The Transition Home

I’ve been home for a week now, after 31 hours of planes and airports last Thursday, as well as around 50 hours with nothing but an uncomfortable nap. In other words, I took a long time to adjust (even now I still want to fall asleep at six). But the main reason I haven’t posted until now is the sheer amount that happened during our last week in Georgia, and I wanted to take time to think about it.

In Tbilisi we got to explore the Old Town and the semi-famous Rustaveli Avenue most days (the center of the city, basically), as well as a large market in another part of town. The subway we took to get there was an exciting two-minute escalator ride below the ground. Overall, our time in Tbilisi was short, though. Two Fridays ago we were on a two-day trip to Armenian villages in southwest Georgia, and the following Monday and Tuesday we were on a trip to Davit Gareja monastery on the Azerbaijani border, and Kakheti, the Georgian wine country. Our guide I mentioned in my last post, Archil, the renaissance man who’s been in a movie, had works published, and knows the history and culture of just about every village in Georgia, led us off the beaten path to towns with fewer people than my high school but more cultural influences and history than Washington state. While I regret not having a week to experience Tbilisi the way we experienced Bucharest, I think our bus adventures around the country were much worth our time.

Where do I begin? While I wish we’d been able to spend more time in each village, it was quite something to get to talk to some locals. In one Armenian village right on the Turkish border (but I mean, in Georgia), the caretaker of the church came up to us as we got off the bus and started speaking Russian (Georgia and Armenia being ex-Soviet states, most of the older populations speak mainly Russian. In fact, Georgia’s government is trying to implement programs to teach minorities Georgian, to make it more useful as a national language and bring people together). Luckily our professor could translate, and the old man very generously gave us a tour of the church and a bit of town history. The children of the town were super curious about us, and huddled near us the whole time. It was pretty cute, I’ll admit. In other villages, people offered us fresh fruit… or just watched us. Archil and I had fun with candid photography, and one time a mother and young son had fun running from each other for the camera. The real interaction we got was with a family in Cheremi, the last town we visited, in the heart of Georgia’s wine country. This was a house our professor had obviously taken students on previous trips, but nonetheless. They taught us (through a language barrier), how to make khinkali and khachapuri, traditional Georgian foods that we’d had almost every day. It was a lot of fun, but also surprisingly difficult! Folding dough is really an art. This was also preceded by making sweet bread, or at least baking it, for which they use a traditional stone oven. You flatten the dough out, then slap it on the inside wall of the oven, and let it rise. It tastes amazing, too. And finally, this was all followed by a huge dinner with the most food I’ve ever seen on one table. And it was all delicious.

An interesting story from this trip is that we actually walked into Azerbaijan. Literally, the Davit Gareja monastery is a short walk up a hill from the border, which is at the top of that hill and extends up and down that range, with nothing but a few ancient guard towers. Now, if a foreigner were to walk across alone, they might be questioned. But as a group, it is very regular for people to cross the border to see caves on the other side that were inhabited 1000 years ago. It’s an impressive system of caves, with stables, a dining hall, and Christian paintings all over. These weren’t even the first caves we visited, though! By the Turkish border, there is a much larger system of caves (still used by monks with an impressive church) called Vardzia. From around the same time period, these caves feature multiple levels of multiple rooms and tunnels which are, admittedly, quite fun to run through. Here’s a picture:


At the end of this adventure, I was exhausted, but when I got on the plane I was quite sad to be leaving. I’m already planning a trip back next summer (if I don’t choose to go to one of the millions of other places I want to visit…). There is no way I’ll ever be the same person I was before the trip. My group was the greatest I could’ve asked for too, and I made friendships that I know will last, as well as connections I couldn’t have made otherwise.

