The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Spring Skiing (and Seconds)

Yesterday, I went “spring skiing,” at Straja with Dan (Leddy’s husband).

It’s technically still the end of Winter, but the conditions were kind of crazy– the likes of which I’ve never really seen in all my years of skiing/riding in my home-state of Colorado. The snow was milky, mashed potatoes. The morning began with dark clouds, which became swells of rain, which gave way to a fog creeping up through the Jiu Valley so thick you could taste it when you breathed.

Eventually, the cranky weather parted into a brilliant “sort-of spring” day. After a half dozen runs, my turns felt natural and controlled, and I was smile smile smiling– I could have been easy to pretend I was back home, cutting turns up at Loveland. That was until I would stop and gaze down the slope and see the stiff towers of the half dozen mines spaced throughout the valley, or I counted the grey blocs lining the road of the large town below.

Afterwards, I went back to Leddy and Dan’s to eat a huge meal of vegetable ciorbă, followed by one of my Romanian favorites: mamaligă with baked fish and tons of home-made garlic sauce. Then I showered, and took a nap on their pull-out couch.

Leddy woke me three hours later so we could watch the womens’ downhill Super G together. It reminded me of my first two months at site: Leddy and Dan had just adopted me, and we spent nights sitting around watching the Olympic games, in Beijing.  Leddy started dozing off at the beginning of the Men’s Individual LH Ski Jump, so I excused myself to head home. Before I left, Leddy and Dan gave me a bag with the leftover fish, and a new french press– Leddy won it as a prize four years ago, but has never once used it. I happily accepted, as my own french press (a few years old old) has birthed a long, splintery crack from its lips to its legs.

That was the day I went skiing for the second time, in Romania, as my second winter in this country began to show strong signs of fading out. I watched my second set of Olympic games here, with my second family. This morning I made coffee with my second french press, and soberly considered how I will have no thirds.


The Poet’s Pallbearer

I have recently been really digging a Romanian poet, Nichita Stănescu.

Stănescu was one of Romania’s most beloved contemporaries, and a lot of my Romanian friends (young and old, alike) can easily recall at least a few lines of their favorite Stănescu poem upon request. I’ve been strumming through some of Stănescu’s works online, and I still find the most exquisite to be “Poem” (curiously, the title is written in English):


Spune-mi, dacă te-aş prinde-ntr-o zi
şi ţi-aş săruta talpa piciorului,
nu-i aşa că ai şchiopăta puţin, după aceea,
de teamă să nu-mi striveşti sărutul?

As I was returning from Istanbul with Harlem, we sat in a hot train compartment, somewhere between the cities of Craiova and Târgu Jiu. With us were two young, beautiful, university students, and an old man. The man’s hair was frizzy and wild, and as he talked, a single tooth hooked out from the center of his upper gum into the air. The man happily drank from a two liter bottle of orange Fanta– but the soda had been poured away and replaced by a thick, crimson wine.

I softly spoke to Harlem in English– I have grown accustomed to casting out a bit of my English in trains. I am no longer deathly afraid of revealing my foreignness, and I’ve found that it’s a great way to meet people and have itsy-bitsy adventures that help pass the lethargy of ‘train-time.’ The old man took the bait, and asked where we were from.

As we conversed in one part English and two parts Romanian, somehow we came to that ubiquitous poet, Stănescu. The old man and I recited “Poem,” together. He chuckled happily, and then cocked his head and quickly fixed one of his squinting, wild eyes into mine.

“You know that I was a close friend of Stănescu,” the man asked, as if I was already well aware.

“Seriously?” I gasped. “Are you being sincere?”

“Yes,” the man said. “In fact, I helped to bury him, at the funeral.”

Some conversation continued on, but, as often happens to me, my mind overwhelmed my five senses. If I have ever asked you a simple question, and then forgot to listen to your answer (as I often do), this is what has occurred: a curtain of thought has been pulled down over the world in front of me. In that moment, I was contemplating this chance meeting with a man that had buried one of Romania’s greatest artists (and my favorite Romanian poet). I snapped back to attention as best I could, but I was still astonished at this coincidence. A buzzing smile soon fixed itself onto my head, and drowned out everything else occurring inside of me.

At the man’s station, he casually finished his two liter bottle of wine, and pulled an old baseball cap onto his head. He stood over Harlem and I, and put on his most serious of expressions. “We go different ways now,” the man said, “but our souls will know each other forever.” He then gave me his warmest smile, and was gone. Some slight doubt lingered in the compartment– were his words honest, or were they just the drunk ramblings of some (clearly adept) storyteller? To be honest, I harmlessly believed every single word that man said.

And now, for me, these words carry more powerful meaning than ever before:


Tell me, if one day I would catch you
and would kiss the sole of your foot,
is it not so, that you would limp a little, after that,
from apprehension so as not to crush my kiss?

