From USA to Jiului Valley, Romania
Hello! My name is Brandi Bates, though in Romania I am most often called "Brenda" (Romanians are too polite to call me the name of an alcoholic beverage). I am a mid-40's American mother of 2 young children, a wife of 20 years, the co-founder of a large non-profit in Romania, a co-founder of a small mother-and-child group that meets weekly (a focus on breastfeeding support), a homeschooler and homemaker, and most recently, the founder of a very small private children's library. Whew, that all sounds like much more than it is!
My husband (his name, Dana, is even more of a disaster than mine in Romania…he goes by Dani usually) and I moved to the Jiu Valley in 1999 to start a camp for teenagers in the beautiful mountains overlooking Lupeni. One thing led to another and we started a year-round youth model called IMPACT which is now one of the largest youth movements in the country and which is growing rapidly around the world. It's been a wild, wonderful ride!
The question I have been asked most often over the past 15 years is, "Why did you leave America and move to Romania? And especially to live 'there'?" ("There" meaning the Jiu Valley, which usually means they have never been here.) And it is true. On the surface our choice to live here (Lupeni) rather than there (America) has a bit of incredulousness, even stupidity to some, about it. But if you scratch a bit deeper, it is easy to see that actually we have made a very intelligent, thoughtful, and beautiful decision.
While it has not always been easy, today I can honestly say that there is no place I would rather live. And when I say that it means that there is no place I would rather be raising our 2 children. Our lives are not perfect – whose is? There is much I would change about our lives – who wouldn't? And there are things we miss – sometimes daily – about life in that "other place". But when it all comes down to it, I would choose to live in Lupeni all over again.
The second question I am most often asked is, "Why?????" Here are just a couple of reasons. Our family has the gift of Time (sometimes too much of it ). We are with each other, really with each other, often. My husband's commute (4 minutes on a bike, or down the stairs) means we sometimes eat 3 meals a day together. (I don't know if any of my friends in the U.S. could say this. I realized how fortunate I was when my friends who were mothers began grieving the passing of their children's early years…"Where has the time gone? Just yesterday they were infants!" I never felt this way. I have felt very present in my children's early years, and for this immeasurable gift I will always be grateful.)
We are near Nature, right up against its heartbeat. I grew up in the cement spill encircling Los Angeles, California. I did not know that bread came from wheat. Instead of that type of childhood, our children help grow a garden every summer, raise tadpoles into frogs, hike a lot, eat eggs from our chickens and drink milk from our neighbor's cow, listen to the Christmas pig-harvest, and every day look out onto a view that many only know from holidays or postcards. This – this proximity to God's amazingly beautiful world – is beyond value. And then there is the blessing of our Work and the People that we know, in and outside of our work.
I think Romanians have a unique love for children. We have not travelled a lot, but the travel we have done has shown us cultures where parents love their own children but are not necessarily keen on other people's children. Only in Romania have my children been offered snacks by strangers in the park, many, many times. And my daughter's first food (she was breastfed) was not something I chose but something an acquaintance lovingly put in her eager mouth without asking my permission first. Yes, as soon as we had children we felt accepted in a new way, like we truly belonged here. Here in Romania there is a safety that one feels for one's own children that is rooted in a general, culture-wide concern for children's welfare that I do not necessarily feel when I travel to the west.
Having Time on our side allows us as a family to indulge in a generous portion of reading. And one thing that a ½ day school schedule (our daughter attends 2nd grade at a local public school until noon everyday) allows us to do is some homeschooling (which involves a lot of reading) in the afternoons. Having studied Literature at University, and with a husband who has degrees in Philosophy, Theology and recently a PhD in Economics and Theology (Dumitru Staniloae and Sustainable Development), you could say that we like books. And like friends, we do not think you can ever have too many books.
"Homeschooling and Home Hieroglyphs": Painting our names in hieroglyphs after reading about Ancient Egyptian culture.
I do not remember when I started reading to our first child – I do not think it was in the hospital – but it was very early on. (Here we are reading together during a meal in her first year.) Before she had any clue about what I was saying or what she was looking at on the page, we were reading together. Recently when my daughter and I are arguing about everything and my son is frustrating me to no end, I have found that reading is a way to "talk" and be with each other and take a break, for a moment, from all the emotions and frustrations of before. What a wonderful, stress-free place a book is to travel to together! So reading is a way that we learn, it is a way that we recreate, it is a way that we travel peacefully together to a place and experience the same thing (though we may have very different thoughts and opinions about the experience, and the outcome in each of us may be very different), and it is a way that we create a shared memory and vocabulary to take back into our shared real lives.
"Annual Book Awards Ceremony": At the end of each school year, our daughter (and maybe our son will start this year) presents her top 5 favorite books read during the year, and tells us why.
