The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

The End of a (Big & Beautiful) Chapter
September 3, 2010, 5:37 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’ve been back in America for about 2 weeks. I got home on a Friday the 20th, and ate a big Mexican dinner with my family. I partied on Saturday with a bunch of old friends, and moved up to Fort Collins, Colorado, on Sunday. On Monday, the 23rd, I began life as an official student, again.

Since then my life has been GO! GO! GO!– but in a good way.

None of this feels surreal, or heart-breaking. My time in Romania was perfectly ‘framed.’
I came. I saw. I experienced. I thrived. I loved and was loved. I grew and grew and grew.
And now the time has come to move on:

Closing time– time for you to go back to the places you will be from.
Closing time– this room won’t be open ’til your brothers or you sisters
So gather up your jackets, and move it to the exits– I hope you have found a friend.
Closing time – every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

I love you, Romania. Thank you for everything.
And now I’m on to the ‘next crazy venture beneath the skies.’

Take care. Namaste & Numai Bine.
JoeM out.


August 4, 2010, 8:12 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Harlem and I tried to leave Turkey on Monday, July 26th.

The bus website listed the time of departure as 5PM. Thereby, Harlem and I showed up at the respective travel office at around 3:40, PM. When we arrived, the place was dark, and its sliding glass door was opened ever so slightly. Bad omens.

Inside, we found a friendly, albeit sleepy, Turk sprawled into two of the arm chairs in the adjoined waiting room. He happily explained to us that, during the summer, the bus leaves Istanbul at 3:00 PM, and that our only option was to come back the following day, at two.

I worried that we’d be imposing on Duygu, by suddenly staying at her place another unexpected night. I considered checking into a hostel for the evening, if only to alleviate our presence from her, our wonderful hostess.

Outside, we explained the situation to Dugyu, and her eyes widened. She excitedly hugged us both.

“One more day with Harlem and Joem!” she exclaimed.

So, we still had a place to stay.

The next day, Harlem and I were on time. We hugged our wonderful hostess goodbye, and took our 20 minute shuttle from the travel office to the main bus station in Istanbul. On the way into Turkey, our bus had been completely empty. Honestly, there were four other seats filled. Today, however, it was quite the opposite. Harlem and I were fortunate to grab two empty seats alongside each other, and there we sat and read and sweated something fierce.

I had noticed that there was a group of young Romanians in the back of the bus (4 men and 4 women), but we were too far away to share words. I put in my headphones and slept hard until the Turkish border with Bulgaria. I am lucky– I can sleep any time, and almost anywhere.

At the border, our stewardess frantically relayed some unhappy news to us: the entire bus needed to be emptied, including its massive intestines filled with cargo, so that customs officials could inspect the entire thing.

Harlem and I went to work alongside the 4 young Romanian men– together we emptied out the bowels of the bus. The contents of it were a little irregular:

  1. Thousands of pre-ordered pastry containers, ready to be folded into shape and used by some Romanian cafe that sold sweets.
  2. Enough car parts to re-build an entire Dacia.
  3. A half-dozen boxes of single-serving water bottles.
  4. A felt chair that resembled a recliner. It was royal blue, and had a steel support frame.
  5. A blue tumbling pad, also royal blue.

We emptied out the bus as fast as possible, and then stood by to rest as a few customs officials noted the contents and checked the nooks and crannies of the passenger compartment.

“What was with that chair?” I asked Harlem. “Why would you come to Turkey just to buy one of those?”

Harlem laughed and agreed, and we continued to comment on all of the weirdness that we had just unpacked.

“Well– whatever. It’s a good thing all of those guys were on the bus,” I mentioned. “They’re all jacked.” It was true– each of the young Romanians was in great shape, and it helped make quick work of all the heavy cardboard boxes & car parts from the cargo hold.

Next was a waiting game– for reasons unknown to us, we were informed that we would be waiting here at the border for an undisclosed period of time. A nearby Romanian man who made this trip often speculated that we’d be stuck for at least two hours.

So, to pass the time, I did one of the things I do best– I started jabbering. I started a conversation with two of the young Romanian men, Cătălin and Alex. I asked them what they were doing in Turkey.

“I’m an acrobat, and Alex is a juggler,” Cătălin replied. “We’re in a traveling circus troupe. We go to different countries and perform.”

“No way!” was my reply.

