The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania


The Borat Handshake

There’s a scene in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan where Borat climbs into a crowded subway car. As a gesture of good-will (and cultural misunderstanding) Borat attempts to shake hands and kiss cheeks with every man in the subway car. The scene is comedic in its awkward silliness and the disgusted responses of the NYC commuters, but the scene is absolutely hysterical for me because I’ve totally been Borat. Sort of.

Social interaction between Romanian men has the same gestures. The man kisses are much less common, and typically only reserved for special occasion. And even then, they’re typically unperformed between younger Romanians in more urbanized areas.

The handshake, however, is ubiqutious. It is always exchanged between men that know each other, even if you’re in a rush on the street and only have time to make the simplest, passing gesture. It’s not necessary to shake hands with strangers, however (in this way, Borat is a little over-enthusiastic).

I’ve learned not to try and shake women’s hands. When I first got to Romania, I thought “hey! I’m a progressive-minded guy, and I obviously want to extend the same basic level of respect to my female acquaintances as I do towards men.” One evening, not far into service, I met a few Romanian friends outside of a fellow volunteer’s apartment. I shook the men’s hands, and then extended my hand towards the one Romanian female. She gave me an icy stare, looked down at my hand, then looked away. I asked my fellow volunteer, SMK, about it later.

“Yeah… I saw that,” SMK said. “I used to shake men’s hands until some of my students told me that it’s considered a ‘come-on’ for a woman to openly shake a man’s hand.”

So, by trying to show Romanian women respect, I was inadvertently asking them if they wanted to hook up.

 But it’s necessary for men to shake hands with other men. For example, when I walk into the teacher’s lounge between classes, it’s socially polite for me to approach every single male in the room, and shake his hand. As a reciprocated gesture, he will slightly stand out of his chair. If there were fifteen male teachers in the room, it would be expected of me to shake hands with each one of them. Easy enough. It’s important to note here that not shaking someone’s hand can be interpreted as an insult.

There are some nuances to this, however, that have been difficult to grasp. For example, you always shake hands with your right hand. If you happen to be holding something in your hand, you shift it to the other hand for the handshake. If, however, what you’re holding is food, or dirty/wet, then you continue to hold it, but extend your hand in a tight fist. The other man will note that you’re extending a fist, and he’ll grasp you by the wrist instead. I’m not sure what would happen if two guys were both holding food, or had just washed their hands: would you touch wrists? would you give a pound?

Also, it’s okay to be ‘pushy’ with the handshake. If the other male happens to be having a conversation with someone else, it’s perfectly acceptable to quietly approach, shake his hand, give a quiet ‘hello,’ and be on your way.

It’s trickier when trying to determine who receives the handshake. If you see someone you’ve been introduced to, or have a casual acquaintinceship with, you should always say hello and shake his hand. If he’s talking with a group of friends, you can either shake every male’s hand (if you’re feeling friendly) or you can just shake only the hand of the guy you know. If he introduces you to a new guy, however, you give the shake (and you probably should shake new guy’s hand whenever you see him in the future).

Therefore, when I walk into the gym, I shake hands with everyone. Even the guys on the treadmills. I don’t want to seem rude by snubbing someone, so I get a little Borat-enthusiastic with it sometimes. I’ve shaken hands with complete strangers at the gym, just because I’m handshake-happy. Better to be super outgoing than snobby, I guess.

I’ve also become hyper sensitive to the times when men I know do not shake my hand. I do my best not to interpret it as an insult. I figure they’re probably thinking “augh…. do I shake the American’s hand? How will he interpret that?” So the impoliteness may be due to an attempt at cultural sensitivity. I give them the benefit of the doubt.

In fact, the hello handshake knows few boundaries. One time, as I walked into the gym’s locker room, I saw a guy I’d recently met a few days before. Just as I approached him to shake his hand, he coughed into his cupped palm. Without hesitation (I was in mid-handshake motion), we continued and shook hands heartily and said hello. A little uncomfortable for me.

