The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Sunday Countdown

The best community integration technique I ever heard was this: during PST a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, Elie, told us “never turn down an invitation.” He said, “no matter how tired, or overwhelmed, or introverted you’re feeling, make the effort to get out and interact with Romanians every chance that you get.”

It’s been pretty fantastic advice, and even a year after coming to Romania, I’m still employing this technique.  It continues to make for spectacular and overly-poetic Jack Kerouac Sunday afternoons.

I invited ten kids on an excursion this Sunday. Ten bright and beautiful happy to speak English at anytime ones from class 5A. The class that screams excited and likes to play a thirty second game of ‘hide and seek’ at the beginning of every hour behind their long blue classroom drapes or squeezed behind the side radiators or (their favorite) under my teachers desk and I usually do my best to be pretend surprised.

We made plans to meet at nine in front of the school and I made them promise to bring jackets, hats, food, and water. I had to bring an official “proces verbal” form to their class on Friday morning so that each could sign over life and limb and loss of property to yours truly, the awkward stumbling weird accented American English teacher that would do his very best to not lose anyone and keep things all smiles and sunshine.

But I wouldn’t be alone–eight minutes before 9:00 AM my very best English speaker, my sort of prized student good at every subject, Christy, showed up at my door. “Aren’t you ready yet?” he said untactful as always but a huge heart and always easily brushed away his impatience with me. I’m always five minutes late and maybe I sometimes seem a little bit lazy (Peace Corps is exhausting, afterall). Christy is coming to help me and also because his little sister Iry is in 5a and I’m sure his mom is being just a little bit protective (she has this tendency) but I’m more than happy–thankful even– to have him along.

Christy, and I meet the others there are only seven from 5a this morning. Two were taken on other trips by parents and one forgot and slept in but it’s okay we play on the school swings for a minute or two while a girl runs home to change into shorts I make the two boys that forgot hats put on sunscreen I put some on too but it won’t matter I’ll be burnt raw but happy by the day end. We leave at 9:25 and cross over the Rosia hills hard going at first the too-skinny kids sprinting the chubby kids like I once was huffing and puffing and stopping often for orange soda breaks.

But we hit a dirt road soon traversing across the mountain and down smooth and slow to the cliffs beautiful splitting the earth so hard a small creek spews forth and pit-holed caves are birthed along its banks. We walk for an hour along this way, me forcibly grabbing one kid at a time to practice a little English an excuse for all of this and the others giggling running breaking sticks and eating handfuls of pretzels or cheese flavored popcorn out of bags like circus tents. Mountain men shepherds pass us by on the road, driving six beautiful horses and a little colt shedding in awkward patches all of them driven in a long line up the dirt road where we stop by an abandoned two story cement brick house now an sudden smelly cow stable. We stay away from that place, content instead to picnic on the creek bank my kids play in the too cold water and make their Romanian “ouch” noises when their frozen feet come out–the noise is unfamiliar to me like a 3/4 American ‘wow.’

But we have to leave after a few hours so I can pile into a car five full with my colleague and friend Vitzo and her boyfriend B-dan and B-dan’s young and whiny university sister and her completely apathetic but pretty boyfriend who won’t take off his sunglasses once the entire afternoon.

We drive hard up the beautiful Jiet canyon and park along an overlook over a cabana up a hard road where most other drivers dare not come. B-dan and I build a fire to heat the Romanian style wok and fry four kinds of meat and homefries in pig backfat: halibut, lamb, chicken, pork. I am a sort of vegetarian most times these days only eating eggs and milk stuffs but at an afternoon gratar (Romanian for ‘grill’) where meat is piled generously and repeatedly on my plate I can’t help but partake and there is no guilt for me in doing this.

We also eat an oily tomato and cucumber salad and fresh bread and I have three hunks of salty sweet sheep cheese– pieces that are anything but meager like the Romanian hospitality anything but subtle it will leave you laughing and exhausted and soul-bared and full.

I lie down in the sun and pull off my shirt to roast my skin a bit longer and think about this whole wonderful day and the two fist fights I broke up earlier between my kids. Both fights between a boy and a girl and both times I would grab the boy from behind and lift him up and away from the girl who would continue to try and kick and swing fists around my back while I said “stop! stop!” repeatedly as that word (as well as “weekend”) is universal here.

