Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Three Trips and Then Some

Wow!  It has been such a long time since my last entry and I have so much to write about.  I'm not sure I'll be able to remember all the things I've done in the meanwhile.  I'll start with the most important things, and then I may go back to more details later.

The Casino is the most iconic building in Constanta. recently it was bought by an investor who intends to renovate it.  For some reason that appears to be related to the upcoming renovations, they opened up the interior of the Casino for tours.  It is quite ramshackled now, but I could tell that is must have been quite spectacular in its glory days.
Angelina, Josi, and me by the grand staircase inside the Casino.
The first weekend of November I went to Bucuresti for the Money Sense Train the Trainers session.  I can't remember if I mentioned Money Sense yet on the blog, so I'll go ahead and tell you about the program now.  Money Sense is a program designed to teach high school students about personal finance.  In Romania it it taught through the coordination of the international student organization AIESEC, and it is funded by RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland).  I am one of two trainers for the course.  My co-trainer is Deliana, who has lived in Constanta all her life.  We have eight sessions a week: one each day, plus two on Sundays.  This means I don't sleep much, but I'm having a lot of fun working with the high-schoolers.
One of the three classrooms in which I teach the Money Sense program
Alina, me, and Deliana at the Money Sense Train the Trainers program in Bucuresti
Back to the training in Bucuresti for Money Sense... I attended the training with Deliana and Alina, who is the project coordinator for Money Sense in Constanta.  There were many other international students at the training in Bucuresti who will be doing Money Sense in other cities.  These internationals come from Canada, Cameroon, Egypt, Georgia, Moldova, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and the Czech Republic.  It was a really fun time, and I'm glad I got to go.

I returned home to Constanta late Sunday and then left on Tuesday afternoon for Bucuresti again.  This time, I was only staying for the night to take a really early flight on Wednesday to Sofia, Bulgaria with the other ETAs from Romania, to the ETA conference for most of Eastern Europe.  ETAs were there from Estonia and all the countries directly south, down in a straight line to Bulgaria.  The conference ended on Friday and we returned to Romania on Saturday.  Sunday morning I returned to Constanta.  My trip to Sofia was not without its speed bumps.  Since Bulgaria is on a different currency, all the ETAs planned on getting Bulgarian  leva from the ATM at the airport.  Brilliant plan, right?  You'd think so, but our plan had some flaws.  Two out of five of us got money from the ATM, then it was my turn in line and neither my US debit card nor my Romanian debit card worked at the ATM.  The two Romanian ETAs behind me tried to withdraw cash, too.  None of them were successful.  Then, a worker comes out of the currency exchange office located adjacent to the ATM, telling us that the ATM is empty.  That's right, the ATM ran out of money.  Luckily, the two people in our groups who had successfully withdrawn money from the bank had enough money for the two taxis we needed to get to the hotel.

At the hotel, I tried another ATM.  Again, my US debit card didn't work!  I tried my Romanian debit card and was successful in making a withdrawal, but it was the end of the month, and I didn't have very much money left in the account.  I ended up running out of money by the end of the trip, but Jessica, the ETA in Timisoara, lent me some money, which I repaid to her in Romanian lei.  Of course, I was still able to buy way too many souvenirs and now have many mementos of my trip.  Also, after an hour online at the hotel, my internet cut out and simply would not come back.  I tried every troubleshooting option I could find online, and it wouldn't work!

A view of southern Sofia out my hotel window.

St. Alexander Nevsky Bulgarian Orthodox Church, built on the highest  point in Sofia.

Some traditional Bulgarian musicians.  Just after this picture, in the middle of the song, on of the musicians fired off blanks from a pistol.  It was really alarming!

Me and Jessica, the ETA in Timisoara, at a traditionally Bulgarian  themed restaurant

One of the dancers who entertained us during our meal

The Romanian ETAs
Aside from the conference workshops, we got to do a few other things.  We all went to Mt. Vitosha on the outskirts of Sofia, to a restaurant with traditional Bulgarian food, decorations, dancers, music, and costumed staff.  We also had a bus tour of Sofia, then we were dropped off to do our own thing in the city.  The last morning, three of the Romanian ETAs went into the city before out afternoon flight.  we went shopping and went to an archaeological museum.  I was quite pleasantly surprised by all the rich history of Bulgaria, which it is sometimes easy to forget was part of many early civilizations in Europe.  Among other things at the museum, I saw a 15 kg gold vessel and the oldest sign of humans in Europe, a stone with man-made scratches dated at over 1 million years old.  Despite no internet and no money, I overall had a very enjoyable time in Bulgaria.

When I returned to Romania, my US debit card worked just fine, and my internet connected without any problems at the hotel in Bucuresti.  I have no idea why either didn't work in Bulgaria (my bank says they did not block my debit card), but I sure am glad they worked just fine!

The following week was pretty standard: I taught four classes at the university, seven for Money Sense (the eighth session conflicts with my classes at the university), attended several hours of Romanian class, and spent some time with friends.

