Wednesday, 31 October 2012


When we work with the children here in Romania, it isn't always with the orphans, or the under-privileged ones, or the special needs kids.
When we can, we love to do something with the local kids from our village and the surrounding villages.
We were able to do just that this summer when we arranged a two week holiday club for them during their school summer break.
We wanted to provide something for our friends and neighbours of all ages, it wasn't just the children either, if adults wanted to take part they could, so we told them that the age range was 7 to 77!

Having the idea of doing it though was just the easy part. 
Setting the two weeks up proved to be much much harder to do than we had realised that it would be.
Our event would be entirely free for the kids to attend, the funding that enabled us to do this came from the proceeds from having some wonderful volunteers join us from America and Ireland, during the preceeding weeks.

We set about making all of the necessary arrangements, by firstly trying to speak to our local Mayor about hiring the Community Centre in the village, but without much luck. We had a meeting with her in her office, and explained carefully what we wanted to do. She seemed supportive and told us that she would speak to all of the people she needed to speak to and would start making the all of the necessary arrangements for us, before calling us back.
Well, of course, we didn't get a call (after all it is Romania!) and the many messages we left for her went unanswered. 
We were then informed by a friend that we actually needed to speak to our local priest as he was the person who runs the Community Centre.. So, Ali went and knocked at the priest's door, which is only a few metres up the street, only to be told a number of times that he wasn't available. After another week or so though, there was a knock at our door. When we answered, the priest was standing there, dressed in his formal black gown, as if he had just come away from the church up on the hill. He had heard that we were trying to see him, so he thought he would come to find out for himself what it was that these 'Mad English' wanted from him.
He sat down at our kitchen table, refused coffee or other refreshment (which told us that he wasn't planning on staying long) and Ali set about explaining to him in her fluent Romanian what it was that we wanted to do. At first he greeted the idea with some scepticism, and asked us for re-assurance that it was a non-profit making venture, and also for full details of what we would actually be doing, on a day by day basis. Ali explained as best she could, with the Priest interjecting an awful lot, not only to clarify things for himself, but also making it fairly obvious that he hadn't set aside much time for this meeting. After about ten minutes he called the meeting to an end by telling Ali that a formal written application would be required. That written application would have to explain in detail exactly what our plans were, what each days activities would be, and who would be running and helping out during the two week programme. He went on to explain that once he had received the written application he could then consult all of the other interested parties who needed to be involved in approving the application. He listed the  'interested parties' tapping a finger for each one, and he soon ran out of hands! The list included the Mayor, Church Wardens, the village hall Caretaker, the local Police, and also seemed to include most of the grandmothers in the village too!
As he left he shrugged his shoulders in that typically Romanian fashion. It was as if he was still asking himself what it was we wanted exactly and displayed an apparent disbelief that we were actually going to do exactly what we had just described to him. It also seemed apparent that he didn't actually want to take on the burden of the additional work it meant for him.
Anyway, after Ali and I had discussed the priests visit for about an hour, Ali set about composing the required written application. 
Now, speaking Romanian fluently, as Ali does, is one thing, but writing Romanian in a formal fashion (as was required in this instance) is an entirely different, and much more difficult task. Ali did her best though, and when she had finished we took our draft application to some Romanian friends, who very kindly read it, checked it, and then completely re-wrote it for us!
It was then delivered to the priest, who seemed a little surprised to actually be receiving it, but 
the following day there he was at our door again, this time dressed in immaculately pressed black trousers and a very bright white short-sleeved shirt, he had a large black 'man bag' in his hand within which he had our formal written application.
We invited him in and this time as he sat down at our kitchen table, he accepted our offer of refreshment, so we knew we were in for a longer visit than the previous one. He laid our application out on the table and started to explain to Ali that what she had written would simply not suffice. Without explaining exactly why 'it just wouldn't do' he told Ali that, together, now, they would write it again.
So, that is exactly what they did. This time the Priest seemed to be much more enthusiastic, it was as if receiving the formal application had convinced him that we were absolutely serious about running this programme in the village. No-one had ever done anything similar to it before, the Community Centre is usually used just for weddings, or elections.
The Priest began to dictate to Ali, telling her precisely what he wanted the application to say. Ali struggled to keep up with him, but did her best to write down every word that the Priest dictated. This process was taking an age though, as quite often the Priest would change his mind about how he wanted to say something, or the order he wanted the application to run in, and often Ali had problems understanding what it was that he actually wanted to be written down. I began to realise that it wasn't only us or our friends who found this task difficult, it was new to the priest as well!