Arriving home, I truly didn’t know what to do with myself, because I was so used to living with less and out of a suitcase, exploring new places, seeing the same friends daily… but I also didn’t know how I viewed America anymore. I think these are all good things. If travel doesn’t shake your sense of normality, you didn’t go far enough. In reality, travel is quite a selfish thing. Unless you’re working on humanitarian aid or political issues, the truth is your presence doesn’t really help anyone you meet. Other countries are going to develop the way they do no matter what we do. Even if they’re more pro-America than I think is good or would expect from even ex-communist states (maybe my expectations were low, but I tried to not have any). But that said, I think travel’s a very necessary selfish thing. I don’t think we can develop as a nation without knowing, in person, what other people are doing, not just because there are other good ideas out there, but because it’ll always put our place in perspective. If anything, I’m even more grateful for what we have here, but I also see that greatness can go to our head, and that can actually hurt other countries as well. This battle between the East and West that’s gone on for centuries continues to be pointless (although the reasons are great insight into human nature), and destructive for nations like Georgia and Romania literally stuck on the border. Yeah, I still find Russia and the Middle East worrisome, but somehow seeing the actual place – even just from a mountain top on the border – and talking to people who have been there, makes them significantly less scary, because I have a whole new understanding of the area, including why it is the way it is. We’re scared of what we don’t know, and I think too many Americans, Westerners even, don’t know the East well enough. This makes it very confusing for nations who don’t know which direction to turn.

I have a much brighter outlook than that might imply, trust me. These new experiences, though, were so amazing and life changing that I’m permanently addicted, and this home life just isn’t gonna do it for me until I can afford a plane ticket again. The travel bug is something that really sticks, though I never want to get rid of it.

Heaven on Earth

After my roommate and I tied a towel around the shower faucet at midnight to keep it from flooding our hotel room, our group bussed to Bucharest from Constanța at 4am for a flight to Tbilisi through Istanbul. Turkish Airlines is a very comfortable airline… Except, of course, on the second flight I got the one row without a window.

We got to our guesthouse (a huge upgrade from the Constanta hotel, with huge homemade breakfasts included) with enough time to walk around town a bit at night. The few of us that did actually felt incredibly safe, compared to Bucharest and Constanta. Cities give off vibes, and Tbilisi has a good one. Georgia is seriously nothing like Americans tend to think, those who have heard of the place, anyway. In the past decade it has become a very westernized place, with well serviced cities and even wifi most places. According to our professor, ten years ago girls couldn’t dress nearly as freely as they do now.

As we had Romanian tour guides our age to hang out with, so we met the Georgian equivalents. We toured the city a bit our first full day, including hiking up to an old castle overlooking Tbilisi. That evening we went to a 9/11 gathering hosted by FLEX students, high schoolers who spent a year in America recently. It was fun meeting them all, although Ultimate Frisbee seemed a little unfair, as they had a bit of a language advantage.

With that, I’m just gonna jump into the story of the next three days, as it was quite spectacular. Only a day after arrival, our trip moved north to the Caucasus mountains. The only reason our first stop was a three or four hour drive was because two of those hours were on a very bumpy, rocky road that would probably take a third of the time if paved. Although, I’m not sure you could pave the steep final climb to the village if you wanted to. The village, by the way, consisted of maybe 10 buildings, 50 cows, and 200 sheep spread across the absolutely beautiful mountain fields.

After a filling lunch with the best jam ever, our guide Archil took us straight for a hike up the mountains. The weather was foggy, cold, and rainy, but it made for some seriously great photography opportunities. The mountains are like a mix of the Scottish highlands and the Himalayas (I’ve been to neither, I’m just basing that on pictures and stereotypes), grassy and bouldery at 7,000 feet. Absolutely breathtakingly peaceful. The villagers spend most of their time making hay and potatoes, before bartering with traders in the fall for winter supplies and heading down the mountain for the winter. The place is so different from anything we know in the US. Spending a night there (in a house that spiders seemed to like) was about equivalent to glamping. I wished we could’ve stayed, although I was slightly relieved to not have to take care of a bunch of spiders before bed again. These weren’t small spiders either.

Anyway, at 9am we dared to venture down the rocky hill. Our bus driver was from our second stop and had experience, thankfully. This drive turned out way longer than expected, though. You can’t cross the mountains, of course, you have to go down and back up, and in our case take a seemingly random left turn onto another hour long rock road. But I cannot stress this enough, we ended up in literally the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Possibly the most beautiful on Earth. It was sunny this time, and just imagine following a river through golden green fields among mountains that shoot up as high as the Rockies, watching wild horses gallop and sheep graze, and of course cows. You come around a bend where the valley opens up to the right and the sun is breaking through the clouds, with rays flowing down the mountains in front of you. There are orange and deep red mineral deposits, with running water that tastes more pure than the mineral water you can buy at the store. A little ways further some ruins personify the landscape among some houses that are still used. A castle in the distance marks the town of Abano. At the ruins we stopped and just enjoyed the fields and the views for a long while, in the moment. Would we ever see this place again?

