Chapter 2: Ready, set, go!

It’s pronounced like Yash, actually, chapter 2: Ready, Set, Go!

Oversleeping isn’t exactly a term you can truthfully use when you have nothing to do to be late for. It can still be applied, however, to someone who not only needs to wake up in a timely manner in order to adjust to a new time zone…but specifically to someone who knows better than to wait until almost 10:00 to roll out of bed on her first morning in a new country.

And yet. Aaaaaand yet…

It had been a joke to even bother setting my alarm clock, but after finally rousing myself and coming to terms with my fate of jet-lag, I padded down the faux-marble stairs of the small hotel and knew by the aroma that greeted me that I still had a chance at breakfast. The receptionist, a petite woman with perfectly autumn-red hair, smiled at me as I yawned.

Buna dimineata,” I ventured. Good morning. That sounds pretty nice, I congratulated myself.

The receptionist must have thought so too. “Buna dimineata,” she replied, followed by a stream of Romanian. I could only react with a laugh and a wave of my hands.

“Ahhh, nu vorbesc, sorry!”

“Oh!“ She laughed with me. “That’s okay. Would you like breakfast?”

“Yes, please…” I hadn’t imagined that this little bed-and-breakfast hotel could surprise me, but breakfast, a meal I usually skipped, was so exciting that I even temporarily forgot my jetlag. A kindly-looking woman, short and stout, interpreted our back-and-forth of handwaving and pointing to understand what I wanted, and not long after I was stuffing a massive plate of poached eggs, sliced veggies, and four types of cheese into my mouth. The coffee was piping hot and thick and warmed my insides. I cleaned my plate and nursed the coffee, about to turn my mind towards the few hours left before Virgil returned to pick me up, when the cook reappeared. We smiled at each other, and she took my empty plate. I started to explain that I would be done with the coffee soon, but she waved my words away and asked instead, “Cake?”


“Yes, cake. You want?”

“Cake…for…breakfast? Really?”

The incredulity on my face must have been the most amusing thing she’d seen so far that morning. “Yes, we make here,” she explained, gesturing towards the kitchen. “Cherry? Or cheese?”

“Cherry or cheese…cake. Um.” For about half a second, I contemplated trying to explain that I was full, but one look into her welcoming face and I knew that was not going to fly. “Uh, cherry, please.”

Bine.” She disappeared back into the kitchen and returned a moment later with a plastic bag loaded with two yogurt cups, a plastic fork and knife, and two small containers of thick, soft, delicious European-style cherry cake. She smiled at me again and thrust the bag into my hands. “You take two.”

“That’s really sweet, thank you, but are you sure? I don’t need—“

“You take two,” she repeated firmly, and that was that.

Well, I mused happily to myself as I put the cake and yogurt in my room’s fridge, grabbed my jacket, and headed out again towards the park, I know I won’t be hungry in this country!

Fully awake and spirit lifted, I wandered again through the park that had been so magical last night. In daylight, the festival was still charming with its little huts and delicious scents. What I hadn’t realized the previous night, however, was just how far back the park really stretched—walking beyond the edges of the festival, I took my time choosing from different snaking pathways that led to bridges over a duck-filled, lazy river and the overlook of an impressive lake. Romanians around me walked and chatted and laughed, some of them enjoying snacks from the stands that seemed to pop up every few feet. The sun shone in a nearly cloudless sky, and the cold from last night was hardly a chill now. As I meandered towards one exit of the park, I felt the same calm sense of belonging that had come over me in the dance circle the evening before.

Slipping out of the park, I surveyed the highway stretching around the edge of the city and eyeballed the massive, pale, sharp-edged building across the traffic circle. I recognized this roundabout from the perilous loop that Virgil had navigated yesterday, but at that moment there wa a lull in the traffic and I jogged across without incident. An artistic, swooping-wing monument was perched atop a small hill with children playing in its shadow. The plaque at its foot declared that it was a monument to all those who had resisted in the era of communism. I squinted at the rectangular, sprawling structure across from this little monument, flabbergasted by how utterly, astoundingly “communist” it looked: if I had thought that some of the scenery in any Cold War movies was an exaggeration on the obsession with ugly uniformity that the period had cultivated, the building in front of me was a clear piece of evidence that it was not. Slim windows graced the front, but did little to improve the building with its utter lack of…anything. Not even the most cheerful person in the world could look at this massive, perfectly rectangular, pointy-looking building and feel any kind of welcoming vibe, I concluded. No signs or explanations made themselves known to me, but a couple smoking on a nearby bench looked up with encouraging half-smiles when I approached them. “Scuzati, vorbiti engleza?”