Eventually, he realised that it might be better for him to write it all himself, which he proceeded to do, but only with a great deal of deliberation and mind changing before, after what seemed like hours, he finally handed over a piece of paper with a large amount of writing on it, interspersed with a mass of scribbles and corrections.
Ali took it from him, started to read it, asked a number of times for clarification, and then set about typing it up on the computer ready to print out, with multiple copies, of course, so that every one of the 'interested parties' could have their record copy (which I suspected would become paper for lighting fires quite rapidly)
Once Ali had finished and handed a draft of the document for the priest to check and approve, a number of copies were printed out and then a very small, but quite formal  signing ceremony took place. Ali signed on our behalf, and the priest signed on behalf of the village. Once that was complete, the priest started heading rapidly for the door gesticulating animatedly and telling Ali to go with him, which, of course, she did, rushing out of the door behind him, closing it quickly behind her as she left.
I had no idea what was happening so I just stayed home and waited, knowing that Ali would re-appear at some time and tell me all about it.
It transpired that she was taken all over the village to hunt down every one of those 'interested parties', so that everything could be explained in detail to each one of them, and each could read and check the written application and be given their copy of it. This included visiting the Mayor at her house, waiting for the Police to arrive at the Priests house for their consultation, and even trudging about in the fields looking for a number of the other people who had to be consulted, after all this was a work day!
Eventually, after hours of me not knowing where Ali was, or what she was having to do, she arrived back home and sat down, exhausted, to explain it all to me. 
We had succeeded in booking the Community Centre, but we would have to pay for it, which came as something of a surprise as we had been led to believe that such community events could be held at nil cost, and that we would have to take electricity meter readings so that we could pay for the electricity we used, which we did expect.
But, at last we had it. The building was ours, we knew where to get the key to allow ourselves in and to set up for the event. Great! We were ready!
We went down and had  a look around and the Hall was just what we needed. A nice big open space, plenty of tables and chairs, a small stage, plenty of light and easy to get to. It was perfect, except for one small thing, it doesn't have a toilet! 
In all or our deliberations we hadn't even thought to ask that question, we had just assumed that there would be one there. 
As anyone who ever spends any time at all with children will know, a toilet is a relatively essential thing to have around. It seemed that this one 'small' oversight on our part would completely scupper our plans, and after all of the hard work that Ali had gone through to make all of the arrangements, it was a real disappointment.
John and I took Ali to the village bar, (which is just over the road from the Community Centre) for a quiet drink and to consider our options, which included maybe incurring even further cost of hiring a portable toilet, if we could even find one!. 
Gica and Nutsi, who own the bar, greeted us in their usual friendly and enthusiastic fashion, but also quite quickly realised that we had fairly weighty things on our minds, and asked what our problems were. When we explained, Gica, as he very often does, quickly came up with the answer for us. He would leave the cafe toilets unlocked and any of us could come and use them if we had the need, and as they were literally a minute's walk from the Community Centre, it really was the answer we needed.
So that was it, we had the Hall, we had our dates, we had toilets, all we had to do was get the children to attend.
We composed and printed some flyers and posters and spent a day going around our village and all of the villages in our Commune (District) handing them out and pinning them up on any vacant space we could find in bus shelters, village cafes, lamp posts, etc, etc.
We went to one small isolated village, Cozia, up the hill and through the forest, down a rough dead end track, and parked the car. As I pinned posters up wherever I could find space, Ali went to the cafe where she could see a number of local woman and children sitting talking to each other and looking over in our direction, suspiciously, trying to work out what these strangers to their village were up to. Ali explained, showed the poster to the lady who owned the cafe and asked her to put it up, which she agreed to do readily, then suddenly one of the young girls sitting at the table started speaking in very good English;

"This sounds great"

She went on to ask all about the activities that we had planned and told us that she and two other friends would love to join in to help improve their English. We explained that helping to improve English was one of our objectives for the week, but that apart from the plans we had for the first day we had no formal plans. We wanted the children who attended to be part of the planning for the subsequent days.
There followed an animated discussion about what this particular group of children would want, which was primarily to use Theatre and Poetry to help improve their English. This led us down a whole new avenue for our planning of the event, but Ali promised that she would find some plays and poetry for them to work on together.
Then the mother of one of the girls asked what was an inevitable question;

"How much is this going to cost me?"

