Tanya at Babeş-Bolyai, Romania

During July 2012 Tanya Olivier attended an intensive summer programme in Romanian Languages at Babeş-Bolyai University, here is her story.

Before you leave…

Trip approved. The two words you’ve been longing to see in black and white finally arrive in your inbox! So what’s next? Once your heart rate has returned to normal, the first step is to figure out how best to get to your destination. For me, that was Cluj, Romania. Bear in mind that flying direct, especially if you’re going to a smaller town, is often more expensive (albeit less stressful) and way less fun! Be sure to explore other options such as buses and trains leaving from the capital. Remember that your goal is to learn so the more opportunity you have to interact with locals (which is inevitable on public transport, whether you like it or not!), the better.

Step two: Will they let me in? Yes, but only if you have the necessary visa. Be sure to phone the relevant consulate (or check out their website) to make sure that you have all the necessary documentation before arriving at their offices. Administrative nightmares can be transformed into mildly pleasant daydreams if you are well-prepared. Application forms are usually available online and can be downloaded beforehand to save time once you get there. It’s a good idea to start this process well in advance as there may be many people applying (unless you’re going to Romania, in which case there are only four…).

Step three: Money, money, money! You have two basic options: you can draw foreign currency at an ATM on arrival, or you can buy foreign currency before departure. Consult with your bank to find out whether your specific card will work abroad as well as which charges will be applicable. Which option you choose really depends on you but bear in mind that the Rand is a minor currency and, as such, can only be exchanged on South African soil… so don’t try to buy Romanian Lei with South African Rand in Transylvania. It’s not going to happen. Similar advice is applicable for cell phone use abroad – contact your service provider to find out about roaming options although it is often better to buy a foreign sim card upon arrival.

Step four: Check the weather and start packing! Depending on how far you’re travelling, you’re probably going to a different season. Be sure to pack appropriately and minimally. You will inevitably want to buy things while you’re there so leave some space in your luggage for your return. Keep all important documents such as flight details, passport and boarding passes on your person at all times. It’s also helpful to keep virtual scanned copies of these documents as attachments in your email drafts in case they go missing at some point during your trip. And last but not least, pack a camera!

Random tip: Take a few ID photos with you. You’d be surprised how often they come in handy.

Let the Summer School begin!

I was enrolled at Babeş-Bolyai University for three weeks, along with 15 others, to participate in an intensive course in Romanian Language. We were divided into three streams according to our level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Having no knowledge of Romanian except how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ (two very important phrases, I might add!), I was placed in the beginners’ stream. The classes were presented on weekdays from 9am to 1pm and there were various optional activities in the afternoons and on weekends.

The classes themselves were well-organised and incredibly practical. We started off by learning all the basic greetings and ways of introducing oneself. We then moved on to a series of themed lessons which included travel, shopping, restaurants and holidays. The teaching methods were very interactive (dialogues, presentations and games) and, being in a class of only four students, we had plenty of opportunity to practise speaking. Each time we were taught a new aspect of grammar, we learnt the relevant vocabulary to go with it. I found this very useful as we were able to use what we had learnt in the classes in our everyday experiences in the town.

I find that one of the most exciting things about learning a foreign language is becoming aware of your own progress. In overheard conversations on the street you gradually begin to identify words that you’ve learnt in class or understand signs at the market because of that day’s lesson. Something as banal as asking a grocer where the raspberries are becomes a reason to celebrate and understanding his response is an even greater achievement!

The afternoon activities were varied, catering to all personalities and interests. We visited the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania, went on a tour of the Ursus Brewery and attended several lectures on Romanian history, geography and culture. Nature-lovers enjoyed a hike through the picturesque Turda Gorges and ventured into the depths of the Turda Salt Mines. More creatively-minded students were treated to workshops on glass painting (a common practice in Romania) and Romanian mask-making. We also cooked up a feast of traditional mămăligă, sarmale and salată de vinete at a cooking tutorial in a local restaurant.

My personal highlight was undoubtedly a weekend trip to Maramureş County. On the way there we stopped off in Sighet to visit the Memorial to the Victims of Communism where we learnt a lot about Romania’s turbulent history. Other stops included the Potter’s House for a live demonstration, a visit to the Merry Cemetery in Săpânţa and an exploration of Bârsana Monastery, famous for its wooden churches. We then spent the night in the authentically rural town of Ieud: 2 churches, 2 bars and a shop. I was astounded by the overwhelming warmth of the locals and their willingness to share their culture. It was a truly unique experience.

Of course, all of these excursions are twice as fun when you’re sharing them with wonderful people. Other summer school participants come from all over the world and as such, the cultural exchange is rich. My group comprised students from Poland, Luxembourg, America, the Netherlands, South Korea, Switzerland, Italy and Portugal. Absorbing other cultures and sharing about your own is most rewarding and is a great opportunity to promote South Africa.

Random tip: Try everything! Don’t think, “oh, that’s not for me”. You learn when you enjoy things and when you don’t, and either way you’ll have a great story to tell!

Home Sweet Home

Coming back home is always bitter sweet – it’s great to be back (I always get a lump in my throat when I see Table Mountain from the aeroplane) but at the same time it’s normal to miss the perpetual mental stimulation of being abroad. I love the analogy of being a sponge when travelling – you’re constantly absorbing new sights and experiences and you return home fully saturated. But wringing out all those experiences so that others at home can benefit from them as well is the most important step. Share the knowledge, spread the love. Here are some things I’ve learnt from my travels…

One: I’m proudly South African. There is no better feeling than being able to reply “South Africa” to that all too familiar question, “Where are you from?” Saying your home is the furthest point south on the African continent always sparks a discussion. Not only that, but people are always genuinely interested in our country, which leads me to my second point…

Two: Know your country. There is nothing worse than saying “I don’t know” or mumbling something obscure about Nelson Mandela and braaing under your breath when people inevitably ask things about South Africa. Travelling abroad is an excellent way to promote our country but you can’t promote it if you don’t know anything about it. And yet again, one of the best ways to get to know your country is to…

Three: Tour your own country. South Africa holds treasures that people come from far and wide to see. And they’re right on our doorstep. Embrace them.

Four: We’re all different but not as different as you might think. While I’m intrigued by the many cultural differences when travelling, I’m also often struck by how similar we all are. South Africans, Romanians, Norwegians and Lichtensteinians, we’re all citizens of planet Earth for now. A common occurrence which proves my point is the ever-amusing and often overheard “[foreign language] Facebook pic [foreign language]” when visiting a tourist hotspot!

All in all, my trip to Romania has served only to increase my desire to travel and pursue other exchanges in the future. While a formal education is of utmost importance, you learn so much from travelling (about yourself and others) that any opportunity to do so must be grabbed with both hands. I’ve also been encouraged to (and would strongly recommend) travel to lesser-known countries. Europe’s Big Five have a lot to offer. The Eiffel Tower is magical and Pisa’s Leaning Tower does just that – it leans. But countries that are off the beaten track provide other rare opportunities that are often missed because they are overshadowed by Big Ben.

Random tip: Talk to strangers. Be your country’s biggest supporter. SA is great and positivity is contagious.

 ** All pictures were taken by myself in Romania and have been in no way edited to enhance the natural beauty of this amazing country. It’s all real!