The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Misunderstandings Can Be Hilarious

The sweaty, May afternoon I arrived in Buchurești to begin my Peace Corps Service, I didn’t speak a single word of Romanian. Not even ‘hello’.

Hence, the last 10 months I’ve become well acquainted with all of the emotions that linguistic misunderstandings can create. There’s the frustration, the apprehension, the confusion, the sheer terror. Today, however, I had my favorite sort of language misunderstanding: the hilarity (about as good as misunderstanding can get).

I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge  mindlessly thumbing through the Condica (a large lesson planner where teachers list what they taught to each class that day) and letting a nearby conversation  wash over me warmly. Directoara was discussing something with my community mentor, Ledy. My brain tuned to attention just as Ledy was walking out of the teacher’s lounge for class.

I thought I heard Ledy say:
“Barbat este mai destept decât gagici.”
Translated, this means: Man is more intelligent than chicks/babes.

I was… shocked. By and large, gender equality may not be as strong in Romania as it is in the United States, but my school is full of progressive-minded, confident women. Directoara herself has teaching degrees in three different subjects. It was difficult for me to really gauge her level of intelligence when I was just struggling to understand the basic meaning of conversations, but as I’ve gotten closer to Directoara I’ve realized how brilliant and well-balanced she is.

Still stunned, I tentatively asked Directoara if Ledy had really said what I had heard.
“No,” she explained in Romanian. “Ledy said that ‘Barabaș is more intelligent than Jichici.’ Two boys from class 8A,”
Then, as the implications of my misunderstanding sank in, Directoara began to laugh uncontrollably.
She was so amused she decided to tell every teacher that then walked into the teacher’s lounge what had happened.

I could have been embarrassed, but, in all honesty, I wasn’t. I didn’t feel frustrated, apprehensive, confused, or terrified. I couldn’t feel any of these things because I was suffocating–bent over the desk in front of me, laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. It was hilarious.


Reaffirming Our Future
March 22, 2009, 3:47 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , ,

When I ask my students about their families, I’ve become accustomed to hearing a few things.

Most of my kids have more than five siblings, and the age difference between the youngest and oldest is about 20 years. These families often live in snug, one bedroom apartments.

Most of my kids have at least one family member that works in a foreign country: Spain, France, Italy. Sometimes even America, but not often. This parent seldom comes home more than once a year. I have a sixth grade boy, Baller, who has two parents working in Portugal. He speaks fluent Portuguese, as well as Romanian. He says that he stays with his aunt. When I ask him why his aunt never comes to parent meetings at the school, he non-nonchalantly replies “Mr. Teacher, she doesn’t care.”

If a student says their father is NOT working abroad, then it can almost certainly be assumed that dad is a miner at one of the six below-ground operations in the nearby area. The mining life is dirty, hard, and, above all, dangerous. In the fall, there was a set of explosions at the mine that killed 13 people.

In fact, I can easily think of over a half dozen students who have lost parents in work-related accidents (not all in the mine).These students have patterned personality tics which range from extreme shyness to egotism. They have a more difficult time socializing with their peers (although they’re still reasonably well liked).

But, despite the lack of a ‘stable’ family environment, these kids give me hope. Despite that hardship that lives at home, they have wonderful souls. Despite their ever-present loneliness, they smile and laugh often, and they love to give hugs. They excitedly practice their English with me whenever they can–on the street, at the store, through my ground-floor kitchen window as I cook.

There is one beautiful seventh grade girl, Prințesă, who exemplifies this goodness. On Tuesday, she came to school three hours early for an English competition. On Thursday, she did it again for French. On Saturday, I saw her at a exposition put on by a local NGO that works to develop connections between Romania and France. Prințesă sang in French, and did a French/Romanian proverb presentation with two other girls. Prințesă accomplishes all of this while maintaining a perfect ’10’ (straight A) average in every subject (almost a dozen different classes).

I was talking to Directoara last night, at Miner’s birthday party. I mentioned how Prințesă is an unbelievably hard worker, and is endlessly polite and friendly with me. “Aw, poor girl,” Directoara said. “Her mother works six days a week and I think that her dad isn’t around. [Prințesă] is alone.” It probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.

That a well-adjusted, confident and friendly 13/14 year old girl must fend for herself while simultaneously being so focused on school boggles my mind. If anything reaffirms our future, and the inherent goodness of the human soul, for me it is our young ones. They give so much of themselves, despite receiving so little.


There are beautiful things in this world that I am well aware of, but that I do not truly understand.

One of my best friends, Angel, has described the dusk-time call to prayer in major Middle-Eastern cities. Time stills as crackling speakers across innumerable city blocks play the same, haunting song, and thousands of worshipers dutifully perform a meticulous and precise ritual. Angel has described it to me, with beauty and style, but I haven’t felt that feeling the way she has. I haven’t experienced it first hand. This is the realm where words fall just short–in capturing the brilliant and mostly unpredictable flashes of human spirit that occur in the lapses of our daily lives.

As a devoted student of American Poetry, I am aware of the importance of trains. To a locomotive (in winter), Walt Whitman once wrote “(you) emblem of motion and power! pulse of the continent!/ For once, come serve the Muse, and merge in verse, even as here I see thee.” He urges this great thing that he reveres to come into his song.

I have read these leaves, and I can imagine the great thing, and the reverence is apparent. But the feeling Whitman felt at that moment always escaped me.

See–I had never been on a train. As a Colorado native, trains are a sort of superfluous thing: they exist, but only for those who would chose that form of transportation over others ‘more practical.’ Therefore, Whitman’s verse was an unfounded idea for me–I hadn’t had the experience to nurture his words with my own subjective emotions.

But, happily, this has recently changed. In Romania, trains are a cheap, reliable, and ubiquitous form of transportation. They’re slower than cars, and less comfortable than buses, but they are consistent, and more frequent. Hence, I have found myself on many 4+ hour tracked trips, criss-crossing the plains on either side of the drifting Carpathian swoosh that runs across this country.

Last weekend, I took a train home from Lugoj, and took itinerary of what I saw:

– One doe, with two fawns, gently stepping through the crumbling rows of a winter field.
– Two pheasants, crouched uneasily, in the long blooms of grass along drainage ditches.
– A handful of soccer games, in hidden fields with crooked, rusting goal posts.
– A citadel, hanging spookily on an overgrown cliff above a small town clinging to the earth between rock and river.
– A score of Roma (Gyspy) enclaves on the outside of any large town. Tiny, half room, scrap-metal huts with fences made by binding thin branches together. Livestock and camp fires. Innumerable, beautiful pieces of bright clothing frozen on drying lines.
– One late-winter sunset of rose and gold that ripped through snow clouds hanging over peaks approximately 2,000 meters tall.

I now understand Whitman’s adoration for the locomotive. You sit quietly at the window, listening to the train grumble and cry as it rolls around the earth. The details rip by, incessantly arriving only to be shoved away by what are immediately behind them. And this happens before the backdrop of fortitudinous mountains, rivers, forests. Over all of it is a still and watchful sky.

And Whitman writes:

Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding;
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide—across the lakes,
To the free skies, unpent, and glad, and strong.

And now I understand.

Poem Cited:
Whitman, Walt. “To a Locomotive in Winter.” LEAVES OF GRASS. 1900.