Don's diary

November 14, 1997

Saturday. We are in Romania with 18 students to teach a module called "Romania in transition: Fieldwork Studies". Daniela, a geography lecturer from Bucharest University, joins us. This is the first time we have run the course, and this being post-communist Romania, anything can happen. Things start badly when the flight from Gatwick is delayed for more than three hours. Our hotel in Bucharest is pleasant, rumours abound that the sixth floor is a brothel and the hotel staff advise us against using that bar. We join a wedding on the ground floor.


Today's theme is urban life in transition. We start in Bucharest's crumbling but pleasant historical centre where western-style financial plazas are springing up alongside shabby 19th-century buildings. We visit former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's Civic Centre, a boulevard of grotesque, monumental buildings with, at one end, the House of the Parliament (reputedly the world's second largest building). Our students spot a McDonalds and dive inside with whoops of delight. After lunch we take the metro to Bucharest's communist era suburbs - endless acres of soulless tower blocks where most of the city's population still lives. We visit Ceausescu's grave. Our guest speaker fails to turn up, so we hold an impromptu discussion with our students.


Things begin to go wrong. A visit to Parliament House with presentations from Romania's three main political parties was planned. But Daniela's contact is no longer answering his phone (there are hints of scandal). Moreover, Parliament House is mysteriously closed. We improvise. Students are given various research tasks and we finish with a role play in which students play Romanians trying to get a telephone installed in their flat. Daniela, playing a Romanian official, takes delight in blocking every attempt and the students get frustrated and angry. Reluctantly do they realise that post-communist Romania is really like this. Yesterday's guest speaker turns up and delivers a complicated two-hour lecture at post doctoral seminar level. Afterwards we retire to the bar on the sixth floor (which is empty) and try to make some sense of it.


Things are unravelling further. Daniela's boss at the university who, despite having promised us her assistance for the week, now insists that she withdraw from our field trip. Laden with gifts of sherry and wine we pay him a visit to explain that we cannot run our field trip without a Romanian speaker. The boss is polite but firm and explains that a new ruling from the education ministry states that only university staff and not schoolteachers can invigilate admission exams. We are on our own. We round up as many of Daniela's English-speaking friends as we can before departing for Brasov in Transylvania where the remainder of the field trip is based.


Today's theme is ethnic minorities in post-communist Romania. In a Hungarian school a member of the Hungarian community talks about recent Romanian-Hungarian relations. Our students are interested but the caretaker refuses to keep the building open for a minute beyond the allotted time and ejects us after exactly one hour. A melancholy representative of the German community speaks about the flight of Transylvania's Saxons - whose numbers have declined from over half a million to below 20,000 since 1989. Our students are spellbound.


Agriculture in transition. In the German village of Prejmer we visit a former collective farm, now privatised but struggling under huge debts. We impress upon the students that they are witnessing the twilight of a multi-ethnic Transylvania. We visit a non-collectivised agriculture farm in Bran, and Bran Castle, dubiously promoted as Dracula's castle. In the evening we hold a discussion in a bar about privatisation in post-communist Romania which continues until well after 11pm.


Industry in transition. We visit a tractor factory in Brasov which is facing huge problems in restructuring and finding a foreign investor. Proudly cradling his mobile phone, a member of the management addresses our students, but leaves rapidly after one asks him how the company will deal with the inevitable job losses which will follow restructuring. We visit Poiana Brasov, Romania's premier ski resort. Plenty of scope for investment - $40 million is needed.


We head back to Bucharest for the flight home. Daniela meets us and tells us that she was not needed at the university after all. However, the field trip has been far from disastrous and the students are fascinated with Romania. We hope they will return.

Duncan Light, David Phinnemore and Simon Asquith Lecturers at Liverpool Hope University College

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