Friday, May 22, 2015

Romania: More than just Soviet-block neighborhoods and Dracula stories

Above: The view of the Black Sea from the newly-renovated Pavilion C of the Mangalia City Hospital, Romania, May 20, 2015. The project is a part of U.S. European Command’s (EUCOM) Humanitarian Civic Assistance Program (HCA), which is designed to improve the host nation's critical infrastructure and the underlying living conditions of the civilian populace. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Brandon Boyd 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)


Story by Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Brandon Boyd, Oregon Air National Guard Public Affairs


MANGALIA, Romania - The tires screeched, pushing me back firmly into my seat as we accelerated past an 80-year-old woman trying to inch her way across the road. After a dicey two centimeter miss of a VW hatchback bumper on the left, the steely-eyed driver barreled toward oblivion with a solitary objective on his mind: Get to Constanta. Fast.

And to think, the driver looked so official with his epauletted black sweater and crew cut. 'Should have taken the bus' was the refrain running through my head as we careened over the Romanian countryside, blindly trusting our driver to deposit us somewhere near our destination; a man on a mission to collect the next fare.

On a mission of a different, more deliberate kind, members of the 142nd Fighter Wing Civil Engineer Squadron just a few days prior, had flown around the globe from Portland, Oregon, to take part in a mission to rebuild a clinic in the thriving and historic country of Romania.

From the time they arrived, the Airmen, 33 civil engineers, were spun up with nervousness—the kind of energy people like our amped-up driver get after too much waiting around. After an unplanned layover at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington, and the mission waiting in the wings, the capable crew had just 11 working days to complete their objective with a full schedule of work on the horizon.

Arriving at the hotel, a rush of sensations flooded my western sensibility. A former Soviet-occupied country, Romania laid in stark contrast to stateside life. Cars are smaller, buildings are much older and the decor was something I’d never seen before. Alabaster-colored marble tile gleamed in the lobby of the 70's-era hotel, reflecting mauve curtains, maroon uniformed hoteliers with stiff collars and cabled, stainless steel handrails. Hall lights on motion sensors flicked on in an eco-conscious way as I dragged my overfilled bags across synthetic hardwood and collapsed into my twin-sized bed.

In the morning the Citizen-Airmen, much too close for comfort, sardined into six-person elevators, heading toward the job site. Balding men in striped robes and women in 90's fashion watched us walk past as they waited in the lobby for therapeutic spa treatments to commence; a descendant healing ritual of the Greeks and Romans who inhabited the ancient coastal city of Mangalia, Romania since antiquity.

It's important I establish why we're here, or try to anyway. Why Romania? A NATO partner, Romania was selected by the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. European Command to receive construction aid under the Humanitarian Civic Assistance Program (HCA). Civil engineers from the Oregon Air National Guard provide the manpower, expertise and receive valuable on-the-job training, while EUCOM provides funding and logistical support.

What's the bigger picture? It's hard to say. It's also hard to ignore the heightened tensions in the Black Sea region. As far as the members of the 142nd CES are concerned, at the end of the day, the mission objective is clear: to finish the renovation of a medical clinic in Mangalia, Romania suffering from extensive water damage and accessibility problems.

As the engineers arrived on scene, I was amazed how quickly they spread out to survey each working area at the clinic. They'd seen a few construction images sent over from a previous group, but the two-dimensional pictures weren't quite enough. Each Airmen wanted to inspect each facet, and they did, with a hands-on survey of each weld, each room and each tile.

"It's nice to finally get here. It doesn't look as intimidating as in the photos," said Staff Sgt. Samantha Orem, as she angled in to inspect the welds on a wheelchair ramp handrail with an analytical, focused gaze.

Meanwhile, as the Airmen inspected, a few feet away, fishermen visiting the beach community for a weekend getaway heaved six-meter fishing poles past the gentle, shallow surf of the Black Sea. No fish were caught by the relaxed gentlemen, but they didn't seem overly-disappointed by this fact.

The city of Mangalia is a tourist destination on the coast of the Black Sea. During the busy summer season, the population balloons in the coastal town. During the off-season, it drops down to a much more modest group of local residents manning local restaurants, hotels and convenience stores.

The architecture in the city is highlighted by post-World War II Soviet apartment block buildings, red clay roof tiled homes, carved wooden churches and stuccoed vacation villas for the well-heeled. Here, the ancient stands alongside the new in a graceful harmony. In fact, it's not uncommon to see a donkey and cart going down the road alongside newer Audis and BMWs. Such is Romania.

The scrape of metal trowels on hard tile reverberated through the ancient city as the sea birds patterned overhead, searching for the next meal washed up from the brackish water. As the afternoon pushed on, the Black Sea breeze edged in. Stark white swans paddled parallel to the shoreline. Their feathers ruffled in the wind like bleached toupees bobbing on the swells.

The Black Sea, (known as Marea Neagră in Romanian), is a gentle body of water in May, the color of dark turquoise, as it meets the shoreline with its rolling half-meter waves. The wind kicks up in the afternoon and cools the sun-reddened cheeks of the civil engineers sweating in the midday sun.

Left: Oregon Air National Guard members from the 142nd Fighter Wing Civil Engineer Squadron (CES) arrive at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, May 7. As part of the 142nd Fighter Wing’s CES participation in U.S. European Command’s (EUCOM) Humanitarian Civic Assistance Program (HCA), the Oregon Citizen-Airmen assist in improvements to the host nation's critical infrastructure and the underlying living conditions of the civilian populace. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Brandon Boyd, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Members of the 142nd Fighter Wing Civil Engineer Squadron come from different backgrounds. Some work as general contractors in their day jobs and some are new troops just starting their military careers. It was heartening to see the experienced non-commissioned officers lead by example; laying tile side-by-side with Airmen on their first deployment. Words of encouragement were handed out freely and gentle corrections kept the crews aligned and motivated.

