To visit Eastern Romania is to step back in time. The cities, while decidedly European in style, are beautifully crumbling; the streets are crowded with horse-drawn carts vying for space amidst rusted cars held together with wires and hope; the people in the markets are intense and earnest, bundled for warmth in heavy coats, scarves and snug-fitting caps made of curly lamb’s wool. Romania is a country nestled among super powers, all of which have wanted a piece of her over the years. Her battle scars still show, but she has proudly held her ground and fought for her independence. In 2003, fourteen years after the revolution to overthrow the Ceausescu communist government that crippled her for decades, Romania is still struggling to find her place in the European community as a democratic, capitalist country.
I chose to go to Romania in February-March 2003 with a non-profit organization called Global Volunteers in order to see a part of Europe I’d yet to explore, to teach children at a public school and to offer my assistance at a failure-to-thrive clinic for babies ages 1-3. While I had read books on Romania’s complicated history, nothing could have fully prepared me for my trip. For some kinds of education, experience is the only teacher.
I traveled first to Bucharest and then continued on to the small factory town of Barlad, five hours to the northeast. Most of my days were spent teaching English to students at school #5, Elena Bilbescu Princepessa.
We studied in semi-darkness because it was too costly to turn on the electricity; we also wore our coats and hats as kiln-like stoves fed by an occasional twig tried in vain to heat the rooms. Yet despite obstacles, these remarkable young men and women worked to learn languages, history, physics, and algebra. They came to meet me every day during their free time to talk about America and their dreams for the future. I found the older students to be remarkably astute about world politics and history, and we held intense pre-war discussions about America’s position on Iraq.
On the days that I did not teach, I went to the neighboring town of Tutova to work with the children at the clinic. There were thirty children, some abandoned, some simply awaiting the return of parents who were too financially burdened to care for them at home. These babies shared rooms and intricately woven lives of feeding, bathing and care. While many exhibited institutionalized behavior (such as head banging, roving eyes, biting, docility, excessive introversion), most of the children simply wanted to play freely outside of their cribs, to be held and loved.
As a westerner who has the luxury of opportunity and abundance, it is tempting to try and offer solutions for the problems that still exist in this part of Eastern Europe. Why can’t the Romanian people elect a responsible government? Why can’t they improve the country’s infrastructure and employment rate? Why can’t these orphaned children be placed with loving families and the school systems provide all that students need to achieve educational success? But these are questions asked by an outsider, someone who does not live the daily life of a Romanian, someone who has never lived under a despotic and dangerous Communist regime. Change is slow at times and it comes in fits and starts.
While in Romania, I took pictures to document my time, the people who I met, the landscape and the sights. What I wanted to share in these images is not the tragic path that Romania has tread but the promise of her people, of a future bright with possibilities. I hope that the images I took and the memories I share from my experience in Romania illustrate the beauty of the land and the people with whom I worked.