UPSV: A Beginning After the End
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First stop, the bus. After hearing about digital theft being a pretty big business in Romania, I was leery to try my card in the ATM, but needed cash at least to get to where I needed. So I tried one ATM. Denied. I tried another. No luck. By the time I got to the fifth, certain I'd already had four duplicates made of my card, success. And as soon as there was money in my hand, there were "taxi" drivers offering to take me up to Brasov for the low-low price of triple what it would cost everywhere else. They're really persistent with their insistence that you go with them, which isn't particularly my favorite sales tactic. But I digress.
The bus ride itself was easy to navigate and the people on it were super friendly but didn't speak a lick of English. So, here I am in a European country, surrounded by Caucasian people for the first time in half a year, with not-a-one speaking (unfortunately) the only language I know. And let's be honest - English makes absolutely no sense, even to you who are reading this - so I can't fault the people on said bus for not knowing it. Someone understood "train" though and told me where to disembark.
At the train station, which is a big outside mall with a dozen rails, there are restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores galore. I didn't have any water to speak of for the last day or so, so I hopped in to do something pretty innocuous and buy a bottle of water. There was a security guard there who made me drop off my bags because I couldn't take them into the store. He didn't speak English, and I didn't want to leave my camera bag, but he also was about 55 and seemed trustworthy, so I hopped into the store for about 93 seconds, grabbed my water, and came back and grabbed my bags. Mission accomplished.
Hopped on the train, which was packed, and the overhead storage was about big enough to store a box of tic-tacs. So I held all my bags on my lap, having no view of the scenery or anything around me. But the guy sitting next to me took it upon himself to place his man-purse, which literally looked like a "clutch" on the window-sill next to me so he wouldn't be bothered to hold it. So, there's that.
The further north we got, the more people hopped off the train. So for the last two hours of the journey, I had plenty of room, which was fantastic. The scenery was great. After two months in Southeast Asia, one in Nepal, two in Kenya, and one in South Africa, it was a surprise to see something that looked a lot like home.
Once I got to the train station in Brasov, I was met right away by a man named Florin (30's) another man named John (70's), and three women named Kathy (40's), Rodicca, and Mariana (70's). Mariana and Kathy are part of an NGO based in Dallas named Hearts Across Romania. They, along with a super nice man named Jerry, helped to facilitate my placement here in Brasov where I'll be volunteering. They all seem like really nice folks and I look forward to talking with them more when I'm not so sleep-deprived.
Before crashing, I figured I'd at least unpack my camera to charge it for tomorrow. That's when I noticed a compartment on the camera bag unzipped. That's when I pulled out my emergency, US cash that I'd had tucked away in there. That's when I realized the trustworthy-looking security guard at the train station in Bucharest stole $197 dollars out of my bag in the split second I was out of sight. (I know, I know, you should always keep your money ON you while traveling, but I plum forgot I had that money in there in my insomniac state, and that's the last person I thought would steal from me.)
Not the best way to be introduced to a new country, but I hope he uses it for some form of good. How it goes, I guess. The hospitality of Florin and Hearts Across Romania more than makes up for it, though.
I look forward to this new adventure.
(Text courtesy of www.upsv.org)
UPSV stands for Un Pas Spre Viitor, which translates "A Step to the Future." It is an established centre where young adults leaving orphanages can go and develop the skills and behaviours they need to become effective and constructive members of society. Unfortunately this is the only center of its kind in Romania.
UPSV believes that every child should be given the chance to flourish, no matter what their background is. Whether they have come from the confinements of an orphanage or a poverty stricken family, UPSV is here to help them realize their potntial and place in society. Like all teenagers, they just need support, direction, and guidance. UPSV teaches them independent living skills, provides legal advice, counseling, and assistance in finding a job.
The President and founder, Florin Catanescu, knows all too well the challenges orphans face when they have no choice but to leave the orphanages at 18, poorly equipped to face the outside world after years of institutionalism. Florin has grown up in orphanages since birth, not knowing the love of parents and suffered terrible maltreatment. Armed only with his own self taught determination, Florin aspired to open a center for the disadvantaged your of Romania. UPSV was born.
Today, UPSV celebrates its 10th anniversary and has helped over 100 youths find jobs and a sense of purpose in life.
