International Pen Pals

Romanian Pen Pal Project


Image 1: Railroad crossing in the town and Image 2: The only paved road in the town of Sancel, Romania

Background: During the 2012-2013 school year Zapata Academy students in grades five and six corresponded with international pen pals from Sancel, Romania.  This was a collaborative cultural learning project between Ms. Hlousek's students in Chicago and Ms. Lenihan's students in Romania. 

Click here to view images of Romania.  Click download and then click download anyway.  Ms. Hlousek created this presentation.

Final Letters from Our Romanian Pen Pals - Sent June 19, 2013
Letter 1:

Dear Students of Zapata Academy,

Thank you for your last letter. Some of us don't like One Direction, but we like Lady Gaga. Some good Romanian performers are Inna, Taxi, Voltaj, and LaLa Band.

We are very happy for the summer vacation. We plan to go to the beach at the Black Sea, visit family, go swimming, play computer games, and visit other countries.

We are glad you learned good things about Romania. Chicago seems very interesting and nice.

It was very nice writing to you and receiving your letters. We hope you have a fun and relaxing summer!


Class 7A

Letter 2:

Dear Pen Friends at Zapata Academy,

Thank you for your last letters. We have been happy to collaborate with you. We are students in the 7th grade. 

We don't have video games, but we often play games on our computers. You celebrate the 4th of July in the summer, but our National Day is on 1st December. Some of us like a bit of One Direction, Adele, Bon Jovi, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga. Some good music from Romania is by Andra, Voltaj, Inna, Alexandra Stan, Corina, and CRBL. We mostly see films on TV with subtitles in Romanian (if they are foreign films).

Summer vacation begins next week. We plan to go to the Black Sea beaches, go tot he mountains, travel out of Romania, work at home, and do summer school assignments in Math and Romanian.

We would like to visit Chicago. America has many attractions. We often watch The Disney Channel which has a show set in Chicago.

We have enjoyed this experience of being pen friends. We would like to continue next year. May you have a nice and enjoyable summer.

With love from Sancel,

Class 7B

Questions from Zapata Students and Answers from Romanian Pen Pals

Questions: From Zapata Academy Students
Answers: From Ms. Lenihan, the teacher of our Romanian pen pals

Question:  In image 2 above, what is the water?  
Answer: The paved road was completely re-done over the past couple of years. That is, in fact, a built-in gutter system (only along the paved roads) to make sure no water pools along the road. Anyone whose house is along that road also has their gutters set up to empty rain water from the roof into that street ditch/gutter. Along the unpaved roads, however, there is essentially no drainage system, so nearly everyone has a big, solid pair of rubber rain boots to navigate through the mud, as there are also almost no sidewalks. 

Question:  Are there parks in Sancel?  What about bigger towns/villages?
Answer:  There is no park in the village, but there is an open field where the kids can play soccer. Right next to this field are also several cultivated bee hives, so I tend to stay away from that field during the summer. There is no playground equipment anywhere in Sancel. About 5km away, though, is the town of Blaj (pop. 20,000). Blaj does have a very nice, modern park which was entirely renovated about 2-3 years ago. Since Romania joined the European Union in 2007, they have been getting a ton of grant money to renovate infrastructure resources such as roads, railways, parks, government buildings, etc. Blaj itself has undergone heavy modernization and updating the past few years. I'll attach a few pictures of the park, and I think I can get some before/after pics of Blaj to show what it was like before the huge infusion of money.  Big cities like Bucharest, Cluj, Iasi - they all have much larger parks that mostly cultivate green space rather than offer any sort of sports fields or playgrounds. They sometimes have a wide variety of things, however. When I was in Vaslui, all the paths of the park were lined with benches. It's more of a place to be social and maybe get some shade on sunny days (no A/C).

Question:  Are there any museums near the village?
Answer:  Almost every place has a "museum." The bigger cities with universities will have REAL museums, but my small village, well, we have a "museum" but it is never open, I do not know who runs it, and I have no idea what is in it. I think villages and small towns tend to have museums that are more anthropological in nature, cataloging aspects of local culture and tradition.

