The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

September 29, 2009, 4:44 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , ,

When I left for school this morning, there were three, big, brightly-colored bins lined up in front of my apartment building. They are color coordinated, and there is one for glass, one for paper/cardboard, and one for plastics. These recycling bins have been distributed throughout my town as part of a mandatory EU initiative to curb unrecycled waste.

The recycling bins are set alongside a row of numbered, silver dumpsters that recently replaced the rusting, iron crates that sat there a month ago. I’ve been living at site 14 months, and I can easily throw together a respectable list of positive changes that have occurred in my community since I moved here in August of 2008. Some people consider Romania a ‘developing nation,’ but I hate that term. After all, what country isn’t ‘developing?’ No country has attained an ideal of perfect infrastructure and industry–there is no ‘finish line,’ when it comes to improving one’s surroundings.  Hence, these changes I’ve noticed assure me that Romania is working hard with each passing year to improve the quality of life of its people– direct challenges to the occasional nay-sayers that complain that Romania isn’t improving, or is even moving backwards because it isn’t ‘on par’ with other parts of the westernized world. It is in this unfair comparison that Romania’s great steps forward seem diminished, or insignificant.

I have done my best to ignore aesthetic things like the new grocery store, or the opening of a Chinese restaurant–while these things indicate development, in some way, they are not necessarily sustainable, or proof of progressive mindsets & positive ideals:

  • The dumpsters: noted above, my town recently replaced all of its dumpsters. The new dumpsters are numbered, and are being used in places where, formerly, people piled their trash together in an empty lot or courtyard.
  • Trashcans: about a year ago, my town replaced its public trash receptacles. They used to be thin, green plastic and were breaking apart. Now they are metal, and even have attached ash-trays for cigarettes (I’ve seen a small handful of trashcan  fires in other Romanian cities).
  • The recycling bins: also previously mentioned, these bins are also present at each of the schools in the area.
  • Cross-walks: The town has put down a few more cross-walks, in places where foot traffic was heavy (in front of churches, and schools).
  • Streets: There are three paved roads in my site, and two of the three have recently been re-paved and marked with dotted center lines. The kids love them, as they’re good for rollerblading (which is really popular here).
  • Insulating Blocs: There is a major initiative in the town to insulate and paint the existing apartment buildings. My understanding is that they bloc residents pool money to match a contribution from the mayor’s office. Then, the outside of the apartment building is insulated and painted. The tallest bloc in town recently underwent the process, and now it has tones of peach and rose rather than the dingy grey that it once was. Other apartment buildings around town have also been transformed, in this way. As such, residents will use less heat, and the blocs are more visually pleasing.
  • Kindergarten: There are currently a handful of kindergartens spread around my town, but a large building is being built outside of my school to consolidate every pre-school into one location.
  • I.D. Sirbu: A famous Romanian poet, I.D. Sirbu, was born here, and wrote much about the area. One of the schools, and the theatre in Petrosani, are both named after him. There is a growing movement of educators and students to spread awareness of his works, and renovate his house (which has fallen into disrepair and only has one, small plaque to distinguish it). This week, the heads of the project are holding some readings and round-table discussions in a sort of festival promoting Sirbu.
  • Organics: The two supermarkets in town now carry certified organic products.
  • Migrant Parents: Romanian families are increasingly under duress as parents are leaving the country for better work opportunities abroad. This last weekend, Peace Corps helped organize a conference about this issue, and it was reassuring to hear about organizations and laws confronting the problem.

The mere fact that Romania is doing so much to improve its infrastructure is a major sign of improvement. While the idealist in me wants to see progress in human rights, or a crack-down on political corruption, the realist in me knows that these greater, abstract problems can’t possibly be solved if public works are in disarray. The path to ending illegal forrestation, or trash dumping in Romania’s national parks begins with responsible waste disposal and recycling initiatives in its urban places. A country cannot be made by ‘mirroring,’– it’s a matter of small shifts in the public mindset, which lead to progressive contributions & actions, which in turn shift the public mindset again. And repeat.