If the first couple guys I met are an indication of the personalities of the 20 that live here, these are profoundly welcoming, courteous, wonder-filled, excited souls despite their backgrounds. I know that getting to know them on a daily basis is going to give me lessons on vast topics, none more important than the whole "life" one.
I didn't get a chance to see it last night, but during the day today I was able to notice that Brasov is pretty good sized. 250,000+ I'd guess, and with great architecture, especially at the city center which is old and historic and where we were meeting the mayor.
Down-to-Earth and friendly, the mayor met with Florin and the HAR (Hearts Across Romania) crew to discuss further development to the new center Florin is renovating for the kids. The meeting seemed to go well, though I don't know of course because it was all in Romanian. Maybe smiling and handshaking culturally in Romania is tantamount to flipping someone the bird, but I doubt it.
After Catharsis, it was off to meet a family that Hearts Across Romania has sponsored for a few years. Well..actually five families living under one roof. I use the term roof loosely, because it's barely hanging on. There are five families in one house that has extensive fire damage, one outside toilet, one tiny stove, and no electricity. If you didn't know who was in there from the outside, you would think it was maybe home to an older married couple. Not seven adults and eight kids, along with numerous dogs and cats.
At night, they bought all of the guys at UPSV pizza and had several boxes of donated clothes for them. It was refreshing to see brand new shirts, pants, and shoes, rather than hand me downs, a testament to HAR's drive to treat these kids like their own.
I have absolutely no roofing experience, but I do know how to use a shovel. For today, that proved to be all the know-how I needed. Cracked and falling apart in many places, the roof is cement bottom, with an asphalt-like top a couple inches thick. The whole roof needs to be completely rid of the asphalt stuff, which is relatively difficult to do with shovels, since it was put in place firmly at its origin so it'd (hopefully) never have to be removed.
But it does have to be removed, and Florin, a handful of the guys, and myself were just the ragtag ones to see to it that this happens.
Also today, before starting on the roof, Florin, the HAR crew, and I were invited to help out at an art class in a therapy wing of a children's hospital nearby. Here, they taught blind kids painting, and I'm humbled they asked me to be a part of it. Really good experience.
I also tagged along with the crew while they delivered a birthday cake to two little girls they sponsor. Both of the girls' parents are handicapped and unable to raise them, so they live in a house with an older woman who takes care of them. The woman and the two girls are so vibrantly full of life, living in their small little apartment in a high-rise complex. Also, on the birthday cake, were the most interesting candles I ever did see, more closely resembling a roman candle than a little wax one.
To end the day, PayPal notified me that my friend Miles, who works on one of my favorite shows (Real Time With Bill Maher) sent $100 for the trip to help replace what the guy at the train station stole. This just reiterates the fact that I have the absolute best friends and support I could ever have hoped for. Thank you so much, Miles.
Got my first taste of Romanian driving in today and ahhhh, it is so nice to be back on the right-hand side of the road. But there's one little aspect to European driving that I forgot about: the roundabout. Dis. Like.
Also, fast food in Romania is actually...good. Someone give Colonel Sanders a call and let him know if pays not to use mutated, deformed baby chicken. A panini the size of a football for 6 Lei ($2)? That's speaking my language.
The favored pastime at UPSV among the guys and Florin is Rummy, which I've long since forgotten how to play. Until tonight. And my hiatus proved to be really unhelpful, with luck no longer on my side, either, since technically I'm not a "beginner". Pride firmly swallowed, I was quickly taught - and more swiftly, schooled in - the game of Rummy.
One thing I've noticed in every culture is that games are the equivalent of city around the campfire sharing stories. It inherently breeds a common bond, even if temporary, that simultaneously allows each player to let their guard down and open up with one another. In other, more crude and simpler terms, shoot the shit. It's a great way for me to know the guys in a casual setting and really connect. I'm all for that, even if it requires accepting my position as the loser and worst Rummy player on god's green Earth.
"Azota, my name is in the program. Am I supposed to speak?" I queried.
"Oh! Da, da! (yes! yes!)" Azota emphatically responded.
"Oh...yeah? Why didn't you say anything?? What would you like me to say?"
