that they can pass. This contrast of old and new, using horse carts for transportation instead of cars, as well as potentially a stark contrast in income, really struck me as interesting and different from home.
2. While the food eaten in Romania is definitely different from what I usually eat at home (stuffed cabbage, anyone?), where the food comes from is also very different: the backyard. It seems like every meal, my host family is telling me that we are eating something that they grew themselves or got from one of their animals. Whether it’s the raspberries that we picked together from the raspberry bushes on the side of the house, the peaches from the peach trees in the backyard, or the cottage cheese from the cow, almost everything is prepared straight from homegrown produce. The wine we’re drinking is from the grapes in the vineyard. The honey, we get from the bees that the family keeps. The only food I know they have not made themselves is the bread we eat with every meal and the pizza we ordered for lunch on Friday. Even today, my host mother was turning some of the berries she gathered into jams so that she can put them in the freezer and save them for the winter.
3. Finally, the foreign languages present on the radio, marked on products, and on signs stood out to me. While Spanish is becoming a major language in the US, you will rarely ever see it used outside of a classroom, at least in Baltimore where I live. In this part of Romania, I am living with a Hungarian-speaking population. However, all government buildings (police, schools, etc.) use Romanian on signs and official notices, as it is the official language of Romania. When I walk into the grocery store, many of the products are in English, with no Hungarian or Romanian on the wrapping at all, as far as I could tell – something that would never happen in the US. Finally, the radio plays many popular American songs, but I haven’t heard any songs in Hungarian or Romanian. Besides Despacito, the only songs on the radio in the US are in English.
So, there you have it: the three things I find most different about Romania after one week of living with my host family.
Written by volunteer, Tim Coan, originally on http://gucaravel.com/a-day-at-the-lake/
Near the little town of Szalard located in Transylvania, my home for the last two weeks, is a manmade lake that the locals frequently use for swimming, fishing, and hanging out. My host family and I originally planned on being at the lake on Saturday, but a fast-moving thunderstorm interrupted our plans just as we arrived at the lake on our bikes. So, we headed home in the rain in order to regroup and formulate a new plan to head back to the lake on Sunday. Thankfully, the weather on Sunday was a lot nicer and perfect for swimming, so my host brother, a neighbor, and I headed to the lake for a relaxing afternoon.
The lake is about 20 minutes away by bike through open fields and farms, affording us to experience the land and the city’s culture. On our way, we took a short detour to see an aging tower in one of the fields. The tower is hundreds of years old and belonged to an old Hungarian King. Beyond the aged tower was a new tower being built at the top of a hill as a lookout point over the whole valley. While not finished yet, we still climbed to the top and looked across the horizon.
In the same trip, we also stopped at a fountain bubbling with mineral water. The water tasted a bit like copper, but our neighbor joked that it cured any hangover as he filled his water bottle to the top.
Finally, we arrived at the lake and met up with some of our neighbor’s friends on a dock overlooking the lake. The lake sits at the top of a hill with beautiful panoramic views of the valley. Around the lake are benches and docks with a snack shack run by some of the villagers. As we sat on one of the docks, American pop music started blaring over someone’s speaker, and we moved a mini-trampoline to the edge of the dock. Soon enough, everyone was doing flips and dives into the water off the trampoline. As the sun began to set around 9:00 p.m., someone passed around a bottle of wine to share as we enjoyed the view.
Written by volunteer: Tim Coan originally on http://gucaravel.com/my-first-week-in-a-romanian-orphanage/
In my psychology class last semester, we discussed child development focusing on Romanian orphanages as an example of an environment in which kids struggled to develop socially due to a lack of attention resulting from overcrowding. So, when I realized that my last three weeks in Romania would be spent living in a Romanian orphanage, I was anxious and uncertain about what to expect.
With one week in the orphanage complete, I am happy to report that the living conditions and the kids are good! The orphanage is clean and has about 25 kids living here, and the kids are just as energetic and social as any of the other kids I have met so far. The kids living in this orphanage are aged 10-17, and another home nearby has all of the orphans that are younger than ten. The kids in both orphanages come together to eat lunch and dinner. While the food is not as great as with my host family back in Szalard, it is still good.
