The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania


Pig Slaughter
December 23, 2009, 9:52 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

*Warning: Graphic details.

On Thursday, December 17th, Harlem and I took part in a pig slaughter. I woke up at 7:30 in the morning, and reached over my head to touch the slick, ceramic tiles of the ‘soba’ behind me. It’s warmth was passing away– the coal and splintered stumps of wood just memories of heat ground down into ash during the night. The sky was grey outside, empty of light and full of cloud and cold.

Harlem and I rose slowly and drank a few glasses of water from our nearby jug, then layered ourselves liberally in warm clothes. A cold snap had come in the day before, and all of southern Romania had been pressed down by snow and hard wind. In this little village, about 20km north of the Danube river in the South Western corner of the country, the temperatures fell under -15C whenever the sun went away.

I smothered my feet in two sets of thick, hand-made wool socks, and shoved them into a pair of rubber work boots. My toes hugged themselves together in a tangled mess. Harlem and I left the main house and walked through the courtyard to the kitchen to drink coffee.

In Romania, a farm house typically has a kitchen that is ‘outside’ of the main structure. The kitchen is enclosed, but usually uninsulated. This is helpful during the summer when cooking in the stale heat is unbearable. To compensate during the winter months, these small enclaves are warmed by their ceramic ovens, which have metal surfaces to boil water and heat food.

Harlem and I squatted on tiny benches, barely big enough for a single adult to rest on. We contemplated our coffees, and I chewed on the eternal grinds floating in the bottom of my cup. Finu, a neighbor, was already there. None of us said anything– Finu is  silent by nature, and this day was nothing extraordinary to him. It merited no extra words. Conversely, Harlem and I prepared ourselves in quiet for an event that we had never seen before.

Pisto came to us, and said “it’s time, boys.” He had his lamb leather hat cocked onto his head, and the hilt of a long knife snug alongside his calf in his right rubber boot. We followed him to the small, chain-link yard where the pig shed was propped into one corner. Finu took a section of rope and disappeared inside.

I glanced at Harlem, but his eyes were on the walls of the shed. So were Pisto’s. Time stepped up its pace, grabbing against the rough edges of this morning moment. It was like when river current suddenly catches upon the rocks in a steppe. Everything moved together, tightened, quickened, blurred. The sow began to scream.

There were no words of preparation, or orders from Pisto. The moment had come unannounced. Finu came out of the pig shed, with the line tied to one of the sow’s back legs, and we all rushed to it. We pulled her backwards along the snow, about 20 feet, to a vertical wooden support holding a piece of metal siding over a corn storage container. Finu wrapped the cord around the beam, and Pisto told us to let go. Harlem and I obeyed, and Finu tied a quick knot.

“Grab the legs!” Pisto yelled, “and turn her over.” The four of us heaved and puffed, and rocked the sow back and forth, trying to get her off balance onto her side. She kicked and screamed until Pisto yanked her front legs sideways and she toppled over. Harlem and I grabbed her back legs by the ankles–they were slippery with brown slime and snow. We both used one hand on each leg to restrain her, while Finu held her front legs. Pisto pulled the knife from his boot and put his weight onto her shoulder. I braced myself against the wooden beam and held hard. I watched the tip of the knife steady itself along the sow’s throat.

A voice somewhere deep inside of me muttered a soft “goodbye.” The tip of the blade pushed into the throat and the skin held for a moment, resisting in a flash of shallow dimple before the pressure succeeded and the hilt followed the blade to the skin. Pisto flicked his wrist left and right, slicing the jugular without at all increasing the size of the wound. The wind pipe was severed, and the screaming stopped.

Time slowed again. I became aware of the tension in my arms holding the kicking legs against the warm, soft belly. Their floorless dance slowed and rippled into stillness. After 30 seconds, Pisto told us to let go. The four of us stepped away and rubbed snow onto our hands to wash them. The sow held on, resisting whatever it was that she was experiencing. Pisto put his weight on her throat, forcibly pumping more of her blood onto the ground. She kept on, like she was finishing some pig-like prayer, and needed just a little more time.

A neighbor’s cat slunk over the fence. It dodged the sow’s twitching front legs and came to nip at the large, congealing bits of blood on the ground. Pisto wiped his blade on the side of his pants. The sow finally said ‘amen.’

We moved her onto a sled, and dragged her to the courtyard outside of the kitchen enclave. The rest of this was all pig preparation. We took a short break to drink hot, plum moonshine spiced with pepper, cloves, and sugar. It got me a little drunk, and I snuck inside to sit a while, and warm my aching feet. Those rubber boots couldn’t hold away the cold.