As life would have it, the day was coming to an end, so we got back in the bus. It was probably another bumpy hour and a half before we got to our guesthouse (with wifi and indoor toilets) in Stepantsminda, 10 minutes from the Russian border on the Georgian Military Highway, the only major road between urban Georgia and Russia. The following day involved two hikes, each also uniquely breathtaking. The first was an hour (in rock road terms) passed the town of Sno, just south of our house, and was a steep hike over grass hills and fields. At the turnaround point some of us tried to climb over hills that were larger than they looked, and I for one ended up alone, in a field, overlooking mountains all around me. Amazing. We also met some travelers from Dubai on the way back; it’s amazing how much you can get to know people who are also traveling when you’re not at home, their stories are the greatest.

The second hike was to a waterfall, through a thin valley that was its own climate with vegetation (like ferns) that is nowhere else around. I felt like I was in the Olympic rainforest, but with more of a mystical feel. Then just because, we drove to the Russian border, if only to mock Palin with her famous words, then headed back to Tbilisi. On the way the paradise didn’t end; we stopped at the ironic and deteriorating Russian Georgian Friendship Monument, but I was more impressed with how the sun rays were shining over the valley far below us; easily a desktop background, or the end of a happy movie. But real life.

Caucasus Mountains

We’ve had a day back in Tbilisi and two lectures, one from representatives at the Georgian Foundation for Strategy and International Studies, but that’ll be a later post when we’ve done more academic work and gotten more experience in urban Georgia. Rural northern Georgia, or rather Sakartvelo as it’s called in Georgian, is something I’ll never, ever forget.

Constanța Day 6

I don’t feel at all like the person I was before I left two weeks ago. I’m not very good in groups, so this is definitely a test for me. I wouldn’t say I’m doing that bad, but without the time alone for reflection that I’m used to, I feel like I’m taking too much in without absorbing it. My camera would agree (wifi is scarce and I really need to upload pictures to free up space. Photography can be a time consuming hobby).

Constanța is a much different city than Bucharest. Our dorm rooms basically represent that difference: no toilet seat, doors that don’t lock, a very leaky shower with no curtain or door, half a window screen and mosquitos, no internet (I am actually thankful for that in a way, it keeps me in the present), and beds with nothing but springs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, it’s actually a lot of fun, and it’s great to feel like I’m experiencing more than home (plus, this is reason to be very thankful for college dorms in the US). Anyway, my point is that there seems to be much fewer social services in Constanta, especially when it comes to trash. Also, the first thing that happened to me when we got off the train was having to ride in an unmarked “taxi”; all the wrong signs were there, including no counter and a pushy driver, but my professor said it was good, and the guy seemed to know the other drivers, so two of us got in. It was an interesting drive, needless to say. He didn’t speak much English, but took our obvious mistrust and started making jokes about us being Americans and him being the Taliban taking us to Saudi Arabia or something. I can’t say I’ve ever felt stereotyped until that moment. Great feeling.

On the other hand, I’ve never had waterfront property that wasn’t a tent before, and our dorms are as waterfront as you can get. The Black Sea is beautiful. Seeing it for the first time as we drove up felt like the culmination of a week and a half of buildup: this was the reason we’re here. These scientifically fascinating waters are and have been the center of commerce, war, and culture for millennia. Ovid sailed up to this very spot 2,007 years ago. Staring at the ruins of a market just as old or climbing the tower of a 200 year old mosque is quite unlike anything you can experience in Seattle.

I will say, I actually miss Bucharest a lot. It began to feel like home very quickly. We all miss our friends Alex and Alexandra quite a bit, and I felt like we had entered an entire social circle through their friend Gabi (the one I had the discussion about identity with) and the places they took us; I knew our quarter of the city almost as well as I know Seattle (mainly because I don’t live in Seattle, in fact, I’ve never lived in a true city). Alex and Alexandra actually came to Constanța on Sunday to visit us though! We paid for their train ticket as a gift, and it was a great relaxing day on the beach. It’s weird to think we may not see them again. Some good memories to hold on to. I guess I didn’t anticipate how well study abroad gets us to know a place. It’s pretty sweet, but also important. How can we make future decisions without knowing about what’s around?