America is the Exception
February 14, 2010, 1:33 pm
Filed under: EuroTrip | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”
Mark Kurlansky

In Kurlanksy’s sense, what does our  American food attitude say about our culture? In the USA, we happily crowd around full tables for common feasts but a few days per year. My favorite holidays were always Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Independence Day, not necessarily because of their historical significance, but rather because they were food-days spent with family and friends. We sat around, enjoyed casual conversation, and immersed ourselves into multiple courses of amazing, home-cooked meals.There was music and cheer, and little pretension.

As an American, somehow a few sparse days per year of this seemed to suffice. It wasn’t until I moved to Europe and experienced its ubiquitous table culture and hospitality that I realized that, we as Americans, are the world-wide exception of gastronomic norms. In other countries throughout our Earth, food culture is a daily event that stimulates the senses and emotions. Scent and taste flex their little, sensory muscles, and the presiding sentiment is one of contentment– like the world couldn’t possibly become any righter.

In America, we are satisfied with our meager helpings of this soul goodness because we are unaware that it could exist in greater quantity. Despite our abundance as one of the most advanced nations in the world, this simple and fruitful culture of joy has been thrown to the wayside. It is sad and unfortunate, and I would be happy to make my life’s work one of re-sowing it into American culture– if only because it can make you feel so damn good.

Imagine for a moment, that you have traveled to a foreign city— one of the largest and most significant in the memory of mankind. In a place teeming with over ten million lives, you are literally a tiny, foreign speck drifting through the cityscape. In this place, you constantly meet locals who are kind, and even excited, that you have come to their home. At the request of a few of these new friends, you accept a dinner invitation.

I did such a thing– while in Istanbul, Harlem and I went to dinner with two Turkish girls, and in a way that was completely novel (as I am still unaccustomed to it by my American upbringing) it became my best memory of the trip.

The girls, Zeynep and Duygu, took us to a small fish restaurant in Taksim, the ‘new district,’ of Istanbul. Inside, tables were grouped together in family-style fashion, so that the only thing separating us and the guests next to us were a few inches of white table cloth and salt and pepper shakers. Every table in the place was packed with young Turks, and almost all were in groups of four or more. Alongside our table, there was a group of 12 Turkish women our age (with a few, fortunate men scattered throughout). Zeynep and Duygu ordered for us, selecting a few appetizers from a massive tray of small sample bowls brought by a waiter. We were also able to select our fish in the same fashion– fresh, gutted specimens were brought out on a wooden block to help us make our choices.

Zeynep ordered Raki, the national Turkish spirit, and taught us how to drink it– first by pouring a clear shot into a high-ball glass, which becomes a cloudy white (due to the Ouzo Effect) when water is added. Turks sip a little Raki, and then immediately cleanse the palate with a drink from an accompanying glass of water. This smooths the edges of its intense, anise flavor, and you’re left with a full lingering echo of its sweetness. Raki is sipped often, and usually with an accompanying “şerefe!”  (cheers).

It was in this scene that I enjoyed the most amazing dish of my trip: grape-stuffed dolmas. Stuffed grape leaves are common in this part of the world– in Romania, sarmale (as they’re called) are stuffed with pork and rice and savory spices. They are usually topped with sour-cream, and they are heavy and the true epitome of ‘comfort food.’ In this restaurant, the  leaves were stuffed with wild rice, some long-grained grass, and tiny shriveled grapes. The result was something amazing– crisp and sweet. Duygu offered me hers, and I resisted for only a half second and only out of knee-jerk politeness.

But, good food is not enough to constitute culture. I think that, perhaps, this is where we Americans error. Our restaurants are sterile, and the timing and efficiency  of a meal matter more than the pleasure derived from it. Excellent food and exquisite atmosphere alone can not substitute the authenticity of what it is that makes us human– that sort of airy ineffable is the glue that holds the physical of these senses and places together. Hence, what came next was what made the night my most salient.

As we sat and ate and squeezed through the gaps in our language barrier, a trio of Roma musicians entered the restaurant. They had four instruments between them, and fox-stepped to a spot between the tables. Suddenly, one of them whistled loudly and the trio exploded into song. Crashing rapids of Turkish verse accompanied by tangerine, fiddle, and a sort of slide guitar washed across the dining room.

Every single Turk in the restaurant, paused, bloomed into a slow smile, and then began to sing.

This little band blared over a half dozen traditional Turkish songs– songs embedded into the memory and common culture of the people surrounding us. The young dozen women next to us were swaying and calling out words in chorus. Zeynep stood up at our table and let her hands flutter about while her hips sparked to the beat. I had forgotten we were in the land of belly-dancing until that moment. I glanced around the room and saw many of the other young women doing the same.

Harlem and I were dumbfounded. We both had gooey grins smeared across our faces. In that most beautiful of moments, our ability to be profound– even articulate– had been stripped away. “This is awesome,” we mouthed to each other, over and over– and, more apporpriately, we were even able to muster an occasional “oh, my Gd.”

That moment was one of the most crystalline visions I have ever had of the way that life should be. It was a spontaneous combination of the culture of food and song, peaking in a beautiful little crescendo of sensations, and overall ‘good’ feelings. The greatest thing was how fully the people around me embraced the moment– there was a common connectedness in it that sweetened the air and made the walls bleed a violet light.

