The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania


Jabber Mouth

“Yeah, Joem is a little bit of a jabber-mouth.”

I turned my head over my shoulder and listened to Zeynep’s voice hum a response to Harlem through the phone. He chuckled.

I smiled and looked to my right through the passenger window. This hidden harbor just south of Turnuc, Turkey, was lit by full-moon fire cresting over the heavily wooded hills that lift themselves up out of the Mediterranean. All around us, the ambient lights of mansions hovered above the sharp curves where Duygu rolled us along, up and up over a steep pass and back down into the belly of the Turkish resort town of Marmaris.

Duygu dropped me off on the main drag, and I fast-walked to a nearby bar, Malibu, where I was set to meet two, new, British friends for a night of bar-hopping. I had met them earlier on a jeep safari by jabbering to them. Without phones in this foreign country, then only way for us to meet again was to pick a place and time, and hope that nothing intervened.

The problem was, Harlem, Duygu and I had spent all evening in Turnuc, diving into clear, jade waters and lying under a palm frond pagoda as the sunlight rusted and broke apart into starry sky. I hadn’t showered, was still in my swim-suit, and was in no shape to go dancing. So I deferred my plans with the Brits and we arranged a meeting point for a few hours after.

I went back to my hotel room, and showered away sea-salt and the last dredges of suntan oil while Harlem and Duygu sat on the balcony and drank beer. After I was clean and clothed, I joined them.

“You know earlier when I called you a jabber mouth, I meant it as a compliment.”

“Hmm?”

“I mean– look where we are right now. We’re sitting on a beach balcony in southern Turkey with Duygu, drinking beers. This wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t a jabber-mouth.”

Harlem was right– we’d only met Duygu in February because of my will to run-my-mouth.
“I know you mean it well,” I said. “Thank you. Besides– I know I’m a jabber-mouth. I’ve accepted it. It doesn’t bother me.”

The three of us cheered our beers and took long sips. I stayed anchored in the fading conversation, for a moment. While I am a jabber-mouth, I wouldn’t call myself extroverted either. I’d simply say that I love people so much that creating connections fills me up with a little bit of holy fire.

A pertinent, personal lesson of my Peace Corps experience has been this: my friends are the family I have found for myself. I jabber to see what’s inside of you, and to discover whether or not you are one of my kindred ones.

So, when I jabber to you, it’s a challenge: I want you to show me just how hard you shine.

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‘We Are the World’

July 1st marked the first day that members of my Peace Corps group could officially close their service (COS) and return to the US. These first few July days, a few Americans began boarding planes in București to ‘light out’ for new adventures, away from Romania.

30,000 feet below, I stood and watched these planes drift in hanging blue space until their specks dispersed. I thought long ‘goodbyes,’ then my eyes dragged and dropped onto the ridges of the rocky Carpathians surrounding me in Retezat National Park. An unsummerly, strong wind ran hard over the surface of Lacul Bucură, and tugged at my thick, wool sweater and stocking hat before it went along its way. The sun played peek-a-boo.

Without turning, I looked over my shoulder at a small group crouched onto a set of rocks 20 meters behind me. It was comprised of two of my fellow volunteers, Kat and Kev, and 10 high school students from their town.

Kat and Kev had organized an outdoor, student-leadership excursion, and I was fortunate enough to be asked along as a counselor. The kids participated in sessions on leadership values and ethical decision making. We played team-building games, and discussed/implemented ‘leave no trace,’ back-packing philosophy. We camped at the largest glacial lake in Romania (Bucură), and took a day hike up to one of the largest peaks in the country. I do not doubt for a second that the experience changed some of those kids for the better, forever.

And, at the very least, it gave me a few of my most favorite Romanian memories:

— Diving into a small glacial pond so cold that the second you lifted your head out you couldn’t help but yawp hard and hearty at the top of your lungs.
— Teaching the kids a beautiful, French lullaby that I’ve had buried away into my heart and head for about a decade and a half.
— Spreading out sleeping bags and lying back to count falling stars (for a few of them, for their first time ever).
— Passing along that ubiquitous Jack Kerouac quotation that becomes my mantra when goodbyes seem too sad to suffer.

The last day was melancholy– despite being exhausted, a little dirty, and tired of ‘hiking food,’ none of us really wanted the experience itself to be over. 10 minutes before the first train parted us at its non-station stop, I began my goodbyes. I hugged each of my new friends deep– I smiled sincerely and ached oh-so-hard on the inside. I hugged Kat and Kev goodbye, knowing full well it would be a long while before I saw them again.

And, as the kids climbed into the train ,I blew them a kiss and was reciprocated repeatedly.
And one particularly bright boy recited a little French line he’d had trouble with all week: “Nous sommes la monde,”– we are the world. For the first time, he said it perfectly. It broke my swollen heart in half, a little.
“You’re beautiful,” I told them, as the train pulled away.

And I meant it with all of my half-broken heart.