Saturday, 10 January 2009

Romania Week 29 - And for the last time... ( & 11 men in black)

'and for the last time...'
Hope you are all sitting comfortably: this may take a while...This is it, due to my departure next Saturday afternoon this will be the last report from Romania, as this incredible adventure draws to a close... I have some farewell nights to organise this week and to ensure the new guys are ready to take over from next week, which I have no doubts they will be.

Before I give a summary of my time here I want to share yet another new experience I had here this week. On Thursday our friend and Interpreter (Lia) invited us to an underground bar for 'rock' night, where we were told they had rock music and it was the only night of it's sort in town... oh how true this was! After going for a sneaky bite to eat and beer with my Neighbour Deli, I went on to meet one of the new volunteers (Christian) in the bar.... here was the scene as I saw it... eleven guys, (+ Christian) sat around a small table, no one else in the place, the eleven guys all wearing black t-shirts, most with long hair... between the ages of 16-45, watching a DVD of various heavy metal / rock groups.. no live music, just civilised conversation about the rock groups they liked.. and a few guys occasionally playing 'air' guitar to their favourite songs.... not quite the rockin' scene I was expecting! They weren't even drunk.... rock on!

So I really don't know where to begin recapping the last 7 months, it has been a rollercoaster ride of emotions, and has included, meeting the best neighbours I have ever had, being a photographer at a Hungarian wedding, going to freaky discos, navigating an ever changing, enterprising and bizarre transport system which lets you go anywhere, but doesn't allow you come back, seeing old Romanian rockers in concert, ritual pig killing (and eating pigs ears, & pickled water-melon), working in a Victorian style psychiatric unit with very real madness, a Christmas nativity play on the wards, having pigs & chickens as my alarm clock every morning, teaching English to local kids, living through a snow filled winter & spending Christmas and new year with my wonderful friends and neighbours, doing very Romanian/ Hungarian things.. and much much more....

It would be near impossible to mention specific people, who have made this time so amazing, so I won't try to do this, because this email would take all day, the warmth of the people, young and old, is the thing that will stay with me forever, and this includes the patients at the hospital who have been, and may remain there for the rest of their lives... their ability to accept their situation and show such warmth to us, despite the lack of basic humanitarian conditions is incredible.

I have found Romania (mainly Transylvania) to be a land of outstanding natural beauty, untouched and unspoilt by the corruption of western influences, a place where people believe 'the western way of life' is better than their own, and yet my own feeling is that Romania is far more free now, then the UK and places like it, ever could be, the pressures from the mass media and society is not yet all about material wealth and happiness, but it's creeping in slowly, so the gap in culture and morality is growing ever wider between the older generations here and the young people. Traces of the communist way of life remain very evident here, with stacks of big apartment blocks around the cities and towns, a corrupt government mainly comprised of former communist party members, and a country side who ownership rights may never be fully understood after the land was seized by the former regime, all for the good of the country, and these reminders may well remain for some time, yet the importance of family values, and the survival skills (to build your own house, grow your own food, fix your own car), at least will remain for the time being... Romania is already being exploited by businesses like Nokia, who have moved here because they can pay the people less wages here, so to all of you that have thought about coming to see this amazing country, I would say now is the time to come here.. it's a real taste of eastern European culture...

My top three features of life here have to be:1) Public transport: riding on trains with the doors open, arriving in places to find there is no return bus until the next day, sitting on a beer crate for three hours in a maxi-taxi (mini-bus), fighting old women to get on the bus, and, when all else fails... hitch hiking....2) The ongoing search for decent toilet facilities: finding a toilet period, finding a toilet with a light that works, finding a toilet with a working flushing mechanism, finding a toilet with paper, and my personal favourite, going to the toilet and seeing just a hole in the floor, perhaps with elaborate surrounding tiles!3) Food: the meat in truly out of this world! beware though, as any part of a pig is edible, including the pigs ear (raw), pickled food including watermelon, pickled salad in winter due to seasonal food supply, samarles (meat & rice wrapped in cabbage leaves) and all cakes contain rum!

My top three places to visit are:1) Brasov... an amazing place any time of year by the mountains, with stunning views, a cosmopolitan feel to it, and excellent pancakes! with Germanic influenced buildings.2) Sigishoura... birth place of 'Vlad the Impailer' (rumoured to be where Dracula legend stemmed from), far more Romanian influenced town, with centre piece of town being the citadel and city on the hill, also beautiful anytime of year!3) Bran Castle...(past Brasov) often used at the 'face' of Dracula's dwellings, it's wonderful mountain surroundings, and well preserved interior give you a pretty good insight to some of the Romanian royal historyOf course other places such as Sibiu, Tirges Mures,& Cluj offer other great insights and perspectives into the history of Transylvania, but these are just my particular favourites.

I can't possibly end this email with out talking just a little about my home for the past seven months 'TARNAVENI'. This small town based in a valley, surrounded by hills, has offered me a brilliant insight into real life in Transylvania, with one road villages, a mix of the Hungarian, Romanian, and Roma (gypsy) cultures, and two very entertaining discos! It is here I have learned about local cultures, and the bizarre things that happen here including: getting sweets or matches, instead of the correct change in shops, needing your passport to buy a hoover, driving around horse & carts, sleeping with the sounds of howling dogs all around, and learning that the concept of 'non-stop' services usually means they finish about 11pm! God bless Romania and Tarnaveni!
So that's it folks... six days and counting and I'll be home, but I will be back here one day, so thank you Romania, and thanks to you all if you have been reading these messages.

Regards from Romania

Romania Week 28 - Just a little bit longer...

Hello everybody,
There is good news and bad news... the good news... this is email will be relatively short... the bad news. It won’t be my last one! Due to my second colleague having to go home a touch early (yesterday), I will be staying on until March 1st to help the new volunteers settle in! They arrived yesterday and we have had a busy old weekend getting around town and returning the hire car, which we used to pick them up....
This has been along week with no out of the ordinary activities taking place, just routine socialising, and lots of working, so I won't bore you all too much about that. Life in Romania has returned to winter with -6 temperatures, but clear blue skies, so sunglasses are still required! The horse and cart parade continues to remove the rubble form the old bus station, after it was knocked down, and winter salads are still made solely of tomatoes.... the also pork remains delicious!

