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A Learning Experience for West Europeans

I went to Romania for a workshop led by Molnàr Gabriella. Three weeks earlier I had received an invitation from my Romanian Co-Counsellor, Violeta. Immediately I read the flier, I knew I would go. I love Violeta, and I knew that I would love other Romanians. I wanted to be with them in their country as a sign of solidarity, to let them know that I care about them and want to know them and want to Co-Counsel with them. Within two days, I had organised my travel, my visa, and my overnight stop in Hungary.

I had been to Romania four years earlier, to find my grandfather's birthplace. I had gone as a tourist, and under the Ceaucescu regime there were many prohibitions against Romanians and people from the West meeting. This workshop was to be an opportunity for us to get close, and by the end of the weekend I had made many new friends.

The workshop began for me the moment I decided to go. I started to think about how I should be, as a Western guest in Eastern Europe -- -how I needed to travel light because of the long distances I would be covering, how I needed only a few simple clothes that would not draw attention to me, how I would be there as an ally and counsellor for the Romanians and not primarily as a client. I got ready for the trip with great excitement and enthusiasm. It helped to know that I am well-loved and well-rooted in the English RC Community and many people were pleased that I was going.

The trip from Hungary to Romania gave me the opportunity to notice how friendly and resourceful and resilient I really am. As a woman and as a Jew, I sometimes buy the lies that I am weak and timid.

Travelling between countries, neither of whose language I could even begin to understand, was a challenging adventure -- managing the complexity of buying an international train ticket; buying food I did not know with money I did not understand; relinquishing the 'supremacy' of the English language and remembering long-lost French and German in order to communicate; travelling as a single woman in a compartment of men, and being open and friendly, whilst firmly deflecting advances.

I soon noticed where I felt bad about myself as a person from the West. I had a camera and a personal cassette player with me, and throughout the six-hour train journey to Arad, I tried to deal with my feelings about having possessions. I decided it didn't make sense to pretend I had less material privilege than I do. Being apologetic clearly wouldn't work -- that wasn't in line with being there as a counsellor. By the time I reached Arad, just across the Hungarian/Romanian border, I had made a good connection with two Romanian men.

Once in the station in Arad, I met up with two Hungarian RCers, and we travelled together by train the last hour and a half to Baile Calacea. Violeta was there to meet us, and she and I had a tearfully-joyful reunion. We have been writing very regularly to each other for about four years, and quickly grew to love and respect each other. We have great sessions through the post and can think very well about each other. Throughout the workshop, I had Violeta's love and pride in me to remind me of my goodness, if I temporarily forgot.

The workshop was held in a stunning place that showed off Romania's beauty. It was a spa resort, primarily for treating older people who have arthritis. There were about thirty of us at the workshop, with numbers fluctuating as local RCers came and went. We were from Romania, Hungary, Belgium, Austria, and England. There were also people there with Bulgarian and Serbian heritage, as well as USers.


  • I loved being led by Gabriella. Everything she taught and demonstrated was from a solid base of RC, and she is an excellent model of how to be human. She gave inspiring, incisive information about building liberation movements and demonstrated as she went how to involve and cherish individuals. I liked how she treated those of us from the West. She was very generous with her time and attention, and very appreciative of us, yet held firm to her own thinking in the face of our 'useful' suggestions. She interrupted our patterns decisively, without ever putting one of us down.

    She made it safe for me to take risks and risk mistakes.

    I loved how she gave me time to introduce myself. I was determined not to take a lot of time and had prepared my answers in a few stark sentences. She insisted I slow down and notice that I was there for me. I can now see how integral this is to my work as an ally. When I questioned my right to take more time than other people, she told me she was the leader and she would decide. She thanked me for coming, and I shrugged my shoulders and said I wanted to come. She wouldn't let up, thanking me again for deciding to spend money and time to make the journey. She looked and sounded so genuinely pleased with me that I could feel there was a human being next to me, and I was finally able to show what the trip meant. As Jews, my grandmother and grandfather had been forced to leave Romania at the turn of this century, and it was momentous that I had returned.

    My friendships with Romanians flourished after that. I began to realise that these are mutual relationships, that of course they had much to offer me and wouldn't want it to be a one-way relationship. That would be no real relationship. We are important to each other. The connections I made have continued after the workshop and I love writing and receiving letters and cards. Haltingly, and not without embarrassment, we are finding ways of showing what we mean to each other.

  • It was a delight for me to be in an RC Community with so many young people and so many men. In my nineteen years of RC this has not been my experience, in London or nationally or internationally. It was great to be able to congratulate them on achieving such a Community, and of course they were surprised that others might find this human task difficult.

    Throughout the workshop, I was very proud of Violeta and all that she has achieved. The workshop was a tribute to her and to the other Romanian RC leaders. It was a visible result of their diligence and their commitment to RC and to their people.

