Posts Tagged experience

American memories with a French taste

Going to Southampton yesterday, after a long break from the cruise port city, we took a look around West Quay Shopping Centre and had a meal out, with dessert in a different place. As a big Trip Advisor user, I don’t really go to a restaurant any longer without researching it on the website. This time, the choice was for the Mexican one called La Baronia and the French patisserie named Boulangerie Victor Hugo. I am not going to talk about them here, but if you are interested you can read the reviews I will leave on Trip Advisor as soon as I get some of our photos on my laptop.
What I will say is that we had huge portions of mille feuille, so heavenly light and crumbly and flavoursome, while listening to French music (my fingers itch now for writing a review, which I will refrain as I am divagating enough already). Savouring the lovely piece of sweet pastry I remembered New Orleans, with a light-hearted nostalgia, wrapped in a summer evening glow.

It was not a Deep South evening which came into my mind, although I did take the night Vampire tour in the French Quarter and I found it quite fascinating. What came to mind was the mornings I would be off duty as an Au Pair and go for coffee (I used to have the vegetal, fake one) and French beignets (oh, the bliss!) in the big cafe placed opposite Saint Louis Cathedral. Called Café du Monde, it just made every morning I would spend in the beautiful Southern city something to look forward to.
All my memories of New Orleans are bright, fresh, joyful, and free of any of the tensions and loneliness which filled my American year.

I had the opportunity to visit the city in 2004, just before Katrina (lucky me!). My host father was originally from New Orleans and they had to attend a wedding there, so they took the opportunity of spending a whole week to visit family and friends. I would be off during the days (I think with just one exception) and would have to babysit only in the evenings, while the parents went out to meet people, attend wedding rehearsals and all the rest.
Maybe part of why I didn’t feel so lonely there (as this was one of my biggest challenges in the US) was because the host dad asked one of his friends to show me around one day. So the guy took me to a very local restaurant, not at all the fancy type, but with great local cuisine, I remember I had alligator sausages and chicken livers deep fried in an egg and batter blanket, then in the evening we went for drinks and the Vampire tour. Another day I went with the host family to the big zoo and I remember I was impressed.

Maybe I didn’t feel so lonely there because I could walk everywhere and just take the pulse of the place on foot.
What can I say, New Orleans was one of these cities with a vibe, I could feel its energy, which didn’t work for me in Cancun, where, despite going out every evening in clubs, where there was always somebody to talk to and where I even fell in a love a bit, I still felt agonisingly lonely. So it must be the feel of the place which grew inside me almost instantly, probably quite bohemian, vibrant, dark and sweet, fresh and light at the same time.

And look at me, the way I remember New Orleans is through eating mille feuille, hahaha, just like Proust wrote a whole novel and slipped inside the stream of memory while eating a madeleine, and I swear I did not try to copy him! Shamefully, I haven’t even read his works, which I feel dreadful about confessing right now, as I writer.

One thought makes me laugh right this instant: did I love New Orleans because it was the most European place I have visited in the US? Probably so.
What could be more European than Jackson Square, with the cathedral guarding one of its sides, and the river on the other? With all the shops aligned on the sides of the square, the big café opposite, and then the historical houses with their balconies on all the streets, all the little shops and pubs and restaurants, so different from the very American Williamsburg where I used to live for 9 month with my first host family?

What could be more European than a sightseeing river cruise? I do have to acknowledge the American flavour of this one activity, as I have been (if my memory doesn’t play tricks on me, mind you, I am growing older) on the Creole Queen Paddlewheeler, the one which appears in “Interview with the Vampire”, one of the best movies of the sort ever made, a truly romantic production, less commercial and more true to what romanticism is about. I took the afternoon cruise, cheaper, and not the jazz dinner which I would just LOOOOOVE to take nowadays if given the opportunity. Well, I was an Au Pair, pocket money of $120 (or less?) a week, so I couldn’t afford much back then.
Nevertheless, taking the old tram was a very affordable attraction and what could be more European than this? The ride along the old quarters, with the lovely houses, very Southern in style, an architecture I find beautiful, then off the tram and into the historical park, strolling down the big alley guarded by very old trees with the branches reaching towards the ground, is there any wonder at all I wasn’t feeling lonely, isolated, misplaced in such a well rooted, bohemian place?

