The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania


Language Milestone
April 28, 2009, 11:45 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

When I got home from the Ukraine, there was a small, thin square of tissue paper tucked into my door. In burned black xerox and thin scribbled ink, it informed me that there was a package waiting for me at Post Office #3 in the county seat, Deva, and to be there between nine and noon on a Tuesday or Thursday. I had no idea who this package was from, or what would be inside.

So I asked around, and found out that Ledy and Dan were heading up to Deva in the near future, and would be glad to take me.

After running two other errands, Ledy and Dan took me to this particular post office tucked away down its long and tree-lined cul-de-sac. Dan parked in the shade then told me they would wait for me there. This was an exciting thing.

Ledy and Dan enjoy coddling me. This was really difficult at first–I joined the Peace Corps because I felt independent and capable, and I wanted to revel in that. As of late, however, I’ve learned to accept (and even enjoy?) being spoiled by their good intentions.

But Ledy and Dan were placing enough faith in me to handle one of the most difficult of all second-language experiences– the post office. I felt like I had to succeed if I ever wanted to maintain this sort of sweet independence. With that mindset, I stepped into line and waited my turn.

I imagined the interaction would be simple– I’ve done this a few times before without any real problems, and the woman at the counter seemed so cheerful. She buzzed about, helping two customers at once and giving big smiles and saying “thank you beautifully” to everyone she interacted with. I was ready.

I handed her my little black and blue tissue, and my diplomatic-issued ID. Her smile immediately fell away.

“You need a [proper ID]. Why don’t you have one? You need to get one. This one doesn’t have your address– I can’t use this.”

I panicked for a moment– then my head opened and a bunch fluid, intelligible Romanian fell out. I explained that I was sorry but that this was the only ID I had as I’d only been living here a year, and that my address wasn’t permanent and the apartment wasn’t even in my name. I told her that this was the new ID system my organization was using, and that I hadn’t had a problem when I had done this before.

“Holy shit,” I thought in English.

See, I remember watching my Romanian tutor negotiate for flowers at the piata back in August. She was able to shave 30% off a bouquet of beautiful, white roses for a sick colleague of ours. I remember thinking “that’s when I’ll feel comfortable in my Romanian language–when I’m able to bargain or argue my way into or out of something. That will be my ‘this is good,’ moment.”

The woman at the counter stared at me for a second. “Fine,” she sighed, stamping the necessary forms and passing me a large, black and blue tissue paper book through the window to sign. The tax on the package was 1.50 lei. I just happened to have exact change from a whim’d purchase of a gridded notepad earlier that morning. The same notepad I wrote this story in. That was wonderful coincidence.

“Thank you beautifully,” I said.

“With pleasure,” she responded. There was a faint warmness in her words.

I went through a side door and collected my box from a sweet and smiling woman there. Inside were three packs of Cadbury creme eggs, and a dozen lime-green marshmallow peeps from my friend, A-darling. They were a wonderful surprise, and felt more than adequate reward.

“Have a fine day.”

“And you, the same.”

And I think that this is good.



Pripyat 1
April 24, 2009, 5:09 pm
Filed under: Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I felt the eyeless phantom watch me there
and I sensed the still moving
in the broken cements and the heaving steps
–demon that she was, however,
too careful to be seen.

The greens were wrong
–either atrophied or too pale
and thin. I wondered if it was spring thaw
or the radiation, poisoning soil
set under a meter deep.

Uneasy, I stepped back
into the gaping hole behind,
out of the freezing rain that soaked
and contorted my hands
–its sheets of natural sound slowly
twisting me towards insanity.

The sounds are my memory
–my steps on shattered ceramic
plates and rusted mattress springs
–where would I find the bits of bone or
the putrefied mats of human hair, and skin?
But if the whole place was dead,
strange, it was, there were no signs of dying.

I crouched and waited
ready to rage and to die
against the massive ghost in the open outside
–she so vast my murder be effortless

–but instead, she perched
and drove me to wallow there
alone in the collective of collateral damage
until, finally, I came to madness
–and she came into me
then I glimpsed the world thrash
and burn, on the curve of her back.

alicia-chernobyl1



Shepherd Cemetery

From Friday the 10th until Sunday the 19th, I was on a spring break trip in the Ukraine with five other volunteers. It was, hands down, the best trip of my life. Our camaraderie was deep, and little ever actually went wrong. We stopped periodically to stare into each other’s eyes and giggle “we are so blessed,” before the adventure would continue.

