The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Haunted Hotels

The last month and a half I’ve been sleeping one or two nights per week in a hotel– the HP in nearby Petrosani. Frequenting a hotel with my own place nearby would probably only indicate a few possible scenarios– and most of them dubious. One presumes that either: I’m having an affair, or that my apartment is undergoing such massive and complete renovation that I can’t stay at home. Happily, I have neither to report. The truth, however, I consider to be much more atypical and interesting.

In early April, I met Marley. Marley has become my first close, Romanian friend in Petrosani that is not twice my age. Marley is someone to go to bars and clubs with, or to watch intensely-deep movies with and then expound upon all the abstract “what ifs,” that humans in their teens and twenties are so insatiably drawn to. Whilst I adore my eight Romanian “moms,” and appreciate them endlessly, it is also simultaneously true that we are still separated by the perspectives and responsibilities of an entire generation. Marley and I are connected by the perspective embedded into being members of the Millennial Generation. It also helps that she speaks fantastic English, has a progressive mindset, and has experienced America (namely, San Francisco).

Marley lives in the HP. Her family controls and operates the place for the state, and, as a result, Marley and a few members of her family all live in different rooms scattered throughout the building. Therefore, Marley has her own room perched up on the farthest corner of the third floor– that’s where I’ve been staying.  I should make it clear that our sleep-overs aren’t intimate. Marley and I are not romantically involved– we’re just good pals. Again, I press that the reality of the situation is crazier than any gossipy fiction one might muster.

On Saturday night, Marley and I were over at Harlem’s, smoking hookah. We stood and stretched and initiated the steps to get ourselves out the door and on our way into the night. “You sleeping at my place?” Marley asked me, and I told her that I would. We had a cab pick us up from Harlem’s and drop us off at the reception of the HP. We went to the front desk to grab some bottled drinks, and make small-talk with the receptionist.

Marley turned towards the elevators and froze.

“What’s the elevator doing at floor five?!” Marley called out into the lobby. She didn’t turn to look at the receptionist or I– she just stared at the red, digital ‘5’ buzzing above the elevator’s call button.

“I don’t know,” said the receptionist.

“Oh my Gd,” growled Marley. She angrily clacked forward and jammed her finger into the silver dial. She leaned against the wall alongside the lift door and raised her eyes to the ceiling and let her voice echo out into the dim lobby: “bântuit.”

I recognized that word from my Halloween lessons with my kids. Bântuit means ‘haunted,’ in Romanian.

The elevator door shook open and the two of us stepped inside the mirrored room and watched the doors close. “The fifth floor is closed– no one is allowed up there.” Marley said, her eyes still staring off into a place above us. “Once a girl was up there, and got like really sick and vomited blood and there was glass in her blood, like from a mirror– and now that place is closed and no one goes up there.”

“Really?” I asked– I hadn’t heard Marley tell this story before. “We should go up there!”

“No way!” Marley said as she walked out of the open door on the third floor. “I never go up there.”

I believed her– that the elevator had somehow mysteriously perched itself on the 5th floor (it’s supposed to idle on the 3rd) is far from the strangest thing that Marley has experienced. She has told me stories about faucets opening themselves, or doors closing randomly, or even voices yelling things from her bathroom. A few of Marley’s friends have seen/heard these things and refuse to stay at her place– it frightens them too much. This is why Marley invites me over– she’s afraid of sleeping alone. As of this moment, I haven’t experienced anything supernatural there.

“That reminds me of a movie filmed in Colorado,” I said. “It’s about a haunted hotel– I saw that you have it downloaded on your computer. Do you want to watch it?” I asked, and Marley said that she did.

So, that same night Marley and I stayed up and watched two thirds of THE SHINING before she began to doze off. We finished the movie the next afternoon, and Marley said that she liked it. “And did it scare you?” I pressed.

“No. Not really,” she smiled. It made sense– I guess a movie about haunted hotels probably seems redundant when you live in one.



I love class 8b. They can handle advanced topics, and I never EVER have classroom management problems with them. There’s a reason for this:

In a given period, only the same five students will show up for class. These are my English all-stars– they are hard-working, focused, and talented. It’s a crap shoot as to which of the other students might show up (if any), but I recently realized that I’ve sort of wrecked the learning curve for them: that is to say that I’ve become so accustomed to only having the best students in this class attend that the lessons are typically way to difficult for any other members of the class to comprehend or participate in. It’s become a downward spiral– the weaker students have a tendency not to come to class, so I plan my lessons to be challenging for the higher achievers that do come, which encourages the weaker students to ditch.

But now, with 3.5 weeks of general school remaining, and murmurs of a long-term teachers’ strike set for June, senioritis has hit hard.

