Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Romania Minutiae

How do I love thee, Romania? Let me count the ways.

I traveled all the way from Suburbia, California, USA to Romania to serve the tinerii, or young adults, who grew up in orphanages. I'm here because God has called me to be his hands and feet and minister to these young people, to love them and immerse myself in a place where I can use my gifts. This is the beginning and end of the "why" of my being here.

In addition, there are a lot of minutiae, or little things that don't matter on the large scale but still make up the experience of living and working in Romania. All these little things are basically inconsequential but do actually accumulate and contribute to life in important ways. These "little things" are diverse but I will try to give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

First, the food. Besides being inexpensive, Romanian cuisine is often more appetizing than American, at least to me. Polenta, sour soup called ciorba, cabbage rolls, cartofi prajiti or French fries, schnitzel, cordon bleu, sausage, great bread--I could go on. One thing I know I will miss is all the varieties of Asian cuisine, but Romanian fare is satisfying enough that it distracts me from the dearth of sushi. And then there are the snacks.

Cookies, chocolate, really inexpensive chips--they have so many varieties of junk food. My favorite brand of chocolate is called Milka. It comes in a purple wrapper, which reminds me of Willy Wonka, and someone really creative must be in charge of making new flavors and combinations because there seem to be dozens of different kinds of chocolate and cookies that I've never had before. I also like Madura snack cakes and pizza flavored Pufuleti and bacon flavored Krax. Don't worry, it's all in moderation. Also: grapefruit juice, like Cappy's Pulpy and grapefruit soda from Frutti. I never cared this much or enthused this extensively about American snacks. I don't know how widespread these brands are (like if you can find much of it elsewhere in Europe) but I'm very glad to walk to Adridan and get to choose a few things to enjoy every now and then.

One thing I really like is the proliferation of "second-hand stores," what thrift stores are called here. They're everywhere. I'm always passing at least two or three whenever I walk someplace. I bought a pair of snow/hiking boots at one for about $11 and at another I got a sweater (made partly from cashmere) that I am pretty certain is actually brand new for $6.50. I like saving money but I like being a sustainable consumer even more. I was afraid I couldn't thrift in Romania back before I got here in the summer but my fears were completely unfounded. It can be harder to find really good stuff than in the States but you can still find nice things with persistence and a touch of luck. Plus, the longer the hunt, the better those hard-won items will seem.

And then there's the weather. Even though I grew up in SoCal, where there is arguably no real winter, I actually appreciate a differentiation of seasons. When I was here in July, it was warm (though not hot to me). Then it got cool in the fall and now it is actually, genuinely cold. It's been, quite literally, freezing, and I have loved it. I didn't like it when my hands nearly froze but other than that, the cold hasn't bothered me. I have a running bet with Brandusa that in one week from today, snow will still be on the ground in front of our apartment building. She thinks it will all have melted from the warmer weather we're supposed to have over the next several days. The loser has to buy the winner a chocolate bar. I'm fairly confident there will still be at least some slush. I think I'm going to ask for a Milka.

There are a thousand other little things I love about Romania: the roundabouts and the fruit trees anyone can eat from and the amusing graffiti and the big fur hats people wear in winter and the mountains and the way the windows open and how we light our stove and the radiators and the Top 40 playing everywhere and corn on pizza and the swans and the lake and the cool old cars and I'm even getting used to military time. I love so many things here. I even love the grungy, gritty, faded Soviet-era apartment buildings that tower on every block. It looks beautiful to me. I realize this appreciation may seem fanatical, that it might mean I'm still stuck in the "honeymoon phase" of cultural adaptation. However, I'd rather love something, somewhere as much as I can, since apathy is not really a better option. Loving too much is something I have done in the past, but I have to say, it's one of the mistakes I regret the least.

Thanks for reading!

To donate to my fundraiser for an apartment for tinerii orphans and myself, click here.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Mission

I have to admit, things certainly are "full speed ahead" over here. There are several new responsibilities which I must take care of, many of them related to living here long-term. For example: finding an apartment, filling out paperwork for a visa, getting medical insurance, finding someone to prescribe me my medication, getting plugged in at church. A lot of this is normal stuff, but not quite understanding Romanian and speaking even less of it makes things much more difficult. And this is all just "surviving as an adult" territory.

