The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Armpits & Solidarity
September 11, 2008, 2:46 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , ,

The appeal of a good, bar patio is universal. Collections of these terraces in Romania are spontaneous, with edges scraping tightly together as they overwhelm what little room they’ve found on public walks. My friend Capsuno and I have picked part of a terrace under green umbrellas, with well-padded lounge chairs. As we find a table and sit, I study the people that are already lounging around us. I see women sitting and sipping, which is good, but they are only drinking juice or soda, which is bad because Capsuno wants a beer. It’s typical cultural courtesy in Romania for women not to drink alcohol in public, but we’re ready to break typical cultural courtesy for an hour or so. It’s Capsuno’s birthday, and if she wants a beer we feel she should have one. We’re also in Craiova–a big city–where traditional customs can occasionally be forgotten (and especially by foreigners).

We each order a Silva Black, which is my new favorite Romanian beer (although dark beers aren’t relatively popular here). It comes to us in sweating, half-liter bottles. They are seven lei apiece, which makes them the most expensive drink I’ve had in Romania. I buy same sized cans of this dark stuff for under two lei at my little grocery store near my apartment. But I know beer is more expensive in cities–especially under nice, umbrella’d terraces. Capsuno doesn’t let me pay, either, as she says I’ve paid enough just to come visit her. I don’t think she should buy me beer on her birthday, but she’s fiercely determined; I really like it when she’s like that.

Capsuno takes a small bag of salted sunflower seeds from her backpack, and sets it on the table. “Beer and sunflower seeds go so great together,” and I quickly learn she’s so right. I like to eat enough seeds until their taste covers my tongue and teeth–about one shallow handful–and then my mouth is salty and dry. Then I take a big sip of beer–which is less salty than the seeds so it tastes sweet–and I repeat.

Southern Romania is stereotyped for its sun, and this late August afternoon makes me sweaty and thankful for green shade and black beers. Inevitably, as most Peace Corps conversations go, we begin to talk about community integration. It creates a sense of solidarity amongst volunteers that is so vital when you’re far from home. This friendship mechanism is sort of the same in any job I’ve ever taken, so maybe it’s allowable to ease stress. But I also think that too much of it can be a bad thing if it begins to reinforce distance between you and those different than you.

At times, however, beautiful, little moments can occur on this topic, and they are always unexpected and wonderful to me. Capsuno is speaking of the women in her village, and their hygiene habits. Most of the women Capsuno has met don’t shave their armpits. Capsuno then does something beautiful and honest by recounting that she has recently stopped shaving her armpits because it’s no longer necessary. In fact, continuing to shave her armpits would almost seem an affront to her attempts at integration. The other women might wonder why Capsuno was doing something so unnatural that none of them felt any obligation for.

I smile, and stare down at the grey bricks of the outdoor patio. I begin to laugh, and when Capsuno says “it’s so soft!” of her new armpit hair, I laugh even harder. I am not laughing at Capsuno, but because there is a great coincidence occurring whose presence has spurred me to visible amusement.

I’ve recently begun working out at a gym in my town. I’ve done this because I like to work out, but I always go with my new friend, Miner, in an attempt to integrate. After our second workout, Miner and I left the gym at dusk and were walking home. In a conversation entirely in Romanian, Miner told me that in the locker room he had noticed that I had the ‘natural look,’ but that I should consider shaving my armpits. Miner held up his arm and pointed to his own, bare armpit and said “I shave because women like it. And it doesn’t smell.” He made a mock sniffing motion to make sure I understood.

“Okay.” I said, and then I paused. “I’ll try it.”

Now, as I sit with Capsuno, I am thinking of this conversation with Miner. I am laughing because I know that I bought disposable razor-blades at my little grocery store, and then shaved my armpits for the first time in my life. I didn’t have razor burn as bad as I thought I would, and Miner was right–I smell a little better. I think it’s because it’s easier to put deodorant on. I had never thought of that before.

While I was shaving my armpits, I wondered what I would tell people. I imagined saying that Miner had placed the idea into my head, but that I really just wanted to see what women were putting themselves through. This would be a lie. So now I try to be beautiful and honest by telling Capsuno this: “You stopped shaving your armpits to integrate, and I’ve done the opposite.” I pull my t-shirt sleeve open, and show her my smooth skin.

“Oh my Gd.” Capsuno says. “Your armpit hair is shorter than mine.”

To say that these adventures in hygiene are rooted only in a desire to integrate is dishonest. Truthfully, I shaved my armpits also because I was curious. It was an experiment–a harmless one–to try something completely new and contrary to something I’d done mindlessly my entire life.

However, I also feel that this curiosity makes attempts at cultural solidarity all the more sincere. Capsuno and I were not trying to integrate only because it’s part of the Peace Corps mission, or because we knew it would make our lives easier abroad. Capsuno and I tried because people we’ve recently begun to respect and love had done the same–we decided to take uncomfortable risks out of trust. A willingness to try something novel is a willingness to level yourself with somebody else. Regardless of whether the change stays, it has still created a stretch towards solidarity that’s permanent. I think the best of these are the completely harmless ones that make you feel completely uncomfortable. My ability to laugh after reassures me that what little, soft hairs I’ve lost are easily replaced by something more significant.


