My affair with the elderly

When I was in highschool, my mom thought it would be a good idea for
me to volunteer. And why not volunteer at a nursing home? Because
there was one near our house and we could bike to it (always an
important pro in any decision). Also, my mother is wonderful at
catering to old people's wishes, genuinely taking interest when old
people tell stories about their children and grandchildren and looking
over lapses in memory and the stubbornness that comes with age's
reversal into childhood…At the age of 14, I was none of the above. In
fact, scared would be the best description for me– and not the kind of
scared that has a fascination to it, like when you're jumping into the
future. Scared like thinking if I never have to smell the halls of a
nursing home, maybe the nursing home will disappear. And if there
aren't nursing homes, maybe the old people will become sane and see
their children more and maybe their daily lives won't smell like pee
and pills. But my mother signed us up for a cooking hour every
Thursday where any resident at West Bend Nursing home could come and
cook with us. I do not remember what we baked, but I remember
"collecting" the residents before the hour and helping them back to
their rooms. My mom and the nurses would cajole the shriveled women
with purple-tinted hair into coming downstairs to the class. The hour
lasted forever. I could never understand the old people and tried to
push my mother in front of me whenever one of them would try to talk,
preferring the peace and quiet of doing the mixing and egg-breaking
and baking. Because let's face it, a bunch of old ladies in wheel
chairs are not going to be baking their own cakes.
And I remember excusing myself from the volunteer hours whenever I
could "Sorry mom, I have to work, I have to babysit, I have a big
chemistry project…"
I forgot about the old ladies sitting around the table in the nursing
home kitchen.
And then I was in pre-med in college and the idea of being a nurse's
aide seemed like a smart move – get some medical experience, work for
more than minimum wage, work off campus. So I took a course for a few
weeks in the summer before my junior year and got a job at a nearby
nursing that paid above minimum wage, but was within walking distance
of college. So every Thursday and alternating weekends I would walk
over the pipe and up the hill to the nursing home during the dawning
light. I would deliver plastic trays with thick maroon plastic bowls
to rooms and stir the sugar into the cereal before trying to talk a
bed-ridden patient to get his food down. I was never good at feeding
– never forceful enough. One morning I sat next to an old woman in a
faded nursing home gown, feeding spoonfuls of mush into her dry,
half-dead mouth, and cried silently. I cried for the injustice of
being old and unable to feed yourself, of being forced into an
institutional routine that is the nursing home, of wearing faded
hospital gowns to bed, of always smelling like body fluids, of never
having a visitor after spending 93 years interacting with people, of
having other people wash the drivel, among other bodily fluids, from
your wrinkly, dry skin.
And then I worked at the same nursing home a couple summers later,
the graveyard shift. And I had less of a sadness about the
elderly…asta este (this is the way it is) as my Romanian colleagues
say. I would check on them sleeping every couple hours, hang out with
the ones who couldn't sleep, wake them up in the morning.
And now I live in a town where almost everyone my age has left my
village to work in Italy or Spain or at the least, Bucharest. And my
host family's grandmother, Mamaitsa, lives across the courtyard. And
she recently bought eyedrops to put in her eyes twice a day. She
comes to my host families kitchen with her eyedrops and asks for me to
put them in her eyes because apparently I am very good at dropping
saline solution into eyes.
And I cross paths with bunicas (grandmothers) walking to and from
school. Them hunched over and hobbling after years of manual labor,
communism and children; me walking tall, stumbling over words, asking
about their health, their children, their recipes. And so the elderly
have once again become an important part of my life, one that I even
seek out. And so my affair with the elderly continues…


makes my week

This week became cold...
And the sun was shining and it was cold.
And I learned a new phrase.  
When the sun doesn't actually warm the day, it's called a sun with teeth - soare cu dinti.


