Volunteering


Sunday 3 Feb 2013. Another multi-tasking day, I’m starting to write this while I cook the obligatory Sunday ‘traditional full English’ breakfast and scanning a film to put some pictures here; I felt I must do this post after reading a recent ‘News’ item from WordPress about using internet in teaching:

http://en.blog.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/educators-on-wordpress/

The special 'Allstars' project room from we did internet teaching projects using first one, later (here) two, 'obsolete' laptops. This is 'Allstar' Daniela with me, 1994

The special ‘Allstars’ project room at industrial High School No.1, Burdujeni, Suceava, Romania, from which we did internet teaching projects using first one, later (here) two, ‘obsolete’ laptops. This is ‘Allstar’ Daniela with me, 1994

I think I might have been a bit of a pioneer in this field; the teachers in UK, Canada and USA with whom I did the projects in 1993/94 certainly were. Oddly enough, I had referred briefly to my email projects for teaching English only a few days ago when I did a post about how I became an English teacher in Romania.

For most of the projects we used a single obsolete lap-top on which the children took turns; it had been discarded by some Arizona school; later I got a second. There was no Windows available to us (though it had been launched about 10 years previously); we used MS-Dos and saved our work on ‘floppy discs’. We supplemented the emails with airmailed communications and exchanged photographic prints. The slide show below, click on any picture to see it, tells some of the story.

The ‘Allstars’ as they chose to call themselves, from class 9s (‘gymnasium’ or middle school) in the industrial school no.1 in Burdujei, Suceava, did projects with schools in Liverpool, Canada and Northumberland on histories of their respective countries and other subjects; the much younger Bunnies, a special needs class in school no.11 in Suceava, did a project with special needs children from the ‘Jim Allen’ elementary school in Pensacola, Florida, on their respective towns.

Both these groups of Suceava children were not expected to achieve very much by the Romanian system. However, the head teacher at School no1 was very supportive, even giving the group its own small project room (top picture). The head teacher of school no.11 told me at the beginning I was wasting my time with the special needs children. He was gracious enough at the end of the year to admit that he had been wrong, when they invited him to a year end exhibition of their project. Their teacher, Vasilica, never had any doubt; she had no special needs training, no special needs resources; she taught them with love alone.

The Leo Club of Suceava Burdujeni

The Allstars went on to form a Leo Club, despite their parents’ objection to them doing any voluntary work (this came from the enforced unpaid labour as ‘Pioneers’ under the Communist system) and, among other activities, they worked with special needs kids in the orphanages; some of them eventually took some of the 30 available places at one of the two top high schools – the leading school for humanities and languages – in Suceava, something no-one would have believed they were able to do. There was already a Lions Club in Suceava, instigated by a French Lions Club soon after the revolution.

Working with the Allstars and Bunnies and many other Romanian children was probably the most enjoyable and satisfying part of my time in Romania, if not in the whole of my life.

That year, or the year before, I presented two or three papers on the use of internet for teaching English as a foreign language at a conference which had physical audiences at centres in the USA and Mexico but contributors from around the world via internet. I had to go 600km to the capital, Bucharest, to find the facilities to take part, which I did in the middle of the night in Romania. The papers were eventually published in the conference proceedings; I’m hoping those will turn up in my ‘store’ in Romania.

I worked in one school which had a more ‘modern’ computer network and I think the operating system was Linux; if I remember correctly we emailed using a program called Pine. I think I first saw Windows in about 1996, when I began to teach English in the computer studies high school in Iasi, though I didn’t do the email projects there; I taught the curriculum more conventionally.

Two students on the week long course I did at the University of Bratislava, Slovakia, on using computers and doing internet projects for teaching English

Two students on the week long course I did at the University of Bratislava, Slovakia, on using computers and doing internet projects for teaching English

The work with computers and internet projects not only took me all over Romania, showing teachers and pupils how to use computers and how to do such projects, I was even lucky enough to go to Slovakia for a week and do similar things with students as the University of Bratislava. What a lovely town!

Old battered films

Although most of my photographs taken in Romania seem to have been left there – prints, negatives and slides – as I cannot find them here, a few weeks ago I finally got around to taking some films which I did bring back from the canisters in which they had been stored for years. I had to leave them under some weight for several weeks to get them flat enough to cut into strips for the scanner, and I cut them a few days ago. I’ve just sorted out some to scan for this post – it’ll take weeks or months to do them all (about 60 35mm films). Unfortunately the pictures I want for here are on three, four or more different films and as I might as well scan them all rather than just the shots I want it’ll take a couple of hours or more (Tuesday 5 Feb: in fact it took all day and more so the intention to post this on Sunday went by the board!).