On the 21st and 25th of November I put on an activity on Thanksgiving at the American Corner in Constanta.  American Corners are libraries and study centers funded in part by the US Embassy for the purpose of educating and inspiring people about the United States.  This activity was mandatory for all the students in my class, in lieu of class while I was in Bulgaria, but was open for others to join in.  On each day there was one person who was not one of my students.  I gave information about Thanksgiving history and traditions, and we watched two Peanuts movies about the Pilgrims and about Thanksgiving.

The American Corner, decorated for my Thanksgiving activity

My students, plus a guest at the Thanksgiving Activity on the 25th

In between these activities at the American Corner, I took a two-day trip to Bucuresti for a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the Romanian Fulbright Commission.  The dinner was in the evening on Wednesday, 11/23.  Since one of my colleagues at Ovidius University was a Fulbright grantee to the United States, she was also invited to the dinner and traveled with me by bus to Bucuresti.  At the dinner, I gave a speech on Thanksgiving traditions in the United States immediately following a speech on the history of Thanksgiving by  Nicole, the ETA in Brasov.  Since it was the middle of the week, there were quite a few of the current Fulbrighters who did not come.  Mostly they were those who lived the furthest from Bucuresti.  Since Constanta is only 3 hours away, it is much more convenient for me to make the journey than for the others.  Back to the Thanksgiving dinner: it was a tiny bit of a let-down.  Had I expected more, I might have been more disappointed, but the optimist in me likes to look at the glass as half full.  Firstly, I should mention that the appetizers were completely Romanian.  As for the main was announced when the lights were dimmed, candles were lit, and dramatic music was played, and giant platters with four roasted turkeys (small ones) on each were processed out to the buffet table.  The theatrics were taken to a level beyond what I am used to and consider classy at Thanksgiving, but at least they tried!  The other food for the main course was mashed potatoes and roasted potatoes and cooked carrots, which were garnished around the turkeys.  There was no gravy, no stuffing, and--worst of all--no cranberry sauce! (Side note: I can't find cranberries anywhere.  Not frozen, nor fresh; I miss cranberry sauce sooooo much!)  For dessert we had a sort of strudel with a squash and carrot filling.  It was a bit bizarre, but not altogether bad.

On Thursday, November 24th, the real Thanksgiving, all the American Fulbrighters were taken on a trip around Bucuresti.  Our first stop was Mogosoaia Palace.  After visiting Peles Castle, I was expecting something a bit more grand, but it was still lovely to visit, with a modern museum collection.  For me, the highlight of the Palace was the original mosaic flooring, which was especially notable as it was constructed of two levels of clear glass, with gold leaf in between them.  The floor was a bit dirty, but when you looked at it in the right light, it shone, and I felt rather guilty about walking on it during the tour, especially since someone was hard at work restoring the floor where some tiles had come loose.  After lunch at Mogosoaia, not far beyond the city, we continued onward.

Our next stop was the National Museum of Art, which is located in the old royal palace in Bucuresti's Revolution Square.  Since it had been damaged in the Anti-communist revolution in 1989, the palace has very little of the original decorations or features from its days as the royal residence.  Still, the renovations were quite lavish, and I was pleasantly surprised at how refined the museum is.  The grand staircase is still intact.  It was amazingly impressive, and I felt like Cinderella as I descended three stories, as the staircase split and rejoined at  every level.  We went to exhibits for Romanian artists and for some of the classical masters.  I definitely enjoyed it, although it was too much at once, and I got very fatigued by the end.

We next grabbed drinks and snacks at a cafe, then went to an orchestral concert at the Romanian Athenaeum (Ateneul Roman) concert hall.  I wish I could have taken pictures inside, because it was breathtakingly beautiful!  Not only did it have a beautifully painted dome ceiling, the architecture was unexpected but very elegant and lovely.  If you get a chance, visit this site to see pictures of it.  Romanian Athenaeum
This is the building where Ceausescu was holed up when the Revolution began in 1989.  The obelisk impaling the cage is a memorial to the Revolution. 

My stuffed, roasted chicken
The next morning, bright and early, I took the earliest train back to Constanta so I could go to Money Sense and then be at my second session of my Thanksgiving activity at the American Corner.  That evening (Black Friday), on a whim, I decided to cook my own mostly-Thanksgiving dinner.  My friends Angelina and Camille came over, and we had a roasted chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, squash, apple pie, and cranberry...preserves (it was the closest thing I could find).  Overall, it was a success, despite the bottom of the pie burning.  I had to bake it in a round clear casserole dish, in a gas oven.  I guess I'm just not used to gas ovens, yet, especially since I don't have a thermometer and never know the temperature of it.
Camille, Angelina, and our Thanksgiving dinner

My plate loaded up with Thanksgiving dinner.
Today I learned the Romanian superstition that whistling inside brings bad luck.  This explains why people keep incredulously asking me why I'm whistling.  I asked some Bulgarian classmates from my Romanian language course, ad they told me that in neighboring Bulgaria, whistling indoors means you will lose money.  So, I guess from now on I'll only whistle outdoors...or in my apartment, where no one else can hear me!