Mărțișor, My Romanian Valentine’s Day

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.

Photo credits:

Featured image: By Ella Nicuta Some rights reserved

Snowdrop By AndreirusanOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

R is for Romania

I learned I had been selected for a Fulbright grant to teach English in Romania just weeks before I expected to leave Iran in July of 1977. And I was astonished that a friend was able to find a Teach-Yourself-Romanian book in Tehran so I could get a head start on the language.

It was difficult to figure out just how to pronounce Romanian words and phrases, having no audio sources. Some of the phrases didn’t look too difficult. For example, bună ziua, good afternoon, had only four syllables and more vowels than consonants. I figured it should sound something like “BOON-a ZI-wa.” Likewise bună seara, good evening, looked manageable as BOON-a se-YAR-a. But the Romanian equivalent of good morning had a lot more syllables and nearly as high a vowel to consonant ratio: bună dimineaţa. I understood that little tail under the “t” was pronounced as two English sounds: ts. Thus good morning in Romanian was BOON-a dee-meen-ee-YATS-ah, a mouthful for a non-morning person like myself.

But when I got to the pronouns, I just wasn’t sure I could believe the book. I thought it might be a version of Romanian spoken by those of several generations ago. Who ever heard of a personal pronoun having more syllables than the noun it represented?

English pronouns are all short: I, you, he, she, it, we, they. Not a multisyllabic one among them. But the Teach-Yourself-Romanian book said the Romanian equivalent of the plural (and “formal” or polite form) of you was Dumneavoastră. That is six syllables! And the single, informal form of you wasn’t much shorter, Dumneata, four syllables. I just couldn’t believe that Romanians waste that much effort and time on the personal pronoun, you.

On the plane from Frankfurt to Bucharest, I met someone who had at least heard Romanian spoken by those living in Bucharest at that time. I decided to test out my theory by asking her to tell me how to say good morning, good evening, and good afternoon as a benchmark of my interpretation of the sounds. She confirmed that I had figured out how to say those phrases fine.

Then I asked her about the pronouns, starting with the ones I wasn’t amazed at: I is eu (which sounds a lot like the Spanish equivalent, yo), we is noi, he is el, she is ea, all of them short. So I fully expected my semi-native informant to give me short versions of the singular and plural you. But she didn’t. She confirmed what the book said, Dumneavoastră was the polite form of you. But the familiar, singular form was often shortened to ta, although Romanian has many cases so the spelling varies, depending on whether it is the subject or object in a sentence.

So I learned to roll Dumneavoastră off my tongue when addressing strangers. After all, there was no point becoming too familiar too quickly.