English classes continue with the kids on the street and my table tennis career (at my Hungarian neighbour's home) is still thriving as I remain unbeaten.... but Naomi (12) is giving me a real good run for my money! I have never seen a girl her age have such skills in all sports!!!
I am hoping to have a rather big leaving party at the local disco... as I can't possibly leave without dancing to (yet another) Chris Rea tune! My Romanian driving skills have also improved as I now have been able to render the brake completely unnecessary.... and the biggest 'on road' danger still is passing a horse & cart! Life rumbles on, and with a few extra minutes of sunlight each night, I make actually leave work in some form of light! Bring on the new volunteers reactions to the hospital conditions....

...and yeah, just in case those sadistic Man UTD fans are wondering if I followed the football this weekend, I'll just say this....I know Liverpool embarrassed themselves this weekend against Barnsley, and I'm big enough to say well done on beating arsenal 4-0, fair enough, and.... I hope you get stuffed in the next round

Regards from Romania

Romania Week 27 - A Return to the hills...

Hello all,
Well after almost three months of snow, Romania once again surprises us by sending three weeks of sunshine, and what feels like an early summer, to an English man at least!
I have walked to the internet cafe in a short sleeve t-shirt... I have to admit the local Romanian's are not quite sharing my idea of basking in the sun, and remain in coats, but still with the snow gone, it's great to have warm days back, even if the nights remain cold.
Yesterday me and Karen returned to Janneke’s farm up in the hills, in the Village of Oarba de Mures. It is a very very small village, so small that there is no such things as garbage collection, and people simply have to burn their garbage at the edge of the village... all houses are supplied with water by the use of wells, (not by the government) and life is just all about the village, most locals who don’t have a car only leave the village once a week to go to market, what a life! The ride to the village was near impossible in a normal car due to the fact there are only dirt tracks leading there, and most of them were too muddy to pass. Crossing the river was perhaps the most surreal experience as we drove onto a 'pontoon' which is basically a platform just big enough for one car... and a man appeared from somewhere to winch us across the river on this tiny platform... before charging us 50 pence before letting us off the other side! We had a 4x4 tour of some of the farm, before walking to meet the 13 horses and try and help my colleague to 'round them up'... before settling down in the two-roomed house, with some local sweet bread, made by one of the neighbours. My colleague also proudly showed us her 'pet' mouse, which she found hibernating in a pair of her shoes. She has since moved the mouse to a nice little straw home, and is trying to decide when to wake it up... as it may have not ate enough food before winter to last much longer. The funny part is that the mouse is still hibernating, so her and her husband have to be as quiet as possible, even thought they don't know if the mouse is still alive... that's life in the country!
I was again rewarded for this week's English lesson with the kids across the road, by being fed afterwards. I was very cautious of being given more pickled water melon juice, but was instead given some park of a pig, a part that I could not, and neither wanted to identify... it's been a real experience eating the Romanian way here!
The club room was again fumigated, after further cockroaches were found, and we haven't had any more since, but the whole hospital building has them, so no wonder they come to our room, because it's the warmest and in the basement, next to a garbage store!

There hasn't really been anything else out of the ordinary this week, apart from having to scrub the house to get rid of mould in the bathroom. I have also removed more cobwebs from the bedroom and bathroom, than I have seen used in any number of spider related horror films!! It was disgusting, and I have become good friends now with one of the several spiders residing around our toilet!

The old bus station building has been knocked down this week, and almost every 'gypsy' from the area has been coming to the building site with a horse and cart, to take the concrete away.. apparently this is because they can sell iron, within the concrete, but what a sight it is to see all the horse and carts shipping off the remains of the building.. no safety fences or restricted access, there are gypsy children just stood amongst the rubble.... it's sights like these that I will inevitably miss when I leave... where nothing is wasted, and people are just concerned with getting on with life. I love that any repair or construction work on the street goes on without so much as a safety barrier, large holes are left uncovered over night, and if you were to fall in a hole, the idea of trying to blame someone, just does not exist!

Regards from Romania!

Romania Week 26 - A visit to Dracula's Castle & An escape to Hungary!

Hello everybody,
Well initially this was to be the last week of my placement.. Week 26... but lucky for me I have an additional two weeks left! So on to the events of last week!I can only really focus on the highlights of this week which were an unscheduled visit to Bran and the infamous 'Dracula Castle' and my weekend trip to Budapest, Hungary.

Myself and my fellow volunteer Karen, welcomed the news that our room in the hospital was to be fumigated, after increasing numbers of encounters with cockroaches! It sounds far worse than it was... anyway, we decided with time running out, we should really go for it, and test the Romanian public transport system one last time... so after a very short deliberation we opted to go 'further than ever before' in just one day, and headed for Bran.. The journey was as follows: a taxi from our house (Tarnaveni) to Medias (20mins). A train from Medias to Brasov (3 hours) a bus from Brasov train station to bus station (15 minutes) and then a bus from Brasov bus station to Bran (50 minutes) and the same to get home!!! Despite six months of telling just how impossible it was to go anywhere on public transport, without fear of losing your life, beer crates for seats, or cancellations for fun, this journey was seamless, with no more than a 10 minute wait between connections....God bless Romania!!! So to Bran, famous to those who don't know Romania, as the castle that is notoriously used as a picture of Dracula's castle, because of it's hillside location, in the beginnings of the mountains in Transylvania, despite having no connection with 'Vlad the Impailer'... It was actually used by Queen Mary (who I believe was actually Scottish, and King Ferdinand) as a real home, and there are plenty of pictures around the place to prove it! The snow around the castle was several feet thick in places, and we made the most of it by running through several snow mounds, and the skies were blue offering some amazing clear views of the castle and the surrounding hills... yet another 'must see' place to mark on the map!!!
My second trip this week was far more planned, as I went to Budapest, after several recommendations from people, and I was fortunate enough to have a local guide (Csilla, the sister of Becky, and daughter of my Hungarian neighbours). I was definitely happy to have a guide as the Hungarian language is near impossible to understand, as it is so different to Romanian and Latin based languages... Budapest, is actually two cities divided across the river Danube, on one side you have the city of 'Buda', and the other 'Pest', very practical! My favourite memories of this weekend have to be walking around the city, seeing the palace lit up at night towering over the river. The food is equally as good as in Romania (though I'm sure not as nice as my neighbours home cooked food!!!) and there are any number of museums, historic buildings and places to visit! I personally just enjoyed spending time walking around the city and meeting friends of Csilla. Be warned though travellers, you must buy tickets for transport before you get on buses / trams... or at least know which are likely to have inspectors on! Views from the Citadel are very impressive despite the 5000 steps up there (a slight exaggeration!), and a visit to a fairly large island on the river is also worth a visit, as there is plenty of places to sit and soak up the sunshine, or for the more energetic, jog around a designated pathway! Budapest is very much a working city from my impression, and like any big European city there are many interesting faces on the subway.... many people did seem weary and tired looking though and I get the impression people work long hours though and that maybe accounts for a lack of vibrancy I felt here... maybe the city at night offers a different perspective?

