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Romania, the home of gypsies, thieves and scrap metal dealers. This is a country which basically serves as a holding room for people waiting to come to the UK to sponge our benefits and (for the few who can be arsed) steal our jobs. Right?
Well that’s what you’d think if you believed the British Media, but I don’t, mainly because I like to see a country for myself before I form my own opinion and partly because I’m not a closed-minded, racist arsehole. I don’t think I’ve ever left a country with exactly the same view of it as I had when I arrived and Romania was no exception. Rick and I had almost two months to find out what this country and its people were really like, as we were on our way to volunteer teaching English to kids at the summer camp, Tabara Happy Faces (Tabara just means ‘camp’ in Romanian. ‘Camp’ as in summer camp, not ‘camp’ as in me after a few too many cocktails with the girls).
The Night Bus to Transilvania
Happy Faces was in the small village of Ighiu, Transilvania. Yes, that Transylvania, famous for Count Dracula and the whole vampire blood-sucking thing. I always preferred The Count from The Muppets, but after more than a few perfectly executed (and hilarious) impressions of ‘ONE AH AH AH, TWOOO AH AH AH’ were met with blank unamused expressions, I figured The Muppets must never have made it big in Romania.
So we took the overnight bus from Budapest to Cluj-Napoca in Romania, where we would have to take another local bus to the city of Alba Iulia and Dalina the camp leader would pick us up to take us to the camp (I’d never heard of these places either and I was going to live there for two months! Check out the map if you’re interested) The bus to Cluj-Napoca was with a company called OrangeWays (www.orangeways.com), it cost around £18 for a 9hr journey. So cheap! But before you bargain hunters throw down your half eaten sausage roll and rush to book your tickets, hold up! I soon found out why it was so fucking cheap! The bus was older than your grandmas knickers and about as comfortable as telling her that her house smells like stale piss. When we got on the bus we saw that somebody else’s grandma had taken my seat, so in our typically British fashion, we didn’t say a word and instead sat in the seats behind her. Not satisfied with brazenly stealing my seat, the sweet old lady promptly said ‘fuck you!’ by fully reclining her (read: MY) seat into my face, but in hindsight, maybe that was just her way of giving my seat back.
Again, rather than doing what any non-socially retarded person would have done and simply ask her to give me a bit more space, I instead sat back and bitched to Rick (very quietly of course, making sure that she didn’t hear me and want to hurt me). I now had almost no space to breathe, never mind sleep, so thought it was only fair to put my seat back a bit too, but that fantasy was soon pissed on when I looked around at an angry, overweight semi-professional wrestler from the 90s sat in the seat directly behind me and with his knee wedged firmly against my seat in anticipation. So 9 hours sitting upright on a cold jerky bus it is then I guess… Well it was only £18, what did I really expect?
I didn’t get much sleep and we arrived at the bus station in Cluj-Napoca at 8am a bit groggy and faced with a wall of information in Romanian and ticket counter staff who didn’t speak English. We needed somebody who could translate. From experience in situations like this, I find it’s usually a good idea to look for somebody under the age of 30, as they are much more likely to be attractive and also be able to speak good English. I found a student in her early 20’s who translated for me at the ticket desk (unfortunately she wasn’t very attractive, but I was too tired to search for a better looking alternative so she’d have to do) and so for the price of 20 Romanian Lei (£3.54 at time of writing) we were soon on a small minibus and on our way. I can’t forget to mention that this bus company was called FANY and had it written all over the side of the bus. Brilliant!
One Time in Transylvania ah ah ah!
Inside the FANY bus to Alba and staring out of the window, we got our first look at Romania. Within a few minutes of leaving the city, we were into the countryside and were both surprised at how beautiful it was. It reminded me a lot of the rolling green hills of the English Home Counties that you read about in poetry (so I’ve heard), but with hills on a much more epic scale and with just a few pretty little villages dotted around. I admit I had been a slight victim to the British Media’s bullshit, as we had both expected Romania to be a whole lot browner, dirtier and a bit impoverished, but so far it was beautifully green and we spent most of the two hour bus journey just staring out of the window, appreciating the Transylvanian countryside.