a change of mind

I teach 3 hours, give or take, of adult classes a week. It's a refreshing break - students that want to be in class, don't require grades as incentive (I'm growing a little hatred for grading), and know how to study. This week I tackled the town, introducing words like post office and mayor's office, grocery store and farmer's market. I let the students come up with the words in Romanian, then I translated to English, expanding on some ideas. For example, Romania doesn't really have libraries, but since libraries are my favorite building in any city, I made sure to teach them that, then threw in the story of when I lived in the desert of Arizona and had to wait for the bookmobile (so now a group of adult in northeastern Romania know the word bookmobile).
Yesterday one of them wanted to know the english for parking lot.
I also taught them the word sidewalk. Romania kind of has sidewalks. There are some crumbling, uneven stones that line the road in my village and since I live a little outside of the "Downtown" I walk on the road for a while before reaching the beginning of the crumbling, uneven stones. I introduced the word sidewalk, then drew an aerial picture on the chalkboard of a road, with a line of grass and then a a sidewalk.
-We have sidewalks, my students protested.
-Yes, but most of the sidewalks are full of cars.(the side of the road, i.e. sidewalk, is generally lined with parked cars.
-But that's because we don't have parking lots, the throw back at me.
And standing there, in front of the class, I had an epiphany. Maybe parking lots aren't that bad. So much for the peace corps making me a hippy.



I run 2 or 3 times a week. I have for the last few years.
Running keeps me from bottling anger, makes me tired, gives me routine, is something I can check off a to-do list.
So when I first moved to my Romanian village, I was a little concerned. Running isn't done here.
So I didn't run for the first couple months, reasoning that I didn't need to be more of a fish in a fishbowl than I already am.
Then the natural anger and frustration began to get thick and I reasoned, the whole town knows I'm American, so why not just act odd. And so I do.
Bunicas (grandmas) stop me on the road and ask me what I am doing.
I have been offered beer-on-the-run as I ran past a couple of my neighbors.
One old man wearing an alpine cap acted like he was jogging with his bowed legs.
An old woman asked me why I jog and I explained for health of my body and mind. She said I was thin so I didn't need to run. Then she lifted up her shirt to show her belly, that looked as if she'd birthed several children, and told me that someone like herself probably needed to run.
Some of my students run with me for a few blocks.
And so now I run for the anticipation of what will happen next.


obama cookies

I received my first package from America yesterday. It was full of gorgeously durable boots, sexy thick socks, long johns, I've-been-waiting-so-long-for-them crochet hooks, yummy black licorice and double-stuf oreos, to name a sampling.
I told my fellow teachers that I had received a package.
"From Obama?" the white-haired, alcoholic French teacher asked. All the teachers at my school have been keeping an eye on the elections and many know stuff I don't know, like when Obama will actually swear in as the president, etc.
I laugh and say that no, the package is from my family.
Another teacher picks up the joke, "He is celebrating his victory and sending packages to his supporters."
"Yes." I say with gravity. "Obama is sending packages to every american that voted for him in every country in the world."
The room laughs.
I decide to share some of my american wealth and open the package of double-stuf oreos.
"Would you like a cookie from America?" I ask the Romanian teacher.
"You mean an Obama cookie?" She wittily replies.
The Romanian teacher then helped me offer cookies from Obama to the rest of the teachers.


voting day

I finally received my absentee ballot in the mail yesterday, the 3rd of November. I'm sure my vote won't count, because it will be arriving about a week after the elections.
But I still wanted to vote, y'know, in the spirit of the occasion.
I signed my name that I would not vote more than once and that I was a real Missouri resident. Half the candidates on the ballot I had never heard of before, as they were candidates for Newton County treasurer or coroner...I felt very democratic connecting the arrows to show my voting preference. And I was so focused on the ballot I almost smoked myself out of my room by forgetting to pull out the chimney-blocker.
This morning I stopped by the post office with the big yellow envelope and paid 5 lei for the par avion postage to send it to Kay Baum of Newton County, Missouri.
The man at the postoffice has white hair, a white mustache and a thin, droopy face. He wears a postoffice vest and does not use a computer. He is the only person I have seen working behind the counter at the post office. It always takes him a few minutes to weigh the package, look up in a book how much postage should cost for America, then look in another book for the proper postage stamps. His cigarette ashes lightly dusting the stamp catalogues.
After locating the right postage stamps he spits on their backs (apparently he has become wise to licking the envelopes after so many years behind the counter), and presses the stamp down.
Gata (finished), he says.
All this to say, I voted. You should too.