But before long my mind is tired and my eyes shut and I doze (and snore!) hard for one hour while the long canyon shadows creep up onto me and I wake as I become cold and I go on a little walk by myself up the dirt road to a small and ancient bridge with stones covered in rust red moss beautiful and idyllic I will repeatedly say that Romania is the birth place of all the wild fairy tales.

And the drive home is quiet we’re a little high from food and sun and I think about the day and this countdown and am stuck at zero. I resist the urge to conclude with a cheap and easy abstraction about “no regrets” as this day and all of this deserves better than that sort of thing we’ve heard a billion times before. And I’m sure (and I hope) that your Sunday was just as wonderful and mine was no better or worse and we are alive and living and laughing and I am continually convinced that this world is good and maybe just maybe we’ll be able to make it through okay.



For a direct response re: having tattoos in the Peace Corps, please read my post, “Peace Corps and Tattoos.”

Before I came to Romania, my Peace Corps Placement Officer and I had a talk about tattoos. I have two inch wide ‘bands’ on both of my forearms, just below the elbows. My PCPO told me that tattoos are a sensitive issue in Romania, and I would be well-advised to cover my tattoos in public. I heeded his advice, and bought four sets of Under Armour forearm sleeves. I began to think of potential explanations & excuses for them.

Then I came to Romania, and found that tattoos are all but ubiquitous (especially in larger towns), and now I am glad that I can wear short sleeves unabashedly during the warm summer months.

Last night, I called Miner and asked him if I could stop by his place to hang out. Miner has a mandatory ‘concediu’ which means he gets a paid week off from the mine. I walked over to Miner’s at around 8 o’clock, and knocked on his door twice. I heard talk inside, but no one answered. I then realized that there was another noise coming through the door–the familiar racheting voice of a tattoo gun. I turned Miner’s door handle, found that it was unlocked, and snuck inside.

Miner was lying on his pull-out couch, facing the back mattress in nothing but athletic shorts. Miner’s friend, Rome, was bent over him, scratching a tattoo into Miner’s left shoulder. We shook hands, and I was immediately encouraged to pour myself some țuica from the plastic, orange soda bottle nearby.

Miner already has a long tattoo curving from his right shoulder, around his armpit, and extending past his hip. Tonight, Rome was building another one on the opposite side. I watched Rome sketch a sort of detailed phantom head, with rotting teeth and empty eyes. Behind the phantom was a wincing angel, surrounded by fire. Farther down was a demon, and it reminded me of the Fantasia version of ‘Night on Bald Mountain.’

this image has given me nightmares

It made my tattoos, drawn from quotations by Percy Shelley and Plato, seem unbelievably conservative by comparison.

We watched most of AC/DC’s ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ live from Madrid while we finished the țuica and Miner occasionally winced and cursed. Rome asked me if I wanted a tattoo too, but I visibly balked a bit. He smiled and said he’d give me a few weeks to think about it.

The Shire

On Saturdays, I tutor Mary. Mary is a 19 year old who lives in the block next to mine. I met her through her brother, Io, who is one of my 4th grade students (Io = yo(!)).

Mary is wonderful and kind and shy and surprisingly progressive minded. I’m doing my best to steadily fan her sense of independence as she prepares to pick a university path this summer.

Today, Mary and I were reading an adapted story of Prometheus. Mary’s mom came into the room, and asked me  if I would stay for dinner, and then go with the family for a drive up the Jiu canyon to Lunca Florii (meadow of flowers). I asked Mary if this appealed, and it did, so I excitedly agreed. Mary and I were going to go on a walk through town after tutoring, but the prospect of home-cooked meal and frolicking through my Carpathians sounded even finer.

Mary’s mom soon called me into the kitchen,  and sat me down with dad. We talked about his upcoming retirement from the mine. He wants to visit America, and especially Arizona. We were each served two big, rice and pork stuffed peppers. Mary opened a container of home-made sour cream, and sliced up some white bread for us.

Dad and I talked with full mouths while Mary stood by attentively and poured us tropical fruit juice and cleared our plates.  Then Dad and I got chocolate-dipped, vanilla ice cream cones.

The family sent me to grab a jacket from my apartment. Mary met me outside– she had bought three small bags of sunflower seeds. We climbed into the family’s old, red Audi and zoomed fast up the canyon, but we left the car about a kilometer and a half away from the meadow so we could walk the rest.

