Sunday, November 22, 2015

Romania: Mythbusting

They say that the first impression is always the strongest.  It is upon first glance that we notice the immediate differences between what we're used to and what is new before us. As time progresses, we become accustomed to whatever was new and soon it feels normal and we no longer perceive the peculiarities. Finally, we can't remember which was the old vs. the new normal.   

We've just passed the three-month mark living in Bucharest, Romania and so I'd like to take this time to report the pleasant, surprising and curious differences we've observed. Differences between US and Romanian culture and between life in Latin America and life in a former Soviet-controlled country.  

Let me start with what we were expecting before we even arrived.  These expectations were drawn from the usual suspect sources: movies, history, friends who'd been here, reports from our language teachers, stereotypes and rumor.  We were expecting a primarily rural country full of castles tucked into sides of mountains, small towns full of men in hats driving horse carts and women in scarves and colorful skirts. We expected Bucharest to be a gray, depressing Soviet-style city dotted with decrepit buildings of European architecture giving us a bittersweet glimpse of "how it used to be but is no longer."  We expected packs of stray dogs menacing us on the street and swarms of gypsies begging on the streets and trying to pick our pockets. We knew there was a Metro of sorts and buses, but pictured them being scary, gray and held together with rusted bolts while belching clouds of smoke. Stories of atrocious Romanian roads and grid-locked traffic kept our expectations of day trips to the countryside at a minimum and the stereotyped lawless, aggressive Romanian driver put a palpable fear in my of sitting behind the wheel. 

With all these expectations packed into our mental suitcases, we arrived in Bucharest in mid-August and were taken directly to our "bloc" in the heart of the city.  It is here that the myth-busting begins. 

Let's start with our apartment:

The building is rather plain on the outside, which was no surprise thanks to the Google Street View we memorized before arriving, but inside is modern, well-constructed, spacious and very comfortable.  We have balconies that give us a place to get outside and enjoy the urban cityscape and which let us fill our colorful Mexican pottery with plants.  

But isn't Bucharest a gray, industrial city?

Not at all.

Just half a block away from our apartment is Herastrau Park, a massive park crisscrossed with wide and meandering walking and biking paths through the dense canopy of deciduous trees all alongside a long lake.  The park is filled with tiny restaurants, bike rental stands, snack shacks, rose gardens, statues, an open-air folk museum and even a boat service that ferries people from one side of the lake to the other. In our time here we've watched the park morph from a lush green to vivid oranges to stripped-bare and ready for winter.

Autumn strolling.

Snack kiosk in the park.

Free Press Building across the lake in Park Herestrau. 

What about the Soviet architecture?
Yes, that does still exist for sure.  It can be seen in the super-wide, scale-is-no-object avenues lined with "blocs" that intersect in expansive "piața"s (plazas or traffic circles) generally with impressive statues in the center, including our own Arcul de Triumf, a replica of its Parisian namesake. 

Blocks of "blocs" line the avenues. 

Palace of the People - Second largest building in the world behind the Pentagon. 
Piata Victorei - this is ONE intersection!
But Bucharest is also nick-named the "Little Paris" with good reason, and that reason is the incredible architecture from the Belle Epoque:

"New Romanian" architecture. 

And the Metro system? 
I like it better than DC's, and it's far less smelly than NY's subway, for sure. No, it doesn't reach everywhere we need to go (the Embassy, for example), but it's cleaner (and they have vending machines on the platforms for snacks and drinks), has nicer trains where one can easily walk from one car to the next without having to dash onto the platform at stations to change cars, has had accurate "Next Train Coming in X Minutes" digital signs longer than DC's system has, and alerts riders to what bus connections are available at each station. It doesn't take an engineering degree to figure out how to add money on your Metro card like in DC, AND all this costs just $.50 per ride regardless of how far you go. Yes, really. Bucharest's Metro takes the prize for me. 

So far, so good - what about the countryside?
Here is where the preconceptions have proven accurate (so far). Yes, there are Alpine-like mountains with castles, lush greenery, plains more like Indiana than I'd expected and people living as they have for generations.  We've stopped along roadside fairs and farmers' markets to see what the folks have to say and sell. We've walked and driven through little towns whose streets are lined with benches where the elderly sit and watch the world go by while selling baskets of whatever is in season.

Castelul Peles, Sinaia


Castelul Bran - outside Brasov

Baskets o' berries for sale!

