The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

December 20, 2008, 11:22 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , ,

I am standing on a cold stretch of two-lane highway, about a block from the Simeria train station. Prada is next to me, bundled in a black, fur-lined coat with her curled (and dyed?) blonde hair dragging in the wind. Prada and I brace ourselves on a driveway in the road bend. As each car passes, I flap my right hand in a ‘slow down’ sort of motion. In Romanian this means “hey–can I get a ride?”

Together, we tumbled off a train after a four and a half hour ride from a city called Brasov. The next train south from Simeria (towards my town) won’t leave until about 10:30–and it’s only 8:40 now. So, Prada says we should “mergem la ocazie” (hitch-hike) instead of sitting in the train station for two more hours. I don’t have much hitching experience in Romania. It is widely accepted, however, and Prada assures me that she has hitch-hiked plenty in the past.

We wave down our first ride: a large semi. I climb in after Prada, and struggle to pull my 60 pound duffel bag up six feet of vertical step into the truck’s cabin. The man driving is an international trucker, and only says “Sibiu” a few times. This means he’s headed east, and we’ll only ride with him for about five minutes until the road forks. He speaks no Romanian, and very little English. Prada thinks he says he’s from Switzerland. I don’t know what I hear, but it definitely isn’t that.

After five minutes (maybe less) we have the semi stop alongside the south-bending road home. I climb out first, and wait for Prada. She rushes down, almost falling. She tells me the driver just begged for a kiss from her. In English, all she can say to articulate her feelings is “I hate that guy!” and she repeats it over and over. I feel like a bad travel-companion, and I tell her I’ll be sure to sit closest to the driver next time.

I grab a slice of wheat bread wrapped in napkin from my bag–I took it from our hotel buffet this morning. I munch on it as Prada calls her boyfriend, and I finish my last bite as a white station wagon pulls over. The driver has to turn off his car to unlock the trunk for us –his backseat is filled with power tools, just purchased, still in their packages. We put our bags in the trunk, and Prada asks me to sit up front while she squeezes in back alongside the bright cardboard boxes

I don’t close the door hard enough. I try again and Prada says “harder.” The man hears this, and instantly asks if I’m an English speaker. I smile, and make the half laugh I always do when I have to admit that I’m not Romanian. The man asks us if Opera music is okay, because he doesn’t like Manele (a sort of R&B pop music with Turkish influences that is EXTREMELY popular in Romania). We say it is. The man admits that he can only take us a few kilometers down the road because he’s planning on stopping at a particular restaurant to eat. He also says it’s a popular place and we can definitely find someone there that will take us all the way to Petrosani. I notice that his car smells good, like air fresheners.

We pull into a gravel parking lot, and Prada and I bring our bags to a street light just past the restaurant’s entrance. I shell and eat two boiled eggs that I’ve also hoarded from breakfast. Immediately, a car with a young couple inside pulls out of the restaurant and stops for us. Prada and I pile in, and I balance my duffle between us in the back seat. The guy tells us he hitches all the time, so he always stops when people wave him down. Prada and the driver talk a little, but the conversation falters. Soon, no one says anything.

We stop at an intersection just past Calan, where the couple will head hard-west to Hunedoara (the city with the medieval castle I posted pictures of). The road they take is idyllic–there are rows of tall Poplars equally aligned along both shoulders. It feels very Mediterranean. There’s also an almost full moon in the breaking clouds, and the air here is windless and still and warm. I grab the last slice of wheat bread out of my bag, and a stray dog appears. I feed her half of the bread when the next car comes.

Our final ride is a large truck strapped down with lumber. It’s heading to Targiu Jiu, an hour south of Petrosani. Our driver will bring us the whole way. I climb in first, sitting on the floor of the cab between the driver and Prada. I’m extremely comfortable until my butt and one of my legs fall asleep; then I continuously make subtle adjustments to repeatedly extinguish that insatiable needle-prick feeling.

I feel good, and I talk a bit in Romanian. I forget that I have an accent, and after two minutes, the driver looks at Prada and says “the boy isn’t from Romania?” I make the half-laugh and tell him, no, I’m a volunteer teaching here from another country. The man asks if we’re married, and Prada tells him no, and that we’re just school colleagues. This makes the man excited–he has slowly been falling in love with Prada since he picked us up.

In fact, the man becomes so smitten that he now ignores me completely. I do my best to follow the conversation, and I do well until my mind becomes full and groggy. This always happens after long days of speaking Romanian. I gauge my language process by how far my mind can run without getting bored and sputtering out. Today, it went until about 10pm (but I also spent the morning with other Americans). I consider it a fair effort.

So I let the conversation bleed itself into white noise and it will not pass onto me again for the remainder of our slow ride (the truck is old and heavy, and hardly breaks 20km an hour over each of the mountain passes we must climb). Prada’s boyfriend calls, and they have a short argument in Romanian. The boyfriend is upset because earlier Prada hung up on him when we were waving down cars (and I was eating wheat bread). Her boyfriend feels slighted.

Our driver is so enthralled by this conversation that he almost drives the truck off a small bridge. Strangely, I’m not phased. This all feels so familiar: the relationship drama of a young couple; a man developing a crush on a beautiful, young woman he hardly knows; strangers struggling to make conversation in an inescapable situation. It’s no more awkward than it might be in America– I just understand fewer of the words.