What I am really trying to focus on is, as Joe put it, "the mission." That is the why of my being here. I didn't just up and leave the US because I like Romania better (although I really do). I'm here because God called me to witness and to serve the Romanian people. So in all my running around to just exist, I have a greater purpose. And importantly, telling you about it is fundamental to this purpose.

Okay, so my most urgent order of business, finding an apartment, actually serves both causes. I need an apartment to live in...and so do other young people who have had to leave their orphanage. At age 18, orphans are on their own to find a place to live. That is where I hope to come in. I'm trying to find an apartment 1) in our neighborhood 2) with at least three bedrooms and 3) that isn't a dump. My Martian friend has been helping me and I hope she can live in the apartment, too. We can house up to six girls in a three bedroom flat, plus if we get fold-out sofas, we can have guests stay over, too. However, finding a flat in our neighborhood with that many rooms is proving to be a challenge. I will keep you all informed via my fundraiser page.

My actual work has become more focused on social media. I've been picking the best photos off of Dropbox for use in our social media campaign. We're already on Facebook, but I want to to expand to Instagram and Twitter, as well. Right now, I've been making gifs, which is actually a little more of an art form that I thought it would be, and I'm still working out all the kinks. But I've made several and I can't wait to share them.

We are being restricted as to how we can hang out with our kids. Without divulging too much, we can no longer go to the orphanage to visit them. They must visit us. We can work more openly with the kids who are eighteen and older since they are adults, but our involvement with any of the younger teens and with the children has been dramatically curtailed. There are many kids who I haven't even seen since I got back. I miss all of them, and can't wait to see them. We aren't giving up.

Why have things changed? Again, I can't tell any specifics, but I can say that we haven't done anything wrong. Persecution can take many forms. When someone is unhappy, organizations like ours can be vulnerable. If a missionary really is doing dynamic and groundbreaking work, there is sure to be opposition, and not just benign competition, but sometimes a genuine threat to ministry. We really need your prayers. There have been some very stressful days for us since I have been here. Things have died down a little, but we're not out of the woods yet. In fact, missionaries are kind of constantly "in the woods." This is it. This is the cost of carrying our cross. Jesus didn't promise that it would be free of danger. We are called to carry it anyway.

This information might be surprising to those of my readers who see Romania as being "advanced" enough to not persecute ministries. After all, Romania has been the focus of many missions organizations over the years, after the fall of communism. Next Generation is not alone in the call to minister to Romania. But this country is still, shall I say, suspicious of ministry activity. Part of it may be a desire to protect the kids from "outsiders." But baseless fear and xenophobia are also components.

Our kids are strong. And we believe they have the power and the know-how to keep working with us and keep seeking after Jesus. Please pray for our kids, for the Romanian authorities and for us.

If you would like to become more involved with my apartment for girls, you can donate here. Thanks a lot! Multumesc foarte mult!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Martian

What a whirlwind. Being back feels less surreal than when I first jumped on board with Next Generation in Romania back in July, but somehow life seems to be moving faster than ever here. After my hectic arrival, I settled in and began to come to terms with the fact that the apartment that I have shared with my NGO family will eventually become a boys' apartment and I will need to find a new place to live. Possibly, hopefully, I will share a yet unknown apartment with my good friend, Brandusa.

Brandusa is not only my buddy but also my very own personal photographer. Normal walks through town turn into impromptu photo shoots. She also makes me crack up...the other day we were talking about our heritage. We talked about genealogy and how everyone originated from Africa, as they say. Then without cracking a smile, as if she were saying she was from Moldova, Brandu said, "I am from Mars."

I about lost it. Julia* was all the way across the room, which was full of people, and burst out laughing at the way that I was laughing. Meanwhile Rasvan* looked at the both of us like we were absolutely crazy. Brandusa still insists she is from Mars. It's not so bad being friends with a Martian, though.

Today I went to my Romanian lesson, which I was resuming, although I have been studying on my own very consistently, especially since I have arrived here. It's like more and more pieces to the puzzle of the language are coming together. It's a great feeling.

Anyway, while I was at my lesson who called me but my Martian friend. I called her afterward and she suggested we take another walk (yesterday was the unexpected photo shoot trip through town). I said yes at once, being excited, because it had continued to snow today and apparently I love snow. I've never experienced this much snow falling from the sky. Everything is extra beautiful. Piatra is gorgeous to me even on the stuffiest day, but now it's a winter wonderland. I went home and ate peanut butter and cherry jam on a piece of bread and then got my camera ready.