On to a more Romanian tale to end on, after returning to Turges Mures from Budapest, I refused to pay for a taxi home, so I walked for half an hour into the hills (the road to Tarnaveni), but watched in horror as not one, but two buses passed me by.... (there is not normally two buses going by in an hour!!!) so I decided I must take the Romanian approach and hitch a ride... so after trying to stop every car that passed (which was not many) I managed to get a lift to a village called Mica, which at least took me over the hills and halfway home, but as the sun was beginning to disappear and even horse and carts were becoming sparse, I was starting to think I may need to do something drastic like lie across the road, to get someone to stop, But after a short conversation with some Hungarian villagers (speaking in my garbled Romanian) they persuaded me to keep trying, and shortly afterwards I got my second lift all the way home.. the hitching cost me 4 lei (90 pence) and the bus normally costs 5.5 lei - bargain or what?!!!!!

Despite the travelling I was feeling lively enough to teach my English class to the kids across the street, so I headed over there, and my reward was yet another feeding by the mother, who fed me home made vegetable spread, with some part of a pig, that I really didn't want to know what it was.. but it definitely had a pig taste! There was no 'pickled water' this time, which I was relieved about, after almost throwing up last time I drank it, not knowing what it was of course.. many things are pickled over here in winter, and the water was left over after a water melon had been pickled... this is so true!!!

Anyway, enough for now... this time in two weeks I’ll be home... so let’s hope the final two weeks will be as educational as ever!!!
Regards from Romania

Romania week 25 - "Not on a Friday"

Hello everybody!
Wow it's been a very tough week, and I have to admit the first few thoughts of coming home have been creeping into my thoughts.The sad news I have to report is that one of my fellow volunteers (Helen) has had to return home rather quickly for personal reasons, which has had me and Karen experience a range of emotions from worry to madness, in no particular order! I won't dwell on this issue because Transylvania never stops surprising us, whatever else is happening....
So to the weekly news: I have had various parts of my person grabbed by many of the female patients during this 6 month stay, and this week was no exception... as much to the amusement of the nurse on duty, as when leaving the women's ward, a female patient ran up to me, bear hugged me from behind, before grabbing my breast... this is not an unusual experience for me here, as another patient greets you in this way each time you see her...... ah well nice to have a bit of intimacy I can hear some of you think... but joking aside things can be a little rough at times on the ward, and last week I was on the end of some aggressive behaviour from a female patient and it was not a pleasant experience as she barricaded herself against the door to prevent me from leaving the ward.. Luckily the other patients are very quick to help you out in kind of problem situation!

To this week's email 'title'... I just wanted to share this gem of a story with you. My colleague Karen is wanting to take a train through Europe to get home rather than fly. And despite the complications of this journey, every part of the journey can be booked on line. but oh no, not the Romanian part,... so she had to go to Turges Mures to make a booking in person, only thing was when she got there she was informed that she was two days to early, and you are not allowed to book a train journey more than a month in advance.... hmm... so after waiting the two extra days, she made a call to the train company who spent almost 30 minutes saying how it was no problem to book the train now... so when she stated she would come and make the booking the response was " oh I'm sorry, you can't make that booking today, not on a Friday" and with no further explanation the phone call ended!!!

I had a quite surreal experience yesterday when going to Turges Mures Zoo, with my good friends Sari & Judith (in picture below), as after climbing a rather steep hill, and a good 6k walk, we arrived at the entrance at 15:30 to be told the zoo closed at 16:00!!! so we rushed round the place like one of the red-ass monkeys we saw in the monkey house.... the zoo has a bear, lions, tigers, monkeys, deer, lama, pumas, birds of prey etc... but the conditions were not good for the animals, and they had very limited space... the kiosk at the entrance had a sign saying you must pay for taking photographs, but no way of checking if you had paid or not.... bizarre!!! Seeing an entire zoo in 30 minutes, even a small one, was a challenge, and we missed seeing the lions close up, but the views over the city were almost worth the climb up the hill anyway!

The English lessons for my neighbourhood kids continue tomorrow, so any suggestions my teaching colleagues would be appreciated.... and other events this week include my 4-day trip to Budapest from Friday-Monday! I am ready for that four day trip!

So that's it for now... I am too hungry to continue without food!!!
Regards from Transylvania!

Romania Week 24 - The beginning of the end? & Mark's visit!