And it was so– Cătălin grabbed his laptop out of the bus, and showed us a couple of videos of his troupe juggling and flipping and tumbling. One special section showed the acrobats using a plank to launch one another into the air, where they would gracefully twist into a big blue recliner hoisted up onto a steel pole– the same recliner that we had pulled from the baggage hold of the bus. Later in the show, they flipped each other right-side-up onto a familiar blue tumbling pad.

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.”


“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.

‘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.

Karma Bank

I was in București on Monday, the 28th, to put my mother and brother on an airplane to London. Thus culminated a 2-week long family marathon of eating and site-seeing. The visit went well– mom and bro made memories, and flew out feeling fulfilled (and exhausted). After a half a month of playing ‘tour guide,’ I was excited to have some quiet time, and to re-introvert into myself and recharge.

Thus, I spent the morning in București with a few quiet cups of coffee and a long, long shower at my hotel before I entered into a flurried flash of over-due email correspondence at the Peace Corps office. I left my bags there, and in the early afternoon I met up with Phoenix and we took a tram to the București mall for a lazy couple of hours. I had an enormous and expensive ‘americano,’ at a cafe, and then we sat in a big Barnes & Noble-esque book store where we parked on a couch and flipped through hard-cover poster books, and read and translated some of Phoenix’s favorite Romanian poems. I hadn’t done that sort of thing in a while (and did it so very often in the states) and I realized how much I had missed it. Coffee and culture marry nicely.

At 8pm or so, we stopped into some sit-down place to have Romanian style quesadillas (made with ham and mushroom, and served with ketchup). My train home was a little before midnight, but I still had to run back to the Peace Corps office before it locked up to grab my bags. I was gambling– I had the vague notion that the office closed sometime around 10, but I wasn’t entirely certain. If I was wrong, or was late, I’d be forced to pay for a hotel room in Buc., which would be an unhappy turn of events.

Phoenix and I paid for our food, and walked to the tram station. When we arrived, we found a dim ticket office– it was closed, and Phoenix had no extras. I still had about an hour and fifteen minutes, so we decided to walk (hurriedly) to the next station and hope that there would be an open ticket booth there. We puddle jumped along, but found another dark, little, ticket stand. We would have to chance it and get on the tram anyway, thereby risking a massive fine if a ticket controller were to stop us. I didn’t have a choice– time was running out.

So, for safe measure, I decided to spend all of my saved karma.

The appropriate tram pulled up almost immediately, and Phoenix and I rushed on. The tram was almost empty, which meant it was less likely for a controller to appear to check tickets. Phoenix pulled out her electronic bus pass– she had tried it on the last tram, but it had read empty. Now, it suddenly beeped to life and showed that she had enough money for 3 more rides.

Phoenix walked me to the metro station at Piața Iancului, and, after a short goodbye, I ploughed through the gust of cavern air. My metro card had one last credit on it and, again, there was no one present to sell new ones (I needed one more trip to get from the office to the train station). I also had only two RON left in my pocket.

Alongside the metro’s electronic gates, was an ATM. I withdrew enough for a train ticket, and then some, and used the last ‘trip,’ on my 10-trip card. The metro I needed arrived as I bottomed the stairs– this was also fortunate, as metros are spaced at almost 20 minutes (or more) this time of night. I sat down in a seat and began nervously folding the empty card. I bit my nails. I was sweating. I felt that this attempt was all but hopeless– ‘why would the office be open until 10pm,’ I gruffly asked myself. I imagined that there was no possible way I would be making it out of București, that night.

I transferred lines at Piața Victorei– in doing so it is necessary to climb stairs near one of the station’s entrances. I saw a woman perched on a stool inside the ticket kiosk. I gave 8 RON for another 10 tour pass (I’ll be in București at least 3 more times before my service ends), and approached the metro line that runs south in sync to a woosh of cold air and the serendipitous squeal of slowing metro wheels. I dashed inside the train.

After two stops, I exited at Universitate, and flew up stairs and across marble corridors into the darkening night. There are two, long street-lights between this place and the Peace Corps office– both flashed green for pedestrians as soon as I approached them. As I turned onto the final street where the Peace Corps office leans into the city’s background, I began to run. I had somehow made it from the first metro station to the office in about 20 minutes– a heroic effort– but fruitless if the office was closed.

I came to the guard-booth at the gate (the Peace Corps office is really a large  two-story house, with a massive basement, beat back into the urban camouflage of București’s side-streets), and saw no signs of life. The lights were off– I dejectedly pressed the call button on the intercom and heard silence. So it goes.