"When you step on a tile and rear a hollow sound, the thinset doesn't have full contact and needs to be redone," explained Tech. Sgt. Glen Blackford to an eager apprentice.

Tech. Sgt. Ramon Lopez adapted to the scenario by pitching in on a little bit of everything.

"I'm an electrician but now I'm doing this," he said.

The "this" meant everything from priming, laying tile, spreading plaster, wiring new lights, painting; basically anything that needed to get done. The jack-of-all-trades Lopez and the rest of the crew were eager to get the job accomplished.

But first, lunch.

Above: A food service worker at the Mangalia City Hospital, Romania serves a bowl of homemade soup to members of the 142nd Fighter Wing Civil Engineer Squadron (CES), Oregon Air National Guard. May 19, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Brandon Boyd 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Eating in Romania is like eating nowhere else. There will be courses—many courses. And you will eat soup. Much soup. An Airman here accurately stated that Romanian meals are like having their grandparents cook for them; The food is hearty, the people are hospitable, and it's physically impossible to leave hungry.

Food service workers at the hospital nearby wore bright yellow uniforms and worked out of a red-and-white-tiled kitchen stirring large vats of soup and folding pastries into neat little triangles. The women wore tidy white hats like from a 1950s’ era diner.

Left: Katy Graur, a food service worker for the Mangalia City Hospital, Romania, poses for a portrait after cooking a traditional Romanian meal for members of the 142nd Fighter Wing Civil Engineer Squadron, Oregon Air National Guard in Mangalia, Romania May 8, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Brandon Boyd 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

After a brief, pantomimed exchange of words, one of the cooks at the hospital gets the message through that she has a son living in Biloxi, Mississippi. After a few selfies and congratulatory nods, the service began.

Soup, soup, soup. Fish. Potatoes. Bread. Stuffed cabbage. And a stuffed belly for everyone. Filled croissants and crepes push things way past any reasonable point of fullness.

The culinary timid should heed this advice: emptying one's bowl in Romania is like a bat signal to the cook that more food is required.

Over a period of a few days, with food piled high, the service reached a cultural equilibrium. The cooks started to bring less food out and the Airmen learned to signal their fullness by patting bellies and uttering phrasebook Romanian.

Back to the worksite, the Airmen run into a few difficulties. Everything from materials to tools in Europe are measured using the metric system and not all of the group's calculations back home took this into account. Mixing concrete became a cultural and academic experience as three Airmen translated the instructions from the back of the locally-sourced bag of cement into terms they could understand.

In reality, the European approach to construction is much different than the United States; even more so with Eastern Europe. Energy efficiency is the rule, not the exception and unique tools and materials caused the engineers to approach common construction problems from new, more creative angles. Wall mesh used for stucco work doubled as screening material and exterior fencing was transformed into bathroom stall material.

After a few solid days of progress, the engineers had met major milestones on construction, finishing extensive tile work on the top floor of the clinic and completing plaster repairs to the walls of the examination rooms.

With checked boxes and steady progress, we were given liberty to leave our small outpost of Mangalia and were encouraged to get out and explore. One batch of Airmen headed to Brasov in Transylvania, a former medieval Saxon settlement silhouetted by the Carpathian Mountains. Yes, Transylvania is a real place, steeped in legends of Vlad the Impaler, Dracula and other spooky tales.

Another group in search of more sights, sounds, energy and action traveled to the Bucharest, Romania's largest city.

And our wayward driver, as impatient and reckless as he was, he delivered this and another correspondent, worse for wear, in the middle of the city of Constanta, a nearby port city of about 200,000 people.

Right: An Orthodox clergyman greets local residents near the entrance to the old cemetery in Constanta, Romania May 16, 2015. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Brandon Boyd 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Hopelessly lost, a highlight of this side trip was a chance pathway leading to the old cemetery in the middle of town. On a Sunday morning, hundreds of townspeople streamed into the cemetery, past dark-robed Orthodox clergymen, bright red and white carnations and incense in tow, ready to perform age-old ceremonies honoring their ancestors.

Near the back of the cemetery, plain gravestones with red stars marked the Russian servicemembers who perished in Romania during World War II. Visiting this revered plot of ground in the middle of the city was a vivid reminder of Romania's not-so-distant past.

Romanians are fiercely proud of their heritage, including their Latin-based language and a penchant for telling stories of their captivating, complicated history; a riveting tale too extensive to cover in these paragraphs.

Energized after the weekend, the crew headed back to work early Monday morning. They greeted citizens on the street with newly-learned Romanian phrases and received smiles reserved for special occasions. They approached each task feverishly with an orderly momentum to knock out all of the punch list items left on the project list.

As the civil engineers neared completion on a new wheelchair ramp at the front of the clinic, before the materials had even dried, a woman pushed a stroller up the new ramp; a small act in one person's day made a little easier by the toil and sweat of the Oregon Citizen-Airmen. The group cleaned up the construction site and packed tools away as officials gathered to celebrate and cut the ribbon on the project, now deemed a complete success by all those involved.

U.S. Charge d’Affairs a.i., Dean Thompson, along with Mayor of Mangalia, Romania, Radu Cristian, cut the ribbon to the renovated Pavilion C of the Mangalia City Hospital, Romania, May 20, as part of the U.S. European Command’s (EUCOM) Humanitarian Civic Assistance Program (HCA). (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)


The Airmen thanked the people they'd met and quietly made their way back to the military transport plane bound for Portland; a little more worn out, definitely wiser and more culturally aware, and standing a little straighter then when they first arrived.

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