"Well, we want adoption to be legal again. Adoption is good. Talk about your trip and orphanages and how international adoption should be legal again. You do good!" she replied in her thick accent.
Over at the new center, the sewage pipes that lead from the building out to the city's sewer were plugged and in need of a good cleaning. Equipped with a 25 foot snake, about one inch in diameter, Florin and I tried our level best to unclog what is probably a monumental blockage. As you can undoubtedly guess, it wasn't the most successful effort.
One of the boys made a big batch of chorba, Romanian soup, for dinner, which we quickly devoured over a game of Rummy and table-talk.
A guy from a company name Arcon came to the center to offer Florin materials for the roof for absolutely free, so it looks like we'll be all systems go to finish off the roof in the next week or two!
The highlight of the day, and definitely one of the entire experience in Romania thus far, was walking into the kitchen in the new center and seeing one of the boys, Julian, wearing an apron over a bright red outfit, making soup and listening to Berlin, Lionel Richie, and Michael Bolton while he did so. I asked him, "Julian, did you know that you're listening to the best cooking soundtrack I've heard in a long time?" He said, "Oh, yes. Music very nice! It is ze best and I like it very much and it sounds very nice. Very pretty. Here, you eat chorba!"
One of the things they taught me is that there's a recalcitrance from Romanian government officials towards legalizing international adoption again, because there is a fear that children will be trafficked by the families who adopt them. Trafficking is absolutely a very real evil, and I'm no expert on the topic. But my initial reaction to that fear is that trafficking can happen no matter the circumstances, and I don't think allowing orphaned children here to be adopted internationally opens the floodgates for trafficking as a result. This is one thing I'll address in my speech if they still want me to give it: that you don't allow known evils (documented deplorable conditions at many Romanian orphanages) to continue by creating a rule to ward off hypotheticals.
Cameras surrounded several teenagers, who had flown out here for specifically for this moment. They were some of the last to have been adopted internationally from Romania, and they were here to offer their testimony on why international adoption should be reopened. The fact that they flew from all over - New Zealand, America, Germany - itself shows how strongly they're resolved to seeing this through, and how much they don't want kids to have to spend their whole childhood in Romanian orphanages.
I got to speak to some of the kids before the debate began (running an hour behind schedule, just as all governmental dealings worldwide are supposed to...) and learned a bit more about their experiences. Their descriptions of the conditions in which they grew up support the images captured by documentaries about Romanian orphanages in the 90's, such as the stories on 20/20,or those by John Upton. Kids neglected, babies left in cribs, unattended, for days on end. Group showers, overcrowded bedrooms, kids infected with HIV by unknowing workers at the orphanages. Horrendous.
About halfway through, the Senators began to trickle out of the room, citing prior engagements that they needed to tend to.
Here are these kids, products of the Romanian orphanage system they're testifying against, a result of international adoption they're testifying for, who flew halfway around the world to be here and these Senators had the nerve to claim to have some place more important to be. If this is something that actually mattered to them and something they wanted to change, no doubt they would've stayed until midnight if need be.
I based my argument for reopening international adoption around my experience as a corrections officer at a maximum security juvenile jail, and as a documentarian who has witnessed the effects of long term orphanage institutionalization around the world. I said - in so many words - that it was clear, in my experience in both, that orphanages and foster care are supposed to be a temporary placement for children, and that placement with family relatives or a loving adoptive family is the best solution. That preventing current orphans from having that opportunity to be adopted by a caring family abroad, and keeping them in a government-run institution until they are 18 and then sending them out into the world and forcing them to "figure it out" on their own, is tantamount to giving up on them as individuals. That there are two evils in the world: one is doing bad things (keeping children in institutions for life, with no real escape plan), and the other is having the opportunity to change it and still allowing the bad things to happen (the ability to reopen international adoption, but voting against it).
We stopped, had dinner (thanks, Caty!) and little by little I soaked up more of their knowledge. A great day, full of learning and paradigm shifts, that I'll remember for a very long time.
I'm not much of a drinker, but my motto when it comes to drinking things is the same as eating: if it's served to me, I'll have it. With that in mind, when I was served a local beverage called Tuica, made from plums. I gave it a go, completely disregarding the fact Florin and Mariana weren't having any, and were also staring at me in almost shocked wonder as I brought it up to my lips. Then I realized it's between 100-150ish proof and I felt like I was swallowing fire. Joke's on me!