Carpathian Mountains - just two hours from Bucharest

At a roadside farmers fair 

Boy with bunny for sale

Mums for sale from the back of her bicycle

Watching the day pass in Comana

We bought cheese from them and it was delicious

This is not an exaggeration - see below

View of the Black Sea from Constanta promenade

Black Sea former casino

Folkloric fair ladies

What about the people? 
While they will be very quick to point out that Romanians are Latins (the language is meant to be the closest modern language to spoken Latin), they are not the same as other Latins we've experienced.  Perhaps due to decades under communism, or who knows exactly why, Romanians are far more reserved, non-confrontational and private than the Latin culture we knew in Mexico and Colombia.  Walking down the street there is no eye-contact or greeting that is common in Mexico. The default expression is not the smile. In fact, on more than one occasion, when I've offered a "buna ziua" (good day/hello) to someone standing next to me in line or in a store, I've had them ask me if I knew them from somewhere, as in - why the heck else would you greet someone like that you daft woman?! It's not rude to simply walk by someone on the street, even when you and they are the ONLY ones around, without a nod, smile or greeting of acknowledgment of any sort.  It still feels terribly rude to me, but I'm learning to adapt so as not to be the culturally-insensitive person who "does it wrong" and makes others confused or uncomfortable.  

Once that crust is broken, however, and the setting is established for a conversation, you'll get an earful.  In fact, in casual conversations with taxi drivers (my favorite source of local information) or vendors in farmer's markets or fairs - it is with Kevin Bacon-like regularity that any conversation seems to end up mentioning Ceausescu and the bad ole' days - and not by me, for sure.  Our experience has been that everyone in Bucharest we've spoken to (coworkers, teachers, neighbors, people on the street) has distinctly negative recollections of that time and what happened to their country's trajectory with this terrible detour. They regularly speak of their frustrations with corruption robbing them and their country of its potential and possible prosperity and ruining its international reputation (more on that later).

But we have also heard (twice so far) from people who spent the communist years in the countryside tell us that it either wasn't so bad or was actually better.  The first source was our housekeeper who grew up in a very large family way out on the farm.  Her take on that time was that they were subsistence farmers before, during and afterwards and weren't witnesses to what was going on politically in the cities. Her family's friends weren't jailed for being intellectuals or church leaders - life just went on as usual with the seasons.  The second source was an older woman selling fruit alongside the highway on the slopes of the Carpathians. She expressed a general dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and stated that "It was better then - more organized." 

And what about the gypsies? 
Roma certainly exist in Romania, as in other Balkan nations, and sadly have been largely responsible for giving Romanians in general a bad name in Europe.  Their reputation as thieves, beggars and nomads paints one group with a very large and dirty brush and while it may be based on some truth, no doubt it's not a complete truth. To be honest, I have had only a few experiences with this culture and it was with the Roma "travelers" in Ireland (and I'm not even 100% sure we're talking about the same people).  The people originate from Northern India and ethnically-speaking are not the same people as Romanians.  During our language training at FSI, many of us asked, "But how will we know who are Roma?" and the only answer we were offered, repeatedly, was "Well, they're dark."  Given that oh-so-helpful description, I'm not sure I know who is and who isn't Roma. But sometimes it's clear and it's not been skin color, but rather setting, clothing and jewelry, that tipped me off.  

She sells every type of gadget and remote from the comfort of her pink fuzzy robe

I'm pretty sure my gypsy Halloween costume in junior high with its scarf, flowery skirt and hoop earrings was more accurate than not. In real life, just add more bling: Heavy gold chain necklaces, hoop earrings and large rings in particular.  This woman above also had a great smile of gold teeth which she unfortunately hid from the camera. 

Another myth busted: so far no packs of pick-pocketing gypsies, but if you need a remote control for just about anything - I can direct you to the right roadside swap meet. 

The Economy and Cost of Living
Every day I see dozens of young, well-employed IT sector employees coming in for their visa appointments to attend "kick-offs" or "knowledge transfers," or as we used to call them - meetings - with colleagues and clients in the US.  They work for Oracle, Microsoft, Adobe and Deloitte, just to name a very, very few.  There are a LOT of US companies coming to Romania for the skilled, multi-lingual and eager work force.  It's so impressive to see this growth in the country and to see job prospects for the Romanians.  What's disappointing, is that outside of this IT or multi-national company sector, the doctors, dentists, teachers and police are being paid a pittance.  Like less than $1500/month salaries in many cases and far less for the teachers.  Someone working in an office in a non-professional job is most likely earning $300-400/month.  

Correspondingly, the cost of living is also pretty low. Besides the $.50 Metro ride I mentioned earlier, you can take a bus for about $.20.  We've had lovely restaurant meals, with wine and dessert, and have paid about $13-15 a head.  The vet care I've experienced was about 5-10% the price of the same in the US.  We buy loaves of wheat bread in the supermarket for $.75 where a similar loaf in the US would easily be over $3.  The annual "vignette" subscription for our car (instead of toll booths where one is charged by distance, this is a fee for all who use the highways based on an amount of time) was $28.  This is European living at less-than-Mexico prices. 

My three months doing visa interviews has also taught me about the entrepreneurial spirit in Romania.  It seems that nearly everyone has "a firm."  This could mean anything from renting a chair in a beauty salon to an entire construction company with 100 employees on the payroll.  And many people have multiple "firms", for example an engineer who consults on pipe laying projects for the city, sells clothing from a rented storefront that his sister runs, and who grooms dogs on the weekends. 