I met her outside. For once, I was out before her. I took some pictures of the snow in the trees, the snow on the munte (mountains) and the snow on the little fence. Snow everywhere. Then Brandusa came out of her apartment building, and off we went. Our destination was the lake, where we would take some pictures of swans. I was surprised to see that swans can evidently withstand the almost freezing temperature of the lake. Before leaving our street we had purchased three loaves of bread for the swans, and some sodas, for us. The walk was not long but it felt longer than normal, due to the conditions. The snow was very powdery. It wasn't good for packing into snowballs, not at all. I could barely make one. We crossed the street and took pictures of the foot-bridge but didn't cross it. Instead we walked along the creek until we got to some steps by the dam and then scaled them. Up here was the lake.

"Where are the swans?" Brandusa said as she looked around. We went off to one side, before seeing a flock of swans at least a hundred meters away.

"Don't worry, they will come," Brandusa said, and she adjusted her camera and I took a loaf a bread from her backpack. I began hurling chunks of bread into the water, torn off the loaf (which has tough crust like French bread). I plopped pieces into my mouth, too, since I was hungry. Eventually the swans started swimming over very gracefully. And then one seemed to say, "screw it," and sort of flew/leaped ahead of all of the rest to get the first pieces of bread.

Even before we took up our position on this side of the lake, my hands started getting cold. Very cold. As I used my hands and fingers to tear off chunks of bread, they somehow managed to become colder and simultaneously very numb and began to hurt. Really hurt. How I could both physically be numb and in pain, I don't know, but it's all too possible. But Brandusa was getting great shots, so I finished off the loaf. And then I grabbed the second. And then the third...

There was an incline from where we stood behind a small fence that led down to the water, and occasionally one of my smaller chunks of bread would land here. A swan, maybe the same fearless one who flew/catapulted, waddled up the incline to get some of the bread chunks, and a few more followed.

"Get them to take it from your hand," Brandu said. This came after she had earlier insisted that swan bites don't hurt. So eventually one swan was brave enough to begin taking the chunks from my now double-gloved hand (Brandu had given me hers to use as well). The swan was somewhat proficient at being fed...sort of sloppy, I guess. Its beak didn't hurt me when it missed the bread the first time. I tried tossing the chunks, like you would to a dog, but swans seem to suck at catching things. It wouldn't even try to catch them. So I went back to hand-feeding.

Then the swan bit my finger. Even through two gloves, it really hurt my nearly frost-bitten finger, because the swan was, like, trying to tear off my finger like it was a particularly tough chunk of bread or something. Ow. I think I will name this swan Charlie. "Charlie bit my finger." Why not.

My hands were freezing. Like literally, the air outside was freezing, the ground was freezing, everything was covered in frozen water that just needed some cherry syrup to be a snow cone. The freezing everything was freezing the blood and skin in my fingers and hands. No other part of me was so cold, not even my toes.

"I want to go now."

"Okay, one moment."

Brandusa took some more pictures...the swans migrated (not literally) to the other side of the lake...we followed them...more pictures...some guy who kept leaving and coming back very graciously pointed out a dead swan churning in a whirlpool next to the of that...a swan started flying but Brandu missed the shot. Then we finally climbed back down the precariously snowy steps.

My hands didn't get warmer until we had almost gotten back to our street. But finally I didn't feel like I was going to be left with stubs for fingers. Rather than going to buy proper shoes for the snow right away, I suggested we meet up a little later so I could thaw.

Two bowls of Romanian chicken noodle soup later, I was ready. We walked to a secondhand shop and the amount of shoes crammed on the racks reaching over my head overwhelmed me. Apparently when it comes to sizes of feet, here I am a 38. I found the perfect pair, not cute by any stretch, but I can use them both for snow and for hiking in any weather. They're just ugly enough (and cheap enough) that I won't worry about messing them up. I love them.

