Posts Tagged Timisoara

Being a teacher in Romania

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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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The Lost Europe

During my last University years, I joined two cultural studies groups, led by members of The Third Europe Foundation in Timisoara. One of them focused on literature studies, while the other carried on social study to achieve an anthropological view on history. With all the debate today in the UK regarding immigration and countries like Romania, my home land, I’m not sure of how The Third Europe sounds, but for me it has a lot of meaning. Let’s see if we can decipher it together.

How many Europes do you know today? Yes, of course, we can think of Europe as being a big book with so many pages of history, culture, social changes, economy, geography and so on. But generally we speak of Western and Eastern Europe. Well, apparently this leaves things out and the people who started the named foundation were aiming at filling the gaps. This “Third Europe” is actually what has been torn apart by the two wars of the XX century, and ever since the whole world seems to have forgotten about it. It is that part of the continent which has been more or less covered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one which many of the people living in the countries nowadays considered Eastern Europe are still praising in their memories, even if only for the cultural heritage. It’s Central Europe.
While some people might have heard or known of it, most haven’t, not even in the countries politically transferred behind the Iron Wall after WWII. Ask a Romanian which countries are part of Central Europe and the chances are very slim they would pick out their own.

To tell you the truth, I have to admit myself that I had no idea whatsoever before attending these two cultural studies groups. Then I had the chance to learn from people like Mircea Mihaies, Adriana Babeti, Smaranda Vultur, most of them professors I’d known from the University, about the heritage of this lost Europe. It was then when I understood where the high esteem people in Banat (Western part of Romania) had on German ethnics came from. And at the same time I could see that this lost Europe was never, in truth, found, ironic as it may sound. The paradox of Central Europe is that it has always existed, but never fully acknowledged until it came apart, was wrapped and buried. People from the countries which became part of the communist block were indeed looking with high esteem towards Wien and the “Kaiserlich und Koniglich” (Imperial and Royal) power, simply because it brought a lot of good investment in their lands. At the same time, apparently the Austrian Germans and the Hungarians, the two ruling nations, were not so happy anymore, looking further on the map.
The world I’ve studied about more than ten years ago and to which my thoughts go back now was as such the heir of an Imperial and Royal dream, a Utopia in which people worked in a joined effort for the benefit of all nations living and prospering together. Ordinary men and women from Timisoara and Praha and Warsaw, be them locals or German colonists, played their part in this world built on the music of Strauss and the image of a benevolent ruler, emperor Franz Joseph, as Encyclopaedia Britannica states: “ he was to his civil servants an unequaled model of exactitude, devotion to duty, and justice”.

Timisoara Unirii Catalina George

(lamps in Union Square in Timisoara, probably not the first ones in Europe, though they might as well be)

Born and raised in Banat, a region which was highly colonised with Austrian Germans, and with the colonists came investment in the mining industry, as well as agriculture, tourism, education and infrastructure, I grew up praising this heritage. I have as well inherited that sense of pride all people in Banat had, summarized by the saying “Banat is the crown” (“Tot Banatu-i fruncea”). One of the last regions to be incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, taken back from the Ottomans, who have conquered it from the Hungarians (complicated, isn’t it?), Banat saw some of the best projects in Europe of those times. How many people know today that in 1884 my home city, Timisoara, was the first city in Europe, yes, in Europe with electric light on the streets? There were about 731 lamps to start with. And this is not the only premiere in Timisoara that gave local people that sense of pride and of being the chosen ones, as well as the ones capable of bringing the Imperial and Royal dream to life, in peace with all their neighbours, no matter if they were Serbian, Hungarian, Jewish or German.

By joining The Third Europe groups I could now base my pride as a Banat born and raised person on something certain, on historical facts, as well as understand the ups and downs history has brought us to. Funny enough, it wasn’t the literature studies I was most drawn to and most involved in, but the anthropological ones.
The main project going on at the time was based on collecting stories from the elderly locals about how life was and how things happened. We were using the “life story” method, encouraging people to tell us about their lives as they pleased, with little to no intervention from ourselves, not to alter their stream of thoughts and memory. All we did was to politely start a conversation and briefly explain that we’d like to know how life was for them, and then just use our active listening skills, encourage them to keep telling whatever they wanted, and politely support their effort. Of course we would record what they told us, with their permission. In the end books were published about Germans in Banat, or other ethnic communities. The study was based on recurring things in people’s stories. What they thought was important and mattered and was worth sharing in their lives spoke about the thinking of their time, about how people experienced history first hand, what made a great impression on them, what their traumas, dreams and disappointments were. This was history from live memory.