Well hello all,
and what a busy week it's been here...This week has had many highlights, (what week hasn't been eventful here?). But I'd like to focus on events at the hospital and the visit of my friend Mark, who I've known for many years since our time working at the Opera House in Manchester!
So as the more astute of you will realise from the weekly email count.... week 24 is very close to the end of the 6 month placement, and the issue of ending our relationships is very prominent in our minds. And whilst I feel I have made some 'friends for life' here, there are those relationships with the patients that must be ended and cannot continue after the placement ends. However, having forged some very good working relationships with staff and patients, we have inevitably formed emotional attachments to certain patients, as they have to us... to highlight some of the difficulties that have arisen as a result of this, I will share with you an experience I had this week. During a fairly regular group session with some female patients, I was talking to one particular female patient, who asked for paper and pen to write something... so I obliged and she began to ask for my name and address in England. I had to try and explain (in my best Romanian) that I could not give these details as is the rules of the charity I work for... the women continued to ask for just my name and area that I lived in, saying if she ever got out of the hospital, and made it to England she wanted to be able to find me.... she then began to write a few sentences on some paper before the session ended, and insisted I read the letter... my Dutch colleague was able to translate that this women had basically wanted me to marry her, preferably before I leave, or in summer, and this would allow her to leave the hospital. Now, of course, some of the patients do have a mental health problem, but not all... and I now begin to understand how some patients express a belief that past volunteers who will 'come back to marry them', because I believe that some of the patients see us as an opportunity to escape these horrible conditions. Patients have talked about offering money and houses to previous volunteers as enticements to marry, and of course after spending months with people, and with the very open and friendly nature of the patients, it becomes very difficult to maintain that 'professional' boundary when patients are wanting to have a non-professional relationship... I think this may be the start of this process, as the idea of us leaving, is becoming a serious reality for many of the patients. I just that saying goodbye will be a mainly positive experience. Only the next few weeks will tell....
Now on to more social endeavours! My friend Mark, who as I have said, I knew from working at the Manchester Opera House for many years came for a crazy 2/3 day visit. He arrived Thursday Morning in Cluj, and left Saturday afternoon... we crammed in a drive from Cuj to Tarnavnei (2 hours), with a stop at some amazing salt mines in a place called TURDA... honestly that was the name of the town... the mines were deep into the surrounding hills and the main chamber must have been almost 200feet high, with an Indiana Jones wooden walk way around the top... and like an Indiana Jones film, there was a small, but long twisting tunnel before reaching an echo chamber... and then the very dodgy wooden staircase.. its great to see, but it would never be opened to the public in England, without serious fencing for health and safety reasons.... but despite the truly brilliant sights it offered, (and free salt from the walls!), the most distinguishing sight was in the small cave like chamber at the very end of the original tunnel... and on entering the chamber I joked with Mark that there appeared to be a table tennis (ping-pong) table in the cave space... only when I rounded the corner did I actually see two people playing table tennis in this small cavern... I have to admit that these images did not match... seeing a small cavern in a salt mine 200feet underground, with two middle age people playing table tennis.. I began to think that this was the secret training location of the Romanian national table tennis team! I then remembered that i have never seen any Romanian National table tennis players, and figured that they probably got lost down in the mines whilst training... I wonder?????
The rest of the time with mark, was spent in Tugers Mures (Thursday night) eating and drinking, then Friday afternoon in the snowy hills around Tarnaveni, before finishing off with a huge meat platter and drinks at Crama… All this before hitting the now infamous INFINITY disco, where we were treated to such musical greats as Abba 'man after midnight' and 'red red wine' mixed in with European and some UK dance tunes.... Credit must go to Mark for driving over here, especially coming straight off the plane... he passed with flying colours!!!

Last night was a quiet night, after visiting my neighbours, I watched the final part of Lord of the Rings, and tonight we are going to be treated to the beginning of the African Cup of Nations (football championships)... I love TV here!! I also watched the Rodger Federrer tennis game yesterday, he won 10-8 in the fifth set... what a game!!! Ok, I rambling now so I'll sign off!
Regards from Romania

Romania Week 23 - Lord of the Rings comes to Romania

Hello Everybody...
I trust all of you have now resumed normal life after the festive season! This week's tale of life here is very much about the small things in life, that seem to be more evident in my life here, than back in the UK. There were no great train journeys, strange customs, or even any trips out of Tarnaveni, but this week has continued to open my eyes to the great Romanian way of life, that I have become so accustomed to, and the surprises, that always seem to be just around the corner...

Returning to work has been tough after the Christmas break, followed by the visit of my friend, but it has been great to see the patients again who are warm in their welcome, each time we see them. Visiting one of the women's wards for a weekly ward round is becoming increasingly difficult for me, as they many of them are becoming very 'hands on', whilst many of the patients that went home for Xmas have returned, mostly better for the time away...

In 'la strada' (the street) life continues to be very pleasant, and this week me & Helen began our first English class for the orphan children from across the road… they were all pretty good at the basics, and before we even began the lesson, we were invited to sit and eat with the kids..(I thought this might happen.. so I made sure I didn’t have tea first...) we have planned to do these lessons every Monday evening, and I would love the opportunity to bring these kids over to England for a visit with their foster mom. One thing we have learned is that the term 'orphan' here does not necessarily mean the kids don't have parents, some of the kids do have parents here, but the reasons why they were placed in the orphanage are unknown to me and private to the kids too. But one thing I do know is that in a couple of years these kids will have to leave the house they are living in, if they are unable to work, and have nowhere else to go, and work is not always possible here. There is no state system in place here remember. And despite this, these kids just get on with life, enjoy the time together, never complain of not having the latest clothes or possessions, and always want to help you to do anything...
Tuesday & Wednesday night was football night, as we got no English premiership football on TV here, but we do get the FA cup and Carling Cup games, so the girls allow me the TV rights to watch the games! The other highlights of the week have been seeing he lord of the rings films, (one playing each weekend for three weeks running), and seeing some breath-taking scenery around the hills of this town. I got up early (well 0900) on Saturday to with my neighbour Jacky to walk her two dogs... (one of which I'll try and add a photo of to the is email). We just drove for no more than ten minutes to the surrounding hills and took a walk over the snow covered tops, walking through fresh fallen snow that glistened like it was covered in diamonds. Once at the peak of the hill, you could see for miles, and with no one else in sight, it felt so liberating. On following the dogs through a small piece of woodland we emerged through the sun-soaked trees to see a range of hills (small mountains) towards Medias. As with the valley here it is often covered by a morning mist, and this was the case here, you could see what appeared to be mountain / four or five ranges of hill tops, peaking through sheets of mist, and with clear blue skies adding a stunning back drop! I am trying to be descriptive here because I did not have my camera and I don’t think any photo could do this scene justice! All this has been just a ten minute drive away. It’s amazing what you see when you look what is right in front of you!
I could write more about my second visit to Mac Mac disco..,. which felt like an under 16 disco when I arrived... or about another Friday night in Crama restaurant with Lia & Giani, but I won't because I guess this weeks abiding memories for me have to be the country side view... so I'll leave you with them, and urge any of you who want an experience with everything.... come to Romania! Until Next week!