However, the trip was a 205 hour marathon of social interaction (about 80 of which were spent in some form of cheap transportation). There was little alone time, and most of the madness took place in crammed, public places.

Hence, the day after I returned, I desperately needed two things: quiet time for introspection, and some post-traveling physical activity. So I went for what is directly translated as “a drop of movement/motion,” and hiked to the top of Roșie, which is the steep quarter mountain behind my town.

I went the highest I’ve ever gone today–all the way to the wooded top. Near the summit, I found a perfect place to sit and stare over the Jiu Valley. It has a soft patch of grass under a short and twisted tree that’s ready to sprout leaves and give shade in the hot summer days ahead. There are strange piles of rocks in this place that may or may not be makeshift graves. I will imagine from now on that they are.

But this place isn’t the highest point on Roșie– so I pushed a bit farther. Just beyond that place I smelled the sweet waft of haystacks warming in the sun. I heard birds singing in the wind singing in the trees. There was a fullness to all my senses that I haven’t felt in months. It was brought by expanding the separation between nature and the town life nestled lower along the river bank.

I climbed higher through a meadow with bright yellow and violet wild flowers in no discernible pattern–just happy to be blooming and to find any touch of sun that would come. I passed through a weather-beaten gate rust-bolted into a willow tree. The world here becomes a narrow pass, with two sharply rising hills covered in leafless trees. I kept to the meadow in the middle. The hills on either side were a deep orange–still buried three inches deep by leaves from last fall–still too cold this high up for leaves to begin to bud.

Here, I came to the high point saddle between hills. Moving onward were more short mountains, with scattered shepherds huts (not yet inhabited at this point in the season). The clouds were cold and a dull blue farther along the way.

I climbed back down to the shepherd cemetery. Now was time for rest and introspection, but any heavy thought or concern seemed far away and irrelevant. I felt such a vast closeness to my life here as I was able to glance out and take my entire wonderful little town in with one wide, swooped glance.

The Ukraine trip taught me this: that the Earth is a place of grace and that it deserves all of the faith you can possibly place into it.
We six Americans came and bounced through that foreign country with a command of less than five phrases. We were slap happy, and hugging each other almost too much, and excited by everything. We were loud and innocent and free–yet we felt (almost always) relentlessly blessed by our good fortune because the trip was testament that this world is good. So many things could have gone wrong, and instead a parade of mostly smiling strangers reached out to us, beyond a language barrier, and helped us find our way for nothing but to let a little bit of the goodness inside of them shine.

And now, after 11 months in Romania, I sit in a fairytale grave yard on a quarter mountain and am convinced that love is something universal, and am confident in my ability to always do my best, and am content to know that this is all that really matters.



“Baiatul”
April 5, 2009, 8:55 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , ,

Now that it’s spring time, I take a lot of walks.

I have a couple of routes that I frequent throughout my town. Today, I took the loop down to the gym, near the center of town, and back up a side street that’s been freshly paved. I see a lot of my students there, rocking their roller blades.

On my return route, I walked past a bunica (grandmother) leaning against the wall of the entry stairs to her apartment building. She wore a head scarf, and a dirty teal and white sports sweatshirt. She held an ancient broom handle in her hand. The unpainted shaft and been worn and splintered, and she balanced herself against the yellow plastic which had once held bristles. They were long gone.

“Baiatul” (boy) she called out. “I want to come down. Help me”

‘Baiatul’ throws me off. It’s such a condescending term in the states–but here it’s appropriate for any younger male that you’re unacquainted with. Little by little, I’ve become accustomed to hearing it from strangers (especially older women). I even get called “beautiful boy” by shop women, sometimes.

I walked over to the woman, and took her right hand in my right hand. With my left, I steadied her at her elbow. She leaned on her broom, and muttered to herself. Half of her words were wispy explanation to no one in particular. The other half were motivational phrases to herself: “one, two, let’s go!” After about thirty seconds, she had cleared the two long steps, and was ready to wander along her way in the spring sunshine.

“Thank you beautifully” she said to me.

“With much, much pleasure,” I said back. “Have a good day, in continuation.”

And this boy went on his way, and he was feeling beautiful.