The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Limbă 1: Language (or tongue)
August 19, 2008, 12:16 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , ,

Limbă: Language (or tongue)

For those that are curious, here’s an attempt at a gentle, yet comprehensive, comparison of Romanian to English:

1. Pronunciation: Romanian is one of the five Romance Languages, the others being French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Romance languages have an alphabet similar to English, and even a lot of the same morphemes (word roots) because they’re both based in Latin. Pronunciation of the Romance languages is different than English, however, particularly with vowels. Romanian vowels are pronounced farther back on the tongue than vowels in English. Here’s a chart explaining:

Vowel / English / Romanian
A / “Ay” / “Ah”
E / “Ee” / “Ay”
I / “Eye” / “Ee”
O / “Oh” / “Oh”
U / “You” / “Oo”

2. Gender and Agreement: One of the most difficult things about foreign languages is that nouns have ‘gender.’ This is a novel idea to the English speaker, but it’s quite common in other languages throughout the world. Romanian is no exception, as a word can either be masculine or feminine. What’s even more confusing, however, is the notion of agreement. Adjectives have to ‘agree,’ not only with whether a word is singular or plural, but also with a word’s gender. Therefore, most Romanian adjectives have four forms: 1. Masculine singular; 2. Masculine plural; 3. Feminine singular; 4. Feminine plural. This is made even MORE complicated in Romanian, by ‘Neutered Nouns.’ A Neutered Noun-and there are many of them-is a noun that is masculine in the singular form, but becomes feminine in the plural form.

3. Formal vs. Informal: There are formal and informal phrases in English. Typically, you wouldn’t greet a potential employer with “what’s up?” Romanian also has phrases that are appropriate for different situations. What sets Romanian apart from English, however, is that you use a different verb conjugation for formal speech. More of this below.

4. Verb Conjugation: Romanian verb conjugation is persistent with all Romance languages I’ve studied. That is, there are five different present tense conjugations, whereas in English there are only two. Here is the Romanian verb “a fi” (to be) in the present tense:

Eu sunt (I am) Noi suntem (We are)
Tu eṣti (You are) Voi sunteṭi (You are)
El/Ea este (He/She is) Ei/Ele sunt (They are)

Voi represents “you” either as second person plural, or second person singular formal. Ei/Ele are “he” and “she” in the plural.

5. Definite Articles: One of the most difficult things about Romanian is that it doesn’t use definite articles (the) in the way that English speakers are used to. In Romanian, the definite article is represented by a noun’s ending, and not by an auxiliary preceding. On a positive note, definite article endings are the same for different forms, depending on gender and singular/plural. This is confusing to explain, but this may help:

Ochi Ochiul Ochi Ochii
Oală Oala Oale Oalele
Os Osul Oase Oasele

· Ochi (eye) is a male noun, always. Its base form is the indefinite “ochi.” Male definite nouns always end in “ul” as in “ochiul.” Male plural indefinites end in “i” as in “ochi.” Finally, male indefinite plurals add an “i” to become definite “ochii.”
· Oală (pot) is feminine. Feminine definites end in “a,” which means you either add an “a” or change the ending letter to an “a.” Feminine plurals end in “e” (but not always) and feminine definite plurals add an “le” to become definite.
· Os (bone) is one of those neutered words I was talking about. It starts masculine in the singular, but becomes feminine in the plural. See?

6. Phonetics: Finally, one of the most salient lessons I’ve learned regarding Romanian is that it’s a phonetic language. It is most concerned with being communicated beautifully, and there are even grammatical rules to ensure this. I won’t type these out, as they can be ridiculously confusing. I will share one of the best pieces of advice I received when trying to learn Romanian, however: “Make it rhyme,” and it’s totally true. The best way to use agreement between nouns and adjectives is to use the form of the adjective that “rhymes.” This works with demonstratives, as well! Here are two examples:

Casa mamei mele “Cah-sah mah-may may-lay” = (My mom’s house)
Candy este o pisică bună “Candy eh-stay oh pee-see-cuh boo-nuh” = (Candy is a good cat)

Do you see that? Do you see how they rhyme and flow together? I love it. As someone that studied language as an undergraduate (and will probably pursue a Masters in the same discipline) this is AMAZING. Every time I say a long, beautiful sounding sentence correctly (not often) I get all giddy.
Once I made the conscious realization that Romanian is NOT English, and I should stop trying to learn it by comparing (does that make sense?), I began to love the language. It really is a lot of fun to speak and study, even if some of its nuances can be devastatingly frustrating, at times.


