Europe’s most Illuminated Gutter (Part 1: The Canal)

On my last day at the social centre a man came up to me and asked if I would like to talk to him. Wow. This was a first.

Of course, I accepted. I got the key for my usual room went to look for the man and then conducted my interview. This man talked a LOT. A lot, lot. Mostly not about the questions I asked him, but he gave me a lot of background information on life in the Gutter, or the canal, as they call it here.

He told me a lot about his life and about the hierarchy in the canal. He told me how there was a chef who took care of him when he arrived, and who made sure everyone was doing well in the canal. He was the one that sold the drugs to everyone, but also the man who took care of his flatmates and made sure they had food, water, electricity and medicine if they needed it.

On top of all of this, he taught me how not to get robbed by people like him. He told me all about his escapades in Germany, Italy, Austria, France, etc. and how he made his living as a thief. (Blog entry about this topic coming soon. Keep coming back to find out what you can do to not get robbed, the Bucharest street edition-24.04.2014)

Back to the canal.

Today was the day that the street worker, another volunteer and I would go to the canal at Gara de Nord, or according to one of the inhabitants: Europe’s most illuminated Gutter.

I am not exactly sure what he meant by this statement. Did he mean that they had the brightest people living there? The gutter with the most electricity? The most light? Or maybe, and most likely, he meant that it was the most well-known gutter in Europe. When you talk to Romanians, or Expats living in Romania and you ask them where you can find people who are homeless, they will not hesitate to tell you: in the canal at Gara de Nord. This inhabitant of the gutter also told us that many journalists had come to take pictures of the place. Journalists from all over Europe have come to take a look at their home to take pictures, to show the world what horrible state they live in.

I want to give a different perspective on this. Yes, it is a stuffy, crowded, hot, probably flea and other bug infested place to live, but it is also an alternative to living in the cold. It is an alternative to death, and it is an example of freedom.

If I have learnt anything from talking to many people who have spent years, if not almost their whole lives, living on the streets it’s that many enjoy the lifestyle. Yes, it is dangerous and violent, but for many it is also a life where they can enjoy liberty. Liberty from the state, laws, abusive homes and orphanages.

Although I made sure I looked and sounded tough when THE STREETWORKER asked me if I wanted to join him, I really wasn’t. To be honest, I was terrified to go down there today. I had some trouble sleeping and was worried that similar feelings of fear of the dark, the depth, the unknown would overcome me like it did in the bat cave in Nepal.

I made sure nobody knew.

After all, this isn’t an opportunity you get thrown at you every day. It’s not usual to be able to go see a place that so many ignore, that so many people don’t know exists.

First I saw the other volunteer climb down. As soon as she reached the bottom, I began my climb. Once I reached the bottom I no longer saw her. In fact, I no longer saw anything. I started to feel all those feelings come up. The fear of being left behind in a deep, dark and dirty hole. I was beginning to fear the worst, all logic had left me. It’s kind of sad to think back now, in the privacy of my room, to think that that’s all it takes for me to get so scared…after all the places I’ve been to and all the things I’ve seen…something like this still scares me.

I was left alone, I couldn’t see THE OTHER VOLUNTEER or our friend from the social centre that wanted to show us the place he used to live in. Behind me I saw a wall with a little hole underneath it, so I decided to bend own and peer through the hole. Sure enough I saw some feet and legs, as well as some carpes. Ah. That’s where I’m supposed to go.

I was glad I am so small and climbed through the hole that wasn’t any taller than half a metre. There I was. Standing in the middle of a living room. As I looked up I saw a man with snot coming out his nose, spit coming out of his mouth and a bloated, dirty face. After swallowing all the spit I had in my mouth, and not taking a deep breath because of the stench, I smiled and said Buna ziua. I got a response and as I was searching the room for THE OTHER VOLUNTEER, I found her standing a couple of metres in front of me. I quickly walked towards her past other men, a woman and a child (approximately 20 people) who were either standing up or laying on their beds, but mostly sitting down. The place wasn’t crowded, but it was quite full. The small path between the two concrete tubes that are Bucharest’s sewage systems was kept pretty clean. There were only very few plastic bottles and cups on the floor. The tubes were covered in carpets and blankets. At first I didn’t see everything, it took some time for me to actually see where I was. As I walked towards the end of the room, I began to see where I was heading.

