Sunday, June 29, 2014

Days 298-301: Cluj

It's been a whirlwind few days. The weekend in Cluj was one of the weirdest and most wonderful experiences of my life. Weird, because a year ago I never would have imagined I'd be spending a weekend in Romania with a group of students from around the world. Wonderful, because the experience of doing something so out of the ordinary gave me a real sense of freedom and the joy of simply existing.

Rather than wax awkwardly philosophical on the benefits of travel, I'll give you some more concrete observations about Romania, since the average western reader likely won't know much about this country. 

While it's not a rich country, Romania is actually known as a medium-high income country on a global scale, meaning that the quality of living isn't all that different from what we'd experience in the west. While shops and restaurants are generally cheaper, many of the same items and brand names are available. My western clothing doesn't look out of place and neither does my iPad. (Also, I must say, my host family's house in Suceava is way nicer than mine in either Canada or Scotland, so I by no means want to give the impression that all Romanians are poor, because the flat screen tv in my guest room definitely says otherwise...)

At the same time, it's still obvious the country isn't rich. The sidewalk is often cracked and the roads are potholed. Many of the buildings are covered in graffiti and need a new coats of paint. There's a fair bit of litter, and smoking is extremely common. Most of the nicer houses are surrounded by metal fences and electric gates. 

On Saturday afternoon, we visited a church near our hostel and chatted with the caretaker for a minute. We asked him if he had ever been to Scotland, and he just sort of laughed and said it was far too much money. This really changed my perspective-- to have a middle aged man admit that he couldn't afford to pay for the flight which I thought was so cheap. To say that he didn't have enough money to stay in Scotland, when I managed to pay rent for a year in one of Scotland's most expensive towns. That an established adult had less disposable income than I do. 

Because of the income difference, our weekend in Cluj felt like living like royalty. We could afford to eat out multiple times a day at the best restaurants in town while paying less than we would at a fish and chips place in the UK. We could buy earrings at the midsummer market or pretzels from the streetside stand, because even 10 Lei was still pocket change to us. 

It was so amazingly freeing and fun... and yet, somewhat unsettling. I've never been so comparatively rich, and I'm not quite sure how to deal with the feeling.

And I said I wouldn't wax philosophical in this blog post. Whoops!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Day 298: Romania!

I have arrived in Romania. I may be a little bit tired and hungry and more than a little bit in need of a shower, but I have safely arrived in the formerly communist country that will be my home for the next month. 

It's been a pretty long road getting here. I left before 8am yesterday, catching a bus from St. Andrews to Dundee, then the megabus down to London. Because of delays, we didn't reach London until 9:30 pm, meaning I didn't get settled into my hostel until past 10:30. That wouldn't have been an issue, except that I had to wake up at 4:30am in order to catch the bus to London Luton airport in time to make my 8:30 flight. Things were a tad hectic and rushed at the airport, but I made it in time and they didn't make me check my carry-on bag (despite how I'm nearly positive it was too big) and I slept through most of the three hour flight. 

The Romanian airport immediately made me miss Britain-- they don't seem to understand the concept of a queue here! Everyone just sort of jostled together to get through passport control, which was pretty lax. 

Once through, the uncertainty began. I had been told that someone would likely be there to pick me up, but I had no idea where they'd be or what they looked like. I didn't immediately see anyone holding a sign with my name on it, so I wandered around the airport, got some money from an ATM (yes, I did go to a new country without a scrap of its currency on me. No, this didn't stress me out at all... maybe it should have?) attempted to locate a bus that would take me into town, and eventually decided to ask at the information desk, where I finally found the woman who was supposed to pick me up. Apparently she had been at the airport all along, with a sign, but we must have just missed each other. 

She drove me into the centre of Cluj and dropped me off at the hostel where all of us TEFL volunteers will stay until Saturday night. Cluj is Romania's second largest city with a population of 450,000. It's a lovely place-- not too busy, with some picturesque buildings and slightly mountainous countryside visible just beyond. The overwhelming colours are adobe beige, yellow, and pink, with a bit of stone and stucco. 

This afternoon I got the chance to explore a little bit. I set out without looking at the map and wandered along some old walls, climbed up to a university building, and visited a market square complete with cathedral and craft fair (I bought a lovely pair of earrings featuring little bronze ballet dancers). The hostel also had a party to celebrate their 12th anniversary, so I enjoyed the free cake and wine. 

On Saturday, the other TEFL volunteers and I will all be sent out to our placements. I'm going to Suceava, a city of around 90,000 people, in northeast Romania (about half an hour from the borders of Ukraine and Moldova). I'm looking forward to seeing the city, meeting my host family, and starting work teaching English! 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Day 278: Update from the Continent

(Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness)

Apparently I haven't blogged in a few weeks, not since exams. Whoops... So much has happened since then that I could have blogged a dozen times, but I've been so busy living through all this exciting stuff that I haven't had time to blog.

Hopefully I'll get a chance to write more detailed posts about some of the travelling I've been doing recently, but in case I don't, here's a brief look at everything that's happened in the past few weeks. 

1-  I finished exams! My own exams went decently, I had fun soaking my friends after their finals, and when I got my marks back just yesterday I found I passed all my modules with quite a decent average. Perhaps my marks were a tad lower than they would have been in Canada, but I'm still happy, considering how busy I was, and how I had to get used to a new academic system. 


2- Mum came! A few days after my last exam, mum flew out from Canada for a visit. She's here for a full four weeks, which means we're just a tad over half way right now. I loved showing her St. Andrews and introducing her to my friends, and she's a great travelling companion.

3- I moved out of St. Andrews. :( While I haven't said goodbye for the last time (I'm back for a bit in June, then for the last weekend in August before finally flying home September 1st) I have moved out of my flat and said goodbye to many of my friends. This, not surprisingly, was really hard, but having mum here definitely made things easier, since she helped me pack up my stuff, and travelling with her has helped take my mind of what I'm leaving behind.

4- I've visited four countries: Scotland (up north, so basically completely different from St. Andrews), England (Durham), the Netherlands (Friesland, Gouda) and now Germany (I'm writing this on the train just over the border from Holland, but we plan to visit Cologne, Manheim, and Heidelberg). It's cool to add a new country to my list (Germany makes 15), and I've really enjoyed seeing new places in countries I've already visited. 

(The house in the Netherlands where my great-grandparents lived)

That's life now. Another week of travelling, then a week in St. Andrews performing in The Mikado (a Gilbert and Sullivan, what else?) and then I'm off to Romania for a month! I have the feeling this summer is really going to fly by, since I'm constantly busy. The month in Romania will probably be the quietest time I get, since August will be spent dashing across the UK. 

As I mentioned in number 3, I do have a flight home now on September 1st. I'm flying Edinburgh to Toronto, which means that I'll leave from St. Andrews, which I think is fitting. Unfortunately, flying straight to Toronto means I won't have any time home in PEI this summer, so I won't get to see my family, friends, or the beautiful Island. On the other hand, I do get to spend the maximum time here in Europe, and I'll still be here when my BFF, Sharon, comes out for her exchange next year. Then, when I finally do leave, orientation for my MA program starts the very next day. It'll be busy, but I won't have time to miss Scotland if I throw myself right in to life back in Canada.