Mushroom Hunters

The sun had only been up an hour, so the shadows were still long and cold as the tiny car bounced along the snaking, dirt road. Speaking Romanian is hard in the early morning, so I tried to stick to specific questions–ones which Doru could answer at length while I sat quietly and listened. As we reached Cheile Jiețului, however, my child-like wonder withered my will to sustain conversation. Cheile Jiețului is a gateway (one of many) into the fairytale kingdom that is Romania’s wild places– so I shut up and stared out the window at the tortuously slow symphony of fall color on all sides of me–each note represented a different moment of passing, and every note was a symbol of the suddenly suspended transience of time.

Doru and I were going mushroom hunting, which seemed an apt way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the land of fairy tales. We crossed into the next county, Vâlcea, over a long mountain pass and came to a crossroad where scores of other mushroom hunters had set up temporary camps made of wood, plastic, and nylon. Doru told me that these mushroom hunters were after a different type of mushroom than we were–a kind that is exported to other countries throughout Europe. North of the crossroad, the road heads toward Sibiu, one of the more well known cities in Romania. Ahead it goes to Râmnicu Vâlcea, and behind us back to Petroșani and the Jiu Valley I call home. The last time I was here was over a year ago, and since then a large portion of this road has been widened, grated, and paved. Doru told me this is part of an attempt to establish the area as a center for eco-tourism, and to make it more accessible. It reminded me of all the other ways that Romania has been progressing around me since I arrived 16 months ago.

We parked alongside a river with a crossing–a long, fallen pine tree. Doru poured two small glasses of strong, dark wine and we toasted. “For courage,” Doru laughed before we cleared our glasses in a few, long gulps. Doru pulled on a pair of rubber galoshes, and told me that he was going to wade the river. I had on hiking boots, so my route would be to  ‘slowly’ cross by using the tree. I climbed onto it and carefully began to step my way across. Now, as a person who is chronically clumsy, I figured the odds were at least 50% that I’d slip and fall into the water. True to my nature, 2/3 across the river I stepped onto a patch of rotting bark which disintegrated under my foot and threw my balance downward. I suddenly found myself suspended in the air, heading for a bad fall and a cold bath.

However, being chronically clumsy has its benefits: that is to say, I’ve ‘adapted’ to my handicap–I’m really good at falling down.  Instinctively, I kicked my right leg over my body and rolled my trajectory so that I was facing downwards. I planted my right foot ankle deep into the water, which sucked, but I was able to catch myself on the log with both hands and raise my left leg over the river.

“Joem!” Doru yelled, as he quickly sloshed his way upriver. “Are you alright?! Did you hit yourself?!” Doru gave me his shoulder and helped me across to the far bank.

I assured Doru that I had indeed caught myself, and that I was fine. “You scared me…” Doru said. “I have to be responsible for you,” and I knew he was right–my 7 Romanian mothers would scold Doru to death if I broke an arm or leg while I was in the woods with him.

Doru seemed relieved, and passed me two large, woven, plastic sacks from the supermarket. “Last fall I filled two bags,” Doru. “We’ll see how we do.”

He scampered over to a cinnamon colored mushroom craning itself out of the supple earth. “These are what we’re after,” Doru told me, as he plucked off the mushroom’s ‘tail’ and passed the ‘head’ to me to examine. I took mental notes: brownish and sort of spotty– check. Doru took the low ground, and I went higher. The hill was on a steep, north-facing grade, and the trees were dense. It had also rained lightly the evening before, so all roots were slick and the dirt was spongy. Each step I either sunk four inches into wet moss and pine needles or slid down a half meter over wet branches. Doru and I would leave our bags in a spot and sort of zig zag around, grabbing mushrooms, popping off their stems, and putting the caps carefully into our sacks.

Under a pine tree, in a place that felt noticeably more magical than the rest, I found two large mushrooms that weren’t like what Doru had shown me. These two were a deep brown, and their heads came to distinct peaks. These were the sort of mushrooms you’d expect to find in a magic forest,  safeguarded by over-protective gnomes. I carefully plucked the caps from the stems and bagged them. I heard Doru call my name–so I scampered across the hill so that he could keep me in his sight and wouldn’t need to worry about me.