  • I led a support group on 'Reclaiming Power,' which was the highlight of my Co-Counselling career, let alone of the workshop. Four young Romanians came, three young men and a young woman, all students. We communicated through translation -- Adi did a great job, very fluent and meticulous about communicating exact meaning, and others chipped in with words and phrases. It was good learning for me as a leader because every piece of theory I gave had to be concise and to the point, and my speech had to be slowed right down. I had to be as aware as possible of my assumptions and of how Western cultural distress may have crept in to distort the theory. It certainly sharpened my thinking. Three of them were very new to RC and had only had one or two sessions and no fundamentals, so I found myself giving basic RC theory and slowing the whole process down so that contradictions, directions, and interventions were meaningful. The constant questioning and challenging was very stimulating and exciting for all of us. I loved seeing clients trust me and, despite reservations or seemingly insufficient information, jump in and go with it. I loved each of them from the very beginning, and it felt very profound to be sitting all together on a bed in Baile Calacea, sharing such a liberation project.

    I had deep sessions as client, with Remus reaching for my hand and loving me without words. It really didn't matter that l spoke no Romanian, and Remus little English -- that added to the preciousness of the connection. I wanted them to sing a Romanian song for me and for the rest of the people at the workshop. After initial resistance, they agreed, provided I would sing with them. They taught me '§i daca,' a beautiful song with deep meaning for them. I loved how proud they were of Eminescu, a national poet who had written the lyrics. I stumbled through the words, which amused them a lot. My embarrassment and reticence was a good contradiction for them and they laughed loads. Afterwards they used every opportunity to get me to sing it by myself. That evening, they sang it for the whole group, and it was very moving and powerful. Their pride was evident.

  • Gabriella set up two panels, one of people from the West and one of people from Central and Eastern Europe. This format was particularly useful in demolishing myths we might have had about each other. I was shocked to see the way the West has been presented as Heaven, and the people from Central and Eastern Europe seemed shocked to learn the extent of the hardship and economic collapse in the West. The similarities in reports was marked, in terms of unemployment, poverty, homelessness. At the end of the panels, I promised myself and the Romanians that I would talk about what I had learned when I got back to England. Since then I have led a meal table at Cherie Brown's Jewish leaders' workshop and will lead a Regional evening in September. It's wonderful for me to see how people here are eager to learn.

  • Before leaving England, I had learned odd words and phrases in Romanian, like 'Good morning/afternoon, sir/madam,' 'My name is....' The older people who were at the resort for treatment often sat on benches out in the blazing sun, and whenever I went past I longed to make contact. I smiled and nodded to them, and by the second day I tried out a couple of my phrases. To my delight, they replied. And in the support group, I started to learn words I kept hearing, like 'inteleg' understand, 'tradut' translate. It made me determined to learn more of the language before my next trip.

  • I led a Jewish liberation topic group, and Gentiles from Austria, Hungary, and Romania came. I talked about the nature of anti-Jewish oppression and did a good demonstration with a man about any difficulties he might have about getting close to me. It was a very loving, good-humoured group and a special opportunity for me to lead. I couldn't help but notice that I have allies and that the past is well and truly over. Geta came up to me later and asked if I would like her to share what I had taught with other Romanians. I think she was pleased that I was so pleased.

  • We had a lunch table for people from the West, and we looked at what was going well, where we were acting effectively, and what, if anything, was difficult for us. Throughout the workshop, we supported each other, and there was a virtual absence of competition to be "The Best Ally."

  • The venue was wonderful. We had double rooms, with showers en suite, and the whole resort was spacious and leafy and inviting. The food was good and prepared creatively each meal, although resources were very limited.

    At the end of the workshop, we gave appreciations to the staff. Gabriella decided we should do it by country, standing up and saying 'thank you' in our own language and giving an appreciation. It was a very joyful occasion, and it clearly meant something to the staff.

    Then the director of the resort responded by thanking us for coming and apologising for the poor quality of the food and the rooms and the lack of water and assuring us it would be better next time. People kept up the appreciations in the face of this self-deprecation, and we all laughed a lot at the ridiculousness of the situation.

  • I gained a brilliant ally and friend in Codruta. She listened to what I had to say in the topic group about anti-Jewish oppression and counselled me well in our session about my fears about being in Romania once I left the workshop. From then on, she was by my side constantly, making me scream as I scrambled up into the tractor that was to take us to the station, enveloping me with her arms as I shuddered when the tractor swayed towards a ditch, grinning and winking at me at the station, putting her body between me and other passengers on the crowded train back to Timisoara. She dismissed my apologies about my fear, and said I will do the same for her when she comes to the West.

    I spent a wondrous evening with Violeta and Codruta, as they showed me round the centre of Timisoara. The buildings are very beautiful and grand, and I particularly loved the Piata Victoriei, Victory Square, and the memorial to those who died in the Revolution.