The dark side of having a highly tech-savvy population, an entrepreneurial spirit and a weak job market is the undeniable existence of cyber-crime in Romania.  Vlad the Impaler aside, this is not a violent culture, unlike other countries where we've lived, but there's a reason why certain websites keep giving me pop-up warnings saying: "This IP address has been associated with suspicious activity" - i.e. we know you're in Romania! It's like sending an email from Nigeria. Last weekend, unbeknownst to us until after we returned, we took a day trip to a pleasant mountain town that is nicknamed "Hackerville," and ate lunch in a restaurant owned by a reported e-Bay scammer kingpin.  Oops. Good thing we paid in cash instead of plastic.

The Peculiarities 
Ah, yes. Here is the category that makes me laugh or scratch my head every day. These are the funny things about a culture that stand out when you first arrive and begin to settle in.  
Like the wiring system, which appears to just be one big work-around for getting cable and internet into old buildings:

Oh yeah, it's safe, don't worry

Hmmm.... let's just add another line... here

Or the fact that each loaf of sliced bread has a huge unsliced chunk at either end, as apparently it's impossible for the slicer to adapt to the size of the loaf.  (Perhaps I shouldn't make fun as the US still cannot manage to match the number of buns to the number of hot dogs in a pack.)  I guess that's what the extra $3 for the US loaf buys ya'?

And the perennial favorite: creative parking.
How many corners in the US are just wasted? 

Sidewalks are for sissies! (And so apparently are utility poles as this little tree affirms.)

Parallel parking on a corner is one thing, but you get extra points for perpendicular corner parking, especially if you can block the road at the same time!

The Little Things
The unforeseen niceties that will always be associated with that country long after we've left.  Like little courtyards in front of houses or alongside apartment blocs that are covered in grapevines to create a pleasant shady spot in summer to spend the afternoons and bear fruit to make your own wine in autumn:

Great bike lanes!

Painted churches, colorful windows and carved doors:

To sum it up: 
Romania is more than Dracula, gypsies and ATM skimmers. It is an incredible country packed with color and history and full of highly capable and hard-working folks -  and we've only just scratched the surface. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Loss and Difficult Times in a Foreign Service Life

Every life, no matter where it is lived, will have its truly difficult and painful times. I'm talking about the big ones: health crises and death.  Foreign Service life obviously is no different in that respect, and some could even argue that it's riskier for both. However, when living abroad there is the additional factor of distance from home, family and familiarity - where we usually turn for solace in these times - that makes such bleak periods all the bleaker. There is also a separate layer, a lens or filter perhaps, that often alters the way we view these events.  It is the guilt that perhaps something could have been different were it not for the fact that we were living wherever we were living when said event took place. 

"But what if we hadn't been here, would this still have happened? What if we were living closer to "home"? What if we didn't have the stress of the move? What if there were better health care here? What if..." 

This is not a healthy internal loop, but it is an inevitable one. Unfortunately, I'm speaking from experience instead of conjecture this time. In my last post, I wrote about the stresses of moving and starting a new assignment.  I wasn't ready yet to discuss what was also going on during that move, but now it's time.  

Daphne in Bucharest on her easy chair.
I mentioned in my last post that Daphne, our only she-Tabby, had suddenly stopped eating about four days before our move. Even after multiple vet visits, they weren't sure what was wrong and the vet gave me basically a bag full of different medications that I could use to help get her to Bucharest comfortably where she could then seek longer-term treatment. The vet knew she wasn't contagious (i.e. a health risk to others to travel), but she also knew what we knew: the plane was leaving and we all had to get on it.  There was no family nearby to care for her and no other great option but to do our best and pack her up.  

I syringe-fed her baby food for about five days and she actually managed the trip quite well.  She even did her best to settle into the new house, exploring it as she always did and sleeping on our bed. But she still wouldn't eat.  On our first Saturday, we took her to her first vet visit. And on Sunday we went back. And on Monday, we made the decision to check her in so that she could be monitored and receive treatment during the day while we were at work and learning our new jobs.  Throughout the day, between meetings, between pleasant conversations with new co-workers, between visa interviews, at lunch as I tried to enjoy the lovely summer weather, immediately when I woke up in the morning and as I tried to get to sleep at night - her situation came back to me like a big, wet, black blanket: ... but Daphne's still sick.

I suppose I knew the inevitable, and by our second Saturday here, the vet called as we were in the cab to see her.  She had a "respiratory incident" that morning, her condition was deteriorating and she felt we should now make a decision for her.  This was a change from the report we got the night before, when she said, "No, it's not time yet. She still wants to be petted, she still has a chance to improve."  But now her systems seemed to be shutting down, and for the first time the vet believed her to be uncomfortable. And she still hadn't eaten.  

My husband and I held her on our laps in the lovely courtyard of the vet clinic on that quiet, sunny Saturday morning.  We talked to her and petted her for a long time and I told her everything I wanted to tell her.  She was very calm and seemed relieved to be with us and not in the cage nor on the treatment table hooked to an IV, which was where she'd been each day that week.  But her eyes were not bright as they always are. She was tired and it was time.  