Soup in Romania also bears mentioning again, because it's really good. I have no idea what was in it, I just know it was tasty.
Armed with a crowbar, a table saw, sheets of pressboard, and a couple hammers, a couple of the kids and I went to town on the window, reducing aesthetic beauty and cost on an almost identical margin.
I don't know if productively lazy, or lazily productive, days exist, but I think they must because today felt like one. Lucky to be here and share conversation with the guys and, even though the language barrier still remains high, the sense of comradery shared seems to communicate things that words simply cannot.
The orphanage where Florin spent the better part of his childhood is a 45 minute drive from Brasov, straight into the mountains. It's an absolutely gorgeous ski town. For a number of reasons, the orphanage closed over a decade ago. When we parked in front of it, the first thing that struck me was the almost surreal surroundings which envelop the building. You can almost reach out and touch the snow-capped peaks, the red and gold forest, and the crisp blue sky. The building itself is about the size of an elementary school.
As Florin guided me from one room to another - the kitchen where he had years of meals, the infirmary, the library, his bedroom - what struck me the most is how nonchalant he seemed by all of it. We found old library cards on the ground, the handwriting of kids still visible. In that moment there seemed to be a slight hint of reflection and nostalgia on life as it was, quickly replaced by the reality of life as it is now. I asked him if it was weird to be back here, to see it like this, to reflect on it. Without a moment's hesitation he replied, "No, it's just life. It goes on. This was my childhood, but the building is just a building. I like to look at life as a game and have fun and smile and not worry about what has already happened."
To see him sitting on the same stairs as the Christmas party video - what once was a well-maintained hall with hundreds of kids gazing in hushed awe at the tree, and has since been replaced by years of water damage and walls caving in - was surreal. To be in the room where he first got the idea for UPSV some 15 years ago, and to think about all that has come to fruition in that time, the sheer number of kids like him that he has helped, is one of those things it's impossible to not step back, look at, and admire.
After we left, we visited the family of a boy who Florin helped at UPSV. The boy, now in his late 20's, is working in England, and his wife and two daughters are packing up to move out there next month. The boy came to Florin as a kid who'd just been forced to leave his orphanage with nowhere to go. Florin gave him a home and hope for the future. I'm sure from Florin's point of view, this may not be something remarkable: it's a simple product of something he's always wanted to do. But from the outside, it's obvious that his influence with UPSV had a large hand in the boy meeting the girl, the two of them getting married and having girls of their own, and the boy having a good job, far removed from the poverty that dominated his childhood.
But as they always so, the unexpected is where the adventure starts. Even though the adventure here was simply walking around the little shops near the castle, drinking boiled wine, and sampling delicious local cheeses, it was still a good one.
When we got back to the center, Emeric made "mamaliga", a Romanian dish of polenta and cheese, with some cheese that he picked up. No surprise, it was mighty good. Also no surprise, we played rummy while we dined. (Also also no surprise, I lost).
Each family that came in got about 50 pounds of food. Among it: flour, corn flour, oil, sugar, pasta, honey, vegetables, pasta sauce. Everyone received the exact same package, complete with Romanian government stamp on each package.
To be there with the guys, who truth be told are not economically in a much better position than the majority of folks who came through the door, was definitely a memorable experience. Watching them volunteer, help the elderly carry their bags to their car, and just really want to make a difference was beautiful.
Two guys came to the center today, who'd been working in Germany for the last couple months. Looking forward to meeting them and hearing some of their stories!
Whenever there's work on a project being done, it's all but guaranteed that Florin will have his camera out. Which is great, because it's important to document all of this, especially when sending thanks to the companies that donate material or funds. I've always been more a fan of candid, action shots than posed, pretend ones. Maybe it's the documentarian in me. And it's not better or worse, but Florin is more a proponent of posed photos. The only drawback to this school is that it's sort of difficult to stand still and smile when you're hauling 100 pounds of roofing material out of the truck to the building...