Question:  Does Sancel have restaurants?  Is there a McDonald's nearby?  What restaurants are found in big cities or towns?
Answer:  Sancel JUST got a pizzeria last year! This was a big deal, and my students go there all the time on the weekends. Blaj has a few restaurants, but no chains. Just small, local places that make most of their money from hosting weddings. The closest McDonalds is in the city of Sibiu, about 42 miles away. So imagine that from the center of Little Village, you would have to go a little bit farther than Aurora to find the closest McDonalds. Locally, the restaurants serve primarily pizza or generic Romanian food (soups, meat, potatoes in various forms and possibly other vegetables). In the big touristic cities, like Brasov, Cluj, and Bucharest, you are more likely to find non-Romanian foods. I'm always on the hunt for good Tex-Mex style food, but this also tends to be more expensive than nearly any other restaurant. I haven't had good Chinese food in years, and the most expensive place I've ever been to is an Indian restaurant in Bucharest (but it was REALLY good). I found one place in Bucharest that has terrible Mexican food, except the nachos. Sancel is a little more than 210 miles from Bucharest. Big cities also have a few other American chains like Pizza Hut, Subway, and KFC, but there are even fewer of these than there are McDonalds.

Question:  Is there more than one school in Sancel?  How many students are there in the school?
Answer:  Sancel has only one school. A school district has to have an enrollment of at least 300 students in order to stay open (but many places make up these numbers so they do not get closed and lose their jobs). Larger towns will have more than one school. Blaj actually has a private Catholic school (Greek Catholic). What is a little unique here is that you have to APPLY to high schools. You are not assigned. Also, in middle school, kids can transfer to other schools. The school building in Sancel houses about 130 students on a daily basis (or less). There are also primary schools in Iclod and Panade, which are other villages in the same "comuna" (like a collective for administrative purposes). The other schools have only 2 or 3 dozen students each, but they provide only K-4 classes. All students come to Sancel for grades 5-8. 

Question:  What is the average class size?  How many classrooms are there?  How big is the school and is there more than one floor?
Answer:  My largest class is 20, but that is due to physical space limits of the classrooms. The largest room barely fits those 20 desks. My smallest class is 8 students. The 1st and 3rd graders actually share one tiny classroom. I've attached a pictures of their classroom from today. I've also attached a picture of the "gymnasium" which is actually no bigger than the average classroom. There are 9 classrooms, 1 library (same size as the classroom picture attached), the secretary's/principal's office, the teachers' lounge, and a computer room (that is almost never used). The bathrooms are actually outside and across the schoolyard. Sancel got running water only 10 years ago, so there were outhouses the students had to use. Many of the students still do not have running water at home. The building in Sancel is 2 levels. Iclod and Panade each have just one level, with only 2 or 3 classrooms.

Question:  Where do the students eat lunch?  Is there a cafeteria?  Is there a prepared hot lunch or do students bring their lunch from home?
My school does not have a lunch room or cafeteria. Out of every hour, students spend 50 minutes in class and have 10 minutes of free time. In the middle of the school day, 2 of the 10 minute breaks are combined into one long 20-minute break. This is considered a sort of "lunch" time, but students seem to be constantly eating during every break. If they eat during my class, I take their food and eat it myself because they know the rules to only eat during the breaks. Near every school, there is always a small shop offering lots of junk food for the kids to buy. I try to convince them to eat more fruits and vegetables, but too often they have chips and sweets. Students will also typically bring a sandwich from home. When I taught at a high school in a city, that school had a cafeteria called a "cantina." There is a prepared lunch each day, and students who board at the school during the week are usually the ones who eat there. Sometimes the teachers can buy lunch there, as well. It's a set menu, so what they make is what you get, no choices. Since high schools are typically only in cities or large towns, many students must travel to school with public buses and trains. Some students live so far away, they prefer to pay to stay at the dormitories during the week rather than commute every day. Students who stay in the dormitories must also take turns working in the cafeteria, either assisting the cook or cleaning up.

Question: Does the science teacher have to take materials to the classroom then since the teachers move classrooms, not the students?
Answer:  Any materials teachers use, they do have to carry around class to class--at least in my small village school. The huge high school I was at last year had separate science labs, though even these are normally occupied at all times by a set class except I had a new school principal who declared the rooms would be left open for various classes to use as their teachers required. In my school, there really isn't any science equipment. I mean, there's some, but it's 50 years old and it's never used. Mostly the history/geography teacher hauls around different maps.

Question:  Are there substitute teachers?
Answer:  There are no independent substitute teachers. If a teacher must be absent, he or she is responsible for getting other teachers to substitute in addition to their own regular classes. The absent teacher must also then personally pay the other teacher for working the extra hours.

Question:  When is the last day of school?  When does school start again in the fall?
The last day of school is next week on June 21st. Romanian schools have a 36-week school year, like most American schools. Summer vacation is 12 weeks long, so school will begin again on September 16.

