Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iași, Romania, served as my home for the 1977-1978 academic year. Life in Romania was simpler than life had been in Iran the two years before. Whenever I heard one of my American colleagues complain about something uncomfortable in Romania, such as having to wait in so many long lines, I could usually respond with “Yeah but, at least here you’ll eventually get to the front of the line.” I made a lot of “yeah but” statements that year.
Autocratic rulers governed both countries: the Shah in Iran and Nicolai Ceaușescu in Romania. And while the Shah’s government considered anyone with communist leanings the enemy, and Romania was a communist country, similarities exceeded differences. In both countries people lived in fear of the secret police. The people in both countries were ethnically different from those in the countries that surrounded them, the perfect setup for feeding people’s fears of “the other.”
Because of those similarities, life in Romania was still a long way from comfortable for me. At least until March 1, 1978, the celebration of Little March, or mărțișor, in Romania.
Before March 1, I spent most of my time thinking of when I could leave and return to the United States. As much as I loved the challenge of adjusting to life in different cultures, I was surrounded by unhappy people in Romania. And their unhappiness spilled into my life. Romanians seemed to accept disappointments as unavoidable, the way things are, instead of looking for improvements.
But most of all, I rarely saw a Romanian smile. We used to joke that if two Romanians were caught laughing on the streets, a policeman would arrest them because they must be doing something that wasn’t allowed.
Then, on March 1, everything changed. As I went from class to class, my students presented me with charms hung from one red and one white thread, twisted together. They pinned the charms to the lapel of my coat with straight pins, one from each student.
By the end of the day, little of my coat lapels could be seen. But more significantly, my jaw ached from smiling so much as I returned the smile of each student who pinned their martisoare (the plural form) on my coat.
For the first time, I felt the students appreciated my presence, or in Sally Field’s words, they liked me.
It was as though I had been given a new pair of glasses, with rose-colored lenses, through which I could see clearly. What had seemed drab during my first six months suddenly had color. The students who had seemed lethargic now took part in discussions with enthusiasm.
I compared mărțișor to a child’s Valentine’s Day, that time when elementary school classmates would not only give a valentine to every other child in the class, but also a special one to the teacher.
In each country I have since lived, I have looked for a little thing–an item, action, or place–to serve as a reminder that I always have a choice in how to view my surroundings, keeping my eye on the positive. For example, in Germany I set out to find a poor German restaurant (I failed). In Qatar I searched for the best chocolate mousse. In Barbados I watched out for the perfect sunset.
I’ll take Pollyanna’s rose-colored glasses any day over ones that pinch or obscure the view.