When the novelty of countryside porn wore off, we began talking about what we expected the camp to be like, as all we had to go on so far was the Happy Faces Facebook Page and Website (It’s in Romanian though, so good luck!). Would it be like our school trips to Wales, with all the kids sleeping in large dormitories and us as staff, patrolling the corridors at night making sure the kids pretend to be asleep, while we pretend not to be drunk? Would the other staff members be fun to hang out with? How many hours per day would we be working? And perhaps most importantly, what would teaching be like? Would there be formal classes in a proper classroom, with textbooks and a curriculum?
Rick had almost completed his TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification, but neither of us had ever taught before. Well, I did once teach my dog not to shit in the house, but I’m not sure it’s a totally relevant experience and besides it just kinda moved the problem from the house to the backyard, I still had a lot of shit to clean up. Anyway, we figured that we would at least receive some basic training and probably just shadow an experienced teacher for the first few days until we became comfortable enough to lead a class ourselves. The absolute worst case scenario for us was being dumped in front of a class on our own and being expected to teach from the top of our heads on our first day, but what were the odds of that happening?
Welcome to Happy Faces!
Dalina met us with smiles and hugs at the bus station and drove us straight to the tiny village of Ighiu, with Happy Faces hidden behind a big wooden gate. The camp gave a great first impression. It was a small enclosed area in the middle of the village and had a feel of those holiday parks I went to with the family as a kid. There was a big wooden terrace in the centre, surrounded by small wooden and concrete chalets, a basketball court and a small swimming pool, with loads of flowers and fruit trees dotted around. We arrived on the last day of the previous camp and there were still some activities going on as we walked through. We said ‘hi’ to the few staff we saw along the way, but we were way too tired and they were way too busy for proper introductions, so Dalina showed us to our bunkbeds, in a room shared with two other staff members, Papi and Zahra and we went for a nap.
We woke up and went for a chat with Dalina to find out what the plan was and get some of our questions answered. She gave us our (awesome) orange Happy Faces t-shirts and introduced us to the other international volunteers who would also be teaching English, Rafa from Poland and our room mate, Zahra from Indonesia. Zahra seemed nice, if not a bit quiet and serious, but after getting to know her, I guess she must have just been tired or stressed that day because we became really close friends and she is anything but quiet!
During our chat we found out that each camp would consist of around 100 kids and only last five days before those kids went home with suitably ‘happy faces’ and a new group arrived fresh with the kind of excitement and anticipation that only a naive child who hasn’t ever had to pay a utility bill can have. This was great news for me, as I’m not one of those who enthusiastically ‘loves all kids’ even after they just kicked you in the shin and threw a tantrum. So if the next spawn of Satan did show up, I’d only have to put up with the little shit for five days, barely long enough for him to realise that the ‘fairy’ I gave him as a pet was in fact a bogey.
There would be three different English classes, split between Rick and Zahra, Me and Rafa, and Veronica and Daley (who were busy teaching) and the kids would be given a short English test after the staff introductions so we could divide them based on ability.
The new camp arrived and we had to introduce ourselves to the campers. So there I was, stood on the big terrace with around 15 other staff members, 6 of us being international volunteers and the rest Romanian. We were up there in front of around 100 Romanian kids between 4 – 16 years old and all of them staring in our direction…. Listening… Judging.
Being the newbies, Rick and I got to go last, so could step back and follow the lead of the other staff, but shit, they were all professionals! Individually introducing themselves to the whole camp, some in Romanian, some in English and all with bags of the kind of energetic charisma you find in children’s TV presenters. Shit! This was NOT my thing. I still get those nightmares where you find yourself stood in front of the entire school in nothing but your underwear and this was almost exactly that scenario (+ a couple items of clothing).