‘Clik-tik’ went the door. The night guard peeked out from the opening– he had been sitting inside, in the dark, doing I-don’t-care-what. I was happy to see him.

I blurted out Romanian apologies and an explanation. He calmly took my ID and wrote down my information, and the time of my visit. He took me to the volunteer lounge, and waited quietly outside while I grabbed my duffel and messenger bag. I think he said 4 words (no sentences) the entire time. We walked back to the gate and he casually motioned towards the door and told me good-bye.

I was sweaty, smelly, jittery, fraaantic, but relieved. My muscles ached from anxious tension, and my breath was still shallow from adrenaline, and it dragged. I was a hot mess.

I walked back to the metro– it’s the cheapest and easiest way to get to the train station. This time, I had to wait a while, but I didn’t mind– I now had 2 hours before my train home left București, a full metro pass, both of my bags, and enough money to make it back to site. I said a silent prayer to the universe: ‘thank you for all of the ways that you helped me tonight– I am grateful for your grace.’

As I tried to slow my breathing and recollect, a high-school boy approached. He was selling few-month-old magazines. He hit me up for change, and explained that he needed money for bread, and his baby brother, and a train ticket to a nearby monastery for a pilgramage, and the rest of the usual begging blah-blah that I typically ignore. This time, I gave him a handful of singles, and told him to have health, and ‘only good.’

I knew that I had just maxed out my good Karma– I immediately needed to start making some more.

Beginning to Say Goodbye
June 12, 2010, 5:47 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The first of my real Romanian ‘goodbyes,’ began this week: on Wednesday, June 09, I gave away my cat, Cosette.

I’ve had Cosette since late September/early October of 2008– just a few weeks after I came to Petrosani. Thereby, she has lived with me for about 18 months– from kitten to cat-hood. I gave her to a 6th grade student, Dana,who has a little, wood home on the steep hillside behind my school. Dana has three other cats, and an enormous garden for them to play in. My reasons for giving away Cosette are many, but they also hinge on my assumption that the “better-life,” I envision here for her outweighs the supposed heartache for me that might linger in her little mind. I can only presume.

I was to meet Dana at the beginning of the small dirt drive that winds behind the school, up between homes to the crest of a hill where she lives with her mother and father. I cat-napped away the afternoon alongside Cosette, sharing some sweet dreams for the last time, then I delicately placed her and her favorite lamb ‘doll,’ into my cat crate, and walked to the meeting place. Early along the way, a fourth grade student saw me on his bicycle and accompanied me for the duration. I was secretly thankful– talking to a student made me seem more comfortable and accustomed to this strange event– carrying a crying cat around on the street. It also made me less aware of the scores of curious eyes contemplating me as I walked by.

I found Dana waiting for me with another student, Mădă. Before I could pass Dana the case she asked if Cosette was heavy.

“Nu,” I replied.

“Ok,” said Dana. “Come with me.”

I unhesitatingly followed. I figured Dana needed me to carry the cat the rest of the way to her new home. I obliged. As we walked, Mădă and Dana squeaked to each other. Cosette quieted– sniffing at the air carrying scents of farm-fresh green onion (she loves to munch the leaves), and the smell of domesticated duck and pig wafting about the early-evening twilight.

We passed through Dana’s gate, and continued upwards and across to her house. “Teacher– stop here,” she quickly commanded. “And close your eyes.”

They had a surprise, I figured, and again I obliged her. I gently set Cosette down on the dirty track next to the wood shed, in the shade of short, budding plum trees. Now a tiny, delicate hand took mine and began to guide me away. Dana’s tiny fingers carried me up a steep, and I begin to hear whispers hiding in the washing breeze blowing through the cottonwood and birch branches. I heard “1– 2– 3–”

“… SUPRIZĂ!” called out a half-dozen voices. I opened my eyes and saw a handful of students– mostly 6th grade– standing in a small clearing before me. In the nearby trees were violet ribbons tied to the lowest branches, and alongside them blue balloons filled with confetti. Blankets were arranged around a TV table, which was covered in paper plates and cups. There were poppy-seed and sesame pretzels, and orange soda. Best of all, was a hefty chocolate covered cake with a whipped-cream cursive “Good-bye” scrawled across it– the handiwork of someone’s mother.