Finu went home, and Pisto went to work. Harlem and I helped Pisto with what we could, which wasn’t much. He burned and scraped the pig’s skin. He sliced away the head, and opened it’s belly. He divided the organs apart, one by one by one by one. We made a half dozen different dishes over the course of the day–things boiled, things sauteed, things to be smoked. The entire pig was used, except for a few pieces passed to the  dogs, chained to their small houses by the front gates. They danced and yipped happily when I approached with my red-stained, cupped palm. They knew exactly what I was carrying–they had been waiting for this the entire year.

I am relentlessly intense, did you know? The entire day, I tried to draw significance from this moment. I had a subconscious recording inside of me that said “what have I learned here?” on a loop sewn onto itself and that never slowed. In American culture, I feel like we try to hide from the reality of death. We resist our knowledge that it exists, brush away it’s presence, or forget it entirely. When this inquisitive American boy touched death for one of the first times in his life, an answer to his “what have I learned here?” question had to be found.

I think it was something to the effect of, “A: my death will be insignificant.” In Hollywood, a hero’s passing is grandiose, with the fate of an entire world perched on the outcome. Did our sow dream of being a superhero, selflessly giving herself to a greater cause? Did she fantasize that she would be remembered forever and have her image blazed into copper statues? “Where are my hymns of praise and thanks?” she must have thought, “and  where are the teary eyes sewn into the hem of my forever memory?”

I think that most of our deaths, mine included, will pass quietly. There will not be a “this is it–ready yourself” moment. Will I be in any position to compose and deliver a set of “last words,” so extraordinary that they’ll rock human souls and alter the fate of the world? I doubt it.

Instead, when whatever death feels like passes over me (I imagine it’s a druggy, warm docility), I would count myself lucky to be alongside at least one loved one. In that moment I might wish for one thing only: to turn in their direction, and for a voice deep inside of me to mutter a soft ‘goodbye.’

Harlem posted pictures from the pig slaughter (and the rest of our week in the country). They can be accessed here.

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Christmas Spirit

‘Tis the season for being touched by the Christmas spirit, but, today, I was sort of molested by it. It was unexpected and sudden–I feel dazed.

Fridays are typically my sleep-in day, as I don’t teach until 3PM. I always take my mornings slow–I prepare a big, warm breakfast, and spend about an hour reading blogs & news articles, and replying to e-mails. Today, however, I woke up before dawn, and was in an instant rush.

There is a weekend-long Christmas festival occurring at Castelul Corvinilor, and three of my more artistic students wanted to get involved. I contacted the volunteer organising the event, and he requested that my students put together some posters. My kids finished their posters yesterday, so I had to take them to Caritas, a local charity. One of my contacts at Caritas, Nora, was heading up to the castle, and she offered to take my posters along with her.

I threw on yesterdays clothes, pulled on my heaviest hoodie, scarf, and wool hat, and trekked out into the dim and dreary morning. Last night, it had snowed just hard enough for flakes to doze on any patch of exposed grass. Precipitation was still falling, but the earth was warming, and the ground was wet with melt. I was groggy, and hungry, but I knew I only had to press on a short way to Caritas, drop off the posters, then I could come home and crawl back into my sleeping bag on my little bed– there was a chance it would still be warm from my body heat.

I took a taxi to Petrosani, and walked to Nora’s office. I handed her the posters, and we chatted for a few minutes. I asked Nora how Caritas’ annual Christmas drive had gone. Last year, I helped Nora and her co-workers unload about 5,000 boxes full of Christmas packages from central Europe. I wanted to help this year, but the packages arrived on an afternoon when I was teaching. Nora told me that the event  had been plentiful, but exhausting– they had received some 11,000 packages, and her whole staff had been up til midnight the last 3-4 days, sorting and stacking.

Nora casually asked me if any of my students needed Christmas presents this year, as there was an obvious abundance.

“Well,” Nora answered for me, “How many students do you have?”

“About 550.”

“Alright. If you can get a car here, today, we can give you 550 presents.”

It was exciting, and sort of hilarious. In Peace Corps, we have a half-motto that is something like “gauge your success by your effort given–never by the tangible output.” This is because, all too often, a PCV will pour their heart and soul into a project only to have it meet constant obstacles, and eventually be derailed altogether. Project failure is something that EVERY PCV will face, in one way or another (and often repeatedly).

Hence, I was shocked that, in a matter of moments, and really without trying, I had acquired a Christmas package for every single student at my school.

I ran back to school (and made a quick side-stop to buy Luna a half dozen soft, poppy seed pretzels from her favourite bakery in Petrosani). I called Directoara on the way, and she quickly found a school parent with a station-wagon and the morning free to help me. this man and I made three trips to Petrosani to pick up presents in sets of about 160.

We finished at about 1:00 in the afternoon. When I arrived (I took a taxi back so my seat could be used to accommodate the final 25 boxes) the kids were happily passing out packages, and trading their contents. Everyone was smiling, and proudly displaying new toys, candy, clothes. Happily, I discovered that there were no official classes to teach today, and the kids only had two hours of home-room to attend.