Summer Camp
August 15, 2008, 7:47 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , ,

My alarm sounds at 6:30, and I quickly slap it to snooze so my bunkmates can keep sleeping. I open my eyes to stare at the bottom of the pine bunk in front of me. It’s covered with the awkward, upside-down writings from campers that have slept on this same mattress. It has names, and dates, and phrases, and a few good jokes.

I force myself to sit up-I’ve learned this is the best way to not fall back asleep. The light of the after-dawn Minnesotan woods peeks through the weightless screen door, the only thing that keeps the forest out of our cabin.

All my camp clothes are stuffed into a black, vinyl bag under my bed. My toiletries are scattered along a wooden slate nearby. I quietly put on my sandals, and grab my biodegradable shampoo and my towel. I open and close the spring-loaded screen door, and step onto a narrow dirt drive along the lake bank. I am eleven, then twelve, then thirteen, and finally fourteen years old, and I am at a summer camp for learning French.
I walk a half-mile to a fabricated sand beach, and look over the placid mirror in slowly building sun. I take a ‘bath,’ in the cold water that takes my breath at first, and tastes like iron always. Many of my camp friends, mostly girls, are already there. They shampoo Herbal Essences into their hair, and giggle as we awkwardly make hand motions that mean “hi-I hope you slept well.”

For years after, I’d still use Herbal Essences because it would remind me of these moments. So do campfires at night with chorus songs softly sung, and chocolate croissants, and hugs so deep you forget you’re touching another person.

It was my life, a few weeks a summer, once a year, and despite the strength of memories evoked by something as simple as shampoo, I acquiesce that these times bear a particular significance that is subjective. Each skit, and inside joke, and back-rub is so heavy in my heart, but I cannot fathom another person feeling these sentiments the same as I do.

Summer camp is a unique experience, framed by the transient brevity of childhood holidays. I loved summer camp. But, how much does my camp matter to you? I’m certain you’ve been to your own, and created your own intensely intimate associations and experiences therein. Does this make them insignificant? Of course not. But can I possibly hope to feel what you felt, simply by reading sweet recollections?

No. It is your own, and I cannot have it. But treasure it always, and save it for yourself.

So, if you would like to imagine Pre-Service Training, this is the best I will give you: it is like summer camp for adults.

Imagine being shuttled to a faraway and foreign place, with forty strangers. Most of you have similar interests and aspirations, and it’s easy to find kindred souls. There are administrators there, professional and organized with strange abbreviations and knowledge of the future you can’t possibly fathom. They put you on the right buses, and into the right rooms, despite your awkward stumbling as you carry bags of clothes half as heavy as you are.

You stay in a new place, with some luxuries you’re accustomed to-and sometimes surprised by. You also become aware of basic privileges at home, which until now you had taken for granted. You can (and must) eat new foods, or similar foods prepared in unfamiliar ways. Each day is fully scheduled and organized with different activities. Every night you will be exhausted, but you’re so anxious to build friendships that you fight fatigue to talk excitedly with your new peers and explore your fresh surroundings.

You will learn countless new things, and you will build friendships in bars or during long walks as you relate the nuances of all this novelty to one another. A few months before, you had no idea any of these people were alive. Now there is a surfeit of physical contact, and revealed secrets and fears and aspirations.

And, suddenly, the end of this time is near. You give long goodbyes on train platforms and street corners as you disappear one by one to your new homes. You live reasonably close to one another, but the distance here is made greater by knowing that some of your freshest and closest friends are a few wrenching rolls of the horizon away.

In just a few short months you are changed. You took a risk and stepped out into some unknown and were tossed about so hard that entire days would pass without observant, introspective thought. You would stop, look around, and think “holy shit-I’m in Romania” before the sudden suck of busy pulled you away again. None of this would have happened had you not volunteered yourself for it, and allowed all of these wonderful and scary things to occur.

I don’t feel that any of this is really possible to thoroughly relate; perhaps if I carefully recorded and re-transcribed every single moment and emotion with detail. I’d weave the hours into days and weeks and months that made this short bit of my life. But that assumes that you’re interested enough to live my life, and that yours can temporarily be suspended for the experience.

From here, I am willing to write to you regarding Romania in generalized nuances that I experience, but only if they may possibly enrich your own life. What I learn, if it seems universally pertinent, may be something for you to learn as well. And now, from this moment, I can also tell you of my own, unique adventures here. But, before, I was at summer camp-it was amazing, but the feelings and experiences were mine to keep, and too difficult to passively relate. .

My summer camp is over now. It was fun 99% of the time, and I made friends and had memories I hope to carry with me always. I learned some Romanian, and I learned about myself. I learned a little about Romania, and I learned even more about myself. That is my summary.