May 21, 2010 – It started out with just the two of us. Mihaela and I, sitting for lunch at a little wooden table at the “One” café, right next door to the Caragiale Film and Theater University in central Bucharest, where I’d been invited to teach for two weeks on my Fulbright Senior Specialist grant in American Studies. It was the first day after the first class of Solo Performance and only 7 out of the 19 students had bothered to show up, half of them late. You know, “Romanian time.” At least they all could speak English and understand me.
“Let’s get started,” I had enthused. “You are all unique and amazing human beings, and each of you have extraordinary stories inside you. You just don’t know it yet, and you probably have never been asked to look inside yourselves before for creativity, inspiration, and originality.”
I had seen this same under-attendance problem in Malaysia eight years ago on my previous Fulbright residency. There was nothing I could do about it, then or now. It was beyond my control. Just show up and do what I came to do. “Build a field and they will come,” right?
But now, with no car and no place to go, I took my Romanian Fulbright host, Ioana’s, advice:
“The food is good and cheap,” she assured me.
Fortunately, Mihaela had pity on me and joined me. The class had gone well enough, but what did I know about formerly communist Romania, run by the brutal Ceaucescu, where one didn’t speak what one thought… unless you wanted to be persecuted, sent to prison, or maybe “eliminated” altogether. But now in 2010, young Romanians wanted to leave this political yoke behind them. That’s why they had invited me here. They were hungry for American concepts like freedom, self-expression, and creativity, the very things I taught at USC.
Lunch is good. “Chorba,” a Romanian vegetable and chicken borscht with sour cream and freshly-baked bread, just like my ancestors had eaten in the schtetls of Kharkov and Odessa, before they made their trans-Atlantic voyages to New York in the early 20th century.
The next day, I have 15 students up in the attic. I talk. And they listen. I don’t have anything scripted but the simple truth is that I’ve been doing this for so many years that I actually know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen the power of stories. I’ve seen them release their own authors from years of shame and secrecy. And I’ve seen these same stories make audiences stand on their feet with recognition and appreciation.
Every day after class, I go out to lunch. The second day, we are three. The third day, five. More chorba, bread and strong coffee. Every day we grow in number. It’s strange though, because I’ve never had lunch with a single student in my 24 years at USC. It’s not my thing. I like to keep boundaries. But now, I’m breaking bread with my Romanian students, and we’re talking about vampires, America in the 60s, gypsies living on the sides of the road in Moldavia, about courage and cowardice, about … life. It’s a new lesson for the professor: Students are so much more than bodies, hearts, and minds, sitting or moving around in front of you, wanting to learn. They are actually “people” too.
Eric Trules – Fulbright to Romania 2010