We have her ashes at home now, next to a photo of the Daphne we all knew: in the garden, tail straight up in the air as she was always happy and excited to see the day, her surroundings and us.  I'd like to bring her back to that garden of the house we still own where she spent her first 13 years, but it may take some time for me to say goodbye again.
Our little Daphne memorial

Intellectually, I understand that she was a 17 yr. old cat and this is what eventually happens. But in my heart were all those questions I posed above, and the worse one: What if we didn't have to move while she was sick?  

I wish I could tell you the story ends there and we have had the past month to grieve and begin feeling better.  However, we were given just one week mental respite where we took off on Labor Day Monday and went down to Constanta on the Black Sea shore.  A day of seeing new sights and beginning to look towards the horizon again.  

And then the very next Friday we came home from work and found Dodger (Daphne's full brother) spread out in the hallway on the hardwood floor where he'd usually only stay a moment, and it was clear that he wasn't there by choice.  Off to the vet again, and the next morning to the radiologist and then the cardiologist (yes, the pet cardiologist), each office located in a different part of this sprawling city. 

Dodger had what is called a "saddle thrombus" - basically a blood clot lodged just in front of his hindquarters. Frequently a death sentence for cats, if not now - than sooner or later.  His hind limbs were partially without blood for many hours while we were at work and the damage to the muscles and nerves had been done.  He could still feel them and move them, they were just uncontrollable, rubbery limbs frustratingly attached to a very alert, motivated, active kitty.  He wasn't in pain, he ate, he drank and all that comes after that. That first week was a series of vet visits and treatments nearly every day, each involving cab rides at rush hour, early weekend mornings, bike rides (on the part of my husband) to pharmacies all over town to find blood thinners and special amino acid tonics that aren't stock products in the vet clinics.  
Dodger on his bedroll and favorite horsey pillow. 

We're now at week three.  Dodger is getting stronger as his uncooperative limbs gain strength.  He got to the point where he could go where he needed to go about 80% of the time, even if it meant flopping over every third step.  But then he suffered a set-back last week (I think another smaller clot), and his progress has stalled a bit, but we still have the same bright-eyed, hungry, loving kitty that is not ready to give up.  It just means patience, a lot of attention, and waking up each middle-of-the-night to take him to the litter box.  

Back to my main thesis: if I were in a "regular" job and living situation, I'd be using some of the loads of sick and vacation leave I have saved up to ease this period. I'd be going in my own car, through my own familiar city, to the regular vet.  I'd be doing all this in English (I've been fortunate in that respect here, I must add), and I wouldn't have all this on top of the brand new job/country/language/culture/home pressures and responsibilities. It might not feel quite so difficult. 

On the other, more practical, hand - all of this treatment in the US would have easily cost multiple thousands of dollars.  Perhaps I would have had the sickening experience of choosing between what I could afford vs. what was the right thing to do. Being in Romania has, ironically, been the best of both worlds: a well-educated society that cares for and understands pets with a very affordable cost of living.  All of Daphne's and (to date) Dodger's treatment has barely crested the $500 mark.  Just the initial cardiologist appointment we had when we were in the diagnosis period would have been $600 in Virginia, and would certainly NOT have come with a follow-up ultrasound scan wherein the vet said, "No charge; it was a nice conversation."

Obviously all that I've described also happens with human family. And when it does, the real-world difficulty of traveling half-way around the world to be at someone's bedside, or the associated guilt and anxiety of leaving others to care for aging parents, is not to be underestimated.  The fact is that life, with all its beauty and ugliness, happiness and sorrow, moves on regardless of where we are.  I don't have an answer or suggestion for how to best handle these hard times and decisions. It's simply a fact that when we choose a life that takes us far away, we will eventually face situations where the bad stuff happens while we're nowhere near home. And it's a lot harder. 

Next time: Something cheerier, I hope. 

Saturday, September 05, 2015

End of Training and Heading to Post Part III

I recently took an online stress indicator survey where I answered a long list of questions about recent changes in my life. My score resulted in the pronouncement that: "You have a high or very high risk of becoming ill in the near future."  

As if that's not going to now make me MORE stressed.

Let me explain what happens at the EOT and what comes next, and I think you'll understand my stress level. And yes, the Foreign Service Institute uses that acronym. It means "end of training" which apparently is a lot harder to say than E-O-T. 

First - there's the language training test.  
There is no greater equalizer among men and women of all ages and career lengths than the dreaded EOT exam. I've yet to meet anyone who says it was a breeze, a pleasant experience, something they'd consider doing in their spare time, something to look forward to or even something that "really wasn't that bad."  Even those who  scored above their expectations have come out of the testing suite (that's what they're called, the video-taped, painted-blue-to-sooth-the-tester torture chambers) feeling like they really screwed the pooch. 