I wouldn't have found this awesome pair of shoes nor gotten to really experience the snow nor learned so much about Piatra Neamt nor gotten so many personal portraits, nor done a great many other wonderful things if I didn't have Brandusa. Importantly, I wouldn't have been able to claim bragging rights to have been bitten by a swan, and having a great anecdote is one of my truest joys in life. My Martian photographer friend who can withstand the coldest temperatures has been a definite blessing to me. I hope she doesn't mind this post in her honor since she is always doing so much for me.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Cutting It Close

My parents and I left the house in Ontario at 2:00 pm, to be sure I'd be checking in at the airport by 4:45 pm even if there was traffic on the way to LAX. There wasn't much, though. We were also anticipating protesters, and we'd heard that they sometimes blocked traffic going into the airport, but when we arrived there was only a small group of them in from of an entrance at the arrivals next to where I checked in to Turkish Airlines. I got an iced vanilla latte, listening to the people yelling and beating on drums. My parents and I hung out for a little while before I needed to go through security. I hugged them good-bye and went upstairs to wait in line. I'll see them again in June.

Security wasn't too bad, and I didn't envy the TSA for their need to repeatedly tell everyone to completely, absolutely empty their pockets. Somehow, people still don't believe them and go through with bits of paper in their pants. I got frisked and only confused the TSA lady when I told her I had metal rods in my back. I got through, though, and then proceeded past all of the shiny duty-free shops to purchase the biggest, cheapest bottle of water I could find. Then I listened to alternative rock while waiting at my gate, and watched the sky change from light to dark. Then we all lined up to board the plane.

In my line just ahead of me there was an attractive guy about my age with a dark, full beard. After an announcement over the PA warning some poor woman that if she didn't catch her flight soon enough her luggage would be removed, I remarked to the guy, how could it be possible to search through all of the luggage just to find hers? He agreed that he didn't know, and so we began talking. He was of Turkish descent, he told me, but he had grown up in Sweden, and so I assumed his accent was Swedish. He was flying back to Stockholm via Istanbul. He had just spent four months traveling pretty literally all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Los Angeles, plus many others. He talked about how it had been really hot in the southern hemisphere. All this traveling, he told me, had been just for fun, not for work, something for which he'd been saving up, and now the money was gone, so he was going home. He'd been traveling alone, apparently. It boggled my mind. I thought, I could never do that. But there I was boarding a plane to spend ten months in Romania.

I learned this Turkish Swede's name before we parted ways on the plane and then took my seat. By some remarkable stroke of luck or divine mercy, there was no one sitting in the space between where I sat by the window and the woman on the aisle. I stuck my sweatshirt on the seat of it, as the lady had put her backpack on the floor. We were told to turn off all electronic devices, as we were about to leave. But we didn't.

I waited. It's not unusual for there to be slight delays in takeoff. But ten minutes turned into twenty, which turned into half an hour, and then 45 minutes...

It might have been an hour before the plane finally began moving. No explanation was given. I worried about making my connecting flight to Bucharest. I hadn't thought of this on the plane but later I would remember that I had opted for the shortest layover possible, just about an hour. I had had confidence in my ability to navigate the Istanbul airport. It's just going from one gate to another, right?

The flight from LAX to Istanbul felt oddly short. Maybe I was more comfortable with no one next to me, but I still had trouble sleeping. It was night, briefly, and I slept for about two hours before waking up to the streaks of dawn prematurely lightening the sky. I woke up in a weird mood, sort of a sad one. I listened to music again and before I knew it, as we approached Istanbul, the sky darkened again and it was night. The food had been pretty good, chicken pasta with a salad. I stuck to my commitment to not drink soda much anymore. I don't know why we don't have cherry juice in the States, because it's great. We touched down in Turkey sometime after 8 pm, or as all the digital clocks said, 20:00.

I only pulled out my next boarding pass when I got off the plane. My next plane was leaving...not, had already 19:00.

Great. I'd missed my flight. After using the facilities, I went to a desk to ask what I should do. They directed me to another desk which directed me to gate 214, I thought. I went up to a lady working to get a flight to Bangkok boarded at this gate and she said, maybe mine was the next flight, with no real confidence. Sigh. I waited at this gate, all the while keeping my eyes on the display of all the flights, checking and checking again to see if "Bucharest" was going to pop up, ready to bolt to the first gate it appeared with. I waited.

I gave up waiting and went to some desk and they told me that I was supposed to go to some other desk at 214, not the actual gate itself. But it hadn't mattered that I'd wasted that time, I would find out, because the next flight to Bucharest wasn't leaving until...1:00 am. My bus was leaving Bucharest at 2:00 am, with or without me on it. Even though I'd gain an hour flying back slightly west, that was still cutting it close. But I thought I could make it. And I was now officially booked for that flight.