The young man flicked his cigarette ash. “Da, sure.”

“Oh great, thanks. Uh, I was wondering—could you please tell me what this is?”

He raised his eyebrows as if surprised, glancing between me and the building. “Oh, it’s, eh, I’m not sure how to say—“ his girlfriend interrupted him in Romanian, and he nodded again,  “Right, yeah, it was the center for the government-controlled media in the communist time.”

“Now it is the House of the Free Press,” added the young woman. I barked a laugh and they joined me, surprised.

“That,” I declared with a grin, “is some pretty sweet irony.”


They agreed and puffed simultaneously on their cigarettes as I checked the time. I could still meander as I pleased, but it was about time to head back to the hotel. The next leg of my arrival adventure—a plane to my placement city, Iasi—would soon be waiting.

My path back through the park was made even more delightful by a short trip through the outdoor Village Museum and head scratches for every soft, chubby cat I came across in the shadows of the old-style houses kept there. So many cats, cats everywhere greeting me in front of each authentic village cottage.

Oh yeah, I thought happily as I returned to the hotel and got ready to meet Virgil downstairs, I’m gonna love this place.

The Bucharest airport let me through its clutches quickly, and in no time at all I was standing, bored and still fending off the creeping drag of jet-lag, as our line of humans shuffled forward to board the tiny plane that would hop us over the middle of Romania to the northern city of Iasi.

I fidgeted with the pages of my passport idly, zoned out and trying to calculate whether a one-hour nap on the plane was worth it or whether it would leave me even groggier than I currently was. As I ran my finger over the edge of the passport pages again, my unfocused gaze landed on the passport of a man in front of me. The shield-and-eagle emblem was one I wouldn’t mistake, matching mine as it did, although the cover of his booklet was black rather than the recognizable deep USA-blue I was familiar with. I blinked, willing myself to focus as our line took another step forward, and finally I noticed that a second passport rested under the black-covered booklet I had first noticed. My brain honed in on the man’s conversation with the Romanian woman next to him: “Well, the Ambassador has to be out pretty early tomorrow, so I’m thinking we should be out of the hotel by 8:30, don’t you? Or maybe even earlier…”

A diplomat. As my brain clicked into gear, I found myself opening my mouth and addressing the man and his companion. Looking back on the encounter, I could have thought of something more clever, but there’s only so much you can do while not entirely sure what time zone you’re functioning in: “Excuse me, have you been to Iasi before? Uh, sorry to interrupt, I’m just happy to, uh, find…another American, I guess.” Smooth, Mariah. Clearly you won a Fulbright for your amazing conversational skills.

I mentally groaned, but the man was looking at me through his squared glasses and shrugged congenially. “No, I haven’t, although I’ve been in the country for a while. We’re only going for a day, so not much time for sight-seeing, I’m afraid.” He cocked his head to one side and peered at my heavy backpack. “…Are you a student? Study abroad?”

“Oh, no, I’ll be teaching there, actually. I’m on a Fulbright.” I said it as if it were an admission, hoping desperately that I didn’t sound too out-of-my-depth or cocky, by the man’s face brightened, and the woman beside him smiled at me.

“Oh, congratulations! We’re with the Embassy.” I nodded, trying not to look like that detail was what had compelled me to interrupt his conversation in the first place, and shook their outstretched hands. The man, Jeff*, explained that he worked with the Fulbright commission and embassy for cultural projects, and that the American Ambassador would be present at the opening ceremony of the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iasi tomorrow, speaking alongside other ambassadors and officials of the city.

“That’s where I’m teaching!” I exclaimed. By now we were trotting across the tarmac, ignoring the wind playing with our hair as we approached one of the smallest planes I had ever seen—propellors on each side of the cockpit and all—and Jeff groaned. “I hate the pond-hoppers,” he sighed, “but it’s a short flight…the Ambassador is behind us. He prefers to get on close to last, less of a hassle…do you have a ride when you get to Iasi? Oh, good, then, I’m sure we’ll see you tomorrow. Welcome to Romania.”