Glumim (we joke)
September 5, 2008, 2:29 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , ,

Sense of humor is really important in Romania. Romanians use straight-faced sarcasm and word-play quite skillfully; they also have a tendency to be a bit sardonic with their words. The first day I met my vice-director, she casually stated “we sinners will arrive at hell” in reference to her fierce smoking habit.

Hence,casual banter has been really intimidating for me, as a non-native speaker. I feel oblivious to what’s considered offensive and what isn’t. Once, emboldened by a strong plum brandy (Palinka), I called my counterpart’s husband, Peter, old and smelly; I received a roar of cheers and applause from the whole room, and Peter excitedly squeezed my shoulder. I think that this style of humor is how Romanians cope with their rigors of daily life: slow infrastructure, low-income, political/bureaucratic corruption, and illness. I’ve tried repeatedly to assure my Romanian friends that America has the same problems, but I’ve been unsuccesseful. Romanians love to good-naturedly jab their country, and themselves. Hence, I’ve learned two good Romanian jokes, about Romanians, told to me by Romanians, which may help illuminate some national characteristics in conjunction with this sense of humor.

This first joke was told to me by my director, in regards to the curiosity of Romanian people:


“A woman from Bucharest is traveling through the country via train, to visit one of her friends. The woman, originally born in Mozambique, has black skin, which is a bit uncommon in Romania. The woman is accustomed to being an occasional object of curiosity, however, and always handles it well.

Along the way, an elderly bunica (“boo-nee-ka”–grandmother, and the all-encompassing term for an elderly Romanian woman) sits down in the same compartment. After a few brief minutes of silence, the Bunica leans across the aisle, and eagerly asks “where are you from?”

“I’m from Bucharest,” the woman replies, “but I was born in Africa.”

“No, I know,” the Bunica says, “but from where in Africa?”

“Oh,” the woman says. “I’m from Mozambique.”

“No, no,” the Bunica says again. “What city in Mozambique?”

The woman is slightly surprised, but without hesitating she answers, “Well, I was born in the capitol city of Maputo.”

“No,” the Bunica quickly retorts again. “I meant where in the city?”

The woman is stunned; Bunica seems to have a sizeable handle on Mozambique. The woman wonders if this little, Romanian grandmother has traveled throughout Africa. “It’s been a long time since I’ve lived there,” the woman says, “but my family lived near the Cathedral of our Lady of Fatima.”

“No, no.” The Bunica quickly snaps. It’s obvious she’s becoming a little frustrated. “I mean, what building did you grow up in? What’s your family’s name?”

“Wait,” the woman says, unable to suspend her disbelief any longer. “Have you lived in Maputo? Is it possible that you know my family?”

“Of course not,” Bunica says, flatly. “This is the only the third time I’ve ever left my village in my life. I was just curious.”


This next joke was told to me by my language instructor in Ploiești, when she found out my site was in Transylvania. The joke was originally told to her by one of her friends from Transylvania. Transylvanians are stereo-typed by other Romanians as having a slower pace of life. Transylvanians even typically speak slower than Romanians from other regions (thus far, I’ve noticed that this is generally true):


A Transylvanian is casually strolling through the forest one day, admiring the trees and the clouds streaking across the warm sky. As the Transylvanian comes to a gentle roll in the path, he looks down to see a snail slowly creeping across the dirt. The snail’s shell is beautiful, and the Transylvanian decides that he would like to examine it more closely. The Transylvanian bends over, over, over, and reaches down, down, down to the ground. He slowly puts his arm in front of him and stretches his fingers out, out, out towards the snail. The Transylvanian’s fingers scrape, scrape, scrape the ground, but he’s shocked to discover that the snail is nowhere to be found. As frantic as a Tranyslvanian can be, the man looks around, only to discover that while the man was reaching down, the snail has crossed the path, traversed the grass, and is edging slowly into the forest a few meters away.

Limbă 2: Follow-Up
September 2, 2008, 4:51 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , ,

I’ve been digging around for some Romanian so that you can hear the language as a follow-up to my last blog/email.

If you have Children of Men, there’s a bit spoken in there by the Rroma (Gypsy) woman, Marichka.
Can’t find her on youtube, however.

If you like, you can do a search for 4 Luni, 3 Saptamani, si 2 zile.
That was the Romanian film that won all those awards at Cannes in 2007.
They speak very, very, very fast, however.

What to do…what to do…
Romania has a national hero, and he is a poet.
His name is Mihai Eminsecu. His presence is everywhere.
He’s even on the 500 lei–the highest banknote here.

So, I think this is best.
Load and listen to this:
While reading this:

Si Daca

Si daca ramuri bat în geam
Si se cutremur plopii,
E ca în minte sa te am
Si-ncet sa te apropii.

Si daca stele bat în lac
Adâncu-i luminându-l,
E ca durerea mea s-o-mpac
Inseninându-mi gândul.

Si daca norii desi se duc
De iese-n luciu luna,
E ca aminte sa-mi aduc
De tine-ntotdeuna.

–The longer poem is called O, RAMII if you want to look for it.
So good I can taste it.