The films are rather battered and bruised and the colour is way off after their treatment over the past 20 years or so. I hope they are interesting nevertheless as I don’t have time to do any ‘repairs’, though I hope to do so sometime.

Back to cooking and tv

However, after I’ve finished with the films for this post I’ll go and scan a film (black and white) I shot yesterday for my photo blog – while making some bread (we’re out) and getting ready to cook the evening meal – it’s pork chops from a named farm nearby via our excellent local butcher; left to my Romanian wife she’ll cook them Romanian fashion – for at least an hour – rather than the 10 minutes they deserve. Some things can benefit from the long cooking like, strangely enough, runner beans, which become something quite different and eat very well with mamaliga (Romanian corn meal mush or ‘polenta’) when cooked for an hour and a half.

And all this before my Sunday evening tv marathon begins with the news at 6pm (over dinner). Then there’s ‘Country File’, followed by ‘Call the Midwife’ (how good to have a drama with good stories, no violence and where the characters have a vocabulary other than four letter words), and then ‘Ripper Street’, which has enough interest to overlook the sometimes gratuitous violence.

Although I’ve said before that photography and cooking have quite a lot in common (or perhaps because of it), it’s quite difficult to scan films and cook at the same time. Apart from trying to remember to wash my hands before putting on the cotton gloves to handle the film, or remembering to take the scissors to cut the film but the knife to cut the vegetables (for braised red cabbage with Juniper, steamed caulifower and brussel sprouts, and roasted potato wedges) I have a big worry that I’m going to cut off a finger or steam a film!

I’d better get the scanning done soon. It’s creeping up to 6pm and I’ve started on the cook’s obligatory (unless they have a medical condition forbidding it) red wine; although it’s vital for cooking it ain’t so good for scanning. In fact, it’s beginning to look as though the scanning will not finish by 6pm, so this post will not be posted until tomorrow (didn’t make that either).

This blogging ‘lark’ has taken over my life; how the bloggers who post ten times day, especially those who write something rather than just post a picture each time, do it I don’t know. I started this blog to write about my interests but now blogging itself has become an interest and I find myself writing about that.

I’m conscious that I wander about a bit in my posts but no apologies – two of my favourite blogs do this too. Food and Forage Hebrides hides super recipes among all sorts of insights into life on a Hebredian island; My French Heaven tucks anything from Coco Chanel or how to clean silver to long distance sailboat racing in his wonderfully illustrated food blog, though admittedly not usually in the same post.

“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.

Raluca, Alina and Ramona, l to r, with Ancuta behind. Four of the 'Bunnies', my delightful special needs class from School no.11, Suceava, in 1994. They are wearing T-shirts from a special needs school in Pensacola, Florida, with which the Bunnies did an email project (despite the headmaster's attitude which was that I was wasting my time trying to do such a thing with them. He had to eat his words, but more of that in a future post about the delights of teaching English in Romania.

Raluca, Alina and Ramona, l to r, with Ancuta behind. Four of the ‘Bunnies’, my delightful special needs class from School no.11, Suceava, in 1994. They are wearing dandelion coronets we made on the day, and T-shirts from a special needs school in Pensacola, Florida, with which the Bunnies did an email project (despite the headmaster’s attitude which was that I was wasting my time trying to do such a thing with them. He had to eat his words, but more of that in a future post about the delights of teaching English in Romania).

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

The Mafia

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):

http://winkos.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/przepraszam-nie-mowie-po-polsku/

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.

Volunteering and egg decorating in Romania

Thanks again to members on the forum, I seem at last to have cracked the menu and pages thing. So now I’ve managed to put up an article I wrote in 1998 for a Romanian magazine on my experiences as a volunteer in Romania for, at the time, five years. I went on to stay another 6.1/2 years before returning to the UK in 2004.

Another project I worked on was helping the women in Bucovina who decorate eggs with their marketing. As result I wrote a few articles about egg decorating and will be putting some of these up soon. I did quite a lot of interesting research on the tradition so it seems to me that it is worth having them on record, especially as I haven’t seen much of what I wrote recorded elsewhere. I don’t any longer have electronic versions of them (some, for a mag I was editing, were done in Quark) so I’m having to type them all in again from paper drafts which fortunately I kept, but at the same time translating them to English. I may eventually be able to find the pictures which were in the articles, or at least some of them but that might take a while so I’ll be putting them up without the pictures pretty soon and hope to find the films/prints eventually.

I’ll be back in Bucovina and Iasi for a short time in August and meeting some of the egg decorators mentioned, so it’ll be interesting to see what has happened since the time I was writing, 2002.

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