Whenever you go somewhere or do something new, you always learn new things. This summer in Romania has been no exception.
For example, during our week in Constanta with the kids, I very quickly learnt that a black stretch cotton T shirt does absolutely nothing to prevent sunburn. I also found that I am useless at fielding in cricket, rounders, and ‘crounders’ (some bizarre mash-up of the two the kids ended up playing), particularly when the games are played on sun-baked sand. We as volunteers learnt that when you take a group of children and young people to the beach, kids who have never been to the beach before in their lives, it takes around two minutes of time after arriving to want to go to the sand, and around the same amount of time for them to be splashing you with seawater (which was invariably accompanied with sand, seaweed, and mischievous giggling).
Going to Casa Lumina week after week, I learnt a lot about the kids over there. I learnt that Carmen will happily strum open strings of a guitar for two hours straight – which in turn made me want to learn how to tune to open chords. I learnt that Radu, somehow, remembers me from last year, and has clung to my hand just as faithfully as the week I was here in 2014. I learnt that once you’ve gained Maria’s attention – an achievement in itself, it has to be said – her favourite thing to do is to place a hand either side of your head and beam at you while blowing at your face, shaking your head around, touching foreheads, or some combination of the three. I learnt that the language barrier is not something to worry too much about at Casa Lumina – the majority of those who are verbal simply ask you the same three things multiple times. Which does, admittedly, make replying somewhat easier.
Ungureni, the state run adult institution with close links to Casa Lumina, teaches something very different. It gives more of a glimpse as to how things were before CitD, although Ungureni is far, far better than it and similar places were ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. Again, just over the few weeks I’ve been here, bonds have formed with patients there, and you can begin to get to know them better than you could ever hope to in one short morning of a week-long visit.
Negustorului teaches you very quickly how to deal with swarms of excited children – ones who adopt the stereotypical British way of making themselves understood by speaking louder and slower to you. The Roma village teaches you how to distribute your time and attention between multiple kids, many of whom may just want to show you their colouring in – which is always, of course, absolutely beautiful. I know I sound sarcastic there, but these kids and crafts? Getting to be a perfect match there.
During day centre at the hospice, you have no choice but to learn quickly. The Romanian words for ‘let go’, ‘stop’, ‘later’, ‘now’, and ‘I’m serious – stop playing music on your phone while the volunteers are telling you bible stories’ are needed from the first week. The harsh reality that as much planning as you put into activities for day centre, the kids know that they are by no means obligated to complete any of the crafts set out for them – a lesson that group after group of volunteers has been forced into learning. You also learn from the kids, and I don’t just mean in terms of card games: seeing the kids being kids, playing and colouring and making a mess everywhere, it brings a jolt when you suddenly remember why Casa Albert, Casa Lumina, and Cry in the Dark are even necessary.
When I was here for a week last year, I had a glimpse of what CitD does around Bacau, of the lives it changes and the people they help. Being here for two months has given me the chance to see everything in more detail, to bond with the kids over at Casa Lumina in a way slightly beyond handholding, to help with the day centre and be able to hold a conversation with the kids. Seeing not just the kids themselves, but how they interact with each other – Octav and Madalina arguing over a small doll (one wanted to cuddle it, one wanted to throw it across the garden); Andreea, Laura, and Sera wearing identical outfits at the beach (Mickey Mouse tops, of course); learning and playing (and losing dramatically) a Romanian card game that I can’t spell but is very similar to Uno! with a few of the young people.
This week, a group from my home church is out here with us. One of the leaders asked me earlier how the micro-gap had changed my life, and at the time I couldn’t find the words to explain it. I told her that I wasn’t very good at looking at myself objectively and seeing how I’ve changed, but I guess the truth of it is that I genuinely hadn’t thought about it. This summer has taught me a lot about myself – I’m pretty good at picking up pronunciation of Romanian words and I can mix decent concrete, for a start – so I feel like I’ll go home in a couple of weeks not just knowing CitD and those the charity works with better, but myself too.
I started writing this post intending it to be far less diary-esque than it has turned out to be, but hey, what’s a gapper to do. Unfortunately, in just a couple of weeks, I’ll be seeing flat Suffolk fields once more rather than the tree-coated mountains I’ve grown accustomed to recently. I can honestly say that this summer has been the best I’ve had, and I can say with just as much truthfulness that I don’t want to be flying home any time soon.