The orphanage is privately funded by German donors, so it's not technically a Romanian orphanage since it's not government supported. Walking around the grounds, meeting the children and some of the staff, it's easy to see that this doesn't fit the prototypical mode of the Romanian orphanage that would come to mind. On first blush, it's on par with Namaste and Ebenezer for best orphanage that I've been to. It houses 25 kids, split into two separate houses and core families, though it's clear with the amount of love they seem to receive that they are one big family when it comes down to it.
The woman in charge of the whole orphanage came out here years ago with her husband, who has since passed, to start it. They rely strictly on individual donors from back in Germany, and it's impressive to see that there hasn't been too many struggles with securing that over the years. She's also a truly caring, grounded woman who reminds me of one of my dearest family friends, Addie Ostrowski.
When she adopted her first two children, she was 19 and living in a studio apartment. She met them on the street, where they were living, and gave them a place to stay for the night. The night turned into a few days, which turned into weeks, and now ten years have passed and they're both off on their own adventures and holding down steady jobs.
Orphanages in Romania have improved a bit since the days of the conditions of kids chained to beds, babies dying in their cribs from neglect, and the building falling apart. But they're still overcrowded, understaffed, and far from perfect. So, strides have definitely been made, but it sounds like there's still a ways to go.
Now, when the Senators started filing out of the meeting while kids adopted from Romania were spilling their hearts out, pleading for them to re-open adoption, I started doubting whether or not international adoption would ever be made a reality again. After hearing what Caty thinks about the possibility, it seems there's almost no hope. To make a long story short, the orphanages make a lot of money for a lot of people, so the best interests of the kids aren't really taken into account. The local government gets money from the national government, the orphanage gets money from the government, local food companies, hardware stores, plumbers, electricians...they all get money from the orphanage. It's a cycle. It's money. It's the sad reality of the situation.
Of all the things at which I'm horrible - and that list would be equal to the anthology of Stephen King books - one of the most glaring is giving my body proper rest after being sick. I just don't like it, and I'm not proud of it. That's probably why I've been having little bouts with colds and fevers here and there over the course of the adventure. It's just hard to fully recover when it's not allowed to happen. Today was no exception.
With the new roofing materials coming in, I'd be damned if I wouldn't be a part of the easy work of installing it after spending hours and hours scraping hundreds of pounds of tar and guck off it with a shovel and pick-ax. Only one part was somewhat physically demanding, while the other was just tedious.
For the physically demanding: all of the materials needed to get to the roof somehow. Hundreds and hundreds of pounds of roofing, tanks of propane, a crude blowtorch...our method? A makeshift pulley system seen here:
One of my favorite parts of the day was watching the husband and wife team who were hired to oversee the project and warm the roof with the blowtorch to allow the material to adhere. They were about 60, and incredibly kind. But literally every five minutes, they'd stop for a cigarette break. So it was roll a three foot section, tamp down, cigarette, repeat. Seeing the blowtorch used to light a cigarette? Highlight of the day.
At night, Marian made soup. You already know how it was: delicious.
The castle was a lot less creepy than I'd anticipated, and more just...castley. One room was dedicated to the legend of Dracula (based on Vlad the Impaler, who was I guess a ruthless warlord) and that was kind of neat. But my favorite part was when I happened upon a room that, at first glance, seemed to be a coat closet, but turned out to be where all of the torture devices were housed. There was a rope in front of it, and it was off limits to visitors. So I poked my head in and saw a human-shaped closet that was lined with spikes, a chair that looked like it stretched people to death, and a lady sitting in the corner next to a space heater. She gave me a look like, "I'm.......not here. You don't see me." Awkward eye-contact aside, I backed my head out of the room.
We went to a haunted house afterward, where we mainly just took pictures posing next to the things and people who were supposed to be scaring us. Even though it wasn't the least bit frightening, more than enough entertainment value came from Marian gasping and jumping into me in terror at almost every turn.
Rasnov Citadel is just a couple miles west of Bran (Dracula castle) and well worth a visit if seeing a panoramic backdrop of snow-capped peaks and brilliantly colored forests from the vantage of an ancient citadel is your thing. Just the half-mile walk up alone as the color-wheel of leaves slowly cascade over you on their journey to the ground is beautiful in and of itself.
Having never shot an arrow before, and seeing that I could shoot ten for a few bucks, I figured what better place than at an ancient citadel in Romania. I wouldn't say I was good, but I hit the target a few times and no one was injured, so I'll make a mark firmly in the "w" column.