The most uncomfortable situation I’m still yet to reconcile, however: I don’t know if it’s considered socially acceptable to shake a guy’s hand if he’s not wearing clothes. This has occasionally been a question of cultural sensitivity for me in the men’s locker room. Should I shake hands with a guy if he’s completely naked, or do I wait until he at least has pants on? Until now, I’ve waited until he’s finished getting dressed–probably best to not be Borat enthusiastic.



Cabana Voie-Vodu: Part II

This is part two of the blog which began here.

In the dining room, B-dan and Pisto poured me half a short juice glass of tuica, and left to put wood and fire in the grill outside. I wasn’t ready to stand in the snow, so I made a half-assed effort to help Vitzo and Directoara prepare each part of dinner. They didn’t allow me to do much, however, so eventually I pulled a chair alongside the soba, and talked quietly with Capsuno for a while.

Before long, the boys returned and pulled me outside away “from the women.” At this point, my Romanian comprehension had plummeted; it was late evening and my empty stomach had quickly helped me build a buzz. So I was content to occasionally listen to B-dan and Pisto; maybe even interject a small word or two, but my mind continuously wandered into the dark woods for a while. Mostly, at that moment, I was cold. The entire patio was covered in ice, and I could feel the freeze seeping up my boots and slowly gnawing its way into my feet.

Pisto beat hanging snow off the roof with a shovel. Directoara came outside with warm wine, and offered me some. Pisto refused for me, said that spiced wine is for women, and poured me another glass of tuica. Capsuno came too and we huddled together close until Pisto, also buzzed, came over to tease us. He threw his arms around Capsuno, or showed me how to dislocate someone’s knuckles by squeezing their hand a certain way. He did it to me a few times, and I watched -in pain- as my joints bulged awkwardly out of their sockets, just short of popping. I asked Pisto how on earth his hands were so strong. He told Capsuno and I that he’s an electrician in the mine, which means he has to have strong hands. He also recounted most of the dozen of times he’d been electrocuted, complete with well practiced movements. “I have thick callouses” he said, and, to prove his point, he reached into the grill and adjusted the humming, red charcoals with his bare hands. Capsuno might have squeaked softly when he did this. I definitely winced.

I slowly became so cold that I was uncomfortable, so I silently shifted away into the indoor dining room. Disappearing from places is one of my favorite games to play when I’m drunk (I was on my third glass of Tuica, and each glass was deeper than the one before). I warmed my snow-burned feet a little (the temperature had dropped to zero Fahrenheit outside) and I picked at the almost-vegetarian salad Directoara had made special for Capsuno.

So as not to be (more) socially awkward, I tromped back outside where Pisto had begun to pile scorched pieces of dripping pig fat onto slices of bread and red onion. I had this same meal a week before alongside the frozen river with Pisto and Directoara. Once in a while, it’s a delicious treat. Twice in one week, it’s kind of gross.

Pisto also put about a kilo of grilled pork-loin onto a plate. Directoara, B-dan, Vitzo, and I hungrily wrapped slices of white bread around each hunk of meat, and hungrily devoured these little, hastily made sandwiches. Capsuno watched–she’d eaten so much pork product on her host-family’s farm that she’d recently declared herself a vegetarian. She admitted to being a little jealous, however, but she held to her conviction well.

After every single piece of meat had been snapped up, we finally relocated to the dining room. Capsuno was a little tipsy as well–she’d had a handful of servings of that wonderful, ‘women’s’ wine spiced with clove and cinnamon and orange rind. Capsuno and I sat and talked, while Pisto put a bit of music on the dining room CD player. The two Romanian couples were invigorated, and danced happily. Capsuno and I were tired, and we sat close and talked softly. Pisto periodically came over and tried to get us to dance, but we were tired and stubborn–his continuous dip from ‘silly’ to ‘drunk’ made us a little uncomfortable. No hard feelings to hold onto, but it was most definitely an indication that my bed time had come.

Capsuno took the lead and excused us, and I shook hands with the boys. We both said our ‘noapte buna’ to everyone.  Capsuno and I went back to the bunk house, and relocated our bags to a different room. Our new place had a large single bed (as opposed to two doubles positioned with every available inch of the wood floor space pressed between them): we wanted to be able to snuggle close for warmth. There was also a makeshift heater (a plug with wires running to a set of coils in a concrete block–very ingenious and ‘do it yourself’) which provided heat. I was so tired it made me lazy, and I couldn’t find the motivation to drink water or take out my contacts. I’d suffer the consequences when I woke up.