The truck’s windshield is decorated with plush dolls, and large star stickers. This reminds me of a passage a read earlier today in Three Cups of Tea when the cab of a truck is described as a ‘rolling brothel.’ I realize that these trucks are the real homes of their drivers, and gather little, cheap pieces from their travels to become more comfortable. They are the beds, the offices, and the reflections of mind.

Once we arrive in Petrosani, we hop in a 6 lei cab (more expensive because it’s late). The truck driver repeats quiet goodbyes as we haul our bags to the taxi-stop. I assure Prada that, if anyone asks, I’ll say we took the train from Simeria. The older women in my school would scold Prada to death if they knew she had encouraged me to hitch with her. But, to be honest, I really enjoyed tonight. It was interesting to participate in the weirdness of strangers stuffing themselves into cars with the kind drivers trying to accommodate (or kiss) them.

I walk into my apartment at about ten til eleven. The train from Simeria will not arrive in Petrosani until after midnight. After ten days away from home, being back an hour earlier makes a beautiful difference. I sleep well, and my room smells wonderful, like pine. The directors of my school put a fresh-cut Christmas tree at the foot of my bed while I was away.


My Sort-of Surprise Thanksgiving Party
December 16, 2008, 2:44 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , ,
The only class I teach on Thursdays is my favorite– 7B, Group 1. They’re a dozen polite and enthusiastic thirteen year-olds. Two of my absolute favorite students in my school are in this particular hour (Ioely and Vero).

On Thanksgiving, Thursday, November 27th, we are working in groups on a worksheet that explains the origin of Thanksgiving while simultaneously reviewing verbs in the past-tense. My counterpart, Mamei, is down the hall working with the other kids from 7B, Group 2. Kids periodically appear from Group 2 to ask some my students to come down the hall for one flurried reason or another. This is a little strange, but I’m also very used to being confused by the detailed on-goings of my school. At one point, Ioely wanders over to where I sit on a desk, quizzing two of the beginner-level boys that aren’t interacting with the rest of their group.

“So. Are you coming at four?” Ioely asks in English. Ioely is tiny for his age–he could easily be mistaken for a fourth grader. As a result, he’s extremely shy, and has a hard time holding eye contact with me when he speaks. His sentences also accelerate out of his head, as if it hurts him to hold onto them any longer. At first, I thought he was simply nervous to speak English with me. After I spent a Saturday afternoon with him, however, I realized he’s just a shy-guy in general–he can’t even buy a hot chocolate without stammering a little.

“Coming to what?”

“Uhhhh. A thing. At four. Just promise that you’ll come back.” Ioely makes me promise this three times in a row. I also promise two other female students, Helena and Raluca. I have promised five times, which means nothing short of dying should stop me.

At three I wander home and change. My mind wanders. I assume the kids are planning a Thanksgiving activity for me. On Halloween, we had a big party with leaves and carved pumpkins everywhere. We also had a costume parade that I judged. The kids bobbed for apples, and we ate chocolates. I figure something like this is happening again. I promise myself to act surprised for them.

I come back to school at five til four. My community mentor and colleague, Leddy, escorts me into the teachers lounge where we sit and talk until 4:15. I’m not allowed to wander away. I smile to myself–I feel so loved. It’s cute that my school would go to this trouble to hide a little Thanksgiving activity from me. Again, I vow to act as surprised as possible.

A few students come downstairs to collect us, and lead us up to the empty classroom upstairs that is used for extracurricular activities. Leddy tells me to go in first. I quickly open the door and hop through.

But I’m not ready for what I meet through the door.

Class 7B is crowded around long tables at all edges of the room. Some of them have made pilgrim outfits. Others wear head-dresses with real feathers. Each table is covered with white table cloths, and plates of crackers, fruit, and pumpkin bars (that Mamei has baked special for me). There are also about a dozen special Thanksgiving pizzas (covered with corn and peppers) from a nearby restaurant. My kids stand and cheer and applaud. I don’t have to pretend.

Mamei sits me down at the head of the room between four of my other colleagues, puts a full plate of pumpkin bars in front of me, and then gives a Power point presentation on the history of Thanksgiving. My kids giggle and snap pictures of me with their cell phones. When Mamei is finished, she asks me to give a speech in English.

I stand and tell the room how Thanksgiving in America is a time for family, and gratitude. And for my first Thanksgiving ever away from my home, I was fortunate enough to be with a family that has adopted me and makes me feel welcome with their love and generosity, and how grateful I am for that. I wonder how many people in the room understand me, but I know it really doesn’t matter.

Now we eat slice after slice of pizza, and drink big glasses of cinnamon apple cider Mamei has made. We finish up by eating a big white cake Vero’s mother baked.

“Thank you for doing this,” I tell Mamei between bites of another pumpkin bar.

“It was the children’s’ idea,” Mamei reassures me. “They got the idea and wanted to do this for you.” I look out across the room, and watch my kids joke and smile and eat. This is my most special and unique Thanksgiving of my life, and I’m thousands of miles from the US.

I find Flavu, the boy who lost his father in the recent mine accident, and we joke in English. Ioely comes and sits with us and gives me his head-dress. I squeeze it onto my head, which makes everyone laugh. I stand to take pictures with most of the girls before everyone, full and tired, wanders out of the room to go home. Mamei hands me a huge plastic bag filled with leftovers, and tells me Happy Thanksgiving.

When I finally leave the school, it’s well past dusk. My first winter in Romania is coming fast. With my community to support me, I know that the onset of cold and dark will be more than manageable–probably even enjoyable. As I walk the one short block back to my apartment, I’m still surprised–and I wonder to myself if I really, REALLY deserve all of this love.