While the orphans do not speak much English, within about 15 minutes of my arrival, three of the boys asked me what seemed to be a very important question: “Barcelona or Real?” While I don’t have much of a preference for either of these Spanish soccer teams, I quickly said “Real” and was greeted with cheers from two of the boys and a groan from the third. The Barcelona-Real rivalry runs strong even here in a little Transylvanian orphanage, it seems. Next was an even more important question: “Fútbol?” For the rest of the day, and most of the first week, we kicked a soccer ball around in the yard outside the orphanage or in a field down the street.
On Monday night, my second night in the orphanage, one of the girls was celebrating her 17th birthday. At around 9:00 p.m., we all gathered in a room upstairs, ate a big dinner, and blasted a mixture of Romanian, Hungarian, and American music. The kids sung “Happy Birthday” in English, Hungarian, Romanian, and German. Finally, a big cake was brought out covered in chocolate icing. Several people stood and talked about the birthday girl. The celebration was very similar to parties in the United States.
My class on Wednesday offered a new experience that was quite different than most other classes because we had a TV crew filming it! Duna, the local Hungarian TV Station, came to my class and filmed my students speaking English and playing some games. After class, I was interviewed for about ten minutes and asked questions about my time in Romania so far, why I had come to teach English, and, of course, about the food. Being interviewed on foreign TV was a surreal experience that I won’t forget.
Across the street from the orphanage is an old church that I did not think anything of until Thursday when we walked over to see the excavations taking place. The church was built after relics from St. Stephen, including his hand, were brought to the area, and a fortress was also constructed. While the fortress has long been destroyed, archaeologists began to dig out what remains of the fortress and its preserved artifacts. Before the World Wars, the area hosted a yearly pilgrimage in September. attended by as many as 15,000 people. Today, the number has dropped below 1,000 people. While I was engrossed in the history of the site, the children accompanying me were caught up with a stray kitten they found wandering the grounds.
Written by volunteer, Tim Coan, originally found on http://gucaravel.com/transylvanian-hospitality/
“Hey! Come back here!” My head swivels at the English as I walk down the street to watch the soccer practice that many of the orphans are taking part in. “Come back!” I hear again, a voice coming from the little pub, the only one in the village, that I just passed. As I make my way back towards the pub, a man greets me and says “American, right?” I nod my head, and he immediately smiles and says to me, “Come in, drinks on me.”
The hospitality I have experienced in Romania in the past weeks never ceases to amaze me. In this instance, a group of people sitting at the pub on a hot August night saw me walking down the street and immediately decided to invite me over for a drink. As we sat at the table, with one of them speaking English fairly well after having lived in Denmark for some time, they asked me all about my experiences so far, how I liked their country and their town, and about life back home in the U.S.
After having a drink, we all made our way to the soccer field where practice was in full swing. The temperatures this week have been hitting 100 degrees every day, but at this point in the evening the sun was beginning to set, and the temperature was just beginning to drop. As we moved to the field, the coach kicked some soccer balls over, and we began shooting at the goal. The players had a game in which each person had two shots at the goal to try and score on the goalie, and if they did not score on one of those two shots, they were out. This was played until only one person remained. Most players, including myself, were eliminated after the first two shots.
The coach was very interested in what I was doing here in Romania, beginning by asking if I was German or Austrian. Most of the foreigners that come to Szentjobb come from these two countries, so he was a bit more interested when I told him that I was American. Before he headed to the other side of the field to conduct some drills with the younger players, he turned to me and said I was always welcome as a member of the team.
In addition to the hospitality here in Szentjobb, my host family from my first three weeks stopped by for a visit on Tuesday. They get their water from a pump in this village, and decided to stop by and say hello before leaving for Croatia the following day. They also brought some food for me – a very welcome sight. With only one week left in Romania, their visit reminded me of the awesome experiences I have had over the past 6 weeks, the incredible people I have met, and how grateful I am to have experienced this hospitality this summer.
Below, our Romania & Croatia Program Director, Haley Moen, writes about her experiences volunteering on the program last summer. The Romania & Croatia program is an interesting program based across two European countries with a variety of teaching settings. For more details, please visit the program page.
