Lucy Kennedy, 18/5/99

The Autobiography Bit...

I've just had to write my entry for the school yearbook and could I find anything to say about myself? Not a thing! Don't, therefore, expect anything different here. A bit of a let-down after Helen Sharman, George Carey, Kofi Annan and other truly interesting people, I am Lucy Kennedy. No, you've never heard of me. I'm 18, I'm completing A-levels at a girls' school in Saaf Lundon, I'm hoping to make it to Oxford next year to do Theology, and my big things in life are music of all sorts, art and craft, books and friends. The things I hate most are feeling cold, deadlines and being made to work hard. I'm teaching myself to play the zither and to speak Romanian. That's a very poor summary of the essence of me but it'll have to do. Wait for the autobiography proper!

I've realised I haven't quite explained in the article why I ended up in Romania in the first place. I went with my school. One of the teachers has links with the founder of the project with which we worked, so a group of us go out each summer. Last July it was my turn!

Two Weeks in Baia Mare

Last summer I spent two weeks in Baia Mare, an industrial city in Northern Romania, under the auspices of the Baia Mare Project, which has links with the local orphanages and runs educational projects in the city. I was part of a group of ten girls from Oxford and London; all fairly middle-class, sheltered people. Romania was to open our eyes a little.

We arrived at the airport in Bucharest in the late afternoon. It was late July and extremely hot. To those of you familiar with the geography of Romania it will be clear that, since Bucharest is in the south of the country, some logistical expertise will be needed to get us up to Baia Mare in the north. Having narrowly escaped leaving behind half the party at the airport through being miscounted by the guide from 'Fantastic' Tours (the word now has an entirely ironic ring to Romania veterans), a minibus whisked us to the station.

Our journey north was accomplished on one of the most ancient, cramped trains in the whole of Europe. Despite the horrors of the station loos, where you must pay for toilet paper, and the further depths of grime and discomfort reached by those on the train (which I took care to avoid), the lack of floorspace in the compartment caused by six teenagers' two-week luggage (hefty suitcases and huge hand baggage), there being no luggage rack, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, which can match waking up to a mid-Romanian dawn on a train, on the brink of a new experience. I wish I could show you the beautiful photograph I have on my wall. We were travelling through the countryside, through hilly farmland; it was about five o'clock in the morning, and just light. Mist hid the further hills from us. We opened the carriage window and absorbed the view. In the fields were 'coconuts' - the hemispherical brown haystacks which could be seen everywhere. By the track ran wires, a whole stave of them, scoring across the blurred slopes. Every so often we would clatter past a small station, where a uniformed attendant would run out with a flag to signal the train's passing. We kept a look out for the names of these stations, and tried to plot our whereabouts on the map of Romania we had been given. Most of the places were too small to be pinpointed, but eventually we worked out our location. The experience was magical.

Less magical was the experience of breakfasting on last night's left-over chocolate and sandwiches - we had omitted to bring breakfast. When we finally arrived in Baia Mare, at about seven, a beaming Anne-Marie, our organiser, was there to welcome us. Swiftly allocated to families, we were taken off to what were to be our homes for the fortnight.

Local families hosted us; their children were among those attending the English Summer School at which we taught on our second week there. Sharing bedrooms, even beds, we got used to life in small flats, eating unfamiliar food and coping with the language barrier. One person at least in each family spoke English, but that was often one of the children, making normal conversation difficult. In my case, my hostess Monica spoke French, her daughters Oana and Ruxandra spoke a little English, and her husband Dan only Romanian. Having taught myself a little of the language before I arrived, I could say a very few words, so that our conversations were carried out in French, English and Romanian, all at once. Some of our party found the children of their families difficult to deal with; expecting constant companionship and conversation, when all we really wanted to do was lie down and sleep. It proved difficult to reconcile the need to demonstrate gratitude for hospitality with the very real need for a little time to oneself, to adjust to being somewhere so unfamiliar. Accustomed to a moist English summer, the heat was also getting to us.

For the first week of our stay we were based at a special needs orphanage in the Meda district of the town. Meda Orphanage has about 84 children from 3 to 8 years old. Lots of them don't actually have what we would call 'special needs' but are there because of a squint, a limp, or something similar. Our mornings were spent with the children, doing activities or taking the different groups out. On our first day we spent time with particular children in the playroom, offering the individual attention they rarely get otherwise. They formed bonds very quickly - needless to say, so did we. There was building work going on down the hallway; one of my enduring memories is seeing Braita, with a toy dustpan and brush, do as she had been taught and clean up after her painting session, sweeping the corridor, not realising that as she got round the corner the plaster dust was simply being renewed.