It inevitably came to my turn and I’m pretty sure that kids, like dogs, can smell fear, so I went with a thin mask of confidence and kept it basic. I said my name, where I was from and told them a bit about myself (I like travelling and computers etc.), I didn’t shit my pants and they didn’t laugh. Phew.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
After the introductions, we handed out the English tests and walked around chatting a bit to the kids, at least the ones who were interested and took them to play a few games on the basketball court once they had finished. The international staff who would have English classes then went for a meeting in the office to mark the tests and divide the kids into classes. There were only around 45 kids taking English in this camp, the rest were here for travel and fun, so Dalina told us it was best to have three classes of 15, a beginner, intermediate and advanced class and that there would be two classes per day, 10-11:30am and 3-4:30pm. Veronica and Daley had been at the camp for 4 weeks already, had a lot of experience and were excellent teachers, so they would take the advanced class, Zahra had previously worked teaching English to Kindergarten, so she would take the beginner class, and Rafa was now too busy to teach, so Rick and I would take the Intermediate class together … on our own … tomorrow morning … ARGH!!! The worst case scenario we had spoken about on the bus was happening.
Rick and I sat in the office for hours after the meeting, preparing our lesson for the next morning. Veronica and Daley helped us a lot, they had plenty of advice for us and showed us their materials to help us plan our lessons, we really appreciated it guys, thanks! Dalina had told us not to worry about it and to just keep the classes casual and full of games, because it was a summer camp and not high school. There was no curriculum and no formal lesson plans, it was up to each teacher to decide what to do with their own class each day and it could basically be anything shy of gladiator fights to the death (we asked). We later came to really appreciate the freedom of being able to plan our entire lessons and got quite creative with it, but for that first night I’d rather have just been told exactly what to do and read from a script. I’m one of those people who takes half an hour to decide between soup or salad for a starter, so with no teaching ‘menu’ to pick from, my head hurt.
Everyone else seemed pretty relaxed about it though and had already left, but it was hard not to worry when we had no clue what we would even teach and so we sat flicking through folders or looking at TEFL websites and stressing. We eventually got a few ideas together; we saw that our class had struggled on the test with telling the time and prepositions, so we decided to focus on those two things and as a backup, wrote down a few ideas for games that Veronica and Daley had given us.
We were packing up and ready to get some sleep when our other room mate, Papi came into the office and invited us to go for a drink with most of the other staff. We were both too tired and nervous about the next morning to go drinking so told her we’d be up for it tomorrow night, but we quickly learned that Papi doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and soon found ourselves, beer in hand, sat in the kitchen of the house next to the camp where most of the staff were living. It was a really cool evening actually and I’m glad that we ended up going over for a drink (thanks Papi!), because we got to meet all of the other staff properly, after so far only having had chance to say hi. Almost everyone was there so we sat around, had a few beers and had a good laugh. They all seemed really cool and it turned out that some of them were as young as 15, making me one of the oldest ones there. Also most of them had only arrived the day before, so even though they’d seemed so natural and confident in the introductions and games earlier on, looking like they’d done this a thousand times before, we were basically in the same boat. Serious respect, guys.
We called it a night around 1am and went to bed, much less stressed but still kinda nervous and with a feeling in my stomach similar to the one you have on Christmas Eve, but where tomorrow was the kind of Christmas where Santa gives you presents, then takes them all back and kicks you in the balls.
Our First English Lesson
We woke up at 8:30, went for breakfast, which was always the same mix of cured meats, bread and cheese you find in any continental breakfast and headed over to the big terrace for 10 am to collect our class.
The first lesson is now a bit of a blur, but I remember that it went great! Having been told to keep it fun and play lots of games, we decided to split the class into three teams, we asked each team to think of a team name and draw a picture on a name card. The teams would then compete against each other for ‘points’ throughout the lesson and the team with the most points at the end of class would win (absolutely nothing). They loved it!
We soon realised that there are two things kids love more than anything;
1. Imaginary points, which mean sod all.
2. Competition, because it allows them to be mean to each other and to brag when they win.
Being in teams meant that they helped each other out, mostly paid attention and the ones who didn’t were quickly brought into line by their team mates, which made our lives easier. Although our group was ‘intermediate’, most of the class could speak good English, we could understand each other and although there were a few who struggled (we suspect they cheated on the test), their team mates would always help to translate.
We finished the lesson feeling pretty ecstatic, our biggest worries were now gone and we had plenty of ideas for future lessons. So with our first ever lesson over and the second one in 4 hours still to plan, we went straight back to bed and watched Breaking Bad.
I remember thinking, ‘This camp is gonna be fun‘
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