After a dozen long, dirt turns, we came to a spring in the side of the hill next to the abandoned foundation of a house. Mary’s dad disappeared over the top of the hill, into the sloping meadow above the gravel road. After a few minutes of watching Io throw dirt and sticks into the  crumbling fringes of the concrete foundation, we the rest followed.

Dad was sitting in a sacred place–there was an oversized picnic table built under a half-century old beech tree. The beech was wrapped in warped and bulging elephant hide. It had been built from the stilled bodies of some ancient, benevolent beings stacked up on one another. Their eyes peered out from all places in the trunk, and i could see their torsos and flexing arms underneath the stretching skin.

Dad was too short for the tall table, so his feet swung casually off the side. He was wearing a wool sweater, and the air from the higher paths came down onto him, smoothing his dark and curly hair. He casually ate handfuls of seeds and spat them, empty and broken, sideways into the wind. He looked like a hobbit, content with all things in that perfect instant–completely unaware of a life leading onto or following this, the meadow of flowers moment.

I looked about this scene, and I really felt like I was in the shire: the fairy-tale beech tree, this happy family joking and laughing in some melodious and foreign language, and the ubiquitious sense of rightness and peace that fell over us. It was heavy and sweet from the spring lilacs wafting about in the wet air. And it sedated me with the stained glass sunlight–the amber slowly being sucked back over the snow piled mountains on the western edge of this world.

Business Picnic

Today’s school schedule was shifted around a little, in order to accommodate the Romanian ‘teză,’ which is a giant, country-wide test that decidedly affects a student’s high school and university options. The teză was administered in the late-morning, which pushed back the beginning of the regular, afternoon hours.

Thursday’s are my easiest day– I teach one hour to my bright and polite seventh graders. My class time was re-scheduled and shortened from 3:40 to 4:10.

I went to school an hour early, however, to discuss an upcoming project with my directors. Luna was more feisty than usual. Three minutes into the conversation I remember saying “God help me– I’ve barely arrived and you’re already making fun of me,” and she liked this and laughed.

Luna and I sat and discussed logistical things coming up in June–things she wanted me to decide in that exact moment and that I didn’t have a lot of information for. Such was the nature of the thing, but Luna still knocked me around a little. “This is an interrogation–I’m the ‘securitate!'” she said, a reference to the Romanian secret police that terrorized dissenters and enemies of the state under the communist regime.

As it often does, our conversation shifted into the realm of food (the great unifier, I’ve found). Directoara came and stood behind Luna as I tried hard to remember what I ate every morning with my host family (gazda) in Ploiești during my ten week Peace Corps training. I struggled a little, although I had eaten the same large and wonderful meal every morning for over two months.  I temporarily forgot the Romanian word for hot dog, and before it came to me Directoara suggested “virșli.”

“No, it’s not that,” I said. “In fact, I’ve never heard of that.”

“You’ve never eaten virșli?” Directoara said. “Wait a second,” and she whipped out her phone and made a quick call. “Are you still at the piața? Good. I need you to get something…”

Luna eased her questioning and instead we started talking about how great writers are ‘unusual’ in comparison to the rest of us and thus develop a predisposition for bad habits in order to cope. 20 minutes later, Pișto came into the director’s office carrying a small and carefully tied blue and white striped bag. He set it before me, and directoara brought over a bowl. She carefully untied the bag, and took seven slices of white bread out and lined them into the bowl–it overflowed and crumbs fell everywhere.

Inside the bottom of the bag, were four long, crimson red, grease-sweating sausages on a small paper tray with a giant dollop of French mustard in the center. These are virșli, and they look and smell amazing.

“All you need now is a beer,” Pișto joked. I told him I’d have one if I didn’t have to teach.

And now, a room full of middle-aged Romanians watched me dig my fingers into these oily and amazing sheep sausages, and dip hunks of bread into the mustard and eat happily. They watched intently as I swallowed my first few bites.

“Did you like it?” Luna asked. And I nodded happily and told her they were super.

Luna laughed and clasped her hands together. “He’s one of us!” she said, and I smiled and ate til nothing but a few slices of bread remained. Lately, I’ve become aware of how seamless and easy my life seems to be– that I am so ridiculously spoiled that an afternoon meeting at school can become an earnest conversation on great literature and ultimately end with me being brought and fed warm food until I’m full.