Presentation at the “Remapping Urban Spaces — American Challenges” Conference

Bust of Ovid in front of Ovidius University

After a brief orientation in Bucharest, we were whisked away to the Black Sea and the city of Constanța. I was extra excited to be in Constanța,  the site of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Tomis, since it was also a subject of a mythology unit I taught on Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The Roman poet Ovid was exiled to the city of Tomis by the Emperor  Augustus in 8 AD. I used a picture of this bust of Ovid in front of Ovidius University in my PowerPoint introducing the poet’s life . I could never have dreamed that I’d be standing there a year and a half later.

From October 4th through the 6th I was able to participate in the Remapping Urban Spaces — American Challenges conference. The conference brought together a diverse group of academics from fields such as architecture,  political science, education, engineering, literature, and of course urban planning to discuss issues related to urban development. Our first lecture was given by UCLA professor of urban planning Dr. Edward Soja. In his talk on The Spacial Turn in Human Sciences, he asserted that the city is the center of creative innovation. My Great Books background immediately kicked in and took me to these lines from Plato’s Phaedrus:

Socrates: I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country. Though I do believe you have found a spell with which to draw me out of the city into the country, like a hungry cow before whom bough or a bunch of fruit is waved. For only hold up before me in like manner a book, and you may lead me all around Attica, and over the wide world. And now having arrived, I intend to lie down, and do you choose any posture in which you can read best. Begin.

In the dialogue Socrates and Phaedrus go for a walk in the country where they discuss erotic love and later rhetoric. The Phaedrus seems to be very indicative of the way we still view rural spaces. They are places to lie down and relax. The country is where people go on a weekend retreat to “get away from it all.” Itis the only Platonic dialogue I know of that takes place outside the city walls in an ideal country setting that Socrates says is “haunted” by the gods. Socrates, like most of the presenters at the conference was a man of the city.  Do rural spaces have any creative power to justify their existence? If the city is the center for creative discourse, then why do we still love going into the country?

So far, nobody was scheduled to speak about the consequences of urban development for rural communities. During one of our breaks,  Dr. Gene Tanta asked if I would present on rural development issues during the session of the conference he was co-chairing entitled Remapping the Marginal and the Counter-cultural.  Fortunately, the literature review from my master’s thesis was perfect for the theme of the session. I made a few modifications to my master’s thesis PowerPoint and was ready to go.

My primary goal was to raise questions and generate conversation about our vision for rural spaces. Are they places to be exploited for food and natural resources? Are they “sacred spaces” that are too sacred for men who are by nature political animals? Or are rural spaces like museums where agritourists go and view from the outside a way of life that is either dead or dying? Our conversation was very illumination, and I hope that it can continue here.

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We Have Arrived!

Wow! Life has changed a lot in the past few months. Last spring I was busy finishing my master’s thesis and job hunting. It was a tough hiring season for me– like it was for so many others. Through it all, I was trying not to think much about my Fulbright grant application which I had submitted the previous fall. It was, after all, a “long-shot.” But, sometimes the opportunity or job that seems just out of reach is exactly where we end up. So, here I am embarking on this great adventure. I’m teaching classes in the American Studies department at the University of Transylvania in Brașov, learning another language, and researching rural education in Romania.

After spending two weeks with Imagefamily in France, my wife Anne Elise and I arrived at the Hotel Triumf in Bucharest bleary-eyed and bushwhacked at around 2:00am October 1st 2012.  It was a delightful hotel with an atmosphere that reminded me of something out of a Sean Connery era James Bond movie.

After sleeping until the early afternoon, we decided to go out and explore a bit.  We passed cars parked on the sidewalk, some kind of demonstration in front of some government offices, and a monument to what looked like pilots. Dodging the drivers who made Parisian traffic seem like a drive in the country, we found the Fulbright office and introduced ourselves.

After returning to our hotel, we got a call from the front desk that a friend of a friend of ours from the states had come to meet us. My godfather had contacted a friend of his who is at the theological seminary in Bucharest to show us around the city a little bit. We took the metro to the Patriarchal Cathedral where we were able to catch the end of an Akathist service and venerate the relics of St Dimitry of Bassarbovo. We went to several other churches. It seemed like there was a beautiful church on every block that was open with services constantly going on. The show of piety was juxtaposed against the sight of consumer goods from all over the western world. As we made our way back to the hotel through the students,  homeless, churchgoers and shoppers I felt as though I was walking between worlds. One minute I’m in ancient Byzantium where even the Latin sound of the Romanian language hearkens to antiquity, and the next minute I’m in another modern consumer-driven nation. Standing in Bucharest was like standing in a moment of transition where there is a rare, uncanny picture of what was and what is coming.

Thus begins our year in Romania!