Now I remembered all these because I’m about to write about my life story, in a way that maybe can help other people see more in me and other nationals from the same home country than just a Romanian dreaded as the poorest of Europe, unskilled and ready to do anything to get a piece of the cake, involving mostly crime, milking the British benefits system or stealing a job of a worthy Briton. Maybe my life story can tell more about these Romanian people without a face, “vermin” as some say, coming from a “rat hole” as others claim, maybe it can show that Romanians like me have a lot to offer to whoever wants to learn from other’s experience, history, hopes and dreams and, in the end, their humanity.
Saying stories are like windows to the world is probably a cliché. But maybe when visualising this cliché sometimes we don’t grasp all its meanings: a window is an opening to another world/side/image, but at the same time it’s a mirror. We might not always consciously see our reflection in it, but it’s always there and we do grasp it, even if just with a glimpse we don’t even realize dangling at the corner of our eyes.  

 

 

 

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Cât poți cuprinde

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Am fost iarăși acasă, în Banat. Printr-o îmbinare de împrejurări, am ratat vizita de Paște, așa cum îmi doream inițial, ca să pot merge la slujba de Înviere, să fiu în Duminica Învierii acasă, în biserica unde slujește tatăl meu. Alți colegi și-au luat, din nou, aceiași colegi, concediu și anul acesta de Paște. Nu e vorba despre englezi, că ei sărbătoresc (și nu prea

 sărbătoresc) în rând cu lumea catolică. Imediat ce am aflat am intrat pe net și mi-am rezervat bilete de avion pentru sfârșitul lui mai.

Ratând Paștele, am ratat și vremea aceea superbă, vara prematură, când mi-aș fi putut întinde pielea la soare, să câștig o nuanță mai potrivită cu sezonul cald, în locul galantarului de brânzeturi pe care-l reprezint cu succes. N-am avut ocazia să asist la construirea cuibului pentru iepuraș, să merg în procesiune prin sat, cântând ”Hristos a înviat” și nici să particip la slujbele din Săptămâna Patimilor.

În afară de asta, n-am pierdut nimic.

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Anul trecut am fost în țară în concediul din septembrie, când am prins ruga din Banat în comuna părinților, iar înainte de asta, la începutul lui decembrie 2011. Fiecare dintre vizitele astea a avut altă nuanță, în fiecare dintre cele trei ocazii m-am apropiat de rădăcini în alt fel, cu altă parte a mea. Și nu e deloc exagerat să spun că, cu cât mă îndepărtez mai mult de rădăcini, cu atât mă apropii de ele mai mult. Exact ca un copac. Cu cât îi sporește mai mult coroana, cu atât mai importante sunt acele încrengături ascunse, care-l țin ancorat în pământ, care-l hrănesc și-i dau punctul de sprijin, de plecare, de înălțare.

 

Am regăsit Banatul mai proaspăt ca oricând în ultimii ani. Probabil că el e cam la fel, cu excepția silozurilor ridicate de străinii care au cumpărat pământurile de la șes, am înțeles că majoritatea ar fi ale americanilor, cei ce dețin și vechiul Comtim. Au mai dispărut sau au mai apărut elemente în peisaj, cum ar fi plopii tăiați de pe șoseaua care duce spre Birda, venind dinspre Timișoara, sau pensiunile crescute din piatră seacă, aș putea zice, în Bocșa. De ce din piatră seacă? Din ce altceva, când fostul combinat arată ca un craniu fără mormânt, complet descârnat și lăsat să se subțieze și mai tare în ploaie?

Ironia face ca destule pensiuni să fi fost ridicate chiar în fața halelor care dau impresia că stau să cadă.