Last week, I guest taught a lesson on creativity to the best class of 8th graders in the best school in Petrosani. They killed it. One girl defined creativity (in English!) as a manifestation between imagination and reality. Another boy contradicted me when I asked what constitutes creative talent because, according to him, everyone has the propensity for creative ability. They ended the period by writing gorgeous little Cinquain poems about forests and beaches and city streets. I was stoked.

I couldn’t wait to teach the same lesson to 8b. I was certain they’d rock it.

However, 20 minutes into my lesson today, I looked out across my 8b class and unhappily chewed my lip– I saw heads down on desks; I listened to two boys having a private conversation in the corner; I asked Prințesă who her favorite Romanian poet was and all I got was a strained look as a reply. “Teacher,” she said earnestly, “I am so tired.”

“I can tell,” I said.

So, for better or for worse, I acquiesced to their senioritis, dug into my bag and pulled out a pile of post-card templates that I’ve been using for sixth grade. I took my ‘craft kift,’ filled with scissors, glue sticks and colored pencils out of my nearby desk, and I let the kids design and color their own post-cards for the final half hour of class. I saw signs of life, and smiles– acquired cheaply, perhaps, but I’m not too sure I had a better option.

“Please come to class next week,” I told them all in Romanian. “I want to take photos off you, to remember you, and I will have a surprise to give you,” and they all promised that they would. Mom recently sent me 300 post-cards lauding Colorado, and I have resolved to write one to every single one of my students. With the end of the year uncertainty looming, next week may be my only chance to hand out these cards– and it may well be the very last time I interact with some of my beloved students from 8b. Yikes.

Okay, București

I haven’t always been kind to Romania’s capital city, București (Buc.), in my past posts.

I had found the city unwelcoming, dirty, and over-crowded. Aside from Lipscani, I hadn’t really found any good places to pass time while in the city. Thereby, I made my visits as short as possible, and I made my distaste for the capital well known.

Recently, a close friend, Phoenix, took issue with this. Phoenix was born in Buc., and has lived there her entire life. When another friend, ZB, and I remarked on why we didn’t like the place, Phoenix took to its defense and had this to say:

Bucharest is a bustling city, filled with life. Unlike other cities that have been turned into museums for the sole purpose of attracting tourists, Bucharest is not trapped in time. Its beauty lies in the fact that it has a heart of its own.
The greatest thing about living in a developing city is that I feel like I’m contributing to its every heartbeat, whereas, in a city where one bumps into history at every corner, I can’t help but feel small and insignificant, a mere on-looker.

(Yeah– her English is pretty phenomenal)

Thus, Phoenix invited me to the big city that she calls home to offer me a ‘local’s tour,’ to see if I wouldn’t change my mind. I took her offer, and ruck-sacked down there for a long weekend.

I arrived on my mid-5AM train, and rode the two metros necessary to come to Universitate, in the center of the city. I rose up out of the metro station at approximately 6AM, and found a different, docile București around me. The ground was wet with recent rain, and covered with the ‘burn bright pink then blow away,’ flower petals ubiquitous on the trees during the Romanian Spring. The easy light bounced around the newly constructed park on the corner alongside the hospital– a massive bronze violin hung calmly in the air. Birds sang from trees I had never noticed before.

“Okay, București,” I said, “You’ve clearly put your best foot forward.”

I took care of some nondescripts down at the PCRo office, took a walk with some fellow volunteers, and then hustled again over to Universitate to meet Phoenix at the National Theatre. We hunted down a cofetarie– I caffeinated while we expounded philosophically. Then we spent the first half of the day making our way to the Botanic Gardens where we sat under a stretching Oak tree (I think it was) and discussed all sorts of the good stuff– life, love, stress and setbacks.

“Okay, București,” I thought, “You can be invigorating, rather than exhausting.”

We did this ’til my tummy couldn’t take it no more, and I needed foods. We ate in Lipscani (of course), and then wandered to what would become my new favorite place in Buc– I had felt before that there weren’t enough beautiful, ‘green,’ places inside of the city– that all of București was covered in concrete. It turns out that I just didn’t know where to look.

Phoenix took me to Parcul Cișmigiu, a 42 acre^2 park in the center of the city. It has trees so lush and dense that the sun simply floats over the top of their canopy, and there are innumerable paths dipping and ducking alongside exploding flower beds and over the limpid ponds that criss-cross throughout the place.

Phoenix and I stopped on one of these stone bridges, and watched bikers coast by and rented rowboats snake underneath us. We took turns singing French lullabies as the dusk died and the incandescent lamps hummed like our chorus line. Phoenix paused briefly to eavesdrop on a threesome of Spanish speakers wandering by, and I softly sang a new solo: “okay, București– I suppose I can learn to love you a little.”