Question:  What do students do over the summer?  Are there any camps or programs?  Is there summer school?
Answer:  Over the summer, families who can will go to the Black Sea for a week or so. It gets extremely crowded, so several people choose to go south to Bulgaria's beaches (they have more coastline). Mostly, kids just run around and play. There's a small stream that runs between Sancel and Iclod, and the kids told me they go swimming there when it gets extremely hot. Some kids go to other countries to visit their parents who are working abroad. Older teens even work alongside their parents all summer in Italy and Spain in order to get extra money. These are usually manual labor jobs like harvesting. They can do this easily because Romania is part of the European Union. Work documentation requirements are practically non-existent for citizens of European Union countries. Some organizations or companies offer camps, but there are no daycamps like park districts might offer in the US. If you go to camp, you usually have to pay a LOT of money for it. One of the camps in my county charges 752 lei/week. To put that in perspective, I have 714 lei/month to cover my expenses, and I make about the same as the average Romanian. There are also no daycare centers. The kindergartens all close up for the summer. There is no summer school generally offered.

Question:  Do classes take field trips?  Where do they go?
Answer: Field trips are typically rare. Romania does not have large school buses. In fact, the school bus is more like a minibus, and it seats about 16 people in addition to the driver. Fuel is even more expensive in Europe than it is in the states, so schools generally do not take big trips anywhere. This past year, the 4th graders attended a theater and arts workshop in the county capital city of Alba Iulia which is about an hour away when navigating the roads with a bus. The Royal Train made a stop in nearby Blaj, so the history teacher escorted many students into town to see it. When there's a specific religious holiday, the religion teacher often takes students to church. Although Romania's government is secular, religion classes are a part of all public school curriculum. I have heard of some high schools organizing skiing or camping trips during holiday breaks, but these are typically independently done between teachers and students wherein the school is not officially part of the trip and everyone pays their own way.

Question:  Do students wear uniforms?
Answer:  As for uniforms, every student is expected to own a school uniform, but they are almost never required to wear it. Grades 1-4 are most likely to wear them, but not every student does so every day. Some families are too poor to afford a school uniform as they can get quite expensive compared to the preferred method of second-hand clothes shopping. I've never seen middle school or high school students wear them. Private schools might have different rules.

Question:  What holidays are celebrated?  What do they do on those holidays?
Answer: The two major holidays are Christmas and Easter. Both are considered to be 3-day holidays in Romania. In December, it is traditional for a family to kill and prepare a pig for the Christmas feast. All parts of the pig are used and consumed. Not all families do this, but it is quite popular in the countryside. Meat becomes a large part of holiday feasts because Romanians often endure a long period of fasting from any meat or animal products before the holiday. Imagine eating vegan for 5-7 weeks a few times each year. In addition to lots of food, there are often carolers who go house to house. If they're adults, they're hoping for monetary tips. Young children are typically rewarded with an orange or sweets. In the week before Christmas, it is common to see Romanians purchasing buckets full of oranges. Some gifts might be exchanged between friends. These are typically small. Children are more likely to receive a single large gift rather than lots of presents. Lamb is the traditional meat for Easter. There are actually quite few other holidays where schools and businesses close. December 1st is the Romanian National Day to celebrate the unification of the multiple kingdoms into one country. Martisor is another cultural holiday. In addition to celebrating birthdays, Romanians also celebrate the feast days of the Saints which share their names. So a woman with the name Maria would celebrate the feast day of Saint Mary in the same manner one would celebrate the day of your physical birth.

Question:  Can you describe traditional Romanian food? 
Answer:  As for food, 'friptura' is very common. This is translated as "steak" but it is not necessarily beef steak. It's typically grilled meat from any number of animals, but most commonly pork. There is almost never a lunch or dinner meal provided without soup. Soup is a staple. Soups can be on the sweet side or the sour side. Often, a homemade soup with meat, such as chicken, will have nearly every part of the animal in the soup. For example, a friend of mine here was served a bowl of soup which contained both the goose's skull (with brains inside) and the goose's heart. In the countryside, these animals are raised by the family as a regular source of food so precious funds do not have to go towards buying something which the family can provide itself. As such, no part is allowed to go to waste. Anything not consumed by the family will typically go to feed the dog which guards their yard. Bread is also provided at every meal. Vegetables are typically much the same as we commonly eat in the US: potatoes, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, beans, parsley, garlic, corn, onions, peppers, etc. Apples, plums, grapes and other fruits are also common. In rural areas, much of the produce comes from the family's garden. One of my favorite foods is called 'sarmale' which are basically stuffed cabbage rolls. They can also be rolled up with grape leaves, which is my preference. They're stuffed with ground meat, rice, parsley and some other veggies, slow boiled for 4 hours in a mixture of water and tomato paste, and served with sour cream. My favorite dessert is called 'papanași' which is a fried cottage cheese and dough ball topped with a sweet cream and fruit preserves, usually blueberries.