I nodded and peered as discreetly as I could about us, marking the tall, thin man with closely-shaven white hair who was the American Ambassador to Romania as he did, indeed, board the cramped plane almost last. Jeff and Iulia, the woman who would be the Ambassador’s interpreter, were seated ahead of me, and the Ambassador himself towards the back (apparently class divides disappear if the plane is small enough), and before I had much time to compute that I was in an airplane with several dignitaries, we were scuttling along the airstrip and jolting into the air.

Even if I had wanted to stay awake, my body didn’t let me, and the flight passed in the blink of a sleepy eye. I found myself stretching as best as I could, smushing my face against the window to try and discern the shape of the city, but the evening had already begun to descend, and my first glimpse of Iasi was through the pink-hued dusk light; I had time to spot a few open traffic circles to my left and a sprawl of buildings before we hit the tarmac and repeated our sardine-shuffle out of the plane.

Jeff and Iulia waited with me as my two overstuffed bags finally trundled into view at luggage claim, and we waved goodbye, swapping “thank yous” and “see you tomorrow, maybe!” as they quickly branched off to catch their car with the Ambassador. Tugging my large purple bag behind me, I conjured the image of the woman I had skyped with a few months ago in my mind, hoping that my memory would be reliable enough to spot my landlord once I was through the arrivals gate.

The sliding doors opened with a woosh, and I felt an immediate surge of relief—Anca and Stefan, my landlords, noticed me in the same second that I noticed them. A huge grin broke across my face, and I accepted Stefan’s help with my bags gratefully. Anca, pleased and smiling, led me ahead to their car and patted my shoulder. “I made a bet with Stefan that I would recognize you,”  she said as I slid in, “I’m glad that I was right!”

I sat back in the seat, grateful to feel some sense of security with my two landlords. We had been in contact over the summer, and even though we had only skyped once, I had still immediately recognized Anca’s coiffed hair and sharp, intelligent eyes. Stefan returned and we soon pulled away, leaving the teeny Iasi airport behind us to zip through the trees and into town.

“So, Mariah, did you have a good trip here? Did you just land?” Stefan, who I knew was also one of my new colleagues in the English department at Cuza, spoke with a gravelly drawl. His eyes glanced at me in the rearview mirror, looking to me as if he were smiling about something secret. I shook my head, explaining that I had been in Bucharest last night and enjoyed a festival for my troubles, and both of my companions seemed happy to hear that I was already having adventures. “Oh, you’ll find plenty of festivals here,” Stefan nodded sagely, “there’s always something going on!”

“Look to your right, you see that large building?” Anca was pointing, and I followed as she picked out various sites as we came closer into town. “That’s the Grand Synagoge, the last one in town after the second World War…that’s a monastery to your left, the only one within the city limits. You can visit if you like! The Palace of Culture is down that way a little further. Ah, we’re arriving in Copou now, this is your new neighborhood!”

Copou, a highly residential area that was also home to the majority cluster of Cuza’s university buildings, took up most of the gentle hill  that stretched ahead of us. Swarms of young people filled the sidewalks, and it seemed to me as if the entire population of Iasi had come out tonight to socialize. “What’s going on out there?”

“The students have all come back, since the semester starts tomorrow,” Stefan explained as he tried to edge the car around a stopped street tram, “and classes will be starting back up, oh boy.”

“Do classes…start tomorrow? I thought it was just the opening ceremony.” Uh…

Stefan glanced at me again in the rearview mirror, definitely smiling slightly this time. “Oh, everything starts tomorrow! Do you have your class schedule? You’ll probably be teaching this week, too.”

“Uh, yeah, I do—I have classes on Tuesday and Wednesday. Meaning…I start the day after tomorrow, huh?” Crap. Why did I think it was next week?

“You’ll be fine, don’t worry,” Stefan sighed as another sedan took an errant turn, then finished easing the car through the passageway between two buildings and killed the engine. “If you need anything, just come to the department.”

