So Far, Yet So Close to Home–Lessons from my Mother

Winter Carpathian Mountain Hike

On a day hike with our friend Liviu who was visiting from Bucharest

Ever since I chose to apply for a Fulbright grant many people have asked me, “Why Romania?”  The best answer I can give is that I wanted to be in a place that was both far away and yet close to home. One of the Fulbright program’s primary goals is to foster ties between the United States and other nations through academic exchange. When I applied for the English Teaching Assistant grant, I wanted to choose a country that would maximize my effectiveness as an English teacher while at the same time provide me with a challenging and enriching experience. Thanks largely to my mom and her love of Eastern Europe, I’m pretty familiar with Romanian culture. Yet, I am still learning a lot about Romania’s language and people.  In this process of connection I come to know myself through them, and they know themselves through me. This is the life of dialogue. I have been amazed by how at home I am, here, in Brașov. Sometimes during  a walk through the fall foliage or snow covered Carpathian Mountain trails, I forget that I’m on a different continent.

Mom

My mother in her second year with cancer

When I talk about home, I can’t help mentioning my mother and some of the things she passed on to me that have enabled me to win a Fulbright grant and pursue the dreams that were hers and are now mine. She was an educator her entire life in both teaching and administrative positions. Her example inspired me to take up a career in education as well. Sadly, she died of cancer in July 2011, but she left a legacy in her students and children. Her her love of Eastern European culture, dance, and music transported me from the hills and hollers of Southeastern Ohio into a far away world–a world in which I now live. I was raised in a traditional Quaker home where I still heard “thee” and “thy” used in everyday conversation, but also lived among fiddles, guitars, mountain dulcimers, and banjos. I lived between the austere Quaker culture of my ancestors and the more lively Appalachian Mountain culture of my childhood. Although music and dancing are traditionally anathema for Quakers, my mother nevertheless loved traditional music and dance; it is a love she taught her students in school and passed on to all three of her children.

Here is a video of my mom folk dancing in our living room…

There was a folk festival in the Brașov Weaver’s Bastion a few weeks ago that was yet another instance of what I call “So far, yet so close to home.” As I stood in this beautiful medieval fortress listening to Romanian, Greek, German, and Hungarian folk songs and dances, I couldn’t stop thinking that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my mom. I live 5000 miles away from my hometown, and yet these songs bring me back to my childhood. Melodies and movements from another time, in another language, and from another country are just a close to me as “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and Contra Dancing.

Here is a video from the folk festival we saw…

My mother gave me a love for Eastern Europe, even though she had never been here, and she modeled education by experience. She taught by seeing herself in the other; she practiced empathy. Sometimes I hear people use the word “empathy” in a way that conjurers up images of some kinda namby-pamby group therapy session where folks hold hands and sing Kum-ba-ya. This is not education by experience, it is not what my mother taught me, and it is not what I came to Romania to do. The ability to really empathize broadens our inner world and cultivates wisdom and humility. I believe these virtues create “openness,” which is a prerequisite for being an effective teacher. In the classroom, the empathetic teacher can often anticipate questions before they are asked and draw ideas out of students who have a hard time articulating themselves. The ability to truly empathize is a skill my mother sought to pass on to me and I use it every day. Through being open to seeing oneself in the other, a union is created that builds bonds between individuals. As I build academic, professional, and personal relationships here in Romania, I hope I will continue finding home in the world abound me. As Romania becomes more and more home and I see myself in the others I meet here, a bond is created between myself and them–and by extension between the United States and Romania.

Here is another video from the Weaver’s Bastion folk festival. Song is a little out of tune, but there is more of a view of the interior of the tower…

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A Romanian Thanksgiving

In my opinion, Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays. This past Thursday, it was our first American Club event of the year at Transylvania University. It was an exciting opportunity to share something of home with students and faculty. However, it also posed several interesting questions for me personally. What does the Thanksgiving celebration mean for Americans, and how do I share this holiday with others? So, I opened my riveting Thanksgiving speech by passing around Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 painting “Freedom from Want.”  It depicts a scene seared in our collective conscious; Grandpa and Grandma preside over a bountiful table surrounded by the younger generations. Nobody is hungry, nobody is arguing, and everyone is happy– almost to the point of being ridiculous. This perfect scene is often mocked, understandably, in contemporary culture. After all, what would Thanksgiving be without the traditional family argument or debate?  I also thought about how ironic this scene might seem to some of the Romanians who were fasting from meat and dairy in preparation for Christmas. The ideal of “Freedom from Want” epitomizes much of our American ideology.

Many of my students have expressed interest in going to America in search of a better life– to live the “American Dream.” I wanted to encourage them to think about what the American Dream really is, and if there really is such a thing as “freedom from want.” After wandering down a few rabbit trails and almost getting lost, I noticed that some students were so mesmerized by my words that they stared off into the distance as if transfixed…or was it that fly on the wall? Anyway, I concluded my little oration with a question. In what sense is “Freedom from want” a freedom? It does not seem like it can be legally guaranteed, yet it remains a source of hope. Whether or not that hope is misplaced is for each to decide for himself. As we ate and celebrated our freedom from want, I invited guests into conversation about the nature of freedom. The dinner table is often the center of the American Discourse, for what is more American than a political debate at the dinner table?

After the stirring speech by yours truly, we ate a scrumptious pot-luck meal followed by games and songs. In spite of the sterile classroom setting, it turned out to be a very festive evening with laughs and lively conversations. Originally, I had hoped to share a few iconic contemporary American Thanksgiving Traditions like  an American football game or a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Since we didn’t have a projector and the banjo in the corner was a novelty to many of our guests, Anne and I led a few songs. Simple Gifts and Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More are two American classics from my childhood that we shared. We ended our evening with the world’s best party game, “Apples to Apples.” The free association of random nouns and adjectives can spawn some of the best conversations…maybe even more than the equally random ramblings of a Fulbright lecturer.

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.

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!