I passed out squares of cake, and the girls brought Cosette up the hill, hefted her out of her crate, and carefully cradled her in their arms. She was content, and dozed. The boys chatted excitedly with me about America, and each of them promised to learn English even better next year so that they could come see me in America when they were older. I told them if they made it to my country, they most certainly had a place to stay.

After the cake was all gone and the soda had been sipped and splashed about, we cleaned up the clearing and wandered down the hill to Dana’s house. There I met her father– a farmer with a gentle limp in his left leg. He played his wood flute for me, and proudly presented me with a tall glass of țuică harvested from those same small trees shading us in the dwindling sun. Dana’s mother appeared and offered me a hand-made black and white fabric bag, to remember them by.

The boys got to sip the țuică too, and the few of us took a short walk through my town’s central park before I excused myself and wandered home. I got into my apartment and instinctively looked for Cosette on the large rug in the hall. “Ah– right,” I thought to myself when I realized she wouldn’t be there, or anywhere. For the first time in 18 months, I was really, truly alone in my apartment. I missed her, but I also felt ‘filled,’ by the memory of her. Something holy ineffable had been left behind in me, and would remain despite the lack of her physical presence.

It was the same thing I felt on Friday when all of my most adored students came to me after the closing bell ceremony. They cried, and they hugged me, and they choked on half-sentences filled with words of “favorite,” “promise,” and “miss.”

And, thereby, a lesson I learned a long while ago had been affirmed (as it often has in Peace Corps, and will continue to be): I am better for the amazing love and relationships I have had, despite the inevitable heartbreak of their ending– and they always will end, in one way or another. Existence is transcience, no matter how hard you want to hold on.

But be assured that Love creates Love– and the holy connections of friendship we encounter strengthen on themselves, and leave a person more solid and complete than they ever were before. Despite the sadness of the goodbye– that thing Kerouac calls “the too-huge world vaulting us,” he also reminds us to be steadfast, look ahead, and “lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

And I lean on.

La Reducere

I have a weakness for good denim.
I admit it. Before I came to Romania, I spent over $600 dollars on three pairs of jeans. Despite this, I don’t really consider myself a big ‘brand-name,’ guy. I’ll take anything from a second hand-shop (except underwear): jackets, boots, t-shirts, shorts, sheets, even towels. Thankfully, Romanian second-hand stores usually carry great gear, for cheap. However, resist as I might, I always find myself browsing the racks of expensive, well-sown, tight-cut jeans at expensive stores in bigger cities. Every time, however, I have escaped without buying a single pair.

My unblemished record was ruined today.
I was on a weekend ‘excursion,’ with a handful of my 6th and 7th graders. I did the same trip in early April with students from the nearby Industrial High School, and went for a repeat with the same professor of history, Einstein. I had a more clearly defined ‘chaperone’ role this time around, but I still really enjoyed myself and found plenty of full moments to write some more smile lines.

And I even found alone time to shop.
I wandered into New Yorker— a sort of European styled Urban Outfitters meets Pac Sun. I found a couple of great pairs of jeans on sale for 90 RON each– like 30 bucks. I wasn’t planning on buying any more clothes before I was back state-side, but I figured it’s better to buy a few good pairs here, for cheap, than to spend the ostentatious amounts that I most certainly would back in America 45 days from now.

My name is Joem, and I am an addict.
I walked into my apartment after 72 hours away. Along with my jeans, I was carrying a fresh-baked loaf of wheat bread, and various veggies. I had feta and farm-fresh eggs in my fridge. I was stoked to make a scramble. I went to light my stove and was devastated by the sudden memory of luke-warm coffee early on Friday morning.

My gas bottle was empty.
I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and moped around the apartment a little. I resolved to call Morrison, my rad landlord, although I assumed I would have to go without warm food for at least the next day. I beeped Morrison and he called me back a few minutes later. Happily, he told me he would be over later in the evening and we would go fill up my gas bottle together. See, I’d do it myself but I don’t have the proper tools, nor do I have a car to lug the empty (and then much heavier when full) bottle the multiple blocks to the place we ‘load’ the bottle. Morrison told me that we had to wait until it was late. I asked why.

“Because it’s not exactly legal,” he said.
Morrison and I go to a place that’s supposed to be for commercial vehicles only. I’m not sure what sort of deal Morrison has made with the guys who work there late night, but he always gets his gas bottles filled there, and it’s dirt cheap. Before I met Morrison, I had to pay about 45-50 RON to get my gas bottle filled. Now, I pay a little over half of that.

It was a good day to get things “la reducere.”