“Stefan teaches there, too,” Anca reminded me as I dragged my backpack out of the car and Stefan popped the trunk to retrieve my luggage. “Or if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call me.”

“Thank you.” Thank god for Stefan and Anca, at least. Well, guess I’ll be lesson-planning tonight…

I didn’t have any more time to kick myself for my oversight before Stefan was swiping us into the building and we had to team up to drag my bigger suitcase up the stairs.

Fluorescent lighting in the hallway and newly-painted walls greeted me, and I felt another wash of relief as Stefan pushed the door to my new apartment open and I saw space cozier than I had been expecting: wooden floors and old furniture covered with fleece blue blankets, shelves stuffed full with thick medical tomes in Romanian, a small table with four matching chairs plunked in the middle of the living room, and big, clean windows that in daylight would show me the world beyond from my balcony (“We had it double-glazed, as I told you,” reminded Anca, “so you should still get good use out of it in the winter!”).

Stefan and Anca took turns pointing out the important parts of the apartment to me, showed me the food they left for me in the fridge and making sure we all had each others’ phone numbers, although getting a Romanian phone would remain on my to-do list for another week at least. Noticing my dropping eyelids, Anca and Stefan soon bade me goodnight and reminded me that no issue was too small if I needed to contact them. I sat down on my new bed (an old bed, really, since it and everything else in the apartment had formally belonged to a relative of Anca’s, but new enough to me) and let my eyes droop closed.

I had a few options: I could try to plan for the classes that I would be teaching, right out of the gate, in two days’ time, or I could go to bed early and let the jet-lag chalk up another win today, or I could venture out into the packed street and search for wifi to use. Stefan had fiddled with the router in the living room and promised it would be up and running tomorrow, and if I really wanted to sleep then contacting the friends and family waiting on a word from me could probably wait until tomorrow…

Ug, no, c’mon. Get up. Geeett up, go outside, find a café or a bar or something…this is a student town, there’s gotta be wifi somewhere.

I groaned and continued to argue with myself. Do you want them to think you’re dead? That the Romanian mafia got you? Up! Get up! Go explore, you ding-dong!

“Is there even such a thing as a Romanian mafia?” I muttered to myself as I forced myself upright again, grabbed the only coat I had and made sure the jangle of keys was safe in my pocket. The stairwell was pitch dark, and it would be another week and a half before I figured out where the lightswitch was, but I made it back to the street without crashing to my doom. Street trams chugged by, and traveling groups of students pushed by each other in all directions. I hesitated, not sure whether to go up the hill or down, but since the sound of a rock concert was floating through the air from down the hill and it seemed to be the direction of heaviest traffic, I followed my gut (and the gaggle of laughing Romanian students ahead of me) to my left and into the crowd.

Barely five minutes of trotting down the hill, weaving in and out of excited young people and past the open space in front of one noble university building where the rock concert was indeed coming to a bombastic, light-filled end, brought me to a squat restaurant building. The tables and chairs outside were full of Romanians enjoying the last of the warm air, and my wifi signal blinked to life as I stood in front of the restaurant’s door, shaking my head in disbelief.

Large letters above the door told me that the place was simply called College Bar, and the massive American flag mural I could see through the windows told me all I needed to know about the place’s theme. I snorted, not quite wanting to believe that this is where I would spend my first “night out” in Iasi, but too bewildered to argue much otherwise.

Moments later, I was letting sips of a gin tonic soothe the last of my nerves as I checked in with everyone who was expecting to hear from me. The bar was loud, every table packed, and I was lucky to be perched on my bar stool. Brief conversation with the skinny young man pouring the drinks told me that this was the “American College Bar,” so called because it was attached to the Work and Travel office, popular among students for the chance it afforded them to visit the USA for a summer. The explains the flag, at least.

More satisfied than I had expected to be both with the bar itself as a place to rest and the gin tonic that relaxed my buzzing thoughts, I eventually slid off the bar stool and trotted back up the hill, only slightly emptier than before, to return to my new apartment.

Like the night before in Bucharest, I hit the bed like a sack of rocks and was out like a light. This time, though, I would have to obey the alarm clock: tomorrow marked the beginning of my work at the University.

Ready, set, go.