We had lectures most days in Bucharest, but only Friday and Monday here, although there were 3 on Monday. They got into both economics and linguistics. I will say that the linguistics lecture was fascinating, as language can be the defining characteristic of a people, but I’m starting to wonder why we’re sitting in a classroom and not visiting the places we’re watching on a screen and seeing on a map. While it would definitely be necessary to know this info before going to, say, an Aromanian community, it seems like there could’ve been a class before this trip and then we could spend our time immersing ourselves more. The main reason I liked Bucharest more is that I got to experience a new culture, albeit still Western-esque, whereas Constanța is closer to a tourist town, though a Romanian tourist town, in a more rural part of the country where fewer people speak English, much like Brasov or Sibiu, places I would love to visit.

Of course, something we actually talked about is the purpose of going to different, or even less fortunate, communities. It is always important to see life in a new way, because then you can give depth to how you see your own culture. But if you live in a foreign culture, are you there for them or for you? Are you trying to understand their problems to help them, or just to broaden your perspective? I think the latter. What it comes down to is that Western influence does not help every problem. Our last lecturer presented on why free market development is necessary in Romania and why socialism is bad. Of course, I took major issue with this because what existed here was nothing close to communism or socialism. But there’s no point in acting superior to the tyranny our lecturers experienced, only in pointing out that any desire to be like America here does not at all fit the culture of the small villages we have seen in passing. Maybe that helps, maybe it doesn’t, but to me the issues here are much more local than a couple of our lectures may have implied, however unintentionally. All I know is that I can’t wait to spend three days backpacking through five-building villages in the Caucasus mountains in Georgia!

On another note, it has been awesome getting to know everyone in our group. Nine people is a very good number for a trip like this. In our full group we took a boat tour around the beautiful Danube Delta up north with hundreds of birds and had lunch at a quaint house/restaurant in the forested reeds, and another day went to the Greek ruins that were the town of Histra. Splitting into smaller groups and wandering has led to the most interesting experiences, from short games with kids on the street to being chased by dogs to misunderstanding traffic rules as pedestrians to finding the best food in town on some back street. Overall, Romania has been a great and unique choice for my first trip abroad (besides Canada), with just enough Western feel to not shock but plenty of difference to broaden my perspective.

Time is moving fast. Just a few days ago we were living another life in another city, and we’re now halfway through the trip. It also feels like enough has happened to fill a month. Now in my room, listening to my music feels distinctly wrong; it’s music meant for home, and I’m not home. I feel better listening to what’s being played at local restaurants, because it puts me in the present. If I have any time to write lyrics this trip, I think they’re gonna turn out pretty different from what I write at home. Something about travel just dictates that I shouldn’t be the person I am when I’m home, as almost nothing can be habitual abroad, pretty much the opposite of home. Travel is a lifestyle for a reason, one I can feel myself getting addicted to. Sometimes it just takes a bit more life to feel tied down to any place I guess, but right now I feel like I’ve traded stress for a dream.

Who am I?

We’ve been back in Bucharest for a few days now. After a minor change in plans, we bused down to Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria on Wednesday instead of Saturday because hotels were full this weekend. Although we only stayed one night, it was a truly amazing place to visit. The countryside is stunning, and the city has an unforgettable charm to it. Being the medieval capital of Bulgaria, there is everything from a large, spectacular castle to small, endless, old town homes lined up and down the hill with the very-European grapes hanging from the walls. We hiked through and around the castle, and saw numerous old churches and monasteries with impressive art and architecture in nearby villages. The houses haven’t seemed to change in 400 years, and neither has the charm, although the salespeople can be pushy and trick tourists (I learned my lesson about checking their currency “conversion”). Crossing the border was interesting as well, because the differences are instant: the vegetation, language, landscape, roads… In general it was a bumpy, very hot bus ride, but a memorable experience all around. Veliko Tărnovo was definitely more of a tourist city than Bucharest, but although the culture seemed very similar, it seemed to be more “defined”. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a smaller town (we met one resident who was able to tell us a bit about her and her neighbors), but I think the strong Russian influence countered the anti-Russian sentiment apparent in Romania. The idea of identity became relevant in a discussion two of us had with our Romanian friends and guides on Saturday, which I’ll get to later.

