“What’s with the ‘mafia’ in that factory?”, I asked my companion. Or, rather, what I actually said was “Ce este cu ‘mafia’ la fabrica asta?”, necessarily exercising my newly-acquired broken Romanian in my first few months as a volunteer in Romania. This was May 1993.
My companion in the train compartment was my landlady, who had kindly accompanied me on a train journey from Siret, in the far north of Romania, to Focsani, 300 kilometres south, to what I had been told was “The best factory for BCA building blocks in Romania”. We were now on the return journey.
She didn’t speak English but, as a book-keeper and someone I already felt I could trust after living two or three months with the family, she was an invaluable companion on an expedition to purchase building blocks for a new ‘half-way house’ to be built by the charity I was working with as a volunteer in Siret, for teenagers coming out of the then infamous institution – the camin/spital (hostel/hospital) – in Siret.
A big bag full of bank notes
Purchasing building materials in Romania in 1993 was not a case of picking up the phone, placing an order, waiting for delivery and an invoice to be subsequently paid, as I was used to in the UK. It was necessary to go to the producer, select the product, see it loaded on a freight train back to where it was required, and pay in cash on the spot. The necessary cash, in the ‘old’ Romanian currency – lei (lions) – was not a few bank notes in my pocket; it was a very large sports bag full of notes of the maximum denomination. I cannot now remember the actual amount, but it was millions and millions of lei in a heavy, zipped, padlocked bag (carried by a very nervous tyke).
“Everyone knows about the mafia”, was the response in perfect English, not from my companion but from a tall, slim, elegantly attired lady sitting opposite. The smile was friendly, but there was also a hint of some joke I had not seen and an overlay of amusement in her eyes.
It wasn’t unusual to meet an English speaker on a train then – there were a lot of British, American, Canadian and other English-speaking volunteers in Romania in the early 90s – but to come across a Romanian speaking near-perfect English was very unusual; the usual second language for well-educated Romanians was French (ignoring the Russian which they had been obliged to learn). Opening up Western tv programmes to the population changed that and then internet came and every child I ever met wanted to learn English. What a wonderful situation for a teacher of English – pupils desperate to learn.
You don’t have to be a teacher
Back to my new acquaintance – Felicia: she turned out to be the Inspector for English for the ‘county’ (judet) where I was living – Suceava. Eventually she pleaded with me to come to ‘teach’ English in what she described as the top high school – Liceul ‘Stefan cel Mare’ (‘Stephen the Great’ High School) – in the ‘county town’ of Suceava. “I’m not an English teacher”, I said, though I had taught English, for short times, to immigrant children in south London and to adult Spaniards at the Berlitz school in Madrid. “It doesn’t matter”, she countered. “We have excellent teachers but have not and never have had a native English speaker”. She was very persuasive and we finished the journey with me having agreed to extend my 6 month stay in Romania and go to ‘teach’ in Suceava. How things went from there is another chapter, sometime; suffice it to say for years more I taught English all over Romania and ended up married – to a Romanian history teacher
Oh, I’d almost forgotten the mafia. “The word you were hearing, was ‘marfa’ not mafia”, Felicia chided me. “They were talking about the product you wanted – ‘marfa’ is Romanian for ‘produce’.
“Mind you, you almost certainly encountered a mafia”, she added with another wry smile.
This addition to my ‘About’ was prompted not by something from Romania, but from another tyke (Yorkshireman for any of my readers who – unlikely – don’t yet know this dialect tag which we proudly bear) who has gone ‘self-sufficient’, building a strawbale house, in Poland (despite the post title, it’s in English):
I just love where blogging takes me and I was surprised to learn that Eddy’s story has so many things in common with mine, including being lured into teaching English. My own wanderings into strawbale building will have to wait for a future post.
From time to time I’ll do a bio post like this, in no chronological order, and eventually add it to the pages under ‘About’ above.