Stefan was waiting where he had told me to go, the entrance slightly down the hill, the one with the lions guarding either side. The stone felines were permanently roaring, telling all those who entered that this was a powerful institution for higher learning, respected as the oldest university in Romania.

And here I was, about to start teaching here.

Stefan guided me by the shoulder to two other women standing nearby, giving me a small pat as he introduced us. “Mariah, this is Rodica, our department head, I think you’ve already been in contact, and this is Monica, your fellow Fulbrighter here in Iasi.”

I shook hands with both women, answering Monica’s warm smile with my own. “It’s nice to meet you both in person!”

Rodica nodded, all business, taking a step towards the university. “Yes, it is, and we’ll have plenty to talk about. For now, let us head for the Great Hall, where the ceremony will be. I’m sure we can still find good seats.”

With that, Rodica led us through the shifting crowd at the university steps and up through the building; we passed tall winding staircases and old wooden doors that stretched to the ceiling. My head could have pivoted off of my neck for as much as I whipped around to try to absorb everything, but in another moment we were at the ground entrance to the Aula Magna, the Great Hall, beginning to fill with well-dressed people eager to see the variety of officials welcome the new school year.

Rodica, Monica and I filled the waiting time with relaxed chatter, discussing flights and plans and ideas for the rapidly approaching classes, before the first of the sharply dressed officials took the stage and welcomed the audience in Romanian. Every once in a while, Monica, who grew up with the language in her home, leaned over to translate and summarize for me. From our spot in the balcony I could scan the crowd below for Jeff as the American Ambassador spoke, but eventually I leaned back in my chair again, resigning myself to listening to the flow of Romanian and occasional English and knowing that I would see my new companion again at orientation this weekend.

An hour later, as we gathered our things to leave the elegant, domed room and venture back into the student-packed streets, I commented to Monica that it would sure be a wild week—today was the opening ceremony, students swarming everywhere, we would be teaching tomorrow, and then Wednesday would see us back in Bucharest for orientation. She brushed her thick black hair out of her face and blew a puff of air out of her mouth. “You said it,” she agreed. She was smiling, though, and I would learn that Monica faced everything smiling. She was an unstoppable force of good will and kind words, and I would be happy to have her as my companion in Iasi.

For now, though, we both had lessons to prepare.

The next day, in the shoebox classroom known as the Reading Room, almost forty faces stared back at me. It was like looking in a mirror—forty mirrors, showing me young faces who didn’t entirely know what to expect, but who were game to give it a try anyway.

I scrawled my name across the tiny blackboard and introduced myself. The looks of confusion that a young American would be their teacher dissolved as I assured them that I had a Master’s degree, spoke and taught several languages, and would be grading them mostly on participation. “This is a conversational class, soooo…you gotta speak with me, yeah?” My exaggerated eyebrow raise and crooked grin earned a laugh, and the ice started to melt.

In another second, students were passing back the slips of paper I had written out earlier that morning, each one with a different question written on it. If you could have a superpower, what would it be? If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be? What was the best dream you ever had in your life? The cramped room, cluttered with desks, didn’t allow much in the way of walking around and asking each other questions, so we spilled into the corridor, and the volume of chatter gradually rose as my first year students milled about, meeting each other and swapping questions. I laughed, thrilled that the activity was working, and feeling my confidence surge as more students ventured to talk with new partners.

The other two session of class would go similarly well, and I would finish my morning block on Wednesday with a huge smile on my face. The students were respectful, and while they maybe also weren’t entirely sure what they were doing, or what I was doing here, they were excited to give it a try.

That’s about all I can ask for. So far, so good, I thought as I threw a change of business attire into my smaller suitcase and ran back out into the street to hail a cab. Challenges one and two of the week, arriving and teaching, were out of the way, but there would be no rest for the wicked yet—two days of orientation in Bucharest were next on the list and coming at me fast.

I felt a little bit like the human version of a revolving door as I paid my cabbie, breezed through the tiny, already familiar Iasi airport, and was soon hurtling upwards into the Romanian sky again. No, I guessed as I let my eyes slide shut and my shoulders relax in the crook of the airplane seat, I don’t suppose “rest” is going to be something I’ll be getting a lot of anytime soon.

That’s okay, though. There’s plenty to learn in the meantime. Ready, set, go.


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