I went into my test fairly, well fairly "okay" is about the strongest adjective I can use here, and left almost cancelling our airline reservations. See, if you don't pass - you get six more weeks of language, you get to make the call of shame to your post and tell them you won't be arriving on time, cancel all travel reservations, extend your housing reservation, cancel your pack-out etc... It's insult, injury and major inconvenience with some embarrassment added for good measure. 

Somewhere during the test, even faced with my familiar and friendly teacher and language consultant as examiners - it dawned on me that perhaps my grasp on Romanian above the very basic level, was purely based on short-term memory and under stress it crumbled like an old aspirin found under the sink. 

At about the 90 second mark, I started to forget really simple words. Specifically, the verb "to work" ("lucra") and found myself holding my Spanish vocabulary away with a whip and a chair. Let me tell you, there's nothing like that little internal voice saying "Don't say 'trabajar'!" that will make you say "trabajar".  In the end, I was successful; however, I'm fairly confident I earned my 3/3 due to my prior demonstrated work in the classroom, and nothing to do with that two hour sample I provided in the exam suite.  And by "sample," please think of other samples one has to give in life... like in a medical setting. 

Now having passed the exam, the brain cues the little Zamboni that comes in and wipes clean your short term memory. Just watch that new language disappear!  Because now, you've got other hurdles to tackle: namely pack-out.  I will just refer you to this blog post about what that entails. True, the experience is physically demanding in the sense that you have to sort through and separate all your belongings. But mostly it's mentally draining due to the amount of decisions you have to make, the planning of what will be needed when, how much space you'll have etc... It can also often entail multiple trips to the post office to pre-ship things you'll need on Day One that won't fit in the suitcases. In our case, a litterbox, cat food and cat litter.  

It bears mentioning that if you're shipping your car to post, you'll be doing all this running around last-minute junk without personal transportation because the car is already en route, sitting on the deck of some carrier ship headed to the Black Sea (or so our shipping folks told us). There's another itty-bitty stress.

Now it's moving day and there's the worry about clearing out of the apartment, putting out the bag of FREE stuff in the building lobby, hoping your favorite houseplant will find a good home, and making sure you don't leave something in a cubby somewhere.  My clever husband puts that blue tape over all the drawers and cupboards once we've cleared them out so that the obsessive-compulsive one among us won't continually open and check for stray items.  (That would be me.)

Then comes the final shoving of stuff into your suitcases, followed by the hauling of them down to the workout room in the building to use their scale (you've already sent yours away) to make sure the bags aren't over the 50 lb airline limit. But what'll you do if they are? Wear the heavier shoes and tie a sweater or two around your waist, I guess. 

The Tabbies by now have definitely figured out what's going on and will probably be under the bed.  Unfortunately, their stress started a few weeks ago when the movers came. AGAIN with these guys?! was the look on their little faces. One Tabby stopped eating and beyond the multiple vet visits to get their international travel health certificates, she required more visits and blood draws to figure out what was wrong. Conclusion? We don't know, but here are some prescriptions to help get her to your destination. At least she'll be in cabin with us and in reach the whole time.  The third Tabby however, has to go under the plane because there is a strict limit to the number of pets allowed inside the cabin - and that limit is two.  I made their travel reservations six months in advance to be sure to grab the two allowed in-cabin spots.  I'm sure there's a European woman with a purse-sized dog cursing my name as she is unable to book her little amour on the same flight with her. Sorry sis, it's a harsh world out there. And did you know with pets you should check in three hours in advance? Yeah, that makes for a long day to be in a little carrier.

Finally we're on the plane for the long slog east. My husband and I haven't traveled horizontally across time zones like this since 2002.  Moving to Juarez meant a five day drive to gently acclimate us to the two hour change that is Mountain Time - how civilized! Jet lag is a very real thing when you're moving across seven time zones. Don't want to think about moving to Asia. (It took about a week for me to stop waking up at 2:00 am, bright eyed and thinking that a game of Scrabble sounded like a good idea.) 

So now you arrive at your destination - success! With luck there's a sponsor, a friendly Embassy/Consulate driver holding a sign with your name and a nice welcome to your new city. That has been our experience so far, at least.  Next comes my favorite part of all -checking out the new digs. I think it's one of the main reasons I joined the Foreign Service, truth be told.  As the instant excitement over seeing your new home begins to wane, you can't help but start mentally sizing up the storage space.  

Sponsor: "And here is the balcony with a view over the park" 

My Inside Voice: Yes, yes, very nice, but where will we put the Kitchen Aid on that counter?

Sponsor: "You'll find the central AC controls here, very convenient."

My Inside Voice:  Yes, yes, convenient, but I only see this non-walk-in closet in the master bedroom! What about the shoes?!

Sponsor: "And there are two darling restaurants just down the block."

My Inside Voice:  Fercrissake, be quiet woman, WHAT ABOUT THE TREADMILL?!

Truly first world problems for which I have no excuse and only shame, but they need to be expressed as I think just about everyone goes through them.

Your sponsor then tells you to just relax and settle in (sorry, still sizing up closet space), rest up (not happening) and the van will be here at 07:30 to pick you up for your first day of work tomorrow!  If you're lucky, this conversation isn't happening at 10:30 pm, but sometimes it is. 

