The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Dresden Two

This is the sudden epiphany that over-rushed me as I stood near the Frauenkirch, in Dresden 1. Please read it first. This will then make more sense.

“I can hear the world is whispering–and it is whispering this:

As a race, we are capable of both rise and fall. Look here at this city–it is symbol of both inspired beauty and destructive apathy, in and of our human souls.

And now to me the city says: ‘You know there are no angels.
No perfect world warriors built for never-stumbling glory,
as the world itself, She is not perfect.
But the world still needs Her heroes.’

She needs Her sons and daughters to rise as children that live–and therefore understand–the balance of mortality and the divine–sinning saints that have plunged full body into the depths and free air on both sides of the moral boundary.

Dresden is the symbol of our eternal conflict: the ability to create and to destroy in the same, simple, breathing beings. The balance also exists inside of us. Is bloomed by us. Is birthed by us.

This city of stone–streets, homes, statues–is, at its true heart, a temple of mirrors. It reflects our conjoined conflict back. I see a humanity that screams and stumbles. We curse, cry, sweat, stink, fear, freak, falter and die. We are beasts by our birth-right.

But, at some moments, we come so close to Holy that the spirit of Gd burns through us.
Or, is ever major magnified by.

This is our miracle. Any act of love is our great ability. We are capable of rise or fall, but that we put ourselves aside in the names of beauty, friendship, joy and love is proof to me that Gd exists. And so, Dresden is a city devoted to the existence of Gd. Here shines both the great graces and flaws of a race of imperfect beings. Let us test the balance by being the best that we can be.”


Travel Day
July 25, 2009, 12:16 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

For all of our Peace Corps related training events, we have ‘Travel Days’ immediately before and after. They are appropriately named, as it takes a little while to maneuver around Romania if you don’t have a personal vehicle.

Today,  for example, I hopped onto a Bîrlad bus at 5:45 AM (in the east, about two hours south of Iași).
I got out of a taxi at my apartment at 9:55 PM, 700 km later (my site is in the mid-west, three hours south of Deva where those two rivers begin).

This is what happened today:

Potts and I had decided to grab a 6:30 maxi-taxi (mini bus) from Bîrlad to Brașov. Potts was going to see NIN play in northern Transylvania (near Tîrgu Mureș), and I wanted to be home the day before a wedding in Petroșani (I’d need at least a full day of rest). Potts and I jumped on a bus bound for the train station, where the city-to-city buses leave from.

I talked to the woman running the ticket office, and she kindly/quickly explained that the Brașov maxi-taxi was set to leave at 6:45, which meant Potts and I had 45 minutes to kill. Potts went to a booth inside the nearby train station and bought a grapefruit and a banana for 7 lei. After Potts told me this, I decided to walk a block to a mini-store across the way and buy two bananas for 2 lei. Train stations are ridiculous expensive.

At 6:40, I still didn’t see our maxi-taxi (there are usually destination signs posted in the windshields of the idling, white vans), so I wandered up to any driver that I could find. Each told me “I’m not going to Brașov,” or “that bus is coming immediately.” I eavesdropped on a woman nearby, and I realized that our maxi-taxi began its route in another town, so the departure time was elastic–when it got to Bîrlad, we’d climb on and leave.

It showed up a little after 7:00, and after each passenger switched out to a larger bus to accommodate us all, we took off at 7:25.

I let myself sleep within moments of sitting down–I had purposefully foregone my morning coffee so I could snooze through this part of the trip. It passed quickly, and we got to Brașov at around 12:15. Potts checked on his next maxi-taxi, and I bought a train ticket for 13:09, to Deva (I almost always have to connect through Deva when I travel). Potts and I then heaved our bags up to the second floor of a nearby mall to have some good falafel and coffee (finally).

Potts walked me to my train, where we hugged goodbye. My train was hot, and filled with tons of teenagers heading to the same music festival that Potts had tickets to. These teens had decided to take trains, rather than the roads. As I tried to climb up the train ladder into my wagon, a kid with long hair and a white, South Park t-shirt told me “you shall not pass,” in English. With so many young ‘rockers’ (as they’re referred to) in one place, I heard tons of English being passed back and forth, peppering their conversations with movie quotations and idioms. It was the most English I’ve ever heard on a Romanian train (without other volunteers onboard).

I made friends with the old couple in my compartment, but I was too anxious to sit still. I wanted to do my favorite Romanian train activity, which is to stand at the window, and watch the world roll by. It inspires so many beautiful thoughts, which are left tortuously incomplete. You continuously breed the beginning of some grand idea, and then have it wiped away by something new outside. And by the time you realize you’re off track and scramble to find your place, something new catches your attention. Building sand castles in the surf.

When I approached Deva, my train was running an hour behind. I decided to jump off the train in Simeria to catch my missed connection (Simeria is closer to both Brașov and Petroșani, as the route dips south a little, but it’s a smaller station so it has less options, overall). The cheap train I wanted to connect to had already passed by, but the conductor recommended I go with a more expensive train, and actually get to Petroșani sooner than if I had gone with the cheap train.