After the bonding experience that was the five hour bus ride, the next few days have involved lectures from Romanian professors at the University of Bucharest Center for Image Studies, and museum/landmark visits. The first lecture was an eye-opening presentation on the Roma/Gypsy community and their persecution during WWII. Arriving in Romania starting in the 13th century from India, they both integrated Romanian culture and retained their nomadic practices. In WWII, they were treated just as bad as the Jews; forced into concentration camps, worked to death and essentially forgotten, left to die. The few survivors remain terrified of anyone who asks about it, afraid they’ll be taken back to Russia. The footage in a documentary we were shown was truly horrifying. Nonetheless, a community remains and it was only recently that anyone bothered to do research into the horror that occurred. This is something no one learns about in the US; instead, Gypsies are usually equated with Romanians, when in fact their histories and cultural practices are literally separated.

Our next lecture was on religion, and the following one today was on Black Sea politics. In the larger picture, religion, mainly Orthodox but also Catholic, has been the source of relief after communism for a huge majority of the Romanian population. This could potentially be the source of national identity that Romanians are searching for, but it hasn’t seemed to satisfy. I wish I could capture the lecture we received today in a few sentences, but I’m still trying to comprehend the amount he was able to tell us. The main thing is the importance of the region for commerce and the increased participation from the West that he believes is required. Russia has been an expansionist nation from it’s beginning, and still has the goals of obtaining the South Caucasus (which we’ll be visiting), Baltic states, and Ukraine, which it was especially pained to lose; however, it’s tactic is not purely militaristic, instead Russia influences the area it wants politically and economically until it can take it. The Black Sea states are caught in the middle: unable to support or defend themselves, they rely on Russia only because they are more scared of the Turks. But if Russia were to control the areas feeding the Black Sea, including the Danube Delta in Romania, commerce would hardly be free anymore.

An interesting point made was that values may be what define a nation, but they also define who can talk to who. For example, Western values may be able to have a discussion with communist expansion values because the differences are understood (private property, etc), but the West has a much harder time talking to Islamic State extremists, as the differences are not so understood. From what I can tell, Romanians are very scared of the threats in the Middle East, and are desperate for help from the US. Russia will never give them autonomy. The only trouble is that Romania also desires acceptance to the EU, which has specific institution and value requirements, which Romania is not sure it wants to accept. Without the inherent desire for democracy, the institutions mean nothing. Romania’s 1989 revolution was the only violent revolution against communism, and there is no desire for that to happen again. But can democracy be passively set up without the passion of a revolution?
We took a tour of the People’s House today, the second largest building in the world, built in the 1980’s under Ceausescu’s rule. 20,000 people were displaced to make room. The interior rooms are ridiculously glamorous, large, and many. Still in use by Parliament, it puts into question whether such a building can actually be a symbol of Romania. Most people assume the communist block apartment buildings, which we walked through on our own one day, and the structures such as Parliament cannot be torn down, and that the few houses that have somehow lasted, hidden behind and between the Blocks, will forever be the only remnant of pre-communist culture.

This brings me to my experience with the street culture of Bucharest. One of our UW professors introduced us to a previous student of hers at the University of Bucharest, an Image Studies student with a focus on education, who showed us around the city on the weekend when we didn’t have lectures, and we’ve gone out exploring every night after class/touring, to anywhere from a gigantic farmer’s market to two squatter houses where some of his friends live. Trust me, they are much more than you may think. We were introduced to some guys (who we’ve since run into every day) who essentially pay minimal rent on these very old, run down ex-palaces, and work on fixing the buildings into works of art. Being in Bucharest, I’ve gained a whole new understanding of street art, as it is everywhere, skilled, amazing to look at, and contains messages, but also meeting a part of the community has shown a whole new story to street life. We’ve since been taken to everything from the National Museum of Art to a small, private art gallery on some street corner. One place forbade pictures (although definitely contained some fascinating history), one place had people who we talked about life with for hours.