The van comes on time the next morning, as it always does, and ready or not whisks you off to work. The following days are a blur of meeting new coworkers (only 10% of whose names you'll remember and only because they were kind enough to have nameplates on their cubicles), learning new regulations, new passwords and building codes, where the bathroom and cafeteria are and how to get back to your office after lunch.  

And on top of all that - now you have to do your JOB. The job for which the USG has just paid perhaps more than your annual salary to train you and move you, your family and your too much stuff. 

So THAT'S why my stress meter is in the red.  

My current mantra is something a coworker in Juarez used to say as I was training her on the heavy details of immigrant visa work: Poco a poco, or here, puțin câte puținlittle by little. 

It's all we can do.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

RAM - the key to speaking a new language

Okay, I imagine you're pretty tired of hearing about language training by now. Trust me, I understand, because I'm equally tired of thinking about it. And by thinking about it, I mean, "It's 3:52 am and I can't get back to sleep because my brain is furiously creating sentences in Romanian and trying to untangle tricky (or even simple) verb-subject-pronoun-blah-blah constructions... Argh!!"

But when I'm not obsessing over how to say something, I'm equally obsessing over why it's so hard to simply swap out one set of words for another to convey a thought. Because really, that's all it is, right?  

Yesterday, I figured it out and here's why:

It's all about RAM and how many programs one's brain can run at once.  

Let me illustrate.  In class each day - somehow, either organically or via a list of "topical topics" - we begin to discuss a particular subject.  Today, it was the pros and cons of Uber, which then morphed into the phenomenon of fear of change and then the new vs. old ways of doing anything etc... It was a very natural conversation flow, to be honest. But - in order to do all this in a new language, the user must be aware of the following system requirements:
  • First, you have to run the "What Is My Opinion On This Topic?" program.  Keeping in mind how much you may/may not know/care about the topic; how much you have recently heard on 60 Minutes or this morning's NPR broadcast; and combined with a sensitivity to your colleagues'/teacher's particular political/social/religious beliefs so as not to offend, and further shaded with the desire not to sound TOO stupid. You may recognize this program already as (for most of us) it is standard installation during childhood, regardless of language. Unfortunately, it takes up a LOT of hard drive space! Although this program runs constantly in the background, it isn't without its flaws and is known to crash mid-sentence, leaving the user jiggling the mouse and wondering why the screen went blue. These crashes can occur in even the most basic of settings, and users have reported that it is most susceptible to failure when run in the Simple Polite Chit-Chat mode.  
  • Simultaneously, you must log into Foreign Language 1.0 - 5.0 which is a fussy program that requires daily updating. I seem to forget my password, especially on Monday mornings when I haven't used the program in a few days. I'm currently running the Romanian 2+ version, but it frequently crashes and leaves me with only Romanian 1.0, or even worse, sometimes I'm stuck using an antique copy of Romanian-Spanish 1.5. This program is supposed to have a great search feature that lets my brain type in any word, take for example "proud", and come up with "mandru." But it's quite buggy and frequently offers me "murdar" ("dirty") instead, which can lead to listener confusion.  Because it needs constant updating, this program often fails to interact with "What Is My Opinion On This Topic?", leaving the user stranded and relying on the default program, English 5.0. 
  • There is also a very complex program that is sold alongside Foreign Language 1.0 - 5.0. It's called Grammar Pack and it also demands constant updating.  While technically you don't have to install it, but to be to talk difficult very, so it's heavily recommended. Grammar Pack takes up tons of processing space and really slows down the system.  It runs in the background, but not seamlessly until the user has at least Foreign Language 4.0 fully functional. Unfortunately, the earlier versions jam up the processing quite a bit, as the program decides whether a word is masculine, feminine or neuter; runs the Irregular Verb cross-check; looks for noun-adjective agreement, references the accusative vs. dative vs. genitive data tables, and - if you're lucky enough to have the extra byte space -  presents the response in the Correct Pronunciation font. 
As you can imagine, which each of these dense programs running, the user is commonly left endlessly buffering, or with only the spinning wheel icon, each are inevitable outcomes particularly when they've been installed onto the following devices: Brain 45+, Lack of Sleep Brain or Young Children at Home Brain.  

Be advised that users who may have been exposed to the notorious Test Anxiety or Fear of Looking Foolish viruses will see greatly decreased performance in all of the above processing, and tech support should be contacted at once to eradicate these parasitic scripts. 

In summary, users have reported that to take full advantage of the benefits of Foreign Language 1.0 - 5.0, it's critical to that your system has sufficient RAM to simultaneously run all of the above products.  With practice, the user will be able to flip from one to the next in nano-seconds all the while maintaining the Composure drive and its Sweat Control upgrade.  

(The latter is optional.)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

More Stories from the Trenches of Language Training

I have a confession to make: I have become quite a goldfish, especially in the past, oh, five or six years. Maybe longer, but as a goldfish - I can't remember exactly how long I've felt this way.  