The guys worked tirelessly to get it done, and it was such a good bonding experience with them to collaborate on a project like this. And guess what we had for lunch to celebrate: pizza! It's back.
Romania, even though it's part of the EU, is on a separate monetary system from the Euro - the Lieu, or Ron. A couple years back, they changed their currency, and the old notes were really cool. Marian had one that he'd kept for the last ten years, and he gave it to me as a gift. So, so nice of him.
Here's his story, courtesy of www.upsv.org:
Adrian Petre Boiciuc. I was born on 16th July 1989 in Brasov. From when I was born until the age of 5 years I stayed with parents. Me and my parents along with my two older brothers stayed in a studio that was full of dampness and mold. I became seriously ill in the environment in which they lived, and my parents were unable to buy the medicine I needed because medicine was very expensive. In 1993 they decided to leave us, taking us to a foster home. When I arrived there, I was very small and I did not really know what was happening and why we were there. In 1996 I was transferred to the Placement Centre in Victoria Orasu, Brasov county. I had to get used to the environment there. I was beaten by the biggest person in my dorm every day, and the time would pass very slowly. I couldn’t wait for them to come to put me to sleep at night. I grew up a lot in the first two days I was there. I had to grow up fast. I learned a lot about how to act in life with the world around me.
At the age of 13, I started to do many sports, including swimming and gymnastics. I also did folk dancing and singing in Coru schools. My dad visited the Center every two years, and when he visited, he slept outside at the station as he was very poor and had to sleep outside. I did not hear anything from my mother until when I was 18, when I entered Grade 9 in Brasov. When I was in Grade 1 to Grade 8 I stayed in Orasu Victotia then decided to continue my studies at Brasov along with my middle brother. I stayed in a hostel in Brasov, in the High School building. After living in Brasov for two years, I met Florin Catanescu I helped Florin to renovate the Center and then Florin helped me to move from where I was to the Center, I like the conditions at the home building. It is much better there. I met a group of Americans who are some great people with big hearts. I want to have a life like any child who belongs in a happy family. I have finished school now and I would like to continue my studies at university.
The mom was nursing the newborn boy when Florin and I walked in. It's so dark in there, it takes time for your eyes to adjust and be able to see anything. The heat from the tiny woodstove is intense, but it's what's used to heat the whole of the house. With less than nothing, and another mouth to feed, all of them are incredibly happy still. It's a reminder, to me, that happiness comes from who you're with, not what you're without.
When there's a shared similar experience, especially in childhood, that's a springboard for bonding. No two stories are the same. But one thing I've noticed on my travels is that the kids at every orphanage, having lost both parents as a child - whether through death or being abandoned - cultivates in them an unmatched level of empathy. That empathy focuses even more strongly on birds of the same feather.
In tragedy, there's beauty.
The center here is in its beginning stages, but it certainly has the potential to do a lot of good in the community. After meeting everyone, the five of us went to visit some Section 8 housing for Gypsies, to which they also provide assistance. From the outside, it looks like a standard box apartment complex, similar to UPSV. The inside is a different story.
One of the guys had a calendar of shirtless firemen hanging on his wall, with a lei draped around it. I asked him if being homosexual in Romania was met with a lot of negativity and opposition. He said that while it's certainly not an easy thing, and it is met with a lot of hatred, he's found acceptance in his group of friends and everyone looks out for one another. Good to hear it's not like Mississippi.
At the end of the day, we went to a store that Florin's colleague opened up in a school, which sells supplies and such for students. While it's yet to be seen if it will be profitable, if it is, it could be a great model for UPSV to follow with very little overhead and the potential for some good profit.
It started out as it usually does: coffee, a bit of oatmeal, followed by a trip to the new center for a bit of work. Nothing much, just some moving lumber around and hitting things with other things. Julian made tons of coffee and tea, which is always a welcome refreshment. Then, I got to interview Julian, Stefan, and Florin. I'd post snippets of their stories, but the interviews were in Romanian and they aren't available on the UPSV site.
After the interviews, Florin, Marian, Ionutz, Julian, and I went up to the Brasov citadel. The views were gorgeous. I ended up getting in a bit over my head though.
