Monday, February 19, 2007

Cousin Andrew's Travels

(My cousin Andrew is now one of the patriarchs of the Estrada-Palma clan and a world traveler. But more importantly he is currently living in a formerly repressive communist dictatorship even worse than Cuba in many ways. Perhaps this is Cuba's future?)

Cousin Andrew's Travels

Hola Primo,

I’m settled in now in Cluj-Napoka, capital of Transylvania, on this Fulbright lecturing grant. My company gave me a five-month leave of absence to accept the award, as well as a very nice check so that I’ll be loyal and come back to Saudi Arabia in July. Of course, the whole Middle East may be in flames by then, but we’ll wait and see. So far I like it here.

The English novelist who wrote the Dracula novel got all his information wrong. Vladimir the Impaler was from Bucharest, not Transylvania, for starters. The Romanian word for devil was dracul, and dragu the word for dragon. As a young crown prince, Vladimir studied abroad and came back with a dragon crest, a gift of some prince, and after the bastard started impaling people the names got mixed up. Then Bram Stoker wrote his novel.

Bucharest used to be known as “little Paris,” because of all the French inspired fin de siecle parks and architecture. It reminds me of a small French city in some ways. Ceausescu demolished some fine old buildings in the southern part of the city to make room for his Stalinist government buildings and residences for his apparatchiks, creating a kind of forbidden city for himself and his cronies, but most of the rest of the city was left alone. There are still cobblestone streets in some parts of town, and the city is surprisingly clean, hardly any litter anywhere, perhaps because there are still plenty of people in low-paying jobs left over from socialist times to pick the stuff up.

I’m starting to catch on to the language pretty well already. Coming into the city from the airport I could read a lot of what was on the billboards, and listening to the radio many of the words and even some phrases were recognizable. I speak some Italian, and the Romanian language is like Italian with a jigger of French thrown in, as well as a shot of Slavic. (Da means yes, for example, like in Russian.) When spoken, Romanian sounds like Italian with a Slavic accent, and I’ve begun picking up some phrases, mostly the courtesies which it’s always a good idea to learn first, and if I keep at it I hope to be fairly comfortable in the language in two or three months.

I spent the first day in Bucharest resting up from the flight (which left Jeddah at 3:30 AM) then paid a visit to the Fulbright Commission office in the afternoon, followed by a courtesy call to the cultural affairs office at the US consulate. The folks at the consulate, as it turns out, want me to travel all over the country as a guest lecturer, to symposiums and conferences and “American corners” at various libraries,. Many if not most Fulbrighters can be fairly dry, academic types, so when they’ve got an incorrigible extrovert like me they apparently want to send him around to fly the Fulbright flag, all of which suits me fine, especially as they’ll pay my travel expenses. In my travels, I also expect to speak with a certain quiet pride, shall we say? about Raytheon as well. On my second day in the country I walked around the city and went to a couple of museums, which were full of paintings by Romanian artists who painted in the style of the French impressionists.

I did some shopping to get some electrical adaptors and a Romanian SIM card for my cell phone, and to compare prices of things. Sad to say, Europe is already here in terms of prices. I wondered how Romanians could afford to pay such prices, and the answer, I’ve since learned, is that they can’t until they’ve saved up for a long, long time. The Romanians don’t produce stylish clothes or modern conveniences yet, so that stuff is imported and expensive. Things that they use in their simple, daily lives can be bought cheaply at the open air markets but it takes a westerner some time to get used to buying a kilo of carrots still covered with dirt, for example. The Romanian people have a Mediterranean look about them, with perhaps a bit of Slav and a touch of Turk thrown into the mix. They regard themselves as a Latin island in a Slavic sea, and so far I’ve found them to be extremely friendly and upbeat. They stop to offer to help when they see me looking at my map, and a surprising number speak English, especially among the young folks. They seem to feel like they’ve just rejoined Europe and are full of hope for the future. I think that joining the EU will work out better for them than perestroika has for my poor, sad Russkie friends.

At the little hotel where I stayed I heard businessmen speaking English together in various accents, with tones of anticipation about making money, and it didn’t sound like hushed, gold rush talk, but more like development talk. The French especially seem to be around, speaking English with French accents. At the end of orientation week in Bucharest we were given a reception at the charge’ d’affairs home, which the ambassador also attended later on in the evening after he left another big reception for Bill Gates, who was in town. Apparently Romania is a world capital for cyber crime, and Mr. Gates was here to help the local dweebs go legit with real IT industries!

We capped off the orientation week with an excursion to the castles that once belonged to the monarchy, up in the Eastern Carpathian mountains. The last king was forced to abdicate in 1946 by the communists and went off to live in Switzerland. He’s 85 now and back in town, and he wants his property back. They’ll probably give him money instead, but all that’s pending. The area was full of ski lodges whose sad owners, like their counterparts in the Alps, are wondering if they can recover from a winter without snow. In the mountain towns there are stately mansions co-existing with ramshackle shacks, and that’s also what I saw crossing the country by train to Cluj, which is at the foothills of the western Carpathians, where I am now. Pretty country, though, just waiting to be bought up by fat Germans.

My Fulbright duties don’t begin for another week, so I’ve had plenty of time to settle in and take care of little details, like registering with the police, etc. The woman who is the coordinator at the international office has been wonderful. She met me at the train station at 9:00 PM the night I arrived, along with my new landlady, to bring me to the apartment the Fulbright commission is providing me. Nice little place. I’ve now met with the chair of the Theatre department and seen a performance by the 3rd year drama students, scenes from Chekov and Ibsen. (Luckily I knew the plays and could follow the action.) I’ve just given two seminars on American film to a mixed group of EU kids spending a year in Romania as exchange students, and I’ll meet with them again next week to give a seminar/workshop on screenplay writing. Later I’m scheduled to meet with the English department chair and with the dean for international affairs. One of my projects is to give weekly workshops for high school English teachers on using drama in the classroom as a method of getting the students to speak the language rather than just pass grammar tests. I did some of that in Jeddah at the Air Defense Academy, and the results were very well received. One of the generals came to some skits my class performed and was very generous in his remarks afterwards. Another duty will be as a guest lecturer in existing classes, to lecture on modern American drama and film. I also hope to direct a play this Spring. I’ve also just been invited by the US consulate in Hungary to advise a mixed group of Romanian and Serbian middle schoolers on writing and acting in skits that deal with tolerance, if I can get time to make the trip. Next month I’m invited to do a seminar at the University of Sibiu, which along with Luxemburg is the EU co-capital of culture this year. In May I’ve been invited to present a paper at an American studies conference in Timasoara, which is on the other side of the mountains near the Hungarian border. Busy, but exhilarating.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. I’m due back in Jeddah July 1, and probably won’t be back in the US until late September, during Ramadan time when I have to take a holiday or lose the days. Enough! Enough! I appreciate news about your family - it's more than I get from my own! Love to all from uncle Andrew, maybe a little especially for my namesake. (my youngest Andres)

Best ,



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