What's a goldfish, you ask? 

Someone/thing whose thoughts skip so quickly from one thing to the next, with the new thought instantly replacing the former thought, that everything appears new again. The goldfish happily circles their bowl: Oh look, a castle! Some rocks! Nice little plant! Hey, a castle!  How nice, plants! Look at the rocks! Hey, a castle! 

It means that I can hear the same joke twice in a month and be equally amused each time. It means that I have been guilty of telling the same story more than once to (far too polite) friends, or so my husband reminds me.  It means that I can re-experience something as if for the first time, reacting the same way each time, unfortunately without the added Groundhog Day benefit of making adjustments and doing it better the second time. 

Therefore when I re-read my post from over two years ago describing what it's like to be in the depths of language training, I was pleasantly surprised to read that I felt then as I do now.  In an effort to be slightly less goldfishy, I won't rehash the entire story for you. Here is the link

In short, language training is how I imagine a long stretch of psycho-therapy to be: It takes you to places in yourself you may not want to go. You feel smart, then stupid; frustrated then victorious; stagnant then accelerating.  It touches sensitive nerves about how we feel about ourselves, and how we believe others view us.  We're stuck in a classroom with peers (sometimes with bosses and coworkers), naked, and doing our best not only to learn, but hopefully do so without losing all sense of pride. 

We just completed week 13/24 of our Romanian training, meaning we're now officially over the hump and coursing towards the finish line. There are days during our reading exercises when I see sentence structures and realize that in a hundred years, I would have never thought to put those words together like that, so how the heck am I going to do it in my exam 11 weeks?! Granted, I'm comparing myself to a native speaker who has had a lifetime to figure it out and I only heard this language for the first time three months ago, but I find the comparison impossible to resist.  Which makes me feel crappy. 

Being a goldfish also means that it's hard to keep well-planned and structured thoughts in my head, i.e. in an intangible and still-unspoken form. By the time I get to the end of the thought, the beginning has already evaporated as if I'm writing with water on a hot stone. It means that I have to speak quickly as soon as a thought strikes me so as not to lose it. Waiting until an appropriate moment in the classroom conversation opens for me to politely step through and trot out my grammatically-correct, well-considered and insightful opinion feels near impossible.  I envy my introverted classmate(s) who can tune out the noise and distraction of the class to correctly compose their thoughts before speaking.  

While it feels like this goldfish is simply circling the bowl, never truly gaining any ground,  instinctively I also believe that this isn't true. This was illustrated to me the other night when my husband and I went to a little El Salvadorean restaurant for dinner.  The TV above the bar was playing a Mexican telenovela at full volume. While waiting for our food to arrive, I watched the show.  And I understood it. Even when I turned my head away from the screen, I could still follow the conversation.  This was NOT the case two years ago when I wrote about feeling lost in the midst of my last language training.  It wasn't even the case after I lived in Mexico for one year. But it is true now.  

Therefore, even a Nemo like me can deduce that she is probably making progress, even if it is too slow to notice now.  Someday I'll be in a little corner Romanian restaurant and I'll be able to follow the conversation behind me, or I'll chat with the Moldovan waitress without pausing and stumbling between every third word as I do now. 

It's nice to remember that, although I had forgotten it already, I was once before in such a trench of despair and lived to tell the story. Poco a poco, puțin câte puțin, this fishy will make it out of the bowl.  

I just have to keep telling myself that, because it appears I keep forgetting it. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Learning Romanian: Nine Weeks In

Welcome to my life in the Romanian language. Here is what nine weeks looks like:

We're improving each week, little by little. We're learning how one connects two verbs, how to say sentences in the past and a little in the future.  I can say what I want, hope, and believe, too.  We (my husband and I) study a lot and we use many different methods to learn. For example, we watch Romanian movies, listen to Bucharest radio stations, read news articles and we have many conversations in class.  Now there are only women in my class, so on Friday, we looked at magazines and learned how to describe people, colors and clothing. 

I practice saying things in short sentences so that I don't go into a corner. It's easy to go into a corner and not have enough words to escape.  Last Thursday, I had my first evaluation. I talked about my visit to the countryside to see a historic town and the Appalachian Trail last weekend. I said I like being in nature. We talked about a volcano in Chile and climate change, and how it seems like the American Dream these days is just to buy more things, expensive things. I don't agree with that!  When I finished talking and reading, the lady said I was about a level 2/2. That means that I can talk about familiar things, I can give my opinion and I don't bother the native listener tooooo much. Yay! In August, I need to be a level 3/3, so there is still a lot to learn, but I think I'm learning well.  

Last week when I was on the bus, I was reading my class notes when suddenly the woman behind me asked if I spoke Romanian.  She was from Bucharest - what a surprise! I was happy that day because I had received the good result on my evaluation. But when I spoke with this woman - I forgot so many words! Ayyyy....  She was the first Romanian who I have talked to outside the classroom.  I was embarrassed and wanted to say more.  All my friends at FSI say that they don't like to chat with their teachers outside of the classroom because they forget the easy words and appear stupid.  I understand well; it is very common!