One of the sweetest things which happened to me was the day I couldn’t get a lift from the host family back into our airport hotel, but had to catch a cab. It was no big deal, as whenever I went out with them I did not have to pay for anything, even if I was not on duty at the time. They did advise me about asking in the hotel reception about how much would a cab ride normally cost from the French Quarter, so I knew what to expect and also not to allow drivers to trick me on the cost.
When it was time to go back, I just went and asked a hotel porter to help me call a cab, which he did. The cab arrived, I got inside and told the guy I needed to go to the Double Tree Hotel, and he took me just around the corner. Well, apparently there was one of these in the French Quarter. Then I said this was not the one and I did not know of this one at all. The taxi driver was a local African American, a really nice guy, his voice sounded really embarrassed and he would not stop apologising. I calmed him down, told him it was an honest mistake, so there we were on the way to the airport hotel. I told him how much I knew the ride would cost, according to the hotel reception people, and he asked me nicely if I agreed for him not to turn on the meter machine any longer, as the first trip would anyway come from his own pocket. I was perfectly fine with it.

Some people might judge this as being naughty. I don’t. Before going to New Orleans, while trying to find out more about the city and its surroundings, I had learnt that there was still a lot of discrimination, that the African American population did not have the same opportunities and was still struggling in poverty. My driver was an African American, and a very pleasant and sweet person. I don’t see any problem with helping him on this occasion. You could see it as a tip.
When we arrived at my destination, he came out of the cab and opened the door for me and offered me a hand so I could get out more easily. Very chivalrous of him. Then he said, in the Southern chanted accent: “Thanks, hun, I really appreciate it”. I felt like I made a person happy for that day.

Ten years have passed since I was an Au Pair in the US. Some memories come back, with all their aromas and scents, and part of this is probably me trying to recover whatever I buried under the hardship of the whole experience.
Some weeks ago, I realised how much time has gone while hanging up my laundry to dry in the small back garden we have here. There was this summer T-shirt I have amazingly been wearing ever since and which still does its job quite well. A ten years old T-shirt. I will probably just keep it, this one will never end up in a charity shop or at the skip just because it somehow became a symbol of my American memories.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I have any of the photo CDs from the States with me here, in the UK. I would have loved to post some images, and I hate it that I could not find them. I might have to ask my mum to look through my very few things still left in my parents’ house, and hopefully the CDs are still there, somewhere.
The day I will find them I will post some photos. Harsh and sweet at the same time, my experience across the ocean meant my first step out of my comfort zone, out of my sweet lair back home, in Banat, a very small and unknown region in Central Europe.

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Being a teacher in Romania

Azur2
Just the other day, going to a small local coffee shop, I had a nice chat with another costumer. He was sitting at the table next to mine, so he overheard me and the owner (serving in the café at the time) talking. Probably he noticed my accent. It wasn’t the first time I got asked if I was from Poland, and every time people add that they have a friend or a friend of a friend or a relative who’s Polish, as to explain they didn’t ask a provocative question.

He also asked for how long I intended to be in the UK, adding in a breath he wasn’t meaning anything like when-are-you-going-back. Apparently, it was nice to meet an actual Romanian person, first one ever to talk to face to face, opposed to all the nasty media propaganda. Well, indeed, there was a Daily Fail on one of the tables, but then I could see the weekend issue of the same named pitiful piece of media in my favourite and the best coffee and cake place around, where I had a fabulous chocolate cake slice last Saturday.

 

I don’t find it surprising that many people here, in the South, haven’t met (many) Romanians so far, or maybe they didn’t know they walked right passed them in the park, round the big shops or on the beach. Real Romanians might not fit so well with the most widespread pattern they’ve been “blessed” with. Then British people could meet Romanians in more than one way, from having a chat in a café with them to working with them or being neighbours with them. And as writing is my thing, I’m going to do as promised: write about myself, the people I love back in my home country, and life in Romania as I know it. By doing this, I can actually add up colour, shape, feeling and real life stories, of real people, some fascinating, some sad or even tragic, some sweet and fresh and vibrant in the details that make them unique, yet very recognisable and similar to other similar experience lived every day, by millions of people around the globe.
Such an experience would be that of being a teacher.