A culture of joy exists so effortlessly and free in the world. I am grateful that I have come into contact with it, for it has made me a happier human being.

Cities with Souls
February 10, 2010, 7:19 pm
Filed under: EuroTrip, Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

From January 3oth until February 5th, I spent a week in the city of Istanbul.

It is the unhesitating “you must go there,” place that volunteers talk about, as we serve in Peace Corps Romania. So, because we were obliged, six other volunteers and I took a twelve hour bus ride into Turkey to fulfill a sort of unofficial pilgrimage for PCVs living and working in this part of the world.

Istanbul’s grandeur is undeniable as you read guide books, or browse albums on Flickr, or listen to the excited, breathless stories of friends who have recently returned from its heart. But, as is always true in the matters of human expression, the feeling the city shares with you trumps any 3rd party description. Photos now feel emotionless, and blogs & stories fumble awkwardly around the simple truth of what Istanbul really “is.” Obviously, that will not deter me here from making a doomed attempt at describing what it is that makes Istanbul so special.

I remember standing in a small park overlooking the Blue Mosque in the early morning hours. In my feet, I could feel a pulsing bass from somewhere. In my ears, I could sense the gentle thud of a city gently stirring its life-force through every street, past each shop window, and over all the people happily breathing in that place. I was hearing Istanbul’s heart, and I realized I had heard that same sort of sound in other places.

Imagine for a moment, the greatest cities on Earth. They are the places that create an overwhelming sense of loyalty within their inhabitants. A sort of “metropol-ism” (drawn from ‘nationalism’) is made in which a human being becomes hopelessly enamoured of their city. Words are even created in our language to group such people: New Yorkers, Parisiennes, Londoners. Visiting these cities implies a certain risk– at any moment you could fall hopelessly in love with, not a person, but a place, and you would abandon your past life to transplant yourself into the city folds. That would be the story of you, and it is one I have heard many times before.

It is the “what,” and the “why,” of these places that I am most interested in. What gives these cities their souls, and why do such feelings of affection and belonging bloom from them? As near as I can gather, it is quite a complicated mix of things:

  1. First, a city needs a history that is self-pertinent, but also significant to the beat and hum of humanity as a whole. A city with soul has been a place of significant human affairs. This makes it important to the history of our species, and it also adds to the city’s sense of identity. The city and its inhabitants are proud that they are a cornerstone of civilization. I think it’s important to note that, while a soul-city must have had a tumultuous history, its tribulations needs to have a little age to them, so that its identity can become internalized. This is why I hesitate to group places like Berlin or Prague into this list–I get the sense that they are still defining the fringes of themselves.
  2. These cities also have sights– massive, monumental, heart-stopping places that can’t help but be plastered on post-cards, refrigerator magnets, and t-shirts. These objects (think the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, the Blue Mosque), are iconic, and suffer a little bit of commercialism, as a result. But all the ceramic ash-trays and key-rings in the world could never take away from the sacred holy you feel when you round a corner and unexpectedly see one of these places for the first time. You stop and utter, “oh my Gd,” because they are beautiful, and because they are ours, and because their shape and significance is branded into the common culture of what we are.
  3. History and sights draw tourists, and the cities of soul understand this, and even embrace it. In fact, in these places, tourism has shaped the way the cities operate, and even adds to their identities. Istanbul has some of the friendliest people I have ever met, and, despite clearly being a tourist, I was never once approached with resentment. Part of the heart beat comes from locals not wanting to cloister the city and its grandeur away from the non-natives– in these places, the city aches to share itself with everyone that it possibly can.
  4. However, a city with soul will not compromise its spirit for commerce. There is a endless amount of distance between a place like Las Vegas (which, in my opinion, is a city built first and foremost to harbour tourists) and the holy ones. Despite embracing the presence of visiting masses, the best cities on Earth are filled with their own residents, who maintain their traditional identities while simultaneously being flexible to the rush of foreigners from across the globe. In Istanbul, you can survive a sales pitch filled with television spawned buzz-lines to be rewarded with a cup of hot apple tea and a forty minute conversation about the humblest and most honest of things. These cities smile to the outside, but are committed internally in a way that would wither and murder them were they to sacrifice it.
  5. Therefore, all of these things: pertinence, sights, hospitality, and conviction come together and the effect is, quite simply, joy. To be in these places creates a sense of rightness, and utter exuberance. In Istanbul, you can watch children happily smother themselves with well-fed stray cats, or you might take cover from a snowball fight between a gang of well-dressed, business professionals.  It’s hard to walk down a street in a soul-city and not burst into smile, laughter, dance, or song.

I went to Istanbul and found myself counting its heartbeats. If you have not been to Istanbul, I recommend that you place it as high on your “to-see” list as is possible. I can’t imagine someone going to Istanbul and not enjoying it (unless some sort of unhappy, vacation bad-luck occurred). Believe me when I say that I would be sad for you if you never saw this city before the day that you stopped breathing.

That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.