On Monday, we have a new student. He is the Consul General in Bucharest and he is learning Romanian, too.  We have a new Ambassador, too, but he is learning alone with a private teacher.  Romania is happy now because the Embassy has a new American Ambassador. Well, he is the "Ambassador-designate" because he is not yet confirmed by the Congress. We hope he goes to Bucharest soon. 

OK, that is all I can say now.  Thank you! Here are some nice pictures of spring. It is very pretty here in spring. Until soon,

Harper's Ferry, WV flowerpot

National Arboretum, DC

Tidal Basin Cherry Blossom Festival

Beautiful blossoms

Sunday, March 22, 2015

But Isn't Romanian Just Like Spanish?

Most common comment: "Doesn't your Spanish really help with learning Romanian?"
Best response: "Weeeelll - sort of. Yes, sometimes it does. Sometimes, but not always."

First, a bit of background: Romanian is one of the five Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian). However, it is the closest to Latin of them all and has grown up isolated from other Latin-based languages due to geography and being surrounded by Slavic-language neighbors. Due to this isolation, it has not been simplified as the other Romance languages have.  (Drat!) Mix in strong Turkish influences due to the Ottoman Empire's presence over the years, toss in some Greek and then add a strong Russian flavoring and you have Romanian. 

I tried to find a really good picture to illustrate this, but sometimes a thousand words are worth a thousand words, so here we go:

Here are some Romanian words I bet any English speaker could figure out:

And here are some more Romanian words that anyone with some general familiarity with another Romance language, either through high school, travel or foreign movies could figure out:

Casă (house)
Mult  (much/many)
Luna (month)
Ora  (hour)
Masă (table)
Mamă (mother)
Unde? (where?)
Carne (meat)
Prefera (to prefer)
Floare (flower)
Vizavi de (across from)
Periculos (dangerous)

Adding to the difficulty only slightly, here are some words that are a bit of a stretch to the native English speaker, but sound like a word that is in the same ballpark, at least:

Merge (he/she goes, like "merging into traffic")
Crede  (he/she believes, like in "credibility")
Întelege (he/she understands, which kind of looks like "intelligence," no?)
Citi (to read, sort of like "to cite")
Scrie (to write, as in "scribe")
Sta (to stay - heck, that one's only missing a letter)
Visa (to dream - like "envisage")

We have some false cognates, too. These are words that sound or look just the same as another language, but are actually quite different. Take for example in Spanish if you "castiga" someone it means that you punish them. But the same "castiga" in Romania means that you gain or win something. I dunno', maybe it's a cultural difference from the bad ole' days and the idea of punishing someone meant that you won? 
Beats me! 
Habar n-am!

Now we'll go way off into the "just memorize them" category. Perhaps these are Turkish, or Russian, or Greek - I don't know because I don't speak any of these languages!

Mulțumesc (thank you)
Uneori (sometimes)
Bolnav (sick)
Ieftin (inexpensive)
Scump (expensive)
Stânga  (left, as in the opposite of right)
Jumătate (half)
Mâine (tomorrow)
Bătrân (old, as in old person)
Cuvântul (word)
Înghețată (ice cream)
Bucătărie (kitchen)
Morcov (carrot)

But I don't worry, because those are such odd words - I just can't picture having to use them, right? (I guess I won't be having any ice cream for a few years...)

Now, to add to the fun, the nouns and adjectives are "declined."  No, that doesn't mean that we just say no to them, it means that they change depending on what role they are playing in the sentence. That's right - even proper nouns that in English are sacred except in the plural or possessive when we simply tack on an s or apostrophe + s.  An example would be something like this:

English: My house, the house, a house, the house's roof, the houses
Romanian: My housele, housa, house, houselor roof, the housi

(These are just examples, not at all the real words - I hope that's understood?)

But wait, there's more! The adjectives and *some* (but not all!) of the numbers and colors also have to "agree" with the noun:

English: The two red houses, The two little boys are happy
Romanian: The twoa housi reda, The twoi boysi littli are happi 

See how many of the words had to be changed to agree with each other? And it's not just that the letters at the end of the words have to be the same as each other, like in Spanish (i.e. Las Casas Blancas), but if you make the noun plural (houses), then you have to make all the adjectives plural, too (the smalls houses reds), flip the noun and adjective in the sentence and remember that each of the endings is different! There are even different words for "the house" versus "a house," or "her house"!

Even without a day of Latin class or one Catholic Mass pre-1962, you are probably already familiar with some of this. You know "alumni" are a bunch of folks who wore the cap and gown together, while you are an "alumnus" from somewhere and now they want a donation, right?  

That's what it's like, and that's not like English or Spanish or French.

But at least the alphabet is (mostly) the same!
(That's the most common consolation prize folks offer, especially those learning Arabic, Albanian, Amharic...)