(The pictures this week are of some of the creative activities we have undertaken in club)Regards from Romania

Romania Week 22 - Romanian New Year & Driving in Romania

I think I sent a blank email right??? (Sharon thanks for letting me know!!)here is week 22 again....

So hello and 'La Multi Ani' (Happy new year!) to everybody! Here in a snow covered and very cold Romania, life has been continuing as 'normal'... well almost... and to be honest, I think most of you may have realised that the concept of being 'normal' does not really exist here!
Last Saturday (29th) my friend (Hyun-Jin) arrived at Cluj from England (see above). (For those of you thinking 'Hyun-Jin' is not an English sounding name, you would be right! She is from South Korea. I know her from my time working at the Royal Northern College of Music.) So after staying in Cluj for one night, in -8 temperatures, warmed slightly by the wonderful array of Christmas lights, and a really gorgeous walk through the freshly snow covered botanical gardens, we took a 3 hour, bumpy, trip in a minibus back to my home town, Tarnaveni. What a welcome to Romania!

The following day was 'new years eve', and we spent it walking around Tarnaveni, before calling in at my lovely neighbour’s house, to say hello. Whilst walking in Tarnaveni, Hyun-Jin was subjected to some very funny looks from the locals who some of whom had clearly have never seen a person from Asia before, let alone from Korea. It was like being with a celebrity. Having said that, they could just as well have been enjoying watching her trying to walk in her boots without slipping... (It was very icy!) So whilst chatting with my neighbours, we were invited to stay for dinner with the family, which we were very happy to except, and so spent new year, eating traditional Romanian/ Hungarian food, chatting about life, religion and politics, followed by going out to watch fireworks at midnight, and then moving on to another neighbours house for some more drinks and fun.

The following day we spent visiting more neighbours, (my Dutch colleague and her husband & dogs!) and the house for the orphan kids, where we sat with cakes and tea, talking with the foster parents about various things. At one point the dad, left the room, and returned two minutes later wearing a cowboy out fit. I swear this is true, he had a proper cowboy hat and waistcoat... I wasn’t really sure why he had put them on, and to be honest. I was scared to ask, so pretended like it was just normal to dress up mid-way through a cup of tea! We left the house but not before arranging some English lessons for the kids. I start my second volunteer post, (as Professor Dan, English teacher) tomorrow, and have agreed to do one weekly English session for the kids every Monday evening for an hour...

Wednesday we took a trip to Turges Mures, where after a lovely cup of white hot chocolate, at hotel Concordia, we had a walk through the Xmas lights of Turges Mures, which are equally as impressive as Cluj. We headed up to the citadel, where they have outdoor ice skating, to meet my friends Lia & Giani. After a few drinks with a friend of Lia, who owns a small theatre within the citadel, and some crazy photographs with axes, and masks, we all went to my now favourite place to eat in Turges Mures, before getting the 2230 bus home.

Thursday to Saturday we hired a car, and without boring you all with long winded descriptions of the places we visited, I'll give you a description in brief. We visited Praid (to see the famous salt mines) it was closed... oh Romania!!!! We visited Sigishoura (Birth place of Vlad the Impaler), which looked even more spectacular covered in snow... Sibiu (last year's capital of culture) which was cold, though to be fair I did forget my coat!!! Oops... and headed back to Turges Mures one evening with my colleague Helen, which I mention because on the way back we encountered the infamous 'Transylvanian fog'. We had heard of this fog, as it was the reason they changed the airline arrival city from Turges Mures to Cluj, and oh boy, I understand why... I could not see past the bonnet of the car. It was just so dense, and it made static lights ahead look like oncoming cars / trucks... and that was just in the city, once hit the country roads I could barely make out the road itself.... how we managed to drive back home over the hills only god himself knows!

Friday was spent in Sibiu, as I said, with Friday evening being left for now traditional beer and food night in 'Crama', here in Tarnaveni, where we (Me, Helen, Hyun-Jin, Lia & Giani) ate well, mostly because the temperature had now dropped to -17 at night, and when you breathe deeply at night your nose hairs freeze... nice eh?! We stopped at Giani's on the way back for a little computer karaoke... (Me & Helen singing, or should I say murdering, 'gangsters paradise')! And after some home made 'Palinka' special Romanian drink (80%) we fond a cab to take us home!!!

Hyun-Jin left yesterday from Cluj, where we met my other colleague Karen, who had two friends leaving on the same flight. Driving in Romania has actually been a really fun experience, I mean people over take on bends and drive crazy, and the main road (and I mean one of the only ones in the country) has only one lane each way mostly, but its pretty good. Whilst over-taking trucks can be a near death experience, and the biggest hazards else where are passing horse & carts, and avoiding pot holes the size of moon craters the cities are actually easy to drive through, and its easy to park!!!!

Returning the car today was an experience, mainly because I got it from Turges Mures airport, and when I got there today, there was nobody there, and I mean NOBODY! I walked around the very small airport past the x-ray machines, around passport control' and the food and drink cabinets, as I was only person in the building!!! So much for security, it was so lax I was looking for the key rack to take one of the planes out for a quick flight! The guy turned up eventually after I had called him, apologising saying he had just forgot I was coming today ( I love the honesty), and after checking all was in order, he then drove me to back to Turges Mures so I could get the bus home!!! (And not because he had been late)!

So its been a great week here, not just having a visitor, but having time to really enjoy seeing Transylvania... I urge you all if you get chance, come and see Romania, come and see Transylvania... to quote Mr Spock (Star trek) 'it's life, but not as we know it'!