Characters we have met in books are often brought up in conversation, long after the reading of them. "Remember when…?" These stories shape us, individually and as a family. They provide a moral arc to our universe.
When it comes to choosing books to read with our children, I think this best describes what guides me: "Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself." George Bernard Shaw There is so very much garbage out there, but there are also so very many jewels in the world of children's literature, so very many more than I ever imagined. For me a book is beautiful when the language is lovely, both simple and sophisticated, and the illustrations are both gorgeous and perfectly paired with the story sharing the page. And it certainly does not hurt when there is a positive message…one that would make you a better person if you lived it out. (But in young children's literature, I think this is secondary to language and illustration. As they grow it becomes more important.)
"The Night Before New School Year Tradition": On the eve of the new school year, we read Patricia Polacco's "The Bee Tree" and from Proverbs (the Bible) by candlelight. Then we lick honey off the page of a book. "There is such sweetness inside of that book too!" he said thoughtfully. "Such things…adventure, knowledge and wisdom. But these things do not come easily. You have to pursue them. Just like we ran after bees to find their honey tree, so you must also chase these things through the pages of a book!"
For me, one of the perfect books is William Steig's Dr. DeSoto. The language is brilliant and the illustrations capture the story so well that I do not think we will ever tire of reading it. (We feel the same about Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Zeke Pippin.) We also love stories that are so full of love and understanding that you cannot help but reach out and hug each other after reading them: the Little Bear series (Else Holmelund Minarik/ Maurice Sendak), Russell and Lillian Hoban's Frances books, the Frog and Toad series (Arnold Lobel), A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh (Editura Arthur), Sally Hunter's Humphrey series, and of course, Guess How Much I Love You? (Sam McBratney/Anita Jeram, Editura Cartea Copiilor). Other favorite authors (for picture books/stories) include Patricia Polacco (we love her use of icons in her illustrations!), Cynthia Rylant and Richard Scarry. For non-fiction, we like almost anything published by Usborne.
"Reading in the pumpkin patch" : Reading about how pumpkins grow in the pumpkin patch.
We love sending our daughter to Romanian public school (she has an excellent teacher!), and we also love supplementing at home what we feel is wanting. Our daughter is only 8, but recently we have read together books about Michelangelo, the Vikings, Peter the Great, and completed an entire unit on the human body. In her Romanian classroom she is getting an excellent education in mathematics, penmanship/writing, Romanian language (bininteles!), and emotional intelligence through her relationships with peers and teacher. (She recently took first place in her class in math and Romanian exams.) At home we try to keep things interesting and challenging in the areas of science, world history, and English literature. For us, so far, it is the perfect educational, "hybrid" situation.
"Our first library books": Our daughter opening our first delivery of books for Biblioteca Copiilor "Din Loc in Loc" – so exciting! (Thank you E.C.C.!)
Recently my daughter and I had the thought to extend our love of books to others. It started when a good friend of mine confessed that she would love to read to her daughter every day but that a nice book cost two days worth of food. (And in Romania, where libraries are not extensive or up-to-date, and there is not a secondhand market for modern children books, as there is elsewhere, that rings true.)
Magnets": Refrigerator reminders to Read Aloud
That got me thinking. Why not start a modest collection of beautiful books (the ones that cost 2 days worth of food) and share them? Everybody contributes a little and gets much more than their contribution in books, to borrow and pass around. The books belong to us all and we all enjoy and take care of them. "Better to share a few beautiful books than to own a lot of ugly ones." (The only rule is that if you destroy the book, you buy a new one.) So my daughter and I, with lots of help, started a small, private children's library: Biblioteca Copiilor "Din Loc in Loc." What we've done can be done in any community, anywhere that a group of like-minded, book-loving people gather. (And it does not have to stop with children's books…it can be done with any genre or age.) And we look forward to expanding our private library to teachers, who will take care of the books while sharing them with 100s of students.
Since starting this library I have learned that there is a need, locally, not only for the provision and sharing of beautiful stories bound in beautiful books, but there is a need to promote the whole idea, and art of Reading Aloud (Citire impreuna): to babies, to toddlers, to schoolchildren, to teenagers. One friend who donated some books to our library grew up with her father reading aloud to her. She is now a grown woman, a lawyer in Belgium who speaks 10 languages. She recently told me that when she returns home to visit her parents in Romania, her dad and her still sit down and read aloud (citire impreuna) together. I want to help cultivate a movement of that!
Before I began purchasing books for our library, I was under the impression that most books for Romanian children were, well, quite unappealing (though I could really only speak to the illustrations and quality of the book's binding, since I do not read Romanian perfectly). But then I went on-line where I embarked on an extensive tour of Romanian book warehouses and publishing houses. And how pleasantly surprised I have been! So many beautiful books are out there for children and families!