Ali explained that it was entirely free. That we were doing this only because we cared, and that we would like to give something back to the community who had welcomed us with open arms, and had done so much to help and encourage us since we had arrived.
The explanation though, was greeted by furrowed brows, and disbelieving glances between members of the listening audience.
Something being 'free' here in Romania is a difficult concept for the locals to understand. There is a deeply ingrained mindset that 'you don't get anything for nothing'. So, they always assume that there is a cost involved somewhere. This led to us having some wonderful, quite animated conversations with the parents of the children when we were finalising the arrangements. It took us quite some time to convince them that it really was free, and that there were no 'hidden' costs that they would have to bear. All the parents had to do was provide their children with a packed lunch.
For two weeks we would keep their children entertained all day long and they could have some free time to themselves. 
Wherever we are working, giving the parents that free time is as important to us as our work with the children is, we always try to plan things to provide a benefit to all involved, not just the children.
So there we were, everything was arranged, our community had been informed as well as we could inform them, and we could do no more, until the first day of the Holiday Club arrived. 

On that morning we went down to the Hall early to set up our planned activities for the day. This included a variety of craft activities, as well as some songs and rhymes in English that we could all learn together, and Ali had copies of the plays and poetry she had found online for the girls from Cozia. We unloaded all of the boxes containing everything we needed from our car, arranged the hall to be as sociable and as interactive as it could be, laid materials out, and placed bottles of water and plastic cups for refreshment on a separate table at the front...........and then we waited, it was all that there was left to do......wait for the children to arrive.

Ali, John, and I as well as an Irish volunteer who was still with us, propped ourselves as casually as we could on tables, on the stage, on the front steps of the hall, and we waited.

The allotted time for the start of the day arrived......and it went. 
There were no signs of any children arriving from anywhere, noticeable though, there were no children playing in the street either, which is where they would normally be.
We have become used to this in Romania. An agreed time for a meeting is always extremely flexible. As an example, if you are waiting for someone to arrive and phone them to ask them when they will be with you, their answer is almost always;


To the English speaker, this sounds great, but in Romanian it has the same meaning as the Spanish 'Manyana'. They could arrive any time in the next 10 minutes, two hours, the end of the day, or even tomorrow, you just don't know!
So, we waited, but we were all getting more and more nervous as the minutes ticked by without any participants appearing. 
After all of the pain of making the arrangements, after planning all of the activities, after putting all of the materials that we needed together, after researching plays and poetry as we had been asked to do, after making arrangements for the toilets, after arranging the hall, after going around all of the villages to publicise our event, surely the children would come........wouldn't they?

After about 15 minutes we saw one father, walking slowly up the road, holding his daughter's hand. They were in no hurry, we weren't even sure that they were actually coming to us, there was certainly no apparent concept of them being 'late'.
Eventually they paused briefly at the door of the Community Centre, before stepping inside.
they both looked at us, we looked at them, and then Ali went over to greet them.

"Buna Dimineata!"

The father said hello in return and then asked for re-assurance that he had actually bought his daughter to the right place, it was so empty. After saying yes he was in the correct place, with a small nervous laugh, Ali got the father to provide name address and phone number so that we had emergency contacts if (and hopefully not) they were needed. Whilst he was filling our form out for us two more children came in, each clutching lunch boxes tightly under their arms.
One group, the girls from Cozia had still not arrived though. It was already over 30 minutes past the published start time and they still hadn't appeared. We were really disappointed. They had seemed so enthusiastic and Ali had done a lot of internet research to find the English language plays and poetry that they had asked for.
However, we swallowed our disappointment and set about singing some songs with the few children we had, to get them warmed up and fully involved in the day ahead.

'Morning has come, night is away, rise with the suuuuuun, welcome the day'
'La la la la................'

We were singing a  song that the Director of The Waldorf School had taught us when we were teaching English to the children there. Wide arm movements tracking the movement of the sun, standing on tip toe to signify it's height. It is a great song for getting children going in the mornings.