So, I ended the trip in an almost empty (expensive) train, with my head out of my compartment window. I watched the dusk writhe in its beautiful throes, and my thick Carpathian forest dimmed into solid masses of black-before-blue. I blasted my i-pod playlist–the one with all of my most favorite songs–but it was still quiet enough to hear crickets in the thick scrubs so close to the rails they could easily be touched.

The world felt right as I came back into familiar places after 35 days away. Honest to Gd, I felt like the whole quiet world was welcoming me in some patient, unspoken way. Or maybe it was just my sensation that this place has become home. And I had been away from here a little bit too long.

Dresden One

These five ‘city posts’ concern a trip I took through central Europe, beginning on July 2nd and ending late in the evening of July 14th
(Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna):

I’d always wanted to visit Dresden.
As a sworn student of American literature, the stuff of Kurt Vonnegut has been influential in my life. I wanted to see the the place where Vonnegut spent a good portion of war as a POW. I wanted to see the de-devastated city that had inspired the greatness of SLAUGHTER HOUSE FIVE. Dresden is between Berlin, where I was, and Prague, where I was headed. So it seemed that I must see Dresden, even if only for an afternoon.

I stayed in the Bohemian district, which is the north-eastern part of the city. It’s the not-so quiet but oh-so-quaint and crammed city section with rainbow flagged ‘alternative’ bars and mom & pop organic grocery stores and side-walk window eateries. I stayed in a spectacular hostel called the Lolli Homestay, which was my favorite of the whole trip. It’s quirky with local-artist decorated bedrooms and a barrage of antique furniture in the lobby. It’s comfy with big sleep/sit/stay arm chairs. And it was cheap–at only about 15 Euros per night and another few for a fresh-baked bread and buffet breakfast.

We got front-desk directed to the place in Dresden I wanted to see most: the Frauenkirch (Church of Our Lady)– the Lutheran church destroyed during the infamous bombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. Frauenkirch has become the sort of informal WWII memorial, and felt like the most appropriate place for me to pay respects and sow some peace of mind.

I wandered through an enfant rain to the new town square with pricey shops and the ugly, gilded statue of August the Strong on his short-legged horse. No one in Dresden likes this statue, but it’s the common disdain for it that has made the sparkly eye-sore so iconic. Dresdeners openly mock it for being so ostentatious–and in the unified ridicule the statue has become an integral part of the local culture.

From that point moving on and moving on, Dresden blew my little mind.
As you come over the Augustusbrücke, the Dresden skyline is knock-you-on-your-ass stunning. It’s remarkable to see so many gothic spires and stones tearing and scratching themselves into the air. It feels like they’re challenging the grace and force of the sky with their presence. And the most amazing thing here is that some of the stones are scarred black from the inferno that once devoured the whole place. The city here still feels weakened in its recovery–it is a shadow of itself, and an outline of the real. Dresden is beautiful (almost without measure), but its heart is cursed and empty. Dresden feels like a Frankenstein–a miracle, but it is covered in stitches and scar-tissue.

Outside the church is a massive stone slab that once belonged to the original church dome. The weight of this place–the subjective significance of such monument as created by me, Vonnegut, Dresden, the world–sat on my heart until time stopped. It was serious emotional.

The world’s whispers rose up from the stones. They washed down the burnt edges of the church– the new block-whites, and the half recycled ash-blacks. The world gave me a rumination that evolved until it rose, ran, and rocketed. It grew towards the sky and became some vast, breathing, idea. I sat down and quickly wrote it onto the back of my Eurotrip  itinerary. It will be the next post entitled ‘Dresden 2.’

I slowly carried the heavy epiphany on my back through a miserable, Hemingway rain. Through old town, to new town, to the dimming Bohemian streets.

Kwando and I sat down in Curry and Company, a fantastic little side street eatery. I had a big link of currywurst and crispy home fries with a thai peanut sauce and a half liter of honey lager. It was sweet and savory after my massive storm of battered church insight.

The whispers came back and the world said “little soul–you were worked hard. Don’t forget to eat for balance. Your little life is not meant only for the heavy realizations in the ruins of our cities. French fries, beer, sweet sauce and spicy meat are just as important. Then you will press forward onto the path relentlessy, but you will remember that your path is always to be enjoyed.”


Bohemian District: My time in Dresden was too short, but I do recommend staying in the north portion, near the Bohemian district. There are amazing eateries, and hostels. There are gorgeous parks, with gazebos where German teens in black leather boots drink and laugh and play hackey-sack. It’s a little part of the city hidden away, and could be completely passed over if one stayed near the main train station and old, classic buildings in the southern half.


These five ‘city posts’ concern a trip I took through central Europe, beginning on July 2nd and ending late in the evening of July 14th
(Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna):

I spent July 2nd in Bucuresti, as my begin-by-Berlin flight left at around seven in the morning. The “traveling-through” problem of Bucuresti was heavy on my mind–the airports frown upon sleep overs, and most Bucuresti hotels are really expensive. I’ve recently heard rumors that Bucuresti is the sixth most expensive city in the European Union. Whether this is real or reach, my humble Peace Corps salary necessitates that my excursions through the capital city be as… thrifty… as possible. The cab ride from the Peace Corps office to the airport alone can be 50 RON on offpeak hours (and depending on the driver). But, as often occurs, the universe provided me with a cheap and comfortable alternative, provided that I was prepared for adventure.

