Sliding the mask down over my face, I walked up the steps slowly and with deliberate caution. Inside the house the air was dusty, with random rays of light coming in from the hot Eastern European sun. I turned the corner into the living room to find six people waiting for me.
Instinctively squeezing the handle on the trigger, I eyed the meanest and asked, “Who wants to go first?”
We were building a house in rural Romania as part of a Habitat for Humanity project. My dad, my brother Ed and I were looking to fill up some time in Europe with something meaningful. I find it’s always more interesting when you travel with an ulterior motive, something that keeps you from being strictly a tourist. Whether it be rock climbing, espionage or just building a house, it adds incredibly to the experience.
It takes three people to hang the freshly cut drywall on the ceiling. Two to hold the sheet against the ceiling, and one to power drill it in. I was in charge of one of the two drills. The mask was to keep dust out of my lungs. That and make me dizzy from the heat.
“Sam, you pick up a sheet with Steve, then I’ll drill it in to show everyone”, said Valeur, one of the local construction workers. He took the drill from me, and Steve and I lifted the sheet. We climbed onto a raised platform so we could reach the ceiling. Valeur hopped up and quickly screwed in the required screws, making sure to show everyone the correct depth to drive them.
Valeur and several other Romanians work for the branch office of Habitat in the area. There is a decent amount of construction done by Habitat in Beuis, and it normally supports around five full time construction workers. Valeur, himself in his late twenties, has been working with them for somewhere around five years.
We got to know Valeur better than any of the other workers because of two things. Firstly, he was one of the drivers who took us to and from the job site at speeds the like of which have not been seen outside of a dedicated race track. Secondly, the man loved to talk.
“Have you guys seen the Fast and Furious? I love the cars in that movie. I try to drive fast like them.” He generally succeeded admirably.
Beuis was an amazing immursion experiance. The construction workers were fun, the hosts we stayed with were gracious and welcoming, and all the locals we got to know went to great pains to make sure we had a good time. Authentic food, local music, palinka, everything.
The last day on the job site consisted of tying up loose ends, putting the rest of the shingles on the roof, etc. I was helping Valeur and Steve, a business consultant from North Carolina, put the finishing touches on something on the roof. Most people were in the process of saying goodbye.
Steve was saying something about summers in the Carolinas, and had finished with something like, “Valeur, you should come out to North Carolina, there are lots of construction jobs there. I think you could do really well in Raleigh.”
Valeur made a face I’ll always remember. Sort of sad and reserved, but also with a hint that what he was about to say was something he has had to say before.
“You American’s don’t understand what it’s like to be Romanian. We can’t just go to America, we can’t. I will work my entire life in this town. You, you can hear stories about places and go there, see them, and know that the stories are true.”
“We are lucky if we just get stories.”
Afterwards I felt guilty about enjoying myself as much as I had. He was right, we didn’t understand. We think everyone is like us, everyone can just do what they want, save up money and travel. The Romanians had taken us into their homes and shown us compassion, and grateful though we may be, when we leave they will stay. When the next Habitat group comes through the cycle repeats.
Over the entire world, no one is really that different from you or me. The only substantial difference I’ve ever found is the amount of help we need to figure that fact out.