I was told I could receive a meal ticket. I would need to go back upstairs to the food court, but it wasn't that simple. My wild goose chase was just getting started. I basically knew where I had come from down the stairs, but I'd had to ask at least five different people how to get to the elevator. I got close when one guy whose English was "very little" told me to go to security control. "It says, 'Security Control?'" I asked, using my hands to indicate a sign. "Yes."

I saw a sign that said "Control" of some kind, but no "Security." I asked a few more people. I probably looked like an idiot, walking back and forth so much. But I needed to rely on my own discernment. Otherwise, if I'd listened to one person and gone through the passport check, I'd be stranded in Turkey right now. Eventually, when I asked a guy to take me to the elevator, he told me I just needed to have my carry-ons checked, right through here. Okay. I went through, and got back upstairs.

Then I had to get the meal ticket. This was less difficult, thankfully. I chose Popeyes, because why not. I had a chance to sit down and breathe in the food court. I noticed I was the only one sitting alone. I think Istanbul is one of those international hubs in the world where there is a conflux of people from at least three continents all stopping by on their way to wherever. I saw all kinds of people. People from Africa, from Asia, from the Middle East. Women in hijabs and burqas and for the first time in my life I saw (or noticed) women with big, colorful bonnet-like hats and colorful skirts. I have no idea where they were from but I wouldn't mind wearing that kind of outfit. They were beautiful. They were all beautiful. And somehow, in some small way, I was a part of all this, sitting there, eating fried chicken with my fingers and breaking my promise not to drink soda.

I was tired of sitting so even under my heavy backpack containing my laptop and camera among other things, I went over to stand under the monitors displaying the gates. Bucharest's gate popped up so off I went.

I easily found the gate and waited. Then I got on the shuttle bus and waited. Then I sat on the plane and waited. I prayed that I would make my bus to Roman. "Please, Jesus." I'd prayed that at multiple points throughout my adventure so far, and it wasn't over yet.

We took off on time. The flight was about an hour and a half or so. We landed at 1:18 am, Romania time. We didn't actually get off the plane until about 1:30 am, so I had a hot half an hour to get to my bus. It was crunch time.

Off the plane, I power-walked past everyone who had been in front of me. People were just standing on the escalator so I jumped up two steps at a time up the stairs, passing them all. I was the first to reach the passport check and the guy graciously asked me absolutely no questions, even though I had rehearsed how I'd tell him that I was going to apply for a volunteer visa. But there was no need, apparently, so off I hurried to baggage claim.

I had to wait a precious five minutes or more for my luggage. But one after the other, they were among the first handful of bags to be spit out on the conveyor. Then off I went. I knew where to I thought. I had instructions to just go downstairs to catch my bus. I did so, dragging my two suitcases because I didn't want to have to deal with a cart. I came to the bus stop, and waited.

It was 2:00 am. My bus was nowhere in sight. Thus began my second wild goose chase, asking a person here where to go, going there, and then finding no bus of mine, asking someone else and going wherever they sent me. I walked back and forth downstairs, then upstairs again, then downstairs once more. Brandusa texted me that my bus was leaving. I hurried even more. I was told my bus was off somewhere down the road, so off I went, until concluding it was pointless and turning back. I walked back to the parking lot and stood by the side of the road. I had to stop because I was trying not to cry and I was having difficulty breathing. On the side of the road, I stopped to finish off my giant bottle of water. I had no more ideas.

Then a bus came up toward me. It said the name of my bus company on it, but I almost couldn't believe it. It went through the roundabout and I had to get out of its way but it stopped and the driver got out.

"Pentru Roman?" I asked, and while the guy's answer was ambivalent (Roman was just one of several stops), he took my luggage and he knew my last name so after trying to give him my printout ticket I hurried up the steps, tripping and falling on my way up and swearing mildly. The phrase "hot mess" pops into my head now, but there I was, by the grace of God. I had done it. I was on my way, and on schedule.

Brandusa was there to pick me up as soon as we arrived in Roman. I can't tell you how good it was to see her. As we walked to her dad's car, the biggest flock of birds I have ever seen flew up out of the woods next to us. I took it as a good omen. Then we started talking and it was like we'd never been apart. As we caught up, I stared at the fields all covered in snow, the sky coming to life with the light of dawn.

And here I am. Thanks for reading this very long story. I thought it was worth writing, though.