After that first morning we spent our time taking different classes out, to places as varied as the local cafe, a small playground, the zoo, and 'Maramures', the local equivalent of Harrods. Taking the children out was a real undertaking. There were 10 English helpers, and about 10 in each class. The trouble was, the children wore grubby vests and shorts in the orphanage, which meant they had to change into best clothes for an outing. The room in which we changed them was effectively the orphanage playroom, containing toys, art materials, facepaints, and so on. Therefore any child you attempted to hold in order to help dress them would instantly try to wriggle away to seize some interesting object - and it could take ages to recapture them. In fact, some of my funniest memories involve tiny children lolloping round the room half-clothed, waving toy fire-engines or facepaints, chased by frustrated foreigners waving jumpers and skirts. I have a brilliantly blurred picture of one such child being dressed by two hardworking English girls, Marina and Miranda, one to hold the head end while the other put on the clean shorts... the child's legs waving wildly all along.

Of the trips out, the expeditions to Maramures and the zoo are probably the most memorable. Thirteen children and twelve leaders set off in a fleet of taxis (big excitement) to the centre of town. The children stared wide-eyed at the merchandise on offer - to our eyes, rather shabby and dull. The biggest attraction was the escalator system. The trouble with Maramures is that there are five floors and five escalators, all in the up direction - you have to take the stairs or the lift down. I had charge of a solemn little boy whose mouth stayed firmly turned down all afternoon. When we arrived on the moving staircase, however, he beamed, and when we got to the top of the first one, dragged me round to the next, and the next, and the next. That was the highlight of his week.

The zoo wasn't quite such good fun. It was small, smelly and dirty; we visited it three times in two weeks. Two groups of orphans went round it in high glee - we trailed after them in the hot sun. In the park afterwards we threw balls and hugged children - once one had been picked up, all the rest clamoured for the same treat.

Afternoons, during that first week, were spent on two projects at the orphanage: a) building a sandpit, and b) painting a playground with interesting and stimulating designs. Wielding picks and spades, we heigh-ho'd our way to a corner of the bumpy field which constituted the orphanage grounds, and, mocked by the yellow bulldozers of an adjacent building project, began to dig. Fortunately that afternoon was relatively cool. An irregular ellipse, a spade's depth, appeared in the earth. Then the real work began. On the second, much hotter, afternoon, we carted sand from one side of a field to another for the cement, passed bricks from hand to hand for the walls, and collapsed every so often on a convenient bench to drink large quantities of fizzy fruit juice. I myself was on the 'sand gang' and got the unenviable job of pulling the cart, which attacked one's legs at every opportunity. The bruises have only just faded. The 'brick gang' apparently got so bored that they actually named the bricks (you've guessed it - a prerequisite of selection for the trip is insanity) so that you'd get a large brick handed to you with the cheery words 'This is Elvis.' 'This is God.'  'This is the Virgin Mary.' I think we all had sunstroke...

Later work on the sandpit involved helping with cement-spreading, tile-cutting, and finally sticking decorative bits of tile on the top layer of cement.  Of course, these jobs needed fewer people, so I was transferred to help with the playground-painting.

Have you ever had a really good look at a primary school playground? Most of them now seem to have innumerable designs painted on them - clowns, spirals, hopscotch, puzzle trails - all in different colours and impeccably even lines. Let me tell you, it's harder than it looks... Our raw materials were: four pots of white, two pots of red and one pot of blue paint, of which the last two colours were very old, the tops hardened and the colour separated out from the oil; four smallish decorators' paintbrushes; a metal bar to use as a ruler; one very dusty, very uneven playground about 1/3 the size of a netball court; four very overheated, but very enthusiastic, teenage girls.

We had talked earlier about exactly what we would paint, and had decided on the following:
 - a house, with numbers on door, windows, roof and chimney.
 - a snake with numbers from 1 to 20 on its back.
 - a decorative spiral pattern for the kids to be imaginative with.
 - a hopscotch pattern.
We also had to paint 10 dinner-queue places to help keep the rabble in order while they're waiting for their meals.

We chalked out our designs first, then painted them. However, before actually slopping on the paint we had to try and remove some of the ever-present dust from the ground. Easier said than done, especially when the grumpy Romanian orphanage cleaner won't let you take the broom outside in case you damage it, and you have to use the tiny toy dustpan-and-brushes loaned to you from the playroom... Of course, being the idiot I am, I managed to spill paint everywhere, mostly on myself. It was red, and I was covered half-way to the elbows. I cannot now shake off the nickname 'Lady Macbeth'. Since the paint was oil-based, water only made it worse, and a kindly builder had to help me out, with a combination of raw alcohol (on sunburnt skin), soap, grease, and much hard rubbing. Yes, before you ask, it was very painful. Very.

By the end of the week we were heart-broken to say goodbye to the children - many tears were shed on our last day, as balloons and hugs were handed out to all 83 children. We looked forward, however, to a second week of teaching.

