I first went to Romania - Transylvania, actually, that NW third of Romania which has often been separate from the other two parts - in February 1998. We landed at the old airport in Budapest, Hungary, and the more experienced members of my team marveled at how few soldiers with machine guns were patrolling the lobby. I thought there were quite a lot, myself. The whole place was populated by grim, defeated-looking Hungarians in battered and shapeless clothes. These, I was told, were the cheeriest people in Eastern Europe, except maybe the Poles, and I would find the Romanians much less friendly and generally more oppressed. This turned out to be true, but I was only able to perceive comparative Hungarian lightheartedness on my return. Crossing the border brought similar contradictions to the fore. Everyone was quite pleased that the border guards at Bors ripped open only a few of our boxes of medical supplies, did not threaten us or disassemble our bus on some pretense, and had to be bribed much less than usual. Hilarity and good cheer prevailed as we rode through Oradea, congratulating Soni (pronounced Shaunee) our driver on his cleverness in locating the easiest guards to get past.
I still don't know what the hell I did that was so useful in those two weeks, but the Romanians certainly seemed to think so. They believed that the world had forgotten them all those years, and visible evidence that people from somewhere else knew they existed, and were even mildly interested in them overwhelmed them. Many, perhaps most, were suspicious that there was some advantage for us that they could not grasp, and were sure there was some terrible secret which would soon be unleashed on them. That we were Americans, from half a world away, amazed them more. Nowadays they know that only Americans are likely to show up and help, though Western Europeans are at least starting to tour there.
So I played with the abandoned babies at the hospital, doing OT/PT exercises with them, talking, singing to them, bringing them out into the sun. Romanians didn't quite get why we would waste our time on these worthless children, many of whom were gypsies, but they had learned over the last few years that Americans seemed to like this for some unexplainable reason (Hence the country's willingness to believe that we were taking them away for their body parts). I went with medical teams out to the villages, sometimes doing BP's or pill explanations, sometimes doing crowd control, sometimes teaching songs. We would stay for church afterward or do Vacation Bible School activities. Or sing deadly old hymns with them in dirge tempo, translations of old American Baptist songs common in the early 1900's. I constantly attempted to speak Romanian phrases, which children found uproarious and brought elderly women to tears. Americans hear people trying to speak their language all the time. No one speaks Romanian except other Romanians.
We did VBS at a gypsy village, impoverished even by Romanian standards, and started a riot over paper plates and beads, which children and adults scrambled to claim from each other.
We also went every evening to the orphanage, which had children from about 6-13 at that time. Chris and John-Adrian were not yet at Casa Iosef - they were in foster care in a village near Oradea, where they worked hours on a farm, but at least got fed and went to school. School was in Hungarian, however, which they had to learn on their own by living in the village. There is still considerable animosity between the Romanians and the Hungarians, and no one was going to assist them. Before that they were at Case de Copii in Oradea, one of those state orphanages you'd see on 20/20 - the Mouth of Hell. None of the children at Casa Iosef were available for adoption, though many would cling to the nice Americans, clearly seeking parents, families, someone to care. The Romanian government regarded these children as in a very good placement, not in need of rescue. Compared to kids in the state orphanages, I guess that was true. These were the children we got to know best, who were used to Americans coming (mostly in summer), who spoke a little English.
Others were sad, but I was energised and happy - until the last day, when I realised that no one would exercise Madelin's legs or sing to him for several months.
After my return to the states, I knew I would go back, perhaps many times. There was just so much that needed to be done, especially with those abandoned babies who had almost no contact with adults throughout the year. Dale Kuehne,* who had been on several trips before, mentioned in another context that he was afraid Romania would become the "other woman" in his life and wanted his wife to go as well. I immediately recognised that danger in myself and encouraged Tracy to go. She went in the summer of '99 and had very different adventures. By that time, Chris and John-Adrian were at Casa Iosef, and she got to know them a bit.
Some of the babies were coming available for adoption, but the older children were still not under consideration. I went again in the winter of 2000 without the faintest thought of adopting. If I had long-term plans for Romania at all, it was to find some niche that I could fill year after year.
*Dale, a Poli Sci professor at St. Anselm and a Covenant pastor, has a new book out and a new blogsite to go with it, signpostings.