I was heading towards the social centre of the canal. The drug kitchen.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER was talking to the man that had taught me so much about stealing, whom I have gotten quite fond of. He told me several times to be careful of the people in the canal, to be careful what I touch and to make sure I don’t touch any of the syringes that are there. He took care of me.

I meet up with THE OTHER VOLUNTEER before we are introduced to THE LEADER, the leader of the canal. I quickly shook hands with him and introduced myself. He knew I came with THE STREETWORKER, who goes to this canal every Friday to keep in touch with the people that might want some assistance from the NGO.

Another inhabitant tells me that he is so glad that THE LEADER is now here, because he made this place the place it is. Before it used to be really bad, but it was his sole doing. This place. THE LEADER heard this and retorted with a smile and a: no, it wasn’t my doing. It was God’s doing. As we turn around to leave, our guide from the centre tells me that it was all THE LEADER’s doing with the help of God that this place was now safer, had electricity and was this clean.

On our way out I made sure not to touch anything as I saw that syringes were not only neatly placed in cups on the counter that was separating THE LEADER and his closest friends from the rest of the inhabitants, but also in peoples arms, mouths and necks; as well as on the carpets and the floor.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER made sure to quickly tell me to make sure I am careful where I place my hands because of all the syringes she also saw before we climbed back out of the hole.

In retrospect, I was imagining the place to be larger, but I hadn’t imagined it to be this bright or warm. The warmth coming from the concrete tubes made me sweat under my jacket and sweater. The light made it almost unnecessary for my eyes to adjust once I finally reached the room. The flat-screen T.V. was showing Romanian television and the ventilator made sure that there fresh air could always come into the canal. This, I was later told, was the biggest problem with living in the canal: fresh air.

Something else I learnt later from THE STREETWORKER, was that in this small space, that seemed to be quite full with the 20 or so people there when I visited, was the sleeping place for somewhere between 80 and 100 people. Where do they sleep? They have to be sleeping on top of one another for them all to fit. I was talking to THE OTHER VOLUNTEER about this a little, and she agreed with me in assuming that at night maybe 40 people or so would be sleeping in there. We both could not believe 80-100 people could even fit into that small space.

As we were back on the outside, in the cold, grey daylight that Bucharest had to offer today, our guide told us about the canal across the street. This one was supposedly very similar, but quite a bit larger. We were also told that they were planning on building a shower in the other canal.

This piece of information was very interesting for me, because it shows that this really is a home for these people. It is the place where they live and spend many, many years of their lives. Our guide himself had lived in this particular canal since 1989.

After walking around the large place and park in front of the train station and giving out tea to people who are homeless, I engaged in some more conversation with our guide. He told me something I had previously also heard in some of my interviews, one of the worst things of living on the street is not the hunger or thirst or need for drugs, it’s that everyone either ignores you or usually looks at you with a face of disgust, makes sure there is a big space around you or makes sure that you are nowhere near the actual train station because you might upset some people with your mere presence.

I am sure you have done the same, I am sure I have done the same…ignored beggars on the street. Yes they might be dirty and might not smell good. Yes they might be high and off the rocker, but the next time you walk past someone try to not change your path. Stay on the path you were on. I am not asking you to talk to everyone or to give them something, but just acknowledge their presence. Who knows, maybe you’ll make their day with a smile and a quick Hello or Good Morning.

Reflections on my placement research project

After having looked what the children had drawn and written down, I want to make some quick comments. I have not yet fully analysed all the data I received, but have developed some common themes within the different pieces of art and writing.

Most commonly, people who are homeless are seen to be as very poor, sad, begging and wearing very torn, broken and ripped clothes. Some examples even went as far as missing arms and legs, not having many teeth and hair and being very thin.

I was surprised to see that, for the most part, the children drew adults and not…like I was expecting…children. I wonder why this is. Could it be that the people they see on the streets are mostly adults? Do they not imagine that a child could live on the streets without their parents? This would be an interesting question to ask for further research.