I hurriedly climbed into bed, and hugged Capsuno close when she got under the quilts and comforters (she’s always so warm). Almost immediately, I found a sleep so deep and undeterred that my dreams were stifled into absolute stillness.

Read the final part of this story here.



Discipline May Vary

Class discipline has been one of my biggest challenges as a first year teacher. I can be sympathetic to a fault, which is pretty unproductive in a foreign language classroom. Hence, the last month I’ve been experimenting with different ways of 1) keeping my class on task 2) disciplining bad behavior 3) not feeling like an overbearing jerk. It’s been tough to find a balance.

It did help to realize that allowing my kids to be disruptive was stressing me out: it was rough to leave school every evening and feel like I had totally sucked that day. I suddenly understood that my feelings had to be considered, as well as those of my students. I also reaffirmed to myself that I needed to be myself in the classroom, without worrying about approval. Granted, some of the kids wouldn’t like being disciplined, but trying to run a smooth, 50 minute class and while simultaneously being on everyone’s ‘good side’ was impossible.

My ‘moment of clarity,’ came when I was talking to one of my favorites, Cera, after class. My lesson plans and activities had gone okay, but some of the kids were disruptive or whiny for the entire period. I asked Cera if that was how the class was acting with all the teachers lately; I assumed it was because vacation was so close.

“Nu, Dom (Mr) profesor,” Cera meekly stated. “Doar cu dmv. Sunteti prea bun (Only with you. You’re too nice).” That knocked the wind out of me for a second. I think Cera is mature for her age, and endlessly honest, so I took her response seriously.

So, lately I’ve been cracking down. I gave a kid a 4 as his participation grade (the equivalent of failing him) for leaving the classroom after I told him to stay put. I docked points from some sixth grade girls for cheating off each other during a test, and I made a boy stay through his break between classes for saying curses.

I figured I’d have an identity crisis, and feel crazy amounts of guilt, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I felt pretty awesome–overall my classes were smoother and the kids were more attentive. My shy/studious ones like Cera seemed to be breathing sighs of relief. And, contrary to my fears, I was still getting tons of hugs and hand-shakes in the hallways–even from kids I had been hard on a day or two before. But it’s been an awkward transition, and I still sort of wonder if this is the way it’s gotta be.

But is has its positives: I have a good speaker in 5B, Andrew, who gets overly competitive when we play games in teams. Today, we ended the class period by playing Pictionary. There was some confusion at one point re: what animal to draw, and my decision was to reward the other team a point. Andrew lost his mind, and began loudly whining and flailing his hands about. I snapped at him in Romanian, and asked him why he had to win every game we played as a class. I told him that sort of behavior would merit a ‘six’ for the day (about a D), which shocked him a little. He flipped his behavior around, and was pretty awesome and positive for the remainder of class.

After the bell sounded, I walked Andrew down the hall to talk with him. I explained to him that he’s a great kid, and a great English speaker, but his competitiveness and complaining has to stop as its counter-productive (I guarantee my actual words were much less articulate). He shyly promised me that he would be good, and said “I’m sorry, Mr. Joel.”

I was feeling good, and discipline-y when some unknown 8th grade boy ran down the hall waving a meter stick. He disappeared into his class room, and I could hear him slapping it against things. On a ‘class management high,’ I vaulted to the classroom and told him to give me the stick, but he refused. Someone wrestled the stick from him, and he sprinted to the student stairs and ran down them.

The other 8th grade kids told me the stick belonged to their diriginta, who is Prada’s mom (Mrs. Prada). A diriginta is the US equivalent of a home-room teacher. They told me the stick was for hitting kids. I laughed and said “no, I don’t believe you,” and handed the stick to one of the girls at the front of the classroom. I went to find the boy who had ran off because the bell to start the next class had already sounded, which meant he needed to be in his classroom. I found him being yelled at by another teacher on the second floor for running around the hallway once the bell had sounded. He was walking towards me, and when he saw me he got an ‘oh shit’ look in his eyes.

