Monday, September 23, 2013

Bucharest and Roxana on the Potomac

Bucharest has been coming to the Potomac all summer long.  I arrived as one of the first refugees.  FT, SE, NP, and SD have arrived as well, and DD will arrive sometime later this fall.  (In case you have not figured out my shorthand, check with SC, who took over as GLIFAA Post Representative in Bucharest when I left.)  We are all caught in the Foreign Service transfer cycle.  Some of us are just passing through, some are in language training, and others like me have a work assignment in Washington.  We are all so busy that we haven't really had time to socialize, but I was very happy to see SE at the GLIFAA happy hour earlier this month.  I do hope that we will all see more of each other as summer turns to fall.

Bucharest was on my mind in another way last Wednesday.  For the first time since leaving Romania in June, the bicycle on which I had commuted daily on Bucharest streets was finally back together and ready for the streets of Washington.  Down Piney Branch I rode from Takoma Park.  Then it was a right on Arkansas and on into Rock Creek Park before coming to the Potomac itself.  Across the bridge and I was in another foreign country:  Virginia.  At least that's how we who live in Maryland tend to think of Virginia.  (Our Virginia neighbors pay us the compliment of thinking of us in the same way.)  Using leg muscles that had not been used since I was in Maine, I turned onto city streets and made my way to Crystal City.

There Roxana was, sitting and waiting in front of her hotel.  The last time we had seen each other was in Bucharest, where she lives next door to the LGBT rights organization ACCEPT.  Over the past decade she has been a dear friend to many of us who have passed through the U.S. Embassy.  Before that, she was a friend to many a Peace Corps volunteer who passed through her training when they arrived for their year in Romania.

My Evening with Roxana
I first met Roxana Marin on Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) in 2011.  My transition had been announced publicly at the Embassy the week before, and I was at ACCEPT for its modest TDOR observance.  I spoke about my experience to the small group that had gathered.  When the formal program had ended and the social hour had begun, an intense woman bubbling over with energy came up and introduced herself before launching into questions about documentation for transgender persons in the US.  That was our first meeting.

Roxana is a teacher at Cosbuc Bilingual High School.  (The word is college in Romanian, but the U.S. equivalent is high school.)  As the first from her Roma family to be sent to Bucharest to study in the final years of the Ceausescu regime, she knows what it is like to experience discrimination and harassment first-hand.  Perhaps that is what filled her with such boundless acceptance and love of diversity in all its forms.  How many students have sat drinking tea in her garden on a Sunday afternoon?  How many has she guided through difficult times?  How many has she inspired to great heights of creativity?  Just this spring one of her students won first prize in a human rights essay competition sponsored by the Embassy.  Roxana's smile and enthusiasm are infectious.

The first time Roxana had dinner with PE and me in my Bucharest home, she left behind a pair of earrings carefully hidden in a place where I would find them as I did housework.  Another time she gave me a blouse, and yet another time it was one of her dresses.  I think of Roxana every time I wear them.

Roxana and Jessica Wozniak, an American teacher also working at Cosbuc, got into some trouble last February.  It happens that February is LGBT History Month in much of Europe, and Roxana and Jessica had noted the month by including LGBT issues in the voluntary human rights curriculum sponsored by the school's Center for Action and Responsibility in Education (CARE).  When word got out, Bucharest's anti-LGBT forces were not pleased.  Before long, billboards went up near the school with the words:
Could you imagine your little boy being HOMOSEXUAL? Could you see your little girl being LESBIAN? On Olari Street, around the corner [at Cosbuc], certain things happen . . .
Anti-LGBT Billboard Protesting LGBT Inclusion at Cosbuc
Inspectors descended on the school, and for a time it seemed that both Roxana and Jessica were in trouble, perhaps faced even with the loss of their teaching positions.  Sober minds prevailed in the end, but the episode was a reminder that Romania is still not firmly in the European Union on all human rights issues.  Roxana and Jessica had pushed beyond the limits of what the Bucharest school authorities are willing to accept at this time.  That is the story of Roxana's life, always pushing the limits where most anyone else would fear to go.

Roxana was a comfort to me last spring when I went through several difficult and emotional weeks.  I was now the one sitting in her garden, drinking tea and being lifted back to a positive outlook just by being in Roxana's presence.  I challenge anyone to spend an hour with Roxana and not walk away refreshed and recharged.

I felt I was back in Bucharest as Roxana and I had dinner together last Wednesday.  I heard the latest news of all my friends whom I haven't seen since June.  Roxana told me about her busy summer program of Roma activism and projects.  She was so busy that she had not packed a suitcase until the night before her flight to the US.

Roxana is on her way to North Carolina where she is part of a Fulbright program that will have her working in a U.S. high school for the next two months.  Little do the teachers and students of Boone, NC, know what a treasure is coming to their town. 

Our evening over too soon, I retrieved my bicycle and got ready to ride to my day of work that would start at 11pm on the night shift.  We both remarked how it felt like old times, as though I was at ACCEPT and was getting on my bike for the ride home.  Then Roxana handed me a small gift, a pair of earrings that I am wearing as I write this and think of her.

Drum bun, draga!  May your path be a smooth one, dear friend!  I know that you will leave a mark on the hearts and minds of many in Boone, NC, just as you have left a mark in my life.

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