I instantly became aware that I had a problem–I felt like I was grabbing about four different types of mushroom. Some seemed more reddish than what Doru had shown me. Others had distinct, almost black ‘nipples,’ at their crests. Others seemed right, but were grey and rosy colored underneath. I took my half-full bag to Doru and asked him to inspect what I had collected.

Doru dumped the bag onto the earth and began picking through them. “No. No. These aren’t good,’ he murmured and I watched as he tossed away 2/3 of what I had found. “Look,” Doru said, handing me another ‘good’ mushroom to study. The mushrooms I really wanted weren’t brown and spotty– they were latte colored with the occasional light fleck of cream on top. And, underneath, they were a luminescent white that seemed so pure and soft that it almost sang lullabies.

I also showed Doru the two gnome mushrooms. “Oh these–these are good,” Doru said as he carefully took the two caps from me. “These are what the other mushroom hunters come after– you should have left the tails on them, but you didn’t know. We’ll try and sell them later for beer,” Doru said and smiled at me before putting them in a separate plastic bag.

Doru and I moved on, and I now felt more comfortable recognizing the kind of head we were after.  They start deep inside the ground, and grow upwards strong and solid. Hence, they’re usually hidden under swathes of moss and dirt, or on the dim sides of uprooted trees. The young ones have domes, perfectly designed for pushing past the soil into the open air. Older ones flatten out, and become wide, concave cups that catch rain. Because of the precipitation, the older ones are susceptible to mold and rot, growing fuzzy white beards and losing that glowing white sheen– trading it for a faded color like grave water. They are easy to uproot, tail and head together, and the two are separated with a quick, strong pinch at the neck.

As my bag filled, I felt a strange sense of guilt. I almost felt as if Doru and I were pillaging the forest–tramping through to take what we wanted and leaving headless mushroom stalks in our wake. I wanted to take only half of what I found–to leave the rest for other collecters that might wander by tomorrow or the day after. I stopped for a moment to think, my heavy breathing a constantly slowing soundtrack for the forest. But I was  soon able to reconcile those guilty thoughts and continue on (see italicized portion below).

When Doru and I wandered out of the forest about three hours later, he had two heavy bags, both 2/3 full. I was excited with my own contribution: a 2/3 full sack, and a second that was a little over 1/4 full. Doru waded across the river with all four bags, while I slowly inched across the bridge again. This time, as odds would predict, I made it across without falling down.

Doru laid out a spread of canned meat, bread, sliced vegetables, salty sheep cheese, and a beer for me. We ate hungrily, occasionally breaking apart our bites by talking about wildlife conservation, or how warm the recent winters have been in Romania. Doru and I ate hearty, and after the whole beer and another short glass of wine I had a small buzz. So Doru and I packed the mushrooms into the car, and began the trip home.

Back at the crossroads, we stopped briefly so that Doru could sell the two gnome mushrooms I found along with two others that he had come upon. There was a group of hard-looking men hanging out around an electronic scale and a pickup truck piled with wooden crates–these were the mushroom gangsters. The crates were for gnome mushrooms that the men would buy from other mushroom hunters working at the crossroads camp. The mushroom Don was a squat man, and he held a wad of bills totaling a few thousand RON. A young crony in the pickup truck weighed our four mushrooms– they were 600 grams altogether. Although they usually sell for 25 RON per kilogram, the don gave us a 10 RON note. Doru didn’t argue–so we got  in the car and left.

In the car, Doru told me that the man was ‘making fun of us,’ but that he didn’t want to argue. I told him it was fine–we had enough money for two beers, and that was alright with me. On the ride home, we blasted out of the fairytale gate and time suddenly latched onto us, hyperactive and anxious to make up for the three hours we lost away from it. There was sun, and countless packs of people grilling along this part of the Jiu river. I suddenly realized how sleepy I had become, and so I told  Doru we’d have to save our beer money for another time.

