Even though the United States doesn’t quite mesh with the images he absorbed from watching movies, 15-year old Christian Draescu, from Romania, isn’t ready for his vacation to end.
Most of what he knew about American life, before coming to Hall County for three weeks earlier this month, was that of the big city and bright lights — the furthest thing from what Gainesville has to offer.
However, he’s found American life just as enchanting through the southern hospitality and open arms he’s been greeted with as part of a group from the town of Orsova, Romania, that includes 10 rowers and paddlers ranging in age from 14-16 and coach, Zabet Benjamin, who have spent their days as a group partner with the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club.
“I really like the people,” said Draescu in a heavy eastern European dialect. “The people in America are much friendlier than in Romania.”
Even though the Romanian athletes speak varying degrees of English, the need for verbal communication goes out the window when the get on the water or play sports and video games with the short-term hosts from Hall County and kids in their own age group.
Draescu has seen the best of both worlds while visiting Georgia.
During the day, they hit the open water and train during multiple sessions under the eye of not only their own coach, but also the LCKC’s high performance coach Claudiu Ciur, who was groomed in the sport in Romania, when Benjamin was one of his former students.
The rest of the days have been spent trying to soak in as much of the American culture as possible: Shopping trips, food, sports and spending time with their host families have provided many memories they’ll carry home to Romania.
Draescu has spent his time staying with LCKC member James Watson, 16, and his parents, Tim and Amanda. The Romanians have been high-profile visitors to the community, even drawing the support and making a visit to see the mayor, Ruth Bruner, and guests of the Rotary Club.
“Gainesville is very nice,” said Benjamin, now on his third trip to Lake Lanier with a group to train at the LCKC. “We really want to make a good relationship between our two countries.”
Even though the focus of the trip was to train on Lake Lanier’s waters, those orchestrating the trip knew it was only a matter of time before the teenagers broke down their cultural walls between them, and found out they had much more in common than they probably originally suspected. The only times that language was an issue, the Watson family resorted to a computer-based translator.
The Watson family has housed three of the Romanian paddlers and found that just like Americans, they come from different family backgrounds: one is the son of an Eastern Orthodox preacher and another the son of farmers.
In fact, one of the visitors comes from a family where the parents don’t own a vehicle and rely on riding horses for transportation. Once in America, they were quickly integrated by sharing time in boats mixed with American and Romanian athletes.
One of the biggest difference in day-to-day lives among the Romanian athletes from their American counterparts isn’t language, family or economic status — it’s the fact that the Romanian athletes live and train at the Orsova Canoe and Kayak Club.
Training for the Romanians in their homeland typically lasts upward of seven hours daily between water time and conditioning, along with classroom time and shared living quarters.
“They really come from three different backgrounds but are all wonderful,” said James’ father, who said one of the highlights for the Romanians was to play a Wii game console and XBox. “Once you take that international barrier down, they really do open up.”
“The first couple of days we were really getting used to each other,” said James, who is a student at North Hall High. “Now we’re like brothers.
“It’s going to be kind of sad to see them leave.”
Draescu a first-time visitor, who actually has family living in New York, would love to make a return trip to Gainesville. He may get his chance in the fall when Benjamin makes a return visit with athletes from his club in Romania that have qualified for the national games.
The next part of the Romanian-American exchange is a trip for 10 LCKC members and two coaches for a stay at the Romanian Olympic Complex. The junior rowers will stay four weeks, while the senior club members will stay for five weeks, then head home on the national qualifying.
Now James, who has traveled abroad previously, is eager to see what life will be like when he steps into a Romanian culture that he’s recently learned so much about.