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 concentrated 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.
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.
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!
To read more about my previous trips and stay connected during our next one, visit my blog at michaelamast.wordpress.com.