After seeing the art they can do in and with these houses, one of them came to dinner with our group and guides-turned-friends. As mentioned earlier, two of us from the group had a long discussion about identity with him. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a heartfelt and mind-altering discussion before. It is true that Romanians are searching for identity but don’t know where it is. He also felt strongly that America needed to help out. I have heard from others as well the opinion that isolationism is deadly. But we also talked about the obsession with efficiency in America; the lack of taking every five minute break to get something done here is both noticeable and such a relief. We compared our experiences in our home countries and discussed what each needed to do, and it became clear just how biased most Americans are, including myself, and yet how much the rest of the world looks to our position of power. Many want to visit, and many want our help, but it also isn’t that simple: who we are cannot be what we make those we help, and at first I defended the position that historically, our help has made failed nations, on purpose or not. But in many ways Russia is way more of a threat to the people here. When it comes down to it, there are artists, philosophers, and friends living and working and having fun on the streets of Bucharest, in a place so stuck and threatened that it can’t define itself – how can the traditional clothing I see women still wear mix with the communist leftovers and try to fit in the corporate Western democracy? – meanwhile in the West we debate what makes a utopian society. Perhaps it is technologically feasible, but is it even possible for the world to move ahead yet?

In the end, there can never be a universal value system. There may not even be a universal way to communicate those values, although we will certainly try. But the fact is that everyone needs those values, and the journey without them is a bumpy road. I, for one, am significantly redefining my values right now. In just a week, I have seen so many new things and met so many new people, the world is far from the same place it was before. I can only imagine what the next three weeks will bring.

I already know I wouldn’t ever undo this experience. For someone who’s never traveled before it can be unnerving, but we’ve gotten to places normal tourists can’t and made friends I wouldn’t otherwise know, and am enjoying it immensely. We joke that our hotel almost feels like home. Traveling is something I definitely never want to give up, and this question of values and foreign relations is becoming something I’m more and more interested in working on. For now, although our schedule is quite busy, I’ll be trying to not order too much food for once, endlessly tiring my feet out from walking everywhere (although having a metro/subway is nice), and enjoying all the Black Sea has to offer.

Day 3 Bucharest

So, I’ve spent two days in Bucharest now! On top of this being my first time in Europe, it has been quite eye opening! I’m still fairly tired from being awake for some 27 hours my first day, but really fairly adjusted. When flying in, we flew over Greenland, which was frankly beautiful to see. Then we had a short layover in Frankfurt. I found it interesting that from the air, the German towns were clumps of buildings as one might expect towns to be, but Romanian towns from above were merely lines in the valleys. Not sure why yet. The main thing I noticed, however, was that I truly could not tell where one country ended and another began from my distant vantage point. And yet, the cultural differences are a lot more visible from the ground, although I will know a lot more about that when we head to Veliko-Tarnovo in Bulgaria today. But, it’s amazing to me that so much conflict could’ve come out of a landscape that is more consistent than what we have in America.

When we landed, three of us on the same flight, we thought we needed to get our own cab, so went to exchange money. I made the rookie mistake and didn’t bring enough cash, and ended up having to exchange a minimum $100 from my card which is something like 365 lei. And then, our professors (thankfully) met us and got our cab. Which, by the way, was a hilariously terrifying experience. I lost count of how many cars almost hit us and vice versa, our driver was chill enough to even pick up his phone once, and we didn’t have seat belts. Best introduction to Europe.

It has been interesting communicating with people, anything from pointing and learning words from them, to speaking (probably terrible) Romanian only to have them respond in English. The couple times a few of us have gone out into town, we have discovered that about two thirds of restaurant workers speak English, but the rest enjoy our struggle to remember Romanian words. Whenever we get lost in the twisting streets we can pretty easily find someone to point us the right way. One thing I am having to get used to is having to always buy water… definitely less convenient, but all part of the experience! The food, on the other hand, is AMAZING.

Yesterday, after crashing at the hotel after our flight (only to immediately go out to a restaurant), we went and saw Revolution Square, where Nicolae Ceaușescu made his speech at the old Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party in 1989 only to have the people erupt into protest against communism which quickly turned violent. Right across the street sits the University Library, behind which is the Romanian Athenaeum, a beautiful neoclassic concert hall built between 1886 and 1888. The George Enescu Music Festival is hosted there every year… the day before we arrived. On the bright side, we got to go inside and hear a bit about the building.

I would post a couple pictures of all of this, but it looks like I can’t right now so I’ll post them all later.

Today we visited the Village Museum, an outdoor collection of houses from around Romania, kept in their original styles. It’s interesting how much each region differs in style. The northern regions use a lot of wooden structures and have tall roofs, while the others have anything from clay to entirely underground rooms. That said, all the houses are the exact same layout, minus the regional color scheme.

