Since volunteering with the orphanage was the original motivation for my trip, I'll start with that. Unfortunately, this also happened to be one of the more frustrating things for me. The feeling a lot of the time was that the organization just didn't know (or care) what to do with a volunteer. To be fair, of course, the reality was probably a variety of things: the volunteer coordinators being busy with other projects, the fact that I was the only volunteer there at the time, Easter throwing a wrench in the schedule and activities, etc. My orientation basically consisted of being shown a few buildings, not getting introduced to anyone, and being told none of the other people who work there speak English. I didn't even know the kids' schedules or the rules or anything. At that point they sort of left me on my own to do whatever I wanted (I didn't even see the coordinators for a couple days), which isn't a terribly comfortable situation to be in when you're completely disoriented in a new country. Also, I was promised Romanian lessons several times but never got them, so I was stuck with the stuff I had managed to learn on my own. "Where's the hotel?" and "I'd like to buy some wine" don't get you very far in that context, though. Anyway, I did what I could, though I rarely felt very helpful or useful or anything. Some of that was my fault as well, of course, since I'm sure there are ways I could have been a better, more pro-active volunteer even without any guidance. But it wasn't the sort of situation I work well in, and getting frequently depressed about it didn't help at all. Anyway, on to what I did do....
I spent a lot of time with the toddlers, of which there are currently three: Christina, Adrian, and Marion. (Some of these names may have Romanian spellings that I don't know.) The plus side to these kids was that I usually knew where to find them, they had no school or homework or chores to work around, and the language barrier feels less problematic when you're communicating at a 3-year-old level. Though there were still numerous times that one of them would be really earnestly trying to tell me something and I'd feel awful because I just had no clue what it was, and I'm not sure they really get the concept of me not knowing their language. Christina was the sweetie of the group. Marion was the quiet, shy one, who'd usually wait for the other kids to start things before joining in. Adrian was the troublemaker. I know conceptually that kids will "act out" just to get attention, but I'd never seen it so clearly demonstrated as with him. You could literally see him experimenting, gauging my reactions, making mental notes about it, and then deliberately doing it again later. Fascinating and maddening at the same time.
I spent less time with the school-age kids. It was harder to know what to do with them or where or when. Some of the older ones know some English, but the majority of them in the 6-10 age range or so don't. When you meet them on the playground and can only say things like "my name's Graham, I don't speak Romanian," you get a lot of blank or suspicious looks. I did bring my mandolin along on the trip, which I had hoped would be a good way to break the ice, but even that wasn't easy. One of the main buildings where the kids live was constantly blaring Romanian radio out to the playground and surrounding area, so you can't just kind of hang out and play. When I did get a chance, though, the mandolin was a fairly big hit. Not that they cared about listening to me play, of course, they all just wanted to do it themselves. But I'm happy to let them play around with the strumming as long as I held onto the instrument and fingered chords and stuff. Vasile, one of the six-year-olds, amused me by being the only one to start off strumming in jig time. Christina liked it a lot, too, and would insist on sitting on my lap and scooting under the mandolin strap with me so she could try to hold it properly (though it's as big as she is). I wish I'd gotten a picture of that.
Pro Vita also helps take care of several adults with various disabilities who are unable to live independently but all share a building next to mine and help out with various things around the organization and the farm. I hung out with them a bit, too, especially Alina who is the most outgoing and communicative of the lot. She's picked up fragments of various languages from other volunteers in the past, but even if she doesn't know many words she tries so energetically and enthusiastically to communicate that it seems like she speaks a lot more than she does. She also knows the words (mostly phonetically, I think) to lots of random songs, from Clementine to Hava Nagilah, so we had some fun butchering some vocal/mandolin renditions of them.
A somewhat more random job I helped with a bit was transferring sheep to their summer pasture up in the hills. Well, I didn't actually do anything with the sheep themselves, but I did help haul a lot of wood and fence segments around to set up the new sheep pens, and had some fairly harrowing tractor rides in the process. Luckily, though, I wasn't on the tractor when they were towing the van up to the hill. (The van doesn't run, but it holds a mattress, and that's where some of the shepherds will sleep while they're living out there.) Mihail was driving the tractor and getting a bit too rambunctious (I blame his cowboy hat) and he ran both it and the van off the road and snapped the tow bar. However, there was a construction crew just up the road from where we were, and he just pulled over and got one of them to weld it back together again.
In the second week, Robin showed up and things changed a bit. Robin is an Englishman who speaks even less Romanian than I do and is trying to build a new school there. I say "trying" because it's barely started and it may potentially be a somewhat hopeless task. Pro Vita already has a good half-dozen buildings under construction but apparently not being worked on at all. So who knows how far the school will get, especially if they try to do most of it with volunteer labor (which last week consisted almost entirely of me and Robin). But we worked away at it nonetheless. I spent several days basically just ditch digging -- a drainage ditch and a foundation trench -- with occasional breaks to haul rocks around. It was much more sheer physical labor than I've done in a long while, but at that point in time I welcomed it. It felt really good to be completely clear on what I was supposed to be doing, and to have such quantifiable progress and effects. It was also just nice to spend time work and hanging out with Robin, speaking English unabashedly.
So overall, I kind of have trouble justifying my trip in terms of benefit to Pro Vita. I feel like if I wanted to be helpful, I could just as well have written them a check for the amount of my program fee + plane flights and had done with it. I wouldn't say it would necessarily be like that for any volunteer at any time, but that's the way it played out for me. Still, I did what I did, and it was positive even if small. And there were definitely other interesting, worthwhile aspects to the trip as well. More on that coming up.