*Note: If you ever find yourself in a medieval citadel, and a guy comes up to you and asks, "You wanna fight?" Say, "Umm...yes. Yes I do." It'll be worth it.
Hand bloodied, we went to a farmer's market which only happens once a month. Local honey, delicacies, wine, and chocolate abounded, and I was a happy boy. I also got some pretty great souvenirs for my folks and others back home, and got a beanie handknit by a Romanian granny.
Then I ended up in the middle of a riot, complete with police in riot gear and shields, the cause to which I knew nothing about. I'm not talking WTO in Seattle-type riot, but a riot nonetheless.
*Note 2: If you find yourself in a riot in a foreign country, don't try to swim upstream. Just go with it.
After going with Florin and Marian to a couple shops, I made it my mission to track down this sweatshirt which I saw on my first day in Romania and, like a fool, didn't buy when I saw it:
Marian: Hi, I'm Marian Bors and I am 25 years old. I grew up in an orphanage in Fair Ocna, in Bacau county, where I lived up to the age of 14. Then my parents moved to Targu Ocna, in Brasov county. The Child Protection people had to transfer me, so I was close to them and so they moved me to another orphanage in the city of Brasov, Victoria, where I stayed until I turned 18 so that I could graduate. After I graduated, the Child Protection sent me to the night shelter. I did not like it there, because of the many people who were living on the streets. I did not feel suited to being there and I felt as if my life was drifting away there before I pulled myself together. I spent a period in rented accommodation where conditions were very good, but all the money I made from working went to paying taxes. Not having enough to eat, it was becoming increasingly difficult. I learned about Florin Catanescu through a friend, and about how he had lived in an orphanage, and about how he had managed to found a Center for Social Integration for youths like me.
Something I noticed in the interviews, as a result of seeing the guys' rooms, is it seems like there's a little bit of arrested development. It's not a bad thing, or in a profound way. It's just different. Things from their childhood that most of us usually let go of and forget about (and then bawl our eyes out when we see Toy Story 3) - stuffed animals, cartoon character clothes, etc. - are held onto. Maybe it's nostalgia permeating the present, and maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it's that there wasn't a parent figure to tell them they had to get rid of their toys because they were too old. I'm not sure. It's just something interesting I noticed.
I also hiked up to some really nice viewpoints, FINALLY made it into the Black Church (which was really underwhelming) and had some more local pastries and deliciousness.
When I got back, I had an interview with Emeric. His English is really good, so I didn't even need to ask him questions in my broken Romanian. He's probably the most responsible 23 year-old I've ever met. His dream is to one day have a three story house where his whole family, siblings included, live together. He doesn't care about promotions at work (he works at a factory building turbines for windmills), just wants an honest wage and a simple life. Good guy.
And then of course, Rummy.
P.S., I won.
Azota called Florin and asked if we could stop by the Catharsis office to say bye. She greeted me with her trademark bright red lipsticked kisses on the cheek, and her second trademark: asking me to help with something on the computer. "Ten minutes," she promised, "ten minutes." An hour and a half later, goodbyes were said. Of course I don't mind, because she and everyone else at Catharsis are absolutely great. It just meant the rest of the day would be a little more crammed before my train ride out.
One thing high on the priority list: the grand finale game of Rummy. And it was all it should've been. Lala and I were playing Florin and Emeric - two seasoned pros. They crossed the 5,000 point threshold needed to win while Lala and I were dragging our feet in the hundreds. But in Rummy, you can't win unless you close a game after crossing 5,000 points. Six games later, Lala and I caught them. And we closed. And it was awesome (not that I'm a gloater or anything, but it was the most epic comeback in the history of comebacks in any sport or pastime known to man).
On the train ride to Budapest, I shared a couchette car with three folks: one from Romania, one from Slovakia, and one from Budapest. Until the lights went out, we had one of the most "in the now" conversations I've had in a long, long while. It was so good to glean their wisdom.
The couchette is actually pretty comfortable, and I slept pretty well. Until I was nudged awake by a border control police officer. Ten minutes of staring at my passport picture, then at me, that at the picture, then at me, and then calling over three other officers, the train was allowed to continue on. Curses to the hippy hair I rocked at 20!
Next stop after 10 days of sightseeing in Europe: Peru.