I grabbed him and silently walked to the staircase, right past Vitzo. I think she was surprised to see me so pissed off. My hasty plan was to bring the kid to Luna and Directoara, which took me right past our guard, Dori. Dori softly stopped me with a gentle “Dom profesor…”. I saw in Dori’s expression a look that meant “hey… let’s not circumvent the system here–let me do what I do.”

So the boy and I spoke to Dori. Dori asked the kid whether he thought he was Zorro (I lauged), and explained to him all the reasons why he shouldn’t be waving a stick around in class, and running from a teacher trying to talk to him. I was feeling good when Mrs. Prada walked out of the teacher’s room.

Mrs. Prada is one of the few teachers at school that I don’t have an open, friendly relationship with. She’s never been anything less than perfectly polite to me, but we don’t converse with one another. I assume this is probably my doing, as I’m absolutely terrified of this woman.

Dori explained to Mrs. Prada why one of her students was there being scolded. Mrs. Prada gave the boy an annoyed look. “I just came down from there” she told the boy. Then, without a break in her words, she casually said “Go up to the classroom. I’m coming up to show you how use the stick.”

I suddenly felt terrible. Clearly this whole discipline thing has negatives, too.



Embracing Geekdom
January 22, 2009, 10:16 pm
Filed under: Rumination

Sort of Peace Corps related post on another blog:

Embracing Geekdom

Little bit rougher language, so it didn’t seem as appropriate to post here.

Numai bine si namaste.



Cabana Voie-Vodu: Part I

Capsuno has come to my site a half-dozen times since I arrived here in August–she is only about four hours south of me by cheap train. Capsuno was my closest friend from our Pre-Service Training, but since service has began we’ve become BFFs. Capsuno comes any time she needs a break from the rigid traditionalism of her southern farm-site. I love having her: she cooks amazing Indian food, and we watch a lot of movies that I’ve downloaded online. As a bonus, her visits maintain the facade that she and I are dating. This is important in terms of cultural strategy: if Capsuno and I were ‘single,’ she would receive marriage proposals whenever she used public transportation, and I would be invited to colleague’s houses to meet eligible daughters/granddaughters/nieces. I am not exaggerating.

Thus, Capsuno rolled into the Petrosani train station last Thursday evening on the 8PM Personal from Craiova. I was waiting for her with B-dan and Vitzo, who had offered to give us a ride. Capsuno and I ate a quick dinner, and she took the necessary post-train shower. We slept by midnight, as we had to be out of the house by 9:55 Friday morning to meet Directoara at school for a special meeting.

It was snowing Friday, so Directoara quickly threw on her wool overcoat and a scarf and whisked us outside to a nearby second-hand store. Second hand shopping is unbelievable in Romania. By quick count, I can think of seven second-hand shops here in town, and I’m sure there are more. I have gotten a $250 DNA Winter Jacket for about $13, and a North Face GORE-TEX rain coat for about $8. I’ve also picked up countless towels, long-sleeved shirts, and jeans/pants for 3$ or less.

Directoara introduced us to the gentle man who ran this particular second-hand store. I was on a mission, so I quickly began shuffling through snow pants. I recently told one of our PCV-Leaders, J-Mo, that I would never wear jeans (be a gayper) on a ski-slope, not even in Peace Corps. Capsuno rifled through snow pants, as well as water-proof shells, and sweaters. I decided on a pair of black, suspendered beauties that fit perfectly. There were 20 RON (about eight bucks). I also found a brown rugby shirt to wear around under t-shirts when it gets a little warmer. I left Capsuno with Directoara and took off to teach my first of five Friday classes.

Capsuno met me mid-way through the day, after a successfully shopping at a few other second-hands. I finished teaching at 3:15, and had a brief discussion with Mamei about some confusion regarding our teaching schedule for class 5-B. I had inadvertently ‘switched’ the groups that Mamei had in mind for that day, and she seemed a little annoyed. Long story, but I feel I’m allowed to partially claim ignorance. All the stupidity in the world couldn’t save me from my surfeit of guilt, however.

