October 12, 2008

Austrian Civil Service and Splitting Wood in Apoldu de Sus
Apoldu de Sus, Romania

Stephan, our twenty-year-old vegetarian host, is from Austria. He's been living here in tiny Apoldu de Sus since last December, but he's not exactly a volunteer like the Americans in the country that are coming from the Peace Corps. Stephan's in Romania because he doesn't want to be in the army.

Austrian civilian service is an alternative to the country's mandatory six-month military service (for fit male citizens from 18 to 35 years of age). Conscientious objectors can opt to join the Zivildienst for nine months of community service within Austria, or serve a 12-month stint if they opt to do their service abroad. (Since 1998, females can join the military service voluntarily, but aren't required to participate in mandatory service.)

The onus to set up civil service abroad is placed firmly on the individual, with no help from the government. Stephan's first choice was Guatemala, but when that destination fell through at the last minute, he was left scrambling (as he'd already given up his portion of a shared apartment in Vienna and left university).

It was a very hard transition to Romania for a 19-year-old Stephan. He arrived in a town without labeled street names or address numbers on the houses. He didn't speak a word of Romanian, and the woman he was to report to (who didn't even live in the same town) offered up next to no orientation or support. He was alone in the middle of winter, in a village home he didn't even know how to heat properly.

Eventually a neighbor taught Stephan how to chop wood to burn and to make a fire for the iron stove and antiquated ceramic tile furnace. But somehow the kid endured something like two weeks of cold showers in the middle of winter before he got the system thawed out and operating properly.

Life in Apoldu de Sus

Cow outside our home

Nothing more than one of those little villages that motorists speed through on their way to or from the large city of Sibiu (to the east), 'Apoldu' sports mostly dirt and gravel streets and only two small corner markets for purchasing the little odds and ends that locals don't or can't grow/make themselves—like beer.

It's my understanding that Stephan's home is owned by someone associated with the organization that he's volunteering for, and that this fellow returns from Austria about twice a year to live and relax a bit in the home. He loves coming back to an environment full of farm animals and the such, so two rather eccentric local men are charged with much of the upkeep—like feeding the chickens, rabbits, birds, (former) horse, picking apples, and tending the grapes—but they're welcome to keep all the spoils of their efforts (such as fresh eggs, eating the occasional rabbit, and making liquor from the ripened fruits).

There are so many large, dusty spider webs all over the inside of the home that you'd think that such a scene only possible in fictitious movie sets. Stephan tells me that a woman came by and cleaned many of them up shortly after he arrived—meaning the vast majority are actually quite recent. (shudder)

Stephan seems to keep very busy with his volunteer efforts, but has a lot of free time as well. Most of his weekdays start mid-morning, and wrap up at nine o'clock in the evening (with a break in the middle of the day). Twice a week he runs a little library in town for a few hours (it only operates when Stephan's there), with much of the remainder of his time split between doing chores for the elderly in town and spending time with the children at the village boarding school.

But here's the real kicker: this town is an old Austrian enclave—a Saxon community—smack dab in the middle of Transylvania.

In this village children are taught German as a course in primary school, with all courses being taught in German by the time they reach the high school level. Stephan tells me that by the time most Romanian teenagers finish school here he has a hard time differentiating a native German speaker from those who learned it as their second language.

German? Why?

The primary reasons are two: It's the original language of community, and many believe that learning German is a means to a better life in Germany or Austria.

Once upon a time during World War II, Romania sided with Nazi Germany in an attempt to reclaim lands lost during WWI and previous altercations with neighboring countries. The government agreed to many things, but not to shipping off its Jewish population (sparing the lives of many of its citizens).

Sometime later, with the Soviet Union's Red Army bearing down on the country, Romania suddenly had a change of heart in 1944, and switched sides. The Soviet's primary demand was that of citizen labor, and though many Romanians were swept up and sent off to become infrastructure slaves in fields and factories, the hardest hit were the Austrian/German communities living in the country (around 75,000 Transylvanian Saxons). Naturally, if you're going to send a chunk of your population off to labor, why not make it the one associated with the enemy? [ more ]

Houses emptied of their German-speaking inhabitants, gypsies (Roma) swiftly moved in and took up residence.

After the war, the Romanian government did very little to return the Roma-occupied homes to those lucky enough to return alive from their ordeal abroad (scattering and diluting the minority group even further).

Then, shortly after Romania's December '89 revolution, the vast majority of the remaining German/Austrian-Romanian's fled (thinking that their window of opportunity would close within a month). All they had ever known was communist rule, and most thought it would quickly return.

Inhabitants liquidated everything—sellng their homes and possessions to make enough money for the wildly expensive exit visa (something like US$2,000/person). Many would later regret this decision (as they become the immigrant labor in Germany or Austria, like Mexicans do the United States).

This is why the Saxon village of Apoldu de Sus is now mostly occupied by Roma, with only 50 or so elderly people of direct Austrian/German descent remaining in the small town.

But kids from all around the area attend the small school in Apoldu de Sus (with all grade levels in the same building), with a handful of these children (16, I believe) living five days a week at the boarding school.

This boarding school is where Stephan spends most of his time, helping the children of varying ages with their homework, keeping them entertained, and even teaching some the fundamentals of indoor plumbing and general hygiene.

Austrian families sponsor many of the Romanian children in the school and/or boarding school, as their own families are too poor or incapable of providing the children with an education as expensive as it is at the school in Apoldu de Sus.

It helps tremendously that Stephan is a native German speaker, but the guy is a wiz with languages (and musical instruments), and his Romanian is nothing short of outstanding after ten months or so of self-taught study.

He's certainly not your average volunteer, and though he had a roughest of starts, seems to have made a very positive and tangible impact on the small community during his time here. Everyone, including us, simply loves him.



Karl Gross

October 12th, 2009

Hi Craig!

Do you have some contact data from Stefan?
I will have to do Zivildienst as well and might be interested in going to Romania.


The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

October 12th, 2009

Hi Karl — I'll pass your request on to him!

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