    We walked and talked for hours about the workshop, our highlights, our different perceptions, and our learning.

    I ended my stay in Romania sitting on a settee between Vio and Codruta, crying and laughing together, and realising that our friendship is forever.


  • I began to see the depth of the recording Romanians hold that they and their country are 'no good.' I also began to realise the importance of contradicting the internalised oppression that says Romanians are not to be trusted, are dirty, stupid, only after money, not as interesting or exciting as people from the West. I saw how much self-disapproval could be contradicted just by people from the West being there and showing that they wanted to be there. I learned that most Romanians are systematically taught that they come second after others, with the best food being exported, and goods manufactured to different standards, depending on whether they are for 'inside' or 'outside' Romania.

    I saw and heard the strong feelings of wanting to escape, whether emotionally or physically, and understood how the West is consistently portrayed as an emotional and material haven.

  • I was brought face-to-face with some of the realities of war in former Yugoslavia. Geographically it is very close and clearly affects people in Romania. There was a gap at the workshop, as RCers from former Yugoslavia were not there.

  • I learned first-hand the kind of physical challenges the Romanians are up against and saw how resourceful, adaptable, and creative they are in the face of these challenges. At the workshop, there was running water only between 11.00pm and 1.00am, and between 6.00am-8.00am, and it seems that Romanians are regularly subjected to this. For periods there was intermittent electricity, and I heard how individuals and communities responded to this. I quickly learned how much I take for granted and how ill-equipped I am to deal with shortage of these particular resources.

    At the end of the workshop there was an issue about how we would get from the resort to the station, given that there was no public transport. The walk would have taken over an hour, in heat of 90 degrees, with very little shelter. Being unfit and fair-skinned, l was daunted by this. The organisers came up with the idea of hiring a tractor and cart to get us all to the station.

  • I learned not to underestimate the extent of the effects of the particular piece of the oppression, that teaches that West is best -- on people from Western Europe, as well as on people from Central and Eastern Europe.

    As someone from the West, complete with white Western patterns of arrogance, l learned about humility, about finding and negotiating my place in Eastern Europe. In almost every interaction I had, there was a fine balance to be struck between (a) taking over and (b) stepping back and disappearing completely. For example, when setting up support groups, I decided to offer to assist, rather than to lead. Gabriella firmly told me to lead, and in that moment I realised I'd been making assumptions about what was needed.

    What needs offering? How can I best offer? Is there any need to offer anything?

    Once again I learned the lesson that to be an ally is about being and thinking and enabling, rather than doing 'for' someone else. I noticed, and I know the Romanians and Hungarians certainly noticed, the Western patterns of responsibility, urgency, wanting to be useful. With the best will in the world, in our desire to be 'of use,' we often got in the way of the Eastern and Central Europeans' thinking, leadership, and closeness with each other.

    From the beginning of the workshop, people from the West went first -- -in introductions, in volunteering insights, in offering suggestions. Once we realised as Westerners what was happening (and it took a bit of time for us to notice), we were better able to curtail our eagerness and not assume that because other people were quiet, they had nothing to say.

    I was reminded of the importance to liberation of play and singing and rest. Classes, meals, and support groups invariably started later than scheduled, and at first I became impatient, mentally labelling it as cultural distress and ineffective use of time. By the second day, I had been helped to change my perspective, and I noticed people relaxing, playing, and chatting, and deep relationships being formed. I began to appreciate that the tiredness that develops with constant physical hardship is not just distress, and I saw the relaxed timetable as a positive resistance to rigidity.

    Exhaustion seemed most marked for the young people. Talking to them, I learned a bit about the effects of growing up and being educated in a totalitarian state. It seems there is great pressure on young people to succeed in their studies, as exam results determine how they spend the rest of their lives. I know this to be true in England, but in Romania it seemed much more urgent to do well, as if there were no second chance later on in life.

  • I thought there was some resistance to sessioning and being client, to the extent that hardly anyone seemed to want to be in a counselling demonstration in class.

    It felt to me that it was hard for Romanians to show their individual struggles, as if this could be used against them. Maybe this makes it hard to acknowledge feelings, even in sessions. As a counsellor, I felt I needed to be vigilant in communicating my trustworthiness and my positive intentions.

    A big issue seemed to be 'how to trust.' I assume this to be because of the Securitate and the ways that some Romanians have been set up to spy on others. The suspicion translated into questions like "Why do you want to know me?" and "What do you want?"

I am interested to see how all these points of learning change as l become more familiar with Romanian people and the Romanian way of life. I have made a commitment to go back for at least one workshop a year, and hopefully to encourage other English people to come. I asked Gabriella if she would put an upper limit on the numbers of people coming from the West. She told me there would always have to be equal numbers of people from the West and people from Central and Eastern Europe, and challenged me that the competition is on!

Leah Thorn
London, England

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00