Something else that I was surprised about, that I mentioned briefly in my last post, was the lack of distinction between Gypsy and homeless. When I told the kids I wanted to find out what they thought about people who are homeless, some immediately jumped to the conclusion that I meant Gypsies. Although I shortly talked to them about the difference and that Gypsy is a unique ethnic group and that they aren’t in fact always poor I obviously couldn’t change these children’s minds. A boy even drew a lady who was very poor and living in a Gypsy camp for his assignment of drawing a person who is homeless. I guess he wasn’t completely wrong (traditionally Gypsies are a nomadic people that don’t have a home in the sense that many Westerners see a home), but I personally think that putting these two minority groups into one bucket is slightly racist towards both groups. This is something else that would be interesting to further investigate: What do private school children perceive Gypsies to be like. After finding this out, it would be interesting to compare the images/data from the research on the perceptions of homelessness and of Gypsies.

It was a little sad that I had to rush my research due to lack of time, but I was still able to gather the data I needed and wanted for my research. It would be great to conduct this research on a larger scale and with more available time. Now that I have some data I think it would be interesting to see whether/how the perceptions change as people get older. It would also be interesting to see if a child’s heritage/other countries of residence have an impact on how they see people who are homeless. A short discussion was started on this as a girl stated that she sometimes thought that her entire country of origin was filled with people who are homeless because there was so much poverty where she came from. Having a large-scale discussion on this topic would be very interesting.

As you can see this topic still interests me quite a lot. There are lots of different questions wizzing around in my head about where else this research could go…I probably should stop thinking about this now though, because I will be able to write a whole second dissertation on this topic if my questions keep coming….never mind the dissertation, I could write a book on this topic….oh oh. Okay, enough on this topic. I am starting to go crazy in thinking about writing dissertations and books and all those things.

Maybe someday.
But that day is not today.
I’ll keep this in mind.

Speaking of keeping things in mind, would you be interested in reading more about this…in a more academic manner? Children’s perceptions of homelessness?

One slow day and one day of serious focus group action.

Monday was a very, very slow day. I got to the centre a little early, so everyone was still in the lunch room. That didn’t bother me. I went upstairs, got the key for my room and went to my room to prepare for the day. I thought I had a big day ahead of me. I wanted to get my focus groups going.

Once I’m ready, I head out of the room towards the Café that is usually very full of people drinking coffee and tea. Not today. So I go downstairs and outside, around the building and into the other building. I see a couple of people, but nobody I know. So I start to go back inside to see if Marius is now in his office.

He is.
So I ask him about going to visit the school in the other centre run by the same NGO. He agrees and tells me I can go on Wednesday. Yes. Awesome.

I still don’t really find anyone. So I take matters into my own hands. Thank god I made a quick ‘what’s important on the street’ survey. I basically force whoever I see to talk to me and even talk one person into doing a longer interview with me. In the end I get one focus group done as well. Still…it was a very, very strange day. I recognized nearly nobody.

Tuesday was quite different. The centre was still not bustling and full of life like the past week, but I saw more familiar faces and was able to get two focus groups going. This time however, I decided to just do everything I wanted to do in a focus group at once. No more ‘oh, but they need time’ or ‘but I don’t want to use up 30 minutes of their precious time’. No more. I just did everything I had to do: positives, negatives and interesting aspects of life on the streets, what was learnt on the street, personal learning timelines, a picture of the most important lesson and short interviews about all of those things. It was a good day.

As of now, I have all the data I need for my dissertation.

I think.
I hope.

Tomorrow I will be going back in just to see if anyone else is willing to do any of my research schedules with me…an interview, a focus group, just have a chat. I feel like most of the people who want to talk to me have done so already. Many have talked to me on several occasions. I have my eye on 4 more people who were busy doing other activities today. I might get them to do another focus group with me. We’ll see.

Besides that possibility, tomorrow I have an exciting day ahead of me. In the morning I will be heading in to the school to conduct the first part of my placement research. In the afternoon I’ll be back in the centre and a little later I’ll be able to visit the school that the NGO has created for the people who are homeless.