Session 1: Solanta Orphanage, Romania
My experience at Solanta orphanage was defined by universal languages and an appreciation for simplicity. Although I often felt frustrated by the steep language barrier, I went to bed every night feeling content because of the small yet impactful moments that filled each day.
My favorite moments at the orphanage were when the children and I discovered common languages such as sports. I’ll never forget how shocked some of the boys were when they learned that I, (a girl!), could juggle and pass a soccer ball. Soon enough, we played soccer almost every day on their worn-down, patchy field with two crooked goal posts on either end. It didn’t matter that we spoke different languages because we all understood the sport. The passes, dribbles, sprints, high-fives, and shouts of names were the only forms of communication that we needed. Our games would always get too competitive, which made them even more fun!
Another universal language we discovered was music. I was so excited when I realized that most of the children knew “The Cup Song” from Pitch Perfect. They tapped out the beat on plastic cups while I sang. One of my favorite students, Atilla, even tried to learn all the lyrics; he just mumbled out similar-sounding syllables as I sang the real words since it was pretty advanced vocabulary for his level. It was a great effort, though! I was proud.
Some of my other favorite universal languages were drawing, dancing, smiling, and laughing. It sounds cheesy, but I felt most connected to the children when we laughed and acted goofy together. Although Eva and I only taught English for one or two hours every morning, the love that was exchanged between us and the children was why we went to bed every night feeling like we made an impact—no matter how small or fleeting it was.
Along with my excitement for common languages, I also appreciated the beauty of simplicity. Life at the orphanage was minimal. Every day we ate plain white bread, cucumbers, and hot tea for breakfast. Eva and I taught our lessons on a picnic bench or on the pavement using only construction paper, markers, chalk, and a dirty tennis ball. During the evenings we sat on our front steps and watched the sun set as the boys milked the brown goat named Susie. Some of the boys would chase the goats and sheep around the pen—the object of their game was to try an animal before it got away. They spoke and shouted in Hungarian; I only understood their laughter as they poked fun at each other and dashed after the sheep. Above all, the children’s love and support for one another were clear. They always had a smile to give and their smiles were always more than enough to receive. It was during those times when I acknowledged the brilliance of simplicity and when I felt deeply grateful for everything that I learned at the orphanage.
Session 2: Biograd na Moru, Croatia
Biograd na Moru contrasted greatly from the orphanage. First, my relationship with my Croatian students were less intense because I only saw each class for one hour a day, and most of the classes only met three times a week. I was strictly a teacher to the Croatian kids, whereas I felt more like an older sister at the orphanage. This type of LE experience in Biograd allowed me to focus directly on my teaching skills, which was rewarding and enjoyable. For example, I spent much more time lesson planning since I actually had structured classes with luxurious tools such as a projector, laptop, and copy machine. Since Anya and I taught during weekday mornings, we spent our afternoons at our favorite beaches and spent our weekends traveling to nearby Croatian cities with our host Mom, Drina. These excursions allowed Anya and me to experience Croatian culture and nightlife. For example, we watched the sun set in Zadar, which is famous for Ernest Hemingway’s claim that Zadar has the most beautiful sunsets in the world (I could not agree more)!
Another great day in Biograd was August 5: the Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day/Day of Croatian Defenders. This national holiday commemorates Croatia’s War of Independence in 1995, when the Croatian Army took the city of Knin during Operation Storm and ended the Republic of Serbian Krajina. I felt so lucky to celebrate this day in Biograd, where there were festivals, food, singers, performers, fireworks, and more.
The more I reflected by the sea and the more I saw of Croatia, the more I realized the enormity of our world and the different types of people that inhabit it. I spent my childhood and early teenage years thinking that I could “change the whole world”—I would literally daydream about the ways I could impact the entire world. My LE summer made me realize that the overwhelming complexity of the planet can be solved with the cultivation of meaningful relationships and the discovery of common languages. Overall, the best part about LE is that every volunteer has a unique experience, and each interprets his or her own experience in different ways. One thing for sure is that LE provides an opportunity for people to discover significant things about the world and themselves while befriending people that they otherwise probably would have never met. This summer was unforgettably incredible, and I feel so grateful to have lived it.