Directoara had invited Capsuno and I to spend the night with her and Pisto at a Cabana up the canyon. Cabanas are the Romanian equivalent of a hostel, but they’re usually privately owned. A particular family that has girls at our school owned this one, Voie-Vodu. Capsuno and I shot home to pack and stop by the ATM so that we could repay Directoara (she had insisted on being the only one to pay that morning).

Capsuno and I stood in the teachers’ entryway of my school, and waited for B-dan and Vitzo (who were also coming) to pick us up. We spoke to the new school guard, Dori, who’s a fantastic guy. Dori is a cop that the school has hired to help with discipline issues (there have been a lot of fights lately), but he’s really soft spoken and polite. I’m going to try and go skiing with him sometime soon.

I made sure to be on time because Pisto gets annoyed with tardiness. In October, Capsuno and I were ten minutes late meeting him for something. My Romanian comprehension was more limited then, but he said something about foricbly putting me ‘in the army to learn to be on time’ before Directoara shushed him. It was sort of terrifying.

Vitzo, on the other hand, is always late. So, because I had a few minutes, I called Mamei to discuss what had happened with the group confusion (at one point I said “I love you and don’t want to annoy you and cause stress for you!”). Vitzo and B-dan finally showed up at 5:10 or so, when it was starting to get dark, and the snow started to fall heavy and slow.

We met Directoara and Pisto in their car outside of their apartment, in Lonea (a tiny extension of my site’s west end). Pisto was predictably annoyed. I was scared to death, and I slumped low in my seat.

We drove on snowed roads for 20 minutes or so. Capsuno and I held hands and spoke soft English as the light died around us. When we got to Voie-Vodu, Pisto tried to rev his Peugeot station wagon up the steep final bit of driveway, but his car stilled just past the iron gates. Pisto reversed and tried again, and barely made it to the same spot. B-dan also tried twice, spinning his tires until I could smell the slight burn of rubber wearing itself away on stubborn ice.

Pisto and B-dan quickly threw chains on their front tires, and all passengers climbed out. Chained, and lighter, both cars succesfully climbed the hill. I looked out into the still darkness, and felt a little uneasy. Anthony Bourdain describes Romania as ‘the place of fairy tales,’ and on dark nights in deep forests I can’t help but imagine a strange force just out of eye sight.

We walked up the hill, and I would’ve fallen twice had Capsuno not been within arm’s reach. We moved past a set of chained, protective dogs straining to stop us, and climbed the steps to the living quarters of Voie-Vodu. I chose a room to stay in (although we would eventually switch to a warmer one), and Capsuno and I quickly threw on some layers. We walked across white courtyard to some cement stairs leading to the cabana’s common area. We would spend the next few hours grilling on the patio above the yard, and I would occasinoally retreat down a long, indoor hallway to the dining room, which was warm with soba heat and soft light.

Read part two of this post here.



The Awaited Kitchen Shelf
January 15, 2009, 10:50 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Before I came to site in August, my new apartment, I’ll call it ‘the Violet Room,’ had been carefully inspected by both Directoara and Luna. They had found the Violet Room fitting per Peace Corps requirements, as well as by their own meticulous standards. The Violet Room is a modest sized apartment that belongs to a former student. The living room (where I mostly live) has been newly remodeled with violet walls and faux-wood floors. The bathroom has also recently been refurnished.

The kitchen is mostly cold and tiny, but not uncomfortable in either way. However, Directoara and Luna both promised to find me some sort of shelf to install above my kitchen sink, as all available counter space (a  three foot high, narrow cabinet, my kitchen table, the tiny landing next to the sink, and the top of my fridge) were crowded with my kitchen supplies. In August, Directoara showed me some spare desks that would be taken apart as the raw materials for my someday-shelf.

Directoara asked the school handy-man, DV, to put together a shelf for me. In October, I was called into his warm workshop on the school’s third floor where he proudly presented a long, two-story shelf he had built and painted. It was a beautiful, deep red color, like blood on a warm side-walk. That’s the most accurate simile I can imagine.

Now, the shelf had to take a forty second journey from the school, across a crumbling asphalt lot, to my bloc. But this wouldn’t occur until today, the 15th of January. The fault is mostly my own: I politely asked VS a few times if we could ‘put the shelf in my kitchen,’ but I never insisted hard enough to make it happen. This week, I resolved to be as stubborn as a terminally polite and soft-spoken man can be, and apparently it was enough. DV told me to wait at my apartment today, and he would appear and an undetermined morning hour with the shelf.