Suddenly the door opened again, and there stood three slightly older girls, looking red in the face from exertion and breathing heavily. It was the girls from Cozia. At first we were worried, thinking that something had happened to them, but they quickly explained that they had been unable to get a lift to be with us, so they had decided to walk down the hill and through the forest, but they had got lost on the way, which had made them late. They were so apologetic, but we were just so happy and relaxed to see them. We sat them down to recover their composure a little, gave them each a drink of water, and then got them up to sing and join in with the rest of the day.
That first day passed quickly, but very successfully. The kids made mobiles of their names out of paper, plastic, and string using water colour and crayons. Clever huh? Because it helped us too to learn their names.
Another child had joined us at lunchtime, to help us sing more songs, and to make fish from A4 paper, colouring them brightly with water colours and crayons and then hanging them on string. John and I made an 'aquarium' backdrop for the front window of the hall while the kids also made seaweed and before the end of the day we created the 'aquarium' in that front window to hang all of the fish, weeds (and a bag of chips that I made....get it? and chips?) for all of the locals to see. 
We also had two young boys in the group for whom I had made paper aeroplanes, which was a mistake, because the rest of the day for them was a riot of chasing John and I around the hall to try and 'spear' us with those planes, whilst Ali worked with the girls from Cozia on their plays and poetry, and our Irish volunteer worked with the other younger children drawing and painting.. It was great fun though, and as we left and locked the hall up behind us that evening, we looked at the window with the aquarium in it, and at the adjacent window with the name mobiles hanging in it, and considered what we had all done together during the day to be a real success. 
We had great fun doing it and even though we had only had 7 children attend, they had also seemed to have fun.
The decorations in the windows had bought the hall to life, with a riot of colour. What Is normally a drab building without life had suddenly seemed to have woken up from it's slumbers.
We also had the mother of one boy, who we saw standing in front of the building just staring at the mobile that her son had made. When Ali went over to ask her if everything was OK she just turned and said, with a look of wonderment on her face;

"I had no idea that he knew how to write his name".

She left, walking up the road hand in hand with her son, both wearing broad smiles on their faces. She was also brushing his hair with pride, praising him loudly for what he had achieved. He was the first to arrive the following day, and he arrived early! Just a she did on every subsequent day.
To tell the truth, we had helped him to draw outlines of the letters of his name, and he had cut them out, coloured them and hung them on string. Of course, we never told his mother that, but by the end of our time with him, he knew how to write his name without any help from us, along with a lot of other things.
That first day had been a real success, despite the lack of numbers attending, and we went home relaxed, happy, but totally exhausted (after a beer at the bar of course!).

The rest of the days of those two weeks seem in hindsight to have passed so quickly. Each day we had new craft activities that the children had thought up for themselves, we had more songs, and Ali worked with the girls from Cozia on their plays and poetry, and inevitably, of course, there was face-painting.

(At this point, dear reader, if you haven't already given up, you may like to read another of my blogs on the trials and tribulations a 'mature' man from the UK has with what should be, a simple task.
This time though, I didn't make the mistake of allowing the children to paint my face!)

Each day the numbers of children grew, as word went around that we were all actually having fun.
At some point too I also decided that I would do something with these children that I had done with the children at The Waldorf School, I made up a very simple American style marching song for the younger ones to learn English numbers with.
You know, the type of song that you see in American movies, with young recruits jogging up  a trail and their drill sergeant leading them in a rousing song in time with their movements.
Only mine went very simply;

1,  2, 3, 4,  5, 6, 7!!
...8,9,10, and 11!!!

Hup, 2, 3, 4........hup 2,  3, 4'
12, 13, 14, 15
16, 17, 18, 19
and 20.....20.....20..........20!'

I lead the singing, of course, giving myself the role of drill sergeant, as in my modesty I have to say that I fit quite naturally into that role, and the children followed me around in a circle, marching in step with me and repeating each line as I sang it.
On one day, during our lunch break, we found ourselves sitting at the cafe, surrounded by all of the children.
When time came for us to return to the hall and continue our fun activities, I led those children out of the cafe, over the bridge across the stream and down the road to the Community Centre, single-file, stamping our feet as we marched, all of us singing our marching song, very, very loudly and with some vigour.
The other residents of the village all came out to see what the noise was about and watched us, incredulous, eyes popping out of their heads, having absolutely no idea what was going on. When we all got into the hall we just collapsed in a fit of giggles at the looks on the villagers faces.