727 Days without Karamo, an opinionated review.

Saturday, 22nd of March 2014: 727 Days without Karamo

I really did not know what to expect. I did not read the movie description, all I knew was that it was in German with English and Romanian Subtitles. The timeslot fit, the cinema was not far from my house and it was a documentary about something human rights related.

Sounds good, no? Let’s go.

The movie ended up being about intercultural marriages in Austria (how fitting for me, no? Austrian national, with a boyfriend from Venezuela…if we ever decide to get married and live in Austria this is what’s ahead of us…oh god. Well thank god that’s not happening any time soon ^^)

The movie followed several different relationships at different stages in the work permit, and visa bureaucracy. I knew it was difficult to get married to a non-Austrian as an Austrian person, but I didn’t know that the state made it THAT difficult for people. Much like the couples in the movie, I thought that once you got your work permit and your official marriage out of the way you would be able to stay in the country for as long as you wanted. Guess not. Even if you are married, you have to renew your permits first every year and after a couple of years, every two years…for the rest of your life. WHAT?

The best part comes next though, if you want to get a divorce…because how DARE you want to get a divorce? You must have only gotten married to stay in this country and now that you have your permit you want to get divorced! It has nothing to do with the fact that the divorce rate in Austria is at 50%. How dare international marriages want to get a divorce!

Anyway, if you want to get a divorce…no matter if you have a job, friends, a life, etc. in Austria you will be kindly asked to leave the country.

Now I dare someone to tell me that Austria’s not really racist.

On top of all of these problems, as a couple (or family) you need to have a certain amount of income. And this is a number that’s quite high (For a couple E1200). Now if two people work that isn’t too bad and can be easily reached, but the problem is that unless you have a work permit, you are not allowed to work. You only get the work permit after you have successfully found the exit to the bureaucratic maze that is created by the government. So, it is up to the Austrian in the relationship to make all the money.

Good luck.

Something that stuck with me from this movie are the colours yellow and orange. I am still not sure why, but there was a LOT of yellow in the film. Every scene that showed the different families and partners they were either wearing yellow, the background was yellow, even the bicycle one of the women was riding was yellow. If someone knows the answer to this, please let me know what it means!

After having sat in the cinema for around an hour and a half, I was very glad I randomly picked a movie to watch. It seemed like fate to see such a great movie about a topic that usually isn’t broadcasted at any human rights events. I liked that the festival didn’t only focus on the usual suspects like China, India, Congo, etc. but that movies from countries like Austria were also shown. A country that despite its surprisingly bad Human Rights Record is not seen as a country of huge concern in this area.

Thank you One World Romania curators!

One world Romania

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This past week was the One World Romania  Film Festival. The picture above was taken in the Muzeul Taranului (Peasant Museum).

I am not a film critic, and will not pretend to be. I don’t know much about films. I just know I enjoy watching documentaries and somehow end up at different film festivals. If you want a proper review of this festival or the movies I am going to talk about, this is not the place to go. I will simply give my opinions and impressions from the two movies I watched: 727 days without Kamaro and American Vagabond. Stay on the lookout for them on a new segment I am calling Thoughtful Thursday...even if my writing wont be particularly thoughtful. I like the alliteration, okay?

Impressions of Bucharest

All I want to do today is leave you with some impressions from the Bucharest I have learnt to love over the years and fell more in love with yesterday.

These are different angles of the view from the terrace of the national museum of contemporary art (MNAC)

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And the facade of the museum…the back of the people’s palace!

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What I think is cool about this little museum is its location. It is in the second largest building in the world and lets you see another side of the highly exuberant building. The tour that you can take of the building only shows you a tiny part of the palace and this museum lets you see another one.

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That’s the entrance hall.
One of my favourite pieces was the following

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I’m going to let your own mind wonder and wander about the meaning of this piece. The artist’s fingerprints create a rainbow barbed wire fence…the imagery and symbolism of this hit me pretty hard.