43 students and a bus

Last weekend, I was invited to go on a school field trip with students from grades 5-8 to Cluj, a city in Transylvania, the western part of Romania. "Meet at 6:30 in front of the Mayor's office," the profesoara in charge of the field trip told me on Friday.
"How are we getting there?" I queried.
"By Autocar."
"Autocar?" I imagine a caravan of cars driving over the Carpathians towards Cluj.
"A very big Autocar which we are renting."
I figured I'd just wait until Saturday morning to figure out what this autocar business was all about.
So on Saturday morning I arrived at the Mayor's office, breathing frosty air and with my English Romanian dictionary handy. After waiting for 45 minutes with 43 students and their mothers in the dark, I discovered that an autocar is a tour bus. After securing a seat in the front of the bus with the other chaperoning teachers, I put in my earplugs and began to doze as we passed through little villages and cows.
"No no." Anucu, the profesoara that reminds me of Mrs. Teapot from Beauty and the Beast, points at me and shakes her finger. "This is new for you. You must talk romanian with us and look at the country side"
I try my best to not speak Romanian for the first hour of my day...it never comes out right that early. But if Anucu really wanted me to speak with them, I couldn't argue with that shaking finger.
After the first hour, we had gone beyond familiar territory and were climbing up the mountains on drum cu serpentin (winding road). The fir trees were covered by a haze of fog. We stopped for coffee at Dracula's castle hotel where students flooded the souvenier shop and bought multicolored neon wigs and scary masks. Then we took the students in two groups to the "museum" which was walking down a narrow, unlighted corridor into a small room with paintings of dracula on the wall and a small old-style coffin. The tour guide described the pictures and then simultaneously opened the casket lid, turned the light off and screamed. Immediately the lights came back on, my students looked fearfully around from the protection of their huddle and we were done with the scary museum. In the narrow corridor a hand would come out of a hole in the wall and scare the students as they walked back up the stairs. Because of that hand, I had to almost carry one of my terrified fifth graders outside.
The rest of Saturday was spent stopping at "museums" of famous romanians, mostly poets and writers. The museums were their parents houses where they grew up. At 9 o'clock, I figured we were almost done, when the bus pulled into a monastary and the students and their teachers did their thing in the monastary and lit candles. Several older women were crawling on their knees around a tiny church near the bus. Some of the kids saw them and decided it would be funny to do it as well, so a couple rolled up their pants and crawled their way around the church, with the other students pointing and laughing, after which they also rolled up their pant legs and crawled around the church.
We finally got to our pensiune (kind of like a motel) by 10:30. My students spend the night running around the halls, smearing toothpaste on each other, not sleeping, playing cards, calling their friends in the next room with their cell phones and being yelled at by the other teachers. I got out of policing the students because that would mean I would have to yell in Romanian and being yelled at grammatically incorrectly...well, it's like if someone yelled "you sleep immediately!"...doesn't quite have the right affect.
Sunday morning after a breakfast of coffee, bread and the ever-present ham, we finally made it to Cluj. For the morning and most of the afternoon we went to another museum, the botanical gardens and then a quick tour of the city and a couple famous churches there. I slipped away from the group for an hour and walked around the big city by myself. Big cities are great for feeling anonymous and no one cares if you're foreign. Needless to say, it did my soul a lot of good.
Finally, late in the afternoon we climb back in the bus, all the students talking about how tired they are and all the teachers glad that the students are finally tired. We didn't get back to Vama until midnight where the bus dropped me and the students that live near me at our road. We walked home together, talking about our favorite parts of the weekend. The stars were bright against the frosty night air and wood-smoke permeated the air. I was exhausted.
But now I finally know the names of class 5a and I had something to talk about for the week. My life is surprisingly not dull.