 

Back in Romania, after graduating University, prospective teachers can register for a national exam for filling in the available jobs. They are advertised through local education administration, and the graduates will be sitting in written exam competing against each other. When the papers have been marked and the results are ready, they can choose the jobs available starting with the person who scored best, then the second and so on. Fortunately, I had the third best score in my county, Timis, so I could choose from about 7 jobs available at the time only for the city of Timisoara, going for a High School position, to work with teenagers aged between 14 and 18. The school had a professional industrial profile, mainly training students for working in chemical industry (from making plastic and dyes to pharmacy work). It wasn’t one of the fancy Computing, Mathematics-Physics or Humanities big schools in the city, but not a low standard school either. And the truth is that, once I met my colleagues, I wouldn’t have traded it for the most prestigious ones in the whole country if I could.

 

Azur

The actual student dormitories, seen from a renovated sports field. I staid for one year
in those dormitories. The good part: I could take an afternoon nap, in gaps between classes,
and be woken by the bell ringing for the break. 

Not a big school, but not small either, Azur is located in the neighbouring quarter from the one I used to live in with my grandparents for 12 years. And the young team of Social Studies Department is one of the best I was ever part of. We didn’t only discuss work matters during breaks and official meetings, but always had a friendly chat and offered each other good advice. It was so great to know you can always go and have a talk to your colleagues, especially that all of us were genuinely interested in helping our students and not only doing it like any other job whatsoever.
Not to mention the department informal tea parties we used to have in our staff room at every term end, and not to forget that at proms our table was the most cheerful teachers’ table in the whole place. Our chief of department, Psychology and Sociology teacher I.J., and one of the colleagues who joined later than me, A.T., Economics teacher, were the most loved in the whole school, according to surveys. We could really see and hear who the best favourites where in our everyday experience with the students, no surveys really needed for this.

 

All these happened in the early 2000s, going to 2005. So far you might think I’m idealising a work place which I have decided to leave for taking over the capital as a beginner journalist, with no education or experience in the field whatsoever. But I’m not. Of course I haven’t erased out of my mind the fact that my payment was laughably poor, that at a certain point I came to ask the principal of the school for a room to rent in the students dormitories (a spare room, with a small separate kitchen, and use of the students’ common showers) because of financial difficulties. That I was tutoring during weekends and still I can barely afford the clothes and cosmetics I wanted, not to say the books, concerts, cultural events I was craving for.
Also, there was little government help I could access to improve my skills and knowledge, starting with further training and continuing with educational materials. Us, religion teachers, didn’t even have school books to teach by, as all the other ones, but this I regard as a positive thing. Today’s religion school books in Romania are full of horrible accounts and examples which are apparently meant to be educational, but are just wrong, in whichever light one might look at them. What teacher can win students over with tales such of the one of George, a boy who is mean to animals, and that’s why God punishes him to fall off the ladder and end up in the ER? Mean, stupid and lacking any real sense, if you allow me.

 

Nevertheless, the teaching experience I gathered then, as well as having such great colleagues (not all of them, but at least in the department), left those years in my mind enveloped in an aura of the same kind of light that engulfs everything in the brightest morning hours. Yes, I know how it sounds, like a soapy dated comparison, but that’s how I see those years looking behind.

 

But what about the students? Well, they were from all kinds of social and family environments, young people from the countryside seeking some sort of an education and training into a profession, many from the same part of the city the school was located in, who chose to come here just because it was handy, many of them distrustful in the educational system and quite negative about their prospects, so you could probably guess the underlying rebellion that burst out regularly.
Most of them came from families with mediocre financial means at best, but then us, teachers, didn’t earn much more either. So many of them had no real parental supervision, their parents toppled under the weight of everyday worries, of poor paid jobs which tomorrow could vanish in a puff of ashes and smoke, hunched, figuratively speaking, under the heaviness of debts many times accumulated only by excessively high bills (the Romanian Governments’ gift to all) and buying house appliances. And some of them came from families with a better situation, such as a boy adopted at the age of about 8 or 9 by a mother who was a psychologist at a centre for abandoned children.