Oh, and there’s cats and pigeons everywhere!

We learned about the diverse history of Romania; more than half the country has been tossed between empires for centuries, yet still maintains their own images. After communism, it has been a rough transition to democracy, seemingly because Romania is implementing the relevant institutions without understanding their meaning. It is hard to say where this will go, but with time I’m sure I’ll discover part of what Romanians consider their own culture to be.

I’ve already taken over 100 pictures and have 29 days to go… I may need to cut back or I’ll never sort through them all. Overall, I have found Romanians to be incredibly friendly people. I am incredibly excited to go to Bulgaria, a castle or two up north, Constanta, and then explore Georgia!

To Travel, or to travel?

08/20/2015, Blog by Jeremy Lawson, Computer Science and Society, Ethics, and Human Behavior, CHID Georgia Romania: Conflicting Currents – Romania and Georgia in a Turbulent Black Sea

The Black Sea definitely wasn’t the first place I thought I’d be visiting when I decided years ago that I wanted to study abroad. New Zealand, maybe. But somehow, the Romania and Georgia program that I will be leaving for in a few days caught my interest in its unique focus on cross-cultural study and politics. Sure, there may be some similar programs out there, but who can say they went to Tbilisi in college? Besides, no place I can think of has as many historical cultural influences as the Black Sea region, from Greek to Persian to Dacian to Ottoman to communist, and many more. The architecture and culture are bound to be quite interesting.

I think a lot of people think study abroad is too expensive or time-consuming. It isn’t. It’s quite often cheaper than traveling as a tourist, and I have found the process to be relatively straight-forward (if almost a year long). If it’s something you want to do, just work towards it early enough and the opportunity is there. Apply to a few scholarships, and you’re set! I knew I wanted to spend my life traveling, the hardest choice was where to start. But I did have my reasons for choosing such an unconventional program.

I’m excited to see how a specific understanding of the recent (and long term) prominent local issues of the region can help my understanding of general issues like nationalism and diversity. I spend a lot of my time at home studying current events and dreaming up solutions; but I can’t imagine that seeing only one country could provide all the answers. Even Western Europe is potentially too similar, so I decided to reach a little further culturally.

I haven’t been further outside the US than Vancouver Island, and I’ve been looking forward to culture shock essentially my whole life. I’ve always wanted to see what else is out there, what other people see, and what we can learn from them. Romania and Georgia, I think those definitely fit the “different” bill. I’m incredibly excited to meet the local professionals, politicians, and artists we’ll get to hear from.

I’m definitely more excited than nervous, though I can’t say I can even imagine what landing in Bucharest is going to be like. It’s not that I’m not even a little nervous, but I guess I’ve been mentally prepared for this for so long, and am fairly good at dealing with changing situations. While I’m guessing that helps with travel, program teachers tend to have everything set up so that even the most nervous of travelers would be okay. That said, potentially having to get to the hotel on our own as soon as we land feels a little like the Amazing Race. I love it.

The one thing I am nervous about is the language. If there’s anything I wish I’d done, it’s spend the months before my trip really getting to know the local languages (as much as can be done in a few months). Because of excuses such as “full time job” and “other projects”, I’ve had to do most of my studying in a few weeks, including learning an entirely new alphabet. The saving grace is the class some of us took in the spring, which has given me a decent foundation, and it sounds like a lot of Romanians speak English. Still, I’m not even sure I could order a sandwich, and am hoping that language learning happens as easily (well, that’s a relative word) as people say it does when thrown into it.

In the end, I don’t really know what to expect. I probably won’t be able to sleep the night before my flight! I’m hoping to open my mind to other ideas and beliefs out there, through more than just tourist attractions. Travel isn’t just about seeing, it’s about getting to know people, and seeing your own home from an outside perspective. I’m sure that I will come home an entirely different person. I can’t say for certain, but I think a lot of Americans don’t get “out” enough, and there’s a lot we could learn politically from the rest of the world. Even if it’s what not to do. I’m hoping for some interesting insights into different ideas of what “development” is, both socially and technologically, and into what it may take for equality to be achieved worldwide, which also depends on other definitions of the word.

Traveling through university programs is not only cheaper, but it’s shaping up to provide a much more in depth experience than regular tourism!