“That’s fine Joem,” he smiled at me, and dropped me off at home. “I’ll clean the mushrooms and give you some,” and I told him that would be beautiful, but that I didn’t want many. I said that I would rather go to his house so that we could eat them together, and spend our beer money. Doru told me “this goes without saying.”

This part is preachy, but it feels important to say. Read if you like:
The guilt. In the purest sense of food-getting, gathering is probably the least harmful undertaking humans could possibly embark upon. The mushrooms Doru and I collected were grown naturally, without any sense of aritificals or synthetics. It’s not for profit as everything we collected was for food– for Doru and his family. Hence no worker or distributor or consumer was exploited. The mushrooms were in their prime, and they only live a short while, anyway. If Doru and I hadn’t picked them, they’d simply mold and whither like countless I’d already seen that morning. Finally, some mushrooms have a biological predisposition to being harvested, eaten, and enjoyed. Throughout the million year course of their history, the mushrooms have slowly evolved to taste good and be nutritious. They use decomposing biomatter to regenerate soil, and in turn they can nourish animals. This is symbiosis, and we are an undetachable part of the system, no matter how much we try and resist.

I think that the guilt came because I’ve been reading a lot of Daniel Quinn and Michael Pollan this past year. I’m constantly worried about the impact of overpopulation on the earth, and how the ends seems to justify the means in regards to our food production. I have become so thoroughly disillusioned with how we eat that procuring any sort of sustenance for myself seems selfish and destructive. And while picking wild mushrooms is a billion times more environmentally friendly than buying pesticide treated criminis imported from 1,500 miles away, I still couldn’t shake the recurring thought: “but–what if everybody did this?” I think that’s my underlying issue: that we have become far too many in a world with a limited amount to give.

The only solution I have in this setting is: ‘don’t feel guilty about eating wild foods.’

September 16, 2009, 11:37 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , ,

“Why I Like Peace Corps” reason # eight thousand four hundred and twenty two: it offers bizarre, unexpected moments of deep introspection. For example:

During PST, our language instructors often asked personal questions in efforts to get us to employ such tricky grammatical points as the conditional, or the imperfect. Being the think-too-deep-far-too-intense-at-times dreamer that I am, these simple verbal exercises sometimes rocked my sweet soul. For example:

When asked what my favorite season was, I stuttered & stumbled. I realized I had never actually decided what my favorite season might be.  I like winter for its peace, and the warm emotional echoes of the family household during the Christmas times. I also love spring, for the sudden buds and blooms that mean that all of the fresh fruits and vegetables are coming. Summer is fantastic because I love sunshine and hikes and lounging in long grass (and being outside in long shorts and little else).

But, what I ultimately said was “Îmi place toamna”– ‘I like the fall.’ And I do, but for reasons that are much less articulate than the joys I find in other seasons. What may be best is to explain what I call ‘the autumn moment.’

When fall comes, you can stand outside and actually ‘feel’ the boundaries of the world. The limitless possibilities ever-present in summer have been stifled. Instead, there are internal, instinctual urges to stay close to home. Our wanderings shorten in length as the sun’s sky-curve gently shallows. ‘Bundling-up’ and hot drinks become passions.

And I swear to sweet Gd that on the dark dark dark nights of autumn, I can stare up into the sky and feel like the stars are at arm’s reach. The entire world compacts so hard that time and distance are crushed. Heaven is so close I can feel angel breath on my body. The autumn moment is feeling the entire universe press against my skin.

Fall is the time to recollect and feel right in place and be grateful for home.


September 9, 2009, 7:55 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , ,

One of my most favoritest things is taking long hikes deep into wild places. I’ve done a few ultra-hikes in England that birthed my love of this sort of thing– sleep in a youth hostel, wake up, eat well, hike all day (seldom stopping), get to a new hostel, eat, wash your socks, repeat.

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to do more of the same, in Retezat National Park. Retezat was the first national park in Romania, and has some of the last untouched spots in the country.

I went with my site-mate, Harlem, and his community mentor. The pictures can be found on flickr. Enjoy.