Question:  What kinds of candy is available in Romania?
Answer:  Romania has a few sweets that you find in the US, such as Snickers, Twix, M&Ms, and KitKat. However, there are no Hershey's products whatsoever!!! As such, there are a multitude of different chocolate bar companies. My favorites are Milka and Africana. There are also lots of other candies: soft, hard, chewy, crunchy, fruity, nutty, etc. There's a popular candy bar called a Lion Bar. The costs vary greatly. Some candy is really cheap. Most American candy companies make more expensive candy compared to some European companies. I cannot get any Reese's unless someone mails them to me, and I LOVE Reese's.

Question:  Are there any large sports stadiums?
Answer:  There are no sports stadiums the size of Soldier Field, but there are a few stadiums around the country. These are mostly football (aka soccer) stadiums for the local team. I had such a stadium when I lived in Vaslui.

Question:  Does the village ever have a carnival or fair?  Are there rides if there is a carnival or fair? 
Answer:  There are some local celebrations in the village, but typically nothing that involves resources from outside the village. The population is just too small to support a carnival visit. Blaj, the town nearby, has hosted some attractions in the past. In fact, they just had a HUGE outdoor concert called BlajAlive! that attracted more than 6,000 people. Many of my kids went to that and there were a few really small rides for really small kids. Generally, though, there are not the size or variety of attractions one would find at a typical American carnival or festival (like Taste of Chicago). There are some traveling circuses around Romania, but they tend to be very small, and I don't think the animals are treated very well, so I don't ever go to see them.

Question:  Is there a large amusement park in Romanian similar to the American Six Flags Great America?
Answer:  There are no large amusement parks here. The closest that I know of is EuroDisney in France. There might be something closer in Germany, but definitely not in Romania. There are a few water parks, however, but nothing like Wisconsin Dells.

Question:  Are there movie theaters?  Do the movie theaters ever show American movies?
Answer:  There are movie theaters only in some of the biggest towns and cities. The closest is about an hour away in Alba Iulia, but that cinema shows only one movie at a time. You have to go to Sibiu or Cluj (both about 2 hours away) if you want to have any choice about what movie you see. The cinemas have all the most popular American films! I went to see Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 several weeks ago when I was visiting another larger city. The movies have the audio in English, but there are Romanian subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Kids movies almost always have the audio in Romanian because they cannot read fast enough yet to understand subtitles. There are also occasional Romanian movies and other international films.

Question:  Are there large concerts?  Is there a venue for this?  In Chicago we have free concerts downtown in Millennium Park and plenty of paid concerts at venues ranging from Symphony Center to the United Center.  Any similarities or differences? 
Answer:  Concerts outside of cities are sometimes rare. More often, there will be an organized music festival, either in a town or out in an open field (with generators running the audio system). Most big performers who visit Romania will only perform in Bucharest, where there is a venue that can hold several thousand people. More towns and cities are working on developing large, open public places outdoors that can support concerts and performances in the warm months. Otherwise, most places are restricted to the use of their "Casa de Cultura" (literally translated and Culture House) which typically has an assembly hall or auditorium of some sort for performances. Still, outside of Bucharest, such events are not a regular part of life.

Question:  Who are the Romanian celebrities or famous people?
Answer: I'm not sure if there are any Romanian celebrities that people would recognize in the U.S. Singers or members of bands are typically most well-known, followed by soccer athletes, and the country's rich and powerful whenever they have personal drama. Talk show hosts are known, but necessarily in the tabloids all the time. Current popular musicians include Voltaj, Smiley, Inna, Lala Band, and Taxi. Perhaps some of the most well-known Romanians in American culture are ones who are no longer living. Bela Lugosi, who played Dracula in the first film every produced about the iconic vampire, was born in Timisoara, a city at the western point of the country. I think he was technically a Hungarian ethnically, but Romania likes to claim him due to geographic location of birth. Speaking of Dracula, Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, is also a well-known figure of Romanian history, though most of what Americans learn about him is irrelevant to his actual historical role and impact in Romania. In fact, Romania was mostly unaware of the Dracula mythology until Westerners began visiting and demanding to see sites related to the infamous prince. Today, Bran Castle, commonly referred to as Dracula's Castle, actually has no historical connection to either Vlad Tepes or vampire mythology, but the people of Bran make a lot of money off tourists who don't care to know any better. In more recent history, Nadia Comaneci was the first female gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics (back when the scoring was done on a 1-10 scale). If your students one day read the novel Night by Elie Wiesel, the author was born in the far north Romanian town of Sighet which sits right on the border with the Ukraine. Romania lost control of Sighet in 1940 and Hungarian authorities allowed the German army to deport the Jewish population to concentration camps in 1944. This is not to say the Holocaust didn't play out in Romania. In fact, whether or not the Holocaust happened in Romania is still a contested issue, and Romanians are not actually required to learn anything at all about the Holocaust.