Regards from Romania

Romania Week 21 - A Christmas Special

Hello everybody, and hope you have all had an excellent Christmas, this email is a good few days early simply because it would take me a week, to write in detail, all the fantastic experiences I have had in the past few days... I think the only way I can give you taster of Christmas here is to write diary style from December 24-27, so here goes...

(December 24 Monday) After writing my last weekly email (on what I thought was Xmas eve), from my friend's place, I sat down with him (Giani) and his son, and brother to have a bite to eat, before lazily making way home. Once home I called Shari (my Hungarian neighbour) who informed me that she would drop by shortly for me to come round to her house for Xmas... this is where my confusion kicked in, and I realised that like most of Europe Xmas is celebrated on the 24th, not 25th like in England... so... I rushed to the house of the orphan kids, to give them some presents I had bought them, the kids were out, but the foster mom was in. and she insisted I stay for something to eat. I tried to explain, in vain, that I was in a rush ( a concept not understood in Romania, unless you are driving!) and so I eventually left the house with a tray full of samarle (meat wrapped in cabbage leaves, a Xmas speciality!) and a plate full of home made biscuits!!!
So I then had a quick shower, & shave (as I now have a beard), and I made my way to the Hadnagy household, but first I had to stop by the second Hadnagy house to give Deli, a present from us volunteers... and of course on entering the house I was surrounded by the family, and asked to sing a ‘colinde’ (Xmas carol) this is true... you cannot go into someone's house without singing first... no exception to this rule!!! so after a quick rendition of silent night, I was urged to sit and have a drink, and again given a full plate of food, which was lovely (chicken, potatoes, veg etc....) I was now eating my third meal that day, and I hadn't even reached my destination, where I due to eat again!!!
Agh!!! So I finally made it to the house of Becky, Shari, Judith etc... (These names should now be very familiar to you all by now...) and of course before I was allowed to enter, I had to sing my second version of silent night... (Why could I not remember the words to anything else??) the house was full of the family and children, and it felt so nice, I experienced a fantastic 'Hungarian' style Xmas, where the sons sang Hungarian songs, the dad asked questions to the children about the story of Xmas, and the presents took almost an hour to hand out as there were so many people!! after more food and drink we, sang carols via mobile phones to the family members who could not make it home, and then the fun really started.... almost the entire family got wrapped up warm, and went singing carols to friends an neighbours... we went to 9 different houses( I think) where the following programme occurred. We would stand outside the chosen house (being careful to avoid any big dogs!) sing the Hungarian carol (of which I think I know by heart now), there would be a short exchange of words in Hungarian, then everyone would be invited into a room of the house where we would be given, wine, cookies or special bread.... so you can only imagine the state of us after leaving the 9th house at 0330!!!! Lots of people were out in the streets doing the same thing!!! It was amazing how people welcomed you into their house all night, no matter how many people there were!

(December 25th Tuesday) so to my own Xmas day, I woke up to a quiet house, such a contrast to the previous 24 hours... and opened my presents from the girls (as they were away in Budapest), made a lovely cup of tea, and ate some of the samarles that my neighbour had given me. I then went to visit the kids over the road, to see if they liked their presents, they were out at church, except one, who I sat with and had a good chat about his Xmas in Romanian for a good 30 minutes. The rest of the kids came home, and piled in to the room to sing me a Romanian carol to say thanks for the present. The mother again insisted I stay for lunch which I could not refuse, and so I sat down with the foster parents and their grown-up own kids who were living in other parts of Romania, for soup, more samalis and then more home made cookies and bread!!!

After this lovely meal, I was soon back at the Hungarian house seeing how everybody was recovering from the previous night's singing! We sat around relaxing watching some TV, playing some games (chess etc) and as seems to be a recurring pattern, ate dinner.. and yeah guess what we ate... that's right samarle.. I mean mamma Hadnagy makes them so well, I just couldn't help but eat more!!! And just as I thought I had turned into one big piece of meat, wrapped in cabbage leaves... the boys suggested we go play football... (Alleluia!!!) I have waited almost 5 months to play football, so 8-10 of us played football indoors, and it felt so good!!! not just to run off all the food!!! I slept well that night!!!!

(December 26th Wednesday) I woke up feeling like 60 years old, with every single movement feeling like I was lifting 15 stone.. I may have been a little unfit!!!! So I eventually made breakfast (no samarle) and began to watch some much needed TV!!! That was until Csilla, Szillard (brother & sister of Judith, Sari, Becky) and Judith (Szillard's wife) called round and invited me out for a beer in the town... as Csilla was due to leave for Budapest that day. So ,off for some drinks, as we were later joined by Daniel. (yet another brother!) After drinks we returned to their house, before driving Csilla to Turges Mures to catch her bus home. On returning form Turges Mures we ate together, this time some corn based food (I cant remember the name) with spaghetti and a sauce.. hmmm hmm.... so good!!! This was followed by several games of chess with Judith where we ended at 3-3. After this I returned home for some much needed rest!!!! My stomach couldn't take any more!!!

(December 27th Thursday) I woke up feeling even worse today!!! Ow!!! So after a nice English style cooked breakfast I took a stroll into town, to pick up some shopping, and to use the internet, before returning home for further rest. I got a call to invite me to another game of football, why not I thought? So I proudly put on my short sleeve Liverpool shirt and shorts. (yeah shorts) only to be informed that we would be playing OUTISDE in the snow!!!! oh how crazy are people here... well I don’t have any other sporty gear, so I played in shorts on Astroturf, covered in snow, and for those of you that read 'week 19 if I were a Romanian footballer' well I lived that experience for an hour.... but it was surprisingly warm one you got running... just about!!! I began to feel my fingers again after the first 15 minutes....

And now its December 28th already, the time has passed so quickly, and I am heading to Cluj tomorrow for the arrival of my friend, so no doubt I will be reporting on another week of transport mishaps, and all kinds of unexpected tales... for those of you that have expressed concerns for the pigs here, some still remain alive, because I can hear them squealing in the morning, no doubt wondering what happened to their friends...

