Estonia; or, my heart is still in Romania

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I remember the night Kris, Kevin, Marta*, and I took a taxi to Otopeni after 2 weeks between Bucharest and Bran. Kris and Kevin seemed to like Romania but were skeptical they would ever come back, and Marta said she didn’t really care to come back again. But I had pressed my face to the window and already started planning my return.

A lot of people that come to Romania complain about the way it looks – it’s certainly no Paris or Amsterdam. There are tall, sometimes menacing, gray rows of Soviet-like apartment buildings. The vendors and gaudy displays of capitalism that line the bottom level of these blocks don’t disguise the wide walking paths and roads that are so characteristic of communist city planning. But Bucharest is alive and pulses with an intoxicating discontent. I dislike the endless cement blocks in the same way I dislike my own scars. Romania was home.

When I talk to Romanians about Romania, they usually don’t censor themselves. They all have different concerns and different ideas about how to solve things, but they voice them, and passionately at that. Romania isn’t perfect, but I’ve never met a Romanian who claims it is – though there is no lack of love of country. I might look at Romania through rose-colored glasses, and I love too many Romanians to be impartial, but it is a country, a people, struggling in the right direction.

Kazakhstan was different. The largeness of everything – the streets, the sidewalks, the buildings – made Almaty seem empty and cold (despite the scorching August heat). It was a unique Russian-Asian fusion that had the costume of a recovering Soviet state but it’s own, sometimes indecipherable character. I did not adore Almaty. Those people – and they were few – willing to engage in political discussions insisted that Kazakhstan is a democracy and that the president is beloved to all. Of course there were a few exceptions, but they were the highly educated upper-middle class, and even they did not say anything too loud. It didn’t feel alive, or restless.

Estonia is emptier than Kazakhstan, in the ways only cities can be empty. The Russian was harsher and the people more withdrawn. The blocks and desolate cement buildings were Soviet but they were smaller and most were more thoughtfully maintained. There was an air of general ‘European-ness’ that Kazakhstan lacked, and it was a character less singular, less distinctive than what goaded me to fall in love with Romania. Perhaps I felt suffocated by a kind of ambivalence. It was surreal, it was a bit lonely, and it was a different kind of challenge than I faced in my earlier travels.

My time in Estonia was a whirlwind of visiting organizations. I met the national director of SOS Kinderdorf, and visited one of the SOS villages near Narva that is soon to be run family-style; I met with counselors and the director of a youth rehabilitation center, where children and teenagers come for year-long treatment sessions; I spent one day at an orphanage in Sillamae, which is run as an institution but was beginning to integrate more family-like systems of operating; I visited several institutions for children with special needs who lack proper care at home. I do not have proper pictures of any of these places (it was understandably not allowed). Between Johvi, Sillamae, Narva, Voka, and Tallinn, and thanks to Ursula especially, I had an exhausting but enlightening tour of Estonia.

My time in Europe will see a slight maturation of my focus; many of the children in orphanages in Eastern Europe and from Africa are trafficked to Western Europe to work as prostitutes. I have already started to pursue this, and I imagine it is something that will continue to develop in the next two months.

*congratulations on your engagement! he does make good peanut brittle, and really what else does one need from a man…

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