At ten, DV showed up with an eigth grade student carrying the shelf. The boy set the shelf in my apartment, at which point DV commanded him to ‘run.’ The boy left. I offered DV coffee, or some Tuica. DV told me Tuica wouldn’t be necessary, and indicated that he had already had some that morning. DV commented repeatedly on how chilly it was in my apartment. He told me that he has a wood soba (large stove with heat-retaining ceramic tiles), and it works great for keeping his home warm.

DV went to work, quietly marking my powder-peach walls with a pencil. I went to retrieve an extension cord from the mostly unused second room. In the process, I realised my cat, Cosette, had somehow found a way up to the highest shelf, where she had shredded four rolls of toilet paper into pink confetti. This is one of her favorite games. I was annoyed.

Next, I held a page of ‘The Christian Science Monitor’ under DV’s drill as he worked. When a screw was ornery, or unresponsive, DV would eye it sternly, as if he was disappointed with its performance. He would shake his head at the screw before shifting the angle of his drill, or trying a smaller or larger anchor.

DV installed the shelf quickly. His instructions to me were quiet gestures, rather than spoken Romanian. He told me that I should put napkins up on the shelf, with the corners draped over the edges because it would look ‘beautiful.’ He smiled as he surveyed his work. The shelf looked great.

DV asked me if there was anything else. I brought him to one of my coat hooks near my front door. It was unusable, as it slumped loosely out of its anchor holes. I watched DV’s hands as they worked. They trembled noticeably. I quietly contemplated the severity of his alcoholism, or whether my apartment really was that cold.

DV took out the hook, using more motions and signals to direct my assistant actions. He quickly determined the cause to be a broken anchor, which he replaced. Satisfied that the hook was now secure, we shook hands and DV left. “Meet you at school,” he called as I closed the door behind him. I then excitedly shifted all of my kitchenware to my new, blood-red shelf.



Generation Juxtaposition
January 13, 2009, 10:30 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , ,

I have asked at least seven of my group members whether they have young Romanians at their sites. Each of them has said ‘no,’ or ‘not many.’ I think I now know why: The young Romanians (15-30) have congregated in and around my site.  

An exaggeration, to be sure, but I have a larger number of young people in my area whereas other volunteers have few or none. On my small town streets, 2 out of 3 people I see are about 35 years old or younger. Although I’ve hypothesized about this plenty, I’m still yet to find a solid, provable answer.

Regardless of why, the result yields a fantastic site that I see quite often:

Imagine a Romanian bunică (directly translated as ‘grandmother,’ but a blanket term for any of the more traditional Romanian woman over 45 or so), gently plodding down the street. She usually wears a long, cloth rain-jacket and a brightly colored head scarf (patterns of aqua blue are popular here). Also, she typically wears a set of rubber, mid-calf boots, which stilt into bare skin and then a knee-length dress that often matches the head scarf.

On her arm is her young daughter (or grand-daughter?– regardless, she is mai tânără), who wears a bright plastic or nylon jacket covered in belts and buckles. Tânără’s head is typically uncovered, and her hair meticulously coiffed with strands, swathes, curls. Tânără wears tight jeans, which would be unbearable to me in this cold. Tânără also wears calf high boots, but they are always set on top of massive heels, and they precisely match the color of whatever jacket she is wearing.

Bunică carries a large plastic bag from one of the shops or supermarkets in town. Tânără typically has a shiny, expensive looking purse. I believe his is what happens when Communism suddenly topples and Democracy is animated to life in a hurried transition. The juxtaposition of these generations is framed so perfectly in this sort of moment: an older woman, with a creased face, clothed in tradition and practicality. The young woman guided by the rush of the new-media, and the socialization of her age and peers. But the generations are still connected.

They hold each other, steadying themselves together against the ice-covered side-walk. They talk softly and laugh. From where I watch (usually in the back of an idling cab, waiting for the other three seats to fill) I smile.  I also wish I had my camera.

Finally getting a picture or two of this is high on my ‘to do’ list.