Luna pulled me into her office, to chat, and I bee-lined for the coffee machine, and then one of the remaining pretzels I had bought. Luna was listening to Ave Maria, as sung by Maria Callas. I admitted that I had never heard of her, and Luna scolded me and told me I would have to learn.

So, on the morning where I wore day-old clothes to run an errand and hadn’t anticipated being away for more than forty minutes, I somehow stumbled into the spirit of Christmas, and it pulled me along for a handful of hours. It ended most splendidly– sitting in the Director’s office, watching Luna move her hands about, like a conductor. Diving spirits of smoke sailed out into the air from the cigarette pinched between her finger tips. I did nothing but close my eyes, out of need to rest, but also in overwhelming appreciation for this wonderful moment, day, and everything.



Boys with Toys

And because I was out late celebrating an American Thanksgiving, I didn’t make it home until almost 4AM. And because I am a little bit of an OCD boy, and I couldn’t get into bed until I had checked my email and washed the dirty dishes in my sink.

I woke up at 10 so I could eat two hours before karate. In my sleepy haze, I munched my usual, heaping breakfast of fruit & nut muesli and three cups of coffee. I was able to catch DP online, whom I had not spoken to in a few weeks. As we chatted, time played one of its favourite tricks on me, and suddenly threw forty minutes past me in a manner of seconds. I was too groggy to stop it, so I was unhappily shocked when I glanced at my clock and saw that it was already 11:45– I still had to pack my gym bag, walk to karate, and then change.

I sped out of my apartment down the small piata on the street outside of my building. As I came to the corner across from my supermarket, I found a large dump truck hunkered down in the road. In its bed, men were shoveling piles of hot asphalt onto the street. As I skipped around the grill of the truck, I saw a steam roller slowly inching over the piles of dark stone, grinding them down into a flat surface.

On the nearby sidewalk a few feet away, stood nine men. Each of them was thirty years old, or older. Some of the men stood close to one another, and some of them stood close to no one. Not a single man among them said a single word. They were all fixated on the small machine in front of them crushing rock into road.

I could not stifle my smile, nor the quiet laugh that accompanied it, but this was because I completely understood. Most men have a fascination with heavy construction equipment that reaches back to boyhood, and our bright yellow Tonka toys. No matter how tall or big we grow, few of us are able to outgrow our wonder of big machines that do neat things. Until today, I didn’t quite realise that the fascination was international– I probably should have. We boys will act like boys, no matter where we are.



American Thanksgivings

People say that Thanksgiving eve is the busiest bar night in America. As a once-upon-a-time (and maybe again someday) service industry boy, I can say that this sounds about right–Thanksgiving eve makes twenty-somethings across America get dance-y and make bad decisions.

Last night, I had an American-style Thanksgiving night.

First, Harlem and I went to Ledy and Dan’s apartment, at around 7:30. Their neighbour, Brit, stopped by, and the five of us sat around and chatted. Dan brought out a four liter jug of fresh, home-made Romanian wine, which I thirstily put a dent in.

The apartment smelled really good–Ledy was baking potato wedges and a couple kilograms of turkey breast which were bubbling in black pepper and the same wine that I had already enjoyed three glasses of. We ate, hungrily and happily, before we moved to the living room to eat small spoonfuls of roasted apples while Ledy made beaded Christmas ornaments for Harlem and I.

I had adopted family, and good food and drink, and togetherness. The only thing that could have improved the meal was the faces of my Colorado family, and maybe a slice or two of pumpkin pie.

After my sixth glass of wine, I excused myself and walked two blocks to Keops. Keops is the only discotheque in the Jiu Valley (and during the day they make great pizza). I had a dancing date with a half a dozen women, to keep.

I tutor Doru’s two high school girls, M.A. and O.A.. As a result, I’ve become friends with Doru’s wife, Miha. Miha is the manager of a bank in Petrosani, and all of her colleagues are single women in their late twenties. Hence, Miha sends me weekly invites to visit to the bank with the pretence of possibly setting me up with one of her colleagues.

Last night, one of Miha’s colleagues was celebrating her name day. Hence, Miha, her colleagues, and her daughters decided to celebrate at Keops. I had been invited, and since I was literally a two block walk away (and sort of itching to get my dance on) I decided to attend.

One of Miha’s colleagues met me out front, and in a classic club tactic, she took me by the hand and hip and whisked me past the bouncer so that I wouldn’t have to pay the cover charge. I spent the next two hours nursing an American sized beer (the wine had nicely stifled my shyness) and being the only boy dancing amongst a handful of young women. Seemed a pretty ‘American’ something to be thankful for.