Also, here are some kisses for those that need them:

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On another kind of art…I have written before on my thoughts of graffiti and Bucharest’s very own wallers wall. Enjoy some of the beauties:

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And something motivational for the end:

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The two extremes

Today has been a slightly strange day. I got up quite early to go to the private school where I will be conducting my small research project to have a meeting with the principal about my project.

After that I took the bus to the NGO where I’m doing my research. Seriously. I went from one extreme to the other. Rich school to a centre for people who have nowhere else to go.

Personally, I think that these extremes are perfect examples for the way Bucharest is set up. There is such a huge number of people living off the €200 they make at their jobs (and I am not talking about really ‘bad’ jobs, but jobs regular people do. You know, building things, shop assistants, etc.), and a large number of people that do not even have that, but there are also a great number of people who make millions. You can see them drive around in their Porsches and Ferraris, which for me is strange, becuase at the number of potholes in the roads I wonder how their cars aren’t constantly broken…

Something that is great about Bucharest though, is that there is a growing middle class. It is definitely growing and quite visibly doing so. An example of this is the Pipera-Tunari area. 15 years ago there was nothing there. And when I mean nothing, there really was NOTHING. Grazing land. Sheep. The former owner of the area sold the land at pretty high prices and now resides in a huge villa. Around 1o years ago some expats began moving into the area because a school had recently moved there. But the amount of growth that has happened in the last 5 years is amazing.

The last time I was in Bucharest (2.5 years ago) some companies had built buildings and there were some new offices, but now this is a new place. People actually take the metro to the last stop now. There is more than one maxitaxi route, huge office parks, new bridges criss-crossing roads to reduce traffic, restaurants, shops, supermarkets. Everything you can think of. It’s a proper suburb now.I still remember when Taxis wouldn’t take you to this part of town without charging twice the rate because they would have to drive back to the town empty.

It’s strange, because Bucharest has developed so much over the last couple of years. Some other changes that I have observed are that people dress differently than they used to, there is actually less traffic although peoples lives have improved, you can just go to the supermarket and buy whatever it is you need, there are fewer street dogs and what seems to be a higher percentage of spayed and neutered dogs (seen by a tag in their ears). There are also more people riding bicycles and scooters. The buses are air-conditioned and peoples’ driving seems to be following the laws at least some of the time.

It’s great to see this city become more and more developed without losing its charm. Despite the many changes it is still the Bucharest I loved. No matter how much certain aspects of the city are turned onto their head, some things never change.

School? Education? Not interested.

So far, I have conducted six interviews on schooling and homelessness. I do not want to go into too much detail on my questions, and just want to give some examples of the stories I have heard. I will give two examples that will show the complexity of the situation that homelessness is.

First, I would like to give an example that might be exactly what one thinks of when they hear the term of homeless and Bucharest, Romania in one sentence:

Man 1: 30 years old.
The first time he ran away from home, he was only 5 1/2 years old. He was moved between abusive child centres, his abusive home and the abusive streets. He started using Aurolac (car paint in a plastic bag-the drug of choice for the children of the streets of Bucharest) at a very early age and did not go to school. Living on the streets was like a game to him until he was 18 years old. It was only then that he realized that he was no longer a child, and that the state would no longer provide for him. He did not attend school, does not know how to read or write and lived day after day not moving around, stealing here and there, carrying boxes of beer or juice from vans into shops for a little bit of money every now and again. At age 30 he is mentally and physically ill and is attempting to get off the streets. Education is still of no interest to him.

Not everyone is like this. Just like everywhere else there are people who get to the streets because of mistakes they have made in their later lives.

Man 2: 30 years old
Moved on to the streets at age 28 after his girlfriend of 12 years broke up with him and he began using drugs. He did not want his family to know, so he moved to the streets to avoid them being ashamed of him. This man has completed high school, speaks English very well and enjoys reading. He enjoyed it so much that he would read with a flashlight in the abandoned building he was staying in despite the laughter coming from his street companions. After some time, the others became interested in reading and he began to teach them how to read and write. A year after moving onto the streets he heard about a certain social service centre that could help him get off the streets. He has been there and at home since December. His love for reading and his belief that education is important has turned him into a sort of teacher for 3 friends (2 on the street and one in the centre).