Initially, I was happy to encounter books I knew in English translated into Romanian (like Editura Cartea Copiilor's The Gruffalo, Courderory, the Velveteen Rabbit, and more). And I still am happy when I stumble upon a book I know to be good, translated into Romanian. But I have to say, my greatest delight has come in discovering Romanian-written and Romanian-illustrated beauties, true beauties. (In fact, I want to get them translated into English and give them to my English-speaking friends!)
When you have chosen to raise your children in a different country, you certainly feel happy that that country is actively producing its own body of quality children's literature. Because I do not read Romanian fluently, I cannot, with 100% credibility, comment on the quality of modern Romanian children's writers. Everyone knows the greats, from Ion Creanga on down. They have their place on the world stage. But I do have 2 good eyes. Two months ago I did not know who any of these illustrators were. Now I want to cover all of my walls with the amazing artwork of Cristina Barsony, Livia Coloji, Cristiana Radu, Madalina Andronic, Arina Gheorghita, Maria Surducan, and Adriana Gheorghe and Sebstian Oprita. The illustrations these artists have given to children's books are unspeakably beautiful, by anyone's standards.
If asked what my favorite children's books in the Romanian language are (in addition to those listed above) I would offer the following for literature/poetry: 1) Everything printed by Editura Cartea Copiilor (Picture books), 2) Editura Arthur's books for young children (A.A. Milne, Beatrix Potter) and early adolescents (many American Newbury winners!), 3) Basmele Printeselor (Clark/Malone, Editura Erc), 4) Lucia Muntean's collection of poetry books (Editura Genesis), 5) Editura Nemi's pictures books (not the movie-based ones) 6) "Nemuritoarele Povesti Clasice" illustrated by Scott Gustafson (gorgeous! Editura Crisan),7) Cristina Andone's Colectia "Povesti din Padurea Muzicala" (Editura Adevarul), 8) "Aventurile lui Pinocchio" illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, and 9) Editura Prut's very affordable and well illustrated poetry collections "Scriitori Contemporani" and "Sa cresti mare!" For Science and World History: 1) Anything by Usborne, mostly published by Editura Aquila (especially collections "Descopera Lumea" and "Mica enciclopedie"), 2) Beverly Birch's books on 4 prominent scientists (Editura Prut), and 3) Editura RAO's "Enciclopedia Pentru Copii" collection by Larousse. (Even when you know which ones are the beautiful books, I've discovered that it is a challenge to actually find them. It is like a treasure hunt; so many are "indisponibil" or "stoc epuizat". When you find one, you feel like you've struck gold!)
As I close, I want to thank Editura Cartea Copiilor for inviting me to write this post for their blog. They were one of the first publishing houses I discovered when I began my research for books for Biblioteca Copiilor "Din Loc in Loc." I feel like I have met a soul-mate. I truly couldn't believe that they existed and I had not known about them! They make me even happier to be raising our children, and be involved in other children's lives, here in Romania. Thank you E.C. C.!
Someday I will know that I really belong here when I can understand why Creanga's "Capra cu trei iezi" is the quintessential Romanian children's story. (I grew up with the version of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf where everyone survives. Until then, I look forward to Romanian authors and illustrators adding onto the existing body of children's literature with new stories and new characters, stories that will continue to help grow good, true and beautiful adults from Romania's children, and the children of foreigners growing up on Romanian soil, like ours. For that is the power of children's literature. And it starts from the beginning. Once upon a time…
If anybody is interested in starting a private, community library and would like more information about Biblioteca Copiilor "Din Loc in Loc" please e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A word about FNO / New Horizons
Our organization, Fundatia Noi Orizonturi/New Horizons Foundation (FNO) has been a leading pioneer in two programs and pedagogies since 1999: the Viata Program, which uses Adventure Education (visit www.tabara-viata.ro), and the IMPACT youth club, which uses Service Learning (visit www.noi-orizonturi.ro). The uniqueness of an IMPACT club is that it is a place where young people are empowered and taught how to go out into their communities, identify problems, and create service projects that address these problems…youth-initiated service. FNO "envisions a world where all young people are empowered to act on behalf of the common good." ("Fundaţia Noi Orizonturi îşi doreşte o lume în care toţi tinerii se implică pentru binele comun al tuturor şi simt că pot face o diferenţă în societate.") For example, an IMPACT Club in Constanta led a movement to close down the city's spice shops (Magazin de Plante Etnobotanice). In 2013 there were 107 IMPACT Clubs across Romania, 1,871 youth members, 303 volunteer leaders (many of them teachers), 200 community service projects performed with 25,000 beneficiaries of these service projects. Outside of Romania there are105 clubs (and growing): Nicaragua, Haiti, Mexico, Armenia, Honduras, Dominican Republic, and USA. For more information about FNO, Viata and IMPACT please e-mail me: email@example.com.
Photo © Brandi & Dana Bates (personal archive)
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