 

We did have some brats as well. The most infamous of them was this lady in her late 20s who missed doing High School (might have been too busy to party), married to a hotshot and daughter of another local businessman, who was attending evening classes and bothered so little to show up in class and always brought over what we suspected were GP certificates which weren’t covered by real health issues. Apparently, our principal had her hands tied, the local education government (inspectorate) strongly advised to help this student. Luckily, I could ease the other kids’ frustration regarding her (she was very cocky, back street style) by the fact that the woman could only get the lowest marks and, allegedly, she was working and a mother (at least this one was true), so we helped her finish school like we did with all other students who were supporting themselves while  studying at the same time.
Not a good memory at all.

 

There are plenty of memories I’m fond of though, even if some of them involved sadness and tears during a private talk to some of my students whom I was doing my best to counsel. I can’t say how much I helped them on the long run, but they were good kids and, at the time, even talking and taking it off their chests was useful.

The one talk which really impressed me was with a girl from the class I was a head teacher for. In Romania, all classes had a head teacher, responsible of counselling the students, of discussing behaviour and offering psychological and ethical guidance. When they were misbehaving, it came into this person’s responsibility to approach them, to discuss and to offer solutions, and if there were no results, to take the matters over to the principal and the school council. I never had to do any of that, fortunately the kids I was working closely with weren’t causing any big trouble at all.
As a head teacher, I did take my role seriously and arranged for a private discussion with all of the students in my class, so that we could talk about their situation in school, positive aspects and some that needed improving/attention, as well as about their concerns. And this girl I mentioned before started crying while she was talking to me. It came out that she had a very sad situation, her parents more or less abandoned her into her grandparents care, although they were living in the same neighbourhood, and the old people were quite poor, low pensions, struggling to feed, dress her and send her to school. It did tear my heart to hear her story and, although it wasn’t much I could literally do, I tried my best to comfort and support her. She had little contact with her parents, but however they weren’t willing to take responsibility for their daughter. Contacting any social services wouldn’t have changed the situation, it would’ve only acknowledged that the 15 years old girl was in the care of her grandparents.

 

This was not the worst social case we had in our school. Some students were left behind by parents who went to work in the Western countries, mainly Spain, and couldn’t take their kids with them, while working in agriculture, construction or house-keeping. Yes they were sending money home, but money couldn’t make up for their absence for years on a row. The parents used to leave their kids in the care of uncles and aunties, grandparents, or even neighbours, and one could only imagine how much supervision they had. And may I remind you that this used to happen in the early 2000s already, when Romania wasn’t even part of the EU. We could be tempted, Romanians and people from Western countries together, to blame these people for the choice they made, but what else could they have done? Stay at home, where they could barely provide for their kids anything else than a place to live, food and basic needs for educating them? Most of them did it actually because they were thinking: “right, I will work for 2-3 years, save money and then go back to send my kids to University or find them a good job, while being able to keep them at home after school”. This after they paid for all the debts they accumulate for buying a car, fridge/freezer, TV set, or a computer. Yes, and inflated bills.

 

Now the level of poverty and financial difficulties I’m talking about doesn’t necessarily involve starving and not being able to take the bus to school. There are very poor areas of Romania where this happens as well, but I was teaching in Timisoara, not in a bad quarter of the city, and the kids here had, generally speaking, an average situation. Not a high percentage of them had parents working abroad and leaving them more or less on their own, but there was a tragic case. One girl who always seemed the shy type, not the brightest, but a well behaved sweet teenager, died a tragic death in the 11th grade, at the age of 17, one year before graduating. Yes, she was one of the kids left in the auntie’s care. None of us really knew how bad it was until she got stabbed by a… client. Apparently, she started having sex for money and she got stabbed by one man who was paying her for sex. It was so shocking sometimes I wouldn’t believe it to this day, although these are the facts uncovered by police investigation.

 

Not to end in such a grim note, I’d say that in my first year of teaching I also had one student who really would’ve belonged in one of the best Humanities specialised High Schools. He was bright, he was reading a lot, he could hold an intelligent discussion on philosophical, history and literature matters with any well-educated grown up, and he got to the professional school with a slip of the system (I might explain in another article). With this one, I used to spend every break after hour in their class, some other students stayed with us as well, to discuss further the subjects I presented in class. Well, isn’t this any teacher’s dream, really?

 

(to be continued)

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