By the time we had finished our two weeks with the children we had nineteen in the group, with some other odd ones who came and went.
At the end of each day we hung everything the children had made in the windows at the front of the hall, and at the end of each day it seemed as if the building itself was coming more and more to life and getting happier and happier.
We had always intended that at the end of the camp, we would hold a little show for all of the children's parents and for anyone else from the village who wanted to come and see what we had been doing. Having the girls from Cozia working on two plays though meant that this would become a much more formal occasion than we had envisaged that it would be at first.
We told all of the parents, and anyone we met in the street or the cafe that we would be holding this show on our final afternoon, hoping that we would get a fair crowd to attend. 
We weren't to be disappointed.
On that last day we had a small crowd of parents, grand parents, friends and villagers waiting outside the hall, ready to come in for the show. We had to swiftly put out more chairs, there were so many who wanted to attend.
As the crowd was waiting, the mayor drove up the road in her little red car, and on seeing the group of people in the street she decided to stop to find out what was happening. She knew full well of course, because we had made sure that she received an invitation, as did the priest and all of the others who had helped in making the never ending arrangements for the Summer Camp to happen. She mingled amongst the crowd, shaking hands with some, laughing with others and having seemingly quite serious conversations with the rest, it looked almost as if she was electioneering.
I walked over and asked her into the hall, but she declined, and swiftly went back to her car and drove on up the road to her house.
We thought it a little strange at the time that she didn't stay, nor did the priest or any of the other organisers attend. It was only later that we learned that we had upset the mayor by 'by-passing' her to make our arrangements with the priest, and that this had got us embroiled unwittingly in some local politics. We have just tried to carry on as normal since and ignore it.
The show went so well, and was received by our audience of about fifty people enthusiastically. We had an exhibition of all of the craft work that the children had done, we performed the songs that we had learned together, we did our marching song around our audience, and the girls from Cozia performed their plays as our grand finale with their faces beautifully painted in the way they had practiced during the weeks before with the face paints. One of those plays was a funny and friendly representation of shopping in our local shop/'bar/cafe with two of the girls dressing up as Gica and Nutsi, who I have mentioned previously. It was a shame that they were both too busy to be there, they would have enjoyed it, but we told them all about it later, and showed them the video too.
As we finished, to a great round of applause from our audience, there was an air of disappointment that it was all over.

As they left, clutching all of the craft items they had made, all of the children, and a number of the parents asked when we would be doing it again, and we promised that as soon as we could, we would. 
Maybe next time though it will have to be in a different hall in a different village. After the upset we had quite innocently caused with the mayor, we may not get the support and co-operation in future that we received this year.
Maybe we will even find another hall which is complete with a toilet! 
Like the one in Cozia maybe! 
After all, it would only be fair to give the stars of our show an easier time than having to walk through the forest to reach us every day again!
The following day we went down to the hall, and we thoroughly cleaned it. Walls, floors, windows and window cills. no more dust, no more grubby hand prints (which weren't from the children anyway) and no more footmarks on the floor. 
The only acknowledgement we received after our hard day of cleaning was a demand to hand the keys back immediately, so that the hall could be made ready for a referendum to be held three days later. None of the village officials offered thanks for what we had done with the children, or for how clean the hall was when we handed it back, which was much cleaner than it had been for years. This is Romania though, and that sort of attitude is only to be expected. If we had been asked to do run activities for the children, and not have volunteered our services, it would have been different.
As we left the hall though, one of the children's mothers came back to us to ask us for copies of some of the photographs we had taken during the week, she wanted to make us a special 'thank you' certificate for doing what we had done.
We didn't need thanks, but we gave her the photos later anyway, we had enjoyed the two weeks as much as the children had, and we will be doing it again, somehow, some way, without (hopefully) causing any upset next time!
Our rewards come from seeing the children who were at our camp in the street every day. Whereas in the past they would see us, many would say nothing, and pass quietly by, some might have given us a quiet, formal greeting in Romanian;

'Buna Zuia'

Now we get cheery waves, laughter and always accompanied by;

'Good morning'
'Good Afternoon'
'How are you?', and lots and lots of giggles.

It's all the thanks we need.



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