Regards from Romania! (and happy new year!!!)

Romania Week 20 - The Alternative Christmas Nativity

Hello everybody,
Well it's Xmas eve, and I have just completed cleaning the house in preparation for the carol singers who are expected later today, as tradition dictates I must let them in and feed them.... hmm...and now the girls have both left for Budapest yesterday, I have freedom in the house!!! I hope to be singing carols with the orphan kids from across the street, and then heading to one of my neighbours for some drinks... but as with everything here, plans are 'subject to change' at any time!!!

There is only one topic I will talk in depth about today and that must be the success of the nativity play in the hospital, but first I must give you a brief run down of my week here, as its been too nice not to mention... so hope you are all sitting comfortably..... the snow remains here and so everything looks wonderfully white and great for taking pictures, but practically the entire town is like an ice-skating rink, but once you get used to skating around (without blades) its not so bad. This weekend has been a great build up to Xmas, as Friday night was spent with both the Hadnagy (Hungarian) family in the pub, and with my work colleagues and freinds, we ate a ridiculously huge mixed grill, (I haven’t ate that much since that night in Maloolaba, Australia, where we showed that 'all you can eat place' that we could indeed eat ourselves into unconsciousness). The meal came with several salads for the vegetarians, (that’s Karen, Helen & Karen's fella Tam) and after polishing more food off, in one night than I have ate all week, we all headed to Infinity disco, to work it off on the dance floor... and I have to say it was yet another fun night of bizarre music and even more bizarre dancing from the locals (not out group I assure you!)

Saturday was spent with Helen, Karen, Tam, and our two Dutch colleagues (Jack & Janneke) shopping in the malls of Turges Mures, walking around the beautifully decorated town, eating another lovely meal, and having a sneaky ice-cream in the final mall, like all American teenagers seem to do it the movies!!!And yesterday was another fun day for me, heading back to Turges Mures to buy myself a nice warm coat, and fashionable too, before treating myself to a McDonalds. I then headed home to catch some of my neighbourhood kids playing in a town concert at the 'Castle de Cultura' (cultural house). It was like a young orchestra playing some brass music, & Christmas carols, and they were broadcasting it on the local radio station and on the web.... they were all great and it made for a very Christmas feel to the day...
So to the main event.... Friday's 3 nativity plays in the hospital... in the morning we had the men's performance, with two last minute drop out's but one last minute replacement, so the roles of the wise men were filled by Karen and Janneke. As expected the singing of carols by the watching audience lacked any real enthusiasm, in such an environment as a man's locked psychiatric ward, apart from a handful of men who clearly knew every word of every verse of every song, and shared this knowledge loudly, if somewhat out of tune... Our male 'star' was fantastic singing solo, and Joseph kept to his role of finding a place to stay for Mary and the donkey (yours truly), but proceeded to take total care of baby Jesus, leaving Mary fairly redundant... in the stable... The audience numbers did dwindle as the play went on, but I'll put that down to poor concentration of the audience, and not the performance of our cast...the first afternoon performance was on the upper locked women's ward, where we had no drop-outs, and in fact had a last minute addition to the cast, much to our delight... again the role of the star was performed wonderfully, by a women who has a wonderful singing voice, and pretty much silenced the entire audience whilst singing, and our female Mary, was yanking my donkey tail like it was whip, and she ready to win the grand national (a famous horse race) if she could push me faster, much to the amusement of the audience... the singing on the women's ward's was plentiful and at the end of both female performances additional songs were sung by members of the audience and by cast members in Hungarian too....all the cast reported enjoying the experience and we really hope similar things will continue in the future...
A very pleased volunteer team (me, Lia, Janneke, Jacquline, Helen)
Merry Xmas to you all Regards from Romania...

Romania Week 19 - If I was a Romanian Footballer...

Hey everybody! I can not even begin to try and offer such bizarre events as last week’s pig's ear offering, or random man found in ditch, but I can offer you some more realistic everyday issues faced by the Romanian people at this time of year.... so here goes....

I'm writing this email from an internet cafe in Turges Mures...(nearest big town from where I live, but you should know this by now!), after I have just been Xmas shopping in a new shopping mall, and then treated myself to a McDonalds chicken sandwich meal. I'm not really living like a Romanian today... but hey! so to the 'subject' statement.. 'If I was a Romanian footballer'. Well in Mcdonalds they have a TV screen and it was showing a league 1 game.... but the conditions were so bad, as the pitch looked like a local tractor had mowed it 10 minutes before the game, and I could not tell which teams were playing in which colours (due to mud/snow covering the players) until the clean substitutes came on. I was also highly amused to see the players running across mounds of snow to retrieve the ball for a throw in... So if I were a Romanian footballer... I'd change jobs pronto!
To more homely matters.... Friday night saw the second snow fall of the year, and the first real heavy fall with at least six inches of snow covering everything!!! This inspired me to go to the market and buy a Xmas tree which I did, and carried it all the way home... in the snow.... I felt very proud of myself that I had fulfilled me role as man of the house and provided for the girls... (don't ever let them know I said this, they'd both take offence...) my only problem was that I didn’t buy a pot to put the tree in, so it has remained outside the house, but looked brilliant this morning covered in fresh snow... I also think there is a Xmas tree economy trade here, as at least three completely random people stopped me on my way home to ask me if how much the tree costs.... I mean I think some people wait to the last minute to reduce the cost of the tree... it just seemed odd to me why these strangers would stop me only to ask how much I paid for the tree... very random... like many other things here! I have now adapted pretty well to the cold, and for those of you that have experienced me suffer in cold climates (namely: Marina, Kev Stacey etc) I owe you all a big thank you taught me how to stay warm when outside!!!
At the hospital it’s been a tough week, mainly because I have been there without fellow volunteers, as Helen has remained very poorly (don't worry she's better now) and Karen has been away with her boyfriend driving around random places.... so I've been very fortunate to have the help of my fellow Dutch volunteers and our interpreter has been great too, to ensure we have not had to close the club... we have made our painted wall look like a Xmas scene by turning the scene form a grassy field ,to a snow covered grassy field, so patients have been able to paint Xmas trees, snowflakes and snow men.... it’s been a great week for creative work...
...and as many of you have asked about the patient nativity update here it is... the first proper rehearsals went well with patients singing the carols and walking through their roles and words... the women were especially good, the men however, have a tendency to forget the script, and begin improvising what they think should be said... whether it is related to the Xmas story or not.. So there's more work to be done there... also the women performers have begun to make demands of what the conditions of staging and costumes must be like, or else refusing to perform. We have not quite hit the level of demands of say Madonna or Britney Spears, and no one has yet asked for their own trailer, filled with champagne, but this is a twist I did not see coming... actors eh!!! (No offence Colin, Jen, Gemma, Hannah... etc...) you'd think we were on ‘Broadway’ or in the west end!