Through a professional contact, I found a cantaloupe-coloured French monastery on a quiet street in northern Bucuresti. I met the kind-hearted head-“frere,” Martin, and he let me sleep there for free (but first I needed to move furniture back into my fresh painted room) and welcomed me to dinner (if I wouldn’t mind doing all the dishes afterwards). Coffee, oven-baked bread, and jam were mine to enjoy the next morning (as I’d be waking up before the monks). I left a 20 RON donation on the dresser for good traveler’s karma, and took a cab for only 7 RON to the airport.

Berlin is buzzing, and the immediate first word that blinks into my brain for it is “young.” Perhaps inappropriate for a city present in the world since before the 1200s, but the most fantastic and interesting parts of Berlin are, to me, in its modern history. This is a city completely re-born of red phoenix fire in 1989, blasting hard and high into the cosmos of the modern world order.

Street art is ubiquitous in Berlin, which was a surprise for me. The East Side Gallery is a giant preserved portion of the Berlin Wall, and every few months new artists are allowed behind the metal chain link surrounding it to re-define what it says. However, city graffiti extends beyond the wall to almost any sprayable surface. From quick scribbles to massive, building high works by Blu, Berlin feels like a sprawling concrete canvas.

Our hostel, comebackpackers, was in the Middle-Eastern section of Berlin. This boy (me!) who loves exotic food celebrated by immediately eating a spicy falafel sandwich. During either of the twelve o’clock times, I could get a doner kebab wrap for 2.5 Euros, which was BY FAR some of the cheapest eats of the entire trip.

I took the Sandeman’s New Europe Tour of Berlin, which is a free tour directed at youth. Our tour guide, Sunshine, is a performance artist, originally born and raised in California– she was brilliant and bright. The New Europe guides operate on tips only, but they present the information (tons of history, anecdotes, factoids) in their fun, accessible, curse word-laden ways. My favorite story, as Sunshine told it, was about Berlin’s most infamous icon, the Bradenburg Gate (I apologize if my rendition is hazy and/or incorrect–feel free to correct me in the ‘comments’ section of this post):

Napoleon invaded, liked the gate, and took it to Paris following the Prussian defeat in 1806. The Germans weren’t happy about this, but they immediately vindicated themselves by defeating Napoleon and recovering the gate in 1814. The Prussians removed the oak leaves (symbols of Peace and Knowledge) from Victoria’s hands, and replaced them with an Iron Cross, the symbol of Prussian Rule. They then renamed the square under Victoria’s chariot to ‘Paris Platz.’

What does this mean? That now the Goddess of Victory was holding the Iron Cross over Paris Platz.
Or: ‘German Victory over Paris.’

But the best part is this: prior to being stolen by Napoleon, Victoria looked straight down Unter den Linden–the main drag of Berlin (like the German ‘Champs Elysee‘). Once she was recovered, however, the Germans put her at a slight angle, so that she would look down and to the left at a particular site in the square.
That particular site would eventually become the French Embassy.

Proof that, indeed, Germans have a fantastic sense of humor.


Holocaust Memorial: I was able to see all the touristed city sites, and of those I definitely recommend the Holocaust Museum. It is underneath the haunting Holocaust Memorial, just a short way from the Brandenburg Gate. It’s a small space, but it’s brilliantly organized to inform (and devastate). Of particular note is a room with a projector that, one by one, displays every name  of every Jew murdered in World War II. A voice states a few simple facts about that person, in both German and English.
It takes over six years for the display to honor each person, before it repeats. It’s a soul-stopping way to get a concrete sense of what 6 million missing lives means.

Pergamon Museum: I  was always planning on seeing this spot, if only to drink in the Pergamon Altar with my own eyes. Once Sunshine re-recommended the museum as a whole, however, I was more excited than ever to wander through its heavy, heaving marble halls.
And the altar was gorgeous, but not my high-light because I remember the exact moment when I passed into the room holding the restored Market Gate of Miletus. I was so stunned I couldn’t breathe. That second alone might very well have been worth my entire time in Berlin. I admit that I’m a super sensitive soul, and it doesn’t take much to fill me with joy and wonder.
But, be assured, that moment was a wicked holy and significant one. I imagine that very few people have ever stepped into that chamber without uttering an “oh my Gd.”
It is that amazing. It is that unexpected.
Go there.

Tîrgoviște 1
July 20, 2009, 11:27 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania, Poetry | Tags: , , , ,

What the almond eaters tasted
was good silence.
Then the dark dried around him,
and dried into this dream:

Demons in deserts where we hang
to rusted trains and pray
to a memory of us
as the little idols.
In the same movement is sacrifice
of the wagons back, and let survive the rest,
but one woman is still snatched
screaming–then eaten alive.

Prometheus, the sleeper,
the sniper of the red dust rises.
He shines his violet torch
the shape of muzzle fire.