 

După doi ani în UK, blândețea șesului bănățean, întindere de un verde vesel, cuminte, din loc în loc pătat de pâlcuri de copaci sau chiar îmbrăcat într-un colț de pădure, mi-a făcut bine. Aici ochiul nu prea cunoaște opreliști, până și în localități dispunerea caselor oferă perspectivă, protejând în același timp intimitatea a ceea ce se află dincolo de gardurile ce nu expun prea mult vederii. În schimb, o dată aflat pe stradă, zidurile nu te agresează, spațiile verzi din fața clădirilor te lasă să te plimbi liniștit, fără să îți înghesuiească privirea între colțuri și umbre. Pe șosele poți depăși fără probleme, de cele mai multe ori vezi până hăt departe. Dacă vremea e frumoasă, însorită, senină, apare la orizont, înspre sud-vest, linia munților, întunecată și curbată ca o spinare de bivol întins să-și facă siesta.

La un moment dat cred că postasem pe blogul vechi un text de-al lui Ion Monoran despre ”Banat, Brabant românesc”. În cele 9 zile petrecute acolo cred că l-am înțeles/simțit mai bine decât oricând. Asta s-a văzut și din afară, pentru că albumul meu cu fotografii făcute pe acasă, la ai mei, se pare că a atras cei mai mulți privitori acolo unde l-am postat.

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Banatul pe care-l cunosc eu are de toate. S-ar putea spune că n-are nimic radical, că e prea cuminte, prea așezat, că prea sunt toate dozate și nimic nu excelează. Criticii cei mai aspri ai zonei mele natale așa ar zice. Eu însămi am plecat de acolo pentru că am vrut mai mult, întâi în State pentru un an, apoi în București pentru cinci și acum în UK, for God knows how long.

Totuși, rădăcinile mele se simt foarte bine în solul bănățean, pe care dansurile bunicilor mei sunt încă jucate de tineri care poartă același costum popular, cu mândrie, că bănățanu-i mândru. Prăjiturile mamei sunt neegalate, chiar dacă am, în orașul unde locuiesc, o cofetărie unde mi-am făcut ritual să merg. Timișoara mi-e la fel de dragă, arhitectura austro-ungară rămâne la fel de impetuoasă și pătrunsă de propria importanță, fără să-ți dea peste ochi cu asta. Am găsit orașul năpădit de vegetație frumos îngrijită și de trandafiri, de o adunare înnebunitoare de trandafiri. În viața vieților mele n-am văzut atâția trandafiri, chiar dacă am crescut, pentru o bună parte, și în ”orașul florilor”, și nu doar în Timișoara am dat de ei la tot pasul, ci inclusiv în Deta și în Caransebeș.

 

Banatul montan stă în aceeași paragină, dar are aceeași oameni mândri, care păstrează ce-i al lor chiar dacă vremurile par să-i fi uitat. Pădurea din zona Reșiței, deloc aspră, are o dulceață a ei aparte, îmbrăcând peisajul într-o umbră răcoroasă și primitoare. Dar despre ocazia cu care am fost acolo am să vorbesc altă dată.  Urmează mai multe și despre Timișoara.

Cine nu înțelege de ce ”Banatu-i fruncea”, poate să sară cu arțag, cu ironii și înjurături și tot felul de exemple supărate, despre eu știu întâmplări înfiorătoare, cum ar fi niște unii care se băteau sau un grup de fuste colorate care făcea mizerie pe stradă. Mizerii și porcării se întâmplă oriunde. Suflul unei regiuni nu-l simți însă așa, băgându-ți nasul în cele mai infecte pivnițe și scărmănând în haznale, ca să rânjești apoi cu rahat sub unghii și pe gingii. Dacă vrei să cunoști un spațiu și un timp caști bine ochii, nu prea tare că s-ar putea să-ți provoci singur vedenii, dar suficient cât să cuprinzi ce e de cuprins. Apoi te dai câțiva pași înapoi, pentru perspectivă. Și, după ce ai cântărit detaliile, încerci să cuprinzi întregul cadru. De obicei, asta nu se poate face când ai venit cu lecția gata știută de acasă.

Respect Banatul în care am crescut, cu atât mai mult cu cât îi simt suflul în propria mea respirație, îi înțeleg istoria și nu aștept să facă nimic pentru mine. 

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