Question:  Do Romanians have the same kinds of cars as Americans?
Answer:  SUVs are definitely a rarity around here, in part because the road are quite narrow. I saw a Hummer one day (with American license plates no less) and couldn't stop laughing at the behemoth trying to navigate its way through tightly packed medieval streets. It got stuck and had to back up. It is more common for a Romanian to own a used car rather than a new car. Nearly all cars are imported to Romania. Romania has its own car brand, the Dacia. Those little cars last forever!  It's not uncommon to see an old Dacia that's at least 20-30 years old still speeding around the country roads. Cars are also a status symbol, however, so some people strive to get bigger or newer cars with more features (like a sunroof) included. There is only one actual highway in Romania so far, and they're working on building more, but it will be quite some time until the roads are easier and more efficient upon which to drive.

  Do Romanians have the same kinds of phones? Do people have smart phones?
Answer: Some people have smartphones, but these are relatively VERY expensive to purchase and use. The iPhone is still quite rare outside of the largest cities. Many people, though, will get a phone that can be used to download or upload music, and then this is used in place of an MP3 player.

 Do most people have a computer?  What about WiFi?  Are there any places where people can go to use the internet?
Answer:  Most families try to have at least one computer, regardless if they can afford it or not. My poorest students do not have a computer at home. This is the situation mostly for families that engage only in farming for their survival and income. People who work in businesses or offices are more likely to have a computer and internet access. The internet connections in Romania actually tend to be better than the US because ALL the wiring and equipment is generally less than 10 years old. Some people have WiFi at home, but typically only if they have more than one computer or want to move their laptop around. I have WiFi because I share my internet with the neighbor across the street. McDonalds always seems to have free WiFi and a few cafes will offer WiFi access. Generally, however, there are not internet cafes like volunteers in rural Africa usually need. I guarantee you, however, that EVERYONE has a TV and cable or satellite service. Every family. It's practically sacrilegious to NOT have a TV. For 2 years in Vaslui, I didn't have a TV and all my students were HORRIFIED that I wouldn't go buy one and pay for cable service. You can visit a 300-year-old peasant house with a cow out front and there will still be a big satellite dish hanging on the front of the house to link the TV to the outside world.

Question:  Do the students play video games?  Do the students have game systems?
Answer: There aren't too many traditional video games systems (like PS3, Xbox, Nintendo Wii) available. It's much easier for kids to find free games online, usually on Facebook or other free sites. Most games they play are developed by American companies. Several of the boys are especially fond of a free sample version of Counterstrike they found online.

Question:  Do the students read comic books?  If yes, do they have any favorites?  
Answer:  Students unfortunately do not read comic books. Books here are actually quite hard to get and are relatively expensive. Local libraries do not have lots of brand new books, and there are no sharing systems set up between libraries. Large book stores are almost always exclusively found at large malls in bigger cities. Local book stores will have just a few books and will also have a heavy focus on selling office and school supplies. The local shops are also independently run, rather than be part of a commercial chain like Barnes & Noble.

Question:  Could you provide a few price comparisons of the lei vs the dollar?  For example, how much a common grocery store item would cost in dollars vs lei?
Answer:  The exchange rate between RON (lei) and USD (dollar) can fluctuate, but it typically sits at around 3-3.5 lei to 1 dollar. I live on about $260/month (not including rent). Some items will be cheaper here than in the US, especially produce that is purchased in season. For example, in July-the height of watermelon season-watermelons will be 1 leu/kilogram or 0.45/lb. In USD, that's about 14 cents/pound. I'm not sure what watermelon goes for these days in Chicago (between 0.49 cents/lb and 0.29 cents/lb), but I doubt it's ever as little as that. The same goes for tomatoes in August and September, and other staple items. Imported items that aren't popular in the Romanian diet always cost the most, like avocados. You can get an avocado at Jewel-Osco this week for 79cents/each. In Romania, it would be almost 2x as much.                       

Question:  How old does one have to be in Romania to get married?
Answer: In Romania, boys can get married at the age of 18 and girls can get married at the age of 16.