During the second week of our stay we taught English on a summer camp for 9-13 year olds. Most of the children spoke quite good English anyway, and since we had a Romanian student of English helping each class we had no problems. Lessons included Animals, Food and Descriptions, and we spent afternoons doing various activities. We had some funny moments - for example, the singing competition, which my class won with a fabulous rendition of the Scouting classic 'Ging-Gang-Gooly', or Claire running a party games session one afternoon, and getting landed with all the kids who wanted to play football but couldn't because it was too hot...the waterfight I managed to stay out of... and some really nice memories - the flowers and small gifts I got on my last day - Lumi, my Romanian assistant, showing me her wedding photos... During this we visited the zoo for the third time. One funny memory is the fact that We Got On TV! Baia Mare has its own TV channel, and they are really pressed for news - so our arrival to teach English was a godsend! They filmed Kaori and her class, filmed our organiser Anne-Marie, filmed us playing games and singing, filmed the singing competition with which we finished the week. I don't know how much of it actually got onto the box, but it was nice being the centre of attention for a bit!

Although our classes were friendly and well-behaved (in general), we didn't get quite the same buzz out of the second week as the first - there was less sense of actually helping others in a practical way. Our English groups were all obviously reasonably well-off, though in Romania that doesn't mean quite what it does here. Still, It was all enjoyable, and addresses were exchanged with pupils and helpers.

We didn't spend all our time working (thank goodness!). At the weekend and in the evenings we did things with the group or with our families. It was at the weekend that I got sunburnt. My family took me to Ocna Sugatag, a bathing-place with a salt water pool outside the town, in the hills. It was very hot. Very, very hot. And, in another demonstration of my quite terrifying stupidity, I had no sunblock with me. I also had bleeding sores on my feet, so I couldn't spend long in the salt water. That meant I was sitting in the midday sun, unprotected, for three hours. The only good point about this experience was the fact that I was wearing a very modest one-piece bathing suit, so not too much of me got frizzled. However, what was exposed - shoulders, upper back, top of legs, arms, front - was horrifically burnt. I left a lot of skin in Romania - probably enough for scientists to clone an army of replicas to take my exams for me. At first I went red. Then I went scarlet. Then the peeling started. I had no skin on my back. I tried, a few days later, to buy a cream or spray for sunburn. What I got sold - I had to conduct the transaction in French - was a spray for burns. As in - burns. It was yellow, smelt foul, and had no noticeable effect except to a) stain my clothes, and b) dry in little crispy nodules onto the peeling skin. I looked like nothing on earth. The outline of the swimsuit can still be faintly traced on my back.

Also during the weekend I visited the Happy Cemetery, which has cheerful wooden painted grave crosses, a river called Tirgu Lapus, and various bits of woodland. I experienced a Romanian picnic (everything is fried - like a barbecue, but with oil) and picked raspberries.

Some of the weirder aspects of a Romanian social life were sampled as a group. We attended the Big-Time Disco where we danced wildly to a very wide variety of music, and drank rather a lot of rather cheap alcohol. Not me personally, you understand... We celebrated Marina's 19th birthday at Restaurant Salamandra with a real Romanian birthday cake, and lots of vodka (of course). Our last evening was also spent there, and I read a 27-verse epic poem which I had composed at 3am a few nights before. It had a verse for each person and aspect of the trip, and I managed not to tremble noticeably while reading it. We spent most of our lunch hours in the local posers' paradise, 'Oaza Italiana' - 'Italian Oasis', chosen because, well, we understand pizza and beer! We also went to the Hotel Mara disco, called the 'Blue Gin' - pronounced 'jean' and accompanied by a picture of a denim-clad rear. This was less good than the Big-Time because the music was mainly Romanian, as opposed to 80's classics mingled with current hits. However, a good time was had by all, especially by Kit, one of our party, who seemed to collect odd Romanian men - we met one whose name sounded like 'Rubbish Tissue.' We were all half-asleep by that time, so I could be wrong.

One afternoon we spent at the local children's detention centre, for which we had raised money. This was far smaller and nastier than the orphanage, with one floor of bedrooms and just one 'big'  (read quite small) room downstairs. The children (from 9 to 17) were crop-headed and grubby. They spent most of their time indoors, because if they were allowed outside they simply ran away. They were young offenders, street children, or orphans without papers, waiting to be transferred to orphanages. We spent time with the kids colouring and drawing. We were quite upset by the conditions there, but pleased to see the project to which our money had gone - an outside terrace has been built adjoining the building, with high wooden gates, so that the children can play outside without trouble.

And so we came home. Sunburnt, exhausted, piled high with gifts and souvenirs - in my case including 2 watermelons - we caught the train to Bucharest. This was another overnight trip. Needless to say, we hardly slept. Instead, we gave Lizzi a haircut, ate watermelon (cut with a craft knife) and invented a cocktail (named by me, after the train carriage) "Claustrophobia" - orange vodka, pineapple juice and 7up. For the full flavour, mix in an empty wine bottle... Next morning, we got the plane. And a few hours later, we were home! The first e-mail I received after the trip was, unsurprisingly, entitled 'Tapwater!!!'

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All images, text, content, are copyright Lucy Kennedy, unless otherwise stated. You are welcome to contact me if there is something you wish to use elsewhere. Whether or not you actually get permission depends on circumstances. I can be emailed on lucy at photonhunter dot co dot uk.