I wanted to give these two very different examples of homelessness to show the complexity of my study and to show that just like everybody else, there are those that enjoy and those that do not enjoy school and studying.

I will be conducting some focus groups to see where reading, writing, mathematics lie on the scale of importance for different people who have been involved with the streets as well as when the most educative phases of their time on the streets were.

The homeless child experiment. A response

I recently found this video on youtube, and am not quite sure how to respond to it. Yes, it’s showing some interesting and probably true sides of society’s ignorance towards homelessness, but it is also giving what I feel to be somewhat false information on (child) homelessness in the USA and subsequently the rich world. In the UK alone, there are 80,000 children that are homeless; they may not be as obviously homeless as in developing countries, but they are homeless nonetheless. Before writing my thoughts on the video, I want to say that these are my personal opinions and that, in case I begin to sound like a terrible person by criticizing a video like this, it is my goal in life to at least attempt to make the world a better place for at least one person. I want to do this by finding the best way possible; and that is only possible if I look very critically at existing ways of creating a brighter future.

Before I say any more, please take a couple of minutes to watch the video.

While it is quite interesting to see whether people do or do not give money to a seemingly homeless child in the USA, I think the way this study was carried out was slightly strange. Yes, it’s not an academic study, but I think youtube videos shouldn’t be underestimated. The number of people that have watched this video is huge, 2,367,659 at the time of writing this post. Much like journals written for the general public are taken very seriously, this video is taken as truth by many.

One woman brings up what I want to say: She says that there are 29 million beggars on the street, and that she has seen child beggars herself.

While it is quite hard to disagree with a video like this, I would like to say that it is terrible that, at the end of the day Fouseytube had collected only $2.10, but at the same time, I do not particularly like how he handled certain situations. I feel statements like: “in the third world” or “son of america” make this quite an egocentric piece of work. To me, it seems like this video is saying: there are beggars in the third world, but there aren’t any in the US, so let’s see what happens if I put a beggar in the streets of Los Angeles. Which, is an interesting concept (that was inspired by this video).

He wants to make a change in society, but how? He looks at who will give money, and in the end he calls us to give money to “help those in need”. He goes as far as saying the following:

“You see, we’re in a position where we are blessed enough to help those who are in need. We got shoes on our feet we got clothes on our back and we’ve got food to eat, we’ve got a roof over our head. What about the countries that don’t. What about the kids dying, the kids starving, the kids who don’t have anything and nobody to help or do anything for them.”

Personally, I have quite a problem with statements like this. Just because somebody lives in a world that is very different to the one we live in, it does not mean that they are livig in dire poverty and are sad and horrible. Yes, there may be some like that, but for that we do not have to go to the developing world.

I have travelled and lived in developing countries for almost my entire life. I have read many articles and books, discussed with academics the discussions of aid, and developing countries, reducing poverty. Aid is not the only option, it may not even be a good option. I still haven’t made my mind up about whether or not aid is doing more good than bad in the world. There are many problems that come along with giving money to the less fortunate. For one, it is making developing nations dependent on the rich states which may lead to a whole new way of colonization.

Also, I feel like Fouseytube has a very western-centric viewpoint that we must help those in need. That we, as the rich community, the ones who have EVERYTHING, should be giving to those who have NOTHING.

Let me just leave it here, that travelling through rural Nepal (the poorest area in one of the worlds poorest countries) was where I met some of the friendliest, most welcoming, and emotionally, culturally, personally rich people I have ever known.

I am all for finding ways of helping countries and people develop, but I am also for finding the best way of doing it, even if it means going against the current and writing posts like this.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am glad that people are trying to do good in the world…the world sure needs it! And I am glad that there are people like Fouseytube out there, who try to show the public how we react to certain problems and how we should change our attitudes. I just think we need to think twice about certain things we say, to reflect on what we are really saying and to not live with an attitude that says: I live in a rich world, there are no poor people here. Therefore I have to give money to those poor poor people in the poor countries so they can feed themselves.

The problems of poverty go a lot deeper than that, and giving someone money isn’t necessarily going to alleviate the poverty they live in.