Socially it’s been a good few days, me and Helen joined Lia and Giani for some drinks Friday night, and yesterday whilst popping round to the neighbours I was invited to join them for dinner, oh it was so nice to have a full proper meal with others... we had French potatoes with liver and cabbage.... nice.... I assure you!!! The last night I was out for a beer with Becky's brother, who's wedding I went to, and his wife Judith, and another brother and sister, a nice way to end the day So a pleasant, if not busy week has passed and for those of you who are interested I got my date to come back home.. February 19th... but I'm trying not think about coming home just yet, as I have 8-9 weeks left here, and let’s hope they are as fun and eventful as the past 19 have been...
Regards from Romania

Romania Week 18 - Pig’s ears, men in ditches, nativity plays & flying coffee!

Hello everybody,
Well I am sure you will all join me in my sadness for Liverpool's unbeaten record going at Reading this past week... (expect the Man Utd fans I'm sure), let’s hope Saturday's game against Manchester united will make us all feel better (except for those same Man Utd fans!)

So on to more Romanian matters, as I have often stated, life here can catch you out at a moments notice, here I was having another relatively quiet week then came the weekend!!!
Pig's ears: Well Friday was just the beginning, on the way to work I noticed some activity in one of the neighbour's gardens... I could see several men standing over what I assumed was an attempt to grow the world's largest yellow vegetable. I persuaded Karen and Helen to join me in going to have a closer look... this big huge yellow thing was a dead pig. A huge dead (yellow pig!) and please remember both Helen and Karen are vegetarians... the pig was placed on some large wooden pallet, and looked to be being cooked form underneath (hence the yellow colour...) two of the neighbour's children were stood next to the pig eating its tail.... honestly!! The men invited us in to the garden to photograph their handy work... and looked pleased for the photo opportunity! after Karen and Helen began to think enough was enough, we began continued our journey to work... but as we were leaving one of the men came running over to us, and very proudly presented a smallish yellow triangle to me... he seemed very pleased with himself, and stood smiling at me gesturing to his mouth.....we stood looking at this yellow triangle, and quickly came to realise it was the pig's ear!!!! Oh my lord, the man was now watching me, insisting I eat it.... (I later was informed this is the greatest honour you can be given.. ) I must admit I was very close to shouting, "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here" (sorry TV joke for those of you who don't know the programme).. I slowly took a bite, and smiled widely to prevent any swallowing action... the man returned to his amateur butchery whilst I went round the corner and almost choked to death! I appreciated the honour, but it was not nice on the pallet...I spent the next 15 minutes walking to work, placing the ear on Helen's hat... to lighten the mood, much to Helen's protest, I gave the ear to a patient who was far more appreciative for this delicacy!

Nativity plays (the update)- we have selected the main cast of our Xmas production... and have decided to scrap the part of the shepherd's due to technical difficulties... one of the patients was disappointed in his appointed role of the 'star', and insisted on playing the role of Jesus, despite our protests that this would make a very difficult birth scene for Mary... still, a weekly rehearsal session is underway... of sorts!!!

Men in Ditches- after a very eventful day yesterday in Turges Mures with Sari & Judith (Hungarian neighbours of mine), which included visiting two shopping malls (very new thing here!), having white hot chocolate in a posh hotel, and going to the cinema, of which Judith and Sari had never been before (the things we take for granted eh!), we ventured home on the 1030pm bus.... Actually let me just mention the cinema, I let the girls choose the film as it was their first time and there were only two choices... they chose a foreign film... so I ended up watching what seemed like a great film, trying to read Romanian subtitles, whilst listening to the actors speaking French... quite the experience for me, but I did get the gist.... ha ha...So the way home... at about 1130pm we were walking home and saw a man in a ditch, it's pretty cold here at night and he seemed unconscious... but we decided we must try and wake him... he roused slightly, and was middle aged and had some blood coming from his nose... he was speaking rubbish, mixed with some English words and mostly Hungarian (lucky for me I had the girls with me).... he seemed really drunk but I could not smell any alcohol on him... we called the police who basically told us to take him to the hospital!!! yeah right......this is a typical response here... the guy couldn’t even walk... anyway, we called the police back, and they eventually turned up, but didn’t even go and look at the poor guy, who could have been dying for all they knew... next thing an ambulance arrives and they just pick him up and frog-march him to the ambulance.. (no patient care here!!!) Crazy stuff.... (below is some creative work the patients have done within the hospital club room)

...and finally flying coffee!!! I have had a tough day at work today, Karen is away with her boyfriend, Helen is sick so it was just me and my Dutch colleague today... with a particularly difficult group of four 1:1 patients this morning... one was new to the group, and oh my god, almost caused a riot... the new patient just caused an existing patient to begin screaming like a banshee and the two of them began grabbing each other aggressively.... after having to try and separate them, by physically man-handling them, one of them decided she would throw a cup of coffee randomly in protest, unfortunately for me.. I was standing in that particular random spot... and was covered from head to toe in coffee, (no harm done), I at least did manage to save our 'volunteer advent calendar' from taking most of the hit... some consolation at least!!!

So all in all, life has been very interesting here the last few days.... and I am looking forward to going home after this email, and having a nice beer... and hope that Helen doesn’t give me her D&V... (For those of you that know what this abbreviation means)
Regards from Romania!!!