Saturday, August 20, 2016

Roma, Ro- Ma- Mania (Part 1)

During my last year of college I decided to take on a Romanian minor, partly because I thought it was interesting, partly because it's pretty similar to Spanish, and partly in an attempt to bolster my GPA, which had never recovered after a disastrous beginning Japanese semester with the worst instructor I'd ever had, even counting the musclehead trainee TA we had in middle school social studies and gave such an unreasonably hard time. Sorry, Brad. 
I think that was your name.

The few instructors running the program had made the courses comparatively very easy in an effort to get as many people interested in them as possible, and thereby get to the point where they could request more funding from the university and expand. 
It was like taking high school Spanish, where there are invariably a number of native speakers in every class who chill unassumingly at their desks, neither arrogant about it nor particularly invested in it, watching the A's naturally roll in like the gentle lapping of the tide.

It's hard to describe my state of mind and priorities at that time, which is why I've never actually tried until now. I didn't enjoy college. It wasn't fun. The summer before I actually went to Romania I'd had a ridiculous abusive trainwreck of a relationship, kicked a vindictive fake best friend and former real one to the curb, failed an absurdly difficult accelerated Japanese translation summer course, had a couple of pretty serious health issues, and we'd lost our house. I just wanted it to be over. I didn't make any meaningful or useful connections at university (aside from my friend Carl), didn't enjoy the majority of my dated, impractical, and impersonal classes, and didn't really have the time or money to dick around. 
Of course, that part's the result of my own choices; in an effort to get my money's worth I took 4 or 5 literature and linguistics courses at a time and had to buy more than 20 books at a time at the start of more than one semester. And even though I paid for the first half of it all with money I'd been working for and saving since I was 14, our wonderful red state routinely slashes the public education budget so mercilessly that during my time at ASU tuition costs nearly doubled, and like most people, I'm still going to be paying that second half off for a few years to come. So thanks Jan Brewer, you nasty crypt-keeping corpse of a woman. We really, really hate you.

This stuff I bring up because the money was a big part of why I added on and completed the Romanian minor during my last year, too. I piled on as many courses as humanly possible in an effort to add value to the experience once I realised how much of a useless farce the Japanese program was and didn't want to feel like I was just throwing good money after bad, because I was also in too deep to quit. 
To this day it's very embarrassing to have to explain how it's possible to major in a language (I mean, and literature, culture, history, and art, to be fair - it wasn't all grammar and translation) and earn a degree without being able to speak it. Only people who have experienced first-hand how shockingly ineffective Japanese language instruction is as an institution can understand this. For example, all of the Japanese people who studied English in Japan compulsorily for at least 6 years and who know none of it whatsoever, or so little (that they are too intimidated to use) that it is inconsequential. Those who grew up memorising lists of words they never used beyond the wildly impractical and needlessly stressful standardised tests upon which their society is counterintuitively constructed, and who feel that the attempt to acquire any actual command of those words was little more than traumatic and borderline impossible because of the incredibly poor quality of instruction, which was never based on real-world application to begin with. 
Only memorisation, only test scores.
Lots of red flags about the culture at large here, honestly, but I kind of disregarded them.


So of course, by my senior year (which ended up including one extra semester because of all the aforementioned drama) I was like, please, somebody let me know if there's something around here in the Lang & Lit building I can enjoy. I'm committed to finishing this thing now, obligated. This thing I was once fascinated by and loved but that has been beaten to death slowly and grotesquely before my eyes over the past two or three years while I was compelled to commute and hour and a half every day to come and watch.

I'd met the professor in charge of the Romanian program in an interesting elective course I figured out I could take (other than this one, I only took courses specifically required to graduate) instead of another generic linguistics one: Stalinism in Eastern European Literature and Film. She is very charming, convincing, and never stingy in doling out flattery and creating erroneous connections to make what she's saying or working on seem more relevant to you.
She talked me into taking Romanian courses, as she successfully did with many others, because of how easy they were, how well she was able to spin things and hone in on people who were vulnerable or looking for something new, and because, well, why the hell not.
I don't know if this is still true today, about five years later, but the main purpose of this PR campaign was not only to get as many people interested and involved as possible in order to secure more funding and expand the program, but to allow her to gain and bask in the accompanying notoriety, which included but was not limited to such stunts as inventing honorary titles for herself and cashing in personal favours students came to owe her in the form of glowing testimonials to secure academic commendations and awards for herself.
Typical ivory tower bullshit, I guess.

Don't get me wrong, though; I'm not trying to say that I was coerced into taking the classes and then the study abroad trip, or anything like that. I did want to, but just later realised how ridiculous it was that all of it was set up, that people were brought over from the continent to work in the States, et cetera, just to fuel this one woman's rampaging sense of self-importance. And of course, it only hit me once I was stranded in a former Soviet bloc state with her, and I hated myself for it.

It took a lot of long, arduous, miserable trips in the Arizona summer heat to the Financial Aid Office and the discovery of a loophole to get approved for the loan I'd need to pay for the tuition cost of the summer classes and the program fee. Though all of the documents clearly and repeatedly indicated that it would be a parent co-signed loan, I found out much later that it was in fact taken out in my mom's name. Which we didn't even know about until we suddenly got a notice in the mail telling us that it was already in default, because it wasn't grouped with my other loans and I therefore hadn't been making payments on it like I thought I was, because that was the first notice we ever received. 
Thank you yet again, FedLoans, Inc., or whatever the current and third separate entity is to which I am currently making exorbitantly high monthly payments. 

Now, I don't consider the fact that I went to lengths to scrape together a whole lot of borrowed money someone else's fault, either, but that sense of betrayal and disappointment that's been so hard to lay out and explain, that's just another of the many elements that factors into it. So as I keep offering as a disclaimer, I'm giving it a try.

A while ago I read a blog post about one woman's extremely complicated love-hate feelings about living and working in Korea, and have realised after drunkenly trying to explain aspects of that to people in Germany (mostly Hannes' long-suffering best friends; you're super nice, Lars and Nico) that they're pretty similar. Pretty similarly impossible to explain to people who haven't had a similar experience. Just like that whole Japanese language study thing.
The only person who truly gets it is Shihiayah, another student on the trip who ended up being my roommate, and somehow the only other person in the group who shared my perspective, realisations, surreal sensations, and mighty need to drink as much as possible just to deal with being there.

The trip was supposed to be all of Romania - mostly the medium-sized, medieval Transylvanian city of Cluj because that's where the university program was - and several other cities in central Europe, mainly Budapest, Prague, and Vienna. I'll explain why it wasn't toward the end of this lengthy and long-overdue confessional thing.

Before finally starting with the photo dump and story itself: the most important and first-ever travel lessons I learned while stranded in Eastern Europe with a self-obsessed, snakelike Donatella Versace wannabe and a bus full of hapless idiots were that 1) people are often lousy, as opposed to places being lousy and 2) that you should only ever travel with people you really like, and 3) never under any circumstances on anything that will or even has the potential to resemble a guided tour with a schedule that is not of your own making.

So, while I have a lot of bad things to say about this whole fist-time-out-of-the-U.S. sojourn, I've got tons of good things to say about Romania itself. I'm still interested in the language and culture and wish that I had the self-discipline and focus to continue studying it on my own. Most of the people there, just like most of the people in most places, are very nice and friendly and decent, and the country itself is beautiful. I encourage people to visit and definitely want to go back myself, once we're living in Europe.

Oh, and here's Paris from the air: