What I Learned on Exile in Romania for Christmas

by  Patty Blue Hayes

I exiled myself to a tiny town in the Transylvanian Mountains of Romania for Christmas because of my own personal mania I desperately needed to escape.

Eight weeks prior to Christmas I caught my husband sexting and heard the relief in his voice when he said, “I don’t think we should be married anymore.” He moved out 5 days later with the glee of a kid going off to summer camp.

My past, present and future ceased to exist all in that moment. It spun me out of control and left me feeling broken. For seventeen years I’d allowed my identity to be a reflection of him.

I loved being his wife, taking care of our home and our life together, but it certainly didn’t serve me well when I lost everything I’d put so much value on.

Every year, except the one my father died, we’d traveled back east to be with his family for Christmas. I was panicked and didn’t know if I could even survive my first Christmas without them. So I planned my escape.

 It took me three days to get to Baile Tusnad, Romania, population 1,700, where I’d signed up with Mondo Challenge, a volunteer vacation abroad company, to spend time with kids in a government run Orphanage. I wanted to be of service to others to save me from succumbing to my crippling pain. I was feeling a bit like an orphan myself so the idea of spending time with disenfranchised children resonated with me. I learned a few things that helped give me the perspective I was looking for.

Serving Others is a Sure Way to Feel Better

Part of my volunteer hours were spent in the English classroom at the local school, where I did my best to engage the kids in simple English conversation, being mindful not to ask them “What do your parents do and what favorite toy do you want for Christmas?”

On my second day in the classroom, all the little girls patted the empty chairs next to them, pleading, “Patti, Patti, please,” inviting me to sit next to them.  With their simple gesture, I felt loved. Toward the end of class, five little girls surrounded me and braided my hair. Even though they weren’t my nieces, I felt the same joy.

I had internal feelings of belonging and happiness even though the external conditions of my traditional Christmas were very different.

I Have First World Problems

I owned my dream home in California that I never wanted to sell, but was a probability I’d be facing with my looming divorce. My house was full of beautiful things I’d collected over the years.

The kids in the orphanage had no possessions to speak of which didn’t seem to affect their happiness.

Lorika, one of the older boys, used a plank of wood as a makeshift snowboard and joyfully slid down the snow packed hillside. Laci, a fourteen year-old boy, had a guitar missing 2 strings but cared for it as if it were a valuable instrument.

After the puppet show performance on Christmas Day, children surrounded me with outstretched hands offering me pieces of candy they had just been given by the Orphanage administrators.

The good feelings I had were from the people I engaged with, not the things.

Food, Glorious Food

I usually joined the kids for lunch after walking them home from school in the snow.

I was hungry and filled my bowl to the rim before tasting the lunch of boiled liver and rice. It was unthinkable to throw away food; something I hardly thought about at home in LA.

With each bite of liver I vowed to be mindful of how much food I put on my plate.

One afternoon at the larger Orphanage dormitory, twenty kids were scrambling toward the kitchen’s pass through window. I assumed they were grabbing cookies or cake but their hands revealed Bananas and Oranges; a special treat for the kids in a remote town in the midst of frozen winter.

The two small local grocery stores only provided packaged and frozen goods and some root vegetables. The store to purchase fresh meat, vegetables and fruit was a 40-minute train ride away.

I realized how fortunate I am to shop at abundant grocery stores and what a treat it is to eat food that requires a fork.

Running Away Only Delays Pain

Looking back, my decision to volunteer in Romania was the only healthy decision I could have made given the shock and grief that consumed me. But upon returning home, I had some serious backslides integrating back into the reality of my broken heart.

My marriage was over, my husband still hadn’t provided a reason other than my house cleaning skills didn’t level up to his standards; and I was faced with the likelihood of selling my home.

Tips On Returning Back To Reality If You Ran Away

Understand you’re picking up the pain right where you left it. Get support. If family and friends fell by the wayside, schedule more time with your therapist or life coach, in person or online support groups, Spiritual or Religious support.

Even in the midst of all that’s going on, sign up for a class in anything that even seems the slightest bit interesting. Learning something new helps the brain release dopamine, the feel good chemical that likely has been sucked dry from heartbreak.

Create a daily self-care plan that feeds the four elements of being human; your body, mind, emotions and spirit. Do them, even if you’re doing other things that aren’t healthy or productive.
The first holidays without your significant other can be very difficult. Creating a plan ahead of time will help reduce the anxiety and worry you may be feeling about what to do.

Understand you may have some sadness around the broken routine and be aware of your emotions and manage them with constructive tools; journaling, reaching out to talk with someone, engage in some physical activity, meditate, write a gratitude list, be kind and gentle with your self-talk and stay in the present moment as much as possible, resisting the tendency to think back to the past or jump to the future.

You might just find that even though your external conditions have changed, you can still have some good feelings about your new and different experience.